Category Archives: Labor

Debut of Politico’s ‘Morning Shift’ Raises Ethical Questions Around IFA Sponsorship

by Arun Gupta In These Times October 14, 2014

I was pleased to learn in late September of Politico’s plans to launch a labor reporting desk—I am of a “more the merrier” mindset when it comes to journalism, especially on a topic so underreported as labor.

Politico apparently sees money to be made in labor journalism, even as this vital beat fades in newsrooms across the country. According to the Huffington Post, “Politico’s market research suggested that stakeholders in government, lobbying and Fortune 500 companies were looking for the ‘nitty-gritty’ details of labor policy.” “Labor and Workplace Policy” will join Politico’s portfolio of 13 other “Pro Verticals,” paywall-protected sections that cover single topics like education, transportation, technology and the military. Subscriptions to the verticals can run into the thousands of dollars, the HuffPost says.

It’s an important service, even if Politico’s focus sounds less like traditional labor reporting (on topics like organizing campaigns and contract negotiations) and more business-oriented: The site promises to cover “developments at [the] Department of Labor and NRLB [sic], as well as intelligence on unions, immigration, minimum wage, unemployment, retirement, pensions and pay, health care and ACA implementation, workforce training and court cases.”

Politico has retained top-notch talent in veteran reporter and editor Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence, and outstanding labor reporter Mike Elk, who wrote for In These Times from 2010 to 2014. (Elk was involved in a successful unionizing effort at In These Times with the Communications Workers of America and fought the layoffs of staff writers, including himself, whose yearlong positions were funded by a one-year grant that was not renewed.)

However, the Politico labor vertical made a curious decision in its first week. Its newsletter, “Morning Shift,” debuted October 7 with the tagline, “Your daily speed read on labor and employment policy” and a sponsorship from the International Franchise Association—a trade group representing franchised businesses like McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza, as well as their franchise owners . Two days later, Morning Shift covered a labor issue of enormous importance to the IFA— whether McDonald’s has a legal responsibility for working conditions in franchises—but never mentioned the sponsor’s stake in the story, and editorialized in a way that could give the appearance of favoring the IFA’s position.

The subject line of the October 9 email edition began, “Morning Shift, presented by The International Franchise Association.” After an exclusive about a possible new president of the Communications Workers of America and a dig at Grover Norquist about plans for his “next union-busting ground game,” an ad appeared in the middle of the text, as is commonplace for IFA verticals. This one read: 

A message from The International Franchise Association. The franchising industry includes more than 770,000 establishments and employ 8.5 million workers in the United States. Learn how the franchise business model works and the positive impact franchising has on America’s economy by visiting www.franchisefacts.org.

I clicked on the IFA link. The website says, “Small franchise businesses are the key to the American economy.” After a video touting the benefits of franchising like “picking your staff and choosing which benefits to provide at your location” as health, vision and dental icons pop up, the site unleashes a thinly veiled attack on the effort by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to organize low-wage fast-food workers.

America’s 770,000 franchise small businesses are under attack by labor special interest groups—hurting workers, small business owners, communities, and our nation’s economy.

FIGHT FOR WORKERS AND SMALL FRANCHISE BUSINESSES

That a labor report would be sponsored by a trade association for a sector where unions and workplace rights are virtually nonexistent and wage theft and poverty is rampant gave me pause. The Morning Shift is supposed to be nonpartisan, according to the Huffington Post. That’s possible, given that law firms, unions, lobbyists and Fortune 500 companies will be among the likely subscribers, and they might see a partisan bias as compromising the accuracy of the information and analysis.

Still, a sponsor with a vested interest in how information is reported can create serious conflicts of interest. Politico could be more transparent about the possibility of such a conflict if it noted IFA’s involvement in the McDonald’s story—which it never does. Further, at times, the Morning Shift appears to slant its reporting toward IFA in the October 9 Morning Shift report.

The item in question is a three-paragraph “NLRB Update.” Since November 2012, when SEIU unveiled its fast-food organizing campaign, 181 complaints by workers involving unfair labor practice charges such as wage theft have been filed with the NLRB Office of the General Counsel against McDonald’s. Another seven class-action suits covering tens of thousands of workers have been filed in federal courts claiming McDonald’s Corporation conspires with its franchisees to engage in systematic wage theft. SEIU wants the NLRB to rule McDonald’s and its franchises have “joint responsibility” for employees.

As I’ve reported, 90 percent of McDonald’s 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises. Franchisees usually sign a “master contract” with the corporate parent, which, as I wrote, “micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. At the same time, McDonald’s takes pains to spell out in contracts that it has ‘no implied employment relationship’ with a franchisee or their workers. SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.” A joint-employer ruling could allow SEIU to unionize workers or improve wages, benefits and conditions across thousands of stores at once instead of fighting one franchisee at a time.

SEIU scored a major victory in July when the NLRB general counsel ruled in favor of McDonald’s workers in 43 cases and “authorized complaints on alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act.” The general counsel explained that if the parties cannot reach a settlement, “complaints will issue and McDonald’s, USA, LLC will be named as a joint employer respondent.”

The International Franchise Association makes no bones about the fact that this is a doomsday scenario. At an IFA-sponsored conference, Aziz Hashim, President and CEO of NRD Holdings, which owns numerous franchises such as Popeye’s and Dominos, said the ruling “threatens the basic foundation of franchising.” If a joint-employer ruling forces McDonald’s to assume legal responsibility for employees in franchises, it could negate the rationale for franchising and become a watershed in low-wage worker organizing. The parent company would have nothing to gain from outsourcing its workforce.

Morning Shift mentioned McDonald’s liability if it lost a joint-employer ruling, but it failed to mention this downside for franchises.

The Morning Shift account also contained wording that seems slanted toward the IFA. Morning Shift stated, “If the NLRB rules against McDonald’s, the corporation could be on the hook for infractions committed by its (seldom deep-pocketed) franchisees.”

Why tell the reader franchisees are “seldom deep-pocketed”? That’s in line with IFA talking points implying franchisees are struggling small businesses. I’m sure if I asked the IFA to speak to a franchisee, it could quickly trot out a scrappy immigrant family who’s saved every tarnished penny to buy a struggling franchise they devote every waking hour to for their slice of the American Dream, but that’s arguably not the norm.

It’s true that 64 percent of franchise owners are single-outlet operators, but they do not make up the bulk of the business: Of some 60,000 fast-food franchise outlets, 75 percent are owned by “the big players,” as the the Wall Street Journal puts it. The Journal adds that the average McDonald’s franchise “owns more than six locations.” In the fast-food industry, the biggest franchisees are holding companies with hundreds of outlets and half-a-billion dollars a year in revenue—and it’s these mega franchisers who stand to gain the most if the NLRB eventually decides against the workers. As the Journal further explains, corporate parents tend to pass over unknown entrepreneurs—even those that can pony up the $750,000 “minimum” generally required for a McDonald’s franchise. The parent prefers mammoth franchisees because,  “They often have readier access to capital and can prop up underperforming restaurants with stronger sales elsewhere in the chain. They’re also seen as less risky by franchisers, because they have a track record with a brand.”

Thus, for many fast food franchises, owners’ pockets are plenty deep. It’s spin for the IFA to portray itself as the defender of workers and small business owners. It’s a questionable assertion for Morning Shift to make, and one that indicates a certain slant.

