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Employers are Using the “Labor Shortage” to Harm Workers

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Sarah Lazare

The “so-called “labor shortage” in the United States has quickly become a catch-all justification for policies that prevent workers from gaining too much power on the job, or collectively organizing by forming unions. 

Not enough applicants for low-paid jobs packing meat, or working the cash register at Dairy Queen? Better crank up the Federal Reserve’s interest rates (a policy explicitly aimed at spurring a recession and putting people out of work), so that we have a larger reserve of the desperate unemployed. Pandemic-era social programs ever-so-slightly redistributing wealth downward? Better shut them down, lest we eliminate the supposed precarity needed to incentivize work.

The concept of a labor shortage can be used to effectively justify any anti-worker policy under the sun. From reading the financial press or listening to business elites, the shortage may seem like an economic fact — a material reality that is beyond dispute.

But, in reality, the framing of a “labor shortage” is at its heart ideological.

As long as we’re talking about a labor shortage, we’re not talking about a shortage of good, dignified union jobs. As long as we’re talking about how people “don’t want to work,” we’re not talking about how bosses don’t want to treat their employees with basic fairness and respect.

And as long as we’re talking about how it’s bosses who are supposedly hurting, we’re not talking about what it would take to build an economy that doesn’t perpetually harm the poor and dispossessed.

Some unions and labor activists talk about a “labor shortage” as well, but often in the context of arguing that the way to fix it is to increase pay, improve benefits and treat workers with basic dignity.

Peter Greene, who spent 39 years as a high school English teacher, put it this way in a Forbes article arguing against the framing of a “teacher shortage”: “You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.”

As the economist J.W. Mason pointed out in August, labor market conditions are indeed tight, though “there is not a labor shortage in any absolute terms.” Still, he notes, some may welcome the opportunity to change “employment dynamics” presented by such market conditions, which can give workers more bargaining power.

“When jobs are plentiful, the fear of losing yours is less of a deterrent to standing up to the boss,” he writes. “And people who are reasonably confident of at least getting a paycheck may begin to wonder if that is all their employer owes them.”

These market conditions present an opportunity to raise fundamental questions about who the economy should serve, how we can chip away at inequality and life-shortening poverty, and how we can build a society where utter destitution is not an anvil constantly waiting to drop. But instead, what we hear is fearmongering about a “labor shortage” that centers the perspective of the boss. 

From CEOs to politicians to media pundits, people in positions of power are cynically using the “labor shortage” to push for regressive policies that they pursued well before the present-day market conditions. Some of the proposed “solutions” — like rolling back child labor protections, or getting women out of the workforce — are so outrageous that they can help shine light on how the very concept of a “labor shortage” is being used to shift the conversation away from policies and practices that would actually help the working class.

“Labor shortage” means we need to roll back child labor protections.

The conservative organization, National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), has cited the so-called labor shortage to justify its efforts, alongside local business associations, to roll back child labor protections in at least three states, as Workday Magazine and The American Prospect previously reported.

All of these bills are aimed at expanding the hours children are allowed to work. The proposed bill in Ohio would permit 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9:00 p.m. on a school night, with permission from a parent or legal guardian. (It would apply to all employers not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a piece of federal labor law.)

A similar bill in Wisconsin would have let 14- and 15-year-olds work until 9:30 p.m. on a school night, and until 11:00 p.m. on non-school-nights. That legislation, which also would have applied to employers not covered by the FLSA, was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers after passing the state legislature.

But a similar effort was successful in New Jersey, which, this July, passed a bill that permits 14- and 15- year-olds to work up to 40 hours during the summer. (That measure rolls back state laws, which were previously more protective than the FLSA.)

The “labor shortage” has been directly referenced in each of these campaigns. “Our members’ inability to fill workplace vacancies has catapulted to the top concern currently facing the success of their businesses,” NFIB said in December 2021 testimony to support the Ohio measure.

This messaging echoes that made by companies.

“This would fill a void in many places,” Mike Todd, a Dairy Queen owner in Pickerington, Ohio, said in January when supporting the state-level bill. “Not just the quick service restaurant industry, but other businesses within the entire service industry.” 

Yet, beyond the obvious problems — that working too many hours can harm children’s development, and that child labor laws were established to protect vulnerable members of society from the brutality of overwork — the same entities that are pushing for these roll backs in the name of solving the “labor shortage” were pushing to erode labor standards long before any such shortage existed.

NFIB vociferously opposed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. And the organization was a major supporter of using the Supreme Court to hollow out public-sector unions, culminating in the 2018 Janus ruling, which decided public-sector workers can’t be required to pay union dues, even if they receive the services of a union.

This partial blog originally appeared in full at In These Times on November 22, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times.

Learn about workers’ rights at Workplace Fairness.


