Detroit’s current citizens and the public employees who serve them are not the cause of Detroit’s fiscal problems. They are the victims of forces beyond their control, including globalization, capital flight and racism. No one can, with any seriousness, blame Detroit’s librarians, social workers, garbage collection workers or street cleaners for the city’s catastrophic loss of population and tax base, the long decline and near-collapse of the Big 3 auto companies, or the 1967 riots, which launched a frantic exodus of businesses, white residents, and money from the City of Detroit to the suburbs.
As the suburbs grew and new highways encouraged sprawl in the 1950s and 1960s, Detroit’s manufacturing employment base and population—and especially its white population—began to decline. As Thomas Sugrue has pointed out, between 1947 and 1958, the Big Three built twenty-five new plants in the Detroit metropolitan area, all of them in suburban communities, most more than fifteen miles from the center city. As the jobs moved away, so did the city’s residents.
From 1.85 million in 1950, the city’s population declined to 1.62 million in 1960 and 1.51 million in 1970. By 1980, white flight was nearly complete: whites, who made up 83% of the population in 1950, were only 34% of the population, one million fewer than in 1950. The terrible riots in 1967 accelerated the movement of white families to the suburbs, but a combination of opportunity and racism had spurred hundreds of thousands to leave Detroit well before the U.S. Army occupied it. The hostility of whites toward blacks, their fear, and economic self-interest as they understood it led them to refuse to live in integrated neighborhoods, spurring them to sell their homes and abandon the city.
Now that the Senate has confirmed the appointments of a full slate of members of the National Labor Relations Board (the quasi-judicial body that decides labor relations cases and protects the right of workers to organize unions), the 18-month long fight over the president’s nominations looks ridiculous. Despite precipitating a mini constitutional crisis over the president’s right to make recess appointments, and coming close to the parliamentary equivalent of nuclear war in the Senate, the end result is little different than if the Senate had simply confirmed President Obama’s original nominees. On the other hand, a lot of damage has been done along the way.
For those who haven’t followed closely, Senate Republicans filibustered the nominations of two Democrats, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, who strongly support the National Labor Relations Act’s mission of encouraging collective bargaining. They were targeted because Republicans sought to demonize the Board and President Obama over a case involving Boeing’s decision to open new facilities in South Carolina. In that case, the NLRB filed a complaint against Boeing because company officials had described the decision to locate the plant in South Carolina as punishment for the Machinists union’s exercise of its legally protected right to strike. Even though no Board member ever ruled on the case, which Boeing and its union eventually settled, Sen. Lindsay Graham and others made it a cause celebre and fabricated an election campaign story that President Obama was trying to prevent investment in right-to-work states like South Carolina. Sen. Graham even suggested that the NLRB should be put out of business.
Rep. Susan Bonamici of Oregon has a great idea that will simultaneously help young people with limited means pay for college, get them job experience, and stimulate our stumbling economy. She proposes to have the federal government pay for tens of thousands of internships, making them available to low-income, Pell Grant-eligible students who could otherwise not afford to take them. Under Bonamici’s Opportunities for Success Act, H.R. 2659, the federal government would send funds to colleges and universities, which would use them to provide stipends equaling at least the minimum wage, but potentially more in situations where a student was not currently attending school (such as a summer internship) and would have to pay for food, lodging and transportation. The maximum grant would be $5,000.
The need for such a program is clear. Paid internships are increasingly important to the ability of college students to gain skills, make professional connections, and find jobs after graduation. As Rep. Bonamici says in the bill’s “Findings” section:
- Many students struggle to make ends meet; 66 percent of young community college students dedicate more than 20 hours a week to an outside job, and the need of many students to maintain a part-time or full-time job reduces or eliminates the time available for an internship.
- Internships often require significant time commitments or temporary relocation, which many students are unable to afford; these additional living expenses include housing, meals, and travel, and these costs make unpaid internships with employers like non-profit organizations and government even more inaccessible for those with low and middle incomes.
Unless we want to exclude students from low-income and middle-income families from important opportunities to participate in government, to make important connections, and to get their foot in the door for future paid employment opportunities, it is particularly important that we provide a means of supporting them financially while they work in government internships. This is not just a matter of economic justice but a way to ensure full democratic participation and to combat economic elitism.
