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Here’s What’s in the New Bill Jointly Backed by Uber and the Teamsters in Washington State

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Uber’s lobbyists, after clinching an agreement with UFCW Canada to launch a charm offensive at the Ontario provincial government for employee-like benefits on behalf of an estimated 100,00 drivers, weren’t done hobnobbing with unions.

Next up, the Teamsters in Washington state are working on a deal with Uber and Lyft.

The legislation would give ride-hail workers new benefits—sick pay, a process to appeal deactivations, protections against retaliation, and workers’ compensation—in exchange for codifying their status as independent contractors rather than employees, and preempting cities from regulating the rideshare companies as Seattle has done.

Washington lawmakers passed the bill, HB 2076, backed by Teamsters Local 117,
with 55 yeas to 42 nays on February 23. The Senate will hold a public hearing February 26.

“HB 2076 exemplifies Washington State’s spirit of leadership and innovation,” Teamsters Local 117 Vice President Brenda Wiest wrote to House representatives February 22 in an email obtained by Labor Notes. “This bill is supported by both Uber and Lyft, as well as the Teamsters, their affiliated Drivers Union, and dozens of labor and community-based organizations across the state. Moreover, it is backed by the people who matter most—the drivers themselves.”

The Teamsters international declined to comment on the legislation.

FLASHPOINT OF DEBATE

It’s a flashpoint of debate in the labor movement: should unions keep fighting for employee status for gig workers, or cut a deal to head off worse odds down the road? After all, unions and drivers are squaring off against Uber and Lyft, who with their bottomless pits of cash forced their way in California in a 2020 ballot initiative, Prop 22.

The companies have made explicit the threat that, if they don’t get this legislative compromise, they will pursue a ballot initiative in Washington. Lyft has put $2 million into a newly formed political action committee Washington Coalition for Independent Work with clones in New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts. It also has the backing of Instacart, DoorDash, and Uber, which have committed to contribute to the PAC.

What’s curious about this bill is that it has the backing of Teamsters Local 117 and its affiliate Drivers Union, which previously supported efforts to boost gig worker protections. Drivers Union members said the rationale for throwing their support behind a legislative deal with Uber and Lyft is the ballot initiative threat.

“They’re also holding the gun at our heads with the possibility of an initiative,” said Don Creery, 68, a ridehail driver since 2013 and a board member of the Drivers Union. “They spent $200 million on California. It comes down to the reality that we don’t have the money to buy TV ads. They do. They will misinform the public with a barrage of TV ads, so we will lose an initiative. We could lose everything.”

Jake Laundry, 29, has been an Uber driver since 2015; he is a member of both the Drivers Union and IATSE Local 15, where he is an audiovisual worker. He considers himself a Teamster and didn’t want to say anything that would jeopardize the union. But he’s heard that pitch about the initiative threat too many times. Laundry views this bill as making “a deal with the devil.”

“It’s great you have a wage floor and then will improve wage conditions in outlying areas [outside] of Seattle,” he said. “But this contractor relationship also locks in a sort of technocratic feudalism.”

Creery has no qualms with contractor status. “I’m not really concerned about us not being designated as employees,” he said. “In our union, we abandoned that seven years ago, eight years ago. We can be independent contractors and get rights. These are laws that can be changed by us, and we did.”

The Drivers Union’s biggest victories, though, were won at the city of Seattle—and this bill would put an end to that by reserving the regulation of rideshare companies to the state.

“Now you’re just kind of at the whim of the state legislature, which swings really moderate,” Laundry said. “Here in Washington, we have crazy secessionists that want a holy war. We’re not gonna get any labor victories out of them.”

PAY RAISES

What Creery feels “conflicted” about is the pay raises in the bill. “If you’re a Tacoma driver, it’s really outstanding pay rates,” he said. Currently, “once you leave Seattle city limits, our pay drops by 40 percent.” Drivers in Tacoma, who now get 80 cents a mile, would increase to $1.17.

Waiting time and travel miles without a passenger in the car would be uncompensated, though, and the base fare would be between $3 and $5.17 per trip. “To pay one of us $3 is class warfare,” said Creery.

The bill establishes two tiers of pay. For trips originating in cities with more than 600,000 people (Seattle), the rate would be $1.38 per mile driven with a passenger in the car and 59 cents per minute. Those figures are based on Seattle’s Fair Pay Law, which took effect January 1, 2022. Elsewhere, the rate would be $1.17 per passenger mile and 34 cents a minute.

Yearly pay increases based on the cost of living would begin September 30, 2022.

Mohamed Diallo, 33, has been driving for Lyft and Uber since 2017. He’s in favor of the legislation because his rent in Kent has skyrocketed. He also wants to extend the benefits like sick pay and the right to contest deactivations through an appeals process beyond Seattle to Kent and other parts of Washington state.

He said other drivers from his native Guinea are also in favor of the bill, describing it as “wonderful news.”

“Last year, my two-bedroom used to be $1,500,” Diallo said. “Today I talked to my leasing office because my lease is going to be over and I have to sign a new one. It’s $2,030.” He also feels the financial strain at the gas pump; he’s averaging $180-$200 to fill the tank of his Toyota Highlander SUV. He says the new legislation will increase his average earnings from about 90 cents per mile in Kent to $1.17, and spare him the commute into Seattle where the rates are higher.

Diallo works six days a week, 12-hour shifts, with only Tuesdays off. He has two young children, a boy of six months and a two-year-old girl. “The most important thing about the bill is I will get more money to put food on the table,” he said.

Uber touts “flexibility” as a perk it offers to drivers. But “I don’t think flexibility is as important for the guys with the Teamsters,” said Laundry, who connected me with Diallo. “They’re driving 70, 80 hours a week. They’re just scrambling to support their families. They’re working their tails off, so they don’t really have a flexible life.”

THE BEST WE CAN GET?

Why would any union agree to be involved in these compromise bills? The argument goes that we’re not going to win on employee status, plus there are innumerable hurdles to organizing gig workers at scale… so creating a third category, an independent contractor with at least some labor rights, is the best deal the labor movement can get.

Nicole Moore from Rideshare Drivers United in California finds a contradiction in that position. “There’s more demand for unions, a better minimum wage, and labor rights,” she said. “Compromise is absolutely the wrong direction. This is not to say we can’t get legislation on the road to employee status—but not at the cost of our labor rights.”

The app-based companies and their labor collaborators tout the notion of creating “portable benefits” that follow you from gig to gig. But “labor rights are portable benefits,” Moore said. “I have my rights to unemployment. If I get hurt on the job, I have portable benefits to workers’ compensation. Anything other than that is taking some people completely out of the picture.”

For Moore, the defeatist attitude that employee status isn’t winnable harks back to the National Labor Relations Act’s exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers. Like those workforces, the gig workforce is largely people of color and immigrants.

A personal vehicle makes for a very isolated and lonely workplace, which is why most gig workers’ organizing kicks off online. “We know each other in the parking lot of the airports,” Moore said. “We know each other online, because we find Facebook pages and Reddit in order to share information and understand. We are ready to organize.”

