Heat and Frost Insulators News and Events

IKEA USA Charged with Violating Federal Labor Law

Labor Board Complaint Alleges IKEA Manager Interrogated Workers, Violated Freedom of Association
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The Season’s Hottest Accessories: Tattoos, Vintage Boots… and a Union Card?

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Labor Department to Increasingly Scrutinize Employers in 2015


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Like nails on a chalkboard: How hard-fought labor reforms have been lost


By Terry Golway
May 18, 2015


After the New York Times ran a searing two-part investigation into the exploitation and job-related health problems of the state’s nail-salon workers earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered emergency measures to protect them and appointed a special review panel to recommend long-term reforms. The Times series painted a portrait of an immigrant workforce laboring in dangerous conditions and for pitiful wages — in some cases paying salon owners for the opportunity to make $10, or less, a day.

Nail salons, a growth industry across the nation, appear to be little more than brightly lighted sweatshops, according to the series, throwbacks to a time when immigrants, especially immigrant women, worked long hours for low pay in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

Women in sweatshop at 87 Ridge Street, New York City. Small girl is is Mamie Gerhino, about 14 years old, February 21, 1908.

In the early 20th century, capital pretty much operated as it saw fit. From the slaughterhouses of Chicago, which inspired Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, to the garment factories of New York, factory owners had no need to answer to regulators or inspectors. There were no protections for workers who suffered job injuries, no safety net for families when the breadwinner lost a job. Those who raised objections to the status quo were liable to find themselves without a job or on the wrong end of a police officer’s truncheon.

But conditions began to change with the rise of progressive politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and the growing force of labor unions and social reform movements. Many of these crucial reforms originated in New York, which became a progressive leader in workplace safety and social welfare reform. The state passed laws that set the standard for later federal rulings. The Times series, however, read as if a century of labor improvements had been lost.

Some salon workers were found to be suffering from health ailments that could be related to chemicals they use — just as textile workers in the early 20th century developed tillness from the dust and fibers they inhaled on the factory floor.

New York in the early 20thcentury was home to a rising generation of workers and advocates ready to challenge the laissez-faire dogma of the previous century. The Women’s Trade Union League, a fledgling organization, agitated on behalf of the immigrant women garment workers. In 1909, the union organized a general strike against hundreds of garment factories. Thousands of young women, many of them Jewish and Italian immigrants or the children of immigrants, walked picket lines. Though the strike eventually ran out of steam, the women had made their point. The old way of doing business was over.


But the critical turning point was two years later. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, on the upper floors of a Greenwich Village building. The  workers, largely young immigrant women, sought to flee the inferno, but the owners had locked the doors. There were no fire extinguishers, no sprinklers. A crowd had gathered below and they watched as some of the women jumped to their deaths. When it was over, 146 workers had died.

The Triangle fire ignited mass demonstrations and demands for not only increased workplace regulations, but also for a broader reordering of the relationship between government and the marketplace. After a four-year investigation, a special state commission produced four massive reports that laid the groundwork for the modern regulatory state. The reports created a template for many federal rules passed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The commission went well beyond calls for stricter safety measures. The New York Legislature eventually passed measures limiting the work week to 54 hours for women and children, mandating a minimum daily wage of $2 for workers on the state’s canals and requiring employers to grant workers a day off for every seven worked. These and other laws set off a larger debate in New York that led to passage of a new workers’ compensation law and a state-mandated minimum wage.

Frances Perkins. WIKIPEDIA/Commons.

Frances Perkins, who served on the commission, went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary — and the first woman cabinet member. If she were alive today, she would likely wonder if the commission’s work was in vain. For she surely would see in the lives of New York’s nail-salon workers the same injustices she and her commission colleagues sought to remediate a century ago.

The salon workers, the vast majority of them Korean immigrants, are tethered to the workplace, working 12 hours a day, six and even seven days a week. New York legislators and activists who supported workplace reforms after the Triangle fire thought they were regulating away such gross exploitation.

Perkins, a social worker trained in the settlement-house tradition of the early 20thcentury, made sure that the politicians on the commission saw first-hand the conditions under which industrial workers – including children younger than 10 – labored. The panel’s two legislative leaders were state Senator Robert Wagner, who became a U.S. senator and a champion of the New Deal, and Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith, who became a four-term New York governor and the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1928.

