Unions: No matter how the Supreme Court rules on Janus, we’ll keep fighting to “unrig” our economy

In the face of the latest attack on the working class, union members vowed to continue their fight against inequality and corporate privilege no matter how the Supreme Court rules on Janus v. AFSCME District Council 31.

That was the message repeated countless times at rallies and demonstrations that took place all across the US during the February 24 Working People’s Day of Action.

At a rally in New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of 11 Day of Action demonstrations that took place in the state, Sheila Kerns, president of AFSCME Local 1067 succinctly explained what Mark Janus, the plaintiff in the case, is seeking.

“How do you spell entitlement,” asked Kerns as she spoke to the demonstrators at the rally. “J-A-N-U-S.”

In other words, Janus, who enjoys the benefits of union representation even though he is not a union member, feels entitled to receive these benefits without having to pay his fair share to protect and expand them.

Janus’ lawsuit has been financed by corporate billionaires such as the Koch brothers who hope that if the Court rules in their favor, more workers like Janus will quit paying their fair share for union representation, thus weakening unions, the most effective opposition to corporate greed.

The Janus case is a transparent attempt to weaken unions, particularly public sector unions by depriving them of funding.

While today’s Court is packed with corporate friendly judges such as the newly appointed Judge Neil Gorsuch, that hasn’t always been the case.

In 1977, the Supreme Court recognized the important role that unions play as a counter balance to wealth and privilege when it ruled that fair share fees like the ones that Janus doesn’t want to pay were in fact fair.

Janus’ billionaire backers are hoping that a more corporate friendly Court will reverse its previous decision.

Should they win, the freedom of the working class to take collective action to defend and improve our standard of living could be at stake.

Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO recognized this threat as he addressed 5000 people at the Chicago Working People’s Day of Action.

“Our freedom is under attack,” Carrigan said.

But, continued Carrigan repeating a theme heard at all of the Day of Action demonstrations, “Whether you are in a union or not, working people are here to fight back. We are here to unrig the system.”

“This case is the culmination of decades of attacks on working people by corporate CEOs, the wealthiest 1 percent, and the politicians that do their bidding to rig the economy in their favor,” said the Communication Workers of America (CWA) in a message to members urging support for the Day of Action.

“It’s meant to destroy the ability of people who work in the public sector, including more than 100,000 CWA members, to join together in unions to negotiate better wages, benefits, and protections that improve working conditions and set standards for everyone,” continued the union in its message.

To emphasize that the fight to unrig the economy would continue no matter how the Supreme Court rules on Janus, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organized on-the-job actions that the union called #WeRise at 600 work sites on the Monday after the Day of Action, the same day that the Court heard Janus arguments from both sides.

SEIU reports that tens of thousands of SEIU and Fight for $15 members participated in #WeRise actions, which included some walkouts, to announce that the union would continue organizing and fighting to give working people a voice on the job, in their communities, and to elected officials.

“I know some people aren’t well informed on the benefits of having a union job,” said Kim Akins, an SEIU Local 73 in Chicago explaining why on-the-job organizing is important. “You have a sisterhood and brotherhood in this organization. If and when you are put in a situation when you have some type of issue in your workplace, you are not alone in facing it. You are stronger in numbers rather than trying to be a solo act and think that you can work a problem out alone. A closed mouth is never fed.”

West Virginia teachers extend their strike

Union leaders said that West Virginia teachers and school support employees will continue their strike through at least Monday.

The strike, which has shut down public schools in all of the state’s 55 counties, was scheduled to end on Friday, but union leaders and members were dissatisfied with the progress made toward resolving the issues that caused the strike.

“It is clear that education employees are dissatisfied with the inaction of the legislative leaders or the governor,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA). “Education employees have not seen appropriate progress on issues vital to teachers, professional personnel, and service personnel, and that is why they are still (on strike).”

Lee made his remarks at a media conference called on Saturday afternoon to announce the decision to continue the strike.

“This isn’t about  the union, it’s about public education,” said Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV). “The reason that all these people are (at the capital), they’re not standing up for themselves; they’re standing up for their students.”

State cuts to the education budget over the years have resulted in crowded classrooms, cuts to vital school services, and a severe teacher shortage caused by the exodus of teachers in West Virginia to nearby states that pay better and have better benefits.

Speaking to reporters, Lee said that there has been some progress toward resolving the strike issues, but not enough.

The Legislature voted for and the governor signed a bill that raises teacher pay by 2 percent next year.

