Pay raises, affordable healthcare: Teachers strike across the country

West Virginia teachers, wildcat strikers, on the move

When teachers in West Virginia closed every school in the state for nine days to strike for better wages and better healthcare plans, other educators, and the public around the country, took notice. One of the key issues of the West Virginia teachers was the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA, and the increasing payments from employees’ paychecks alongside the lack of quality take-home pay for teachers. West Virginian teachers rank 48th in the country in terms of pay, and any raise agreed upon between the West Virginia Education Association and the state would not have been enough to cover the rising PEIA costs.

Instead of caving to the governments’ demands, and suggestions to return to work from the union leaders, West Virginia teachers continued striking two days longer than the union had wanted; when a tentative “agreement” for a five percent raise for teachers and three percent raise for public sector workers was announced by union leaders, the teachers balked, rejecting the agreement and voting to continue the strike, shouting, “We are the union bosses!” and “Back to the table!” The fear would be that the raises would not do anything to fix the more pressing concern of rising healthcare costs, which, teachers argued, would only have short term impact. Chants echoed at the state capitol while the Senate was in session, “Pass that bill or we walk out!” “Hey, hey, whaddya say, fund PEIA!” In the end, instead of a watered down 3-4% raise, the Senate passed a 5% raise and will consider long term action for fixing the state’s public employee healthcare system.

News of the success in the teachers’ strike seems to be emboldening educators in other states. Oklahoma teachers, the lowest paid in the country, are considering a strike, the first major strike since 1990, to demand higher pay from the State Legislature. Teachers in the state are so underpaid that there has been an educator crisis, forcing the state the allow for three day weekends to entice teachers to work in Oklahoma.

On February 26, graduate student workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign launched a strike to protect tuition waivers, which the university is planning to roll back by allowing academic departments to exclude students in their program from being members of the Graduate Student Union (GEO) bargaining unit. The strike also aims to making graduate education accessible for all students, demanding comprehensive childcare, healthcare and financial provisions to keep access to graduate level education open to poor and working-class people. The “Education for All” proposal was announced on day four of the strike.

In New Jersey, Jersey City educators have voted to strike, demanding relief from the rising cost of insurance. The union and teachers are demanding a reform of a Christie Era law, signed in 2011, called Chapter 78. The law required teachers to begin paying for their healthcare costs by percentages that increased over a four-year phase-in. Now that the four years are over, the district is permitted to allow teachers to pay a lower contribution than Chapter 78 requires, something the school board does not want to give in on. Any raises from the contract would not cover the cost of the healthcare payments, as one special education teacher pointed out, “I’m making less than I was five years ago.” As of today, the teachers are still working without a contract.

The rising tide of labor, like waking a slumbering giant, is a welcome relief form the ongoing attack on unions across the country, especially during the Trump administration. This time, instead of relying on union bosses, teachers relied on a collective, on each other, and on public support. And they’re winning.

University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign graduate students, strikers, on the move

 

(Photo Credit 1: In These Times / West Virginia Education Association / Facebook) (Photo Credit 2: In These Times / GEO / Facebook)

Paris chambermaids strike against the cleaning inequalities of the neoliberal state

In Paris the chambermaids of the Holiday inn of Clichy in the Northern district of Paris are striking in a struggle for dignity in the face of increasing dehumanization of service workers. They have decried their work conditions with the company Héméra that contract their work to the Holiday Inn. The workers went on strike after they realized that some of their colleagues had been redirected to another hotel far away, and that workloads had increased while wages stagnated. This is part of a general workers’ response to mounting inequality.

Recently, inequality has resurfaced as a major issue in “democratic” as well as in non-democratic nations. Last week, the Word Inequality Report brought to light a multilayer study of the global rise in inequality. Although Europe has seen a slower increase of inequality, compared to the rest of the world, the increase is still significant and even more troublesome since the European model supposedly relied on a system of protections against inequality.

