Pittsburgh Workers Oppose Theft of Wages from Immigrant Roofers


by Mike Elk

pgh wage theft
O’HARA, PENNSYLVANIA  – Popping out of the luscious greenery along the banks of the Allegheny River emerges the head of a giant 15-foot tall brown rat in a red tank sitting on top of a 4-foot high chunk of cheese.

“For us, the rat represents Stapleton Homes,” says Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). “The rat represents a business model that exploits workers.”
The workers here have gathered to protest Stapleton Homes, owners of the Chapel Harbor luxury condos on the banks of the Allegheny, only 15 minutes from the heart of booming Downtown Pittsburgh.

Last summer, a family team of five roofers from Guatemala spent ten days in 100-degree heat roofing the condos as they were preparing to go on the market. When the team completed the job, the immigrant workers building the project were never paid the $5,000 they were owed.

“It’s just wrong,” says 27-year-old Guatemalan immigrant “Gladys” as her young toddler runs around playing in the grass. “We have kids, I have family. I have more family in Guatemala…It’s not fair that we didn’t get paid.”

On Saturday, the Latino workers, members of organized labor and concerned community members gathered near the entrance of Chapel Harbor to protest what they see as wage theft.
“We love our community along the Allegheny, but the one thing we don’t love is taking from workers,” says Chapel Harbor homeowner Kevan Yenerall, whose wife is an immigrant from Thailand.
“[The workers] need to know that the people who live in Chapel Harbor are wonderful people, they work in the neighborhood, they pay taxes in the neighborhood, they aren’t in favor of what’s happening here,” says Yarnell. “My neighbors are wonderful folks, we love our homes, but this is awful.”

Stapleton Homes did not return a request for comment about the incident.

The story of Gladys and her crew is one that’s becoming increasingly common as Latino immigrants show up to take advantage of the massive building boom set off by Pittsburgh’s tech and natural gas boom.

Building contractors and construction unions in the area are struggling to find new workers.  And contractors regularly approach Latino labor leaders, desperately seeking new workers to fill these jobs.

Many immigrants say they prefer construction work to other types of work available to them.

“I used to work in the restaurant industry, I didn’t like it, and so I decided to try this,” says Gladys. “There is more independence.”

However, Latino workers in Pittsburgh often experience wage theft and are chronically underpaid compared to their unionized counterparts. Gladys says members of her crew on average make only $800 a week while working 12-15 hour days often in the heat on top of roofs.

Now, the areas’ unions are trying hard to organize workers regardless of immigration status and documentation.

“If we don’t step up and keep the pressure on [these contractors], they are just going to keep doing it,” says Joseph Hughes, a union representative with Painters’ Union District Council 57.

“I see this every day, thousands of contractors around the state of Pennsylvania do this everyday. This isn’t an isolated problem” Hughes tells the crowd.
Among the crowd, that day on the side of the highway in O’Hara Township, Gladys and her crew of a half-dozen roofers were some of the few Latino faces in the crowd of 50.
As a result of the economic downturn in Pittsburgh in the 1980s and 90s, which saw half the population of Pittsburgh leave, there was never as large of an influx of Latinos as in other areas of the country. In Pittsburgh, Latinos make up only 1.7 percent, while 17.6 percent of the U.S. population is Latino.
The crowd of supporters at the protest was mainly white, but numerous speakers in the crowd said they feel a sense of solidarity as their parents and grandparents worked similar jobs when they came to Pittsburgh from Southern and Eastern Europe in the early 1920s.
“This is such an important issue because it hits home to me. Both of my parents were immigrants that came [from Italy] after World War Two and they meet learning English at Allderdice High School,” says Anita Prizio, a 54-year-old DSA member who was recently elected to County Council to represent the region around Chapel Harbor.”
“My parents built the house that I still live in and they also created a company [that I run], but the one thing they told me and I learned this is that to be a good business owner, you have to be an ethical business owner, you have to have integrity and you have to pay your workers,” says Prizio. “There were times that it was hard for my parents to make payroll, but the first thing they did was to pay the workers before they actually paid themselves.”

