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After spontaneous strike to protest wage issues, textile workers’ partnership with community organization and union leads to victory

As national union rates hit all-time low, victory shows promise of community partnerships, immigrant organizing for reversing labor’s decline

The mostly Latino immigrant packers and machine operators of Artistic Stitches, Inc., an embroidery company with contracts with some of Chicago’s largest businesses like Chase Bank, declared victory Thursday after a job walkout in protest of wage issues and an innovative community organization/union partnership led to a successful union drive.

At a time when American union rates have reached their lowest in nearly a century, the campaign shows the potential for the labor movement’s revitalization with innovative new organizing strategies.

“Union membership is at an all-time low, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Jorge Mujica, organizer for Arise Chicago.

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

Concerns about job security and possible violations of Illinois minimum wage law led the workforce to walk off the job the day after Thanksgiving. Workers were laid off near the end of every year, then rehired as apprentices, at apprenticeship wages–despite the fact that many had worked at the factory for years. They did not receive any holiday pay despite working through major holidays like Thanksgiving, which proved to be the last straw for workers who walked off the job the day after Thanksgiving this year.

“We decided to walk off the job because management said they weren’t going to pay us holiday pay for working on Thanksgiving,” said Juana Cortez, a worker at the factory.

The mostly immigrant work force stood together to demand they be treated with dignity and respect on the job.

“Now, we can defend ourselves from the mistreatment, have paid vacations and holidays. Now, there can be equality,” said Juana Cortez.

Workers approached the interfaith workers’ rights organization Arise Chicago, who assisted in organizing co-workers to know their rights on the job. Selecting Workers United as their union with which to affiliate, the workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election. Last week, the workers won by a decisive majority and now have union representation.

“The relationship between the workers center and our union has been perfect,” said Margarita Klein, staff director of Workers United.  “And this is only the beginning.”

Cortez had the following message for other workers in a situation like hers: “If something unjust is happening to you at work, there are organizations like Arise and Workers United that can help protect you.”

The campaign’s success shows the potential for labor’s revitalization at a time when it is in deep distress. Recently released figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that union membership is at its lowest percentage in nearly a century, leading many commentators to declare that labor is continuing to die a slow, agonizing death. The Stitches workers’ victory demonstrates this is not the case.

“If you are only thinking of traditional campaigns and old forms of worker organization, you may be disappointed. But when you adopt a broader view, like our point of view on the ground, you see signs of hope and progress. Workers organizing in nontraditional sectors, who are self-organizing, who are striking first–successful campaigns like these show that there are actually very promising signs of life to be found in the movement. Labor can turn the corner with nontraditional organizing strategies like the ones these workers used,” said Adam Kader, Arise Chicago Worker Center program director.

The rise of alternative organizing strategies nationally shows that many workers want to organize.

“It isn’t that workers don’t want representation,” said Kader. “Workers are clearly hungry for a voice on the job. Dozens of low-wage sector workers contact Arise Chicago’s Worker Center office daily, detailing incredible amounts of abuse. But many times, these workers don’t have access to unions.  Workers, like those at Stitches did, reach out to different organizations–often churches–for help, who are connected to Arise Chicago. When community groups like Arise work together with unions like Workers United, we can help bridge that gap so workers’ rights can be respected on the job.”

In addition, promising gains have been made for labor nationally in states like California, where, over the last year, union membership has actually increased by 110,000 members, largely because unions have taken the organizing of immigrant workers seriously.

For a full revitalization of the labor movement, new member organizing must be paired with political activity and advocacy for stronger public policies to protect workers.  The Stitches workers’ win comes on the heels of a major victory for workers in Chicago’s city council: the passage of anti-wage theft legislation that makes it possible for the city of Chicago to revoke business licenses of businesses found guilty of wage theft. Arise worked with Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th ward), the bill’s sponsor, to draft the bill.

by Adam Kader

As a result of months of collaboration between Arise Chicago and Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th ward), last Thursday the City of Chicago passed an ordinance stating that, should an employer be found guilty of wage theft, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection could revoke the owner’s business license.

The victory garnered significant media attention in the English and Spanish-speaking media.

