Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017, 5:13 pm  ·  By Daniel Moattar

University of Chicago Grad Students, After Being Told Their Labor Isn’t Work, Vote on Union

Graduate students at the University of Chicago begin voting on their union election October 17 (Graduate Students Union via Facebook)  

Update: The students voted to unionize 1,103 to 479 (with 149 votes challenged).

After months of legal battles, delays and high-dollar opposition from their administration, University of Chicago graduate students will vote in a union election on October 17 and 18. A win will make Graduate Students United (GSU)—affiliated with the AFT, IFT and AAUP—the official representation of UChicago’s graduate students.

The election is being conducted against the backdrop of an ongoing court battle over grad student unionization that represents a double-edged sword for the university. A victory would decertify the union, and complicate grad student organizing at private institutions nationwide. But over the course of the case, the university’s hardline anti-union statements both in and out of court may have helped the union’s cause more than hurt it.

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Friday, Oct 13, 2017, 6:47 pm  ·  By Thor Benson

An Obama-Era Rule Has Held McDonald’s Liable for Labor Abuses. The GOP Is Close to Undoing It.

Republicans want to make it harder for workers to take action against McDonald's for violations of labor laws. (Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)  

In what was hailed as a major victory for labor unions, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2015 redefined what constitutes a “joint employer,” ruling that any company that has “indirect” control over a business can be held responsible if that business violates labor law. In practice this has meant that a corporation such as McDonald’s can be held liable if its franchises are illegally withholding pay to employees or otherwise breaking the law. Now, a new bill could reverse that decision and make it much harder to hold large corporations accountable.

On October 4, the Save Local Business Act (H.R. 3441), was advanced out of committee by the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and is set to go before the full House for a vote. 

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Thursday, Oct 12, 2017, 7:39 pm  ·  By Suzanne Gordon and Ian Hoffmann

Why Labor Is Fighting to Save Veterans’ Healthcare

AFGE Local 1738 and more than a hundred fellow union members rallied outside the VA Clinic in Morehead City, North Carolina, calling for safe staffing levels. (Photo: Norman J. McCullough)  

This post first appeared at Labor Notes.

In January President Trump delivered on his promise to shrink the federal government: he announced a hiring freeze, despite thousands of federal job vacancies.

As a candidate, Trump campaigned as a great friend of veterans. He pledged to make big improvements in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the arm of the Veterans Administration (VA) that operates the largest health care system in the country.

But Trump’s hiring freeze deepened an already existing staffing crisis at VHA hospitals and clinics throughout the U.S., where there are 49,000 vacant positions.

Union activists believe the resulting understaffing is designed to generate patient complaints and negative publicity that will cause veterans and their families to lose faith in VA-provided care.

“Some in Congress want to underfund the VA so they can say that government doesn’t work,” says Dusten Retcher, a 29-year old Air Force veteran, who processes veterans’ benefit claims in Minneapolis. “Then they want to turn it over to the private market.” 

Socialized Medicine 

The VHA covers nine million veterans who qualify based on their low income or, like Retcher, have a service-related medical condition. Unlike Canada’s single payer system or Medicare in the U.S., it does not function primarily as an insurer, simply reimbursing private hospitals, doctors, or pharmacies.

Instead, like Britain's National Health Service, the VHA provides direct care to veterans, via salaried personnel who are not paid on a fee-for-service basis. As the nation’s largest publicly funded, fully integrated health care network, it’s a model of socialized medicine more far-reaching than the single-payer plans proposed by Congressman John Conyers and Senator Bernie Sanders (who is also a leading defender of the VHA).

Overall, the VHA employs 300,000 people, a third of whom are veterans themselves. Because caregivers are salaried, they have little incentive to over-treat patients. And, as a large-scale public agency, the VHA can negotiate with pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies to secure prices lower than private hospital chains get.

This combination of “socialized medicine,” negotiated prices, and a salaried workforce heavily represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is not popular in a Republican Congress or in the Trump White House.

Earlier this summer, both attacked the due process rights of AFGE members by passing the “VA Accountability Act.” As the AFL-CIO notes, this draconian measure, backed by some Democrats, eliminates “any guarantee that employees will feel safe speaking out against mismanagement or to protect patient safety.” According to the federation, it “destroys grievance procedures that have been successfully used throughout the federal government to provide protection against arbitrary treatment.”

Such union-busting legislation—and more currently under consideration by Congress—has been a longtime objective of right-wing Republicans and the “Concerned Veterans of America.” CVA is an astro-turf group, funded by the Koch brothers, which has gained policy-making influence within the VA since Trump’s election. While CVA has few actual members, it has been quite successful in promoting negative coverage of the VHA in the media, including the New York Times and NPR.

