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The Pentagon Wants to Sacrifice Mexican and Indian Workers for U.S. Arms Industry Profits

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Sarah Lazare | Al Jazeera America

On March 20, the Pentagon issued a guideline stating that U.S manufacturers of missiles, warships and fighter jets should stay open during the Covid-19 crisis. The rationale is that the “defense industrial base” constitutes “essential” critical infrastructure for the United States. Yet we have every reason to believe that U.S. militarism, propped up by the arms industry, is making the world far more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Five years of devastating airstrikes, primarily carried out with U.S.-made weapons, have decimated Yemen’s health system just in time for Covid-19—and the bombs did not stop when the pandemic began. Instead of global cooperation, we’ve seen the United States tighten sanctions on Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, deploy ships to the caribbean to provoke Venezuela, and take a confrontational posture towards China. Now, U.S. workers are being asked to risk their lives—or, as one union that represents General Dynamics workers in Maine put it, become “sacrificial lambs”—so that the U.S. war machine can keep humming. Meanwhile, far from the assembly lines and plant floors, the CEOs of companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are safeguarding their profits. These are the same executives who enjoy influence in the Trump administration, whose Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, is a former lobbyist for Raytheon.

But now we are seeing a new dimension to this injustice. To protect the flow of supplies to U.S. military contractors, the Pentagon is pressuring Mexico and India to keep factories open, at the peril of Mexican and Indian workers. However bankrupt the argument that U.S. weapons manufacturers must stay open to protect American interests, it is outright brutish for the Pentagon to impose this standard on other countries. Workers in Mexico and India have no say in the actions of the U.S. government or military, yet they are being asked to put their lives at risk for America’s “national security.”

Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in Mexico, where factories are sources of major outbreaks. In mid-April, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, warned that factories that continued to operate, despite orders for non-essential businesses to shut down, threatened to become major vectors of the disease and unleash an outbreak in northern border states.

Yet, just days later, in an April 20 press briefing, Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord said that “several pockets of closure internationally” are impacting the “aviation supply chain, ship-building and small space launch.” She stated, “I spoke with our U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on Friday, and today, I am writing the Mexican Foreign Minister to ask for help to reopen international suppliers there. These companies are especially important for our U.S. airframe production.” While Lord did not specify which U.S. companies she was referring to, several U.S. military contractors have subsidiaries in Mexico, including Lockheed Martin and Honeywell, according to a U.S. International Trade Commission report from 2013. In an April 21 earnings call, a Lockheed Martin official indicated that the company sees it as a priority that vital suppliers in Mexico stay open.

The Pentagon was not the only powerful U.S. entity that joined in this pressure campaign. In an April 24 special briefing, Michael Kozak, acting Assistant Secretary at the State Department, said, “Our embassy and here in Washington has been working very closely with Mexico, advocating for American firms.” He added, “And I think we’re making progress on that.” Meanwhile, on April 22, more than 300 corporate presidents, chairs and CEOs wrote a letter to Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to keep open manufacturers deemed by the United States to be “essential and critical.”

These joint efforts appear to have been effective. Ten days after her initial remarks about Mexico, Lord indicated in another press briefing that U.S. pressure had been successful. “While I won’t provide any numbers, we have seen positive results,” she said. “I am thankful to our U.S. ambassador in Mexico, and to the government of Mexico, who has taken great strides to evaluate firms and their contribution to U.S. National Security requirements.”

Her admission that Mexico is being compelled to put its workers at risk in the service of U.S. “national security” is striking. What’s more, Lord revealed that U.S. corporations had a seat at the table when this pressure was discussed. “I have had ongoing conversations with our U.S. ambassador to Mexico, U.S. corporate CEOs, members of the House and Senate, as well as other officials in the State Department over the past two weeks to highlight key companies constraining our domestic defense supply chain in order to catalyze re-openings in Mexico,” she said. “We appreciate Mexico’s ongoing positive response.” (The Washington Post reported on May 1 that Mexico’s President AMLO “has not clarified whether U.S. defense or health-care manufacturers should remain open.”)

In a statement for a Defense News article published April 21, Eric Fanning, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, attempted to present the subservience of Mexican workers’ lives to U.S. arms manufacturers’ interests as a form of mutually-beneficial synchronization in the spirit of the Trump administration’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, slated to take effect July 1. “To restore certainty and keep goods and services moving, all levels of government within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico must work together to provide clear, coordinated, and direct guidance about how best to protect our workers, while ensuring aerospace and defense is declared an ‘essential’ function in all three countries,” he said.

The claim that a few months of slowed or stopped production presents a threat to the U.S. military apparatus is untrue on its face. The United States, by far, has the largest military in the world: In 2019 the country accounted for 38% of all global military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The United States is also the top arms exporter by a long shot, delivering weapons to 96 countries from 2015 to 2019, according to a separate SIPRI finding. What’s more, this industry has grown significantly over the past five years, with U.S. arms exports from 2015 to 2019 23% higher than 2015 to 19. The idea that this massive industry can not pause to protect the lives of workers without threatening the U.S. military fails on its own, violent logic.