Yesterday, it appeared that the Senate was on the verge of “going nuclear”—amending its rules mid-session to prevent the use of filibusters to block the president’s appointment of executive branch officials. The use of parliamentary tactics by a minority of senators to prevent the popularly elected President of the United States from appointing the heads of agencies that enforce key laws has reached unprecedented levels and threatens the ability of the president to govern. The Senate has been in gridlock ever since President Obama was re-elected. A concerted effort by Republican senators has prevented the passage of key legislation, blocked confirmation of federal appeals court judges, and blocked confirmation of President Obama’s nominees for Secretary of Labor, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, or any of the five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Today, it appears that a compromise has been reached that will allow the president most of his appointees, but not all. The Senate’s compromise forces the president to choose new nominees for the NLRB.
The New York Times obituary for Douglas C. Englebart, identified as the “Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse,” is fascinating reading, in part because Englebart, an Oregon farm boy, was in many ways the father of modern networked computing. Beginning in the early 1960s, he put together a team of engineers and computer scientists, funded by the federal government, that developed a prototype for most of the computer tools we all take for granted today. He unveiled them at a conference in San Francisco in December 1968, which “set the computing world on fire.” In the words of the Times obituary:
“Dr. Engelbart was developing a raft of revolutionary interactive computer technologies and chose the conference as the proper moment to unveil them.
For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing.”
Englebart was a visionary, but his ground-breaking work was not supported by venture capital and his innovations were not the result of the private market or corporate enterprise. His innovations were not spurred by the prospects of incredible income and wealth, all lightly taxed. Rather, the work was funded and organized by a visionary bureaucracy in the U.S. government. As the Times describes it, “during the Vietnam War, he established an experimental research group at Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI and then SRI International). The unit, the Augmentation Research Center, known as ARC, had the financial backing of the Air Force, NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Defense Department.”
Seventy-five years ago today, President Roosevelt signed into law the historic Fair Labor Standards Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act established the minimum wage, legislated a standard workweek, and outlawed oppressive child labor. President Roosevelt called it, after the Social Security Act, “the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers here or in any other country.”
Prior to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, both adults and young children often worked brutally long hours only to earn starvation wages. This was especially true during the Great Depression. As the Depression endured, firms not only laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, but also implemented significant wage rate cuts. Despite low wages, or perhaps because of them, many workers (including children) continued to work long hours in unjust conditions. Workers often labored in what were essentially sweatshops, only to earn low wages. While campaigning for a second term, President Roosevelt received a note from a young girl that read: “I wish you could do something to help us girls….We have been working in a sewing factory,… and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week… Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week.” Thousands of children, as young as seven years old, were denied a basic education and instead worked in mines, mills and factories for a pittance. During his first re-election campaign, President Roosevelt publically committed to eliminating child labor and improving labor standards for all working Americans.
Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, devised the Fair Labor Standards Act with two goals in mind. First, the administration aimed to improve job quality through the abolition of child labor, the establishment of a floor on wages, and a ceiling over hours worked. Second, the administration hoped the Fair Labor Standards Act would create new jobs for millions of the nation’s unemployed by reducing overtime and forcing employers to hire more employees to compensate. The ultimate version of the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 25, 1938, established a 25-cent minimum wage (that would rise to 30 cents beginning in October 1939), introduced a 44-hour maximum work week (that would first fall to 42 hours in October 1939 and would then fall to 40 hours in October 1940), and set the general age of workforce entry at 16.
The public isn’t stupid. They realize that if hundreds of thousands of foreign guestworkers are brought in by businesses to take jobs in IT, engineering, and the sciences, there will be fewer opportunities for them and their children. A new poll published June 20 by the National Journal asks, “Should Congress allow for MORE guest workers or FEWER guest workers in this industry?” The three industries are agriculture, high-tech and construction. The respondents split with respect to agriculture, but by a big majority—55 to 34—they want fewer high-tech guestworkers, and by even bigger numbers—61 to 30—fewer guestworkers in construction.
