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Inside the Invisible World of Domestic Work: An Interview with Ai-jen Poo December 7, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Women.
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What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves.

November 30, 2012
by Lauren Feeney

Ai-jen Poo

Domestic workers — the nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides who care for our young children and elderly parents — have traditionally been excluded from the most basic protections, like minimum wage. Their jobs are inherently insecure, ending abruptly when the child goes off to school or the patient passes on, yet few collect Social Security or are eligible for unemployment benefits. Working behind closed doors in private homes, they are vulnerable to abuse and unable to organize.

Enter Ai-jen Poo. The community organizer has been advocating for domestic workers’ rights for over a decade, and in 2010, led the campaign for the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which theoretically guarantees overtime pay, paid vacation, and basic human and civil rights protections for over 200,000 workers in the state of New York. Now she’s working to bring the same rights to domestic workers nationwide.

This week, Poo’s organization, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the DataCenter, released the first-ever national survey of domestic workers, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.  Poo sees it as a call-to-action for the nation to tackle the problems of this unregulated sphere, problems that in a Venn diagram would overlap with race, immigration, gender, and the modern, middle-class dual-income family.

Lauren Feeney: What are some of the most important findings in your report?

Ai-jen Poo: The fact that the report exists at all is important because for so long there hasn’t been any real data on domestic work, and that’s contributed to the invisibility of these workers and the Wild West nature of this industry. Now we have data from surveys of 2,086 domestic workers in 14 different cities from 71 different countries of origin.

What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves. Twenty-three percent of domestic workers earn below minimum wage. That’s not counting live-in domestic workers. Among live-ins, sixty-one percent earn below minimum wage. And I think all of us know that even minimum wage is impossible to survive on.

Feeney: How is it that in 21st century America — after all the successes of the labor movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement — there is still this segment of the population that lacks even the most basic protections under the law? Why were these people left behind?

Poo: One reason is the legacy of racism in this country. In the 1930s, Southern members of Congress refused to support the labor laws within the New Deal if farm workers and domestic workers, who were largely African-American at the time, were included under those protections — protections like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

The people who have done this work have historically been poor, working poor women — immigrant women, African-American women, white poor and working class women — socially disadvantaged people. Then there’s the fact that this work has been seen as women’s work and has never really been valued or recognized as real work — it’s a battle to even get recognition as work and as workers versus just help or companionship.

All of those factors connected have meant that this work is done in the shadows. Now, with the need for this work just growing exponentially and becoming so much a part of the lifeblood of this country and the economy, we have an opportunity to really turn the tide on that.

Feeney: What makes domestic work so important to the economy?

Poo: The economist Jared Bernstein calls it a “critical input.” We call it the work that makes all other work possible. It’s this invisible layer of work — raising families and taking care of homes — that allows other people to go into their public lives and work, achieve, build.

Feeney: You call for a living wage, paid sick days, paid vacation and health insurance for domestic workers, and I don’t think anyone would argue that these women don’t deserve these basic protections. And of course, it’s easy to point a finger at wealthy executives and politicians who don’t treat their nannies well. But what about middle-class working women with limited options for child and elder care who really can’t afford any more than they’re already paying?

Poo: We need to take a holistic approach that’s not just about workers’ rights but about a whole set of policies that will make it more possible for all of us to take care of the people that we love. So we also promote tax credits and paid family leave policies and all kinds of workplace flexibility policies for working parents.

We’re living in a 21st century economy where the majority of paid workers are women, yet they’re still responsible for the vast majority of caregiving responsibilities. Our society, in the rules and structures that currently exist, has not accounted for that whole arena of work. And the manifestation of that is the low wages and invisibility and abuse of domestic workers. But really every single family is impacted by the fact that we haven’t adequately accounted for the work that goes into caring for families. Families need help, they need childcare, they need eldercare, and they don’t always have the resources to afford it. Why don’t we have universal childcare?  Why don’t we have workplace flexibility policies that account for the fact that people get sick and family members have to take care of them? It just seems very basic and it can absolutely be done. We really need to rethink the whole way we account for work and structure the economy in a way that works for everyone.

Feeney: In the meantime, what would you suggest concerned employers do to make sure that they’re treating their caregivers fairly, and what can domestic workers and their allies do to get involved in your campaign?