But Campbell said that even with the pay raise, West Virginia still ranks 48th in teacher pay among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

“We want them to do something that will get us out of 48th in the country,” Campbell said. “We want to make sure that we can fill these (727 teaching) vacancies with  experienced, highly qualified educators in every single classroom in West Virginia.”

Lee said that union leaders met with state leaders on Saturday before the decision was made to continue the strike but that the leadership of the state didn’t make a commitment to address the strike issues.

In addition to a real pay raise, West Virginia teachers and school support employees want a solution to the spiraling costs of their health care plans.

For the last four years, the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) has been forced to implement what a PEIA board member called “draconian” cuts to public employees’ health care benefits because the state has not fully funded their health care plans.

The unions want a long-term solution to their health care funding problem and a seat at the table when PEIA makes decisions that affect their health insurance, Lee said.

In addition to better pay and improved benefits, the unions want to stop anti-public school legislation that has been proposed during this session of the Legislature.

Specifically, the unions oppose bills that would authorize using state money to fund private schools, eliminate school employee seniority rights, and union busting bills such as SB 335, which would end the common practice of withholding union dues from employees paychecks.

Lee said that the strike has received widespread support from the community. He noted that a number of school superintendents had signed petitions in support of their employees’ goals and that so far, local school boards have chosen to close schools rather than try to keep them open during the strike.

While right wing politicians have pushed the line that the strike is the work of union bosses, the fact is that union members have been the ones pushing their leaders to take action.

Nearly 10,000 union members were at the state capital on Friday to show their support for the strike and the same number were at the capital on Saturday.

Lee said that at least that many if not more were walking picket lines in their local communities.

Reporters wanted to know if the strike would be continued past Monday.

Campbell replied, “We have to see some commitment to the issues we have been talking about the last several years and especially the last few days. We want to see a commitment from the Legislature to address these issues. That commitment will determine how we proceed. It’s in their hands.”

West Virginia teachers on strike

Fed up and feeling disrespected, West Virginia teachers and school support employees today began their statewide strike to save public education.

The strikers set up picket lines at their schools, held rallies and demonstrations in their communities, and some traveled to Charleston, the state capital, to demand action by lawmakers.

Even though West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey declared the strike illegal, leaders of the two state public education unions, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), said that schools in all 55 counties of the state were closed.

The strike was caused by years of neglect by state leaders.

A series of budget cuts have resulted in crowded classrooms, cuts in vital school services, and a severe teacher shortage as qualified teachers leave the state to take jobs in nearby states that pay better and have better benefits.

Rebecca Diamond, a second grade teacher in Huntington, and Jacob Fertig, an art teacher in Kanahwa County, explained why they are willing to defy state leaders and go on strike.

“I have a daughter,” Diamond said. “I will go on strike, so that she will have a highly qualified teacher in every single classroom that she goes into.”

Diamond said that her current salary isn’t enough to pay her family’s bills, so she has taken a second weekend job where she sometimes works ten-hour shifts on both days.

Instead of working at my second job on the weekends, Diamond said. “I’d like to be preparing for what I’m going to the next week at school.”

Fertig, whose wife has a chronic illness and whose daughter has a physical disability, said that he needs a quality, affordable health care plan, but that West Virginia does not provide one to teachers, school support employees, and other public employees.

“The lack of quality health insurance that we have here for teachers in West Virginia bankrupted my family,” Fertig said.

“We qualified for food stamps and WIC (a federal nutrition program for women, infants, and children),” Fertig continued.

According to Fertig the original teacher pay raise offered by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice would have raised Fertig’s pay by about $375 a year. In the same year, his health care premium was scheduled to increase by about $1100 a year.

By 10:00 A.M. this morning a long line of hundreds of teachers formed outside of the West Virginia Capitol as striking teachers and other public school employees waited for the building to open.

When it did, the first floor of the building was covered with a flood of people wearing red and demanding that lawmakers take real action to solve the state’s public education crisis.

The strike has already had an impact.

The day before the strike began, the Finance Board of the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), which manages health insurance plans for teachers and other public employees, approved a freeze on health care benefits for the next school year.

The freeze halts the $29 million worth of health care cuts for next year authorized by PEIA in December.

Union leaders said that the freeze is a step in the right direction, but PEIA, the Legislature, and governor need to do more.

“We still believe a freeze is not a fix,” said Christine Campbell, president of AFT-WV, about the agency’s decision to freeze benefits.

Campbell and Dale Lee, president of WVEA, both said that there needs to be a long-term, permanent solution to the funding problems that have caused PEIA to radically cut health care benefits over the last four years.