Meanwhile, some Mexican workers have vociferously objected to being asked to work during the pandemic for U.S. companies. In mid-April, protests took hold in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border, after workers for U.S. companies died, as Reuters reports. “These companies are worried about their supply chains, but it’s the workers who are dying,” Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor activist in Ciudad Juárez, told the Washington Post amid protests against the Michigan-based Lear Corp., which makes car seats. “And if all they do is export, how is that essential to Mexico?”

It is not immediately clear which suppliers or subsidiaries to U.S. military contractors in Mexico have remained open as a result of pressure from the Pentagon, and whether any deaths can be directly attributed to the Pentagon’s actions. However, even keeping a single factory open for the good of U.S. military contractors presents an unacceptable risk to the workers being asked to clock in.

Mexican workers don’t appear to be the only ones being asked to make a sacrifice for the U.S. military industry. In her April 30 statement, Lord indicated, while providing no details, that the United States is applying similar pressure to India. “We’re also watching India very closely,” she said. “India has mandated closure of businesses, which is impacting defense sector primes. India is a major defense partner, and we hope they can all stay safe while transitioning back to an operational status.” This followed a brief statement she made in her April 20 remarks: “Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us, but we’re working through our Embassy, and then there are pockets in India, as well.”

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are currently 42,836 confirmed Covid-19 cases in India, yet it has one of the lowest testing rates in the world, so numbers could be far higher. With a population of 1.3 billion and just 0.55 hospital beds per 1,000 people, a full-blown outbreak in the country could be catastrophic.

The U.S. military was already in the business of sacrificing the wellbeing of ordinary people all over the world to maintain its dominance. We see this in its 800 military bases across the planet, which erode self-determination and environmental safety around the world. We also see it in the military’s ongoing wars, occupations, drone strikes and proxy battles—which have persisted, and in some cases escalated—during the pandemic. And we have seen this in the Pentagon’s request for billions in the next stimulus package, demanding a bailout for arms industry CEOs while 30 million people in the United States are newly unemployed. That the Pentagon is now demanding workers in other countries risk their lives for the sake of protecting its U.S. contractors shines new light on the cruelty of the U.S. military, and on the folly of allowing systems designed to carry out war to determine what constitutes “essential” work.

This article was published at In These Times on May 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


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Workers Are Fighting for Their Lives on May Day. They Deserve to Be Heard.

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In the Season Three finale, Working People talks with Adam Ryan, a Target worker in Virginia and liaison for Target Workers Unite, one of the groups that has been organizing the coordinated strike actions planned for May 1st, 2020. Adam discusses his life, his path to becoming a leftist and getting involved in labor organizing, and the conditions that Target employees have been working under even before the Covid-19 crisis began.


This blog was originally published at In These Times on May 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Search Results Web results Workers Won’t Quit Just to Get a Marginally Increased Benefit

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Unemployment insurance (UI) is a program designed to keep workers connected to the workforce. It is an earned benefit that allows workers to receive income while they are looking for a job. Any notion that workers will not return to work when it is safe to do so ignores not only evidence but also the intention of the unemployment insurance system.

UI benefits have always been a critical, yet insufficient wage replacement. The weekly benefit in states with the best benefits generally covers around 50 percent of a worker’s lost wages, allowing for some income during instances of unemployment, while remaining woefully inadequate to cover all expenses. This is particularly true if unemployed people worked in jobs that paid minimum or low wages.

Making ends meet when making 100 percent wages is hard enough for underpaid workers, never mind trying to do so making only – or less than – half of that. That is why the new Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program, which temporarily provides an additional $600 weekly to qualified unemployed workers (on top of their regular state unemployment benefits) is so important to workers – and to our ability to counter this economic downturn.

We should be asking ourselves why underpaid workers – who will hopefully be making closer to or above their regular wages, allowing for greater economic stability in these uncertain times – are being expected to labor for too little money in the first place. Wages have stagnated for decades. People cannot live on the wages they are making, much less on an unemployment benefit that is a fraction of that.

Right now, our concern should be focused on making sure that workers are able to maintain an adequate income. This benefit boost is necessary in part because states have lowered their unemployment insurance benefit levels to the point where they cannot effectively provide countercyclical stabilization during a recession.

As NELP has reported repeatedly, the real problem is that too many workers who qualify for benefits cannot access them. As we have seen across the country, filing for unemployment insurance can be arduous.

When we see workers standing in line for paper applications for unemployment insurance, workers spending hours on hold while trying to apply over the phone, or the crashing of computer systems, we should focus on making sure everyone who lost work can get their benefit instead of worrying about the extremely unlikely scenario that underpaid workers will quit to get unemployment benefits.

There are more than a few reasons to call this idea into question. First, of all, under every state unemployment law in the country, a person who quits work in order to receive an unemployment check will be found ineligible for benefits. There are some situations (mostly adverse changes in wages, hours, and working conditions) that can be regarded as good cause to leave a job; the prospect of a higher unemployment benefit is not one of them.

Second, several guidance letters issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration have made it clear that quitting work to receive unemployment benefits can be fraud – workers know this because the few stories about fraud are used by anti-worker, anti-UI proponents to represent all workers and hurt a system that can support all. Workers are informed before applying that they cannot claim benefits for which they do not qualify and if they do, they will need to pay them back, and may even face steep financial penalties.

