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Ohio Unions Turn Back Attack on Public Workers

Ohio’s unions won big in the November 2011 election when they overturned Senate Bill 5 by a 61 to 39 margin, handing Republican Governor John Kasich a defeat and continuing labor’s recent ascending trajectory. The unions’ success in Ohio suggests that Kasich may be a one-term governor, that Republican control of the state legislature may be overturned next year, and that right-wing, anti-union governors like Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin are an endangered species—and one that voters plan to make extinct.

Senate Bill 5 was voted up soon after Kasich took office in January. Legislators passed it in March, despite demonstrations by thousands of public employees and private sector workers at the capitol in Columbus. SB5 affected about 400,000 public employees, limiting their ability to bargain collectively, collect dues, and strike. The law also established “pay for performance” and required workers to pay 15 percent of their health care. Workers were furious.

Ohio unions, working closely with the Democratic Party, acted quickly to take advantage of the state’s referendum law, eventually collecting a record 1.29 million signatures. The state then certified 915,456 signatures—another record—putting the measure on the ballot.

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Restaurants and Race

Discrimination and Disparity in the Food Service Sector

Walk into any fine-dining restaurant in an American urban center and you will observe: white workers serving and bartending; workers of color clearing tables, preparing food, and washing dishes.

Like the segregated buses of the Jim Crow South, the restaurant industry has reserved the best jobs in the front for whites, while workers of color are relegated to the back (unless they are bussing tables in the front). Both restaurant workers and employers admit that this stark divide along color lines is commonly accepted industry practice based on notions of skills, table manners, language ability, and appearance. Thanks to a legal framework that demands proof of discriminatory intent, this obvious form of segregation has existed mostly unchallenged until recently.

With over 10 million employees, the restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer—just behind retail—and the largest part of the nation’s food system. The industry continues to grow rapidly, even as other sectors decline during the current economic crisis, and is considered a gateway of opportunity for immigrants and low-wage workers of color from all over the world. However, research shows that in the country’s largest urban areas, only about 20 percent of all restaurant industry jobs provide living wages and benefits. (There are some instances of waiters and bartenders at fine-dining places in urban centers earning between $50,000 and $150,000 annually.)

Food Workers—Wages and Race

Mariano Lucas Domingo traveled north from his home in Guatemala in search of work to support his sick parent. He landed in Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the United States, where he found work harvesting tomatoes. He expected to earn about $200 a week.  Then Lucas met two brothers who offered him room and board at their family house, in exchange for a cut of his pay. This didn’t seem like a bad deal to Lucas who had no family or friends nearby, and also because the brothers offered to extend credit even when work was sparse.

Lucas spent the next two-and-a-half years living as a captive with other workers in a truck with no water or electricity.1 The workers were forced to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck and wash with a garden hose in the backyard. The brothers locked them in the truck every night, forced them to work even when they were sick or tired, and took away their paychecks. Lucas and his colleagues finally escaped from the truck one night by punching a hole through the roof.2 The two brothers were subsequently arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison. 

This story, unfortunately, is not unusual among the workers who produce our food.  While Lucas’ experience of being enslaved is certainly a horrific extreme, the 20 million workers employed in the food system earn low wages, work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and are unable to collectively organize to demand rights at work. Half of all workers in the food system earned just $21,692 a year or $11.05 per hour in 2008.3 That is well below what a family needs to make in order to sustain two children, according to the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington.4 In a metropolitan area like San Francisco, a family needs to earn around $26.97 per hour just to meet basic needs. In Cleveland, that figure is $20.21 per hour and in Atlanta, it’s $18.37 per hour. Close to one quarter of all food system workers live at the federally defined poverty threshold—earning less than $21,200 for a family of four—as per data gathered in 2008.5

Undocumented Immigrants Stand up to Chipotle

The hands of Juan Jimenez, an immigrant farm worker. ©1999 David Bacon

In December 2010, 600 workers at the Chipotle fast food chain in Minnesota were fired. Their crime? Working. In the past two years, thousands of others have been fired for the same offense: 2000 women at a sewing factory in Los Angeles, 500 apple pickers in eastern Washington, and several hundred janitors in Minnesota and California, to name just a few instances. Every one of them is a victim of the Obama administration’s “softer” immigration enforcement strategy.

The logic is brutal: Make it impossible for the 12 million undocumented U.S. residents to earn a living and send money to their families, and they will deport themselves. What’s more, their families will not be tempted to join them in the U.S. because they will not get jobs.

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San Francisco Chinatown Restaurant Workers Fight for Fair Employment

Li Shuang Li, 42, had worked at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown for seven years before she discovered that her boss was stealing her tips. At the time, Li was barely making $900 a month to support her 13- and 11-year-old children and was afraid of confronting her boss for fear of losing her job.

So, Li allied with her colleagues and they collectively raised the issue with their employer, whose ill-tempered response was: “If you want to complain, I’ll just fire you!” But the employees threatened to quit en masse if he did not pay them back the tips he owed and he eventually came to a verbal agreement.

Li says she was fortunate to receive her back pay relatively quickly, unlike some other waitresses who were given the run around by the boss until some brought their relatives in to coerce him. Rather than continue working for that employer, Li decided to quit and has been unemployed for three years now.

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Combating Nail Salon Toxics

Oakland-based Alisha Tran remembers the first time she suffered strange symptoms while working as a manicurist. “One day I was working with my client, and I feel my face numb. I feel a numbness on my finger... I cannot close [my hand] and I cannot open it... I sweat too, [I] sweat a lot… And I was talking with client and I said, ‘call ambulance.’”

The doctor at the emergency room told her she was anemic and sent her home. Two weeks later, Tran had another episode on the job. She was taken to the emergency room again and was seen by the same doctor.

“And then he asked me, ‘What kind of job you working?’ And I said, ‘I am working for nail salon.’ And then he said, ‘I think you should quit your job.’”
The nail salon industry is booming nationwide. The number of salons in California has more than tripled in the past two decades, according to the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, whose report also notes that an overwhelming majority of the manicurists are women of color—59 to 80 percent are Vietnamese—and of reproductive age.[1]

Every nail salon carries products loaded with chemical compounds with hard-to-pronounce names, including the commonly occurring “toxic trio”—dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. Animal studies of dibutyl phthalate have shown reproductive and developmental effects.[2] Formaldehyde is classified as a known carcinogen.[3] And toluene has been shown to depress the nervous system.[4]

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Class, Race, and the Attacks on Public Employees

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the state’s Republican-dominated legislature tried to steal collective bargaining rights from public sector workers—using a phony “budget crisis” as a pretext—they triggered a national uproar. Labor and community activists around the country understood that these attacks not only shred union rights, but threaten to widen the chasm of economic and racial inequality as well.

Several other states, including Michigan, Ohio, and Florida have faced similar legislative battles.  After Michigan passed a comparable law on March 16, 2011, Governor Rick Snyder used his newly expanded powers not only to attack unions but to disenfranchise the entire population of Benton Harbor—10,235 people, 85.5 percent of them Black. Workers in Ohio are organizing a referendum to overturn Senate Bill 5, their state’s version of the Wisconsin legislation.

Republican legislators in Florida are trying to ram through a bill to prohibit public employees from having payroll deductions for union dues. In response, police and firefighters’ unions have pulled money from banks that support the Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing the bill.

Workers in all these states are facing a larger trend that has been weakening their power for decades. Relentless corporate pressure and ineffectual labor laws have steadily eroded union membership since 1955. As the percentage of workers in unions has shrunk, income inequality has grown. The result has been an economic gulf, separating the rich from everyone else.

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