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These Are The Workers Who Took on Amazon, and Won

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

Against all odds, Amazon workers in New York organized a successful union against one of the biggest companies in the world. Here’s how.

Hey, Jeff Bezos, I’m going to let you know something today: We are just getting started,” Chris Smalls declared at an August 2020 protest in Washington, D.C. August 2020 was the month Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the richest person in recorded history.

Outside of his $23 million, 27,000-square-foot pied-à-terre, a group of Staten Island Amazon workers and a crowd of supporters erected a mock guillotine.

“Give a good reason why we don’t deserve a $30 minimum wage when this man makes $4,000 a second,” Smalls went on.

After leading a walkout over Covid-19 safety at Amazon’s mammoth JFK8 warehouse in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, Smalls and his coorganizers took their rebellion on the road that summer. Outside Bezos’ mansions?—?a $165 million Beverly Hills home, a waterfront estate outside Seattle and a Fifth Avenue Manhattan penthouse?—?the group staged demonstrations denouncing income inequality and demanding wage hikes and protections for workers given the pandemic designation of ?“essential.”

At each stop, they quietly grew the ranks of supporters who also sensed that the scrappy movement was the start of something big. 

Those early supporters included Cassio Mendoza, then 23, who decided to show up to the October 2020 protest in Beverly Hills after connecting with Smalls on Instagram. 

“Wow, this is really different,” Mendoza remembers thinking at the protest. 

“Talking about billionaires, ?‘They gotta go.’ Damn! This is really radical.” 

Mendoza would soon move across the country to take a job at JFK8 and ultimately help win the first-ever union at any of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses. 

Since the Amazon Labor Union’s stunning win in April, much of the media analysis around the victory has been centered on Smalls. Just as important, however, is the collective story of the workers who charted their own path against one of the world’s biggest companies. 

What became the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) brought together an organic group of leaders demanding safety and dignity at Amazon?—?some with prior union experience?—?and a diverse, roving band of socialists in their 20s seeking to join a righteous labor fight. After setting their sights on a union election at the JFK8 warehouse, the group was joined by veteran warehouse workers who brought a deep bench of experience and relationships to the campaign. All of them were essential to the ALU’s upset win to represent more than 8,000 warehouse workers. 

In May, Amazon’s union-busting efforts dealt the ALU a defeat in its second union election, this time at LDJ5, a smaller sort center across the street from JFK8. Out of roughly 1,633 employees eligible to vote in the election, nearly 1,000 cast ballots, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. 

The outcome is disappointing but not entirely surprising for ALU leaders, who say they faced even steeper odds at LDJ5, a newer facility comprised largely of part-time workers. After the union’s first win sent shockwaves through the U.S. labor movement, the ALU says that hundreds of Amazon workers nationwide have reached out for support in their own organizing efforts. There’s every reason to think that the ALU is still just getting started.

ESSENTIALLY DISRESPECTED

It’s fitting that the last day of voting at JFK8 fell on March 30, marking the two-year anniversary of the walkout that jumpstarted the organizing effort there. 

Staten Island’s first case of Covid-19 case was confirmed March 9, 2020. Things escalated quickly in the following weeks. 

While infections rose, ?“They weren’t giving us masks,” says Gerald Bryson, a warehouse picker in his 50s who had been a union member at previous jobs. 

Instead of responding to the pandemic, Amazon organized what Derrick Palmer, 33, describes as a ?“mini-carnival” to recruit workers to racial and ethnic affinity groups, crowding employees into a small room and handing out plates of food while people milled about maskless. 

“They totally disregarded Covid,” Palmer remembers. Worker Jordan Flowers, then 21, has lupus and was awaiting a kidney transplant, which put him at high risk for Covid complications. As Flowers saw stories of people dying across the country that March, he grew increasingly concerned about the lack of personal protective equipment at work. 

“I’m my mom’s only child,” Flowers says. ?“I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” Amazon had already fired him once anyway, when he took short-term disability in 2019, but the company reinstated his employment shortly after he challenged the termination.

Chris Smalls’ job as a process assistant at the warehouse, a training role adjacent to management, gave him responsibility for approximately 60 people. Alarmed that managers weren’t properly notifying employees when someone they’d worked with tested positive for Covid, Smalls took it upon himself to warn workers of their possible exposure. 

Jason Anthony, 36, was one of the workers under Smalls. ?“Our relationship evolved from a worker-supervisor thing to a brotherhood, a bond that will never be broken,” Anthony says. ?“We call each other brother and sister. We care about each other. That’s something that Amazon doesn’t even do?—?care about their own people.” 

In the afternoon of March 30, 2020, workers filed out of the New York warehouse, led by Bryson, Palmer, Flowers and Smalls. They demanded Amazon close the facility for cleaning and offer employees paid time off in the meantime. 

“Alexa, please shut down and sanitize the building,” one of their protest signs read. 

Amazon fired Smalls that day, claiming he violated the company’s quarantine rules. Amazon fired Bryson the next month, though an administrative law judge ordered the company reinstate him two years later in April 2022. Amazon gave Palmer a ?“final warning” and put Flowers on medical suspension. 

According to a leaked memo, Amazon’s chief counsel denigrated Smalls soon after, calling him ?“not smart, or articulate” and suggesting a press narrative of ?“us versus him.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. 

This narrow focus on Smalls ultimately backfired on Amazon, elevating Smalls to the status of a martyr while underestimating the depth of worker anger. The more that Amazon singled out Smalls, the more organizers could focus on talking to their coworkers and bringing new people into the union campaign. 

Meanwhile, Smalls’ story reached workers far and wide. Brett Daniels, 29, got in touch with Smalls via social media after the walkout. At the time, Daniels was working at a dine-in movie theater in a suburb of Phoenix. When he was laid off due to pandemic-related closures, he picked up a job as a seasonal hire at an Amazon facility in Arizona with the hope of organizing among fellow workers. The child of a union firefighter and flight attendant, Daniels hoped to organize a union after years of community organizing experience, including the Fight for $15 in Tucson, Ariz.“We know the ins and outs of the company. Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?” — Chris Smalls

Inspired by the pandemic walkout, Daniels moved to Staten Island in November 2021 and was rehired at Amazon. ?“Almost all?—?if not all?—?of the organizers here were inspired by Chris, Derrick, Gerald and Jordan leading that walkout,” Daniels says.

Connor Spence, 26, also relocated from New Jersey to take a job at JFK8 in May 2021, shelving his aviation training to become an organizer instead of a pilot.

Smalls’ story ?“was emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Amazon?—?everything that’s wrong with society at the time,” Spence says.

Instead of backing down after his firing, ?“Chris was motivated to take the momentum and use it to fix the things he saw that were wrong with Amazon,” Spence says. ?“That was inevitably going to attract other people who wanted to actually step up, take action and change things.”

A UNION IS BORN

On May 1, 2020 —International Workers’ Day?—?Smalls, Bryson, Flowers and Palmer launched the Congress of Essential Workers, a predecessor to what would become the Amazon Labor Union. The group’s original goal was to unite frontline workers across industries in the fight for better conditions and pay. Jason Anthony joined up after he was fired from Amazon in July 2020.

The group envisioned a broad working class struggle against billionaires profiting from the pandemic?—?and they didn’t mince words. 

“The capitalist economy of the U.S. is built off the backs of a class of underpaid people who are degraded to wage laborers and valued only for what they produce, not for their intrinsic value as humans,” reads the Congress of Essential Workers’ website.

As they traveled the country to protest at Bezos’ mansions, the group forged stronger bonds with each other while welcoming newcomers, an approach Smalls describes as ?“all-inclusive” with a caveat. 

“It is Black-led, and we’re gonna keep it that way,” Smalls says he would explain as people joined. ?“Once we have that understanding, we let them in. And they’ve been with us ever since. There’s loyalty, and there is trust. They’re family members.”

In summer 2020, Spence traveled from his home in New Jersey to the Manhattan protest outside Bezos’ penthouse. ?“We really only talked for about two minutes,” Spence says of his first time meeting Smalls. Nonetheless, Spence was quickly added to an organizer chat group. He is now the ALU’s vice president of membership.

“One of the signs of a good organizer is believing fundamentally that working-class people are smart and capable,” Spence says. ?“So building an organization where you tried to make everybody have a part in the democratic process, let everybody have a role in it?—?that’s going to be a successful organization of working-class people.”

That’s the same ethos that drew in Cassio Mendoza at the October 2020 rally outside of Bezos’ Beverly Hills home. 