Moreover, it’s short-sighted to overlook how critical it is for workers to maintain their connection to a job right now. For so many people, there is more to a job than the paycheck. Workers can share a sense of camaraderie with their coworkers. They can find personal meaning in their jobs. If nothing else, work can provide a sense of stability for individuals and families.

In these highly uncertain times, the reassurance of continued work is something that more and more workers can no longer count on. It may be the source of health care benefits, retirement security, and possibly equity in the company. Workers are also well aware of how resume gaps can harm long-term job prospects, even in this era.

Policymakers need to learn the lesson of the last recession, which many individuals,  families and communities,  never recovered from. The response to the last recession did not inject enough money and was not sustained enough to ensure that communities actually recovered.

The families and communities that were most harmed in the last recession, unsurprisingly, were disproportionately people of color and women – who already were dealing with generational racial wealth gaps and gender wage gaps. Today, we are in an economic crisis with workers in a worse place economically than before. Communities cannot afford for policymakers to aim low in terms of emergency aid.

It is concerning that states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee are “re-opening” their economies and encouraging workers to go back to work. If shutting off access to unemployment insurance is any motivator behind this decision, it is sure to backfire. As public health officials warn, the more people who are forced to go back to work, the greater the risk to their health and safety and the cascading effects.

As we see shockingly disproportionate numbers of Black people dying, we know that racism and classism are not only the root cause of economic abandonment but also encapsulate our entire response in this moment.

More workers getting sick and overwhelming the health care system will prolong the duration of the pandemic and the number of people being infected, while also exacerbating economic problems in the future. The rush to reopen will ironically lengthen the duration of the crisis and worsen long-term economic conditions – particularly for underpaid workers of color and women of color.

Any argument being made that is not focused on ensuring all workers have the income needed to survive in this moment is ignoring a very important lesson: providing people with economic security is the answer to economic stability in good times, and to recovery after times of crisis. After all, the economy doesn’t exist without workers.

This article was originally published at NELP on April 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michele Evermore joined NELP in 2018 as a senior policy analyst for social insurance. She has worked to promote worker power as a legislative advocate for labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union District 1199 New England and National Nurses United. She also worked for the Obama Department of Labor to advance sound benefits policy, employment policy for people with disabilities, and equal pay for equal work. Prior to that, she worked in Congress for a decade, primarily for Senator Tom Harkin and also for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. In those roles, she worked to advance worker protections, organizing rights, and improving retirement security in a variety of private pension plan designs, as well as Social Security.


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VA Workers Say Southern States Reopening Too Soon Puts Veterans’ Lives At Risk

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Image result for Hamilton Nolan

As Republican governors across the South gear up to reopen businesses in their states over the objections of public health experts, health care workers for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—already stretched thin in the face of the COVID-19 crisis—fear for their vulnerable patients, and for themselves.

The governors of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee say they are coordinating plans for regional reopening of businesses that have been shuttered for weeks by the spread of coronavirus. The most aggressive plans thus far have come from Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who announced this week that his state will allow gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and other businesses to reopen this Friday, along with restaurants and movie theaters on Monday. That announcement has drawn objections from the mayors of Georgia’s biggest cities, as well as from public health experts, who point out that the state’s infection rate has not yet peaked, and that Georgia lacks the capacity to do widespread testing in a way that would make such reopening safe.

One obvious consequence of reopening businesses before the virus is contained could be an increase in COVID-19 cases, wiping out any benefits from the past weeks of social distancing. Such a scenario is concerning for John Corn, an AFGE union steward and a nurse at a VA medical facility in Carrollton, Georgia that provides care for elderly and disabled veterans. Between staffers who are sick, forced to take time off to care for children whose schools are closed, and forced to quarantine because they came in contact with a colleague who tested positive for COVID-19, Corn says that his facility is already seriously short-staffed—sometimes there are only two medical workers, rather than the usual four, overseeing a house with 11 patients. “It’s very stressful times for the staff and the residents,” Corn says. “Twelve hours of work, stopping for just 20 minutes to throw down some food and take a drink. That’s the only break we’re getting.”

Corn and his coworkers are members of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents hundreds of thousands of VA employees nationwide. Since the coronavirus outbreak began in earnest, nurses at his facility have been trying to get access to more personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly N95 masks, which are being tightly rationed. For now, Corn and others who have direct patient contact are given only gloves and a basic surgical masks.

“We’re rationed one mask per day. You wear that one mask for twelve hours,” Corn says. At the end of his shift, he takes off the mask, goes home, and then puts the same mask on to walk back into work the next day and receive a new mask. The shortage of protective equipment puts everyone at risk. Because the facility has been locked down to visitors, Corn points out, the only way that patients can become infected is through staff members, who leave, go home and come back in every day. If the state’s business reopening causes a “massive increase” in cases as he fears, staffers can transmit that to vulnerable patients. Even though nurses are conscious of the fact that they could easily become asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus, they have not been able to secure more PPE. Instead, he says, they’re simply told that “this is what it is.”

The same problems plague VA workers in Florida—another state where a Trump-allied Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is determined to reopen businesses. Desantis appointed a special commission to come up with a plan for reopening by the end of the week. Tatishka Thomas, the president of AFGE Local 548 in Bay Pines, Florida, which represents more than a thousand VA medical workers, says that one of her top concerns is that workers who do not have direct patient contact are issued only a single surgical mask per week, well short of what she considers to be safe.

