Working In These Times

Thursday, Dec 18, 2014, 12:00 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

Obamacare Counselor: “On the Surface, People Have Choices. But It’s a Complete Farce”

"A lot of people assume I’m doing really good work, and I say, 'No, I’m basically selling insurance, but not getting a commission.' (quite peculiar / Flickr)  

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

Among those Terkel spoke to was Lilith Reynolds, a project coordinator for the federal government’s War on Poverty-era Office of Economy Opportunity (OEO). As a government employee, she explained, she used to believe that “[all of the rules and regulations] were correct and it was my job to carry out these rules. After I got to OEO it became more and more obvious to me that a lot of these rules were wrong, that rules were not sacrosanct.”

An active member of her union, Lilith believed that the office could be more effective if the employees doing the work were also in charge of policy. When she spoke to Terkel, she was in the midst of pursuing a project of her own rather than her assigned work, collecting statistics on sex discrimination and educating women of their rights. “Officially I’m loafing,” she said. “But, ironically, I’ve felt more productive in the last few weeks doing what I’ve wanted to do than I have in the last year doing what I was officially supposed to be doing.”  

Greg Chern, a certified application counselor at a non-profit healthcare clinic, feels similarly stymied when he helps patients sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Though many patients come in with urgent medical issues, he says, “Most of the time a sheepish smile is all I can offer that person. It makes me sad when people are satisfied with what I’ve done, because it’s so limited. I can help direct their concern to the right office, but they still have to navigate several different offices. But people are still appreciative—which makes me even more upset, because the bar of what people expect is so low.”

I talk to people about Obamacare. My job is to help people buy insurance if they’re making above a certain income level. So I’m basically an insurance broker, except I’m paid by the government instead of an insurance company. And I’m making a crappy non-profit wage.

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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014, 1:00 pm  ·  By Kim Bobo

“Employers Feel Wildly Free To Pay People However They Want”: An Interview with Kim Bobo

Kim Bobo's lifelong work has focused on how to diminish wage theft, strengthen worker centers and encourage faith-based communities to fight for workers' rights.   (Ralph Alswang / Flickr)

This interview first appeared at Public Research Assocates and will be in the Winter 2015 issue of The Public Eye Magazine

Kim Bobo, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), has long worked at the intersection of faith and economic justice. Bobo, who was herself raised an evangelical Christian, and is the author of Wage Theft: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid, and What We Can Do About It, will transition out of the organization's leadership at the end of 2014. Although the problem of wage theft—workers not being paid what they are owed for their work—is rampant in low-wage workplaces, Bobo’s ability to persuade Christians, Jews and Muslims to support the rights of workers in their communities has even earned her the respect of some employers.

But it has also earned her the distinction of being targeted by both the religious and corporate right. In 2012, the Catholic-funded American Life League issued an 80-page “report” red-baiting Bobo. Recently, too, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has challenged IWJ by blocking anti-wage theft laws and naming IWJ in a series of reports claiming that worker centers should be regulated like labor unions.

In this interview, Bobo talks about her personal journey of bringing together workers’ rights and faith, and about her reasons for remaining optimistic despite the continued suffering of many low-wage workers under the most extreme economic inequality in 100 years.

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Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014, 4:53 pm  ·  By Micah Uetricht

Randi Weingarten Shares Personal Story of Sexual Assault

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten's deeply personal story of sexual assault was a rare public statement by labor leaders against sexual assault. (AFT)  

In the wake of Rolling Stone's statement that it could not stand by the veracity of its bombshell piece detailing an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, anti-sexual assault activists around the country performed a collective facepalm. By failing to properly fact-check the anonymous victim's account and then walking back the story, the magazine had practically invited the slimiest corners of the Right to engage in victim-blaming, slut-shaming and all-around vicious misogyny.  

It's a moment when feminist allies need to speak out on behalf of women's rights and loudly insist that sexual violence is an epidemic that has to be taken seriously. In the past, however, unions often have not been willing to speak out about sexual assault—even those that have otherwise attempted to carry out a broad progressive agenda, or those with large female memberships.

So it was a welcome surprise to see American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten strongly weighing in on the issue Jezebel yesterday, explaining little-covered efforts by her union to fight sexual assault on college campuses—and detailing her own experience with sexual assault:

It was just after my junior year in college. I had an internship in labor relations at an automobile plant in Warren, Ohio. A New Yorker from birth, I was out of my element. I tried to find community to anchor my summer in Warren. I did what was familiar: I went to shul. One family invited me over for Shabbat dinner. Dutifully and hopefully, I went. They also invited a young man. He was nice enough. So, when this "nice Jewish guy" invited me for dinner, I said, "Sure."

A few days later, I went to his apartment. And that's where it happened. He tried to rape me. I managed to get out after a struggle, but the emotional scarring was deep.