A committed socialist and the son of a videographer with Unite Here Local 11, Mendoza was skeptical of staff-led organizing. He saw in Bryson and Palmer genuine rank-andfile leadership and was especially impressed that Palmer had flown to Los Angeles after finishing up a shift at Amazon. The Congress of Essential Workers ?“didn’t seem manufactured in any way,” Mendoza says. 

A Los Angeles native, Mendoza typically wears a blue L.A. Dodgers hat, loose black T?shirts and beige khakis?—?wardrobe choices that match his understated personality. Despite his attempts to fade into the background, Mendoza became a pivotal campaign organizer. By June 2021, he had packed up and moved to New York. He began working at Amazon a month later, with the intention of helping the organizing effort. 

But at that point, the labor fight was still solely about garnering more respect for workers, and the group mostly wanted to convene Amazon workers across the country for a national conference. ?“They didn’t even say the word ?‘union,’” Mendoza remembers of those early conversations. 

“The idea was to have us all come together under one banner,” Spence says.

As members of the Congress of Essential Workers began reaching out to other worker groups through social media, they learned that most didn’t have a real organizing presence inside Amazon. One exception was Amazonians United, a loose network of worker committees in the United States and Canada. That group’s organizing model is based on ?“solidarity unionism,” in which workers begin acting like a union without any official, government recognition.

The organizers on Staten Island opted for a different approach when they formed the Amazon Labor Union, although members of Amazonians United have lent support to the union drive at LDJ5.

Bryson had been a member of multiple New York City unions, including the Service Employees International Union Locals 32BJ and 1199, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37. And Smalls had once been a Teamster before working at Amazon, leaving what he describes as ?“a bad contract.” 

While the Congress of Essential Workers at first resisted the idea of a formal union, that changed after the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lost its campaign to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in April 2021. (As of press time, the outcome of the second election in Bessemer is still pending.) Put off by RWDSU’s approach, which leaned on politicians and celebrities to gin up support among Amazon employees, Smalls and the other organizers thought they could do better.

“We know the ins and outs of the company,” Smalls explains. ?“Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?”

As they discussed the idea of a new, independent union to keep workers in the driver’s seat, they looked for examples of other militant unions. Mendoza was especially inspired by William Z. Foster, a Communist organizer in the steel industry in the 1930s. Spence turned to Labor Law for the Rank & Filer from Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd, and he distilled lessons from labor studies and copious online research into presentations for the organizing committee?—?including how to take on union-busting consultants on the shop floor. For language on inclusion, the group referenced Unite Here’s national constitution. For union democracy structures?—?including how union officers’ salaries should be pegged to the average wages of the union membership?—?they looked at the United Electrical Workers. 

“I’m my mom’s only child. I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” — Jordan Flowers

All of these ideas would be reflected in ALU’s constitution. 

“Let’s combine the union model with the rank-and-file committee model,” Spence recalls discussing with Smalls. ?“Each building has a worker committee that is the main decision-making body of the union.” 

Ultimately, the group eschewed abstract theories and rigid methods and looked to workers to act. 

“Screw it,” Spence recalls saying. ?“Let’s just go to JFK8, Chris’s old building, and organize workers there. It’s probably the best building to start a union campaign.”

THE DRIVING FORCE

It’s hard to overstate the odds stacked against an independent union taking on Amazon.

It’s not just that Amazon has a storied union-busting record. The company’s size and ubiquity make it an unavoidable part of modern American life, compunctions of conscience about the welfare of its workers aside. Amazon’s sprawling warehouse and logistics network delivers billions of boxes of stuff annually to its 153 million Amazon Prime members, with 40% of all online purchases in the country originating through Amazon, compared with just 7% at Walmart. More than 1.1 million people now work at Amazon’s more than 800 U.S. warehouses, and Amazon is projected to employ 1% of all U.S. workers in the next few years. 

What’s more, employee turnover inside Amazon facilities is constant. Amazon’s annual churn rate?—?representing the number of employees leaving the company each year compared to their total number?—?is about 150%, which Bezos has said is by design to prevent what he called a ?“march to mediocrity.”

That high turnover made Amazon warehouse veterans, like Michelle Valentin Nieves (who’s been there three years), invaluable organizers. Inside the JFK8 warehouse at the height of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves was growing increasingly frustrated. Managers would reprimand her on the shop floor while she was risking a Covid infection. 

In the first months of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves watched CNN for live updates on infections, hearing false reassurances from former President Donald Trump. ?“Then, come to find out, there were people actually coming up with Covid-19 already in the facility. And they were trying to keep it a secret.”

As Valentin Nieves waited to get vaccinated in 2021, ?“I was just losing my mind,” she says. ?“I’m like, ?‘I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna bring it back to the house. I’m gonna give it to my family.’ ”

When Palmer approached Valentin Nieves to sign a union card in 2021, she didn’t skip a beat. Valentin Nieves would go on to read Martin Jay Levitt’s Confessions of a Union Buster and become a fierce worker organizer, connecting especially with Latino workers for whom she was a familiar face.

Valentin Nieves, who is from Puerto Rico, says good organizing entails good listening, so she would take her time to hear workers’ grievances and provide feedback. During one of these chats, she talked with a worker who had foot spurs from standing for prolonged hours at Amazon. Eventually, Valentin Nieves helped the worker file multiple requests for medical accommodations until they finally got approved. 

Brima Sylla, 55, a widely respected immigrant worker from Liberia with a doctorate in public policy, started working at Amazon in January 2022 and joined the union campaign in March. He had come to Amazon after 10 years of teaching at a small private school on Staten Island, which laid him off during the pandemic. He quickly grew tired of the ambulances blaring to the warehouse entrance to ferry an injured worker to the hospital. Nationwide, workers at Amazon suffered 27,700 injuries in 2020 and 38,300 in 2021. The company accounts for nearly half of all injuries in the warehouse industry— a rate of 6.8 per 100 workers. 

Sylla says he organized to build the union to make Amazon a dignified workplace, because ?“the company just wants money, money, money. They forgot about the human side of the workers. The job is damn hard.”

Pasquale ?“Uncle Pat” Cioffi, a former longshore worker with the International Longshoremen’s Association for about nine years, had been reticent about supporting the union when he was first approached. He scolded organizers for making promises about wage hikes before even securing a contract. 

But when he saw cops arrest Smalls, Daniels and Anthony for trespassing as they delivered food to workers in February, Cioffi changed his mind. 

“At the end of the day, they were dropping off food,” Cioffi says. 

Cioffi occasionally wears Nike tracksuits and a yellow Amazon vest adorned with pins and the words ?“Italian G.O.A.T.” emblazoned on the back. Like Smalls, he is a process assistant. When he speaks, he jabs his fingers at your upper body to punctuate a point, evincing a self-confidence that enraptures listeners. Workers say he personally flipped hundreds to support the union

“People tend to go with people that they trust,” Cioffi explains. ?“Everybody knows me from day shift, any shift, any department. They know who I am because I’m always making that extra effort to help them out in whatever the situation is.”

“Amazon didn’t make this about the ALU,” Cioffi adds. ?“They made it about Chris Smalls. But this wasn’t really about Chris Smalls. This was about the people.” 

Karen Ponce, 26, is one of those people. She had started working at an Amazon delivery station in 2020, intending to save up money for a master’s degree in social work. After a layoff without warning, Ponce was rehired at JFK8. 

Though she had been active in immigrant rights causes in college, Ponce says she didn’t understand unions and initially bought into Amazon’s anti-union propaganda. ?“I was brainwashed, even scared,” Ponce says.

Her thinking began to shift after reaching out to her college sociology professor, who encouraged her to talk to the organizers. Connor Spence answered Ponce’s list of questions about dues and the union election, and they talked about working conditions. 

“They understood the toxic work environment because they were workers themselves,” Ponce says. 

As Ponce learned that some of her coworkers were living in their cars and homeless shelters, she began to connect the organizing drive to her social work calling. She began studying labor history and read Jane McAlevey’s A Collective Bargain. Not only did Ponce eventually join the union effort, she became the ALU’s secretary in December 2021.

Arlene Kingston, meanwhile, supported the union effort from the get-go. She grew up talking politics and had strong municipal unions in her native Trinidad and Tobago. 

Kingston and another coworker aided the union effort by offering free food in the break room, cooking peas and rice, chicken and macaroni pie to give out. ?“And if we have to do it again, we’re gonna do it again over and over,” Kingston says. 

She relishes how ?“a little person that you underestimated” defeated Amazon. ?“And that is just the beginning.”

SOLIDARITY & INDEPENDENCE

The Amazon Labor Union had no time to waste after the victory at JFK8. As messages of support poured in from Amazon workers nationwide, the priority quickly shifted to the vote at the next warehouse, LDJ5, where roughly 1,500 workers sort packages for delivery to the New York City metro area.

