Protecting Farmworkers Amid a Pandemic

Monday, September 14, 2020
By John Bowe, The Nation

Green Empire consists of a 270-acre site with two adjacent 32-acre greenhouses creating a structure so large, workers told me, that walking from end to end takes half an hour. The buildings are capable of producing millions of strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers per year.

For an operation juggling staggeringly complex logistics—from controlling light, temperature, and humidity to following protocols for planting, tending, harvesting, shipping, and food safety, not to mention dealing with pricing, contracts, procurement, and (last but not least) bumblebees, which must be enlisted to aid crop pollination—the company seems to have put remarkably little forethought into worker safety.

That may be because Green Empire didn’t hire the workers. Instead of employing them directly, the company looked to an Indiana-based contracting firm named MAC Contracting (which has also supplied workers to Mastronardi facilities in Michigan) to provide its workforce.

Labor contractors, also known as recruiters, are common in low-wage industries like forestry, meat processing, and building maintenance. Especially widespread among fruit and vegetable growers in California and in the Southeastern United States, they are often tasked with hiring and housing workers who may lack papers and local language skills. For decades critics have charged that their primary purpose is to serve as a legal firewall, shielding larger employers and corporations from civil and criminal liability for failure to comply with labor, worker safety, and immigration laws.

Read the full story from The Nation

Stiffing Workers on Wages Grows Worse With Recession

Thursday, September 3, 2020
By Noam Scheiber, The New York Times

Fredy Moreno had been working as a house painter for a few weeks in March when he began to suspect that his boss had no intention of paying him. “He told me that he was going to pay me on a certain date, then moved that date,” Mr. Moreno said through an interpreter. “Then he made an excuse — that he’s in the hospital.”

But because the pandemic had just hit and he worried about finding another job in a recession, he decided to keep working. By the time he cut his losses a few weeks later, Mr. Moreno, who lives in the Minneapolis area and has sought help from the worker organizing group CTUL, was owed more than $13,000, according to his estimates. He said he had yet to receive any payment.

Even in the best of times, workers in industries like construction, apparel, food and domestic work can have trouble collecting some or all of the compensation they are due — especially if they are people of color or women, or lack American citizenship or union representation. But during a recession, the problem — known as wage theft — tends to increase significantly.

According to a paper released Thursday by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a liberal think tank, the rate at which workers suffered violations of minimum-wage law increased almost in lock step with the unemployment rate during the last recession. On average, the workers on the receiving end of these violations lost about one-fifth of their hourly wage.

Read the full story from The New York Times

Essential workers during COVID-19: At risk and lacking union representation

Thursday, September 3, 2020
By Jimmy O’Donnell, Brookings

Just over a year ago, The Hamilton Project released an economic analysis on private sector labor unions. In that piece, we documented private sector unions’ decades-long decline (see figure 1), discussed the labor market effects of unions, and explored policies to make collective bargaining easier for workers. When we released that report, the economy was much stronger: the unemployment rate was nearing a historic low, and wages were beginning to rise even for workers at the bottom.

However, as a result of the novel coronavirus (hereafter COVID-19) pandemic and its associated economic contraction, the unemployment rate has remained above 10 percent since April. This massive economic disruption has raised several new labor market challenges, while also magnifying longer-term structural problems. In this blog, I extend our Hamilton Project analysis from last year, show how workplace conditions have changed for workers, and discuss the potential role for private-sector labor unions.

Labor unions have traditionally been one effective channel for workers to raise concerns about workplace safety and demand action from their employers. Research has found that union members are more likely than nonunion members to utilize internal and external mechanisms to address workplace complaints; recent work by Aaron Sojourner and Jooyoung Yang shows that unionized workplaces are 30 percent more likely to face an inspection for a health or safety violation. (This is particularly important today given that some reports have found that employers may be aggressively suppressing their workers from speaking out about COVID-related concerns).

Read the full story from Brookings

At 65%, Approval of Labor Unions in U.S. Remains High

Thursday, September 3, 2020
By Megan Brenan, Gallup

As Labor Day approaches and economic conditions in the U.S. remain tenuous, Americans’ 65% approval of labor unions is once again the highest it has been since 2003. Public support for labor unions has been generally rising since hitting its lowest point of 48% in 2009, during the Great Recession.

Gallup’s initial reading of the public’s support for labor unions was 72% in 1936, at the advent of the modern U.S. organized labor movement, and approval peaked at 75% in 1953 and 1957. The lowest ratings to date have been recorded during particularly weak economic times. This includes the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s — when support fell below 60% for the first time — and 2009 through 2012, when it hovered around 50%.

While the latest reading, from a July 30-Aug. 12 poll, comes at a time of severe economic upheaval, this has so far not had a negative impact on the public’s view of unions, as it is little changed from last year’s reading.

Americans’ support for unions is politically polarized, as it has been since 2001, when Gallup began tracking the measure annually. Democrats’ current 83% approval of labor unions is the highest on record since then. At the same time, 45% of Republicans and 64% of independents approve of unions.

