The Trump administration today proposed to merge the Department of Labor into the Department of Education.
While some have suggested that the new department be christened the “Department of Child Labor,” the Trump administration has come up with the “Department of Education and the Workforce.”
Some may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu at this name change. In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives changed the name of what had always been the Education and Labor Committee to the Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats replaced “Workforce” with “Labor” when they regained the majority in 2007, and the Republicans duly changed it back to “Workforce”when they regained the majority again in 2011.
In short, the word “labor” sounds too much like “labor movement” and those nasty, unpleasant, trouble-making labor unions.
We’ll see what happens when the Democrats retake the majority after the November elections.
Some have suggested that they could christen the new agency the “Department of Child Labor”
While the alleged purpose of this merger is to consolidate vocational skills training programs in one agency, the real goal is, as the Washington Post describes, to build “on Trump’s pledge to shrink the size and scope of the federal government, a long-sought goal of conservatives.” And of course, draining the swamp:
“This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget who has led the 14-month reorganization effort, said in a statement. “The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient,” he added.
Now, there are several reasons why this is a bad idea. Chris Lu, Deputy Secretary of Labor during Obama’s second term notes that only parts of DOL and Education deal with worker training. Most of the Department of Labor consists of enforcement agencies like OSHA, MSHA, Wage & Hour and OFCCP that protect workers’ health and safety, pay, benefits and anti-discrimination rights.
And while neither OSHA, nor MSHA, nor enforcement were mentioned by Mulvaney, the idea of turning OSHA and MSHA into educational agencies that just provide education, training and fact sheets to employers is probably appealing to Republicans and the business community.
Seth Harris, who was Deputy Secretary of Labor under Obama’s first term, calls the proposal “a solution in search of a problem” and predicts that it’s not going to happen. Any major reorganizations of Cabinet departments require Congressional approval — which means 60 votes in the Senate — and that’s not going to happen any time soon.
These type of major reorganizations rarely succeed because there are too many powerful organizations that have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Lu notes that “there are also training programs at HHS, Interior, USDA, EPA, VA, DOD, DOJ. Shifting all of those programs would cause a firestorm on Congress and with outside groups.”
The National Employment Law Project points out that the Trump administration’s track record on labor issues doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this proposal is being done in the best interests of workers:
This latest half-baked idea is just one more betrayal of the very workers Donald Trump pledged to put front and center when he took the oath of office. Since then, his administration has—among other things–relaxed protections for workers’ retirement savings, weakened overtime pay rights, attacked workers’ unions, rolled back important health and safety protections that would protect workers from hazardous substances on the job, and pushed through a massive tax bill that further enriches corporations and the nation’s wealthiest at the expense of workers and their families.
So if swamp draining is the goal, I have a few suggestions. Merge ethically challenged Cabinet officers like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos with the unemployment office (even though only Pruitt would probably need the assistance.) Then get these agencies back to accomplishing their missions: protecting workers, the environment, public housing and public schools) and, as Chris Lu says, “fill vacant positions with competent people, provide agencies with sufficient funding, and stop denigrating federal employees. ”
This blog was originally published on June 21, 2018 at Confined Space. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The Donald Trump Labor Department is proposing a rule change that would mean that restaurant servers and bartenders could lose a large portion of their earnings. The rule would overturn one put in place by the Barack Obama administration initiated, which prevents workers in tipped industries from having their tips taken by their employers. Under the new rule, business owners could pay their wait staff and bartenders as little as $7.25 per hour and keep all tips above that amount without having to tell customers what happened.
A new study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the National Employment Law Project shows that waiters and bartenders earn more in tips than they do from their base hourly wage. The median share of hourly earnings they make from tips makes up nearly 59% of waitstaff earnings and 54% of bartenders’ earnings. Allowing employers to take much or all of that tipped income would be a major blow to many working in the restaurant and bar industry.
Workers in these fields are already poorly compensated. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, found that “median hourly earnings for waiters and bartenders are a meager $10.11 per hour, including tips. That is just $2.86 above the current federal wage floor and far below what workers throughout the country need to make ends meet.”
While proponents of the change suggest that businesses might use the tips to give workers more hours or to subsidize non-tipped employees, but with no requirement for such use of the tipped wages, employers could use them in any way they see fit. EPI analysis found that the new rule would transfer $5.8 billion from workers to employers.
