It’s all about North Carolina today—the fight for better wages and the campaign to get a progressive person in the U.S. Senate, all of which is connected to my two guests today who represent the theme of the just-marked International Womens Day.
The sad outcome of the push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour tells us two things. First, there is a big house cleaning needed to make way for politicians who actually care about workers. Second, no matter what happens in elections, we need to keep up the street heat to mobilize millions of people to stop the immorality of people working full-time but getting paid poverty wages while billionaires get even richer.
First up, then, is Precious Cole. Precious lives in Durham, North Carolina and works at Wendy’s. She has been working minimum wage jobs for half her life and, like millions of other workers, has, year after year, not been able to meet her monthly bills earning what is a poverty wage. Which is one reason Precious has become a key activist and leader in North Carolina Raise Up, the state branch of the national Fight for 15 and a Union network. She chats with me about her life and her activism.
Then, you may remember state Senator Erica Smith—she was a progressive who jumped into the 2020 North Carolina race for the U.S. Senate to challenge incumbent Republican Thom Tillis. But, the D.C. insiders shoved her aside, handpicking the most uninspired, dumb-as-a-brick candidate Cal Cunningham who, with piles of corporate and party-directed money, won the primary—and, then, proceeded to crash and burn, handing Tillis his re-election.
The 2022 election is a barometer for whether lessons have been learned. As the results of the Florida minimum wage ballot initiative showed—it passed overwhelmingly even as Joe Biden was losing the state—people are saying pretty clearly: give me a policy that puts money in my pocket and isn’t about supporting the rich over regular people, and I’ll vote for it whether you call it “progressive” or “a loaf of bread.” Erica is back for another Senate race, competing for the party primary nod for the seat that is opening up in 2022 with the retirement of Richard Burr. I talk with her about her campaign and the mood in North Carolina.
This blog originally appeared at Working Life on March 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.
Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.
North Carolina State AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan (IUOE) reported the state federation and its affiliated unions have announced a Workers First Agenda for the 2021–22 legislative session. The priorities include requiring the state’s Department of Labor (NCDOL) to respond to COVID-19 related complaints about unsafe working conditions, ensuring safe and adequate housing for migrant farmworkers, maintaining a stable workers’ compensation program, and more. In the agenda, the North Carolina State AFL-CIO explained:
“Our priority is ensuring that working people receive adequate resources to survive the pandemic. Ultimately, however, we want working families to do more than just survive. Beyond the pandemic, we want working people to be able to thrive, to build better lives for themselves and their children, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and to live with dignity. It is time for policymakers to recognize the significant contributions and sacrifices made by working people. It is time to put workers first, just as they have done for all of us during this unprecedented crisis.”
This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon February 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.
As thousands of teachers in Arizona and Colorado mark their second day of walkouts Friday, there are also rumblings of possible strikes in other states, with educators throughout the country demanding more funding and higher pay.
Teachers in Arizona will brave 98-degree heat to march to the state Capitol for the second time this week. In Colorado, educators will also march to the state Capitol and they’re using their personal days to do so, leading roughly 30 school districts to close as a result. Only one school district in Colorado voted to officially go on strike, but they cannot take action until the state’s education agency decides by May 4 whether to try to broker a resolution with teachers.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced a proposal earlier this month to raise teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020, but teachers have said that amount is insufficient. Ducey said on Wednesday that he won’t offer the educators anything more, according to the Arizona Daily Star. “And it’s time to move on,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, Republican lawmakers introduced a measure that would forbid public school teachers and unions from going on strike and threatening them with fines, jail time, and termination if they violate the terms. The measure has little chance of becoming law, but its introduction alone highlights the hostile environment in which teachers find themselves.
Following teacher actions in West Virginia, Jersey City, Oklahoma, and Kentucky in recent weeks, Colorado and Arizona have become the latest battlegrounds for education funding. But they likely won’t be the last. Louisiana, North Carolina, and Nevada are all experiencing disputes over education funding. As ThinkProgress’ Casey Quinlan previously reported, in most of these states, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession of 2008.
Here’s a look at where walkouts and strikes could happen next:
Nearly 800 teachers in Durham have requested personal leave on May 16 to travel to the state legislature to call for higher school funding, pay raises, and reductions in class size, local NBC affiliate WRAL reported Thursday.
The Durham Association of Educators said they would request that the Durham Public Schools board cancel classes on that day.