Sadly, on this and almost any issue that corporate America lobbies intensely, members of Congress mostly fail to represent the views and interests of their constituents; they take the side of the corporations that make big donations to their campaigns, to independent expenditures on elections, and to the political parties. Only a principled few are willing to stand up to Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Intel.
The result is that the new immigration bill will triple the flawed and misused H-1B guestworker program and shut off opportunities for hundreds of thousands of young people here who thought an engineering, math or computer science education would be the ticket to economic security and a rewarding career. It does less damage to U.S. construction workers, though it doubles the number of H-2B visas, which have been used to bring in construction guestworkers, and creates a new W-visa guestworker category, for which 15,000 visas a year are designated.
Who in America is willing to work 100 hours a week without getting paid for those brutally long hours (not to mention without the time-and-a-half pay required for overtime)? The answer should be, “no one.” But for undocumented immigrants, who don’t have the right to take above-board, normal jobs, almost any job, no matter how abusive or how low the pay, is better than nothing—especially if they owe debts to criminal smugglers who know where their families live.
According to the New York Times, fourteen 7-Eleven franchises have been charged with raking in $180 million since 2000 in illegal profits from underpaying employees, and another 40 franchises are under investigation. Employees who should have been paid as much as $1000 a week were paid only $300-$500 while being forced to live in unregulated, substandard boardinghouses operated by the stores’ owners.
It took 13 years for an employee to finally complain about wage theft and call in the authorities to break up the illegal operation. That’s a good measure of the fear and intimidation that keeps the undocumented in the shadows and lets greedy employers get away with paying sweatshop wages.
Clearly, legalization of the undocumented will improve the labor market in the United States by bringing abused workers out of the shadows and starting the process of lifting wages. However, this will work better and faster if Congress also provides the right enforcement resources, including the Labor Department wage and hour inspectors and attorneys needed to investigate and prosecute cheating businesses and the criminals who run them. The U.S. spends $18 billion a year on border security and immigration enforcement, and will spend even more if the Senate’s proposed comprehensive immigration law, S.744, is enacted. It seems clear to me that some of those funds should be redirected to the Labor Department and its never-ending battle against wage theft and exploitation.
The abuse of temporary foreign workers in the United States has been well documented, from the Bracero program of the 1960s to the recent cases of seafood workers in Maryland (PDF) and Louisiana, fast-food workers in Pennsylvania, and forestry workers in Georgia. The wrongs to workers are sometimes nothing short of criminal: wage theft, violence and threats of violence, even peonage.
But harm is done to U.S. workers, too, before temporary “guest” workers are ever brought to the U.S. The businesses that could and should be recruiting and hiring workers here in the U.S. at decent wages are shunning them to hire more exploitable, more desperate foreigners. The law and regulations that govern guestworker programs, most notably the H-2B non-immigrant visa program, are ignored or circumvented, leaving U.S. workers jobless while people from thousands of miles away do jobs the local workers are able and willing to do.
The law and regulations forbid the admission of any H-2B guestworker to the U.S. unless the employer attests that U.S workers capable of performing the job are not available and that the employment of foreign workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. The Department of Labor and the various State Workforce Agencies are charged with verifying that the jobs of U.S. workers are protected, but they have failed to do so.
A federal district court judge ruled yesterday that Fox Searchlight violated the minimum wage law when it failed to pay its interns for their work on the movie Black Swan. This is excellent news—unpaid internships hurt mobility, exploit young workers, and are frequently illegal.
The judge, following a ruling made 15 years ago by then district court judge Sonia Sotomayor1, upheld and applied the Department of Labor’s six-part test for determining whether an internship is employment covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act or is, instead, training or education that can illegally go unpaid.
Congratulations are due to Eric Glatt, the lead plaintiff, who has become a leading activist in the fight against the deregulation of wages and the spread of unpaid labor. And congratulations, too, to the law firm of Outten and Golden, which represents Eric Glatt and plaintiffs in several cases that challenge the new sense of entitlement employers have to ignore the law and treat employees like serfs. Increasingly, trial lawyers are on the front lines of the fight to protect the dignity of work and the rights of labor. As state and federal agency budgets are cut the role of trial lawyers is growing in importance.
