• print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Worker Rights are Critical to the Future of Ukraine

Share this post

Liz Shuler

As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, Ukrainian workers and their trade unions have become an undeniable force for solidarity and community support throughout the country.

Since the onset of the conflict, union members from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) and the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) have mobilized in large numbers, remain united behind their elected government’s efforts to manage the war and continue to make valiant sacrifices to defend the nation.

However, in return, Ukraine’s government is now moving to break the unions’ power and take away crucial workers’ rights that are central to upholding its democracy. 

In March, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Congress and drew a powerful connection between his country and ours, stating that the war was a fight to protect our shared values of “democracy, independence, freedom and care for everyone, for every person, for everyone who works diligently….”

A strong labor movement is central to Ukraine’s struggle to remain an independent democracy because workers’ rights and democracy are inextricably linked.

That’s been true throughout the conflict, and it will remain true when this war ends. 

Unions put their organizing skills to use in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s attack as part of the Trade Union Lifeline initiative. They quickly converted their offices and properties into makeshift shelters to house more than 350,000 citizens displaced inside Ukraine.

Unions also allocated donated funds to fill gaps in care and moved large numbers of humanitarian supplies, such as food, clothing, diapers and feminine hygiene products, to those in need. Both national union federation presidents have made numerous trips to front-line towns to personally deliver shipments.

Workers on the job are keeping the economy going, while thousands of union members have enlisted in the military and the country’s civil defense, many of whom have been killed in active duty. Their incredible efforts have been recognized by the AFL-CIO and the entire global labor movement, which has been unwavering in their support for Ukraine. 

In October, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten traveled to Lviv, Ukraine, to provide support, meet with teachers and raise awareness about the war’s impact on the lives of children. Dozens of teachers are working hard to ensure that students remain able to keep up with their education. Members of the Construction and Building Materials Workers Union of Ukraine (PROFBUD) have found creative ways to support the war effort, including procuring life-saving medications and improvising the creation of a communications outpost for their communities.  

While labor has proven invaluable to every facet of Ukraine’s fight to defend its sovereignty, Ukraine’s parliament continues to advance several anti-worker, anti-union policy efforts under the cover of the crisis. In recent months, the parliament has considered more than 27 bills that would restrict or eliminate worker and union rights.

One proposal would confiscate the property of the FPU and all its affiliated unions, many of which are being used to house the displaced. Given that this property has been maintained and managed for 30 years by union dues and finances with no issue, it is suspected that the policy’s true motivation is to bankrupt the FPU and assert government control over valuable pieces of real estate.

These are not just hypothetical threats. Law 2434-IX, which was adopted in July and enforced officially in August, eliminated collective bargaining for all employers with 250 or fewer employees for the period of martial law and introduced precarious “zero-hour” contracts into Ukrainian labor relations. These contracts create a more perilous work situation because employers are not obliged to provide a minimum number of working hours to workers. 

Although these changes were passed for the war’s duration, the government’s Ukraine Recovery Plan indicates a desire to make these provisions permanent. Other equally troubling bills focus on eliminating worker protections on working hours, transfer rights, the right to organize unions, collective bargaining, social assistance funds, pension rights and administration, safety and health enforcement, unemployment benefits and the system that sets minimum wages — some of which have already become reality.

The rationale behind this effort — that worker rights must be eliminated to promote economic growth — relies on deeply flawed and outdated development models. These changes run counter to international standards that Ukraine previously ratified, and these modifications are in direct conflict with decisions handed down by the International Labour Organization that recognize taking action to confiscate union property as a significant violation of the freedom of association.

The Ukrainian government is aware of this — having previously lost a similar property confiscation case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2018. Anti-union legislation also flies in the face of Ukraine’s stated policy goal of further integration into the structures and norms of the European Union, where union coverage has remained high in many nations and workers’ rights remain strongly protected.

Many of these laws could not pass before the war and are now in motion only because of Russia’s unprovoked attacks. 

Ukraine’s fight for democracy must take a holistic view.

Unions will be instrumental in rebuilding the country, and Ukraine’s government cannot go down the path of destroying internationally recognized worker rights because of the ideological agenda of a few ultra-free-market, libertarian officials who are using the war to push their agenda of eliminating unions. Likewise, the war should not be used as cover for wealthy interests in Ukraine to squeeze more profits from Ukrainian workers, many of whom are making great sacrifices in service to their country.

We stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian sisters, brothers and siblings.

But Ukraine cannot become a respected democratic nation if it continues to destroy the rights of workers and unions.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on December 22, 2022. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Elizabeth Shuler is president of the 58 unions and 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO, and the first woman leader of America’s labor movement. 


