Labor Day: Good news, bad news

Photo by Fibonacci Blue, republished under Creative Commons license.

Photo of February 2014 rally to raise minimum wage by Fibonacci Blue, republished under Creative Commons license.

Labor Day in September started as a way to co-opt the May 1 international worker solidarity celebration, but labor and unions deserve at least two days of celebration. On Labor Day 2015, recent news coverage includes wins and losses and on-going struggles. For example, we can celebrate an unemployment rate lower than it was at any time during the Reagan presidency, and lower than any time since April 2008. That’s good news — but the bad news is that young workers and black workers still suffer much higher unemployment rates.

Two big on-going struggles are for reform of abusive scheduling practices and for higher wages. Vox describes the scheduling problem:

“Erratic shifts that vary from week to week make workers’ schedules challenging enough. On-call shifts make things even worse. If the employer cancels a shift, the worker generally gets no pay — and might still be on the hook for child care expenses.

“The use of on-call shifts, and variable schedules more generally, also creates a lot of uncertainty about workers’ incomes from week to week. If business is slow for several weeks in a row, workers can wind up not making enough money to pay the rent. …

“[And] if workers don’t have control over the schedules — and don’t know if they’ll be working until just hours ahead of time — it can be hard to find time for the second job, to say nothing of personal responsibilities.”

Companies including Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret and The Gap promise to end on-call scheduling. That’s good news — but voluntary promises can be broken. That’s why workers are pushing for the Schedules That Work Act, which would, according to The Nation,

“… guarantee workers the “right to request” a change in their work schedule,” including the length, timing and location of shifts. The bill would also ensure some partial pay to offset a shift that was abruptly canceled—a rampant problem in precarious “on-call” service jobs like restaurant work and retail. Similar policies to curb schedule volatility has been proposed or passed in several states and San Francisco.”

The fight to increase wages (and minimum wages) continues. New analysis shows that wages and productivity both rose together from 1948-1973, but that more recently wages have stagnated while productivity continues to rise. Al Jazeera reports on the Economic Policy Institute study showing that, “The widening chasm between workers’ pay and productivity since the 1970s is ‘the central component of the wage stagnation story’ in the United States.”

Higher wages make good business sense for Punch Pizza, which raised its lowest wage level to $10 an hour two years ago and raised wages across the company. Despite criticism and predictions of failure, Punch has grown since then, and co-owner John Puckett told Jon Tevlin this week that higher wages still make sense.

“Puckett said the higher wages did not cause Punch to increase prices. He also said it ‘has had a big impact culturally in the company.’ He said that retention of employees is up, which helps them save money on hiring and training.”

No progress comes without struggle. Labor unions continue to lead the fight for more humane working conditions, fairer contracts, living wages, better health care benefits, and safety protection for workers. That includes changes in local, state and federal laws, such as minimum wage laws, paid sick time, and fairer work schedules.

Beyond the external struggle for laws and contracts, Aaron Johnson-Ortiz wrote a Facebook post today outlining six steps to “grow the power of the labor movement.” Two of the steps seem particularly important to me:

“2 – All unions should adopt a social justice mission and a community solidarity focus. The Chicago Teachers Union showed how focusing on the community, and talking about racial justice, economic justice, gender equality, etc, can help bargain for better wages and working conditions. Too often, unions advocate for their own members at the expense of the community (for example prison guard unions that lobby for more prisons).

“5 – Organize and publicly fund Workers Centers in all counties in the country, and multiple centers in larger metropolitan areas. Many workers centers (e.g. the awesome CTUL in Minneapolis) are already organizing low-income workers, fast-food workers, etc. These centers are mostly funded by donations from members, unions, and grants. In addition to this independent wing, which is necessary, workers centers could be partially publicly funded through a penalty tax on large employers that, for example, pay the state or federal minimum wage to a majority of their workers, or who repeatedly are found to engage in wage theft, or who repeatedly are found to retaliate against workers. This public wing of workers center could have National Labor Relations Board representatives to work as lawyers/organizers (this is what Grievance Committee members do within unions), and they would meet with non-unionized workers with grievances, and represent them (like a public defender) against employers.”

There’s lots more to think about on Labor Day — but I’m going to go out and enjoy the holiday while the sun is shining.

1 Comment

Filed under work

One response to “Labor Day: Good news, bad news

  1. alanmuller

    To me the central problem is this one: “Too often, unions advocate for their own members at the expense of the community (for example prison guard unions that lobby for more prisons).”


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