America’s sweatshops: The new and the old

Sweatshops have always been an integral part of capitalist economies.

Most sweatshops that serve the US economy are located offshore in places like Bangladesh.

In order to avoid working in these sweatshops, some workers pay human traffickers to help them get to the US.

Unfortunately when they get to the US, many of these workers still end up working in sweatshops or in sweatshop-like conditions.

That’s what happened to three immigrant workers from the Philippines who recently told their stories in a short video produced by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. These workers are hoping that their stories will help bring justice for others who like them have been the victims of human trafficking and wage theft.

Another group of workers recently told their own stories about working under the omniscient gaze of an overseer intent on making them work longer and harder for less money.

These white-collar workers are current and former employees of Amazon, the US’ largest online retailer.

They told their story to the New York Times.

Together, these collections of stories offer two perspectives on the modern American sweatshop.

According to the Times article, written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “(Amazon) is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

At Amazon, work hours are extreme, workers are constantly monitored by a sophisticated electronic data collection system, some managers act like bullies,  and little consideration is given to an employee’s life outside of work. Sounds like a sweatshop.

Eighty-hour work weeks at Amazon are common, and in most cases expected.

One former Amazon employee told Kantor and Streitfeld that she received high performance ratings until she had to cut back working at night and on the weekends to help take care of an ill parent.

When her work hours dropped, so did her job performance ratings.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” said the Amazon employee to the authors.

Former workers also complained that their job performance ratings declined after they had to take a leave of absence for serious illnesses such as cancer.

Amazon regularly carries out arbitrary job cuts in which people with low performance ratings are fired.

Performance ratings are based on data collected on employees by the company’s electronic monitoring system and feedback from managers and other employees.

The Times reporters found that managers and employees sometimes game the performance rating system to advance their own careers, often at the expense of others.

For example, those interviewed for the article said that to protect their own jobs some employees form secret alliances and use the feedback system to snitch on other employees. Victims of these secret alliance may find themselves kicked off the Amazon team–sort of like an unsuccessful contestant on the reality show Survivor.

According to the authors, one Amazon human resources executive described the way that Amazon treats employees as “Purposeful Darwinism.”

The term sweatshop when applied to Amazon may be more figurative than literal.

That’s not the case for other employers like the ones who hired the three human trafficking victims interview by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

“(The trafficker) stayed in the factory to make sure I was working,” said Flor Molina, who like the other two interviewees on the video was able to escape her human trafficker. “She said she had brought me to the United States for work, so now my time was hers.”

“I was given only ten minutes to eat in the full 18-20 hours (of work).  I wasn’t allowed to take a break. If I took 10 or 20 minutes, I was punished,” continued Molina.

After Molina and the other two victims were able to escape they found other jobs, but they ran into another problem–wage theft.

One payday, Molina’s employer didn’t pay her. He went out of business and in order to avoid paying her, he moved, and changed his telephone number. He still owes Molina the money that she earned.

Molina and the other two told their stories in hopes that the California legislature will pass SB 588, which will strengthen California’s wage theft laws.

Currently, many California workers who win wage theft suits are unable to collect their wages because the state’s wage theft laws lack strong enforcement remedies. .

Molina said that she is speaking out about her experience because being silent only helps human traffickers and wage thieves.

“Silence is bliss for traffickers and abusers,” said Molina.

Verizon workers are still working but the fight for a fair contract continues

Two weeks after their collective bargaining agreement expired, 39,000 unionized Verizon workers the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states continue to work without a contract as bargaining between the workers’ unions and Verizon continue.

Union leaders told members that a strike is still possible, but when and if a strike does occur, it will take place when the unions have a tactical advantage.

“We are disgusted by Verizon’s attitude at the bargaining table. Their greed knows no bounds,” said the leaders of unions’ bargain team in a message to their members. “But we are not going to let our anger allow us to walk into a trap. It’s quite possible that Verizon is trying to provoke us into a long strike in order to try to break us. They have spent tens of millions of dollars preparing for a strike, training managers, hiring scabs and contractors, advertising against us on TV and radio. So your leadership has decided that if and when we strike, it will be on our terms, on our timing.”

