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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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Workers mobilize on wage theft law

Low-wage workers will be trained in the state’s tough new anti-wage theft law – and workers with their own cases will file claims – at a training Saturday.

Sponsored by the Just Pay For All Coalition for worker leaders from the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos of South Chicago, Chicago Workers’ Collaborative  and Latino Union of Chicago, the training takes place at 10 a.m., Saturday, July 9 at CWC’s Chicago office, 5014 S. Ashland.

Joe Costigan, the new director of the Illinois Department of Labor, will discuss implementation of the law, and training will be conducted by staff from the Working Hands Legal Clinic, which drafted the law.

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Study: Wage violations cost millions

Minimum wage and overtime violations are not confined to marginal employers but are “prevalent in key industries and occupations that are at the heart of Chicago’s regional economy,” according to a new study.

Nearly half of the low-wage workers surveyed reported pay-related violations in the previous week, averaging $50 out of weekly earnings of $322, according to “Unregulated Work in Chicago” from the Center for Urban Economic Development at UIC.

With over 310,000 low-wage workers in Cook County, that could amount to $7.3 million in lost wages due to employment law violations in the Chicago area — each week.

The study found that foreign born workers were 1.5 times more likely than those born  in the U.S. to face wage violations, and that among U.S.-born workers, African Americans were 27 times more likely than whites (and 3 times more likely than Latinos) to face workplace violations.

Over a quarter of workers surveyed reported being paid below minimum wage; two-thirds who worked overtime didn’t get the required time-and-a-half pay; and of those who worked outside their regular shift, 69 percent said they weren’t paid for it.

Three-fourths of childcare workers reported minimum wage violations.

Pervasive workplace violations keep working families in poverty, reduce consumer spending and tax revenues, and force responsible employers into unfair competition, threatening standards throughout the labor market, said researcher Nik Theodore.

He called for strengthening legal standards and stepped-up enforcement.

CUED and local worker advocacy centers will discuss rising workplace violations and initiatives to address them – including “high-road” economic development campaigns – at a conference tomorrow, Thursday, April 8, 1 to 4 p.m. at UIC Student Center, 750 S. Halsted.

It comes as a growing movement to fight wage theft charts new victories.  Last week U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was in town to announce stepped up enforcement after eight years of neglect.  And last month the Illinois State Senate voted unanimously for SB 3568, a bill that would increase employees’ recourses against wage theft and establish criminal penalties for repeat offenders.

The movement grew out of a multitude of workers centers established in the past decade to organize and empower low-wage and immigrant workers.  A number of them were represented at the study release today, and will be at tomorrow’s conference – and will join the Just Pay For All Coalition in Springfield on April 14 to lobby for passage of SB 3568 by the House.

They include:

Arise Chicago, part of a national network of workers centers of Interfaith Worker Justice, works with immigrant workers including Latinos and Poles including workers in factories, construction and maintenance.  The group recently mapped law-breaking by employers in 43 of Chicago’s 50 wards.  (IWJ’s Kim Bobo is author of the authoritative book on the subject, Wage Theft.)

Centro de Trabajadores Unidos – Immigrant Workers Center of South Chicago – which recently won a campaign to get a major local merchant to clean up his act and sign an employer’s code of conduct.

Chicago Workers Collaborative reaches workers through workers rights trainings at churches and commuity centers, has worked with street vendors, day laborers and fast food workers, and is also organizing temporary workers in the northwest suburbs (including at Duraco, who they charge workers are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages).

Korean American Resource and Cultural Center has a workplace justice campaign to educate Korean American workers and small business owners and promote solidarity among Korean, Latino, and African American workers.

Latino Union works with day laborers at temporary agencies and on street corners on the Southwest and Northwest Sides, with a workers center in Albany Park which facilitates fair hiring practices for construction day laborers.

Restaurant Opportunities Center – Chicago (CHI-ROC) works with front- and back-of-the-house staff of restaurants, organizing against wage theft and providing training and job placement; chapters in other cities have opened their own restaurants.  The group released a survey of the restaurant industry in Chicago; a majority of workers surveyed reported workplace violations, as In These Times reported

Workers launch green cleaning service

A new workers cooperative offers homeowners, nonprofits and businesses with an alternative to cleaning services that exploit employees and use toxic chemicals.

