Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014, 2:30 pm  ·  By Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Wall Street and Major Retailers Agree That Inequality is Killing Us. Why Don’t Republicans?

Republicans continue to stand alone in the fight for income inequality.   Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr

Income inequality is killing the economy. Retailers, bankers and Democrats agree on that. Really.

It’s only Republicans who continue to insist that income inequality is great, so no one, least of all them, should make any effort to constrict the abyss between America’s struggling 99 percent and Americans who indulge themselves in $475,000 bottles of House of Creed Bespoke perfume

Now that Wall Street and Main Street have endorsed Democratic economic principals to reduce inequality for the sake of the economy, voting Nov. 4 is easy. Vote Democrat. That’s the party both bankers and retailers say has the solution to economic revival. 

Admittedly, this is all a little hard to believe after Republicans have diligently depicted themselves as business and bank huggers for so long.

Turns out, though, that’s a sad, one-sided relationship. Bankers and retailers aren’t returning the love when it comes to economic policy. They’ve recognized the enemy to their bottom lines, and it is the rising costs and stagnant wages borne by workers since the dawn of the recession.

And both bankers and retailers want action. They want incomes, consumer confidence and purchases all to rise, triggering business profits to do the same. They’ve discovered that extra personal jets, mega yachts and $475,000 perfume purchased by the one percent have failed to stimulate the economy.

What’s essential to revival is more buying by the hulking mass of everybody else. That’s what Wall Street firms have said in recent reports. And that’s what the Center for American Progress, a think tank that supports middle-out economics, found in an analysis of the financial statements of 65 of the nation’s top retailers. 

Here, for example, is what Morgan Stanley economists had to say last month in their report Inequality and Consumption:

“So, despite the roughly $25 trillion increase in wealth since the recovery from the financial crisis began, consumer spending remains anemic. Top income earners have benefited from wealth increases but middle and low income consumers continue to face structural liquidity constraints and unimpressive wage growth. To lift all boats, further increases in residential wealth and accelerating wage growth are needed.”

In other words, the prescription to cure consumer spending anemia is raises for workers. Remember, it is Republicans who have blocked raising the federal minimum wage from its poverty-level $7.25 an hour, with some party darlings, such as Michele Bachmann, a former candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, contending that the minimum wage should be abolished because no wage is too low.

Then there’s the August report from rating agency Standard & Poor’s titled: How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, And Possible Ways To Change The TideIt says:

“The challenge now is to find a path toward more sustainable growth, an essential part of which, in our view, is pulling more Americans out of poverty and bolstering the purchasing power of the middle class. A rising tide lifts all boats…but a lifeboat carrying a few, surrounded by many treading water, risks capsizing.”

Apparently, Wall Street economists love boat metaphors.

To haul the many out of the water and into a more stable economic ship, S&P suggests this:

“That said, some degree of rebalancing – along with spending in the areas of education, health care, and infrastructure, for example – could help bring under control an income gap that, at its current level, threatens the stability of an economy still struggling to recover.”

Remember, it is Republicans across the country that have cut spending on education and refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

It is Republicans in Congress who have repeatedly stomped on attempts by Democrats to stimulate the economy by spending on desperately needed repairs to infrastructure—that is facilities such as roads, bridges, public buildings and sewers. Numerous economists have pointed out that the cost of borrowing for these job-creating projects is so low right now that the loans are virtually free.

Wall Street and Main Street have had their disputes since the Great Recession. But they agree that for the good of the country’s economy, incomes must rise for the majority. In a report issued earlier this month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) documented retailers’ belief that stagnant wages are damaging business. It’s called Retailer Revelations: Why America’s Struggling Middle Class has Businesses Scared.

CAP tabulated the risks to business stability that the nation’s top retailers reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. CAP found that 88 percent said weak consumer spending imperils stock prices, and 68 percent said consumers’ flat or falling incomes threaten business profits.

The CAP report lists large retailer (Kohl’s and Sears) after large retailer (Best Buy and J.C. Penney) suffering faltering sales. It quotes Container Store CEO Kip Tindell saying, “Consistent with so many of our fellow retailers, we are experiencing a retail funk.”

CAP explains the funk, “The fortunes of the retail sector and the middle class are inherently linked – when family incomes fail to rise, when the cost of living increases, or when workers cannot find jobs, retailers’ sales decline.”

Some retailers have taken action themselves. Earlier this year, for example, Gap Inc. and IKEA announced plans to raise their workers’ wages to at least $10 an hour. Costco increased wages by $1.50 an hour during the recession, so workers start at $11.50 an hour.

CEO Craig Jelinek explained: “I just think people need to make a living wage with health benefits. It also puts more money back into the economy and creates a healthier country. It’s really that simple.” Costco’s stock prices have tripled since 2009.