In an important victory for formerly-incarcerated workers fighting employment discrimination, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1008 into law on October 14, establishing some of the strongest “Ban the Box” legislation in the country. Brown’s signature can be attributed to tireless organizing on the part of formerly incarcerated individuals and their advocates.
One of the biggest challenges facing people returning from prison is employment. Many jobs require applicants to check a box if they have ever been convicted of a crime, but offer no opportunity to explain the circumstances of their arrest. Employers often disregard formerly incarcerated individuals, regardless of their given situation. “Banning the Box” removes this question from applications, requiring businesses to assess the job-seekers’ criminal background only after the individual’s qualifications have been considered.
Under AB 1008, or the California Fair Chance Act, restrictions on employers’ criminal background checks have been extended to private companies. This means that, as of January 1, 2018, no California business with five or more employees will be allowed to ask about or consider an applicant’s conviction history before an employment decision is made.
The legislative victory is the culmination of a fight that has lasted more 14 years, as the grassroots organizing project All of Us or None started the campaign during the early 2000s. All of Us or None sprung out of the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC.)
LSPC’s Communications Director Mark Fujiwara spoke with In These Times about the bill. Formerly incarcerated himself, Fujiwara emphasized that his group’s organizing was primarily led by individuals who had spent time in prison—and have experienced the system firsthand. “Having a grassroots organizing project like All of Us or None is key to creating a sense of community and empowerment for directly-impacted people and our families, as every aspect of the prison industrial complex is designed to separate and isolate people,” he said.
Sandra Johnson is another formerly incarcerated member of LSPC who was on the frontlines of California’s “Ban the Box” fight, testifying during hearings and advocating to legislators. She told In These Times that she was fired from her job of six years after her former employer accused her of concealing her conviction history. “It was devastating,” she told In These Times, “I don’t want anyone else to feel what I felt.”
AB 1008 also received a visibility boost from high-profile supporters like the musician John Legend. About a month before its passage, Legend wrote a letter to Governor Brown calling on him to act on the issue. “For too long, these men and women have been defined by the worst moments of their lives,” Legend wrote. “They have been stigmatized, even after paying their debt to society, and? ?they? ?have? ?seen how? ?a? ?criminal? ?record? ?takes? ?a? ?wrecking? ?ball? ?to? ?future? ?employment.”
“Ban the Box” legislation is particularly important in California. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), nearly one out of every three California adults has an arrest or conviction on their record. That’s roughly 8 million people statewide. “The old approach didn’t serve any of us well,” NELP staff attorney Phil Hernandez told In These Times. “When 8 million people across the state are effectively shut out of employment, that shrinks the economy, undermines public safety, and harms families and communities. For those reasons, this new law—which aims to give people with records a fair chance at employment—will ultimately benefit all of us.”
NELP studies also show how restrictive hiring practices have a devastating impact on children and families. Almost half of U.S. children have at least one parent with a record. According to a survey with family members of formerly incarcerated individuals, 68 percent said that those who were parents had trouble paying child support after being released from prison. One study of formerly incarcerated women revealed that 65 percent of them were relying on a family member for financial support.
The fair hiring movement has gained considerable steam in recent years. AB 1008 makes California the 10th state to ban the box for public and private sector workers. Twenty-nine states now ban the box for public employees, and five of them have done so this year: Utah, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. In 2015, President Obama endorsed the practice for federal employees. There are also increasing efforts to extend ban the box policies to colleges. In June, Louisiana became the first state to block public universities from asking applicants about their criminal history.
This article was originally published at In These Times on November 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since July 24, 2009—for eight years. Thanks to Republicans in Congress and the White House, it won’t be going up any time soon, and though many states have raised their minimum wages, 21 states remain stuck at $7.25 an hour. That’s a poverty wage. A new analysis from the National Employment Law Project shows what the Democrats’ Raise the Wage Act of 2017—which would take the minimum wage up to $15 by 2024, a gradual raise by any standard except the Republican “no raise ever” standard—would do for low-wage workers:
20.7 million workers would see pay raises in the 21 states whose minimum wages are stuck at $7.25.
Fully half of the 41.5 million workers who would see pay increases are in the 21 states stuck at $7.25.
