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.

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Please enjoy Pokey LaFarge’s Riot in the Streets.

Thanks to KABF.

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The French Rein in Unions with Carrots and Sticks

french-protests-1024x432Amsterdam   Two very different meetings in Paris on my last day of this European organizing stint left me with an uneasy feeling about the power of the state in dealing with independent, autonomous organizations. One meeting was with the leader of a small national labor federation. The other was with a Green Party European Union parliamentarian and a friend and church-based organizing ally of ours in the Paris region. On reflection, the common theme that disturbed me was the role of state financing, but I’ll get to that.

Unions are complex organizational structures in all countries especially when they have the kind of rich history and tradition one finds in France. In meetings, I have had in the past with the larger confederations I have often wrong footed myself by assuming that the big federations wanted to increase their dues-paying membership. Often that was wrong as I later found out, and as I understood better after an early morning meeting with a smaller union federation. In regular elections held every third year, union workers vote on a sectoral and regional level. With an 8% vote tally, a union is in the winner’s circle with full representation rights in a company and a seat at the sectoral bargaining level as well. 8% also qualifies the federation for direct financial support from the national government. A 3% vote means that the union is recognized by the state to the degree it can send its leaders and staff to state-sponsored trainings and the like.

Dues tend to be relatively low for French unions compared to North American unions, often between 100 and 120 euros per year. Direct government funding for many unions, and certainly all of the larger federations, accounts in large part for the modest dues rates, as well as a major source of union financing that also comes from awards for representing their members through the labor courts. The labor court judges have wide discretion on the awards ranging from a couple of hundred euros to several thousand euros, providing a direct incentive to unions for pursuing a large number of individual member grievances to the labor court stage, as opposed to North American unions that are often bound to pay excessive arbitrator’s costs and never receive an award, even when members are reinstated and win back pay. Our friend in the small union handled an average of 65 cases per month on a membership of 2500!

Recent French labor law revisions also seek to eliminate the many smaller unions and federations and centralize institutional labor. Reaching below the 3% threshold now bars a union representative from handling a member’s case. A co-worker would be allowed to represent a grievant, but not someone from the union, unless they prove more support. With the low rate of union membership density in France, even though unions are seen as relatively strong still, low dues and lower enrollment means that many smaller unions will wither, weaken, and likely die, which is clearly the intention of the government. Given the weird “general” election system and the few workers that really vote on issues of such consequence, I’m almost surprised our doors aren’t being broken down to do get-out-the-vote campaigns for these representation elections, but maybe I’m missing something.

Our pastor friend in our meeting over lunch with the Green Party parliamentarian without warning began to lobby him for a 5% set aside of taxes to fund community organizing. I bit my tongue rather than jumping in with stories from Montreal, Kansas City, and Albuquerque where cities had directed to “recognize” certain neighborhood groups and give them small funding in order not to deal with the rude and unwashed membership-based groups like ACORN. When I asked him later in some horror why he thought this was a good idea, the answer was a roundabout one that had to do with the fact that the tax rate in France for workers was twice that of the rate for employees in the United States. That might be an argument for streets being paved with gold and housing for the poor being built rising to the heavens, but it was not an argument for asserting state dominion over independent and autonomous organizations. The carrot might be the money, but the stick is the permanent control at some level over community organizations, and of course banning them from politics. Simple rule: you pay for it, you own it. Can you imagine negotiating with the government for more expenditures for this or that demanded by the members, and being asked if we would trade state support of our organization for the money needed to win an issue?

Furthermore it would likely produce something very similar to the crisis looming over the French labor movement now facing the need to grow and organize, but without the membership base, membership dues structure, and a culture of membership support that could fuel such drives. The point is not just to be proud of a great history, but also to learn from it.

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Please enjoy these songs from KABF.

Wilco’s Someone to Lose

Green Day’s Still Breathing

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Is Labor Day for Workers or Politicians?

highlight-img2Berlin   Every four years Labor Day marks the official beginning of the “real” campaign for President in the United States. Of course these campaigns are endless and began years and years before for most candidates, like a Hillary Clinton. Even Mr. Surprise Candidate, Donald Trump, has been hard at it for at least a year now. Both candidates had their big-bodied planes in Ohio on the same tarmac on Labor Day. Reporters could run back and forth between the planes. Candidates could nod in each others’ direction and note how important Ohio is as a battleground state. Democrats could show up at some of the few remaining Labor Day parades, marches, picnics, or whatever we might call them and genuflect to what’s left of the remaining power of labor unions, much of which is in fact on the goal line stand defense of politics and elections.

It is worth wondering if Labor Day really exists anymore to celebrate workers and their unions or just an easy access bridge for politicians to have their photo ops with workers, and then move on to more fundraisers and other touchstones of micro-targeting. It goes without saying for most people Labor Day is more the mark of the end of summer and perhaps the beginning of school sessions, and a last chance at a 3-day holiday in the long stretch until Thanksgiving. What’s labor got to do with it?

Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer forwarded me this piece she had gotten commemorating Labor Day, and it’s worth sharing:

In 1894, it [Labor Day] became a national holiday in Canada. The Canadian government was seeking to accommodate the Labour Movement after the rise of the Knights of Labor and the strengthening of unions in the 1880s. Shortly after, the American government followed suit, wanting in particular to offer a counterpoint to May Day, which commemorated the state violence against the 1886 Haymarket demonstrators. The contrast remains between the North American Labour Day holiday and May Day, which is Labour’s day elsewhere. While May Day stands for the international struggle against capitalism, Labour Day signifies the accommodation of workers within the capitalist system. Canada and the U.S. are the only countries where Labour Day rather than May Day celebrates the achievements of workers.

Accommodations are much, much different than achievements, especially with the disappearance of any social contract between labor and management involving an equal sharing of the benefits of work and wealth. When Labor Day becomes little more than a showcase and access point for politicians, that’s an even further dilution of the critical content of the day.

We have to hang on to it of course. At least we have one day that we can still try to claim as our own, since almost every other day of the year seems to celebrate business and the rich for all of us, and perhaps especially for politicians.

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The Dark Side of Works Councils in Germany

DSCN1461Aachen   In the morning and later in the evening, I got a short course on how unions worked in Germany from organizers, staff and leaders at Ver.di, who met with me at their regional headquarters in Dusseldorf. The television screen in their meeting complex might have been translated as if I was giving a training session, but at many times I was being schooled more than they in the basics of how unions worked and the challenges they face in Germany.

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I’ve certainly heard about “works’ councils” for years and even met representatives of such councils from time to time in various delegations or when groups have visited New Orleans or so forth. The perspective from the ground floor where organizers’ work, repeatedly established that when there was a conflict between the theory of workers’ input at the council level within a firm and the reality of whether or not workers could make change or build power through a council, the theory was crushed and thrown out of the window by the crushing weight of the reality. At lunch without as many of the other folks listening, in somewhat of a silent sacrilege, two members of the key regional organizing team asked me what I might advise on how to deal with a work council when they were as much of an issue as the management.

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Certainly in the USA, we can read op-eds and news stories from the corporate point of view that hold works councils as little more than a German artifice that got in the way of what company’s wanted to do. All of which, almost by default, led me to believe they were likely a good thing. Hearing from both organizers and works council members was an education. Councils are basically a meet-and-confer operation with elected leaders in the work place about non-economic terms and conditions of employment. In Germany every business of a certain size and employment is required to establish such a council. On the one hand organizers were finding them an obstacle in organizing because they were often entrenched with unaccountable leadership. In organizing they would initially begin by trying to convince the works council members that a union was a good thing and there should be cooperation and assistance, but often they would find the union had to either organize to take the council over, elect new members, or go around the council, none of which are easy tasks and all of which took time, energy and resources. Councils are elected to four year terms, so if a union is organized in a firm and comes in after the last election, if could be that many years before there’s a chance to deal with them accountably, and that’s a job hard to handle.

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Talking to leaders at works councils at American Apparel retail stores and Home Depot stores, they were unhappy for other reasons. At Los Angeles-based American Apparel, they were hanging in and hanging tough despite the fact that the company was in Chapter 11 reorganization. They felt like they couldn’t get any information or analysis they needed from the company or their American manager. At Home Depot, they felt a union drive and campaign were needed, but troubled about what role they could play. Others were concerned about their powerlessness in dealing with subcontracting and joint employer situations in German law and were critical about whether the union was doing enough to get ahead of these problems either.

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

The Rhine-Ruhr valley is at the heartland of labor’s strength in Germany, where unions are still a key part of the economic order. Ver.di is attempting to innovate in organizing and in fact that’s part of how I got to Dusseldorf, because the leader of the newly created organizing team, Jeffrey Raffo, was interested in participating in a dialogue about how community organizing methodology melded with labor organizing technique to create a strong, amalgam of organization. Nonetheless, they all nodded that German unions were also getting weaker, even if not as weak as those in the USA, and works councils were clearly not enough to provide workers protections in the absence of strong unions.

 

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Hillary Says, “If it’s Broke, I’ll Fix it”

51Wc+ZfNTSLNew Orleans    Hillary Clinton in a one-two punch has now laid out her prescription for the United States economy. She says it’s not about one-liners or fancy slogans, but her slogan seems to be: “If it’s broke, I’ll fix it.” She is positioning herself not exactly as the leader-of-the-free world but as the Maytag repairman, a modern day Rosie Riveter with a tool belt strapped around her waist.

