Duke Grad Union Loses – More Fired Latinos Move to Organize – Memphis Spies on Unions

Mike Elk was the only national reporter to attend the 5,000 person Historic "March on Mississippi" against Nissan.


By Mike Elk 

It’s Payday, folks. Greetings from Nashville, where Payday is investigating tax dollars being used for unsafe construction sites in the fastest growing city in the South.

Earlier this week, Payday was in Huntsville, Alabama reporting on Indivisible activists targeting Trump’s congressional allies and achieving results in the fight to save Obamacare, even in the deepest of red states. Our report will be forthcoming early next week. Also, be sure to check our dispatch for the Guardian from Canton, Mississippi on the 5,000-person “March on Mississippi” against Nissan.

Help Payday continue our reporting road tour throughout the South and donate to our Southern Resistance Tour Reporting Fund Today.

Want Payday to visit your city? Payday Senior Labor Reporter Mike Elk pledges to visit any labor struggle in the South where someone will offer him a couch. Contact [email protected] if you wanna host a labor reporter in your home.

Fired Latino Construction Workers in Nashville Move to Form a Union

In February, 18 Latino construction workers were fired from Bradley Coatings in Nashville for taking off work during the #DayWithoutLatinos Protests. Another ten workers quit in solidarity to protest the firings.

Now, Nashville-area building union trades are helping the workers to find new jobs and to fight the unfair firings. On Wednesday, activists from building trades unions held protests at Bradley Coating worksites throughout the city. The union says it’s also aiming to unionize workers at the company.

“Before these firings, we had no campaign going at the company. Now, we most certainly do,” says Roger Hester of the Painters Union.

Duke Graduate Students Threw in the Towel on Union Election

Earlier this month, Payday reported on how a historic union election of graduate employees at Duke University hung on the results of 502 contested ballots. If the union had prevailed over Duke’s vigorous anti-union campaign, it would be the first victory by a graduate student union at a private university in the South.


However, after an initial review of ballots, the graduate student employees decided to withdraw the petition for a union election.

“We have chosen to not pursue a legal strategy at this time because we in the Duke Graduate Student Union know that it is unlikely that we could effectively challenge the administration’s silencing of graduate students’ votes through a system that is set up to support employers over workers,” wrote Duke Graduate Student Union supporter Scott Garish in an email to the Duke Chronicle.  “We are still committed to fighting to improve the working conditions of graduate students and look forward to doing so in the coming period.”

Vanderbilt Admin. Pledges to Oppose Grad Student Union There

Graduate Student Employees will also likely face an uphill effort in their bid to organize teaching assistants at Vanderbilt University. This week in an email to graduate students, Provost Susan Wente and Dean of Graduate Students Mark Wallace wrote a mass email urging graduate student employees not to unionize.

“Our students are not at Vanderbilt for the primary purpose of holding jobs or performing services on behalf of the University,” wrote Wente and Wallace. “Rather, they are here for the true purpose of gaining a world-class education, including experiential opportunities for the practice of instruction and research.”

Activists Accuse Memphis Police of Spying on the Fight for $15

In December, Payday broke the story of union activists accusing the Atlanta Police Department of spying on the Fight for $15 movement there. Now, in Memphis, Fight for $15 activists are filing a lawsuit against what they say is police surveillance and harassment. They say that the police have followed protestors and targeted certain activists for arrests.

“They have squad cars follow us from the time we get up to the time we end our action,” Church’s Chicken employee and union activist Ashley Cathey told ThinkProgress.  “[It] gets to the point where the workers don’t even want to come out and participate ‘cause they’re afraid of what the police gonna do to us.”

West Virginia Runs Out of Funds to Bury Its Poor

This week, the West Virginia State Senate moved forward with legislation that blocks municipalities from passing their own minimum wage increases. The measure prevents local municipalities from taking creative measures to address stubbornly high rates of poverty in the state. West Virginia remains the sixth poorest state in the country in terms of poverty, with 18 percent of the population living in poverty in 2015 according to the Talk Poverty project of the Center for American Progress.

The poverty is so bad in West Virginia that just this week that Frederick Kitchen, the president of the West Virginia Funeral Directors Association said that the State Department of Human Services has run out of $2 million earmarked for the fiscal year ending in June to bury those too poor to afford a funeral.

Despite this, Kitchen said that his organization would try to do the best it could to bury the poor without getting reimbursed. Kitchen said that the austerity budget of the state delays not only burials, but also autospies of drug overdose victims.

