Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jul 9, 2014, 7:13 pm  ·  By George Joseph

Workers Force Indie Bookstore To Live Up to Its Values

Book Culture employees and allies protest the chain's treatment of workers during a week-long action. (Courtesy of Peter Montalbano)  

A few blocks away from Columbia University, independent bookstore chain Book Culture’s two Morningside Heights locations are often packed with young patrons poring over Feuerbach critical readers or Camus postcards. So many of the company’s progressive customers were dismayed when, on June 27, they received a mass email from Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin informing them that several store managers had been fired for voting to unionize, along with one other worker accused of a separate infraction.

“It became clear that several of the store’s supervisors were not willing to continue to perform the role of supervisors within the new environment of having the unionized workforce,” Doeblin wrote. “We respect them for their candor, but they could not continue as employees when they were unwilling to perform their job’s most essential functions.”

In response to the five firings, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, the workers’ prospective union, filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. RWDSU members also picketed outside both stores every day for a week, blowing up inflatable rats and encouraging onlookers to boycott the establishments. On July 2, nearly every worker walked out on a one-day strike.

The next day, Book Culture hired back all four fired supervisory workers and negotiated a compensation package for the fifth, officially retracting its claim that she had been eavesdropping on management conversations.

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Wednesday, Jul 9, 2014, 5:21 pm  ·  By William A. Hudson

The Louisville Labor Bait-and-Switch

Union leaders claim that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer's administration has failed to meet the high expectations his campaign inspired. (Cameron Miquelon/ Flickr / Creative Commons)  

Angelina Justice has been working as a youth services librarian assistant at the Free Public Library (LFPL) in Louisville, Kentucky since 2004. Though she says she loves helping the children who visit the library, she and other unionized city workers have faced a series of cutbacks and declining work conditions since Mayor Greg Fischer took office in 2011.

Like her co-workers at LFPL, Justice is a member of AFSCME Local 3425—and she says the Fischer administration’s current contract with the union makes it almost impossible for her and her family to survive.

“If my household didn't have a second income, we wouldn't make it as a family of five,” she tells In These Times.

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Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014, 5:25 pm  ·  By Moshe Marvit

SCOTUS’ Quiet Expansion of Harris

On July 1, the Supreme Court sent Schlaud v. Snyder, a case involving homecare providers in Michigan suing a union, back to a lower court in light of its recent Harris ruling.   (Image Copyright Alex Staroseltsev/Used under license from Shutterstock.com)

On July 1, the day after the Supreme Court issued its controversial decisions in Harris v. Quinn and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, it issued a round of “miscellaneous orders” to wrap up loose ends before the Court went into recess. In the first of a long list was a GVR (grant, vacate, remand) order voiding the 6th Circuit’s decision in another case that had been appealed to the Court, and sending it back to the lower court “for further consideration in light of Harris v. Quinn.” In Harris, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment did not permit a fair share or agency fee provision requiring objecting home healthcare workers to pay a fee to the union for collective bargaining and contract administration. 

The case at issue is Schlaud v. Snyder, out of Michigan, and in many ways it looks like Harris. Just as in Harris, the plaintiffs—also represented by the right-wing National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW)—are a few homecare providers suing the union, the governor, and the state Department of Human Services for the return of union dues on First Amendment grounds.

Up to a point, the case was strikingly similar to Harris v. Quinn. In the fall of 2006, there were more than 40,000 homecare workers in Michigan eligible for the bargaining unit, and 22,180 signed authorization cards in favor of union representation. This triggered a secret-ballot election, in which 5,921 of 6,396 participating workers voted in favor of the union—92.5 percent of the ballots cast. The union then negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with management, which included a standard “agency fee provision”: All workers covered by the agreement—even those who didn’t vote for the union—would have to pay a fee of approximately 1 percent to offset collective bargaining and contract administration costs. The rationale for such provisions is that the union must represent all workers covered by the collective bargaining agreement, and all workers—whether they object to the union or not—benefit from this representation. 

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Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014, 3:30 pm  ·  By Jenny Brown

The Real Survivors of Reality TV

Reality television workers often face irregular production hours, unsafe production zones and lack of overtime pay. (Lance Lundstrom / Wikimedia Commons)  

Tricky bosses, faked timecards, excruciating hours, dangerous scrapes … It sounds like fodder for a reality TV show, perhaps “America’s Next Worst Job.”

But workers say these are the conditions in reality TV itself, known more formally as the nonfiction television industry.

“We are told to be loyal, that this is normal,” said Lauren Veloski of the long unpaid hours she worked for several production companies. “You should anticipate that your workday will be 12 hours long,” one employer informed her.

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Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014, 3:05 pm  ·  By Sarah Jaffe

The Limitations and Possibilities of Student-Labor Coalitions

Workers from the SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East protest cuts to healthcare in New York state outside of the Albany State House.   (Tommy Miles / Flickr / Creative Commons)

In April, New York University found itself the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny when Michael Powell reported in the New York Times that Daniel E. Straus, owner of the HealthBridge and CareOne nursing home companies in New Jersey and Connecticut and a board member at NYU law school, had subpoenaed the emails, text messages and personal writings of two NYU law students, Luke Herrine and Leo Gertner. The two were part of a growing movement of NYU undergraduates and law students calling attention to working conditions at Straus's facilities, and they had been helping to circulate a petition to the law school dean asking for a meeting to discuss Straus's presence on the board.

The next day, with somewhat less fanfare, a one-line memo was sent to NYU law students by their dean, informing them that Straus would no longer be on the school's board. The Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice, which Straus has funded since 2009, will close at the end of the year. (Although the timeline of the closure decision is unclear, Herrine, one of the subpoenaed students, believes it was due to the controversy.)