Share this post

Employers are Using the “Labor Shortage” to Harm Workers

Share this post

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.


Share this post

What Rights Pregnant Freelancers Have

Share this post

If you’re pregnant, freelancing might be your only income or at the very least, your primary income. It’s important to know what your rights are as a pregnant freelancer so you can be both confident and protected in your work. 

Here’s what you need to know about being pregnant and working as an independent contractor or an employee in the United States.

Can you get maternity leave from clients as a freelancer?

If you are a freelancer, your clients or the companies you work for do not have to pay while you’re on maternity leave. You should contact your insurance company to see if they offer maternity benefits that will cover you during this time, also known as approved Paid Family Leave (PFL) policies.

However, these decisions may depend on the type of contract that you have with your clients or any business you freelance for.

If you have a freelance contract with a larger company you may want to speak with someone in the human resources department at the company about what type of benefits you might be entitled to and whether they can help out in some way. They may be able to recommend other types of plans or put a plan into place for freelancers in the future that would cover maternity leaves.

Even though your clients are not required by law to pay you while you’re on maternity leave, they might do so anyway. It may also be possible to arrange for paid time off in advance, before becoming pregnant or going on maternity leave. One rather negative point is identifying pregnancy discrimination – when you might feel as if you’re losing freelance work or future opportunities having disclosed that you are pregnant. 

How much maternity leave am I entitled to as a freelancer?

As a freelancer, you are not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, but many states do provide some form of protection.

In California, for example, freelancers can qualify for up to four weeks of job-protected disability leave if they’re unable to work due to pregnancy or childbirth complications. This leave is available whether or not you have worked at the company for one year and protects you from being fired because of this request.

Freelancers are not usually entitled to maternity leave. However, if you are employed under a freelance contract, then it depends on what kind of contract you have with your client. If you have a contract that offers some form of paid time off that can be used for childbirth and recovery from childbirth in the form of paid sick days, vacation days or personal days.

Getting health insurance as a freelancer

It’s important to get health insurance as a freelancer, and being pregnant is one of the best reasons to do so! The Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates that insurance plans cannot refuse coverage or charge more based on a pre-existing condition. Maternity leave is considered a pre-existing condition and therefore you should be covered for it. 

For the first 12 weeks of maternity leave, you’ll be able to take unpaid leave from freelancing and still maintain your health insurance. You can also opt for short-term disability, which will provide up to 60% of your income during maternity leave if there are no paid sick days available in any given state.

The ACA also mandates that insurance companies cannot charge women more than men for coverage. This is especially important when it comes to maternity leave, which can be expensive if you have to pay out of pocket. 

How to approach work as a pregnant freelancer

Pregnant freelancers have to come up with their policies depending on what’s right for them and their clients.

What’s key is being fair with clients and outlining exactly how much time you’ll be away from client work while you’re on maternity leave. It can be tricky, but to retain current clients (or at least those who like working with you), it’s crucial that they know how much time off you’ll take and what happens after that period expires. 

Make sure that everyone involved knows about any necessary changes or deadlines ahead of time so there’s no confusion once maternity leave is over. Having this information ready when starting a new project will help give your client an idea of the timeline involved. 

Be honest with yourself when determining how much work is truly possible while you’re expecting – take breaks and allow plenty of buffer time to accommodate unpredictable events, such as severe bouts of morning sickness, swollen feet, sensitive teeth or any other unexpected health check-up. 

It might also be wise to put on hold projects that require lots of concentration so you don’t end up being uncomfortably stressed. Any worry or stress can aggravate preeclampsia, a condition where high blood pressure poses serious health risks for mom and baby alike.

Is it possible for me to stop working completely while I’m on maternity leave?

Yes, it is possible to stop working completely while on maternity leave. Many freelancers pay for their maternity leave by saving up money before it. This way they can be supported by their partner and family while getting the time they need to adjust to new motherhood. 

If you don’t have the financial ability to stop working and take unpaid leave, then just try to work as little as possible before or after the baby comes.  

What happens if my business folds while I am on maternity leave?

It is important to have a plan in place if the business folds while you are on maternity leave. This could happen if you have been away from the business for a while and clients have left, or if the economy has taken a downturn.  If this happens, it’s best to contact your client base before starting maternity leave to get an idea of how many will be around when you return.  

For those who are still there, you may want to set up a contract to handle specific tasks during maternity leave so that they know what they can expect when it’s time for you to come back.

When should you return to work after having your baby?

The best time to return to work will vary for everyone and there is no real right answer. The consensus, however, is that you should give your body time to rest and yourself and your baby time to bond before returning. 

This allows you to recover from birth and prepare for the day-to-day stresses of being back at work.