In the 13 other states with minimum wages of less than $9, nearly 13 million more workers also would see their hourly pay rise.
Of all the workers nationwide who would receive raises, 8 in 10 are in the 34 states with the lowest minimum wages.
In 19 of the 21 states at $7.25, more than 30 percent of wage-earners would benefit from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024; the highest share is in Mississippi, with 44.4 percent.
Republicans want these workers stuck at poverty wages. There’s no other serious explanation for their refusal to raise the minimum wage over the past eight years.
This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.
Sweeping legislation introduced in the Illinois state legislature last month would dramatically improve pay, benefits and working conditions for almost a million of the state’s temp workers toiling in factories, warehouses and offices.
The Responsible Job Creation Act, sponsored by State Rep. Carol Ammons, aims to transform the largely unregulated temporary staffing industry by introducing more than 30 new worker protections, including pay equity with direct hires, enhanced safety provisions, anti-discrimination measures and protection from retaliation.
The innovative law is being pushed by the worker centers Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) and Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), which say it would restore the temp industry to its original purpose of filling short-term, seasonal labor needs and recruiting new employees into direct-hire jobs.
“Instead of temps just replacing people who are sick or coming during periods of higher production, they’re actually becoming a permanent staffing option,” says CWC executive director Tim Bell. “There’s nothing ‘temporary’ about it.”
Mark Meinster, executive director of WWJ, says there has been “an explosion” of temp workers in recent decades, especially in manufacturing and warehousing. “Those sectors are part of large, global production networks where you see hyper competition and an intense drive to lower costs. Companies can drive down labor costs by using temp agencies.”
CWC activist Freddy Amador worked at Cornfields Inc., in Waukegan, for five years. He tells In These Times the company’s direct hires start off making at least $16 an hour, but later get raises amounting to $21 an hour. As a temp, however, Amador was only making $11 an hour after five years on the job.
“As a temp worker, you don’t have vacation days, sick days, paid holidays”—all of which are available to direct hires, Amador says.
In These Times reached out to Cornfields to comment on this story. It did not immediately respond.
“Once a company is using a temp agency, it no longer has to worry about health insurance, pension liability, workers’ comp, payroll and human resources costs,” Meinster explains. “It also doesn’t have to worry about liability for workplace accidents, wage theft, or discrimination because, effectively under the law, the temp agency is the employer of record.”
This arrangement drives down standards at blue-collar workplaces, Bell says. “The company itself doesn’t have to worry about safety conditions because these workers aren’t going to cost them any money if they’re injured.”
“The safety for temp workers is really bad,” Amador says. “Temp agencies send people to do a job, but nobody trains them. Sometimes temp workers are using equipment they don’t know how to use, and they’re just guessing how to use it. I’ve seen many accidents.”
Under the new bill, temps like Amador would receive the same pay, benefits and protections as direct hires.
“This is landmark legislation,” Bell says. “There’s nothing like it in the United States.”
Discrimination can be hard to prove because staffing agencies aren’t required to record or report the demographics of who comes in looking for work. As Bell explains, applications often aren’t even filled out in the temp industry, but rather “someone just shows up to go to a job.”
The new bill would require temp agencies to be more transparent about their hiring practices by recording the race, gender and ethnicity of applicants and reporting that information to the state.
Furthermore, the bill includes an anti-retaliation provision that says if temp workers are fired or disciplined after asserting their legal rights, the burden is on the company and temp agency to prove that it was not done in retaliation.
“There’s this fundamental imbalance in the labor market that leads to a whole range of abuses and then non-enforcement of basic labor rights,” Meinster explains. “The changes we’re proposing in this bill get at addressing that structural issue.”
To craft the bill and get it introduced, CWC and WWJ received research and communications support from Raise the Floor Alliance, a coalition of eight Chicago worker centers. The Illinois AFL-CIO, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, National Employment Law Project, Latino Policy Forum and Rainbow Push Coalition are among the legislation’s other supporters.
Though the Illinois government is still paralyzed by an unprecedented budget stalemate between the Republican governor and Democratic legislature, organizers are optimistic about the bill’s prospects.
“There’s potential for huge movement around this bill,” Bell says, citing the popularity of the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, which both touched on the theme of economic insecurity. While Trump focuses on jobs fleeing the country, Bell notes that “jobs here in this country have been downgraded.”