On the eve of the strike, the Legislature passed a pay raise bill for teachers and school support staff.

The raise increases pay by 2 percent next year, and 1 one percent the following two years.

When asked by reporters if she was satisfied with the pay raise, Campbell said that she wasn’t.

“This isn’t something that will actually pull us out of 48th in the country,” Campbell said.

Campbell was referring to the fact that teacher pay in West Virginia ranks 48th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In addition to wanting the Legislature to do more to improve pay and health care benefits, Campbell also said urged union members to keep up pressure on the Legislature to thwart anti-public education bills pending before the body.

Among those bad bills are SB 335, which would prohibit the withholding of union dues from union members’ paychecks, SB 6, which would provide vouchers for parents wanting to send their children to private schools, and several bills that attack seniority rights for teachers.

The statewide strike has made state officials nervous. Attorney General Morrisey hoped that he could dissuade union members from going on strike by announcing that the work action is illegal.

He also said that if any local governments requested him to do so, he would file an injunction to halt the strike.

So far, no one has taken him up on his offer.

After the attorney general issued his threats, Lee said that the fact that the strike is illegal would not keep teachers and school support employees from striking.

“Education employees know they do not have the right to strike and they know there could be consequences to their actions,” Lee said. “But their frustration and anger has reached a boiling point and the Legislature continues to move punitive bills and fuel their anger. They are courageous and standing up for themselves, our schools and our students. They should be applauded instead of threatened.”

Austin workers win paid sick leave

More than 200,000 workers in Austin, Texas won a new benefit on February 15 when the city council passed a new ordinance that requires local employers to provide paid sick leave to workers.

The new paid sick leave ordinance was an initiative of Work Strong Austin, a community/labor organization that includes the Workers Defense Fund, UNITE HERE Local 23, Fight for $15, Young Active Labor Leaders, and the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

“I think this was a big victory for public health and workers’ rights in the city, and just as important a victory for progressive politics of Texas and the South,” said City Council Member Greg Casar to the Austin American-Statesman. “This would not have passed without a strong majority on the council and the election of progressive pro-worker (council members).”

Casar sponsored the ordinance and worked closely with Work Strong Austin to get it passed.

The new ordinance requires private employers to allow workers to earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. An employee of a business or non-profit organization can accrue up to at least eight hours of paid sick leave a year.

Employees of private employers with fewer than 15 employees may accrue only six days of paid sick leave.

Businesses that already provide more generous paid sick leave will continue to do so.

Prior to the city council’s vote, hundreds of supporters of the ordinance rallied in front of City Hall to urge passage of the ordinance.

Casar, who was at one time the policy director for the Workers Defense Project, told the crowd that other cities in the South had tried and failed to pass paid sick leave ordinances, but “we’re not going to fail because of the amazing organizing and support that you all have brought to the table.”

“We have an unprecedented coalition of organizations coming together, and we are going to make sure that we don’t fail but that we pass (this ordinance tonight),” Casar continued.

Casar also urged people at the rally to register in support of the ordinance; nearly 400 did and many testified in favor of it.

Among those who testified in favor of the ordinance were UNITE HERE Local 23 members Darnell Franklin and Iris Leija.

Casar read off a long list of organizations that supported the ordinance. Among those were the Communication Workers of America (CWA) District 6 and CWA Local 6132, whose members work for AT&T in the Austin area.

Claude Cummings, District 6 vice president, and Jason Peavler, president of Local 6132, co-authored a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the ten city council members.

In the letter Cummings and Peavler called on the mayor and city council members to vote for the ordinance without delay and to make sure that it applied to all workers.

The CWA letter also explained why paid sick leave is important and why immediate action was needed.

“The fact is this: paid sick time is a basic human right, “the letter stated. “For every day that goes by without passage of the paid sick time ordinance, over 200,000 men and women in Austin are forced to choose between a pay cut or taking care of themselves or a loved one because they do not have access to paid sick days.”

Before the vote took place, opponents of the ordinance including the Austin Chamber of Commerce, tried to get a vote on the measure postponed.

They argued that not enough was known about the impact that paid sick leave for all would have on businesses. They also said that there wasn’t any Austin specific information about the impact that the new benefit would have.

But days before the final vote was taken, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) released the results of a cost benefit analysis of the Austin ordinance.

IWPR said that its researchers specifically studied the impact that giving paid health care to Austin workers would have on Austin businesses and concluded that the ordinance would save businesses $4.5 million a year.

The analysis estimated that providing Austin workers with paid sick leave would cost businesses $34.3 million a year but that it would generate business savings of $38.8 million a year.

