Temporary Employment Agency Workers are Organizing in Montreal

Conchita Poonin and her co-workers strike for a $15 starting salary. Thousands of Quebec nursing home workers have walked off the job in their first-ever series of coordinated strikes. Photo: Immigrant Workers Centre

Montreal   While in Quebec with the ACORN Canada head organizers, several of us stopped by to meet with our friends and partners at the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal. We talked to Eric Shragge, president of the board, and longtime activist and academic as well as other long time staffers. In addition to the work and campaigns that they have been pushing consistently during the fifteen years since their founding, we caught up with several exciting and important new initiatives that are central in Center’s current focus and work, especially because it is critical to understand that the Immigrant Workers’ Center in Montreal is not a job training and placement or social service center, so common in the United States and even Canada, but is better understood as an organizing center for immigrant workers.

Most intriguing to me was the activity of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA). Many of the issues this association is targeting are the common complaints of most workers employed through such placement agencies, but foreign and immigrant workers are obviously even more vulnerable and precarious with fewer resources and protections on these jobs. It also goes without saying that many jobs they find working through the agencies are dangerous and low paying.

All of this resonated deeply with me, remembering that in 1971, as ACORN was expanding our work in Arkansas past housing project tenant issues and welfare rights issues, we started two additional, area-wide rights-based affiliated organizations, the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC). The central issue for the UWOC quickly became their lack of rights and exploitation by temporary employment agencies or buy-a-job shops, as we called them. We ended up winning some legislative reforms guaranteeing rights for temporary workers as well as better guarantees for employers picking up the fees and making some jobs permanent. Nevertheless in the way that labor has been squeezed and union strength has diminished over the last 45 years, the growth of non-contract, unprotected temporary work has ballooned making some companies the largest US private sector employers after Walmart, handling jobs at all skill positions.

In Quebec all fees are paid by the employers, but most of the rest of the issues are the same, except worse, as we learned from the Immigrant Workers’ Center. They had won a campaign recently with a group of workers from Mauritius who had been trapped in bad workplace conditions when immigration laws changed in Canada no longer guaranteeing permanent residence after four years of employment and won their residency despite the regulation.

The TAWA key demands are easy to support. They want a living wage for their work, and have joined the campaign for $15 per hour that has been a signature effort of the Immigrant Worker Center over the last several years. They want to shut down the fly-by-night operators, which are little more than labor contractors involved in bait-and-switch exploitation of workers. Importantly, they want to win some co-employer guarantees between the contracting employer and the agency hiring the workers to prevent the efforts to bypass provincial labor standards.

We need to follow the work of TAWA and the IWC in Montreal. They could break a new path for precarious and informally employed workers that all of us should follow.

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After a Twenty Year Campaign, Aramark and Privatization Shown the Door in Houston

New Orleans  It was a “pinch me” moment when the news finally broke that after United Labor Unions Local 100’s 20-year fight to get rid of Aramark as the food service subcontractor in the giant Houston Independent School District, they were finally being shown the door. The district was close lipped about its decision to not renew the $6 million contract with Aramark, but news reports were clear that the constant complaints and criticisms from food service workers was a critical factor.

Undoubtedly, the soaring cost of this privatization fiasco in Houston was also part of the problem. As the report indicated, there were few sweet nothings being whispered in anyone’s ears about this divorce. Aramark making sure that it left the district with as bad a taste in their mouths as the children they had been feeding, threw a rock through their own glass window dredging up a story from the last century alleging mismanagement of the district of the cafeteria operation. Their parting shot, we took as a relief, because it indicates that they know they won’t be back so they saw no risk in fouling the trough where they have gorged for decades.

Our members are celebrating because they paid for this contract with overwork and underpay, as the food service workforce was decimated in order to line Aramark’s pockets. Where individual schools had previously enjoyed a modicum of oversight and quality control, Aramark lopped off hundreds of jobs in order to establish a central kitchen that would deliver tens of thousands of meals to the individual schools. It’s not hard to imagine the daily problems of such a mammoth enterprise!

Local 100 was recently successful in winning an agreement from the HISD to raise the wages for food service workers, and more recently has been campaigning to win an increase in hours for their work in order to improve service and food delivery for the children. Another factor may be the level of lead found in many of the water fountains and kitchen faucets after Local 100 forced the district to begin a comprehensive testing program.