Poo: If you’re an employer, I would really encourage you to go to the Hand-in-Hand Domestic Employers Association website and sign up for their list. And for domestic workers, I would say join one of our affiliate organizations or the national alliance. We’re doing work in twenty-four cities in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, so we have affiliates all over the place, and if people want to form an organization in their town, we’ll support it. We’ve got big campaigns moving forward in California, Massachusetts and Illinois in 2013, so people can get involved in changing the policies and laws that will affect their lives in the future. That’s a call for employers too — we need employers to support our standards and guidelines, and their voices will be really important in that cause. Finally, there’s a measure that’s waiting in the wings at the Department of Labor that would bring 1.8 million home care workers under federal minimum wage and overtime protection, and we need people to write letters to their local Congress members and to the president himself saying that they want to see homecare workers included under basic protections. We’ve got to take care of our caregivers.


Farm Workers Witness Historic Vote on Fair Treatment of Farm Workers Act May 19, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
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By Edgar Sanchez
Special to the UFW

SACRAMENTO – California’s farm workers would be able to vote without fear for union representation under a historic bill approved Monday by the State Assembly after lengthy debate.

SB 104 – the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act – passed by a 51-to-25 party-line vote, prompting applause from 160 farm laborers packing the Assembly Gallery. Another 100-plus farm workers and their supporters watched the debate on television, in a legislative hearing room.

The bill, previously passed by the Senate, now awaits the signature of Governor Jerry Brown to become law.

The measure, granting farm workers the same organizing rights enjoyed by all state employees, is strongly opposed by the state’s $36 billion agricultural industry.

Introduced by Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), SB 104 would give the state’s more than 400,000 farm workers an alternative to on-the-job polling place elections to decide whether to join a union. The new option would allow them to fill out state-issued representation ballots in their homes, away from bosses’ threats and other interference.  If a simple majority – more than 50 percent — of workers sign the ballots, their jobs would be unionized.

All elections would be supervised by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, with the workers choosing the process.

In a bid to derail SB 104, opponents in the Assembly described it as a job killer, “an anti-democracy bill” and a tool to “blatantly stack the deck against employers.”

Supporters called it a long-overdue proposal to end years of abuse by some unscrupulous labor contractors and growers fighting the United Farm Workers Union.

 “This is a great victory for us,” Felipe, a 30-year-old farm worker from Kern County, said after the vote.  “There won’t be any more intimidation on the part of contractors or farm bosses when union elections take place.

“There won’t be because if 104 becomes law, the vote could be in your house, without anybody pressuring you,” he said.

 Felipe – not his real name — requested anonymity because he fears reprisals from his employer, who he said intimidated workers into voting against unionization in 2006.

“Before the election, we were told we would lose our jobs if we voted for the union,” the $8-an-hour laborer  said. “I came to Sacramento today without my bosses’ knowledge. They don’t know that I came here.”

The Assembly passed SB 104 on the third anniversary of the heat-related death of Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, who had collapsed on a vineyard east of Stockton.  The pregnant laborer fainted after being denied proper access to water and shade in nearly 100-degree heat.

In all, 16 farm workers have died in the California heat since 2005, Luis A. Alejo (D-Watsonville), SB 104’s principal co-author, stated on the Assembly floor.

He cited two main reasons for the ongoing deaths:  Employers, including Maria Isavel’s, intentionally disregard heat regulations and the state seldom enforces the laws.

Even the justice system failed Maria Isavel, Alejo said, expressing disbelief that no one went to prison after she was “killed.”

“Those responsible for her death were ‘sentenced’ to community service,” despite prior worker-safety law violations, he said.  “Community service? For manslaughter?  I don’t need to be an attorney to know that that is a disservice to our justice system.”

Noting that Maria Isavel’s uncle, Doroteo Jimenez, was in the Assembly Gallery, Alejo urged colleagues to “consider telling him that we will not let Maria Isavel’s death be for nothing … but, not with our words.  But, with our actions today.”

Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), said that when Maria Isavel died, “her body temperature was over 108 degrees.”

“Members, can you believe that only six years ago there were no standards for working in the heat in California?” she said.  “…Today, we have an opportunity to take another step on the long, tortuous path for civil rights in the farm worker community.

“I ask for your ‘Aye’ vote” on SB 104, she said.

Asking for a “No” vote was Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks.

“I rise in opposition to this bill, even though I support the cause of protecting the farm workers in the field,” he said. “Right now, we tolerate a system where (they) are systematically abused.  They are exploited …

“SB 104 does nothing to protect farm workers,” he said.