Read the full story from Gallup

‘An impossible choice’: farmworkers pick a paycheck over health despite smoke-filled air

Sunday, July 20, 2020
By Vivian Ho, The Guardian

The strawberries that Juan Reyes hand-picked had turned gray from the ash falling from the sky, yet nobody provided him and his fellow farmworkers with any protective face coverings until the next day. As hundreds of fires burn across California, blanketing swaths of the state in smoke so thick that it muted the sun, low-wage farmworkers continued to toil in the fields, working through grueling conditions, now made even worse by the air quality.

“My throat was hurting,” Reyes, 38, said in Spanish. “There’s difficulty breathing. When I got home, my chest was hurting a lot.”

A vulnerable, essential labor force already disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic kept working as others fled and took shelter. More than 381,000 people across California work in the frontline essential agriculture industry, according to the Community and Labor Center at the University of California, Merced, from the lush almond tree orchards in the north to the cornfields of the Central Valley.

Read the full story from The Guardian

Continued Push For Accountability After McDonald’s Sues Ex-CEO

Monday, August 24, 2020
By Neanda Salvaterra, Karma

McDonald’s fired Mr. Easterbrook in November of last year after an investigation found he violated company policy by engaging in a consensual relationship with one employee.

Easterbrook admitted to the breach of conduct for the sole incident at the time and was allowed to walk away with a compensation package that’s estimated to include $675,000 in cash and over $28 million in unvested options. After new allegations Easterbrook failed to inform the company about his relationships with several other employees, McDonald’s filed a lawsuit in August in Delaware-based court to recoup parts of his compensation.

“McDonald’s stands by its complaint, both the factual assertions and the court in which it was filed,” a company spokesperson told Karma in an emailed interview.

Easterbrook’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Investors including CtW, which represents union pension plans that are shareholders in McDonald’s, voted against Easterbrook’s pay package at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in May.

Investors were critical of the company’s decision to fire Easterbrook without citing a cause, allowing him to exit with the compensation, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted some McDonald’s employees to protest over unsafe working conditions and raise complaints of sexual harassment at some of the fast food chain’s franchises. 

Read the full story from Karma

Will COVID-19 Spur a Wave of Unionization?

Summer 2020
By Steven Greenhouse, Dissent Magazine

Workers have been infuriated by the callous treatment they’ve received in their workplaces. Many of them recognized that the most surefire way to get their employers to provide the protection they needed was through collective action.

In mid-March, someone asked me whether COVID-19 would spur a wave of unionization. My first reaction was no. How could workers possibly unionize when there was all this social distancing and people couldn’t even meet in groups? Moreover, I thought workers would be so cowed by the horrors of the pandemic that they wouldn’t give much thought to unionizing.

That response was short-sighted. I didn’t realize how furious many workers would become about the uncaring, even callous way their companies have treated them during this crisis—about the many employers that didn’t lift a finger to provide masks or hand sanitizer. Many of these irate workers recognized that the most surefire way to get their employers to provide the protection they needed was through collective action.

Read the full story from Dissent Magazine

CtW Stands with the Strike for Black Lives!

Monday, July 20, 2020
By Oliver Effron, CNN Business

Thousands of essential workers were set to walk off the job Monday to demand corporations raise wages, provide health care and paid sick leave, and grant employees the right to unionize — part of a larger effort to pressure businesses to confront systemic racism.

The walkout, called the Strike for Black Lives, will take place in more than 100 cities in the United States. Protesters include Black and brown fast food workers, home health aides, janitors, and others in industries where Black workers are disproportionately represented.

The Movement for Black Lives is organizing the protest, alongside the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Fight for $15 and a Union, the Poor People’s Campaign, and other labor advocacy organizations.”

Black people are dying, Black communities are in danger, and workers of all races have had enough,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU — which represents almost 2 million service workers — in a statement. “With the Strike for Black Lives, we are uniting the interconnected fights for racial and economic justice.”

Read the full story from CNN Business

A new survey finds hundreds of McDonald’s workers have been assaulted by anti-mask customers

Thursday, July 16, 2020
By Kate Taylor, Business Insider

As mask requirements becomes the norm during the coronavirus pandemic, companies are facing looming questions on how workers can safely enforce new policies. 

A Service Employees International Union survey of 4,187 McDonald’s workers shared with Business Insider found that 44% of respondents said they had been verbally or physically assaulted after confronting customers who weren’t wearing masks. 

While the SEIU only surveyed a small proportion of the chain’s more than 800,000 workers in the US, the 44% of respondents alone represent more than 1,800 employees who say they have been assaulted on the job. 

Read the full story from Business Insider

OSHA Complaints Show the Morbid Dangers Healthcare Workers Face During the Pandemic

Thursday, July 16, 2020
By Nick Vachon, In These Times

During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands dying every day, America relied on a select few essential workers to keep society running, like postal workers, grocery workers and meat packers—all industries that have seen, together, hundreds of Covid-related deaths among workers. Chief among them are nurses, on the front lines of the pandemic, who have put their lives on the line to intubate disease victims and provide lifesaving medical care. Since the pandemic began, over 500 healthcare workers in the United States have died from the virus.

But these workers who we rely on so deeply—dubbed “warriors” by President Donald Trump and “heroes” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—continue to work under hostile management and in dangerous workplaces that make the disease even more contagious and deadly.

Read the full story from In These Times