At Home and Abroad, the Labor Movement Comes Roaring Back

On April 15, 2015, low-wage workers across the U.S. and around the world once again waged a flash strike intended to capture the attention of employers and policy-makers who control their wages. Protesters didn’t spend their limited monies to ride buses, trains or planes to Washington, D.C. where their actions might or might not have attracted much media attention. Instead, they took to the streets where they live and labor — in 200 U.S. cities and across the United Kingdom, Brazil, India, Italy, Bangladesh, Japan, and 30 other countries.

At a time when multi-national corporations are 50 of the world’s largest 100 economies, this movement has had to be both intensely local and expansively global. Less than three years ago, the grassroots campaign for a living wage began in scattered Thanksgiving protests by New York City fast food workers and Los Angeles Walmart associates. This year’s protests are the largest and most global labor actions ever mounted.

From Manila to Manhattan, workers are showing the face of the 21st century labor movement. On Wednesday, Fight for $15 protests gleefully short-circuited the “90-seconds-a-customer” service rule at McDonald’s. In Seoul, workers staged mock trials of Ronald McDonald for wage theft; in Manila they blocked streets and malls with singing and dancing flash mobs. Protesters uploaded clips of their actions onto You-Tube and Facebook. They Instagrammed photographs and sent fast-disappearing Snapchat messages about where to meet for the next action. In this era of social media, organizers no longer need to worry about press coverage—or at least they don’t’ need to worry as much.

We have reached a point where even an advanced degree no longer guarantees a path out of poverty.

In many parts of the world, this April’s worker protests offered local labor activists a chance to highlight their own struggles. In Brazil, unions called a general strike for April 15, in solidarity with workers in other countries and to protest recent legislative encroachments on labor rights.  In Bangladesh, garment workers have, in the last two years, built a global movement forcing scores of major clothing labels to sign an accord allowing Bangladeshi unions to inspect garment factories for safety violations. On April 24, the 2nd anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse—which killed 1,134 garment workers and injured thousands more—Bangladeshi workers will lead a global day of action to pressure brand companies to pay damages to victims and their families. Garment union leader Kalpona Akter and Rana Plaza survivor Mahina Begum were among 28 arrested last month in New Jersey for bringing that demand in person to corporate executives of The Children’s Place. This month, Benetton finally agreed to pay damages.

The living wage issue is also as local as it is global. Fifty-eight percent of the U.S. jobs created since the 2008 crash do not pay enough for workers to live on. Local workers’ protests blocked sidewalks in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where immigrant restaurant employees endure 70-hour weeks and wages that are even lower than the pitiful federal minimum of $2.13 an hour for tipped employees. Home health care workers, too, have begun to step out of the shadows where they care for fragile clients. How they find the time to organize is anyone’s guess, given that some work as many as 120 hours a week. The fight for a living wage has even started to interrupt classes on American college campuses, where three-quarters of professors are now contingent contract laborers and one in four earns so little that they require public assistance to survive.  Adjunct professors are not quite as hard-pressed as the country’s fast food workers, 52% of whom receive public assistance; home-health care workers, 48% of whom need to turn to cash, food or medical aid programs; or child care workers, 46% of whom also need government aid. Still, a majority of college professors are now employed on temporary contracts, shuttling between campuses, teaching upwards of 12 courses a year, earning between $20,000 and $25,000 annually.  They are truly low-wage workers, and they feel a real bond with fast food workers, child-care workers, and providers of at-home health care.

It is extraordinary for workers as different as these to band together. We have reached a point where even an advanced degree no longer guarantees a path out of poverty.

Perhaps that is why the movement has already had its successes.  City officials from Providence to Seattle have passed municipal minimum wages that are significantly higher than federal or state requirements. Voters in red states as well as blue cast their ballots last November for increased state minimum wages. And, most recently, the world’s largest corporations have shown signs of recognition that they must raise wages a little bit — if only for appearances.

Still, fair wages are not all that this movement seeks. Low-wage workers — in the U.S. and abroad — are demanding the right to unionize without employer retribution. That demand has met fierce opposition from employers of all sizes.

Low-wage workers have few options for exerting power over employers. One is “hitting them in the pocketbook” — staging protests that disrupt business. Another is leveraging the power of government on the side of workers: Large unions such as The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing health care workers in Connecticut — and small worker’s groups such as the Laundry Workers Center United (LWCU), representing restaurant employees in New York City — have recently filed suit for wage theft, sexual harassment, and violation of federal minimum wage and maximum hours laws.