Also blasting SB 104 was Bill Berryhill (R-Ceres), a longtime farmer who said that, if enacted, 104 would “get rid” of secret-ballot elections on ranches.

The bill runs counter to what Cesar Chavez fought for, Berryhill said, reminding that the UFW’s co-founder campaigned for farm workers’ right to choose a union through secret ballots.

William W. Monning (D-Carmel),  responded to Donnelly’s and Berryhill’s remarks.

“Mr. Berryhill is right,” Monning said.  “The philosophy of Cesar Chavez, (fellow UFW co-founder) Dolores Huerta and the union was to achieve secret-ballot protection for farm workers.”

That milestone came in 1975 when then-Governor Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act into law, he said.

Monning, a distinguished lawyer and former law professor, told colleagues he knows how the Act evolved.  In the mid-1970s, he worked in the UFW’s Legal Department as it lobbied legislators for the Act’s passage.

But, Monning said, “under the current rules … once a petition for election is filed it sets in motion a wave of disparate power – the power of the labor contractor, the power of growers to maximize threats, intimidation, closed company meetings (to) dissuade workers” from voting for union representation, “even in the privacy of that secret ballot.”

“So now, by the time we get to election day, the election’s already been determined,” he said.  “So we need to amend this law to level the playing field, to allow workers in the privacy of their homes, labor camps, to sign a card authorizing union representation” for themselves.

Then, in what appeared to be a direct rebuke to Donnelly, Monning denounced “those colleagues who say they oppose this bill because they care about farm worker rights.”

He continued:  “When I look to an authority on farm worker rights, I look to farm workers.  And farm workers are here today, here at their own expense, many missing a day of work asking us to give them the tools to end the exploitation of unscrupulous labor contractors who intimidate, bend the rules and violate the rights.

“Members, the legacy of Cesar Chavez is embedded in this legislation.  I ask for your ‘Aye’ vote.”

The farm workers applauded enthusiastically.

Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, accused opponents of distorting the facts.

SB 104, he said, “does not eliminate the secret ballot.  It simply adds card check … as another option for farm workers to choose collective bargaining.”

Sandré  R. Swanson, D-Oakland, said SB 104 would make it easier for farm workers to organize and demand basic rights that other workers in California already have.

“We’re talking about the right for farm workers not to have to die of heat stroke, to have adequate water, available restrooms and decent pay,” he said.  “That is fundamental to the opportunity to work in this state.”

After arriving in California’s capital from across the state, the farm workers had assembled at mid-morning in the basement of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, where they were welcomed by, among others, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, several assembly members and Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento.

“You are pilgrims seeking a better way of life,” Soto told the gathering.  “You deserve human benefits.  And you are not alone in your struggle.  Many people support you.”

Rodriguez said simply:  “Today, we’ll be witnesses to history.”

With that, the farm laborers began a silent pilgrimage to the Capitol, a couple of blocks away.

After the vote, Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), Assemblymember Alejo and other members of the Legislature addressed a cheering UFW crowd in the Capitol basement.  The speakers vowed to do what needs to be done to ensure that Governor Brown signs SB 104.

Edgar Sanchez is a former writer for The Sacramento Bee and The Palm Beach Post


Worker Solidarity, the Toronto City Workers Strike, and Words to Remember July 18, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in A: Roger's Original Essays, About Workers, Labor.
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Every once in a while (not often enough) a statement is made that is so succinct and to the point that it merits being carved in stone.

First some background.  Locals 79 (inside workers) and 461 (outside workers) of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (C.U.P.E.), which represents nearly 25,000 municipal workers at the City of Toronto, are on strike.  The City has provoked the strike by offering substantially lower cost of living increases than have been approved recently for other civic workers (fire, police, library, etc.) and by demanding concessions of previously gained benefits.  The City and the uncritical media have made much of a benefit gained many contracts ago whereby workers can bank unused sick leave and collect a lump sum on retirement (a benefit for which the workers would have made concessions in other areas to achieve).

Since the City workers collect garbage, run day care centers, approve permits and licences, etc., the strike has had an impact on the daily lives of most residents and is generally held to be unpopular.  Interestingly, it is both the City (mainly its Mayor, David Miller) and the Union that are being held responsible by many.  But the workers have taken the brunt of the hostility.