Politico also editorializes by describing the NLRB’s ruling as “controversial,” writing, “NLRB general counsel Richard F. Griffin issued a controversial finding in July naming McDonald’s a joint employer in 43 cases before the NLRB.” But legal cases are, by definition, controversial—one side disagrees with the other. For whom was the NLRB ruling controversial? Certainly for parties with a stake, such as McDonald’s, the IFA, the franchisees, and their allies in Congress. But it would be a stretch to say it was a topic of significant national debate.

In addition to slant, a major question here is disclosure. Typically sponsorship disclosures are necessary when a sponsor is mentioned in a story. In this case, since the IFA’s sponsorship is already prominently highlighted, the question is reversed: Is the sponsor’s role in the story significant enough that it deserves a mention?

The IFA has emerged as a major player in the NLRB fight over franchising. An Associated Press report from July 30 published on Politico singled out the IFA as an opponent of the NLRB ruling: “The International Franchise Association, which represents franchisees, has opposed the identification of McDonald’s as a joint employer.” On September 16, The Hill reported the IFA was spearheading the “strategy to overturn a preliminary NLRB decision that corporations like McDonald’s share joint employer status with their franchisees.” The industry group’s plan included dispatching hundreds of franchisees and franchisors “to flood lawmakers’ offices, pressing them to oppose the NLRB’s finding.” In mid-September, IFA held its annual conference in Washington, D.C., attended by some 360 franchise industry representatives, “to make sure the model stays intact,” according to Entrepreneur magazine. One conference attendee said, “This joint employee-employer thing, if that goes through, that’s a hand grenade in the middle of the [franchising] business model.”

There is no inkling of this organized campaign in the October 9 report. What makes the omission even more puzzling is that the same Morning Shift mentions the IFA in relation to its lawsuit trying to overturn Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum wage law that was approved by the City Council in June.

It’s important to point out there is no evidence the news was intentionally slanted. Politico’s labor desk is best able to say if there was any coercion or signals from higher ups at Politico to favor the IFA. At the very least, it raises a number of questions about Politico’s sponsorship and disclosure policies.

Politico is not alone in facing these questions. Journalists have long been wary of being pressured into writing “advertiser-friendly” copy; to protect the integrity and independence of their reporting, many outlets, such as the New York Times, have an ethics policy that keeps the advertising and news departments “strictly separate.” But the decline of print-media business models combined with the explosion of data-rich digital media is erasing those lines. Last year, The Atlantic was lambasted for sticking “sponsor content” from the Church of Scientology in its center news column. More recently, former Vice Media editor Charles Davis went public with evidence that the wildly successful website has killed stories out of fear it may potentially affect a “business deal” with a powerful brand, the NFL.

Having run several media outlets with different funding models, I know well the pressure and conflicts involved with taking advertising money. That’s why even the appearance of favoritism needs to be guarded against. Ultimately, the most valuable asset any reputable media outlet ultimately has is not its market value, but the trust with its readership. As a reader of In These Times, I know it receives sponsorship for its labor coverage from unions, including the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers However, In These Times has published numerous critical reports by Elk on the UAW’s failed attempt to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee earlier this year, as well as a recent piece by David Moberg critical of the union’s claims to have eliminated two-tier contracts at an Indiana auto plant.

In this second Gilded Age, when corporate influence is everywhere, including journalism, much rides on providing proper context and analysis, and nowhere more than the fight over who controls the economy.

The CWA, UAW and IAM are sponsors of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.

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How Seattle Passed the Highest Minimum Wage In America

by Arun Gupta VICE June 4, 2014

The bill signed into law by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Tuesday to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 is historic. It will more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 — something no local government has ever done.

An estimated 46 percent of Seattle’s 100,000 workers who make under $15 an hour will earn that by 2018. The measure could pump $3 billion into the local economy over the next decade, cutting poverty by 30 percent. It is already resonating, as $15-an-hour campaigns are underway in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just endorsed a plan that could raise the minimum wage in New York City to $13 an hour.

Seattle’s new law has downsides, however, including a seven-year timeline, a lower training wage aimed at teenagers, weak enforcement provisions that encourage wage theft, and allowances for businesses with fewer than 500 employees to count tips and healthcare benefits reflected on pay stubs as wages up to $3 an hour.

But workers elsewhere who flip burgers, fold sweaters, and pull shots of espresso for a living wonder if the victory in Seattle can be replicated. That depends on understanding how it was won. There was no guarantee a year ago that the “$15 an hour” slogan would become law.

The driving force was Kshama Sawant, an avowed socialist who voters elected to the City Council last November on a platform to raise the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy. She and her political party, Socialist Alternative, mobilized pressure for a wage bill. They fought opponents for months, parrying attempts to block the increase.

Given the obstacles they faced, a bill might have never materialized. Seattle is home to corporate titans like Starbucks and Amazon that have built their profit models on poverty-wage jobs, and during Sawant’s campaign the Seattle Times dismissed her as “too hard-left for Seattle.”

She and her partners made the most of a limited hand nevertheless. Sawant pursued a broad platform, but Socialist Alternative soon realized that $15 an hour should be the banner issue because of the amount of support it generated. The momentum became unstoppable after local newsweekly The Stranger gave Sawant a full-throated endorsement in September. Murray, who was running for mayor at the time, quickly endorsed the measure as well.

After taking office, Murray appointed a business-heavy Income Inequality Advisory Committee to devise a proposal. Sawant and Socialist Alternative countered by establishing 15 Now, a group that organized public marches and rallies, set up chapters in 11 neighborhoods, and canvassed widely.

Meanwhile, some Seattle restaurant owners pushed their staffs to oppose the $15-an-hour increase. Jess Spear, 15 Now’s organizing director, told VICE News that two prominent restaurateurs told their staff that prices would increase and that they would lose tips and even their jobs.

A group composed of servers and bartenders called Tips ARE Wages threatened to turn a key group of workers against the proposal. But Spear said that 15 Now met with the group and won them to their side after leaked documents revealed that restaurant owners were orchestrating the anti-$15 campaign.

But rallies and meetings are little match for billion-dollar corporations, which put small-business owners out front, moaning that jobs and business would be lost if $15 an hour became law. In March, Sawant and 15 Now made a strategic retreat by conceding that small businesses should have a longer phase-in period for the increase. At the same time, they deftly argued that businesses like McDonald’s, which amassed $5.5 billion in profit last year, could afford a much quicker timetable.

Meanwhile, 15 Now launched a ballot initiative to remind councilmembers that if they failed to pass a strong bill, voters could decide the issue for themselves. On April 26 it held a national conference in Seattle where attendees approved a plan that established a $15 an hour increase by 2017, with no tip credit or training wage. The conference was timed to anticipate the unveiling of Murray’s proposal on May 1. The Stranger noted that Murray’s plan was “so complicated reporters can’t understand it,” but it did take the wind out of 15 Now’s sails because it gave the impression that the battle had been won.

Labor leaders quickly closed ranks behind Murray.