Employment deregulation and privatization have been touted as a rational means to resist competition in Western Europe.  In the process of privatizing services, cleaners who were employed by hotels or public services are now generally employed by service companies that contract their work. This process lowers the conditions of employment. Service provider companies have multiplied, fragmenting the gained negotiating power of workers and unions. The majority of the people thus employed are women as are 70% of the poor in the world.

Within Europe, until recently France had retained some of the best labor protections, but in recent years the labor code has been reshaped under the pretext that it was too complicated. Most recently, President Macron struck the final blow, redefining labor protection.

At the Holiday Inn in Clichy, the chambermaids said, “NO!”. Blandine Laurenjolla, a chambermaid at the Holiday Inn in Clichy with 10 years seniority, was being forced to transfer to a hotel a few hours away from her home. She is a mother of four, the youngest is only 11 months old. When she complained that she would have to leave her home every day at 4 AM, she was told that with young children she should stay home. In total 2 women were forced to transfer. These transfers and the constant pressure of Héméra company on their domestic workers was such that the strike was voted and supported by a large movement of solidarity. Even some customers of the hotel showed their support.

Thus far, Héméra and the Holiday Inn have turned a blind eye to the demand for dignity and respect for work. Additionally, the workers face constant police pressure, as a chambermaid told us: “I am a chambermaid, we are picketing and demonstrating every day. The management ignores us they send the police every day.” The district’s congresswoman has said that they were not the most visible and “important” personnel of the Hotel, not the people who count. Language opposing people who count to people who are invisible has increased. This language signifies inequality.

The struggle against invisibility is constant in the cleaning service as this crucial work is in patriarchy traditionally attributed to women.

The contracted cleaners of 75 train stations of the northern “transilien” Paris railroad network went on strike after their company was sold to another service provider company in November. The companies merge, sale and buy and the workers’lives are negotiated to a lower grade. After 44 days of strike, the movement succeeded in obtaining their affiliation to the railroad collective agreement with an increase in their bonuses, a guarantee of not being transferred without their agreement and other small advantages.

This strike was a success because the train stations were visibly dirty and dirtier every day. The work of the cleaners was visible in the absence of it. Then, the public train service was more willing to push for a better ending than the warped service businesses left alone.

These movements of resistance by the invisible contracted women workers reminds us of the importance of solidarity. Contracting work is a process key in transferring public power and money into private hands that practice individualism with no concern for a sense of human dignity. The world has never been so rich and the public wealth never so low. That is the source of a human catastrophe.

 

(Photo Credit: Julien Jaulin / Hanslucas / Humanité)

Who’s your boss? Two South African courts decide in favor of workers

A specter is haunting the global economy: the specter of workers organizing. All the powers of the old and new global economy have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this specter, but it just keeps coming back. Actually, it never left. In South Africa this week, organized and organizing workers received encouraging decisions from two separate tribunals. In one case, workers hired through labor brokers, also known as temporary employment services, were told that if they are employed by someone for three months, that makes them employees of the contracting company. In the second case, Uber drivers were adjudicated as employees of Uber, rather than as `self-employed contractors.’ Both decisions will be appealed, but the decisions clarify the status of laborers as they affirm that workers know who they are and they know who their bosses are. Additionally, the decisions have clarified the lines of antagonism. Aspects of class struggle may change, but the essence, exploitation of workers’ labor time, has not.

The case concerning “temporary” workers involved the National Union of Metalworkers, Assign Services and Krost Shelving and Racking. Assign Services provided Krost with workers. Many of them worked for more than three months. The decision by the Labour Appeal Court in Johannesburg means that workers can’t be summarily fired, they have the right to appeal mistreatment, they have collective bargaining rights, and that they qualify for benefits, including retirement and health benefits. In other words, they are permanent workers, no matter what the terms of client to labor broker contract claimed.

This is a victory for workers considered by many to be among the most vulnerable. It also regulates temporary employment services to actual temporary employment status. Once the three months have been hit, the temporary employment services are no longer needed. This also means that workers who have fallen into this double bind, and they are many, can now begin organizing, and litigating, in response to previous damages.