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Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014, 1:32 pm  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

A Kentucky County Just Voted to Approve the First Local Right-to-Work Ordinance

Passing "right-to-work" laws at the state level has been a top priority for the Right in recent years. But where such laws might not be able to pass at the state level, local right-to-work ordinances may be on the horizon.  

In recent months, a coalition of anti-union groups have been promoting the idea of passing right-to-work ordinances on the city and county level. Recognizing the success of progressives in pursuing labor rights at the local level, these anti-union groups have decided to try their own version of small-scale warfare.

I outlined the anti-union arguments and some of the associated problems in an article for The Nation. A few days later, Politico’s Brian Mahoney reported (paywalled) from ALEC’s winter meeting that “specifically the groups are looking at counties in Washington, Montana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and—perhaps most aggressively—Kentucky.”

Well, the ball just dropped. Last week, a county in southwestern Kentucky, approximately halfway between Louisville and Paducah, voted for preliminary approval of a county-level right-to-work ordinance.

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Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014, 6:00 am  ·  By David Moberg

Even With a GOP Congress, Obama Could Still Defend American Workers. Here’s How.

President Obama isn't totally hamstrung in his ability to advocate for workers—if he chooses to stand up and fight. (Paul Weaver / Flickr)  

After the Republican mid-term election victories last November, labor unions and other worker advocates can expect virtually nothing but trouble from Congress over the next two years. With their ongoing attempts to undermine the National Labor Relations Board and the strong likelihood that they will bury any effort to increase the minimum wage, the Republicans’ grand plan calls for fewer rights and no pay increase for the working poor.

But the Obama administration may be able to execute an end-run around the GOP and fix some of the big problems facing workers if it wants to—especially those in low-wage, non-union jobs. Obama can veto whatever horrible measures Congress puts on his desk, and he can use several tools such as executive orders, drafting tougher rules to implement legislation more effectively, and demanding more vigorous action on labor law enforcement. 

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Monday, Dec 15, 2014, 1:30 pm  ·  By Douglas Williams

Are “Works Councils” Really Such a Good Idea for Workers and Unions?

Volkswagen workers in Tennessee will soon have a works council like their counterparts pictured here in Germany. But can works councils actually build power for American workers? (Wikimedia Commons)  

Labor may be at a turning point in this country. New campaigns have started to infuse fresh energy into a moribund and declining movement, and new models of collective action are being proposed in the course of these ongoing efforts. While the existing National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)/National Mediation Board (NMB) certification election-contractual bargaining system still functions on paper, in practice it has broken down.

Employers do not hesitate when flouting the law while trying to head off a union vote going against them. Even when they lose, bosses are willing to sandbag their workers by refusing to even bother to negotiate, and striking has been defanged as a tactic through legal injunction and wrongly decided precedent about permanently replacing strikers. While corporate campaigns, which focus on pressuring shareholders and embarrassing companies into acting humanely, have met with some success, they have not delivered the kind of widespread worker empowerment that the postwar period did.

There’s absolutely no doubt that if workers are going to ultimately make their own destiny that a new model or approach is needed for unions. One that has been proposed, separately by the UAW at the much-discussed Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkwagen plant, by Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs, and by labor lawyer and writer Tom Geoghegan is the implementation of works councils in the United States.

The works council model is one that is used across Europe, with the most prominent examples being in Germany, although such councils also exist in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium. There, employees are elected to four-year terms on the works council, where they negotiate the terms of employment and workplace conditions with the employer.

In Germany, this is enabled through the Works Constitution Act, which was first passed through parliament in 1952 and allows the formation of works councils in any private workplace of at least five people. While the employees who serve on the works council are not required to be in a union, over 77 percent of them are. As such, the works council functions as a strong facilitator of union power in German labor relations, especially in the large auto plants there.

Works councils are imagined in the United States as an unprecedented form of economic democracy. Our conception of a Board of Directors has very little to do with a company’s employees or their demands; rather, it is an oligarchy of investors and corporate officers who run our nation’s business apparatus. So the thought of workers getting a say in the dealings of two of our nation’s largest industries, automotive and fast food, is one that is understandably exhilarating for those supportive of the labor movement.

But there are a few problems with implementing such a model in the U.S.. First, the National Labor Relations Act explicitly bans “company unions,” a worker organization dominated by an employer rather than as an independent body for workers, in Section 8(a)(2). Sachs makes that clear in his piece, saying that implementing a works council model at McDonalds would require significant legal wrangling to avoid being proscribed by Section 8(a)(2).

Another concern is that the works council model could mollify working-class radicalism at a time where it is on the upswing. Few could have predicted that fast-food workers would be engaging in waves of walkouts with the demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage. Combined with the recent demonstrations against state violence in major cities across the country, spurred by the decisions not to prosecute police officers in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson and the Eric Garner case in New York City, and the connections between these movements, working-class organizing might be in a stronger position now than at any other time since mass deindustrialization began in the 1970s.