“It’s a very delicately constructed deal and my advice to council would be to change nothing,” David Rolf, the president of the 40,000-member Service Employees International Union 775, told me in early May. He said that a ballot initiative would result if the measure were watered down — but that’s exactly what happened. The bill introduced on May 15 was weakened with a training wage, the tip/healthcare allowance, a three-month delay, and slap-on-the-wrist enforcement measures. Rolf still reversed course. “We fully support the ordinance,” he later said.

Socialist Alternative’s leaders privately conceded that they couldn’t win a ballot initiative without full support from organized labor, but they pushed one forward anyway to keep up the pressure on the council as it considered the ordinance. The City Council approved the bill on Monday afternoon, sending it to Murray’s desk for his signature.

Though the push for a $15 minimum wage is expected to go national, it’s unclear whether 15 Now will find similar success in other big cities. Sawant was aided by unusual factors like a non-partisan election and The Stranger’s backing. Even so, the proposal’s success in Seattle demonstrates a new model of grassroots resourcefulness that has the potential to widely advance a pivotal social agenda.

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Filed under Economy, Inequality, Labor, Politics

Learning from a Socialist in Seattle

A city councilwoman’s nuanced minimum wage battle has national potential

by Arun Gupta Al Jazeera May 21, 2014

When Kshama Sawant ran for a Seattle City Council seat in 2013, she campaigned as a candidate of the Socialist Alternative party on a platform of a $15 minimum hourly wage. Many observers scoffed that her politics and wage demand made the likelihood of victory scant. Sawant went on to win her seat — and on May 5, it was her turn to scoff.

When Sawant and her fellow Seattle council members were reviewing Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all private-sector workers, she wanted to give credit where it was due. Sawant told the hundreds packed into the council chambers that the plan materialized not because “business and politicians came from on high and delivered this but because workers demanded this.” Her supporters wore red T-shirts reading “15 Now.”

Just a slogan a year ago, it is now a plan of action in the nation’s 12th-biggest economic engine (PDF). On May 15, Murray unveiled a bill to make a $15 hourly minimum wage a reality. If it is passed, Seattle’s private-sector workers will eventually earn more than double the current federal minimum wage; an estimated 102,000 workers currently making less than $15 an hour will see their incomes jump in 2015, and many households will be lifted out of poverty.

Sawant and her party, instrumental in putting the issue on Seattle’s agenda, are now engaging in realpolitik, decrying the bill’s limits even as they call it a victory for the movement. Philip Locker, Sawant’s campaign manager, pointed to “serious weaknesses as a result of the political establishment catering to business” — such as allowing companies with billion-dollar annual profits such as Starbucks three to four years before they must start paying $15 an hour. But he maintained the movement “forced business to accept the highest minimum wage in the country.”

Sawant’s ascendancy has shown that being a socialist is no longer a liability in running for public office. More important, the $15-an-hour campaign has nurtured a model of grass-roots democracy that challenges the corporate-controlled political process. Observers expect the bill to pass by the end of May. If it passes, the win — though imperfect — will validate Socialist Alternative’s approach, swell its ranks and crack open more space for socialist politics in the United States.

A wage plan weakened

Grass-roots pressure for a wage bill gained momentum once Sawant helped found 15 Now in January. The organization established 11 neighborhood action groups throughout the city that mass-distributed leaflets, organized rallies and engaged citizens in one-on-one conversations. The efforts included quick parries to Big Business arguments about the harmful effects of raising the wage. Such tactics, says Locker, “transformed the political climate.”

The skirmishing continues as Sawant and 15 Now try to close pro-business loopholes in the bill.

Murray’s proposal gives large businesses, defined as more than 500 employees, up to four years before they must begin to pay $15 an hour. Smaller businesses have until 2021 to hit $15 an hour and an 11-year window to pay some wages in tips and health care credits under a guaranteed minimum compensation clause. Because the wage schedules are complex, with four categories and annual timetables determined by the size of business, benefits and cost-of-living adjustments, the bill creates an enforcement nightmare.

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

As the plan was hammered into a bill, it was weakened further. Franchises of fast food giants such as McDonald’s, Subway and KFC may now qualify as small businesses. There is a subminimum training wage for learners, apprentices, messengers and the disabled — a legal trick that allows fast food chains to hire and fire teenagers in an industry with 90 percent annual turnover in its workforce. The bill also encourages wage theft: Businesses need pay back wages only the first time they are caught underpaying workers and a $250 fine for the second violation.

At the May 5 hearing, Sawant read an email from a Domino’s Pizza driver lamenting the lengthy implementation timeline. He wrote, “We need an immediate hike to at least $12 hourly … Most of us are one paycheck away from financial tragedy. Living paycheck to pawn shop is no way to live when you’re working full time.”

To counter the effects of Big Business on the bill, Socialist Alternative and 15 Now are returning to grass-roots politics. On May 15, they announced they would seek to place a ballot before Seattle voters in the fall to amend the city charter. If approved, the measure, which would trump the city council’s, would raise the wages of all workers to $15 an hour more quickly. There would be no subminimum training wage and no tip or health care credit window, and all for-profit companies with more than 250 employees would have to pay $15 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2015.

Presaging a national shift?

Sawant and her party must tread carefully with what they consider an imperfect bill, not least because organized labor, a powerful force in Seattle, supports the bill and has ties to the rival Democratic Party.

David Rolf, who co-chaired the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which drafted the initial plan, and is the president of Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW, told me he stood by the “delicately constructed” deal but would support a ballot initiative if the current bill were “watered down further.” However, even after the latest changes — the training wage, weakened enforcement and loophole for franchises — Rolf responded in an email, “We fully support the ordinance submitted by Mayor Murray to the city council and encourage the council to pass the ordinance as is.”

Beyond the dance with labor, Sawant and the 15 Now movement are aware that outside parties that specialize in fighting pro-worker measures — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform — could easily rumble into Seattle or the state capital, Olympia, with bundles of cash to try to overturn the measure.

Despite the flaws, Sawant offered her support for a bill that she said represented “a phenomenal shift that has happened in the city,” one that “shows leadership for the rest of the country.”

Already, politicians in Chicago and Portland are running for city posts on $15-an-hour platforms with grass-roots backing. In New York state, a socialist on the Green Party ticket is running for lieutenant governor. On May 16, Jess Spear, a member of Socialist Alternative and a climate scientist, filed to run in November’s election against Democrat Frank Chopp, speaker of the Washington state House. Said Sawant, “We want many more left challenges to the Democratic Party.”

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

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Fight For 15 Confidential

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On August 29, fast-food workers and supporters gather outside a Los Angeles McDonald’s to take part in a nationwide strike. (Photo courtesy of Frederic J. Brown)

How did the biggest-ever mobilization of fast-food workers come about, and what is its endgame?

by Arun Gupta In These Times November 11, 2013

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-backed campaign to organize fast-food workers nationwide is on a roll. It’s entering its second year in the public eye, having staged four one-day strikes, culminating in a 60-city walkout on August 29. It’s a bold move by one of the nation’s largest unions to organize an unorganized private-sector workforce numbering in the millions.