The summer has begun and greedy employers across the country are searching for people who will work for them for free. Meanwhile, in a few weeks the nation will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which makes it illegal for most employers to take advantage of their fellow Americans’ work without paying at least the minimum wage for it.
At a time when the real value of the minimum wage is well below the levels of the 1960’s (making entry-level workers quite affordable), when the weak labor market is forcing college graduates in record numbers to take jobs that don’t require a college degree and entry level wages for college grads are already substantially below the levels of 10 years ago, the exploitation involved in not paying employees anything at all is shameful and economically dangerous.
It’s dangerous because the main obstacle to a healthy recovery from the Great Recession is weak consumer demand, and unpaid internships hurt consumer demand in two ways. First, they leave interns without any wage income, reducing their ability to purchase the products and services supplied by businesses. Second, they lower expectations and reduce wage demands by employees who do have paying jobs.
Nevertheless, employers from coast to coast think that simply by calling a job an internship, they can take advantage of young people desperate to start their careers and get the benefit of their talents and work, but not pay them even a measly $7.25 an hour.
How many times have you heard business lobbyists and spokesmen say: “Regulations are killing jobs”? Or how about, “Excessive regulations are driving manufacturers overseas”?
Well think about what’s been happening in Bangladesh, where so many US clothing retailers and garment makers, from Wal-Mart to L.L.Bean, have gone to escape livable wages and regulation. That lack of regulations is killing workers, not in ones and twos, as happens here in the United States several times every day, but hundreds at a time. Factory fires as devastating as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of a century ago have now been followed by a building collapse that has so far claimed 300 lives, the workers crushed, bleeding to death or suffocating.
Several stories I’ve read report that only one business (a bank) heeded the warnings of police that the eight-story factory building was so unsafe that it had to be evacuated. The other businesses shrugged off the warnings and ordered more than 2,000 people to work in mortal danger.
In a story headlined, “France Drowning in Rules and Regulations, critics say,” WaPo writer Edward Cody presents a caricature of a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Based on little more than interviews with disgruntled officials in one small town, Cody variously describes France’s regulatory regime as “strangling,” “smothering,” or “burying” the economy. For example:
“France and its southern European neighbors, such as Italy and Greece, are increasingly being buried in such norms, rules and directives. In the past two decades, the number of legal do’s and don’ts has become so great that businessmen and economists1 warn that it is smothering growth just as the continent tries to dig out of its worst slump in a generation.”
But France is not Italy or Greece, and the truth is almost the opposite of Cody’s claim that, compared with the Scandinavian countries, France discourages business. In fact, the World Bank measures the nations of the world on the ease of starting a new business, and France ranks well above all four of the Scandinavian countries. France also ranks about 80 places ahead of Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany.
Over the next several days and weeks, I’ll be reviewing the provisions of the 844-page comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, with an eye on those elements that will particularly affect the operation and outcomes of the labor market.
Let’s start with the most important provision first. Secure Borders delivers on its most important goal: granting legal status to almost all of the eleven million immigrants currently here without authorization to work. Every undocumented immigrant who came before January 2012, who passes a criminal background check and pays $500 will be given a provisional status that will allow them to work.
That single, dramatic step will change their lives for the better, improve the labor market prospects of every other legal resident with whom they compete for jobs, and free their employers from the taint and guilt of an illegal employment relationship. It won’t make these immigrants full citizens or give them the full rights of other residents of the United States, but it will remove them from the precarious status of working illegally, with the terrifying threat of discovery and deportation always hanging over their heads. They will be free to join unions, to ask for, demand, or strike for higher pay, and will be free to quit and look for a better job with another employer. The job lock and fear that keep so many of the undocumented underpaid or underemployed will end immediately.
For that, I take my hat off to the Gang of Eight.
The Republican majority on the House Education and Workforce Committee could raise the minimum wage, cover more employees with overtime protection, pass paid sick days legislation, pass a paid family leave bill, or do a host of other things to make life easier for America’s working families. Instead, as Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women and Families testified last week, they have chosen to weaken overtime protections and shift more power from employees to their bosses.
