Working In These Times

Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014, 2:50 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Second Time the Charm for Virgin America Flight Attendants (UPDATED)

Virgin America flight attendant Armando Fierros says that he supports a union to improve conditions for all his colleagues, no matter their seniority level in the company.   (TWU VX)

UPDATE: The Transportation Workers Union (TWU) has won an election to represent 828 flight attendants at Virgin America. A representative of the TWU who observed the count at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the National Mediation Board reports that the final vote was 430 in favor of joining TWU, and 307 opposed. According to a victory statement released by the TWU, the first contract negotiations between management and workers will begin in the fall.

Despite previous setbacks, flight attendants at Virgin America are moving to establish the first labor union at the company.

More than 50 percent of Virgin’s estimated 800 attendants have signed authorization cards with the Transport Workers Union (TWU); those cards were submitted last month to the federal government’s National Mediation Board, says TWU Vice President Thom McDaniel. McDaniel expects the Mediation Board to establish a mail-in balloting schedule soon, which is expected to culminate in a final vote count in the second half of July.

If successful, TWU will become the first union at the Burlingame, California-based Virgin, which began operation in 2007 with a specific anti-union slant. The company currently employs about 2,700 pilots, flight attendants and other staff, but none have successfully organized; TWU is the first union to try to do so. Even so, the recent victory of the Air Line Pilots Association in a union election at non-union JetBlue Airways is creating renewed optimism among union organizers in the airline sector, McDaniel says.


Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014, 1:00 pm  ·  By Alexandra Bradbury

Rail Workers Denounce Dangerous Deal Between Union Officers and Management

BNSF is leading the charge for single-operator train crews, sparking ire in railroad employees. (David Wilson / Flickr / Creative Commons  

“There’s a real rank-and-file rebellion going on right now,” says Jen Wallis, a Seattle switchman-conductor for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway. “People who’ve never been involved in the union, never went to a union meeting, they are showing up and they’re joining Railroad Workers United in droves.

“People are saying, ‘We have to take action now to stop it. We can’t let our union officers do this to us.’”

What’s all the fuss? On July 16, thousands of railroaders abruptly learned their union officers had held secret negotiations with BNSF, one of the country’s biggest freight carriers, and reached a deal to allow single-person train crews: a safety disaster.

Ballots on the tentative agreement went out in early August, and are due back in early September. If the vote goes up, huge freight trains could rumble through towns across the western U.S. with just an engineer onboard, no conductor.


Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014, 6:15 pm  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

In Order to Grow, Does Labor Need to Shrink?

Macy's workers fight for UFCW recognition in 2012. (UFCW)  

Two recent developments hint that the beleaguered American labor movement could find a way to expand by, counterintuitively, narrowing the size of its locals and bargaining units.

In July, after a close loss in a much-watched union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the United Auto Workers (UAW) did something labor in America rarely does: They established a “members-only” (or “minority”) union. Unlike the typical American union, a minority union is not the exclusive bargaining representative of all workers at the plant WC. The VW Chattanooga members-only union—UAW Local 42—will represent only workers that voluntarily join.


Monday, Aug 11, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By Stephen Franklin

Lawyer: ‘We Should Stay on the Parapets and Keep Fighting’

Tom Geoghegan, who has been a union-side lawyer for decades, says that there is no way Americans can achieve a full-employment economy without a labor movement. (Stephen Franklin)  

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight—the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More "Working at 40" stories can be found here.

Philip Da Vinci had worked as a lawyer for a large insurance firm when he decided he needed to do something that felt useful, he told Terkel in Working. He switched to a storefront law office serving the elderly, juveniles, prison inmates, people “dumped” from state mental hospitals, and other residents of his low-income Chicago neighborhood. But he struggled to hang onto his hope. “You can change a few things. But not much progress is being made,” he told Terkel.

