Working In These Times

Monday, Jun 9, 2014, 2:38 pm  ·  By Yana Kunichoff

Puerto Rico Unions Threaten Strike Against Austerity Budget

Union workers in Puerto Rico are resisting a crippling budget proposal.  

Public union workers from a handful of unions across Puerto Rico have spent the last week blocking ports, shutting down thoroughfares and slowing public transit. But that may be just the beginning: In the coming week, workers are expected to vote on whether to hold a general strike across the country.

The unions are standing against the austerity budget proposed this spring by members of the U.S. commonwealth’s General Assembly to deal with the country’s recent bond downgrade and looming payment of its debts to bondholders. The Fiscal Sustainability Act of the Government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, as the budget is called, would allow the government to bring in “emergency powers” to deal with the crisis. Under this authority, it could renegotiate all public employees’ contracts, liquidate unused sick days, and freeze salaries—thereby gutting workers’ collective bargaining powers. Privatizing the commonwealth’s electrical company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, has also been placed on the table as an option for stanching the crisis; the emergency measures would also include closing 100 public schools.

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Monday, Jun 9, 2014, 9:00 am  ·  By Matthew Blake

Hairstylist: ‘It’s Like Being on a First Date All the Time’

When Lynnae Duley first started out as a hairstylist, she says, she would have 'emotional reactions to people's hair' in public. (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.

The hairstylists Studs Terkel interviewed, a couple named Edward and Hazel Zimmer, charged $15 a customer at their suburban salon outside of a major city. They worried that automated technology, such as at-home perms, would make it harder for salons to stay afloat. Today, however, Lynnae Duley, who has been a hairstylist  for practically her entire adult life, is able to do clients’ hair for $85 a pop at the Anthony Cristiano salon in Chicago’s Trump Tower. 

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Friday, Jun 6, 2014, 5:57 pm  ·  By David Moberg

Privatizing Government Services Doesn’t Only Hurt Public Workers

A coalition of workers rally against privatization in Washington, D.C. (mar is sea Y / Creative Commons / Flickr)  

If you want to understand how privatization of public services typically works, Grand Rapids, Michigan is as good a place as any to start.

The state operates a nursing home for veterans in the town. Until 2011, it directly employed 170 nursing assistants, but also relied on 100 assistants in the same facility provided by a private contractor. The state paid its direct employees $15 to $20 an hour and provided them with health insurance and pensions. Meanwhile, the contractor started pay for its nursing assistants at $8.50 an hour—still billing the state $14.99—and provided no benefits for employees. This led to high worker turnover, reduced quality of care, and heavy employee reliance on food stamps and other public aid. 

Yet despite the evidence from this useful—albeit unplanned—experiment, which showed that any savings the state made through privatization came at the expense of workers and their clients, the new conservative Republican state government decided in 2011 to complete the privatization of the provision of nursing aides to the home. 

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Thursday, Jun 5, 2014, 3:55 pm  ·  By Yana Kunichoff

One Year After Closings, How Are Chicago’s Public Schools Now?

Despite widespread protests, Chicago Public Schools still opted to close 50 of the city's schools before the 2013-2014 academic year began. (Chicago Teachers Union)  

In the fall of 2012, the fear of school closings was one of the main catalysts for the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike, which saw tens of thousands of teachers walk off the job. 

The Chicago Public Schools district had already closed 86 schools in the previous decade on the basis of low test scores and, more recently, arguments that the buildings were underutilized. At the time of the strike, rumors were circulating that up to 120 more schools were on the chopping block.

Though the district did not apparently respond to these rumors during the strike, in February 2013, the school board officially released its list of schools slated for closure. Of the more than 276 schools initially considered, 50 had their doors shut for good for the 2013-2014 school year, despite citywide protests and school occupations by parents.  The impact fell heavily on Chicago’s African-American students—and teachers. Of the 49 closed elementary schools, 90 percent had a majority African-American demographic, while 71 percent had a majority African-American staff of teachers, according to the Chicago Teachers Union. All in all, the closings amounted to shuttering 25 percent of all CPS schools that had majority African-American students.

Despite this blow, the city vowed that students and teachers would not feel an impact from what amounted to the largest school closure in history. In fact, they argued, closing the schools would more evenly distribute resources that teachers often complained were sorely lacking. 

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Wednesday, Jun 4, 2014, 6:00 am  ·  By Stephen Franklin

Leslie Orear, 103, Helped Bring Together Black and White Packinghouse Workers in the 1930s

Leslie Orear started out in a packinghouse in 1932, tying string onto hunks of bacon. (Greg Boozell)  

Leslie Orear, a lifelong labor activist, died in Chicago on May 30 at the age of 103. After entering the Chicago stockyards at a time when the idea of unions for blue-collar workers was spreading like wildfire, Orear quickly emerged as a voice for stockyard workers.

Leslie Orear started in the giant packing house’s sweet-pickle shipping department in 1932, tying string onto hunks of bacon. It was often hot and stunk, and the pay was a measly 32.5-cents an hour.

But Orear needed the job at the Armour & Co. plant in Chicago’s Union Stock Yards. The Great Depression had pulled him out of college, and he needed work to help his family.

The job turned out to be an eye-opening encounter with an industry that had changed little in the decades since Upton Sinclair exposed the stockyards’ cruelty in his turn-of-the century novel, The Jungle.