“We need to be talking about job quality, not only ‘more jobs.’ Both are important,” Meinster says. He believes existing temp jobs “could and should be good, permanent, full-time, direct-hire, living wage jobs with stability, respect and benefits.”
The author has worked with WWJ in the past on issues related to the temp industry.
This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.
Contributing to this inequality is the fact that while more Americans are working than at any time since August 2007, more people are working part time, erratic and unpredictable schedules—without full-time, steady employment. Since 2007, the number of Americans involuntarily working part time has increased by nearly 45 percent. More Americans than before are part of what’s considered the contingent workforce, working on-call or on-demand, and as independent contractors or self-employed freelancers, often with earnings that vary dramatically month to month.
These workers span the socioeconomic spectrum, from low-wage workers in service, retail, hospitality and restaurant jobs—and temps in industry, construction and manufacturing—to highly educated Americans working job-to-job because their professions lack fulltime employment opportunities given the structure of many information age businesses. As Andrew Stettner, Michael Cassidy and George Wentworth point out in their new report, A New Safety Net for an Era of Unstable Earnings, what all these workers have in common are highly volatile, unstable incomes and a lack of access to the traditional U.S. unemployment insurance safety net.
“The programs we have to help people are very biased toward traditional incomes,” says Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “Volatility in earnings is a really big problem.”
“Those with the least to lose are most likely to lose it”
It also found that because of this situation, between 2008 and 2013, three out of five prime earners experienced at least as much as a 50 percent drop in their month-to-month income. Half experienced month-to-month income drops of more than 100 percent.
“This broad issue of underemployment,” says NELP senior counsel George Wentworth, “there’s less of a light on it and these people are not showing up in national unemployment figures. But these workers are struggling and many of them are not making ends meet.”
Central to this problem is that most workers now employed part time are making less than what they made previously, working full time. At the same time, their part-time or independent contractor status means they are likely not eligible for a full complement—if any, in the case of self-employed freelancers—of standard employment benefits, including employer paid health insurance or any form of unemployment insurance, explains Wentworth.
As the report notes, “Those with the least to lose are most likely to lose it.”
Both Stettner and Wentworth explain that historical policy responses—and those set up to help workers laid off during the Great Recession—focus on traditional employment situations. Typical unemployment insurance is also biased against those who take up part-time or self-employment gigs while they’re looking for new full-time jobs by reducing unemployment payments. Some states have partial unemployment benefits designed for part-time workers, including those who’ve involuntarily had their hours reduced, but these vary widely. The report found that for workers whose hours are cut from full time to part time, “ten states would replace half of their lost earnings while fourteen states would provide no benefits at all.”
To address what’s becoming the new normal for U.S. workers, the report makes several recommendations. It proposes that states offer partial unemployment benefits to workers earning less than 150 percent of what they’d qualify for weekly if they were laid off (rather than working part time). This would substantially improve coverage for workers whose hours have been cut or who take part-time jobs after losing fulltime jobs.
“It also should be easier to file for these benefits,” says Stettner, explaining that current work documentation requirements don’t necessarily reflect the reality of how part timers work and get paid.
The report also recommends broadening unemployment insurance support for work-sharing programs. Work-share programs, explains Wentworth, are designed to help employers avoid layoffs by retaining their existing workforce but with reduced hours.
The report proposes beefing up existing financial support for work-share programs to reduce the impact to employees of reduced hours. “This is basically for high road employers,” says Wentworth.
The report also recommends a pilot program to provide unemployment insurance to freelancers who don’t have a traditional employer relationship. This is perhaps the most challenging of the report’s proposals since it seeks to address circumstances that extend well beyond the issue of reduced hours. Ideas include giving freelancers better access to certain tax credits in ways that help even out swings in earnings. It could also involve building on international examples such as professional guilds in Europe, where people contribute in order to draw benefits when needed, Stettner explains.
These proposals go beyond and build on those already being discussed at the state, local and federal level to require employers to provide more stable scheduling, pay a minimum number of hours if workers are called for a shift and that protect workers who request schedule changes. They would also begin to address the situations of the estimated 19.1 million Americans who depend solely on freelance income and are currently without any employment safety net.
