STRIKE: Workers protest wage theft at the Reagan Building

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

On Tuesday July 2, low-wage workers employed at the largest U.S. federal office building, Washington D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Building, went on strike. They were not striking for better health benefits (most don’t receive any health benefits), they were not striking for higher wages, and they were not striking for pensions (most will never see a pension). They went on strike to standup against their employers after being victims of wage theft – they have not been paid legally.

These low-wage workers are employees of federal contractors operating on federal land – the Reagan Building is owned by the federal government and paid for by our tax dollars. However the federal contractors are NOT following the law. Some of these workers have not been paid the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) much less than the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, while others have not been paid the overtime they’ve earned after 40 hours of work a week. Most fear retaliation if they dare to speak up. In many cases, these workers continue to work while being victimized by their bosses because they’re struggling to survive paycheck to paycheck.

Good Jobs Nation, the group responsible for organizing the protest, is made up of workers, community members, and clergy. They have partnered with worker groups and unions to stand with and support disenfranchised workers and raise awareness of the plight of low-wage workers. Today’s protests included speeches by D.C. City Council Members Tommy Wells and Kenyan McDuffie, clergy, and, most importantly, the workers who have been suffering from wage theft. The D.C. City Council recently passed a law allowing workers to not only receive their back wages, but also receive triple the amount of damages.

This is a problem with a simple solution. Since the employers are federal contractors leasing space from the federal government, the federal government needs to add a lease provision that makes all contractors adhere to all the labor laws in their jurisdiction, ensure routine labor enforcement, and have concrete consequences for breaking the law.

For more information on Good Jobs Nation please check out their website and sign the petition asking that President Obama to make sure that federal contractors pay living wages and respect worker rights to join together and have a voice on the job.

The 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act is a reminder that there is more work to be done

jfk infographic

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

“When women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelopes,” declared President John F. Kennedy as he signed the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10th, 1963. Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act, making equal pay for equal work the law of the land. In 1963, women were paid just 56 cents for every dollar men made. While times have changed, the wage gap between men and women remains. Today, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes – better but still far from equal.

Equal pay is not only a question of equality – it’s a question of morals, economics and family values. The wage gap means less money for the needs of families across the nation – less money for rent, groceries, child care and medical bills. The newly published PEW Research Center study shows that in 40 percent of households with children, mothers are either the sole or primary breadwinners. This type of wage discrimination hurts us all.

This practice unfairly targets children in households with single mothers, same-sex couples, and families where both parents work. The pay gap, when calculated over the course of a year, means women receive on average $11,084 less than men performing similar work. That figure is increased among African American women and Hispanic women, who make $19,575 and $23,873 less respectively than a white non-Hispanic male performing the same job. Using these figures, the National Women’s Law Center estimates that women make on average $443,360 less over the course of their careers. That is a huge sum of money when trying to put a child through college, buying healthy groceries for the dinner table, or paying the rent.

Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, more work needs to be done to ensure women have the resources and tools they need to confront discrimination and challenge unfair practices in the courts. Current law forces women to jump through too many hoops in order to make claims of gender discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84 & H.R. 377) would reduce those obstacles and lower those walls in an attempt to finally achieve equal pay for equal work. After 50 years, women are still struggling to find equality in their paychecks, it’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act!

Mineworkers suffer after an unfair and wrong court ruling

mineworker rallyOn May 30, a bankruptcy court handed a devastating blow to mineworkers across the nation. The courts ruled that Patriot Coal could declare bankruptcy and effectively end its obligation to provide healthcare and retirement benefits to mineworkers. Thousands of miners who spent up to 12 hours a day in the mines breathing in harmful coal dust that can result in Black Lung disease and other ailments have been stripped of healthcare benefits intended to alleviate the financial burdens of retirement. NCL, a long-time ally of the United Mine Workers of America, is extremely disappointed with the court’s ruling and thinks the decision ensures corporate greed wins out over everyday worker’s rights.

A closer examination of Patriot Coal’s financials indicates that the company was doomed for failure. When Peabody Energy formed Patriot Coal in 2007, the company held more liabilities than assets. “NCL believes that Patriot was set up to fail,” says Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director.

This ruling reinforces a dangerous precedent established by the courts wherein a company can declare bankruptcy and offload retirees’ benefits. Many Americans think that union contracts are binding agreements between workers and companies; a string of recent court rulings, however, indicate otherwise. This ruling demonstrates that big business can throw workers aside in the name of corporate greed, which will severely weaken our labor unions. This is an unthinkable decision that has far-reaching negative implications for union workers across the country.