Ald. Pawar“When I attended Arise Chicago’s launch event for the car wash campaign, where I learned that the average car wash worker has $4,413 stolen each year, nearly a third of their income, I felt an urgency to begin work on this ordinance,” Pawar stated.

Arise Chicago worked with Pawar to develop the concept, and with the mayor’s office to craft the language of the ordinance, which was then given a two-day hearing in the city’s Licensing Committee and moved to the entire City Council for a vote. The ordinance passed unanimously.

When Alderman Pawar spoke at the City Council meeting, he commented, “This will be a good ordinance for workers and the ethical business owners of Chicago…I commend the great work and leadership of Arise Chicago in leading the fight for this ordinance.”

The legislation is significant because it makes Chicago the second and largest city in the nation to enact such a policy. The National Employment Law Project’s publication on wage theft legislation identifies license revocation policies as a “top pick” for best practices.

This ordinance has a wide-ranging impact, effectively covering all workers who are employed by a business that needs a license to operate. But those who stand to gain the most are those workers who are the most marginalized: immigrant workers and workers of color, working in non-union and low-wage industries. Indeed, in its landmark report, the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development estimates that $7.3 million is stolen in workers’ wages in a single week in Cook County. The report also finds that immigrants are 1.5 times more likely than native-born workers to have their wages stolen, and African Americans are 27 times more likely to have their wages stolen than their white counterparts.

LilianaArise Chicago Worker Center member Liliana Baca’s story dramatizes how egregious wage theft can be: “I worked for over 60 hours a week for five years at a grocery store. And I never received overtime pay. This is my wage theft story. But I’m not the only one who has a story. So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.” Arise Chicago’s Worker Center has worked for years with over 3,000 workers like Liliana (above)  recover more than $5 million in stolen wages and owed compensation.

When workers’ wages are stolen, it affects their family and community life. As Alderman Pawar reflects in his ward newsletter, “These stolen wages are not going to pay down consumer debt, not going to purchase consumer goods nor are put to work in our economy through sales and income taxes. When employers steal from their employees, everybody loses.”

Wage theft hurts ethical businesses, too, by creating unfair competition for employers who want to follow the law but find themselves in a market flooded with competitors able to undercut them by stealing workers’ wages. In the Chicago car wash industry, for example, extreme wage theft is the norm, making it nearly impossible for ethical businesses to compete.

Ethical businessman David Launius, owner of We’ll Clean Car Wash, says “the human element of business is the most important.” Writing in support of the ordinance in a letter submitted to the Licensing Committee, Launius stated, “We care about the well-being of our staff. We are proud to partner with Arise Chicago to ensure that our workers are the best treated in the industry.”

Fellow Chicago worker centers, including Centro de Trabajadores Unidos/Immigrant Workers’ Project, Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, Latino Union, and Restaurant Opportunities Center brought organizers and worker members to testify in the Committee hearing in support of the ordinance.

The ordinance’s passage is a historic victory for workers because it signals that the City of Chicago will not tolerate wage theft. Perhaps Arise Chicago Worker Center member Maria Garcia best sums this up when she states, “Now the bosses are going to know that the workers have rights, too.”

–Adam is the Worker Center Program Director at Arise Chicago

Media HighlightsSalonThe Guardian

In These Times

Telemundo

click photo at right for video clip

Think Progress

Chicago Reporter

La Raza 

Portside

Clasp                               

DNAinfo.com

Progress IL                       

Lincoln Square Patch

47th Ward Newsletter

Arise Chicago YouTube video of press conference

As a result of the months of collaboration between Arise Chicago and Alderman Pawar (47th ward), on Thursday, January 17th, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance stating that, should a business owner be found guilty of wage theft, the owner’s business license could be revoked. This makes Chicago the largest city in the country with anti-wage theft legislation. The ordinance, endorsed by the National Employment Law Project as one of the strongest actions a municipality can take to combat wage theft, will impact hundreds of thousands low-wage workers and their families in Chicago.

Ald. Pawar

“This ordinance helps change the conversation about good business. To be pro-business also includes caring about how employees are treated,” reflected Alderman Pawar (right).   “I think this marks an important step in leveling the playing field for the many ethical business owners in our city.”