A 2017 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) listed North Carolina as one of seven states which, since the Great Recession, not only cut general funding — which supports elementary and secondary schools — but also enacted income tax rate cuts costing the state $3.5 billion a year, making it “nearly impossible for North Carolina to restore these education cuts, let alone make new investments.”
Today, North Carolina ranks 40th in the country when it comes to education funding, 43rd when it comes to per-pupil funding, and 35th when it comes to teacher salaries, with average pay only recently breaking the $50,000 mark long promisedby state lawmakers.
According to the CBPP, per-pupil funding in Louisiana dropped more than 12 percent from 2008 to 2015. Like North Carolina and other states, tax cuts are largely to blame. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) cut income taxes and increased corporate tax breaks, leading state revenue to drop dramatically.
The state consistently ranks last in the country when it comes to quality of public education.
Talks of rallying in Nevada have started gaining traction, with at least one school district calling on lawmakers to find a solution to the school’s poor funding and low salaries.
While strikes are illegal in Nevada, teachers at the Clark County School District in Las Vegas were frustrated during a press conference Thursday, asking state officials to use extra funding from the state’s recreational marijuana tax to fund higher wages. Currently, that money goes to the state’s “rainy day” fund, and not to the schools.
“In states such as Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky, teachers associations are rallying and protesting to the governors and legislators at state capitols because that’s where the money for raises comes from,” said Linda E. Young, of the Board of School Trustees, according to a local NBC affiliate. “It’s time for us to rally together in Nevada to give our teachers and other employees the raises they deserve…”
Nevada is one of six states that drastically cut capital spending used to build, renovate, and equip schools with resources. Between 2008 and 2015, Nevada cut capital spending by a whopping 82 percent, according to the CBPP. The state’s student-to-teacher ratio also rose during that time, from 18:3 to 21:2. Per-pupil spending in Nevada ranks in the bottom 10 in the country.
This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.
Let’s be clear about North Carolina’s H.B. 2 and other “bathroom laws” popping up in states that would bar transgender people from using the restroom facility of their identified gender: We won’t stand for it.
This law even bars cities and municipalities from passing legislation on nondiscrimination, paid leave, fair scheduling and raising the minimum wage.
Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride At Work, said:
In states desperately in need of jobs and infrastructure, lawmakers are focused on legalizing discrimination and harassing people in restrooms. It’s just astounding. Pride at Work condemns these regressive laws as well as those in other states, including those that are still pending. We also call upon Congress to swiftly pass the Equality Act at the federal level in order to nullify the injustice of these attempts to circumvent progress for the LGBTQ community.
North Carolina State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan said:
It’s crazy that at a time when our elected officials should be doing all they can to create jobs and get more people employed that they’re actually wasting taxpayer money to create a law that’s going to make it easier to discriminate and fire people. And, in the process, they’re driving business out of our state because these corporations don’t want to do business in a state that supports discrimination.
To put it simply, H.B. 2 and similar legislation mean more discrimination, weaker benefits, less safe workplaces and lower wages.
This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on April 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Liz Shuler was elected AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer in September 2009, the youngest person ever to become an officer of the AFL-CIO. Shuler previously was the highest-ranking woman in the Electrical Workers (IBEW) union, serving as the top assistant to the IBEW president since 2004. In 1993, she joined IBEW Local 125 in Portland, Ore., where she worked as an organizer and state legislative and political director. In 1998, she was part of the IBEW’s international staff in Washington, D.C., as a legislative and political representative.
The North Carolina union organizer who was the inspiration for the movie “Norma Rae” died on Friday of brain cancer after a battle with her insurance company, which delayed her treatment. She was 68.
Crystal Lee Sutton, formerly Crystal Lee Jordan, was fired from her job folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in her hometown of Roanoke Rapids, N.C. for trying to organize a union in the early 1970s. Her last action at the plant — writing the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her co-workers to turn off their machines in solidarity — was memorialized in the 1979 film by actress Sally Field. The police physically removed Sutton from the plant for her action.
But her efforts ultimately succeeded, as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers won the right to represent the plant’s employees on Aug. 28, 1974. Sutton later became a paid organizer for the union, which through a series of mergers became part of UNITE HERE before splitting off this year to form Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.
