Allison Kilkenny | The Nation

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Thousands of Grocery Workers Vote on Strike Authorization

Grocery store workers and supporters hold a rally for better healthcare benefits. (AP Photo/Bret Hartman)

Thousands of members of the United Food and Commercial Workers from popular chains such as QFC, Albertsons, Safeway and Fred Meyer cast ballots at the Lynnwood Convention Center in Washington this week. If passed, the measure would allow negotiators to take union members on strike if future negotiations break down.

According to workers, who have been in contract negotiations since March, the four major issues at stake are healthcare benefits, pay for holiday work, paid sick leave and obtaining living wages.

“I think our members are resolute,” Local 367 Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Comeau told the News Tribune. “They know that sometimes they have to take stands.”

The grocery stores are negotiating under the banner of Allied Employers. Union representatives have expressed frustration with what they call “take-backs,” which include harmful measures like an end to time-and-one-half on holidays and no offer of a permanent pay raise. However, the main concern is healthcare and the impact of the Affordable Care Act.

Stores have proposed that workers who work fewer than thirty hours a week get their health insurance from government insurance exchanges under healthcare reform, and to no longer be on the insurance plan now jointly managed by the unions and the companies, King 5 News reports.

The threshold for health coverage for nonunion competitors is thirty hours per week under the ACA.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we’re stuck covering part-time employees and our competitors don’t have to cover them,” said Scott Powers of Allied Employers, which represents the grocery companies, to Kiro TV.

Naturally, workers are distressed by the idea of losing their health coverage.

“It will be terrible, a lot of people are working just to get their health benefits,” said Safeway worker Ariana Davis.

Nationwide, employers are cutting workers’ hours to keep them beneath the thirty mark so they can push employees onto the ACA rolls and avoid penalties.

Gene Barr of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry has heard anecdotally that Midstate employers are trimming workers or trimming their hours as fallout of the ACA:

Government has decided that you as a business will pay this if you meet a certain size,” Barr explained. “They’ve put these conditions on and of course companies will have to work around and with those conditions in order to make sure they can stay as a successful business. Businesses have to take the steps they can to keep themselves profitable and keep the people that are now employed, employed.”

Major businesses such as Walmart have found all kinds of creative ways to circumvent the thirty mark. For example, a Reuters surgery of fifty-two Walmart stores in June found that most were hiring only temps, who must re-apply for their jobs after 180 days. Meanwhile, existing long-term employees have seen their hours reduced drastically.

These are all ways to keep employees beneath the thirty hours per week necessary to acquire benefits, and employers are banking on being able to unload these employees onto the ACA.

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According to UFCW, if grocery store workers do vote to strike, the action could include some 30,000 grocery workers across Western Washington, represented by UFCW Local 367 in Pierce County, UCFW Local 21 in King County and Teamsters Local 38 in Snohomish County.

Although Allied Employers represents each grocery store individually, and union employees at Safeway received slightly different proposals than employees at Fred Meyer, Comeau called all of the proposals “equally bad.”

The union has scheduled votes for late September, but doesn’t know yet if those will be votes on contract proposals or strike authorization.

A grocery strike was narrowly averted around Thanksgiving 2012 by a last-minute contract agreement.

Laura Flanders covered the historic changes within the labor movement earlier this week.

Occupy Celebrates Two Years Of Resistance

All photos by Allison Kilkenny

On the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, hundreds of protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park to celebrate the group’s history, and also to lend solidarity to movements like that of the fast food workers who have been striking in cities all across the country.

In the morning, activists gathered in front of a McDonald’s down the block from Zuccotti in support of fast food workers, and to demand that the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour.

Tony, an activist, said he attended the action because “we need work, we need jobs, we need better minimum wage for everyone.”

“No one can survive on $7.25,” protesters chanted outside the building, as NYPD officers flanked the McDonald’s entrance.

Police guard the McDonald’s entrance

“We are uniting with Fast Food Forward and calling for $15 (or more) and the workers’ rights to form a union without interference because we believe jobs should pay workers enough to afford food, clothing, and rent,” Occupy declared in a written statement. “Lifting wages will help bring more economic justice to workers and improve their quality of life and living standards. This will be the beginning of an independent and grass roots campaign to bring awareness to the plight of fast food and low wage workers in a city where nearly half of its residents live near or below poverty.”

Some protesters expressed frustration with organized labor’s lack of interest in supporting striking fast food workers. Activist Joshua Stephens said organizers couldn’t get the AFL-CIO to call them back regarding the fast food action, but the labor group did retweet updates from the event.

Caleb Maupin, an International Action Center organizer, was arrested during a couple Occupy Wall Street protests and participated in the original General Assemblies.

“I’m here because there’s a small group of very wealthy people who own the banks, the factories, the natural resources, and they have all the power,” said Maupin. “They have the government in their hands and we need to oppose that. We are the 99 percent. We sell our labor to survive. Right now, people desperately need jobs, they need employment.”

Maupin expressed concern over the US government’s priorities.

“The government is talking about another war, against Syria. We need to stand up for working people against the super-rich,” he said.

He added that he believes Occupy has established a lasting legacy and continues to serve as inspiration for people everywhere.

“People all across the country, and all across the world, saw what Occupy was doing, and and were inspired by it, and got the idea that they wanted to do something,” he said, adding that he believes resistance to economic injustice is growing, though the protests might not always occur under the Occupy banner.

“The basis of Occupy was the economic suffering going on. Young people don’t have jobs. The young people who do have jobs are making very low wages. And if you look at what’s happening in Spain and Greece, people say Occupy is over, but things like Occupy will continue to happen because people are upset, and until people have jobs and schools and things they did, there’s going to be unrest,” he said.