Increasingly, employers have filed their own suits — using the Racketeering and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) — to try to hobble union campaigns.  RICO suits filed solely to hinder labor organizing violate the spirit of the original legislation, passed in 1970 to facilitate prosecution of organized crime and to limit mobsters’ ability to take over labor unions. But, from the perspective of workers, such suits only inspire more activism. As Virgilio Aran recently told me about the RICO suit filed against organized employees of Liberato restaurant in the Bronx: “For every suit they file against us we will organize 1000 times harder.”

Just a few short years after it was declared dead and almost buried, the labor movement has come roaring back. Behind it has come a powerful bipartisan sentiment that it is time to pay workers something better than poverty wages.  In the last few decades we have regressed to the wealth stratification of the 1890s. Perhaps now we can return to the majority view of the 1930s that unions have a positive role to play in a stable, healthy economy.


First Person

Why We Must Fight for 15 and a Union

My name is Angel Rivera. Like the Fight for 15 workers who are protesting across the country today, I know what it’s like to work hard, but be unable to get by because of poverty wages and an employer that doesn’t respect your rights. But, thanks be to God, I also know that hard work can be rewarded when you win a union and better wages.

I moved from Puerto Rico to Boston for better work and a better future for my children. For the last two years I have been working as a cleaner at Logan International Airport.  Two years, two jobs, the same airport, but worlds apart.

Low pay, abuse and disrespect were common currency when I worked as a cabin cleaner for my previous employer. I earned $8 an hour, working nights and as many extra hours as I could in order to support my family.

But this meant that I couldn’t spend time with my four children, and no matter how much I worked, I couldn’t pay all my bills. I needed government help to cover my heating costs, health care, and childcare. It got so bad for a time that my children and girlfriend lived in a homeless shelter while I stayed with friends.

I wasn’t the only one going through this. For me and my co-workers, not being able to pay bills, relying on government assistance, and even being separated from our families were all too common.

Then, when I talked with my coworkers about forming a union in order to change our work conditions, I was fired.

Luckily, I found another job. This time cleaning at Logan with a union company. The union changed my life.


Angel participating in at a Fight for $15 rally in Boston.

Instead of poverty wages I now get paid $17 an hour, I have quality health care that my company provides, and paid sick and vacation days. My company takes health and safety seriously. And if I have a problem at work, the union can work with the company to solve it.

Today, my family is all by my side and under one roof. We are financially stable and have a better life. I can take a vacation day from time to time to spend time with my kids.

My former non-union coworkers work hard every day and want a better life for their families too. The only difference between us is that I have a union, and that changed everything.

I continue to tell my story and stand with my former coworkers because they deserve the same thing I have—decent wages, economic stability, and respect on the job that comes with a union contract. It is also what the Fight for 15 workers are fighting for and deserve.

We are strong when we are together and that’s why I’m proud to be a union member. Shouldn’t that be the norm?



We All Pay for Low Wages

A few weeks ago, people working at McDonald’s filed several complaints that detailed the dangerous accidents and severe burns they’ve suffered while on the job, citing company management’s policies to work quickly without protective gear or training. Of course, the injuries that the complainants describe were preventable, but it would require McDonald’s and its franchisees to treat employees as human beings worth protecting. Their scars are more painful reminders of how giant corporations are burning low-wage workers and our communities.

The pressure-cooking job conditions people working at McDonald’s described are not unique to the Golden Arches. I’ve met men and women from all walks of life who are working fast and furiously and with little reward. For far too long, we’ve allowed profitable corporations to ignore the basic well-being and needs of everyday Americans. Even as the cost of living goes up, wealthy CEOs have been hell-bent on keeping wages down, pocketing almost everything their employees produce for the company. This leaves our friends and neighbors who work for these incredibly profitable corporations living on the brink.

But this week, fast-food workers are going on strike to protest unsafe jobs and unfair pay. This time, they will be joined by Walmart associates and other retail employees, as well as caregivers, adjunct professors, and others who have had enough of working and still not being able to make ends meet. On April 15, they’re using their collective voice to demand a better economic system – one that provides families with decent jobs and a starting wage of $15 an hour.

For far too long, we’ve allowed profitable corporations to ignore the basic well-being and needs of everyday Americans.

Yes, I said $15 an hour. Not $9, and not $10. These strikes were started by fast-food cooks and cashiers, but the movement has grown, and the response has been quite telling. Recently, Walmart, McDonald’s, Target and The Gap have all responded to workers’ demands, announcing moves to increase wages and some benefits for some of their workforce. Unfortunately, these minor wage hikes won’t put enough money in people’s pockets to pay the bills and take care of their families.

