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Stop Freaking Out: The Union-Backed Minimum Wage Exemption Isn’t About Paying Union Workers Less

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Mario VasquezOn June 13, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the city’s landmark $15 minimum wage into law. Although the city’s workers won’t be seeing that full figure until 2020, the new law will bring billions of dollars into the pockets of at least 36% of the workforce, and should be seen as the culmination of grassroots action supported by a coalition of labor groups such as Raise the Wage and Fight for $15.

But in the aftermath of its initial approval a few weeks ago, right-wing pundits, with help from mainstream news outlets, succeeded in pitting minimum-wage activists up against labor leaders, drumming up charges that the unions were acting to actually undermine the minimum-wage-increase movement. Rusty Hicks, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, had to save face after he led a failed last-minute push to include a clause into the city’s minimum wage ordinance that would allow employees the option of having their collective bargaining agreement supercede the local minimum wage policy.

Opponents have argued that the provision potentially allows for unions to negotiate contracts that include wages below the minimum, and that unions would use the wage carve-out to offer a kind of carrot to employers in exchange for allowing the union to gain new members—assumedly leaving new union members earning, in total, less than the minimum wage.

Mostly due to the inability of Hicks or anyone else in the city’s labor movement to offer a strong and convincing rebuttal to these charges, this talking point has largely taken hold. With labor at the front of Fight for $15 battles in Los Angeles and across the country (Hicks himself has been a leader in Los Angeles’s Raise the Wage coalition), pundits on Fox News have spread the idea that “big labor” could be trying to get around the minimum wage that “they tried to impose on others.”

“They want to make unions basically the cheapest labor and have more money for themselves—that’s what this is all about,” libertarian journalist Michelle Fields told host Eric Bolling on the conservative network on May 30.

It’s an easy talking point to run with, and admittedly the optics of it are pretty bad. But those trashing the union’s attempt to insert the provision have failed to realize the nuances of the situation. Glancing at the data of union workers’ compensation in cities that already have such wage exemption provisions on the books, as well as applying a bit of logic in thinking about why a worker would vote to join or choose to stay in a union, show that such provisions haven’t and won’t result in unionized workers earning below the minimum wage, and in fact can serve to protect minimum wage increases from legal challenges from business interests.

Why do workers organize?

To explain why this is the case, let’s examine some of the arguments against the provision. The U.S Chamber of Commerce, often labor’s foe, outlined a modern history of minimum wage policy and the union carve-out in a study they published last year. The study suggested that what the Chamber calls the “union escape clause” is nothing more than a ruse to gain “new members, new dues revenue, increased political clout, and, most likely, increased payments into its pension fund.”

The Chamber’s study points to hotel worker union UNITE HERE’s explosive growth in San Francisco (where minimum wage ordinances have typically included “union escape” provisions) as an example of a “real-world correlation” between the provision and labor’s supposed self-interest:

UNITE-HERE Local 11, which represents hotel workers in Los Angeles, California, saw its membership and revenues jump after the city included a union escape clause in a minimum wage hike on hotels. Local 11’s membership increased from 13,626 in 2007 to 20,896 in 2013, while its revenue increased from approximately $7.5 million per year to nearly $12.7 million. … When San Francisco, California, passed a citywide minimum wage ordinance with a union exemption in late 2003, membership in UNITE-HERE Local 2 rose from 8,000 in 2004 to more than 14,000 in 2013. Notably, these increases occurred as union density nationally declined from 12.9% of the workforce in 2003 to 11.3% in 2013.

Reading the Chamber’s study, you would think that the principal reason UNITE HERE membership in LA and San Francisco grew during this time was the wage carve-out. But that’s absurd, and doesn’t reflect the way workers join unions or how union membership grows in general.

In case the Chamber has forgotten, workers are the ones who choose to join unions, either through a secret-ballot vote or through a “card check” process. And if they don’t like their union, they can vote to decertify it. If workers joined a union and paid dues to it every month but continued earning a wage below the minimum after they joined, why wouldn’t they vote to leave the union? They would have no financial incentive to stay, and assumedly UNITE HERE’s membership would be tanking rather than growing as workers realized they were getting a raw deal and voted to leave the union.

But of course, rather than seeing their compensation tank, hotel workers are seeing their wages and benefits increase as union members. UNITE HERE says that its members in San Francisco—remember, a city with the minimum wage carve-out for union workers—earn, on average, an hourly wage of $20.94. The deal also gets sweeter for those members when quality-of-life benefits like secure hours and compensation packages are included.