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

In the breezy language of Wiest’s email to state representatives, the benefits of the deal appear excellent. But not all that shines is gold. It can be a spear.

One of the sharpest daggers in the bill is preemption—giving the state government the exclusive power to regulate rideshare companies, so that Seattle could no longer enact wage increases or new rules about drivers’ working conditions.

“The Teamsters-affiliated Drivers Union has already won the nation’s leading labor standards for Uber and Lyft drivers at the local level in Seattle,” said Kerry Harwin, communications director for the Drivers Union, in a statement to Labor Notes. “Seattle’s first-in-the-nation protections have demonstrated a meaningful impact for Uber and Lyft drivers, who enjoy the highest minimum wage in the country, the nation’s first paid-sick days for gig workers during the pandemic, and the country’s only legal protections against unfair deactivations.”

Seattle’s City Council passed the Gig Worker Paid Sick and Safe Time ordinance, backed by Teamsters Local 117, in June 2020. Since then the city’s Office of Labor Standards has reached a $3.4 million settlement for violation of the policy with Uber and a $1 million settlement with the online food delivery company PostMates. It also reached a $350,000 settlement with DoorDash and PostMates in violation of a pandemic-related hazard pay law for food delivery workers; each company had to pay restitution to about 3,000 workers.

In September 2020, Seattle hiked the minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers to $16.39 per hour (it’s now $17.27) and required the ridehail companies to pay drivers at least 56 cents per minute drivers are traveling to pick up a passenger or carrying one; it also covers driver expenses.

For Uber and Lyft, this combination of a progressive city council and workers organizing was too much. Their business model depends on misclassification, and on state government footing the bill for benefits that employers are traditionally on the hook to provide. So they went to the legislature.

NO BENEFITS DURING ROVING TIME

In the email to state representatives, Wiest said the bill would provide rideshare drivers with workers’ compensation under the “same robust state-run program that protects employees in Washington State.”

But in fact, workers’ comp would only be in effect when a driver is on the way to pick up a passenger or actually has a passenger in the car; the legislation describes these activities as “dispatch platform time” and “passenger platform time” respectively.

This leaves workers vulnerable if they get injured between fares, while they are roving and awaiting a new trip request. A 2020 UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment study estimated this cruising without a passenger is 35 percent of their work time. This method is also used to calculate the premiums that Lyft and Uber will pay into state coffers for workers’ comp.

Weist championed the paid sick protections, which she said would be “at the same accrual rates for all workers.”

But paid sick leave would not accrue at the same rates for independent contractors as it does for employees. Again, it would exclude the time drivers are waiting for passengers, and in this case also the time they drive to fetch them after being pinged for a trip. Drivers would only earn paid sick time when a passenger is in the car, which the same study estimated to be roughly 53 percent of their work time. As a result, drivers will have to work twice as long as other workers to qualify for the same amount of time off.

“We are frontline workers—providing trips to nurses and other essential workers during the pandemic,” said Ahmed Farah, a Drivers Union member who has driven for Uber and Lyft since 2016, in an emailed statement. “As a father of three, paid sick days is a very important protection when my kids get sick.”

Drivers would be eligible for unpaid sick leave after working for 90 days for a ridehail app.

Paid family leave was included in an earlier draft of the bill, but was scrapped from the final legislation. Weist’s email doesn’t mention the change, but Drivers Union staff continue promoting the idea that it is in the current bill.

Unemployment insurance will be studied by a “work group of stakeholders” drawn from labor and the gig industry with the deadline of producing a report by December 1, 2022.

‘DRIVER RESOURCE CENTER’

Protection from retaliation and an appeals process to negotiate driver deactivations are critically important for drivers. How would the legislation address this? It would provide a direct line of funding for the Drivers Union, which presumably meets the criteria in the legislation to serve as a “driver resource center.” (It may be the only group to qualify, since the bill says such a group must be able to demonstrate that it has past experience representing rideshare drivers and “providing culturally competent driver representation services.”)

A driver resource center’s services will be paid through a 15-cent per-trip surcharge on riders, with dues membership modeled after the Independent Drivers’ Guild (IDG) in New York City, a Machinists-affiliated company union of Lyft and Uber drivers that receives an undisclosed amount of funding from both companies.

And what would it do? The legislation makes scant mention of what services drivers would receive from the resource center. Asked about that, Harwin, the spokesperson for the Drivers Union, didn’t elaborate much: “It will provide support services to drivers, including representation” when faced with a deactivation.

??The state treasury would oversee the fund. The state director of the Department of Labor would choose the driver resource center through what the bill describes as a “competitive process.” Workers won’t have a say in choosing the non-profit organization, nor in how the money is spent.

The legislation also says the “driver resource center may not be funded, excessively influenced, or controlled by a transportation network company.”

Joe DeManuelle-Hall wrote last year when a similar draft legislation was floated in New York that at a 10-cent surcharge, a similar resource center would have netted $75,000 per day—a staggering $27.5 million per year, based on a calculation of 750,000 rides daily in New York City shortly before the pandemic.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The idea of bringing an IDG-like deal to the West Coast can be traced back to disgraced ex-Teamsters leader Rome Aloise.

Aloise, once a vice president of the international union, was eventually found guilty of taking gifts from employers, negotiating a sham contract, and using union resources to rig a local union election—and then of running Local 853 and Northern California’s Joint Council 7 while he was suspended from the union for these offenses. He has been “permanently barred from the Teamsters” and “permanently enjoined from participating in union affairs” effective January 31, 2022.

But back in 2018, Aloise was still in power and trying to cut a deal with Lyft and Uber. Among the many exhibits and court documents compiled when he was brought up on internal union charges were various emails from that fall discussing plans (never realized) to create employer-linked driver guilds in Seattle and San Francisco.

Aloise proposed that Seattle’s Teamsters Local 117 and the Workers Benefit Fund, which has ties to Uber and Lyft, should jointly “support the creation of legislation and a guild infrastructure for Seattle Drivers.” In a document shared with WBF CEO Benjamin Geyerhahn, Aloise wrote: “WBF will provide with [sic] polling, legislative support, legal support, its expertise and its relationships with Uber and Lyft. This support includes financial support for these items carrying through until legislation is passed. In exchange, it receives the Teamsters full support and exclusive right to provide benefits to the Seattle drivers…”

In a revealing email to a few other California Teamsters leaders on November 21, 2018, Aloise wrote: “Maybe it is worth talking about setting up a Driver’s Guild in SF, and then of course expanding it at a later date… In NY, a lot of money is pouring into the Guild and back to the Machinists who were behind the establishment of the Guild.”

One year later, he wrote on February 1, 2019: “[Local] 117 heavily involved and substantial negotiations this coming week with both companies. The issue, of course, is how to stop any legislation which would give our core industries any loop hole [sic] to move into this TNC [Transportation Network Company] type model, while allowing Lyft and Uber to operate with some type of meaningful representation for the drivers.”

