Working In These Times

Wednesday, Apr 27, 2016, 8:54 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Tuesday’s Baltimore Primary Results Mean a $15 Minimum Wage Is Likely Coming Soon

Protesters at a February rally for $15 and union rights in Wisconsin. (Fight for $15 Wisconsin / Facebook)  

BALTIMORE—Although it was nowhere on the ballot, the Fight for 15 was a winner in the municipal elections here Tuesday.

In a Democratic Party primary election that selected candidates for both a new mayor and a new majority of the city council, supporters of a city-wide minimum wage law of $15 an hour appear to have won enough offices to see it enacted. The push is underway now to get it passed this year, and almost certainly will be passed by early next year, at the latest, activists say.

Because of a large Democratic majority in the city, the spring party primary is considered tantamount to final victory in the November general election. Only an unprecedented political upheaval could prevent the candidates selected this week from taking office in January 2017.

Fight for 15 supporters are mobilizing behind a bill introduced earlier this month by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D). Clarke’s bill would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, and also eliminate the subminimum “tipped wage.”

Worker activists are pleased that the new Democratic candidate for mayor, Catherine Pugh, is committed to signing a $15 bill, says Charly Carter, executive director of the political party Maryland Working Families. The new city council will include a strong majority who have already committed to supporting the higher minimum wage, so the path to final passage seems clear, she says.

Majority support in the 15-member city council was evident even before the election this week, Carter explains. “We had somewhere between nine and 12 votes before the primary. But our goal had to be at least 12,” to override an anticipated veto by current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, she says. Although Rawlings-Blake had never explicitly threatened a veto, some City Hall insiders are interpreting her lukewarm public comments about the higher minimum wage as a veiled veto threat.

With this political arithmetic, Working Families made support for $15 one of its minimum requirements for an endorsement in city council races, as did a number of labor unions active in local politics. Special importance was attached to the council races because an unusually large number of members had announced their retirements, meaning that a working majority on the council would be reformulated in the election process. Therefore it was a priority for Working Families to add support for the Fight for 15, Carter says.

Riccara Jones, a political organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), did candidate interviews on behalf of her union and reports that most candidates were quick to commit to $15. “Support for Fight for 15 is out there in the community, and the politicians who are listening to the community are lining up,” Jones says. Maryland units of SEIU locals 1199 and 32BJ endorsed seven candidates for council, and six of those were successful on election day.

“I’m optimistic we have the votes” to pass the minimum wage law, Jones adds. The union will push to pass it this year, despite reservations about Mayor Rawlings-Blake. “She’ll be gone at the end of the year, so I don’t see any reason why she would want to fight over this. Even if she wins a veto fight, then it gets passed under Mayor Pugh. … Our goal is to do it now. Baltimore can’t wait another year,” she says.

Jones’ comment partially reflects a feeling among some political activists that an opportunity for change in the wake of the Baltimore race riot one year ago is slipping away. Working Families’ Carter, for example, says that there have been a lot of press conferences and statements from public officials, but there is no sense in the streets that anything has changed. The voluntary retirement of Rawlings-Blake and the turnover at the city council seems to be an admission of defeat by Baltimore's current political leadership, but that has yet to replaced by a renewed sense of purpose.

“A year after the uprising, nothing has been done. The terrible conditions in these neighborhoods have not changed at all,” she says.

Operating independently of Working Families, UNITE HERE Local 7 has been active in this election but on a different scale, says President Roxie Herbekian. “We are more oriented to the community level. We saw that two council districts had a high percentage of our members, and that the incumbent councilmen in those two districts are what I would call ‘do nothing’ politicians. So we supported challenger candidates and worked hard to get them elected. Of course, we wouldn’t support anyone who would oppose the $15.”

UNITE HERE was rewarded with success on Election Day, and both challengers supported by the union won. “But really, we are not about making friends with one candidate or another. We are mobilizing on a community level around our broad goals,” of improved lives for workers, she says.