And there are lots of reasons to still be upset. The typical American family makes less than it did in 1989, and the poverty rate held steady at 15 percent in 2012, according to the latest numbers from the US Census Bureau.

Protesters consistently expressed distress that nothing has been done to address economic disparity and injustice, but they also marked the anniversary of Occupy by celebrating a movement that gave them support and purpose.

Journalist Chris Hedges joined the protesters at Zuccotti briefly to speak about the NDAA lawsuit he participated in (and won) in court, and to also offer encouragement to the activists.

“Any form of resistance is never futile,” he said to the crowd.

Bill Johnson, a popular Occupy activist, addressed the crowd at Zuccotti: “Two-and-a-half years ago, I lost my home to a legal system that does not believe in justice for all,” he said, and then described how he lost his second home during Hurricane Sandy.

“I’ll fight for justice until it kills me…. I used to think I was alone. I love you all,” he said.

In the afternoon, protesters marched around the financial district, and the NYPD responded by implementing a series of strange and seemingly arbitrary rules that acted to thwart many of Occupy’s most popular visual imagery. For example, officers declared that cardboard signs weren’t allowed in the park, and many activists expressed surprise at this new rule, since bringing cardboard in Zuccotti has never been a problem in the past (poles and physical structures are not permitted, but cardboard was permissible).

Officers also consistently told protesters they could not carry the Occupy Wall Street banner horizontally as they marched along the sidewalk because it “obstructed pedestrian traffic,” even though the presence of the banner has never previously been addressed.

Protesters were told to remove any masks (especially the popular Guy Fawkes masks), and while this isn’t a new demand by officers, the extent the NYPD went to enforce the rule certainly is. One activist was arrested simply for wearing a mask on top of his head, and not actually concealing his face.

Protester arrested for wearing a mask on top of his head

Occupy commemorated its anniversary by giving space to a whole host of issues, ranging from raising the minimum wage to ending evictions to investigating general public corruption.

The protest will cultivate this evening at Zuccotti Park for the Justice for the 99% Assembly.

Occupy Wall Street stated:

“On this great evening after a full day of action we also come together to share community, and rebuild not only a resistance movement, but a pro-active movement that seeks to re-create the commons, secure open space for all, and build a movement that speaks in the interests of the people over the corporations and their puppets.”

Allison Kilkenny has previously blogged about the legacy of Occupy Wall Street two years later. 

Occupy Activists' New Fight for Regulation, Affordable Housing and Social Justice

Protesters march together in New York City as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 (PaulSteinJC/Flickr)

Next week marks the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement that began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in response to rampant Wall Street corruption and social and economic inequality.

And while most of the Occupy camps have been destroyed by police, many of the former occupiers still maintain the same spirit that birthed the movement, but now they’re channeling their energy elsewhere, often in more focused ways that, unfortunately, receive far less media attention.

All of the conditions that inspired the Occupy protests are still in place. For example, new analysis of IRS data finds that the income gap has actually widened to its highest levels in a century.

The top 1 percent of U.S. earners collected 19.3 percent of household income in 2012, their largest share in Internal Revenue Service figures going back a century.

U.S. income inequality has been growing for almost three decades. But until last year, the top 1 percent’s share of pre-tax income had not yet surpassed the 18.7 percent it reached in 1927, according to an analysis of IRS figures dating to 1913 by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University.

And while the class divide widens, Congress has shown nothing but contempt for the poor by slashing their already meager support systems during the sequestration.

The House of Representatives is expected Thursday to take up a proposal that could make somewhere between 4 and 6 million Americans ineligible for full SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or food stamps).

Because conditions have arguably gotten worse since 2011, protesters maintain the spirit of Occupy is still very much alive—it just isn’t centralized in camps anymore.

Interestingly, Occupy the SEC, the wonkier branch of the OWS movement, proved to be the answer to one of the most prominent criticisms of OWS: that the movement lacked focus.

Occupy the SEC is an extremely focused offshoot off OWS, and it’s perhaps the group’s commitment to toiling away in unglamorous court cases that has resulted in many of their legal battles receiving little media attention.

Akshat Tewary, co-founder of Occupy the SEC, says one of the main issues their group will be focused on in the next few months is the replacement of Ben Bernanke as the head of the Federal Reserve.

“At present, Larry Summers has been tapped as Obama’s pick. This is especially troubling as Summers was complicit in formulating economic policies that helped cause the recent financial crisis,” says Tewary.

The group recently submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court’s consolidated Troice cases (Chadbourne Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, Willis of Colorado Inc. v. Troice and Proskauer Rose LLP v. Troice) based on the massive Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Allen Stanford, and relates to the complicity of third parties like auditors and law firms in abetting that fraud. In October 2012, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on these three cases.

The protesters also serve as watchdogs, and have analyzed a slew of bills that would gut various components of Dodd Frank Title VII’s swaps oversight (basically the mechanisms put in place to prevent future shady Wall Street trading). Occupy the SEC sent a letter to the House Financial Services Committee with its recommendations.

Additionally, Occupy the SEC filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York against six federal agencies over the delay in promulgating a Final Rulemaking in connection with the “Volcker Rule,” a specific section of the Dodd-Frank Act meant to restrict the banks from making certain kinds of speculative investments that do not benefit customers.

“Their delay in doing so has put the entire global economy at continued risk, given that a properly implemented Volcker Rule would greatly reduce risk-taking at banks,” says Tewary.

The case is currently under review before a judge in the Eastern District of New York federal court.

Occupy Our Homes is an OWS offshoot that still embodies the movement’s direct action strategy. The group recently co-organized a week of action with the Home Defenders League at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, that attracted homeowners from around the country, many of whom had never participated in direct action before.