After the IWPR cost-benefit was released and before the city council voted for the ordinance, Ann Beeson, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said that “this new cost-benefit analysis shows that paid sick days are a win-win-win for employers, for workers, and for our entire community.”

West Virginia teachers will strike to save public education

On a cold, rainy Saturday, 10,000 teachers and school support employees rallied in Charleston, West Virginia to demand that state leaders take action to fix the state’s public education crisis.

At the end of the rally, the leaders of the two state public education unions announced that on Thursday, February 22, teachers and school support staff in all 55 West Virginia counties will begin a two-day, statewide strike.

“The entire state of West Virginia will be shut down. We are standing united–all 55 (counties),” said Dale Lee, president of West Virginia Education Association to the 10,000 rally attendees.

“Will you stand with us?” he asked

Six days earlier, local leaders of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association from all 55 West Virginia counties voted to authorize a statewide strike unless state leaders took action to fix the state’s public education crisis

State budget cuts to education funding have resulted in crowded classrooms, fewer learning resources, and cuts to vital services at schools.

The state also has failed to provide adequate funding for affordable health care and competitive salaries for public school employees.

Low pay and the lack of affordable health care have caused a teacher shortage as many qualified educators have left the state for teaching opportunities elsewhere.

There are currently 727 vacant teaching positions in the state because of the low pay and a string of punishing benefit cuts.

After the strike vote, Christine Campbell, president of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and Lee, called the vote “historic” because it was the first time that the two organizations have joined in voting for a statewide strike.

Lee told reporters that more than 100 delegates from all of the state’s 55 counties “overwhelmingly voted to authorize a statewide action.”

Prior to the Sunday meeting, “quiet a few of the counties including some of our larger ones voted in excess of 90 percent to authorize our action,” added Lee.

“We’re willing to lead any action necessary to fight for public education,” said Campbell, speaking about the historic strike vote.

She went on to say that while state leaders have been short-changing public education, they continue “to give tax breaks to corporations.”

Both Campbell and Lee said that state leaders need to fund salary increases to make public school pay in West Virginia competitive with other states.

Too many of our qualified teachers are leaving the state for better jobs, said Campbell while she explained the strike vote to reporters on February 12.

State leaders also need to fund an affordable health care plane for public school employees.

During the last three years the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) has cut health care funding by $150 million because lawmakers have under funded public employees’ health care plan.

PEIA’s own executive director called the cuts “draconian.”

Because of the cuts, premiums, deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance costs have soared.

While employee health care cost have increased, their pay has remained stagnant.

PEIA announced in December that for the next school year, which begins in July, it would be cutting benefits again because of a lack of state funding.

The latest round of cuts was too much for public school employees, and they expressed their anger at public hearings, by staging demonstrations, and in some cases, walking off the job to travel to Charleston to demand that the legislature take action to provide affordable health care.

The mobilizations had some effect. West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice announced that he will propose a freeze on public school health care benefits at their current level, which if enacted would mean that there will be no benefit cuts during the 2018-2019 school year.

But angry teachers and school support employees have told Gov. Justice and the state’s lawmakers that “a freeze is not a fix” and that they want a long-term, lasting  solution to make their health care affordable again.

Friday, the day before the two-day strike was announced, lawmakers got a hint of what was to come.

Teachers and school support employees from Brooke, Cabell, Clay, Lincoln, Mason, Wayne, and Wetzel counties walked off their jobs and drove to Charleston to demand action by lawmakers.

Some of those who walked out went to the Senate gallery to observe the debate on fixing the public school crisis.

At a little after 12 noon, as the Senate started to adjourn, the crowd in the gallery began chanting, “We will strike,” “Do your job,” “We will vote you out.”

Federal contractor charged with labor law violations and wage theft

The National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint alleging that one of the federal government’s largest contractors has violated federal labor laws.

The complaint issued by Region 5 of the NLRB states that General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) took illegal action to prevent workers at its Alexandria, Virginia call center from joining a union.

In a related matter, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) has charged GDIT with massive and systemic wage theft and has called on the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor to take action against the company.

GDIT, which reported $4.4 billion in revenue in 2016, has extensive contracts with the US military, intelligence services, and civilian agencies.

Among its many government contracts is one with the Pension Benefit Guarantee Board  (PBGB).

Under this contract, 80 GDIT employees at its Alexandria call center answer inquiries from people who receive or are about to receive pension benefits from PBGB.

These workers in 2016 began working with CWA to form a union.

The NLRB’s complaint says that GDIT management responded to the workers’ desire to form a union with coercion and threats.

