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Working In These Times

Saturday, Sep 1, 2012, 10:00 am

RNC Workers Paid Below Minimum Wage; Fair Trade Fallout; Breaking Bad vs. The Wire

BY Mike Elk

Every weekend, In These Times rounds up the important labor stories that we missed from the week before. Email story ideas to mike@inthesetimes.com.

This week's Republican National Convention was themed “We Built It,” but some workers who actually built the event did not receive even minimum wage. From the Huffington Post:

Carolyn Walker said she has been cleaning the convention center for 13 years. She had been making $8 per hour until a few years ago, when the cleaning contract went to another company, Cleanevent USA. The new company meant a new, downsized paycheck. She's now making minimum wage -- $7.67 per hour. But that wasn't the only hit to her wallet.

Walker said the company charges her $6 per week for uniforms. "It stinks to tell you the truth," she said. "We work very hard." It effectively means she's making less than Florida's minimum wage.

Larry Gilmore, 32, and Jean Baptiste, 27, recounted similar hits to their paychecks by Cleanevent. Baptiste said he's charged $11 per week for uniforms -- a thin blue short-sleeve shirt and dark pants.

Workers in New York City are occupying a bakery that has been shut down following a successful unionization drive. From a Laundry Workers Center press release:

Following news of an impending store closure, workers at the 63rd street location of Hot and Crusty bakery have called for a 24-hour picket and store occupation, alleging the company has deliberately withheld rent payments following a hard-fought and successful unionization drive in May 2012. The company, owned by private equity partner Mark Samson, gave the Hot and Crusty Workers Association 11 days notice of eviction from the property, informing employees that August 31st would be their last day.

The union, led by grassroots labor organization Laundry Workers Center and a contingent from Occupy Wall Street, students, faith and community members are occupying the workplace and holding an around-the-clock picket demanding the company discontinue its union-busting tactics, pay its rent immediately, and continue to negotiate a fair contract with its workers. The company has used several bait-and-switch tactics during negotiations, threatening workers’ immigration status to deter their commitment to continuing the fight.

The August 31 closure will mean the loss of 23 jobs – including those of employees with as many as twelve years of employment with the company.

A Charleston Gazette reporter who has covered the West Virginia's coal industry for decades is being sued by Murray Energy for libel over his op-ed about the CEO's ties to Mitt Romney. From JimRomensko.com:

The Charleston Gazette and Ken Ward Jr. — called “one of the nation’s top coal reporters” by Columbia Journalism Review — have been sued by Murray Energy for Ward’s July 18 blog post, “Mitt Romney, Murray Energy and coal criminals.”

In his post, Ward writes that “renegade coal operator Bob Murray played a major role recently in a campaign fundraiser in Wheeling, W.Va., for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney” and that “the question for Governor Romney, of course, is whether he thinks criminal behavior by coal companies, especially when it kills workers and damages the environment, is acceptable. If not, why is he buddies with Bob Murray?”

Murray’s lawsuit says Ward’s blog post takes a “false and defamatory manner implying that Plaintiffs Murray, Murray Energy, American Energy, and Ohio Valley are criminals.”

A high-profile fight has broken out over whether the fair trade coffee certification system has undermined a network of democratically run co-op farms in Latin America. From The Nation:

In September, Fair Trade USA—the US affiliate of Fairtrade International, which governs the global fair trade system and sets labeling and production standards from its home base in Bonn, Germany—announced its decision to end its affiliation with the parent body. In fair trade circles, this was a high-level divorce, and it reverberated widely. FTUSA, which is based in Oakland, also declared that it would certify coffee produced on plantations and by independent smallholder farmers—a significant departure from a system that restricts accreditation to coffee grown on democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives, of which there are 360, mostly in Latin America.

FTUSA’s president and CEO, Paul Rice, is blunt about his reasons for exiting the international system. In a May interview with the blogger Julie Fahnestock, Rice depicted the movement as doctrinaire and hostile to innovation. “If fair trade continues to [exclude] the poorest of poor,” Rice said, “it’s really on moral thin ice.” He went on to say: “Don’t we want to democratize fair trade? Don’t we want fair trade to be more than a white, middle-class movement?”

The popular show Breaking Bad will have its fifth-season finale this Sunday. A powerful op-ed in Truthout argues that Breaking Bad is fundamentally a conservative understanding of the War on Drugs, where people enter drugmaking as a luxury--in contrast with the Wire, where drug dealers enter the industry out of financial necessity as a result of structural economic problems. From Truthout:

White's decision to manufacture drugs was not done clearly from a point of desperation, which is further shown by the fact that he keeps up the caper well after he makes millions and has his cancer in remission. No, White's decision reflected a classic conservatism that comes straight from the likes of Edmund Burke. "A man provides for his family ... because he a man," said drug kingpin Gustavo Fring, to an agreeable White. This line shows why "Breaking Bad" may well be the most philosophically conservative show on television ….

To be fair, the creators of "Breaking Bad" are open about what the show is trying to do and they do not even try to dissect the systemic problems in the United States. Every single detail of the show and White's life is, as the protagonist explained to his son who had bought his lie about being addicted to gambling, "all about choices." And this is where "Breaking Bad" misses an amazing opportunity. You learn much more about society when people operate in a world, much like our own, where choices are restricted by larger, external forces. "The Wire," of course, is a full-frontal assault on numerous failing institutions, and in some ways, of the brutal nature of capitalism itself - a system that leaves a permanent urban underclass in the streets of Baltimore with little reasons for hope and almost no prospects for a way out.

Here we see that being "bad" or "good" is not simply a matter of "complicated choices," but a complicated world where many are primarily subjects of the world around them. Consider the "Wire's" character archs with the young children, such as Dukie, whose descent into homelessness and drug addiction cannot be explained away by "complicated choices." Likewise, the character of Michael, whose "complicated decision" to join a violent, murderous drug gang is also complicated by much more than his own judgment. "I got a problem I can't bring to no one else," he tells gang leader Marlo Stanfield. He is not totally wrong. His young brother, who lacks a single adult caretaker of any reliability, risks being abused sexually, forcing Michael into a "choice."

A new study put out by the Economic Policy Institute says that reduction in unionization has contributed to 33 percent of the increase in wage inequality over the last 30 years. From EPI:

The union wage premium—the percentage-higher wage earned by those covered by a collective bargain­ing contract—is 13.6 percent over­all (17.3 percent for men and 9.1 percent for women).

Unionized workers are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.

From 1973 to 2011, the share of the workforce represented by unions declined from 26.7 percent to 13.1 percent. ... Deunionization can explain about a third of the entire growth of wage inequality among men and around a fifth of the growth among women from 1973 to 2007.

A New York City Union leader who led a kickback scheme that demanded $1.86 million from employers in exchange for weak contract demands has been sentenced to five years in prison. From the New York Daily News:

A former union leader who conspired with his father and another relative to extort $1.86 million from employers to ensure labor peace was sentenced Monday to five years in prison.

Anthony Fazio Jr., 37, who was president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 348 from January 2010 to November 2011, was found guilty in May of racketeering and extortion.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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