Was the Weird Labor Dustup over Airbnb Housekeepers a Trojan Horse?

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

New Orleans   Over recent weeks there has been a spit fight involving the controversial in-home rental app, Airbnb, and various labor unions, including the frequently controversial Service Employees International Union and its even more controversial former president, Andy Stern, and the now much less widely known hotel workers union, Unite HERE, and a bunch of housing groups. At issue was a potential deal, now scuttled, that would have had Airbnb recommending union cleaners to its hosts and guaranteeing that they would be paid at least $15 per hour and “green” certified. What in the world was this all about, other than perhaps the easier work of making a mountain out of a mole hill?

What’s the beef? SEIU has been the driving force in the “fight for $15” campaign and they have long “owned” the jurisdiction on many types of cleaners. This could not have been a big deal for them. Maybe they would have gained a couple of members or more likely a couple of more hours for work for already existing members, and that only in jurisdictions like New York and California where they have fought and won high union density for such workers. Largely though this would have been little more than a press flurry for a couple of days that then would disappear from consciousness. For Airbnb operators this would have been a fix looking for a problem, since most are either cleaning their own places or already have cleaners, many, if not most of whom are already making more than $15 per hour since they are on-demand workers with more individual bargaining power.

What SEIU seems not to have fully realized is that the fight around Airbnb in tight housing markets like San Francisco, New York, and others where there are active housing groups is intense and polarized, and there is no demilitarized, neutral zone. But, SEIU certainly was well aware that these same areas are also areas where Unite HERE has significant organization among hotel workers, so they have common cause in seeing Airbnb or any service that takes guests out of a union hotel as the anti-Christ. Going back to the jurisdictional wars within labor what was a close labor partnership between the unions went way, way south, when SEIU offered a safe haven for parts of UNITE and its former leader, Bruce Raynor, in an internecine struggle with John Wilhelm. To put another finger in Unite HERE’s eyes, the architect of that shotgun merger was Andy Stern, who reportedly was also representing Airbnb in these preliminary negotiations about this deal.

Neither Airbnb nor SEIU had much to gain other than a couple of props and press releases from this deal, so it is no surprise that current SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, saw this as a distraction, and quickly went to current Unite HERE president’s Dee Taylor’s Las Vegas stronghold to, in all likelihood, get her hand slapped, apologize, and hope the whole mess would die like other things in Vegas. This was all much ado about nothing.

Unfortunately, this let’s-make-a-deal love affair between some unions and Silicon Valley tech operations is worrisome still. Airbnb doesn’t really have a labor problem in any classic sense, but something like Uber, the ride sharing app really does. In a recent court settlement on Uber, in exchange for pretending their drivers were not employees, Uber agreed to some vague language about being willing to meet with – or help create a forum – for associations of their drivers to discuss issues. Actual unions of Uber drivers have been in formation in Seattle and other West Coast cities. Was it a lawyer or a union advisor that thought these meetings and company “unions” were a good idea as anything but a union-avoidance strategy? Certainly, the campaign master and deal maker for Uber is someone with rich Democratic politics experience from the Obama campaigns and relationships with a lot of current – and former – union leaders. I would worry that Airbnb might have been a Trojan horse for an Uber type problem, since too many are painfully fuzzy about the hard core anti-labor, job destroying, disruption philosophy that is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley.

The next shoes that fall could hurt a lot more than this one.

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Magic Math Won’t Beat Money In-Hand on Airbnb Urban Battles

Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers

Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers

New Orleans    Airbnb, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, whatever, you pick what new phone app-driven techno billionaire wannabes, you worry about, and I’ll pick mine. Deep in your heart, you know Uber is taking advantage of its drivers and ripping everyone off on taxes and Social Security, but perhaps more deeply, the taxicab industry seemed be asking for it. Airbnb is worrisome in a different way, but once again, who can defend the low-wage, tip-based exploitation of workers that is at the heart of the hotel industry, especially in a city like New Orleans where the hospitality industry drives the economy, making the per capita income for the city among the lowest for the largest one-hundred cities in the United States.

All of which brought me to watch and listen to an interview being organized by the Lens,  a local internet news operation, that was billed as an opportunity to get at the heart of the controversy. Sadly, the reporter was interviewing a stone cold anti-advocate, and that’s fine, here we defend advocates of all stripes and sizes without reservation, but he was so confused about whether he was a reporter or an advocate himself with his own axes to grind, that there were nothing but softballs thrown, and no challenge to even the most preposterous comments. That’s life, sometime we win, and sometimes we lose, but we still have to show up, and I did.

