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Why the Revival of US Labor Might Start with Nonunion Workers

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abdFor workers in America, it can be hard to know where to turn when a boss pays you late or not at all, doesn’t provide benefits, or just yells at you for no good reason.

That’s why a Working America, a “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO that focuses specifically on nonunion workers, launched a website last month that makes it easy to get that kind of information. FixMyJob.com is a bit like WebMD, but instead of typing in your aches and pains, you tell it about problems at your workplace. Launched on June 5, the site has already garnered 5,000 visitors, according to Working America organizer Chris Stergalas.

After choosing from a comprehensive list of workplaces and problems, visitors to FixMyJob.com get a set of resources and options for taking action. While unionization is a part of the solution for many problems, the site also informs workers about labor laws and instructs them on how to advance proposals to defend their rights. The site is a part of Working America’s expanded new campaign to organize people in their communities in all 50 states, says Executive Director Karen Nussbaum.

In both online and offline campaigns, Nussbaum said, the aim of Working America is to reach beyond the workplace and rally support at the local level for a pro-labor agenda. Working America’s list of priorities includes living wage laws, expanded health care, adequately funded public schools, and the protection of voting rights.

Before the launch of Working America, Nussbaum had served as founder and director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women; as director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor; and as an advisor to former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. I recently spoke with her about her vision for Working America, about FixMyJob.com, and about what the 50-state expansion means for the prospects of union revival.

Working America was founded in 2003 partly as an answer to the question of how to mobilize people who are not union members but would benefit from activism by and for working people. Nussbaum said that, from the beginning, her staff “concentrated on talking to workers in their communities.” Scoring success in mobilizing blue-collar voters for electoral campaigns, the organization created a foundation of members, and it is increasingly attempting to mobilize them around broader issues like working conditions, paid sick leave, and the right to join unions.

She added that the ultimate goal of Working America is “finding the connections with collective bargaining.” But she’s experimenting with different ways of organizing that might lead there. “It’s about taking whatever path opens on the way.”

In past years, Working America focused on battleground states during elections. But regional and statewide labor federations have pushed the organization to expand to all 50 states over the next five years. At first, Nussbaum said, that goal seemed “preposterous,” but she has come to embrace it. Ultimately, she said, she appreciated the strategic value of supporting local labor structures as they connect with community allies and work on issues that go beyond a single workplace.

One reason why the 50-state strategy is necessary is the national proliferation of so-called “right-to-work” laws and attacks on voting rights, two issues that Working America has taken up in Pittsburgh, Penn..

Nussbaum describes the approach taken by activists leading the Pittsburgh campaign:

These are a group of mostly white people in their 40s and 50s. They decided that voter protection actually was the key issue for them. Their group set a goal of reaching a million people in the Pittsburgh area on the issue. Part of that million was going to be reached by doing letters to the editor and circulation of the newspaper and so on. It also included things like a guy who said, “I go to my hardware store every weekend and everybody there knows me, so I will set up a table at the hardware store every weekend,” which is what he did. Another woman said that she dropped her father off at adult daycare every day, and so she would talk to the workers and other people at the adult daycare center.

This type of organizing taps into the existing frustrations that people have—in the Pittsburgh case obstacles to voting—and showing them how they can make a difference. “It’s everybody recognizing their own networks,” Nussbaum said. “I think that’s the key to organizing, isn’t it?”

She explained that Working America encourages people to see themselves as leaders within their own social circles, and, as it did in the case of the man in the hardware store, this recognition makes it easier to take action.

Nussbaum sees FixMyJob.com as a complement to these offline campaigns and as a means for introducing people to the labor movement. “Some people who use these tools will get turned on and they will become activists for life,” she said. “Some will fail, but it will help create a new environment that I think supports what we’re already beginning to see bubble up.”