Unlike traditional veterans organizations (American Legion, VFW, Disabled American Veterans), CVA hates the VHA and would like to see it totally privatized.

Campaign to save the VA

To resist this outsourcing threat, VHA union members and their allies have launched a multi-front campaign. They have held dozens of town hall meetings, local “Save the VA” rallies, and protests with labor and veterans organizations in California, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico, Tennessee, Montana, Ohio, and Colorado. More protests are scheduled in October. Such activity, throughout the federal government, has helped AFGE sign up 5,000 new members since January.

Bay Area AFGE activists joined fellow VHA staffers, their patients, and other concerned veterans at a speak-out in San Francisco attended by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Michael Blecker, a leader of Swords to Plowshares who served in Vietnam, warned that local programs to reduce homelessness among veterans were at risk of being curtailed.

Pelosi argued that GOP critics care little about improving VHA services or reducing their cost. “The people who want to privatize the VA don’t want to make it better,” she said. “They want to make a buck.”

In its critique of privatization, Fighting for Veterans Healthcare, a San Francisco–based advocacy group, notes that VHA hospital budgets are already stretched thin because of chronic underfunding. As the financial burden of paying for more costly private care increases, the group argues, in-house staff shortages will worsen, specialized research and treatment programs will be cut, demoralized employees will leave, and “the VA will become a shell of itself.”

At the Denver VA medical center, where workers rallied against privatization August 23, AFGE Local 2241 President Bernard Humbles says employee frustration is mounting. “I’ve had some members that just say, ‘I’m done,’ and leave because of the overwhelming workload,” he said. “We need to fill these positions.”

Bernie Sanders, former chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate and longtime defender of the VHA, has introduced legislation to reduce staff shortages by allocating $5 billion to new hiring. But Secretary for Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin, who served in the Obama administration, is under White House and Congressional pressure to expand a program called “Choice” instead.

Created by Congress in 2014, Choice allows veterans who have to travel 40 miles or more to the nearest VHA facility, or who face appointment delays longer than 30 days, to use private providers instead. Federal reimbursement of these private hospitals and doctors has already drained billions from the VHA. A recent internal report revealed a pattern of over-payments to TriWest and Health Net, two private insurers hired to set up outside provider networks and process the Choice program's reimbursement claims.

Meanwhile, as a Rand Corporation study found in 2015, actual wait times at the VHA are shorter than in the private sector, and the quality of veterans' care is equal to or superior than that received by private hospital patients.

An outsourcing gold mine 

Nevertheless, Republicans seek a wholesale expansion of VHA outsourcing, to create a gold mine for the health care industry. Their goal is to steer more veterans toward non-VHA providers, including for-profit firms that would fill prescriptions, handle routine visits, or provide out-patient services like audiology and optometry.

The fight to defend quality care for veterans is uniting caregivers on the VHA staff, their patients, other veterans, and concerned community members. The fight also helps expose the ever-widening gap between President Trump’s pro-veteran rhetoric and the actual impact of his policies on working class people who have served in the military and, in some cases, voted for him last fall.

At a late September protest at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, AFGE picketers were joined by other unionists, including Navy veteran Tom Edwards, who carried a sign saying, “No Vet Should Wait in Line.” A retired postal worker, Edwards told Workday Minnesota that he hears plenty of rhetoric about “supporting our troops.” But when they come home and need access to skilled, specialized care like the VHA provides, it’s another story. “What’s happening in this country is a travesty,” he declared.

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Monday, Oct 9, 2017, 7:25 am  ·  By Shaun Richman and Bill Fletcher, Jr.

What the Revival of Socialism in America Means for the Labor Movement

Members of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America walk the picket line with striking B&H workers. (Photo credit: Brandon Hauer via NYC Democratic Socialists of America)  

Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Shaun Richman are contributing writers to In These Times, as well as veterans of the labor and socialist movements. Both have worked for several labor unions, with Fletcher having served as a senior staffer in the national AFL-CIO and Richman as a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. Both came of age during different eras of left politics. In this conversation, the two writers and organizers examine what a revived socialist movement could mean for unionsand the broader push for workers’ rights and dignity.