Verizon despite making $18 billion in profits over the last 18 months is demanding concessions that include higher health care costs for workers, less job security, and more outsourcing of union work.

For the time being, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the two unions representing the workers, are taking other actions to strengthen their position at the bargaining table.

Among other things, the unions are reaching out to Verizon’s customers.

In a recent radio ad sponsored by CWA, the unions criticize the company for poor customer service.

“Can we count on Verizon to provide high speed internet and reliable phone service to customers and maintain good jobs for working families? Check the facts,” says the ad’s narrator. “Despite profits of $1 billion per month, millions of people can’t get FiOS and risk losing reliable phone service because of poor maintenance while Verizon outsources thousands of jobs and cuts workers’ take home pay.”

FiOS is Verizon’s voice over internet broadband service, which the company has decided not to extend to certain communities in the Verizon service area because the company believes that doing so would cut into the company’s profits.

FiOS could improve the quality of telephone service in these communities, where telephone service has deteriorated badly over the years because Verizon is not adequately maintaining the copper cabling used to deliver traditional telephone service.

An editorial in the South Jersey Times  said that South New Jersey is “the epicenter of discontent with (Verizon).”

According to the editorial, Verizon will be installing FiOS in upscale suburban neighborhoods and dense urban enclaves, but everyone else in South New Jersey is “stuck with deteriorating landlines that won’t be upgraded with anything comparable.”

Residents of rural New York voiced similar complaints at a recent hearing held by the New York State Public Service Commission in Poughkeepsie, New York. They were joined and supported by CWA members.

At the hearing, commission members heard complaints from community officials who criticized Verizon’s decision not to extend FiOS while allowing traditional phone lines to deteriorate.

Jim Gescheidle, executive vice president of CWA Local 1120, told the commission that the reason that Verizon’s telephone service is deteriorating is that “there are too few workers to do the work.”

Gescheidle went on to urge the commission to fine Verizon for its poor service.

The unions also have been mobilizing their members to show Verizon management that the workers are united and willing to fight for a fair contract.

Workers Verizon’s Silver Springs, Maryland, call center are holding “Militant Mondays” to demonstrate their unity. At the first Militant Monday, CWA Local 2108 members showed up for work wearing red and military camouflage.

The unions are also reaching out to elected leaders and asking for their support.

At a recent rally in Rockland County, New York union member were joined by local office holders and members of the legislature in urging Verizon to negotiate a fair contract and to make high speed internet service available to all of its customers.

In Dover, Delaware, CWA Local 13100 were joined by Mayor Robin Christiansen at a rally at a Dover Verizon office.

Union members have been busy collecting statements of support from other local, state, and national elected officials.

IBEW and CWA are urging other unions to help them stand up to Verizon by spreading the word about Verizon’s unreasonable stance at the bargaining table and its lack of concern for its customers.

Journey for Justice heads to DC

America’s Journey for Justice entered its second week as a determined band of marchers endured the August heat and made their way across Georgia headed for South Carolina, then North Carolina, and then Virginia.

The long march through red state territory began August 1 in Selma, Alabama, five days before the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and will end 860 miles later in Washington DC.

“We march because our lives matter, our votes matter, our jobs matter, and our schools matter,” said Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP at a June media conference announcing the journey.

The NAACP organized the journey and a coalition of its allies are supporting it. The coalition includes religious, civil rights, environmental, and social justice groups as well as two labor unions: the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Brooks said that the journey will mobilize activists and educate the public in order to advance “a national policy agenda that protects the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.

“We’ll march for 40 days and 40 nights,” said Brooks. “The purpose of the journey will be about putting laws on the books, not merely about protesting.”

Foremost on the agenda is the need to bring justice to a criminal justice system that discriminates against African Americans.

“The number of people subject to police profiling in the US is about equal to the number of people who live in Canada,” said Brooks. “An African American man is 21 more times likely to lose his life at the hands of the police than his white counterpart.”

The journey will also seek to build support for laws that will strengthen the Voting Rights Act.