In Los Angeles, where the union’s members are also allowed to have their collective bargaining agreement supercede local wage ordinances, union workers earn slightly less, $16.47 plus benefits. Still, union workers’ wages alone are higher than the $15.37 wage floor enacted for hotel workers last year; when you include the benefits those workers typically receive through their collective bargaining agreements that most minimum wage earners do not have a right to, the total compensation becomes even higher.

Beyond hotel workers, the numbers make it clear that union workers earn on average considerably more than the minimum wage, even in cities that have these carve-out provisions. A 2014 study by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA reports that, when adjusted for cost of living, hourly earnings for union workers in Los Angeles stand at $20.35, whereas their nonunion counterparts earn $16.13. Clearly, few union members in the city earn less than minimum wage.

Hicks remarked at a recent press conference, “Unfortunately, too many in today’s society do not have the benefit of being a part of a collective bargaining opportunity or experience, so it can be confusing.” The confusion might have been cleared up, however, with a few concrete facts showing how collective bargaining helps put money in workers’ pockets—far more money than any minimum wage.

Safety in Supersession  

Hicks had a lot of material to work with to beat back the anti-union rhetoric that he didn’t use. But his press conference did mention what is apparently the foundation for collective bargaining supersession clauses that have been included in other minimum wage laws of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Chicago, among others: The provision is actually intended to provide a safeguard for union workers against potential legal challenges to minimum wage laws.

Herb Wesson, Los Angeles’ City Council President, has admitted as much, with his spokesperson telling KPCC, a local NPR affiliate, that Wesson “continues to have questions about the policy as it relates to exposing the city to legal liability.” The concern, KPCC reported, is that “federal labor laws could be interpreted as preventing cities from interfering with contracts between employers and unions.”

James Elmendorf, deputy director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive policy group affiliated with the city’s labor movement, told the Los Angeles Business Journal last year upon the passing of the hotel wage ordinance that “in a previous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recommended that local and state laws and regulations of private businesses contain such exemptions.”

The provision actually ensures that collective bargaining will trump any local statutes. If any wage increase ordinance is challenged in court (as they frequently are by industry groups), local collective bargaining agreements that were formed while new “imposed” wage floors were in place would be protected from legal challenges through the supersession clause.

When combined with the fact that employees will earn higher wages and benefits when unionized, it easy to see why this provision makes business interests and their allies jump at the chance to turn the tide in a war of sound bites.

While the $15 minimum wage ordinance became official on June 13 without the “collective bargaining supersession clause,” the ordinance may be expanded by the time it takes effect next July. The expansion could include the supersession clause, as well as two other provisions that the union fought for during the legislative process: 12 days of paid sick leave and banning restaurants from keeping bogus “service charges” rather than considering them workers’ tips.

The boost in the minimum wage will undoubtedly help improve the quality of life and economic situation for masses of non-union workers in the city. But rather than undermining those gains, Hicks’s provision would have helped protect against potentially damaging legal challenges to the real benefits and increased wages that come with unionization.

For now, one can only hope that LA’s labor leaders will speak out for the provision and get organized labor past an embarrassing and largely untrue spate of headlines to convince low-wage workers that unions are not the villains Fox News and the Chamber of Commerce are attempting to portray them as.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at [email protected]


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Striking Workers Shame Prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital Over Low Pay

