Workers File Complaint Under New Houston Wage Theft Ordinance

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On Tuesday, a group of workers organized to file a complaint under the new Houston wage theft ordinance.

Erik Lopez and 12 other workers, in collaboration with the Faith and Justice Worker Center, claim that they’re owed $200,000 in unpaid wages, the Houston Chronicle reports.

The group, who did sub-contracting work on city projects, claim that they were forced to work 80 hour work weeks with no overtime, denied tax forms, and paid with personal checks and cash in an attempt to keep them off the books.

“(My boss) would tell me it didn’t really suit him to pay me overtime,” said Lopez, 30, a native of Guerrero state in Mexico, who came to Houston 14 years ago seeking work. “I worked all the time, but we struggled paying our bills.”

Lopez notes that alone, he probably lost out on $40,000 due to his employers’ negligence.

“I always wanted to do something about it, because it’s not right,” he said. “But I was afraid.”

In November, Lopez heard about the wage ordinance and decided to take action.

Working America was instrumental in the passing of a wage ordinance that brings wage theft cases to the forefront while banning violators from obtaining contracts, permits and licenses with the city.

For months, we petitioned and organized workers in hopes of holding businesses accountable for taking advantage of working families.

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America’s Top Role Model

As a 14-year-old, Sara Ziff faced situations most adults find difficult to manage. But as a model barely out of middle school, sexual harassment and fighting for wages owed to her were all too common. She found out she wasn’t alone. Other models faced the same challenges, and many were pressured to drop out of high school to make the most of a short-lived career.

They banded together to address these concerns collectively, to establish fair and ethical standards in the workplace. In 2012, Ziff formed the Model Alliance to bring dramatic and lasting change in the fashion industry. We spoke with Ziff this month about the fashion industry and the initiatives at The Model Alliance. 

AL: You started modeling as a 14-year-old. Do most models start at a young age?

SZ: Most models start their careers before the age of 16. I think what most people probably don’t appreciate is that it is often children—models under 18—[who] are modeling clothing that is marketed to adults, specifically women. A lot of the models who appear on the runway are actually 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids. Some are as young as 12 and dressed up as women and [they] have to deal with all of the adult pressures of the industry. For example, nudity is common.

AL: What are some of the Model Alliance’s achievements?

SZ: When we looked at the laws on the books, we found that models were not actually covered under labor law in New York, the hub of the modeling and fashion industry. So we championed a bill that basically includes child models—models under 18—and child performance regulations so that children working as fashion models would have a set number of working hours, provisions for rest and meal breaks, provisions for chaperones. In November of last year, Governor Cuomo signed our bill into law. So that was a real coup for us. And we have already seen significant changes as a result of the law. For example, this past fashion week in February, we found that the vast majority of models on the runway were 18 and older. I think designers didn’t want to go through all the paperwork in hiring a 14-year-old instead of an 18-year-old.

A common criticism of the fashion industry is that it promotes an unhealthy ideal and the models are too skinny. Another thing that people do not realize is that it is really a symptom of designers and editors casting girls whose bodies are not fully developed rather than women. So when you cast a 14-year-old to represent the ideal of female beauty, of course she is going to have a very different body type than a woman who is in her twenties and thirties. So in short, the lack of labor protections in the modeling industry has a far-reaching effect on the images that are presented to women.

AL: Are there different labor laws globally for models or are there any laws at all?

SZ: Most states have labor protections for models, but it varies from state to state. For example, Alabama has stronger labor laws for models than New York. This is an international business and it’s pretty common for a model to be working in New York one day and a few days later working in Paris. In Paris, models are actually considered employees. So it is a whole different world depending on where you go in regard to labor laws. Generally, people in our industry say that models are independent contractors and so obviously that limits our ability to unionize and that’s why we chose this nontraditional organizing structure.

AL: Does the Model Alliance plan on bringing any other people in similar industries into the fold who may not have similar protections because they are considered independent contractors?

