Wednesday, July 23, 2008
In an unlikely team-up, impartial investigators from the Government Accountability Office joined a low-income workers’ advocate at Congressional hearings July 15 to tell lawmakers that President Bush’s Labor Department has failed to enforce minimum wage and overtime laws and that low-wage workers are routinely being robbed of their earnings.
Enforcement of laws that require employers to pay at least the minimum wage and overtime rates has sunk to record lows under the Bush administration, they said.
Investigators for the GAO described for members of the House Education and Labor Committee how the Wage and Hours Division of the Labor Department routinely fails to count complaints, refers workers with legitimate complaints to private lawyers and closes half its cases with perfunctory calls simply requesting employers to settle the matters. Workers lose most of the cases, they said.
Kim Bobo, executive director of the Interfaith Worker Justice program in Chicago, joined GAO investigators at the hearing. Her group operates counseling centers and sponsors activities, including assistance with union organizing, for low income workers around the country. “The wage and hour division is so understaffed,” she said, “that it is actually now doing fewer investigations of wage and hour complaints than it did in 1941, the year it was founded. Wages are simply being stolen.”
Only one witness at the congressional hearing disagreed with the evidence presented by the GAO. At one point, Alexander Passantino, acting director of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, interrupted a GAO investigator and yelled “wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.”
When pressed by lawmakers, however, he admitted, “the agency doesn’t handle all the complaints it gets” and he said, “I have repeatedly asked for more money to hire more inspectors but have been turned down.” He ducked out of the hearing room before lawmakers or reporters could ask him about the resources he had requested or who, in the administration, had turned him down.
The Wage and Hour Division is responsible for enforcement of the 70-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act, under which it came into existence.The law established both the minimum wage and the right to overtime pay after 40 hours of work in a week. Anne Marie Lasowski, a GAO Investigator, said, “It’s not working for low-wage workers, They are becoming victims because the law is not being enforced.”
Greg Kutz, another GAO investigator, said, “there’s another way that workers are cheated. The agency is so understaffed with attorneys who can follow up on cases that many times the employer wins and the worker gets nothing because the statute of limitations runs out even before the Labor Department can file a complaint. Kutz said that in one case involving 24 workers at a garment factory in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., workers lost $60,000 in wages when their case was dropped because of lack of available attorneys. Kutz said that in a representative sample of 15 cases he examined, half were dismissed for the same reason.
Lasowski told lawmakers that there has been a sharp decline in enforcement action during the tenure of the Bush administration. She said that the number of wage and hour inspectors has been slashed during that period from 942 to 732.
A written GAO report issued prior to the hearings showed that while the Wage and Hour Division handled 47,000 cases in 1997, it handled only 30,000 last year. “They handled 48,000 cases back in 1941,” according to Bobo.
The GAO report was also critical of the fact that the Labor Department fails to use data it already has to target employers who are repeat offenders. The department already knows, they said, who the repeat offenders are because it has a great deal of information presented to it by labor unions and groups like Interfaith Worker Justice.
The data already available to the Labor Department shows that the most blatant abuse of wage and overtime laws occurs in the poultry processing. garment, agriculture, hotel, restaurant and health care industries. The Wage and Hour division, Bobo said, would uncover and solve more violations if it would focus in these problem areas.
“Those are the industries that have the highest percentages of low wage workers and they hurt the most when their employers cheat,” Bobo declared. “And they also have high proportions of immigrant workers who can’t afford the high priced lawyers that the Labor Department refers them to.”
She also noted that although the Fair Labor Standards Act covers all workers in the United States, regardless of immigration status, undocumented workers are the least likely to complain.. “It is time to punish those who steal workers’ wages in meaningful ways – with hefty fines and jail terms,” Bobo declared.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the congressional committee’s chair, shook his head in disgust at one point during the session, declaring, “Simply put, this is theft. This is illegal.”
Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), another member of the committee, was a union shop steward in a Rockford, Ill. Textile plant before he was elected to Congress. When asked if, in that role, he had gotten complaaints about wage and hour violations, he said, “A lot of complaints, every single month.”
