By Mike Elk
It’s Payday, Folks! Greetings from the Heart of the South: Chattanooga, Tennessee!
This week’s Lunch Pail is dedicated to the non-union ironworkers at the Cambria Hotel construction site in Nashville, Tennessee, who went on strike this week over the refusal of their employer, K&D Rebar, to give them drinking water. Go to Middle Tennessee Jobs With Justice’s site to learn more about how you can support these folks.
Special thanks to Penn State Sociology Professor Brian Thiede and WeAct Radio Co-owner Alex Lawson for becoming supporters of Payday Report this week. Now for the news:
American Airlines Averts Strike during DNC & Will Enter Into Talks with the Union
After hundreds of Philadelphia airport workers walked off the job last week and threatened to go on a strike during the Democratic National Convention, American Airlines has agreed “to talk about opening a fair path to unionization for subcontracted workers.” SEIU 32BJ, along with faith-based group POWER, has been helping these workers to organize for years.
Labor reporter Justin Miller over at the American Prospect has a look at how the airport workers and Democratic delegations from all over the country were able to utilize this unique opportunity to pressure the airline to begin discussions.
Uber, the Big Winner of the DNC
While the workers at the Philly airport made some headway, unionized taxi drivers took a hit as Uber and Lyft were given special permission to operate during the DNC. Philly NewsGuild activist Will Bunch has the story for the Philly Daily News:
Arguably the most visible corporation at the DNC has been Uber. That’s the high-flying ride sharing firm run by ruthless billionaire Travis Kalanick that was caught trying to smear its critics and which, importantly, may crush the taxi industry that has long been a place for strivers – especially immigrants – to work their way into the middle class. All week, with little fanfare, cab drivers have been out protesting against a new law giving Uber (and Lyft) legal status for the DNC, against alleged favoritism for Uber at the Wells Fargo Center pick-up lines – and for higher wages for drivers.
Bernie Angling to Head Senate Labor Committee
This week, Bernie Sanders became a major power broker within the Democratic Party by calling on his supporters to continue their political revolution while also backing Hillary Clinton this fall. In return for his support, Sanders has signaled to the Clinton campaign that he would like to chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Neither Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who is the current chair of the committee, nor Hillary Clinton have indicated publicly how they feel about Bernie taking over the post. Sanders has consistently been a critic of Clinton’s policy positions and as head of the committee he could continue to be a thorn in her side.
Young Bernie Activists Provide New Energy to Organizing the South
Yesterday, as a result of the generous contributions by more than a dozen donors, Payday was able to publish an in-depth look at how the Sanders campaign has brought new energy to organizing in the South:
While Sanders lost the Democratic primary by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in Chattanooga, he did win voters under the age of 35, leading many to believe that the vote was an indication of much more progressive organizing to come. Across the South, activists say that the Sanders movement has given them energy to push against the issues of economic and racial inequality that plague even Democratic-leaning cities, such as Chattanooga.
Alabama Labor Lawyer Calls for Boycott of Law360 over Union Busting
Last week, former Law360 reporter Stephanie Russell-Kraft wrote an op-ed for The Hill detailing the vengeance that Law360 exacts on former employees after they leave the publication. In the summer of 2015, after two years of working at Law360, Russell-Kraft left the company to accept a job at Reuters.
On the second day of her job at Reuters, the General Counsel of Law360 threatened to sue Reuters because Russell-Kraft had previously signed a noncompete to not work for a competitor of Law360. On her fourth day at Reuters, she was promptly fired.
Russell-Kraft’s op-ed detailing her ordeal has produced a stream of outrage on Twitter this week, just as efforts by current staff to unionize have brought forth much solidarity. Birmingham, Alabama-based labor lawyer Jack Jacobs, who represents the Mineworkers, took to Twitter, calling on labor lawyers to cancel their business at Law360 unless the company recognizes the union.
