I’m Not Complaining, but What a Week

New Orleans  Returning exhausted from stops in Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi, somehow I can’t get these weird signposts of the times and odd ends out of my mind. Normally, I would let them go, but somehow this Chief Organizer Report is going to be a report on the chief organizer, so bear with me.

Bargaining four nursing home contracts in Shreveport, the company already wants to include language making the Affordable Care obligations moot, even while the whole operation continues forward in the stalemate of Congress and presidential politics.

A studio chair and some folding chairs for WAMF, the new low power FM radio station that we just got on the air in New Orleans, was donated to us in Bossier City across the river (thanks Butlers and Clarks!). In a pleasant middle income suburb between a mall and an expressway, I parked my big truck, doors wide open in the driveway of the unoccupied house waiting for Local 100 organizer, Toney Orr from Arkansas, to help me load it all in. Neighbors drove by and up and down the driveway next door. No questions asked, even as we hauled the furniture out. Is that weird?

In Little Rock, despite six months of work on the Home Savers Campaign and running PSAs on KABF referring calls to Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, that yielded little, we finally broke through and within 48 hours found a trove of both Vision Property Management and Harbour Portfolio rent-to-own and contract to purchase houses throughout central Arkansas. We had boomed out to visit victims in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and here they were right under our noses! The lesson, even when the spirit is willing, we have to shore up the capacity to account for how often the flesh of our operations need more underwire. Capacity matters, even a little can make a huge difference, and that’s worth remembering. Oh, and, a Home Savers organizer, Dine’ Butler, was the big finish of the well-regarded Reveal podcast, home visiting a victim in Detroit.

Capacity, capacity, capacity, it comes up again and again, and amazingly we stumble around trying to find it even when it is kicking us in the knees and pushing us to the ground. One kingdom after another lost for lack of a horse. Our biggest underwriting partner at KABF was being stymied on promoting its great work, because we had never pressed hard enough for the spots for them to realize if they gave us copy we could produce them quickly or allow hosts to do “reads.” Ouch!

Visiting radio station WDSV in Greenville for the 7th month, it was the same story with a different verse. Frustrated and stalled in achieving their mission after 5 years on-the-air as the voice of the people in the Delta, they were being held hostage by technology too large and complicated for them to easily access to master the ladder to the heaven they sought. The magic and miracle is not that we can fix that, but that it takes so long for us to marry problems to solutions, so that we can move forward in our work.

Sometimes I’m racing so fast that I miss how easily it is to stumble on the simplest steps. I wish it were just me!

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Demanding Lead Testing in Schools and Real Response

leadinwaterNew Orleans   The water crisis in Flint, Michigan seemed like a wakeup for America and the world. Lead was in the water. People couldn’t drink it. The damage to children – and adults – was incalculable. Lead was found in other schools in the country when districts began testing, like Newark, New Jersey for example.

Local 100, United Labor Unions, represents school workers in Dallas and Houston, so of course we demanded they test the water for the sake of both the workers and children. These are huge school districts. The adverse impacts would be devastating. Despite Flint, Newark and other districts, we’re caught in a crisis of incrementalism. So far we have gotten the Houston district to test perhaps five schools build before a certain date. Hardly a comprehensive program. Dallas is dragging their feet even more, despite proven cases where our workers were employed in a records storage area that was an old auto facility and where lead and other heavy metals have been documented in abundance.

Some big districts have been more responsive. After a minimal test in Chicago schools showed some problems, the Chicago Public Schools hired four different contractors to test widely. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune:

CPS said water has been tested at 265 of 324 schools that are more than 30 years old and have prekindergarten programs. Results have only been returned for 87 schools. Of those, the district said 26 schools had at least one fixture that spouted water with lead amounts in excess of 15 parts per billion. Test results have shown a wide variety of lead levels were detected in water across the city’s schools. Water from one sink at a Clearing neighborhood school for disabled children between the ages of 3 and 6 showed lead levels as high as 1,100 parts per billion — a water fountain at the building tested as high as 357 parts per billion, according to the district. Four drinking fountains and four sinks at Reilly Elementary on the Northwest Side showed high lead levels, including a water fountain on the school’s main floor that tested as high as 340 parts per billion.

Chicago is hardly the gold standard, but at least they are playing catchup. Talking to experts, the Madison, Wisconsin school district has reportedly replaced all of their lead pipes over the years in order to proactively deal with this issue in a comprehensive way.

Keep in mind that the EPA requires bottled water to not exceed 5 parts per billion and lead experts are clear that this 15 parts per billion is just plain pretend when it comes to prevent or the damage of exposure.

