Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014, 5:25 pm  ·  By Moshe Marvit

SCOTUS’ Quiet Expansion of Harris

On July 1, the Supreme Court sent Schlaud v. Snyder, a case involving homecare providers in Michigan suing a union, back to a lower court in light of its recent Harris ruling.   (Image Copyright Alex Staroseltsev/Used under license from

On July 1, the day after the Supreme Court issued its controversial decisions in Harris v. Quinn and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, it issued a round of “miscellaneous orders” to wrap up loose ends before the Court went into recess. In the first of a long list was a GVR (grant, vacate, remand) order voiding the 6th Circuit’s decision in another case that had been appealed to the Court, and sending it back to the lower court “for further consideration in light of Harris v. Quinn.” In Harris, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment did not permit a fair share or agency fee provision requiring objecting home healthcare workers to pay a fee to the union for collective bargaining and contract administration. 

The case at issue is Schlaud v. Snyder, out of Michigan, and in many ways it looks like Harris. Just as in Harris, the plaintiffs—also represented by the right-wing National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW)—are a few homecare providers suing the union, the governor, and the state Department of Human Services for the return of union dues on First Amendment grounds.

Up to a point, the case was strikingly similar to Harris v. Quinn. In the fall of 2006, there were more than 40,000 homecare workers in Michigan eligible for the bargaining unit, and 22,180 signed authorization cards in favor of union representation. This triggered a secret-ballot election, in which 5,921 of 6,396 participating workers voted in favor of the union—92.5 percent of the ballots cast. The union then negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with management, which included a standard “agency fee provision”: All workers covered by the agreement—even those who didn’t vote for the union—would have to pay a fee of approximately 1 percent to offset collective bargaining and contract administration costs. The rationale for such provisions is that the union must represent all workers covered by the collective bargaining agreement, and all workers—whether they object to the union or not—benefit from this representation. 


Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014, 3:30 pm  ·  By Jenny Brown

The Real Survivors of Reality TV

Reality television workers often face irregular production hours, unsafe production zones and lack of overtime pay. (Lance Lundstrom / Wikimedia Commons)  

Tricky bosses, faked timecards, excruciating hours, dangerous scrapes … It sounds like fodder for a reality TV show, perhaps “America’s Next Worst Job.”

But workers say these are the conditions in reality TV itself, known more formally as the nonfiction television industry.

“We are told to be loyal, that this is normal,” said Lauren Veloski of the long unpaid hours she worked for several production companies. “You should anticipate that your workday will be 12 hours long,” one employer informed her.


Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014, 3:05 pm  ·  By Sarah Jaffe

The Limitations and Possibilities of Student-Labor Coalitions

Workers from the SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East protest cuts to healthcare in New York state outside of the Albany State House.   (Tommy Miles / Flickr / Creative Commons)

In April, New York University found itself the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny when Michael Powell reported in the New York Times that Daniel E. Straus, owner of the HealthBridge and CareOne nursing home companies in New Jersey and Connecticut and a board member at NYU law school, had subpoenaed the emails, text messages and personal writings of two NYU law students, Luke Herrine and Leo Gertner. The two were part of a growing movement of NYU undergraduates and law students calling attention to working conditions at Straus's facilities, and they had been helping to circulate a petition to the law school dean asking for a meeting to discuss Straus's presence on the board.

The next day, with somewhat less fanfare, a one-line memo was sent to NYU law students by their dean, informing them that Straus would no longer be on the school's board. The Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice, which Straus has funded since 2009, will close at the end of the year. (Although the timeline of the closure decision is unclear, Herrine, one of the subpoenaed students, believes it was due to the controversy.)

The subpoena brouhaha was only the latest chapter in an expansive battle with Straus's companies on one side and 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, 1199 SEIU New England, and the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) at NYU on the other—while NYU, claiming neutrality, remained in the middle. It's a multi-year, multi-state struggle that began with low-wage care workers being locked out in 2011 and hasn't ended with Straus losing his seat on the law school's board. A close examination of the story yields important lessons about the possibilities and limitations of student-labor coalitions, the latest anti-union strategies of corporations, and the current state of labor struggles.