A spate of voter identification laws aimed at restricting voter participation have been passed since 2011. In 2013, the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a result, state laws that restricted voter participation were allowed to stand and other states were empowered to enact similar laws.

“We must enact a policy agenda that honors civil rights and social justice – this is our fight,” said Claude Cummings, CWA District 6 vice president at the rally in Selma that served as a send off for the journey. “Fifty years ago, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Now, extremism and attacks on voting rights and registration have made it much more difficult for millions of Americans to vote.”

The journey will also seek legislation that will help ensure full employment at a living wage and a public school system that serves the public, not special interests seeking to turn education into a revenue stream for private investors.

On August 10, the marchers completed 144 miles of their journey as they marched through LaGrange, Georgia where they planned to hold a teach in on the journey’s legislative agenda.

With 705 more miles to go, participants in the march, who have come from as far away as San Francisco and New York City, remained in high spirits.

“This march is amazing, even on a day like this when it’s incredibly hot outside,” said a marcher named Mary  to the LaGrange Daily News. “It’s completely worth it. There are 150 rabbis from across the country that will be coming to carry the Torah for a stretch of the Journey for Justice. This Torah comes from a synagogue in Chicago and it’s being handed from rabbi to rabbi each day. This Torah will make it the entire way from Selma to Washington, DC.”

“To be in a group of people so dedicated and so conscious of what is really going on in our country, it is so incredibly moving, that I keep getting overwhelmed by the depth of commitment and brilliance of the people that are putting this on and walking together,” said Sarah Boddy an NAACP member to the Daily News.

The journey will continue on through Georgia and arrive in South Carolina on August 20. It will then move to North Carolina where CWA will be hosting a voting rights teach-in on August 26 in Charlotte.

The main speaker will be William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the leader of the Moral Monday Movement, a grassroots effort aimed at reversing the attacks on voting rights, workers rights, civil rights, and social justice that have become so prevalent since 2011.

The journey moves to Virginia on September 3 and ends in Washington DC on September 16 where the marchers and their supporters will hold a rally and day of advocacy.

Unions seek a bigger role in DuPont’s safety program

Two union leaders have written a letter to DuPont and Chemours urging two companies to act on their publicly stated concern for workplace safety by allowing union safety experts to make regular visits to their chemical production facilities to help “identify and correct hazardous conditions.”

The unions said that unlike other employers for whom their members work, DuPont and Chemours have been unwilling to work with union health and safety experts to help improve process safety at their plants.

Earlier this year the US Chemical Safety Board reported that “complex process-related accidents with tragic results are taking place across the country at companies of all sizes” and cited three accidents at DuPont facilities.

The most recent accident took place in 2014 at a DuPont chemical plant in LaPorte, Texas where four workers died after inhaling methyl mercaptan, a toxic chemical used in the production of pesticides, that had leaked into a work area.

“We are writing out of deep concern for safety at DuPont’s current plants and in the former DuPont plants spun off July 1 into Chemours,” begins the letter signed by Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers (USW), and Frank Cyphers, president of the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC).

The USW members work at DuPont and Chemour plants in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York; Edgemoor. Delaware; and Deepwater, New Jersey.

ICWUC members work at DuPont and Chemours plants in Parlin, New Jersey and LaPorte.

“It’s clear that there are very serious safety problems at DuPont and Chemours,” said Cyphers. “It’s critical that the two companies work in good faith with their employees and the unions representing them.”

“We have close relationships on safety and health with many employers,” said Gerard. “But in the past DuPont has rejected any involvement by union safety and health professionals. We have the right to represent our members on safety and health. We can do that through OSHA complaints and Labor Board charges, but we would greatly prefer to do that by working together on the basis of mutual respect.”

In addition to the fatal accident at LaPorte, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) cited two other accidents at DuPont that were caused by lax process safety measures.

One took place in 2010 at DuPont’s Buffalo facility where a welding spark ignited flammable vapors in a chemical storage tank causing an explosion that sent molten steel shooting through the air. Fortunately no one was killed.

CSB found that DuPont had not properly isolated the tank where the chemicals were stored and didn’t use proper gas detection units.