“We’re just scratching the surface to understand how to come up with a better set of market-based and government solutions,” says Stettner. “We’ve created a whole view of the world that now applies to only about half the working people in America,” he says. “We have this huge divide we need to hammer on. It should concern everyone.”
This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on December 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.
Companies in the nation’s second-largest city must stop requiring job applicants to disclose criminal convictions on hiring forms next year after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a “Ban the Box” law there on Friday.
The law does not prevent companies from conducting background checks once they have made a conditional job offer to a finalist. But it eliminates a standardized checkbox question about previous run-ins with the law, a common feature of job paperwork that makes it much harder for people to get back on their feet after serving their time. Firms with fewer than 10 employees are exempt from the law.
Sometimes called fair-chance hiring laws, such restrictions on how hiring managers solicit information about applicants’ criminal histories have grown in popularity over the past few years.
But the laws have typically applied only to hiring that involves taxpayer money, at government agencies and vendors who do business with the government. When President Obama moved to ban the checkbox last year, the executive action he took was limited to federal government hiring.
Out of 24 states with fair-chance hiring laws, just nine extend to the private sector. Los Angeles is the 15th local jurisdiction to extend ban-the-box thinking to private firms. Among the five largest American cities, only Houston has yet to ban the checkbox.
Between 60 and 75 percent of people coming out of prison are unable to find work in their first year back on the street. Research indicates that an applicant’s chances of a callback drop by half if they indicate a criminal record—though white applicants who check the box fare significant better than black ones. There is also evidence that people who get far enough into the process to actually meet with a company representative are much more likely to get an offer despite their record—a key argument for eliminating the check-box filtering mechanism.
The idea’s spread during the latter years of Obama’s tenure seemed emblematic of the broader re-evaluation of a criminal justice system that is more punitive than rehabilitative. Formerly incarcerated people and their supporters rallied in front of the White House in 2015 to call for action, sharing stories of the hardships they faced in finding legitimate work after re-entering society.
The administration’s eventual move on hiring paperwork was just one in a flurry of progressive reforms to the incarceration system, all of which may be in jeopardy once president-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.
Americans leaving prison face high hurdles to regaining their economic and social footing without returning to crime. These obstacles are complicated to dismantle, rooted as they are in societal and individual prejudices about people with criminal pasts.
Policy changes can’t will charity into people’s hearts, of course, and there’s even some evidence to suggest that personal prejudices around the formerly incarcerated are so entrenched that fair-chance laws trigger ugly unintended consequences.
But as the National Employment Law Project notes, that analytic conclusion gets things backward.
“Rather than identifying the root of the problem—which is both coupling criminality with being African American and the dehumanizing of individuals with records—the argument blames the reform,” NELP researchers wrote in response. “This distinctly economic framework, which views employers as entirely rational actors, fails to appreciate the extent to which negative racial stereotypes continue to plague the hiring process.”
In an otherwise grim period for the U.S. labor movement, the fast food industry has been a hot spot for organizing activity. For the past four years, the union-backed Fight for 15 movement and allied groups have staged a series of nationwide, day-long strikes and protests in support of higher wages and unionization for fast food workers.
Fast food workers have yet to gain any significant union representation. But thanks in large part to the movement’s efforts, states and cities across the country have passed minimum wage laws raising pay for millions of people.
And now, if President-elect Donald Trump has his way, an enemy of the Fight for $15 movement will lead the U.S. Labor Department.
On Thursday, Trump revealed that he had nominated Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, to be Labor Secretary. CKE Restaurants is the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., two fast food companies that have been targeted by Fight for 15. Puzder himself is on record as an opponent of raising the minimum wage, and has said that he would like to try automating service more service jobs in response to wage hikes.
Unsurprisingly, the fast food lobby was delighted with Trump’s decision to elevate Puzder. International Franchise Association President and CEO Robert Cresanti called Puzder “an exceptional choice to lead the Labor Department” in a statement responding to the news.
Cresanti also offered up a wishlist for Puzder’s early days in office. The Obama Labor Department issue a rule (currently held up in federal court) that would dramatically expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay. The department has also fought to expand joint-employer liability, meaning that multinational corporations such as McDonald’s may be held legally accountable for labor law violations committed at their franchised locations.