Coming back to work after maternity leave

Think about when you’ll get back to work and how you’ll do it when you return. Many freelancers struggle with regaining momentum after coming back from parental leave and it is important to understand what your rights are. Make sure not to overcommit yourself or take too many small jobs until you’ve built up momentum again – stick to deadlines rather than trying for larger jobs which will allow more room for error.

When returning to work after giving birth, it is important to discuss with clients how you will handle business in the future. Before starting work again, it is also advisable that you talk with your doctor about any potential risks associated with continuing work while pregnant and postpartum.

In terms of your rights as a pregnant freelancer, they are the same as any other freelancer. It largely boils down to the type of contract you have with your client or the company you work for. It is not legally required for your clients to pay anything for maternity leave or to offer you any paid leave. Companies that have freelancing contracts may have something in place for maternity leave. 

Of course, you could plan ahead by saving up money, getting health insurance, looking into disability benefits, and the like, but that all assume you know you’re planning to get pregnant. For example, some states may provide benefits that apply to pregnant freelancers, so it’s always worth looking into. 

The best approach when working while pregnant is to not overwork yourself and be as organized as possible to avoid stress on your body. It is also safe to continue working throughout your pregnancy, but only if you feel this is sensible and feasible for your freelance business.

About the Author: This blog was contributed to Workplace by contributor Dakota Murphey. Published with permission.


Share this post

When Unions Back Corporate Mergers, Workers Lose

Share this post

Hamilton Nolan

There has always been a fundamental tension in the organized labor world between people who think that unions exist to counteract the self-serving tendencies of businesses, and people who think that unions should copy the self-serving tendencies of businesses.

The gap between the view that unions should change capitalism and the view that unions should just help working people get their piece of capitalism is not just fodder for theoretical arguments — billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and the entire direction of the post-neoliberalism economy could ride on it. We’re seeing that tension painfully demonstrated right now, at the grocery store. 

Last week, Kroger announced its plan to merge with Albertsons. That merger would create a $25 billion grocery giant that would control more than 15% of the American grocery market, second only to Walmart. (In certain local markets, it would control the majority of the grocery business.) Kroger argues that it needs such massive scale in order to compete with Walmart and Amazon — a strange claim, since Kroger’s profits grew 14% in the past year. 

Why do companies find this sort of mega-merger so attractive? It allows them to squeeze suppliers for lower prices, and, on the flip side, it gives them greater pricing power over consumers. (Mergers also create a ton of fees for advisors and potential bonuses for executives, and a little sugar rush jolt to the stock price — all things that create personal incentives for the people in charge to do deals, whether or not they end up being wise.)

What companies say when they do such mergers is, “It will help us lower prices for consumers, and it will help us strengthen our company for shareholders,” as if corporate dealmaking was an altruistic process. What they mean is,“It will help us proceed one step closer to monopoly power, the ultimate goal of all corporations, and also it will help the CEO buy a new house.” 

Then there is the labor angle.

These grocery companies have an enormous number of employees who are unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) — the merger, in fact, could create the biggest single private sector union employer in the country, even bigger than the Teamsters unit at UPS. Common sense should tell you that bigger, more omnipotent companies with more extreme market power are not generally a good thing for their own blue collar workers, for many of the same reasons they are not a good thing for consumers. Companies want to get bigger to squeeze suppliers, customers, and workers in service of shareholders and executives. That is Capitalism 101, and it has been demonstrated countless times.

It is an easy call for anyone who considers themself a progressive, or who cares even a bit about the balance of power between capital and labor, to oppose this merger and others like it. It is quite a tell that the fairytale of the free market’s benefit is all about how competition will create an optimal outcome for everyone, but the reality of capitalism is that companies seek to eradicate every possible trace of competition in order to accrue benefits for themselves and screw everyone else. 

This merger needs approval from the Biden administration’s Federal Trade Commission. That means this is a political issue, and opens a door for organized labor — particularly the UFCW — to have an extraordinarily large say, given the fact that this administration actually listens to unions more than any other in living memory. As soon as the merger was announced, a group of five UFCW locals representing tens of thousands of grocery workers in the Western United States put out a statement opposing the merger, saying it would be, “devastating for workers and consumers alike and must be stopped,” for all of the reasons just mentioned. Their position was very clear. They knew this would be bad, and they immediately stood against it. The internal reform caucus called Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW is also agitating against the merger.

Oddly, though, a full day then went by with silence from the UFCW’s International headquarters. Then, the union dropped a statement that was excruciating in its refusal to take a stand. Rather than clearly coming out against the merger, it said that, “Given the national impact such a merger would have, the UFCW and our Local Unions are discussing this and will stand together to prioritize the best interests of our members, their families, and the communities they proudly serve,” adding that the union, will oppose any merger that threatens the jobs of America’s essential workers, union and non-union, and undermines our communities.” It was a glaring, flashing siren that the leadership of the UFCW may be considering cutting a deal. 