The protesters marched on the DOJ to demand prosecutions for Wall Street executives, and took over the entrance, eventually setting up a twenty-four-hour encampment. Twenty-seven people were arrested at the DOJ, multiple people were tasered by DHS, and arrestees refused to give their real names, instead giving the names of bank executives such as Jamie Dimon or Brian Moynihan.

Seven additional homeowners, all of them women and grandmothers, were arrested down the street at the office of Covington & Burling for blocking the revolving door. Three of those seven women are going to trial next month in DC.

Using online petition tools, training calls, workshops and one-on-one coaching, Occupy Our Homes has helped people all across the country launch successful home defense campaigns. Shabnam Bashiri, an organizer with the group, says more than 300 people have launched campaigns and many of them have resulted in victories.

Next month, Occupy Our Homes plans to host a “Housing Justice Academy” which will be three days of regional trainings around the country (Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, among others.) Bashiri says the goal is to “bring people together to participate in trainings on home defense and nonviolent direct action, and then participate in coordinated actions which will hopefully grow and strengthen the movement.”

Bashiri calls it a “boot-camp” for Occupy Our Homes.

Occupy Our Homes Atlanta racked up multiple victories with individual homeowners, including Jacqueline Barber, a retired police detective and cancer survivor, who was facing eviction when she reached out to OOHA in October 2012. Her fight to stay in her home lasted almost a year, and included a trip to Minneapolis to personally deliver a petition to US Bank.

Occupy Homes Minnesota also won multiple victories for homeowners, such as Rose McGee, a community advocate who fought Fannie Mae for a year and was finally able to secure a major victory that included a significant principle reduction.

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Other OWS offshoots operating quietly despite a collective yawn from the establishment media are Occupy Sandy and Occupy the Pipeline—both movements that arose from the federal government’s unwillingness/inability to address crises.

Occupy Sandy initially received glowing praise from the establishment media, including The New York Times, in addition to Mayor Bloomberg and The National Guard, for the group’s remarkable relief efforts. When the Red Cross and FEMA were nowhere to be found in NYC communities, Occupy Sandy rushed in to fill the void.

But Occupy Sandy had difficulty translating community recovery into a political movement.

The Brooklyn Rail:

Josmar Trujillo, a Rockaway resident, was already sympathetic to OWS politics, and says that Occupy Sandy helped organize new grassroots community groups, like the Wildfire Project, which is trying to ensure community benefit guarantees from the city when new post-storm infrastructure is built. “They have to learn the local political terrain, which is just as thorny in any New York City neighborhood,” he says of Occupy Sandy volunteers. “They’re really checking themselves on leading, because they are outsiders and that carries a lot of negative weight. So they have to balance getting involved and not taking the lead. They bend over backwards to make sure they are not imposing their politics on anybody.”

The Brooklyn Rail adds that Occupy Sandy organized few protests against the city’s handling of the relief efforts, one of which took place outside Mayor Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse in order to call attention to the fact that hurricane ravaged areas were still waiting for vital repairs as winter approached.

In late July, there was a march to City Hall demanding that sustainable development and affordable housing play an integral part in any rebuilding plan, but, The Brooklyn Rail notes, “it was sparsely attended, featuring mostly paid organizers from community and labor groups, and it drew little attention from the mainstream press.”

Occupy Sandy volunteer Jessica Roff, reflecting on the Herculean task of fighting against corporate-backed rebuilding plans, admits that the movement was late to the game. “That’s a good question that we need to regroup on,” she says. “We weren’t out politicizing things because people needed a blanket so they wouldn’t freeze or a meal so they wouldn’t starve.”

There has been little talk of a mass gathering to celebrate the two-year anniversary of OWS, but that’s not unusual (anniversary protests are notoriously underwhelming).

But the lack of organizing may also stem from some of the best and brightest organizers having moved on to instead channel the spirit of Occupy elsewhere: in the battle to keep schools from closing, to lend solidarity to striking fast food workers, to fight to keep people in their homes and to hold officials accountable.

The “Occupy is dead” trope is ridiculous precisely because all of the elements that led to the movement’s birth are still in place—if not worse now. The rich are richer, the corrupt live without fear of going to jail, and everyone knows institutions aren’t coming to save us.

Occupy’s spirit of resistance may be scattered, but it can never die. Not as long as a sense of injustice lives.

Nathan Schneider writes about the aftermath of the Occupy movement in his article Breaking Up With Occupy, published in The Nation on September 11, 2013.

The Hidden Rot: We Don't Fully Understand the Consequences of Budget Cuts

Protesters rally against budget cuts outside of San Fransisco State University (coolmikeol/Flickr)

Back in June, when the effects of the sequestration were first starting to settle in, certain media outlets like The Washington Post printed that the Obama administration had exaggerated their budget cut predictions.

“[Sequestration] has not produced what the Obama administration predicted: widespread breakdowns in crucial government services,” David Fahrenthold and Lisa Rein wrote in The Washington Post.

The general consensus appeared to be that since planes were still taking off from the major airports and poor people weren’t starving to death in the streets, the budgets cuts simply weren’t that bad.

But as the months continue to roll by, we’re now beginning to see that the consequences of austerity are very real, and only getting worse.

Nationwide, states are making severe cuts to their social safety net programs.

Kansas plans to throw more than a fifth of its nearly 90,000 unemployed residents off of the food stamp rolls by reinstating federal work requirements for the program that are normally waived during times of unusually high unemployment, ThinkProgress reports.

The Department for Children and Families projected that 20,000 unemployed Kansans currently on food assistance will be affected.