This article was originally posted on Yes! Magazine on July 8th, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Amy B. Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations.  Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy

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Workplace Advice: My Fair Share

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DavidMy Fair Share is a cross-post from Working America’s Dear David workplace advice column. David knows you deserve to be treated fairly on the job and he’s available to answer your questions, whether it is co-workers making off-handed comments that you should retire or you feel like your job’s long hours are causing stress.


What can you do about not being paid a fair wage for the work you do? I make a lot of money for the company I work for feeding a robot up to 4,000 packages per hour. How do I get some of the money I make for the company through high production paid to me?

—Marty, Indiana


“We make it, they take it.” If the last 40 years have anything to teach us, it’s that if we leave it up to them, too many bosses don’t feel like they need to share fairly—if they even share at all. Check this out. It used to be that as worker productivity increased, so did a worker’s wages. But sometime in the 1970s that stopped being the case. Today, even as most workers are struggling in a stagnant economy, big banks and corporations are posting record profits. If you’re feeling squeezed, it’s not your fault.

 As long as you’re being paid at least the minimum wage, there’s no legal requirement that a wage be “fair.” So who should get to decide what’s “fair”? You already know what can happen when the boss gets to be the decider—so the key is not to leave it only to your boss! And to act collectively.

It starts by you getting together with at least one other person at your workplace who feels the same way you do. Do this first—there are certain legal protections that kick in for you once this has happened. Meet up someplace outside of work, and compare notes. Who else can you talk to who would stand with you? Make a list, get folks together again and ask others what improvements they’d like to see at their workplace. This has been said before, but these are all important first steps. Together you may decide that you are ready to take something up with your boss right away. Or you could decide that you will be more successful negotiating if you first form a union. This process might take some time, and it’s worth it to move cautiously. Whatever you decide—you are stronger acting as a group than if you act alone. 

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 30, 2012. Reprinted with Permission. 

About the Author: David at Working America focuses on answering submitted questions about workplace fairness and workplace rights around the country. Working America is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and is the fastest-growing organization for working people in the country. At 3 million strong and growing, Working America uses their strength in numbers to educate each other, mobilize and win real victories to improve working people’s lives.

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Job Tracker: Outsourcers Can Run, But Now They Can’t Hide

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Image: Mike HallIn the past decade, more than 5 million manufacturing jobs and 850,000 information sector jobs have disappeared—many of which have been shipped overseas. This outsourcing is encouraged by faulty trade and tax policies that corporate executives use to boost record-breaking profits and outrageous and obscene executive salaries.

But finding out specific information on specific companies sending American jobs overseas and devastating their communities has been nearly impossible—until today. The AFL-CIO and Working America’s new Job Tracker database lists information on more than 400,000 corporations that have exported jobs overseas, violated health and safety codes or engaged in discriminatory or other illegal practice. (Check it out at http://t.co/qbg7wwm.)

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in a conference call with reporters this morning, said Job Tracker’s searchable by ZIP code and the interactive database gives

everyday people the opportunity to actually see what is happening in their community and shine the light on what corporations are doing. For the first time, working people have one place to see the real impact of the failed policies of the past that gave corporations the ability to ship American jobs overseas.

With this new data as a benchmark, working people will have the ability to separate the economic patriots from the corporate traitors at the ballot box.

Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America—the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate— said, “Because of Job Tracker, corporations who have taken advantage of lax trade policies in America and abroad will no longer”

be able to hide behind the veils of bureaucracy. Every night on our neighborhood canvasses, we hear from people who want to know which companies are profiting off the loss of their jobs. Corporations have created a global race to the bottom and working people won’t stand for it.

A recent Wall Street Journal poll shows 83 percent of blue-collar workers say outsourcing of manufacturing jobs is the reason the U.S. economy is struggling and why companies are not hiring. Jobs are the No. 1 issue for working family voters this year, said Trumka.

We must demand that our leaders show that they stand with working families—fighting to create jobs, rejecting unfair trade deals and putting us on a path to make things in America again.

