I got COVID-19 working at Ralphs. We need a voice in workplace safety

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

After spending seven weeks isolated in my bedroom sick with COVID-19, I stood in front of the Ralphs grocery store where I work, bracing to return. It took me about five minutes to make the decision to cross the threshold and go back to work. I wasn’t sure I could do it.

For 20 years I have been a Ralphs employee, working at different stores throughout Los Angeles. I work the night shift, cleaning, stocking and preparing the store for the next day. I believe I caught COVID-19 at work.

In the days before I got sick, the store was exceptionally crowded. I remember it clearly because it was packed as customers stocked up for the Jewish holiday the next day. My husband is Jewish and we observe all the holidays. That day I started to feel sick. I went home early and slept all day until my youngest daughter woke me at 7 p.m., nine hours after I usually wake up after a night of work. I couldn’t breathe. I was hot. My husband rushed me to the ER. I took a coronavirus test. It was positive…

In Los Angeles, masks have been required since April. But it’s not just the policies that matter. Kroger, which owns both Ralphs and Food 4 Less, has policies to encourage distancing and limit the number of customers in the store. But these policies are unevenly enforced. I have seen carts that are not always sanitized. I have seen check stands go uncleaned. The stores are often crowded. Customers wear masks as “chin straps” all the time.

If customers aren’t wearing masks, managers are supposed to approach them. But managers aren’t always there late at night, leaving workers like me sometimes vulnerable. When a Ralphs coworker and friend, who is a manager, asked two male customers to wear masks, one attacked her with a shopping cart and drew blood. After she defended herself, Kroger suspended her.

More than 1,175 members of my union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Four have died. Just last week two more workers at my store got infected. From where I stand, Kroger, the largest grocery store chain in the U.S., needs to do more to enforce safety measures.

Read the complete article here.

It’s Time to Strike! This Could Be the Last Stand for American Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Labor Day hit with an extra knife-twist of cruel irony this year, in an America that is barely trying to pretend anymore that the plight of tens of millions of working people merits national concern.

On Friday, the government announced a slowing recovery from the job losses and economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. Nearly 14 million Americans are now unemployed, and almost eight million more are euphemistically called “involuntary part-time,” meaning they would work more if there were enough work.

In March, as part of a wider stimulus, Congress expanded unemployment aid by $600 per week, a plan that scholars say may have temporarily reduced the nation’s poverty rate. As of mid-August, about 29 million Americans were receiving some form of unemployment assistance.

But the $600-per-week bonus ran out in July, and Senate Republicans have rejected Democrats’ bill to extend the payments. The G.O.P. is now working on its own more limited plan, though several Republican senators are reluctant to support even that.

Inaction may prove disastrous. Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist for S & P Global, told The Times last week that federal aid was meant as a kind of economic bridge through uncertain times, but, she added, “it looks like the ravine has widened and the bridge is halfway built, so there are a lot of people stranded.”

Bovino’s image suggests a way out of this mess: Workers should band together and demand, collectively, a bridge across the ravine.

To put it more plainly: It’s time for a general strike. Actually, it’s time for a sustained series of strikes, a new movement in which workers across class and even political divides press not just for more unemployment aid but, more substantively, a renewed contract for working in an economy that is increasingly hostile to employees’ health and well-being.

This may be the American worker’s last stand: If we can’t get our government to help us now, when will we ever?

Read the complete article here.

Labor council to Seattle police union: Address racism or get out

From today’s Crosscut Online:

The largest labor coalition in King County is giving the Seattle Police Officers Guild an ultimatum: acknowledge and address racism in law enforcement and in their union or risk being kicked out of the group.

In a vote Thursday, executive members of the King County Labor Coalition — a sort of union of unions — passed a resolution laying out tasks for the police guild, which represents over 1,000 rank-and-file officers.

SPOG must state that racism is an issue in law enforcement and within its own organization. The union must participate in workgroups focused on addressing racism in the union. It must commit to police contracts that do not evade accountability. And there must be consequences when professional standards are not followed and harm is done.