I also learned some things inadvertently that were disturbing and, unfortunately, convinced me that Airbnb, come what may, is going to win most of these fights wherever it goes. The unassailable proposition for the anti-Airbnb folks is that no one wants to wake up one day and find that their block is now populated by revolving door mini-motels. On that we can probably all agree, but after that, when the fur starts flying, we’re going downhill trying to hold Airbnb in check, and that’s not just because there’s no clear target or face of the enemy like there is in most corporate fights, but it doesn’t help that the dividing line of the anti’s is also against many of their own neighbors, who aren’t running underground motels, but are renting out spare rooms from time to time.

Where the anti’s are going to fall hard is trying to use magic math to fight the company against its promises of cash on the barrel to money-starved cities, like New Orleans.

The tripping point that catches anti’s is that they start their argument against the company around the lack of data, and then use fabricated data to make their case. That’s not a winning tactic! In thirty minutes, I heard wild claims that Airbnb folk make $250 a night: heck, hotels in New Orleans don’t even do that well! People pretended that folks in the French Quarter have not bemoaned the “loss of neighborhood” for the last 50 years or more, which certainly they have. Some claimed bed-and-breakfasts were upright, licensed taxpayers, which has been an issue in the city – and with the hotel industry — for decades. And, the notion that a huge part of the city’s population hasn’t tried to rent out spare rooms or whole houses for Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and Super Bowls in New Orleans since before smartphones or apps were even invented is just crazy. Couple that with the common knowledge that Katrina doubled rents – and housing prices, and they have stayed that way, especially in unflooded neighborhoods, and no one sober is going to believe that it’s Airbnb that has accelerated gentrification and pushed many affordable units into the stratosphere. Mix all that in the gumbo with exaggerated claims based on a Brooklyn-based website called Inside Airbnb on the number of properties and the percentage that were full houses, and what do you have?

A lot of this magic math falls apart if anyone takes the time to actually see how Airbnb works. The listed or hoped for price, is not the same as the price someone gets if they book a guest. Furthermore, if anyone monitors this, the prices have gone down because Airbnb now gives recommended prices that often differ from the “list” price, just like hotels do, obviously. Furthermore, it seems almost anyone who wants to list a place with more than one bedroom in a funny twist of the Airbnb system, almost has to list the property as a full house, throwing off all the so-called statistics yet again. In our coffeehouses we see a lot of younger people, and we are located in some of the “hot” neighborhoods in the city. There’s no question that anyone who thinks that they might have even a shot at having a guest, lists with Airbnb, but talking to many of them, even if they are part of the “listed” statistics, they have never had a paying guest in over a year.

Meanwhile, when Airbnb offers a city a “deal” that they will collect the taxes on actual rents, slap on some rules, and turn over the money every month, who believes they won’t take it? The city ends up ahead with a minimum of expenditure on staffing and enforcement, which they are failing at anyway, especially when other, richer cities are reporting abysmal enforcement rates. That’s going to be a hard argument to beat with magic math, exaggerations, random stories, and finger pointing. To have a chance with something like Airbnb, we need an “app for that” works better than yelling that the sky is falling.

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Surely These Old Codgers Can Stop Age Discrimination

57287New Orleans    There’s nothing easy about getting old, but as everyone says, it’s still better than the alternative. Increasingly there seems to be an emerging crisis that older people and older workers may run out of money way before they run out of time.

Given the huge demographic bulge of the baby boomers, if there’s one problem the elderly of the currently maturing generation might have thought they wouldn’t have to contend with its age discrimination. Wrong!

There’s a law right? So this is a protected category. Yes, but it turns out it is not a very well protected category.

Age discrimination cases are very difficult to win because of two fairly recent Supreme Court decisions. For public employees a 2000 ruling denied money damages in cases against state agencies, including public universities, which means for them that if they were to win the lawyer might get paid, and they might wait for years and get reinstatement, but no back money and no damages. A situation where there is both harm and a foul! Furthermore, in 2009 a ruling made it harder to contemplate winning under any terms by saying that age had to be the “motivating factor” for the dismissal. Employers being employers could potentially manufacture a host of problems, degrade evaluations, nitpick, pile on petty write-ups, and the like and as long as they disguise the fact that they are giving a worker the boot because she’s older, and likely paid more than some young pup, they are going to prevail in court.