Less than a month after voting wrapped up at the first facility, workers at the second facility began casting ballots. In a May 2 vote count conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union came up short. 

Compared to the first warehouse, relatively few of the ALU’s key organizers work at LDJ5. That posed a tougher challenge for those who do, including Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, who first sent Smalls his resume after reading an article about the ALU in the socialist magazine Jacobin.“When it comes to organizing, you. have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.” — Julian Mitchell-Israel

Mitchell-Israel had been involved in electoral politics, including Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, but says he learned a crucial lesson about organizing over the course of a high-stakes campaign at LDJ5.

“When you’re up against misinformation, when you’re up against people that are violently anti-union, you have the instinct to sort of get on the defensive, to go?—??‘Screw you, you don’t understand you’re being brainwashed, whatever,’?” Mitchell-Israel says. ?“When it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.”

Madeline Wesley, another LDJ5 employee, arrived from Florida in August 2021. Wesley, 23, had been a student activist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was there that Wesley met ALU’s pro bono lawyer, Seth Goldstein, who was representing the university’s physical plant workers and clerical workers. After stints working for Unite Here union locals in Boston and Miami, Wesley joined the Amazon campaign on Goldstein’s urging and soon became ALU’s treasurer.

After the upset victory at JFK8, ?“some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win,” said Wesley before the vote. ?“And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything they’ve got here at LDJ5.”

Wesley says she and her fellow workers at LDJ5 faced a bruising campaign in which Amazon doubled down on its union-busting tactics. The company is also seeking to overturn the election results at JFK8 through an appeal to the NLRB.

On April 24, the day before voting began at LDJ5, national labor leaders rallied at Amazon’s Staten Island campus in a bid to boost support

The mood at the ?“Solidarity Sunday” rally was jubilant. Surrounded by Amazon workers and hundreds of their supporters, Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.) also delivered fiery speeches.

Many union leaders pledged their full support of the ALU?—?including Mark Dimondstein, president of the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union; Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Earlier in April, Sean O’Brien, new president of the Teamsters, met with Smalls and Derrick Palmer, ALU vice president of organizing, in Washington, D.C.

“We work in the same industry as all of you?—?and we’re either going to rise together or we’re gonna fall together,” Dimondstein said at the rally. 

Smalls welcomes the support but remains unequivocal about the union’s independence. ?“Everybody knows that we’re gonna remain independent,” Smalls said at the rally. ?“And these bigger unions know?—?every time I meet with one of their presidents, I let it be known?—?there ain’t no strings attached.”

With hopes of unionizing a second facility postponed for now, the ALU still has another momentous task before it: winning its first collective bargaining agreement with Amazon. If the new union can channel its broad national support and deep connections inside JFK8 into improved conditions at that warehouse, it will make a clear case to Amazon workers elsewhere that they should join up.

“There’s no way we’re going to stop or let this bring us down,” said ALU’s co-founder Derrick Palmer at an impromptu press conference following the May 2 loss. ?“It’s going to do the complete opposite. We’re going to go 10 times harder.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 23, 2022. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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She’s a 64-Year-Old Taxi Driver Drowning in Medallion Debt—And She’s Fighting Back

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Dorothy LeConte is part of a movement of taxi drivers demanding that the city of New York relieve their financial anguish.

NEW YORK CITY—Outside the gated entrance to City Hall, a dozen yellow taxi drivers huddle under the canopy of a tent to take shelter from the pelting rain. They sit alongside a line of their sunflower-yellow parked cars, next to a sidewalk makeshift memorial and protest shrine with a backdrop of signs that read: Respect the Drivers, No More Suicides; No More Bankruptcies, Debt Forgiveness Now! The rain has washed away the chalk spelling out the names of the deceased drivers etched against the cold pavement. The wicks on nine tall red candles are wet. On the previous rainless nights they burned bright, illuminating like a soundless incantation the names of nine taxi drivers who have committed suicide: Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Douglas Schifter, Nicanor Ochisor, Yu Mein Kenny Chow, Abdul Saleh, Fausto Luna, Roy Kim, and Driver Brother (unnamed to honor the wishes of the family that survived him). They were lost to the anguish of crushing debts and dissipated earnings.

Dorothy LeConte, 64, wasn’t there that October 4 night, but she feels the anguish of owing a medallion debt of $558,000 with monthly payments of $2,000. “Sometimes, I think about suicide,” she tells me one sunny Saturday afternoon as we sat in foldable chairs beside the protest shrine. “And then, when I come back, I think about my children, and I turn around and say, ‘Dorothy, don’t.’” She reaches for extreme examples of horrible incidents a person can endure to convey the deflated morale of drivers. “This is worse than if a man left me pregnant in the street… What the city did to us, and they don’t care.”

LeConte’s predicament is far from unique among thousands of driver-owners of yellow taxis who the city has left in a lurch as they scramble to piece together enough earnings to payoff insurmountable debts.

Yellow taxi driver-owners and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), representing approximately 21,000 for-hire and yellow cab drivers, have set up a 24/7 protest encampment. They are eyeing October 31, the deadline for when Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council must sign off on a budget modification, providing an opening for drivers to attain debt relief on their terms, not those of the banks. (Disclosure: This author worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Democracy NYC Initiative as a communications director from December 2020 to January 2021.) Survey estimates put the median yellow taxi driver-owner debts at $500,000, according to a January 2020 report published by the Taxi Medallion Task Force.

Individual driver-owners account for about 40 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow cabs. These workers, mainly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and Ghana, purchased medallions from the city in order to operate a taxicab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. The medallion originated in 1937 as a means to control the number of cabs on city streets. For nearly a century, their values were modest, but then a speculative bubble spiked their values to stratospheric heights, reaching above a vertiginous $1 million per medallion in 2014, plummeting to $100,000 in 2019 after the bubble burst, and hovering at approximately $100,000 today. Banks and the city pushed exploitative loan terms with inflated prices to immigrant drivers even as they knew the value of medallions was on a downward spiral.

After years of protest against predatory lenders who, abetted by city agencies, saddled immigrant driver-owners with insurmountable debts, Mayor de Blasio pledged in March to allocate $65 million. Under the mayor’s plan, lenders receive a $20,000 grant to go towards a down payment to restructure the debts of driver-owners. It also includes $9,000 for yellow taxi drivers to use for monthly debt payments. With the pressure mounting on Mayor Bill de Blasio, the union held a press conference on October 13 to announce the support of over 50 elected officials backing its debt relief proposal. Then, on Friday of that week, dozens of yellow taxi drivers snarled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in protest, demanding debt forgiveness. On Monday, the union announced plans to begin a hunger strike.

“First of all, the $65 million, just the $20,000 grant won’t even cover that many people,” according to Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the NYTWA. Desai estimates there are between four to six thousand driver-owners who drive for a living and those who may be retired. 

“If you go back to the record six months ago, they basically said everyone’s going to get $20,000 as a cash down payment to restructure the debt and then $9,000 to help you pay for your mortgage for up to six months,” she adds. “But now that the rules are out, the rules make it impossible for anybody to access that $9,000 because there’s a hardship requirement. If you’re out driving, you’re not going to be considered in hardship, no matter how much you’re struggling.”

The NYTWA has vetted a different proposal with the city’s comptroller’s office that is backed by New York City’s entire Congressional delegation in addition to state and local elected officials, as well as academic experts on banking and finance. That counter proposal calls for a debt restructuring plan of $90 million over 30 years, with the city providing a guarantee in the case of default and setting a limit of medallion debt loads to $145,000 with monthly payments capped at $800. Chief benefits of the NYTWA proposal would include more driver-owners and lower monthly payments to a manageable amount. The program, unlike the city’s proposal, would include driver-owners who are in foreclosure or undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, allowing drivers to negotiate favorable terms with lenders because the city would guarantee the restructured loans.

The city says that more than 1,000 people have signed up for its proposal. “It literally just means that people are calling them up to make an appointment,” says Desai. Asked to clarify what signing up for city’s proposal means, a spokesperson for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) responded that “1,000 medallion owners have applied to the program.” The spokesperson also said the city is working with a “dozen lenders.” According to the city, 102 drivers have received concrete debt relief.

New York Legal Assistance Group attorney Randal Wilhite characterized as “patently false” the city’s claims of how many people have signed up for the debt relief program. (For speaking out, Wilhite was suspended from NYLAG and prevented from testifying at a TLC hearing.)