Federal rules for food assistance require able-bodied recipients who do not have dependent children (a very small percentage of food stamp recipients) work at least twenty hours per week in order to receive the aid for longer than three months, but states can waive that requirement when jobs are scarce, and many states have chosen to do so during the recession.

Kansas is the fifth state to reinstitute the work requirement, and ThinkProgress reports that Oklahoma and Wisconsin are poised to follow suit.

In Kentucky, tens of thousands of low-income people have seen childcare and kinship care all but eliminated from this year’s budget.

Al Jazeera America reports that, with few exceptions, no new families will receive public childcare subsidies, and current recipients will be cut from the program if they earn more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($19,000 per year for a three-person household, the lowest eligibility rate of any state).

Furthermore, no additional families will get kinship care, which is a monthly subsidy that encourages relatives to take custody of orphaned, abused and neglected children (and runs half the cost of a foster care placement).

Earlier in the week, families rallied in Frankfort, the state capital, to protest the cuts.

“The rhetoric about what the cuts would do—which is what all of us were talking about in the spring—that rhetoric has now become a reality for folks,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “We’re beginning to feel the effects. We’re beginning to hear stories about folks who were enrolled in community college last year who aren’t going to be enrolled in community college this year because of childcare issues.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to just cop out with, ‘We don’t have any money,’” Brooks said. “Well, we do have money. We have money for priorities. So the question is not whether we have money or not, the question is whether childcare supports and kinship care supports are priorities.”

Head Start, the federal pre-K education service for low-income families, has eliminated services for more than 57,000 children in the coming school year as a result of sequestration.

In West Virginia alone, 461 fewer children will have access to Head Start this year than they did in 2012.

Bill Johnson of South Charleston told the Hampshire Review he’s frustrated that Wall Street hedge-fund traders are still getting a big tax break when therapy for his 3-year-old autistic daughter is threatened by budget cuts.

Johnson says his daughter, Marissa, is at a stage where her entire ability to communicate could be threatened if she loses the services she gets from Head Start.

“A year and a half ago this child was completely non-verbal. She’s now doing sign language, even starting to speak. If that had not occurred with Head Start, she would have been two and a half years without services,” Johnson said.

At the rally, people held signs with phrases like, “Education, not sequestration,” and “Empty chairs, full jails.”

Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) said the cutbacks will “undoubtedly leave our children at a disadvantage when it comes to finding long-term academic success and a well-paying job.”

In Texas, more than 4,000 kids are scheduled to lose services through Head Start.

But The Washington Post framed 57,000 kids’ being cut from the program as a good thing because at least the projection wasn’t as bad as the Department of Health and Human Services initial estimate, which placed the number at around 70,000 children.

One way to hide the effects of budget cuts is to implement austerity policies on marginalized or silenced minorities. Poor people and children don’t have lobbying firms advocating on their behalf in Washington, so the rest of the country doesn’t immediately feel the effects of starving them and cutting their services.

Then the establishment media, dominated by individuals who don’t generally rely on services like Head Start and food assistance, step in to say: Gee, things don’t look so bad from up here.

But the rot is still there, and it’s spreading. A society cannot sustain itself by shutting down schools, cutting pre-K programs, and throwing the poor off food assistance.

Austerity Is for the Little People: Syria Edition

A man inspects a site hit by what activists said were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, August 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Nour Fourat)

Schools, libraries, post offices and other public services are closing across the country in the wake of budget cuts, and Congress may have just voted to cut $1.5 trillion from programs like Head Start over the next decade, but many officials still feel confident the US is positioned to fund yet another expensive military operation in Syria.

Obviously, current and former officials aren’t debating the moral implications of killing human beings in order to “save” other human beings as part of a murky plan that essentially boils down to underwear gnome logic (cruise mussels + something = Assad is gone and democracy!), but these same officials brazenly claim that the cost of a military operation in Syria will be “relatively easily absorbed.”

This rhetoric is familiar. A report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction called the Iraq reconstruction effort back in 2008 “a $100 billion failure,” and alleged that the Pentagon “simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up” failures. The report details how Jay Garner, then-head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, warned then–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the military operation in Iraq would be costly.

“What do you think that’ll cost?” Mr. Rumsfeld asked of the most expansive plan.

“I think it’s going to cost billions of dollars,” Mr. Garner said.

“My friend,” Mr. Rumsfeld replied, “if you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.”

According to a recent study, the Iraq was cost more than $2 trillion, and with benefits owed to war veterans added in, could ultimately cost more than $6 trillion over the next four decades.

Of course, there are arguments to be made that Iraq and Syria vastly differ both in scale and scope, but the point is that officials have a track record of underestimating the time, commitment and cost such lofty military procedures require, especially when the goal of said operation remains unclear.

Still, many officials are adamant that the United States can endure yet another military operation with a giant question mark as its end date.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham petitioned the White House recently for a robust military campaign against Syria intended to weaken the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Part of their plea entails the restoration of military funding cut by austerity measures, including forced spending cuts that came down during the sequester.

The senators seem less concerned with other aspects of the sequestration, namely the 57,000 kids cut from Head Start, the program for pre-school age children from low-income families.

“We cannot keep asking the military to perform mission after mission with a sequestration and military cuts hanging over their heads,” GOP Representative Buck McKeon of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN on Monday. “We have to take care of our own people first.”

According to Opensecrets.org, McKeon’s top contributor thus far this year is Northrop Grumman, the fourth-largest defense contractor in the world as of 2010, so “our people” apparently don’t include the children of Philadelphia or Chicago, where a slew of public schools closings just occurred. For officials like McKeon, budget cuts are a terrible, immoral thing… if they’re affecting the military, and ultimately, his corporate donors. Otherwise, it’s austerity for everyone else, i.e., business as usual.