Both Wagner and Smith were products of the sidewalks of New York. But even they had been shocked by the working conditions they saw, including tenement apartments where women and girls did piecework for scandalously low wages and without any safety protections. The New York Times reported at the time “the eating of meals in rooms filled with poisonous dust and gases was found to be a custom” in many factories. The New York Times reported earlier this month that “some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.”

Perkins insisted that Wagner, a German immigrant raised in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, saw for himself what passed as a fire escape in one factory: an ice-covered ladder, accessible through a hole in the wall and 12-feet too short. The lawmakers saw factory floors where children worked until they passed out or where workers put in 12-hour shifts seven days a week.

The plight of the New York manicurists as described in the Times is a serious problem, but perhaps especially so because they work in a state that had set the standards for workplace safety a century ago. In announcing his emergency measures, Cuomo noted, “New York State has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head-on, and today … we are aggressively following in that tradition.” He promised the state would “not stand idly by as workers are … robbed of their most basic rights.”

Sweatshop at 30 Suffolk St. New York, New York . Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Those are fine sentiments, and the governor is right to cite New York’s record as an advocate for workers, particularly immigrant workers who often have no recourse when their wages aren’t paid or they are forced to work in unsafe conditions.

Yet the question remains: How in a state with a long history of worker protection did it come to this?

Which leads to a second question: How many other services that rely on immigrants are routinely exploiting workers, often in plain sight?

Perhaps somebody can persuade Cuomo and his colleagues to follow in the footsteps of Perkins and investigate exploitation and injustice for themselves.

If they do, they should watch their step. It’s dangerous out there.

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Trans-Pacific Trickle-Down Economics

Then came the bailout of Wall Street in 2008. It was sold as the means of preserving the economy.

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AFL-CIO Releases Executive Paywatch Report


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Hatch and Ryan: Chasing Mice and Ignoring the Elephants

It’s a scary thing when powerful government officials misuse their power, and especially when they misuse it to afflict the needy and comfort the comfortable. This appears to be what’s happening now as the chairmen of the two congressional tax-writing committees seek to change the tax status of various worker centers that have annoyed politically active corporations like Walmart, Darden Restaurants, and McDonalds.

I am not a tax lawyer and can’t say with any certainty whether a worker center formed to provide services such as job training, education, and legal assistance to low wage workers should suddenly be transformed from a 501(c)(3) charity into a labor organization if it challenges wage theft or other labor problems caused by a store or corporation. I don’t think the law should operate that way, but the law has a lot of problems.

What I can say is that it’s a shame that Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Paul Ryan are spending their time on a matter of importance only to huge corporations that need no help from Congress in crushing worker organizations, fighting wage increases, and profiting immensely from weak labor standards and high unemployment. As their letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen shows, Ryan and Hatch don’t like the fact that worker centers have exercised their constitutionally protected right to “protest and picket against targeted businesses.”

One of the protests the congressmen cited was a Restaurant Opportunity Center protest over the takeover of Olive Garden restaurants by a hedge fund, Starboard, that wanted to cut labor costs by $48 million and transfer the savings to the pockets of investors. The workers and the worker center weren’t asking for the right to be the exclusive bargaining representative: they just didn’t want their wages cut and didn’t want to be changed from waged employees to tipped employees. But Ryan and Hatch want the IRS to investigate the workers.

Wage cutting is one of the biggest problems facing the American economy, but whose side did Hatch and Ryan take? The hedge fund’s side, of course. They saw struggling workers trying to be heard by a powerful employer, and their response was: “We can’t have that!”

Ryan and Hatch could help reduce the deficit and ease the tax burden on 99% of their taxpaying constituents by eliminating the $11 billion loophole in the tax code that lets hedge fund managers treat much of their earned income as capital gains or dividends, reducing the tax rate from about 40 percent to about 20 percent. But no, when choosing between affluent hedge fund millionaires and low-wage workers, Hatch and Ryan want the IRS to investigate the weak and powerless workers.

Don’t think for a second that Hatch and Ryan are worried about tax compliance. The two Republicans have overseen a reduction in enforcement at the IRS that is ballooning tax avoidance and cheating by entities that—unlike the workers at Walmart or the Olive Garden, have a lot of income and a lot of tax liability to avoid. The congressional budget for the IRS cut $346 million, 1,800 tax collectors, and 46,000 audits. Given that each dollar invested in tax enforcement returns six dollars, it’s impossible not to conclude that Hatch and Ryan are more interested in muffling workers voices than they are in collecting taxes.