One person who won’t be taking the city’s offer as it stands is Dorothy LeConte. When she started driving a yellow taxi in 1987, she wasn’t venturing entirely into the unknown. Word on the street was upbeat about the financial possibilities owning a medallion conferred on women specifically, and immigrants more generally. The evidence of financial independence was self-evident. In those days, LeConte could walk up to a driver who’d happily report on favorable remuneration and confirm a medallion was truly all that it was cracked up to be, a lifelong investment with good returns. So, she did just that, striking up a conversation with a woman sitting in her cab in the shade on Lexington Avenue. 

Her years working housing keeping at the Waldorf Astoria ended with the promise of one day being the driver-owner of a medallion. At first, she leased a car. Then, LeConte, originally from the island nation of Haiti, drew on the time-honored tradition of mutual aid among the Black diaspora, called sou-sou, or an informal savings club, to pool together a pot of cash to purchase a medallion. People in a sou-sou contribute money to a collective fund that pays out a lump sum each month to a participant based on their number in a monthlong cycle, which can average from 18 months or less based on the payout amount for each member. In 1989, she took the $17,000 payout to put down as a deposit on a medallion costing $140,000.

A single mom raising two Black boys, LeConte saw the taxi industry and her possession of a medallion as a reliable way to earn enough money to keep her children off the streets and in school.

“I’m raising two Black kids,” she says. “I’m out from four o’clock in the morning, and I’m coming home the next morning at three o’clock. I don’t want my sons to be in the street. I decided to put them in a boarding school. This is the American dream.”

But it was more than a mere pursuit of an elusive American dream. She paid $43,000 a year to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for the assurance that it would provide safety.

“My 14 year old didn’t have to hang out in the street and get killed by the police, or by the gang, or involved in drugs, saving the Rikers Island money,” she adds. “That’s what I use my money for.”

To provide for her children, she put in grueling hours, pushing her body to the limit. The pain of sitting in a cab with no end in sight hobbles the body and curves the bones, but the spirit is more dogged.

The early signs of the taxi crisis began during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tenure at City Hall. Giuliani bragged about breaking the 1998 strike among drivers organized by the NYTWA and violated their constitutional rights. When LeConte got her first taxicab, she paid $9,000. Under Giuliani, yellow cabs had to change every five years as part of his efforts to give a Hollywood facelift to New York City and increase regulations on immigrant drivers.

To drive a cab today, “you need $45,000 to $50,000. [If] you don’t have the money, you got to [borrow] against the medallion,” says LeConte. That’s excluding medallion loan debt payments. To become a driver-owner was increasingly cost prohibitive. Last year, 4,500 taxis needed to be replaced after seven years on the road at a cost of $135 million, according to Crain’s New York.

Despite these financial hardships, yellow cab drivers continued to motor down New York City streets, taking pride in serving the public. LeConte runs through the times she’s come to the aid of the city’s residents and visitors, from September 11 to the 2003 blackout. “When I say we build the city, we do.”

She says yellow taxis are peripatetic ambassadors to countless tourists on their first visits to New York.

“People come for the first time to New York. They’re so happy to grab a camera,” she says, and take a photo of a yellow taxi. “I am in the movies.”

“I’m always there. In everything, I help the city.”

According to LeConte, this includes intervention in harrowing domestic violence incidents.

“Another time, another woman, a man was beating her up. I was right in the middle of the street. I just rolled down the window. I said, ‘Jump in.’ She jumped in the cab, locked the door, and I flew with her.”

LeConte weathered ups and downs in the industry, but she said nothing prepared her for the arrival of Uber and Lyft, inundating New York City streets. Her brother, with a job in the technology sector, saw the writing on the wall and warned her in 2015. But she refused to heed his warnings.

“This is a New York City franchise. New York City will never allow this medallion to go all the way down,” she reasoned with her brother.

City data showed a 10 percent drop in revenue per yellow cab after Uber’s debut in 2011, with yellow taxi ridership in shambles. Medallion values held steady for a few more years, but the industry was soon ravaged by the combined forces of the city allowing banks and hedge funds to aggressively push predatory loans. Banks targeted people who they knew couldn’t service the loans, according to a New York Times investigation. They took advantage of immigrants whose first language wasn’t English to sign turgid contract terms they could, at best, only puzzle through. And even as the city knew there was trouble in the medallion market, it continued to inflate the value. Experts deemed the speculative bubble the largest since the housing crash of 2007.

“I don’t think I could concoct a more predatory scheme if I tried,” Roger Bertling, the senior instructor at Harvard Law School’s clinic on predatory lending and consumer protection, told The New York Times. “This was modern-day indentured servitude.”

Drive-owners of yellow taxis are now trapped in Sisyphean ordeal, pushing a proverbial boulder up a mountaintop only to see it come crashing down, seemingly until the end of time, as many drivers like LeConte are in their 60s.

“We estimate between 4,000 to 6,000 thousand have underwater loans,” says Desai from the NYTWA.

LeConte describes going to her mailbox during the pre-Uber years of the early 2000s and finding five flyers promoting loans or refinance offers. “You open the taxi news, and you find people advertising” to borrow against the equity in the medallion, she explains. “Some people borrowed against it.”

“I did not expect what happened here to me today, and to us. The city will be responsible, because I know a government is there to protect the people,” she says. “I don’t think the government is there to sell us out.”

Without the city’s protection, the banks and tech companies have had free rein to extract the last cent from workers. Because the medallion after 2015 can no longer serve as collateral, she says, “you will be the collateral. If they can’t find anything on you, they’ll probably take you to a barber shop, they’ll shave your hair. If you have long hair, they’ll sell your hair for fake hair in the street. Whatever you have, they’ll take it away from you.”

She draws parallels to the financial ruin facing yellow taxi drivers today to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In May 1921, a white mob went on a rampage in the economically thriving, predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mob was incited by a false story of a Black man assaulting a white girl, fueling the already potent adrenaline of white supremacy through the veins of an armed white mob of looters and arsonists. All told, hundreds of African Americans residents were savagely killed, their 1,250 homes and assortment of businesses annihilated by racial terrorism. According to a 2001 state commission report, property loss claims reached about $27 million in today’s dollars.

“You remember that story?” she asks me. ”The government burned its Black people down, taking their wealth, killing them. They lost everything.”

“The whole world is looking, but they [are] using the technology,” she adds, referencing the city allowing Uber to break the law and flood New York’s streets with app-based drivers.

The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose has attributed the unseen violence of capitalism, or what Rosa Luxemburg once called the “quiet conditions,” to the “skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.”

The fire of righteous indignation that blazes from within LeConte refuses to be tamped down, but she has also reconciled herself to the realities of age and the unseen casualties of the spirit.

“I need the day off. I need to stay home. I’m 64-years-old. When I go to my doctor, I have pains in my fingers, sprain in my knee. I can’t get up, pain in my back.”

The toll of driving a cab all these years has finally begun to manifest in her body. But it’s also overtaken her mind.

The anguish of the banks coming for her to collect $558,000 has deprived her of the balm of a good night’s sleep. “I never get a good six hours, eight hours of sleep. Never. Because I’m dreaming. What is going to happen to me? What happens with my dignity?”

About her plight, she says, “it’s not because I’m sick. It’s not because of an accident that I’m paralyzed. [It’s] because of the government that I trust. We ask Mayor de Blasio only to guarantee the loan.”

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a freelance journalist from New York City and an educator at Labor Notes.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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New York City Drivers Cooperative Aims to Smash Uber’s Exploitative Model

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Ken Lewis grew up on the island of Grena­da, and wit­nessed the pro­gres­sive after­math of its 1979 rev­o­lu­tion. ?“I remem­ber the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives, peo­ple get­ting land, turn­ing places that were bar­ren into pro­duc­tive places,” he says. That image stayed with him after he moved to New York City for grad school and start­ed dri­ving a taxi on the side. Now, sev­er­al decades lat­er, Lewis is final­ly get­ting a chance to put the pow­er of coop­er­a­tives into prac­tice, in ser­vice of the dri­vers he worked with for so long. 

He is one of three cofounders of The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive (TDC), which aims to real­ize a long-held dream of social­ly con­scious New York­ers in a hur­ry: a rideshar­ing app that you can feel good about. When it rolls out to the pub­lic ear­ly next year, TDC will become New York City’s first work­er-owned rideshar­ing plat­form?—?owned by the dri­vers them­selves, rather than by big investors and exec­u­tives. Its founders’ brazen idea is that TDC can actu­al­ly gain a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage over Uber and Lyft?—?sav­ing mon­ey and fun­nel­ing those sav­ings back to dri­vers?—?by doing away with the most exploita­tive prac­tices of that dom­i­nant duop­oly. ?“The way the [Uber] mod­el is orga­nized is extrac­tive. It takes out the mon­ey and doesn’t give back much. Imag­ine a com­pa­ny that doesn’t have any prof­its, but has cre­at­ed bil­lion­aires,” Lewis says. ?“That mon­ey comes from drivers.” 