Tom Geoghegan is a Chicago lawyer who tells In These Times that he, too, wanted to shape the future of the country through his profession. In addition to spending much of his career representing workers and unions, he has also written a number of books. His book “Which Side Are You On?” (1991), which chronicled the downward slide of organized labor, was described by Terkel himself as reading “like an enthralling novel.” This interview has been edited and abridged.


Friday, Aug 8, 2014, 4:30 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Finally, Obama Uses Power of ‘Phone and Pen’ for Workers

Obama has been said to be "on a labor roll," signing three executive orders over the last year relating to labor rights.   (Wikimedia Commons / Peter Souza / White House)

Drawing wide praise from union leaders, President Barack Obama last week signed an executive order designed to crack down on federal contractors guilty of breaking labor law or have compiled excessive workplace health and safety violations. The order was Obama’s third directly related to labor issues in 2014 alone, and the latest in his “Phone and Pen ” campaign to spark administrative changes that would be too difficult to achieve through the normal legislative process. 

The July 31 order will establish an elaborate set of new procedures that could be used to punish labor scofflaws in the future by denying these companies new federal contracts. Alternatively, the order could also reward “good” companies with preferential treatment, according to a White House fact sheet. The immediate impact will be minor as the order will not go into effect until 2016, plus the time needed to establish the bureaucratic policies and practices in 14 separate government departments to fully implement the order.

“We feel like the president is doing all the right things,” on labor issues, says Peter Colavito, director of government relations for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “The last six or seven months have been terrific,” he says, referring to earlier executive orders raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers and banning workplace discrimination against federal LGBT employees and contract workers. In addition to these orders, a March 13 “Presidential Memorandum” set in motion a revision of Department of Labor overtime rules that is expected to benefit hundreds of thousands of workers by eliminating some of the existing exemptions and anomalies in current overtime regulations.


Friday, Aug 8, 2014, 4:20 pm  ·  By Julia Wong

California Drought Leaves Farmworkers Hung Out to Dry (UPDATED)

The view from Marine One illustrates the empty acres of otherwise thriving produce that lay across California's Central Valley.   (White House / Creative Commons)

The crops being harvested in California this summer are smaller than usual thanks to the record-setting drought that has reached the most extreme levels in more than half of the state. While that may be good news to the consumers and chefs who enjoy the more concentrated flavor of smaller fruits and vegetables, it’s another blow to California’s hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, that are struggling to survive in this third-straight year of drought.

“When the growers use a lot of water, the oranges are bigger,” says Antonio Cortes, an organizer for the United Farm Workers, a union representing farmworkers in California. “With less water, the oranges are smaller, and you have to work longer [to fill a bucket].” Most of the workers Cortes represents in the Central Valley are paid a piece rate for buckets of oranges, tomatoes, melons and other crops.

Dr. Ann López, the Executive Director of the Center for Farmworker Families in Felton, California, hears similar complaints from the strawberry pickers she works with in nearby Santa Cruz County. “The fruit is very small. It’s not the same size it’s been in the past, and there’s not as much fruit,” she says. “To fill baskets, it takes more work—but they’re not getting paid more.”



Thursday, Aug 7, 2014, 2:40 pm  ·  By Crystal Stella Becceril

‘Bad Ass Moms’ Defend Chicago Public Schools

Members of BAM gather at the Neighborhood Schools Picnic in May 2014.   (Crystal Stella Becerril)

Last August, as the summer break came to an end, Chicago parent Rousemary Vega was devastated. Three months prior, the city had voted to close a record-high 50 public schools, including Lafayette Elementary in Humboldt Park, where her children had been students. Upon receiving the letter from Chicago Public Schools that their school would be shuttered at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the Vega family began organizing to overturn that decision. However, despite their efforts—including their occupation of Lafayette on June 19, 2013—and the community’s pleas, the Board moved forward with the closure, displacing 570 students in the process.

Vega says she’d never before contemplated the possibility that her kids’ education could be put on the line.

"I was just a working mom with four kids, not worried about their school closing,” she explains to In These Times as she wipes away tears. “I just never thought that could be possible because I thought education was sacred. ... So for them to close schools, to close our doors—it was unbelievable to me.”