Thomas dreads the idea of businesses in the state opening in the near future. “I’m extremely concerned, Because of the simple fact that everyone hasn’t been tested,” she said. Currently, Floridians without symptoms are not being widely tested, despite the fact that there could be many asymptomatic carriers. Asked what her union’s relationship is with the governor’s office, Thomas had a one-word answer: “Nonexistent.”

The VA employees in Repulican-controlled southern states find themselves in the politically tricky position of being both union members (unpopular), and essential front-line health care workers taking care of veterans (very popular). John Corn, who is himself at increased risk from COVID-19 because he is a diabetic, understands firsthand the bitter irony of the situation: His employer, the U.S. government, will not give him and his fellow coworkers what they need to protect themselves at work, even though their primary goal is to protect the veterans in their care. The same politicians who are quick to proclaim their love for veterans—and their disdain for public sector unions like AFGE—are putting those veterans in danger by reopening businesses too soon, and exposing their caregivers to greater risks.

“I choose to do what I do because I love what I do. I love my veterans. I support my country by taking care of these veterans,” Corn says. “But i’m also a union member. I support my union. And I will be there for my members to give them that voice.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Defend Global Supply Chain Workers Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Brian Finnegan (@finneganba) | Twitter

COVID-19 may not yet have sickened as many people in developing countries as in the United States or Europe, but more than 150 million workers in supply chains are already suffering the swift and massive impact of the pandemic. These workers have even less savings and weaker social protection systems than the very weak ones America’s workers have. Just as we insist U.S. government assistance in this crisis must prioritize jobs and workers’ lives and livelihoods, global collective efforts must focus on millions of workers in global supply chains who have no safety net.

Global demand has plummeted and major corporations have stopped buying, many canceling orders already placed—even refusing to pay for goods already produced. Employers in these supply chains are cutting jobs and wages. Global garment workers, already facing some of the worst working and living conditions before the pandemic, are losing their precarious foothold on survival. At minimum, major garment brands and retailers must pay for work already done and goods already made or in production. Some companies have acted ethically; others have not.  

Today, workers and employers announced a joint statement to work together in the garment industry at the global level to clarify principles that major brands and retailers must act on throughout this industry that has long depended on unsustainable practices and low wages.  

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow joined the call to action:

We cannot afford the human and economic devastation of the collapse of our global supply chains and millions more in developing economies thrown back into poverty. Jobs, incomes and social protection are the dividends of business continuity, and this statement calls for emergency funds and social protection for workers to guarantee industry survival in the poorest of our countries. Leadership and cooperation from all stakeholders are vital to realize a future based on resilience and decent work.

In the statement, employers and workers commit to work together to seek funding for the producing countries from governments and international financial institutions and other sources, so that workers can get wages, jobs can be preserved during the crisis and governments can commit to strengthen social protection programs in the future. 

Like all statements of principle, this one is a first step that will mean nothing without immediate action and sustained collaboration with workers. Beyond paying wages, the industry must reform its labor relations and buying practices to fix problems that have existed for decades. The global labor movement and allies will track the behavior of governments that receive this assistance and the actions of buyers and suppliers in the supply chain, as well as the impacts of both on workers. Student labor activists are already tracking the follow-through by some brands from the United States

Other industries need to collaborate globally and work upward from these principles, too, making more concrete commitments. Working with the global labor movement, the AFL-CIO will pursue these commitments to ensure that companies and governments fulfill their stated principles and ethical and legal commitments in this crisis and move toward globalization with social justice.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on April 22, 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.


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Hospital Food Workers and Janitors Are Stuck In a “Death Trap”

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kari-lydersen

The hospital where Kim Smith works is supposed to be a “safe haven,” says the patient care technician at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago. But now she feels it has become a “death trap.”

Like the nurses and doctors nationwide who are risking their lives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith says she’s glad to help provide healthcare in such traumatic times. But she’s among the army of frontline healthcare service providers who, while crucial to keeping the system going, are earning much lower wages than doctors and nurses and often lack adequate healthcare and paid sick leave. And like doctors and nurses, these service workers often also lack access to personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, even though they’re put in contact with infected patients.

Now, Chicago-area healthcare service workers—technicians, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), transporters, food service workers and housekeepers—are demanding better treatment and protection from their institutions, as well as additional “hazard pay” for their work during the crisis.

On April 2, SEIU Local 73—which represents workers at University of Illinois and Cook County public healthcare facilities in the Chicago area—announced that it had secured additional compensation for its workers in the university system. Union members will get an additional $1 to $5 per hour during the pandemic depending on their job description and where exactly they work within the system. The county system serves the area’s low-income and uninsured people including the hospital at the Cook County Jail, which has turned into a COVID-19 cluster.

“The extra pay is not a really significant amount but it acknowledges that we recognize you, we know you are great, that you really care about your job and your community,” says Dian Palmer, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Local 73, which has been in contract negotiations with the University of Illinois system for about nine months.

The union SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana represents workers through contracts at hospitals including Northwestern Memorial and also has at-large members in nursing homes and hospitals in the Chicago area and across four states. They’re demanding hazard pay of 1.5 times the usual rate, and added protections for their members.