In 2018, he exchanged emails with former Service Employees president Andy Stern about the need to protect “core industries” for the Teamsters– package delivery and freight transportation– in order to enter into an agreement with Uber. “For any of this to get any traction in California, it will need to have some language about staying out of certain functions, which are core industries to the Teamsters, i.e.; such as package delivery, freight transportation, etc. If there is to be a carve out of their ‘industry,’ this will be essential, and perhaps a model for the other companies to deal with the ramifications of the Dynamix decision.” (At the time, the state’s Supreme Court in its Dynamix decision ruled against misclassification, creating a framework for standards to determine employee status.)

Last-mile transportation and delivery has gigified rapidly since 2018. Think: Uber Freight and Uber Eats. In September of 2020, United Parcel acquired Roadie, a crowd-sourced, same-day delivery company. FedEx bought Shoprunner. Amazon, Walmart, and Target have adopted and expanded their speedy gig-delivery business models to everything from yoga pants and furniture to pet food.

“Online competitors are shipping it from a distribution center going across multiple zones where we’re taking it in the back of a DoorDasher’s car for the same cost as if it was a tennis ball, delivering it the same day, and delivering it at lower cost,” said Petco CEO Ron Coughlin in a March 2021 interview.

What’s to protect UPS Teamsters from their work shifting to Roadie?

Update: this article has been updated to clarify that paid family and medical leave aren’t included in the current bill. But Weist and Drivers Union staff continue to promote the perks of the bill with those as included benefits. It has also been updated to reflect what the passage of the bill would mean for Teamsters in freight and transportation. —Editors

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on February 25, 2022

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


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Hundreds of Fruit Packing Workers Are On Strike

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Since this article was written, apple packinghouse workers at two more companies have joined the strike: at Hansen Fruit and Columbia Reach. Six worksites in Yakima County have now seen production shut down. The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast. The strikes are women-led, multigenerational, and multiracial, according to Edgar Franks of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a local farmworkers’ union. —Editors

Last week the COVID-related strike in Washington state’s Yakima Valley quadrupled in size, as workers walked out at three more apple packinghouses. More than a hundred stopped work on May 7 at Allan Brothers Fruit, a large apple growing, packing and shipping company in Naches, in Central Washington. On May 12 they were joined by 200 more workers, who walked off the job at the Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima, and at the Matson Fruit Co. in Selah. The next day another 100 workers walked out at the Monson Fruit packing shed, also in Selah.

At the center of the stoppages are two main demands for those who decide to continue working during the pandemic: safer working conditions and an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay.

Apple sheds line the industrial streets of Yakima Valley’s small towns. Inside these huge concrete buildings, hundreds of people labor shoulder-to-shoulder, sorting and packing fruit. If someone gets sick, it can potentially spread through the workers on the lines, and from them into the surrounding towns. Although packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, their families comprise the stable heart of these areas. Most have lived here for years. Jobs in the sheds are a step up from the fields, with year-round work at 40 hours per week.

This part of agribusiness is by far Central Washington’s largest employer, and the industry has successfully fought off unions for many years. The virus may change that, however, if the strike wave becomes the spark for creating a permanent organization among these workers. It is undoubtedly what the companies fear when they see workers stop the lines, and even more so, when they see farmworker union organizers helping to sustain the walkouts.

Seeking Healthy Workplaces

“The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus,” said Agustin Lopez, one of the strike leaders at Allan Brothers. “Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19. So far as we know, the company isn’t paying them. We need protections at work, like adequate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infected if there are no tests?” (Allan Brothers Fruit did not respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story.)

He charges that Allan Brothers didn’t disinfect the plant and stop production when the workers got sick. One worker, Jennifer Garton, told the Yakima Herald, “They are not doing what they’re saying they’re doing,” and that workers only heard about the cases of COVID-19 in the plant through their own conversations.

According to Lopez, at the end of April the workers sent an email to company managers, asking for better conditions, extra pay, and the right to take off work. “People were taking their vacations or sick leave or anything they could to stay home. The company said that if we had worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn’t pay us. We’re only making minimum wage, so how could we do that? And we have no guarantee we would even have our jobs back if we don’t come in to work now.”

In response to the demands, he says the company offered to buy the workers lunch. Over a hundred workers rejected that and struck the company.

The shed of another Yakima packer, Roche Fruit Company, did stop work in April to disinfect the plant, after two workers had become infected. Roche employees then also demanded hazard pay in a message to managers. When the company offered an additional $200 per month, the laborers stopped work after lunch on May 11. After an hour of bargaining, the company offered them $100 per week instead, and they went back to work. Operations manager Alfonso Pineda said the company had already planned to give workers “gratitude pay” for working in difficult circumstances.

“At the heart of the dissatisfaction of all these workers is the fact they are essential workers, but their pay does not reflect that,” says Edgar Franks, the political director of the new union for Washington farm workers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He explains that workers from both Roche and Allan Brothers got in touch with them when they were getting ready to strike. “The walkouts then started after management refused to raise their wages. At Roche, when union organizers and leadership arrived, management quickly relented. This is the power of the presence of the union.”

Driven By Fear

But fear is driving the strikes, even more than wages. After walking out of the packing plant, workers at Jack Frost stood in a big circle six feet apart while Claudia, a striker, explained that they were fighting for the health of their whole community. “We want everyone to have a health examination, including our children and other people possibly affected,” she declared. “We want it for our whole family, because we know the virus doesn’t just stay in the plant. It’s outside too.”

At the rally in front of the Allan Brothers packinghouse, another woman said the same thing: that the biggest question was whether they could work without getting sick. “We have people who have been affected in this shed,” she told Yakima city councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez. “We want the company to guarantee that there are no more people who have the virus here at work, so that we can protect ourselves and our families.”

The working conditions themselves are responsible for much of the danger, and Franks says the companies have not been responsive. “Ever since the governor’s order [mandating physical distancing and safe conditions], a lot of the safety measures haven’t reached the workers inside. The workers are elbow-to-elbow on the line, packing the fruit going through there. Workers got sick, and they’re concerned that no one is looking after them or the wellbeing of their family and friends still inside.”

Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yakima Valley and worked in its sheds since 1985. His experience has made him cautious, therefore, about predicting whether workers will decide if a permanent union is the answer to their problems. But when he looks at the waves of people leaving the apple sheds, each company encouraging the next one, he thinks change is not just possible, but happening around him. “This connection between us is something new,” he says, “and there are people out here from lots of the plants. Maybe we are actually a federation.” The answer will be determined by the strike, he believes. “If the companies are willing to negotiate, we’ll listen to what they have to say. And if not, then we will continue with our strike.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a former union organizer, photographer, and writer, covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.


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Minimum wage workers just got a raise in two states, D.C., and 15 cities or counties

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Minimum wage workers in two states, Washington, DC, and 15 cities and counties got a raise on Sunday. These state and local governments had passed laws to increase the minimum wage on a schedule, with July 1 and January 1 being the most common dates for raises.