The movement has no official name, though each city-level campaign has one: Fast Food Forward in New York, Raise Up MKE in Milwaukee, We Can’t Survive on $7.35 in St. Louis, Stand Up KC in Kansas City, and, in Chicago, Fight for 15 (which refers to a $15 minimum wage and has become the name most commonly used for the national campaign). The campaign has revived the use of the strike to build worker solidarity and employs a strategy of minority unionism, which aims to build a core of militant workers who can sidestep labor law that nowadays hinders worker organizing more than abuses by management. Most importantly, the fast-food organizing campaign has set in motion thousands of working poor, mainly African Americans and Latinos, who are acting collectively to better their lives. The campaign is generating excitement that a popular movement can finally go on the offensive against corporate power.

As the fast-food organizing campaign continues to build, Marco (not his real name), an SEIU organizer in the Midwest, says, “Workers are getting empowered, standing up to their bosses, and they’re not taking shit anymore. If managers do try to clamp down, they’re going to have 60 people march into their shop and disrupt their business. The creation of solidarity that’s happening is exciting.”

Why fast food, and why now? Simply put, it’s where a dying labor movement sees the most opportunity. Private-sector union density has plunged from its peak of 35 percent in the 1950s to only 6.6 percent now. One of the key factors in labor’s decline has been the growth of the non-unionized service sector, where low wages have become the norm and workers who try to organize often face retaliation. Workers in the fast-food industry, which employs more than 4 million Americans, earned an average of $8.72 an hour in 2010.

The fast-food organizing campaign is one of many efforts to organize the low-wage sector, along with OUR Walmart, warehouse worker and university adjunct campaigns, and the spread of worker centers. But it’s the one that has generated considerable media buzz and excitement among organized labor and progressives.

SEIU says its role has been more servant than shepherd. “It’s really a privilege for us to support” fast-food workers, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told Salon’s Josh Eidelson in August. Henry portrayed the campaign as a surprise: “We don’t yet understand the scale of it,” she said, adding that she was “amazed at the degree to which it spread.”

So what exactly did set the movement off? And could its development serve as a model for future campaigns? To discover exactly how Fight for 15 began and grew and whether we can expect similar upsurges among other groups of workers, In These Times talked to 40 low-wage workers, labor organizers, reporters, historians, union officials and media strategists. All of the more than 20 organizers and workers who discussed their involvement requested to speak on background or be identified by pseudonyms, expressing fear of damaging either job prospects or relationships with others involved in the campaign. Based on these interviews and hundreds of pages of internal documents from the campaign, In These Times can offer the most detailed examination to date of how Fight for 15 originated, what its goals are, where it might be headed and who is making the decisions.

Nearly all of the low-wage workers and organizers involved in the campaign who spoke with In These Times expressed concerns about the campaign’s direction. They made clear they do support Fight for 15—often enthusiastically—for providing space for workers to build relationships, share knowledge and, in some cases, embark on shop-floor organizing. But many questioned whether Fight for 15 is fundamentally a worker organizing campaign or a “march on the media,” and many believe the endgame will be determined by an SEIU leadership that is not in contact with the daily realities of the campaign.

How the fight began

The tale being told in the media is one of a spontaneous, worker-led uprising. In New York and Chicago, the story goes, the movement was born in early 2012 after advocacy groups organizing in low-income communities kept hearing complaints about the difficulty of surviving on fast-food industry wages. According to Bloomberg News, “The advocacy group New York Communities for Change” (NYCC)—an offshoot of the now-defunct ACORN—“originally was trying to halt planned school closings in low-income neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Organizers shifted focus after hearing fast-food jobs were keeping local residents poor.”

The official story in Chicago is virtually the same as in New York. In April, Salon reported that Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, a local organizing group also formerly affiliated with ACORN, said the Chicago-based group “took a leadership role in organizing fast-food workers after discovering on door-to-door canvasses about [bus] fare hikes that ‘people were more concerned with their jobs.’”

But three former organizers in Chicago who joined the campaign in late 2011, and two former organizers with NYCC who began petitioning in March 2012, all dispute this story. All say that from the get-go, the stated goal was to organize low-wage or fast-food workers. All say they were told within weeks or months that SEIU was funding the organizing, and all say that it became increasingly clear that SEIU was directing the campaign.

Sidney (not his real name) says that when Action Now hired him in November 2011, it was to join a campaign to raise the minimum wage. For the first few weeks, organizers armed with postcards calling for a $10-an-hour state minimum wage prowled fast-food and retail joints in the Loop in downtown Chicago and gathered names, phone numbers, emails and home addresses to meet daily quotas. But when managers started kicking the organizers out of establishments because they were talking to workers about low wages, Action Now changed tactics, according to Sidney and Maria (not her real name). Maria, who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says she and other organizers “started to brainstorm what can attract people’s attention … and everybody said, ‘Well you know a lot of these workers take public transportation.’ So we made it about public transportation and stopping the fare hikes.” There was some media speculation around hikes at the time, but no specific proposal on the table. According to Sidney, he and Action Now organizers came up with “a scenario where the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] was raising the prices. … From then on, we started going around to the same establishments in the Loop and telling them the CTA was going to raise the prices two, three bucks.” The tactic worked, the organizers say: The petition met with less opposition from managers than the minimum-wage postcards.

Brooke (not his real name), who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says that despite close supervision, organizing leaders denied they were in charge: “I was told, ‘It’s all about the workers. We have to leave it up to the workers.’ Then [SEIU leadership] tells the media, ‘It’s spontaneous; the workers came to us.’ It’s duplicitous. It’s to get people to stop asking questions.”

Maria, Brooke and Sidney say they soon learned that SEIU was bankrolling the project. Sidney says that early in the campaign, Action Now leaders were meeting with SEIU officials and saying they were trying to secure money. In December 2011, SEIU’s Washington, D.C. headquarters disbursed about $36,000 to Action Now for “Support for Organizing.” Sidney says that in January, Action Now leaders told them, “SEIU is funding this, they’re happy with the work you guys are doing, so we’re going to continue for at least six months.” On January 19, 2012, SEIU headquarters contributed $191,797 to Action Now, the first in a series of donations that would total more than $3 million by year’s end.

An SEIU staffer with knowledge of union politics in Chicago explains, “Action Now here is very closely connected to the largest SEIU local in the region—SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana. They have a history of cooperative, overlapping campaigns.” Starting in its first full year of operation in 2008, Action Now has received $100,000 or more annually from the healthcare local.

As for who’s calling the shots, Carter Wright, a communications organizer with SEIU, describes a bottom-up process of a movement that “emerged after organizers in those groups found that there were way too many fast-food workers making way too little money in the areas they were canvassing. They worked with SEIU to develop a campaign to build a movement so those workers could fight for better pay.” He notes. “Members of SEIU have supported groups like NYCC, Action Now and their predecessors for a long time.”

In contrast, all three Chicago organizers say that by February, SEIU personnel were coming to their offices specifically to train them in union organizing. In other words, while SEIU maintains that Fight for 15 is a bottom-up project, the organizers who did the legwork concluded that SEIU funded and directed it from early on.

Full steam ahead

By early April 2012, organizers had gathered 20,000 contacts. Then, on June 6, the day after the anti-union Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker handily won a recall election, a supervisor walked into the Action Now office and told them it was full steam ahead with the fast-food campaign. In the previous week, SEIU headquarters had transferred more than $300,000 to Action Now. Brooke says organizers were given a rap sheet (also obtained by In These Times) and told to call petition signers and say, “We were successful in stopping the fare raise. When we were talking to you and other workers downtown we found a lot of other workers were talking about wages or lack of healthcare or lack of respect of managers. Do you have any problems like that? Would you like to meet and talk about it?”