The subpoena brouhaha was only the latest chapter in an expansive battle with Straus's companies on one side and 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, 1199 SEIU New England, and the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) at NYU on the other—while NYU, claiming neutrality, remained in the middle. It's a multi-year, multi-state struggle that began with low-wage care workers being locked out in 2011 and hasn't ended with Straus losing his seat on the law school's board. A close examination of the story yields important lessons about the possibilities and limitations of student-labor coalitions, the latest anti-union strategies of corporations, and the current state of labor struggles.

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Monday, Jul 7, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By Matthew Blake

Flight Attendant: ‘The Job Itself Is Almost Therapeutic’

Moy Medina says that to be flight attendant, 'You don't have to be creative or talented; you just have to be gracious.' (Matthew Blake)  

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.

When Terkel interviewed Terry Mason in 1964, her occupation was referred to as a “stewardess.” She described the five weeks of “stew school” she had to attend, where she and her co-workers learned the techniques for applying makeup, smiling under any circumstance and allowing men to light their cigarettes. She thought of her job as a stepping-stone out of her small Nebraska town, though she admitted that it wasn’t as glamorous as she’d fantasized it might be.

Like Mason, Moy Medina is 26 and uses the phrase “stepping-stone” to describe his career choice. However, he tells In These Times that he’s worried he’ll never leave his current job. This interview has been edited and abridged.

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Wednesday, Jul 2, 2014, 7:40 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

Worker-Owners Cheer Creation of $1.2 Million Co-op Development Fund in NYC

Worker-owners rally in New York City this May in support of a $1.2 million fund for cooperative development. (Photo via Ecomundo Cleaning cooperative).  

In a victory for new economy advocates, the New York City Council passed a budget last week that will create a $1.2 million fund for the growth of worker-owned cooperative businesses. The investment is the largest a municipal government in the U.S. has ever made in the sector, breaking new ground for the cooperative development movement.

Melissa Hoover, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Democracy at Work Institute, hails the New York City Council’s move as “historic.” “We have seen bits and pieces here and there, but New York City is the first place to make an investment at that level,” she says.

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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2014, 5:50 pm  ·  By Moshe Marvit

What Harris Means for Workers’ Rights

Public-sector workers in Madison, Wisconsin protest the controversial 2011 law that ended most forms of collective bargaining for government workers in that state.   (Rochelle Hartman / Flickr / Creative Commons)

The Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Harris v. Quinn yesterday, a case that threatened to be the worst decision for unions in decades.  When the class-action suit was first brought in 2010, at issue was whether unionized home healthcare workers who are covered by collective bargaining agreements, could be subject to a fair share provision that requires non-union members to pay for the benefits they receive from the union.  This remained the issue when it arrived at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011.  However, once the case arrived at the Supreme Court in 2013, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation raised the stakes and argued that anything short of a right-to-work model—under which any employee covered by a collective bargaining agreement could forego paying any dues—for all public employees violated the First Amendment.  In the Court's decision, a five-Justice majority held that fair share provisions for home healthcare workers were unconstitutional, and indicated repeatedly that the 1977 case that allows such provisions for all public sector employees is on shaky ground.

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Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 5:41 pm  ·  By Sarah Jaffe

Why Harris and Hobby Lobby Spell Disaster for Working Women

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby Monday, allowing "closely held" businesses to claim religious rights and avoid federal healthcare regulations that require employers to include birth control in insurance plans.   (Nate Grigg / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Retail sales and home healthcare work are two of the three fastest-growing jobs in this country. That’s an important consideration when looking at the decisions the Supreme Court handed down today in Harris v. Quinn and Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. Hobby Lobby Stores: If you are not affected by these rulings yet, you well could be in the future.

Both 5 – 4 decisions were written by Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative Catholic from New Jersey appointed by George W. Bush, and both rested on narrowly tailored legal arguments that just happen to cut wide enough to impact groups of workers who are almost exclusively female. Harris creates the special designation of “partial public employees” for publicly-funded home healthcare aides who work both for the client and for the state—who are 90 percent female, most of them poor, immigrants, and of color. Hobby Lobby, meanwhile, in deciding whether an employer with religious beliefs can be required to provide health insurance that covers contraception, singles out women by targeting its arguments towards workers who use birth control—but not any other form of healthcare.

As Sheila Bapat, author of Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers' Rights, tweeted, “These decisions speak squarely to the value of women's labor.”  

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Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 1:35 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Working Families Make Promising Debut in Maryland Elections

Seven of 10 candidates endorsed by Maryland Working Families won Democratic Party nominations in their districts on Tuesday.   (Courtesy of Working Families Party / Working Families Organization)

The new organization Maryland Working Families is reporting good results in its first foray into state electoral politics last week, as a statewide Democratic Party primary election drew about 400,000 voters to the polls.

Maryland Working Families—affiliated with Working Families Party, a budding alliance of labor unions and traditionally progressive groups that is now firmly established in New York, Connecticut and Oregon—began its first direct electioneering effort in Maryland this year with purposefully modest goals, says Executive Director Charly Carter. MWF endorsed 10 candidates for the state legislature and concentrated on grassroots tactics to get them elected, she says, forgoing involvement in the higher-profile races for governor and state attorney general. Of those 10, seven were successful in winning the Democratic Party nominations in their districts on Tuesday, victories that are considered tantamount to final election in the heavily Democratic areas of Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C.

As far as influencing state electoral politics is concerned, Carter tells In These Times, “We’re happy. We think we’ve made a good start.” One campaign proved victorious for a union organizer who used tactics he learned in his four decades of activism to rally support; another led to the election of a high school teacher who relied heavily on his former students to staff his campaign. 

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