Erik For­man, a vet­er­an labor activist and orga­niz­er, became inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with the dark side of that extrac­tive mod­el when he was work­ing as a staff mem­ber at the Inde­pen­dent Dri­vers Guild, a union-affil­i­at­ed group that orga­nizes rideshare dri­vers in New York. Com­pa­nies that oper­ate in the indus­try reg­u­lar­ly push much of the risk of employ­ment onto the dri­vers by clas­si­fy­ing them as ?“inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” rather than employ­ees. But they also push the costs of the job onto the work­ers, forc­ing them to pay for their own car and main­te­nance (not to men­tion things like health­care ben­e­fits). Instead of being paid to work, in oth­er words, rideshar­ing apps?—?like oth­er ?“gig econ­o­my” com­pa­nies?—?make peo­ple pay in order to work. When Uber launched in New York City in 2011, it was an attrac­tive alter­na­tive for many who had pre­vi­ous­ly been taxi dri­vers, with decent pay and lit­tle reg­u­la­tion. But in sub­se­quent years, Uber cut pay rates while the num­ber of dri­vers rose, leav­ing many who had tak­en out loans to buy cars for their job strug­gling to meet their debt oblig­a­tions and earn a living. 

For­man, who has been through bit­ter union bat­tles with big com­pa­nies, real­ized that for the same amount of effort, work­ers could prob­a­bly start their own ven­ture?—?lead­ing him to help cofound the rideshar­ing coop. ?“The indus­try seems unique­ly in need of a sys­tem change based on work­er own­er­ship,” he says. “[TDC] is not anoth­er com­pa­ny try­ing to get mon­ey out of dri­vers. It’s the opposite.”

In fact, the lack of exploita­tion is also The Dri­vers Cooperative’s finan­cial advan­tage. For one thing, the bil­lions of dol­lars that Uber has spent on mar­ket­ing the con­cept of rideshar­ing mean that TDC has lit­tle need for big ad bud­gets. Their plan is to grow by build­ing a net­work of dri­vers, using press and word of mouth. And while Uber and Lyft take around a quar­ter of the mon­ey from each trip (some of it to pay for all that mar­ket­ing), the coop plans to take only 15%. By com­bin­ing the pur­chas­ing pow­er of all the mem­bers, they hope to low­er expens­es on costs like gas and insur­ance?—?expens­es that Uber and Lyft dri­vers must han­dle on their own. They project that this should all add up to 8?–?10% high­er earn­ings for dri­vers on every ride, even while being able to beat their com­peti­tors on fare prices. And if the coop has any prof­its left at the end of the year, they will be paid out to dri­vers as dividends. 

Nobody under­stands the fun­da­men­tal con­trast with Uber’s busi­ness mod­el bet­ter than the third cofounder, Alis­sa Orlan­do?—?because she used to work for Uber. Her stint as the head of Uber’s oper­a­tions in East Africa left her dis­il­lu­sioned with the company’s preda­to­ry con­trol over its dri­vers, embod­ied in the way it uni­lat­er­al­ly cut earn­ings, deac­ti­vat­ed dri­vers alto­geth­er, or sad­dled them with unsus­tain­able car loans, all while claim­ing they were work­ing togeth­er. ?“We called dri­vers part­ners to the extent that it helped us” main­tain favor­able reg­u­la­to­ry sta­tus, Orlan­do says, ?“but they were nev­er partners.” 

Now she is using her expe­ri­ence in ven­ture cap­i­tal and plat­form-based busi­ness­es on behalf of TDC, a scrap­pi­er job that allows her to sleep bet­ter at night. Meet­ing with New York City dri­vers to recruit them into the coop, she’s heard count­less sto­ries of the impos­si­ble choic­es that dri­vers are forced to make?—?like the woman who said that a half dozen pas­sen­gers get into her car with­out a mask every week, but if she objects, they give her a low rat­ing. ?“She has to make this choice between ensur­ing that she’s safe, and the poten­tial threat of deac­ti­va­tion,” Orlan­do says. 

Moham­mad Hossen, a rideshare dri­ver who serves on the coop’s advi­so­ry board, says that the pan­dem­ic has act­ed as an accel­er­ant for the urgency of the new project. His income from dri­ving has fall­en by two-thirds, to just $100 a day, and costs for dis­in­fec­tant and oth­er safe­ty mea­sures?—?paid out of his own pock­et?—?have gone up. The shared predica­ment has allowed him to suc­cess­ful­ly recruit oth­er dri­vers, while they wait for hours at the air­port to get a fare. ?“At the end of the day, you have no life, no secu­ri­ty, no future,” Hossen says. ?“We real­ize that, and we suffer.” 

That could change when dri­vers are also the company’s own­ers. The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive is start­ing a pilot project this month giv­ing rides to work­ers for the Bronx-based Coop­er­a­tive Home Care Asso­ciates, an exam­ple of cross-coop coop­er­a­tion. Founders hope to even­tu­al­ly recruit sev­er­al thou­sand dri­vers in the city, and say recruit­ment is going well. They aim to roll out their own app and open for busi­ness in the first quar­ter of 2021. Their even­tu­al goal, they say, is 10% of the $5 bil­lion New York City rideshare mar­ket, and expan­sion into oth­er cities. For now, though, they will be sat­is­fied with mak­ing a good idea a reality.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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These Workers Don’t Get Aid and Are Going Hungry. A Tax on New York Billionaires Could Help Them.

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Coronavirus cases continue to climb across the Southern and Western United States. In New York, previously the nation’s epicenter, many of the residents reeling from the economic consequences are excluded from any government assistance.

Clara Cortes lives in Long Island with her family. Both she and her husband tested positive for the virus, and while Clara has since recovered, her husband spent 54 days in the hospital. Now he is in a rehabilitation center dependent on a ventilator to breathe. “My husband is fighting for his recovery right now and it’s all because of the simple fact that he went to work to support his family,” Cortes said in a virtual press conference. Cortes is out of work, and without steady access to income, it is difficult to pay her mortgage, her husband’s medical bills and support her family. Her husband used to work in a supermarket. “It was there that he got sick because he was not allowed to use a mask,” she said. “When he had it on, the owner told him to take it off because he would scare the customers. He complied and, unfortunately, has suffered a lot.”

Families across New York state are facing food insecurity. As an undocumented immigrant, however, Cortes does not qualify for state or federal financial assistance excluding her from unemployment, food stamps or the coronavirus relief bill. Cortes’ daughter and husband are both U.S. citizens, but mixed status households were excluded from the meager assistance the bill provided.

State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Carmen de la Rosa have proposed legislation to create an excluded workers fund. The bill would enable workers who do not qualify for unemployment insurance—such as undocumented workers like Cortes—to receive $3,300 in monthly financial assistance. As New York faces a budget crisis, the bill would produce revenue by taxing the capital gains of billionaires’ assets.

Cortes is a member of Make the Road, an immigrant rights organization advocating for the bill. For Angeles Solis, organizer at Make the Road, a major obstacle for the bill is the lack of any indication of when the legislature will reconvene “to pass lifesaving legislation for our communities.”

The bill would also benefit informal workers such as day laborers, street vendors and sex workers. For many transgender individuals facing widespread discrimination, sex work is one of the few available work options that has been heavily impacted by the pandemic.

Alisha King is an advocate with the Bronx Sex Worker Outreach Project and a trans woman and former sex worker. King noted the funds would “help [trans sex workers] survive because they won’t be out there in the streets or online trying to find some way to make money dealing with this john and that john. It would keep them housed and keep them fed.”

Advocates anticipate Governor Cuomo’s opposition to the worker’s fund. While the governor’s office did not response to requests for comment, Cuomo has consistentlyopposed increasing taxes on the wealthy despite support from both the public and legislators. He has said providing financial support to undocumented immigrants would be fiscally “irresponsible.”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) expressed her support for the fund in a statement to In These Times noting that undocumented immigrants “pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than many big corporations and billionaires. Yet, during this pandemic they have been left alone to struggle to get food and financial aid, and to make matters worse, we are on the cusp of an eviction crisis.”

Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) is a community organization building the power of working-class South Asians and Indo-Caribbean members. During the pandemic, their members (who are mostly undocumented) were forced to choose between risking exposure to Covid-19 in order to work low-wage jobs or deal with the financial implications of unemployment. Two members, Rajkumar Thapa and Rashida Ahmed, chose the former and died from the coronavirus. As proponents of the bill, it is clear to DRUM that the current  crises members are facing are a result of neoliberal capitalism. They describe capitalism as “governments and systems that serve the rich, and punish the poor.” Fahd Ahmed, the executive director of DRUM, explained that neoliberalism builds on capitalism to cut spending on social needs and systems such as safety net programs.