Several years ago, Sutton was diagnosed with meningioma, a type of cancer of the nervous system. While such cancers are typically slow-growing, Sutton’s was not — and she went two months without potentially life-saving medication because her insurance wouldn’t cover it initially. Sutton told the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News last year that the insurer’s behavior was an example of abuse of the working poor:
“How in the world can it take so long to find out [whether they would cover the medicine or not] when it could be a matter of life or death,” she said. “It is almost like, in a way, committing murder.”
Though Sutton eventually received the medication, the cancer had already taken hold. She passed away on Friday, Sept. 11 in a Burlington, N.C. hospice.
“Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally,” Field said in a statement released Friday. “Portraying Crystal Lee in ‘Norma Rae,’ however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being.”
Field won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of the character based on Sutton. The film in turn was based on the 1975 book “Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance” by New York Times reporter Henry P. “Hank” Leiferman.
Sutton was only 17 when she began working at the J.P. Stevens plant in northeastern North Carolina, where conditions were poor and the pay was low. A Massachusetts-based company that for many years was listed on the Fortune 500, J.P. Stevens is now part of the WestPoint Home conglomerate.
In 1973, Sutton, by then a mother of three, was earning only $2.65 an hour. That same year, Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner from West Virginia, came to Roanoke Rapids to organize the plant and began working with Sutton, who was fired after she copied a flyer posted by management warning that blacks would run the union. It was that incident which led Sutton to stand up with her “UNION” sign.
“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world,” she said in a newspaper interview last year. “That my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality.”
About the Author: Sue Sturgis isEditorial Director and Co-Editor, Facing South. She joined the Institute in November 2005. A former staff writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.), she is co-author of the Institute reports “One Year after Katrina” (August 2006) and “The Mardi Gras Index” (February/March 2006). Sue holds a Masters in Journalism from New York University.
This article originally appeared in Facing South on September 14, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.
One of the ugliest fights for worker justice has taken place in Tar Heel, North Carolina, which is about 80 miles south of Raleigh. For 17 years, thousands of workers, who labor under some pretty brutal conditions in the largest pork processing plant, have sought a modicum of justice and dignity. And they just got it.
After a two-day vote, the workers approved the first-ever union contract at the Smithfield Foods plant. Here are the details via the United Food & Commercial Workers:
The new contract includes:
* Wage increases of $1.50/hour over the next four years. * Continued company-provided affordable family health care coverage. * Improved paid sick leave and vacation benefits. * Retirement security through protection of the existing pension plan. * Continued joint worker/management safety committee, including company funded safety training for workers. * Guaranteed weekly hours that protect full-time, family supporting jobs in the community * A system to resolve workplace issues. * Three working days of paid funeral leave following the death of immediate family members.
“This contract will completely transform our workplace,” said Orlando Williams. “This is the biggest four-year wage increase Smithfield workers have ever had and it will make a real difference for our families and in this community. We could never have gotten that increase without a chance to bargain with the company. We will finally have a sense of security on the job because through our union we can make sure we have a safe place to work, and that everyone’s treated fairly.”
The first thing to note is that the UFCW deserves a lot of credit. It stuck with this organizing campaign over 17 years through, among other things, a racketeering suit Smithfield filed against the union because of a very persistent corporate campaign waged by the union. In two previous union representation elections, the company brutally harassed the workers, and in particular, the union supporters, to the point that the National Labor Relations tossed out the results of the elections. Finally, last December, the union won overwhelmingly in an election that was more fair then anything in the past.
Which brings us to this point: when workers have a chance to vote for a union–free of intimidation and threats–they will do so. And certainly one step in that direction will come with the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
The point that I think is valuable to remember is this one:
Workers and union officials say that perhaps the most important change is that workers will be allowed to voice concerns and challenge management decisions through a formal grievance process. In the past, many workers have said they were treated disrespectfully by their supervisors and fired after speaking out or being injured.
“We really did accomplish something with this union,” said Mattie Fulcher, a 10-year employee who helps usher pigs to their deaths. “We might not have gotten the raise that we wanted, but that will come in time. This is our first contract, and it is a start.”
Too often, in the public sphere, and among the talking heads, the focus on union jobs is about wages and benefits. No doubt, that is important. But, what the workers at Smithfield gained was some POWER over how they will be treated.
Independence Day is about a lot of symbols–patriotism, flag-waving and I suppose mostly, now, a long weekend at the beach. But, it is also about gaining power and the triumph over tyranny. It is always ironic and sad to me that, too often, we assert that triumph by showcasing the very instruments of power that we now use to the detriment of other people around the world.