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Congress introduces fast track legislation


On Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR), along with House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), introduced “The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015.” Co-sponsors of this trade promotion authority (TPA) measure claim that it will establish rules for international trade agreements that “boost the American economy and better jobs for American workers.”

At issue is giving President Barack Obama streamlined authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country free-trade deal that would essentially dwarf the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many letter carriers can well recall how NAFTA devastated the American labor force by sending millions of jobs overseas.

Chief negotiators for this new TPA measure claim to have included in it provisions that will protect American workers and renew trade preference (“Buy American”) programs. However some lawmakers are skeptical of the Obama administration’s trade agenda, and this skepticism could translate into opposition of any trade legislation that limits Congress’ ability to offer amendments but instead favors straight up-or-down votes.

House Republicans want a vote on the bill before they break for the Memorial Day recess; however, support for the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA bill is unclear.

The measure needs 218 votes to pass in the House of Representatives. That means between 10 and 50 Democrats will be needed to support the bill—depending on how many of the 247 House Republicans might break ranks and oppose it. On that front, there could be anywhere between 24 and 50 Republican who oppose this TPA, alongside an estimated 10 Democrats.

“The Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA gives up congressional leverage at the exact wrong time,” House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI) said. “Instead of pressing [the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative] to get a better agreement or signaling to our negotiating partners that Congress will only accept a strong agreement, the TPA puts Congress in the back seat and greases the skids for an up-or-down vote after the fact.”

“We don’t know how many Tea Party Republicans will not want to give the president this authority,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who is also actively opposing the bill and represents a heavy manufacturing district. “You see on some of the negotiations with Iran [LINK], they want a heavy amount of oversight; they want to watch every move that he makes.

“If that same group applies that same standard to this trade agreement,” Ryan said, “there may be some backlash with us in the House not having the ability to amend it.

“There’s a lot of unknowns out there for a Democrat to get out in front and say, ‘I’m definitely voting for this.’ ”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-NY), a staunch opponent of TPA, said there is a larger concern at stake. “The single biggest economic issue facing American families is that jobs do not pay enough to live on,” she said. “Fast-tracking the TPP would make it easier for corporations to offshore Americans jobs and force our workers to compete with those making less than 60 cents an hour.”

In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Hatch wants a much earlier vote—by the end April—but he will need six supportive Democrats to get to a 60-vote, filibuster-breaking threshold.

“What I can tell you, which is good news, is a lot of members are feeling the heat,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who also opposes TPA. “Whether we can beat it in the Senate or not, I don’t know. I think we have a better shot frankly in the House where, to the best of my knowledge, the overwhelming majority of Democrats are against it.”

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday to discuss the legislation, several senators raised concerns. “Not fair and not adequate on such an important issue,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, who protested plans to rush to a vote.

In anticipation of introduction of the bill, NALC joined several member of Congress and the leaders of other organization at a rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill to voice concerns over trade agreements that fail to address labor’s concerns.

“Our message to all 535 members of Congress is the same,” NALC President Fredric Rolando said at the rally: “We strongly oppose Fast Track authority, and we expect every one of you to vote against it.

“We’ve all seen this movie before,” he said. “Big business and Wall Street banks push secret, anti-democratic deals to protect the investor rights of multi-national companies, under the banner of ‘free trade.’ And they promise rising wages and millions of jobs.

“But what we get,” Rolando said, “is outsourcing, wage stagnation and ballooning trade deficits.”

“We’re here today to fight,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has declared her opposition to Fast Track and TPA. “We are here to fight. Are you ready to fight?”

Also joining Warren to speak were Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Al Franken (D-MN) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-NY), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Dan Kildee (D-MI), Rick Nolan (D-MN), Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Brad Sherman (D-CA).

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Panamanian Dock Workers Join the American Union ILWU

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA (4/2/15) — You see a lot of parked taxis in the parking lot at the Panama Ports terminal here. They’re not waiting to give rides to longshoremen. Dockworkers themselves are the drivers. Longshore wages in Panama are so low that after a shift driving a crane, a longshoreman has to put in another shift driving a taxi, just to survive.