The recently elected President of C.U.P.E. Local 416, Mark Ferguson, a veteran paramedic and student of Eastern religion, has received mountains of e-mails ranging from critical to outright hateful (along with some supportive ones).  In response to one of the critics, he wrote the following memorable lines (which are so important that I will put them bold in caps):


San Francisco: Decriminalize Prostitution? November 1, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in U.S. Election 2008.
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San Francisco’s Prostitutes Support a Proposition

New York Times, Novermber 1, 2008

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Sex-related businesses have expanded in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. A ballot measure in the city would decriminalize prostitution.



Published: October 31, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO — When Proposition K was added to Tuesday’s ballot, many people likely snickered at the possibility that San Francisco might take its place alongside such prostitute-friendly havens as Amsterdam and a few rural counties in nearby Nevada.


Bid to Decriminalize Prostitution in Berkeley (September 14, 2004)

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Kamala D. Harris, the city’s district attorney, called the proposition “ridiculous.”

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Carol Leigh, an advocate for prostitutes, said the measure would protect women.

But this week, it became readily apparent that city officials are not laughing anymore about the measure, which would effectively decriminalize the world’s oldest profession in San Francisco. At a news conference on Wednesday, Mayor Gavin Newsom and other opponents seemed genuinely worried that Proposition K might pass.

“This is not cute. This is not fanciful,” Mr. Newsom said, standing in front of the pink-on-pink facade of a closed massage parlor in the Tenderloin district. “This is a big mistake.”

Supporters of the measure say it is a long-overdue correction of a criminal approach toward prostitutes, which neither rehabilitates nor helps them, and often ignores their complaints of abuse.

“Basically, if you feel that you’re a criminal, it can be used against you,” said Carol Leigh, who says she has worked as a prostitute for 35 years and now works as an advocate for those who trade sex for money. “It’s a really serious situation, and ending this criminalization is the only solution I see to protect these other women working now.”

The language in Proposition K is far-reaching. It would forbid the city police from using any resources to investigate or prosecute people who engage in prostitution. It would also bar financing for a “first offender” program for prostitutes and their clients or for mandatory “re-education programs.”

One of the measure’s broadest prohibitions would prevent the city from applying for federal or state grants that use “racial profiling” in anti-prostitution efforts, an apparent reference to raids seeking illegal immigrants.

The fight over the ballot initiative has become an awkward test of San Francisco’s dual attitudes of live-and-let-live and save-the-world. In the campaign’s closing days, the rhetoric on both sides has heated up. Supporters of the measure accuse the city of profiting from prostitution through fines. They also imply that laws against prostitution are inherently racist because minorities are disproportionately arrested.

Proposition K, they say, will increase safety for women, save taxpayer money, and cut down on the number of murders of prostitutes at the hands of serial killers.

But opponents dismiss the notion of legions of prostitutes happily romping through the city’s neighborhoods. “This isn’t ‘Pretty Woman,’ ” was how one put it.

Anti-Proposition K forces paint grim pictures of girls and women from across the country held against their will in dark and dangerous brothels here, forced into unsafe sexual behavior, and often beaten, intimidated and raped.

“You’re going to have young girls recruited and brought to San Francisco, and they are going to be standing on these corners,” said Norma Hotaling, the founder and director of Standing Against Global Exploitation, an outreach project here. “And there’s not going to be any services for them to go to, and the police are not going to have any means of investigating the cases.”

The measure seems particularly abhorrent to San Francisco’s district attorney, Kamala D. Harris, who has made fighting human trafficking a priority.

“I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” Ms. Harris said. “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”

Central to Ms. Harris’s objections is the theory that prostitution is a victimless crime. Instead, she said, it exposes prostitutes to drug, gun and sexual crimes, and “compromises the quality of life in a community.”

She also dismisses the argument that prostitutes would be more likely to come forward if their business were not illegal.

“We’re in the practice and habit of protecting victims, not criminalizing victims,” Ms. Harris said, adding that she often reminds juries that the law protects people even if they are prostitutes or drug users. “Our penal code was not created just to protect Snow White,” she said, noting that 65 percent of cases handled by her department’s sexual assault unit involved sex workers as victims.

Officials with the State Attorney General’s Office would not comment on the measure.

The city’s Board of Supervisors, several of whom have expressed support for the measure in the past, would have the power to amend Proposition K if it passed. San Francisco, which has an exotic dancers’ union and a well-established history of sexual freedom, is not the first liberal outpost to mull legalizing prostitution. A decriminalization bill was defeated by voters in Berkeley, Calif., in 2004.