Monday, Jul 7, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By Matthew Blake

Flight Attendant: ‘The Job Itself Is Almost Therapeutic’

Moy Medina says that to be flight attendant, 'You don't have to be creative or talented; you just have to be gracious.' (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.

When Terkel interviewed Terry Mason in 1964, her occupation was referred to as a “stewardess.” She described the five weeks of “stew school” she had to attend, where she and her co-workers learned the techniques for applying makeup, smiling under any circumstance and allowing men to light their cigarettes. She thought of her job as a stepping-stone out of her small Nebraska town, though she admitted that it wasn’t as glamorous as she’d fantasized it might be.

Like Mason, Moy Medina is 26 and uses the phrase “stepping-stone” to describe his career choice. However, he tells In These Times that he’s worried he’ll never leave his current job. This interview has been edited and abridged.


Wednesday, Jul 2, 2014, 7:40 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

Worker-Owners Cheer Creation of $1.2 Million Co-op Development Fund in NYC

Worker-owners rally in New York City this May in support of a $1.2 million fund for cooperative development. (Photo via Ecomundo Cleaning cooperative).  

In a victory for new economy advocates, the New York City Council passed a budget last week that will create a $1.2 million fund for the growth of worker-owned cooperative businesses. The investment is the largest a municipal government in the U.S. has ever made in the sector, breaking new ground for the cooperative development movement.

Melissa Hoover, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Democracy at Work Institute, hails the New York City Council’s move as “historic.” “We have seen bits and pieces here and there, but New York City is the first place to make an investment at that level,” she says.


Tuesday, Jul 1, 2014, 5:50 pm  ·  By Moshe Marvit

What Harris Means for Workers’ Rights

Public-sector workers in Madison, Wisconsin protest the controversial 2011 law that ended most forms of collective bargaining for government workers in that state.   (Rochelle Hartman / Flickr / Creative Commons)

The Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Harris v. Quinn yesterday, a case that threatened to be the worst decision for unions in decades.  When the class-action suit was first brought in 2010, at issue was whether unionized home healthcare workers who are covered by collective bargaining agreements, could be subject to a fair share provision that requires non-union members to pay for the benefits they receive from the union.  This remained the issue when it arrived at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011.  However, once the case arrived at the Supreme Court in 2013, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation raised the stakes and argued that anything short of a right-to-work model—under which any employee covered by a collective bargaining agreement could forego paying any dues—for all public employees violated the First Amendment.  In the Court's decision, a five-Justice majority held that fair share provisions for home healthcare workers were unconstitutional, and indicated repeatedly that the 1977 case that allows such provisions for all public sector employees is on shaky ground.


Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 5:41 pm  ·  By Sarah Jaffe

Why Harris and Hobby Lobby Spell Disaster for Working Women

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby Monday, allowing "closely held" businesses to claim religious rights and avoid federal healthcare regulations that require employers to include birth control in insurance plans.   (Nate Grigg / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Retail sales and home healthcare work are two of the three fastest-growing jobs in this country. That’s an important consideration when looking at the decisions the Supreme Court handed down today in Harris v. Quinn and Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. Hobby Lobby Stores: If you are not affected by these rulings yet, you well could be in the future.

Both 5 – 4 decisions were written by Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative Catholic from New Jersey appointed by George W. Bush, and both rested on narrowly tailored legal arguments that just happen to cut wide enough to impact groups of workers who are almost exclusively female. Harris creates the special designation of “partial public employees” for publicly-funded home healthcare aides who work both for the client and for the state—who are 90 percent female, most of them poor, immigrants, and of color. Hobby Lobby, meanwhile, in deciding whether an employer with religious beliefs can be required to provide health insurance that covers contraception, singles out women by targeting its arguments towards workers who use birth control—but not any other form of healthcare.

As Sheila Bapat, author of Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers' Rights, tweeted, “These decisions speak squarely to the value of women's labor.”  


Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 1:35 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Working Families Make Promising Debut in Maryland Elections

Seven of 10 candidates endorsed by Maryland Working Families won Democratic Party nominations in their districts on Tuesday.   (Courtesy of Working Families Party / Working Families Organization)

The new organization Maryland Working Families is reporting good results in its first foray into state electoral politics last week, as a statewide Democratic Party primary election drew about 400,000 voters to the polls.

Maryland Working Families—affiliated with Working Families Party, a budding alliance of labor unions and traditionally progressive groups that is now firmly established in New York, Connecticut and Oregon—began its first direct electioneering effort in Maryland this year with purposefully modest goals, says Executive Director Charly Carter. MWF endorsed 10 candidates for the state legislature and concentrated on grassroots tactics to get them elected, she says, forgoing involvement in the higher-profile races for governor and state attorney general. Of those 10, seven were successful in winning the Democratic Party nominations in their districts on Tuesday, victories that are considered tantamount to final election in the heavily Democratic areas of Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C.

As far as influencing state electoral politics is concerned, Carter tells In These Times, “We’re happy. We think we’ve made a good start.” One campaign proved victorious for a union organizer who used tactics he learned in his four decades of activism to rally support; another led to the election of a high school teacher who relied heavily on his former students to staff his campaign. 


Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 9:57 am  ·  By Matthew Cunningham-Cook

Teachers’ Union President Fired Following Opposition to High-Stakes Testing

Gus Morales, a middle school teacher from Holyoke, Massachusetts, opposes the release of standardized test results. He was released from his job when he began speaking out against the privatization. (timlewisnm / Flickr / Creative Commons).  

Holyoke, Massachusetts has the third-highest poverty rate of all the cities and towns in Massachusetts. And like many other high-poverty cities, Holyoke has been targeted for education reform: high-stakes testing, the elimination of due process for teachers, and the curtailment of elective curriculums that include gym, arts and foreign languages.

In Holyoke, those policies have emerged in the form of “data walls,” which skirt the norms of children's privacy by posting their test scores for the entire school to see, as well as the outsourcing of school management to firms like Project GRAD, a nonprofit chaired by a private equity manager. For teachers, the pace of work has increased, new evaluation systems have whittled away traditional guarantees of tenure, and due process in the workplace has grown even more precarious.

Reflecting a rising tide of anger over the changes, Holyoke teachers elected Gus Morales as their union president in May on a platform that opposed education privatization. But on June 17, Morales, a middle school teacher, received a letter from his principal, Amy Fitzgerald, informing him that his employment had not been renewed.

“As I started speaking out, I was targeted with negative observations. One can infer that the negative observation was meant to quiet me. As long as I kept my mouth shut, everything was good, and then when I started speaking about what was happening to my students, I was let go,” says Morales, one of only a handful of Puerto Rican teachers in a school district that is nearly 80 percent Hispanic.


Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 7:00 am  ·  By Jeff Schuhrke

Physical Therapist: ‘We Get Teased a Lot About How Mean We Are’

Phyllis Erdman, who works at a nursing facility, says that her patients are often 'their own worst critics' when it comes to recovery. (Courtesy Phyllis Erdman)  

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.

When Kitty Scanlon talked with Terkel about her career as an occupational therapist, she described it as an “emerging profession,” a classification that occasionally led to self-doubts for Scanlon about how useful she was when compared to doctors or nurses. Now, occupational therapy, and physical therapy in general, is a thriving industry—and, as Phyllis Erdman tells ITT reporter Jeff Schuhrke, it often requires working long, hard hours to help patients gain or maintain their strength.

Although she’d been interested in working in the healthcare field her entire life, for years Erdman did administrative and marketing work in the nonprofit world. After getting laid off, in middle age she took the bold move of going back to school to become a physical therapist assistant (PTA). In the 7 years since completing her associate’s degree, she has helped elderly patients stay healthy and active or recover from surgery at a at a skilled nursing facility and rehab center in the Chicago area. She explains, “As a PTA, I work under the scope of the PT to get the patient toward their goals, but I get to set up my own routine with the patient.” This interview has been abridged and edited.