And when jobs don’t pay enough, workers turn to critical public assistance in order to meet their basic needs. A new study from the Labor Center at the University of California Berkeley finds that states are spending $25 billion per year on public assistance programs provided to working families. If you have a job, you shouldn’t need to rely on public assistance. But the people who help you pick out shoes or an outfit for your kids can’t access enough hours to even cover their rent. The workers taking care of our grandparents don’t even get overtime pay. And there are adjunct professors at some of our country’s largest educational institutions who are living in their cars.

Even if you haven’t experienced working in a minimum wage job, you should join together with the men and women taking on these profitable corporations. Certainly, these companies can afford to create jobs that pay people enough to actually live on, but nearly two-thirds of American households earn less money today than they did in 2002, despite the fact that corporate profits are at an all-time high. Moreover, you’re the one bearing the costs of these low-wage jobs, because these employers offset wages and benefits onto taxpayers in the form of public assistance. So even if you never stop at a Wendy’s or Taco Bell drive-thru, or you won’t set foot in a Walmart, you’re still picking up the tab for these companies’ cheap labor.

Thankfully, there are several legislative initiatives emerging to hold CEOs of major corporations accountable for refusing to pay family-sustaining wages, denying basic benefits, and shifting their responsibilities onto taxpayers. For example, in Connecticut, a proposal for a Low-Wage Employer Fee would fine large companies that pay employees less than $15 per hour. The money recovered from the fee would fund critical early childhood education and healthcare services for low-income families, many of whom work for these big corporations.

Policies such as this one aim to level the playing field—to help right the dangerous imbalance in our economy and ensure that if you do well in America, you do right by America. If we don’t stand up with those who are protesting this week, greedy corporations are going to continue to burn all of us, employees and taxpayers alike. But if we stand up together, we are heard. We are taken seriously. We make change happen.


First Person

A Tale of Two Bank Tellers: Rebuilding the Middle Class Through Better Banks

My name is Thiago Marques, and I work at a bank in New Jersey. Most people would consider this a middle class job—after all I wear a tie to work every day—but that’s far from reality.

I make around $9.50 an hour, live at home, and need financial aid to go to school.

The New York Times and others have written extensively on how the middle class is shrinking in America, how even with our economy in recovery more and more find themselves at the bottom. Many people who hear this envision fast food workers with multiple jobs struggling to make ends meet—not bank workers facing decreased salaries, demotions, and diminished job security or opportunity for promotion. But that is the reality we face every day in the finance industry—one of the most powerful industries in the world and a driving force of the American economy.

I am still lucky in a lot of ways: I am able to live with my parents, because although I help with rent there’s no way I could afford an apartment on my own; I can attend university, because I receive financial aid and there’s no way I could afford to get a degree on my own. I am lucky to be able to cover my basic necessities, but I could never afford to have a family on this salary, and it shouldn’t take luck just to get by.

It's time to end a culture that sees workers as disposable drones who don't need full-time or stable employment.

Last month, I learned it doesn’t have to be this way when I met João Almeida, a bank teller from Brazil. João lives in Brasilia where he works for a Santander Bank branch and does the same job as me. We both work six to eight hours a day, opening the vault, counting the register, making deposits, and dealing with customers.  Except João enjoys a middle class life, has 30 paid vacation days per year, a health plan for his family, and a pension fund.

Why the difference? Unlike me, João has a union to represent him, protect his rights, collectively bargain, and advocate on his behalf. Thanks to these protections, the average bank worker makes around $19.32 (including monetary benefits such as food assistance and cultural passes, both of which are part of the union contract.)

When João developed a repetitive motion problem in his arm, his union made sure he could stay home with paid leave and medical costs covered. When a manager at my branch had to take leave for spinal surgery, she received a demotion to customer service upon her return. When Santander tried to impose sales goals on tellers, the union fought back and kept them from being implemented. But In the U.S., nearly every bank has unreasonable sales goals, leading to unnecessary pressure and predatory lending and sales practices. In Brazil, João’s union made sure they had ergonomic chairs and any shift over six hours is paid overtime.  While in the U.S., many tellers struggle to remain on their feet for more than eight hours straight.

The finance industry in America makes over $100 billion a year in profits. I don’t begrudge CEOs a high salary, but when they are making enough in bonuses to buy a small island while front-line workers like me struggle just to get by, something isn’t right. It’s time to end subsistence wages and offer a fair share of the profits our work helps to create.

