Some of SEIU’s ‘Fight for $15’ workers aren’t unionized — and don’t make $15 an hour

by Arun Gupta

fight for 15

 On Friday evening, just before 7 p.m., in a darkened hall in the Richmond Convention Center packed with more than 1,000 low-wage workers and union organizers, Olimpia Barajas-Ames gave the signal.

A mother of one and an organizer with the Child Care Fight for $15 campaign in Las Vegas, Barajas-Ames stood up, holding a sign that read, “$15 minimum wage and union rights for all means organizers too.” That was the tip-off for other union organizers to slap on stickers and don tee shirts indicating they want a union for employees who work on labor organizing projects spearheaded by the 1.9 million-member Service Employees International Union.

To outsiders, it may seem strange that union organizers are demanding a union of their own. But to Barajas-Ames and others who joined in the protest against SEIU, they are as much part of the precarious, low-wage workforce as workers at McDonald’s and Walmart are.

Jodi Lynn Fennell, also an organizer with the Child Care Fight for $15 campaign in Las Vegas, says, “Many SEIU organizers come from low-wage backgrounds. Childcare organizers come from childcare backgrounds. Fast-food organizers come from the fast-food industry. Many home healthcare organizers were once home healthcare aides themselves.”

For months, organizers in SEIU’s Fight for $15 campaign have been working with the Union of Union Representatives to demand representation. Currently, nearly 100 staff at SEIU are unionized under a contract with UUR that began 30 years ago. UUR launched an investigation of SEIU in 2015 and found it was outsourcing the work of its field organizers in violation of the contract. Earlier this year, many of SEIU’s field organizers formed an organizing committee to gain union representation and in April, 15 organizers submitted UUR membership cards.

The action by the Fight for $15 Staff Union Organizing Committee at the convention in Richmond, Virginia, is the latest tactic to pressure SEIU to recognize the union rights of all its organizers. After Barajas-Ames held up the sign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a union for organizers, she started walking toward the stage where SEIU president Mary Kay Henry was speaking.

Fennell, who joined, says, “Nearly 100 organizers and supporters gathered, moving up toward the stage peacefully. Our plan was simply to deliver a letter to Mary Kay Henry because she doesn’t make herself available to speak with us.”

Fennell wrote the letter that was to be presented to Henry. Fennell says last February, during a luncheon with Henry, the SEIU president said that “every worker deserves a union.” The letter called on SEIU to “lead by example” and “embody the movement’s basic principles of $15 and a union.” Fennell pointedly wrote, “If you say all workers must have a union, why is SEIU International denying my union rights and those of the entire Fight For $15 field staff?”

Fennell added that the UUR organizing campaign “is not about negativity. We want to enrich this movement with integrity so that we can strengthen the national Fight for $15.”

But they never got to hand the letter to Henry. Inside sources at SEIU say the union was prepared for such an incident, and sprang into action. Fennell says, “Security prevented us from getting to the stage.” Meanwhile, on the speakers’ platform, Henry stepped back and a group of African-Americans and Latino/as who sit on the national organizing committee for Fight for $15 stepped up.

One woman on stage with Henry grabbed the mic. She berated the staff organizers and their supporters below as cameras broadcast the convention. “Are you serious? Are you going to do this right now? Do you know what it is like to get paid $500 every two weeks? … You guys get paid enough. You have a chance to get a union. I don’t.”

As Henry stood smiling faintly behind the human wall, the speaker continued, “Do you know what it is like to have your kids homeless, sleeping in the back of a van? You will never know what that is like. They will never walk a day in our shoes.”

Fennell said of the accusatory remarks, “Everyone has different struggles, but this is not fighting over scraps. This is a movement about being in solidarity. We are not competing on who has it worse. We are not trying to pull each other down like crabs in a bucket.” She said her struggles include carrying $35,000 in student loan debt and nearly as much in medical debt.

Barajas-Ames says the UUR organizers stood before Henry for 15 minutes. As the speakers on stage led the crowd in chants of “$15 and a union,” Barajas-Ames says, “The security guards became hostile and aggressive, physically pushing us back. We stepped back and stood peacefully. Our signs were grabbed and torn up.”

Two child care workers at the convention who supported the action by the UUR organizing committee felt many in the audience were hostile: “They were all up in our face, chanting, ‘This is what democracy looks like.’ We had to jump over a table to get out.”

But that was just the beginning of the troubles for the members of the UUR organizing committee. Shortly afterward, Barajas-Ames and Fennell were personally called by the national director of the Child Care Fight for $15. The two organizers were told they would not be attending the events and protests on Saturday they had been organizing toward for months. Instead, they were to pack their bags as they were being flown out at 6 a.m. back to Las Vegas. Fennell claims the national director also told them, “We will be expecting you to pay for the cost of the hotel.”