However, the public heat on Law360 has yet to take effect. This week, Law360 reporters went public that the company was forcing them to attend anti-union captive audiences with the Oklahoma-based union-busting firm Labor Relations Institute, Inc. An NLRB union election has been scheduled for August 10th.
“I was there to do a job and to make a bad situation better. I wasn’t there to get sick.”
The Center for Public Integrity took a detailed look at the health issues facing workers who cleaned up a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, which “ranks among the largest industrial disasters in American history.” In December of that year, a dam containing a toxic ash slurry – produced by a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant – collapsed and “deluged nearly 400 acres in gray muck, destroying houses and dirtying a river.”
More than 900 workers spent six years cleaning up the site, at a cost of $1.2 billion, and are now experiencing myriad health issues, such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and multiple forms of cancer. When cleanup started, both the TVA and a contractor that it hired, Jacobs Engineering Group, downplayed health risks. Now, 51 workers are involved in lawsuits against the contractor, who has moved to dismiss workers’ claims as “scurrilous.”
Unfortunately, these workers probably represent just a handful of all those affected across the country. In part, this is because the “question of worker exposure has been vastly unexplored,” according to Barbara Gottlieb, the environment and health director at Physicians for Social Responsibility and an author of a 2010 study on illnesses and coal ash. Labor lawyer Roy Mason, who represented widows of workers exposed to coal ash in Utah, told the Center for Public Integrity, “I guarantee there are thousands of [workers] out there exposed to coal ash and sick because of it.”
The Center’s investigation goes into far more detail and tells the very personal stories of a few of these workers from the TVA spill cleanup – check it out here.
Payday Folk Labor Ombudsman JP completed an apprenticeship program with master banjo player and folk historian Sue Massek last year. Massek is a founding member of an all-woman outfit called the Reel World String Band. Recently, her band’s work was recognized and archived at the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections Research Center, and KyForward noted their importance:
The Reel World String Band’s music career spans 39 years and its history represents a body of cultural and feminist activism that has influenced and supported dozens of social movements in Kentucky and the Appalachian region. Since 1977, the band has toured all through the United States, Canada and Italy, played on picket lines, at women’s festivals and square dances, as well as thousands of other venues including many memorable events at UK’s own Singletary Center.
A couple weeks ago, Dr. Ralph Stanley was memorialized at a tribute held at Appalshop Theater in Whitesburg, KY. Ralph was a powerful voice in the coal producing Appalachian mountain region and will be greatly missed. His 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama was a surprise to some, but he had always been a Democrat in a region that normally went Republican.
Around the South
In Raleigh, North Carolina, workers at the North Carolina Justice Center, a progressive think tank, are now operating under a union contract. Organizing began in the summer of 2013, and their employer voluntarily recognized the union the following spring. Marion Johnson, the union chair, told INDY:
We wanted to have a formal say in the decision-making process about our own wages, benefits, layoffs, and other working conditions in the organization. We felt like a union was the best way to allow us to have a formal seat at the table when these things were being discussed.
In the small town of Lancaster, South Carolina, about 430 workers will lose their jobs as Duracell closes the plant that has produced AA batteries there for more than 35 years, according to local newspaper The Herald. The move comes just months after Proctor & Gamble sold Duracell to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
Just outside of Baltimore, a state historical marker was installed at the site of the former Sparrow’s Point steel mill. As academic and labor activist Bill Barry notes, the mill was at one point the largest in the world and employed more than 31,000 Steelworker union members at its peak employment in 1959. After a bankruptcy and a series of ownership changes in the early 2000s, it closed in 2012, “leaving workers with an enormous loss – accrued benefits, retirement, health insurance and, most importantly, with the loss of what had been a secure future.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains, in West Virginia, another historical site survived delisting. At the behest of coal companies, the Interior Department removed the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, but now a federal court ruled against that decision. Interior has decided not to pursue an appeal, proving that coal companies don’t always win. But, with the help of federal troops, they did win the Battle of Blair Mountain. Read about it here.