At Panama Ports, however, this situation has begun to change. A few weeks ago the union signed a new contract with raises totaling more than 27% over the next four years. One factor that made this agreement possible was support from a U.S. union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. That agreement will have a big impact on the lives of longshoremen and their families.

In Panama they call longshore pay “hunger wages.” Workers’ families live below the government’s own poverty line, and some families literally go hungry.

“That’s one reason why the company had to constantly hire new workers,” recalls Ramiro Cortez, a leader of the Panamanian union SINTRAPORSPA. “Most people who got jobs here were just working while they were actually looking for better jobs somewhere else. Many accidents in the port could have been avoided if the workers weren’t so exhausted. They go in at 7AM, and leave at 8PM, and then go and drive or do some other job.”

The port does have a high accident rate, and two workers were killed a month apart at the end of last year. In one accident, a crane lifting a container hit a six-high stack of other containers that were being stored on the dock, right next to the ship. As they fell, one hit a 22-year-old man who’d been working less than a month.

Cortez was called by the workers. On arrival he saw the crane operator in shock and weeping. He stopped managers from interrogating him until he got counseling, and then told the company that all the workers in the terminal had been traumatized and should be sent home. If they weren’t, he warned, the union itself would shut down the terminal. In the end, management sent the shift home with pay for the day.

When Cortez announced the agreement to the workers, “I could have been elected president of Panama that day,” he says. “It had never happened before.”

The new union contract established five committees, the most important of which is safety. “The challenge is now to implement this agreement and ensure the company abides by it,” emphasizes SINTRAPORSPA president Alberto Ochoa. “Before the company did what it pleased, and changed the hours, overtime, days off, and wages – whenever it wanted. Now they know we’re not on our own, by ourselves. Companies don’t want real unions because we open the eyes of the workers.”

Panama Ports is a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Port Holdings Limited (HPH). Workers at the terminal were trapped in a “yellow” or company union there for many years. Ochoa and other independent-minded longshoremen had a long history of trying to change this, and finally organized a new union – SINTRAPORSPA. They collected over 2000 signatures on a petition for recognition, and asked for a government-administered election to certify it as workers’ bargaining representative.

In balloting last year, however, the Ministry of Labor claimed that 1500 workers had voted against SINTRAPORSPA. Workers out on the docks found this unbelievable, since they knew how many votes they had lined up. They also knew, however, that the President of Panama himself, Juan Carlos Varela, is a partner in the law firm used by Panama Ports, one that specializes in helping company management fight unions. The dockworkers challenged the transparency of the election.

“It was obvious that we had the support of the great majority of the workers, including those who belonged to the company union,” recalls Cortez. “Nevertheless, when we went to the ministry to protest, they did everything they could to stop us.”

Ochoa and Cortez appealed to the ILWU, whose headquarters is in San Francisco. ILWU International Vice-President Ray Familathe and Greg Mitre, president of the ILWU retirees in Southern California, flew to Panama City and met with the Minister of Labor, Luis Ernesto Carles Rudy. They brought with them a letter signed by six U.S. Congress members, asking for a rerun. The government reluctantly agreed, and in a fair vote SINTRAPORSPA won overwhelmingly.

“The support from the ILWU was very effective,” Cortez says. “The Panamanian authorities were never concerned before about how they conducted themselves with us. Powerful companies, with the money at their disposal, got whatever that money could buy.”

The impact of that support was also felt in the subsequent contract negotiations, which only took a month to arrive at agreement. In one meeting the company executive president even told union negotiators that he was “very concerned” at the union’s growing relationship with the ILWU.

These experiences led the Panamanian dock union to become the newest member of the ILWU’s Panama Division. The division was established in 2012, when several hundred members of the Panama Canal Pilots Union decided to join the ILWU. The division has now grown to include 2580 Panama Ports longshore workers. According to Capt. Rainiero Salas, the Panama Canal Pilots’ Union secretary general, “The Panama Division is growing as workers see what we can gain by working together. It’s not going to stop here.” Adds Ochoa, “Unions in the ports and the Canal should get together so that we can speak with one voice, and get better benefits and respect for all workers.”

