Working In These Times

Friday, Sep 26, 2014, 10:58 am  ·  By Avi Asher-Schapiro

Is Uber’s Business Model Screwing Its Workers?

There’s nothing innovative or new about this business model. Uber is just capitalism, in its most naked form. (Flickr / Joakim Formo)  

First published at Jacobin.

Kazi drives a Toyota Prius for Uber in Los Angeles. He hates it.

He barely makes minimum wage, and his back hurts after long shifts. But every time a passenger asks what it’s like working for Uber, he lies: “It’s like owning my own business; I love it.”

Kazi lies because his job depends on it. After passengers finish a ride, Uber asks them to rate their driver on a scale from one to five stars. Drivers with an average below 4.7 can be deactivated — tech-speak for fired.

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Thursday, Sep 25, 2014, 9:02 am  ·  By Kate Jenkins

The Freelancer Economy is Here. Should We Celebrate?

Life as a freelancer isn't all midday naps and pants-free meetings. (Courtesy of Freelancers Union)  

Early this month, the Freelancers Union released the results of an Edelman study which found that an astounding 34 percent of the U.S. workforce is now comprised of “freelancers.”

In considering the results of the co-commissioned study, the Freelancers Union was in an oddly celebratory mood:

But this is more than an economic change. It’s a cultural and social shift on par with the Industrial Revolution. Just as the move from an agrarian to an industrial society had dramatic effects on social structures around civil rights, workforce participation, and even democracy itself, so too will this shift to a more independent workforce have major impacts on how Americans conceive of and organize their lives, their communities, and their economic power.

This and countless other studies make it hard to contest the notion that the “end of jobs” is indeed nigh, and few would argue with the Freelancers Union’s assertion that this major labor shift will have a massive social impact. But whether we should happily embrace this shift is still up for debate.

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Wednesday, Sep 24, 2014, 10:43 am  ·  By David Moberg

Did Indiana Autoworkers Strike a Blow Against Two-Tier Contracts?

The UAW has declared ending two-tier contracts, where younger workers are paid less than older workers for the same work, a priority. (Courtesy of UAW Local 2335 / Facebook)  

With their day-long strike a week ago and ratification of a new union contract on Sunday, workers at a Hammond, Indiana, auto parts plant may have dealt a blow to a divisive concession that has proven a scourge to many unions in recent years—“two-tier” wage systems.

Under these two-tier systems, new workers start at hourly rates far below longtime workers and have scheduled pay progressions that will never match the veterans’ pay (nor usually their benefits, especially pensions). For example, under the old contract at the Hammond plant, Lear paid new workers as little as $11 an hour, rising to a maximum of $16 an hour, while veterans made $19.97 an hour doing the same work.

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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014, 12:22 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

New Republican Bill Would Paralyze National Labor Relations Board

Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander have introduced a bill that would give the NLRB's Republican and Democratic members equal power in deciding cases—a prescription for gridlock. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)  

This week, Republican Senators introduced a bill they call the “The National Labor Relations Board Reform Act.” Its chances of passage are very slim, but that’s beside the point: The GOP wants to emphasize its displeasure with President Barack Obama’s appointments of labor-friendly board members who thwart businesses’ attempts to keep unions out of their workplaces.

The key feature of the bill would neuter the board (already too weak by many standards) by mandating that it be made up of three Republicans and three Democrats—a prescription apparently designed to ensure permanent partisan gridlock. It would also restrict the authority of the board’s chief prosecutor and cut the operating budget of the agency if cases weren’t decided in a timely manner. Larry Cohen, President of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), remarks that the bill would mean “the NLRB just can’t do anything any more—and that’s exactly what they [Republicans] want.”

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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014, 11:14 am  ·  By David Moberg

A 22-Year Battle Pays Off for American Airlines Workers

Wikipedia, Anthony92931  

Twenty-two years ago, Janet Elston and a few other passenger service agents at American Airlines decided that they needed a union. This week, they finally got it, winning an overwhelming vote to join the Communications Workers of America from 14,500 agents working for American and its new merger partner, US Airways.

“It’s going to be a high-five day at the airport,” she says.

With that vote, the labor movement also scored one of its largest victories in decades among a workforce primarily located in the South and Southwest, where resistance to unions by employers and reticence to join by many employees has been high. Roughly three-fourths of the merged company’s ethnically diverse, primarily female service agents live in Texas, Florida, North Carolina or Arizona.

The victory, Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen says, primarily results from the “relentless” effort by the workers at the airline. “The lesson here is, ‘Never stop,’” he says.

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Monday, Sep 15, 2014, 5:10 pm  ·  By Kari Lydersen

Rank-and-File Rail Workers Rebel Against Single-Person Crews

Rail crews often travel through remote areas with trains up to a mile long. Workers say having just one engineer as crew would be unsafe, for rail workers and communities.   (Rob Reiring via Flickr)

Railroad workers scored a victory last week in a years-long battle over the introduction of single-person crews on freight trains, a move that railroad workers say is a recipe for disaster. On September 10, a unit of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers (SMART) union announced that members had voted down a proposed contract which would have allowed the railroad company BNSF to run more than half its trains with just one worker on board.

BNSF and other railroad companies assert that automation and modern controls on tracks mean freight trains can be safely and efficiently operated by only one engineer, a change that would essentially eliminate the position of the conductor.

Railroad workers, however, say that having only one person on trains that are often more than a mile long is a safety risk for workers and communities alike, especially as more and more trains are involved in carrying explosive crude oil cross-country. The introduction of single-person crews would further a longstanding push by industry to reduce the number of workers needed to operate trains; currently most freight trains have a conductor and an engineer, but in decades past crews of three to five people were common. An industry shift to single-person crews would likely mean significant job losses, and significant savings for railroads on labor costs.