The Republicans have trotted out a bill introduced back in 1995 and unsuccessfully pushed again by business lobbyists in 2003. They call H.R. 1406 the Working Families Flexibility Act, apparently because it will bend and twist working families even more than they already are as they try to balance the needs of home and work. Rather than give employees the flexibility to take a paid day off when they or their kids are sick, the bill gives their employers the flexibility not to pay them overtime when it is earned.
Lichtman does a great job of pointing out what a sham the bill is, and the National Partnership has also published a good fact sheet that points out that the bill greatly increases the risk that employees will work overtime but never get paid for it. The chance that thousands of businesses will fail each year while holding millions of dollars of unpaid overtime credits in leave banks is very real. Half a million businesses fail in an average year.
Judy Lichtman politely calls H.R. 1406 “smoke and mirrors.” I think it’s fair to call it a fraud, for the truth is that the law already permits the only benefit the bill claims to provide, time off for employees who work overtime. Nothing in current law prevents an employer that makes an employee work overtime from paying for that overtime and then providing unpaid compensatory time off to the employee at a later date.
The student workers who recently went on strike at McDonald’s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania took a big chance. They could have been fired and then deported from the country. Instead, they got their boss fired and got a meeting with the head of the State Department program that brought them to the U.S. But they aren’t finished: they want to make sure that what happened to them never happens to foreign students again.
My colleagues and I met with four of the young workers last week, who came from Peru, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. All had been recruited into the State Department’s J-1 summer work travel visa program by GeoVisions, a State Department-approved sponsor, which promised them three months of steady wages for slinging Big Macs, decent housing and a cultural experience, followed by a month of travel wherever they wanted to go.
What they and 14 other students got was an unpredictable mix of work hours—as little as four hours in a week for some and 25 hours in a row for others. They were required to live in the basements of homes owned by their boss, Andy Cheung, who packed six into one house and eight into another, jammed together with little privacy—only a curtain to separate the beds of four young men from four women. They were cheated on wages they earned, overcharged for their housing and forced to walk to work on highways instead of riding in free transportation they’d been promised. At least one was actually in debt to Cheung after almost 3 months of work.Read more
On Tuesday, March 5, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) announced the introduction of The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour over the next three years. Once it reaches $10.10, the minimum wage would be raised automatically each year to account for inflation and ensure that it never loses its purchasing power. The bill also raises the wages of those who rely on tips, phasing in an increase until the “tipped minimum” – currently stuck at $2.13 an hour — reaches 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.
Harkin and Miller spoke eloquently about the need to make work pay, to reward people for the time and effort they put into serving or delivering food, caring for children and the elderly, and cleaning hotel rooms or office buildings.
Citing Economic Policy Institute calculations, Harkin estimated that 30 million workers would get a raise, including 17 million women. He pointed out that nearly 90 percent of minimum wage workers are adults, not teenagers, and that two-thirds are in low or moderate income households.
The two business people and two workers Harkin and Miller invited to the event made an enormous impression. Margot Dorfman, the President of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, reiterated her support for the minimum wage, denouncing the idea that raising the minimum wage would be bad for business. “Nothing could be farther from the truth,” she said. “Our sales depend on consumer demand. If people aren’t paid a fair wage they can’t afford to shop in our stores or buy our services.” Dorfman made it clear that the NFIB and US Chamber of Commerce don’t represent small business. “They’re looking out for the big corporations that want to pay workers as little as possible. They want the taxpayers to pay for their workers’ food stamps. That’s not the position of women-owned small businesses.”Read more
Teddy Wayne’s Sunday New York Times article about the exploitation of 20-somethings in the workplace (“The No-Limits Job”) should wake up a lot of young workers and their parents. There is something seriously wrong with a corporate culture that uses extremely low-paid or even unpaid labor and then treats the workers like they own them.
The low point in the article is probably the story of Dalkey Archive Press, of Champaign, Illinois, which not only employs unpaid interns but threatens them with “immediate dismissal” if they come in late or leave early without permission, are “unavailable at night or on the weekends,” or “fail to respond to e-mails in a timely way.” But as Wayne makes clear, round-the-clock, 24-7 internships can be exploitative even when paid.