“For a state like New York which claims to be progressive, has a large immigrant and undocumented population, why in the past did we never think of setting up economic support systems for undocumented immigrants?” said Ahmed, “The only answer is that, under the neoliberal logic, that wouldn’t make sense. Why invest in people?”

Lexii Foxx is a 29-year-old Black transgender woman and sex worker. Foxx said she receives $162 in government assistance every month via food stamps, but living in Brooklyn, it’s not enough to survive. “I have a lot of regulars that have actually stopped coming,” Foxx said referring to clients. “As far as the roads, it’s not as many cars that’ll be out. I’m even working corners. Just a little bit helps. I don’t need much. I just need to stay afloat.”

When Foxx’s cousin recently passed away she prepared to return home to North Carolina. With no savings, she needed to work to pay for her trip despite the risks. Tahtianna Fermin, co-founder of Black Trans News, which supports and uplifts Black trans sex workers, was able to intervene when she learned of Foxx’s plans.

“Thank god, with the organization, people have been donating. We were able to give her $200 so she wouldn’t have to go out and sell her body for the night,” Fermin said. “She was so thankful she started tearing up and that touched my heart. That right there shows me that these girls need this money. These girls need this help.”

Black trans sex workers, many of whom are homeless, were also in a precarious economic situation before the pandemic. New York has the highest ranking of per capita homelessness in the country. The bill itself captures how massive wealth inequality has become the new normal: Taxing the investments of the 112 billionaires residing in New York state would produce $5.5 billion in revenue, which is more than the $3.5 billion cost of the entire worker bailout fund. While $200 from a Black trans led organization (currently soliciting donations) made Foxx emotional, billionaires across the country have increased their wealth by $584 billion.

Ahmed described Cuomo as the “quintessential representative” of “the neoliberal logic,” citing his persistent austerity measures such as cutting Medicaid or education funding. Absent federal aid, Cuomo has warned of 20% cuts to public schools, healthcare and local governments.

“Investing in people is not going to maximize profits for the corporations and for the elites,” Ahmed said. “The more precarious we leave people, the further we’re able to keep wages lower, have easily controllable labor populations and maximize the profits that can be made from exploiting their labor.”

Many of these workers are now unemployed. In New York City, Solis speaks to people on winding pantry lines, urging them to join the campaign and call their representatives. Fermin is expanding Black Trans News to support more Black trans sex workers like Foxx and step in where the government—and the current economic system—has failed.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Chowdhury is a freelance investigative journalist based in New York City. A native New Yorker, her work focusing on underreported communities has appeared in The Appeal, The Indypendent and Human Rights Watch.


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Major Public Defense Nonprofit in New York Is Unionizing

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One of the nation’s most respected public defender nonprofits is unionizing, the latest in a surge of union drives at prominent nonprofits across the country.

The Bronx Defenders, a large nonprofit that defends low-income people in the Bronx, New York, told management today that they intend to unionize with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, an affiliate of the UAW. The proposed union will have about 270 members, covering virtually the entire non-management staff. Of those, about 100 are not attorneys, including everyone from social workers to paralegals to facilities workers.

Employees at the Bronx Defenders cited issues like pay, health care benefits, and equality of professional development and promotions as motivating factors for the union drive. But one factor stood out more than any other: the potential for burnout among public defenders and those who work alongside them.

“I’ve seen people who were hired with me who left already because of burnout,” says Imani Waweru, a staff attorney in the criminal defense practice who has been at the organization for less than two years. “What we do every day is advocate. Why not have a place we can advocate for ourselves?”

Naima Drecker-Waxman, an associate in the immigration practice, agrees that burnout is a real threat—and believes that improvements in working conditions for the Bronx Defenders staff will translate to better outcomes for the clients. “We need to ensure our workforce is treated with respect in order to serve our clients,” she says.

Discussions about unionizing began quietly a year ago, and the effort to collect union cards intensified in the past couple of months. (Union drives at nonprofits usually win voluntary recognition from management, thanks to the inherent pressure for the organization to live up to the ideals it espouses. Employees at the Bronx Defenders expect the same.) The culmination of the union campaign comes against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, which has hit both the Bronx and the incarcerated population of New York City with savage force. The employees of the Bronx Defenders see their union drive as part of a larger struggle to improve a justice system that often seems unable to keep up with the demands of the crisis. “We’re all sharing this burden of a court system that’s not responsive to our needs,” says Drecker-Waxman.

Alex Shalom, the union organizer at the ALAA, says his union has already won protective equipment and hazard pay in other places. “We’re seeing the tangible benefits of an organized workforce,” he says. “Our members are of no use to clients if they’re sick.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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New York bill would jail employers for discriminating over immigration status

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Employers in New York state could face a penalty of up to three months in prison and a $20,000 dollar fine if they make threats regarding a person’s immigration status, under a new bill proposed by Democratic New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Undocumented workers face unique challenges in the workplace when it comes to filing grievances against management or speaking up about lost wages. The New York labor department claims it has investigated at least 30 cases over the last three years that involved threats to an employee’s immigration status. James’ legislation would make those threats illegal.

“New York state was built by immigrants and it has always stood proudly as a beacon of hope and opportunity no matter where you were born,” James said in a statement. “This legislation will represent a critical step toward protecting some of our most vulnerable workers by ensuring that they are not silenced or punished by threats related to their immigration status.”

The bill would amend a part of the New York Labor Law to refer employers who discriminate on the basis of immigration status to prosecutors, who could charge them with a misdemeanor and impose a fine up to $20,000 depending on the nature of the complaint and if the employer has a history of prior labor offenses.

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James’ announcement came one day after President Donald Trump reiterated in his State of the Union address calls to crack down on undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” he said. “Meanwhile, working class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”

Trump’s namesake company, however, has previously employed undocumented workers itself, and two of them were present at the speech Tuesday night.

One of the guests was Victorina Morales, a former personal housekeeper for President Trump at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey and Guatemalan immigrant. The other was Sandra Diaz, also a former golf club employee, who was born in Costa Rica and is now a legal resident.

Both women said they were happy to represent the millions of immigrants seeking a new life in the United States, and remind the president of those working for the Trump Organization.

“Very sad that he doesn’t change his position but happy that we’re there to tell the truth, to remind him of those who work for him,” Diaz said.

“I know it’s a long road and we have to fight,” Morales added. “There’s still a lot to do.”

The New York legislation was drafted partially in response to reports that Morales and other undocumented employees at Trump’s property in New Jersey had been threatened with having their immigration statuses exposed if they filed complaints against their supervisors. Morales said her supervisor frequently made demeaning remarks to undocumented employees, calling them “stupid illegal immigrants” with less intelligence than a dog.

In the wake of over-policing by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency — itself emboldened by Trump — state and local governments are finding legislative pathways to protect immigrant communities. New Jersey, for example, has instituted an Immigrant Trust Directive that would both protect immigrants in their interactions with state law enforcement while also building trust between police and migrant communities.

California, Oregon, and Illinois have issued similar directives in the past.

“Very sad that he doesn’t change his position but happy that we’re there to tell the truth, to remind him of those who work for him,” Diaz said.

“I know it’s a long road and we have to fight,” Morales added. “There’s still a lot to do.”

The New York legislation was drafted partially in response to reports that Morales and other undocumented employees at Trump’s property in New Jersey had been threatened with having their immigration statuses exposed if they filed complaints against their supervisors. Morales said her supervisor frequently made demeaning remarks to undocumented employees, calling them “stupid illegal immigrants” with less intelligence than a dog.

In the wake of over-policing by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency — itself emboldened by Trump — state and local governments are finding legislative pathways to protect immigrant communities. New Jersey, for example, has instituted an Immigrant Trust Directive that would both protect immigrants in their interactions with state law enforcement while also building trust between police and migrant communities.

California, Oregon, and Illinois have issued similar directives in the past.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 7, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant on the NPR Business Desk. She has also worked for NPR member stations WFSU in Tallahassee and WLRN in Miami.


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The House GOP health care bill is a job killer, says a new report

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 In addition to potentially increasing the number of uninsured by 23 million and being unequivocally unpopular, House Republicans’ Obamacare replacement plan could leave nearly a million people unemployed.

That’s according to a new study published Wednesday by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University and The Commonwealth Fund projects, which finds that the U.S. economy could see a loss of 924,000 jobs by 2026 if the American Health Care Act (AHCA) becomes law.