Recent studies by researchers from Massachusetts and Sweden found that outsourcing workers through privatization imposed a wage penalty of up to 7% for janitors and up to 24% for security guards. The same has been true for food services workers, though perhaps worse, because they often have had to endure split shifts and part-time work hours, often lucky to make six hours a day during the school year. The much-loved and iconic “lunch ladies” by children and parents have been starving and impoverished by Aramark for much of their careers.

Despite the horrors of privatization for the last several decades in Houston, the ideology of privatization more than the economics will continue to be at the heart of every campaign as businesses continue to search for profit by pretending that they are always more efficient and better at delivering public services than government, when their only real skill is reducing wages, hours, and workers and in food service, cheaper, low-quality food. At least in Houston we can enjoy the victory for a minute, but there’s still no cure for the plague.

***

Please enjoy Pokey LaFarge’s Riot in the Streets.

Thanks to KABF.

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Could the US Labor Movement Lose 3 to 5 Million Members Under Trump?

Sheffield   Visiting with a British union organizer in touch with colleagues in the United States, I was shocked, though perhaps I should not have been, when he told me he had been hearing of worst-case scenario meetings of labor strategists meeting after the election estimating that the American labor movement could lose 3 to 5 million members based on policies and initiatives that might be unstoppable at every level under a Trump Administration. Needless to say, such a mammoth disgorging of union membership would be crippling, not just for existing unions, but for the entire array of progressive forces throughout the country.

In the last 35 years, union membership density in the US has already fallen from slightly over 20% of the organized workforce to barely 11%. There are somewhere around 14.5 million members of unions, so a loss of even 3 million would deplete membership by more than 20%. A loss of 5 million would rip away over one-third of US union membership. The private sector membership of unions is now less than 7%, and even without Trump, organizing strategists for 20 years have warned that without major restructuring of organizing programs and significant organizing initiatives and policy shifts, labor was on a path to only 5% density or one in twenty American workers enjoying union membership. The current jet fueled conservative assault is likely against the more than 35% public sector membership that remains in unions.

We already can see the attack unfolding on several fronts. Republican-controlled legislatures and statehouses have already eviscerated union security provisions in Kentucky and Missouri is likely to fall with the house already having acted and the senate approving after current contracts expire with the governor’s signature seemingly inevitable. Other states are on the list. A bill was offered in Congress and then withdrawn, but certainly close at hand. The other major front already manifesting itself is more broadly aimed at public sector workers. Memorandum attacking paid union leave time in the federal sector for grievance handling and contract enforcement is already proceeding. The defeat in Wisconsin, which had been the birthplace of public unionization, provides a road map for other states to follow, but as we have seen elsewhere home health care and home daycare membership won by executive orders can easily be withdrawn.

Antonio Scalia’s death provided temporary relief when the Supreme Court split on the issue of withdrawing union security provisions for public workers in California and one or two Trump nominees, barring another miracle, means that even in staunch labor redoubts public union membership at the city, county, state, and educational level could be devastating, as we have seen in Wisconsin. Powerhouses of progressive labor like the teachers, service employees, government workers, and even industrial and private sector unions like the communication workers, auto workers, and teamsters which also represent significant bargaining units of public workers would all be hit hard.

Some unions are reportedly taking steps to prepare for these losses, both in their organizing and servicing programs, but lessons from not only Wisconsin but also from the British labor movement where union security was lost under Prime Minister Thatcher, indicate the losses under any reckoning will be severe. Never make the mistake in believing this will be a crisis only for American workers and their organizations. Conservatives know well what progressives should never forget, crippling institutional labor will have a seismic impact on all progressive organizations and capacity.

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Digital “Tools” for Organizing Protests and Building the Movements that Follow

New Orleans    Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote an interesting op-ed in the Times, headlined, “Does a Protest’s Size Matter?” The answer is easy: of course it does!

But, that’s not the point she wants to underline. The professor wants to underscore the fact that a protest about something is different than the outcomes it produces. And, once again, of course that’s right as well.

Although this is not the answer the professor wants on this quiz, she is comparing apples and oranges. A protest is not a movement. In fact it is just what it says it is, an expression of dissent, a tactic hopefully in a larger strategy. Make no mistake, when communicating dissent, the numbers matter hugely. Say what anyone will from the President and his people on down, when an estimated 3.5 million women in the United States stepped to the street that sent a powerful message of protest, and that’s what it was meant to do. Mission accomplished.