She’s not making the mistake of over promising in her campaign pledges, and in fact it was hard to pick through the reports of her economic speech and find many promises at all.

Reportedly, she might try to get more people overtime, but that’s an Obama policy and DOL rule that is still being absorbed by workers and businesses. What would that be exactly? Something over $50,000 rather than the current mid-$40000 number? No revolution there. Another bone she threw out to workers is that she will do more to police and enforce wage and hour rules to curtail wage theft. Sounds good, but I’m pretty sure that would involve some serious beefing up of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division and its personnel, and given how badly this area has atrophied over the last 30 odd years, amen to that. I’m also pretty sure it would take a Congressional appropriation that would actually give the DOL money to finally do that job, and I’m not sure there are many Republican Congressman in the majority that are looking to muscle up on small and medium sized businesses.

She says she’ll renegotiate some of the trade pacts. As most of us know by now anything that has to do with trade negotiations takes forever, so she might be messing with that assignment deep into a second term, if she were able to win one. No holding our breath on that either.

She says there are fix-it-quick deals she can make that would perk up the economy with massive infrastructure investments. That’s a well-traveled road from the Obama Administration as well, and sounds good, but it’s hard to believe there’s a real deal there with Congress either, other than the usual, “when we say, infrastructure, they say, pork.” Oh, she also says she’ll get something going on immigration reform. I’m hearing Trump’s hateration as the soundtrack on this one which, win or lose, is likely to continue to make a lot of conservative Congressmen timid here on real reform, unless this is just a sop she’s throwing to Silicon Valley and its special pleading to bring in more foreign engineers to play with computers and code.

Ok, so this is thin soup so far. She’s saying she’s “feeling your pain” and grabbing her tool belt, but she’s still talking about fulfilling pretty small work orders. She adds, according to the New York Times, that’s not a problem though because, “… she will campaign and govern with a five-point plan, drawn up by subject-area experts, incorporating the full range of potential legislative and administrative tools available to the next president.”

Wow! I’d like to meet the person who takes either comfort or inspiration from a future “five-point plan, drawn up by subject-area experts.” There’s leading from behind, but I’m not sure that American workers and wannabe workers are ready to be happy with her being this far behind.

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Overtime Rule is One Thing, Enforcement is Another

iStock_000015098858MediumSan Jose   It’s official now. Starting December 1st, a bit more than six months from now, salaried employees making less than about $47,000 per year or $913 a week will be eligible for overtime pay at time-and-one-half of their effective hourly rate. The last adjustment in 2004 was a bit over $23,000 or $455 per week. Importantly, embedded in the rule is a regular adjustment every three years, so in 2020 the Department of Labor estimates that overtime eligibility will be $51,000. Earlier estimates targeted the impact as potentially effecting more than 5 million workers. Restaurant and other trade associations have indicated continued opposition, but no matter the sound and fury, the impact of this new rule will be huge one way or another.

At the least the new rule mandates a much closer accounting of hours for workers that have been salaried in the range of an effective rate of between $12 per hour and $23 per hour, which will require an obvious adjustment for many employers. The reckoning will not just come in the area of the standard workweek. Any regular meetings, conventions, seminars, and other work-related events that had been automatic for salaried workers in that range will now potentially trigger overtime. And, if not, overtime adjustments in workers’ schedules or exclusion from such events. Travel time has always been a contentious issue for hourly workers, and we can expect a deluge of transitional controversies for such workers now.

Increases before 2004 were more minimal, allowing employers to potentially meet the overtime requirements by raising minimum salaries above the threshold, giving workers a nice raise and avoiding the problems. We can expect that a doubling of the rate will not be met by most employers with an across the board raise of ten or fifteen thousand a year, but some who are close might bump workers over.

Opponents insist that this will mean reduced hours for many salaried workers, and that sounds right, but that’s also fair. Reduced hours for salaried workers does not mean less income than they are receiving now, but at least it means less work for the same amount of money. Workers given fewer hours will either have more leisure or more opportunity to do other work rather than being tied to more hours at the same pay with their primary employer.

My bet though is that this transition will be hard and that the Department of Labor will be swamped with both questions from workers, newly eligible for overtime, and with complaints from many workers whose employers are hoping they can wink-and-nod rather than tightening hours or paying overtime. In city after city where minimum wage increases have been won, we have all found that often the key to whether or not workers actually benefit from the changes is whether or not there is real provision for enforcement. Enforcement means rules with teeth and personnel. There’s no indication that Congress has suddenly beefed up the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, and they are already lagging in enforcing the existing minimum wage and overtime rules.

For workers to get the benefits claimed by this new rule and actually see increases in real income, it will take a change in employer mindset and enforcement to make sure that employer hearts and minds are forced to change. That change will be harder to realize than the process of simply establishing a new rule. Until then the jury is out on whether or not real wages will increase for salaried workers at the level projected.

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