The study concentrated on coverage-related and tax repeal policies included in the AHCA. Some of the key provisions it said could add to job losses would:

  1. Phase out enhanced funding for Medicaid expansion by restricting eligibility in 2020, and imposing either a block grant or per capita caps.
  2. Replace premium tax credits with age-based tax credits. The premiums can be five times higher for older individuals, compared to the current threefold maximum.
  3. Allow states to waive key insurance rules, like community rating and essential health benefits. (The study does account for the Patient and State Stability Fund, a $8 billion grant meant to relieve states of high-cost patients.)
  4. Eliminate the individual mandate tax penalty and premiums hikes for people who do not maintain continuous coverage.
  5. Repeal numerous taxes and tax increases, like a tax on high-cost insurance (i.e. the “Cadillac tax”).

Short-term gain, long-term pain

Federal health funding stimulates the economy and job creation. Health funds pay hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other providers, and these facilities pay for their own respective employees and other goods and services, like rent and equipment. Health care employees and private businesses then use their earnings to purchase consumer goods like housing and transportation, circulating this money through the larger economy.

The GWU study found government spending or subsidies stimulate the economy more than tax cuts. Tax cuts do help, but only in the short term. The way AHCA is set up is that the tax cuts take effect sooner than federal funding cuts, which is why some states see net job growth by 2018. Then, when federal dollars are eventually pulled, states begin to see job losses by 2026.

Who’s most affected:

The employment rate among states that expanded Medicaid eligibility could disproportionately be affected, because those states received more federal dollars. New York, a state that expanded Medicaid, could be among the hardest hit with 86,000 job losses by 2026.

Between April 2016 and April 2017, New York added 76,800 jobs and the educational & health services sector saw the largest job gains, at 46,600 jobs. “The Affordable Care Act [ACA] contributed to that [growth],” Ronnie Kauder, senior research director at the New York City Labor Market Information Service, told ThinkProgress.

Kauder emphasized that the ACA wasn’t solely responsible for New York’s job growth, even in the health care sector. Uncontrollable factors like the state’s growing aging population and increasing life expectancy contribute to job growth as well.

New York has reaped the employment benefits of comprehensive health care, said Kauder. That’s in part because ACA encouraged states to test new models of health care delivery and shifted from a reimbursement system based on volume of services to value of services.

For example, New York received ACA grant funding to test effective ways to incentivize Medicaid beneficiaries, who struggle with chronic diseases, to participate in prevention programs and change their health risks. With that grant, New York created new programs at existing managed care organizations, which required new hires. The grant created positions like care coordinators, who connect and follow-up up with patients and providers in the program, said Kauder. “They are heavy on the training, but not licensed professionals,” she said.

But while she attributed some of New York’s job gains to the ACA, Kauder was skeptical that the GOP replacement plan would kill as many of them as the GWU study projects. “We don’t know what the state response will be,” he said. “It could be worse in Kentucky.”

The largest health care provider in New York, Northwell Health, hires on average 150 people a week. Northwell chief public relations officer Terry Lynam told ThinkProgress he doesn’t think the ACA directly contributed to a spike in job growth; however, it did help expedite the provider’s move from hospitals to outpatient care centers, also called ambulatory care, in an effort to slow rising health costs.

“What [ACA] has done was contribute to the ambulatory net growth [by cutting costs],” said Lynam. Northwell Health has 550 outpatient locations.

Northwell Health has qualms with the House GOP bill; specifically its cuts to Medicaid and change in coverage rules. “We are in a stronger financial position to survive that kind of reduction in revenue,” said Lynam. “But what about small providers serving low income areas, who need those Medicaid [dollars]?”

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Amanda Michelle Gomez is a health care reporter at ThinkProgress.


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Fox News faces new legal trouble for sexual harassment

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The New York State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) is investigating Fox News for claims of sexual harassment and retaliation, according to attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bloom told ThinkProgress over the phone that a human rights specialist at the agency confirmed the investigation to her on Friday.

According to Bloom, the agency has spoken to one of her clients, Dr. Wendy Walsh, twice, and another of her clients, Caroline Heldman, once in the course of the investigation. The agency also wants to interview a third woman.

Bloom’s law firm filed a request for investigation with the SDHR on April 11th. Bloom told ThinkProgress she asked for the investigation because Fox has “the worst corporate culture I’ve heard of in 30 years as a civil rights attorney.”

“Over the past thirteen years, dozens of women have reported egregious sexual harassment and retaliation at Fox News, with new claims constantly coming to light,” the complaint says. “The company frequently pays women to remain silent and leave the company while the perpetrators and enablers keep their jobs. Others are scared into silence by the company’s well-documented intimidation tactics, including using its giant media platform to smear their reputations. Nearly all of the victims were not only driven out of Fox News, but the television industry entirely.”

The complaint says that since many of the victims signed confidentiality agreements or are barred by time-limits from bringing their complaints to the legal system, they cannot raise the issue with the SDHR themselves.

The SDHR did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for confirmation.

Bloom told ThinkProgress that a typical remedy for this sort of case would see the state entering into a consent decree with the employer. The employer would likely have to improve their grievance procedures and demonstrate compliance on a regular basis, anywhere from monthly to yearly.

According to Bloom, the process is “pretty intrusive” for the employer, and typically unwelcome.

This report signals a new wave in the network’s ongoing legal troubles, linked to what reports and allegations indicate is a pervasive culture of sexual discrimination.

Last year, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed suit against the network’s then-CEO Roger Ailes, alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The network eventually settled with Carlson for $20 million, but her suit opened the floodgates of women coming forward with their own allegations. The scandal led to Ailes’ resignation.

Then this year, the New York Times reported that the network had paid over $13 million over the years to quiet allegations of harassment by Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly. The report led to a spate of women going public with their stories, and ultimately to O’Reilly’s ousting from the network after advertisers abandoned his nightly talk show.

Taken in sum, however, the women’s stories indicate that the problem went beyond the alleged predilections of two of the network’s most powerful men. The allegations and reports paint a picture of systemic sexual harassment and a culture of gender discrimination within the network.

“It’s not about Roger Ailes. It’s about a culture,” Gabriel Sherman, who wrote the book on Roger Ailes and his role in the network, told NPR in July 2016. “And it was a culture where this type of behavior was encouraged and protected. The allegations are that women routinely had to sleep with or be propositioned by their manager in many cases, Roger Ailes, but I’ve reported on another manager who did this in exchange for promotions.”

Fox News has also retained the law firm Paul Weiss to conduct internal investigations of the harassment claims against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.

This piece has been updated with comments from Lisa Bloom. Judd Legum contributed reporting.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 19, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laurel Raymond is a general reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was the ThinkProgress Editorial Assistant. Prior to joining ThinkProgress she worked for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and was a Fulbright scholar, based in southeast Turkey. She holds a B.S. in brain and cognitive sciences and a B.A. in English from the University of Rochester, where she worked and researched in the university writing center and was a member of the Michael K. Tanenhaus psycholinguistics lab. Laurel is originally from Richmond, Vermont.


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Hints of Progress for Labor in the United States

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With Donald Trump sitting in the White House and right-wing Republicans controlling Congress, there is not much for labor to cheer about on the American national political scene. In addition, the overall prospect for union organizing does not look very good. Republicans are pursuing policies at both the national and state level to further erode union membership. But with all the bad news, there have been some important victories at the state and local levels that can perhaps lay the groundwork for gains nationally in future years.

The most important of these battles has been the drive for an increase in the minimum wage. The national minimum wage has been set at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In the intervening eight years, inflation has reduced its purchasing power by almost 17%. Measured by purchasing power, the current national minimum wage is more than 25% below its 1968 peak. That is a substantial decline in living standards for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

However, the situation is even worse if we compare the minimum wage to productivity. From 1938, when a national minimum wage was first put in place, until 1968, it was raised in step with the average wage, which in turn tracked economy-wide productivity growth. If the minimum wage had continued to track productivity growth in the years since 1968, it would be almost $20 an hour today, more than two and a half times its current level. That would put it near the current median wage for men and close to the 60th percentile wage for women. This is a striking statement on how unevenly the gains from growth have been shared over the last half century.

The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to make up some of this lost ground during his presidency. While it may have been possible in his first two years when the Democrats controlled Congress, higher priority was given to the stimulus, health care reform and financial reform. Once the Republicans regained control in 2010, increases in the minimum wage were off the table. Needless to say, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that the Trump administration will take the lead in pushing for a higher minimum wage any time soon.

Although the situation looks bleak nationally, there have been many successful efforts to increase the minimum wage in states and cities across the country in recent years. This effort has been led by unions, most importantly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose “Fight for $15” campaign is pushing to make $15 an hour the nationwide minimum. The drive gained momentum with its endorsement by Bernie Sanders in his remarkable campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. While Sanders was of course defeated for the nomination, his push for a $15 an hour minimum wage won the support of many voters. It is now a mainstream position within the national Democratic Party.