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Tuesday, Jun 3, 2014, 4:15 pm  ·  By Jonathan Leavitt

Dairy Work Has Soured for Vermont’s Migrant Workers

Migrant Justice farmworkers and allies marching on a Ferrisburgh, Vermont, dairy farm.   (Darya Marchenkova)

On the Ferrisburgh, Vermont dairy farm where he was responsible for breeding and milking the cows, Victor Diaz used to spend every night curled up in a broken-down camper beside a barn. During the two years of enduring rainwater dripping down on him and other migrant workers who shared the quarters, Diaz, who was born in Chiapas, Mexico, says he continuously asked his boss for better accommodations.

“With a couple of coworkers, we got together and we fought for something better,” Diaz recounts now. “We got a trailer.”

Unfortunately, he says, the new trailer was hardly an improvement: Sewage flowed out of the faucet, shower and washing machine. Still, according to Diaz, the farmer, Ray Brands, described it as a “mansion.”  

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Tuesday, Jun 3, 2014, 2:10 pm  ·  By Rose Arrieta

Hundreds of San Francisco Transit Workers Stage ‘Sickout’ to Protest Pension Cuts

About half of San Francisco's city buses, light rail, cable and trolley cars are not operating today because of the transit operator sickout, which was launched to protest the city's latest contract proposal.   (Tony Fischer / Flickr / Creative Commons)

San Francisco commuters are being asked to find alternative transportation arrangements in Day 2 of a Muni driver sickout, affecting the operation of city buses, light rail, cable and trolley cars. Today, only 300 of 600 vehicles are operating, according to Muni spokesman Paul Rose.

Yesterday commuters scrambled to find ways to and from their destinations in the surprise sickout that left two-thirds of the Muni system buses non-operational. Forbidden from going on strike over contract negotiations, drivers called in sick again today despite a strongly worded memo from SFMTA last night that warned, “Operators engaging in an unauthorized work stoppage or ‘sick out’ are not entitled to receive paid sick leave and further, may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination.” 

Muni spokesperson Paul Rose said in a statement yesterday that about 400 out of 600 morning runs—both buses and rail car—remained parked on Monday. SF Bicycle Coalition tweeted this morning “Ride your bike today to avoid any #Muni delays.”

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Monday, Jun 2, 2014, 9:00 am  ·  By Jeff Schuhrke

Truck Unloader: ‘The Worst Part of My Job Is the Paycheck’

Kerry Brown, a truck unloader at a big-box store, says about himself and his co-workers, 'We’re great, incredible people who are stuck in these ridiculous and exploitative jobs.' (Jeff Schuhrke)  

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.

By the time Terkel interviewed him, stock chaser Ned Williams had been on the job for more than 20 years. Every day, he'd lift down heavy tires from a truck at the Ford Motor Company. He spoke to Terkel of being a "mechanical nut"—in other words, he felt like his job reduced him to little more than his automatic actions. Though he was dedicated to earning a paycheck, he said, "I don't like work, I never did like work."

In contrast, 37-year-old Kerry Brown has resolved to make his profession as a truck unloader at a big-box chain store in Hadley, Massachusetts as personally fulfilling as possible. For him, that means organizing his co-workers and demanding a fair wage for all of them. Like Williams, Brown used to be a soldier; he was also, as he tells In These Times, "a firefighter, I was a paraprofessional for seventh- and eighth-grade students, I was an operations and technical support for a community organization, I was a barista and a manager of a coffee shop, and then I was an organic farmhand.” This interview has been edited and abridged.

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Saturday, May 31, 2014, 1:21 pm  ·  By Mike Elk

Steve Early on Labor Reporting: ‘Unions Can Be Thin-Skinned About Criticism’

Labor journalist and long-time Communications Workers of America staffer Steve Early. (Monthly Review Press)  

Since the 1970s, Steve Early has produced more than 300 pieces of labor journalism for publications as varied as the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, LaborNotes and In These Times. Throughout his career, Early has covered stories of dysfunction and corruption within unions that many labor reporters are afraid to touch out of fear of upsetting high-level union sources.

At time when the labor beat was disappearing from mainstream publications, Early’s writing formed a valuable body of work that inspired many young writers—myself included—to stick with the profession through its highs and lows.

Early sat down with me to discuss his new book, Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, out this spring from Monthly Review Press.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014, 5:59 pm  ·  By Sarah Jaffe

Walmart Moms’ Walkout Starts Friday

For years, Walmart workers have protested the company's low wages and unfair treatment of employees. This Friday, a week before the company's shareholders meet, hundreds of 'Walmart Moms' will begin walking off the job. (OUR Walmart)  

In 2008, political commentators made a lot of fuss about “Walmart Moms,” a demographic that was supposedly key to the election. The Walmart Mom was an updated, service-economy version of the blue-collar worker: Someone without a college degree, working and raising a family, usually white, possibly religious. She was courted heavily by both parties and perceived, at least in recent decades, to be swinging right.

Six years later, the real-life Walmart Moms are going on strike. According to a Thursday conference call hosted by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), hundreds of mothers who work at Walmart stores throughout the country will begin walking off the job on Friday, a week before the company's shareholders meet in Bentonville, Arkansas. The action will culminate in a nationwide strike on Wednesday, June 4.

Linda Haluska and Lashanda Myrick are two of those mothers, both tired of struggling to support their children on what Walmart pays. “We are Walmart moms; we're not some political category,” said Haluska, who's worked at the Glenwood, Illinois store for 8 years, on the call. “We're real people who are struggling to create happy stable homes for our kids.” Walmart moms, in other words, want politicians and pundits to listen to what they really need, not pander to their perceived political biases.

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