A higher minimum wage fits in with those broader goals and will have a real impact in the lower-income neighborhoods of Baltimore, Herbekian predicts. UNITE HERE, along with other unions and local activists, will be pushing the city’s elected officials to move as quickly as possible, she says. 


Tuesday, Apr 26, 2016, 3:05 pm  ·  By Jason Kozlowski

‘City of Trees’ Provides a Look Into the Promise of Urban Green Jobs Programs

(City of Trees)  

A film occasionally blindsides every self-professed cinephile with the depth and complexity with which it treats its subjects and themes. For me, this transpired when I saw a trailer for Brandon and Lance Kramer’s film City of Trees at the 2014 Global Labor Film Festival Organizers Conference in Washington, D.C..

A nuanced view into an urban green jobs program in our capitol, the trailer impressed me with its richness and underlying humanity enough to watch the full-length film. City of Trees is a subtly powerful, insightful, and at times poignant social and environmental documentary, blending social and environmental themes.


Monday, Apr 25, 2016, 6:53 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Teamsters Activists Move To Prevent Slashing of Hundreds of Thousands of Retirees’ Pensions

(Greg Smith / Northeast Ohio Committee to Protect Pensions)  

With a key deadline looming early next month, pension activists in the Teamsters union are turning up the heat to head off government action that will slash the incomes of hundreds of thousands of union retirees who receive benefits from the Central States Pension Fund, and set a dangerous precedent for millions more.


Thursday, Apr 21, 2016, 6:39 pm  ·  By Shaun Richman

The Legal Argument That Could Overturn ‘Right-to-Work’ Laws Around the Country

(Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)  

Union supporters had reason to cheer earlier this month when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s hated “right to work” law was overturned by a Dane County Circuit Judge. Unfortunately, the decision is all but certain to be overturned by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court. But contained in the case is a line of questioning over the constitutionality of the right-to-work concept that has quietly been playing out in federal courts.

The result could be that all right-to-work laws are nullified—and sooner than you might imagine.


Thursday, Apr 21, 2016, 1:01 pm  ·  By Jeff Schuhrke

Univ. of Massachusetts Grad Student Workers Endorse BDS Against Israel

(Adrien Fauth / Flickr)  

In a rebuke to their union’s top officials, graduate student workers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst overwhelmingly approved a measure aimed at supporting Palestinian human rights last week.

The 2,000-member Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), part of United Auto Workers Local 2322, passed a resolution endorsing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a global movement pressuring Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians and end its occupation of Palestinian territory. The vote—which organizers say passed with 95 percent approval—comes just months after the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) controversially overturned a similar BDS resolution passed by University of California graduate student workers with UAW Local 2865.

After Local 2865 became the first major U.S. union local to pass a BDS resolution in late 2014, UMass grad workers were inspired to form a Palestine Solidarity Caucus. “We believed that our fellow members in GEO-Local 2322 would be likely to stand in support of such a resolution as well,” says Alyssa Goldstein, a founding member of the caucus.


Monday, Apr 18, 2016, 5:49 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Demanding an End to Citizens United, 300 ‘Democracy Awakening’ Protesters Arrested at U.S. Capitol

Among the 307 Democracy Awakening 2016 activists arrested at the U.S. Capitol were, left to right, Rev. William Barber of North Carolina's Moral Monday movement, Tefere Gebre of the AFL-CIO, Chris Shelton of the Communications Workers of America, Cornell William Brooks of the NAACP, Annie Leonard of Greenpeace, and Aaron Mair, President of the Sierra Club. At right (with beard) is social justice activist Dick Gregory.   Keith Mellnick/ AFL-CIO

WASHINGTON, D.C.—About 300 activists in organizations devoted to progressive reforms in the federal government were arrested Monday in a civil disobedience action on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Embracing legislative issues common to labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, and immigrant rights advocates, the coalition known as Democracy Initiative engineered the arrests as a way to punctuate its springtime “Democracy Awakening 2016” campaign. According to spokesperson Sean Trambley, key demands of the campaign are reversal of the Citizens United Supreme Court case favoring corporate financing of elections, restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, full consideration by the U.S. Senate of President Barack Obama’s stalled appointment to the Supreme Court and related legislative proposals.


