Lexmark workers in Juarez continue fight for justice

Workers at a Lexmark factory in Juárez, Mexico are staging a sit-in at an encampment near the entrance to their plant.

The sit-in began after Lexmark, a multi-national manufacturer of laser printers, fired 120 workers at the company’s printer cartridge plant in Juárez , which lies just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas.

The firings took place on December 9, a day after Lexmark workers walked off the job to protest poor pay, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, and wage theft.

After the strike, state police arrived at the encampment in an effort to intimidate the workers, but they continued their sit-in and vowed to continue doing so until they get justice.

“If the workers do not fight for their rights, no one will,” said Susana Prieto Terrazas, an attorney representing many of the fired workers, in Spanish at a December 10 candlelight vigil to support the sit-in.

Prieto said that workers like those at Lexmark can’t continue live on the poverty wages that maquiladora companies are paying.

Maquiladoras are factories that sprang up in Mexican border towns to take advantage of low-wage labor in Mexico. These maquiladoras mushroomed after passage of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The growth of maquiladoras has helped companies like Lexmark prosper, but wages in the maquiladoras remain abysmally low.

According to Kathy Staudt and Oscar Martínez, two professors who have researched and written about border issues, “stagnant (maquiladoras) workers’ wages have lost considerable value. In real terms, today’s line workers make about half of what they made in 1975.”

The strike that led to the firings and the sit-in at Lexmark had its origins back in August when Lexmark workers were expecting a pay raise.

When the workers were told that they wouldn’t be getting their anticipated raise, some of them began talking about forming a union.

In November, 78 Lexmark workers signed a request to register as a union with state agency in charge of labor relations.

They also set up their encampment outside of Lexmark’s gates to press their demand for an independent union.

On December 8, 700 Lexmark workers went on strike to demand a $0.35 a day pay raise, which would have increased pay for many of the workers to $4.38 a day.

Lexmark retaliated by firing the workers who signed the union registration form and 40 others.

To make matters worse, Lexmark has refused to pay the fired workers their year-end bonus, a payment required by Mexican law.

Those supporting the strike are asking others to contribute to a fund that will pay the workers an amount equal to their year-end bonuses.

“Because they were fired before December 18th, Lexmark. . . withheld their holiday bonuses that they would have used to feed their families for the next 15 days,” writes Miguel Juarez on the Obrer@Power Facebook page. “Now, they have nothing, but hope that we can help them. Let’s not kill that off for them. Thank you to all of you who have given. I too have already given. Please consider giving what you can: https://www.gofundme.com/bufgv7u4 Thank you.”

So far, more than 20 workers have received what amounts to their year-end bonus.

While Lexmark was refusing to pay a $0.35 a day pay raise and a year-end bonus of about $115, it was treating its shareholders to what the The Street describes as a “robust” quarterly dividend of $0.36 per share.

The total amount of the dividend, which shareholders began receiving on December 11, is $22 million.

This quarterly dividend payment marks the 16th consecutive quarter in which Lexmark has paid shareholders a $0.36 a share dividend.

In its most recent financial report, Lexmark tells investors and potential investors that it plans to use 50 percent of its free cash flow to pay future dividends and to repurchase company stock.

Lexmark, a spinoff of IBM, is a world leader in the manufacturing of laser printers. According to The Guardian, in 2014, Lexmark was worth $2.01 billion and had revenues of $3.7 billion “though (revenue) has fallen this year.”

Lexmark isn’t the only maquiladora in Juárez where workers have set up encampments near factory gates to protest low wages and poor working conditions.

David Bacon writing in The Nation reports that encampments demanding the recognition of workers’ independent unions have been set up at Eaton, an auto parts manufacturer, ADC CommScope, an electronics and telecommunication manufacturer, and Foxcomm, a digital device manufacturer.

After more than a decade of silence, maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juárez have found their voice,” writes Bacon. “The city . . . is now the center of a growing rebellion of laborers in the border factories.”

Tennessee adjunct faculty and graduate students join the Fight for $15

Adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on April 15 joined fast food and other low-wage workers at a local McDonald’s to demand that the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour.

After rallying with their low-wage cohorts, the higher education workers board a freedom ride bus bound for St. Louis where they joined more low-wage workers participating in the national general strike for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

The participating adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants are members of United Campus Workers (UCW), a statewide union of faculty, graduate students, and classified staff who make higher education work but are paid poverty and near-poverty wages. UCW is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America.

UCW members had planned to organize a Teach Out on poverty wages in the US as show of solidarity with the April 15 general strike, but inclement weather forced them to make other plans.

