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Don’t fear 15

With fast-food and retailer workers striking in 58 cities Thursday — a dramatic increase over the seven cities where similar actions took place last month — calling for a $15-an-hour wage, here’s an interesting historical note:

Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King spoke at the March on Washington, one of the demands was a minimum wage increase from $1.15 to $2 an hour.  That would be just over $15 in today’s dollars.

In case we’re tempted to get carried away with this “dream,” the Chicago Tribune offers us University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson’s advice: “Don’t fight for 15.”

All in all, it’s a pretty thorough demonstration of how far the dismal science can stray from any connection with reality.

First of all, he warns that if workers become too expensive, they risk being replaced by automation.  In fact, though, it’s really hard to imagine how much more automated McDonald’s could be.   Or to picture computerized checkouts at Macy’s.

He suggests higher wages would mean even higher unemployment rates for minority teens.  That might be a factor if there were a better job market for older people, but there isn’t — especially with an economy that is quickly replacing middle-class jobs with low-wage ones.

More than half of new jobs are in low-wage retail and hospitality sectors, according to the Chicago Political Economy Group.  And the number of college graduates earning minimum wage is steadily growing.

In fact the surge in youth unemployment came before the 2008 crash, while the economy was growing (not very fast), as federal funding for youth jobs was eliminated.  As we noted at the time, it was the first economic recovery in which youth unempoyment increased.  That was without a minimum wage hike, too.

Really poor?

Sanderson then looks into the “claim” that “one can’t live on $8.25 an hour and that someone working full-time would be in poverty.”  Not true at all, he says — a full-time minimum wage worker earns $16,500 a year, a generous $1,000 above the federal poverty level for a two-person household.

Of course, if the full-time worker had two kids rather than one, the family would be at about 20 percent below the poverty level.  Which is not exactly quibbling.

But the reality is that only about one-third of minimum wage workers have full-time jobs.  That’s one of the reasons fast-food workers want a union — so they can negotiate over things like scheduling.

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Corporate lobbying group draws fire

A broad coalition of labor, community, environmental and faith groups will protest the 40th anniversary annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.

The meeting takes place August 7 to 9 at the Palmer House, 17 E. Monroe; the rally takes place there on Thursday, August 8 at 12 noon.

Long a major but shadowy behind-the-scenes player, ALEC came to prominence in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing, when the group’s role working with the NRA to promote Stand Your Ground legislation became known.

With funding by major corporations and membership by one-third of the nation’s state legislators, ALEC provides model legislation in a wide array of areas.

The group joins corporate America’s economic agenda with a right -wing social agenda, according to In These Times editor Joel Bleifuss.  He joined Rey Lopez-Calderon of Common Cause and Brian Echols of Concerned Black Men on a recent episode of Chicago Newsroom to discuss ALEC.  (Watch it here.)

“They’re a great example of the power of Corporate America in American politics,” Bleifuss says.

In 2011 In These Times first exposed ALEC’s use of model bills — despite its tax exempt status which prohibits legislative activity — to undermine public employee unions and privatize government.

Charge tax fraud

“We think it’s tax fraud,” Lopez-Calderon says.  Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy recently filed a complaint with the IRS charging ALEC with filing fraudulent tax returns.

ALEC has gone after collective bargaining rights, clean energy legislation, and campaign finance reform, Newsroom panelists relate.  The group is behind a series of restrictive voter ID laws as well as SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial “Show Your Papers” law.

Echols notes that, on behalf of private prison corporations, ALEC has pushed the War on Drugs’ harsh sentencing laws, targetting African Americans and vastly increasing the nation’s prison population.  Now they’re pushing laws that will increase the detention of immigrants on behalf of the same corporations, Lopez-Calderon notes.

“They’ve viewed this as a long-term way for corporations to make money,” he says, adding that ALEC helped create the Corrections Corporation of America.

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Will higher wages hurt the economy?

Higher wages for fast food and retail workers could hurt the economy, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune.