  • Oregon doesn’t have a single statewide minimum wage, but it went up! The minimum is now $10.75 as a standard, $10.50 in “nonurban” counties, and $12 in the Portland metro area.
  • Maryland’s minimum wage went up to $10.10. In Maryland, Montgomery County boosted its minimum wage from $11.50 to $12.25
  • Washington, D.C., rose from $12.50 to $13.25.
  • Eleven California cities saw minimum wage increases, with Emeryville the high point at $15.69 an hour for larger businesses. Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Malibu, Milpitas, Pasadena, and Santa Monica all went from $12 to $13.25. San Francisco rose from $14 to $15.
  • Workers in Portland, Maine, are seeing a modest bump from $10.68 to $10.90.
  • In Illinois, Chicago went from $11 to $12 and Cook County went from $10 to $11.

The federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 an hour, with Republicans continuing to refuse to consider an increase. Perhaps most depressingly—and showing most clearly where Republican priorities are—Birmingham, Alabama, and Johnson County, Iowa, were both supposed to have minimum wage increases on July 1, but didn’t. Their state legislatures stepped in to pre-empt local governments from improving life for workers.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 4, 2018. Reprinted with permission.


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What You Need to Know About Washington, D.C.’s Initiative 77 and the Minimum Wage

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On Tuesday, Washington, D.C., voters will have an opportunity to vote on Initiative 77, a ballot measure supported by a wide array of progressive and labor organizations that would eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers and give many working families a much-needed raise.

Initiative 77 would increase the tipped minimum wage to match the full wage: If it passes, the initiative would phase out the tipped minimum wage, leaving a flat $15 per hour minimum wage for D.C. workers. This would be phased in between now and 2025, giving restaurant and bar owners more than enough time to adjust to the change.

Tipped workers aren’t limited to restaurants and bars: Many other workers get tips, too, including manicurists/pedicurists, hairdressers, shampooers, valets, taxi and rideshare drivers, massage therapists, baggage porters and others. Very few of them get anywhere near the 20% standard you see in high-end restaurants and bars.

The current law is changing, but it will still leave tipped workers behind: The current minimum wage in D.C. is $12.50 an hour, with a minimum wage of $3.33 for tipped workers. If tipped workers don’t earn enough from tips to get to $12.50, employers are supposed to pay the difference. After existing minimum wage increases are fully implemented, the full minimum wage for D.C. will be $15 an hour, while the tipped minimum will increase to $5. The cost of living in D.C. is higher than every state in the United States except Hawaii.

D.C. has a particular problem with the minimum wage: As one of the places in the United States with the highest costs of living, low-wage workers are hit harder by discriminatory laws. D.C. has the largest gap in the country between its tipped minimum wage and its prevailing minimum wage. Tipped workers in D.C. are twice as likely to live in poverty as the city’s overall workforce. Tipped workers in D.C. are forced to use public assistance at a higher rate than the overall population, with 14% using food stamps and 23% using Medicaid.

Wherever tipped wage jobs exist, they are typically low-wage, low-quality jobs: Nationally, the median wage is $16.48 and tipped workers median wage is $10.22. Nationally, 46% of tipped workers receive public assistance, whereas non-tipped workers use public assistance at a rate of 35.5%. Workers at tipped jobs are less likely to have access to paid sick leave, paid holiday leave, paid vacations, health insurance and retirement benefits. Seven of the 10 lowest-paying job categories are in food services, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tipped workers are more likely to end up in poverty: In states where the tipped minimum wage is at the federal standard of $2.13, the lowest in the country, the poverty rate for all workers is 14.5%, which breaks down to 18% for waitstaff and bartenders and 7% for non-tipped employees. What day of the week it is, bad weather, a sluggish economy, the changing of the seasons and any number of other factors completely outside of a server’s control can influence tips and make a night, a week or a season less likely to generate needed income.

The predictions of doom and gloom about raising the minimum wage or the tipped minimum wage never come true: Eight states already have eliminated the tipped wage and the restaurants in those states have higher sales per capita, higher job growth, higher job growth for tipped workers and higher rates of tipping. In fact, states without a lower tipped minimum wage have actually seen sectors where tipping is common grow stronger than in states where there is a subminimum wage. This is consistent with the data from overseas where countries have eliminated tipping and subminimum tipped wages. In states without a subminimum tipped wage, tipped workers, across the board, earn 14% higher. Increased minimum wages lead to employers seeing a reduction in turnover and increases in productivity. And, while there are certainly some exceptions, tippers in states without subminimum wage don’t tip less.

Tipped workers are more likely to be women, making lives worse for them and their families: Of the 4.3 million tipped workers in the United States, 60% of them are waiters and bartenders. Of that 2.5 million, 69% of them are women. Furthermore, 24% are parents, and 16% of them are single mothers. Half of the population of tipped bartenders and waitstaff are members of families that earn less than $40,000. Increasing the tipped minimum wage lets parents work fewer nights and have more time at home with their families. It also helps provide for a more steady, predictable income. Since 66% of tipped workers are women, a lower tipped minimum wage essentially creates legalized gender inequity in the industry. These lowest-paid occupations are majority female. More than one in four female restaurant servers or bartenders in D.C. live in poverty, twice the rate of men in the same jobs.

Harassment and objectification are encouraged by the tipped system: The stories about harassment in the restaurant industry are legion. Servers are forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers in order to not see an instant decrease in income. This forces them to subject themselves to objectification and harassment. Workers in states with a subminimum tipped wage are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace. In D.C., more than  90% of restaurant workers report some form of sexual harassment on the job. Women’s tips increase if they have blond hair, a larger breast size and a smaller body size, leading to discrimination against women that don’t have those qualities. Nearly 37% of sexual harassment charges filed by women to the EEOC come from the restaurant industry. This rate is five times higher than the overall female workforce. LGBTQ serversalso face a higher rate of harassment in order to obtain tips. Sexual harassment of transgender employees and men is also high in tipped environments. Some 60% of transgender workers reported scary or unwanted sexual behavior. More than 45% of male workers reported that sexual harassment was part of their work life, as well.

The subminimum tipped wage harms people of color: Research shows that tipping has racist impacts, too. Nonwhite restaurant workers take home 56% less than their white colleagues. Research shows that if the minimum wage had held the value it had in 1968, poverty rates for black and Hispanic Americans would be 20% lower. While many restaurants and bars claim to be race-neutral in hiring, the evidence shows that race often has an impact on who gets hired for jobs that directly interact with customers. And fine-dining environments, the ones where servers and bartenders make the most in tips, are much more likely to hire white servers and bartenders, particularly white males. Also, customers, generally speaking, tip black servers less than white servers. For instance, black servers get 15-25% smaller tips, on average in D.C.

The people behind the opposition to 77 are not worker- or democracy-friendly: Public disclosures show that the Save Our Tips campaign that opposes Initiative 77 is heavily funded by the National Restaurant Assocation. This particular NRA represents the interests of, and is funded by, big corporations, such as McDonald’s, Yum! (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut & KFC), Burger King, Darden Restaurants (which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and others) and more. The group spends as much as $98 million to oppose minimum wage increases, safety and labor requirements and benefit increases and requirements. Meanwhile, the CEO of the NRA, Dawn Sweeney, took home $3.8 million in total compensation.