One of my personal heroes, Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation, is interviewed by Wayne and warns about a sinister change in our culture that has made it acceptable to young people to give up their personal time and devote themselves to an employer, totally blurring the line between personal life and work while receiving almost no financial reward. This problem is worst in what Perlin calls the “rock-star professions”—film, TV, publishing, and media—and in creative industries like fashion, but the trend is spreading to other fields as well. Even un-hip businesses like manufacturers and law firms have begun to advertise for and employ unpaid labor, and failure to pay for overtime is endemic in white-collar work.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires payment to employees of at least the minimum wage, is conveniently ignored by employers who rationalize their exploitation and illegality by arguing that the jobs are for the benefit of the interns, who usually do learn something and can put the experience on their resume. However, as Perlin explained in his book and Wayne’s article corroborates, a new phenomenon, the serial intern, is developing.Read more
These stories trace the progress of legal actions against some of America’s best-known tech companies over their attempts to suppress their employees’ wages through anti-competitive “no-poaching” agreements. The Department of Justice found evidence that Intel, Adobe Systems, Google, Apple, Pixar, and Intuit made secret agreements not to call each others’ employees with job offers, thereby reducing job opportunities and salaries in the industry. DOJ induced the six companies to settle an anti-trust suit in 2010 with a promise not to engage in similar restraints on trade in the future. The companies paid no damages and admitted no violations of anti-trust law, but the employees who had been hurt by the practices were not satisfied.
Employees filed suit against the six companies and Lucasfilm in federal court alleging an illegal conspiracy to restrain wages and salaries and seeking damages. When the companies tried to have the suit dismissed, the district court judge sided with the plaintiffs, and in January, according to Phys.org, Judge Lucy Koh ruled that the case should proceed to trial and that Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Intel chief Paul Ottelini may be questioned by plaintiffs’ attorneys about their roles in the alleged conspiracy. The trial, reportedly, will take place in November.
I recommend keeping this case in mind when it comes time to evaluate the companies’ claims that their interest in bringing skilled guestworkers to the U.S. has nothing to do with getting cheaper labor. Never mind that the H-1B visa, which ties employees to a single employer for 6 years or more, is a bigger restraint on employee mobility than a no-poaching agreement.
Jordan Weissman put together a nice series of charts in The Atlantic that help us better understand what’s at stake in the debate over tripling the number of “guest” workers admitted to the U.S. each year with college degrees and skills in science or engineering. It’s gotten harder and harder for U.S. PhDs to find work, and especially work that pays a salary that corresponds to the intellect of and investment made by these students, who are truly our best and brightest. A question members of Congress have to answer is: do we want to encourage or discourage U.S. students from pursuing these top degrees? Is NIH paying science post-docs enough? Is industry doing enough to recruit young U.S.-trained scientists? Will the Hatch-Klobuchar plan to admit 300,000 temporary, foreign high tech workers each year make matters better or worse for our young PhDs? Will the addition of as many as 1.8 million new foreign tech workers over six years crowd the U.S. labor market and depress wages?
Most members of Congress know very little about the H-2 guest worker visa programs, and, unfortunately, what they do know is mostly from speaking to a handful of business people who use the program or from listening to lobbyists who market ridiculous “studies” about how H-2 workers help the economy. They might have an image in their minds of “guest” workers lining up to take good jobs in the United States that no one else wants, and happily returning year after year. But Congressmen have little contact with H-2 workers and most are unaware of the widespread and ugly abuses that have marred the programs for decades. If they knew how often the programs have been used to exploit, cheat, and degrade foreign workers, they would realize it is no better than the infamous Bracero program of 50 years ago and should be either drastically reformed or abolished.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been representing H-2 workers throughout the southern U.S. for years, hearing their stories of abuse and exploitation and suing on their behalf to recover at least some of the wages promised but unpaid, the fees extorted from helpless victims, the travel costs and debts incurred in return for unkept promises of well-paid, steady work. SPLC’s experience is captured in its new report, Close to Slavery 2013, which every journalist and immigration policy expert ought to read.