“We’re standing together with fast food workers this April 15‬ as they help lead the fight for $15 and a‪ u‬nion,” said a message on the UCW website announcing the Teach Out and other support activity for the Fight for $15. “Our state leads the country in poverty wage jobs–from fast food workers to adjuncts, custodians, and secretaries on our campuses. It’s going to take solidarity to win.”

UCW had urged faculty to show their solidarity with the striking low-wage workers by teaching their classes out of doors on April 15 and using a portion of their class time to educate students about why 60,000 low-wage workers and their supporters in more than 200 US cities were striking for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

UCW even prepared a lesson plan on the low-wage economy to assist those who wanted to participate in the Teach Out.

One of the main points in the lesson plan is that low-wage work is no longer a tiny fraction of the overall economy. Low-wage work is spreading throughout the economy, and a college degree no longer guarantees decent paying work.

In fact many highly educated people are working at UT Knoxville and other universities in Tennessee for very low wages.

Adjunct faculty at UT Knoxville are paid on average $2,700 per course per semester, says the lesson plan. “If an adjunct teaches three courses a semester, her income would fall below the poverty line.”

These poverty wages are the result of the UT Knoxville administration’s attempt to reduce labor costs after state leaders reduced funding for higher education, so that they wouldn’t have to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Unfortunately, lower labor costs have not resulted in lower tuition for students. Since 2008, tuition and fees at UT Knoxville have increased by 79 percent.

Students may think that they can avoid poverty wages by choosing the right major and landing a good paying job. Unfortunately, those good paying jobs are a small share of the overall job market.

The largest share of today’s job market are low-wage jobs such as those in the retail, hospitality, health care, and social services sectors of the economy.

John Schmid reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes about the rise of the low-wage economy.  According to Schmid, there is some growth in good paying jobs among high tech workers, but low-wage jobs “have broadened outward like a pyramid with a disproportionately wide base.”

In St. Louis, where the Knoxville freedom ride ended, workers at a McDonald’s walked off the job and were cheered by a crowd of supporters holding signs reading Show Me $15, the name of the organization leading the Fight for $15 in Missouri.

Later in the day about 1,000 St. Louis fast food, retail, child care, and health care workers joined adjunct faculty and students for a rally and march at Washington University.

With low-wage work becoming the norm, the fight for a decent minimum wage is now more important than ever.

“This is a fight for equal opportunity, dignity, gender pay equality, and racial justice,” said UCW about the Fight for $15 on its website. “It’s a fight for what’s right. And it’s going to take all of us. We’re already turning the tide in favor of working people and our families, on campus and across this state.”



Chicago passes new wage theft ordinance

Chicago businesses that commit wage theft may have their business licenses denied or revoked when the city’s new wage theft ordinance goes into effect. The new ordinance, passed by the City of Chicago on January 17, was the result of a campaign organized by ARISE Chicago, a faith and labor solidarity center that helps low-wage workers organize and fight for a better life.

The new ordinance, which becomes effective in June, allows the city’s Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to deny or revoke a business license when the business has been judged by a court or an administrative hearing to have violated state or federal wage laws.

In Chicago and across the US, wage theft, such as paying a worker less than the minimum wage, not paying overtime when required, and non-payment of wages,  has become a serious problem especially for low-wage workers.

““I worked for over 55 hours a week for five years at a grocery store. And I never received overtime pay,” said Liliana Baca, a member of Arise Chicago. “This is my wage theft story. But I’m not the only one who has a story. So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.”

A study by the Center for Urban Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that Baca’s story is not unique.

Researchers surveyed 4,387 low wage workers, including 1,140 in Chicago and surrounding Cook County suburbs. Of those surveyed:

  • 26 percent were paid less than the minimum wage
  • Of those paid less than the minimum wage, 60 percent were underpaid by more than $1 an hour
  • 67 percent were not paid time and one-half after working more than 40 hours a week
  • 23 percent were required to come to work before or stay after their assigned shift, and of these, 67 percent were not paid for hours worked out of shift
  • 45 percent did not receive pay documentation, so they had no way of proving whether their pay was incorrect
  • 15 percent were tipped workers who were not paid the minimum tipped worker wage

According to the study, there are an estimated 310,000 low-wage, front-line workers in low-wage industries in Cook County, about 25 percent of the workforce in Chicago and 12 percent in Cook County, and an estimated 146,300 wage theft violation a week in the Chicago area.

The study also identifies jobs in which wage theft is most common. Child care workers are the most common victims of wage theft. Other jobs where wage theft is common include, janitorial and ground maintenance work, cashiers, retail sales persons, and home health care workers..

Violations of wage laws were most common in private households and in person and repair services. Other high violation industries include retail and drug stores, grocery stores, and social assistance and educational private agencies.