There is one party that wins if another military operation is approved by Congress: the weapons industry, arguably one of the only recession proof businesses in existence.

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Lord Thompson, chief operating office of the Lexington Institute consultants’ group, told Reuters the administration’s proposed limited strike on Syria could buoy shares in major weapons makers such as missile maker Raytheon Company and Lockheed Martin, which builds the Aegis combat system used on Navy ships.

“Any chance of military action tends to boost defense shares and bolster the case for defense spending,” Thompson said, noting there was always the potential for escalation, despite the relatively small cost of cruise missile strikes.

Yes, there is always the potential for escalation. Though Obama has thus far said he will not put US soldiers on the ground in Syria, military planners say they are prepared for all possible “contingencies,” which is great news for Thompson and other weapons manufacturers, but bad news for Syrians and US taxpayers.

Courage Is Contagious: Fast Food Workers Expected to Protest Low Wages Nationwide

Fast food workers strike in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Josh Eidelson)

Fast food workers in cities all across the country are expected to strike Thursday as part of growing protests against the nation’s biggest restaurant and retailer chains. Low-wage workers at businesses like McDonald’s and Macy’s are fighting for a living wage of $15 an hour in pay, which is more than double the current national minimum wage of $7.25.

Organizing against low-paying jobs at fast food restaurants began last November in New York when hundreds of workers went on strike in a one-day protest. By the summer, the movement expanded to include thousands of workers across the country in cities like Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City.

This time around, workers in places like Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Memphis and Raleigh plan on getting involved with backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

There have already been tangible results from the strikes. Jonathan Westin, who helped organize New York’s first fast food strike as the executive director of New York Communities for Change, says some local workers have seen wage increases of twenty-five to fifty cents per hour, and Steve Ashby, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, says some Chicago strikers have also gotten higher wages post-strike.

The achievements, while modest, have also had another effect: lending courage to other workers who want to strike for living wages.

Angela Gholston, 24, has been working at a McDonald’s in Detroit for two years, and says she’s participating in the strike to help form a union, and make better wages so she can support her family and pay her bills.

“I receive Medicaid because I can’t even afford to pay for my employer’s healthcare plan,” she says.

Gholston has participated in past strikes at work, and says she feels emboldened by the organizing she’s seen in other states.

“They’re trying to help us and we’re trying to help them, and that’s good. We have to stand together in order to keep this movement going. We need [$15-per-hour minimum wage], not $7.40. What can we do with $7.40?”

Gholston says she wasn’t hesitant to participate in the strike, even though she lacks the protection of a union.

“We need to make a union. That’s the whole point of going on strike. If you don’t take action and stand up for what’s right, who is going to do it for you? I wasn’t scared at all.”

Mike Wilder, co-founder of the African-American Civic Engagement Roundtable in Milwaukee and Community Coalition Coordinator with Wisconsin Jobs Now, and campaign leader of Raise Up MKE—a group focused on fighting for living wages—says the strike is about holding profitable companies accountable for not paying workers enough to afford basic amenities like food and rent.

In Milwaukee, Wilder says organizers and workers have planned a day full of actions at specific stores throughout the city.

“Here in Milwaukee, the day will end with a march and a rally in support of low-wage workers in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods,” says Wilder.

Wilder says Thursday is one step in a much larger movement.

“All across the country, workers are standing up and demanding higher wages so they can support themselves and their families without having to seek government assistance,” he says. “In Milwaukee, we started with a few dozen workers on strike in May, and now we have hundreds striking. Workers are planning future escalating actions until their demands are met.”

Wilder adds the goal of these types of actions is to send a message to “these billion-dollar corporations that workers are no longer going to struggle to survive on minimum wage, while record-breaking profits are generated by the companies that employ them. Workers are demanding [$15-per-hour minimum wage] and the right to form a union without retaliation.”

Dwight Murray, 27, has been working at a McDonald’s in Indianapolis since March, and says he’s participating in the strike because he gives a lot to McDonald’s.

“I work hard and I deserve to make enough to meet my family’s basic needs,” says Murray. “I struggle to get my 3-year-old daughter what she needs, and we have to make sacrifices on a regular basis. I’m going on strike because I deserve to make a liveable wage and to be able to take care of my daughter and even have money saved up for emergencies.”

Murray says fast food workers aren’t treated with the respect they deserve on the job.

“We’re working hard to live up to the ‘hot, fresh and ready in a minute-and-a-half’ standard, but sometimes there’s not enough staff, so we work eight hours without a break.”

Murray claims he’s been told that no overtime is allowed, but then if his replacement doesn’t show up, he can’t leave, and then his superiors “gripe” about paying for a single hour at the overtime rate. He adds that none of the employees can count on raises, and the people who work hard and have been there the longest in crucial roles sometimes don’t get raises at all.

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This is the first time Murray has ever gone on strike, but he says he feels bolstered by actions in other states.

“It gave me even more incentive to join and put a fire in my belly to stand up for this. Before, I didn’t feel that there was a proper avenue for me to be heard. Now, I see that there is, and that I’m not alone. I’m standing up for myself and my coworkers, but also the millions of other workers across the country that also deserve a liveable wage.”

Proving that indeed courage is contagious, Murray says he feels safe striking because he knows other workers have his back, and there are workers across the country standing up together.

“I know my rights and I’m talking to other workers about their rights. There are workers in cities across the country going on strike together. We’re standing together in order for us to obtain a liveable wage.”

Parts of these interviews were edited for clarity.