Monday, July 14, 2008
I went to my local Walgreens and had a very interesting conversation at checkout. The very friendly clerk leaned over close and told me under her breath that “corporate” had ordered the store to take all Obama material out of the store. Until then Obama’s book “Audacity of Hope” was on display near the checkout isle. “And,” she added, “they made us take off our Obama buttons. So much for freedom of speech.” I asked to see the manager and she asked me to wait until another visit so it wouldn’t come back on her. I called the Walgreens and complained. The person I spoke to passed it off as “corporate policy.” So maybe you want to give Walgreens a call and ask them what’s up with selling a book.
But the second part of my conversation with the clerk really got me thinking. She asked me if I had heard what the McCain high-up said about us being a country of whiners – that the bad economy was all in our heads. “He should come over and visit my house and family if he thinks economic hard times are all in our heads,” she said.
For people who think that average working people aren’t closely following the presidential campaign this should be a sign. Yea it’s anecdotal, but most of us are increasingly having this kind of well informed discussions with our friends, neighbors and co-workers – people are tuned in and paying attention to the issues. That bodes well for Obama. Remember when George Bush senior didn’t know what a check-out scanner was?
As I left we agreed that corporate Walgreens policy wasn’t going to save the election for McCain, just show people more vividly which side McCain is on.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Only a handful of auto workers at the Lordstown, Ohio plant showed up for a meeting that management arranged for those who wanted to meet Republican presidential candidate John McCain when he toured the plant June 27.
“Management invited him,” said Tim Niles, a worker in the plant. “It had nothing to do with us. We’re with Obama.”
The problem that the virtual boycott represented for McCain is that Niles, who is white and is a registered Democrat, is the type of voter McCain is counting on if he is to win the “swing” state of Ohio. McCain’s trip to the auto plant was part of the Republican strategy to win blue collar workers and if the reaction he got at the plant June 27 is any indication he is in trouble. Although management welcomed him with a red carpet tour, workers gave him the cold shoulder.
Greg George, another white worker at the plant told a reporter for the Financial Times, “We’re a working-class factory, McCain calls himself a moderate, but his party has been a disaster for working people over the past eight years.” The opinion he voiced to the reporter parallels closely the position put forward in literature distributed by the United Auto Workers, the union that represents workers in the plant.
Analysts say the only way McCain can win states like Ohio and Pennsylvania is to attract so-called Reagan Democrats – white, working-class voters who switched to the Republican column in the 1980’s to back Ronald Reagan. Since the “Reagan Democrats” can’t be won over on the basis of McCain’s economic record, he has to appeal to them by exploiting existing fears on the issue of “national security” and by raising doubts about Obama’s “experience” and “values.” In addition, he counts on the ultra-right to supplement this strategy with outright appeals to racism.
So far, the McCain strategy does not seem to be working. The latest polls show him trailing in Ohio and Pennsylvania and nationally.
George said that workers who did attend the meeting with McCain “weren’t too impressed with what he had to say.” McCain supported the “free trade” agreements that unions blame for loss of jobs. He blamed the Great Depression of the 1930’s on lack of free trade, rather than on corporate greed. Rather than calling for the types of massive jobs programs that pulled the country out of that depression, he offered only vague promises that he would “put the country first over party.”
Lordstown is part of a section of Ohio that has suffered massive loss of manufacturing jobs, particularly in the steel industry. It is in the highly industrialized Trumbull County where John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, beat George Bush by 24 points.
Teamsters Union president James Hoffa and Jorge Gamboa, president of the National Petroleum Workers Union of Colombia, warn that ratifying the U.S.-Colombia “free trade” agreement would continue the long civil war that results in hostage-taking there.
The deal, they say, would let big multinational monopolies further cut Colombian workers’ wages and slash their few current on-the-job protections. Hoffa and Gamboa told a joint July 1 telephone news conference that if the trade agreement passes the U.S. Congress, thousands more Colombians will have no alternative but illegal coca cultivation to feed their families.