Smith, a chief steward for SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana, says fellow union members at Northwestern are “reaching out to me on an hourly basis” about being forced to work without proper safety equipment and protocols while receiving contradictory messages from management. Employees have been told to continue working even after they report COVID-like symptoms if they are “low-risk” for the disease, Smith says. With many of these workers living on the economic margins, and offered few paid sick days, they’re reluctant to take time off.

About 29,000 healthcare service workers in Illinois make below $15 an hour, and 22,000 of them make below $13 an hour, according to a study by the University of Illinois. Palmer notes that service job vacancies have been hard to fill at the University of Illinois Chicago hospital since they’re exempt from the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance.

Anne Igoe, SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana Vice-President of the Health Systems Division, notes that with such low wages, these employees regularly work more than one job—whether picking up a second shift at a nursing home or as an Uber driver—increasing their own, and by extension patients’, risk of contacting coronavirus. She says employees are also used to working while sick, since they typically are guaranteed few paid sick days and until recent changes because of the pandemic, were penalized for taking extra ones.

Igoe says the majority of their Chicago-area members are African American and are women, many of them living in marginalized neighborhoods and with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of extreme illness or death from COVID-19. In Chicago, more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 fatalities and more than half of confirmed cases have been among African Americans, even though they make up less than a third of the city’s population.

In cities nationwide, as in Chicago, lower-paid healthcare service jobs are disproportionately filled by women and people of color.

“This pandemic has made it clear who has access to testing, who has access to quality healthcare,” Igoe says. “Our low-wage workers in the finest hospitals are not given protections and not given the same access to follow-up care that some of their patients have.” 

Katina McDavis, 43, has been working as a housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial for over 20 years. She has diabetes, putting her at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. McDavis also lives with her daughter and two infant grandchildren, and is terrified of contracting the virus and passing it on to them.

Since the pandemic began, McDavis has been working overtime—often over 60 or 70 hours a week total, she says. She needs the extra pay and wants to help out, but that also leaves her physically exhausted and potentially more vulnerable to illness.

She and other housekeepers are given surgical masks—not the more protective N-95 masks—and told to keep them in a paper bag and reuse them, she says. In an informal survey of about 250 SEIU Healthcare members during an online meeting, 58% reported they lack sufficient PPE and 38% said they were told by higher-ups that they don’t need PPE.

“I’m jeopardizing myself coming here every day,” McDavis says. “I love my work but just give me the tools I need to do my job.” 

Candice Martinez, another housekeeper at Northwestern Memorial, tested positive for COVID-19 after coming down with symptoms about two weeks ago. She feels confident she contracted it on the job, having cleaned rooms where she says she was not properly notified that patients had the virus.

“It’s hard because I’m in complete isolation and I don’t get to see my son,” Martinez says. “It’s scary knowing there’s nothing they can give me to say this will help you get past this. It’s having to battle this out on my own.”

While Martinez believes she will receive workers compensation for the time she is out of work, Igoe says that human resources officials at several hospitals have told the union that workers will not be granted workers comp for COVID-19, since they could have caught it through community transmission.

Igoe says employees often “find out co-workers tested positive through the grapevine, rather than being told by their employer that someone they worked closely with yesterday tested positive.”

A statement from Northwestern Memorial did not address specific questions but said in part that: “The health and safety of our employees, physicians, and patients is our highest priority. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an environment that protects everyone.”

Loretto Hospital on the city’s West Side—where SEIU Healthcare represents employees—has granted time-and-a-half hazard pay to employees in the emergency department and COVID-19 unit. 

Loretto spokesperson Mark Walker says that workers do have access to sufficient PPE supplies, the hospital follows all CDC safety guidelines, and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will be paid during their time off. But the hospital is indeed hard-pressed as it serves a largely poor, African American clientele, Walker says. At an April 7 press conference, hospital CEO George Miller, Jr. and State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, who represents the district, appealed to the city, county, state and federal government for more resources. 

“We are a small community hospital, 90% of our patients are Medicare and Medicaid meaning we’re providing services and being reimbursed at a much lower rate,” Walker said. “You take a pandemic like this and add it onto an already stretched-thin hospital, and you can reach a breaking point. We’re not there yet, but it creates additional stress on our resources and our funds. We’re trying to do everything we can to protect this community. Without additional resources, we’re going to struggle.”

Wellington Thomas is an E.R. tech at Loretto, said he goes to work each day fearing he may contract the disease. 

“COVID turned our world upside down,” Thomas says. “We’re dealing with an influx of patients, the equipment we already struggled with (having enough of) is now scarce, employees are afraid to come to work…It’s not just contained areas, it’s spreading like a wildfire through the hospital—radiology, imaging, phlebotomy, blood tests.” 

(The Cook County health system had not responded to requests for comment by the time this story went to press.)

At other hospitals as at Loretto, workers say the pandemic has highlighted issues like inadequate staffing, low wages and insufficient equipment that have long pushed healthcare service workers to the brink.

“Support staff like us have been the underdogs for a long time,” says Megan Carr, a respiratory specialist who runs ventilators for the University of Illinois system. “So getting hazard pay makes us feel like we are finally being recognized and respected for the work that we are doing, saving lives one breath at a time.”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on April 7, 2020.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.