And here is where we come to my initial point about how union leaders see their mission. In theory, the UFCW could reach an agreement with Kroger that, for example, ensured the company would be neutral as UFCW went about organizing more of its workers. It could be a way to deliver hundreds of thousands of new members into the UFCW’s ranks. (Of course, thousands of existing UFCW members could be laid off as a result of the store divestments that would go along with this merger.) But no matter what the company offered, common sense again tells you that they will not give up the underlying benefits of this mega-merger — which are structurally bad for suppliers, consumers, and workers.

No union should think of workers as pawns to be traded back and forth with companies, in order to benefit the union.

This blog originally appeared in full at In These Times on October 19, 2022. Republishing with permission.

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


Share this post

Your Workplace Rights During Natural Disasters and Emergencies

Share this post

Natural disasters create a level of chaos that can be hard to prepare for. Nevertheless, there are many federal employment laws that are in place to guide employers and their employees regarding rights and responsibilities when disaster strikes. 

The following federal laws provide the framework for understanding your workplace rights in the event that a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood, or other emergency occurs.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Salary/wage payments to be made during natural disasters are outlined by the FLSA as follows:

Exempt employees

Employers must pay exempt employees their full salary while the worksite is closed due to natural disasters or inclement weather (for less than a full working week). Employers may, however, request that employees utilize any unused leave to cover this period.

Nonexempt employees

Employers must pay nonexempt employees only for any hours actually worked, regardless of whether or not it is possible to carry out work due to a natural disaster.

Exceptions to the rule

Whereby nonexempt employees have agreed to complete an unspecified number of working hours for a specified salary amount, their employers must pay them a full week’s salary for any week in which any amount of work was carried out. 

Other FLSA guidelines include:

Waiting time

If an employee is required to wait for working conditions to be reinstated, such as waiting at work for the power to come back on, it is considered time-worked that they must be paid for.

On-call time

Whether or not any work is carried out, any employees who are required to remain on-call, either on employment premises or close-by, and are not permitted to leave, may be eligible for pay for those hours.

Not-for-profit 

Not-for-profit organization employees must be paid for any work conducted that they typically carry out as an employee, and must not be regarded as volunteers during disaster response and management.

What about layoffs?

Federal laws under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) stipulate notice requirements regarding mass layoffs and some plant closures.

Exceptions are in place for closures/layoffs that are the direct result of a natural disaster, but employers are still required to give as much notice as possible; issuing less than 60 days’ notice is only legal if the employer can prove that they meet the exception conditions.

Taking leave after a disaster

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees suffering from a serious health condition (or caring for a spouse, child or parent who is) that has been caused by a natural disaster are entitled to leave. 

Employees who are also members of an emergency services organization are protected from employment discrimination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). The act protects such American workers from being discharged, denied employment, promotion or other employment benefits due to their membership or obligation to serve with an emergency services organization.

Employee Benefit Programs

When business operations are affected by natural disasters, employers must decide whether their employee’s coverage plans will be maintained. For COBRA coverage (continuation of health coverage following loss of benefits), employers must send employees COBRA packages upon being notified of that employee’s ineligibility for an ongoing plan (typically due to ceasing work).

In the event of a natural disaster that may affect health plans, check with your employer to determine whether your cover will continue. Governmental agencies tend to issue deadline extensions in such events, but this can vary, so it is important to check.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Employees suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from a natural disaster are eligible to reasonable accommodations from their employer, so long as no undue hardship would be caused to the business. 

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

As per the OSHA, employers are responsible for protecting their employees from (unreasonable) dangers in the workplace. Natural disasters can create safety issues (such as electrical or trip hazards), and employers must consider this before expecting employees to attend and carry out duties. 

If an employee feels that they have been placed in danger, they can file a complaint with the OSHA, and request ‘whistleblower’ protections if they feel vulnerable to retaliation. 

Both the OSHA and the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) protects employees’ rights to refuse to  work in unsafe conditions. While they must have a reasonable cause for believing the conditions to be unsafe, they are still protected even if they were genuinely mistaken regarding the risks. 

Federal relief

In the event that a worker is laid-off due to a natural disaster and is not covered by their state’s unemployment compensation program, they may apply for assistance under the federally-funded Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). This assistance scheme also provides cover to self-employed workers from a range of sectors not normally covered under state assistance programs 

Protecting your rights

If you feel that your rights have been violated by an employer, you have every right to take action.

Depending on the severity of the violation, suing your employer in small claims court may be the most appropriate action.

