On the picket line

Low-wage workers strike in D.C.

Hundreds of low-wage workers in Washington, D.C., struck on May 21, calling for a living wage and benefits. They were inspired by low-wage workers who struck fast-food restaurants in New York City, Detroit and Milwaukee. But these workers were different: they are employed by companies with federal contracts to provide food service and janitorial work at places like the Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Union Station. Showing solidarity with the workers, labor and community allies pushed their way into Union Station on May 21, where speeches and banner drops were accompanied by spirited chanting and singing. Allies accompanied the workers returning to their jobs the next day to ensure they were allowed to continue working. This was the first major action of the new Good Jobs Nation campaign, which was founded May 8 in D.C. with the support of religious leaders and community groups. (Union City, online newsletter of Metro Washington Council AFL-CIO, May 22) A report released the week of May 13 by the progressive think tank Demos estimates that nearly 2 million workers are paid $12 hours or less while doing jobs backed by public funds. The report states, “Through federal contracts and other funding, our tax dollars are fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality.” Stay tuned.

Home care workers win union rights in Minnesota

It took an eight-year struggle for about 11,000 family child-care providers and 12,000 personal care attendants in Minnesota state programs to win the right to bargain collectively on May 20. “These workers, who are predominately women, now have an opportunity to bargain for improvements in their lives and the lives of the children, seniors and people with disabilities they serve. No longer will our state be able to dismiss the immense value of their work,” stated Rep. Michael Nelson, the chief author of the House bill, which survived 20 Republican amendments to destroy or limit it. In other states with similar legislation, union representation has given the workers better wages and benefits, greater access to training and a voice on the job, while reducing turnover, stabilizing the workforce and increasing access to services. (mnaflcio.org, May 21)

Major U.S. retailers refuse to sign Bangladeshi safety accord

Even though 30 companies, mostly European clothing retailers, have signed the “Accord on Building and Fire Safety,” developed by international and Bangladeshi unions, retailers and other commercial groups, major U.S. retailers like Walmart, J.C. Penney, Gap and Sears have refused to sign, claiming they will develop their own safety plans. A coalition of faith organizations, including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and investor and labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, have sent letters to the largest U.S. retailers seeking to put moral pressure on them to sign the accord to prevent another disaster from happening in Bangladesh like the one that took more than 1,100 lives of garment workers on April 24. The second letter, signed by 15 mostly union-affiliated investor groups, stressed “the urgent need for companies to know their suppliers, ensure compliance with safety standards, and fully disclose their supply chains.” (aflcio.org/Blog, May 17) But moral pressure alone will not make these capitalists change their low-wage, anti-union ways. Only a global army of workers and oppressed, united in protest, will stop such abuse of power once and for all.

First NYC ‘carwasheros’ win contract

The 30 “carwasheros,” immigrants who wash cars and change oil at a car wash in Queens, N.Y., successfully negotiated the first east-of-Los-Angeles contract in that industry on May 30. The workers at Astoria Car Wash & Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube have been organizing with the Department Store union (RWDSU) since last September in partnership with Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change. The contract mandates a series of raises over the course of three years, a paid 30-minute break, a set work schedule, and up to four weeks of unpaid leave. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum noted that the contract “proves that low-wage immigrant workers are able and willing to stand up and fight for better lives through unionization” and congratulated them on “their courage in this fight.” New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento added, “This campaign is a model for reaching out to traditionally unorganized sectors and sends a clear message that collective action is still the most effective way for workers to improve their working conditions and in turn their lives.” (NY Daily News, May 30)

Major gains in D.C. media contract

The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild reached its first contract for staff at Bloomberg-BNA on March 1. Contrary to the prevailing situation in the communications industry, the three-year contract provides across-the-board raises to 700 Guild members from 2 to 4 percent through 2015. In addition, the company match on the 401(k) pension plan goes from 6 to 8.5 percent, and all eligible staff will get a 5 percent bonus this coming December. The latter replaces an employee-owned stock plan that was eliminated when Bloomberg bought BNA in 2011. The only real increase was in health care costs, though that was less than what management initially proposed. Perhaps the WBNG demonstration outside Bloomberg-BNA headquarters on Feb. 7 showed the company, owned by billionaire media-mogul (and New York City mayor) Michael Bloomberg, that WBNG was a force to be reckoned with. What helped is that WBNG had had a long history at BNA before it was acquired in 2011. (wbng.org, March 1)