Shocked as she was, Vega refused to be defeated by Lafayette’s shuttering. At the start of the 2013-2014 school year, she began reaching out to other mothers who were ready and willing to fight back against the Board of Education’s decisions. Within a few months of Lafayette's closure, the advocacy group BAM—or “Bad Ass Moms” was formed.


Tuesday, Aug 5, 2014, 1:30 pm  ·  By Matthew Cunningham-Cook

6 Ways Wall Street Is Hosing Chicago Teachers

In 2012, Chicago teachers rocked the city with their historic strike. Yet their pensions could still be on the line.   (Sarah-Ji / Flickr / Creative Commons)

During Andrew Cuomo’s tenure as attorney general of New York, he noted, “In New York, the biggest pool of money is the state pension fund.” This is true with public pension funds across the nation—and Wall Street firms have leaped to take advantage of the bounty, often in unsavory ways. Over the last five years, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has routinely unearthed “pay-to-play” scandals, in which overseers of pension funds make investment choices based on personal gain.

In most cases, politicians control the investment-making decisions at pension funds. A select few, however, are controlled by their members—meaning they could invest in projects for the public good on Main Street rather than private investment funds on Wall Street.  One such fund is the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund (CTPF), a nearly $10 billion pool charged with assuring the retirement security of tens of thousands of education professionals. Despite a Board composed of 12 member-elected trustees, however, Wall Street still has its hands in the kitty. Here are six ways America’s biggest investment firms have the potential to sink Chicago teachers—and just how the CTPF board can stop that from happening.


Tuesday, Aug 5, 2014, 10:24 am  ·  By Julia Wong

A ‘Bill of Rights’ for San Francisco’s Retail Workers

A proposed ordinance in San Francisco could make it easier for retail workers to attain stable employment in one of the country's most expensive regions. (Nico Crisafulli / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

In April 2011, Jessy Lancaster, then 28, was hired as a part-time cashier for the discount clothing store Ross Dress for Less in San Francisco. At the time, the city’s hourly minimum wage was $9.92 an hour; in one of the most expensive areas of the country, Lancaster wanted to work as many hours as possible. Unfortunately, even making herself available six days out of the week—including Saturday and Sunday—wasn’t enough.

"It didn't make a difference," Lancaster says. Most weeks, she would be scheduled for 12 to 20 hours, despite telling a manager that she was willing and able to do more. “It was piecemeal,” she says. “I would usually work four to six hour shifts. Four hours here. Four hours there.”

As someone who wanted to work 40 hours a week but was unable to do so, Lancaster was what San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar calls an “involuntarily part-time worker.” The lack of sufficient hours doesn't just force such individuals to struggle to pay their bills; the unpredictability of work schedules makes it difficult to plan the rest of one’s life. Lancaster says she never knew if she was going to be working first thing in the morning or late at night. For workers with family caretaking responsibilities or health concerns, this can make scheduling childcare or medical appointments almost impossible. It also creates difficulties for people trying to work more than one job or attend classes.


Monday, Aug 4, 2014, 5:00 pm  ·  By Julian Gonzalez

When Can Your Facebook Status Get You Fired?

Discussing work on Facebook is often considered protected speech—but not always. (Karawho / Flickr / Creative Commons).  

Workers are using Facebook to talk to each other about what happens on the job and in the union, and some are even using it to organize for change.

Walmart workers trade advice and stories on the “Organization United for Respect” page, which has 47,000 “likes.” Boeing Machinists opposed to a proposed contract linked up through “Rosie’s Machinists 751.” And many union reformers set up Facebook pages when they are running for office.

Those are the success stories. But if you read the tabloids, you’ve probably seen some horror stories, too: teachers fired for Facebook posts that criticize their students, restaurant workers fired for posts that insult low-tipping customers.

Here we’ll examine the do’s and don’ts by looking at two cases where posts were legally protected—and one where they weren’t.