Arise Chicago Worker Center member Liliana Baca (below) said, “I worked for over 55 hours a week for five years at a grocery store.  And I never received overtime pay. This is my wage theft story.  But I’m not the only one who has a story.  So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.”

Liliana

The ordinance gives desperately-needed tools to the city of Chicago to ensure employers obey the law.

Follow the latest on the new anti-wage theft ordinance by joining Arise Chicago on Facebook and Twitter.

By Luke Sullivan

Within my first few weeks at Arise Chicago, I remember distinctly speaking with a worker who came in to our worker center who made minimum wage. Our conversation eventually turned to how stressful her life had become. She worked full time and just could not afford clothes, food, schooling and many other necessities for her children. Because of this, she was forced to begin the process of moving to another city to live with her brother. Her children had only known living in Chicago and she was so saddened and downtrodden that she would have to move her children away from the only life they had ever known.

This conversation has remained with me and I think is a powerful example of why the current minimum wage is unfair and unjust. How can someone working full time not be able to afford life’s basic necessities? This is one of many reasons why I was so excited when I was first introduced to the Raise Illinois coalition, a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Illinois. This group hopes to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. One of the many statistics that is used to support this raise is if the minimum wage had risen with the cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.39 per hour today. The coalition wishes to raise it to $10.65 per hour over a four year span and tie it to inflation thereafter. It is not about a handout so all workers can live in great luxury, but about fairness and justice. Plus it makes economic sense: the more money workers have, the more money they are able to spend; if these wages were to increase, the economy will be strengthened.

The Raise Illinois campaign aims to give all families the fundamental necessities to sustain a fulfilling life and to raise a family. It is unjust for members of our community and our state to work full-time and still live in poverty. This is why I was so excited to travel to Springfield, Illinois on December 5th with five Worker Center members, on behalf of Raise Illinois, to educate lawmakers on the need to increase the state minimum wage.

The five workers made the trip in order to share their stories about how, even when working full-time, the minimum wage is so low that it is keeping working families like theirs in poverty. One of the workers, Maria Winnie Gonzalez, while speaking to one state representative who was undecided on the issue, pleaded that being a minimum wage worker did not allow her to “buy clothes, food, and so many other things that my children and entire family need.”

IMG_0773The workers wanted all lawmakers, even those unavailable that day, to hear their voice, so they also left a note in Sen. John Mulroe’s office, which was signed by all the workers, asking him to do God’s Justice and raise the minimum wage to a living wage. It is true that their families and the families of so many of their friends and co-workers need this raise.

As a Dominican Volunteer, my faith is very important to me. Jesus says it succinctly when he is speaking to God, saying, “That they may be one, just as we are one.” I think Jesus is telling us to stand in kinship and solidarity, as one, with all people. In this case, we must stand as one so all workers may be treated fairly and not be left behind. For though we may come from different backgrounds and experiences, we are all children of God; and in that, we share a common humanity.

Throughout these past few months at Arise, there have been several campaigns that also work to demand dignity and respect for all workers. I have seen this through working with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Committee, the Arise Chicago Car Wash campaign, the Fight For Fifteen coalition, and so many other movements throughout the city. It has never been about gaining great luxuries and wealth, but instead about making sure everyone in society can earn a decent living. For me, these campaigns are all really asking the same question: “Instead of worrying about the bottom line, shouldn’t we be more concerned about the people who line the bottom?”luke (4)

In January 2011, Senate Bill 1565 was first introduced into the legislature to progressively increase the minimum wage to $10.65 per hour and tie it to the cost of living thereafter. Currently, we are hoping the bill will be passed in the lame duck session of Congress in early January 2013. The coalition is asking for your time and your prayers to see to it that God’s Justice is done, and that this bill is signed into law.

Luke Sullivan is the Religious Organizer for Arise Chicago and also a Dominican Volunteer.

by: Jennifer Angarita

Layout 1Domestic workers, such as caregivers and nannies, make all forms of other work possible and play an increasingly significant role in the U.S. economy. However, a new national study found, on average, domestic workers earn little more than minimum wage and few receive benefits like Social Security, health insurance or paid sick days.

Conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the study released today offers a startling and provocative look into the often-invisible world of domestic workers. Based on interviews with 2,086 workers across the country, researchers found domestic workers face serious financial hardships and have little control over their working conditions.