The Save Our Tips campaign is managed in part by Lincoln Strategy Group. In 2016, the group did $600,000 worth of work for the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Lincoln Strategy is managed by Nathan Sproul, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the Arizona Christian Coalition. Sproul has a history of being accused of fraudulent election-related activities, including destroying Democratic voter registration forms and creating a fake grassroots effort to undermine the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Another corporate-sponsored group, the Employment Policy Institute, has come out strongly against the initiative and created a website to attack it and ROC. The Institute is the creation of Rick Berman, a wealthy corporate lobbyist who runs campaigns against public interest groups like the Humane Society and labor unions.

Up until 1996, the tipped subminimum wage had been tied into being 50% of the prevailing minimum wage. That year, legislation decoupled the two and the subminimum wage for tipped jobs has stayed at $2.13 nationally, while some states have raised it. The NRA, headed up then by former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who would go on to run for president, led the charge to separate the two minimum wages.

The separate tipped minimum wage is a burden on employers and invites misuse: The system of tracking tips and wages so that employers can make up the difference is a complex one that is burdensome for employers. The system requires extensive tracking and accounting of tip flows. Not only this, employers are allowed to average tips over the course of a workweek and only have to pay the difference if the average is less than the minimum wage. Tips can also be pooled among various types of restaurant employees. Tip stealing and wage theft are hard to prove and workers are often reluctant to report them out of fear that they will be given fewer shifts or fired.

Employers frequently fail to pay the balance to their employees: While the law requires to make up the balance when tipped wages don’t reach the full minimum wage, employers often fail to do so. The Department of Labor investigated more than 9,000 restaurants and found that 84% had violated this law and had to pay out nearly $5.5 million in back pay because of tipping violations. How many didn’t get caught?

Restaurants are using union-avoidance tactics to sway employees against the initiative: Numerous reports from workers at D.C. restaurants have made it clear that not only are employers singing on to public letters and posting signs against Initiative 77, they are trying to sway their employees, too. Tactics that have been reported are straight from the union-advoidance industry. Many employers are forcing employees to listen to their opinion on the measure. Others have instructed them to evangelize to customers. Some are sending instructions to their employees on how to volunteer at the polls against the Initiative. Others have shared explicitly political videos with employees. Some managers have gone as far as to speak negatively about community organizations advocating for Initiative 77.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on June 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.


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D.C. servers and bartenders say the tipped wage system isn’t working for them

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A ballot measure in Washington, D.C. that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers has been at the center of a heated debate in the restaurant industry.

Tipped workers in the city currently receive a base wage of just $3.33 an hour. On June 19, D.C. voters will vote on whether to change that. Initiative 77 would raise those workers’ minimum wage gradually, so that it matches the city’s minimum wage by 2026.

Bartenders and servers who spoke to ThinkProgress said they support the ballot measure because they want to have a more consistent income and feel less susceptible to putting up with harassment. But there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

The heated debate over Initiative 77

Over the last few months, “Save Our Tips” signs have been spotted inside restaurants and in windows throughout the city due to the opposition from many employers in the restaurant industry.

Last year, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) created a committee called “Save Our Tip System Initiative 77” to campaign against and spend money on legal challenges against the initiative. The committee is managed in part by the Lincoln Strategy Group, which was responsible for canvassing work for Trump’s presidential campaign, according to The Intercept. The campaign has also received donations from many restaurant groups, including the National Restaurant Association, which successfully lobbied against increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers in the 1990s. The group gave the campaign $25,000 of the $58,550 it has raised so far, The Intercept reported.

“Servers are compensated very well,” Kathy Hollinger, the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, told WAMU last year. “They make far more than minimum wage because of the total compensation structure that works for a server.”

Most of the servers and bartenders ThinkProgress spoke to said employers oppose Initiative 77 and made their views known. Some employers have even gone so far as to advocate against the ballot measure in discussions with servers and to ask them to tell customers about the measure.

On the other side of the debate are the D.C. branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) — which is in charge of the national One Fair Wage Campaign to get rid of the tipped wage system — and many workers who the ballot initiative actually affects.

Although under law, tipped workers are supposed to receive the minimum wage, they say enforcement is another issue entirely. (Workers spoke to ThinkProgress on the condition that we do not publish their real names, out of fear of retaliation from their employers.)

Jamie, who works at a midsize restaurant in Petworth said, “Theoretically, we already have that level playing field, because restaurants are obligated to make up the difference if wage and tips doesn’t come out to minimum wage for workers, but most restaurants are non-compliant and don’t explain this policy to workers.”

Melissa, who works as a server at a restaurant on U Street, said it’s about making things more consistent and enforceable.

“I just think everyone should have that security of knowing they are going to have that paycheck that is going to equal at least a certain amount and it’s a lot more easy to enforce,” she said. “We’ll have tips on top of that and the service as we know it isn’t going to change.”

Michelle, who works as a bartender, said there are Save Our Tips signs on the walls and windows of the restaurant she works at. The restaurant group that owns the restaurant she works for, sends a weekly newsletter to employees, which provides links to instructions on how to volunteer at polls and anti-Initiative 77 videos.

She has heard from servers that they are encouraged to talk to customers about it and “make sure they know the server are against it and that it affects their livelihood and that they should vote against it.”  

Jamie said their employer posted signs that read “NO on 77” and encouraged workers to vote against it. “My managers have also made a point to speak negatively of community organizations that advocate for [Initiative] 77,” they said.

Melissa said she doesn’t have a problem with restaurant owners making their views known as long as they aren’t “lecturing workers on company time” about the ballot measure or spreading misinformation.

“This Save Our Tips campaign has so much fear mongering and misinformation. People believe so many inaccurate ideas because their bosses have said, ‘This is what’s going on,’” she said. “I just think they should have the correct information. I don’t think that’s happening right now.”

Melissa said she thinks workers are being misled when they’re told by employers that people will go eat in Virginia or Maryland instead or that restaurants will close, when in reality, the ballot measure allows the change to take effect gradually. She said some people have told her that they believe ROC is a union and that they will have to pay union dues.

“It’s just a shame they’re being given so many reasons to be afraid,” she said.

NAJ said a lot of people who support the ballot measure are afraid to say anything at their workplace for fear of retaliation.

“Some of those employees are doing so by choice, either because they’re against it or don’t understand it,” they said. “A lot of them can’t come out in support of it because they could lose their livelihoods. They could lose their jobs.”

Many places have already gotten rid of the subminimum wage for tipped workers, including California, Minnesota, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, and Nevada, and a number of cities. According to the Economic Policy Institute, poverty rates for servers and bartenders are much lower in states that don’t allow a subminimum wage.

Michelle moved to D.C. from California, where they got rid of the subminimum wage, and said she shares her experience working in California with other tipped workers.

“The differences have been pretty striking to me in terms of take-home money, the consistency of a paycheck or the consistency of what I make in a week to two weeks, and also the overtime that is expected of you in a non-tipped wage state,” she said. “I’ve really noticed the difference.”

Michelle said she has asked coworkers who wear No on 77 buttons to tell her more about their opposition to the ballot initiative.