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Economy Loses 701,000 Jobs in March; Unemployment Jumps to 4.4%

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The U.S. economy lost 701,000 jobs in March, and the unemployment rate jumped by nearly a point to 4.4%, according to figures released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

In response to the March job numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs said:

Though the recent spikes in unemployment claims were not captured in the March report, we experienced our steepest monthly decline in payrolls in this report since March 2009. Especially hard hit were the lowest wage sectors of the economy: leisure and hospitality and brick and mortar sections of the retail industry. Going forward, based on the unemployment claim numbers, things will get worse.

Last month’s biggest job losses were in leisure and hospitality (-459,000), health care and social assistance (-61,000), professional and business services (-52,000), retail trade (-46,000), construction (-29,000), other services (-24,000), manufacturing (-18,000) and mining (-6,000). Federal government employment added 18,000 jobs, primarily 2020 Census workers. Employment in other major industries—including wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, information, and financial activities—changed little over the month.

In March, unemployment rates rose among all major worker groups. The rate was 14.3% for teenagers, 6.7% for blacks, 6.0 % for Hispanics, 4.1% for Asians, 4.0% for adult men, 4.0% for adult women and 4.0% for whites.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) showed little change in March and accounted for 15.9% of the unemployed.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on April 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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Big Win on Back Pay: Worker Wins

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Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with a victory on back pay for NABET-CWA workers at CNN and includes numerous examples of working people organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. 

NABET-CWA Workers Win $76 Million in Back Pay from CNN: Locals 11 and 31 of NABET-CWA have negotiated one of the largest back pay settlements in the history of the NLRB. CNN is required to bay $76 million to hundreds of broadcast technicians who were fired when CNN terminated a subcontract with Team Video Services. NABET-CWA President Charlie Braico said: “After more than 15 years, this settlement agreement finally delivers justice for workers who experienced serious hardship in their lives due to CNN’s union-busting practices. This incredible settlement in workers’ favor should send a very clear message to CNN and to other employers that union-busting is illegal and has consequences.”

University of California-Santa Cruz Trades Workers End Strike with New Contract: Dozens of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other trades workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, ended a strike with victory as they ratified a new contract representing for the 49 AFSCME Local 3299 members. Electrician Joe Baxter said: “I’m just really proud of our people that we held the line and were able to get a fair and good contract. In the end, I felt like UCSC came through and gave us a fair contract.”

King County, Washington, Water District Workers Win New Contract: Members of the Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 302 capped months of negotiations with a victory as the commissioners of King County Water District 19 approved a union contract, the first in the district’s history. Shop steward Dominic Jovanovich said: “It was definitely tense at first, but we knew our supporters would come out for us and show solidarity because we know that organized labor is strong together. We were happy the board made the right decision and we’re excited to move forward.”

Joliet Marijuna Workers Join UFCW: A majority of the 95 employees at the Cresco Labs marijuana cultivation facility in Joliet, Illinois, voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). This is the first successful organizing drive in Illinois since recreational marijuana use was legalized. The workers are seeking better pay and more comprehensive health benefits.

Sports Illustrated Editorial Employees Vote for NewsGuild Representation: More than 90% of the editorial employees have voted to join the The NewGuild of New York-CWA. The new unit covers some 80 writers, editors, producers and other editorial staff in print, digital and video. Top issues for the workers are job security, severance, layoff protections, pay equity, workplace safety, diversity in hiring and advancement, and a voice in editorial strategy. Senior writer Jenny Vrentas said: “As journalists, we hold the teams and athletes we cover accountable. It is our responsibility to do the same in our own workplace. We are unionizing to ensure that Sports Illustrated is a safe, inclusive place to work, where all employees are treated equally and can continue to perform our jobs at a high level.”

Google Cafeteria Workers Join UNITE HERE: Approximately 2,300 cafeteria workers at Google campuses in the California Bay Area have voted to be represented by UNITE HERE. The workers are technically employed by a subcontractor, Compass Group, through its subsidiary, Bon Appétit Management Co. Compass and UNITE HERE are negotiating the first contract for the unit.

NewsGuild Members at The New Republic Ratify Ambitious Contract: Newsroom workers at The New Republic unionized in 2018 in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Now those workers have secured their first contract, which contains ambitious diversity provisions, progressive policy to prevent sexual harassment, and industry-leading intellectual property and privacy rights. Unit Chair Alex Shephard said: “This contract solidifies an important goal behind why we organized: To protect and live the values that The New Republic has espoused in its pages for over 100 years. The strength of our union is reflected in this contract, and I’m proud to have stood alongside fellow Guild members in crafting an agreement that fosters an environment of collaboration, transparency, growth, and sustainability.” 

St. Louis Metro Workers Secure New Contract: The negotiations took months, but the members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 788 won a new contract from St. Louis Metro Transit. Some 1,500 working people voted to approve the new contract, which includes higher starting pay, protections against rising insurance costs, and increased pay for night and weekend work. Overall, wages and benefits for the workers will see an increase of $26 million over three years. Reggie Howard, president of Local 788, said: “It was a long fight. But we feel really good about it.”

USW Members at Clearwater Paper Agree on New Contract: Workers at Clearwater Paper have been working without a contract since 2017. The members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 712 approved an agreement that would cover more than 800 employees. Contract negotiations have been long and contentious with the membership almost unanimously rejecting what Clearwater previously said was its last and best offer. The new contract runs through 2025.