Furthermore, story after story is raising awareness of how other countries have paid their fast-food workers a living wage and still managed to turn a profit. To turn all of this potential for a paradigm-shifting movement and steer it towards a highly formal and bureaucratic process before any real gains have been secured would seem to be an error. In fact, many have argued that the bureaucratization of the labor movement is a key part of why it is in such dire straits in modern times. Why voluntarily repeat the errors that got us where we are today for a system that we are not even sure will work in the United States?

Finally, is winning a process that privileges the interests of management at the same level as the interests of the workers really worth it? Given all of the effort, energy and time that would get put into organizing works councils, is it a big enough win? The purpose of works councils is for smooth functioning of commerce at a given employer by addressing the collective concerns of its workers. Whether the emphasis falls on the front half of that statement—the smooth functioning of business—or the back half—addressing workers’concerns—in an American implementation of works councils remains up in the air.

At a time when labor is frequently discussing issues in terms of “labor-management partnerships,” will workers’ interests be better served by a system where the union is not even an independent body but rather an organ inside the corporate structure?

Works councils have significant power in Europe and are able to redress major issues for the workers who participate in them. However, they gained this power in the shadow of the Cold War, at a time when capitalism had to provide Western workers with some concessions lest they fall “victim” to Communism. 

That threat does not exist now. There is no indication that the works councils that are being proposed would be able to address the larger problems that the working class faces on a day-to-day basis. While alternatives to a dysfunctional NLRA-focused process should be considered, the idea of a labor-management partnership can only function when labor has sufficient power to make everything stop.

Labor can only rebuild power through advancing the interests of the working class as a whole. Investing more in organizing, training, mobilization and educating union workers about their rights is a part of this equation, but only by fundamentally aligning the labor movement with the communities it represents will we start to recover.

A version of this post first appeared at Hack the Union.

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Friday, Dec 12, 2014, 5:30 pm  ·  By Kevin Solari

As Columbia Grad Students Announce Union Drive, UOregon Students Declare Victory in Strike

As part of the recent wave of graduate student labor unrest, like this SUNY-Stony Brook action in 2009, students in Oregon settled a strike while students at Columbia announced a new organizing drive. (Jobs with Justice / Flickr)  

The past few weeks have seen significant labor agitation among graduate students. At the University of Oregon, graduate students announced the end of their strike fought largely over sick leave, while Columbia University students announced their own fight for union recognition.

On December 2, three days before the end of fall semester classes, University of Oregon graduate student instructors walked off the job. It was the culmination of a year of failed negations between university administration and the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF), which represents the graduate instructors, stretching back to November 2013.

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Friday, Dec 12, 2014, 10:10 am  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

Thanks to Labor Board Ruling, You Can Now Use Company Email to Organize a Union

The National Labor Relations Board has issued two decisions this week that could prove beneficial to workers trying to organize a union. (NH Labor News)  

This week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision and a rule that could make organizing a union significantly easier for American workers.

First, yesterday the Board recognized that email is one of the primary ways that workers communicate, and that its case law and election rules needed to reflect this reality. The NLRB issued a landmark decision in Purple Communications which opens the door to allowing workers to use employers’ email systems for union purposes—and admitted that it had misunderstood in previous cases how email works. In doing so, it overturned a Bush-era Board decision, Register Guard, which allowed employers to prohibit use of company email for non-work related purposes, including organizing and union purposes, unless the employer can show special circumstances that justify specific restrictions.

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Wednesday, Dec 10, 2014, 1:30 pm  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

SCOTUS Rules Workers Don’t Need To Be Paid for All Their Time Working

Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling against Amazon warehouse workers means bosses can require workers to work for periods of time and simply choose not to pay them for it. (Scott Lewis / Flickr)  

Stories of the horrid conditions for workers in Amazon warehouses have been trickling out for years: The temperatures at the warehouses vary wildly, with some workers having to work in sub-zero conditions, others passing out from days where the temperature soared above 100 degrees, workers crying from not being able to keep up the brutal pace demanded, and then being threatened with termination for crying. And we can now add another indignity to the list, coming yesterday at the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a 9-0 decision that it is legal for Amazon warehouse workers not to be paid for a portion of their workday.

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Tuesday, Dec 9, 2014, 5:09 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Senate Confirms Obama’s Labor Board Choice Ahead of GOP Senate Takeover

The confirmation should help prevent complete partisan gridlock at the National Labor Relations Board. (Wikimedia Commons)  

The U.S. Senate voted Monday to confirm the nomination of pro-union Democrat Lauren McFerran to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an action that insures the panel will continue to operate normally as Republicans take full control of the Senate next year.

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