“I stand in solidarity with Gladys and her workers because it’s the right thing to do and business should do the right thing,” says Prizio.

The campaign marks the beginning of new efforts by the area’s construction unions and community groups to combat the growing trend of wage theft facing workers. Recently, the Painters Union even donated a new sign to Casa San Jose, a Latino Resource and Welcome Center founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph in the growing Latino community of Beechview.

Unlike other cities with large Latino populations, Pittsburgh currently doesn’t have a workers’ center for non-union workers, where low wage workers win claims against employers that fail to pay them on time.

While groups are pushing for the establishment of a worker center, the task has fallen to an ad hoc coalition of activists associated with the LCLAA, building trade unions, area labor lawyers and the Thomas Merton Center community group. Gladys says support from these groups has been uplifting as a new member of the Pittsburgh community.

“I feel very welcomed by the community,” says Gladys. “We appreciate the support.”

The embrace by organized labor is part of a larger shift occurring nationally as building trade unions begin to embrace immigrant labor as opposed to keeping them off out of workplaces.

While activists associated with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement say they would like to see unions and other groups step up to fund a workers’ center, they say that the protests have been a learning experience for the Pittsburgh community.

As the protest ends, Perez takes the microphone and taught the yinzer crowd a few words of Spanish.

“El pueblo que lucha, triunfa.”

When we fight, we win.

Reposted from the Payday Report. 

Sherwin Alumina Lockout in Second Year

by Mike Elk


Ed. note: On October 11,2014, Sherwin Alumina locked out 450 USW Local 235A members at their plant in Gregory, Texas. The lockout came after 235A members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s demands for major cuts in pension and health care benefits for members and retirees, as well as reductions in overtime pay.  The lockout is now continuing into its 15th month

Sherwin Alumina is owned by Glencore, a highly profitable Swiss commodities giant that is the 10th largest corporation in the world, with net income of $4.6 billion in 2013.

Glencore is a company set up by billionaire financier Marc Rich, who was eventually brought to terms by the USW after a lengthy lockout at the Ravenswood aluminum plant in West Virginia.  Rich, then a fugitive from American justice, was notoriously pardoned by Bill Clinton in the last days of his Presidency.

This article was originally written by labor reporter Mike Elk for Politico in July 2015, but did not appear then because of a labor dispute between Politico management and Mike Elk, who was active in the effort by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild (TNG-CWA Local 32035) to organize POLITICO.

As one with extensive experience in the global labor movement, I regard Mike Elk’s July article as an excellent case study of the difficult realities of campaigning for international labor solidarity.

December 15, 2015

This morning, I found myself wanting to cry as I spoke on the phone to a United Steelworkers staffer about an ugly lockout of 450 at Sherwin Alumna lockout that has gone on for 14 months.  As a labor reporter, I have dealt with PTSD as a result of the suicides, divorces, and bar room brawls that happen during lockouts.  It’s just so awful what happens to people during lockouts and the media even the so called “left media” rarely pay proper attention to them.

Continue reading

Five Union Presidents Oppose TPP Treaty

by Paul Garver


Presidents of the IBT [Teamsters], USW [Steelworkers], UFCW [Food & Commercial Workers], IAM [Machinists] and CWA [Communication Workers] all issued statements today urging continued opposition to the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] treaty. Full statements follow.
Continue reading

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: The Undemocratic Job-Killing Trade Scheme

by Leo Gerard

No Fast Track
Free traders in Congress formally proposed last week that lawmakers relax, put their feet up and neglect the rigor of legislative review for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade scheme.

The TPP is a secret deal among 12 Pacific Rim nations that was covertly negotiated by unelected officials and corporate bosses. It’s so clandestine that lawmakers elected to represent the American people were refused access to the deliberations. It would expand secret trade tribunals that corporations use to sue governments over democratically established laws and win compensation from taxpayers.