Barajas-Ames and Fennell refuse to pay for the two nights they stayed at the Hilton Richmond Downtown, which would set each back more than $300. Barajas-Ames said that amount of money represented a car payment for her, while Fennell said it would be nearly 40 hours of work, as she often makes only $9 an hour given 60-hour workweeks and after out-of-pocket gas expenses. A total of five Fight for $15 organizers who support UUR were shipped home for trying to bring attention to their cause.

Fennell says, “This represents the exact same type of retaliation that corporations do to low-wage workers.”

A UUR representative claims this is part of a broader pattern. “SEIU has been fostering anti-union sentiment for months among the national organizing committee. We think they are creating divisions between the workers and the staff organizers’ campaign.”

UUR estimates more than 100 SEIU organizers who have been outsourced should be covered by its contract, although it has only identified 40 to 50 of them. Of this group, UUR says about 10 have left in the last six months because of the difficult working conditions or retaliatory actions by SEIU. UUR has already filed one “unfair labor practice” charge with the federal government and plans to file a second on August 14.

The outsourcing is blatant, the staff organizers claim. Fennell says her job is determined solely by SEIU. “I was hired by a regional director for SEIU. All my communication is with SEIU. I work in an SEIU office.” But her paycheck, like Barajas-Ames’s, comes from the “Ardleigh Group.” One former employee calls it a “faceless, shadowy” corporation that acts as a pass-through to hide employer responsibility. SEIU documents appear to show it using paper outfits to funnel money to the Ardleigh Group, which then pays workers on SEIU projects who say they are being denied their legal union rights.

UUR president Conor Hanlon told the Raw Story, “The treatment of the Fight for $15 Organizers fits the same pattern that we see from private-sector employers across the country which turn to franchises, temp agencies, and so-called independent contractors rather than hire employees directly. We believe that rather than participate in the disastrous race to the bottom SEIU should commit to its organizers who, like all workers, deserve a career path, fair treatment, and good pay and benefits.”

In addition to accusing SEIU of “evading responsibility of its employment practices,” UUR alleges that SEIU engages in discriminatory employment practices. These include “women are paid less than men, Black staff are paid less than non-black staff, and Latina/Latino staff are more likely to be hired as temporary employees rather than full-time employees.”

Fennell says SEIU’s habit of overworking and underpaying organizers leads to “extraordinarily high” turnover, which harms labor organizing and the goal of improved social services. “We feel passionate about creating affordable child care for all. We can serve our community better when we have the same worker rights as the child care workers who we are fighting for.”

Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste from The New Press.

This article is reposted from Raw Story [http://www.rawstory.com/2016/08/exclusive-some-of-seius-fight-for-15-workers-arent-unionized-and-dont-make-15-an-hour/] with permission of the author.

Fatal Employment?

By SETH SANDRONSKY
Go to work and die in the US? The answer is yes for 4,821 workers who
lost their lives on the job in 2014 versus 4,582 in 2013, a 5.1% jump,
according to a new report, “Preventable Deaths 2016,” from the
National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH), a
20-group federation, citing federal Labor Dept. data.

One-third of workplace fatalities in 2014 occurred among folks 55
years and older. Further, 802 contract, or temporary workers, died on
the job in 2014, 16.7% of the overall total, and a 7% increase versus
the 749 contracted workers who lost their lives while employed in
2013.

“Contract and temporary workers are frequently assigned to the most
hazardous jobs on many worksites,” according to the NCOSH report.
Jamie Hoyt was a 58-year-old contract worker who died on a day labor
job in Hackensack, New Jersey on Nov. 30, 2012. Continue reading

Labor Leader Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez Today, March 31 is Cesar Chavez’ birthday. On this day throughout the nation there are many observances honoring Cesar’s work. We are grateful for all these recognitions, which continue to grow 23 years after Cesar’s passing in 1993. But Cesar said that if the union he helped build didn’t survive his death, then his life’s work would have been in vain. The UFW takes this responsibility seriously and carries on Cesar’s work of making the lives of farm workers better by aggressively helping farm workers organize, negotiate union contracts and win new legal protections.

A big focus of the UFW right now is helping farm workers get the same overtime pay as almost every other worker. Workers plan to commemorate Cesar Chavez month (the time between Cesar’s March 31 birthday and April 23 passing) by marching for fair overtime pay in support of the bill we told you about, AB 2757 “The Phase-In Overtime for Agricultural Workers Act of 2016.” The bill would phase in paying California’s farm workers overtime if they work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week by the year 2020.