That decision was handed down on Monday, July 10. On Wednesday, July 12, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, CCMA, ruled that Uber drivers are employees of Uber, and so are protected by South African labor laws. In this instance, former Uber drivers, who had organized into something called The Movement filed a complaint concerning unfair employment practices. In particular, they protested having been summarily dismissed by Uber, without cause, reason or possible appeal. They explained that being fired by Uber happens when Uber simply turns off their app. No warning, no process, no nothing. Just silence. Their appeal gained further weight when Uber claimed the CCMA couldn’t hear the case because the drivers are “partners”, not employees. The CCMA didn’t buy that, and so now, Uber drivers have the right to all protections afforded employees: collective bargaining, due process, strike.

Neither case is definitive, and further appeals are already in process, but the cases, individually and taken together, matter. Workers know who the boss is, and they also know the terms of workplace and workforce engagement. Both cases happened at all because of workers’ organizing and organizations raising a ruckus, finding good attorneys, and then raising more of a ruckus. Workers know the difference between temporary and permanent, and they know that permanence, such as it is, is only secured through collective action. The workers also know the entity that fires workers is the employer. Who’s the boss? Ask the workers.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Business Day / The Times) (Photo Credit 2: Quartz / Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko)

Day 4 of #‎LiveTheWageVA: This has been an entirely humbling experience for me

This is “Live the Wage” week, an effort to highlight what it’s like for working women and men making the minimum wage of $7.25/hour. (Find out more at www.livethewageva.org. or, on Twitter, at #‎LiveTheWageVA.) If the question is whether or not people CAN live on minimum wage, many folks would probably say yes. In fact, 1.2 million American workers live on minimum wage. But it takes a lot of planning, sacrifice, and hard choices to make it work. Sometimes that choice boils down to which bills you will pay this month, how much food you can put on the table, or whether or not you can visit a doctor.

The question is whether or not people SHOULD HAVE TO get by on $7.25/hr. If you are working hard and playing by the rules, you should be making enough to support yourself and your family. No one is guaranteed success in America, but everyone deserves a fair shot to succeed and make enough to pay their bills.

Truth be told, I’ve been there. My family has been there. I don’t have a lot of vivid memories from my early childhood, but one that sticks out for me is from a time that my dad took me to visit my mom at the end of her work shift, cleaning tables at a local McDonalds. She gave me some French fries, and oh my god, they were so tasty! Seeing me happy made her smile, but underneath that smile, was a woman who knew that this wasn’t the American dream. My parents both worked low-wage jobs. My dad also worked in the food industry as a line cook at Skillagalee in Richmond.

My dad ended up taking out a bunch of loans so that he could get a bachelor’s degree, since none of his academic or military background in Vietnam translated to a meaningful job in America. For years, my dad lived and studied in Connecticut, while my mom continued to make things work in Virginia. He graduated and still couldn’t find a job. So they borrowed more money and opened up a restaurant. A successful restaurant. By my fourth grade year, they were able to buy a house in the West End of Alexandria, Virginia. The American dream!

But success came with sacrifice. They worked around the clock, and closed the restaurant between 2 and 4 every day so that they could race home and spend at least some time with my sisters and me as we came home school. Often, they were so tired, they would nap during this break. Who could blame them?

I share this more as a reminder to myself. Because I have forgotten what it’s like to have to be consciously aware of my spending habits. As challenging as this week has been for me, I know that it is nothing compared to the reality for people who are actually living on minimum wage. I get to end my challenge at the end of this week. But my fight for economic and social justice will never end.

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Ralph Northam)

Labor, Migration, and the Movement to Stop the Traffic in Women

The traffic in women (or sex trafficking, as it is usually called) has gained central attention in the humanitarian world of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations. The emergence of sex trafficking as the ultimate humanitarian crisis has led to an uncritical, melodramatic discourse. Governmental and non-governmental organizational rhetoric posits women and children as the main protagonists in a tale of capture, rescue, and redemption. Slogans such as “Free the slaves,” “End slavery,” and the authenticity-promising  “Sex trafficking through the eyes of survivors,” prod audiences to learn about human trafficking and embark on rescue campaigns, by donating to anti-trafficking causes or by founding anti-trafficking NGOs.

