A day of celebration and reflection at the National Mall

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Yesterday, Washington celebrated the 50th Anniversary of one of the world’s greatest events for the cause of civil rights. There were Americans from all states of the union at the March, and many great speeches.

I joined the ceremonies in the morning by participating with citizens and elected officials working for DC Statehood at the DC WWII Memorial, then walked to the Lincoln Monument with the crowd to hear the speeches.  I also took a lot of pictures.MOW MLK sign

Congressman John Lewis, who was a King confidant and who was himself arrested many times, beaten and bloodied, and who is now a member of Congress from Georgia, spoke, as did Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, Arline Holt Baker of the AFLCIO, Mary Kay Henry, head of SEIU, Randy Weingarten, head of AFT, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who drew a rousing round of applause. Pelosi told the crowd she was at the march 50 years ago and heard MLK Jr. speak. She observed that then there were 4 Black members of Congress back then and a Catholic in the White House; today there are 43  Black members of Congress and an African American in the White House. The Black Caucus members “are the conscience of the caucus” Pelosi said. And I was personally so pleased that she also said we need “not just a minimum wage but a livable wage.” That’s what we are fighting for right now in DC!

MOW huddleWe ought to have been celebrating the gains made in the last 50 years and there have been many. The overwhelming sense I had from the crowd, however, which was both heavily African America and union, is that while many important gains have been achieved since Martin Luther King made his “I Have A Dream Speech”, just when you think things are going well, something monumental sets you back. The theme for this march was why the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin, the FL teenager shot while he walked back from a convenience store carrying nothing more than a bag with Skittles, ever happened? Are “Stand Your Ground” laws a chance for racists to carry out vigilante justice and get away with it? And how different is Trayvon Martin from Emmett Till?

Nevertheless, it was a great day in Washington, with excellent speeches and an opportunity to reflect on King’s Dream – with the Trayvon Martin case, immigration reform stalled, and 15 million workers making minimum wage and having to work 2-3 jobs to get by, though, today was a reminder of how much more we need to do to get our house in order.

Fast food workers plan a day of protest on August 29

A coalition of national labor unions and community groups announced a national fast-food worker walk-out scheduled for August 29.  This announcement follows a summer of protest, during which workers from across the country have protested against low-wages and unfair working conditions. Striking fast-food workers have cried foul over unpaid overtime, wage theft, and a lack of upward mobility. Nationally, these workers earn a median pay of $8.94/hr.

The planned walk-out is a precursor to Labor Day, a day our nation pauses to recognize the economic and social contributions of America’s workforce.  And while some workers are doing exceptionally well, median pay for chief executives at the nation’s top corporations jumped 16 percent last year, low wage workers – the bottom 20 percent of the workforce – have seen their incomes fall 5 percent in the last seven years.

Low-wage workers are demanding a $15 minimum wage. Many pro-business advocates have made claims that such an increase would harm consumers and cause prices to skyrocket. In fact, Rep. Markwayne Mullen (R-OK) stated at a town hall meeting earlier this month that a $10 minimum wage would increase the price of a hamburger 438 percent. Such a statement is intended to startle consumers and turn the public against the idea of increased wages. A close examination of the claim, however, proves it to be false. In Australia, where the minimum wage is $16.88/hr., a Big Mac costs $4.94. Australia’s minimum wage is more than double America’s measly $7.25/ hr., and yet a Big Mac is only 74 cents more.

Social media outrage has fueled a renewed invigoration to increase wages and the mainstream media is paying attention. Earlier this week, a Seattle campaign announced their push for a city-wide $15/hr. minimum wage. As public sentiment turns against corporate business greed, the reality of higher wages – and perhaps living wages – for fast-food workers inches towards a reality.

On August 29, the nation will be tuned in and alert to the plight of America’s low-wage worker.

The time to raise the minimum wage is now

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

Every day we see news reports of low-wage workers going on strike for better working conditions. What we really don’t understand or are not told in those 30 to 45 second news spots is the reality facing theses workers. When low-wage workers take the extraordinary step to go on strike they not only forfeit that day’s pay but they put themselves in their employer’s crosshairs. While the law states that retaliating against an employee who exercises their right to assemble, protest and go on strike is illegal, most employers who engage in retaliation; i.e. reducing the worker’s hours, changing the employee’s shifts, dropping their benefits or firing the employee; are never held accountable.

These workers have taken this enormous risk because life as they know it, simply can not continue. With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a single mother that works full time and has one child, lives in poverty at $15,080 (before taxes) a year. This qualifies them for food stamps because without it, they would have little left after paying rent, utilities, transportation, and health care. Even McDonald’s convoluted monthly budget planning guide assumes that workers have two jobs simultaneously and are working both nearly full-time. What’s laughable is that McDonald’s assumes that rent is $600, health care is $20 a month and that is costs nothing to feed and clothe oneself. Through their budget planning guide, they basically admit that workers can not survive on one full-time job that pays the minimum wage.

So why not pay workers more? Low-wage employers, including McDonald’s and Walmart, made billions of dollars in profits in the past few years, yet instead of sharing the wealth with their employees, they pay their top executives on average $9.4 million per year – that’s over $4,517 an hour. Why not shift some of that to the low-wage employees?

American voters, consumers and small business owners want change. Seventy-three percent of likely 2012 general election voters support raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour – including 50% of Republicans and 74% of independents. Close to nine in ten consumers (87%) strongly agree or agree that the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour should be increased. Even a majority of small business owners (67%) support raising the minimum wage. With an exceptionally small raise to $9 an hour, $3,500 would be added to the annual income of full-time low-wage workers and can be used for a year’s worth of groceries or utilities. If raised to $10.10 an hour, as those in both houses of Congress and worker advocates are calling for, then 30.3 million workers would get a raise. It’s time for a real change – we need to raise the minimum wage!

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.