Still, not every retailer is going to raise wages voluntarily. The world’s largest, Walmart, for example, just cut its workers’ health benefits. That’s where government steps in. For the good of struggling Americans and the ailing economy, government can order employers to pay a living wage. To create jobs and stimulate the economy, government can invest in infrastructure. As during the Great Depression, a government of the people, by the people, for the people can act for the benefit of the majority of the people.

Republicans oppose that. They prefer the failed trickle-down economics that sunk the middle class. So on November 4, vote to ship them home. Retailers, bankers and workers across America will thank you. 


Monday, Oct 20, 2014, 5:05 pm  ·  By Will Craft

1,000 Nurses to Walk off the Job at U. of I. Hospital Tuesday (Update: Strike Averted)

UIH nurses lay down their scrubs and reach for picket signs.   (ABC / Wikimedia / creative Commons)

Update: The hospital and the nurses reached a tentative agreement late Monday night, unanimously approved by the nurses' bargaining committee, and the strike was averted. The contract is still subject to ratification by the union's members.

More than 1,000 nurses at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System (UI Health) will continue as planned with a one-day strike tomorrow, following a failed attempt by the hospital to prevent almost one-third of the strikers from walking off the job.  

In a series of strike votes in early October, the nurses, represented by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA), approved a one-day strike for October 21 by an overwhelming majority of 609 to 38. The union and the hospital have been locking horns during negotiations of the nurses’ contract, which was set to expire in August but has been extended until the end of October. The strike vote was taken in response to proposals made by the hospital that the union says would endanger patient safety and nurses’ working conditions.


Friday, Oct 17, 2014, 6:34 pm  ·  By Jordan McCurdy

Texas Nurses Say They Lacked Proper Protocol, Equipment to Treat Ebola

European Union aid nurses prepare to treat potential Ebola victims in Liberia. (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection / Flickr)  

On Tuesday, National Nurses United (NNU) released a statement criticizing disease protocols at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas—the same hospital where Thomas Eric Duncan died of Ebola and where two of Duncan’s nurses, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, contracted the disease.

This outbreak, according to Dr. Tom Friedman, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resulted from a breach in protocol and could have been prevented.

Friedman’s statement infuriated nurses from Texas Health Presbyterian, according to the union, prompting RNs to contact the NNU in order to anonymously call attention to the hospital’s inept training and general preparation regarding Ebola protocol. Union officials read the nurses’ statement on Tuesday, outlining the alleged flaws and absence of procedures on the day Duncan was admitted to the emergency room with severe symptoms.


Friday, Oct 17, 2014, 1:35 pm  ·  By Marina Fang

If You’re An Uber Driver, Don’t Tweet This Article. You Might Be Fired.

Uber appears to be monitoring drivers' social media presences.   (Adam Fagen / Flickr)

An Uber driver was briefly fired by the company on Thursday for tweeting a semi-critical comment about the company before a social media firestorm that may have helped convince the company to bring him back. 

As reported by Gawker, Christopher Ortiz received an email from a company operations manager informing him that his account was “permanently deactivated due to hateful statements regarding Uber through Social Media.”


Friday, Oct 17, 2014, 7:00 am  ·  By Cole Stangler

Building Trades Chief Lauds Fracking Boom, Shrugs Off Environmental Concerns

A Halliburton worker poses at a fracking operation. (Joshua Doubek / Wikimedia Commons)  

In its quest for jobs, the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO hasn’t shied away from taking on environmentalists and progressives. The latest flashpoint is fracking, the controversial drilling practice propelling the nation’s fossil fuel energy boom.

On this issue, public tolerance is waning, but the trades unions aren’t backing down.


Thursday, Oct 16, 2014, 3:00 pm  ·  By Zaid Jilani, Alternet

The Walmart Way of Business: When Profits Go Up, Cut Health Care for 30,000 Employees

(Mike Mozart / Flickr)

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Walmart is a wildly successful company. Its “corporate fact sheet” online boasts that for “the fiscal year ended January 31, 2014, Walmart increased net sales by 1.6% to $473.1 billion and returned $12.8 billion to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases. Walmart ranked first on the 2014 Fortune 500 list of "the world’s largest companies by revenue.”

Yet despite the retail behemoth's growing financial prosperity, which greatly benefits the company's shareholders, executives and especially the Walton family, the company has now decided that poverty wages are not bad enough for its employees. It will also cut their benefits. Walmart just announced that it will both be cutting health care coverage altogether for 30,000 part-time employees (about 2 percent of its workforce) while increasing the premiums paid by its other employees. The size of the premium increases is significant—biweekly premiums for its lowest-cost employee plans will rise 19 percent from $3.50 to $21.90.