Heidi Machen, a spokeswoman for the opposition, said her side was hoping for a solid defeat. “We want this to fail by a landslide,” she said. “So it doesn’t come back.”

A local CBS poll released Thursday found that 35 percent of likely voters supported the measure, while 39 percent were opposed. But 26 percent were still undecided.

On Thursday night, about 50 supporters of the measure gathered at a church to press their case. One of them, Patricia West, 22, said she has been working for about a year as an “independent, in-call escort.”

Ms. West said that she enjoyed her work and believed that Proposition K would allow prostitutes to organize into collectives and negotiate for safer working conditions and better wages.

Ms. West concedes that what she does for a living “can be dangerous.” But she hoped Proposition K would make her occupation safer and more legitimate. “Working in a coal mine can be really dangerous, too,” she said “but it pays a lot of money so you’re compensated for your risk.”

Starbucks Blues October 31, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis.
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by: Liza Feathersone, The Big Money

Responding to tougher economic times, Starbucks has introduced a new human-resources strategy called “Optimal Scheduling.” It requires that employees who work full time be available to work 70 percent of open store hours. (Photo: Bernie Hou)


Lean times and labor pains are tarnishing the coffee giant’s image.

    Fall is pumpkin-latte season for those who can still afford to indulge, but for Starbucks workers, it’s been a season of discontent. The coffee giant has recently responded to hard times with scheduling changes that are likely to inflict misery on its employees. These policies seem sharply at odds with Starbucks’ reputation for social responsibility but make sense in the context of the company’s record as an employer. Curiously, the coffee retailer’s benevolent image seems most fragile at the moment that the company’s best days seem to be receding into the past.

    The store atmosphere remains suffused with NPR-style high-mindedness. A fact sheet from Good magazine about the U.S. economy’s woes is prominently displayed, as is Helene Cooper’s memoir about her childhood in Liberia. So it’s fitting that when Starbucks introduced a new human-resources strategy two weeks ago, a new company manual for managers – obtained and shared with TBM by the Starbucks Workers Union, a group of employees pressing for better wages and working conditions – explained the change in lofty terms, insisting that it was “a philosophy, not a program.”

    This new “philosophy” is called “Optimal Scheduling,” and it requires that “partners” (Starbucks-speak for employees) must dramatically increase their own flexibility. If they’d like to work full time, they must be available to work 70 percent of open store hours. (For a Starbucks open 16 hours a day, as is typical, this means 80.5 hours per week.) Many Starbucks employees say they want to work more hours; the new system could make it possible for those people to work more by downsizing those who can’t or don’t want to. Starbucks spokeswoman Tara Darrow says optimal scheduling is “a win-win for our customers and partners” that will lead to “more stable scheduling and more satisfied partners.”

    Liberte Locke, a New York City barista, is not one of those “satisfied partners.” Why? Because, although she has opened up her entire day to Starbucks (from 4:15 a.m. to 11 p.m.), the company is “not guaranteeing any hours, not a single one.” She’s right: The fact that no hours are guaranteed, even for workers classified as “full time,” is underscored repeatedly in the company managers’ manual. The company is demanding almost all their time and, Locke says, “We are getting nothing in return.” Optimal scheduling amounts to a permanent booty call; only the most boorish boyfriend would insist on such conditions.

    The new availability requirement could make it almost impossible for employees to have a second job, as many low-wage workers must in order to make ends meet. Erik Forman, who works at Starbucks in the Twin Cities’ Mall of America, says one of his fellow baristas opens McDonald’s and closes Starbucks every day. Another co-worker opens Starbucks and closes IKEA. As Liberte Locke points out, Starbucks “doesn’t pay enough to be someone’s livelihood,” especially with no hours guaranteed.

    Being available 80.5 hours a week, Forman points out, will also be hard on “a student, a mother, or anyone who does anything besides working.” Workers who can’t make themselves available for the required number of hours will, within six months, lose their jobs. “It’s another way for [Starbucks] to thin the herd,” says Locke, “to have layoffs without calling them layoffs.”