But, I forget that when I sit back and think, for a moment, what these workers went through–the struggle, the fight, the commitment that held them together over so many dark days–this is the America that inspires me. They have triumphed over tyranny, they have gained back the power they deserve to shape their lives. That’s what Independence Day means to me.
Jonathan Tasini: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.
This article originally appeared on Working Life on July 3, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
Members of Congress met in town hall sessions Thursday with constituents who were on Capitol Hill to rally and demand health care reform. Read dispatches from some of the meetings.
Ohio Weighs In
After the rally, more than 250 activists from Ohio met at the Columbus Club at Union Station to plan for an afternoon of lobbying and hear from members of Congress about health care reform.
The session was introduced by Tim Burga of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who decried the “free market run amok” in the current health care system and affirmed that we must have a serious public health insurance option.
He introduced Hattie Wilkins, who made one of the most moving speeches of the event.
Her situation illustrates the deep problems working families have with the way the current system operates. Hattie is a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) union who worked for 35 years for Brentwood Originals, a pillow factory in Youngstown, Ohio. The USW struck Brentwood Originals in 2008, and more than three-quarters of the workforce has been laid off. She was fired because of her strong support for the union, Hattie said. She has been collecting $887 a month in unemployment since then. She has COBRA coverage, and now pays $275 per month—31 percent of earnings from unemployment—for her health insurance. She pays another $450 per month for her mortgage payment, leaving her only $162 each month for food, utilities, transportation and all her other expenses. Now her unemployment payments are ending and she doesn’t know what she is going to do.
At 58 years of age, Hattie is searching for another job at places like McDonald’s but has to compete with applicants much younger than she is. She gave us her cell phone number, though she wasn’t sure how much longer she would have it. Hattie came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the rally and make sure her elected representatives heard her voice on this critical issue.
The Latest on Pennsylvania Town Hall
Sen. Specter has arrived, and compliments the crowd on its tenacity and commitment. Specter says he agrees that health care is a right and believes health care legislation will pass and will include a public option component. Of course, in a room full of union members, the Employee Free Choice Act came up. Specter says he is working hard to find an answer for early union certification and gaining first contracts.
The folks at Capitol City Brewing Co. are waiting for Sen. Arlen Specter to arrive. We hear reports he’s been at the White House.
From the North Carolina Meeting
Sen. Kay Hagan just arrived. She says the fight for health care reform is the “most important thing going on in our country.” Everyone in America must have health care coverage, she says, and patients with pre-existing conditions should be able to get health insurance.
About a public health insurance option plan, Hagan says some critics are getting caught up in nuance about language used in the debate. “I don’t care what you call it as long as it provides affordability accessibility and covers pre-existing conditions,” she says. We’d heard earlier reports that her staff told union leaders Hagan believes if health care reform passes, it will include a public option. The senator herself did not specifically say she supports the public option.
I think the key is if you have health insurance, you keep it. We don’t want to dismantle what exists.
More Pennsylvania Town Hall
Rep. Sestak arrived and talked about his daughter’s brain tumor and his health care plan to help keep her alive. Everybody deserves health care for themselves and their families, as well, he said. Sestak says his support for health care reform is “payback” to the country that provided health care for him and his family when he was in the Navy.
Everybody must be covered under health care reform, according to Sestak, and a public health insurance plan must be an option.
Nothing is more important to me than ensuring that President Obama passes health care reform.
Pennsylvania Town Hall
Hundreds of union members from Pennsylvania have packed a hall just a block from the U.S. Capitol to hear from their elected officials on the status of real health care reform. As they wait for Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) to appear, the chanting is in full force:
Congress, This is our demand. The option of a public plan.
What do we want? HEALTH CARE!
When do we want it? NOW!
Congress, This is our demand, the option of a public plan!
We are waiting for Specter and Sestak so we can spring that on them.
Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) did not attend. A staff member is delivering her talking points.
Health care reform that guarantees quality, affordable health care reform must be passed.
We must ensure that patients’ choices are protected.
Maryland Town Hall
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Rep. John Sarbanes and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speak to hundreds of Maryland workers and all support public option.
Rep.Blumenauer at Town Hall on Small Business
At a town hall focused on small business issues this morning at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) advocated a public insurance option plan, guaranteed coverage and a “pay or play” system that would require businesses to provide health care coverage for their employees or pay into a fund. These reforms would level the playing field and reduce cost burdens on small businesses, he said.
This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now. Re-printed with permission by the author.
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