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NYC's Disappearing Neighborhood Hospitals

Bill de Blasio at a rally to save Long Island College Hospital and Interfaith Medical Center on July 24, 2013. (Courtesy of Flickr)

For many New Yorkers, the trip to treat a broken appendage or receive vaccination shots is growing longer. Since 2000, nineteen hospitals across the city have closed due to financial pressures—a number that could have even been higher had a judge not recently ordered Long Island College Hospital (LICH) in Brooklyn to resume services.

Nurses gathered outside LICH in early July to deliver a nearly 7,000-signature petition to SUNY Downstate Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s New York City office demanding she stop the process of closing the hospital. Journalist Sarah Jaffe reported that after a SUNY representative refused to comment on the ongoing situation, the crowd turned to civil disobedience and blocked the doors to the building and refused to move until police took them away in cuffs.

Though those protesters were successful in fighting for the return of emergency services, the twentieth closure may occur soon if plans to shut down Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn go through.

Community members held an all-night vigil Sunday to protest the planned closure.

Reverend Herbert Daughtry, 82, said, “The absence of this hospital means that people will have to go distances for medical attention.”

Thus far, Governor Andrew Cuomo has not expressed sympathy for hospital staffs and residents losing easily accessible medical care, and has said he is unwilling to bail out failing hospitals.

ABC News:

“If you look closely and follow the proper guidelines, money is available for safety-net hospitals,” District Leader for the 56th Assembly district Robert Cornegy said.

“Safety net hospitals” is how advocates describe facilities in low-income areas that provide much needed services. They say the government has a moral obligation to care for the sick and the poor.

“What the government is saying to us, though, is that there are beds available within the borough, so it’s okay to close a hospital,” Cornegy said. “Because make it with beds in Coney Island and beds in other places, but it doesn’t account for the emergency response time necessary to save a life.”

For many residents, the walk from their apartment to the nearest hospital has increased from a few blocks to, in some cases, a few miles. Advocates say that change is a matter of life and death, especially for the city’s poor residents.

Bedford-Stuyvesant resident Stephen Autry told an ABC affiliate that the nearest hospital to his home is in Woodhull on Flushing Avenue, and that is several miles away.

Kaiser Health News notes that most of the hospital closings have occurred in relatively poor communities, while a handful were in affluent areas but served as “safety-net” facilities, because local residents who were wealthy and insured favored other facilities farther away.

“If a hospital is serving a low-income community, it probably has a fair number of patients who are not paying—who are uninsured,” said Jim Tallon, president of the United Hospital Fund of New York. “So, left on its own, a hospital serving a low-income community is going to be financially in distress.”

New York applied to the federal government a year ago for a Medicaid waiver that officials hoped would net the state $10 billion through better care management, some of which going towards bolstering and modernizing Brooklyn’s healthcare system. But almost a year later, Albany has received no money from Washington. In May, Governor Cuomo went so far as to send a plea to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“Due to a rapid deterioration in the financial status of essential components of the health care services system in Brooklyn, if nothing is done within the next 12 months, the outcome will be disastrous,” Cuomo’s letter said. “Without the waiver, at least four hospitals—having among them nearly one thousand inpatient beds and supporting hundreds of thousands of emergency room and ambulatory care visits—will be in danger of closing.”

Alan Sager, a professor of health policy at Boston University, calls the phenomenon of the dwindling neighbourhood hospitals “medical deserts.”

Sager notes that the decline in hospital beds comes at a time when the baby boomer generation has begun to age, and will most likely need hospital care.

“We may look back in 10 years and say, ‘How could we not have seen this coming?’” Sager told the Star Tribune. “Keeping open a hospital today is going to cost a lot less than rebuilding at $3 million a bed.”

Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has addressed the problem of dying community hospitals and was one of the arrestees last month at the LICH protest. His office sued to block the shutdown, arguing that it lacked proper review and would rob the community of needed services.

A New York Times editorial this week said that while Mayor Bloomberg has waged war against sugary soda drinks and trans fats, he has “checked out” when it comes to the issue of community hospitals closing.

“Struggling community hospitals, including the two on the brink of extinction—Long Island College Hospital and Interfaith Medical Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is in bankruptcy court—have been badly managed and are ill equipped to survive in a changing marketplace. Many are disappearing under mountains of debt and need to be either rescued or reinvented,” said the Times.

De Blasio is proposing to rescue the hospitals through a new entity, a Brooklyn Health Authority, run jointly by the city and state, with the power to modernize hospital systems borough-wide, coordinate the spending of healthcare dollars and set higher standards of care.

A report released by de Blasio warns of “devastating consequences” if Interfaith Medical Center closes next month. Interfaith is Brooklyn’s largest private provider of psychiatric care, with 67,000 patients receiving out-patient care and 1,750 in-patient hospitalizations each year.

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According to de Blasio’s report, “Tearing the Safety Net,” losing those services would push remaining hospitals across Brooklyn to 107 percent capacity, and leave tens of thousands of Brooklyn psychiatric patients without care.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports that Interfaith has already sent layoff notices to its 1,544 employees. The hospital declared bankruptcy in December and announced August 1 that it was beginning the process of shutting down.

At the vigil over the weekend, de Blasio stated, “If LICH and Interfaith go down, a quarter of a million people will have to go much farther for their emergency care, when every minute makes a difference.”

Why is the AFL-CIO exploring new investments in alt-labor?

Protesters Live in a Tent City to Oppose Post Office Closure

Protesters outside a post office in Berkeley, California, on July 31, 2013. (Courtesy of Flickr)

For two weeks, protesters have been living in a tent city outside a post office in Berkeley, California. The participants are staging the sleep-in to save the post office from closing, one of many closures facing post offices all across the country.