National expert, Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, was quoted clearly in the Tribune

“You cannot undo harm that’s been done in the past, that’s the nature of lead exposure. You can only prevent future exposure. So the sooner you get the bad news, that’s good news.” Edwards wasn’t surprised by the number of CPS buildings that have shown elevated levels of water-based lead so far. “Nothing would ever surprise me in terms of lead in school water, because (schools) have generally the oldest plumbing and the water sits around for long periods of time,” Edwards said. “That makes it more corrosive, it allows more lead particles to accumulate and in many cities the schools are the source of the worst lead in water for those reasons.”

Local 100 has also gathered soil samples from schools in Dallas and Houston and are waiting for the results. What good does it do any of us for school districts, city officials, sewer and water providers, and others to resist the testing to find out the “bad news” so we can began to protect people?

No one is pointing fingers but why the false security, the cover-ups, and obfuscation? It’s time to do the work and prevent more permanently damaging impacts for our children and workers in schools.

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Union Leaders Concerned about Schools, Wages, and Medical Debt

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welcome

Little Rock    When the forty leaders at the 34th Annual Local 100 Leadership Conference, held this year in Little Rock, were asked how many  of them were carrying medical debt, more than half of the hands in the  room went up.  When asked how many had family, friends, or neighbors  dealing with the burden of medical debt, all of the hands went up!  No  surprise that there was enthusiasm for Local 100’s twin initiatives of establishing citizen wealth centers and launching a campaign in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas around hospital accountability to provide  charity care and financial assistance.

Citizen Wealth workshop

Citizen Wealth workshop

There were some interesting surprises though.   In a plenary discussion of  the union’s partnerships and initiatives in campaigning for living wages  for state workers, school workers, and all of our workers with different  strategies, mentioning that many of the union’s struggles were with charter schools triggered an impromptu discussion and deep criticism of  charter schools from leaders throughout our geography.  Many repeated the promises that had led them to enroll their children in charters in their search for the best for their kids, but it was almost tragic to listen to the profound disappointment they felt with the results. In one case the lost year seemed a setback in math and science that had led a promising child to remedial work in a community college now.  In another case, fleeing the charter disaster meant two months out of school waiting for a place to open back up in a former school. The disillusionment with young, inexperienced teachers and a constant churning of the staff was also acute.  Many of Local 100’s leaders had drunk the Kool-Aid and were now spitting it up, which augurs poorly for the future of charters.

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The discussion got back eventually to the recent victory in Houston  Independent Schools where on a 6-1 vote we won a starting wage of $10 per hour for all employees. The union is now targeting a special effort for the cafeteria workers to increase hours, since even with the raise, they are not getting enough hours to equal a living wage.In Arkansas we have identified 900 state workers under $10 and are making headway there.  Neil Sealy, the executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, joined the discussion with us as a partner along with KABF radio on this campaign.  He reported on ACORN’s victory for Pine Bluff city and contract workers where wages are over $12 now thanks to a city referendum several years ago.  Dallas indicated that they had identified 1000 workers making less than $13 per hour in the schools there that they are targeting.

President Henrietta Collins

President Henrietta Collins

Before the end of the meeting there was a union wide commitment to see if the new NLRB rules on quicker elections will make a difference.  Nursing home workers in Arkansas seem to be stirring, and the union is looking at whether this might be a good test.

Anytime a meeting ends with a dinner that includes catfish fried in front of us, tender beef brisket, and homemade peach cobbler, you know you are in Arkansas and you know it was a good meeting!

Leadership Conference Participants

Leadership Conference Participants

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Coordinated Attack on Public Workers and Unions in Texas and Oklahoma

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHouston           The headlines on the attack on workers and their unions has recently been written in the Midwest.  An attempt to follow-up in Wisconsin on the stripping of union protections for public workers now finds the legislature there pile driving a so-called right-to-work bill that would strip unions of vital resources for representation requirements and services.  Having spent hours in the Houston Local 100 office poring over a bill introduced in this session of the Texas legislature that could, if passed, and if passed in the current form, attack public workers at all levels state, counties, cities, and schools by eliminating any authority for payroll dues deductions for workers to their unions, it is important to realize that some of the highly publicized fights are just the tip of the iceberg as these concerted union attacks continue below the water line to eviscerate unions in areas of the country where workers are most beleaguered.