Food and Water Workers’ Union Voluntarily Recognized: Nearly 80 workers at Food & Water Action (and its affiliated organization, Food & Water Watch) from around the country voted to be represented by the Nonprofit Professionals Employee Union (NPEU), IFTPE Local 70. Management will voluntarily recognize the new unit. The workers said: “As an organization, we advocate for union power in the WATER Act and a real Green New Deal because we recognize the critical importance of protecting union labor and not leaving workers behind in our fight for a better world. We believe that a union will allow us to truly live up to our values; will give us a tangible way to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplace; and will show the rest of the world how truly invested we are in the right of workers to make a fair living on a livable planet.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on April 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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America’s workers face an outbreak of uncertainty

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Timothy NoahAmericans are going home — and creating an economic train wreck.

The coronavirus outbreak has U.S. companies starting to shutter offices and send workers home through layoffs, furloughs or directives to telecommute until health risks from the spreading virus recede.

The evidence is expected to show up through lost consumer spending, derailed business plans and swift damage to lower-wage workers across the nation. The extent of the damage will rest largely on how long it takes for businesses and consumers to gain confidence that the threat is under control.

“If workers can’t work … production and income go down,” Georgetown University economist Harry Holzer said. “That becomes a demand problem if workers lose income and stop spending.”

When that happens, “odds of recession can go way up,” Holzer said.

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all advised Seattle employees to work at home after workers at Facebook and Amazon were diagnosed with the virus. In Everett, Wash., ten workers were sent home from a Boeing plant even before it could be confirmed that a sniffling coworker had coronavirus.

Businesses are halting non-essential travel at a rapid pace and major conferences are suddenly canceling across the U.S. As airline bookings tumble, United Airlines announced it will next month cut international flights by 20 percent and domestic flights by 10 percent. It invited staff to take unpaid leaves of absence. Other airlines around the world are already furloughing workers and slashing schedules as they face the prospect of flying empty planes.

In some cases, employees are asked to vacate the very workplaces where the virus is treated. At the University of California, Davis Medical Center, 36 registered nurses and 88 other health care workers were sent home, according to the labor union National Nurses United, after a single coronavirus patient was admitted to that hospital. Hospital workers reportedly numbering in the dozens were sent home under similar circumstances by Kaiser Permanente’s Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, Ore. — long before the Oregon governor declared a state of emergency on Sunday.

For workers, the consequences of being sent home depend greatly on the circumstances. Many white-collar professions can adapt with relative ease to telecommuting from home for a temporary period, but workers in the brick-and-mortar retail, restaurant and hotel sectors cannot. Hourly workers are likelier than salaried workers to be laid off.

The sudden darkening of the outlook comes against a long stretch of resilience for the economy — in an expansion now in its 11th year, the longest on record.

For now, official statistics show a robust labor market, with 273,000 jobs created in February, the Labor Department reported Friday, and an unemployment rate at a very low 3.5 percent. But economists are bracing for a weaker jobs report in March.

The first hints of trouble are expected to come in weekly jobless claims and gauges of the factory sector, which has been under strain from President Donald Trump’s trade wars.

The manufacturing industry, which employs about 9 percent of the U.S. workforce, was underperforming even before news of China’s coronavirus outbreak first surfaced in January. The international nature of supply chains in the global economy — domestic factories’ reliance on parts produced in other countries — spell a near-certain decline in U.S. factory hiring even if the coronavirus outbreak is contained within the U.S. In a potential early sign of trouble, the Institute for Supply Management’s index of national factory activity fell to 50.1 in February, down from 50.9 in January, bringing it back to the brink of a sub-50 reading indicating recession in the sector.

“The supply shocks from quarantined factories in Asia are weeks away from idling U.S., Canadian and European factories,” said economist Michael Hicks of Ball State University, “and the demand-side impact on tourism, travel, eating and drinking establishments is already being felt across the world.”

Economists are already urging policymakers to consider a stimulus program to cushion Americans from impending damage. Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, proposes a one-time payment of $1,000 to every adult American citizen or taxpaying adult.

“If the economic shock is small and stimulus proves to be unnecessary,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, “its negative effects are likely to be small. But if the shock is bigger and policy makers fail to act now, it will be harder to reverse the economic damage.”

Eleven states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, require employers to offer workers paid leave, as does the District of Columbia. But none of these jurisdictions explicitly guarantee the benefit to healthy workers on leave because a virus outbreak sent everybody home.

Fourteen Democratic senators last week wrote to leaders of the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to urge their member companies not to penalize workers for going home during the outbreak.

Paid sick days are particularly rare for low-income workers. Ninety-three percent of workers in the top tenth of the income distribution get paid sick leave, compared with only 30 percent of those in the bottom tenth, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

“People are already losing pay,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, citing flight attendants’ loss of overtime hours and per diems.

While Trump has been trumpeting his actions in fighting the coronavirus, Nelson blames him for increasing its economic cost — through widespread cancellations of business meetings and travel — due to his initial response. “Shutting down these public meetings, she said, “is the only way to stop the spread if you don’t have a way of identifying where the threat is.”

“It makes me very angry,” she said, “because it’s my members’ lives and their jobs.”

