Working In These Times

Thursday, Apr 23, 2015, 11:44 am  ·  By Bruce Vail

Some Union Pension Cuts Likely As New Federal Rules Take Shape

The cuts would likely be devastating for hundreds of thousands of retirees. (Teamsters for a Democratic Union)  

The likelihood that hundreds of thousands of union members nationwide won’t be receiving the full pension benefits promised to them is becoming clearer as federal regulatory agencies in Washington, D.C., move to implement new pension legislation quietly approved in the final weeks of 2014.

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Wednesday, Apr 22, 2015, 1:39 pm  ·  By Steve Early

Vermont Activists Battle Democratic Governor for Single-Payer Health Care

Vermonters rally for health care in 2011. (Vermont Workers Center / Flickr)  

Liz Nikazmerad is a rarity in American labor: a local union president under the age of 30, displaying both youth and militancy. For the last two year years, she has led the 180-member Local 203 of the United Electrical Workers (UE), while working in the produce department of City Market in Burlington, Vermont. Thanks to their contract bargaining, full-time and part-time employees of this bustling community-owned food cooperative currently enjoy good medical benefits.

But that wasn’t always the case in Nikazmerad’s past non-union jobs, nor is it any assurance that UE members won’t be forced to pay more for their health care in the future. To curb medical cost inflation and related cost-shifting to workers, the UE has long advocated that private insurance plans be replaced with publicly funded universal coverage.

Four years ago, a newly elected Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, took a promising first step in that direction at the state level. His Democrat-dominated legislature passed Act 48, which laid the groundwork for creating a comprehensive public insurance plan called Green Mountain Care (GMC).

Not all activists deemed GMC to be truly “single-payer,” because of potential legal or political obstacles to the inclusion of Vermonters currently covered through Medicare, the Veterans’ Administration, and even some “self-insured” plans offered by local employers. However, Act 48’s blueprint for getting everyone else into a more rational, cost-effective healthcare system, financed by taxes, was generally hailed as a great breakthrough.

Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) first required Vermont to operate a private insurance exchange until 2017, when a federal waiver permitting further experimentation might be granted. Despite this delay, Shumlin was still reassuring Vermonters, as recently as last fall, that a brighter health care future lay just a few years ahead.

By January 8, when the governor began his third term, that promise had dimmed so much that Liz Nikazmerad and several hundred others weren’t there to applaud his inauguration in Montpelier. Instead, frustrated advocates of health care reform staged a sit-in at the state capitol, chanting and singing, unfurling banners and refused to leave in protest against the governor’s abrupt abandonment of universal health care six weeks after his re-election.

“People had fought for this a long time,” Nikazmerad says. “It was a huge win and to have the rug yanked out like that was very upsetting. People were very emotional about it.”

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Monday, Apr 20, 2015, 5:48 pm  ·  By Alex Lubben

Workers of the Snark Factory, Unite: Gawker May Stake Out Ground for Unions in New Media

The "we" in Hamilton Nolan's 2012 piece "Why We Need Unions" wasn't referring to Gawker staff themselves, but the site's writers announced this week that they intend to form a union. (Gawker.com)  

Gawker, a new media outfit that’s the nation’s only reliable source for news about In These Times editors accidentally burning their genitals, announced last week that they’re looking to form a union.

Unions, which were once fairly common in print media, have yet to catch on in new media. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan hopes to change that. He’s been writing about labor at Gawker for some time now. (And like many of our labor writers noted before we unionized at In These Times last year, Nolan says he’s had no good answer for sources who have often asked him why he’s not in a union.) While most think of the site’s irreverent and occasionally vicious snark as its principal contribution to political and cultural discourse, Nolan has proven a strong voice on the Left alongside the site’s stream of celebrity gossip and annotated YouTube videos.

And it’s effective. Gawker’s voice is well suited to calling out corporate power and articulating political nuances, all while remaining readable and relatable to a set of readers who have grown comfortable with the site's casual voice.

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Saturday, Apr 18, 2015, 12:40 pm  ·  By Rachel Luban

Alleging Labor Abuses, U.S. and Mexican Workers Call for Boycott of Driscoll’s Berries

The popular berry company is experiencing labor unrest in both American and Mexican fields. (Mike Mozart / Flickr)  

Driscoll’s may be the U.S.’s most recognizable brand name on strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and blackberry cartons. Its conventional and organic berries can be found year-round everywhere from Sam’s Club to Whole Foods. To keep its berries stocked far and wide, the company uses a vast supplier network stretching from Canada to Argentina.

But some of those suppliers are coming under fire for allegedly abusing workers, in the U.S. and Mexico. One Driscoll’s grower has spent weeks embroiled in a major farmworker protest, while a nearly two-year boycott against another grower recently intensified. Workers in both disputes have called for a boycott against the company.

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Friday, Apr 17, 2015, 10:59 am  ·  By Elizabeth Grossman

Two Years After West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Are Workers Any Safer? New Report Says No

Much of West, Texas looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland after the fertilizer explosion two years ago. But steps to prevent further disasters aren't being taken. (A Name Like Shields... / Flickr)  

On April 17, 2013, a massive fire and explosion tore through the West Fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killing 15 people—including 10 volunteer firefighters—and injuring more than 200. Fueled by the 30 or so tons of explosive ammonium nitrate on site, the blast ripped through the wooden building and its flammable contents, destroying three nearby schools, a nursing home and devastating 37 city blocks. A federal government investigation into the disaster found enormous gaps in information made available to first responders and the community about the plant’s highly hazardous materials – information that could have prevented or reduced the loss of life, injuries and damage.