“We are hopeful that, if confirmed by the Senate, a top priority [for Puzder] will be rolling back the damaging effects caused by the expansion of joint employer liability to America’s 733,000 franchise businesses, and the too-far, too-fast increase in the overtime threshold that was recently put on hold by a Texas judge,” said Cresanti.
The progressive National Employment Law Project, on the other hand, described Puzder’s nomination as a “sucker-punch in the gut to all the men and women of good faith who believe in the mission of the U.S. Labor Department.”
“The job of the labor secretary is NOT to strengthen the power of corporations to reap record profits by squeezing every last drop out of their low-wage workforce—and threatening to replace them with machines if they ask for wages they can support their families on,” said NELP Executive Director Christine Owens. “While Mr. Puzder’s qualifications may fit the bill for the latter, those qualifications are anathema to what a secretary of labor should stand for.”
As Labor Secretary, Puzder would head up the main government agency charged with investigating claims of wage theft. A 2016 Bloomberg analysis of Labor Department data found that Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants were themselves frequent violators of the law.
That may be why Fight for 15 organizing director told the American Prospect two weeks ago that appointing Puzder as Labor Secretary would be “like putting Bernie Madoff in charge of the treasury.”
This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on December 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Ned Resnikoff is a senior editor at @thinkprogress.He was previously a reporter for for International Business Times, Al Jazeera America, and msnbc. Follow him on twitter @resnikoff.
Chicago—The movement known as Fight for $15 started in New York City as a surprise one-day strike. The workers’ demands then were simple and bold. They wanted a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to organize a union.
The workers who initiated the campaign could no longer tolerate lengthy debates over penny increases to the state, local and federal minimum wages. They called for more than double the federal minimum wage, which stood then—and now—at $7.25 an hour.
This was a dream that seemed not only aspirational but downright crazy when Fight for $15 first launched. And it was put forward by some of the workers with the greatest need—occupants of the virtually interchangeable jobs of the vast modern low-wage economy. These are the jobs that people take not just as a first job, but as the first of dozens of similar jobs in a career with little progress.
To mark its fourth anniversary this week, the Fight for $15 organization staged its largest and “most disruptive” national action to date, which included strikes, non-violent civil disobedience and actions at major airports like the Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
Even though it still has a long way to go, Fight for $15 had reason to celebrate.
A new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) credits Fight for $15 with winning an increase of $61.5 billion in annual wages over its first four years, mostly through state and local minimum wage increases. In other instances, employers boosted workers’ pay under public pressure.
On balance, these victories for roughly 19 million workers yielded a total raise more than 10 times larger than the raise U.S. workers received from the last federal minimum wage hike in 2007, according to NELP. By Fight for $15’s accounting, its actions have raised wages for 22 million workers.
Still, employers in the United States pay less than $15 an hour to some 64 million workers.
Over the past four years, Fight for $15 has reached beyond its base in fast food restaurants and launched organizing efforts with a broad range of poorly-paid workers: home care and child care workers, early childhood teachers, university teaching assistants, Uber and other ride-share company drivers, airport workers and many others. It has also inspired more tightly organized, conventional unions to reach out to other low-paid, low-skilled workers, such as car washers and retail sales clerks.
As the organization has grown, Fight for $15 has taken up new tactics and demands, in part reflecting the preoccupations of its members. While its two core demands remain a $15 minimum wage and union rights, the organization now also calls for an end to structural racism, to police killings of black people and to deportations of immigrants.
“We can’t keep living like this”
Before 6 a.m. Tuesday, a cool fall day, a crowd of several hundred protestors gathered outside a McDonald’s restaurant in the gentrifying but still largely working-class and immigrant neighborhood of Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s northwest side. Supporters unfurled a banner from a nearby grocery store. It read: “We Demand $15 and Union Rights, Stop Deportations, Stop Killing Black People.” The crowd chanted slogans, ranging from the humorously blunt (“We work, we sweat. Put $15 on our check!”) to the bluntly militant (“If we don’t get it. Shut it down!”) and the over-optimistically heroic (“El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!” Spanish for “United, the people will never be defeated”).
