Labor in the Walmart economy.
Strikers from the Ronald Reagan Building. (Credit: GoodJobsNation.org)
Organizers tell The Nation that four food court outlets in a federal building initially refused to let employees return to work following a Tuesday strike, but relented following protests by supporters.
The four establishments—Subway, Bassett’s Original Turkey, Quick Pita and Kabuki Sushi—are located in the Ronald Reagan federal building, one of several Washington, DC, workplaces where employees with taxpayer-supported jobs went on strike as part of the Good Jobs Nation campaign, whose backers include the Service Employees International Union. As The Nation reported Tuesday, the strikers are demanding that President Obama take executive action to improve labor standards for workers who are employed by private companies to do jobs backed by public spending. According to organizers, the one-day strike involved hundreds of workers, and forced about half of the Reagan Building’s food court outlets to shut down at some point during the day. (The Reagan Building is owned by the federal government; many of its food outlets are franchisees of restaurant or fast food chains.)
Bassett’s employee Suyapa Moreno told The Nation in Spanish that three of her outlet’s four staff went on strike Tuesday, and that when they showed up to start their shift on Wednesday, “The owner told my co-worker she was fired. So I said, ‘If you’re going to fire her, I’m not coming back to work.’” She said her manager told them that “she didn’t want to see us again.” Moreno said she believes her co-worker was targeted because management saw her as the ringleader who convinced Moreno and a third Bassett’s worker to strike.
Moreno said the workers then waited at the food court until other workers, organizers and community supporters gathered to protest the terminations. According to the Good Jobs Nation campaign, about a hundred total supporters converged in the food court to protest ten total terminations by four outlets. Once there was a big enough group, said Moreno, “We went back to talk to the owner, and she accepted us back.” The Good Jobs Nation campaign told The Nation that managers or owners from Subway, Quick Pita and Kabuki Sushi also agreed to reverse the terminations once confronted by crowds of supporters.
The federal Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon regarding the allegations, or to The Nation’s prior inquiries this week regarding the Good Jobs Nation campaign. An employee who answered the phone at the Reagan Building Bassett’s Original Turkey location early Thursday evening said that no manager was on the property to comment. A call to the building’s Kabuki Sushi location went unanswered. The person who answered the phone at the building’s Subway location said he was too busy to comment; the Subway corporation did not immediately respond to an inquiry.
Reached on the Reagan Building Quick Pita location’s phone line, a person who identified himself as a manager there said that no strikers had been denied the chance to return to work, and charged that the campaign was making workers “victims for a bigger political agenda.” He declined to give his name, and said that he was not authorized to speak for the Quick Pita company or the franchisee’s owner.
The attempted terminations alleged by Good Jobs Nation could be violations of federal labor law. As I’ve noted previously, the law generally prohibits “firing” workers for striking, but often allows “permanently replacing” strikers by filling their positions during the strike and refusing to reinstate them. But strikes that the government finds to be motivated in part by prior labor law violations, as Good Jobs Nation says Tuesday’s was, receive greater legal protection; and striking for only one day may also provide a shield against “permanent replacement.”
However, labor advocates and activists have long charged that the National Labor Relations Board’s slow process and weak penalties do little to discourage companies from firing activists. In order to deter retaliation, organizers of recent fast food strikes have arranged for delegations of supporters, sometimes including local politicians and clergy, to accompany the strikers back to work the next day. As I reported for Salon in November, activists say that an indoor occupation and outdoor picket of a Wendy’s store led management to reverse the termination of one of the participants in New York’s first fast food strike. Organizers say the same approach worked yesterday in Washington.
“Before, when workers were treated badly or fired unjustly, nothing would happen,” said Moreno. “And so the bosses felt like they could keep doing it.” Following the strike and yesterday’s showdown, she said, “Now they treat us with a little more respect, because they’re afraid that if they keep doing what they’re doing, more of this will happen.”
Will “subcontracted” Missouri mineworkers get a fair deal? Read Laura Flanders’s report.
Workers rally in DC. (Credit: GoodJobsNation.com)
An update appears below.
Starting at 7:30 this morning, hundreds of non-union workers with taxpayer-supported jobs plan to go on strike in the nation’s capitol. Organizers expect the one-day walkout to include workers employed at Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Ronald Reagan buildings and Union Station, where tourists, lobbyists and members of Congress arrive by Amtrak train to Washington, DC. The strikers are part of a recently-unveiled organization, Good Jobs Nation, backed by labor and community groups. They’re demanding that President Obama take action to improve wages and working conditions for workers employed under federal contracts.
“The truth is, I’m ready. I’m not scared,” janitor Vilma Martinez told The Nation in Spanish last night. “Fear fades away, especially in the face of the unfair treatment we get here.” Martinez, who’s worked at Union Station for the past nineteen years, said that the federal contractor ICC Cleaning pays her $8.75 an hour. She said she’s supposed to get regular check-ups for a serious heart condition, but only sees a doctor when she goes back to El Salvador, because she’s uninsured.
Today’s strike follows the release last week of a report from the progressive think tank Demos estimating that at least 1,992,000 workers receive $12 per hour or less while doing jobs backed by public funds. “Through federal contracts and other funding,” authors Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith wrote, “our tax dollars are fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality.”
Traub and Hiltonsmith’s tally includes jobs funded or supported through direct federal contracts (560,000 jobs), Medicare or federal Medicaid spending (1,184,000 jobs), Small Business Administration loans, federal Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) spending, federal infrastructure funds or Public Buildings Service property leases. “This is more than the number of low-wage workers at Walmart and McDonalds combined,” write Traub and Hiltonsmith. At the other end of the pay scale, they note, the executives who employ these workers can legally be reimbursed by taxpayers for total compensation of up to $763,029 per year.
The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment on the study late Monday afternoon.
Good Jobs Nation is backed by organizations including the community organizing group OUR DC, the clergy group Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and the labor federation Change to Win. As The Nation has reported, Change to Win affiliates have also provided support for recent strikes by non-union workers worked employed in Walmart stores, in sub-contracted Walmart warehouses, on sub-contracted cleaning crews in Twin Cities Target stores and in fast food restaurants in five cities.
Strikers will converge for rallies at Union Station at 12:30 and 4:30 this afternoon. Members of Congress, including House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairs Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, are expected to host an “ad hoc hearing” at 3 pm regarding taxpayer-backed low-wage employment.
Demos notes that the executive branch has the authority, without going through Congress, to impose new rules for federal contracting. Two decades before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Franklin Roosevelt banned racial or religious discrimination by federal contractors. Early in his term, President Obama issued an executive order banning contractors from billing the government for “the costs of any activities undertaken to persuade employees” whether or not to exercise “the right to organize and bargain collectively.”
But, as I reported in an investigation for Salon last year, Obama’s order didn’t prevent the government contractor Serco from using government-rented office space, and government-provided equipment, for mandatory anti-union meetings. (A spokesperson for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency using Serco’s services in that case, told me that the government “will not be billed” for the time workers spent in the meetings, but that Serco was “permitted to use government facilities to communicate with its employees without obtaining government permission.”)
