While 11.3% of U.S. workers officially belong to unions, the labor movement is much larger. The movement isn’t limited to official union members and the last year showed that, as workers marched side by side, union members or not, to fight back against injustices championed by corporate interests that are out of touch with America’s working families. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the federation’s constitutional convention in Los Angeles, “Politicians and employers want to divide us; they try it every single day. They want to tell us who can be in our movement and who can’t, and we can’t let them.”
An article at The American Prospect describes the trend of new ways workers are standing up for their rights:
Those government union membership statistics, however, don’t capture an entire swath of new, exciting and emerging labor activists—’alt-labor’ activists—whom alarmed employers would like to see regulated by the same laws that apply to unions. Yet, before we regulate them as unions, shouldn’t we first count them as unions?
Who isn’t being counted in those official numbers? A lot of people:
Striking fast-food workers who are calling for a $15-an-hour wage.
Walmart workers who went on strike for Black Friday.
Day laborers who have joined one of hundreds of workers’ centers nationwide.
Restaurant workers, home health care workers, taxi drivers and domestic workers organizing for workplace power outside traditional unions.
Millions of members of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.
These numbers also don’t count people like the college athletes who are seeking to unionize and the many workers who are trying to form unions but are thwarted by employers or weakened labor law.
Some of the extremists opposed to these groups want them limited in their ability to organize, while not wanting to count them in the official numbers, so labor looks weaker. As the Prospect notes:
However, in a 21st century economy in which collective bargaining has been so severely weakened by structural changes and the roll back in workers’ rights, these new labor activists represent an important frontier for people concerned about worker power and economic inequality writ large. You know that workers are on to something when employers start to get nervous. It turns out the low union membership statistics may not be as good a measure of labor’s future as employers would hope.
And the reality behind those official statistics, and the rise of alt-labor, should be heartening to supporters of working families.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced today that it is affiliating with the AFL-CIO. UFCW President Joe Hansen said, “We join the AFL-CIO because it is the right thing to do for UFCW members, giving them more power and influence.”
It is about fostering more opportunities for workers to have a true voice on the job. It is about joining forces to build a more united labor movement that can fight back against the corporate and political onslaught facing our members each and every day.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued the following statement:
Today’s decision by the UFCW to unite with the broader labor movement is great news for workers living in the ‘new normal’ of the low wage economy—working women, young part time workers, retail workers, immigrant workers and so many more. A stronger, more unified grassroots movement of working men and women is exactly what’s needed to raise wages for workers and rebuild an American middle class. Together we are stronger—it’s as simple as that. Together working people have a stronger voice and the power to defend their rights on the job. Together we have a stronger voice in the global economy—the power to counter the excesses of CEOs and the ravages of inequality.
What’s exciting is that many workers are already speaking out and taking action to build power together, so UFCW’s affiliation to build a stronger movement couldn’t be more timely.
This is a bold, important step by the UFCW. I have great respect for the members and leaders of UFCW— and especially for the innovative, courageous leadership of Joe Hansen. I look forward to a strong partnership that can make a real and growing difference for today’s workers.
The 1.3 million-member UFCW represents workers primarily in the retail and meatpacking, food processing and poultry industries.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is now fully staffed and able to continue to function to protect workers’ rights after the U.S. Senate today confirmed five members. The votes end a months-long blockade on President Obama’s nominees by Senate Republicans who threatened to shut the board down Aug. 27.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the confirmations are:
Good news for all workers seeking to exercise the rights they are guaranteed by law. Those essential rights include the ability to bargain together for fair wages and living standards and a workplace safe from abuse, harassment and intimidation.
The five members are current NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce; Nancy Schiffer, a former AFL-CIO associate general counsel; and NLRB attorney Kent Hirozawa, currently the chief counsel to Pearce; and attorneys Philip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson, who represent management in labor-management relations.
Trumka said the obstructionism by extremist Republicans “delayed the confirmation of a full Board and caused unnecessary anxiety and pain for working families.”