“I’m happy that GDIT is finally being taken to task for breaking the law,” said Sabrina Batta-Hopson, a union supporter at the Alexandria call center. “I hope this labor board complaint will prevent the company from spreading more misinformation to other workers.”

Among other things, the NLRB alleges that the call center’s program manager “by e-mail promulgated and maintained” a rule against employees talking to other employees about joining a union.

The same program manager during an employee meeting misinformed workers that a union wouldn’t help them get a pay raise because it would take an act of Congress to get one.

At another employee meeting, the program manager threatened employees with the loss of benefits if they joined a union and falsely claimed that if they joined a union, the company would lose its contract with PBGB.

The NLRB’s complaint is due to be heard on May 22 by an administrative judge.

“These federally contracted workers are entitled to the protections of our labor laws,” said Alex van Schaick, a CWA attorney. “GDIT not only abuses workers’ rights, but is also the focus of serious complaints about wage theft and other abuses, and may owe its employees over $100 million in back wages.”

The wage theft to which Van Schaick referred involves workers at 11 GDIT call centers all across the US.

These call centers operate under contract with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

These workers answer people’s questions about Medicare, help people enroll in Affordable Care Act health care plans, and help Medicare recipients get medical equipment to manage their health problems.

CWA wants the Wage and Hour Division to investigate its charge that GDIT is violating the law by misclassfying workers in order to pay a wage lower than the prevailing wage required by the Services Contract Act, by which contractors must abide in order get contracts with the federal government.

The union estimates that GDIT owes $107 million in back pay.

The crux of the union complaint is that GDIT’s call center workers are trained extensively and have broad knowledge about services that callers are seeking, but their job classification reflects a much lower level of skill and training.

“I’ve had two rounds of extensive training to get to my current job. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work,” said Adrian Powe, a worker at GDIT’s Hattiesburg, Mississippi call center. “But I’m being paid at a much lower rate. I’m being cheated, and the federal government must hold GDIT accountable. GDIT needs to follow the contract it agreed to.”

Powe makes $9.64 an hour, but said he should make $11 to $12 an hour.

CWA estimates that if workers at the Hattiesburg call center were classified correctly and paid the wage they deserve, their annual wages would increase by between $3682 and $6572.

In addition to the workers in Hattiesburg, CWA has also filed wage theft complaints on behalf of GDIT workers in Kansas, Louisiana, and Virginia.

Kathleen Flick, who works at a GDIT call center in Bogualusa, Louisiana said that it’s wrong for GDIT to be stealing money from the working poor.

“I can’t run my air conditioning in the summer because I can’t afford the electric bills,” Flick said. “When I needed a major car repair, I had to take the money out of my 401(k) retirement plan. I’d like to visit my kids, both of whom are active military, but I can’t afford to do it.”

CWA President Chris Shelton said that the union’s wage theft charges will be test for the Trump administration.

“This will be a real test of whether laws that safeguard working people are actually enforced under the Trump administration,” Shelton said. “We’ve heard a lot of promises from this president about defending American workers. It’s time for action, not rhetoric.”

Fast food workers celebrate the past, fight for the future

Fast food workers on February 12 across the US walked off their jobs in the latest mass action to win a nationwide minimum wage of $15 an hour.

The strike for a $15 minimum wage coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers strike.

Fifty years ago on February 12, African American sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike to protest their racist bosses and because they wanted to form a union.

They told city officials that they needed a union to protect themselves from racial discrimination.

They cited the death of two of their colleagues, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by malfunctioning equipment.

The tragedy did not seem to concern the white city officials who took no action to improve safety conditions in the city’s sanitation department.

The striking workers responded by demanding that they be treated like human beings, not disposable parts. Their rallying cry became, “I AM A MAN.”

Fifty years later fast food workers are taking up the same demand–treat us like human beings, pay us a decent wage, and let us form unions to make sure that employers treat employees with respect and dignity.

“Fast-food cooks and cashiers like me are fighting for higher pay and union rights, the same things striking sanitation workers fought for 50 years ago,” said Ashley Cathey, a 29-year-old Memphis fast-food worker explaining why she would be striking on February 12. “We’re not striking and marching just to commemorate what they did; we’re carrying their fight forward. And we won’t stop until everyone in this country can be paid $15 an hour and has the right to join a union.”

Fight for $15 strikes took place in two dozen cities across the US, but the center of the day’s action was Memphis, where striking workers and their supporters rallied at Clayborn Temple and then marched to city hall, the same route taken by striking sanitation workers 50 years ago.