SZ: Pretty much everyone in our business is treated as an independent contractor—makeup artists, hairdressers, photographers—and since we formed the Model Alliance, a lot of other industry stakeholders have said, “Hey, we have trouble getting paid, too.” We have all of these concerns as individuals that are difficult to address and these are systemic problems. We have people on our advisory board that are makeup artists and photographers. We have tried to be inclusive and not adversarial. I would love one day to see the Model Alliance expand its efforts to help other workers in fields in this industry.

AL: We often have this stereotypical image of models and the fashion industry. Are there any stereotypes you want to challenge or something you want to demystify from a model’s perspective?

SZ: The modeling industry seems like a glamorous industry, because it is a superficial business where your job is to project beauty and glamour. The reality can often fall short of the image. I can say for the most part it is a fun, creative and wonderful business, but at the same time the vast majority of working models do not command large sums. Many of them are working in debt to their agencies. Models, like anyone else who is in a union, are trying to assert and establish their rights in a hostile labor environment. What makes this issue more compelling is that models begin their career when they are minors, so it is that much harder to stand up for yourself as a kid.

AL: Where do you see the Model Alliance five years from now?

SZ: Well, I’m certainly committed to these issues and developing the Model Alliance and expanding our efforts. It might seem idealistic or perhaps impossible, but I’m very interested in helping workers across the fashion supply chain. I just got back from Bangladesh, where I met with Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and survivors of the Rana Plaza building collapse. I really feel that as faces of these companies and the fashion industry, models are in a unique and powerful position to not only improve working conditions for themselves, but for other workers, particularly women. I don’t want to be the face of a brand that exploits their workers. While I think that we have a ways to go to develop that work, which at this point is a personal project of mine, I think that would be a really worthwhile direction for us to go. So that is my wild dream.

Reposted from AFLCIO.org

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6 Reasons Why Unions Are Essential to Creating Broadly Based Prosperity

At the end of March, the Roosevelt Institute launched a new project, the Future of Work, which takes a look at the changing landscape in the area of workers’ rights and representation in the political and economic system that affects their lives. Author Richard Kirsch does a great job of explaining the economy and discussing potential policy solutions in a report titled The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Secure Prosperity for All.

Kirsch said:

The Future of Work is bringing together thought and action leaders from multiple fields to re-imagine a 21st century social contract that expands workers’ rights and increases the number of living wage jobs. The Future of Work is focusing on three areas: Promoting new and innovative strategies for worker organizing and representation; raising the floor of labor market standards and strengthening enforcement of labor laws and standards; and assuring access to good jobs for women and workers of color.

In the report, Kirsch breaks down the issues and solutions into several categories. Read more about each:

1. The New Deal Launched Unions as Key to Building Middle Class

2. The Challenges to Organizing Workers in Today’s Economy

3. National Labor Law in the United States: Scanty Protections for Organizing Leave Out Many Workers

4. How the Weakening of American Labor Led to the Shrinking of America’s Middle Class

5. Labor Law That Would Support Organizing in Today’s Economy

6. Labor Law for All Workers: Empowering Workers to Challenge Corporate Decision Making

You also can read Kirsch’s full report, which goes into more detail on each of these points.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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You Know What Doesn’t Work So Well? Private Prisons

The myth put forth by private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group that private prisons are cheaper than public prisons is shattered by a new report from In the Public Interest, thus undercutting the primary rationale for prison privatization efforts across the country. When pushing for contracts with the many states that use private prisons, these corporations claim they are the better option because they can run prisons more cheaply than the government can. But this report not only dispels that idea, it highlights some of the less-than-savory activities the corporations engage in because of the perverse incentives created by these contracts.

The report details several methods through which private prison companies mislead governments and the public about their supposed cost savings, particularly hiding costs of private prisons, inflating public prison costs, benefiting from mandated occupancy minimums and delaying cost increases until after contracts are signed.