In September 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that the government had paid $6 billion in fiscal year 2009 federal contracts to contractors who had been cited for violations of federal labor laws. Seven months earlier, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration was planning to issue a “High Road Procurement Policy” that could “disqualify more companies with labor, environmental or other violations and give an edge to companies that offer better levels of pay, health coverage, pensions and other benefits” in securing federal contracts. But such a move never came to pass; the following year, Obama OMB appointee Heather Higginbottom said in her confirmation hearing that it was not currently under consideration (an administration official told Government Executive afterwards that OMB was “considering the views of Congress, the private sector, and others with respect to possible initiatives and no decision has been made”). Labor and LGBT activists have also called for the administration to use executive action to bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers; Obama so far has not done so.
Martinez told The Nation that if she could talk to the president, “I would ask him to help us get a decent salary, and respect on the job, and health insurance, so we don’t have to go back to our countries to get treated.” “With the help of God, and the help of my co-workers,” she said, “I’m hopeful that at the end of the day we’ll be triumphant.”
Update (1:15 PM Tuesday): According to the Good Jobs Nation campaign, hundreds of workers are now on strike, forcing the shutdown of "about half" of the Reagan's building's food court outlets, and of the McDonald's located at the Air and Space Museum. In an e-mailed statement, one of that store's employees, Ana Salvador, said, "The company I work for makes big profits thanks to taxpayers. It's not right that I work hard every day to serve the public, and I have to choose between taking the Metro to work and paying the electric bill."
The federal Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a Tuesday morning request for comment on the strikes.
Last week, teachers voted to keep the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators at the helm of the Chicago Teachers Union. Read Micah Uetricht’s report.
New York City fast food workers rally at a one-day strike on April 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
An update, with comment from the New York Attorney General’s office, appears below.
At an 11 am press conference outside a Brooklyn KFC restaurant, fast food workers and activists will release a new report alleging rampant wage theft in their industry, one of the fastest-growing in the United States. The report includes results from an Anzalone Liszt Grove research survey of 500 of the city’s fast food workers, in which 84 percent reported that their employer had committed some form of wage theft over the previous year.
Today’s press conference follows strikes by fast food workers in five major cities within six weeks, all demanding raises to $15 an hour and the chance to form unions without intimidation. The report, “New York’s Hidden Crime Wave: Wage Theft and NYC’s Fast Food Workers,” is being published by Fast Food Forward, the campaign behind the strikes in New York. It lands on the same day as a New York Times article reporting that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman “is investigating whether the owners of several fast-food restaurants and a fast-food parent corporation have cheated their workers out of wages, according to a person familiar with the cases.”
Reached by e-mail, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association told The Nation, “We fully support compliance with all state and federal wage and employment laws.” The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Wage theft” is a term popularized by activists and advocates over the past decade to describe a wide range of ways in which companies fail to pay employees the wages they’re legally owed. The Fast Food Forward report identifies several types of violations as prevalent in the city’s fast food industry: employees working, without pay, before or after their shift; employees working overtime without being paid time-and-a-half; employees working during their breaks or not receiving breaks; and delivery employees not being reimbursed for expenses like gasoline or safety equipment.
The report quotes McDonald’s worker Elizabeth Rene, who says she loses up to $75 a month because she isn’t paid for the time she spends counting the register before and after her shift: “I feel cheated and used and like I’m not appreciated for my hard work.”A 2008 study by the National Employment Law Project estimated that the average low-wage worker loses 15 percent of his or her annual income to wage theft.
Asked about wage theft allegations, a Domino’s spokesperson told The New York Times’s Julie Turkewitz, “If anybody is paying below minimum wage or using the tipped wage credit, that would probably be independent franchisees in our system. And I can’t really speak to that.” The authors of today’s report reject such arguments. “Because the corporations design, maintain, monitor and profit from the fast food delivery system,” they write, “they should be the focus of regulatory and political action to eradicate wage theft up and down the fast food chain.”
As I’ve reported, recent years have seen a rise in labor activism around wage theft, often backed by unions or “alt-labor” groups organizing non-union workers in the workplace and in local politics. In 2010, New York passed a statewide anti–wage theft law that the Progressive States Network described as the strongest in the country. In January, the Chicago City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that threatens offending companies with the loss of their business licenses. In other cases, forcing unwanted legal, political or media scrutiny on alleged wage theft by a company has proven a potent weapon in labor groups’ “comprehensive campaigns” to force concessions from management. The release of today’s report could represent an additional front in campaigns by Fast Food Forward, and parallel groups elsewhere, to transform jobs that are increasingly representative of work in the modern United States.
Update (12:15 pm Thursday): The New York Attorney General’s office has confirmed to The Nation that it issued subpoenas to a fast food parent corporation, and is investigating several New York State franchisees (the AG’s office declined to name the corporation). Schneiderman’s office is exploring potential legal violations including sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid work, false payroll records, overtime without time-and-a-half pay, work expenses that weren’t fully reimbursed and paychecks that bounced.
In an e-mailed statement, Schneiderman spokesperson Damien LaVera called the Fast Food Forward report’s findings “deeply troubling,” and said they “shed light on potentially broad labor violations by the fast food industry.” “We take the allegations seriously,” said LaVera, “which is why our office is investigating fast food franchisees. New Yorkers expect companies doing business in our state to follow laws set up to protect working families.” LaVera urged workers who have experienced wage theft by fast food companies to contact the attorney general’s office.
Across the country, domestic workers are left unprotected from labor law. Read what you can do to help.
Two updates, including the filing of Unfair Labor Practice charges yesterday against companies, appear below.
Hundreds of Milwaukee workers plan to walk off the job starting at 6 Central Time this morning, launching the nation’s fifth fast food workers’ strike in six weeks. Today’s work stoppage follows strikes in St. Louis and Detroit last week, and in New York and Chicago last month. In each case, workers are demanding a raise to $15 per hour, and the right to form a union without intimidation.
“I’m so amped up and ready,” Milwaukee McDonald’s employee Stephanie Sanders told The Nation last night. Sanders, a 33-year-old who recently returning to working at McDonald’s following a stretch in retail, said that she would be striking “basically to help my generation out, and the next generation to follow.” Along with low wages and the lack of job security, Sanders said she wanted to do something about punitive management: “Just because you have on a blue shirt doesn’t mean you’re better than me.”
As I’ve reported, these recent work stoppages share several common characteristics: Each is a one-day strike by fast food workers, backed by a coalition of unions and community groups, targeting major companies throughout the industry and mobilizing a minority of the workforce in hopes of building broader support. While different local organizations have been involved in each city’s actions, the Service Employees International Union has played a significant role in all of them.
The campaign expects today’s strikes to involve workers from fast food chains including McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell. Like Chicago’s, the Milwaukee strike involves retail as well as fast food: workers from companies including TJ Maxx, Dollar Tree and Footaction plan to strike. Both industries are increasingly prevalent in—and representative of—the US economy, and both are overwhelmingly non-union.