“They’re like, ‘I don’t want to lose my tips’ and I’m like, ‘Oh is that what you believe is going to happen?’ and they say yes. I ask where they’re getting their information from. The only source they have is management and coworkers,” she said. “But they seem to be responsive when I tell them how it was for me when I worked in California and I had a regular paycheck. It wasn’t paying much but at least I could depend on the paycheck every couple weeks that I knew was coming and it was a consistent income as opposed to one week making a difference of $200 to $300 dollars a week depending on tips.”

Workers in support of Initiative 77 say the most privileged voices are the loudest

Servers and bartenders ThinkProgress spoke to said that although some tipped workers who oppose Initiative 77 seem uninformed, others appeared to oppose it because they benefit the most from the current system.

“Most of the white male bartenders I work with are very strongly anti-77,” Michelle said. “Mostly men and white guys are becoming voice of No on Initiative 77 and they are the loudest voice speaking for tipped workers. They aren’t my voice. And the people of color I know in the industry, they are not their voice either.”

NAJ said they don’t see enough people from marginalized groups represented in the debate in the media over Initiative 77.

“The idea that the experience of highest-tier people making the most money should be the representative experience is insulting to people who work in these positions who, for whatever reason, could not move into field of choice because of marginalized identities or whatever it is,” they said. “They are having their livelihoods affected by policies and by business models that literally privilege already privileged people.”

Melissa said people’s opinions seem to be divided along class lines, with people who make more money in the industry opposing the initiative, whereas people who suffer more from wage theft, make lower tips, and work several jobs tend to support it.

“They’re the ones being hurt by the current system,” she said.

Sexual harassment, queerphobia, and racism also needs to be part of the discussion on Initiative 77, servers and bartenders say.

ThinkProgress spoke to queer tipped workers, tipped workers of color, and tipped workers who have experienced sexual harassment. Although servers acknowledge that Initiative 77 won’t eliminate discrimination and sexual harassment from customers, they won’t be as worried about customer biases and behaviors affecting their ability to pay rent or buy groceries — or their ability to push back against harassment.

“I have been kissed by customers against my will. I have been groped. I have had my ass grabbed while I was pouring wine for a table,” Melissa said. “I have had so much inappropriate behavior that I was expected to put up with both by customers and by management because hey, it was a slow night and I needed the money so I guess I’m going to let you grope me if you’re going to tip me.”

Melissa said that even with tables she feels more comfortable talking to, she worries about outing herself as queer because she doesn’t know how her customers will feel.

“I have friends who present queer, much more than I do, who have faced discrimination from customers. I don’t want that to happen to me,” she said.

“White men consistently get tipped better than people of other races and genders — I don’t just mean statistically, but I mean that my own experiences have shown this to be the case,” Jamie said.

Michelle said, “As a bartender you’re likely to let a lot more stuff slide that you would otherwise call people out on when you know you’re not as dependent on tips.”

NAJ, who identifies as a Black femme, said, “I most certainly won’t be tipped by a homophobe or someone who is racist. Disabled workers experience this and transgender servers and bartenders experience this.”

“One of the arguments against 77 is that it will affect highest tipped workers in the business,” they added. “Many of them are from privileged groups, usually white men, usually straight appearing, and conventionally attractive and so they’re able to exploit a system that oppresses a certain class in order to make what they consider to be a fair wage. But a black trans woman working at IHOP can’t make anywhere near that.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.


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Voters raise the minimum wage in four states and pass paid sick leave in two

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LauraClawsonIt’s become a regular feature of elections in recent years: Even as the federal minimum wage stays stuck at $7.25 an hour, with congressional Republicans refusing to raise it, voters resoundingly choose to raise state and local minimum wages. Four states voted for minimum wage increases on Tuesday: Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington. Paid sick leave also continued to gain momentum.

In Arizona, $12 by 2020 was passed by nearly 60 percent of voters. The first raise, from $8.05 to $10, will come in January. Tipped workers in one Arizona city are also getting some good news. Flagstaff voted to raise the tipped minimum wage to $15 by 2026. The federal tipped minimum wage has been $2.13 an hour since 1991. In Colorado and Maine, the minimum wage will be going to $12 by 2020 as well, with Maine including tipped workers—they’ll get to the full $12 by 2024, up from a current level of $3.75.

And then there’s Washington state, which before the minimum wage-raising movement of the past few years had the highest minimum wage of any state in the country but has gotten left behind even as two of its cities—Seattle and SeaTac—passed $15 minimum wages. On Tuesday, Washington voters said yes to $13.50 by 2020. Their minimum wage was slated to go from $9.47 to $9.53 on January 1, but instead it’ll go to $11.

That’s not all. The same measures that raised the minimum wage in Washington and Arizona also included paid sick leave. They will become the fifth and sixth states—after Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, and Oregon—to require paid sick leave.

This is all good news for millions of workers. And workers will need any good news they can get under President Trump.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on November 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.


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Minimum Wage Increases On the Ballot In Four States

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Terrance HeathThere’s a lot more going on in this election than the presidential race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Borne out of the dedication and hard work of activists, ballot initiatives give citizens the opportunity to vote directly on legislation and constitutional amendments at the state and local level, sometimes even bypassing the legislature.

This year, People’s Action affiliates in four states have seen their hard work pay off by successfully getting initiatives to increase the minimum wage on the ballot.

 

Arizona

In Arizona, voters will decide whether to pass The Fair Wages and Healthy Families Initiative. The ballot initiative, if passed, will raise Arizona’s minimum wage to $10 per hour in 2017, and gradually raise it to $12 by 2020. It also provides “earned paid sick time,” which workers can use if they or a family member gets sick, and prohibits retaliation against employees who use the benefit. The measure does, however, retain the state’s law on tipping, which allows employers to pay workers who receive tips up to $3.00 less than minimum wage.

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According to Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families:

– A minimum wage worker in Arizona only earns $17,000 per year.
– More than half of minimum wage workers in Arizona are women.
– More than 27 percent of Arizona’s low-wage earners are parents.
– 45 percent of Arizonans don’t have access to earned sick days.

Those numbers tell the stories of people like Riann Norton, a single mother two, who often has to miss work in order to care for her chronically ill young daughter, or Iraq War veteran Luis Cardenas, who came home only to join the ranks of veterans struggling to meet their basic needs with low wages.

The measure is supported by a number of coalition partners, including Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), which is part of the Fight for $15 movement, and organized community members to petition fast-food chains like McDonald’s and grocery stores like El Super to pay their workers living wages.

Colorado

Colorado’s State Minimum Wage Amendment will raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.30 per hour effective January 1, 2017, and increase it by $0.90 every January, until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020. After 2020, the wage will be adjusted for increases in the cost of living. The law allows employers to pay employees who also make tips up to $3.02 less than minimum wage.

The Colorado People’s Alliance, which worked to get the initiative on the ballot, says that nearly half a million Coloradans will see their wages increase if the measure passes — including 263,000 women, or 22 percent of female workers in the state. One in five Coloradans would get a raise, and 86 percent of them will be adult workers over 20 years old. Currently in Colorado, full-time minimum-wage workers earn about $300 per week, or $17,000 a year.