Starting this Sunday, April 3, more than 10,000 farm workers up and down the west coast will take to the streets and march in 5 key agricultural areas. To do this is very expensive, but it’s time for worker’s voices to be heard. As Cesar told us, “I’m not going to ask for anything unless the workers want it. If they want it, they’ll ask for it.” Well, the workers are asking now. Will you help? Continue reading

Temporary Workers Not Allowed to Form Unions

Seth Sandronsky
Self-employed independent contractors in California can neither form unions nor negotiate collective bargaining pacts, but part of those conditions could soon change, according to Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). Gonzalez, Chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Women in the Workplace, introduced Assembly Bill 1727 on January 28 as an amendment to the state’s Labor Code. Gonzalez’s bill, which will be updated today, is called the California 1099 Self-Organizing Act. It would allow independent contractors to form employee associations that could negotiate working conditions and pay, though not to form labor unions.
“All workers should have the right to organize and collectively bargain,” Gonzalez said in an email to Capital & Main. “Our laws need to catch up to the innovation happening in our economy to ensure independent contractors have a pathway to these workplace rights as well.”

Assembly Bill 1727 would not compel employers to classify independent contractors as employees.

AB 1727 would not, however, compel employers to classify independent contractors as employees — nor would it allow these workers to form a traditional labor union or to join an existing union. That rubs Steve Smith, director of communications for the California Labor Federation, the wrong way.
“We agree with Assemblywoman Gonzalez that self-employed workers should have every right to bargain collectively, but have concerns about the approach,” Smith told Capital & Main by phone, “The problem with AB 1727 is that it basically enshrines an unfair business model that companies like Uber use to misclassify their workforce as independent contractors instead of employees.”

Nonunion workers without the right to bargain collectively get the short end of the stick, say critics of the gig economy. “Unionized workers have on average 20 percent higher wages than their nonunion peers,” wrote Evan Butcher for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, last September.
Uber, the app-based, ride-hailing firm, is one of the best-known businesses that rely on independent contractors. The company sells labor services by arranging for individuals to drive their own cars as personal taxis to earn income. And in early 2016, Amazon.com, the popular online retail giant, began to expand its delivery of goods with independent contractor drivers through Amazon Flex. Continue reading

The End of China’s Labor Regime?

by Kevin Lin

Workers at the First Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine on a 2013 strike for higher pay.

Ed. note:  The New York Times Business Day section (10 March 2016) included a feature article entitled “Not the Chinese Dream” by Owen Guo, that highlighted the inability or unwillingness of China’s 257 million [internal] migrant workers to occupy the thousands of vacant urban apartments that are weighing down the Chinese economy.  Kevin Lin’s article poses the structural causes that underlie this socio-economic crisis.

A key ingredient of China’s Post-Mao economic “miracle” is a labour regime entrenched in the export-oriented consumer manufacturing sector and premised on despotic exploitation, institutional discrimination and political exclusion of labour. It is built on the back of massive rural-to-urban migration in the context of a stagnant agricultural sector and rising disparity in rural-urban incomes from the 1990s. The rural migrants are not only placed under exploitative labour relations under the Party-state’s market liberalisation, but also institutionally discriminated against by the urban household registration system that denies them of permanent urban residency and entrenches the transient nature of their labour migration, and politically excludes  them from organising autonomous labour unions and asserting as an organised social force. This combination, by no means unique in the history of capitalist development, produces an abundant and seemingly endless supply of not only cheap and disposable but disciplined, fragmented and atomised labour. However, having help propel China into a global economic power, the reproduction of this labour regime is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

Continue reading

Young Workers

A new video, produced by a collaboration from UCLA’s Department of History and the UCLA Labor Center, combines the experiences of young workers and research to tell the story of young workers in the United States. Titled “I Am A #YOUNGWORKER,” the animated video is a powerful dive into the world of work for young Americans.

South Carolina Raising Wages Summit

by Rick Patelunas

south carolina

The last of four Raising Wages summits sponsored by the AFL-CIO was held at the International Longshoreman’s Hall in Charleston, South Carolina on February 6th.  Previous summits were held in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, but South Carolina might present the environment most hostile to raising wages.  South Carolina is one of only five states without a minimum wage; it is a right-to-work state and Governor Nikki Haley said:

“We discourage any company that has unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water . . .[W]e educate different companies coming in from outside to understand that’s not what we want to do in South Carolina; and if they’re interested in that, we’re not where they need to come.”

That’s the same Governor Haley who delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in January.  She is also responsible for the infamous “It’s a great day in South Carolina” phase that state workers are forced to say when they answer the phone.  Speakers at the Raising Wages summit tell a different story.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenberg explained how his office is wrestling with the falling wages in the city at the same time housing costs continue to climb.  Using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator, the Mayor found that $11.60 an hour was needed for a living wage in Charleston.  With no state minimum wage, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 prevails.