Still, it’s vital that you first attempt to resolve the issue out of court, and that you retain this evidence of good faith in the event that you need to take the matter further. Small claims cases tend to move along more quickly than investigations carried out by the labor department, but there are other pros and cons to consider.

If your rights have been violated, it’s best to consult with a lawyer to determine the best course of action.

This blog was contributed to Workplace Fairness by an anonymous guest author. Learn more about workers’ rights here.


Share this post

Iran’s Gender Justice Uprising Joined by Teachers, Unionists

Share this post

The world is currently witnessing an uprising in Iran, in the face of great state brutality, for liberation from gender, social and economic oppression.

This nationwide revolt, the latest in a series of popular uprisings, was sparked by the brutal killing two weeks ago of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Zhina Amini, in custody of the state’s Guidance Patrol, or “morality police,” for so-called improper hijab (headscarf and coverings legally mandated in Iran for women).

Protesters have called for an end to the dictatorship, that the policing of women’s bodies be stopped, that hijab be optional according to each individual’s personal choice, an end to discrimination against Kurdish people and other ethnic minorities in Iran, and an end to economic injustice.

Women and young people are at the forefront of these protests and students at numerous universities have boycotted classes. At least 83 protesters have been killed by security forces.

What we are witnessing in Iran is a feminist revolt that has sparked a larger anti-government uprising.

The current uprising also helps illustrate the centrality of gender justice to working-class struggle.

Last week, Kurdish shopkeepers launched a general strike across Iranian Kurdistan in protest of Zhina’s killing, and some workers and labor unionists across the country are taking action to support the uprising as well. In a statement this week, the Council of Contract Oil Workers said they “support the popular struggles against organized and daily violence against women and against poverty” and threatened to withhold their labor if the state does not end its “arrests, massacring of people, repression, and harassment and harm of women because of hijab.”

On September 25, the Coordination Council of teachers’ unions in Iran threw its weight behind the uprising and launched a two-day strike.

The teachers, who have been engaged in a wave of strikes and protests since last December, wrote that the uprising shows “Iran is still alive and active, and does not bow down in the face of oppression.” The Council condemned the use of schools in the country as militarized bases to suppress protesters. They called on all working and retired teachers — as well as retirees in government, army, and social service sectors, workers’ unions, athletes and artists — to stand alongside “the rights-seeking people of Iran.”

A coalition of women teachers on strike released their own statement declaring “our solidarity with other justice-seeking people and protesters to this crime for which there is no accountability and never will be.”

While on strike this week, teachers urged Iran’s broader labor movement to escalate the current uprising against the Iranian state to help secure gender justice, democratic freedoms and economic equality.

As 60 percent of teachers in Iran are women, they have an important role to play in the current uprising.

The leadership of the teachers’ unions is overwhelmingly male, but women teachers have increasingly formed core cadre in the recent strikes and protests.

Many women leaders in the teachers’ movement have made demands in recent months that are key for the success of the current popular struggle, and show the intersection of working-class and gender struggles.

They have demanded sex education around issues of healthcare and sexual harassment, as well as contraception, which is significant given Iran’s 2021 population law which imposed increased restrictions on abortions and banned the distribution of free contraceptives by the healthcare system. They have demanded expanded maternity leave and daycare centers at the workplace. And they have demanded that school administrations stop harassing them for improper hijab.

These calls from a segment of working-class Iranian women form an integral part of the broader Iranian feminist movement which has been thrust onto the global stage in recent weeks.

In many ways, the slogan of “Woman, Life, Freedom” that has swept the country’s streets in recent days goes hand in hand with the slogan of “Bread, Work, Freedom,” which emerged during previous nationwide uprisings in Iran against austerity and the high cost of living, both in late 2017 as well as in November 2019 when a gas price increase quickly led to anti-government protests.

Actions like these show the importance of leadership by women workers.

These workers are part of a larger Iranian working class that has taken part in an uptick in strikes and labor militancy in recent years, from sectors as diverse as petrochemicals, trucking, and heavy equipment. These actions have come as a result of domestic and international crises in global capitalism, and the greed of both domestic and foreign elites.

The uprising in Iran must also be seen in an international context, as part of a larger global movement for gender equality across the world among women and trans, queer, and non-binary people who are facing different, yet interrelated types of attacks.

Solidarity protests in countries such as Chile, Lebanon and Turkey have amplified the uprising in Iran and lent protesters morale.

This blog originally appeared in full at In These Times on September 30, 2022. Republished with permission. View Workplace Fairness’ page on discrimination in the workplace.

About the Author: Alborz Ghandehari is a Salt Lake City-based organizer, performance poet, and Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah.