According to a recent University of Denver study, increasing Colorado’s minimum wage would pump up to $400 million into the state’s economy and raise the standard of living for one in five households.

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About 400,000 Colorado households, half of those families with children, will see higher incomes if the amendment passes.

Colorado’s minimum wage amendment currently holds a 13-point lead in the first publicly released poll on the proposal. Of likely 2016 general-election voters, 55 percent support the amendment, while 42 percent oppose it, and 3 percent remain undecided. That’s good news for workers like Marilyn Sorenson, a home health care worker who finds after more than 20 years, her paycheck hasn’t kept up with her basic expenses; and business owners like Vine Street pub owner Kevin Daily, who says that increasing the wage will boost productivity by lowering workers’ financial stress, and increase the number of people “with more money in their pockets so they can afford a beer and a meal.”

Maine

The Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, Question 4 on Maine’s state ballot this year, will increase the general minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. The initiative also increases the wage for tipped workers from half of minimum wage to $5 an hour in 2017, then increases it by $1 every year, until it is equal to the general minimum wage by 2024.

Republican Governor Paul LePage joined business groups in an attempt to push a smaller wage increase through the state legislature. Republicans on the legislative budget committee took the budget hostage, saying they would only negotiate new spending if Democrats supported a smaller wage increase. However, none of the competing proposals passed the House, so there is no competing measure on the ballot.

According to a study by the nonprofit poverty relief group Oxfam, Maine has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the Northeast. “So 32 percent of Maine workers are currently paid less than $12 an hour,” says Mike Tipping of the Maine People’s Alliance. Neighboring states Vermont and New Hampshire came in at 26 and 24 percent, respectively.

Washington

Washington state’s Initiative Measure No. 1433 will increase the state’s minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020. The initiative will also require employers to provide paid sick leave and follow related laws. Washington’s Democratic governor Jay Inslee volunteered to help Raise Up Washington collect signatures for the initiative, and spoke out in favor of it:

“No one who works 40 or more hours a week should struggle to make ends meet,” Inslee said. “And no parent should have to choose between staying home to take care of a sick child or losing a paycheck. Initiative 1433 will lift up workers and families across this state and boost our local economies.”

Washington’s initiative will help women in two important ways. Women are the primary breadwinners in almost half of all households with children. But women make up 60 percent of minimum wage workers in Washington state. Women are also 10 times more likely to stay home with a sick child than their male partners.

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If the initiative passes, women will earn more, and will no longer have to choose between their jobs and their families.

Other Initiatives

Increasing minimum wage isn’t the only progressive issue on the ballot this year:

– In Maine, Question 2 will create an additional 3 percent tax surcharge on incomes exceeding $200,000 per year. The revenue from the increase will be earmarked to help fund K–12 public education.

– In Howard County, Maryland, voters will decide if they want a citizen-funded campaign system, to boost the power of small, individual donations, and encourage more candidates to run without the burden of raising major funds. The initiative, Question A, is supported by Fair Elections Howard, Progressive Maryland, and other progressive organizations.

State and local progressive activists are leading the way and not waiting for Congress to act on important issues that impact America’s working families. As a result, this year’s election could yield a number of progressive victories.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on September 15, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Terrance Heath is the Online Producer at Campaign for America’s Future. He has consulted on blogging and social media consultant for a number of organizations and agencies. He is a prominent activist on LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues.

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30,000 Teachers Walk Out in Protest of Big Class Sizes in Washington State

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Mario VasquezOn Tuesday, May 19, thousands of demonstrators marched through downtown Seattle to support a rolling strike by public school teachers across Washington state. The teachers are protesting what they say are unacceptably high class sizes and low pay, stemming from their state legislature’s failure to fully fund public education.

Six thousand teachers and supporters from Seattle Public Schools and the nearby districts of Mercer Island and Issaquah shut down intersections for blocks in the largest coordinated action since the rolling walkout began on April 22. In total, at least 30,000 teachers in 65 striking school districts have participated in one-day strikes.

Washington Educators Association (WEA), the statewide teachers union (a National Education Association affiliate), has pointed out that the state has the sixth-highest student-teacher ratio of any state, at 19.4, according to NEA data from 2013. The union calculates that an additional 11,960 teachers would be needed to reduce the student-teacher ratio to the national average of 15.9. Class sizes are typically about nine or 10 students larger than the student-teacher ratio. Teachers say that big class sizes in Washington state result in poor working and learning conditions.

The strike is unusual in that the teachers are not pressuring their respective school districts, but rather targeting the state legislature for its unwillingness to fund education enough to decrease class sizes and increase teacher compensation. Popular signs at rallies across the state have read “Educators care for our kids every day – It’s time the legislature cared” and “On strike against legislature – stop blaming teachers – start funding schools.”

On the class size and funding issue, union members say they have both the courts and the voters on their side. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCleary vs. Washington that the legislature had failed in its constitutional duty to “amply provide for the education of all children within its borders” and ordered it to implement adequate funding increases by 2018. Last September, the Washington Supreme Court found the legislature in contempt of court for failing “to provide the court a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education,” warning lawmakers that the legislature would be “sanctioned” if it did not develop a plan by the end of the legislative cycle.

Compounding this legal pressure is the binding initiative 1351 approved by voters in November 2014, which calls for a 20 percent reduction in class size and the hiring of 15,000 teachers over the next four years, according to advocates of the initiative.

While both legislatures have put forward proposals to fund class size decreases up to the third grade, none have proposed fully funding initiative 1351. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for two consecutive special sessions to address the funding issue and other budgetary matters before a July 1 deadline. If they don’t resolve the budget, legislators risk a government shutdown.

Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High, says that teachers’ “backs are to the wall,” necessitating collective action.

“The old strategy of supporting politicians and hoping that they will enact pro-education policies has not worked for so long that it has actually caused a state of crisis for our union as a whole,” he says. “It’s reached a level of absurdity. I think [lack of support from the legislature] made [WEA] leadership more willing to back some of our smaller locals that began this one-day strike wave in the state.”

The strikes have been primarily organized by teachers union locals, rather than by the statewide union. On the eve of the first strikes in late April, a WEA spokesperson told Washington’s News Tribune that it was up to locals to “decide how big the protest gets this year.” What began with eight districts has now swelled to 65.

The legislature’s unwillingness to go fully fund I-1351 and adhere to McCleary has galvanized teacher in a way that Susan DuFresne, a kindergarten teacher at Maplewood Heights Elementary, describes as “truly grassroots.”

“I place this strike wave at the tipping point in the struggle between progressive education reform and corporate education reform,” DuFresne says. “This struggle has a long way to go to educate and activate students, parents, teachers and community members—but this strike wave is finally bringing attention to this struggle in arenas we call the ‘non-choir.’ ”

Hagopian, who is part of the social justice-based reform caucus Social Equality Educators and last year came 45 votes shy of being elected Seattle teachers’ union president, says the political situation in Washington is “Robin Hood in reverse.”

“Lowering class sizes costs money, and to raise that money you would have to actually tax the rich,” he told In These Times. “We’re one of seven states in the nation that don’t have an income tax and one of only nine states in the country that don’t have a capital gains tax.”