We need to rebuild the American middle class, starting with the wealthiest and most powerful industry in our economy.


First Person

Life Before the Affordable Care Act

I know I broke my ankle because it’s stronger now than it was before I pulverized it in June, 2010 which was three months after the Affordable Care Act passed without any support from congressional Republicans. Poverty was my reality then, and I have no doubt that it can easily be again. One of the unspoken truths of poverty is that it is either an immediate reality or a moment away for most Americans. I was fortunate in 2010. I had jobs and networks of people and by cobbling together those resources and skills, I managed to heal a broken ankle without stepping foot inside a hospital.

Now, I watch and wait for the Supreme Court’s Decision in King v. Burwell and the looming budget fight—each of which will decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act, a law I could have used in 2010.

Back then I was in the best shape of my life. Years of walking to work had helped. At 26, I learned to ride a bicycle and for one month, I flew. The hour that it took to get to and from work became fifteen minutes. I could buy cold food in the summer again. Bowling Green, Kentucky became small enough that I no longer had to factor in travel time.

And then I played basketball.

My best friend at the time, Emily, texted me asking me to meet her at her apartment so we could walk over to the nearby basketball court—which was actually just a basket at the edge of a church parking lot—and shoot hoops for a couple hours. Emily played basketball in high school and I lack basic hand-eye coordination skills, so when I landed awkwardly after coming down from a layup, grabbing the post for support, she didn’t think anything about it. But then, I didn’t let go. I held my left foot off the ground.

She asked me if I was alright and I told her I hoped so. She asked me what it felt like and the first thing that came to mind was that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy drops the guard into a rock crusher. Emily cringed and asked me which hospital we should go to.

I laughed.

She asked me what I wanted to do since I wouldn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t know. I asked her to bring me my phone. She came back with it and asked me if I’d be okay if she left for a minute. She was going to get me an ice bag and a slushie. Blue Raspberry.

Slushies make everything better.

Shouldn’t the land of the free be shining and modern and free enough to manage the health of its citizens with something other than luck?

I laid down in the parking lot and watched its parking lights go out and called the owner of the restaurant I worked at. When he asked me about the hospital, I could only manage a chuckle. He asked me what he could do for me and I asked him if he had the crutches he brought back from his last failed ski trip and if I could borrow them for a while. “Absolutely.”

Next, I called a couple of the marijuana enthusiasts from work and asked them to meet me at my apartment. An hour later we met up at the front door and Emily helped me climb up the flight of stairs while the others kept asking why I couldn’t go to the hospital. “Obamacare passed,” they said. “It hasn’t kicked in yet,” I answered.

I fell onto my bed and waited while the saintly stoners sparked a joint. While it worked wonders otherwise, the weed wasn’t strong enough for my ankle. Even though I didn’t feel any better, I was content not to care.

The next day my roommate, Travis, drove me to work for comfort food—a Reuben. While I sat in the dining room with my engorged ankle propped on a chair, one of my new hires came over to me and asked what I meant to do about the ankle. “First, I’m going to eat this Reuben. Then, I’m going to go to Lowe’s and get some scrap wood and nail together a brace… thing.” She smirked and told me her fiancé was an MMA fighter (the pale guy), that he broke his foot the year before and held on to the walking boot. “I mean, you shouldn’t walk on it now, but it’ll hold it in place until you can.”

I was on the crutches for six weeks.

I gave up on trying to self-medicate. Not only did the weed fail to do the trick, but also Kentucky’s burgeoning crackdown on prescription drug abuse meant that I couldn’t score so much as a pity Vicodin. I stayed in the walking boot for six months and even managed to shower four times a week without falling.

Then, one day in November, I woke up, strapped my leg into the boot and started itching. My leg wouldn’t go for the walking boot anymore. I grabbed the cane I had bought to mark the occasion and headed down the stairs and out the door. What had been a ten minute walk down to the city square took twenty. My left leg was half the size of my right. When I got on my bike I had to pedal twice as hard with my right leg as I could my left.

I was lucky when I broke my ankle. I knew the right people and (the Commonwealth notwithstanding) could procure the right supplies.

But there is a reason this story stays with me: I live in the USA, the richest, most powerful country in the world. Why did we and do we leave our health and well-being up to luck? Shouldn’t the “Shining City on a Hill,” the birthplace of modern democracy, the land of the free be shining and modern and free enough to manage the health of its citizens with something other than luck?