Coca cultivation and uncontrolled activity by right-wing paramilitaries financed by companies like Chiquita and Coca-Cola are widely acknowledged as major elements fueling the country’s on-going civil war. The paramilitaries have killed tens of thousands of Colombians, including 2,500 trade unionists, since 1991.
Gamboa explained the connection between the civil war and the U.S-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: “The paramilitaries receive money from the multinationals for murder of labor leaders. If the agreement is passed the companies will have even more incentive to continue paying the paramilitaries because the trade agreement would let them cut workers’ wages and violently suppress organizing drives.”
Hoffa said the agreement would hurt American workers by encouraging further off-shoring of jobs and by putting downward pressure on U.S. wages and working conditions. He urged the Democratic-controlled Congress to defeat pending legislation implementing the pact. He also condemned Republican presidential candidate John McCain for using his recent trip to Colombia to push the agreement, calling McCain “out of touch with U.S. workers who oppose such trade pacts.”
The U.S., Hoffa said, “shouldn’t be dealing with regimes that torture and kill their own citizens. John McCain should know that better than anyone.” The Teamsters are urging everyone to call the senator at (202) 224-2235 and tell him, “No deals with murderers.”
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
The United Steelworkers union (USW) made history with its 2008 convention just held in Las Vegas. That’s History with a capital “H.” The kind of history that can forever change labor and our country. The kind of history that was made in 1935 when the CIO - Committee for Industrial Organization was formed.
The establishment of the CIO was neither the beginning, nor the end of the struggle for industrial unionism in the US and Canada. But it did mark an historic organizational turning point for labor. By its founding the CIO moved beyond the general question to the particular struggle to organize workers on an industrial basis. This advance by labor was crucial to match the development of monopoly capitalism.
Even long before 1935 there was a strong left/center core of unions and union leaders who fully understood that craft unionism could not match the power of giant corporations with factories all over the country, and even the world. They also saw that local unions with only local contracts would have little leverage in dealing with giant monopolies that could shift production and force workers to compete across state lines. Inherent to industrial unionism was the idea that all workers in a company and in a workplace should be organized in the same union with the same master contract. Also inherent in the thinking behind industrial unionism was the idea that unions had to fully participate in political struggles in addition to the direct economic struggles of workers.
Remember the name “Workers Uniting.”
It may very well be the CIO of our time. On July 2, the Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in the US and Canada, and, Unite the Union, the largest industrial union in the United Kingdom and Ireland, signed an agreement clearing the way for the creation of Workers Uniting. This will be the world's first global union.
There can be no doubt that the new union sees its mission as broad and transformative.
"Globalization has given financiers license to exploit workers in developing countries at the expense of our members in the developed world. This new union is crucial for challenging the growing power of global capital," said USW President Leo W. Gerard to loud applause from the over 3200 delegates.
Workers Uniting, in its constitution, calls on its members to "build global union activism, recognizing that uniting as workers across international boundaries is the only way to challenge the injustices of globalization.”
It is also clear that this merger is only the beginning. Workers Uniting is in talks with other unions around the world. It plans to very quickly open offices in Central America, the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and other regions. The USW convention featured international delegations from 29 countries.
The new global union makes clear that they will go beyond ‘pure and simple trade unionism. Rather they will be championing international working class solidarity, economically, politically and socially on a global scale. For example the USW and Unite the Union, even before the merger, have been collaborating on worker justice and solidarity efforts in Colombia where more trade unionists are murdered every year than anywhere else in the world. The convention saw a powerful video featuring the unions combined efforts to bring economic and social justice to rubber workers in Liberia, Africa.
The formation of the CIO did not take place in a political or economic vacuum. Nor did its success. It was a perfect storm. The CIO was born in response to a new level of corporate attacks on working families and labor. It grew out of a failing capitalist economy. It grew out of intense legislative and political action by the CIO unions. And it grew in tandem with broad social movements of the day, movements that challenged racism and discrimination against women, that promoted independent political action, movements for unemployment compensation and social security.