Share this post

Independent Unions Are Great—And Proof of Labor’s Broken Institutions

Share this post

Hamilton Nolan

This year has brought a lot of stirring labor victories, a pace of union campaigns and strikes so frenetic that it’s easy to collapse in a puddle of undifferentiated cheering for stuff. The most important trend, though, has been the sudden rise of independent unions — organizing drives at untouched companies led by the workers themselves, not affiliated with any existing major unions.

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has been the biggest example of those, and an endless stream of others seem determined to follow in its footsteps. An independent union drive succeeded at Trader Joe’s, and they’ve popped up everywhere from Apple to Chipotle to Geico. Geico!

The rise of all of these independents is inspiring. It is the flowering of seeds that were planted by 40 years of rising inequality, and by the work of an entire generation of labor movement activists pushing unions as the solution. If we are being honest, though, the story of these independent unions is also a story about the brokenness of organized labor’s existing institutions. If we ignore half of the story, we won’t learn anything from this moment.

One thing that virtually every independent union that’s popped into being this year has in common is this: They are at places that should have been unionized a long time ago. I don’t just mean that in the generic sense of “all workplaces should have a union.” I mean that if America had a union movement with even a modicum of ability to do strategic planning on a national level, the big unions that already sit in these respective industries would have been working hard to build campaigns at many of these companies years ago.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), for example, is the grocery industry union. It should have been plainly obvious a decade ago, at least, that Trader Joe’s was a prime target: a successful, growing national grocery chain that also carried with it a cultivated reputation for caring about employees, as well as the community and social justice.

That is the absolute pinnacle of “characteristics of a company that should be a union organizing target.” The fact this country’s first Trader Joe’s union election happened in the year 2022 and was organized by workers themselves is a pretty harsh rebuke to the UFCW, which represents 835,000 grocery workers and has more resources than all but a handful of other unions.

Amazon? Apple? Chipotle? Geico? All of these are premier employers in industries that have existing unions. (In many cases, the existing unions have organizing drives at these companies themselves too: Communications Workers of America (CWA) is organizing Apple stores, and a Chipotle unionized with the Teamsters, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is still deeply engaged at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and UFCW is organizing Trader Joe’s — all of which are good examples of the ability of independent drives to energize moribund sectors, or to pick up excess demand where existing unions don’t.)

The problem here is not the failure of individual unions, but of an entire union establishment that has for decades accepted the proposition that it’s the responsibility of workers to come ask unions to organize them, not vice versa.

Let us imagine an American labor movement that had 1) A genuine belief that it is the responsibility of unions to offer every worker in their industry a true opportunity to unionize, and 2) A rudimentary level of central organization and accountability that could exert some pressure on unions that weren’t organizing to do a better job. In this fairy tale world, it would still take bravery and hard work and idealism from workers at all of these places to undertake the daunting and uncertain prospect of organizing their workplace for the first time.

The difference is that they would have all had the card of a union organizer in their pocket.

Because the unions in their respective industries would have made a strong effort to organize them, and would have made it their business to ensure that all the non-union workers at those companies knew that this union wanted to organize them, so when the stars aligned and the moment arrived when employees were ready to take on the challenge, they quite naturally would have thought of the existing union as their first phone call.

There are heroic union staffers everywhere, but not nearly enough of them.

The problem is not the individual people — the problem is this sort of thing, which should have always been the top priority of a labor movement that has been losing density for decades, has not been much of a priority at all.

This is a portion of a blog that originally appeared at In These Times on September 19, 2022. Republished with permission.

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


Share this post

Thank You to Outten and Golden

Share this post

Outten and Golden, LLP, a law firm dedicated to employees’ rights, is sponsoring an upcoming event for Workplace Fairness. 

Next week, Workplace Fairness is hosting a panel event on climate change and workers’ safety. From 3 to 4 p.m. on August 31, the online panel will discuss the negative impact the global climate crisis has on workers, specifically people of color and workers earning low wages. 

Outten and Golden’s sponsorship helps make Workplace Fairness’ events possible, furthering workers’ interests. Wayne Outten, the president of Outten and Golden, co-founded Workplace Fairness and is currently its board chair. Outten voiced his support for the upcoming event.

“Outten and Golden has long supported Workplace Fairness and its mission of educating workers about their rights and of advocating for the rights of workers,” Outten said. “This program is a good example of such education and advocacy.”

Anyone interested in attending the upcoming panel event may register for it here. Workplace Fairness also greatly appreciates donations.

Workplace Fairness thanks Outten and Golden for its continued support. Sponsorships like these further Workplace Fairness’ efforts to advocate for workers’ rights.  


Share this post

Every Boss Has a Weak Spot. Find and Use It.