Numerous studies have shown that private prisons are more expensive than their publicly run counterparts. The report details a series of meta-analyses of individual studies conducted on the comparative costs between public and private prisons, and all of them found that cost savings, at best, were minimal for private prisons—in many cases, private prisons were more expensive. One of the few studies that showed private prisons to be more cost-effective was funded by the prison companies and is currently the subject of an ethics inquiry at Temple University. A close examination of many of the states that have invested heavily in prison privatization has shown the failure of the “private prisons are cheaper” idea:

  • Arizona: The state found private prisons can cost up to $1,600 per prisoner per year, despite private prisons often only housing the healthiest prisoners.
  • Florida: Three separate multiyear studies found the majority of the private prisons in the state failed to meet the legally mandated 7% cost savings, while half of the private prisons failed to save any money at all.
  • Georgia: In 2011, private prisons cost the state $45.81 per prisoner per day, compared with $44.51 per prisoner per day in publicly run prisons.
  • Hawaii: The state found the projected savings of using private prison contractors were based on bed capacity rather than the actual number of people incarcerated and that indirect administration costs were not included.
  • New Mexico: Over a five-year period, the state saw its annual spending on private prisons increase by 57% while the prisoner population only increased 21%. A significant portion of the increase was because of automatic price increases included in contracts with the private prison corporations.
  • Ohio: The state expected the private operation of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution would save the state $2.4 million a year, but it has turned out to instead cost the state $380,000 to $700,000 a year.

As the report notes:

To maximize returns for their investors, for-profit prison companies have perverse incentives to cut costs in vital areas such as security personnel, medical care and programming, threatening the health and safety of prisoners and staff.

There are several different reasons that savings fail to materialize. CCA and other companies explicitly seek to increase their profits by changing the details of previously signed contracts. They do this by raising the per diem rates the state pays for each prisoner or by requiring occupancy rates of 90% or higher or the state pays for the empty cells in order to reach the required level. Private prison companies cherry pick their inmates and refuse to house more expensive prisoners. Many contracts exclude those higher-cost prisoners, such as those in maximum security, on death row, female prisoners or prisoners that have serious medical or mental health conditions. Companies also make their costs look lower by inflating the cost of public incarceration when making their sales pitch. They can do this by leaving out overhead costs in their prisons, not including costs the state has to pay in either public or private scenarios in the private prison cost but keeping them in the public prison cost calculation, and leaving out the additional costs of overseeing and monitoring private prisons that the state must engage in if it properly oversees its contractors.

At its national convention last year, the AFL-CIO came out in opposition to the privatization of prisons and the profit motive being used to increase incarceration.

Read the full report.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Working America Members Help Hotel Workers Get Fair Pay

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An Albuquerque-based hotel has been found in violation of wage theft of at least one employee, due in part to the valiant organizing of Working America members.

Back in August, a group of Working America members approached member coordinators regarding their pay. At the time, hotel employees were tasked with cleaning rooms and were being paid $3.25 per room.

After careful research, Working America took charge and partnered with the Center for Law and Poverty (CLP) to contact the Department of Labor (DOL) and arrange a meeting with the afflicted workers.

During interviews with the DOL, workers indicated that they were forced to clock out early and they weren’t being paid the city’s minimum wage of $8.50 an hour.

From there the DOL launched a formal investigation, and on March 18th it was found that an employee in the hotel’s housekeeping department was making less than the Federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Although the organization wasn’t able to address the workers’ municipal minimum wage issues, it seems that the DOL investigation has prompted the hotel to take a more ethical approach to its wage policies.

“’I have seen a lot of changes since the investigation,” says one Working America member. “I would work so many hours and I would see a very small paycheck but now it’s a higher amount, and it seems fair,” she said.

For information on how you can help fight unfair labor practices like this one, visit: www.workingnewmexico.org

Photo courtesy of Center on Policy Initiatives via Flickr.

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Tell Lionsgate It Has the Score Wrong. Stop Sending Musicians’ Jobs Overseas

Tell Lionsgate It Has the Score Wrong. Stop Sending Musicians’ Jobs Overseas

One of the most iconic American symbols is the National Football League. This week Lionsgate Entertainment is releasing a movie about what is probably the second most popular day for football fans after the Super Bowl—“Draft Day.” But Lionsgate did something decidedly un-American for this film. It shipped American musicians’ jobs overseas—to Macedonia.