Panama division leaders are also meeting with the union for dockers in Colon on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, the Union of Workers at the Manzanillo International Terminal. Like the workers at Panama Ports, the dockers in Colon also rebelled against a former union leadership they viewed as too close to the company. At MIT they elected a new slate of officers a few months ago.

The MIT terminal is operated by SSA Marine, a global company headquartered in Seattle, Washington. According to workers in Colon, container crane operators work 8-hour days, for six days straight. For that, their pay starts at $854 a month, or about $4.27 per hour. Base pay for an experienced longshore worker in SSA Marine’s home port of Seattle is $35.68 per hour.

The low wages on Panama’s docks have a lot to do with the difficulty workers face in forming militant unions and negotiating contracts. But poverty is also a product of trade and economic policies pushed by U.S. corporations and the government trade negotiators who represent their interests.

The U.S. signed a free trade agreement with Panama in 2009. In 2007 Panama’s National Agrarian Organization, the country’s largest organization of farmers, wrote to the U.S. Congress, asking it to stop the negotiations. In Panama, it said, the agreement “was ratified by … a small sector of Panamanian elites.” It predicted a huge displacement of farmers no longer able to compete with U.S. agricultural exports. They would then become either migrants leaving the country, or unemployed people desperate for work in the country’s cities.

In Colon, displaced farmers have become workers in the Free Trade Zone, a stone’s throw from the harbor and MIT terminal. The zone is one of the world’s oldest, set up in 1946 when the Canal Zone was a defacto U.S. colony. Today over 300 mostly-foreign companies run factories that pay no municipal or local taxes, no national taxes on investment, and no duties on products they export. Workers earn $10-15 a day – even less than longshoremen.

“In this country,” says Ramiro Cortez, “there is no middle class. There is just the upper class and the lower class.” While wages are low, Panama is second only to Hong Kong as a home for multinational firms’ subsidiaries – many created with the sole purpose of evading taxes.

The U.S. gave up the Canal in 1977, in an agreement negotiated between President Jimmy Carter and one of Panama’s most progressive presidents, General Omar Torrijos. Nevertheless, U.S. influence in Panamanian politics is still strong. The U.S. invaded Panama in 1989 to “arrest” then-President Manuel Noriega for drug dealing. Hundreds of residents of Panama City’s poorest barrio, El Chorillo, died after it was bombarded by naval vessels. The seafront neighborhood was then assaulted by troops.

Resentment against the U.S. still reverberates. Eighteen years after El Chorillo burned, a U.S.-led naval exercise used the Canal to practice repelling a hypothetical terrorist attack. Three Panamanian sailors drowned, and vocal protests followed.

The ILWU in Panama does not directly challenge the reverberations of that old colonial relationship. But it does represent the interests of workers by advocating progressive policies on wages, trade and labor rights, while effectively defending workers on the job.

Over the past year pilots have fought, with the division’s support, to ensure that the huge ships that pass through the canal every day are operated safely. The Canal Authority has launched a huge expansion project, building new locks capable of handling giant post-Panamax container ships carrying up to 13,000 containers. The union has criticized the government for not working closely with pilots to design work rules and procedures for safely handling these larger ships in the new locks. It is especially concerned over a new unilateral government directive that, for the first time, seeks to have ships pass each other in the narrow Culebra Cut. Previously ships traveling in opposite directions have waited, so that only one ship at a time traverses the cut.

The government says the cut has been widened, but pilots says there is no room for error, and the consequences of ships hitting each other would be disastrous. Last October Capt. Salas criticized the government publicly. “It seems very odd that the most experienced people moving ships through this highly important system have been completely ignored by its governing authority,” he charged. “Pilots’ most critical mission is ship safety, yet we’ve not been consulted.”

Panamanian port and maritime unions are also concerned at the government’s efforts to decertify the union for the canal’s tugboat captains. The same legal technicalities used against the captains, they fear, could be used to attack the representation rights of other unions. That would undermine dock unions just as they are starting to change the basic living standards of workers.

“Our main objective as a union is to make a difference in the economic status of those who have earned the least – the longshoremen,” Ochoa declares. “I’m not saying this new contract will give us a wage that can pay for everything, but it’s a lot better than what we had before. As a union we will keep struggling to win better conditions, especially economic ones.”

David Bacon is a photographer, writer and former union activist, whose work is frequently reposted in TalkingUnion and other pro-worker publications.



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