As a critical part of the U.S. labor force, domestic workers help thousands of working families by enabling them to focus on their jobs. Yet, they are often paid well below the level needed to adequately support their own family. Forty percent of workers report having paid some of their essential bills late in the previous cycle and 23% are unable to save any money for the future.

One worker featured in the report, Anna, reveals how she was “originally promised $1,500” to work as a live-in nanny in Manhattan but received less than half that amount, averaging “just $1.27 an hour.” According to the report, “Anna sleeps on the floor between the children she cares for, so she is the first to respond to their calls and the last to see them off to sleep.”

Anna’s story exemplifies how the absence of legal protections for domestic workers shapes the systemic substandard pay and conditions they experience. Domestic workers are excluded from federal and most states’ minimum wage laws, as well as by unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination and workers’ compensation laws. They also are excluded from the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.

Additionally, the majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants, a number of whom are undocumented. Researchers found wages differ significantly across ethnicity and immigration status.

At the launch event for the report’s release, Ai-jen Poo, the director of NDWA, said, “The nature of work is changing [in today’s workplaces]. We need 21st century policies that value the dignity of domestic work.”

The study calls for the end of the exclusion of domestic workers from labor laws, including state minimum wage laws and workers’ compensation. Without access to collective bargaining and legal protections, domestic workers remain vulnerable in today’s workplaces.

However, nannies, household cleaners and other domestic workers both in the United States and abroad have organized for years to raise labor standards and improve working conditions. New York became the first state in 2010 to legislate a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, granting overtime pay and other legal rights. Today, domestic workers around the nation are continuing to advocate for similar laws in other states.

In an effort to help raise labor standards for all working people, the AFL-CIO formed a national partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2011. Through advocacy and organizing at both the local and state level, domestic workers are joining together with the union movement to help build power for working families.

Read the entire report: “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.”

 Originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW blog. Re-posted with permission.

A great op-ed in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune from University of Illinois professor of labor relations Steven Ashby.

 

chicagotribune.com

 

There’s something happening here

 

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis attends a rally on the second day of the Chicago teachers strike. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / September 27, 2012)

 

By Steven Ashby

September 27, 2012

 

Teachers go on strike in Chicago and Lake Forest. Chicago symphony musicians walk out. Machinists walk picket lines in Joliet, and Wal-Mart warehouse workers stop working in Elwood. Gov. Pat Quinn gets chased from the state fair by angry government workers, and talk of a state workers strike is rumbling.

“There’s something happening here. What it is, ain’t exactly clear,” wrote Stephen Stills in a 1968 song that came to symbolize the 1960s as a decade of social movements and rapid change.

The same words aptly describe labor relations in the United States today. It seems, as 1960s icon Bob Dylan sang in 1964, “the times they are a-changin’.”

In February 2011 we witnessed the Wisconsin workers’ uprising. When Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature passed unprecedented anti-union legislation that also deeply cut social services, hundreds of thousands of people came to the state capital to protest, and several thousand occupied the Capitol for two weeks.

That movement ended with the governor beating a recall effort. Similar legislation in Ohio, though, was overturned when, instead of a recall, organizers turned to a referendum and won 61 percent of the vote in support of workers’ rights.

Then in September 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted and rapidly spread to hundreds of cities across the country. Tens of thousands of previously uninvolved young people took to the streets — and tents—– to protest the Great Recession and income inequality, and made “1 percent” and “the 99 percent” part of our national discourse. That movement dissipated as winter weather hit and police tore town tent cities.

Things turned quiet again, leading pundits earlier this year to suggest that Wisconsin and Occupy were blips on an otherwise quiet labor relations landscape.

Then the Chicago Teachers Union strike happened. What was most notable was that this was not a typical strike of recent years, where a small number of strikers passively picket a site and the real action is going on at the bargaining table. Instead, the CTU mobilized nearly all of its 26,000 members in daily mass rallies and marches, and drew in large numbers of supporters.

Historical change is often best understood by looking at turning points — key moments when history began to dramatically change. Three citywide labor strikes in 1934 ended a period of relative passivity and heralded the country’s largest and most successful worker uprising. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott initiated the nation-changing civil rights movement.