The Congressional free traders want to Fast Track authorization of the TPP. Fast Track enables Congress to abdicate its constitutionally mandated duty to regulate international trade. Instead of scrutinizing, amending and improving proposed trade deals, lawmakers use Fast Track to gloss over the specifics and simply vote yea or nay on the entire package as presented. With elected officials excluded from the talks, details of the treaty deliberately shrouded in secrecy and free traders demanding lawmakers ignore the deal’s effects on constituents, this process condemns democracy.

As usual, the free traders say, don’t worry, the TPP is gonna be great, just great! Trust us, they say.

For opponents of the deal—unions, environmentalists, human rights groups and Congressional progressives—there’s no trusting free traders. That’s because they’ve proven to be nothing but flimflam men. Deals they’ve peddled previously, like NAFTA, CAFTA and KORUS, have not, in fact, been great. They’ve dramatically increased the nation’s trade deficit, prompted corporations to ship manufacturing offshore, cost millions of American workers their jobs and suppressed wages.

President Barack Obama, who is pushing the TPP, admits opponents are right to be wary. During a meeting recently with small business executives, he conceded, “Trade deals have not always been good for American manufacturing. … There have been times where because the trade deal was one way, American workers didn’t benefit and somebody else did.”

Even so, he too sought trust, adding: “Well, we intend to change that.”

There’s no trust when 32 percent of American steel mill production is idled and more than 6,000 steelworkers are laid off or warned of impending furloughs because of unchecked imports of illegally subsidized steel from China.

The AFL-CIO, the Alliance for American Manufacturing, the United Steelworkers and others have pleaded with the administration for years to provide relief from China’s price-distorting currency manipulation. The administration responded with inaction.

There’s no trust when free traders promised workers that NAFTA would generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, but as it turned out, those jobs were poverty-wage positions in Mexico created when American manufacturers took advantage of NAFTA provisions to close American factories and move them across the border.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch examined the effect of NAFTA and wrote in a report issued in February of 2014, “Twenty years later, the grand projections and promises made by NAFTA’s proponents remain unfulfilled. Many outcomes are exactly the opposite of what was promised.”

The most devastating upside-down outcome is jobs. The Global Trade Watch report notes that more than 845,000 U.S. workers qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance after having lost their jobs as a result of imports from Canada or Mexico or relocation of U.S. factories there. It’s extremely difficult to qualify for Trade Adjustment Assistance, so this number probably understates the total job losses significantly.

In addition, when workers who lost jobs landed new ones, they got paid less, with the average reduction greater than 20 percent.

KORUS is the same sad story. Free traders pledged three years ago that the deal with South Korea would produce tons more exports that would, of course, create lots of new American jobs. Instead, the U.S. goods trade deficit with Korea grew 84 percent, excluding the value of foreign-made goods that pass unaltered through the United States on their way to Korea.

Calculating with the trade-to-jobs formula that free traders used when they were promoting KORUS, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea translates into the loss of nearly 85,000 U.S. jobs—in just three years.

This does not engender trust.

Still, free traders now are huckstering the TPP with promises of job gains. They’re not fooling everybody, though, with their claim that it will create 650,000 jobs. In January, the Washington Post fact checker gave this promise its highest liar-liar-pants-on-fire rating of four Pinocchios.

Using the free traders’ own method of calculating, the Post determined TPP would create no new jobs. That would be a fabulous result after the track record of these trade pacts causing massive job losses. Fantastical probably is a better descriptor, though, for a no-job-loss outcome.

But don’t worry, the free traders say, TPP will include Trade Adjustment Assistance to help workers thrown out of jobs by offshored factories and employers bankrupted as a result of dirt-cheap imports produced by exploited workers in countries without pollution controls. Trust us, the free traders say, displaced workers can use tax dollars to train for brand new jobs that pay 20 percent less!

Based on broken promises, Americans don’t like free trade schemes. So free traders in Congress, like Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, are trying to fast track Fast Track before the public notices. The New York Times explained this: “Both the Finance and Ways and Means committees will formally draft the legislation next week in hopes of getting it to final votes before a wave of opposition can sweep it away.” The Times quotes Hatch saying about the rush to legislate: “If we don’t act now, we will lose our opportunity.”

