Fair Employment

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

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Common Stuggle Common Dreams

Woodfin Workers Fight for Living Wages

Four years after they began organizing, workers are still battling the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville, California. Their fight for decent wages and working conditions sent ripples throughout the community. It fueled a successful drive for a living wage ordinance in the city, and brought together a new coalition advocating for low-wage immigrant workers.

Under the living wage ordinance, Measure C, the Woodfin owes dozens of working immigrant mothers some $200,000 in back wages for shifts they worked in 2006. The hotel pledged to take the matter to court rather than pay up—but the workers say they’re prepared to fight one day longer than their employer.

When I first met the housekeepers at the Woodfin Suites Hotel several years ago, they were hurting. Literally. As one worker, Lorena,* explains:

“I would get home with my feet very swollen, my hands swollen, and with a headache. When we couldn’t finish, they made us punch out after eight hours—and finish off the clock. I even started wondering if we were living in times of slavery. I asked God to open up a way for us to get justice because it was too much.”

Nationwide, the lucrative hospitality industry had been cutting costs by increasing housekeeper workloads—a cost transferred directly onto the injured backs and shoulders of its low-wage workers, most of whom lack health insurance. On top of that, hotels were vying for guests by offering more amenities, like bigger beds and in-room kitchenettes, all of which add to the workload of their already exhausted room cleaners. As Lorena suggests, workers were at a breaking point.

So, in November 2005, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), UNITE HERE Local 2850, and the Alameda Labor Council worked with Emeryville voters to adopt an ordinance establishing living wages and fair workload standards for large Emeryville hotels. The ordinance set a modest $9 per hour minimum wage for hotel workers, and required workers to be paid time-and-a-half if asked to clean more than 5,000 square feet of rooms in an eight-hour shift.

But by Spring 2006, workers hadn’t seen the change. Lorena and her co-workers were still cleaning 16 suites per day, each the size of a studio apartment, not the 10 rooms maximum suggested by Measure C. Fed up, dozens of Woodfin workers signed a petition to management demanding their rights, testified at city council, and spoke out in the media.

The Woodfin immediately moved to fire about 20 worker-leaders, including Lorena. The hotel claimed they had received Social Security “no-match” letters for the workers and had no choice but to terminate them, even though many workers had been employed at the hotel for years, and the letters themselves instruct employers not to take any action against workers.

After months of worker actions, growing community picket lines outside the hotel, a statewide boycott, interfaith prayer services, and multiple city complaints and lawsuits, the Woodfin finally brought the workload into compliance with the living wage law. Workload dropped nearly in half. However, by that time, the hotel owed workers around $200,000 in back wages.

Lorena and her fired co-workers never got their jobs back. But that didn’t mean they were going away. A broad-based community coalition raised $50,000 to support them and their families as they staged six-hour-per-day pickets outside the hotel demanding their back wages.

Tired of the worker-led protests, the Woodfin Suites—owned by wealthy San Diego Republican Sam Hardage—used its political connections to have Homeland Security investigate the immigration status of Emeryville hotel workers. In an apparent effort to drive workers from the picket lines, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents showed up at workers’ homes, interrogating one leader, Mariana,* in front of her daughter. “Having ICE at my house affected me a lot. I got so sick from the stress that I had to go to the hospital. Then Woodfin brought a racist hate group to our pickets. Sometimes I can still hear their insults,” says Mariana.

Today, over three years since the living wage law went into effect, Woodfin workers still haven’t seen a single penny. Some are owed up to $10,000. The city administration has twice ordered the Woodfin to pay but hotel management has vowed to take their appeals to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, workers like Lorena and their community supporters are still battling it out on the picket lines and in court, hoping for “God to open up a way.”

As Woodfin workers keep fighting for their back wages, worker justice advocates have seen unscrupulous employers all over the country use raids, deportations, and Social Security “no-match” letters to intimidate immigrant workers from raising workplace standards or joining unions. While such retaliation can be daunting, as Measure C worker-organizer Sarah Norr notes, “People assume that immigrant workers are too vulnerable to organize. But at the Woodfin, we have seen that they are willing to take risks to defend their rights.”
And non-immigrant workers are coming to understand that when some workers are denied their civil liberties, the rights of all workers suffer. “Fighting our employer’s English-only rule, we found that if we want a strong union, we have to fight united,” says Kathryn Lybarger, a gardener and a steward in her union, AFSCME 3299. “But we can’t be united when our immigrant co-workers are under attack. They are some of our strongest workplace leaders.”