He also said:
With today’s vote, our country has qualified public servants on duty to defend America’s workers, businesses and families. We congratulate all of the nominees and look forward to having a functioning NLRB that will fairly and impartially oversee the workplace rights of millions of Americans.
Your responses to the questions activists, educators, economists and journalists will be asking through June will help us prepare for the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, which will focus on how we build a movement that can meet the needs of working people now and in the future.
Letter carrier and union member Tom Sapienza was making his rounds Saturday when he came upon a burning building. Without hesitation, he and several others entered the building to look for trapped residents. No one was seriously injured in the blaze. Afterward, Sapienza went back to doing his job:
Tom, a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, risked his own life to run into a burning building to look for residents. Not many people would think of the mailman as the first person to run into a burning building, but that is exactly what Tom did. Then when it was over he went right back to doing what he does every day, delivering the mail.
“Sapienza, after being treated, returned to his postal truck, saying he wasn’t allowed to talk to reporters but wasn’t planning on going right home.
“‘I have to get back on my route,’ Sapienza said.”
After risking his own life, he delivered all of the mail in his truck, albeit with a little delay.
What do diet industry workers, music video dancers, and fashion models have in common? It’s the labor movement.
Probably wasn’t your first guess. But workers in these three primarily female sectors have been in motion over the past six months, organizing and advocating for better wages, working conditions, and above all respect at the workplace.
While the legislation changes, what’s really exciting is that working people are creating their new forms of organization that they can operate in to make change. We’re beginning to see, like Working America that exercises power in a lot of new ways and has 3 million members and growing – but also in these small bubbling up forms of resistance.
The women who worked at Weight Watchers who weren’t getting paid enough for the weekly sessions that they were leading, they organized. The Models Alliance in New York which just started. The dancers on videos who organized and became a union. It’s when that starts happening, when there’s spontaneous organizing – and some of them will form a union like the video dancers and some of them will just resist – that’s what’s creating a new sense out there.
You might not have heard about these events in the news, so let’s go through them.
Weight Watchers is an enormously profitable diet company, whose CEO David Kirchhoff made nearly $3 million in 2011. But the company’s backbone is made up of the “leaders,” who run the more than 50,000 weekly in-person meetings with Weight Watchers participants. Now, after years of low pay and wage violations, these leaders are organizing around better pay. “We are not working for a charity or a nonprofit corp,” wrote one leader, “This is a multimillion-dollar company with enough cash to advertise relentlessly on TV and pay celebrities tons of money to lose weight.” The company recently settled a $6.2 million lawsuit in California around minimum wage violations.
Music videos are nothing without their dancers, but many of these employees were forced to work 20 or more hours at a time in hazardous conditions with questionable – if any – workplace protections. In June, the Dancers’ Alliance, an affiliation of music video dancers in three large cities, joined with SAF-AFTRA to create the first-ever industry-wide contract to cover dancers and other performers. The contract, according to SAF-AFTRA leader Randall Himes “gives performers the working conditions they deserve, while also recognizing the realities of the industry.”
In May, a few months after we met with editors at Vogue, all 19 international editions of the magazine agreed not to hire models under 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. I think that language is a little problematic, but considering how resistant the industry is to change, it’s a really significant step.
The challenges of surviving on minimum wage are unfortunately too common.
Many workers who earn minimum wage are providing for not only themselves but also for families. Some are students trying to increase their odds in the job market while taking on mountains of debt. Some have to work more than one job to make ends meet.
Those who we have met while talking about the difficulties of living on minimum wage are hard workers; some are extremely qualified in terms of today’s labor market, and almost all of them are determined to help change the system.
We met Edgar while organizing on a local college campus around the issue of wage theft. He had been personally affected by wage theft, working as a valet attendant and getting paid just above minimum wage. A month ago, Edgar was getting paid an hourly rate below the state-mandated minimum wage, but he was lucky enough to get a promotion because of his hard work. Edgar gets sixty percent of his income from tips, and works in the busy Lower Downtown district of Denver, but unfortunately has very little say about what days he works, and makes significantly fewer tips when working on a slow week day.
His company makes almost $10,000 in profits every month.