Because of delays, the lists had grown stale. “It was hard to track down workers and talk to them, and when we did there was a lot of hesitation and fear,” Brooke says. “A lot of workers didn’t even remember signing the petition.”

In July, the first citywide meeting was held. After nearly eight months of work by more than a dozen organizers, at least $1.7 million spent by SEIU, and 20,000 contacts, Brooke says the meeting brought together “about six workers, who were all very afraid.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, SEIU headquarters started pouring money into NYCC in February 2012, outlaying more than $2.5 million by year’s end. Chris (not his real name) was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and was dispatched to Manhattan to gather a daily quota of signatures on low-income-housing petitions. Similarly, another organizer, Carlos (not his real name), also says he was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and spent months gathering names on petitions in favor of low-income housing and against police “stop and frisks.” Both were told SEIU was paying the bills behind the scenes. Carlos believes that “[SEIU’s] name has a lot of baggage, so they don’t want it out there. They want to funnel it through smaller organizations so it looks like more of a grassroots effort.”

In the summer, when organizers shifted to phoning workers about unionizing, Chris says he conducted a dozen one-on-one meetings with workers and “typically most workers were fearful. Most of them were not happy with their work situation, but they did not want to lose what they had.” He recalls that the first meeting in lower Manhattan in late August 2012 attracted about 30 workers, and at least two more meetings drew similar crowds before Nov. 29, 2012—the campaign’s first big strike.

Who’s calling the shots?

By early 2013, the second year of the organizing effort, the Chicago campaign was finally gaining momentum. Sam (not his real name), a cashier at a health-food store who was part of an informal committee organizing at two stores in his chain, says the Chicago Teachers Union strike in September 2012 opened space to discuss work-related issues with his coworkers, as did a strike the next month by warehouse workers just west of Chicago and the nationwide Black Friday strikes at Wal-Mart stores staged by the United Food and Commercial Workers-backed OUR Walmart campaign. These events, says Sam, “dramatically transformed” his conversations with coworkers from “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get something going?” to “If it could happen at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, then it could happen here.”

Looking for assistance in early 2013, Sam and co-organizers started attending meetings of the Worker Organizing Committee of Chicago, which was formed in November 2012 to lead the Fight for 15 campaign.

Sam and his co-worker Jason (not his real name) say they initially found some tactics off-putting. The decision to stage the first low-wage worker walkout in Chicago on April 24, was made a few weeks in advance, at a meeting where New York workers were flown in to talk to the Chicago workers. After a rousing description of the New Yorkers’ experience walking off their jobs, Jason says, the Fight for 15 organizers asked, “‘Who wants to go on strike?’ Everyone cheered, and of course we want to go on strike after you just hear what they said. They called it a strike vote, but it wasn’t a vote in any meaningful way. They didn’t count [votes]; they didn’t say who is opposed to going on strike; there was no discussion.”

Sam says, “If it’s been decided at some level that there will be an action on a given day, then it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of going through the motions of getting people to come to the decisions that they want them to.” Marco describes a similar process in his city: “The organizers say, ‘All the other cities have decided to go on strike on this date, do you want to join them?’ And the workers are like, ‘Yeah!’ Do I think it’s ideal? No. But do I have any better ideas? No, and that’s the problem.”

The decision to conduct a nationwide strike on August 29 was made in a similar manner, at an SEIU-led convention in Detroit on August 15 to 16 that brought together about 700 low-wage workers, organizers and staff from around the country. Sam says that on the second day, an SEIU organizer got in front of the crowd and said,“We have this idea to do a national day of action, Chicago, what say you?” According to Sam, someone preselected by SEIU stood up and replied, “We in Chicago are ready to do a national day of action.” Sam says the process was repeated with the other cities.“There had been no discussion on it previously in any meaningful sense. The first time most people [from Chicago] had heard about it was on the bus to Detroit.” Two other workers confirm they had little say in the decision other than being asked to rubberstamp a prepared statement when they showed up in Detroit.

Media frenzy

By the spring, strikes were staged in a different city every week, rolling through New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Flint, Mich., and generating a national media buzz.

To help get out the word, SEIU is employing several communications consultants. Journalist Peter Rugh, who has been tracking the fast-food campaign since 2012, says that according to employees of New York-based company Purpose, which specializes in “21st-century movements,” the firm is helping with branding. In Washington, D.C., SEIU worked with M+R Strategic Services to coordinate an extensive social media effort around a May 2013 fast-food and low-wage worker strike.

Nationwide, sources say, SEIU has retained the aid of BerlinRosen. The communications firm declined to comment on the record, but Charles (not his real name), a Detroit organizer with knowledge of SEIU strategy, says his impression is that BerlinRosen is “helping in every spot” around the nation, and its work included “local communications, teamwork … advising on communication strategy, generating coverage.” He adds that, in addition to “showing strength to the workers [and] getting the community behind it,” the purpose of the campaign is generating a media buzz. In 2012, combined payments to BerlinRosen from SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana and SEIU headquarters soared to $1.2 million, doubling from 2011 and tripling from 2010.

Why SEIU’s role is problematic

A few SEIU organizers voiced concerns to In These Times that airing criticisms of Fight for 15 would aid right-wing and anti-union forces trying to undermine the campaign. That may be true. But the criticisms are coming from workers and field organizers across the country who say they’re concerned that the top-down organizing may benefit SEIU leaders at the expense of the workers.

For instance, some workers say that while they welcome the spotlight, the glare can be damaging. Media generates public support, but also more pressure on organizers to turn out workers for high-profile actions. Some organizers worry that a lack of time for proper back-up or training may put workers at risk of employer retaliation.

In many instances, the fast-food campaign has vigorously defended workers against retaliatory firings by picketing the employer or filing unfair labor practices. But Jason criticizes Fight for 15 in Chicago for mounting strong defenses after a firing, but not helping workers develop skills to prevent retaliation in the first place. “The strategy is to wait until [bosses] actually fire you because they can get more publicity. But it’s easier to keep your job instead of fighting to get it back.” He believes that in general, the media emphasis undercuts shop floor organizing.

In Marco’s eyes, an SEIU action at a recent fast-food corporation shareholder meeting revealed another way that the media focus can disempower workers. He says, “I don’t like the fact that these people, the workers, are being used like pawns. Shuffle them in, shuffle them out, tell them what to say, what makes the best story for the media.”

Workers say developing solidarity and organizing and leadership skills would be more effective, as they would be able to act quickly when bosses retaliate at the job. “You can’t just call the union office and wait for someone to do something,” Jason says. “You have to be able to respond immediately and in a way that actually has power at work, and you have to have networks built with your coworkers to be able to do that.”

Chicago is one city where worker-led organizing is thriving. Sam says, “At the shop level we control the messaging, we control the tactics, we decide what we want to organize around, we motivate the strikers.” Following the April 24 strike, workers demanded a greater say in meetings. The next decision to strike, in mid-July, was a vote with a 30-minute discussion and a count of those for, against and abstaining. It passed overwhelmingly. “It represented a very big step forward in terms of the actual practices within the union,” says Jason. Now, up to 200 workers attend meetings in Chicago every other week. They have been given resources to publish a newsletter for workers to help “tighten organization between the stores.” There’s a women’s caucus where women can strategize about “sexual harassment at work and unsupportive husbands who don’t want them to be involved,” and workers can also discuss how managers use racial discrimination to divide and control workers.