The United States Postal Service last week reported a net loss of $740 million in the third quarter—hemorrhaging many conservative leaders claim bolsters their argument that the USPS is antiquated and post offices should be closed.

It makes sense that the postal service has proven to be a popular target for conservatives. The USPS is the second-largest employer in the United States (second only to Walmart), except the USPS is also home to one of the strongest unions in the country, employing over 574,000 members.

The USPS is also required, bizarrely, to fully fund future retirees’ health benefits, a tall order that has unsurprisingly contributed to the service’s going broke.

In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability Enhancement Act, which forced the USPS to fully fund future humans’ retiree health benefits for the next seventy-five years, and they had to do so within a ten-year window.

It was an impossible order, and now we’re witnessing the consequences of Congress’s actions.

In order to save money, USPS cut the hours of its employees, which further fueled criticism that post offices are frequently understaffed and wait times are too long. Many pundits (conservative and liberal) have joined in on the USPS-bashing because these people aren’t generally the ones using the Postal Service—instead opting for privatized (and more expensive) services like FedEx and UPS, or e-mail for many of their communications.

USPS reduced hours at 13,000 small rural post offices, and many larger urban offices have been relocated to inconveniently located annexes. In 2012, 237 post offices were discontinued, according to information released by the USPS. Many areas losing post offices are poor communities of color—a patterned deprivation of public services similar to school closings in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia.

Map of Post Offices Closed in 2012

In Berkeley, a group of around twenty people has been sleeping on the post office steps to protest its own corner of the world of privatization, and the activists were joined by 100 people who rallied outside the post office over the weekend to celebrate the resistance.

“We demand that the USPS reverse its decision to ‘relocate’ Berkeley’s Main Post Office and sell our Post Office building, and instead provide Post Office services in our Post Office building. We intend to defend our Post Office building and our right to Post Office services with our physical presence until this demand is met,” the group stated.

The Berkeley Post Office Defense added, “We need Post Office services,” and pointed out that the USPS was established by the US Constitution and, “they should be expanded and adapted, not diminished.” Additionally, “We support Post Office workers. Living wage jobs with benefits are necessary to our community.”

Senators Tom Carper (D-Del) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla) introduced their version of postal reform legislation in the form of the Postal Reform Act of 2013 earlier this month, but postal service advocates aren’t impressed.

Save the Post Office posted a statement on its website:

At this point, it looks as though the new legislation that comes out of a compromise between the House and Senate bills will go a long way toward reducing services to the average citizen: In a couple of years, you’ll be getting no delivery on Saturday, you’ll probably be getting your mail delivered in a less convenient way than you now enjoy, and the delivery time will continue to slow down. If your post office is still open, it will probably be operating part-time and there will probably be fewer windows in action.

While the new legislation may provide some relief to the Postal Service in terms of pension payments and funding of retiree health care benefits, the main goal seems to be giving postal management authorization to continue cutting services and slashing jobs. Every billion dollars in cuts means something like 8,000 to 10,000 jobs lost. Ending Saturday delivery and changing the mode of delivery for tens of millions of customers may save $5 or $6 billion, but it will also mean cutting 40,000 to 60,000 jobs. That’s no surprise. The Postal Service’s five-year plan calls for reducing the career workforce to 400,000 by 2017. A 100,000 more jobs remain to be cut.

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The sale of the Berkeley post office is being handled by CB Richard Ellis Group, which is chaired by Richard Blum, husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein and a regent for the University of California, another institution that has recently experienced a host of budget cuts. Some protesters believe the close relationship between Blum and Feinstein is evidence of a corrupt system.

Protester Ian Saxton told Berkeleyside he thinks Blum had used his “public power and private power” for his own personal gain and that the UC Berkeley system was to blame for the sale of the post office.

“Collective action is required,” The Berkeley Post Office Defense stated, “This is an affront to democracy.”

Mass protests against ALEC are bringing attention to the group that has historically worked under the radar.

Hunger Strikers Demand Access to Organ Transplants for Undocumented Immigrants

Picketers protest access to organ transplant procedures in Chicago on August 4, 2013. (Courtesy of MDCnonamecollective)

A group of about forty picketers, including fourteen people who were on their sixth day of a hunger strike, set up camp outside Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Sunday to demand access to organ transplant procedures for undocumented immigrants.

“We’re asking for help,” Blanca Gomez, 23, who needs a kidney transplant, told the Chicago Sun Times. “I go to dialysis three times a week. I’m not going off the hunger strike until I get on the transplant list.”

Gomez told the Sun Times she has lost four pounds and was surviving on water and Gatorade.

“Hospitals routinely deny life-saving patient care based on immigration status and inability to pay: in a profit-driven medical system, only certain lives are deemed to be worth saving,” the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign declared in a written statement, adding that the hunger strikers include patients and loved ones who “demand that hospitals place people on transplant lists based on need and not on immigration or insurance status.”

The group said fourteen undocumented Mexican immigrants who live in the Chicago area need either a liver or kidney transplant, but they can’t afford one because they are denied federal health care because they’re not citizens.

“On the one hand, the intent of the national transplant registry is to base transplants on who needs them most, but there are indeed a whole group of people who find themselves shut out,” Dr. David Asnell, chief medical officer at Rush University Medical Center, told the Sun Times. “And these are people who are uninsurable, and it creates an ethical dilemma of doing the right thing against the extreme cost of doing a transplant.”

Asnell also points out that many organs come from uninsured people, but other uninsured individuals rarely receive organ transplants.