Jane Hopkins, executive vice president of SEIU 1199, said she wants to hear the head of the union, Mike Solan, say, “Black lives matter,” and to mean it.

The labor council is basically giving the police union one last opportunity to reform itself. SPOG has until June 17 to meet these demands, or the council will vote on whether to throw it out of the organization.

The resolution, which was brought forward by health workers’ SEIU1199 and grocery workers’ UFCW 21, also calls on Mayor Jenny Durkan to move swiftly and prioritize strong police accountability in the next round of labor negotiations with the union and to reconsider investments in law enforcement. It calls on City Attorney Pete Holmes to not prosecute protesters. 

The resolution is a dramatic turnaround for the labor council, which welcomed the police union into its ranks in late 2014 and had fought on its behalf ever since. Labor council representatives even hosted a press conference in 2018, calling on the Seattle City Council to ratify a new contract with the police union.

Read the complete article here.

Here’s how to hold police accountable: Don’t let their unions give money to prosecutors

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Amid reports from across the country about escalating clashes between protesters and law enforcement, it’s worth looking underneath the images for the roots of the outrage. It is the extrajudicial killings of unarmed people by police, and not the protests against them, that too often spark the cycle of violence and death in the United States. It is the cruel and unyielding knee on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and thousands of other police officer knees, fists and trigger fingers that undermine public safety and instill fear.

That’s why we need to demand accountability and change from law enforcement and the criminal justice establishment that too often shrugs at police violence.

The ties that bind elected officials to police unions must be broken. District attorneys and other elected prosecutors should reject campaign donations and endorsements from law enforcement labor groups, because union support compromises a prosecutor’s independence and clouds the decision over whether to criminally charge police who abuse their power. It diminishes a D.A.’s incentive to seek out and share with defense lawyers — as the 6th Amendment requires — the names of officers whose past misconduct undermines their value as prosecution witnesses. It undercuts a D.A.’s impulse to fight laws that hide from the public the names of problem officers.

Bar associations should revise their ethics rules to forbid candidates for district attorney (and city prosecutor and state’s attorney) to accept police union money. Lawmakers should adopt laws to likewise prohibit the practice — although they will find it easier to do if they, too, say no to police union largess.

Police unions have every right to advocate for the pay, benefits and working conditions of their members. But one of their tasks is to defend officers in misconduct cases, and that makes the conflict of interest readily apparent. An elected official considering whether to prosecute officers should not be, in essence, on the political payroll of the agency defending the very same people.

Read the complete article here.

Could the Pandemic Wind Up Fixing What’s Broken About Work in America?

From today’s New York Times:

Crises like pandemics, economic collapses and world wars have, at times throughout history, ended up reordering societies — shrinking the gap between the rich and the poor, or empowering the working class. The Black Death helped end feudalism. The Great Depression helped lead to the New Deal. Never has extreme economic inequality shrunk in a meaningful way, says the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, without a major crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic, as of now, is not on the order of the plague, but it’s hitting the United States during a period of agitation about worsening inequality and waning power for workers. Already, it has made stark how precarious life is for many American workers, causing some to revolt. How employers and policymakers respond could improve work in the United States for the long term — or make the existing problems worse.

“Pandemics as a social shock do give workers more leverage to demand things,” said Patrick Wyman, a historian and host of the Tides of History podcast. “Crises like these reveal what is already broken or in the process of breaking.”

“They are attacks on a particular socioeconomic way of organizing your society,” he said. “The question is whether your institutions can make collective things happen.”

The United States is distinctive among rich countries in its lack of worker protections like nationwide paid sick leave, paid family leave and universal health insurance, and in its minimal labor union membership. For both high and low earners, many employers expect workers to be on call around the clock. Companies are typically beholden to shareholders first, above employees, customers and communities.

But the coronavirus pandemic has shown the flaw in that logic: Worker well-being is the foundation for everything else.

Read the complete article .