Shaun Richman: We’re in a political moment when tens of thousands of Americans are declaring themselves to be socialists and joining and paying dues to socialist organizations. It’s not just Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), although DSA is growing the largest and the fastest. The entire alphabet soup of the Left, basically any socialist group that isn’t a weirdo cult, is experiencing an influx of new members and activity. In the context of the “Organize or Die!” union push of the last 30 years, this is new and potentially a game-changer. There are now organized socialist groups that exist in significant numbers and are trying to figure out what their labor program should be, how they relate to a labor movement, and how they can be helpful. And it’s not obvious what they should do. Bill, what are the opportunities and pitfalls, and what does this growth mean for labor?

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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2017, 5:12 pm  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

Trump’s Justice Department Is Trying to Turn Back the Clock on Workers’ Rights 100 Years

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Judge Neil Gorsuch speaks as President Donald Trump looks on during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)  

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a trio of cases, captioned as NLRB v. Murphy Oil, that examined whether management commits an unfair labor practice when it requires employees to sign arbitration agreements that waive their right to wage class-action lawsuits. The question of whether an employee can give up her right to act in concert with other workers may seem technical, but it implicates the very core of collective action. 

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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2017, 11:49 am  ·  By Jeff Schuhrke

A Trailblazing New Law in Illinois Will Dramatically Expand Temp Workers’ Rights

Illinois will soon lead the country in temp worker protections. (Chicago Workers Collaborative / Facebook)  

Beginning next summer, a sweeping new law will take effect in Illinois, ending many of the routine injustices suffered by the state’s nearly 850,000 temp employees who often work under miserable conditions.

The Responsible Job Creation Act, or HB690, represents the most ambitious attempt to date by any state to regulate the growing temporary staffing industry. Introduced in January, the bill gained bipartisan support in the Illinois General Assembly and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in late September. The law will take effect June 1, 2018. 

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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2017, 5:00 am  ·  By Ted Rohrlich, FairWarning

Meet the Management-Side Lawyer Who Called ICE on Workers Suing Their Bosses

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests a man in Southern California. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty Images)  

As an attorney representing California Central Valley farmers and labor contractors who rely heavily on undocumented workers, Anthony Raimondo has become widely known for performing a sort of magic trick. He can sometimes make legal complaints against his clients – and the people who file them – disappear.

In at least seven cases where workers accused his clients of mistreatment, Raimondo asked immigration authorities if they would like to arrest the complainants.

And, then, presto: At least three cases against his clients apparently were derailed, and two complainants—both, Raimondo says, with criminal records-- were deported.

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Friday, Sep 29, 2017, 3:39 pm  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

The Trump Administration’s Backdoor Plan to Erode the Rights of Workers to Act Collectively

U.S. President Donald Trump pictured at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey on August 12, 2017. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)  

On October 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that implicates the very concept of collective action. NLRB v. Murphy Oil asks whether it is a violation of workers’ rights to force them to enter into arbitration agreements that prohibit collective or class litigation. Such agreements, often entered into as conditions of employment, require workers who want to sue their employers to do so individually in a private arbitration setting, rather than as a class of aggrieved workers who can pool their resources and knowledge. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, more than 60 million U.S. workers have now lost access to the courts because of such forced arbitration agreements. 

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Thursday, Sep 28, 2017, 9:15 pm  ·  By Shaun Richman

SCOTUS Is on the Verge of Decimating Public-Sector Unions—But Workers Can Still Fight Back

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could take "right to work" nationwide. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)  

On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, the case that will likely turn the entire public sector labor movement into a “right-to-work” zone. Like a lazy Hollywood remake, the case has all the big money behind it that last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA did, with none of the creativity.

In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs argued that interactions between public sector unions and government employers are inherently political. Therefore, the argument went, mandatory agency fees to reimburse the union for the expenses of representation and bargaining were forced political speech, violating employees’ purported First Amendment right to not pay dues.

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Thursday, Sep 28, 2017, 5:25 pm  ·  By Sady Doyle

Hugh Hefner Wasn’t Just a Creep—He Was Also a Shitty Boss

The Playboy empire was built on the backs of female workers. (Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Playboy)  

To hear some tell it, Hugh Hefner changed what it meant to be a man in the 20th century. In place of God, country and family values, “Hef”—a persona so intensely branded that it’s hard to type without instinctively adding a (TM) to it—offered up cool jazz, hot chicks, weird bathrobes and the kind of literary sophistication that you could only get when a short story was printed directly opposite a close-up of some lady’s areolas.

The fact that women were mere props in this vision—luxury goods that men acquired to prove their swinging cred—seems not to bother those who embrace the ideal of Hefness. But in fact, the Playboy empire was built on the backs of female workers, who were expected to keep smiling and propping up Hefner’s brand through enormous amounts of grueling labor

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