Sound familiar? The USW convention reflected much the same kind of perfect storm. All of this was totally entwined with the possibilities of change represented by the Barack Obama campaign. Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, called on labor to lead the fight against the “evil of racism” to elect Obama. The convention rang with calls from the rank and file delegates and the leadership for national health care, economic justice, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the right to organize, ending the war in Iraq, preserving Social Security and pension, defending civil liberties, and on and on. All reflecting activism and involvement in the broader social movements of the day.
In his comments to the USW convention, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney recognized the moment when he said, “Your alliances with world federations and unions in Australia, Brazil, Germany and Mexico have provided us with a blueprint for worldwide solidarity, and your merger with UNITE the Union makes a mockery of the empty rhetoric of so many other organizations that give lip-service to global solidarity and global unionism — but do nothing to advance it.”
The founding of Workers Uniting is not the beginning or the end of “Workers of the World Unite.” But it is a remarkable turning point in the right direction. History has been made and global labor power is in the making.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Declaring that “there is no evil that has inflicted more pain and suffering than the evil of racism in our country,” Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, brought the United Steelworkers of America (USW) delegates to their feet in thunderous applause when he told them, “We have a special responsibility to fight this evil. Not by calling anyone racist, but by educating those who won’t vote for Barack Obama because he is Black.”
Trumka told the delegates that they have to ask their neighbors, friends and fellow workers who say they won’t vote for Obama because he is Black: “Do you want to end the war in Iraq? Do you want universal health care for all? Do you want to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and guarantee the right to organize? Do you want four more years of Bush policies that have moved 3.4 million jobs offshore and ruined our economy? Do you want to continue higher gas prices?”
Trumka echoed the fighting spirit of the delegates by concluding, “We are not afraid to fight. We are ready to fight.”
The mood of the convention was clear from the response of the delegates to the opening keynote by USW President Leo Gerard.
Speaking of the last eight years of vicious Bush administration attacks on labor, Gerard said, “We need to fight. We need to be willing to fight.” This was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation.
“Make no mistake,” Gerard declared, “Impoverished workers in the developing world are as much our brothers and sisters as the men and women who brought our union to life. Our adversaries call this global scheme of worker exploitation ‘free trade’. Let us call it what it is — union-busting on steroids. And our response has to be clear: ‘We’ve had enough and we’re not taking that crap anymore’.” Again, a long, loud standing ovation.
“We can make history by working and voting for Barack Obama. Obama — who time and again has said he’ll push for the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama — who’ll go to bat for universal health care that lowers costs. Obama — who’s got a plan to revitalize manufacturing. So, sisters and brothers — there’s a real choice this time around. We can have real change by shooting for the stars. Or we can shoot ourselves in the foot and get four more years of Bush’s assault on working people with John McCain.” Again, a thunderous standing ovation.
Delegates at the mikes and in the hallways made clear the fighting spirit that shaped this convention.
Speakers from the floor told stories of plant occupations and sit-down strikes in Canada. They too were met with standing ovations.
The convention made history in many ways.
It ratified and established the first trans-Atlantic union by merging the USW with the UK’s 2 million-member Unite the Union to found the Workers Uniting union.
The delegates voted unanimously to seat Carol Landry, the first woman, ever, on the international executive board, as a vice president.
To gear up for fights ahead, delegates voted to increase dues to build a mighty war chest for their strike and defense fund.
Some might be tempted to describe this convention as union leaders preaching to the choir. But a better description would be union leaders listening to their mobilized and fired up army of activists ready to pour into the streets to fight and to win.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Day 2 of the Steelworkers Convention begins with a massive demonstration of over 3000 demanding a new contract for union Las Vegas taxi drivers. The Taxi Alliance workers have been working without a contract since last December. The taxi companies are stonewalling on issues including livable wages, long hours and targeting union drivers for firing.
The Las Vegas Alliance for Taxi and Limousine Drivers is a coalition of more than 5000 drivers who are members of Steelworker local 711A and members of ITPE local 4873.
A highlight of the picketing was a steady stream of taxi drivers on the boulevard with horns blaring as the pickets cheered.