Grocery workers are beginning to die of coronavirus

From today’s Washington Post:

Major supermarket chains are beginning to report their first coronavirus-related employee deaths, leading to store closures and increasing anxiety among grocery workers as the pandemic intensifies across the country.

A Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, N.Y., a greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Md., and two Walmart employees from the same Chicago-area store have died of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, in recent days, the companies confirmed Monday.

Though more than 40 states have ordered nonessential businesses to close and told residents to stay home to stem the spread of the virus, supermarkets are among the retailers that remain open. Thousands of grocery employees have continued to report to work as U.S. infections and death rates continue to climb, with many reporting long shifts and extra workloads to keep up with spiking demand. Many workers say they don’t have enough protective gear to deal with hundreds of customers a day. Dozens of grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Industry experts say the rise of worker infections and deaths will likely have a ripple effect on grocers’ ability to retain and add new workers at a time when they’re looking to rapidly hire thousands of temporary employees. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, is hiring 150,000 workers, while Kroger is adding more than 10,000. Many are offering an extra $2 an hour and promising masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. But finding people willing to work on the front lines for little more than the minimum wage could be an increasingly tough sell, according to supermarket analyst Phil Lempert.

“One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” he said. “They’re starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers. We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’ “

Read the complete article here.

Coronavirus to cost California 125,000 hotel jobs trade group says

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Struck by a severe drop in travel demand, California’s hotel industry is expected to lose more than 125,000 jobs in the next few weeks, more than any other state, an industry trade group estimated Monday.

The hotel industry in the Golden State is expected to be hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak because California has the most hotel jobs — about 285,000 — according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn. trade group.

In addition to the loss of 125,000 hotel jobs, another 414,000 jobs that are supported by the hotel industry, such as waiters, busboys, bartenders and limousine drivers, could disappear in the next few weeks, the group said.

Only last month, the average occupancy rate — the percentage of hotel rooms filled — was 62% across the country, according to STR Global, a Tennessee company that tracks hotel data. By mid-March, the average occupancy rate nationwide had dropped to 53%.

To break even, hotels need to have an occupancy rate of 41% to 63%, depending on the type of hotel, according to industry analysis. Upscale hotels need a higher occupancy rate to pay for extra amenities, such as room service, valets and concierges, while economy hotels can break even with a much lower occupancy rate.

Because of the pandemic, hotels in some cities, including Seattle; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Boston, are reporting occupancy rates below 20%, with some individual hotels already shutting down, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn.

“The impact to our industry is already more severe than anything we’ve seen before, including September 11th and the Great Recession of 2008 combined,” Chip Rogers, chief executive of the trade association said in a statement Monday.

The lodging industry requested the federal government provide $150 billion in financial aid to keep the hotel industry afloat during the crisis. That is in addition to the $100 billion requested by other segments of the travel industry, such as convention centers, theme parks and tour companies.

Read the complete article here.

The Bleak Job Landscape of Adjunctopia for Ph.D.s

From today’s New York Times:

The humanities labor market is in crisis. Higher education industry trade publications are full of essays by young Ph.D.s who despair of ever finding a steady job. Phrases like “unfolding catastrophe” and “extinction event” are common. The number of new jobs for English professors has fallen every year since 2012, by a total of 33 percent.

In response to these trends and a longer-term decline in academic job security, the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made a proposal. In exchange for federal funding to reduce public college and university tuition to zero, he said, at least 75 percent of college courses would have to be taught by tenured or tenure-track professors. Currently, that proportion is less than 40 percent and dropping.

How this happened is a story of a rupture in the way the academy produces and consumes people with scholarly credentials. In 1995, roughly 940,000 people were employed teaching college. Of those, about 400,000 had tenure or were on track to get it. They enjoyed professional status, strong job security, relatively good pay (on average), and the freedom to speak their minds.