When you look at the ages of the Supreme Court, you have to wonder what they were thinking and how different their world of lifetime appointment has skewed their reasoning. The average age of Supreme Court justices is 75 now, and the average age they retire is 78.5 when they get good and ready. They have job protection on steroids!

When you look at the average ages in Congress, you would think some retirement home canasta club would be able to shuffle a bill through the halls to give older workers and senior citizens more protection. The average age of the House of Representatives membership is 57, and the average age of the Senators is 62. No matter what they tell you, that’s not young either.

Maybe there will be some encouraging proposals from the presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton is 68 and Donald Trump is 69. Senator Bernie Sanders is kicking it up at 74. But if there are, I haven’t heard them.

Go to a high school reunion and the list of people being forced out from companies big and small and unhappy about it is legion. There’s a huge base for a real program to both create jobs for young workers and protect the livelihoods and retirements for senior citizens, but I don’t get the feeling that this is the revolution that an AARP is going to lead, nor is this a big news item in the current election season. This is a vacuum that needs to be filled.

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The Painful Tragedy of the Digital Divide

computers_0Little Rock    For more almost 25 years, Local 100 United Labor Unions has represented school support workers mostly in Texas and Louisiana from Head Start to high school from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria workers and janitors. Most of our work is concentrated in the cities now, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Little Rock, because the members’ dues can afford the infrastructure there, but every month we still get regular dues checks from our members at the outposts of local.

About this time of year when winter lingers and spring is pushing forward in this part of the country, I used to join Orell Fitzsimmons, 100’s Texas State Director, for what we called our “fence mending” tour. I would meet him in Houston and then we would drive to Corpus Christi, meet with Willie Fleming there, and then stay in some cheap motel along South Padre Island before we went through our school districts along the Rio Grande Valley before heading back north toward San Antonio and back around to Houston. Sometimes we would stop and take a picture of Texas state highway 100 on the way to Donna to visit our members in the school district there before doubling back to McAllen, Pharr, McAllen, and Brownsville. Everything in south Texas is a long ride.

The FCC is voting soon on a Band-Aid, but essential program to expand “lifeline” funds collected from the big telecoms to offer increased access to broadband internet to lower income families. If we were really serious about attacking inequality we would do a whole lot more, including forcing these public utilities to make all internet affordable to all families in their homes as a basic necessity, but at least we’re doing a little something-something.

Forty percent of the families in South Texas where we used to fence mend do not have access at home to the internet. Looking at a picture in the New York Times of children standing outside a schoolhouse in McAllen, one of our old Texas school districts, so that they could download homework assignments from a school’s wireless hotspot, is just about enough to bring tears to my eyes from the rage boiling my brain. Reading about a young girl in the Donna Independent School District, that we know like the back of our hands, who rides a bus 3-hours a day so that she can use the Wi-Fi on the bus to keep her grades up is tragic. Reading about another 17-year old girl who finishes her after-school job in Pharr and then has to go to a friend’s house to use the internet in order to get assignments in before the midnight deadline that are required to be submitted on-line just about sends me to the street to scream.

Why are we not doing better for these children? Why are these school districts not paying a janitor a couple of extra dollars to keep the cafeteria open for these young scholars to do their homework until 9PM or even later? Why are teachers so brutally insensitive to the children they see eye-to-eye across their desks? What kind of casual cruelty is becoming part of the DNA of our society? And, that’s downstream, when so much of the problem is upstream in corporate suites and politicians offices.

The Rio Grande Valley is not an exception either. More than 30% lack internet access in New Orleans, Detroit, and other broke-ass cities, that are also not surprisingly majority-minority cities. 25% of library users now in cities according to surveys find their patrons coming to use the computers and internet, yet how many are open the hours that students need?

Half-steps are probably better than standing still, but we need a full-on march to deal with the digital divide and the inequality it advances so clearly for so many struggling so hard.

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Latest Report on Union Density Finds a Finger Hold on the Cliff

16-union-difference-chart-frontNew Orleans   The top-line numbers from the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership density in the United States for 2015 indicate little change, sort of a “no news is good news” kind of story. Private sector density continued to suck at 6.7% of all private employment, but that was a slight improvement over an even worse figure in 2014. Public sector density was over one-third of all public workers at 35.2%. Membership was slightly higher in absolute terms in the private sector with both over 7 million workers, and the total union membership was almost 15 million members, which isn’t what any of us would want, but is still something to work with. Half-empty or half-full, that’s where we stand.