Share this post

Steel production in the late 1800s used to require one crucial step: a 20-minute process called the “blow” that removed impurities, strengthening the metal. It was not unheard of for union members to go to the supervisor at the start of the blow and demand that some important grievance be resolved.

According to old-timers, it was amazing what the company could accomplish in those 20 minutes. These workers had found their employer’s vulnerability — and they used it to make the workplace safer and more humane.

Think about where your employer is vulnerable. For some companies it might be their logo or their image, which they have spent millions of dollars cultivating. For others it might be a bottleneck in the production process, or a weakness in their just-in-time inventory system.

Whistle While You Work

At a Fortune 500 truck factory, supervisors were ruthless and degrading. Discipline was arbitrary and unjust. At the monthly union meeting one worker noted that they were all being “railroaded.”

A few weeks later, 2,000 plastic whistles shaped like locomotives arrived at the local. The instructions were simple: whenever you can see a supervisor on the shop floor, blow your whistle.

At first, whistles were going off all over. But by the morning break the plant floor was quiet. Not a single supervisor dared to show his face.

The next day in contract bargaining, the employer refused to bargain until the whistles were removed. The bargaining team noted the company’s statements on refusing to bargain, and asked for a break to go call the Labor Board.

Bargaining resumed immediately, with positive results.

Lunch to Rule

On a military base, aircraft maintenance workers would happily interrupt their lunch in order to deal with urgent problems. But in return they had an understanding that, once the problem was solved, they would go back to their sandwiches even though the lunch period had ended.

The situation was mutually acceptable for several years — until a new supervisor came along. We all know how that is. Had to prove himself. Show who’s boss. Etc.

Steve Eames, an international rep for the Boilermakers union, explained that the new supervisor insisted that workers take their lunch between 12:00 and 12:30, period.

“So the steward said, ‘Okay, we’ll play by the rules,’” Eames remembers. The maintenance workers had previously eaten at a lunch table in the work area. But now, when 12 o’clock came, they left and went to a fast-food restaurant on the base. For three or four days they all went as a group, leaving the shop unattended.

One day a plane came in during the half-hour lunch period. No one was there to help bring the plane in, or to check it out. The supervisor had to park the plane by himself.

“The boss went and talked to the steward, and the steward said, ‘That’s our time, we’re at lunch,’” said Eames. “‘You got what you wanted.’”

The workers went out for lunch for a couple more days, and then they ended what we might call “lunch to rule.” “They didn’t want to file a grievance,” says Eames, “because the company would have won on the basis of contract language.

“Without anything in writing, it went back to the way it had been before. It empowered the guys. It told the supervisor, we’ll be a little flexible if you’ll be flexible.”

Keep the Boss Off Balance

Managers like routine. They like to know that what happened yesterday will happen today and that no one is thinking too hard about it. You can make them nervous simply by doing something different, even something normal that would be unthreatening to the non-managerial mind. When they have to keep guessing where the next shot is coming from, you have the upper hand.

“The corporate culture is not a creative culture,” says Joe Fahey, a former Teamster leader, “and we need to look at that as an opportunity.

“I used to bargain with Smuckers,” Fahey recalls. “We decided to do things that would freak them out. Factory life is very predictable. The workers decided to take their breaks at the railroad tracks, instead of at the same table and the same bench that they did every day. It was easy for the workers to do, but it was scary for management. They are more easily scared than we realize.”

15-Minute Strike

Pennsylvania social workers figured out how to catch management off guard. During negotiations with the state, spokesman Ray Martinez said, “we wanted an activity that would irritate the boss, educate the public, and at the same time get the members psyched up. We decided that we would all take our 15-minute breaks at the same time.”

The union used its phone trees to call members at home. “At the agreed date and time,” Martinez says, “all of our members would get up and walk out of the office. This meant that clients in the office, phone calls, and so on would be placed on hold. In other words, all activity ceased.

“This served a couple of purposes. First, management and clients would get a feel for what it would be like without our services if we were to go on strike. Secondly, we, the members, would be outside of the worksite having outdoor shop meetings and updating the workers on the latest on the negotiations.

“While this was going on, we had picket signs asking drivers to honk their horns to show us their support. The beauty of it all was that this was perfectly legal, so there was nothing management could do.”

At the end of the 15-minute break, everybody went back inside and went back to work.

This blog originally appeared on July 28, 2022 at Labor Notes. Learn about workers’ rights and advocacy at Workplace Fairness.

About the Authors: Alexandra Bradbury, Jane Slaughter, and Mark Brenner are Labor Notes contributors. This article is excerpted from Labor Notes’ book, “Secrets of a Successful Organizer.”