With all the uncertainties surrounding the U.S. outbreak, experts are reluctant to predict with any specificity the coming impact on workers. But comparable episodes from the past provide some guide.

After the 9/11 attacks, which suspended air travel and required much of lower Manhattan to be evacuated, about 115,000 workers were laid off by the end of that year, according to the DOL. Forty-two percent were in the airline industry, and 28 percent were employed by hotels and motels.

The U.S. economy was already in recession by that point — it started in March 2001 and ended in November. Still, economists say the widespread uncertainty after 9/11, the start of the war in Afghanistan and the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 all restrained hiring by employers worried about the outlook.

A global outbreak similar to the Spanish flu of 1918-19 — the most commonly cited historical comparison — would produce “a short-run impact on the worldwide economy similar in depth and duration to that of an average postwar recession in the United States,” a 2005 Congressional Budget Office report estimated. The significant caveat is that the Spanish flu was deadliest to the young and healthy, whereas the coronavirus, like most epidemics, exacts its worst toll on the elderly and the infirm.

A 2007 report by the St. Louis Federal Reserve raised the gruesome possibility that a shortage of workers from a major outbreak ultimately would increase wages, as it seems to have done in 1918, though it noted that was less likely now, “given the greater mobility of workers that exists today.” (The coronavirus is also much less deadly to the working-age population.)

“Given our highly mobile and connected society,” the report concluded, any comparable pandemic in the future “is likely to be more severe in its reach.”

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at Politico on March 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Timothy Noah is the Employment & Immigration editor at POLITICO. Previously he was a contributing writer for MSNBC.com and a senior editor at the New Republic, where he wrote the “TRB From Washington” column. For a dozen years before that he was a senior writer at Slate magazine, where he wrote the “Chatterbox” and “Prescriptions” columns. Noah has also been a Washington-based reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek; an assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report; and an editor at the Washington Monthly. He is the author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It” (Bloomsbury, 2012).




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The Next Big Grocery Strike Is Knocking on Safeway and Giant’s Door

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Last April, more than 30,000 Stop & Shop grocery workers across the Northeast won a raucous 11-day strike against the company, beating back health care and pension cuts. Now, another major grocery strike has become a serious possibility, this time in and around the nation’s capital.

On Wednesday, UFCW Local 400 announced that it will be holding a strike vote early next month for more than 25,000 workers at hundreds of Giant Foods and Safeway stores across DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The union has separate contracts with Giant and Safeway, but both of those contracts have been expired since last October. Negotiations in the ensuing months proved fruitless, and now the union is preparing for what could become the first large strike of 2020.

Giant is owned by Ahold Delhaize, the same European conglomerate that owns Stop & Shop. Safeway is owned by Albertsons, the national grocery holding company controlled by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. As is common in private equity deals, Cerberus is reportedly eyeing an IPO for Albertsons—placing great pressure on the company to spiff up its balance sheet, including labor and pension costs. Not coincidentally, those issues are now fueling the contract dispute that has brought these UFCW members to the point of a strike vote. In addition to pension cuts, the union says that the companies are pursuing cuts to health care funding, tight restrictions on benefit access for part time employees, and a plan to keep many new hires locked in a minimum wage salary for years.

Both Giant and Safeway workers are part of the same multi-employer pension, funded by the respective companies, meaning that they all have a direct financial interest in strong contracts at both stores. Albertsons and the UFCW are locked in a dispute over the size of the company’s pension obligations. Media representatives from the companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Lee, a cashier at Safeway in Alexandria, Virginia, has worked for the company for three decades, and now earns $21 an hour—which, she says, is “nowhere near where it needs to be, since I been there 32 years.” Despite her own seniority, Lee says that it’s important to her that the union contract look out for all employees, no matter how long they’ve been there. “Not just the old people, but we want to make sure new hires get the benefits and the hours they need to pay their bills and buy groceries,” she says. “A lot of workers are concerned… they’re not sure if they’re gonna get a pension. they’re scared their health care is gonna get cut.”

The same fears are present at Giant as well. Jeff Reid, a 12-year veteran in the Giant meat department in Silver Spring, Maryland who makes $16.75 an hour, says that pension security is the most important issue for him. “People work 20, 30 years for the company, you want to have something when you retire,” he says. “You don’t want to be choosing between prescriptions and food.” Lee says that his coworkers are aware of the Shop & Stop strike–and the success it had–but that he is “absolutely, unequivocally” ready for a strike himself.

Still, any strike would be a hardship on workers earning grocery store wages. The UFCW has spent recent weeks urging Giant and Safeway workers to prepare for the possibility by getting in as many work hours as they can and taking care of medical and dental needs now. Should next month’s strike vote succeed and a strike actually happen, it would become an attractive magnet for political support from prominent Democrats. Steven Feinberg, the billionaire cofounder of Cerberus, is close to the Trump White House, and was tapped by the president to lead his intelligence advisory board. Such a grand imperial position would provide a convenient contrast between the company’s owner and the thousands of workers on the picket line, many of whom would be fighting for the right merely to earn more than minimum wage.

“Most of the people I talk to are angry with the company. They make the company billions of dollars,” says Safeway’s Michelle Lee. “We gotta do what we gotta do. If we have to go on strike to have a better life in the long run, then that’s what we need to do.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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