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Friday, Sep 12, 2014, 1:08 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

In Pennsylvania, Labor Poised to Unseat Corbett in November Elections

The potential victory of Tom Wolf, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee for Pennsylvania, would be a coup for labor this November. (Photo courtesy of Tom Wolf for Governor)  

Just in time for Labor Day, a new election poll last week brought good news for Pennsylvania unions. The latest data from the Pittsburgh-based Robert Morris University Polling Institute shows Tom Wolf, a pro-labor Democrat running for governor of Pennsylvania this November, trouncing the conservative Republican incumbent by more than 30 points. If the poll proves predictive come Election Day, Wolf’s win would be a historic one, defying the trend of near-automatic reelection of incumbent governors, and ushering in a huge victory for the state’s unions.

The poll, released September 2, shows Democratic candidate Tom Wolf leading Republican Gov. Thomas W. Corbett by 55.8 to 24.7 percent.  Though Pennsylvania labor leaders caution that the enormous lead indicated by this poll is an outlier, other polls have also indicated that Wolf has a powerful lead over the unpopular Corbett. So powerful, in fact, that National Journal Political Editor Josh Kraushaar titled a recent commentary on Corbett, “Dead Man Walking.”

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Wednesday, Sep 10, 2014, 1:56 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Student Labor Activists Renew Spirit of 1964 Freedom Summer

Students felt the impact of OUR Walmart during the "Summer of Respect" program. (Neon Tommy / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

In 1964, the Freedom Summer campaign for voting rights in Mississippi appealed to college students to confront one of the great social justice issues of the age. Fifty years later, labor activists challenging the corporate power of Walmart called on the same spirit to lead a small group of students off campuses and into the fight for economic justice on behalf of the giant company’s low-paid workers. Organizers of the effort, dubbed the “Summer for Respect” hope the program will help inspire a new generation of student labor activism and deepen the links between labor unions and academia.

Adam Reich, the Columbia University professor who led this summer’s student-labor initiative, says the Summer for Respect differed from the historic 1964 effort in a number of ways. The program took 20 undergraduate students from several different colleges and inserted them into active OUR Walmart campaigns in different parts of the country. Student participated in daily organizing efforts, but one of the program’s primary goals was to combine students’ campaign work with the academic goal of documenting the lives of the Walmart workers, and spreading that information to a wider audience. The  students compiled an oral history archive and related materials for use by other workers, activists, students, and historians, explains Reich.

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Monday, Sep 8, 2014, 6:00 am  ·  By Steve Early

Railroad Conductor: ‘Railroading Has Changed So Much’

Brian Lewis at work on the railroad.   (Photo by Steve Early)

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 Working, Terkel interviewed Bill Norworth, a railroad worker for fifty-three years who had recently retired as a locomotive engineer on the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. In 1970, he was still serving as president of his local of the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers (which is now part of the Teamsters) in Working, Norworth described some of the changes in technology—including the transition from steam to diesel power—that affected working conditions, job skills and staffing levels during his career working on passenger and freight trains. Reflecting on the higher status of railroaders in the heyday of the industry, Norworth told Terkel: “They were the aristocrats at one time, but that time’s gone now…. The engineer was respected then, and now there’s no respect for him. He’s just a dummy….” As for deterioration of U.S. passenger train service, already evident four decades ago, he observed that, “If they had good trains again, people would ride. But they discourage you…”

Forty-two years later, Brian Lewis talked to In These Times about his job as a Union Pacific Railroad conductor, which he has just retired from after 36 years in the industry. He was long active in the United Transportation Union and also belongs to a cross-union reform group called Railroad Workers United (RWU). RWU has been fighting industry attempts to introduce single-employee train crews, which it believes are unsafe. RWU has also tried to warn regulators and the public about the dangers of longer and heavier trains, particularly those hauling hazardous materials like Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. Lewis talked to In These Times about how rail carriers have changed in the decades since Norworth’s long tour of duty and the challenges facing railroad workers today.

It was a childhood dream to become a railroad worker. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved trains. After graduating from UC-Berkeley and trying my hand at journalism for a few years in the early 1970s, I ended up at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in San Francisco. I felt stuck in the office, doing intake on air quality complaints and setting up investigative interviews. Then, one day I saw a job advertisement—the Western Pacific Railroad was hiring “switchmen/brakemen” for its freight hauling operations between Salt Lake City and the Bay Area. I got my training and orientation in Portola, CA., a small railroad town north of Lake Tahoe, in the Sierras. The union was very involved in the whole process—job training, testing and helping to decide who made the grade and was ready to go. Half of my training class consisted of sons or daughters of existing railroaders.

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Friday, Sep 5, 2014, 5:20 pm  ·  By Rose Arrieta

Protesters Arrested at $15-an-Hour Action Outside Burger King

Protesters demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage for fast-food workers stage a peaceful sit-down in Oakland on September 4.   (Rose Arrieta)

In Oakland, California, on Thursday, 150 workers and supporters took on the billion-dollar fast-food industry, urging companies like Burger King, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Jack-in-The-Box and others to pay their workers fairly instead of doling out poverty level wages. Fourteen people were arrested in downtown Oakland as they participated in peaceful civil disobedience. They were later issued citations and released.

“When I was younger, the thought of having money in my pocket [by working at Taco Bell] was big, but as you start to pay bills, you realize how little it is. That’s one of the first things I got used to when I got my job: being broke,” Alvaro Sandoval, a fast-food worker at Taco Bell in Oakland, told Working In These Times.

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