Walmart's latest move on health care is just the latest in its crusade to build a business empire based on cheap labor, one where even full-time workers need food stamps to survive. It is notorious for suppressing employee rights, going as far as to shut down entire stores that have unionized. In 2013, a Congressional report estimated that Walmart's failure to provide decent wages and benefits could cost taxpayers as much as $900,000 per store thanks to government provision of food stamps and other aid. Chances are that number will increase now.

Thanks to all this, the Waltons, the Walmart heirs, have more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans—estimated at $102.7 billion in 2012.


Thursday, Oct 16, 2014, 1:15 pm  ·  By Marina Fang

SEIU Health Care Local Backs Four Republican Power Players

Members of 1199SEIU march during Occupy Wall Street in 2012.   (Paul Stein / Flickr)

A prominent progressive union in New York is throwing its support behind a few influential Republican state senators.

According to the New York Post, 1199SEIU United Health Care Workers East donated $6,500 to State Sen. Dean Skelos, who leads the Republican majority in the state legislature. In addition, it either endorsed or contributed money to three other Republican state senators, one of whom heads New York’s Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

The health care workers union is also working to try to turn the GOP-controlled State Senate Democratic in November’s elections—a goal that seems at odds with donating money to four Republican state legislators.


Wednesday, Oct 15, 2014, 3:10 pm  ·  By Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Happy Halloween from the GOP

In a new campaign strategy, Republicans play off of Americans' fears by comparing Ebola and ISIS issues to Halloween-inspired horrors. (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection / Flickr)  

Republicans have adopted a Halloween-themed campaign strategy that they hope will incite voters to run screaming from Democrats.

The GOP message: Americans should be very, very afraid because the homeland is under attack from ghouls and goblins manifest as Ebola and ISIS. Republicans even threaten boogeymen in the form of ISIS suicide agents strapping themselves with Ebola virus vests and sneaking across the southern U.S. border.

This embrace of Halloween tricks is not surprising from the party pushing voter suppression while masquerading as a democracy-loving founding father.  The GOP is warning Americans that they should be scared witless of impending government disintegration because a guy with a knife got into the White House. This “caution” comes from the political party that favors government disintegration. Republicans have, after all, repeatedly shut down government and announced their intention to drown it in a bathtub. Republicans want America to summon the GOP to save the day, like it’s the political version of Ghostbusters. Most Americans, though, see right through the GOP, like it’s a gooey glob of ectoplasm. 


Wednesday, Oct 15, 2014, 1:30 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

Adjunct Instructor: ‘I was practically giving my work away. It was charity.’

(Yassie / Wikimedia Commons)  

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

In the 1970s, communications professor Jack Hunter told Studs Terkel that his was an “invisible industry.” “Since the Second World War,” Hunter explained, “We’ve had phenomenal growth. There are seven-thousand-plus strong teachers in this discipline.” The centrality of communication and persuasion to human society meant that “communications specialists do have a sense of power,” said Hunter. He was “high on the work.”

Forty years later, Maria (a pseudonym), who until recently taught English composition classes at a Texas community college, similarly describes her work as invisible. But she does not have the same sense of power—as an adjunct professor, she says that she is treated as disposable, even though her work teaching incoming students communication skills is still just as crucial. Maria says that drastic changes have occurred in higher education since Hunter’s day—most notably, tenure-track faculty now constitute just 24 percent of the higher education workforce, according to the American Association of University Professors. 

Before I started as an adjunct, I was in publishing for 20-odd years. A long time ago, I was getting my Ph.D, and I had finished everything but my dissertation. I had gone out for a job, and I was in the final group out of three hundred applicants, but I was pregnant at the time and they didn’t pick me. So I went into publishing. But I always loved teaching, and when my kids grew up, I knew I wanted to go back into it.


Wednesday, Oct 15, 2014, 10:44 am  ·  By Michael Arria

Major League Baseball Has a Wage Theft Problem

The MLB's gross revenue has increased around 264% in the last 18 years, yet wage theft cases seem to be spiking. (Keith Allison/Flickr)  

With Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter’s retirement, the end of the Kansas City Royals’ lengthy playoff drought, and the yearly shift to the playoffs, Major League Baseball has seen an increase in national coverage lately, despite the NFL’s numerous scandals swallowing up the bulk of most sports segments. The uptick in attention stands in contrast to the more commonly-held perception that baseball’s popularity and cultural impact are dwindling.

The key numbers in assessing the MLB’s economic fortunes are its television revenues: according to an anonymous source who spoke to Forbes at the end of 2013, professional baseball took in between $8-$8.5 billion last year. In the last 18 years, the league’s gross revenue has increased by around 264 percent. The average MLB team is now worth around $811 million, a 9 percent increase from last year.