Jennifer Epps-Addison, the economic justice director for Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said that a victory for the Raise Up MKE campaign would have broad implications for Milwaukee: “We know that if we were to raise the wages of those workers, it would mean not only economic security for their families, but economic security for a city that’s been devastated by de-industrialization, devastated by a jobless rate for African-American men of over 55 percent.”
Reached for comment during last Friday’s strike in Detroit, a McDonald’s spokesperson sent a statement touting “competitive wages” “access to flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits” and “training and professional development opportunities” for McDonald’s workers. “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants,” said the statement. The company did not respond to a follow-up inquiry regarding the strikers’ demands, or whether they could face punishment for walking off the job.
The spread of the fast food strikes, and of strikes by non-union workers in the Walmart supply chain, comes amid a multi-decade decline in US strikes, fueled in part by legal and economic changes that have made them more risky and less effective. According to the campaigns, recent fast food strikers have so far generally not been punished for it, a result that some activists chalk up to community pressure and media scrutiny rather than to legal protection. Sanders said that, while she initially worried that management would retaliate against her if she struck, organizers “told me that we have the legal right to at least take one day” over their grievances.
How great is the risk? Under US law, it’s generally illegal to “fire” workers for going on strike, but legal to “permanently replace” them—effectively terminating them by refusing to let them come back to work following the strike. Prior to striking, fast food workers in other cities have filed “Unfair Labor Practice” charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging law-breaking by management, which potentially protects them from being “permanently replaced.” Epps-Addison said last night that such charges so far had not been filed in Milwaukee (see update below). But the one-day duration of the strikes does reduce the risk: Interviewed last October, former NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said that a company generally would not have legal grounds to “permanently replace” strikers who had already pledged to return to work the next day.
However, pro-labor activists and academics have long argued that the lengthy process for pursuing claims of retaliation, and the limited penalties available, make the law a very weak deterrent against union-busting. Unions have recently accused Republicans who blocked Obama NLRB appointees, and judges who threw out NLRB actions, of further compromising labor law enforcement. (On a Tuesday media call, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the DC Circuit “a circuit court gone wild.”)
When a New York City Wendy’s worker was initially denied the chance to return to work following the first of the fast food strikes, rather than filing charges with the government, local, political and religious leaders occupied and picketed the store until management relented and returned her to work. Epps-Addison said that she and other Milwaukee activists are similarly ready to take direct action if any companies crack down on strikers: “I’ve committed myself to going to that store, and sitting down in that store, and refusing to leave until the workers are protected.” Sanders predicted that McDonald’s would not retaliate, because “I don’t think they want the repercussions of what may happen” if they did.
Sanders said that her own commitment to the fight was deepened last month, when she traveled to Chicago to support that city’s strike. “It was awesome,” she told The Nation. “It was just like everybody coming together united as one…. And that’s what really put me in the ‘Yes, I will do it’ mode…. It was just so wonderful.”
Update (9:50 am EST Wednesday): In a follow-up message Wednesday morning, the campaign told The Nation that a slew of Unfair Labor Practice charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board yesterday alleging violations of labor law by management.
Update (1 pm EST Wednesday): According to the campaign, close to 200 workers are expected to strike by the end of today. Strikers and supporters will converge for a rally at 5 pm Central Time this evening.
Burger King declined a request for comment on today’s strike. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, TJ Maxx, Dollar Tree, and Footaction did not immediately respond to inquiries this morning.
In an e-mailed statement, Old Country Buffet employee Javon Walker said, “Jobs that pay fifteen dollars an hour can save lives in Milwaukee. Too many people—youth especially—turn to crime because they don’t make enough to make ends meet. Good paying jobs will change lives in this city for the better.”
This month, Occupy Wall Street offshoots have experienced a cross-country resurgence. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report.
Four updates appear below.
Hundreds of Detroit fast food workers plan to walk off the job beginning at 6 am today, making the motor city the fourth in five weeks to see such strikes. Organizers expect participants from at least sixty stores, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Little Caesar’s, and Popeye’s locations. Like this week’s strike in St. Louis, and last month’s in New York and Chicago, today’s work stoppage is backed by a local coalition including the Service Employees International Union, and the participants are demanding a raise to $15 an hour and the chance to form a union without intimidation.
Organizers say that over a hundred workers joined the St. Louis strike between Wednesday and Thursday. That included a group of Jimmy John’s workers who alleged that management humiliated them by requiring them to hold up signs in public with messages including “I made 3 wrong sandwiches today” and “I was more than 13 seconds in the drive thru.” “Sometimes I walk for more than an hour just to save my train fare so I can spend it on Ramen noodles,” St. Louis Chipotle worker Patrick Leeper said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. “I can’t even think about groceries.”
A spokesperson for Jimmy John’s declined to comment on Thursday’s strike. McDonald’s did not respond to a Tuesday inquiry about the fast food campaign; Wendy’s did not respond to an inquiry last night.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the fate of the fast food strike wave carries far-reaching implications: Fast food jobs are a growing portion of our economy, and fast food–like conditions are proliferating in other sectors as well. Organizers say the fast food industry now employs twice as many Detroit-area workers as the city’s iconic auto industry. These strikes also come at a moment of existential crisis for the labor movement, a sobering reality that was brought into sharp relief in December when Michigan, arguably the birthplace of modern US private sector unionism, became the country’s latest “right to work” state.
Along with a shared significant supporter—SEIU—the campaigns in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit have apparent strategies in common. Rather than waiting until they’ve built support from a majority of a store’s or company’s workers, they stage actions by a minority of the workforce designed to inspire their co-workers. Rather than publicly identifying the campaign and its organizers with a single international union, these union-funded efforts turn to allied community groups to spearhead organizing. Rather than training all their resources on a single company, they organize against all of the industry’s players at once. And—faced with legal and economic assaults that have weakened the strike weapon—these campaigns mount one-day work stoppages that are carefully tailored to maximize attention and minimize, but not eliminate, the risk that workers will lose their jobs.
Whether these strategies can ever compel a fast food giant to negotiate with its employees remains to be seen.
“After what I would consider well over three decades of wage suppression, workers in this particular industry—and then I think it’ll go to others—are realizing that their only way up the wage ladder is through their own organizations,” CUNY labor studies lecturer Ed Ott said Wednesday. Ott, a board member of the community organizing group that spearheaded the New York fast food strike, added, “The only way these workers are going to be able to advance these jobs is through unionization. And I think that idea has finally gotten traction.”
Update (9:15 am Friday): According to the campaign, a walkout by twenty workers at Detroit’s 10400 Gratiot Avenue McDonald’s prevented the store from operating. Some workers brought in as strikebreakers to replace those striking workers chose to join the strike instead.
Organizers say that by day’s end, today’s strike could be the largest fast food work stoppage yet, topping last month’s 400-strong strike in New York.
Update (11:50 am): Along with the Gratiot Avenue McDonald’s, organizers say that strikes shut down at least three others stores: a McDonald’s on Van Dyke; a Long John Silver’s on 8 Mile; and a Popeye’s on Grand River, where strikers were joined by US Congressman John Conyers. Strikers plan to converge for rallies at 1 and 4 this afternoon.
McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chipotle, and Long John Silver’s did not immediately respond to requests for comment this morning.
Update (2:05 pm Friday): The campaign now says there are over 400 workers on strike in Detroit, making today’s action the largest fast food strike in US history. That figure includes workers who woke up today planning to work and then changed their mind; at one McDonald’s store, the campaign says eight workers decided at the last minute to join the strike after watching four of their co-workers walk off the job.
In an e-mailed statement, McDonald’s worker Nathaniel Gaines said that after management called him into work early to break the strike, he decided upon arrival to join the work stoppage instead. “I am constantly training new workers, while working the grill at the same time, all at minimum wage,” said Gaines. “Management always changes my hours, so I never have a consistent paycheck…The strike made me feel empowered to do the right thing for myself and my son.”
Update (3:30 pm Friday): In an e-mailed statement, McDonald’s said, “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants. The majority of McDonald’s restaurants across the country are owned and operated by independent business men and women where employees are paid competitive wages, and have access to flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits.” The statement, which also touts “training and professional development opportunities” for workers who want to advance to management, is the same one provided by the company regarding protests in New York and Chicago last month. A McDonald’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to The Nation’s follow-up inquiry regarding the company’s stance on the strikers’ demands; whether management would meet with the striking workers; and whether any strikers would be punished or “permanently replaced.”
For more on this week’s strike in St. Louis, read Annie Shields’s report.
OUR Walmart members speak with Karen Casey, Walmart's Head of Labor Relations, June 16, 2011. (Flickr/OUR Walmart)
Following a five-day organizing training and strategy summit in Birmingham, members of the labor group OUR Walmart will announce a plan to send civil rights movement–style caravans of workers from around country to converge at the retail giant’s June 7 annual shareholder meeting.
Walmart workers active in OUR Walmart, a non-union organization backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers union, plan to make the announcement on a video live-stream from Birmingham at 4 pm Central Time today. Several days before the shareholder gathering, caravans will leave from several cities around the country, stopping along the way to pick up workers and supporters, and to meet with community activists. OUR Walmart’s plans for the next month also include confrontations between Walmart employees and members of the company’s board of directors.
Los Angeles Walmart worker Tsehai Almaz told The Nation that after visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and meeting with local clergy, she and other OUR Walmart leaders were inspired to follow the example of the 1961 freedom riders. “I feel like we’re facing many of the same issues,” said Almaz, “even though it’s not necessarily about race—this time it’s about respect. And being able to feed our families, and having good working conditions.” Almaz, a support manager who’s worked for the company for about a year, said that she was driven to join the campaign after she and several co-workers were needlessly injured in a rash of workplace accidents in her store.
OUR Walmart activists were also present at the company’s 2012 shareholder meeting. At that gathering, Walmart workers brought a petition urging the resignation of the company’s CEO and board chair, and read a shareholder resolution from the floor calling for restrictions on executive pay. Since then, Walmart retail workers followed guest workers at a Walmart shrimp supplier, and sub-contracted Walmart warehouse workers, in walking off the job—the first coordinated Walmart retail strikes within the United States.
As The Nation has reported, the current campaign has outpaced past efforts by taking advantage of vulnerabilities in Walmart’s supply chain, developing worker leadership through local shop floor showdowns, and mounting carefully crafted work stoppages designed to engage more workers, while dodging the obstacles facing modern US strikes. Still, OUR Walmart activists remain a small minority: their most significant action so far—a Black Friday strike by some 400 workers—mobilized less than one of every 1,000 direct US Walmart employees.
Today’s announcement will follow a battery of workplace delegations by Walmart employees on April 24. Organizers say workers in dozens of stores went in groups to confront local managers over erratic and insufficient working hours; the campaign said it does not yet have a count of how many workers participated in all. In a January address to the National Retail Federation, Walmart US CEO Bill Simon announced plans to improve scheduling, a long-time grievance of OUR Walmart. Worker activists claimed that announcement as a sign of momentum for their campaign, but said prior to the delegations that they’re yet to see signs of any new policy being put into action.
Asked Friday about OUR Walmart and its allegations regarding wages and scheduling, a Walmart spokesperson referred The Nation to a statement released the same day as the delegations, touting a pilot program to improve scheduling in Denver and in Fort Smith, Arkansas. According to Walmart, the program began there on February 1, will spread in July and will reach all of the company’s US stores by the end of October. A spokesperson called this “a program to provide associates greater visibility into available shifts across their store, giving them the ability to choose more hours for themselves and expand their career path.”
Historian Nelson Lichtenstein, author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, expressed doubt that OUR Walmart could force Walmart to sit across the table from its employees: “They aren’t going to say, OK let’s sit down. We know that.” However, he said, sufficient sustained pressure could establish de facto “arms-length negotiations” in which OUR Walmart members made public demands, and Walmart, without crediting the critics, made concessions in order to tamp down discontent.
Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, said that the OUR Walmart campaign so far appears “pretty staff-driven,” and that he doubts it has developed the “kind of self-sustained, internally generated organizing momentum” that would be necessary for actions to spread to thousands of employees. But Lichtenstein said that given the risk of retaliation, the willingness of activist workers to collectively and publicly make demands of the company is a “breakthrough” which will inspire others to follow. “It opens up the sense of democratic discourse,” said Lichtenstein, “in a company that really does have an authoritarian culture.”
There may be precedent for protests changing Walmart’s employment practices. As Matt Stoller reported in Octobor, recently released 2006 Federal Reserve Open Market Committee transcripts show then–St. Louis Fed President William Poole informing his colleagues that a contact at Walmart had told him that the company was raising wages in part “because of all the controversy about Wal-Mart.” Poole’s comments suggest that the union-backed campaigns against Walmart of the mid-2000’s, which fell far short of the current effort in terms of mobilizing actual Walmart workers, may have embarrassed the company enough to shake loose some cash. But no campaign to date has yet compelled the company to cede power to its employees.
“It’s time for this generation basically to accept the baton and continue the movement,” said Almaz. “Because it didn’t end in the ’60’s. That just started the movement—it’s continuing with how Walmart is treating its associates.” “I think now is the time to make a change,” he added, “before we don’t have anything left to fight for.”
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A Walmart worker on strike, October 4, 2012. (Flickr/Matt Hamilton)
On Wednesday, workers in at least 150 Walmart stores plan to confront local managers with demands for change in the retail giant’s scheduling system.
Scheduling issues have been a recurring focus for the union-backed retail workers group OUR Walmart since its founding. Workers have charged that insufficient and erratic work schedules consign them to poverty, wreak havoc on their personal lives and shortchange customer service. At an October forum, backroom receiving associate Lori Amos said that because of understaffing at her Washington State store, 2,000 pounds of Halloween candy didn’t make it onto the shelves until it had expired and changed color.
