Momentum Building against Wage Theft

amazon-warehouse-employeeNew Orleans    Increasingly I get the feeling that there is real momentum building against the standard operating procedure of company’s ripping off their workers on wages. 

            The courts are not necessarily the workers’ friends on these issues though.  For example a recent ruling against steelworkers was surprising to me.  The court denied pay for the time spent by the workers in getting free of the hazardous conditions clothing they were required to wear in the mill. 

Another test is coming up before the Supreme Court in the coming session dealing with the fact that Amazon and its subcontractors in their numerous warehouses have been requiring workers to go through time consuming extra security screening after they have clocked out to make sure they aren’t stealing stuff from the warehouse.  This is a situation where the company seems super cheap since they both want to prevent “shrinkage” but also aren’t willing to hire enough screeners to process the workers out quickly.   The price tag for this wage theft would be huge since it involves a class action of 600,000 workers.

Sadly though, as the steelworkers’ case shows, the legal process may not be our best avenue for justice compared to blunt pressure and the court of public opinion.

Talking recently on Wade’s World on KABF with Anne Janks, the national poultry organizer for the Chicago-based group Interfaith Worker Justice, directed by longtime activist Kim Bobo, it was still shocking to hear how widespread wage theft is in the poultry industry.  Janks indicated it was nothing fancy, just plain holding workers while the production line was down and not paying them, sometimes for hours per day, even with big companies like the giant chicken plucker, Tyson’s.  The fact that much of the workforce are newer immigrants, and according to Janks, not just Latinos but also eastern Europeans, Somalians, and others.

It was hard to tell if the Amazon case originated in the organizing efforts of warehouse workers initiated by Change to Win in Riverside and the Imperial Valley of California, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that to be the case.  Certainly, beating wage theft for home health care workers has been a consistent organizing handle in unionizing such workers who were simply never reimbursed for time and money spent on travel between clients.   Wage theft is often mentioned in the fast food protests and certainly anywhere immigrant workers are organizing.

The prevalence of these cases makes it clear that we have a moment right now, when some of the inequities have become political issues, to push forward against major companies on the issues of wage theft.  At the same time home care workers should remind us all that informal workers without big, fixed workplaces are the most vulnerable where they can be robbed easily in groups of ones and twos.  When big outfits think nothing of robbing with impunity in workplaces holding hundreds and thousands, all of us can imagine the ease with which pockets are picked in smaller and more isolated workplaces.

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Finding New Ways to Organize

 Toronto    Some of the most interesting meetings in my several days in Toronto were with our friends in the Canadian labor movement in Ontario, especially at the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), SEIU Canada, and the Steelworkers.  There’s a hunger to organize in most of these unions even though several of them are getting hammered by the current economic implosion and watching membership plummet.  Nonetheless the organizers are open and anxious to talk about new ideas, innovations, and other things that might work in the future.
    Our friend, Colin Heslop, who heads the skilled trades department of the CAW, was interested in developments in New Orleans where he and his people had helped us build houses, but it was also fascinating to catch up with him on the organizing developments in the unusual and groundbreaking deal that former CAW President Buzz Hargrove had made with Magma auto parts.  Despite the fact that the staff and national executive board had approved this very “different” kind of arrangement with Magma including the no-strike provisions in order to organize more than 30,000 workers, predictably this “concession” had been an issue in the election for Buzz’s successor.  All that was old news now, but the agreement with Magma had only netted about 1200 workers of the expected yield to date for various reasons.
    SEIU Canada continued to be heavily engaged in pulling together the building service sector with growing campaigns in Ottawa and emerging efforts in Vancouver.  We had a fascinating discussion about living wage campaigns that are heating up in both areas and how this could feed into service-based organizing, as well as the usual wide ranging discussion about targets and opportunities.
    With our friends at Steel, we visited briefly with Canadian USW president Ken Neumann, and then hunkered down with his EA, Ken Delaney, to continue another chapter in the discussions about new innovations in organizing that we had had with him over the years.  We caught up on the work with domestic workers which had interested us last year as well as other drives with taxi drivers and university workers which have solid legs.  Ken wasted no time recognizing that the last six months had been a blur where most of the time and energy had focused on stopping the membership losses in the mounting recession and blunting their impacts.  This had been like the classic “lost weekend,” where time had stopped since our conversations last summer and only now were our friends focusing on organizing again.  
    Saying all of that it was exciting to start making plans and brainstorming with our friends and allies again in Canada.  They were also interested and supportive of the informal worker organizing we are doing with ACORN International and the lessons we have learned from organizing along “majority union” lines in Wal-Mart.  I’m still predicting big things for labor in Canada in the months and years to come.

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