    True, and perhaps to be expected. Starbucks’ business isn’t booming. With consumer sentiment ranging from grim to terrified, who’s bold enough to pay $5 for coffee? Just stepping into this emporium of high-priced foamy drinks can feel like a time capsule journey back to prerecession days. Starbucks’ profits have taken a beating, and its stock price has been steadily slipping over the past year. Milk inflation has been disastrous for the company (because, let’s face it, Starbucks’ drinks are mostly milk). That, along with rising gas costs, led the company to raise its own prices – already prohibitive to increasingly cost-conscious consumers – this summer. Store traffic is down for the first time since the company began measuring it.

    Under such circumstances, it’s not unusual for a company to cut costs (though it doesn’t have to fall mostly on employees). When Starbucks closed 600 stores this summer, many baristas lost their jobs, but, as spokeswoman Tara Darrow points out, the company was able to place others in nearby stores. In fairness to Starbucks, its low-wage workers have not borne the pain alone: According to Darrow, about 1,000 jobs were axed at company headquarters in July.

    Still, optimal scheduling is only one installment in an epic series of workforce management missteps for Starbucks. Like Wal-Mart, the company has an extensive union-busting operation and has been the target of numerous National Labor Relations Board complaints over unlawful violations of workers’ rights. In early October, Starbucks was forced to settle the case of Mall of America barista Erik Forman (quoted above), who was fired for talking with co-workers about managers’ apparent efforts to fire him for union organizing. It is illegal to dismiss workers for this, and after local publicity and citywide store pickets, Starbucks invited Forman back to work. The company also faces trial in Grand Rapids, Mich., for firing a barista for union activity and is awaiting a trial verdict in New York City on 30 counts of violating employees’ union organizing rights. Earlier this year, a California court ordered the company to pay baristas more than $100 million for tips illegally shared with shift supervisors.

    Though it’s easy and fun to mock Starbucks’ self-righteous hype, many take it seriously. In corporate-responsibility classes in business school, the Starbucks case studies provide a beacon of hope for the ethically concerned minority. In such discussions, Starbucks is always showcased as a company that provides suppliers with positive incentives to grow coffee in ways that are better for the environment, even throwing some labor standards into the mix. But Starbucks’ good reputation on supply-chain practices has deflected attention from its treatment of baristas and even helped nourish the perception that it’s a decent employer. Starbucks has repeatedly landed on Fortune magazine’s “Best Companies to Work For” list. While Wal-Mart is constantly criticized – including by this writer – for stingy health-insurance policies, Starbucks is often praised for offering any health insurance at all. Yet Starbucks insures an even lower percentage of its work force than Wal-Mart does: 40.9 percent, as calculated from figures the company disclosed to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year (about 47 percent of Wal-Mart workers have company insurance). Spokeswoman Tara Darrow deflected TBM’s questions about the percentage of employees covered by company insurance, preferring to emphasize that 88 percent of the workers are covered by some form of insurance – which could be Medicaid, or a parent’s or spouse’s plan – and that 65 percent of “eligible” employees are covered by the company plan.

    Unlike Wal-Mart, Starbucks rarely draws criticism for its wages. Yet baristas’ wages are similar to those earned by Wal-Mart workers and in some markets may even be lower: about $7 to $9 an hour. (Starbucks wouldn’t offer any data on its wages, but the Starbucks Workers Union provided TBM with an internal company document from 2005, which shows the highest and lowest wage in each location. It’s unlikely that Starbucks workers’ wages have increased much in the last three years, since hardly anyone’s have.)

    There’s always been some media bias in favor of Starbucks, which is perhaps why the company’s worst practices have drawn so little attention. Unlike frumpy, red-state Wal-Mart, Starbucks, with its jazz compilations and recycled napkins, is our kind of company. Yet when it comes to mistreatment of employees, says labor activist and former Starbucks barista Daniel Gross (no relation to the Slate writer of the same name), who was fired from the company for union organizing, “Every retailer – McDonald’s, Wal-Mart – does the same things. The difference is that Starbucks has really succeeded in convincing people that it’s better.”

    Perhaps this is about to change. Everyone’s feeling cranky, and Starbucks’ self-love and feel-good branding seem as ill-fitting to our current cultural moment as its prices. The company shouldn’t be surprised if recession brings more criticism along with so many other woes.


    Liza Featherstone is the author of “Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.”