At a January address to the National Retail Federation, Walmart US President Bill Simon announced that the company was “working on clarifying the opportunities that we offer,” and would act to “bring more transparency into our scheduling system,” and “make sure that part-time associates have full visibility” for full-time openings. Three months later, OUR Walmart charges that the situation hasn’t improved. “I haven’t seen any associates that were part-time, that were requesting more hours, getting more hours,” Lancaster, Texas, worker activist Colby Harris told The Nation. Rather, he said, his store has been increasing its use of temps, and “I’ve actually seen associates get less hours.” Walmart did not respond to a Monday morning request for comment.
If organizers’ estimates hold, Wednesday’s coordinated worker delegations will represent the largest mobilization of OUR Walmart members since last November’s Black Friday strikes, in which organizers say some 400 workers walked off the job. In some stores, workers will go together to talk to management before or after their shifts; in others, workers will do so during the work day. (Federal law generally protects the right of workers to engage in such “protected concerted activity” when aimed at improving working conditions.) While the delegations’ shared date and message may amplify attention, their greatest significance will be as the latest test of rank-and-file OUR Walmart leaders’ ability to mobilize co-workers amid fear of retaliation.
Tomorrow’s planned action echoes the store-by-store skirmishes with local Walmart managers in 2011 and 2012 that developed worker leaders, distinguished the OUR Walmart campaign from recent failed efforts and laid the groundwork for last year’s strikes. The number of new leaders who pull off delegations Wednesday, and the number of newly-mobilized co-workers who join them, will offer some sense of the campaign’s progress towards building a mass movement within Walmart’s 1.4 million-strong US retail workforce. Wednesday’s delegations will follow protests last week over conditions in Walmart’s global supply chain, and the submission today of a new round of internal ethics complaints regarding alleged bribery in Mexico and elsewhere.
“The morale of the associates is down because they don’t feel like they have a career,” said Harris. “Just the increase of hours alone would cause people to feel like they’re worth something.”
Update (10:40 am Wednesday): Organizers say that delegations are taking place at over 150 stores. While Walmart workers around the country confront managers over scheduling, retail workers in Chicago are joining fast food workers in a one-day strike, the latest in a wave of low-wage, non-union work stoppages that began in the Walmart supply chain last year.
In an e-mailed statement, Paramount, California OUR Walmart activist Maria Elena Jefferson said, “Even after five years at the company, I’m not getting the hours I need and want. Even if I wanted to get a second job or go back to school, I couldn’t because Walmart constantly changes my schedule. I’m dedicated to my job and I have years of experience—I want to work full time so that the work gets done well.”
From the Bronx to Brooklyn, New York’s low-wage workers are rising. Read Lizzy Ratner’s report.
The Tazreen Fashions garment factory, where 112 workers died in a devastating fire on November 30, 2012. (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)
Survivors of a factory fire in Bangladesh and an armed assault in Nicaragua both called this week for Walmart to crack down on abuses in its global supply chain. Former garment worker Sumi Abedin, who jumped from a third story window to escape Bangladesh’s Tazreen factory, will lead a mock “funeral procession” tonight to the New York City home of Walmart board member Michele Burns. Tomorrow, students and other supporters will converge on the New York and Los Angeles offices of SAE-A, a Walmart contractor accused of fomenting violence against union activists.
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on either case.
Stabbings and Beatings in Nicaragua
“We’re making their clothes, the clothes they’re going to sell,” fired Nicaraguan factory worker Darwing Lopez-Alanez told The Nation in Spanish. “And so they have a role in what goes on inside there.” Lopez-Alanez, the secretary-general of a new union seeking recognition, was one of fifteen union leaders fired at two factories owned and operated by SAE-A, an apparel company based in South Korea.
In a March memo to Walmart and other US brands, the labor monitoring group Workers Rights Consortium wrote that its preliminary investigation “finds that SAE-A brutally violated these workers’ associational rights by directing and paying a mob of more than 300 other workers—while on paid company time—to attack these employees with scissors and metal pipes.”
Lopez-Alanez said that he began organizing with his co-workers in hopes of confronting excessive workload and mistreatment by management. “I had seen it all,” he told The Nation. Because the recognized union in the factory always sided with management, said Lopez-Alanez, he and a group of co-workers began trying to organize a new one.
On March 4, the conflict turned violent. Lopez-Alanez and other fired workers showed up with leaflets outside his factory at 5 AM. “We planned a peaceful protest,” he said. An hour later, as some workers arrived at the factory, Lopez-Alanez and his comrades struck up conversations with them, “telling them that we needed to defend our rights, talking about the mistreatment at the factory that we were working in, the terrible conditions, that everything only seemed OK when a representative from one of the brands came.”
While the fired workers protested outside, witnesses later told the WRC, SAE-A management met with workers inside the factory and promised them bonuses and free food if they would break up the rally. Lopez-Alanez said he heard from co-workers that they were also warned that if the union campaign took hold, all of them could lose their jobs. According to Lopez-Alanez, as hundreds of those workers came back out of the factory, one of the fired workers reiterated over a bullhorn that the protest was peaceful. But “then this group came towards us and started beating us. The private security told us to stop making noise.” “I was scared,” said Lopez-Alanez, who came to the rally with his wife, a fellow fired union activist. “They fractured my leg with a pipe.”
With support from Warehouse Workers United, a project of the US union federation Change to Win, SAE-A union activists are demanding Walmart get the contractor to reinstate the fired workers and bargain with the new unions. In a Wednesday e-mail, WRC Executive Director Scott Nova told The Nation that while Walmart had not addressed his group’s letter, SAE-A “has responded and has provided information we have requested as part of our ongoing investigation.” Nova added, “We hope they will be willing to take action to address the problems at the factory.”
“What they want is to intimidate us so we don’t keep up the struggle,” said Lopez-Alanez. “A union that fought for the rights of the workers, they’re worried that would affect their profits.”
The SAE-A showdown comes as Walmart faces increased scrutiny over conditions in its domestic and international supply chains. In a November interview with The Nation, following the deaths of 112 workers in a Bangladesh factory, the WRC’s Nova accused Walmart of “setting up these contracting regimes in which you can get individual, poorly regulated businesses to compete viciously with each other for your business” by forcing down labor costs. “And then you let them go out and find new and creative ways to fuck workers and break the law,” he said. “And then you distance yourself from it, and say, ‘Oh this is so terrible…if you get caught. And of course in most cases, you don’t get caught.”
Fire Safety Deal Rebuffed in Bangladesh
On Monday, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that, unlike some brands, Walmart and Sears “didn’t respond to an invitation” to attend a meeting regarding compensation for the victims of November’s deadly factory fire at Bangladesh’s Tazreen Factory. Interviewed yesterday (in Bangla), Tazreen survivor Sumi Abedin charged that by blowing off the meeting, “Walmart has insulted all those workers who died in this fire and who were injured, as well as survivors…. By not participating in this meeting, ultimately they are supporting their death.”
As The Nation has reported, the factory was producing Walmart apparel at the time of the fire; the company has blamed this on a rogue supplier. In December, Bloomberg and The New York Times reported that Walmart shot down a plan proposed in 2011 under which major brands would have paid for the costs of safety improvements in the Bangladesh factories producing their products. In a statement e-mailed to Bloomberg, a Walmart spokesperson said that the company “has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers.”