The professor makes the case in a digital age that organizing such protests are hard work, but easier. Gee, I wish I believed that, I really, really do. Communication is quicker and cheaper for sure in a digital world, but nothing is really easier, partly because too many will think it’s easier and put more pressure on organizers to produce eye-popping, mind-boggling numbers. If one could spare one nanosecond of empathy for the anti-abortion protestors heading to Washington now, their numbers will be compared to the American-record historic numbers of the Women’s March, and they don’t have a prayer, no matter how much they hosanna in DC.

A protest is not a movement and neither are organizations, though both require huge levels of organizing. Where the professor is correct is that now even more work is needed to take the energy and anger and forge actual social change.

A related point was made by Columbia professor Todd Gitlin after the march that other historic marches were the product of organizations and their efforts to highlight long struggles with significant protest. Professor Tufekci almost paints the picture that the women’s marchers would be starting from scratch to building what Gitlin called a “full service movement.”

Talking on Wade’s World to Mark Fleischman, the president of Corporate Action Network, whose actionnetwork.org supplied the digital platform for the Women’s March, there is an easy answer to one of the professor’s questions. She says, “But if those protests are not exchanging contact information and setting up local strategy meetings, their large numbers are unlikely to translate…” In this case names of all of the people who registered for the march in DC or the sister marchers were turned over to local organizers in each city to use as the building blocks for the future. An item on their website also provides tools for organizing follow-up.

Fleischman, an old comrade from the labor movement, talked extensively about the “tools” the network is building for many purposes not just these kinds of mobilizations, but more importantly building real movements, real organizations, and real social change. Of course tools only work if there are people ready and able to wield them, so everyone can agree that remains the open question and real challenge.

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Does Former SEIU President Andy Stern Really Advocate Labor Law Waivers?

Andy Stern with SEIU members

New Orleans   I know Jay Youngdahl, as an old friend and comrade, dating back to his father, Jim, a legendary labor lawyer, when he introduced us in the early 1970s. Our building on Main Street in Little Rock, and the home of KABF radio and ACORN for years, was once the old Youngdahl law offices. Jay after a typically winding road from the 60’s ended up as a labor and civil rights lawyer as well, based in New Mexico for years, who ended up sometimes thanklessly representing ACORN in some matters, just as his father had done. Jay is more an occasional labor lawyer now for a Laborers’ region, while also publishing and writing a column for the East Bay Express. All of which is a long way of saying that when I noticed that Jay had written a piece for In These Times “Working” bulletin it caught my eye, especially because there was a picture of Andy Stern and the title of the piece was “In the Fantasy Land of Labor Theorists: Andy Stern’s Latest Contribution.”

I know Andy Stern even better than Jay Youngdahl though, having worked with him for more than twenty years when Local 100 was part of SEIU and serving on SEIU International Board when he was president for eight years, and, if anything, would count him normally as an even better friend and comrade. I found myself reading Jay’s piece incredulously. Andy had teamed up with a conservative author to write a piece in the recent number of National Affairs. The essence of their argument, according to Jay, was to “reform” various labor laws by giving the federal government the ability to issue “waivers” to the states similar to what they are able to do for federal health programs and did to wheedle raw red states like Arkansas and others into participating in Obamacare.

Surely, Stern and Eli Lehrer’s argument were much more nuanced than Jay was painting. Surely, Jay was gilding the lily just a bit, given the hardcore Bay Area trepidation on all things Stern since the bitter trusteeship battle over old Local 250, the giant healthcare local in California. Jay makes the point that a transfer of these federal protections and powers, as argued by Stern, to states and local jurisdiction would exacerbate the blue-red state divide, along with a list of other weaknesses in their arguments. I figured I should reserve judgement until I read the original article and considered it carefully. Perhaps this was something run up the flag along the Beltway before the Trump truck crashed through the Washington wall. There must be more to all of this.

And, there was, but it wasn’t necessarily better.