The study estimates that Chicago area workers lost an annual average of $2,595 in stolen wages. Immigrants and workers of color are the most likely victims of this wage theft.

While helping low-wage workers recover stolen wages, the new ordinance also protects businesses that follow the law and pay their workers accordingly.

“I think this marks an important step in leveling the playing field for the many ethical business owners in our city,” said Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, who drafted and sponsored the ordinance.

According to David Launius, owner of We’ll Clean Car Wash, those business that pay overtime, adhere to minimum wage laws, and pay workers for all the time that they are required to be on the job, are at a competitive disadvantage over those who don’t play by the rules.

Launius supported the new ordinance and worked with ARISE Chicago to get it passed.

“This ordinance rewards businesses that are in accordance with employment law, and incentivizes wage stealing-employers to correct their ways,” said  Adam Kader ARISE Chicago’s Worker Center director. “Good jobs are the basis of strong communities. When workers receive their full paycheck, they spend more in their local communities, the government collects more taxes, and law-abiding businesses do not suffer from unfair competition.”

Across the US, Low-wage workers take a stand

Car wash workers in the Bronx, New York and Walmart temporary workers in Chicago joined a growing list of low-wage workers who are standing up for their rights and respect on the job.

In the Bronx, workers at Webster Car Wash recently voted 23-5 to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “The bosses will respect us better now and see us as people,” said Webster worker Francisco Lopez to the Daily News after  the results of the union vote were announced.

Webster is owned by John Lage, who owns more than 10 percent of the 200 car washes in New York City making his company the largest car wash operator in the city. Lage is currently being investigated by the New York attorney general for wage and hour violations. In 2009, he paid $3.4 million in back pay and damages to settle a federal wage and hour lawsuit.

“These brave workers fought back against their employer, like David slaying Goliath,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “Across the city, car wash workers are standing up, speaking out and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect.  This is a building movement.”

In Illinois, temporary workers at Walmart stores in the Chicago area filed a class action lawsuit charging Walmart and two of its temporary staffing contractors, Labor Ready and QPS, with violating federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

The suit alleges that the defendants required temporary workers at Walmart stores to report early for work, work through breaks and lunches, stay late to finish work, and attend training sessions all without getting paid for their extra work.

“I only get paid minimum wage and yet Labor Ready and Walmart still try to cheat me by not paying me for the times I actually work,” said Twanda Burk, the primary plaintiff in the suit. “I’ve proven that I’m a good worker, and they just want to take advantage of me.”

The suit also charges Walmart with failing to keep accurate pay records as required by federal and state law and for not paying temporary workers for the minimum number of hours required by state law when the workers are called to work but then sent home early.

When Walmart expanded in the Chicago area, it sought community support by promising to create thousands of jobs for residents in low-wage neighborhoods that paid at least $8.75 per hour. But Walmart has relied heavily on temporary workers paid only the minimum wage.

“By outsourcing these jobs, the company is taking advantage of Chicago residents in neighborhoods that had hoped Walmart would provide real employment opportunities, not the dead-end jobs that keep residents in a cycle of poverty,” said Elce Redmond, executive director of the South Austin Community Coalition, a Chicago low-income neighborhood organization.

The Walmart workers and the Bronx car wash workers joined other low-wage workers around the US organizing for better conditions on the job or taking class legal action to enforce existing laws that are supposed to protect workers.

At the ports of Seattle and Los Angeles, short-haul truck drivers have organized and taken collective actions for better pay and safer working conditions.

In Louisiana, workers at a seafood factory owned by a Walmart contractor walked off the job to protest slave-like conditions.

In Milwaukee, workers at Palermo’s Pizza factory went on strike to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions and have since organized a boycott of Palermo’s Pizza products.

In Houston, janitors who are members of SEIU Local 1 went on strike for a decent pay raise after the multi-national cleaning corporations for whom they work offered only a $0.10 per hour raise.

In Austin, Texas,  construction workers have organized large demonstrations at City Council meetings to demand that companies seeking city incentives and tax breaks agree to negotiate agreements that ensure that workers on the companies’ construction projects are paid a decent wage, work under safe conditions, and have training opportunities that make advancement on the job possible.

Workers at Darden restaurants such as the Olive Garden in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Washington DC have filed a class action lawsuit charging the nationwide restaurant chain with wage theft.

The idea that individual effort can lead to a better life has lost its lustre for many low-wage workers living in a high-priced economy.

At least a few of them have learned the lessons of the 1930s when collective efforts by low-wage workers in the country’s factories, mines, and transportation services over a period of time turned low-wage jobs into jobs with decent pay, benefits, and dignity.

Those of us working in moderate-pay jobs watching our living standards erode would do well to re-learn this lesson too.