It’s not the first time Lionsgate has ignored movie industry standards by shutting out American musicians and recording scores overseas. “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” are two more recent examples. In fact, over the last two years, only two of the dozens of films the company’s produced were scored to industry standards domestically.

Professional musicians are standing up with their union, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM), by launching a campaign to tell Lionsgate to “Listen Up!” and uphold industry standards, and guarantee proper wages and working conditions on all of its productions.

AFM President Ray Hair said:

Music can make or break a movie. Imagine “Indiana Jones” without its iconic theme music or the tension created by the music in “Jaws.” It’s the soul of any film. But some film production companies, like Lionsgate Entertainment, are putting that in danger (by) making it a practice to offshore musicians’ jobs to increase its already massive profits and, in the process, undermine industry standards that have created some of the most famous movie musical scores.

Hair points out that Lionsgate is getting millions in tax credits every year from states across the country, then sending jobs overseas. For “Draft Day,” Lionsgate took $5 million from Ohio taxpayers for the film, then offshored all of the film’s musical score to a Macedonian company—and pocketed anything that was left over. Said Hair:

Lionsgate is squeezing every dollar out of the music community and undermining local musicians’ economic ability to teach and develop the next generation of domestic professional musicians.

Sign the petition to tell the company to stop sending musicians’ jobs overseas, to uphold accepted industry standards, and guarantee proper wages and working conditions for musicians on all of its productions.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Every Time Anti-Union Bills Come Up in Missouri, More Republicans Vote Against Them

Last night, the Missouri House of Representatives approved a bill that would make it harder for union workers to make their voices heard in the political process. Known as “paycheck deception,” House Bill 1617 places unnecessary restrictions on how union workers’ paycheck deductions can be used. Like many other anti-worker bills introduced around the country, House Bill 1617 is based on an ALEC model bill.

Does this story seem familiar? It should. The Republican-controlled Missouri House passed an almost identical bill almost exactly one year ago.

Again, the bill was introduced (SB 29 last time, HB 1617 this time). Again, there was enormous outcry from labor unions, community members, and the faith community. Again, debate on the floor revealed that the bill’s sponsors were unfamiliar with current paycheck deduction laws, which render “paycheck deception” laws redundant. Again, they didn’t care, because ALEC wrote the bill anyway, and because hurting labor unions is in their political interest. Again, it passed.

If ALEC did a remake of the movie Groundhog Day, it would look a lot like this.

But in this version, there were two major changes.

First, this version refers the issue to the 2014 ballot. This is because last year’s attempt at paycheck deception was vetoed by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, and despite controlling twin supermajorities in the legislature, the bill’s proponents were unable to get enough Republican votes to override.

Second, this year the bill lost even more Republican votes, a tight 83-70.

This mimics a trend in the Missouri Senate. While SB 29 passed the Senate on a near party-line vote last spring, two conservative Republicans opposed it when it came back around for an override attempt in the fall: Senator Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau) voted no, while Senator Gary Romine (R-Farmington) “took a walk” and was absent (a tactic often used to express passive opposition).

So why is this happening? It seems that for a number of Republican lawmakers, and for even more of their constituents, the ALEC-backed anti-worker agenda is getting tired. As the economy continues to struggle, the continued pushing of narrow, corporate-backed policies at the expense of job-creation policies–like Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage–is making less and less sense.

“A lot of Republicans don’t want anything to do with these bills, because they’re afraid the issue will come back to bite them in the end,” said Democratic House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, “They’re right.”

“There’s more and more of us on the Republican side who realize that labor is not the enemy,” said Republican Representative Anne Zerr. Rep. Zerr has opposed both paycheck deception and “right to work” in her caucus, and spoke at a rally opposing “right to work” last week. A former utility worker, Rep. Zerr stressed that she is doing her best to turn her caucus in a different direction. “We are educating our own,” she told the crowd.

But for now, HB 1617 moves next to the Missouri Senate. If the trend continues, that might be where it stops.