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“It’s Time to Turn This Tortilla Around”: El Milagro Workers Walk Out, Demanding Fair Treatment

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Alleging abusive conditions and staff shortages amid the pandemic, workers at the iconic Chicago tortillería walked off the job—only to to be locked out by management.

On Thursday, food production workers at El Milagro—Chicago’s most popular tortilla company—staged a temporary walkout, alleging years of workplace violations and abusive conditions made worse by the pandemic.

After leaving their shift early, nearly 100 workers picketed outside El Milagro’s flagship taqueria and neighboring tortillería in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, promising to escalate their protests unless management meets with them to discuss their grievances by September 29. They were joined by local faith leaders, community supporters and democratic socialist 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the nearby Pilsen neighborhood.

Laura Garza, director of Arise Chicago worker center—which has been helping the non-unionized El Milagro workers organize over the past several months—said that 85 workers contracted Covid-19 on the job last year, and five died. With employees getting sick or resigning, the company has been understaffed, leading to a widely reported scarcity of El Milagro products at grocery stores across the Chicago area earlier this month, with eager customers lining up outside the company’s facilities to get their hands on however many tortillas they could. 

Along with picket signs, the workers carried a giant burrito and tortilla chips made of carboard. They led chants changing the company’s name from El Milagro to “El Maltrato,” which translates to “mistreatment.”

“You’ve heard there’s a shortage of workers over and over on the news, but the fact is there isn’t a so-called shortage of workers, it’s a shortage of good wages, good benefits, good working conditions, and being treated with respect and dignity on the job,” said Garza. The worker center also recently helped organize non-union food production employees at the popular Portillo’s restaurant chain, who staged a seven-day strike this summer.

The workers allege that in order to keep production going amid the staffing shortage, management has been illegally forcing them to work up to seven days per week, as well as violating the city’s paid sick leave ordinance and speeding up the production machines to dangerous levels.

“With the extreme speed of the machines, people are having health issues, especially back pain from having to go so fast,” El Milagro worker Alfredo Martinez told In These Times. Martinez added that he and his coworkers have also suffered health problems from having to work quickly in temperatures over 90 degrees, without being allowed breaks to drink water.

“They’re cranking up these machines to produce more tortillas, but we’re not machines,” said Martin Salas, an El Milagro employee who has worked at the company for ten years. “I’m packing 80 packages in one minute. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s my fault.”

The workers also claim that management is advertising new job openings at $16 an hour—higher than what workers who have been at the company for years make. Martinez, who has worked at El Milagro for 13 years, said veteran employees like himself are also expected to train the new hires without any extra compensation.

“The new people don’t stay for long because it’s too hard and too hot,” Martinez said. “We know the work; we do the work well. It’s insulting when you’ve been working here for years, doing a good job and new people who have barely been trained are making more than you.”

The workers reported numerous other abuses at El Milagro, including sexual harassment and intimidation. With the help of Arise Chicago, they have organized a committee and are demanding that management implement a fair wage scale based on seniority and experience, increase wages to at least $20 per hour, stop all harassment and hire more staff. The workers claim that despite issuing multiple letters to management, the company has so far refused to meet with them to discuss their concerns.

When the employees who walked out of the El Milagro plant in Little Village attempted to return to complete their shifts after the protest rally—as they had earlier informed management they would do—they were locked out. Arise Chicago says this is illegal retaliation by the company. Upon learning that their colleagues had been locked out, five cleaning workers arriving for the late-night shift decided to join the walkout.

Salas said that when he and other first-shift workers went into work on Friday morning, prepared to walk out in solidarity with their locked-out colleagues, they were greeted by an armed security guard. “That is simply a tactic the company is using to intimidate us, and it’s creating a lot of fear,” he said.

As the locked-out workers reported to human resources on Friday morning seeking to return to work, they were joined by 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez, whose district includes the El Milagro plant, Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes.

“We stand with you,” Williams-Hayes told the workers. “What you’re doing is not wrong. Stand in solidarity, stand up for your rights, do not be afraid.

Management promised to allow the locked-out employees to return to work at the start of their 2 p.m. shift on Friday, with no loss of pay, according to an Arise Chicago spokesperson.

El Milagro did not respond to a request for comment. The company has also faced complaints at its facility near Austin, Texas, where it was recently fined $218,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe machinery exposing workers to amputation dangers.

The struggle at El Milagro is reminiscent of attempts to unionize immigrant workers at Tortillería Del Rey in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood 40 years ago. That campaign was led by legendary organizer Rudy Lozano, who, before his murder in 1983, famously helped build Black and Latino unity in support of Harold Washington’s successful run for mayor.

Jorge Mújica, Arise Chicago’s strategic campaigns organizer, said the workers are exposing El Milagro’s “greedy” side. “In English, we say ‘the other side of the coin.’ In Spanish we say ‘el otro lado de la tortilla’ [the other side of the tortilla],” he explained. “It’s time to turn this tortilla around.”

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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