The analysis includes comments from the Workers Organizing Committee, which led hundreds of workers from national chains, from Wendy’s to Potbelly and from Sears to Victoria’s Secret, in strike actions here last week.  They’re not looking to double wages to $15 an hour overnight; they’re trying to organize a union and address a range of issues.

It also includes a Whole Foods employee who works two additional jobs and still qualifies for food stamps, and a labor economist who is quoted to the effect that high unemployment helps lower wages.

But its major thrust is whether consumers can stand to pay the higher prices that they say higher wages would require.  The economists they ask about this specialize in consumer psychology and marketing behavior.

One crucial piece of information is omitted, curiously:  how big of a price increase are we talking here?

In a column reviewing “the boilerplate argument against higher wages” — which is precisely that it would hurt consumers with “enormous” prices increases — David Sirota fills us in.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.50 would add 5 cents to the price of a Big Mac, according to one analysis.  Another study found that raising McDonalds workers’ hourly rate to $15 would drive the price of a Big Mac up by 22 cents.

Run that by your consumer psychologist.

A recent study by Action Now and Stand Up Chicago found that  raising Chicago retail and restaurant workers’ wages to $15 an hour would cost about $100 million for a sector with $14.2 billion in yearly revenues in the city.  That’s about 2.6 percent of revenue.

“Downtown employers can afford a very significant increase in wages,” they argue.

It’s an important reality check to vague scare talk about higher prices.  That line of arguent works because it involves a “populist insinuation that higher wages would hurt the Average Joe,” according to Sirota.

Here’s another hard economic fact that deserves more attention, courtesy of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability:  the largest, most profitable retailers in Illinois pay the lowest wages.

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Low-wage worker speak out

McDonald’s

Following up on a strike by hundreds of fast food workers here last month, McDonalds’ workers will show up at McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting Thursday in Oak Brook to demand a $15-an-hour wage and the right to organize without fear of retaliation.

They’ll rally at the Rock-n-Roll McDonald.s, 600 N. Clark, at 6 a.m. and take buses to McDonald’s corporate headquarters, where they’ll rally again at 8 a.m.

Temporary workers

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Chicago Workers Collaborative to expose the exploitative and discriminatory role of underground labor brokers known as raiteros, supplying workers for temporary staffing agencies and charging steep transportation fees, has been featured recently by Pro Publica and Marketplace.

Staffing workers and their supporters will present a proposal for basic labor standards to staffing agency owners on Thursday, May 23, at 10:30 a.m., at 1400 W. Hubbard.

Hyatt workers want a seat at the table

Hyatt housekeepers say they have a solution to the corporation’s reputation for labor abuses — add a worker to the board of directors.

(Meanwhile Chicago parents say that the departure of Hyatt board member Penny Pritzker from the school board here opens an opportunity for community input in selecting her replacement; more here.)

Hundreds of hotel workers will meet Wednesday, March 20 at 5 p.m. at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington, to nominate Cathy Youngblood, a Hyatt housekeeper from Los Angeles, to a seat on the corporation’s board.

They’ll be joined by supporters including elected officials and labor, community, and faith leaders.

Hyatt workers in Chicago have been working without a contract since 2009, with Hyatt refusing to follow other hotels here in negotiating over subcontracting and workloads, said Carly Karmel of UNITE-HERE Local 1.

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Bucking trend, garment workers win union victory

While union membership is at historically low levels, with organizing campaigns mired in an increasingly hostile legal terrain, workers at a Northwest Side garment plant won union representation in a swift victory last week.

One factor was the support of a local group that helped pioneer the worker center movement, which utiliizes community organizing strategies to assist low-income and immigrant workers with workplace issues.

Workers at Artistic Stitches Inc., joined by leaders from Arise Chicago, will discuss the significance of their victory at a media event Thursday, January 31 at 12:45 p.m. outside their plant at 2639 W. Grand.

The mainly Latino packers and machine operators voted last week to join Workers United, a union with roots in historical garment and textile industry unions that’s affiliated with SEIU.