Saving workers’ lives with the ’10 cents’ pledge

ProtectWorkers_tag_180_on_160(1)This morning, NCL is proud to announce the launch of the 10 cents social media campaign. Our new pledge campaign aims to harness consumers’ collective power and to send a message to retailers that we American consumers really do care about the health and safety of workers overseas who manufacture our clothes.

On April 24, in Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed and more than 1,100 people died. We have to do everything in our power to make sure that type of disaster never happens again.

The Worker Rights Consortium has calculated that for $3 billion total, every factory in Bangladesh could be renovated and updated to meet basic safety standards, preventing such tragedies. Updates would include construction of proper fire exits or fire escapes, as well as installation of emergency lighting, safety equipment, and electrical rewiring. Recent events have demonstrated the devastation and death that are inevitable when factories do not have these safeguards.

There is an estimated 7 billion individual garments imported every year from Bangladesh. A mere 10 cents tacked on to the price of each garment would generate $700 million a year – more than enough revenue to cover these necessary factory updates.

While European countries are making moves to show their support for improvement, only two American retailers (PVH and Abercrombie & Fitch) have signed an accord agreeing to improve factory conditions for workers in Bangladesh. Other American retailers including Walmart, GAP, JC Penney, and others think American consumers would be unwilling to pay the extra 10 cents needed to keep thousands of workers out of harm’s way.

Consumers need to SPEAK UP and let retailers know we are willing to pay 10 cents. Sign a pledge that you will pay 10 cents more to protect workers. When consumers band together, they have amazing power to influence even the biggest corporation’s decisions.

Let your voice be heard! Take the 10 cents pledge today!

Equal Pay Day serves as a harsh reminder of the pay gap between men and women

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when women were averaging 56 cents for every dollar men made. While progress has been made, women now average 77 cents for every dollar men make, the pay gap remains. Today, 99 days into 2013, is Equal Pay Day. This day symbolizes the extra time needed for women to earn the same salary as their male counterparts in 2012.

President Obama highlighted this pay disparity during his 2012 campaign and painted his opponent as out of touch with the issue. The 2012 election also welcomed a record number of female senators providing an ideal landscape for finally passing the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would prohibit companies from penalizing employees for sharing salary information, and force companies to demonstrate that pay discrepancies are not related to gender.

The fact that women get less money for equal work is not only a women’s issue but also a family issue. At a time when women increasingly are the breadwinners, 71 percent of mothers are part of the labor force, a pay gap unfairly targets children in households with single mothers or where both parents work. The pay gap, when calculated over the course of a year, means women receive on average $10,784 less than males performing similar work. That figure is increased among African American women and Hispanic women, who make $19,575 and $23,873 less respectively than a white non-Hispanic male performing the same job. Using these figures, the Department of Labor estimates that women make on average $380,000 less over the course of their careers. That is a huge sum of money when trying to put a child through college, buying healthy groceries for the dinner table, or paying the rent.

Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, more work needs to be done to ensure women have the resources and tools they need to confront discrimination and challenge unfair practices in the courts. Current law forces women to jump through too many hoops in order to make claims of gender discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act would reduce those obstacles and lower those walls in an attempt to finally achieve equal pay for equal work. It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act!

Getting to know Linda Hilton and Crossroads Urban Center

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

In early October, NCL presented Linda Hilton, advocacy director of Salt Lake City’s Crossroads Urban Center, our Florence Kelley award.  This recognition is reserved for an advocate working outside of Washington DC – often an unsung hero doing heroic work – like advocating for low-income consumers against payday lenders or check cashing operations, fighting sub-prime lending, or exorbitant college loans.

I had occasion to visit Linda in Salt Lake City several weeks after she received our award and observed, first hand, how deserving a recipient she was. Like Florence Kelley, Hilton is indefatigable on behalf of the working class and poor in her native Salt Lake City.

The Crossroads Center is located on the outskirts of downtown Salt Lake City. The Saturday afternoon of my visit a homeless man was asleep in front of the Center. Linda leaned over and asked him by name if everything was okay. About 30 percent of Crossroads’ clients are homeless; that number includes hundreds of homeless families. The man camping out on the lawn of the Center nodded yes. She and I walked inside and she showed me around.