The crowd included local politicians like Cook County Commissioner and recent insurgent mayoral candidate, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and workers whose jobs worsened recently as well as many others whose jobs have never been good. Uber driver Darrell Imani represented one of the newest companies whose workers have turned to Fight for $15 to protect what they fear losing. When he started driving for Uber a couple of years and about 12,000 rides ago, he typically earned roughly $25 an hour, or $40,000 a year.
“Now we can barely pay for gas and services,” he lamented. “We can’t keep living like this. We can’t. Uber drivers are on strike for living wages. I love doing it, but I want to be able to pay the bills. I’m trying to organize the group to be a union. Uber is making billions of dollars, but we are the ones who are making it for them.”
Also in the crowd was Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, a large local union. He has a long history of trying, and often succeeding in organizing implausible groups of workers. In Detroit, Kelleher briefly organized hamburger chain outlets. He managed to organize widely dispersed home care workers in Chicago and other parts of Illinois. And just a few years ago, he led a march of retail clerks and fast food workers down North Michigan Avenue, the swank shopping strip of downtown Chicago.
“It has solidified in my mind that organizing can’t just be about wages, hours and working conditions,” Kelleher says. “It also is not just traditional organizing. This [Fight for $15] is the wave of the future. Workers want a union, and you can build organizations off of this. That’s the challenge.”
Organizing in the future may look much more like earlier periods of American labor history when “open shops” were common, meaning that individual workers could join or not join a union, Kelleher said. Open shops could become the rule again, as a result of the spread of right-to-work laws and the possibility of conservative judges overruling unions’ right to collect a “fair share” of normal dues to cover expenses of representing workers who do not join the union.
Kelleher’s home care workers’ union started along the model of an open shop, then won an agreement to have the state government “check off,” or collect, dues. But the Supreme Court later ruled that the home and child care workers in Kelleher’s union were not full-fledged state employees and, therefore, the union could not have dues deducted from their paychecks. The union now collects dues itself from about 65,000 of its more than 90,000 members, a remarkable achievement given how dispersed those workers are.
If employers think an open shop will weaken unions by making them less stable, Kelleher cites an unattributed maxim: “Where you don’t have permanent organization, you have permanent war.”
“With a union, you’re stronger”
The airport strike at O’Hare, the world’s fourth busiest airport, was one of the more dramatic actions. A year ago, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 launched a campaign to organize about 2,000 O’Hare workers, employed by a modest number of contractors for tasks that include cleaning airplane cabins, providing transport for passengers with mobility problems, handling baggage and other services.
Forty years ago, these workers were employed directly by each airline and wages and benefits were attractive. But those arrangements collapsed under pressure from strong outside forces. Airlines increasingly subcontracted work to independent, specialized firms, which competed for work from the airlines and thus felt pressure to cut labor costs. And with deregulation of the airline industry, the carriers were subject to pressures to cut cost, which was easier to do when they employed contractors rather than direct hires.
Also, there was an economy-wide shift towards what David Weil, now the administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, called the “fissured workplace,” where more powerful elements of the enterprise or workplace try to minimize their responsibility for anything except maximizing profits. President Ronald Reagan’s breaking the strike and union of the air traffic controllers further legitimized an anti-worker strategy that airline managers can deploy. One of the consequences is that from 2002 to 2012 outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled from 25 percent to 84 percent.
Despite having multiple employers, with a varied workforce, “workers’ resolve is very strong,” says Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1. An estimated 400 workers at O’Hare took part in the strike Tuesday.
“I think workers know the airlines can pay,” Balanoff says. “The airlines haven’t talked to us yet, but I think we got their attention,” and he believes the union has the political as well as industrial strength to prevail.
Andrew Pawelko hopes that’s true. A former auto paint detail worker, he now works as the lead in a cabin cleaning crew for Prospect, a major contractor to big airlines.
“I like cleaning and detail work,” he says, but “the job needs more pay.”
Pawelko, who took part in the strike, makes $12.50 an hour; members of his crew make $10.75. At a previous job, the employer persuaded workers to get rid of their union. A short time later, Pawelko’s benefits were cut.
“Union rights,” he says, “100 percent we need it, all of us.”
Rasheed Atolagbe-Aro, 50, a recent immigrant from Nigeria, is another strong union supporter who joined the strike, partly because of issues concerning safety and the high pressures at work.
