Every week, In These Times rounds up the labor coverage that we missed the week before. Please send stories to firstname.lastname@example.org .
In a major labor victory, Wisconsin circuit court Judge Juan Colas, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia at age 5, has struck down key parts of Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union law. Colas’ decision restores collective bargaining rights for city, county and school-district employees, but still maintains the anti-collective bargaining law for state and University of Wisconsin employees.
Colas ruled that as it was applied to municipal and school-district employees, the law violated both the United States Constitution and the Wisconsin State Constitution. From the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel:
Colas ruled that the law violated workers’ constitutional rights by denying to union workers certain powers available to their nonunion counterparts. The decision could still be overturned on appeal – the Supreme Court has already restored the law once in June 2011 after it was blocked by a different Dane County judge earlier that year.
“The decision essentially creates the (2011) status quo for municipal employees and school district employees because it declared that the essential provisions of Act 10 to be unconstitutional,” said Lester Pines, an attorney for the Madison teachers and city of Milwaukee employees who are plaintiffs.
School districts and local officials will have to return to the bargaining table with their workers in a much more significant way. The decision raises a host of questions about changes in pay, benefits and work rules that have taken place in the meantime while bargaining was essentially dead.
Under Walker’s law, both the state and local governments were prohibited from bargaining over anything besides a cost of living salary adjustment. Other issues such as health benefits, pensions, workplace safety and other work rules were strictly off limits.
Those can all now be bargained.
Polling in Chicago has shown that city residents back the Chicago Teachers Union in its strike against Chicago Public Schools. One explanation may come from the CTU’s savvy use of social media to reach out directly to community members. From WBEZ:
The union picked up 16,000 new Facebook fans since the strike began. As an administrator of a Facebook page, I can attest that is a very enviable traffic graph. For the CTU, this activity didn’t come by accident. [CTU Social Media and Video Director Kenzo] Shibata says he’s been training union members for months. “We have focused a lot of attention on social media through this strike. We knew that we could not rely completely on traditional media to tell the story, so we empowered our members to become citizen journalists on the ground,” Shibata said in an email interview.
He praises union leadership for being forward looking in changing his position from Publications Editor to New Media Specialist. He considers himself an “online organizer.” The union claims close to 30,000 members and has more than that total backing their Facebook page. Those fans have been successful at their online activism since more than 81,000 Facebook users have been talking about CTU.
What have those activists been doing on social media? For one, they’ve been making photos like this go viral. Shibata says they’ve also been sharing a video the union made in August called “Chicago Teachers Union Vs. Astroturf Billionaires.” The union made this video specifically for members to share on social media and it has clearly influenced the agenda of many of the marches and signs. Their Facebook fans have also been sharing photos and videos of those marches (including some adaptations of “Call Me Maybe”).
Inspired by OWS, workers at Hot & Crusty Bakery In New York City have won an important victory in keeping their bakery open after Occupying for a week. From Jacobin magazine:
Fed up with long hours, abuse and sub-minimum wages, some of the workers eventually ended up at Zucotti Park after starting a free eight-week organizing crash course at the Laundry Workers Center (another grassroots institution about to celebrate its first birthday). Some of the employees then joined the Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group, an OWS committee formed to address the lack of immigrant voices in Occupy. Through that milieu, the workers complemented their grassroots campaign by plugging in to New York’s mushrooming activist network.
“The community support and the Occupy support in this campaign were absolutely critical,” said Nastaran Mohit, an organizer with the Laundry Workers Center. Occupiers and other activists provided a solid “community support system,” she said. They helped spread the word about the campaign, and attended demonstrations on short notice.
A recent lawsuit about farmworkers employed as subcontracted workers have far reaching effects to combat a growing trend of wage theft. From the American Prospect:
Farm-labor contractors give American produce growers what companies like China’s Foxconn offer to Apple: a way to outsource a costly and complicated part of the business, often saving money in the process and creating a firewall between the brand and the working conditions under which its products are made. “The contractor system makes it very difficult to enforce wage and hour laws because the idea is that the grower says, ‘It’s not me, it’s him. It’s the contractor. I had nothing to do with this,’” says Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Florida Legal Services and a leading farm-labor advocate. The case by Villalobos and Gomez, their lawyers say, offers a textbook example of abuse within the contracting system.
Unlike most farm-labor cases filed each year, Villalobos is a “collective action” suit. This designation broadens the case beyond the named plaintiffs and opens the case to any worker who can prove he or she experienced the same treatment at the hands of the defendants between 2008 and 2011. “We’re expecting it will cover hundreds if not thousands of workers,” says Megan Beaman, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, the nonprofit farmworker advocacy group that filed the suit in U.S. District Court. If the court finds in favor of Villalobos and Gomez on all counts, the award per client could reach tens of thousands of dollars. Multiplied across hundreds of workers, this could be enough to “deter other employers from creating those same conditions,” Beaman says. The case, in other words, isn’t just about claiming back wages for its plaintiffs but about challenging the broader culture of abuse in their workplace.
Although the case is limited to agricultural workers, other industries may be closely watching it. By naming the grower as a defendant, the case confronts one of the thorniest problems facing American workers: the rise of subcontracted labor and the question of who is responsible when abuse occurs. “If you think about the jobs we can’t outsource and will stay here, that’s where you see a lot of subcontracting going on,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, a policy advocacy group. Subcontracting has sprawled into other low-wage jobs in construction, janitorial, security, health-care, housekeeping, and warehouse industries, often at name-brand companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart. “It’s kind of like Whac-A-Mole. If you go after the smaller-level contractors, they just pop up again on another site,” says Ruckelshaus. “You have to go up to the next level — or the level above — to make the patterns change.”
IBEW’s pension fund this week sued Wal-Mart over its alleged role in the Mexican bribery scandal. From Indiana Public Media:
In April, the New York Times published an investigative article that said Wal-Mart’s Mexico subsidiary had been bribing Mexican officials to obtain store construction permits.
That sparked the California State Teachers’ Retirement System or CalSTRS and the city of New York to file suit against Wal-Mart directors, saying they breached their fiduciary duties to the company’s shareholders by covering up the scandal.
Then they asked a much smaller shareholder, Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW, to join their suit.
The IBEW funds’ attorney Stuart Grant says the other plaintiffs were relying heavily on information from the New York Times article for their suit, but the Indiana pension fund properly requested company information that could reveal whether the executives knew about the bribery. And that information, Grant says, could hold up better in court.
“They used the tool at hand to make a demand on the company for its books and records so that they could have the accurate facts in order to put together a complaint that would withstand scrutiny,” he says.