Another 2010 accident took place at a DuPont plant in Belle, West Virginia where a banded steel hose ruptured releasing toxic phosgene into the air killing one worker.

The safety board’s report found that the hose that ruptured was made from inferior and less expensive materials and hadn’t been replaced at the scheduled replacement time.

CSB also found that DuPont had not installed proper ventilation or alarm systems in the area where phosgene was stored.

At DuPont’s LaPorte facility, CSB also found that the ventilation system had been improperly installed and that it was designed poorly. The poor ventilation system allowed the deadly toxic leak into a work area. In addition, the ventilation fans weren’t working and there weren’t enough oxygen masks for rescue workers.

In an opinion piece appearing in the Houston Chronicle, Rena Steinzor, an expert on workplace safety law, called DuPont’s leak prevention and response in LaPorte, “shockingly inept.”

DuPont’s safety problems have come during a time when the company has been under pressure from private equity firms like Trian Management to create more shareholder value.

In response to this pressure, DuPont announced in 2014 that it would embark on a cost cutting campaign that is expected to achieve $1 billion a year in cost savings by 2019.

It’s unlikely that top DuPont executives told local facility managers to scrimp on safety to cut costs, but the temptation to forego maintenance and cut back on process safety can be great when excessively high cost cuts are demanded by managers’ bosses.

DuPont’s cost cutting culture may also explain why the company has been reluctant to work with union safety experts to make the company’s plants safer.

While DuPont remains reluctant to cooperate with unions on workplace safety issues, it has been much more obliging to its shareholders.

Last year, the company announced that it had authorized $5 billion to buy back stock from investors. Since then, the company has spent $2 billion on stock buy backs and said that it will continue to pursue its buy back program aggressively.

Farmworkers in Washington fight for a contract; urge boycott until they get one

It has been a contentious summer in the Sate of Washington’s Skagit Valley.

Farmworkers at the Sakuma Brothers berry farm have walked of the job three times to protest unfair production quotas that adversely affect their pay and safety and health conditions.

The strikes, which so far have lasted for short periods. are part of ongoing struggle for fair treatment and worker rights that began more than a decade ago.

The Sakuma Brothers farmworkers, mainly immigrants from southern Mexico, organized Familia Unidas por las Justicia (Families United for Justice) and are seeking to be recognized as a union by the company, a large industrial sized berry picking and processing operation.

Members of Familias Unidas are asking consumers to boycott berries picked at Sakuma, most of which are sold under the Driscoll’s brand.

Familias Unidas is also asking consumers to boycott Haagen-Dazs ice cream products which also use berries from Sakuma Brothers.

In a recent development, Familias Justicia reports that Sakuma Brothers is now packaging berries under the Belmont brand.

Familias Unidas over the years has won pay increases and other concessions from Sakuma Brothers, one of the largest berry producers in the State of Washington, but the company has refused to bargain with the workers’ group for an enforceable collective bargaining agreement.

Last year, Sakuma Brothers agreed to pay $850,000 to settle wage theft suits initiated by Familias Unidas.

The suits claimed that Sakuma Brothers failed to pay workers for time worked and denied them breaks.

Sakuma acknowledged that it made payroll mistakes that led to workers being under paid, but maintains that the mistakes were unintentional.

Familias Unidas struggle for a fair contract has attracted support from organized labor in the Northwest.

Members from the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) and other unions joined a July 11 march in the Skagit Valley to support Familia Unidas.

The day before the march, members of Familias Unidas met with union leaders from California, Washington, and Mexico to discuss strategies for winning a collective bargaining agreement.

“This is an important campaign that crosses borders to unite the common concerns of workers,” said Rich Austin, president of ILWU’s Pacific Coast Pensioners Association. “It’s not an easy fight, but the important fights are never easy. Solidarity and unity are the best weapons we have to fight injustice and capitalist greed.”

The ILWU in June passed a resolution of support for Familias Unidas at its international convention.

“The ILWU calls upon other labor organizations and legislators and congressional delegations to support a boycott of Sakuma Brothers Farms, Haagen-Dazs, and Driscoll’s Berries until the demands of Familias Unidas Por La Justicia are met, reads the resolution.