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Bruce VailSome 2,000 union workers went out on strike Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in a protest aimed primarily at exposing low wages at Baltimore’s second biggest employer and one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals.
Members of 1199SEIU United Health Workers East hit the picket lines at 6:00 a.m. April 9 for a three-day strike provoked by a stalemate in negotiations for a new contract to cover the union workers. The previous contract expired March 31, and renewal talks earlier this week stalled on the key issue of raising wages, according to 1199SEIU spokesperson Jim McNeill.
Hospital executives had received a ten-day warning of the strike, says 1199SEIU Vice President Vanessa Johnson, so there was ample time to ensure that patient care would not be adversely affected. Union members are primarily in maintenance and food service, with some technical workers such as surgical techs. Operations at the enormous Hopkins medical complex are reported to be near-normalwith non-union nurses, administrators and temporaries filling in for the unionized strikers. Hopkins spokesperson Kim Hoppe would not respond to repeated inquiries for additional information from Working In These Times.
Labor trouble at Hopkins has been brewing for some time. A year ago, the union signed an unusual one-year contract with the hospital as a stop gap as negotiators wrestled with difficult wage and healthcare issues.
More broadly, the 1199SEIU-Hopkins conflict reflects Baltimore’s yawning racial divide, with the predominantly African-American union members receiving few of the benefits, as Hopkins’ well-paid physicians and administrators prosper. That economic divide was thrown into sharp relief Wednesday with low-paid 1199SEIU picketers demonstrating at the entrance to the hospital’s huge new medical building, which cost the hospital some $1.1 billion to construct.
“Hopkins says they don’t have the money [to lift union wages] but they own most of the community,” charged union member Michelle Horton at an April 9 solidarity meeting of strikers and local supporters. Horton’s comment touched on another raw spot in Hopkins’ relationship with Baltimore’s African-American community: The hospital and related institutions are currently engaged in a long-term effort to re-develop and gentrify the low-income residential neighborhoods that surround the hospital, prompting charges of racial discrimination and unfair dislocation.
Those issues notwithstanding, the focus of the solidarity meeting at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church on Wednesday night was squarely on the issue of higher wages. 1199SEIU Vice President Johnson said that nearly 1,400 of the 2,000 union members currently earn less than $14.92 an hour, the level at which a single parent with one child will qualify for food stamps.
“Johns Hopkins and [hospital President] Ron Peterson should be ashamed of themselves,” because some Hopkins workers require public assistance like food stamps or Medicaid, emphasizes veteran hospital worker Yvonne Brown. According to a 2010 report in the Baltimore Sun, Peterson earns about $1.9 million a year.
The union initially asked a minimum wage of $15 an hour, consistent with the demands of other SEIU campaigns such as Chicago’s Fight for 15 initiative, Johnson says. Currently, negotiators are discussing a five-year contract, and the union is pushing to get a minimum of $14 for all workers by the final year, and a minimum of $15 at that point for  workers with 15 years or more of experience . The expired contract had the lowest-paid workers starting at $10.71 an hour, with the best-paid earning as much as $27.88.
Hopkins can easily afford the $15 minimum, Johnson says. The union estimates the raise would cost Hopkins less than $3 million in annual payroll expenses, while the non-profit hospital reported a $145 million surplus last year.
Dr. Benjamin Oldfield, a resident physician at Hopkins who led a group of non-union Hopkins doctors, medical students and nursing students to the Wednesday solidarity meeting, agrees with Johnson. “[As medical professionals], we know that financial insecurity leads to bad health outcomes,” he told the group at the St. Wenceslaus hall.. “For a place like Hopkins, which has plenty of money, I’m surprised that they haven’t gotten this one right yet.”
Hopkins, however, is adamant in negotiations that the $15 minimum wage is not affordable, according to Johnson, who says the offers put on the table thus far have been paltry. The most recent would see the minimum rise to only $12.25 in the fifth year of the contract, an offer that prompted the strike action this week, according to Johnson.
That’s just not good enough, adds Wiley Rhymer, a member of the union’s negotiating team. “We’re trying to get our members out of poverty, not keep them in it,” he tells Working In These Times.
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 20, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’sDaily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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No Fancy Commercials, but Super Bowl is Brought to You by Union Members

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Image: Mike HallSunday is the first outdoor, cold weather site Super Bowl in the game’s 48-year history. The frigid weather in the weeks leading up to the game and expected temps in the 20s and 30s won’t stop the thousands of union members who are bringing you the game. On the scene at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands or behind the scenes at many facilities in the Metro New York-New Jersey area, union members are making the nation’s national party day possible.

So, as a preview before you sit back, open a beverage and eat far too many snacks that are far from healthy, we introduce Sunday’s starting union lineup.

Of course, on the field, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos players are members of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and the men in the striped shirts are members of the NFL Referees Association.

The announcers, camera operators, technicians, field workers and other hardworking folks bringing the game to your flat-screened football cave or favorite Broncos or Seahawks bar include members of SAG-AFTRA, Broadcast Employees and Technicians-CWA (NABET-CWA), Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Laborers (LIUNA).

The annual over-the-top halftime show is a down-to-the-second, choreographed, on-the-field, off-the-field 12-minute extravaganza made possible by the skills of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) and other performing artists. Anyone who takes in a show in the city likely will enjoy the talents of Actors’ Equity (AEA).