Here’s how Job Tracker works. Simply enter a ZIP code, for example Toledo, Ohio’s 43606. A few clicks of your mouse will find 20 companies—from Ace Packaging Systems to Tecumseh Products—have exported jobs, mostly manufacturing jobs. Another 19 firms have laid off workers because of the impact of trade and 61 companies have made or filed notice to make mass layoffs.

Also, 39 companies had cases involving workers’ rights violations under the National Labor Relations Act, and 1,170 have received health and safety violations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).

Trumka said the Job Tracker provides the kind of information to help working families make their choices at the ballot box Nov. 2 and working families can use to determine who is on the side of working families.

The choice is clear—leaders who will fight to create and keep good jobs here in America, or the corporate traitors who insist on the policies that have rigged the playing field.

Job Tracker information draws on sources, including the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance records, Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act notices, OSHA records and more. The Job Tracker site also enables visitors to use Facebook and Twitter and e-mail to report companies exporting jobs in their communities.

As part of Job Tracker, Working America also is releasing a “white paper,” OUTSOURCED: Sending Jobs Overseas: The Cost to America’s Economy and Working Families, which details how trade policies have outsourced good jobs. Working America will share the results with members of Congress and the economic community as a new analysis on what policies must be passed to turn our economy around.

This article was originally published on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

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

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On Being Unemployed

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Image: Mitchell HirschI am unemployed, and have been now for a little more than three months. People like me often say “I lost my job” — as if their situation were the result of some personal failing or act of stupidity. Like “I lost my car keys” or “I lost my wallet.” No. Let me say, instead: My job was taken from me.

For nearly a year, roughly 15 million Americans have been officially unemployed, according to the monthly reports. So I know I am not alone. But there are many times when it doesn’t feel that way.

On a freezing night with a biting wind, around the holidays this past winter, I went to see the film Up in the Air with my wife, her sisters and my two teenage kids. Laura mentioned the film in a great post last January. The film’s protagonist, played by George Clooney, works for a firm that gets hired by other companies to fly him around and fire people from their jobs. In addition, he has the temerity to promote a kind of sidecar career for himself, lecturing people looking for work about how they need to clean out their backpacks, or whatever.

I sat there trying to contain my anger, while part of me felt a deepening sadness — not just for the people being thrown out of work, but for the spreading epidemic of corporate callousness and for the needless devastation wrought by this monster recession. On the way out of the theater my kids asked me what I’d thought of the film, and all I could say was “this all just makes me so angry,” adding I was glad that I still had my job.

Two months later, I did not.

For nearly twenty years I had managed a successful, multi-million-dollar retail store, part of a specialty chain. In a move to further reduce store payrolls, which along with overall benefits had already been reduced several times in recent years, it was determined that my modest salary — which was below the median household income in my state — no longer fit the new payroll scheme. The day I was informed of this I was also told it was my last day.

I was stunned. To say that I had been the face and the name, the personification of the store and the company in a highly coveted market would be an understatement. Yet, no new role was offered, no severance, nothing. Less than a year earlier, after a significant restructuring in which a number of long-time employees had been let go, particularly at the firm’s headquarters, the company’s president had indicated to me that my job was safe. So much for that.

I came home to find my wife having lunch in the kitchen. When I told her what had happened, she cried. I held her and told her we’d be alright. But part of me didn’t really believe it. That I haven’t cried yet probably isn’t a healthy thing.

Within a couple of weeks, my long-time assistant manager was also let go. We happen to both be 59 years old. It had been determined that the new payroll scheme would not support having two assistants. Apparently, the private equity group that had financed the company’s buyout several years earlier now wanted to see more of the ‘R’ part of their ‘ROI’. Think back to my post titled “Sharks”.

I applied for unemployment insurance for the first time in my life. I began submitting claims online, but was told on the phone that I would not see any payments for a while, because my eligibility had to first be determined in a telephone hearing — and, because of the high volume of first time claims (this was, by the way, late February 2010) that hearing wouldn’t be scheduled for a month. Fortunately, I had filed my 2009 tax returns early and we’d already received our refunds.