Two years after this catastrophe, the Center for Effective Government has taken a look at the disclosure practices around such hazardous chemicals—and found what’s required of these facilities to still be “inadequate and insufficient.”

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Thursday, Apr 16, 2015, 5:57 pm  ·  By Andrew Elrod

“People are tired of waiting”: In New York City, Construction and Low-wage Workers March

Construction workers in New York have joined the Fight for 15 movement, asking for a higher minimum wage.   (Michael Tapp / Flickr)

From Canarsie, Brooklyn to Lincoln Center, workers in New York rallied in support of a $15 minimum wage on Wednesday.

The most recent day of action in the nearly three-year old Fight for $15 campaign included protests from racial justice activists and workers across industries, and ended with a raucous finale in Midtown Manhattan, where an estimated 10,000 construction workers took the streets against the exertions of both police and union leaders.

“This movement has grown all over this city, from child care workers, to home care workers, to car wash workers, and now construction workers,” said Jonathan Westin, Executive Director of New York Communities for Change, during the afternoon rally organized by the New York City Building Trades Council. Westin’s organization, a former ACORN affiliate, is one of the principal groups behind the fast food protests in New York City, along with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

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Thursday, Apr 16, 2015, 3:58 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

Adjunct Faculty Around the Country Join Fight for 15 Protests

Members of Faculty Forward, a nationwide organization of professors, march through the streets of downtown Chicago with Fight for 15.   (Faculty Forward Chicago)

After speaking to an adjunct instructor participating in yesterday’s massive low-wage worker protests, I thanked her for her time and walked away. Another adjunct, who had been listening on the sidelines as my interviewee talked about her 12 years piecing together part-time work at five different Chicago colleges, approached and introduced herself. “I just wanted to make sure we connected today,” she said to my interviewee before adding knowingly, “It sounds like we have a lot in common!” 

A key component of any union drive is workers’ recognition that their problems on the job are shared rather than unique ones, and that they therefore must be solved by collective action. Organizers involved in the growing effort to unionize contingent faculty say that this is often an especially difficult realization for highly educated, low-wage workers who are trained to pursue individual success by putting their noses ever harder to the Ivory Tower’s grindstone.

But that appears to have changed as of yesterday’s walkouts and rallies in more than 200 cities nationwide, in which adjuncts joined fast-food, homecare and other low-wage workers in what organizers say was the largest such protest in history. The day’s actions marked a new phase of the “Fight for 15,” which will head to colleges as contingent faculty press for union representation, a wage bump and greater job security.

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Thursday, Apr 16, 2015, 1:22 pm  ·  By Arielle Zionts and Micah Uetricht

During Yesterday’s Fight for 15 Protests, Nearly 50 Chicago Armored Guards Decided to Go on Strike

Brink's workers at the Fight for 15 rally at the University of Illinois-Chicago.   (Arielle Zionts)

The Fight for 15 campaign says that yesterday’s protests in over 200 cities around the country were the biggest yet since the movement began almost three years ago. Organizers say their numbers have grown larger with each round of strikes. But they have also expanded in ways that no one, including the campaign’s staffers, thought possible—like when nearly 50 drivers and security guards employed by Brink’s, the global security and logistics company known for its armored bulletproof trucks, suddenly decided to walk off the job early Wednesday morning.

The workers say they made the decision that morning after reaching out to an organizer from the campaign a few days before April 15. After making the decision at their headquarters that morning, they were joined by a group of Fight for 15 staffers and supporters. The workers attempted to present a signed letter to management stating they were going on strike, but messenger John Downes says managers refused to come to the door. Workers have not yet received a response from management.

At 5:00 a.m. this morning, a group of about 20 Fight for 15 staffers and community supporters accompanied a group of around two dozen workers back to work, a tactic which the movement has used after every strike. Workers attempted to deliver another letter to management today that explained their strike, but management instead called the police on the group. Staffers say the workers did, however, successfully return to work.

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Thursday, Apr 16, 2015, 9:21 am  ·  By David Moberg

Fast Food Workers in 236 Cities Pull Off Largest Strikes Yet as Other Low-wage Workers Join Fight

(Milwaukee Teachers Education Association / Flickr)  

A hand-lettered placard, reading “McDonald’s: Stop Fooling Around, $15 and a union,” caught the spirit of the crowd of at least 3,000 protestors in Chicago for a march to a McDonald’s restaurant in the downtown Loop area connected to the Chicago Board of Trade. In 236 cities in the U.S. and roughly 100 more around the world from Sao Paulo to New Zealand and from Glasgow to Tokyo, according to protest spokespeople, fast food and other low-wage workers joined together to pressure employers like McDonald’s to raise their workers’ pay.

Organizers claimed that it was the largest protest by low-wage workers in U.S. history. And it may very well rank as one of the broadest global worker protests ever undertaken against multinational corporations—one reinforced by recent investigations and lawsuits in Europe against the company for violations of labor, health, safety, tax and other laws.

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Tuesday, Apr 14, 2015, 6:42 pm  ·  By Sonia Singh

How the Fight for 15 Has Inspired Bold Action and Demands from Workers Everywhere

Milwaukee low-wage workers on strike in September 2014. (Wisconsin Jobs Now / Flickr)  

As thousands of low-wage workers are rallying and striking Wednesday, demanding $15 an hour and a union, their high-profile mobilization has already inspired workers in a range of industries far beyond fast food.

From school support staff to UPS part-timers, Fight for 15 is raising the confidence of unions to put bold demands on the bargaining table for their own low-wage members—and to back up those demands with community action.

The surge in low-wage worker organizing is also fueling campaigns to boost the minimum wage, spreading the momentum for $15 to new cities, including a wave of action across Canada.

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