Monday, Apr 18, 2016, 11:53 am  ·  By Brian Joseph

Recycling May Ease Your Conscience, But for Workers, It’s Dirty, Dangerous and Even Deadly

(antinee / Flickr)  

This article first appeared at 

Darkness had enveloped the Newell Recycling yard by the time Erik Hilario climbed into a front-end loader on a cold evening in January 2011. Just 19 years old, Hilario, an undocumented immigrant, had followed his father from Mexico to an industrial park in East Point, Ga., near Atlanta, where they worked as low-skilled laborers amid jagged piles of scrap metal bound for the smelter.

Hilario drove to a paved section of the nine-acre yard known as the defueling or car-processing area. Here, according to witnesses in a court case, gasoline was removed from junked cars through a crude process employing a 30-foot crane and a long spike welded atop a metal trough. A claw attached to the crane would pick up cars and smash them, gas-tank first, onto the spike, spilling gasoline into the trough. The crane then would swing the cars across the pavement and drop them onto a pile, dripping gas along the way. Hilario was using the loader – which Newell later would say he was not trained or authorized to operate -- to scrape up bits of metal left behind.

Hilario was slowly pushing the scraps into a pile when an intense fire suddenly engulfed him. A spark had ignited gasoline on the ground. “Help me!” he screamed, co-workers later testified in the case.


Thursday, Apr 14, 2016, 6:21 pm  ·  By David Moberg

Chicago Fast Food Workers Join International Protests for $15 an Hour and a Union

Day one of Fight for 15 strike in Chicago, July 2013.   (Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

As dawn was breaking today, a crowd of roughly 100 gathered in Chicago around a McDonald’s restaurant in the largely black, working-and middle-class residential neighborhood of South Shore.

They were part of an international wave of protests, which started in New York City during November 2012 as protests against fast food shop working conditions. In these early actions, fast food workers walked off the job, usually without warning, and often with only a fraction of workers joining protestors outside. Most of the strikers returned the next day, often accompanied by supporters to guarantee their right to their jobs.

Those insurgent disruptions expanded into Chicago, then other cities, as the local fights coalesced into the Fight for 15—$15 an hour minimum pay and the right to form a union. Now there are simultaneous actions around the world, well-organized and publicized like the global protests today.


Thursday, Apr 14, 2016, 2:57 pm  ·  By Stuart Silverstein

Employee of Federal Agency That Protects Whistleblowers Claims Retaliation

Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).   (House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats / Flickr)

This article first appeared at

For nearly five years, Darrell Whitman was a federal investigator who probed whistleblowers’ complaints about being fired or otherwise punished for exposing alleged corporate misconduct.

He wanted to help whistleblowers, viewing them as a crucial line of defense against employers who violated health and safety standards or wasted taxpayer dollars.

But now Whitman, 70, is blowing the whistle himself. And he is accusing the agency where he used to work, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the branch of the Labor Department whose duties include protecting whistleblowers.


Thursday, Apr 14, 2016, 6:33 am  ·  By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

The ‘Friedrichs’ Supreme Court Case Was Not About Union Dues

Due to a hung supreme court, the 'Friedrichs' case is dead, for now.   (Matt Wade / Flickr)

This article first appeared at

I was driving to a meeting listening to the news this morning and a special segment was announced. It was described as a discussion on the Supreme Court’s decision on “union dues.” The second time that I heard this promo I stopped my car and called the station. Though I did not reach a human being, I left a pointed message to the effect that this case—Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association—was NOT about union dues. So, if it was not about union dues, what was it about and why would the news station make such a basic error?

The Friedrichs case involved an effort taken by individuals against the California Teachers Association, the union that legally represented them for purposes of collective bargaining. The plaintiffs were arguing that they should not have to pay what is called an agency fee since that, allegedly, interfered with their Constitutional right to freedom of speech. The sophistry contained in this case is unbelievable, and the fact that it reached the US Supreme Court was, itself, unbelievable and unacceptable. This is the sort of case that should never have seen the light of day.