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4 Ways Workers Are Boldly -- and Successfully -- Fighting for Their Human Rights

A wave of new energy and bravery in recent labor actions is building momentum for a solid labor reform agenda.

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The strike at the ports was also about outsourcing, but trying to prevent jobs from going overseas.  Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit are well paid, an average annual wage of about $84,000 a year and they have health insurance and pensions.  According to theLA Times, these are not ordinary clerical jobs, but “logistics experts who process a massive flow of information on the content of ships’ cargo containers and their destinations.” 

The union claimed that the companies were outsourcing jobs through attrition; sending the skilled logistics  jobs to lower-wage workers in other states and countries..  The Harbor Employers Association denied this charge, but after two years without a contract the workers walked out and the thousands of other longshore workers refused to cross the picket line.  We all know about the call centers in India, but do workers in more sophisticated technical jobs face unsafe working conditions as well as lower wages?  In either case the ILWU succeeded in negotiating increased job security.

The fire in Bangladesh vividly demonstrates that the sweatshop conditions of the early 1900s in this country are alive and well around the world. The ports offer one model of the potential for strong union resistance, but that is beyond the reach of many American workers.  People who work hard everyday and can’t make ends meet are looking for new solutions.  Unions and community organizations are offering new approaches.

2.  Low-Wages:  The fast food protest demonstrates a new organizing technique called a “flash strike.”   Organizing workers in these low-wage jobs, often immigrants with little training, few technical skills, and limited language abilities, is challenging.  But in some ways they are in a stronger position than the immigrant garment workers at the turn of the twentieth century.  These jobs cannot be moved to another state or another country.  They have to be in the communities where people live.

The New York Times recently highlighted a 79 year Peruvian immigrant who spoke little English with a job at a Wendy’s and a 28 year old single father living with his aunt to make ends meet working at a McDonald’s.  “They both earn a little more than $7 an hour,” wrote the reporter, “And they both need food stamps to survive.”  Orley Ashenfelter, a labor economist at Princeton recently “calculated that the real wages of McDonald’s workers in the United States hit about 2.2 Big Macs an hour last year.  That’s 15 percent less than in 2000.” There are over two million workers in jobs like this in the US today.  Some risked their meager earnings to go on a short strike.  With massive community support none of the striking workers lost their jobs -- yet. We can build on this kind of action to move toward real change.

3.  Respect: The Walmart walkout on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, built on several earlier demonstrations.  Walmart is the largest private employer in the country, with 1.4 million employees and 4,500 stores in the U.S. alone.  The company's business model affects not only their own employees, but the companies in their supply chain and their competitors.  For some, they are the business model of the 21st century.  The company earned $16 billion in 2011.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, the founding Walton family now has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of American families combined.  But “associates,” as workers at Walmart are called, complain of low wages, as low as $8 an hour, poor working conditions, not enough hours, constantly changing schedules, and sexual harassment.  These workers, too, rely on government assistance. Just last year women workers took their grievances to the US Supreme Court (which didn’t decide on the merits, but on the failure to establish a class action) and new suits are emerging.