A project of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, Workers United for General Maintenance was launched earlier this year, and already has ten contracts, said Tim Bell of CWC. They aim for 300 new contracts by the end of the year — enough to provide 23 worker-owners with full-time employment.

They offer residential and commercial cleaning services, aimed at people and organizations that care about labor and environmental standards.

Cooperative members have years of cleaning industry experience; many had moved on to factory jobs which were subsequently shut down, Bell said. “People were getting laid off; there were no options except to create work themselves,” he said.

Initial members each paid $5,500 to cover startup costs — incorporation, licenses, insurance, and OSHA certification classes, as well as materials, equipment, and initial marketing. New workers can become full voting members after working 4,000 hours.

The democratically-run cooperative chose members to get training as front-line supervisors, bookkeepers, marketers, material handlers and personnel managers.

They’ll get a living wage, and neither they nor their customers will be exposed to toxic chemicals — a sharp departure from industry standards, Bell said.

“The cleaning industry is one of the worst for wage theft,” he said. CWC’s legal clinic has filed over 50 lawsuits for wage and hour violations over the past several years. Beyond wage theft — checks that bounce, nonpayment of overtime — many companies pay substandard wages, he said.

And standard cleaning products can cause cancer, birth defects, asthma, and eye and skin irritation. While they pollute the indoor atmosphere for anyone who uses the space, exposure for workers is far more direct. Discharged into the water system the chemicals are toxic for aquatic species.

Workers United offers residential and commercial services, and they’re reaching out to larger nonprofits including schools and hospitals. One goal is to grow to the point where they can compete with temporary staffing agencies that provide cleaning for public facilities, Bell said

Workers protest ‘no-match’ firings

Latino workers at a plastics manufacturing plant in Batavia are striking to protest “unfair and arbitrary” firings of long-time workers based on Social Security no-match letters.

They’ll hold a press conference tomorrow, Tuesday, February 26, at 11 a.m. at the Proex plant, 1011 Olympia Way, Batavia.>

Seventy Proex employees went on strike and established a picket line today.

They charge the company has “invented” a no-match letter situation in order to fire senior employees with impunity so they could replace them with new workers at lower pay and benefit levels, according to a release from the Chicago Workers Collaborative.

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Ruling Buoys No-Match Critics

Buoyed by a federal judge’s ruling yesterday blocking the use of Social Security “no-match” letters for immigration enforcement, labor and immigrant advocates will rally tomorrow to call on SSA to stop sending the letters altogether (Friday, October 12, 12:30 p.m., Federal Plaza, Adams and Dearborn).

Yesterday’s ruling underscored the position of opponents of no-match letters, that the Social Security data base is “way too fraught with errors to be used for any kind of immigration enforcement,” said Mark Meinster of the United Electrical Workers.

Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California blocked a new Department of Homeland Security rule requiring employers who receive no-match letters — indicating a discrepancy between an employee’s name and social security number — to fire workers who couldn’t themselves correct errors in Social Security records.

Such errors are common, often relating to name changes (which are not reported to Social Security) and clerical errors. A recent report by the agency’s inspector general found 70 percent of discrepancies in Social Security records involve U.S. citizens.

Many legal workers have no idea how to begin correcting bureacratic errors related to no-match letters, said Rosie Carasco of the Latino Organization of the Southwest.

At tomorrow’s rally, several workers will speak about “all the hoops they had to jump through in order to fix the problem and keep their jobs,” said Tim Bell of the Chicago Workers Collaborative.

They will march on the Social Security office across the street, reiterating the request of a delegation a month ago to meet with the regional commissioner. That delegation has received no response to that request, Bell said.

Similar actions are planned across the country, he said.

Originally intended as a method of cleaning up Social Security’s records, no-match letters have become a tool for “bad apple” employers, Meinster said, noting the letters themselves state that they are not to be used as the basis of adverse actions against employees.

“Typically you don’t see no-match letters being used by employers until workers stand up for basic human rights, for the right to organize or to oppose discriminiation, or just to demand bathroom breaks,” he said.

Meinster said UE instituted a no-match hotline (888-DIGNIDAD) in September which has received about 300 calls since then.

In one case, workers at Ballco Manufacturing in Aurora called when they heard rumors that Mexican workers were going to be fired, to be replaced by whites, he said. On September 18, eight workers were told they were being fired because of a no-match; the next day, 15 others who walked off the job in protest were also fired.