For this reason, EBASE decided to help found and staff the Workers Immigrant Rights Coalition (WIRC), a growing alliance of more than a dozen Bay Area labor unions and worker organizations advocating for full labor rights for all workers, for healthy and inclusive communities, and for an end to immigration raids.

“Unions have been organizing low wage workers for years, and employers have frequently threatened to call ICE on worker leaders,” says Wei-Ling Huber, president of UNITE HERE 2850 and chair of WIRC. “But the Woodfin was a clear example of how work authorization policies weaken immigrant workers’ and all workers’ rights to organize. It created a sense of urgency and brought us together in a new coalition.”

WIRC has been fighting back against employer intimidation, leading know-your-rights and political education classes for worker and union leaders, training worker spokespeople, leading mobilizations at local ICE offices, and building consensus in the labor movement for progressive principles for immigration reform. Together, we are building a movement that will protect the rights of Lorena and other brave fighters for workplace justice.

Brooke Anderson is the deputy director at the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), which is celebrating 10 years of fighting for economic and social justice.

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Rights, Not Raids

When the Obama administration reiterated recently that it will make an immigration reform proposal this year, hopes rose among millions of immigrant families for the “change we can believe in.” That was followed by a new immigration position embraced by both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win unions, rejecting the expansion of guest worker programs, which some unions had supported.

As it prepares a reform package, the administration should look seriously at why the deals created over the past several years failed, and consider alternatives. Beltway groups are again proposing employment visas for future (post-recession, presumably) labor shortages and continued imprisonment of the undocumented in detention centers, which they deem “necessary in some cases.” Most disturbing, after years of the Bush raids, is the continued emphasis on enforcement against workers.

We need a reality check.

For more than two decades it has been a crime for an undocumented worker to hold a job in the United States. To enforce the prohibition, agents conduct immigration raids, of the kind we saw at meat packing plants in the past few years.
Today, some suggest “softer,” or more politically palatable, enforcement—a giant database of Social Security numbers (E-Verify). Employers would be able to hire only those whose numbers “verify” their legal immigration status. Workers without such “work authorization” would have to be fired.

Whether hard or soft, these measures all enforce a provision of immigration law on the books since 1986—employer sanctions—which makes it illegal for an employer to hire a worker with no legal immigration status. In reality, the law makes it a crime for an undocumented worker to have a job.

The rationale has always been that this will dry up jobs for the undocumented and discourage them from coming. Those of us who served on a United Food and Commercial Workers commission that studied Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at Swift meat packing plants across the country learned that the law has had disastrous effects on all workers. Instead of reinforcing or tweaking employer sanctions, we would be much better off if we ended them.

Raids and workplace enforcement have left severe emotional scars on families. Workers were mocked. Children were separated from their parents and left without word at schools or daycare. Increased enforcement has poisoned communities, spawning scores of state and local anti-immigrant laws and ordinances that target workers and their families.

Employer sanctions have failed to reduce undocumented migration because NAFTA and globalization create huge migration pressure. Since 1994 more than six million Mexicans have come to the United States. Ismael Rojas, who arrived without papers, says, “You can either abandon your children to make money to take care of them, or you can stay with your children and watch them live in misery. Poverty makes us leave our families.”

Attempting to discourage workers from coming by arresting them for working without authorization, or trying to prevent them from finding work, is doomed to fail. To reduce the pressure that causes undocumented migration, we need to change our trade and economic policies so they don't produce poverty in countries like Mexico.

Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney wrote to President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper, reminding them that “the failure of neoliberal policies to create decent jobs in the Mexican economy under NAFTA has meant that many displaced workers and new entrants have been forced into a desperate search to find employment elsewhere.” The new joint position of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations recognizes that “an essential component of the long term solution is a fair trade and globalization model that uplifts all workers.”

Continued support for work authorization and employer sanctions contradicts this understanding. Even with a legalization program, millions of people will remain without papers. For them, work without “authorization” will still be a crime. And while employer sanctions have little effect on migration, they will continue to make workers vulnerable to employer pressure.
When undocumented workers are fired for protesting low wages and bad conditions, employer sanctions bar them from receiving unemployment or disability benefits, although the workers have paid for them. It's much harder for them to find another job. An E-Verify database to deny them work will make this problem much worse.

Workplace enforcement also increases discrimination. Four years after sanctions began, the Government Accountability Office reported that 346,000  employers applied immigration-verification requirements only to job applicants with a “foreign” accent or appearance. Another 430,000 only hired applicants born in the United States.