The rest were so-called contingent or adjunct faculty: some employed full time, others filling in a course or two per semester. They had lower pay, less status and tenuous job security, particularlyif they spoke their minds. There were also thousands of graduate students, not counted in the numbers above, teaching as part of their training. (The University of California, Santa Cruz, which is known to be progressive even by the standards of academia, recently fired 54 graduate assistants who were striking for higher pay.) The percentage of professors on the tenure track had been slowly declining since the 1970s. In the late 1990s came a demographic event that would ultimately throw the university labor market into a tailspin: the first college years of the so-called millennials, those born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.

Colleges swelled with students over the next decade and a half, with undergraduate enrollment increasing from 12.2 million in 1995 to a peak of 18.1 million in 2011. Colleges needed to hire hundreds of thousands of additional professors. Administrators had options. They could have kept the ratio of tenured to nontenured about the same, using new tuition revenue to create more tenure-track positions.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the number of contingent faculty more than doubled, to 1.1 million. The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty, by contrast, increased by only 9.6 percent, to 436,000.

Read the complete article here.

Congress passes bill to ease bids by workers to form unions

From today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:

In a move that supporters said would help working families, the Democratic-controlled House has approved a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain for higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions.

The “Protecting the Right to Organize” or PRO Act would allow more workers to conduct organizing campaigns and would add penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights. The act would also weaken “right-to-work” laws that allow employees in more than half the states to avoid participating in or paying dues to unions that represent workers at their places of employment.

In one of its most controversial provisions, the bill would close loopholes that allow what supporters call intentional misclassification of workers as supervisors and independent contractors in order to prevent them from joining a union.

The House approved the bill, 224-194, on Thursday. The measure is unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate and faces a veto threat from the White House.

Even so, Democrats touted it as a major victory for worker rights and said it would help reverse a decades-long trend of declining union membership in the U.S. workforce. Less than 11% of American workers belong to a union, a statistic Democrats called disgraceful.

“Without these protections, the playing field will remain heavily stacked against workers,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., called labor unions one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve their standard of living. But under current law, there are “no meaningful penalties for predatory corporations that use unlawful tactics to discourage workers from organizing a union,” said Scott, who chairs the House Education & Labor Committee.

Read the complete article here.

Worker Centers Primed to Test “We’re-Not-Unions” Stance in Court

From today’s Bloomberg Law Online:

An ongoing federal investigation in which regulators believe a Minneapolis nonprofit is a labor union rather than a worker center has created an existential crisis for similar groups across the country.

Some worker centers are changing their tactics to try to avoid government scrutiny. The broader worker center community is preparing for legal action if the Labor Department tries to force the targeted group to comply with federal laws for unions.

The DOL’s two-year probe into the status of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, known as CTUL, led the department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards to determine it “has reason to believe” the group is a labor organization under a 1959 law meant to curb organized labor corruption by ensuring union transparency and democracy.

CTUL and other organizations have grown in influence in recent decades as an alternative to unions in providing low-income, vulnerable workers with training and other tools to improve workplace conditions. CTUL has successfully pressured Target Corp. and other retailers to contract with unionized janitors, part of a trend of company-focused actions that prompted the business community and political conservatives to increase pressure on the Labor Department to review certain worker centers’ operations. Critics believe some worker centers are essentially union fronts.

The stakes are extremely high for CTUL—and, by extension, all worker centers—because federal enforcement of a final determination that the group is a union would subject CTUL to onerous financial reporting and internal governance requirements. Labor organizers and attorneys at worker centers contend the groups are exempt from union-specific disclosure law because they don’t bargain directly with employers. For the business community and Republican lawmakers, the DOL probe represents a breakthrough in a decades-long push for the department to classify certain worker centers as unions.

“I would absolutely say that if the DOL moves ahead with it, the worker center movement is going to push back,” said the National Employment Law Project’s Charlotte Noss, who coordinates legal strategy for worker centers nationwide. She noted that DOL and the National Labor Relations Board have previously held that worker centers aren’t unions. “Any attempts by the DOL to exert coverage would be challenged in court,” she added.

Read the complete article here.