In Louisville, members of the teachers’ union, along with other unions, rallied outside of a school board meeting on Tuesday. Contract negotiations are underway, and teachers are calling on the Jefferson County Public Schools to honor wages increases they say should have already been given. Meanwhile, the school system has come under fire for “[c]hanges to a school’s dress code to prohibit many of the hairstyles favored by black students with natural hair.”
Further south, we come back to the story in Atlanta of the BLS contractor who appears to be stalling first contract negotiations. Workers there unionized with the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers in 2015, and this week filed two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. They’ve also chalked up a victory in finally getting the contractor to agree to the quite common practice of holding negotiations on company time. Check out the union’s Facebook page for additional information.
Buzzfeed published an in-depth investigation looking at the Honduran sweatshops that make Trump’s “Make America Great Again” apparel:
At least one former employee reported strong pressure from management to avoid hiring workers who might try to organize a union at the factory. He said he often received handwritten lists from the Human Resources department with names of workers who were perceived as pro-union. When such workers took tests to apply for jobs, he would scuttle their chances by falsely inflating the time it took them to complete the test, he said. The employee refused to be identified because he feared being blacklisted from the industry.
Employees viewed as pro-union were also punished in other ways by their supervisors, the man said. One tactic was increasing already-high quotas. Workers on the iron station, for example, would be required to press the wrinkles from more than 1,660 shirt collars in a nine-hour shift.
At Yes Magazine, Jon Duda of the Democracy Collaborative has a great longform story this week on a region of Italy where cooperatives produce nearly a third of the GDP:
Picture a day like this: You wake up and head to your job at a small company you own and manage together with your fellow workers, doing high-tech, advanced manufacturing that’s too specialized for bigger factories. For lunch, you swing by a restaurant owned by another worker cooperative, this one a national-scale firm that serves millions of customers each year. Back at work, you’ve got a meeting with a local agricultural co-op that’s contracted your company to help design some more efficient processing material for the food they produce and export across the world. Afterward, you meet up with your partner, who works in a social cooperative jointly owned by caregivers and the elders who live and receive care there. The two of you swing by the local grocery store—part of a national chain owned by its millions of customers—and pick up a bottle of co-op-produced wine. This is a day in the life of the cooperative economy in Northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna region.
Last week, we pointed out the first of two articles by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers discussing enforcement of workplace standards. Now they’ve posted the second article, focused not on companies like Wendy’s, Publix, and Kroger that have so far held back efforts to improve working conditions for farmworkers, but on “those companies that are sincerely searching for answers to their supply chain problems but are still lost in the world of smoke and mirrors that almost entirely comprises the field of social responsibility today”:
There is much to be done in cleaning up generations of unchecked farm labor exploitation in the produce industry, both here in the United States and abroad. It is a daunting task, to say the least, for global corporations with wide and diverse supply chains involving hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of workers. To make matters worse, the universe of social responsibility programs with strong enforcement mechanisms and proven track records like the Fair Food Program is distressingly small. Given the enormity of the task and the scarcity of effective tools, the response of many companies has been to ask what might be called the existential question of social responsibility: Isn’t something better than nothing?
We could build a new world? A new world is possible? You say you want a revolution? You may still be Feeling the Bern?
Here at Payday Report we know slogans are only a small part of action. If you like what we’re doing here, please share our work. And the cooperative, sustainable, worker-owned model requires a bit of “green,” AKA funding, so consider joining the growing numbers of folks who have become regular donors to our independent media project. Each month, we host a conference call with our supporters, and the next one is coming up soon – August 2nd – so if you’d like to join us, act now! We’ll be sure to send you the invitation.
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Yours for the media revolution.
JP Wright, Folk Labor Desk / Ombudsman
Thanks for reading this week’s Lunch Pail. Send any tips on stories to [email protected] Let’s go Buccos!