Especially disturbing was the weight in their argument given to the success of state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage. Here Stern and Lehrer were confused about the difference between minimum standards and preemption, in fact arguing that Fair Labor Standards allowed “state preemption,” which is incorrect. The statute does what it says by establishing a minimum standard. Nothing prevents a state in such situations from raising standards, but in a national policy, no state can lower standards below the FLSA thresholds. Red or blue, they are also silent on the fact that such increases have largely been in areas where the majority of voters had the opportunity because of democratic reforms introduced by previous movements through citizen initiative and referendum which undercuts their pretended consensus that “all labor reform” has come at the state level, rather than mostly through popular demand. Much of their admittedly controversial proposals are cast as the ability to “experiment” as well, but there has been nothing stopping many jurisdictions from experimenting by offering procedures or protections for workers exempted from the NLRA or FLSA. California’s farmworker representation regime with its strengths and weaknesses is an example, as is Seattle’s current effort to create representation norms for on-demand or gig employees. The protections provided in law by states in India for example for many categories of informal workers are vastly superior to the silence of US law at every level, and even though nothing has stopped activity, it is certainly not because there is a need for a waiver to start it.

But, no need to pile on. Jay was not picking nits, and little more needs to be said, other than the one question that perplexes me: Why? I think we’re in no danger of seeing such waivers to federal labor protections allowed even in Trump time, so was this just about stirring the pot? Stern can’t really believe the arguments made in his name in this piece, so why would he allow himself to be associated with them? Inarguably, Andy Stern was one of the most dynamic and creative labor leaders of our generation, albeit with strengths and weaknesses, rights and wrongs, as we all have, but even having forsaken his voice as the head of the nation’s largest union, why would he allow himself to be placed in a position where any of his brothers and sisters would be allowed to wonder now, which side is he on?

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Trump Shrewdly Exploits the Labor Movement Divide

President Donald Trump poses with labor leaders on January 23, 2017 in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC.Getty Images

New Orleans   Depending on what papers you read, you might have seen a picture of President Trump meeting with business executives or on the other hand a picture of him meeting with union leaders. All of the pictures featured grinning, older white men in nice suits, so please read the captions carefully so you know who you looking at, even if you can’t see much difference in what they are saying.

Trump’s big play yesterday was removing the United States as a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Japan, Canada, and a number of other countries. This has been a contentious issue for labor and the left. The AFL-CIO and particularly legacy manufacturing unions like the UAW and Steelworkers have long opposed the TPP and similar trade deals as job killers for workers and unfair dumping grounds for cheaper products. It was a signature platform promise of Senator Bernie Sanders as well. Interviewing Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers on the radio, he maintained that his participation in Sanders’ campaign and his union’s maverick endorsement of Sanders over Hillary Clinton was largely prompted by Sanders’ opposition to TPP.

The labor leaders in the White House yesterday were giddy after their meeting with Trump. One, on exiting, described the meeting as the best he had ever had in his career with the union. Reports of the meeting, including glowing remarks about Trump from the Teamsters’ Hoffa and the Carpenters’ McCarron, leave little doubt that this was a meeting that focused on something that Trump knows something about and where, as a New York City based builder, he has long experience with unions, and that is construction. Discussions about infrastructure expenditures for constructing pipelines, bridges, airports, highways, and other big ticket items are the bread-and-butter of the building trades’ councils and their member unions, meaning happy members paying working dues. The membership of the trades, like their leadership, are still, even in the 21st century, mainly white and mainly men, so this is right in the Trump wheelhouse. In the age of Trump, we may read a lot about new right-to-work legislation, but we’re not hearing a peep about repealing Davis-Bacon, which is the building trades’ life-support system on higher, prevailing wages for construction.

Manufacturing unions have been bleeding from the downsizing of automation, trade, and disinvestment, but that doesn’t change the fact that building trades unions are the smallest part of the shrinking labor movement and often at odds with both the manufacturing unions as well as the service unions that have become the major driving force of the labor movement. The divide between service-sector unions in healthcare, public service, education, retail, and elsewhere and the construction unions is huge, and no matter how masked by claims of ongoing solidarity, this distinction and the lingering political and cultural separations were at the heart of the division into competing labor federations. In service unions the membership and many of the unions are led by women, immigrants, and the non-white, and diversity of all kinds is their watchword. The building trades’ unions impulse is to protect what they have for their existing members so that there are fewer workers sitting on the bench at their hiring halls, and many times they see their charge as keeping other workers out of their industries. The workers outside the hall are largely irrelevant to them, if they can hold on to their work, while service workers have to grow or be overwhelmed by the unorganized, and construction workers try to build a fort with a moat around them.

Trump may not have formally declared war on all unions or all of labor, but he’s been around the blocks of Manhattan, and he knows full well how to divide the already sagging house of labor. With the enthusiasm of the construction unions, we’re about to watch him do so.

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