However, the action for the near term is at the state and local levels, where there have been many successes. There are now 29 states that have a minimum wage higher than the national minimum. The leader in this effort is California, which is now scheduled to have a $15 an hour minimum wage as of January 2022. With over 12% of the US population living there, this is a big deal. Washington State is not far behind, with the minimum wage scheduled to reach $13.50 an hour in January 2020. New York State’s minimum wage will rise to $12.50 an hour at the end of 2020 and will be indexed to inflation in subsequent years.

Several cities have also jumped ahead with higher minimum wages. San Francisco and Seattle, two centers of the tech economy, both are set to reach $15 an hour for city minimums by 2020. Many other cities, including New York, Chicago and St. Louis have also set minimum wages considerably higher than the federal and state levels.

What has been most impressive about these efforts to secure higher minimum wages is the widespread support they enjoy. This is not just an issue that appeals to the dwindling number of union members and progressive sympathizers. Polls consistently show that higher minimum wages have the support of people across the political spectrum. Even Republicans support raising the minimum wage, and often by a large margin.

As a result of this support, minimum wage drives have generally succeeded in ballot initiatives when state legislatures or local city councils were not willing to support higher minimums. The last minimum wage increase in Florida was put in place by a ballot initiative that passed in 2004, even as the state voted for George W. Bush for president. Missouri, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in this century, approved a ballot initiative for a higher minimum wage in 2006. South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas, all solidly Republican states, approved ballot initiatives for higher minimum wages in 2014. In short, this is an issue where the public clearly supports the progressive position.

These increases in state and local minimum wages have meant substantial improvements in the living standards of the affected populations. In many cases, families are earning 20-30% more than they would if the minimum wage had been left at the federal minimum.

In addition, several states, including California, have also put in place measures to give workers some amount of paid family leave and sick days. While workers in Europe have long taken such benefits for granted, most workers in the United States cannot count on receiving paid time off. This is especially true for less-educated and lower-paid workers. In fact, employers in most states do not have to grant unpaid time off and can fire a worker for taking a sick day for themselves or to care for a sick child. So the movement towards requiring paid time off is quite significant for many workers.

This progress should be noted when thinking about the political situation and the plight of working people in the United States, but there are also two important qualifications that need to be added. The first is that there are clearly limits to how far it is possible to go with minimum wage increases before the job losses offset the benefits. Recent research has shown that modest increases can be put in place with few or no job losses, but everyone recognizes that at some point higher minimum wages will lead to substantial job loss. A higher minimum wage relative to economy-wide productivity was feasible in the past because the US had a whole range of more labor-friendly policies in place. In the absence of these supporting policies, we cannot expect the lowest-paid workers to get the same share of the pie as they did half a century ago.

The other important qualification is the obvious one: higher minimum wages do not increase union membership. The SEIU, the AFL-CIO and the member unions that have supported the drive for a higher minimum wage have done so in the best tradition of enlightened unionism. They recognize that a higher minimum wage can benefit a substantial portion of their membership, since it sets a higher base from which they can negotiate upward. Of course, it is also a policy that benefits the working class as a whole. For this reason, unions collectively have devoted considerable resources to advancing the drive to raise the minimum wage.

However, this has put a real strain on their budgets at a time when anti-union efforts are reducing the number of dues-paying members in both the public and private sectors. This will make it more difficult to sustain the momentum for raising minimum wages and mandating employer benefits. For this reason, the good news on the minimum wage must be tempered. It is a rare bright spot for labor in the United States in the last decade, but it will be a struggle to sustain the momentum in the years ahead.

This blog was originally published at CEPR.net on June 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan


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The Issue of Paid Family Leave Just Got Some New York Size Momentum

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GELClogoOn April 4, New York State passed what is being hailed as the most comprehensive and generous paid family leave law in the country.  The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act (A. 3870 / S. 3004) (“PFLIA”) will provide workers in New York State with up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year, to bond with a new child, or to care for a seriously ill family member.  For military families, the leave time can be used to address legal, financial and childcare issues.  Notably, unlike the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), coverage does not include taking care of an employee’s own medial condition.  That means, if unrelated to childbirth, employees would still need to seek time off under New York State’s Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program.

Beginning in 2018, all full and part-time employees who have been working at their jobs for at least six months will be eligible for eight weeks of paid leave up to one-half of their weekly wages, capped at 50% of the New York Statewide Average Weekly Wage (“SAWW”).  These payments will gradually phase in over four years until 2021 when workers will be entitled to 12 weeks of leave, for benefits up to two-thirds of their weekly salary, capped at a maximum of 67% of the SAWW.

The current SAWW is $1,266.44, through June 2016 (with predicted increases each year).  So, the benefit will be robust.  For instance, if an employee received family leave benefits today that would mean s/he could receive up to $633.22 per week; or $844.29 if the two-thirds rate was in effect.  As compared with maximum benefits workers in New York are eligible to receive under its Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program that’s a big improvement.  That program caps recipient benefits at a mere $170 per week.  Until now, TDI was the only financial recourse postpartum women in New York were eligible for – unless their employers wanted to be more generous (sometimes true for large corporations, rarely for smaller employers).  Although, beginning in 2018, women still would not be entitled to paid family leave in order to recover from their own childbirth recovery, they would be eligible to receive paid family leave to bond with their child at a vastly improved weekly wage replacement rate.

The PFLIA program is a fully employee-funded program, meaning, unlike several other states and localities, employers will not have to contribute to the cost.  Rather, employees will pay into a state sponsored insurance program and payments to workers will be paid out through this program.  These contributions will start at as little as 45 cents per week when the law goes into effect in 2018.  Thereafter, New York’s Superintendent of Financial Services will analyze what amount of funding the program needs based on the cost per worker of providing paid leave.  While the total per employee contribution remains unknown, an important premise behind the legislation is that employee contributions should represent a very small deduction from each employee’s weekly paycheck.  It is estimated that by year four that deduction will be 88 cents per week.

Significantly, paid leave is protected leave.  All qualified employees who take paid family leave will be entitled to return to their jobs.  If employers violate the law, employees will be entitled to reinstatement and back pay.  Unfortunately, there is no private right of action to go into Court.  Claims will have to be administered through the New York Worker’s Compensation Board which handles violations of the TDI law.

Several other states are now looking to follow New York’s lead.  Ohio just introduced a 12-week paid leave bill the same week New York’s law was signed.  Connecticut has introduced a bill as well that would entitle employees to be compensated up to $1,000 a week.  The proposed bill would cover employers with as little as two employees.

In 20 states, legislation has either been introduced or is being actively pursued.  Each of these proposed bills and programs strikes a different balance.  Some states would provide fully employer-funded paid programs, while others base their programs on models similar to that used in New York, making their proposed paid family leave benefits solely through employee contributions, and some are a mix of both.  What is covered under each of these proposed laws varies too.  Some cover all employers, while others limit coverage to larger employers, although many require less than the FMLA does with 50 or more employees as a basis for coverage.

These laws undoubtedly will offer a new generation of workers the family-job balance that previous generations did not have.  Not only will employees be less likely to face devastating economic choices when they decide to have children or need to care for a loved one, but as studies show, when family leave is paid, women are far less likely to be forced out of or choose to opt out of the workforce when having children.  This in turn will decrease a persistent wage gap between men and women who have children.  In addition, further studies document that men are far more likely to take family leave when it is paid, thereby bringing men and women closer to wage parity and more likely to share domestic responsibilities at home.

Nonetheless, as evidenced by this patchwork of laws and proposed bills, paid family leave – some, all or none – creates inequality among American workers when states offer inconsistent opportunities for work-life balance.  Even worse, many states still have no paid family leave laws on their books, and do not seem close to passing such legislation in the near future.  This result strongly emphasizes the need for national legislation that would allow us to join the rest of the industrialized world.  But as a start, we New Yorkers’ are proud of where our efforts have led – to the strongest, broadest, most generous paid family leave law in the country!  This law will make all the difference to the estimated 6.9 million workers in this state.

For more information about what you can do to support and/or expand family leave laws in your state check out what your legislators are doing and join family leave campaigns.  Or, contact us at the Gender Equality Law Center.

Allegra L. Fishel is the founder and Executive Director of the Gender Equality Law Center (“GELC”), a 501(c)(3) legal and advocacy center.  GELC’s mission is to advance laws and policies that promote gender equality in all spheres of public and private life.

Lauren T. Betters is a 2015 law school graduate of Northeastern Law School and GELC’s first Law Fellow.


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