Facing Poverty at UC (University of California) October 27, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in California.
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As a UC graduate (Berkeley, 1962, Political Science), I was disappointed, if not surprised to come across the  web site noted below.  It states, among other things, that ” … as many as 96% of UC service workers qualify for at least one of the following forms of public assistance: food stamps, WIC and childcare and public housing subsidies.  Wages are so low that many can not meet basic family needs and are forced to seek additional jobs.”

Whether you are a fellow alum or not, I urge you to take a look at this page and at least be aware of the disgraceful labor relations that seems to be the reality at one of the world’s most respected and prestigious institutions of higher learning.

Roger Hollander, October 27, 2008


The Belly Button Theory of Economics August 26, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Belly Button Theory of Economics, Political Essays (Roger).
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The Belly Button Theory of Economics


(This was submitted to and rejected by the “Los Angeles Times.”  Arguing that they could not compete with the low wages and health benefits given to its employees by Wal-Mart, three major supermarket chains in Southern California locked out their workers, who refused to accept the cutbacks.  I have to admit that I thought my metaphor was pretty clever and catchy, but it obviously failed to convince the “Times” oped editor.)


Call it the belly button theory of economics, if you will.  Every one knows there are two types of umbilicals: innies and outies.  Well, when all is said and done, all complexities aside, doesn’t one’s economy simply break down into what comes IN and what goes OUT?


Let’s talk about the ordinary working person.  She earns from her job (IN), and she meets her needs and pleasures by making purchases (OUT).  The well-being of her “economy” depends upon there being at least enough IN to take care of all the OUT.


One might be tempted to say that both are equally important, that is income (IN) and the cost of things (OUT).  Here is where I would argue that many economists miss the boat.  I believe that what one does through her work to acquire the means to live (IN) is fundamental, whereas the cost of things (OUT), while important, is secondary.  Think of is this way.  If you are unemployed you sure appreciate a good bargain, but what you really need is a good job.


There can also be a “dialectic” relationship between IN and OUT.  Take health care.  It is something we purchase (an OUT).  However, for millions of Americans, their health care comes as a benefit attached to their work (an IN).  In other words, health insurance as a benefit is an IN that offsets the cost of health care, an OUT.


That is why I believe it is so important for all working people that in the current labor dispute that grocery giants — Safeway, Vons, Ralph’s and Albertsons — do not succeed in their efforts to cut drastically the wages (IN) and health benefits (IN) of their workers.  They argue that this is necessary in order to compete with the Wal-Mart super stores, who pay their workers substantially less in wages and benefits (cf. Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehreneich’s classic study where she tried over a large period of time and failed to be able to live on Wal-Mart wages).  Wal-Mart does this by keeping its prices (OUT) lower than anyone else.  Interestingly, and here is that dialectic at work again, Wal-Mart is able to offer such low prices (OUT) by pressuring its suppliers to cut labor costs (their workers’ IN) in order to provide Wal-Mart with its goods at cut rate prices.


In the end, you see, it always boils down to IN(come).  Of course, the worker is also a consumer and naturally loves low prices.  We all appreciate a bargain, and who can blame us?  But if the price of bargains is that, in the long run, we don’t have a living wage (IN) that meets our needs to provide for our expenses (OUT), then the bargain is, in effect, no bargain.  It is a cruel trick disguised as a bonus.


Human beings are by nature, first and foremost, producing animals.  We produce the means by which we survive and thrive.  Only then are we able to “consume.”  I am no great fan of capitalism because it treats human labor as a commodity, just one more expense for the capitalist along with things such as materials, rents and other overhead costs.  But as long as capitalism exists, working people have no choice but to demand wages and benefits that meet their fundamental needs.  Health care, along with food and shelter, is one of the most basic of human needs.  Because the United States government, the only one in the world of industrial nations (with the possible exception of South Africa), has not seen fit to provide universal health coverage for its people, then this need for most of its working people gets fulfilled through employer health care plans.  It is not an “extra.”


I have spoken with shoppers crossing the picket lines at the supermarkets, fellow working people, who justify their non-support of the grocery workers on the basis that they too must pay part of their health care costs (“If I can’t have it, you can’t have it either”).  This sad lack of worker solidarity is a product of the divide and conquer strategy of the supermarket chains, and it is in contrast to the solidarity the chains themselves have shown by sharing their profits amongst themselves, possibly in violation of anti-trust legislation.  How ironic that the supermarket industry is turning around that famous dictum to read: “chains of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your workers!”


Think of this the next time you are tempted to support them by shopping in one of the on-strike or locked out supermarket chains.