A closer look at the numbers continues to be disheartening. The states beating the averages are still bi-coastal with some hunkering down in the Midwest with the south east and south central states all below the median numbers with many of them at the bottom of the barrel. Five states had total union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2015: South Carolina (2.1 percent), North Carolina (3.0 percent), Utah (3.9 percent), Georgia (4.0 percent), and Texas (4.5 percent). Arkansas and Louisiana for example were both in the 6% range for total union membership density. Nationally the rate is over 11%. None of that is encouraging.

Union workers continue to make considerably more than non-union workers, but that does not seem to drive robust recruitment. The BLS figures have non-union workers making about 79% of union rates.

Adding to their list of challenges, part-time workers are still stepchildren in the labor movement. The union membership rate was 12.2 percent for full-time workers, more than twice the rate for part-time workers at 5.9 percent. Such workers are being gigged hard.

If you are looking for opportunity and challenges there are some sectors that are literally crying for unions. Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.2 percent) of course, finance (1.3 percent) which is also hardly a surprise either, food services and drinking places (1.5 percent) despite the extensive fight for $15 effort, and professional and technical services (1.7 percent) where Silicon Valley types, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs all get a free ride. Leisure and hospitality in general went down to 3.6% which really hurts since there are more than 12 million workers in that sector. Healthcare and social services, where there are 17 million employed, almost held its own at 8.3% which is close to 1 of every 12 private sector workers in are union members. Retail and wholesale trade where there are more than 18 million workers was even worse with barely over 5% in unions, so there’s a lot of opportunity there at least on paper.

Commentators pointed out the obvious on this year’s numbers, though that didn’t make it less painful to hear as they moaned that time – and money – were running out. Loss of union shop protections for public sector workers could drain the coffers of many unions and decimate organizing resources. As the Service Employees have demonstrated, campaigns like the McDonalds and Fight for $15 effort where they have spent millions for years without the realization of any membership gain, require huge capital being spent now hoping to find the interest later. Few unions are willing to do that, and the 2015 numbers indicate that even fewer every year may be able.

We still have a finger hold, but we’re hanging by a hair and dangling over a cliff. Don’t look down!

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Joint Employer Status Sure is Confusing – and Important!

254-time-clock-484107197-738x415tsNew Orleans    In the world of workers what should be the simplest question to answer is becoming one of the most confusing, and important. The question is: who do I work for? The answer, too often these days, is god only knows? To make matters even more complicated both the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division are trying to come up with more coherent way of solving the mystery of who is really the responsible employer fitted to modern working conditions. And, that’s the good news, though the differing definitions are still going to leave many workers lost in a quandary.

The McDonalds’s cases brought before the NLRB by the Service Employees in their Fight for $15 organizing campaign to try and hold the parent company responsible for unfair labor practices by the franchisees is going to sort this out, one way or another, in some ways for unions in coming years. Additionally, the NLRB has allowed unions to file more easily – at least in theory – for bargaining units including directly employed and subcontracted workers as joint employers. Not sure how well that is going yet? I know Local 100 United Labor Unions raised the issue in bargaining with nursing homes to see if we could automatically accrete any housekeeping or dietary units that might be subcontracted in the future, and we didn’t get as far as we could spit with the issue, but it was an interesting conversation and a warning to the employer that we now thought we had a tool to jam up the works, if they went that direction, which many homes had gone in the past.

The DOL is going several different ways in trying to straighten out a path to the future, but none of this reads easily. One digest I read summarized it this way:

“Horizontal joint employment,” the guidance says, occurs when an employee works for two or more employers that are separate only in a technical sense. “Vertical joint employment” occurs when one employer uses an intermediary, like a staffing agency, to employ workers with whom it maintains what amounts to an employer relationship.

I hope that’s clear!

With the NLRB the issue revolves around who controls the workplace. The DOL seems to be looking at how high the walls are between workers in the same workplace. If it’s a captive entity with only a thin layer of Sheetrock between one and the other, they are joint. In some cases it also seems the test is likely to move towards who has the deepest pockets as well. Since we are talking about wages and hours, I would bet who really controls the time-clock on the job also could have a heavier burden on any pay violation in this area.

In these days and times, we pretty much have to wait until the lawyers and courts get through with finding the holes and trying to plug them up. The good news for workers is bound to be that they will be better for the struggle to clarify the mess, but it’s hard not to get a sinking feeling for unions and for many workers we are a long way from fixing this problem of “button, button, whose got the button” when it comes to grabbing an employer and holding the boss accountable for fair wages for a day’s labor.

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