Every H-2 worker is not mistreated, but as Close to Slavery makes clear, so many workers are so badly abused that the program can’t be allowed to go on as it has. Year after year, international recruiters trick unsophisticated foreigners into borrowing large sums of money for the right to have a good job and substantial earnings in the U.S., only to find themselves locked into rural labor camps, poorly housed and fed, treated like prison labor, paid far less than promised, and then forced to repay recruiters and employers for expenses never mentioned during recruitment. SPLC has represented thousands of abused workers and won tens of millions of dollars in damages, but most H-2 workers have no access to our legal system, and even the judgments won often go unpaid.
Attempts by the U.S. Department of Labor to fix the H-2B non-agricultural program through regulatory improvements have been blocked by senators and congressmen from both parties who either don’t understand or don’t care that allowing these abuses to continue hurts U.S. workers, not just the foreign victims. The government’s failure to fix the well-documented problems in the program’s design makes it clear that any expansion of the program must be defeated. Real immigration reform would include reform of the H-2 visa and much tighter controls on the businesses that compete by exploiting the program and the guest workers themselves.
The most surprising part of the president’s State of the Union address last night was his forthright endorsement of the principle that no one in the United States of America should work full-time and yet still find himself in poverty. That is a statement I often heard from Sen. Edward Kennedy, but I can’t remember any other president—not JFK, not LBJ, not Jimmy Carter, and not Bill Clinton—announcing it so clearly and forcefully.
The president called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, which translates into a full-year income of $18,720, almost enough to meet the federal poverty guideline for a family or household of three people ($19,090), and more than enough to satisfy the guideline for a family of two ($15,130).
Raising the minimum wage is a perfect complement to immigration reform and its promise of legalizing millions of undocumented workers. Many of them are working at wages below even the current $7.25 per hour minimum wage and cannot have amassed much in the way of savings. If they are to pay the penalties and back taxes the immigration bill will require, and pay for English lessons to meet the bill’s other requirement, they will need to be paid fairly for their work.
I hope that Congress sees fit to include a higher minimum wage in any immigration reform bill it enacts.
In a CNN opinion piece published Jan. 28, Tamar Jacoby, the president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, shows amazing disdain for the one-third of Americans working low-wage jobs. She claims that they shouldn’t want the jobs they have because they can find more productive and better paying work. Jacoby thinks a job as a home health aide is beneath the aspirations of native-born Americans. So much for the dignity of work!
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized Jacoby’s way of thinking about “low productivity” work in a famous speech to striking sanitation workers just before he was assassinated:
If you will judge anything here in this struggle, you’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.
The fact is that 40 million Americans work in extremely low wage jobs and are either grateful to have them or unable to find anything better. It’s shocking Read more
Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) reports that on Jan. 10, workers at one of Foxconn’s China plants (in Fengcheng, Jiangxi Province) went on strike. The factory produces Apple’s iPhone connector and products for other companies. SACOM suggests the strike resulted from the sweatshop working conditions at the plant, poor pay, lack of union representation, health and safety violations, and general lack of respect for the workers. The resulting protest by more than 1,000 workers was met with a harsh crackdown, with water cannons and physical violence apparently used against the strikers. SACOM notes the contrast between the ongoing harsh conditions reported by workers and the often-rosy public relations campaign by Foxconn and Apple.
This report deserves careful attention. SACOM is a Hong Kong-based NGO that has enlisted workers in Apple’s Foxconn factories to report on life and work inside the giant complexes. It is the most credible source of information about conditions in Apple’s manufacturing plants in China. SACOM was the organization that first revealed the wave of suicides at Foxconn, the construction of suicide nets, Apple’s use of underage students on its production lines, the continuing use of students compelled to work at Foxconn under threat of being kicked out of school, grossly excessive overtime, and many other abuses.
Laura Rowley has an excellent response to the silly op-ed by Steve Cohen published in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. Cohen wrote that paying interns to deliver clothing for photo shoots, run copy machines, or clean the green room at a TV studio is dumb. The young people doing those jobs are not employees, according to Cohen; they’re simply auditioning.
Cohen admits that the grunt work he and his son did in separate internships at a law firm and a magazine was “boring, mindless, repetitious” and yet, “essential to the workings of our offices.” Nevertheless, Cohen says the chance to prove himself a good employee was so valuable to him, as was the exposure to a law office’s operations, that his employer shouldn’t have had to pay him even minimum wage.