Earlier former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk explained why the administration refused to disclose the contents of the TPP, a task that Wikileaks took on instead. Kirk told Reuters that telling the publicwhat the deal contains would make passage impossible.

Concealing potentially job-killing trade schemes from the American public thwarts democracy. Rushing unpopular legislation through Congress before American citizens have an opportunity to review it and tell their elected representatives how they feel about it obstructs democracy.

No trade treaty, no matter how great free traders cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die it will be, is worth damning Americans’ cherished democracy.
Leo Gerard is the President of the United Steelworkers international union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18.  Numerous USW locals were among the 2009 organizations that signed a letter to Congress as part of the Citizen’s Trade Campaign demanding Fast Track and the TPP be rejected.

Gerard’s statement is reposted from the Working In These Times blog.

Economy of the Squeegee: “Carwasheros” Organizing Across the Country

by Amy B. Dean

(Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

I (Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

In major urban centers, car washing is an industry that relies on full-time labor. Like many other low-wage jobs in the American service economy, the workers who perform this labor are mainly adults with families to support, and they are often recent immigrants. Once considered unorganizable, the “carwasheros” (as the carwash employees call themselves) are now standing up. They are demanding to be taken seriously as employees who shouldn’t be expected to survive on a teenager’s summer salary.

Recent victories have resulted in some of the first-ever carwash collective bargaining contracts. In Queens, N.Y., workers organized with the backing of an unusual community-labor alliance — a joint effort by Make the Road New York and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store (RWDSU) union. They succeeded in winning better, standardized pay scales and job protections in their first contract in June. At a carwash in Santa Monica, Calif., workers won their first contract in 2011 as members of the United Steelworkers Local 675 and with the support of a broad-based Los Angeles coalition called the Clean Carwash Campaign. Efforts in these regions are expanding, and they are being augmented by new organizing drives in places such as Chicago and Santa Fe, New Mexico. With all this activity, the carwasheros represent the latest chapter in a larger national narrative. They are joining the ranks of low-wage workers at places like Walmart and McDonald’s who are insisting that they will no longer accept exploitative wages and working conditions. Continue reading

UAW’s Bob King: Expanding the Fight Against Michigan’s Anti-Worker Forces

By Bruce Vail

Several hundred labor activists gathered last week in Lansing, Mich., for a frigid but boisterous protest of Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address. Their intention was not to disrupt the speech, but to remind Snyder that he has awakened a deep and abiding anger among the state’s labor leaders and their allies. Snyder can count on many more such reminders in the coming months, Michigan labor sources say, as unions carry out plans to reverse the anti-worker initiatives Snyder has sponsored in the last six weeks, and push back against the big business forces that stand behind him. Continue reading

Let’s Have a Worker Ownership Stimulus to Create Jobs and a More Democratic Economy

The September job figures have given President Obama’s supporters cause to cheer. For the first time since he took office in January 2009, unemployment has fallen below 8%. But this news did not slow down the momentum that Mitt Romney gained due to the President’s weak performance in their first debate. One way the GOP nominee dominated was by repeatedly expressing concern about the job situation and the hardships faced by the middle class. In their second showdown on October 16, Romney again hammered away at the high levels of unemployment under the Obama administration. Although the President did much better this time, his opponent’s attacks are resonating.

But Romney has actually not offered any plans that will seriously tackle unemployment. In fact, as we all know, the Republicans have done everything to try and stop government measures aimed at saving jobs and boosting job creation – like the auto bailouts, the massive 2009 stimulus, and the 2011 jobs bill that failed because of a solid wall of Republican obstructionism. Clearly, Republicans have wanted to keep unemployment high as part of a strategy to defeat the President this November. So, it’s not surprising that Republican voices are now casting doubt on the legitimacy of the latest job figures!

Continue reading

Is Immigrant-Firing Pizza Company Getting Pork?

By Josh Eidelson

Striking members of the Palermo Workers Union prepare to testify before the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. (Support Striking Palermo’s Workers / Facebook)

Four months into a bitter strike, labor groups are asking whether Palermo’s Pizza deserves its millions in public subsidies.