I filed to continue our family’s health insurance with the COBRA administrator, and for the federal COBRA subsidy — the one that, while you’re unemployed, temporarily reduces monthly premiums by 65 percent, but that got stripped out of the jobless aid bill in the House last week. So, unless the continuation of that program is restored, newly unemployed people will no longer be eligible for the reduced premiums.

Despite the lightning fast online application process, COBRA insurance approvals appear to take weeks. So prescription medications, of which there are several for my son and myself, were paid for in full until the COBRA insurance was confirmed. I postponed an annual physical checkup.

Meanwhile, of course, the networking, resume writing, posting, emailing and door-knocking began and has continued unabated. Unlike many folks I’ve heard about, I’ve actually had several responses and even some interviews. But, as yet, no actual offers. Have I mentioned that I’m 59 years old?

The stories of these mundane details may vary from person to person. Mine are certainly not unique. What are far more significant are the stories of how being unemployed affects your life, your thoughts, your emotions, your self-esteem and your sense of social worth.

On these matters, I can only speak for myself. What struck me most immediately was that, without my job, I had no place to go to. Not just the routine of going to work, but having a sense of ‘place’ and belonging in and to a place, was suddenly taken from me. The psychologist James Hillman has written extensively on the subject of the soul being nourished by its sense of place, and that our workplaces are, or should be, vital places that help instill a sense of shared purpose, of mutual encouragement, so that they themselves have a sense of soul.

But increasingly our workplaces are being robbed of their soulfulness, replaced by the cold domination of callous cost-cutting and disregard for people. The layoffs don’t just harm those laid off. It is as if the lost souls of those laid off linger in the workplace, haunting those who remain on the job.

While it is difficult to admit, for me the sense of rejection has been palpable. Several decades of experience and prior accomplishments at times feel all but negated, as if they not only mattered little but may as well not have happened at all. I find myself struggling, at times to fight off a sense that society has deemed me expendable.

And a fear of the future, which while I was working had receded largely to lurk only in a far-off corner somewhere, is now back with a vengeance. What will happen if I need surgery? What if my old car dies on me? Will we ever be able to have a real vacation or travel anywhere again? Will I be able to help my kids go to college in a couple of years? Will I ever be able to afford not to work? Will I ever be able to work?

The staggeringly huge number of unemployed Americans has been fading from the headlines. In a series of diaries posted on Daily Kos in the spring and late winter of 2009, I noted to the astonishment of some that with nearly 15 million unemployed, the number of unemployed Americans was more than it was in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression. I made note of that fact again in my very first post here on Main Street last September. And it’s as true now as it was then.

Now, however, there appears to be a growing sense that mass unemployment is something that must be accepted, as if it’s somehow unavoidable. Moves are already underway by some in Congress to chip away at and begin to dismantle the jobless aid programs for the unemployed. Two months ago, when I wrote “Wall Street Declares War on the Unemployed” some readers probably thought I was exaggerating in order to make a point.

Where is the outrage? Where the fierce urgency to find and implement effective solutions to this, our most pressing national economic emergency? My sense of being socially expendable is increasing. When a society begins trashing its human capital on a mass scale, it is headed down a very ominous road. How can this be happening?

One reason, I think, is the sheer invisibility of much of our current-day unemployment. Gone are the Depression-era breadlines and the mass street demonstrations of the 1930s by unionists and the unemployed. There’s no longer a need to stand in line at the unemployment office to file your claims — it’s all done so privately and invisibly online. And the sense of isolation, which Susan wrote about here, is reinforced by the media’s disregard and the implicit message that if you’re unemployed it’s your own fault.

But it’s the silence and the impersonal invisibility of our nation’s unemployment nightmare that must be countered creatively. Perhaps this blog post will help.

*This post originally appeared in Working America’s Main Street blog on June 3, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Mitchell Hirsch is a featured blogger for Working America’s ‘Main Street’ blog.  He writes frequently on the economy, jobs policy, unemployment, politics and legislative issues.

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