“It’s high risk,” he says. “The spray used to clean is at a very serious level. But you’re fired if you refuse to come to work. With a union, you’re stronger.”
Although Fight for $15 is not a union, it can provide a way to fight on behalf of broad policies that help all low-wage workers, even if it has not yet created or even defined more localized vehicles to deal with individual member grievances, contracts and other traditional union tasks like signing up members, collecting dues and providing services. Such are some of the concerns about the group’s unconventional, loose structure, its lack of emphasis on formal membership and dues and its heavy financial dependence on the 1.8 million-member SEIU.
Can even a financially-strong union continue to underwrite such an ambitious undertaking? What is the optimal amount of SEIU control over Fight for $15?
“We’re hoping to build this movement,” Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, said as she stood on a balcony at O’Hare along with more than a thousand members and supporters of Fight for $15, noting that Fight for $15 mustered actions in 340 cities and 20 airports in a single day, combining rallies and marches with more logistically-complicated tactics, such as civil disobedience. “Our plan is not to shape the organization into unions as we have known them, but something different.”
Henry takes inspiration from the way that the labor movement in Denmark, for instance, has raised fast food worker wages and workplace standards dramatically by sitting down and talking with corporate leaders in the field to negotiate an agreement. She says she hopes to do the same, perhaps within the coming year, by sitting down with McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—the big three in burgers—to negotiate an industry-wide agreement.
“Workers say a union is the way jobs become good jobs, the way to have a voice,” she said. “Organizing is the way to improve our lives.”
This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From nonunion workers at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to McDonald’s employees in New York City, people are having their voices heard, and have some heavy-hitter celebrities supporting them. Tuesday has been appropriately referred to as “Disruption Tuesday,” with underpaid workers walking off the job.
Why is this so important that people would make the sacrifice to strike, losing a days pay, risking their jobs and even arrest? Today’s $7.25/hr minimum wage is extremely low. For example, minimum-wage workers do not make enough to rent an apartment — pretty much anywhere. Huffington Post’s Kate Abbey-Lambertz shows why, in “Here’s How Much Money You Need To Afford Rent In Every State“:
Nationwide, the housing wage for a two-bedroom apartment is $20.30 hourly (or $42,240 annually). That means someone earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 would have to work 112 hours a week to afford the typical rent.
…[T]he last time the federal minimum wage was raised, from $6.55 to $7.25 on July 24, 2009. Since then, the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage has fallen by 10 percent as inflation has slowly eroded its value. However, this decline in the buying power of the minimum wage over the past seven years is not even half the overall decline in the minimum wage’s value since the late 1960s.
Fast-food workers are exploited. The low-wage, burger-flipping service sector is the symbol of the new economy that is stripping the country of its middle class while a few at the very top make billions. Employers take advantage of the high unemployment to pay as little as the law allows, and hold down hours to keep from providing benefits. It pays off really big for a few at the expense of everyone else. Last year the CEO of Wendy’s made $16.5 million dollars while paying minimum wage. Or more to the point, because they pay minimum wage.
So fed-up fast-food workers are starting to organize and do something about it. Today in New York City fast-food workers staged a one-day walkout to demand a decent wage — enough to pay for rent and food.
Fight for $15 has already achieved gains for workers; since 2012 America’s workers have won nearly $62 billion in raises.
A new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “Fight for $15: Four Years, $62 Billion“, examines the gains that the Fight For $15 movement have already brought to minimum-wage workers. Key findings include,
Since the Fight for $15 launched in 2012, underpaid workers have won $61.5 billion in raises from a combination of state and local minimum wage increases from New York to California and action by employers ranging from McDonald’s to Walmart to raise their companies’ minimum pay scales. (Figure represents the total additional annual income that workers will receive after the approved increases fully phase in.)
Of the $61.5 billion in additional income, two-thirds is the result of landmark $15 minimum wage laws that the Fight for $15 won in California, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, SeaTac and Washington, D.C.
At least 19 million workers nationwide will benefit from raises sparked by the Fight for $15.
2.1 million of those workers won raises this month when voters approved minimum wage ballot initiatives in Arizona ($12 by 2020), Colorado ($12 by 2020), Maine ($12 by 2020), Washington State ($13.50 by 2020), and Flagstaff, AZ ($15 by 2021).
This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on November 29, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.
Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.
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