The Center provides vital services to low and middle-income Salt Lake residents. It operates 9-5, Monday –Friday, which in itself is unusual. Linda told me that often when it opens on Monday morning, a line of people are waiting outside – many of them are lined up simply to use a bathroom because they have no other access to toilets or water and sinks for washing. The Center’s staff are also able to cut through the red tape for the clients, a critical resource for anyone trying to get government benefits.

For example, someone entitled to Food Stamps but whose benefits have gotten cancelled or whose paperwork is missing can get same day emergency access to food because Crossroads professional staff has the contacts and knows who to call. The Center provides vouchers for gas for the working poor, many of whom may have jobs but don’t make enough on minimum wage jobs to fill their gas tanks. Bus passes are also distributed so people can get to doctor’s appoints, apply for services and get to work.

Crossroads Center also has a robust network of doctors and even dentists – dental care is especially hard access for low-income families – who are willing to provide free medical and dental services for Crossroad’s clients.

Finally, I got a close look at supplies in the food pantry. Cans of Bumble Bee tuna, Skippy Peanut Butter, canned chicken and beef chili lined the walls, along with bags of lentils and black beans, crackers and chips. Also, boxes of toothbrushes and toothpaste, along with hotel size bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion, were stacked at the Food Bank. I stay in hotels a lot for work and often leave the cosmetics behind. But now I’ve started a collection which I’ll donate to our local homeless drop in center near my home in DC.

Linda showed me the chart they use – if you are a family of three the food pantry has a set list of what you need to eat for several days; if you’re a family of ten, that list is a lot longer. On another whiteboard was NC – for the homeless or others who have no way to cook. They get canned and other food that doesn’t need to be heated up.

Finally, Linda also leads the Coalition for Religious Communities, which does advocacy work on behalf of the very people Crossroads serves. Her critical work in advocating for the reduction reducing sales tax on food in the state of Utah and fighting payday lenders is directly influenced by her day-to-day connections with Crossroads’ clients. She tells the stories much better than I can. (Read what she had to say about her work in her remarks here.) I couldn’t be more proud that Linda Hilton accepted the Florence Kelley award and that NCL gave her the much deserved recognition for her remarkable advocacy on behalf of Utah’s most needy.

New State Department report suggests the global enormity of trafficking

By Steven Dorshkind, NCL public policy intern

The State Department released a new update to its annual Trafficking in Persons Report recently, and the results are shocking. The report states that approximately 27 million people are victims of human trafficking globally. This report also evaluates the countries of the world and places them into four different tiers depending upon the level of commitment and action the individual government have shown to combat trafficking.

Trafficking may take many guises: commercial sexual exploitation, and prostitution of minors, debt bondage and forced labor.

Of the 27 million victims of human trafficking, 55 percent are women and girls who make up 98 percent of the sex trafficking industry. These women and girls can be moved from their home, lured by traffickers by promises of a better life. Once far from home, they often find themselves trapped with no help in sight.

The State Department’s tier system is divided into four components, the First, Second, Second Watch List ,and Third Tier. The First Tier designates countries in which some trafficking may exist, but the government is very proactive in dealing with problem and the country meets the minimum requirements set up by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The Second Tier consists of countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into full compliance. The Second Watch List has countries that do not meet the minimum standards and the country has not provided significant evidence that measures are being taken to comply with the standards. The Third Tier has countries that do not comply with the TVPA’s standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

Thirty three countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, all received First Tier ratings. Ninety four countries, including Albania, Greece, Hong Kong, and Pakistan all received Second Tier ratings. Forty two countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and China, received Second Watch List Tier ratings, and sixteen countries received a Third Tier rating, including; Algeria, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Kuwait, Libya, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Receiving a Third Tier ranking on this report comes with the threat of sanctions: the withdrawal of non-humanitarian and non-trade related forces and assistance, and removal of funding for government employees’ participation in educational and cultural exchange programs, and opposition from the US toward trade and certain development related assistance, from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Many consumer and human rights advocates believe that Uzbekistan should be moved down to the Third Tier because of their blatant disregard for human rights and a lack of effort in trying to meet the minimum standards set up by the TVPA. The groups have written a letter and sent it to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking the State Department to lower the Uzbek government standing from Second Watch List, to the Third Tier. Uzbekistan refuses to allow the International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the harvesting of cotton, and therefore an accurate read of how the cotton is harvested cannot be obtained, and many charge that child labor is rampant. The National Consumers League believes this warrants a Third Tier rating, but the United States government has yet to lower the ranking of Uzbekistan.