Abedin told The Nation that prior to the November fire, “many times we complained to the factory manager and said that it was unsafe. But he would always reply, ‘There will be no accident. If there is an accident, I will manage it.’”
When the November fire broke out, Abedin was working on the factory’s fourth floor. When a co-worker smelled smoke and she and some co-workers first tried to escape, said Abedin, managers “shouted at us, ‘There is no fire. This is a lie. Go and work.’” Five minutes later, when the smell had grown stronger, Abedin ran to a door but it was padlocked shut. “I was crying and running around the floors,” she said. Abedin took a different stairway down to the second floor, but found fire blocking any exit there. “Meanwhile,” she said, “power had gone out, and it was dark.” Following co-workers who were lighting the way with a cell phone, she made it back up to the third floor. “I saw many workers fallen in the production area,” she said, “and they had suffocated, and I was crying.”
A few workers forced open a window, and Abedin jumped out. “I jumped not to save my life,” she said. “I jumped to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”
Abedin said she woke up outside with a broken leg and a broken arm. When she turned to help the co-worker who had jumped just before her, he was dead. A doctor has told her not to return to work for a year. “I lost many of my co-workers and friends,” Abedin told The Nation.
“Walmart has a lot of responsibility,” Abedin said. “They knew about these working conditions.” Kalpona Akter, a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity who’s traveling the United States with Abedin, said that Bangladesh is attractive to Walmart in part because of the brutal suppression of union organizing efforts in the country. “Whenever workers try to organize themselves, they’ve been threatened, beaten and falsely [criminally] charged, and Walmart knew that,” Akter told The Nation. “Me and my colleagues have been charged for nine different criminal charges, and four of them have been filed by Walmart-sourcing factories. And Walmart knew that.”
The International Labor Rights Forum, one of the groups coordinating Abedin and Akter’s US visit, has joined BCWS in calling for Walmart to join two corporations which have signed a fire safety memorandum of understanding that would require them—once at least four companies have signed on—to pay for the costs of safety improvements in the Bangladesh factories where their apparel is made, and to support protections for union organizing there. Bloomberg reported that Walmart will donate $1.6 million “to establish an entity called the Environment, Health and Safety Academy in Bangladesh.” ILRF Executive Director Judy Gearhart told The Nation that Walmart’s donation isn’t good enough: “They want to dedicate $1.6 million to training as opposed to really accepting full accountability for the workers in their supply chain.”
Organizing Across the Supply Chain
Abedin and Akter’s trip included a stop in Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, hometown last week, where they unsuccessfully sought meetings with Walmart executives at company headquarters and at the home of one of its vice presidents. The Bangladeshi activists have also been targeting other brands that have sourced goods from factories where workers died in fires; yesterday they were escorted out of a Gap location in New York’s Herald Square.
Prior to the mock funeral procession, this evening Abedin will join a panel of Walmart supply chain workers, including an employee of a New Jersey pharmaceutical supplier. Last week, she gathered in Southern California with worker activists from Walmart US distribution centers and the now-suspended seafood supplier CJ’s Seafood. At that meeting, workers released a set of “Core Principles” for Walmart supply chain reform, including a fire safety agreement in Bangladesh; stronger immigrant organizing rights protections in the US; and warehouse standards “that are enforceable, credible, and involve workers in a meaningful way.”
Ana Rosa Diaz, one of eight immigrant guest workers to strike last year over alleged forced labor at CJ’s, told The Nation in Spanish that she saw unity throughout the supply chain at a key step in challenging the Walmart business model. “Hopefully,” said Diaz, “other workers who work in these conditions feel motivated that they are not alone, and that they should come forward and be part of this effort.”
BCWS’ Akter said that meeting other Walmart supply chain workers had been eye-opening. “I knew that Walmart doesn’t care” about the rights of “workers that they’re sourcing from,” she told The Nation. But “I thought the workers that work in their stores, they’d be treating well, maybe paying well. But that really surprised me, to know that they are just on the bottom…. They are the same everywhere.”
What happened to working class New York? Read Joshua Freeman's take in The Nation's special New York issue.
Demonstrators from MoveOn.org and Working America picket against federal budget cuts outside John Boehner's office in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
The country’s largest non-union workers’ group will soon announce plans to establish chapters in every state, achieve financial self-sufficiency and extend its organizing—so far focused on politics and policy—directly into the workplace.
“This organization has done really what nobody else thought could be done,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told The Nation, “and that’s recruit more than three million people without a union to be part of the labor movement.”
That organization is Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for workers without a union on the job. Created ten years ago, it now claims 3.2 million members—more than any of the individual unions in the AFL-CIO, or any of the other “alt-labor” groups organizing and mobilizing non-union workers in the United States. “We’re taking the momentum that we’ve built organizing workers in communities,” said Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum, “and beginning to organize a community in the workplace.”
As I reported in The Nation’s October 29, 2012, issue, Working America’s past efforts have taken place outside of work. Paid canvassers go door-to-door in what the group calls “working class moderate” neighborhoods, starting conversations about economic issues and asking people to join the organization (according to Trumka, two out of three people sign up by the end of the conversation). During election season, organizers come back to persuade and mobilize these members to vote for endorsed candidates, touting their stances on issues like outsourcing (they explicitly avoid discussing so-called “social issues”). Year-round, Working America supports union-backed campaigns on issues like supporting paid sick leave or opposing liquor store privatization; members write letters, lobby politicians and join rallies.
Nussbaum told The Nation that, following the group’s success in mobilizing workers who haven’t been reached by unions or other progressive organizations, “it was the local labor leaders who came to us last August and said, ‘We need you in every state.’” The organization plans to double its number of state chapters over the next three years, to twenty-four, and to create chapters in the rest of the fifty states by 2018. Working America’s most recent new chapters are in Texas and North Carolina, both Southern states with even lower unionization rates than the country as a whole.
Nussbaum, Working America’s architect since its founding, said she expects the expansion to require at least one staffer in each state. Given the expense of maintaining full-time, year-round canvassing teams, she said the group is “building on the base that we have and turning that into a more flexible, vibrant organization” that can “build out in a lot of different ways, meeting the immediate needs of whoever our partners are.” Nussbaum noted that Working America staff now include online organizers, who push members to take actions ranging from calling legislators to sharing “I support the minimum wage” on Facebook. But “at the end of the day,” she said, “we still think that face-to-face, one-on-one communication, that makes the difference in bringing new people into our movement.”
The AFL-CIO’s investment in Working America is born out of a crisis for organized labor. Union leaders and supporters argue that the limits of labor law, the rise of union-busting and the prevalence of retaliation have made it a near-impossible task for many private sector workers to win collective bargaining rights and a union contract. Given the ongoing decline in US unionization, and the repeated failure of union-backed labor law reform efforts, the AFL-CIO and major US unions have increasingly been studying, supporting and partnering with non-union labor groups, whose numbers have exploded over the past two decades—from handfuls to hundreds, according to a tally by Rutgers labor expert Janice Fine.