In a report released Tuesday and a legislative hearing Wednesday, strikers and their supporters charged that the non-union Milwaukee company isn’t offering the kind of good jobs that government funds and tax breaks are designed to encourage. The critiques, and an upcoming cross-country worker tour, represent the latest signs that advocates aren’t counting on labor law alone to punish Palermo’s mass firing of striking immigrants in May.

“When I started at Palermo’s I earned $7.50 an hour,” ex-Palermo’s worker Flora Anaya told Working In These Times just before testifying before the Wisconsin legislature on Wednesday. Anaya said that before going on strike and being fired by Palermo’s, she often worked long hours, for low wages, seven days a week. (Anaya and other strikers were interviewed in Spanish).

Now, Anaya says, “we’re reaching out to as many supporters and as much of the community as possible, and trying to get our voices heard, so Palermo’s will listen once and for all.”

Continue reading

New Report Details Shockingly Abusive, Exploitative Working Conditions in Chicago Car Wash Industry

Today at the Jane Addams Hull House, the University of Illinois Labor Education Program publicly released a shocking report revealing a disturbing level of abuse of workers, including blatant violations of minimum wage and overtime laws and widespread health and safety abuses.

The report, Clean Cars, Dirty Work: Worker Rights Violations in Chicago Car Washes, is the first comprehensive study in the country of working conditions in the car wash industry. The report is available online as a PDF in English as well as in Spanish and a video of the release event is available here.

“Literally, this job is killing these people, at the expense of enriching their employers,” said Professor Robert Bruno, Director of the University of Illinois Labor Education Program. “They treat us like we’re less than human, like we’re animals,” said Oscar Olivares, a car wash worker from El Salvador.

Continue reading

AFL-CIO Head Meets Palermo’s Pizza CEO But Strike and Boycott Continue

By Josh Eidelson

Palermo’s Pizza is starting to feel the heat after workers struck and organized a boycott of the company for going after immigrant workers. (Photo by: Supporting Striking Palermo’s Workers)

Three months into a bitter strike and four weeks into a national boycott, the CEO of Palermo’s Pizza met Friday with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in Washington, DC. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is investigating allegations that the Milwaukee pizza company used immigration status as a pretext for the mass firing of striking workers. While the legal process has been repeatedly delayed, Friday’s meeting–which was requested by Palermo’s–suggests that the consumer campaign is taking a toll on the company. Both sides said they appreciated the chance to meet, but the escalating dispute remains unresolved.

Boycott Getting Traction

As I’ve reported, workers first struck Palermo’s Pizza’s factory in Milwaukee on May 29, after the company refused to recognize their union despite signatures from three-quarters of the factory’s permanent workers. The same day, Palermo’s told many workers that they had 28 days to prove that their immigration status authorized them to work in the United States. Over the next two days, Palermo’s announced the deadline had been shortened to 10 days, more workers went on strike, and the union filed with the NLRB both a petition for a union election and charges alleging Unfair Labor Practices by the company. On June 7, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it was suspending enforcement at Palermo’s. The next day, the company terminated 75 workers.

Reached over e-mail, AFL-CIO spokesperson Josh Goldstein said that Trumka “appreciated the opportunity” to “discuss the issues facing the workers” with CEO Giacomo Fallucca. “The workers at Palermo,” said Goldstein, “are eager to be part of a solution that creates a healthy business, addresses the workplace problems and ensures that their voices will be heard and respected.” He added that the boycott “continues until there is a resolution,” but the labor federation hopes “that the open dialogue today helps pave the way for Mr. Fallucca to continue it with his employees when he returns.”

“It was characterized to me as being a very good meeting,” says Palermo’s Marketing Director Chris Dresselhuys. “We’re just thankful [Trumka] could make the time to see us.” Dresselhuys says the company sought the meeting because it “thought it was in everyone’s best interest that Mr. Trumka understand the circumstances surrounding our situation.” Asked whether he believed that had been accomplished, he answered, “I couldn’t tell you. I wasn’t there.”

Continue reading