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To grow jobs, raise wages

Workers and community groups continue a push to raise the minimum wage here, arguing that it’s a way for Illinois to reduce poverty and create thousands of new jobs.

Tuesday morning (July 24) at 8:30 a.m., a trolley will leave from 209 W. Jackson to visit three Dunkin Donuts and other low-wage employers, and at 2 p.m. at Presidential Towers (570 W. Monroe), Walmart workers will talk about the challenges of making ends meet on a their paychecks.

According to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the largest and most profitable retailers pay lower wages than small and mid-sized companies in the industry.

Homecare workers will rally at the Thompson Center, Randolph and Dearborn, at 3 p.m., and at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, laid-off janitors will call on Mayor Emanuel to endorse an ordinance to protect jobs and wages when the city bids out contracts.

Fifty janitors lost their jobs last month when the city awarded a new janitorial services contract to a South Holland firm.  According to Progress Illinois, the Responsible Bidders Ordinance has the backing of a majority of aldermen – but it won’t move without Emanuel’s say-so.

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More wage-theft charges at Wal-Mart warehouse

A fourth lawsuit alleging wage theft at a Wal-Mart warehouse in Will County was filed in federal court November 18.

Workers hired by Eclipse Advantage to staff Wal-Mart’s warehouse in Ellwood, Illinois, charge they were paid less than minimum wage or shorted on their hours – and in some cases both.

“I worked 21 hours for Eclipse my first week and was paid $57 for it,” said Roberto Gutierrez.  “The company says I only worked 12 hours, by even by their logic I was still paid less than minimum wage.

Warehouse Workers for Justice led dozens of warehouse workers who demonstrated at the Wal-Mart warehouse Monday, demanding that payment records be released.

The suit is the fourth filed by WWJ on behalf of Wal-mart warehouse workers since 2009.  The other suits are pending.

“We’ve seen a spike” of wage theft complaints during the pre-holiday season peak this year, said Mark Meinster of WWJ.

In recent months, California state labor investigators have fined two Wal-Mart contractors over $1 million for violations there, he said.

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

Wal-Mart breaks the law

In June we noted here that NLRB has found Wal-Mart guilty of an array of legal violations — spying, harassment, intimidation, illegal firings — and Human Rights Watch concluded the company violates its employees “internationally recognized rights to freedom of association.”

The company’s disregard for wage-and-hour laws is well known — in December Wal-Mart agreed to pay up to $640 million to settle 73 lawsuits (including two filed in Illinois) charging wage-and-hour violations. Last year a Minnesota judge ruled the company had violated the state’s wage-and-hour law two million times and threatened $1,000 fines per violation (that’s $2 billion); the company agreed to settle for a bargain-rate $54 million.

That’s on top of a $50 million payout in a Colorado lawsuit in 2004; $172 million in California in 2005; $62 million in Pennsylvania in 2006; and $49 million in South Carolina this February.

It seems “Every Day Low Prices” means not just every-day low wages and a pathological opposition to unions, it means ignoring state laws mandating meal breaks, and forcing employees to work overtime without pay. The company is also the plaintiff in the largest gender discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history.

This disregard for law and decency is a central part of Wal-Mart’s ethos from its founding, according to this story from a new book on the company’s “Retail Revolution” reviewed by Harold Myerson in this month’s American Prospect:

“Around the time that the young Sam Walton opened his first stores, John Kennedy redeemed a presidential campaign promise by persuading Congress to extend the minimum wage to retail workers, who had until then not been covered by the law. Congress granted an exclusion, however, to small businesses with annual sales beneath $1 million — a figure that in 1965 it lowered to $250,000.

“Walton was furious. The mechanization of agriculture had finally reached the backwaters of the Ozark Plateau, where he was opening one store after another. The men and women who had formerly worked on small farms suddenly found themselves redundant, and he could scoop them up for a song, as little as 50 cents an hour. Now the goddamn federal government was telling him he had to pay his workers the $1.15 hourly minimum. Walton’s response was to divide up his stores into individual companies whose revenues didn’t exceed the $250,000 threshold. Eventually, though, a federal court ruled that this was simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage, and he was ordered to pay his workers the accumulated sums he owed them, plus a double-time penalty thrown in for good measure.

“Wal-Mart cut the checks, but Walton also summoned the employees at a major cluster of his stores to a meeting. ‘I’ll fire anyone who cashes the check,’ he told them.”

More recently, according to Myerson, after Wal-Mart moved into Southern California, “decades of mutually profitable labor relations” with local supermarket chains were shattered by new demands that wages and benefits  be reduced to match the new competition.The proportion of Southern California grocery workers with health benefits dropped from 97 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2007.



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