Human trafficking (sex trafficking included) is a serious problem. What is unrealistic and uncompassionate is anti-trafficking activists’ presentation of trafficking in a political and economic vacuum, and the resultant erasure of capitalist socioeconomics, including labor migration and trade globalization. The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) sums up the problem best: “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.” The slogan refers to the frequent brothel raids undertaken by western humanitarians, raids that result in the so-called rehabilitation of sex workers as employees in the textile industry. Rejecting their easy subsumption under the logic of capitalist accumulation, sex workers mobilize the language of rehab only to reinvest it with their own struggles as workers and women living in deeply racialized and inequitable local and global economies. The APNSW re-channels the trafficking conversation into debates about labor exploitation, in the process recognizing sex work as a legitimate part of the labor sector, as well as situating human trafficking in the broader context of work migration.

So who are the sex trafficked? According to most anti-trafficking activists, the story is simple: the sex trafficked are non-western women and children coming from poverty-stricken places and desperate to move west for a better life. Enter pimps, traffickers, and organized criminal groups who pry on desperation and poverty. The poster child of anti-trafficking campaigns is the naïve and innocent young woman or girl — unfamiliar with capitalist transactions and ignorant of the perils of immigration — beaten into prostitution, her body a living testimony to the cruelty and inhumanity of the sex industry. The reality of migration is messier and less straightforward. As scholars and activists Laura Augustín, Jo Doezema, Kamala Kempadoo, among others, have shown, women migrate for a variety of reasons (poverty being only one of them) and go through a variety of situations that rarely resemble the absolute captivity envisioned by mass media.

The easy equation of sex trafficking and sex work jeopardizes anti-trafficking initiatives. Sex workers, not anti-trafficking activists, are more successful at fighting forced prostitution. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata, India, is a network of sex workers who take upon themselves to locate underage sex workers or those workers who are in the trade against their will. Committee’s success in removing sex workers forced into prostitution should represent a lesson for the anti-trafficking movement. Despite evidence to the contrary, however, anti-trafficking scholars and activists  continue to discount sex workers as reliable allies in the fight against human trafficking.

The misguided conflation between trafficking and prostitution has had serious effects on AIDS prevention programs. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR requires all organizations that receive PEPFAR funding to oppose prostitution and trafficking, both seen as equally oppressive. This anti-prostitution pledge has had negative effects, such as forcing the closure of AIDS prevention programs geared towards sex workers. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision as unconstitutional.

Equally pernicious are the law enforcement and rescue paradigms that characterize current approaches to sex trafficking. In 2004, the U.S. Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Attorney General created the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC), a center that brings together officers and investigators from the FBI, CIA, and the Homeland Security to combat the traffic in women. The makeup of the Center mirrors the State Department’s punitive anti-immigration approach to human trafficking. The law enforcement approach relies on raids of red light districts and indiscriminate arrests of sex workers. The migrant women rescued during these raids have two options: return to their countries or testify against their so-called traffickers.  Following the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Section 103.8, women must also prove that they suffered “severe forms of trafficking” in order to qualify for the T-Visa that enables them to remain in the United States.

Returning to the APNSW, one is puzzled by the exclusion of issues of labor and migration. What would change if activists were to heed the APNSW slogan and consider the rights of women as workers in a globalized capitalist economy. What if anti-trafficking activists acknowledged the fight of migrant women and sex workers for decent work, respect, and social inclusion? While this alternative is unlikely to dominate the anti-trafficking community too soon, the prospect of a justice paradigm centered on labor and migration will continue to inspire migrant workers, sex workers, and their allies.

 

(Photo Credit: Twitter / Lela Who)