Share this post

Inflation and Your Next Union Contract

Share this post

Samir Sonti

What’s going on with inflation? It’s a question that everyone is asking, and one that is particularly important for anyone entering bargaining this year.

We can’t predict what is to come, but the evidence from the past year hasn’t been good for workers. The Consumer Price Index rose by more than 8 percent, its fastest pace in 40 years. Essential expenses like housing, food, and gas have climbed especially fast.

Despite all the talk of labor shortages and a tight job market, wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. Since April 2021, inflation-adjusted hourly earnings have fallen by more than 2 percent. Any stimulus savings that people had accrued have largely dried up by now, and there is currently no plan for federal relief for working people facing the affordability crisis posed by historic inflation rates.

ENORMOUS PROFITS

Profits, on the other hand, have boomed. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, pre-tax corporate profits rose 25 percent in 2021, the largest annual increase in 45 years. Another recent study of 22 corporations including Amazon, McDonald’s, and Disney showed that their shareholders reaped $1.5 trillion in wealth during the first two years of the pandemic—almost triple their earnings in the two years prior.

Oil and gas companies, for their part, have made a fortune since the war in Ukraine began. The largest producers collected nearly $100 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2022 alone, some 127 percent more than last year.

These enormous profits help explain much of the increase in prices since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not to say that price gouging by big business caused the inflation in the first place. Pandemic disruptions in supply chains, as well as energy and food markets shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are at the root of the problem.

But corporate pricing decisions have certainly taken advantage of the inflationary environment, and probably made it worse. In any case, the bottom line when it comes to bargaining is that employers can afford to pay.

RECESSION COMING?

What is less clear is how long this profit bonanza is going to last. Walmart, Target, and other retailers reported lower-than-expected profits for the first quarter of 2022. This is largely due to the ongoing inflation; the rising cost of food, fuel, and housing has forced households to cut back on expenditures like TVs and patio furniture.

Of course, we don’t need to feel bad for Walmart and Target. But given that consumer spending is a key driver of economic activity, this could be a warning sign of an impending downturn.

And there is an even bigger reason to be concerned about the health of the economy over the next year or so: the Federal Reserve. As the central bank of the United States, its official mandate is to help the economy achieve stable prices (that is, low inflation) and maximum employment. When push comes to shove, however, central bankers tend to be more concerned about inflation than unemployment—and those two goals often run at cross purposes.

A quick look at the mechanics makes this clear. The Federal Reserve tries to accomplish its objectives by using monetary policy, or adjustment of interest rates—lowering interest rates to give the economy a boost, raising interest rates to slow it down.

Why would they want to slow the economy down? Their reasoning is that inflation is the byproduct of economic overheating, or “too much demand chasing too few goods.” From this perspective, high inflation calls for high interest rates, which in theory will bring “demand” back to where it should be.

Beneath all the technical terms and concepts, what this means is quite simple: the Federal Reserve fights inflation by engineering recessions and intentionally raising unemployment. Monetary policy, when used this way, is a blunt weapon of class war.

GET IT WHILE YOU CAN

Early this year, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell announced plans to begin doing just that—raising interest rates and ending other Covid emergency monetary measures. Since then, Powell and other central bankers have only become more hawkish, increasing the pace and size of scheduled interest rate hikes.

In addition to being an objectively anti-worker policy, this approach is also plain wrong-headed: current inflation is the result of pandemic shut-downs and war in Ukraine, not the result of an overheated economy. Monetary policy will not do anything about the supply chain problems, food and energy market volatility, or corporate pricing decisions that are driving prices upward.

What this new monetary policy may do is produce a recession. This is where inflation and the Federal Reserve’s response becomes most relevant to those entering bargaining in the coming months.

Corporate America has just had one of its best runs on record. And thanks to federal aid, state and city governments are in a better financial position than any time in recent memory. But because of the Federal Reserve, conditions may not remain favorable for long. So there is every reason to take advantage of this opportunity to lock in the most that you possibly can before things take a turn for the worse.

THE FED’S CLASS WARFARE

It is also worth taking a moment to step back and consider inflation for what it is: an issue of class politics. Why is the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy the only tool on offer for controlling inflation? Why does the burden of inflation control fall on workers, and not on corporate shareholders?

What if we limited corporate profits and controlled the prices of key goods rather than suppressing wages—would businesses stop investing? Let’s say they did. If so, couldn’t the government step in and provide more goods and services publicly?

There are no correct technical answers to these questions. They can only be resolved politically, through struggle over the kind of society we hope to call into being.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on July 8, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Author’s name is Samir Sonti. Samir teaches at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.


Share this post

Subscribe For Updates

Sign Up:

* indicates required

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.