Edgar is a student. He is majoring in Social Work, and is hoping to land a job as a counselor. He is set to graduate in a few short semesters. He has been lucky to get some loans and scholarships, but with the rising cost of tuition and supplies, he often feels buried by the burden. He is carefully balancing both school and work, in order to succeed at both.
Edgar is also a husband, and the father of a newborn baby girl. His wife is staying home to care for their baby and is not receiving any paid maternal leave. They have been fortunate enough to receive help from Medicaid to cover health expenses.
Since Edgar’s benefits at his job are so poor, he has chosen to pay for the health insurance that the college offers. In order to be able to do this, he must fulfill a certain number of class credits, which dictates how much additional time he will have to spend away from his family. Because of his low-wage status, Edgar and his wife are using their savings to pay for basic expenses.
Recently Working America participated in a low-wage roundtable hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor. Representatives from the Department of Labor were on a tour of a few different cities around the country to get input on President Obama’s proposed increase to $9/hour, and find testimonies as to how this would impact the lives of Americans. Edgar went to represent Working America and others who are in similar situations.
“If I were able to get paid just a few dollars more, I would be able to save money for a house and a car. I would not have to spend as much time away from my family,” Edgar told us, “I would be able to save for my daughter’s future, and make sure that she has a fair shot in life.”
We’re pleased to see that President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Labor is Thomas Perez, whose qualifications for the position are solid. He’s a good pick not just because of his views, but because it shows how strongly connected his current job and his likely future job are.
Perez is currently an Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and one of his main responsibilities is dealing with protecting the right to vote. Before that, he served as the state Secretary of Labor in Maryland. It’s a good sign that, for Perez, economic justice and participatory democracy aren’t two separate issues. They’re inextricably connected.
At the Justice Department, Perez fought against state laws that threw hurdles in the paths of voters and reduced access to early voting. These laws hit economically vulnerable voters the hardest. And as Secretary of Labor, Perez will be tasked with ensuring democracy and civil rights in the workplace—from protecting the freedom to organize to fighting against pay discrimination. President Obama identified those key issues when he nominated Perez on Monday. You can’t have a thriving democracy unless people can get a fair share of the value they create, and you can’t have a thriving democracy unless people have a voice and some basic rights at the workplace where they spend a big part of almost every day.
Throughout his career, Perez has fought to level the playing field and create opportunities for working people, whether in the workplace, the marketplace or the voting booth…At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people. And working families need and deserve a strong advocate as their Secretary of Labor — one who will vigorously enforce job safety standards, wage laws, and anti-discrimination rules, and who will speak out forcefully for working families and their workplace rights, including their right to join together to improve their lives and working conditions.
Of course, Perez still has to get past a Senate confirmation vote—and some Republicans are already signaling that they’re going to try and filibuster, based on utterly bogus reasons. But as reporters like Alex Seitz-Wald and Brian Beutler have written, they’re likely to embarrass themselves in the process.
We’re looking forward to seeing what Perez does as Secretary of Labor, and hope that he has a high profile in the administration.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka reacted today to the news President Obama will nominate Thomas Perez as the new secretary of labor:
Working men and women will be well served by President Obama’s choice of Tom Perez to lead the Department of Labor.
Throughout his career, Perez has fought to level the playing field and create opportunities for working people, whether in the workplace, the marketplace or the voting booth. He has worked to eliminate discrimination in housing, provide access to education and health care, end hate crimes, crack down on employers who cheat workers out of wages and expand our democracy by protecting the fundamental right of every American to vote. In the 1990’s, he worked on the front lines of the effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform under the leadership of the great Senator Ted Kennedy—a job that will serve him well in today’s drive for commonsense immigration reform.
At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people. And working families need and deserve a strong advocate as their Secretary of Labor — one who will vigorously enforce job safety standards, wage laws, and anti-discrimination rules, and who will speak out forcefully for working families and their workplace rights, including their right to join together to improve their lives and working conditions.
President Obama has chosen such an advocate in Tom Perez, and we congratulate him on this nomination.