“These are people who contribute to the community. The answer can’t be no access, but it’s going to require calling together all the transplant centers in the region, as well as politicians and members of the community to find an equitable solution,” Ansell said. “The other thing to note is that 20 percent of organs come from uninsured people, but around 1 percent of organs go to uninsured people who need them. These people donate the organs, but mostly don’t get access to them.”

Many elected officials support this system, including Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California. “They should not get any benefit from breaking the law, especially something as expensive as organ transplants or dialysis,” said Rohrabacher when asked about the reality that many undocumented immigrants’ organs are used in transplants. “If they’re dead, I don’t have an objection to their organs being used. If they’re alive, they shouldn’t be here no matter what.”

The hunger strikers see this system as immoral and unjust.

“If you’re not a citizen, you could still donate,” Osbeidy Rivera said to NBC Chicago, “but when it comes to people who don’t have documents, they don’t want to help them. It’s sad.”

Observers of the protest tweeted updates under the hashtag #LVhungerstrike and reported that hunger strikers and supporters plan to enter Northwestern Hospital this morning to deliver a letter. The group also encouraged supporters to call Northwestern and leave a voice mail for CEO Dean Harrison to ask him to meet with hunger strikers on Monday.

Protesters have been trying to meet with hospital representatives, but have thus far been rejected.

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“The response of the hospital was very cruel and insulting,” stated Father Jose Landaverde, one of the hunger strikers. “I was told that if we try to leave a letter for the hospital CEO, they will just throw it in the garbage. By denying care, and even refusing to speak with undocumented patients, the administration are responsible for the death of many people in our community” added Landaverde.

“I am becoming very weak, and the aggressive attitude of Northwestern Memorial Hospital administration was shocking,” said Gomez. “But our determination is stronger than ever to continue the hunger strike,” she added.

Maria Isabel Mariano, a patient in need of a liver transplant, has many of her family members on hunger strike on her behalf. She stated, “I am not asking for special treatment. I only want a fair chance to fight for my life.”

In Chicago, teachers are continuing to fight back against Rahm Emanuel’s austerity agenda.

Largest Fast Food Walkout Begins in Seven Cities

Reuters/Mike Blake

Starting today, workers in seven cities will begin the largest fast food worker mobilization in US history. Staff at chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Wendy’s will reportedly walk out in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City and Flint, Michigan.

Workers are calling on fast food restaurants to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Currently, the average pay in New York is $8.25 per hour and the minimum wage is $7.25.

“I might be doing the work of three people” due to under-staffing, McDonald’s employee Kareem Starks told Salon’s Josh Eidelson, “but still getting paid one wage.” Starks, a 30-year-old former Parks Department employee, said it’s “been hard trying to live off the minimum wage, $7.25, and support my two kids plus pay rent.”

Workers hope to draw attention to a range of issues from low wages to wage theft to McDonald’s recently released budget calculator that insulted and angered many employees struggling to survive on fast food wages.


Jonathan Westin, who directs New York’s Fast Food Forward campaign, told Salon he doubts that national TV outlets would have lingered on the budget story if workers hadn’t forced a debate about the industry by repeatedly going on strike. “The more and more workers continue to take action and continue to publicize their fight,” said Westin, “the more and more it starts to get at the fast food industry’s biggest asset, which is their name brand. And I think that’s what we’re beginning to see in a very real way.”

The action is being organized by Fast Food Forward, a movement of employees from fast food outliers in New York City focused on raising wages and increasing workers’ rights.

The group released the following statement:

In America, people who work hard should be able to afford basic necessities like groceries, rent, childcare and transportation. While fast food corporations reap the benefits of record profits, workers are barely getting by—many are forced to be on public assistance despite having a job. Raising pay for fast food workers will benefit workers and strengthen the overall economy.

The website says that the $11,000 average annual salary of fast food workers in New York compares to a $25,000 average daily salary of fast food firm chief executives.

Westin told New York radio station 1010 WINS that fast food workers are not paid a living wage despite having to raise families.

“A lot of the workers are living in poverty, you know, not being able to afford to put food on the table or take the train to work,” he said. “The workers are striking over the fact that they can’t continue to maintain their families on the wages they’re being paid in the fast food industry.”

The campaign to raise the minimum wage in New York City comes at a time of increasing poverty and public housing cuts.

A network of local community groups, clergy and unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are backing the strike.

“SEIU members, like all service-sector workers, are worse off when large fast-food and retail companies are able to hold down wages and push benefit standards for working people,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, told The Washington Post.

Robert Wilson Jr., 25, who works at a McDonald’s in downtown Chicago, told The Washington Post he makes $8.60 a hour after seven years on the job. He said a previous walkout in April earned workers some “small victories,” including more hours and small raises.

“I’m not really concerned about losing my job,” Wilson said. “If I don’t do anything, I am in a lose-lose situation. I can still get fired at any time.”

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Thus far, some of the country’s largest businesses have rejected the idea of raising wages. This month, Walmart threatened to freeze plans to build three stories in Washington and reevalute three stores already under construction after the DC Council passed a bill requiring large retailers to pay its workers a “living wage” of at least $12.50 an hour.

I know you’re tired of suffering,” KFC employee Naquasia LeGrand told fellow workers gathered with clergy and politicians at a rally last Wednesday announcing that New York City worker-activists had voted to strike this week. “I don’t want to see the next generation suffering and suffering. I don’t want my kids suffering. I want to make sure they have a better future than I do.” Looking out on a crowd of about 150 at the entrance to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, LeGrand added, “So if I want that to happen, I need you guys to stand with me just as long as I’m standing with you.”

Last week, California warehouse workers who move Walmart baggage went on strike, becoming the latest participants in a wave of Walmart supply chain strikes.

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