Before they rallied at the Clayborn Temple, 100 Memphis fast food workers and their supporters rallied at a downtown McDonald’s.

One of the workers who walked off the job was Robin Curtis, a Burger King employee and a mother of two who works multiple jobs to support her family.

When she saw the crowd gather outside of the McDonald’s near where she worked, she decided to join the strike.

“$8 (an hour) is not enough to live on. It’s time for a change,” said Curtis to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “To make a change, if I have to quit, I will.”

At the city hall rally, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, told the crowd that the fight for $15 is a fight for the soul of America.

It’s wrong, said Theoharis that “there are 64 million workers in this country that make less than $15 an hour, and yet 400 families (in America) make $97,000 an hour. This is not just. This is not right.”

Theoharis said that the Poor People’s Campaign beginning on Mothers Day would be initiating a season of organizing, educating, and mobilizing to revitalize the fight for economic justice and civil rights in the US.

For forty days after Mothers Day, Theoharis said, we’ll be taking non-violent direct action including acts of civil disobedience to win a $15 minimum wage, to win the right for workers to form unions, to win the right to live free of racism, to win the right to live free of sexism, and to win the right of all working people to live with dignity and respect.

Also scheduled to speak at the rally was the Rev. William Barber II, also a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, but he was unable to attend because of illness.

In a statement issued prior to the Memphis march and rally, Barber emphasized the link between the sanitation workers’ strike and the fast food workers’ strike.

“The fight for strong unions was at the heart of the original Poor People’s Campaign,” said Barber referring to the 1960s campaign for civil rights and worker rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “It must be at the forefront of our effort as well.”

Barber did deliver an audio message to the Memphis rally.

In his message, he said that the best way to pay homage to striking Memphis garbage workers today is “to say to America . . .  , it’s time to take out the garbage.”

“Racism is garbage,” continued Barber. “Sexism is garbage; mistreating women is garbage; not paying people a living wage is garbage; not being willing to give people health care is garbage; tearing down the environment is garbage; not caring for our Latino and immigrant brothers and sisters is garbage; trying to undermine union rights is garbage; and putting more money into wars than building people’s lives is garbage.

“It’s time for a movement that will take out the garbage and replace it with a new community, a new understanding, a new justice, a new fairness, a new equality, and a new wage.”

Worker advocate: Trump’s proposed tip rule legalizes wage theft

The US Department of Labor (DOL) on February 5 began taking comments on a proposed rule change that would allow restaurant employers to keep tips earned by their wait staff and other tipped employees.

“This new rule would constitute legalized theft of restaurant workers’ hard earned tips,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United.

Bloomberg Law recently reported that an analysis conducted by DOL staff showed that implementation of the proposed rule will cost restaurant employees billions of dollars in lost wages.

Bloomberg Law also reported that DOL Secretary Alexander Acosta deleted the staff’s estimate of employee wage loss from the department’s published analysis of the proposed rule.

In addition to lost wages, the proposed rule change will leave restaurant workers more vulnerable to sexual harassment, Jayaraman said.

The proposed rule change, whose first draft was published December 5, rescinds a 2011 DOL rule that forbids employers from taking control of tipped workers’ tips.

Currently, restaurants are allowed to pay their tipped staff as little as $2.13 an hour, and tips account for most of the wages earned by tipped workers.

The Department of Labor assumes that by transferring the control of tips to employers, employers will then distribute tips to all of a restaurant’s low-wage workers–wait staff, cooks, workers who bus tables, dishwashers, etc.

But there is nothing in the proposed rule change that requires employers to do so, and there is nothing in the rule that would prevent employers from keeping some of the tips for themselves or distributing them to higher paid managerial staff.

Based on what has happened in the past and to some extent continues through today, it’s reasonable to assume that some employers or supervisory staff will keep some of the tips for themselves.

A 2009 study of the restaurant industry’s compliance with labor laws found that 12 percent of tipped employees surveyed reported that their employer or supervisor had stolen tips from them.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates “that under this rule, employers would pocket $5.8 billion in tips earned by tipped workers each year,” or “16.1 percent of the estimated $36.4 billion in tips earned by tipped workers annually.”

The original analysis by DOL makes roughly the same estimate, but according to Bloomberg Law, Acosta and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney didn’t like the staff’s numbers.

After reviewing the first draft of the analysis, Secretary Acosta asked staff to rework their analysis.

The revised financial impact was lower than the original, but it was still too high for Acosta and Mulvaney.