The ranking of 42 countries has changed from 2011 to 2012. Fifteen countries were lowered in the rankings, and 27 were raised. Countries moved from First Tier to Second Tier are Nigeria and Portugal. Countries moved from Second Tier to Second Watch List are; Bahrain, Djibouti, Jamaica, Kenya, Macau, Malawi, Namibia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and Syria. The country moved from Second Watch List to the Third Tier was Suriname.

The new report also speaks to the measures that governments can put into place to help ensure the end of human trafficking in their own country. One problem noted by report authors: states that some countries have such strict rules against illegal immigration the victim of trafficking is treated as an illegal alien and tried as a criminal. The report asks for further in-depth study of people found in areas that are considered high risk trafficking zones, suggesting that the police and first-responders to an area must be better trained to identify a trafficked person. This skill is vital to ensure that those who are victims of human trafficking are not merely lumped together with the criminals and treated unjustly. The report puts a large focus on protecting victims.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Over the coming months we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln announced on September 22, 1862 and issued by Executive Order on January 1, 1863.” The idea that slavery is only in the past must be cast out, and the world needs to see that slavery exists in the modern-day and age. Twenty-seven million people are modern slaves who do not enjoy basic human rights and guarantees, they have been pushed to extremes with little food or rest, and they need to be helped. We cannot rest until all of those who are enslaved are freed.

Honoring Black History Month

February is Black History Month and a wonderful time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, and recognize  the role African Americans have played in shaping American history.

Black History Month is also a great opportunity to celebrate the National Consumers League’s historical connection to the Civil Rights Movement. NCL supported racial equality from the beginning; Florence Kelley, NCL’s first leader, was a founding member of the NAACP. During the New Deal, NCL called for including domestic and agricultural workers in labor laws and social security programs, and was alone among women’s groups in demanding racial justice. Lucy Mason, head of the League during the 1930s, also served on the NAACP’s board, and cautioned against “that tendency to believe that the colored worker needs less than the white worker.”

In honor of Back History Month, here are just a few events that helped shape the American workplace and secure equal treatment for consumers and workers across the nation. The events not only celebrate the many African American leaders and activists, but also serve to underscore the remarkable achievements we have made toward racial equality as a country in the past century:

1909: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is formed on February 12 in New York City

1910: The National Urban League is founded in New York City on September 29. The Urban League is organized to help African Americans secure employment and adjust to urban life

1925: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union organized by African American employees of the Pullman Company, was formed with Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph as its first president

1941: On June 25, President Franklin Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, desegregating war production plants and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).

1954: On May 17, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declares segregation in all public schools in the United States unconstitutional

1954: Attorney Frankie Muse Freeman (born Marie Frankie Muse),  serves as lead attorney for the NAACP in Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority , which ended racial discrimination in public housing in the city. Freeman was the first black woman to win a major civil rights case

1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed by Congress on July 2. The act bans discrimination in all public accommodations and by employers and establishes the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) to monitor compliance with the law.

1968: Congress enacts the Civil Rights Act of 1968,  which outlaws discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.

NCL proudly acknowledges Black History Month, salutes the accomplishments of all of the great historical figures and leaders who have worked for justice and equality for all, and looks to the future for the many equal rights achievements still to come!

Saying goodbye to Hull House

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

We learned to our great sadness at the National Consumers League that Hull House in Chicago is closing its doors, though thankfully the Museum will stay open. The historic settlement house founded by Jane Addams in 1889 in a rundown, largely immigrant Chicago neighborhood was inhabited for years by the first head of the NCL, Florence Kelley. Kelley did much of her earliest pioneering work from Hull House and was inspired and supported in that work by her dear friend Jane Addams and many other notable residents.

Hull House was the first of-its-kind settlement houses in America and was home to some of the most renown Progressive-era reformers in addition to Kelley – including Grace Abbot, Frances Perkins, Julia Lathrop, and Alice Hamilton, and of course Jane Addams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Addams bought the Hull House property and staffed it with a community of colleagues that helped thousands of immigrants adjust to life in America, providing classes in English, teaching about American customs, cooking, sewing, infant care, and conducting dance classes and other forms of recreation. Today Hull House provides equally critical services, including foster care, domestic violence counseling and prevention services, child development programs, and job training to about 60,000 children, families and community groups each year.