Despite these obstacles, immigrant workers, including the undocumented, have asserted their labor rights, organized unions, and won better conditions. But employer sanctions have made this harder and riskier. When raids and document verification terrorized immigrants at Smithfield's huge packinghouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, it became harder for black and white workers to organize as well. Using Social Security numbers to verify immigration status makes the firing and blacklisting of union activists all but inevitable. Citizens and permanent residents feel this impact because in our diverse workplaces, immigrants and native-born people work together.

Low wages for undocumented workers will rise only if those workers can organize. The Employee Free Choice Act would make organizing easier for all workers. But “work authorization” will rob millions of immigrant workers of their ability to use the process that the act would establish.

The alternative to employer sanctions is enforcing the right to organize, minimum wage, overtime, and other worker protection laws. Eliminating sanctions will not change the requirement that people immigrate here legally. ICE will still have the power to enforce immigration law. And if a fair legalization program were passed at the same time sanctions were eliminated, many undocumented workers already here would normalize their status. A more generous policy for issuing residence and family-unification visas would allow families to cross the border legally, without the indentured servitude of guest-worker programs.
Immigrant rights plus jobs programs that require employers to hire from communities with high unemployment can reduce competition and fear. Together they would strengthen unions, raise incomes, contribute to the nation's economic recovery, and bring the people of our country together. Employer sanctions will continue to tear us apart.

Bill Ong Hing is Professor of Law and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book is Defining America through Immigration Policy. David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.  His newest book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants is published by Beacon Press. This article first appeared in The Nation magazine.

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Clean Air, Good Jobs: Green-Brown Alliance for Worker and Community Rights

More than two million containers of cargo move through the Port of Oakland each year, making it the country’s fifth-busiest container seaport and a crucial link in the global supply chain. It connects the factories of China and the rest of the Pacific Rim with the United States consumer market, handling cargo for some of the wealthiest multinational corporations, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot. The Port generates more than $7 billion a year in economic activity and tens of thousands of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet, low-income residents of neighborhoods near the Port and the truck drivers who work at the Port miss out on their fair share of economic prosperity—and get more than their share of the health and environmental problems caused by diesel pollution from the trucks.

In 2006, the Oakland Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports (CCSP) was formed to bring an end to the broken Port trucking system, which contributes to a public health crisis in our community and keeps many truck drivers in poverty. Today this blue-green-brown alliance has grown to include more than 80 faith, environmental, health, environmental justice, labor, and community organizations fighting for cleaner air, sustainable jobs, and greater accountability from the Port of Oakland. The Oakland Campaign for Good Jobs and Clean Air is part of a national movement with campaigns underway in Los Angeles/Long Beach, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, and Miami.

For decades, progressive social movements have demanded basic human rights. The environmental movement has advocated for clean air and water; the environmental justice movement has organized to minimize the disproportionate impacts of toxics in low-income, people of color communities; the labor movement has called for a voice on the job and a living wage; and community organizations have demanded local jobs and safe streets.  Along with other movements seeking self-determination, they have been building power against multinational corporations that drive the race to the bottom, destroying communities and the environment along the way. Too often, our movements have fallen for the false dichotomy that pits environmental protection against good jobs. But the campaigns for clean and safe ports link these issues tightly—clean air for communities near the ports depends on good jobs for Port truck drivers.

At one time, Port truck drivers did enjoy a middle-class standard of living. But deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980 brought poorer working conditions and a drastic drop in wages. Trucking companies vying for business from big box retailers and steamship lines undercut each other and paid drivers less. Many trucking companies shifted employees to “independent contractor” status, thus avoiding payroll taxes, Social Security, Medicare, and workers’ compensation. The companies have shed responsibility for their fleets as well.  Port drivers must purchase or lease their own trucks and pay for vehicle maintenance, fuel, registration, insurance, and other costs.  They earn as little as $8 per hour, so many can only afford old, polluting trucks that are poorly maintained and unsafe.

Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 truck drivers operate at the Port of Oakland today. Most of them are immigrants. They contract with more than 100 small trucking companies, who in turn contract with retailers and shipping lines.  Drivers work an average of 11 hours a day, and many work 14 hours or more.  Inefficiencies in the system make them spend an average of two-and-a-half hours waiting in line for each load they pick up.  As they are waiting in line their trucks are idling, exposing themselves and residents to diesel fumes that their trucks emit.  Trucks regularly drive through and park in West Oakland, increasing air and noise pollution.  
“Currently, my family has at least 20 people who suffer from asthma,” said West Oakland resident Athena Applon. “Five of them use electric asthma machines and my mother uses an oxygen tank that stands at least two feet tall. Recently, I was diagnosed with asthma, too. I can’t help but wonder if there is a relationship between my family and friends having asthma and the black soot that comes from the trucks that travel in my neighborhood.”