Outside of Chicago, however, there’s little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., sources say active workers number a dozen or less, about the same as the number of paid organizers.

Victor (not his real name) in Seattle says the campaign is faltering because workers are “babied at the meetings.” He says the process involves workers getting “amped-up” and “rubber-stamping some decisions that are already made,” which wears thin after the first meeting.

While optimistic about the campaign, one long-time SEIU staffer expresses reservations as well. “SEIU still does not have a clear picture of what to do with Fight for 15, where to take it. Some staffing here is frustrated with the very heavy and somewhat manipulative ‘media moment’ approach that ignores the voices and the democracy/development of the natural shop floor leaders who have emerged. How to begin a bottom up process is a big challenge, especially as the SEIU leadership is not fixed on that as a goal at all. … Retreat is very possible, leaving militant organizers high and dry.”

That retreat is a reference to SEIU’s troubled history, especially under the 1996-2010 presidency of Andy Stern. Many workers are wary of SEIU’s track record of “coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, [and] excessive deference to Democratic party leaders,” as In These Times staff writer David Moberg wrote in July 2012. Workers also fret about SEIU’s tendency to sign neutrality pacts that “surrendered basic worker rights” in return for new members, Moberg noted.

The endgame

Sam speculates that when SEIU sees “a win, they’re going to focus on it narrowly.” He says, “Then the concern becomes: What about all the other workers who are now mobilized, who have organized themselves, but don’t necessarily fit into SEIU’s focus for a win?”

And what will that win be?

SEIU appears to be pursuing several strategies simultaneously. Campaigns in Seattle and Washington, D.C., have pushed for living-wage ordinances. SEIU seems also to be interested in supporting fast-food worker centers—workplace advocacy organizations that are not formal unions. Two sources say SEIU is helping to start a new branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Seattle and is considering supporting ROC chapters in other cities.

But conversations with various SEIU sources—as well as statements from the leadership and developments in fast-food organizing around the country—indicate SEIU also has a comprehensive national plan in the works, centered on the two public demands of $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize free of intimidation. If successful, the multi-stage strategy would allow SEIU to secure collective bargaining agreements and gain thousands of new union members.

The first step is to challenge the legal distinction between a corporation and its individual franchises. Take McDonald’s: Ninety percent of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises, but the corporate parent micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. At the same time, McDonald’s takes pains to spell out in contracts that it has “no implied employment relationship” with a franchisee or their workers. SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.

Second, SEIU is pouring resources into compiling data about wage theft in the fast-food sector. Sam says researchers come to worker meetings and state: “If your register is short and that difference comes out of your paycheck, come talk to us. … If you get your paycheck on a debit card and there are fees associated with it, come talk to us.” In May, Fast Food Forward, the New York chapter of the fast-food organizing campaign, released a survey finding that 84 percent of 500 fast-food workers reported at least one form of wage theft.

The third planned step, organizers say, is for SEIU to use legal liability for wage theft to pressure fast-food companies into accepting “neutrality agreements” that allow employees to unionize without management interference. Fourth, SEIU plans to mount an international campaign by enlisting unions in other countries to pressure fast-food chains with global operations.

Though several SEIU insiders confirmed on background that this is SEIU’s overarching plan, SEIU spokesperson Carter Wright would not do so, saying that “community organizations that are part of the coalition and workers continue to brainstorm and expect to experiment with a variety of actions and strategies.”

But in the interview with Salon in August, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and her assistant Scott Courtney hinted this is the path being pursued, saying that options include a “political or legal challenge” to the fast food industry’s franchising.

2014 or Bust

The coming year could make or break Fight for 15. According to one SEIU official, “The money going into this is a gamble. These workers aren’t paying dues; they’re not financing this right now. Definitely over the next two years we’re going to have to take a look at this and see where we’re going.”

Despite the uneasiness some organizers have about SEIU’s role, others doubt that a truly spontaneous, worker-led uprising would have been possible without SEIU leadership.

“Without SEIU this shit would not have happened,” Marco says. “Fast-food workers are not going to self-organize. They’ve been so beat down for so long by circumstances and an anti-labor environment. You look at the Civil Rights Movement—a lot of that was top-down, orchestrated movement.”

But this attitude can also foster paternalism. Speaking in September, Jason says some organizers “really do think we’re stupid and we need to have our hands held and things like that.”

Still, Sam credits SEIU for “pushing people out into the struggle. It’s very easy to be critical of an organization like SEIU for its behind-closed-doors activities and top-down organizing,” he says.“This is an instance when the labor bureaucracy is encouraging people to demonstrate, to go on strike, to take action in the workplace. And I’m excited about that.”

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Arun Gupta on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Click the image below to watch the interview.

Arun Gupta appears on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC

Arun Gupta appears on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show to talk about pensions

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How Education Reform Drives Gentrification

A Portland teachers’ contract negotiation debunks the myth of school choice, which leaves a swath of the city behind

Emma Christ, center, a Cleveland High School senior, at a rally organized by the Portland Student Union and the Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign. The rally attracted students, parents and other unions in support of teachers during contract negotiations. Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian/Landov

Emma Christ, center, a Cleveland High School senior, at a rally organized by the Portland Student Union and the Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign. The rally attracted students, parents and other unions in support of teachers during contract negotiations.
Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian/Landov

by Arun Gupta Al Jazeera America March 7, 2014

Public school teachers in Portland, Ore., and their students are doing a victory lap. Nearly a year after unveiling a contract proposal that would have put the squeeze on the 2,900-member Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), the Portland School Board on March 3 approved a contract that acceded to virtually every demand from the teachers’ union.

The board was acting as a stalking horse for corporate attacks on unions and public education nationwide. It initially wanted to saddle teachers with higher health care costs, fewer retirement benefits, more students and a greater workload in a city where 40 percent of teachers already work more than 50 hours a week (PDF). The board also demanded expansive management rights (PDF) and allegedly wished to link teacher evaluation more closely to standardized testing. The PAT opposed the board, arguing that low-income and minority students would pay the heaviest price as their classes grew larger, more time was devoted to testing and resources for curriculum preparation and teacher development got slashed.

Only after 98 percent of the PAT voted to strike starting Feb. 20 — and students vowed to join the picket line — did the board blink. Alexia Garcia, an organizer with the Portland Student Union who graduated last year, says students held walkouts and rallies at many of the city’s high schools in support of teachers’ demands because “teachers’ working conditions are our learning conditions.”

The deal is a big victory for the teachers’ union in a state where business interests, led by the Portland Business Alliance, call the shots on education policy. The school board had brought out the big guns, authorizing payments of up to $360,000 to a consultant for contract negotiations and $800,000 to a law firm, despite already having a full-time lawyer on its payroll. But, emulating Chicago teachers who prevailed in an eight-day strike in 2012, the PAT went beyond contract numbers, winning community support by focusing on student needs and rallying to stop school closures in underserved communities.