“We want to figure out a way to make membership more open, to make membership in a union not depend on workers being willing to endure trial by fire in an election or extended pitched battle with the employer for voluntary recognition,” AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker told The Nation earlier this month. “Now that might not immediately lead to collective bargaining, but in some broader sense it should.” Becker, who served as a member of the National Labor Relations Board during President Obama’s first term, has been tasked by Trumka with overseeing a comprehensive overview of labor’s current predicament in the run-up to the AFL-CIO’s September convention.
While expanding to new states, Working America plans to enter the workplace. Following a series of local pilot programs and a membership survey, early next month the group will launch a new website, "Fix My Job," where workers can share complaints about their workplaces and get ideas for collective action. “We’re building the capacity to give workers the tools they need to just get in motion,” said Nussbaum, “whether it’s five people who want Twizzlers in the candy machine, [or] people who want higher pay.” Nussbaum declined to specify what forms of workplace activism the site will support.
Trumka expressed hope that the political activism and sense of community shared by Working America members would prepare them to take up action where they work, which in turn would lay the groundwork for ongoing organizing—including unionization efforts. The AFL-CIO president predicted that non-union workers’ efforts would secure improvements in areas like workplace safety, and that “in some cases it won’t get completely done, and they’ll reach out for different forms of organization that they think can help them.” “We hope,” he added, “that we will have the seed planted for people to understand the importance of collective action.”
“I believe that it’s the experience of winning that helps workers conceive of having a permanent relationship that equalizes power with the boss,” said Nussbaum. “And it’s the leadership skills that people gain in the doing that make them the kind of capable leaders that can organize to be represented and win contracts.”
And what if companies respond to Working America activism by illegally punishing the workers involved? “If that happens,” said Trumka, “I think workers, if they stick together, they’ll be able to defeat that.” He added that Working America offices would stand ready, with support from AFL-CIO affiliates and allies, to “bring down justice” if companies cracked down on activists. “In some cases,” Trumka told The Nation, “who knows, there could be consumer boycotts organized.” He added that any retaliation would offer “another reason” for workers “to come together even more.”
Working America’s expansion will be funded in part through a new Tenth Anniversary Fund, to which the AFL-CIO and major unions have pledged donations; Trumka said the AFL-CIO is “substantially” supporting the organization. But Nussbaum told The Nation that Working America is also grappling with how to eventually achieve an elusive goal for alt-labor groups: financial self-sufficiency. Lacking union contracts with automatic dues payments from members, such groups generally draw the majority of their funding from donations from unions or non-profits. “In the long run, that’s the litmus test,” said Nussbaum, “because worker organizations that aren’t self-sustaining can’t be democratic.” Groups that are “dependent on outside funding,” she added, can “meet objectives, but they don’t sustain and build the labor movement in the long run. And I think that’s the challenge for us at this point.”
Ai-jen Poo, who sits on Working America’s board and directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told The Nation last month that, as additional revenue sources, NDWA is exploring offering citizenship services to workers or matching employers with employees. Nussbaum said that deepening members’ relationship with Working America could put the group “on the path to self-sufficiency,” potentially through more consistent dues from members or fees for providing them with services.
Organizers said last year that 15 percent of Working America’s members pay dues (suggested payment: $5 per year); they acknowledged that its membership ranks include people who no longer remember signing up in the first place. At the other end of the spectrum are the “community action teams”: members who meet weekly with organizers to make plans to pressure politicians and involve new members. Nussbaum said that Working America currently has such teams in “a few dozen” places, “and we’re going to be expanding those all around the country.” Overall, said Nussbaum, “when you operate at the scale that we do, when a majority of our members identify with us to one extent or another, that’s a lot of people.”
University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman called news of Working America’s expansion “a sign of new life” at the AFL-CIO. “Because they’re in trouble, and because of some shifts in personnel, I think they’re more open to new things,” said Getman, the author of Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement. He suggested that Working America could be valuable in part because “it puts the AFL-CIO in direct contact with workers, which is something that doesn’t always happen”; given the AFL-CIO’s structure as a federation composed of affiliated unions, he said, “there are lots of layers of bureaucracy and authority between the AFL-CIO and workers on lots occasions.” Getman said Working America could “develop a greater sense of working class solidarity” among non-union workers, and offer “a sense of being important, and being involved in something worthwhile.”
“I think collective bargaining is one of the tools necessary—to actually bring down inequality, that’s one of the best ways to do it,” said Trumka. “But there are other tools that we will experiment with.” Trumka noted that Working America, which faced “significant opposition” among union leaders when Nussbaum first proposed it a decade ago, is now one of an array of alternative groups the federation supports. “I think we’re going to have a whole bunch of different models,” said Trumka. “And some of them will work.”
Across the country, students are wrangling with their universities to cut ties with Adidas over its labor practices. For more, read this week's Dispatches from the US Student Movement.
Ai-jen Poo. (Flickr/Institute for Policy Studies)
The past decade has seen a surge of organizing by domestic workers in the United States. These workers, who care for children, senior citizens and disabled people in their homes, are explicitly excluded from many of the basic protections of federal labor law, including union organizing rights. Their job is characterized by low wages, long hours and meager benefits, and it’s among the fastest-growing in the US economy. Last Friday, The Nation sat down with Ai-jen Poo, a founder of New York’s Domestic Workers United, who now directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance. We discussed some disappointments dealt by Democratic politicians, the challenges of sustaining non-union labor groups and how to confront the coming care crisis. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
The Nation: What’s happening to work in the United States? Does labor have the tools to grapple with it?
Ai-jen Poo: Our tools are not sufficient. What is happening is that work is becoming more unstable, insecure, dangerous and vulnerable. When I first started organizing domestic workers, people kind of perceived it as this very exotic shadow workforce at the margins of the economy. But when you look around these days, the conditions that define domestic work are not so different from the conditions that define every American worker’s realities. As more and more people become temporary, part-time or contracted, nobody knows who their real boss is, no one has collective bargaining, no one even knows what bargaining is, and no one works in a workplace where bargaining is actually feasible. We’re essentially all becoming domestic workers.
The work that we and others are doing to try to create power and voice in that context has some of the seeds of what we need in the future, but I don’t think we’ve quite gotten to a model where we have adequate tools when we really come up against power. When we really go up against [restaurant giant] Darden or Walmart, what we have is simply insufficient. I think it will take a combination of these models getting to sufficient sophistication and scale, and a very broad-based movemnt of people who are invested in the future of work, and can connect to it on a deeply personal and emotional level, and want to take action.
To me, there are three core questions. First is narrative. The second is policy. And then the third is around organizational models, because as awesome as I think our affiliates [local labor groups for domestic workers without union recognition] are, we not self-sustaining, self-financing organizations. We count on foundation money and donors. And so how we actually get to scale and build self-financing workers’ organizations in the twenty-first century is a huge unanswered question.
Domestic Workers United is exploring setting up a dues structure. What does that look like?
It’s a voluntary dues structure, so it’s like we’ll get a few thousand dollars, and then people will drop off, and it will be hard to track people down. As long as it’s a voluntary dues structure it’s going to be very tricky.