The New York Times reported a story recently about the coordinated efforts of many Republican controlled state legislatures to use a “preemption” strategy at the behest of industry and particularly the Koch Brothers’ funded ALEC conservative bill-writing factory to take away governing discretion at the local level that Republican business donors were finding obnoxious.  The headline cases were the Denton, Texas city council outlawing fracking there down to whether or not the Fort Worth Mayor and Council could regulate the environmental damage from plastic bags.  The story cited the longstanding preemption efforts in many states to eliminate the ability of cities to set their own minimum wage standards that began in the 1990’s with the Local 100 and ACORN’s ballot measure in Houston to raise the minimum wage as well as in New Orleans and Denver.  Of course New Mexico, where cities have continued to retain that right, is a heavily targeted area for business now.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised in this dark and polarized climate to find bills with identical numbers introduced in both Texas and Oklahoma that would eliminate all abilities for worker requests for payroll dues deductions to be honored by public employers.  The Oklahoma bill is only different from Texas in the fact that it is plainer spoken and just waves the mighty wand of the state to make all deductions disappear.  In Texas, the language meanders around trickier pathways because there is more to unravel since some cities, particularly Houston, have opened the door to more direct negotiations with the HOPE coalition of city unions connected to SEIU and AFSCME, and they wanted to tiptoe a bit more around police and fire unions that bankrolled some of their buddies.  Nonetheless, talking to our Austin-based attorney, Doug Young, every time we thought we might have found some wiggle room, he pointedly assured us it was legally locked down tighter than a bank vault.

Of course if something as draconian as these bills passes and becomes law, there are recourses in court based on the first amendment and our freedoms of association and the equal protection measures that frown on discrimination of our organizations, but that means years in court and uncertain results.  One outcome will be certain, if such overreaching legislation is approved, there will be even weaker unions in states that are already notorious for the weakness of unions.

I am reminded of two things.  One is the way that business and industry used a Lake Charles oil refinery strike to raise the temperature enough to win right-to-work legislation in Louisiana in 1976, and now the fact that the same effort is underway in the oil patch states while oil refinery workers are on a very well run and smart strike around safety conditions throughout Texas, Louisiana, and other states.  The other thing that hits hard is my own advocacy of wider worker organization using direct dues collection outside of employer permissions to build strong and sustainable organizations like our 35,000 member union of hawkers in Bengaluru and Chennai in India.

Nonetheless it is one thing to have alternative organizing and dues collection methodology.  It is quite another to be forced in that direction with no alternatives, and that seems to potentially be our future in the current anti-union assaults in the southwest, and likely throughout the southern states.

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Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” Live at the WGA Writers Strike (some explicit content)

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The Co-Employer Fight at McDonald’s Searches for an Employer and a Strategy

protest at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Park

protest at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Park

New Orleans       More than a thousand fast food workers rallied at a convention center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago in a boisterous, morale boosting event sponsored by the Service Employees International Union in the on-going campaign for a living wage. More interesting is the ongoing effort by the union to define the employer for many of these workers, determine whether there is a co-employer status between the parent companies and franchisees, and puzzle out a real organizing strategy across thousands and thousands of different locations.

Having been there and done this before, let’s start with the obvious. It is incredibly difficult to win a co-employer case before the NLRB! Some years ago Local 100   had Waste Management, the garbage company, by the short hairs as a joint employer employing the “hoppers” or manual laborers working the business end of the truck loading the garbage into the hopper and recruited and paid by their subcontractor on a cost-plus agreement. We endured a lengthy and expensive hearing and had the company cold, but we were missing a “smoking gun,” which we later found incidentally, that would have established the co-employer status in correspondence on company letterhead, so we narrowly lost, took the election and won, rather than going through another five or six years of court appeals.

SEIU had success with this legal strategy several decades ago at the dawn of the Justice for Janitors campaign when they won a ruling in a Pittsburgh building service campaign that the building owner was a co-employer with the cleaning subcontractor, allowing the union to pressure the owner to settle a contract on more favorable terms, since they had the power in the contracting relationship. That NLRB decision was a shot heard across the property service industry, and higher and stronger walls were immediately built in markets throughout the country between ownership and their janitorial subcontractors, making it virtually impossible to win similar decisions, though still allowing the union to target ownership and large contractors more successfully in winning campaigns to organize janitors in other cities. I should quickly add that this does not make that campaign a model for fast food, no matter how many superficial similarities, since cleaning and labor costs are a minimal part of a building’s expense, but are the most significant part of a restaurant’s expense.

McDonald’s runs about 19% of its locations, somewhere over 6000 stores as corporate locations, while almost 30000 are franchised. More than 850,000 workers of the 1.7 million worldwide are employed in the USA by the company. Other fastfood operations are similarly organized. Yum, the operator for Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut is about 25% corporate, while Burger King is only about 8% corporate. Pushing operations over to franchisees has been the increasing trend for all of these companies in recent years. When the United Labor Unions organized fastfood workers in Detroit in the early 1980s under the NLRB with organizers, Danny Cantor, Keith Kelleher, and Mark Splain, driving the program, we were constantly tripping over the problem of which stores were corporate and which franchise, as we filed representation petitions with all of these companies. It was a nightmare!