On the legislative front, State Senator Marlon Kimpson talked about two bills he sponsored in the state legislature:  one to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and one to provide paid sick leave to workers.  It’s an uphill battle with the Koch brothers behind some of the opposition in the state, but workers need to be respected with a livable wage and paid sick leave.

At the federal level, Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke of his support for a livable wage of $15 per hour.  He also recognized that everyone should do what they can at the local level and if $10.50 is all that’s possible in South Carolina, South Carolina needs to work for that.

Chris Kromm, Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies provided examples of South Carolina’s “low road” approach to economic development.  For instance, the $1,020 Billion incentive package the state put together to attract Boeing to North Charleston.  A handout from Mr. Kromm reports that the State newspaper “estimated that the price tag for incentive deals for just four companies – BMW, Boeing, Bridgestone and Michelin – totaled $800 million, or about $100,000 for each of the 8,000 jobs created.”

It’s interesting to find BMW in the list of incentives given Governor Haley’s anti-union polemics and policies.  From the BMW website:  “In accordance with the regulations contained in the German co-determination Act, BMW AG’s Supervisory Board shall comprise ten shareholder representatives . . . and ten employee representatives.”  Those ten employee representatives are the union.  That’s the law in Germany and it’s not simply for show — the Supervisory Board has final veto power of whether plants open or close.

Eight hundred million dollars is more than a price tag.  It’s $800 of taxpayer money that is not used elsewhere.  Politicians made a decision to use that money for business incentives rather than investing in the people of South Carolina.  Consider the plight of two Raising Wages panelists.   After ten years as a fast food worker, Rachel Nelson toils for $9.00 an hour with shifts lasting twelve hours with no breaks.  That’s above the minimum wage, but it is not a livable wage.  Likewise, Amy Reece is a child care worker who considers leaving the job she loves because her pay may be above the minimum wage, but it is not a livable wage.  Both are fighting for $15 an hour and the chance to unionize.

At a time when South Carolina’s education system, health and quality of life rankings are routinely at the bottom of the country, incentives to lure businesses to low wage, no union “havens” have another cost.  It’s corporate welfare.  Corporations keep the profits from paying low wages and leave taxpayers the responsibility of helping the underpaid.  Days before the Raising Wages summit, the Economic Policy Institute released a report showing how raising the minimum wage to $12.00 an hour would save billions of taxpayer dollars by 2020.

  • Among workers in the bottom three wage deciles, every $1 increase in hourly wages reduces the likelihood of receiving means-tested public assistance by 3.1 percentage points. This means that the number of workers receiving public assistance could be reduced by 1 million people with a wage increase of just $1.17 an hour, on average, among the lowest-paid 30 percent of workers. These workers would see higher incomes, even as they no longer received public assistance.
  • For every $1 that wages rise among workers in the bottom three wage deciles, spending on government assistance programs falls by roughly $5.2 billion. This estimate is conservative, as it does not include the value of Medicaid benefits.
  • Raising the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 would reduce means-tested public assistance spending by $17 billion annually. These savings could fund a variety of improvements to government anti-poverty tools, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to childless adults, or provide funding for new education initiatives, such as improving access to preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families.

Governor Haley’s anti-worker, anti-union, anti-minimum wage, anti-government policies are not particular to her or South Carolina.  At the Republican forum on poverty in South Carolina three weeks before the Raising Wages summit, six Republican Presidential candidates shared their remedies for poverty.  Governor Christie called teachers unions the single most destructive force in education.  Ben Carson called the US progressive tax system socialism that doesn’t work in America.  Senator Rubio dismissed raising the minimum wage because it would make people more expensive than machines.

On the Democratic side, both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders favor raising the minimum wage, support unions and advocate raising taxes on the wealthy.  Their plans are different, but understanding the problems and the way towards solving them stands in stark contrast to Republican policies.

Our economic situation did not just happen.  It is not the working of some free market.  It is the result of government decisions and policies that have rigged the system against workers for forty years.  A number of the speakers called for the need to change the rules and the upcoming primaries and elections are an opportunity to begin the change.  Hold politicians accountable.  Ask them what they’ve done, what they’re doing and what they will do.

The Raising Wages summit provided a road map listing policies that can begin to turn things around for workers:

  • Restore Freedom of Association
  • Restore and Strengthen Labor Standards
  • Ensure Full Employment
  • Reform the Global Economy
  • Reform Wall Street
  • Increase Productivity Growth to Allow for Higher Wage Growth.
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