Does solving that problem require winning collective bargaining rights?
Yes, that’s where the policy comes in. But dues is not the only way. The Freelancers Union has set up a very successful health insurance company. We’re not going to set up a health insurance company, but we’re trying to figure out how we can do something that meets the needs of this very large and growing workforce, that would encourage people to pay into dues on a regular basis and/or could be profitable—new revenue sources besides dues.
For example, we are looking at trying to start an online social enterprise where we match trained care workers with consumers who need care online. And we could potentially move to provide wrap-around services for high-road employers who want to provide health insurance, as well as help workers set up bank accounts so we could do auto dues deduction and things like that.
Like a union hiring hall for domestic workers?
Yes. So we’re exploring that and ideas like it.
Also, I think frankly comprehensive immigration reform is the biggest organizing opportunity of our generation. And if we can figure out how to position unions and workers’ centers as the brokers of the new citizenship, that’s a huge way that we can both organize millions of low-wage workers and strengthen the movement for the long term. So we’re building up capacity of our members, training them to use this moment as an organizing moment, but also figuring out the ones that do have the capacity to provide services to help people process whatever provisional legal status [is provided under immigration reform], and do whatever’s involved with the path to citizenship, which I think will be fairly complex.
Do you worry that matching workers with jobs has downsides in terms of their relationship to the organization? When I was an organizer and we had a banquet hiring hall, some members started to look at the union like a temp agency, or like their boss.
The only way to deal with that is good organizing. You have to make sure that the primary apparatus in your institution is an organizing apparatus, and everything flows from there. And it’s tricky to maintain that balance, because to run a successful hiring hall is a project in itself. So we’re actually going to separate out the social enterprise from the organization, and have the enterprise feed the organization and the other way around, but develop a little bit of a firewall.
I imagine it will be a huge challenge. But any organization that has any level of scale has to either provide a really meaningful service to their membership that deals with meeting their daily life needs, or provide some kind of spiritual enlightenment. Maybe the labor movement will one day do that, but I don’t know.
It’s going to be complex, and as long as we keep our eyes on the organizing prize, hopefully we can mitigate against the worst pitfalls of that.
One of your biggest victories was the passage of a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights expanding labor protections in New York State. Some DWU members say the law’s impact has had limits: Employers have found loopholes. Some employers don’t know about the law. Some workers don’t know about it. How do you respond to that law’s skeptics?
The laws are just a tool for workers to be able to organize and improve their working conditions. And it’s such a disaggregated workforce that even if you have really great organizing in one corner of the city, in another corner people have no idea. And so we just have to keep organizing. That’s really the only way that the bill gets enforced, and certainly the only way that standards get raised beyond what’s in the bill. So it’s an organizing challenge, and a tool. I think we’re much better off with it than without it. We used to just organize around minimum wage violations, and now we have much more to organize around.
California’s version of the bill was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown last year. Since then, Democrats won veto-proof majorities in the state legislature. Rather than negotiating a compromise with Brown, why not just push the Democrats to pass the same bill and override a veto?
I think that’s a good back-up plan, but ideally we wouldn’t have another veto. Even though there’s a super-majority, it’s a lot of freshman members, and we’re sort of having to start from scratch in a lot of places. And if the governor signals that he wants to do it, it will be much easier to get a supermajority [behind the bill]. So ideally we would win him over, which would be important for enforcement anyway.
And then there are all of these other states. Massachusetts and Illinois, where worker affiliates feel very optimistic about the possibilities of passing legislation. And legislators in Oregon and Hawai’i also introduced domestic worker bills.
At the federal level, could we see fracturing within organized labor if politicians move towards a compromise that offers a path to citizenship at the cost of labor protections for guest workers?
Labor seems pretty aligned right now and solid, so I hope not [Poo “knocks on wood” on the table]. You never know. But as far as I can tell, all of the unions seem to be communicating and working together on this, and even working with us on it, so so far, it’s OK. I think everything’s going to change once there’s a bill. That’s when it’s going to get really interesting.
Immigration reform, it’s just a huge opportunity to potentially win legal status for millions of workers, including care workers and domestic workers. So we’ve been really all in, trying to push to make sure that happens, and to make sure that the path to citizenship is as inclusive as possible. Things like making sure there’s no requirement of proof of continuous work history, because that would be difficult for both moms and domestic workers, not to mention lots of other informal sector workers.
And we’re trying to shape what the future [immigration] flow programs look like. To make sure that if there are care worker immigration programs in the future, people can bring their families, have portability of status [between employers], as well as full worker rights and protections.
Our main strategy has been actually to contextualize the domestic worker piece in the context of a women’s agenda for immigration reform. [Meanwhile,] we’re trying to knit together the interests of immigrants and the aged and people with disabilities, so that those interests don’t get pitted against each other. Similarly, last year we reached about half a million moderate-to-conservative seniors in five swing states and talked to them about Medicaid and Medicare, but mostly wanted to talk to them about what it would look like to be in alliance with a rising electorate of color. And we’re framing what we’re doing as building the “caring majority alliance,” which actually knits together the interests of a rising electorate of color with the interests of a rising older white electorate.
With the age wave, and the boomer generation, and people living longer, we are potentially going to be very racially and generationally polarized in this country. So we’re trying to say that white seniors and younger people of color actually have a shared destiny, and very clear material self-interest in working together. And shared interests.
Many expected the Department of Labor to approve new proposed federal regulatory protections for domestic workers before the election, but that didn’t happen. Now that DOL has done so, and the potential changes are under consideration by the Office of Management and Budget, how do you see where that process stands?
The ninety days for it to be finalized is up in mid-April. But yeah, I don’t know. Anything could happen at any point, and the regulatory process is sort of opaque. All we can do is continue to elevate the significance, and the impact in people’s lives, of not having this regulatory change. So that’s something we’re focused on. I’m hoping it does get finalized in a couple weeks. If we win, it will be one of the most significant victories for low-wage workers of the Obama administration. But what’s at stake is the message it sends if we don’t.
What should we conclude from a Democratic administration’s slow movement on these rules, and a Democratic Governor vetoing a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights?
We have a history of undervaluing care work, and not accounting for it. So we have that culture that’s within our economy, and now we’re also living in this really intense austerity environment, so anything that needs public funding makes people very nervous. It’s also partly that the industry lobby is strong, they have a voice, and they simply don’t want to pay overtime.
Is there a shift you want to see from the Obama Administration?
There has to be a shift on every level. Because we are headed for a major crisis from not recognizing and accounting for care. If it’s a problem now, twenty years from now, when we have the largest older adult population we’ve ever had in the history of the country, it’s going to be a crisis of epic proportions. If we think workers and families are getting squeezed now, it’s only going to get worse if we don’t think and act really quickly to ensure that there are basic protections on both sides.
And so I think it’s an emergency situation. I think it’s a crime, and it’s scary, that the fastest growing workforce in the country is excluded from minimum wage protections. I think that says a lot about our economy. And if we want to say something different about our economy, I think it begins with this workforce.
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