When an attorney for the workers looked at their personnel files, none were subjects of no-match letters, Meinster said. “It’s an example of employers using just the threat of no-match letters as a pretext for firing workers for other reasons,” he said.

Meinster said the workers have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the labor board, and the Illinois attorney general.

With the new DHS rule requiring employers to fire workers cited in no-match letters blocked, SSA should consider ending the letters entirely, Meinster said. “They create more problems than they solve,” he said. “There are better tools to update the data base.”

“Social Security was created to care for the welfare of families,” said Carasco. It shouldn’t be in the business of immigration enforcement and getting workers fired, she said.

Meanwhile, the state is studying a DHS lawsuit filed last month challenging a new state law blocking Illinois employers from participating in a voluntary DHS Internet program to check the immigration status of job applicants.

The state law requires a 99 percent accuracy rate when applicants request DHS investigations into initial findings of noncompliance, as well as protections for the rights of applicants, before Illinois businesses can sign up.

According to the state, DHS investigations into noncompliance findings currently have a 50 percent error rate.

Laundry Workers Face Job Threats

November 9 – A caravan of immigrant, religious and union leaders along with affected workers and their families will visit Cintas and other employers threatening to fire immigrant workers and using arrests and deportations against labor activists on November 10, the Chicago Workers Collaborative announced.

Leaving CWC’s 3047 W. Cermak office at 10 a.m, the delegation plans to visit Jays Food, Aguirre Building Maintenance, and the Stockyard Meat Co., all in Chicago, along with Cintas Corp.’s Schaumburg plant.

“Instead of following the law and respecting the privacy of workers who have enabled them to prosper, these companies have decided to take immoral actions against their immigrant employees – with blatant disregard for the workers‚ contributions, their livelihoods or their families,” said Tim Bell of CWC in a statement.]

Labor groups and supporters are protesting a crackdown on immigrant workers amid a hard-fought union drive at three Chicago plants of Cintas, the nation’s largest laundry and uniform service.

Almost 40 Chicago-area Cintas workers have been given two months to iron out discrepancies with their Social Security numbers or face the loss of their jobs, said Ramiro Hernandez of UNITE-HERE.

At the company’s Schaumburg plant about 20 production workers – over a third of the workforce – have been notified that their jobs are at peril, he said.

A delegation of community supporters sought a meeting with the Schaumburg plant’s manager last month and was turned away, said Tim Bell of the Chicago Workers Collaborative.

They were told to contact an official at Cintas’ corporate headquarters in Ohio but have received no responses to their calls, he said.

Cintas is voluntarily carrying out a proposed Department of Homeland Security rule which would encourage employees to fire workers who do not themselves correct Social Security number mismatches or reverify their work authorization after an employer receives a “no-match” letter from the Social Security Administration.

The rule has not yet been enacted, and it has generated considerable controversy. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said the rule could foster workplace discrimination, and civil rights groups have argued it would violate the “document abuse” prohibition and anti-discrimination provisions of immigration law.

Many discrepancies between Social Security numbers and employer records are due to marriages, divorces, common surnames, and clerical errors, they say. And given the cumbersome bureacracy involved, it can take months to resolve such issues.

Advocates point out that the “no-match” letters themselves – which are intended to ensure that workers’ earnings are correctly credited – state that they do not constitute notice of possible immigration violations, and should not be grounds for adverse action against employees.

The DHS proposal could lead to law-abiding workers losing their jobs due to employer misunderstanding or abuse of the rule, they say.

Employees could abuse the rule “to replace more senior people making $11 an hour with new workers getting $6.50 an hour,” Bell said.

Eluteria Mazon, a Cintas employee who has worked at the Schaumburg plant for 14 years, said workers threatened in her plant include some who have worked there for 10 years or more. All of the threatened workers are Latino, she said.

“When the company uses a proposal that isn’t legally required against its own workers, it shows a lack of respect for all the years they have given to the company,” Mazon said.

A delegation of religious leaders is now planning to visit plant managers, said Barbara Pfarr of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues.

A joint UNITE-HERE and the Teamsters organizing drive has been underway at Cintas for almost four years. The NLRB has ruled that the company has illegally suppressed organizing efforts, and NLRB charges that Cintas illegally fired union supporters are pending.

The company also faces several class action lawsuits charging overtime violations and discrimination.



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