SEIU and its allies have appealed to the NLRB Division of Advice and the General Counsel for a determination on whether or not the McDonald’s Corporation is a co-employer with its thousands of franchisees and arguing that they are. Reporters seem to believe that a decision is imminent. They must have very good inside sources, because there is no time limit on how long the Division of Advice can chew on a case, and it can as easily take years as months, and the lawyers that do the looking for the General Counsel are not political appointees.

Nonetheless, Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter for the New York Times speculates that “if the labor board agrees, that would open the door for the SEIU to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.” I doubt it. If they wanted to move that way, they already could have done so since in major markets franchisees already own dozens and in some cases scores of locations in places like Houston, as does the corporation. Organizing under the NLRB would mean an additional fight on unit determination, as we often found to our peril, since such ownership patterns could lead to “an appropriate unit” being defined as every store in a geographical area owned by an individual franchisee or by the parent corporation. Furthermore, if the NLRB did advise that there was a potential joint employer status, an army of corporate and franchise lawyers would be revising the contracts and operating agreements at all hours of the day and night to build higher, stronger walls between the parties to prevent such a definition at the point an actual representation petition might be filed. And, then once it were filed, start the clock ticketing on the six or seven years to get the issue to the US Supreme Court.

This is a great SEIU tactic to give a hard poke to the company’s eye and try to pry open another front in its campaign, but as an organizing strategy winning or losing the co-employer case is not a game changer for actually unionizing the workers, , nor does it provide enough leverage to cause the companies to change their willingness to be neutral towards unionization. 

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Are New Obamacare Rules Another Step Backward for Low Wage Workers?

lowwageNew Orleans    It isn’t hard to understand the thinking behind the new IRS regulations to clarify the rules for employers who might be trying to hustle the margins on the Affordable Care Act and “dump” workers onto the system to save a couple of bucks.  The problem is that the rules completely ignore the reality of lower wage workers and the inadequacy of the ACA to provide them with basic health care in a flawed system dependent on shoring up private insurance companies.  Here’s why.

The new rules say that employers cannot fulfill their obligations by transferring money to workers to assist them in enrolling by paying their premiums and cost-sharing.  The IRS has effectively determined that so-called “employer payment plans” make employer contributions taxable and do not qualify to prevent penalties for not providing employee health insurance.  Part of this is based on an assumption that may hold true for large scale, legacy employers, but is non-existent in the service industry where so many lower wage workers are employed.   As Robert Pear writes in the Times:

When employers provide coverage, their contributions, averaging more than $5,000 a year per employee, are not counted as taxable income to workers. But the Internal Revenue Service said employers could not meet their obligations under the health care law by simply reimbursing employees for some or all of their premium costs.

As Local 100 of the United Labor Unions bargains with large regional and national healthcare companies on units with hundreds and thousands of workers, we grapple with this problem continuously.  These employers offer health insurance but historically the premiums have been so high for workers making less than $12.00 hour that participation was minimal, certainly less than 10% of the workforce and usually less than 3% of the workers, most of whom were confronting health issues so were willing to sacrifice paychecks for health coverage.  Now companies have giant loopholes which allow them to qualify their plans by reducing the premiums to less than 9.5% of income but putting no limits on the level of the deductibles, which are often ranging over $5000, effectively meaning that the workers in normal circumstances will be paying for so-called health insurance that will give them virtually no benefits.  All of these workers would be better served by accessing the marketplace and they would save money doing so because they would access subsidies and cost sharing support.  Because the Act in its current form is largely an insurance company support mechanism rather than a comprehensive health care alternative, we have been desperate to convince employers to work with us to find a solution that would not cost them anymore than they have to pay, but give the workers real coverage.  In state after state where the reimbursements for nursing homes, mental health and mental retardation, and other health support services have been frozen or cut, the companies aren’t sitting on extra money, so they’ve been listening, but now the mountain has become even higher to climb.

Oh, the new rules threw a scrap on the table for organizations like Local 100 and our partners who have been determined to help people enroll in Obamacare.

In a separate rule, the administration prohibits states from imposing onerous restrictions on insurance counselors, who educate consumers and help them enroll in health plans. Under the rule, states cannot establish standards that impair the counselors’ ability to help consumers or to perform other tasks required by federal law.

So, states will not be able to block the work of navigators, though unfortunately navigators will be forced to tell lower waged workers that their options are in many cases somewhere between bad and non-existent in service sector jobs.  The IRS regulations are meant to prop up private health insurance companies with more robust employer participation, but are presuming a workforce from the 1950’s, not the dominant lower waged, service sector employment of the 21st century.

This isn’t going to end well for lower wage workers and their families.

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