Rowley accepts Cohen’s conclusion that his internship was valuable but says the experience shouldn’t be limited to people like Cohen (a former media executive) and his son, who can afford to work for free. What about the kids graduating from college with $50,000 of debt, or the children of factory workers or waitresses who can’t support their grown children in New York City? Should they be denied the audition, the exposure to interesting work environments, the chance to prove themselves? Read more
Michigan’s ‘right-to-work-for-less’ legislation: Bad for workers, undemocratic, fundamentally immoral
The Michigan “right-to-work” law that was enacted in December is bad public policy. Its supporters claim it will attract business to the state and lift incomes, though research shows the opposite is true.
By prohibiting contracts that require union-represented employees to pay dues, “right to work”—or, more accurately, “right to work for less”—gives workers a right to freeload, a right to accept the benefits of a union contract while paying nothing for the cost of organizing the union, winning the contract, or enforcing its terms. Employees can demand that the union represent them in a grievance while paying absolutely nothing for the cost of that representation. This enshrinement of freeloading was matched by the way the bill was passed—by a lame-duck legislature, without committee hearings, without an opportunity for amendment or public input.
In an amazing, impassioned speech, Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) condemned both the undemocratic way the right-to-work-for-less bill was jammed through the Michigan legislature and the immorality that animates it. Watch his short but powerful speech below:
Michelle Rhee and her misnamed school privatization organization, StudentsFirst, recently issued a report card on the nation’s schools that has been roundly criticized, and rightly so. Rhee ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia by how closely they hew to her vision of school “reform,” which involves high stakes testing, maximizing the number of charter schools, expanding voucher programs that use tax dollars to pay for private schools, and eliminating teacher tenure and pension plans. Rhee is so keen to reduce the pensions of teachers and their reward for longevity that she makes their elimination an “anchor policy” and gives it triple weight in her ranking methodology.
She also cares deeply about and grades the states on removing school governance from local control and the influence of democratically elected school boards. She prefers giving governance instead to the kind of mayoral control or state control that put her in charge of the D.C. school system under Mayor Adrian Fenty. That gets triple weight, too.
Curiously, despite Rhee’s love of high stakes testing, student performance as measured by the gold-standard test of student achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), plays no role in her ranking of the states. These “rankings” put Louisiana and Florida (both bottom 10 on the NAEP), for example, far ahead of high-achieving states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey, all of which ranked in the top three on the NAEP.
Doug Henwood took a close look at Rhee’s rankings and found they have a negative correlation with success on the NAEP: “[T]he higher the StudentsFirst score, the lower the NAEP reading score. The correlation on math is even worse, -0.25.”
When you consider that Rhee’s rankings actually punish states that limit class size, it’s easy to understand their negative correlation with achievement.
Rhee’s right-wing agenda of privatization, de-unionization, and the funneling of public tax dollars into corporate coffers is becoming clearer to the public—and perhaps even to her own staff. Coupled with her recent stumble over the shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., her reluctance to oppose a Michigan bill to allow concealed weapons in schools, and the PBS Frontline exposé about cheating scandals during her tenure as chancellor in D.C., Rhee and her agenda may be losing their glitz and appeal.
We can only hope so.
If House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor act like Thelma and Louise and drive their convertible over the “fiscal cliff,” some of the only victims in the early weeks of 2013 will be the 2 million unemployed Americans currently receiving Emergency Unemployment Compensation. They will have a hard landing when Congress suddenly cuts them off from the unemployment insurance checks that are temporarily paying their bills and keeping a roof over them and their families.
Unlike in some previous budget fights, the current law says that no benefits will be paid beyond Dec. 28; there will be no phase-down for those who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks. One week, they receive unemployment insurance—the next, they won’t. And hundreds of thousands of others who would have become newly eligible for EUC in 2013 will receive nothing once their regular state benefits are exhausted.
This will also have an immediate effect on the economy, as both EPI economists Heidi Shierholz and Larry Mishel, and the Congressional Budget Office have shown. Ending $30 billion in EUC payments will remove $48 billion of economic activity from the economy, and take 300,000 to 400,000 jobs along with it.