Although work has resumed after the most recent strike, the fight for a fair contract is continuing.

Familias Unidas is holding a demonstration on August 9 at the Skagit Historical Museum, which is presenting a program called Back to Our Roots, an historical overview of agriculture in the Skagit Valley.

The exhibit ignores the role that farmworkers have played in the agricultural history of the valley.

In addition, Steve Sakuma, one of the Sakuma Brothers owners is scheduled to speak at the ceremony that kicks off the exhibit.

“This is insult to the Farmworkers to have an event that blatantly leaves out people who have gathered or produced food in Skagit Valley for generations and have contributed much to the history of Skagit Valley,” reads an internet post announcing the demonstration.

Fight for $15 gains momentum at UC; union vows to continue the fight until everyone is covered

The fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour gained momentum in California after the University of California System (UC) on July 21 announced that it will increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The raise, which affects 3,200 UC workers, will be phased in over three years. The UC minimum wage increases to $13 an hour on October 1, then to $14 an hour 12 months later in 2016, and finally to $15 an hour on October 1, 2017.

“This is the right thing to do — for our workers and their families, for our mission and values, and to enhance UC’s leadership role by becoming the first public university in the United States to voluntarily establish a minimum wage of 15 dollars,” said UC President Janet Napolitano.

But thousands of workers providing services on UC campuses and health centers won’t be receiving the raise because they work for outsourcing contractors.

Napolitano said that UC would step up its monitoring and compliance efforts of its contractors in an attempt to get contractors to pay decent wages.

But Kathryn Lybarger, president of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 22,000 UC workers, said that Napolitano’s proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“We are encouraged to hear that (President Napolitano) recognizes that there is a problem,” said Lybarger. “That said, any proposal that does not guarantee equal pay for UC subcontractors is not good enough.”


According to Lybarger, UC like other comparable public institutions is relying more and more on private companies to provide essential services such building maintenance, food service, and custodial service.

As a result, what were once stable jobs that provided decent benefits have been turned into low-wage, dead-end jobs.

Since 2009, said Lybarger, UC has added 9,000 students and 12 new facilities, but the number of full-time UC employees who provide services to these students and maintain these facilities has declined.

To fill this need, UC has turned to private companies that in many cases make their profits by paying poverty wages with few if any benefits.

Many of these jobs are described as temporary positions when in fact they are permanent.

“These workers are not temporary,” said Lybarger. “Many have worked at UC for years, some for as little as half of what their UC employed peers make and for few benefits.”

Most of these workers, who provide vital services but are paid poverty wages, are immigrants or people of color, said Lybarger

Lybarger said that AFSCME has a record of fighting discrimination at UC and would continue to do so. That fight includes extending the minimum wage increase to all UC workers whether they work directly for UC or for a private contractor.

“UC has to turn the page by supporting equal pay for contract workers and by ending this permanent outsourcing of staffing needs to poverty wage employers,” said Lybarger. “Until (it) does, we will not stop fighting.”

Lybarger said that a bill pending in the state legislature would go a long way toward ending the abuse of contract workers on UC campuses.

SB 376 would  raise wages and benefits for UC contract workers to the same level as UC workers in comparable positions.

It passed the Senate and has been reviewed favorably by two committees of the General Assembly.

But its passage is in question because it is opposed by UC and by Gov. Jerry Brown.

In May, AFSCME confronted President Napolitano about her opposition to SB 376.

At a UC Regent’s dinner in a posh downtown San Francisco dining facility, members picketed outside.

Some were able to enter the building where the dinner was being held.

They delivered 7000 letters calling on President Napolitano to support SB 376 and handed her a package of Ramen noodles, “all that contracted out workers can afford to eat on UC’s poverty wages,” said an AFSCME flyer.

UC has complained that paying a living wage to contract workers would be too expensive.

But the question of expense doesn’t seem to concern UC when it comes to executive salaries.

The Sacramento Bee reports that UC paid former UC President Mark Yodof $546,000 in 2014, the year after he resigned from his position.

The Bee also reports that 445 UC executives and others hold high-paying positions were paid $500,000 or more in 2014.