So are Wisconsin, Occupy and the CTU strike another turning point that future historians will see as the beginning of a new mass workers’ movement demanding social change?

If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on it. One key ingredient in the making of historical turning points is that people begin to view street protests as normal instead of weird. Instead of viewing a mass march on TV or the occupation of a building as strange and scary, many people watch those same events and think to themselves, “Good for them. That’s what it takes to get anything done in this country. Maybe I’ll join them.”

You could feel that if you picketed or marched with the Chicago teachers — the constant horn honking in solidarity, the waves and smiles of people from building windows or porch stoops, even the nods of approval from police officers.

Another ingredient in the making of historical turning points is the creation of hope. Occupy and Wisconsin inspired hundreds of thousands of people — but neither succeeded in making change. But the Chicago teachers strike was a clear victory for the union.

Teachers nationwide watched this strike closely and drew hope. The success of the seven-day CTU strike will undoubtedly encourage teachers unions across the country to stand their ground and escalate their efforts to defend public education.

And unionists across the country noted that the foundations for the teachers’ victory were laid over the past two years, as the CTU launched a “contract campaign” to educate, organize and mobilize its members. Every school established an organizing committee. Every member was talked to, their concerns discussed, their activism encouraged. In May the union put 6,000 teachers in the streets of downtown Chicago. In June the union overcame a unique anti-CTU law, Senate Bill 7, and turned out 92 percent of its members to nearly unanimously give the leadership strike authorization.

And during the strike, nearly all of the 26,000 teachers participated in enthusiastic, daily marches; picketed daily at schools; and met regularly to discuss strike issues and actions. They were joined by sizable numbers of supporters who came as a result of two years of the union building strong ties with community and parent organizations, and honing the message that the union fought first and foremost to defend a quality public education for every student.

This is the template for successful organizing. This is the soup from which hope emerges.

Steven Ashby is a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

 

 

THURSDAY 9/13/12

TIFs are for Kids

Penny Pritzker sits on the Board of both Hyatt Hotels and Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As a Hyatt Board Member, she agreed to the construction of a Hyatt Hotel using $5.2 million dollars of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). This money otherwise could have helped provide for students’ basic needs like libraries and text books.

As a CPS Board Member, she failed to prioritize students and has allowed hundreds of millions of CPS dollars to be siphoned off to be given to wealthy developers and corporate headquarters via the TIF system.

The 3:30 action will call on leaders like Ms. Pritzker and the CPS Board to put children first and to use TIF funds for schools, libraries and parks rather than tax breaks to the 1%.  The wider community will join striking teachers who are fighting to protect our children and provide the education they deserve.

Thursday, September 12

3:30pm – Picket at Hyatt Regency

4:45pm – Rally and Press Conference at Park at the corner of Congress Parkway & Michigan Ave

RSVP to the Facebook Event

FRIDAY 9/14/12Religious Support for Teachers

Religious leaders organized by Arise Chicago will join other community leaders at a press conference at City Hall outside the mayor’s office showing the steadfast support for the Chicago Teachers Union who is calling for:

-public education to remain public

-quality schools for all students

-more resources for neighborhood school

-a recall system that will support African American and Latinos  .  teachers in our schools

Religious leaders are invited to attend and to wear prayer shawls, stoles, collars, or other items of your tradition.

Friday September 14, 10:00am

City Hall, 5th floor

 

SATURDAY 9/15/12What Teacher Solidarity Looks Like

This Saturday, the Chicago Teachers Union is asking for all allies to join in a mass rally to keep public education public.

The 30,000 teachers, school social workers, clerks, vision and hearing testers, school nurses, teaching assistants, counselors, and other school professionals of the Chicago Teachers Union are standing strong to defend public education from test pushers, privatizers, and a national onset of big money interest groups trying to push education back to the days before teachers had unions. Around the country and even the world, this struggle is being recognized as the front line of resistance to the corporate education agenda.

Educators and supporters from across the country have pledged to travel to Chicago in solidarity to rally.

Will you join us?  Help us show the world what solidarity looks like! Wear red or your Arise Chicago t-shirt.Let the CTU know you will be there by registering here.

Saturday, September 15

12:00pm noon

Union Park at Ashland and Lake

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