For the fans who head for the concessions, their hot dogs will be served and their beer will be drawn by men and women from UNITE HERE Local 100.

Away from the stadium, union members are making an impact, too. Folks taking the area’s huge mass transit system are being safely delivered to their destinations by members of the Transport Workers (TWU), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and United Transportation Union (UTU).

A large number of the area’s hotels are staffed by members of unions of the New York Hotel Trades Council. Many of the firefighters, emergency medical personnel and other public service workers who are ensuring a safe and efficient Super Bowl week are members of the Fire Fighters (IAFF) and AFSCME.

The first class work of members of the Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 90 in Springfield, Ill., is on display on Broadway as part of Super Bowl Weekend. The IUPAT members at Ace Sign Co. crafted the 9-foot-tall, 38-feet wide aluminum and acrylic XLVIII (48) that spans one end of the legendary avenue, renamed Super Bowl Boulevard for the festivities. Click here to read more.

Of course, the fans who flew in for the big game got there safely, thanks to aviation workers from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Air Line Pilots (ALPA), Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Transport Workers (TWU) and Machinists (IAM).

Also, a big thanks to AFT and NFLPA for raising awareness about human trafficking during large sports events such as the Super Bowl.

Finally, check out how one Seahawk fan and Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 191 member has transformed himself into to the large, green and angry SeaHulk—far more frightening than the Seattle secondary.  Our friend David Groves at the Washington State Labor Council’s The Stand has the story of how the local, area contractors and others came together and raised the funds to make sure the SeaHulk (aka Tim Froemke) and his crew of body painters made it to the Super Bowl. Groves also points out that the Seahawks players are affiliates of the WSCL.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 2, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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Honeywell Workers Get Rare Good News for Christmas

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Mike ElkFor the past several Christmases, workers at Honeywell’s uranium plant in Metropolis, Ill., have had little to celebrate. Most of the workers at the plant have spent the best part of four years in a series of labor struggles with the company: first a tense 13-month lockout ending in 2011, then post-lockout disputes in which the union alleged that the company failed to abide by the new contract, and then, in July of 2012, a yearlong shuttering of the plant that led to temporary layoffs of almost the entire union workforce.

This holiday season, however, the workers are finally getting something to cheer about—all of their jobs back, two days before Christmas.

Earlier this month, Honeywell’s new plant manager Jim Pritchett recalled the final 11 of the nearly 200 laid-off union workers—including the union local president, Stephen Lech. The last of the workers restarted their jobs on Monday, December 23. The union, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-699, is hoping that the recalls may be a sign of improved relations with Honeywell.

That relationship grew even more strained this summer, after Honeywell reopened the renovated plant in May. While the company began bringing back laid-off union workers in an order determined by lists negotiated with the union, it stopped with 21 workers still left on the list. Local 7-699 alleges that this was an attempt to avoid rehiring Lech, who was next in line.

Out of solidarity with the laid-off workers, some union workers refused to work overtime, saying the plant was understaffed and that Honeywell was using overtime to avoid filling the needed positions. In turn, Pritchett (then the plant’s operating manager), sent a memo in July canceling summer vacations for all workers because not enough overtime shifts were being filled.

On October 25, Local 7-699 filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, saying that Honeywell had “unlawfully, disparately, and discriminatorily failed and refused to reinstate from layoff, union president, Stephen Lech, because he engaged in protected, and concerted, and union activities.”

The NLRB was getting ready to hear the case when Honeywell settled. If the board had ruled in favor of the local and found that the refusal to reinstate was in retaliation for union action, Honeywell would have been legally liable for the back pay for the 21 workers who were not recalled during that six-month period. Lech estimates that the payment could have totaled more than a half a million dollars.

Some union activists say that the threat of legal action over the layoffs propelled Honeywell to finally readmit the last 21 workers to the plant. Honeywell did not return Working In These Times’ request for comment.

While Honeywell’s motives are unclear, what is clear is that this Christmas Eve, a lot of Honeywell workers in Metropolis, Ill., have reason to smile. The news of a victory gives union workers a much-needed morale boost as they head into what are expected to be contentious negotiations over their contract, which is set to expire this June.

“I’m excited about it,” says Lech of the rehirings. “We’ve fought hard against Honeywell for the last four years, and this is a huge victory for us.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on December 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.


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