Indeed, Washington has the nation’s most regressive tax structure, according to a study published in January by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The study found that the state’s top 1% contributes 2.4 percent of family income in state and local taxes while the poorest 20 percent contribute 16.8 percent, making Washington the “highest-tax state in the country for poor people.”

Meanwhile, the state’s largest corporations have received eye-popping tax breaks in recent years: In 2014, Boeing was awarded the single largest tax break a state has ever given a company: an $8.7 billion cut. Microsoft reportedly avoided $528 million in state taxes between 1997 and 2008 due to lax legislative oversight concerning the company reporting its revenue through its licensing office in Nevada, despite basing its software production in Washington.

At the same time, lawmakers have suspended voter-approved cost-of-living increases for educators every year since 2008. Washington’s teacher pay now ranks 42nd in the nation. Teachers also say that legislatures are undermining their job security by introducing legislation that would tie state standardized tests to teacher evaluations. This has helped push hundreds of educators and students across Seattle high schools to boycott the tests, placing the city at the vanguard of a larger emerging wave of test boycotts across the country.

WEA members say that if legislators don’t resolve funding issues by the end of the second special legislative session, rolling strike waves will begin again when school begins in September. Hagopian expects even wider support from teachers at that time.

“I can’t imagine that after feeling the collective power that we found in the streets on Tuesday when we walked out,  that teachers would just go quietly back into the classroom and submit to the humiliation of being in one of the richest regions the world has ever known and seeing kids come to school without basic supplies and ballooning class sizes,” he says.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 1, 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 mario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com .


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At MLK March, Renewed Call For Obama Executive Order on Wages

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Bruce VailWASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, labor and civil rights activists are calling on President Barack Obama to honor King with an executive order that would raise wages for as many as two million workers.

One of the most poignant calls came Wednesday from Alvin Turner, a veteran of the famous 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike. Recalling a recent face-to-face meeting with Obama, Turner said “he told me personally he was working hard for the little man. If he don’t sign, he’ll disappoint me badly.”

Turner and others are pressing for an executive order that would establish a “living wage” for workers whose employment is tied to federal government contracts, grants, loans, or property leases. Earlier this year, the labor-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign produced evidence that many fast food workers at government-owned buildings in Washington, D.C., are earning below poverty-level wages, and that the same problems extend to other workers whose jobs are tied to federal government action. A study earlier this year from the pro-labor group Demos estimated an executive order could raise the income of about two million low-wage workers nationwide.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are making the order a centerpiece of their pro-worker “Raise Up America” campaign launched in late June. The Change to Win federation—backed most notably by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters—is a partner in the Progressive Caucus campaign.

Such an order would not require a vote in Congress or any cooperation from the anti-labor Republicans, noted Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Ellison. The president has sole discretion on whether to issue such orders, and pressure is rising on Obama to do so from prgressive Democrats, labor unions, faith-based groups, and others, Casca said.

If Obama fails to sign the executive order, “the federal government is complicit in the perpetuation of poverty,” charged Bill Lucy, a retired executive of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, who joined Turner Wednesday for a public panel discussion of the issue. A similar executive order was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, he added, so “it’s not like it’s anything new.”

Radio talk-show host Joe Madison said marchers at the Aug. 24 events to honor the 50thanniversary of King’s speech will hear repeated calls from the speaking platform for an executive order. “We will do a disservice to those (original 1963) speakers—to Dr. King, to A. Philip Randolph—if we do not demand” presidential action on an executive order,” Madison said. Without a demand for action “it’s just a ceremony, and we don’t need any more ceremonies,” he said.

“King was at the intersection of the civil rights and labor movements,” commented Moshe Marvit, a lawyer, author and labor activists. King would have understood that “we need bold action from the president in the form of an executive order” to begin raising wages across broad sectors of the economy, Marvit said.

Change to Win spokesperson Paco Pabian told Working In These Times that there has been no unequivocal response from the White House yet on calls for the living wage executive order. There have been reports that Ellison asked Obama directly for such an order at a June 6 meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had made a similar request, he said. In both cases, lawmakers were told that the matter would be reviewed by White House staff and that a definitive answer would be forthcoming sometime soon, Fabian said.

The push for the executive order gained an important backer on August 12, Fabian noted, when the New York Times published an editorial endorsing the idea.

“Many laws and executive actions from the 1930s to the 1960s, require fair pay for employees of federal contractors. Buth over time, those protections have been eroded by special-interest exemptions, complex contracting processes and lax enforcement. A new executive order could ensure that the awarding of contracts based on the quality of jobs created, challenging the notion that best contract is the one with the lowest labor costs,” the New York Times editors wrote.

Full disclosure: AFSCME is a web sponsor of In These Times.

This article originally appeared on In These Times on August 24, 2013.  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’s Daily 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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Will Washington, D.C., be a national example for fighting Walmart?

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Laura ClawsonAs we wait for Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray to decide whether to sign or veto the Large Retailer Accountability Act passed by the city council, business lobby groups are insisting that DC’s push to make big box stores pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour is an isolated occurrence, not a sign of things to come:

“This fight in D.C. is being driven by local D.C. politics more than a national agenda,” David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, told POLITICO.Justin Wilson of the business-funded Center for Union Facts said he believes no national movement will come from the D.C. battle. “I don’t foresee (a national movement) happening,” Wilson said.

Right, and the fight that kept Walmart out of Brooklyn last year was driven by local New York City politics, and the fight to keep Walmart out of Chinatown in Los Angeles is driven by local Los Angeles politics, and the failed effort—passed by the city council and vetoed by then-Mayor Richard Daley—to institute a similar large retailer living wage in Chicago as Walmart was moving in was driven by local Chicago politics. Point being, as Walmart tries to move into cities, the politics are different from its traditional suburban and rural locations. So the whole “just an isolated thing, not going to be replicated anywhere” insistence rings a little hollow.

That’s not to say Walmart doesn’t have the power to push itself into many cities, as it did Chicago. But the opposition is a lot more organized. And with good reason. Trying to move into D.C., Walmart went on a charm offensive, donating millions of dollars to local charities and talking up the great jobs it would allegedly create. But:

[Living wage organizer Mike] Wilson says that activists and community leaders met with Wal-Mart representatives soon after the company announced its intentions to move into D.C., but that it became clear Wal-Mart had no interest in negotiating any kind of binding agreement concerning workers’ wages or benefits. Wal-Mart may have told a group of church leaders it would pay $13 an hour, but on other occasions, the company cited its average pay of $12.78 to activists—a number that made Wilson and others suspicious. That figure, which excludes part-time workers and includes department managers, ishighly disputed.

Walmart can’t be trusted, so Walmart faces a fight. In fact, Walmart drives wages down for workers at other retailers in areas where Walmart stores open, so a $12.50 minimum wage at Walmart and other large retailers in Washington, D.C., would help protect wages at existing smaller stores.

Tell Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray that his city’s big box workers deserve a living wage.

This article was originally posted on The Daily Kos on July 16th 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.


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