Analyses for rule changes by the federal government usually include an estimate of the financial impact of the change, but not this time.

Instead, the analysis approved by Acosta and Mulvaney states that there isn’t enough information to quantify the financial impact of the proposed rule.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), said that she and others “were deeply disturbed” by what she called the Department of Labor’s “cover up” of vital information about the financial impact of the proposed rule.

“The only appropriate remedy is to withdraw the rule, and NELP calls on the Department of Labor to do so immediately,” Owens said.

Jayaraman was equally outraged at the decision not to publish important information about the proposed rule.

“The administration’s unethical lack of disclosure of this information–which the public deserves to know–constitutes nothing more than outright deception of the American people,” she said.

Jayaraman said that the National Restaurant Association (NRA) colluded with the Trump administration to transfer control of tips from employees to employers.

“The NRA’s greed has gone way too far,” Jayaraman said. “On top of lobbying for 80 years to keep the wage for tipped workers at a subminium wage of just $2.13 an hour, they have also tried to get away with keeping their workers’ tips.”

In addition to lost wages, Jayaraman said that the proposed rule will make a bad situation worse.

“Tipped restaurant workers in the United States are mostly women who struggle to make ends meet and suffer from the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States because they must tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to feed their families in tips,” Jayaraman said. “If passed  (the proposed rule) would exacerbate sexual harassment as it would give employers extraordinary power over their workers’ tips.”

ROC is urging people to support tipped workers by submitting comments opposing the rule to the Department of Labor.

One union, AFSCME, also is encouraging its members to show solidarity with tipped workers by submitting comments to the Department of Labor.

“A proposal by the Trump administration’s Labor Department would . . . give (restaurant) bosses permission to take some of those tips for themselves,” said AFSCME in message to its members.

The union then provides a link to the Department of Labor’s comment page and urges members to speak out against the department’s attempt to legalize wage theft.

USDA says no to industry speed up petition

After receiving 100,000 comments about an industry proposal to allow the unregulated speed up of production lines at chicken processing plants, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it was rejecting the industry’s proposal.

The National Chicken Council (NCC), the chicken processing industry’s trade association, in September petitioned USDA to lift its cap of 140 birds per minute on production line speeds at some chicken processing plants.

Consumer and labor groups mobilized people to oppose the speed up arguing that higher line speeds will degrade both worker safety and food safety.

Worker advocates applauded USDA’s decision.

“This is a huge victory for thousands of poultry workers who often risk their health and safety by processing chicken at high speeds,”said Magaly Licolli, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, an Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) affiliate.

“This decision is a victory for hard-working poultry workers who hold one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in America and the consumers who depend upon them to provide chicken that is safe to eat,” said Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The union mobilized its members to flood USDA with comments on NCC’s speed up request.

Debbie Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), said that high line speeds have created “harsh and dangerous conditions” for poultry workers.

“The highly profitable poultry industry, which already pays poverty wages and keeps workers in disturbingly unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, should stop lobbying the government to allow it to further endanger workers,” Berkowitz said. “Instead, it should lift labor standards for the 250,000 workers who help feed this nation.”

The NCC’s petition asked USDA to create a new waiver process that would allow processing facilities that slaughter and butcher new chickens to operate without any cap on their production line speed.

To qualify for the waiver, a processing plant would have to join USDA’s New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS), which requires new chicken processing plants to implement prescribed food safety improvements but also privatizes much of the food safety inspection work.

Processing plants seeking waivers  would also have to participate in USDA’s Salmonella Initiative Program and develop a system for monitoring and responding to the loss of process control.

In a letter denying NCC’s petition, Carmen Rottenberg, USDA’s acting undersecretary for food safety, said that there was already a waiver system in place similar to the one requested by NCC and the agency didn’t want to create another one.

She also said that the agency was rejecting the NCC request to lift the cap on production line speeds.

Rottenberg, however, did note that there are currently 20 companies that have been granted waivers to operate their production lines at up to 175 birds per minute, the maximum speed at which USDA says proper food safety inspections can be conducted.

She said that USDA may consider more waiver requests seeking to raise production line speed.

The USDA’s apparent willingness to consider higher line speeds raised concerns among food safety and worker advocacy groups.

In order for processing plants to be allowed to increase production lines speeds, they would have to join the USDA’s New Poultry Inspection System, which relies heavily on privatized inspections.

Food and Water Watch notes that the combination of higher line speeds and privatized inspections has harmed food safety.

There is, according to Food and Water Watch, already evidence showing that plants that have been allowed to privatize food safety inspections under the New Poultry Inspection System have a “greater propensity” for failing USDA’s salmonella performance standard.