Stitches workers contacted Arise after they staged a spontaneous walkout to protest working on Thanksgiving without holiday pay, said organizer Jorge Mujica.  He explained their protections from retaliatory firings under labor law.

But when they started discussing their problems in the workplace,”there were so many different issues that we could never solve them one by one,” Mujica said. “It would take months, years.”  He told them, “You guys need a union.”

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Common sense on pension reform

Lots of gnashing of teeth over the failure of the legislature to “do something” about pension reform.

Some sensible sorts point out we’re probably better off without the plan put forward in the House, which would have been challenged in court and almost certainly found unconstitutional, since the vast bulk of its savings came from reducing the benefits of current state workers and retirees.

In Arizona, which has a constitutional provision like Illinois’s barring any diminishment of pension benefits, a recent reform plan was found unconstitutional – and the state was ordered to pay workers back with interest, points out Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

If there’s one thing we’ve seen this week it’s the wisdom of the 1970 Constitutional Convention in protecting state workers from lying, thieving politicians — and from honest, well-intentioned ones who try to fix their messes without seeing the big picture.

All the plans on the table are focusing on the wrong area of the problem, Martire says.  “We don’t have a benefits crisis, we have a debt crisis.” It’s the predictable result of the 1995 “reform,” which pushed the problem down the road by steeply backloading pension fund payments.

Stabilize the debt

CTBA has proposed amortizing the pension debt over 45 years, which would head off steep pension contribution increases now facing the state — and in fact reduce pension costs over time.

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Walkouts at Wal-Mart

An unprecedent rolling strike wave hitting Wal-Marts across the country – started in September by warehouse workers in northern Illinois and southern California – will include walkouts by employees at a number of Chicago-area Wal-Marts on “Black Friday” this week, organizers say.

Meanwhile organizers working with temporary staffing agency workers charge Wal-Mart is evading the wage commitment it made when it entered Chicago two years ago by using temps to fill positions in its stores here.  Chicago Workers Collaborative is backing staffing workers in Wal-Mart stores who recently filed a wage theft lawsuit against the company.

Wal-Mart employees who will be striking on Friday will speak at rallies on Wednesday, November 21, from 5 to 8 p.m. at two Chicago Wal-Marts, 570 W. Monroe and 3630 N. Broadway.

Backed by labor and community supporters, Wal-Mart associates will walk out at a number of stores in the area on Friday.  Details aren’t available, but media contact information is hereChicago Jobs With Justice is also organizing support

Small one-day strikes started last week at two California Wal-Marts, with workers later walking out at two stores in Dallas and six in Seattle.

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“It’s time for us to speak out,” said Tyrone Robinson, an associate at a Chicago Wal-Mart.  “If we don’t speak out, things are just going to stay the same.”

Robinson is a member of OUR Wal-Mart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart), a nonunion association which has been joined by thousands of Wal-Mart associates in the past year.

“Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world,” Robinson said.  “They could afford to give us decent wages and health insurance and better hours.  They just choose not to.”

One major complaint is the company’s practice of cutting associates’ hours.  Robinson says he was working 40-hour weeks when he started at Wal-Mart a year ago, but since then his hours have been “drastically reduced.”

“I was doing fine,” he said.  “I had a 40-hour week and I was able to keep my own apartment.  I was on my way to getting some kind of vehicle.”  He takes public transit and often has to be at work at 3 a.m.

But since since his hours were cut, “I had to move in with my grandmother,” he said.  “Now I have a two-hour commute.”

There are other immediate concerns.  The company is increasing health premiums by as much as 36 percent following another steep increase last year, and has raised the number of hours needed to qualify for health coverage from 24 to 30 a week.

And after opening for the first time on Thanksgiving evening last year, this year they’re moving the opening time two hours earlier, to 8 p.m.  That’s not welcomed by associates who have to be at the store hours earlier, said Marc Goumbri, a local organizer for OUR Wal-Mart.

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