Most significant, the teachers helped expose the role of education reform in gentrifying the city, making it nearly impossible for every neighborhood to have a strong school. This is a process playing out nationwide, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. But it is particularly striking in Portland, so noted for quirkiness and tolerance it has spawned a hit television show, “Portlandia,” During a public forum on the contract negotiations, one teacher observed that the show was a reflection of how “we march to our own beat in Portland.” This has held true for the teachers’ approach to education.

Test scores by ZIP code

The current fight over public schools began in January 2013 when teachers, parents and students successfully blocked the board from closing or merging half a dozen schools, mainly in the historically African-American neighborhood of Northeast Portland, which had already seen two schools shut down the previous year. This helped to mobilize community support behind a vision of public education that contrasted starkly with the Portland School Board’s ideas.

The tussle over teacher contracts has underscored how cozy the board is with corporate interests that promote school ratings, standardized testing and school choice, which allows students to freely transfer to other public schools. Touted as a way to use market forces to improve schools, school choice instead creates a two-tier system.

The racial effect of school choice is stark in Northeast Portland, where more than 40 percent of the black population has been pushed out since 2000, and which is 70 percent white today. City documents reveal that more white children in the area opt for charter, magnet and public schools in other parts of the city than attend their assigned neighborhood school. For African-American children, barely one-fourth access those choices.

Sekai Edwards is a sophomore at Jefferson High School in Northeast Portland, the only African-American-majority school in the city. It’s ranked in the bottom 15 percent of the state’s schools. Edwards says Jefferson is “portrayed as failing, as having a lot of violence and gang activity, so fewer kids want to come here.” Jefferson has about 500 students, a third of the size of some other high schools in the city. Since funding is tied to enrollment, Edwards says the only foreign language offered is Spanish, and her anatomy and physiology class has 43 students in it. She says, “I just want to focus on schooling,” but with constant fears of her school being shut down, she adds, “I don’t think I’ll get that at Jefferson.”

History of displacement

What’s happening in Portland is white flight in reverse. Middle-class families eye Northeast Portland for its undervalued homes but choose different schools because neighborhood ones are pegged as bad. Declining enrollment bleeds money from already underfunded schools, making them less attractive and creating a downward spiral in which the schools are rated as failing, subsequently closed and eventually replaced by charter schools that can cherry-pick students.

School choice is layered atop a racialized terrain, allowing middle-class families to profit from lower home prices while avoiding the cost of bad schools.

As public schools in Northeast Portland shutter, black households are displaced as redevelopment pushes rents upward. Karen Gibson, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, analyzes how government policies, banks and developers ghettoized Portland’s blacks. The history of black Portland is one of high unemployment and incarceration rates, toxic land and shoddy housing, institutionalized segregation and redlining practices, poor schools, minimal social services and overpolicing. Gibson wrote that for 40 years blacks were subjected to “predatory and exploitative lending practices by speculators, slumlords, bankers and real estate agents,” being denied routine mortgage and rehab loans or the ability to move to other neighborhoods. When Northeast Portland was slated for rehabilitation in the ’90s, government assistance, bank mortgages and business opportunities flowed to whites, while black homeowners, often not realizing how much their homes had appreciated, took below-market cash offers from speculators. For the two-thirds of black households who don’t own homes (as opposed to the 57 percent of white households who do), rising rents hit harder, as their per capita income is barely $16,000, half that of whites.

Despite decades of promises to address such displacement, the city has pushed ahead with policies that intensify racial disparities. Most recently it offered a $2.6 million parcel of land for a mere $500,000 to the billionaire-owned Majestic Realty to develop a Trader Joe’s outlet. The deal would have increased displacement without any guarantees for community hiring or affordable housing. After an outcry from the African-American community, Trader Joe’s withdrew from the deal.

Ironically, the same cultural wave that has brought “Portlandia” to young audiences has also encouraged more gentrification. The show trades on residents’ obsessive tendencies about food, facial hair, bicycling, dumpster diving — any activity untainted by mass consumer culture. But the quirky authenticity attracts new residents to the city, driving up rents and spreading the hipster culture that has colonized much of New York City, Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and other places. In its wake it leaves its own form of homogenization: new residents who are largely white and wealthy.

Beyond cold numbers

School choice is layered atop this racialized terrain, allowing middle-class families to profit from lower home prices while avoiding the cost of bad schools. It’s the existing residents who foot the bill. Elizabeth Thiel, an educator who has taught in five Portland public schools over the past 11 years, lives in Northeast Portland. She says the white middle-class families moving into black neighborhoods are genuinely concerned about “trying to find the best education for their kid.” But according to Thiel, the education-reform movement, with its focus on standardized testing, has legitimized the naming of schools as failures. Families thus feel justified in saying, “Well, I live in that neighborhood, but I would never send my kid to that school.” Thiel says, “People stop thinking about what a school really is. It’s a community, and community is defined by the people who participate in it.”

In fact, standardized test scores mainly measure income and race. Students from wealthier and whiter neighborhoods score higher on the tests than students in low-income black areas. Portland schools use parent-led foundations to fundraise. In wealthier neighborhoods those efforts can translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to pay for support staff, technology, arts classes and electives lacking at schools like Jefferson.

Looking ahead

By the time the two sides struck a deal on Feb. 18, the school board had conceded (PDF) nearly every demand of the PAT, agreeing to hire more than 150 teachers to reduce class size, minimize changes to health care and bump pay by a modest 2.3 percent per year. Many of the concessions directly affect the learning process: The board backtracked on demands to lift the cap on how many students a teacher can have at one time and decrease the amount of time for lesson planning in elementary schools, and it agreed to allow teachers more leeway in tailoring instruction methods to the needs of students.

The success of Portland teachers in fighting off misguided educational policies could help counter the swelling inequality that is pulverizing the city’s neighborhoods. More important, by advocating for high-quality public education for all children as the building block of stable communities, the teachers have shown how to fight corporate-driven gentrification and education reform at the same time, regardless of the city.

Arun Gupta is a regular contributor to The Progressive, In These Times and The Guardian. He is writing a book on the social construction of taste. Follow him on Twitter: @arunindy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.

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The Story Behind America’s Fast Food Worker Uprising

Fast-food workers and their supporters picket outside a Burger King in Los Angeles on August 29, 2013. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP

Fast-food workers and their supporters picket outside a Burger King in Los Angeles on August 29, 2013. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP

The unions, especially SEIU, are backing this campaign for $15 wages. Some worry the workers are being used like pawns.

By Arun Gupta theguardian.com November 11 2013

The sight one year ago of scores of fast-food workers walking off their jobs and marching through the streets of New York City demanding $15 an hour was like a defibrillator to a dying American labor movement. If poverty-wage workers demanding that the federal minimum wage be doubled and they be allowed to unionize free of retaliation could win against fast-food giants like McDonald’s, KFC and Subway, then unions might finally begin to reverse a 60-year-long decline that’s seen its share of the private sector workforce plunge from 35% percent to 6.6%.

The top 10 employers in fast food alone account for 2.3m US jobs (pdf). Add in discount retailers, drug stores, clerking and material moving, and the number of workers soars to the tens of millions. The growth of part-time low-wage jobs has become a battering ram against the last citadels of unionism in heavy industry and the public sector, crushing wages, benefits, and workplace rights. That’s led organized labor to make a stand with organizing drives such as OUR WalmartDomestic Workers UnitedWarehouse Workers for Justice and the fast-food worker campaign commonly known as “Fight for 15”.