But now it appears that Hull House will be forced to close because of lack of funds. Stephen Saunders, Hull House’s chairman, issued a statement indicating that growing deficits have plagued the institution for several years.

In a nation with as much wealth as we enjoy here in the United States, it is indeed a sad commentary on our values that a historic institution like Hull House that has throughout its history provided basic services to the poor would be forced to close its doors.

We at the NCL, with our deep historical connections to Hull House and its mission, are greatly saddened at this news. We wish the institution well and we thank those members of the Hull House Board who worked so hard all these years to keep a historical icon working so long and so hard to provide assistance to those in greatest need.

Honoring MLK

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Today as we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. it’s helpful to look around and see where we are in 2012 in the battle against racism and the poverty that is a direct byproduct of racism. I recently heard an astounding statistic: the United States imprisons more Black men today – often for nonviolent drug offenses – than were enslaved in 1850 before the Emancipation Proclamation.

A historical look back is helpful. NCL’s founding in 1899 dates back to the Progressive Era, which was a time of historic reforms in America, but also a time of incredible backlash against former slaves and freedmen and women. Southern governments imposed a wide range of Jim Crow laws – laws and policies requiring Blacks to use different public facilities, live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools, during the Progressive era, often using the rationale that segregation resulted in a more orderly, systematic electoral system and society. Many of the steps that had been taken toward racial equality during the Reconstruction period were undone. The result is that Blacks were denied access to decent schools, housing, and good jobs that paid a living wage.

The founding of the NAACP was precipitated by this series of events. The Jim Crow practices of Southern leaders were regrettably given the blessings of the American judicial system, as in the famous case upholding the principle of racial segregation in the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Plessy found that as long as blacks were provided with “separate but equal” facilities, Black and White segregated schools were acceptable. The problem is, they weren’t equal at all. They were inferior school facilities.

Black leaders were divided on how best to respond cases like Plessy. Booker T. Washington urged that blacks should not actively agitate for equality, but should acquire craft skills, work industriously, and convince whites of their abilities. W. E. B. Du Bois insisted instead (in The Souls of Black Folk, 1903) that black people must ceaselessly protest Jim Crow laws, demand education in the highest professions as well as in crafts, and work for complete social integration. They didn’t like each other much, and their enmity grew. DuBois, who was close to Florence Kelley, NCL’s leader for our first 33 years, was the driving force behind the formation of an organization to fight for the rights of Black Americans. In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded to advance these ideals and Florence Kelley was involved in these early gatherings and today continues to be a vital and critically important organization as does the NCL.

Indeed, as I listened this week to financial guru Suze Orman, Harvard Professor Cornell West and media personality Tavis Smiley continue on their Poverty Tour of America this week, I was flanked on either side by friends from the NAACP. As we continue to work together to battle poverty and racism here are some stark statistics to contemplate:

  • the black unemployment rate is twice that of whites.
  • the average Black family’s household income fell 3 percent from 2009 to 2010, while white and Latino income fell only 1.7 and 2.3 percent, respectively.
  • While poverty rates for all ethnic groups were in the double digits in 2010, the African-American community was faring the worst, by far. More than one in four Black Americans is now living below the poverty line.
  • The economic gains made by African-Americans since the end of World War II and into the aughts have now been mostly decimated. Beyond that, the longer people are unemployed and poor, the less likely they are to be able to take advantage of educational opportunities, and the more likely the are to fall into bad habits

So while we celebrate the life of the great Martin Luther King, Jr. we can’t look at these terrible numbers and do justice to his memory unless we rededicate ourselves to fighting against the effort to destroy the middle class in America, to dismantle union and the decent jobs they provide paying good wages and benefits.

A local minister, Rev. William Lamar, the senior pastor at Turner Memorial AME Church in Hyattsville, Md says it well:

“When it comes to political discourse, during this presidential campaign season, I don’t hear the language that I think honors Dr. King. I don’t hear much talk about poverty, policy solutions to help with the large number of children in American who are living in low income situations. To really honor King, we need to reinvigorate King’s message of uniting Americans around solving the poverty and vast income inequality that exists in America.”

Thank you for those words, Reverend Lamar, and we join you in honoring the work of Dr. MLK Jr. by speaking out against poverty and encouraging our leaders to do so as well.