Learn more about “paycheck deception” bills.

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Northwestern Football Players Win Big Labor Case

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In a decision that could vastly improve the treatment of collegiate athletes, National Labor Relations Board just ruled in favor of the Northwestern University football team starting a union.

Just last week the case was deemed as an unlikely win for the athletes, and the decision will likely go through multiple appeals, but as of right now the team is considered a group of laborers which means that they’re eligible to unionize.

If the decision is upheld it would only apply to private institutions, and doesn’t include walk on athletes.

Photo courtesy of Jim Longstreet on Flickr. 

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Grand Budapest Hotel’s Story of Worker Solidarity

Wes Anderson’s new film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a lovely paean to a lost era but it’s also a subtle story of workers and worker solidarity.

Set mostly in the 1930′s in the fictional central European nation of Zubrowka, the film’s heroes are the concierge and lobby-boy at the Grand Budapest, a luxurious hotel where bejewelled and top-hatted Old European nobles — the 1% of the day — enjoy the finer things in life.

As usual in Anderson’s films, the story, as convoluted and entertaining as it is, is less important than the quirky characters and intricately detailed sets on which the film plays out. After all the rushing about, what stands out this time is the sympathetic portrayal of the nobility of the work done by what today are simply called service workers.

While Grand Budapest concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) is tyrannical and exacting in his attention to every detail in the vast hotel — click here for Gustave’s lobby-boy job interview while walking briskly through the lobby issuing commands in all directions — he is also fiercely loyal to his fellow workers, which not only sets the film’s main plotline in motion but ultimately exacts a costly price. And when Gustave winds up in prison, his dedication to his work there quickly earns him the loyalty of even the most hardened prisoners. The unwavering commitment of young lobby-boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) to his job, to the hotel as an institution and to Gustave as his boss and colleague, will be perfectly understandable to any union hotel worker today.

Young Zero’s apprenticeship as a lobby-boy and the pastry-maker’s dedication to her craft also resonate as memories of bygone days when work had implicit dignity in a job well-done and respected, if not by the oblivious hotel guests then by other workers.

In one of the best scenes in the film, Gustave, on the lam and stranded in the middle of no-where, activates the network of European hotel concierges to rescue him. It’s the sort of organization that would probably have been called a guild or mutual aid society in those days. A union, in other words.

All filmmaking by definition is teamwork among professionals and colleagues in which everyone has a job and must effectively carry out that work both individually and as part of the collective whole. Anderson, like his protaganist, is legendary for both his work ethic and attention to detail as well as for his generous collegiality, and that solidarity shines through brilliantly, on-screen and off, in “Grand Budapest.”

Chris Garlock is the Director of the DC Labor FilmFest, celebrating its 14th year in May-June 2014 and this year anchoring the first annual DC LaborFest, a monthlong celebration of labor arts and culture in May 2014. Details at www.dclabor.org

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Hip-Hop Star Common to Perform in Support of Nissan Workers

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Hip-hop star Common, famous for songs like “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and acting roles such as “Terminator Salvation” and “Happy Feet Too,” is performing as part of a free show in support of workers who are organizing for a voice on the job at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. The workers are pushing for a vote to organize as part of the UAW. The show will take place Friday at 8 p.m. at the Jackson State University’s Rose E. McCoy Auditorium. Common will be joined on stage by actor Danny Glover and local musicians and leaders.

UAW is engaged in an ongoing campaign to get a union vote at the Nissan Canton location. Workers at the Mississippi plant say the company relies too heavily on temporary workers who get reduced pay and benefits. Nissan’s business practice of staffing plants with a high percentage of temporary workers, who earn lower wages, have limited benefits and have no job security, won’t strengthen families and grow communities. They also say that Nissan is engaging in a campaign to intimidate workers to stay away from the union and imply that the plant will close if the union vote is successful.

Read more about Nissan: This Is What a Job in the U.S.’s New Manufacturing Industry Looks Like and the Nissan organizing campaign: www.choosejustice.com.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

 

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