Unlike the other campaigns, however, it was unclear who organized the November 2012 walkout in New York and repeated one-day strikes this year in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle. Various news reports portray Fight for 15 as a bottom-up effort in which community groups canvassing workers in Chicago and New York found low wages was the chief concern, so they reached out to unions for organizing help. But word was the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union was providing the know-how and money. For their part, SEIU leaders claim they’re more servant than shepherd of fast-food workers, saying, “We don’t yet understand the scale of it … [we’re] amazed at the degree to which it spread.”

In reality, a months-long investigation published today by In These Times, a Chicago-based magazine, indicates SEIU has been directing the campaign since early 2012 as part of its plan to pressure the biggest fast-food companies to strike deals to unionize workers and increase their wages.

Interviews with 40 low-wage workers, labor organizers, SEIU officials, media strategists, and analysts reveal that behind the scenes, there is widespread unease with how the campaign has developed. Workers and organizers are troubled by what they say is a lack of respect for workers, resistance to worker control, a rubberstamp decision-making process, and the overall direction of the campaign.

Insiders say that’s why SEIU is trying to downplay its role. “Brooke”, a former organizer in Chicago, says SEIU leaders tell the media Fight for 15 is “spontaneous [and] the workers came to us” because they want “to get people to stop asking questions”. (All the workers and organizers asked to remain anonymous out of concern of harming job prospects or relationships within the organizing campaign.)

“Carlos”, a former organizer on the New York City campaign, says he suspects SEIU is being coy because its “name has a lot of baggage, so they don’t want it out there. They want to funnel it through smaller organizations so it looks like more of a grassroots effort”. Labor reporter David Moberg describes that SEIU baggage as “coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, [and] excessive deference to Democratic party leaders”.

There is one question in particular SEIU is probably not keen to address: is Fight for 15 about organizing a long-term social movement of low-wage workers or is it a “march on the media”? Workers and organizers across the country emphasize that they back the campaign for providing space for workers to build solidarity, share knowledge and assist shop-floor organizing. But they add that SEIU is pouring resources into a PR and legal strategy that they consider dubious and which comes at the expense of building a militant workers movement within the fast-food industry.

“Rose” works with an SEIU-backed drive focused on fast-food workers in federal buildings like the Smithsonian in Washington. She says organizers are mainly “training [workers] as spokespeople, gearing them up for these one-day strikes and training them to appear on camera, and return to work without any follow-up for a unionizing effort”. Rose charges that “propping them up as media spokespeople without guaranteeing any sort of long-term protection … is very irresponsible and very hypocritical” as it puts them at risk of retaliation from their managers.

According to sources and internal SEIU documents obtained by In These Times, the union does try to protect striking workers by having community leaders and elected officials accompany them back to their jobs the day after a strike. “Jason”, a worker in Chicago, says in the event workers are fired for union activity, which is illegal, SEIU vigorously defends them by picketing the employer and filing unfair labor practices. However, the preoccupation with the media undermines this aspect of organizing as well. Jason says at least in Chicago the union has not helped workers develop skills to prevent retaliation as

The strategy is to wait until [bosses] actually fire you because they can get more publicity. But it’s easier to keep your job instead of fighting to get it back.

Some observers say this is a result of fast-food organizers being pressured to “instrumentalize their relationship with workers” by having to meet quotas for workers to sign petitions, attend meetings, fill out union cards, and go on strike. Workers say this can discourage involvement as it leaves little space for worker input or control. “Victor”, a fast-food worker in Seattle, says at meetings organizers go around the crowd, get them “amped-up” and have them rubber-stamp “some decisions that are already made”. Victor says, “It feels like there’s not very much respect being paid toward the workers and it feels childish.”

A sore point for workers is strike “votes”. At a national convention of fast-food workers held in Detroit in mid-August the decision was made to launch a one-day walkout across the country on 29 August. Workers who attended say their input was limited to being presented with a prepared statement to endorse when they showed up at the hotel after a day of travel. “Sam”, a worker from Chicago, says:

If it’s been decided at some level that there will be an action on a given day, then it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of going through the motions of getting people to come to the decisions that they want them to.

At the same time, workers in Chicago say union organizers were responsive to demands for more input, resources and control. Sam says, “At the shop level we control the messaging, we control the tactics, we decide what we want to organize around, we motivate the strikers.” Jason says workers now have a newsletter to help “tighten organization between the stores”. There’s a women’s caucus where women strategize about “sexual harassment at work and unsupportive husbands who don’t want them to be involved”, and workers also discuss how managers use racial discrimination to divide and control workers.

Outside of Chicago, however, there’s little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. In Seattle and Washington, sources say active workers number a dozen or less, about the same as the number of paid organizers.

Workers’ main concern right now is that SEIU’s strategy will leave them out in the cold. It appears that SEIU is pursuing several strategies simultaneously. One effort is living-wage laws in Seattle, Milwaukee and Washington. Two sources say SEIU is also supporting fast-food worker centers – workplace advocacy organizations that are not formal unions – such as a new branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Seattle.

But SEIU also has a comprehensive national plan centered on the two public demands of $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize free of intimidation. If successful, the multi-stage strategy would allow SEIU to secure collective bargaining agreements and gain thousands of new union members. One SEIU official admits this is a primary concern because “the money going into this is a gamble. These workers aren’t paying dues; they’re not financing this right now”.

SEIU’s first step is to challenge the legal distinction between a corporation and its individual franchises. Take McDonald’s: Ninety percent of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises and are solely responsible for employees, but the corporate parent micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. Based on this, SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.

Second, SEIU is compiling data about wage theft in the fast-food sector. Sam says researchers come to worker meetings and state: “If your register is short and that difference comes out of your paycheck, come talk to us. … If you get your paycheck on a debit card and there are fees associated with it, come talk to us.” In May, Fast Food Forward, the New York chapter of the fast-food organizing campaign, released a survey finding that 84 percent of 500 fast-food workers reported at least one form of wage theft.

SEIU’s third planned step is to use legal liability for wage theft to pressure fast-food companies into accepting “neutrality agreements” that allow employees to unionize without management interference. Finally, insiders say SEIU hopes to enlist unions in other countries to mount protests and possibly use pension funds to pressure fast-food chains with global operations, which is they it’s focusing on corporations with extensive overseas operations.

Jason, however, calls this “a strategy for failure”. He says even a prominent company like McDonald’s has little to fear from a PR campaign as their customers who consume burgers of unknown origin are less interested in the conditions of workers slapping them together.

In an email, one long-time SEIU staffer summed up the ambivalent feelings toward the campaign, enthused by a new generation of labor organizers, while fretting about the union’s checkered record. “SEIU still does not have a clear picture of what to do with Fight for 15, where to take it. Some staffing here is frustrated with the very heavy and somewhat manipulative ‘media moment’ approach that ignores the voices and the democracy [and] development of the natural shop floor leaders who have emerged. How to begin a bottom up process is a big challenge, especially as the SEIU leadership is not fixed on that as a goal at all. … Retreat is very possible, leaving militant organizers high and dry.”

• For the full report, go to In These Times.

 

 

 

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