Diesel truck pollution contains toxics that cause asthma and cancer. One in five West Oakland children suffers from asthma. Drivers report severe and persistent hearing loss, asthma, dizziness, headaches, and nausea.  Studies show that workers exposed to diesel fumes have up to 50 percent higher than average rates of lung cancer.

Truck drivers face the highest on-the-job fatality rates in the country. Only 14 percent of Oakland Port drivers receive health benefits. Many drivers rely on taxpayer-funded hospitals and clinics for primary care. 

Diesel pollution from trucks working the Port of Oakland costs the community $153 million per year in health impacts linked to asthma, increased risk of cancer, other diseases, and premature death, according to the recent study, “Taking a Toll: The High Cost of Health, Environment and Worker Impacts of the Oakland Port Trucking System,” conducted by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) and the Pacific Institute.” [1]

Communities near the Port include West Oakland, which is predominantly African American, and several Latino, Asian, and African American neighborhoods along the Interstate 880 corridor leading to the Port. All over the East Bay, working families are struggling in the current economic crisis.  Full-time workers line up at food banks, seek public assistance, and forgo healthcare.  The East Bay’s poorest families earned, on average, only 6.5¢ for every $1 earned by the highest income households in the area in 2007.  Under the current Port trucking system, wealthy global corporations pass the costs of doing business on to those who can least afford it: low-wage truck drivers and low-income communities of color.

“The situation is bad for everyone,” said Chuck Mack of International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Corporate greed is hammering the community, the truck drivers, and all the workers at the Port. It has to stop.”

Holding the Port of Oakland Accountable

Over the past decade, EBASE has worked in labor-community coalitions to pass policy initiatives that have raised wages and secured health benefits for many Port workers.

Beginning in 1999, the Maritime and Aviation Project Labor Agreement (MAPLA) set up a collaborative process to work with the construction industry and enhance accountability to the local community. EBASE provided research, technical assistance, and facilitation to the coalition that helped create  MAPLA. The project significantly increased access to more than $1 billion worth of Port-related construction work for local residents.

In 2002, 78 percent of Oakland voters approved Measure I, the Port of Oakland Living Wage and Labor Standards Charter Amendment, sending a clear message that the Port should lead the way in creating good jobs. The ordinance covers about 3,000 workers at airport and seaport businesses.  Another community-labor coalition worked with the Port of Oakland to incorporate Measure I’s employment standards into the Request For Proposals for Oakland Airport concessions, in an effort that directly parallels the CCSP campaign to set standards for the Port trucking industry.

Next Steps to Fixing the Port Trucking System
The Los Angeles Harbor Commission made history in March 2008 by voting unanimously for a comprehensive Clean Trucks Program that sets environmental, community, and labor standards.  The program, which went into effect in October, makes trucking companies responsible for a clean truck fleet by requiring them to hire drivers as employees, ending the “independent contractor” system. Port air pollution dropped quickly and dramatically. The Los Angeles program now serves as a model for sustainable operations in all West Coast ports.
In response to public pressure, the Port of Oakland is developing a Comprehensive Truck Management Plan.  CCSP will continue to advocate for reforms that make the industry responsible for cleaning up the truck fleet and improving working conditions for Port drivers. The Coalition is also pushing for a local hire program for residents in Port-impacted communities.

Despite these tough economic times, we have a unique opportunity to re-create the Oakland Port trucking system. All over the country, campaigns for clean and safe ports are showing the strength we gain when we join forces. We are seeing our once-separate fights for the rights to good jobs and clean air come together in a single struggle for environmental and economic justice.

1.        Lin, Jennifer and Prakash, Swati. Taking a Toll: The High Cost of Health, Environment and Worker Impacts of the Oakland Port Trucking System, Oakland, Calif. East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the Pacific Institute, February 2009.

Aditi Vaidya leads EBASE’s work to promote living wage and health for workers at the Port of Oakland and helps to organize the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, an alliance of over 80 environmental, labor, faith, public health, and community organizations promoting sustainable economic development at the Port of Oakland. For more information visit www.oakland.cleanandsafeports.org.

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