UFCW observes that “as line speeds increase, so does the risk of injury—including serious and bloody cuts and amputations,” which is why Perrone said, “We remain concerned that poultry companies can request line speed waivers for individual plants.”

NELP warned USDA not to conduct its waiver process in secret.

“NELP calls on the USDA to follow the law and announce any new system for individual waivers in the Federal Register for public notice and comment,” Berkowitz said. “Further, the USDA must be open and transparent and publish on its website every request they receive for a waiver of line speeds and make them available for public notice and comment.”

Interfaith Worker Justice said that USDA’s decision was cause for celebration, but there is still much work to do to do.

“We will continue our organizing to challenge the already-breakneck speed and inhumane conditions that working people endure in so many poultry processing plants from coast to coast,” said IWJ.

Second UK outsourcing company in financial trouble

Capita, a prominent private contractor that provides a wide array of public services for the United Kingdom and its local governments, on January 30 issued a profit warning and announced that it was initiating a dramatic rescue plan.

The announcement caused further anxiety about the viability of the government’s privatization strategy.

Earlier this year, Carillion, another prominent government contractor, was forced to liquidate because it could no longer pay its massive debts.

Carillion’s liquidation left its 20,000 workers without jobs and the government scrambling to figure out a way to provide services that the defunct company no longer did.

If Capita’s rescue plan fails, its workers and those who rely on the services provided by the company will be facing the same fate.

These services are extensive. They include operating call centers that help people apply for and receive unemployment benefits, managing the teachers’ pension fund, helping people with disabilities find work, providing services to the UK’s National Health Service, and operating NHS’ online payment system to name just a few.

As soon as Capita announced its rescue plan, Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, called on the Ministry of Defense to reconsider its plan to privatize firefighters and defense workers.

Capita is one of two companies bidding on the department’s privatization proposal.

“Following Carillion’s collapse and the profit warning issued by Capita today the government must order a moratorium on the privatization of the MoD firefighters contract,” said Gail Cartmail, Unite’s assistant general secretary.

Cartmail added that these workers, who protect Ministry of Defense building, equipment, and munitions, “could swiftly find themselves in the same position as Carillion workers.”

“Rather than outsourcing public services, the government should be bringing all its outsourced contracts back in house” continued Cartmail

Like Carillion, Capita suffers from a lack of cash flow that has resulted in an unacceptable accumulation of debt.

The Telegraph reports that Capita has a net debt of  £1.1 billion and owes £380 million in pension contributions.

Jonathan Lewis, Capita’s new CEO, said that the company got itself in trouble by spreading itself too thin.

Capita went on a spending spree buying up other companies in order to increase its market share, but its income could not pay for all of its new purchases.

Lewis said that his rescue plan for Capita would include selling some of the businesses that the company acquired during its spending spree, not paying dividends to investors, and issuing new stock that he hopes will raise £700 million to recapitalize the company.

The bad news from Capita, which saw its share price drop by 40 percent, comes on the heels of the Carillion disaster.

Like Capita, Carillion was a big player in the UK’s privatization game.

For more than thirty years, Britain’s government has aggressively moved to sell off public assets and privatize many government services.

When privatization was first implemented in a big way back in the 1980s, economists and business leaders alike hailed the move as an innovative way to make government services more efficient and cost effective.

But those high hopes have begun to unravel in the UK.

One area of privatization that has come under fire, is the privatization of British Rail. The UK privatized its national rail system in 1993, but a little more than 20 years later, the public has soured on its privatization and critics are calling it a disaster.

More recently, Carillion’s demise has further dimmed the shine on privatization’s luster.

Carillion piled up huge debts while the government tried to keep it afloat by awarding it new contracts.

In addition to its private creditors, Carillion owes nearly £1 billion in unpaid pension contributions.

“The developing picture of the level of incompetence and mismanagement at Carillion is simply staggering,” Cartmail said.

She added that “while Carillion’s employees face losing their livelihoods and the taxpayer has to pick up a huge bill for the company’s collapse, it remains unclear if anyone will ever be held responsible.”

GMB, another union whose members were hurt by Carillion’s demise, criticized the company and the government’s handling of the crisis.

“The more we see, the more it appears that the workers are paying the price for the failures of corporate bosses and government ministers,” said Rehana Azam, GMB national secretary.

“Thousands of Carillion workers still don’t know what will happen to them as their pay, terms and conditions hang in the balance–and worse, the prospect of their pensions being raided.

“The system that has allowed this to happen is broken and it must change.”