“The biggest thing we are seeing is it’s putting a strain on the state medical examiner’s office being overwhelmed doing autopsies. Families sometimes have to wait two or three weeks to get their loved ones back and have a funeral,” Kitchen told The Intelligencer/Wheeling News Register. “It puts a lot of hardship on families after getting the worst news of their lives.”

Arkansas Governor to Kick 60,000 Off of Medicaid

This week, Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that he would seek a federal waiver to reduce eligibility for the state’s Medicaid expansion program. According to Rewire, “The governor’s proposal would lower the income requirement for Medicaid eligibility from 138 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent. That change would reduce the income cutoff for an individual from $16,643 to $12,060, and reduce the income cutoff for a family of four from $33,948 to $24,600.”

The proposal would deny coverage to an estimated 60,000 in Arkansas.

He also proposed that Arkansas—not the federal government—who would be able to determine who is eligible for Medicaid, thus giving the state even more ability to kick additional people off the rolls. Hutchinson also proposed that a work requirement be applied for all non-disabled recipients.

While Republicans’ plan to repeal Obamacare in Congress pledges to eliminate the program, Hutchinson says that states can’t wait for D.C. to reform.

“I don’t think we can wait on the federal government,” Hutchinson told reporters at a news conference on Monday. “I think we need to continue our reforms now.”

Hutchinson says that he has spoken to the Trump Administration and expects to get a federal waiver to make the desired changes to the state’s medicaid plan.

Department of Labor Stops Issuing Press Releases About Labor Law Violations

For years, the Department of Labor has issued multiple press releases per week when companies broke the law in an effort to shame bad actors in the industry. However, since the Trump Administration has taken over the Department of Labor, there hasn’t been a single press release issued about a labor law violation.

“Failure to publicize OSHA’s activities means many employers will not think to abate their hazards and more workers will be hurt,” Obama Administration OSHA head Dr. David Michaels told Fair Warning.  

9 out of 10 Texas Farmworkers Live In Inadequate Housing

While the federal government may no longer be drawing attention to violations of workers rights, many others are still attempting to do so. Democratic legislators in Texas this week introduced a law to improve temporary housing for migrant farmworkers in the state.

According to a 2016 Austin American-Statesman investigation, 9 out of 10 migrant farmworkers lived in housing that is unlicensed and has not passed state inspection. Despite this, the Texas State Department of Housing and Community Affairs has never once punished a single housing unit for not being up to code.

Now, legislators have introduced legislation that would force the state agency to crack down on inadequate housing.

“Over 50 years ago, I myself was a migrant farmworker, and I lived in chicken coops and cattle barns and other so-called housing,” State Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), who co-authored Senate Bill 1025, told The Texas Observer. “It is unacceptable and unconscionable that the state of Texas is still providing that type of housing.”

Weekend Reads & Listens

— One of Payday’s favorite bands, Louisiana-based Hurray for the Riff Raff, was on Democracy Now this week singing and talking gentrification, feminism and art in the Age of Trump.

— The New York Times has a long look at how the Trump election inspired an effort by a group of artists to save Nina Simone’s birthplace in Tryon, North Carolina and turn it into a museum:

Over the last month, four prominent African-American artists — the conceptualist Adam Pendleton, the sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, the collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher and the abstract painter Julie Mehretu — quietly got together, pooled their money and bested competing bids to snatch the house up for $95,000. They describe the purchase as an act of art but also of politics, a gratifying chance to respond to what they see as a deepening racial divide in America, when Simone’s fiery example of culture warrior seems more potent than ever.

“It wasn’t long after the election that this all began to happen, and I was desperate like a lot of people to be engaged, and this felt like exactly the right way,” said Mr. Johnson, 39, whose work, like that of Ms. Gallagher and Mr. Pendleton, often directly engages issues of race and political power. (Mr. Johnson recently signed on to direct a feature film based on “Native Son,” Richard Wright’s classic novel of racial oppression.) “My feeling when I learned that this house existed was just an incredible urgency to make sure it didn’t go away.”

Go to the NewsGuild-represented New York Times to read the full story.

— The Asheville-based Mountain Express has a very long look at the rise and fall of unions in Western North Carolina.

— Finally, legendary Pittsburgh filmmaker Tony Buba, a childhood hero of Payday Senior Labor Reporter Mike Elk, has a virtual tour of his family’s home. It’s a trip.

Love & Solidarity,


Mike Elk is a Sidney award winner and a lifetime member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO, as an investigative reporter at In These Times Magazine, and has written for the New York Times. In 2015, Elk was illegally fired for union organizing at POLITICO and used his NLRB settlement to found Payday Report in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Follow him on Twitter @MikeElk or email him: [email protected]

Contribute to Payday’s Southern Resistance Road Tour Reporting Trip.


About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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