The Economic Argument for Raising Women’s Pay

As Amy Traub’s recent DEMOS report shows, women working in the retail industry face stark choices. A typical wage of $10.58 per hour in that industry means women must often choose between buying groceries or paying the electric bill. Traub writes, “if present trends continue, there will be 4.1 million American women working in low-paid retail jobs by 2025—a population larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.”

The situation for these millions of low-wage working women is dire. But why should the rest of America care? What reason is there for someone who is not working and struggling in poverty to take action on behalf of these working women? Many writers on the Left are failing to make the economic argument for raising women’s pay.

This failure is contributing to delayed action on the policy front, and is prolonging the poor conditions that many are enduring in the wider economy. The failure to properly show how depressed wages for some workers contribute to a depressed economy for all is akin to climate writers failing to point out that a coal-fired power plant that pollutes the air is contributing to the melting of the polar ice caps. It is not something people can easily observe, but once it is pointed out, they can’t un-know it.

Fortunately, the Shriver Center’s 2014 report, which uses 2012 data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), can help to make this broader economic argument for raising women’s wages.

14x As Effective As Federal Assistance Programs

From the IWPR: “The total increase in women’s earnings with pay equity represents more than 14 times what the federal and state governments spent in fiscal year 2012 on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).”

In other words, bringing women’s wages to a level on par with men’s wages would result in a transfer of 1400 percent of the amount spent on public assistance programs directly into families’ wallets. The return on investment will be much better than that of public assistance programs, too, since better wages don’t come with the time limits and strings attached that TANF does, and that severely limit families’ ability to escape poverty.

Overall Economic Growth

“The U.S. economy would have produced additional income of $447.6 billion if women received equal pay; this represents 2.9 percent of 2012 gross domestic product (GDP).” When GDP grows, if you own a small business, or run a coffee shop or a summer camp or a real estate company, you’ll have more customers walking in the door with money to spend.

Reducing Poverty

“The poverty rate for all working women would be cut in half, falling to 3.9 percent from 8.1 percent. The very high poverty rate for working single mothers would fall by nearly half, from 28.7 percent to 15.0 percent, and two-thirds would receive a pay increase.” Like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, the US doesn’t need a Wizard to eradicate poverty for half of all working women. It has the power to do so already—by mandating equal pay.

Increased Tax Revenues

Women who make more will also pay more in taxes, to be used for police, fire, trash collection, schools, and other county/city services that make communities safer, improve kids’ chances for success, and raise the quality of life. At present, much of that revenue has been drained away by tax breaks given willy-nilly to the same corporations that are employing women at poverty wages. The watchdog group Good Jobs First has tracked many of these public subsidies and tax breaks, and has built an online tool that taxpayers can use to see which corporations are taking public dollars.

Taxpayers and voters should demand of policymakers that they give women a raise and start letting all of these potential earnings–earnings that belong to everyone–flow into the economy. Additional research is also needed to provide a more robust economic argument for raising women’s wages—one that no right-wing Congressional hearing can puncture.

Not Waiting


Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

New research out this month from the Center on Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that working women aren’t just waiting for politicians to give them a raise. They’re joining unions and demanding a raise. The graph on the right from CEPR’s Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Nicole Woo shows that women are on trend to become a majority of union members by 2030. Despite the well-documented decline of traditional unions’ membership thanks to conservative attacks, women’s steady climb to overtake men within unions could yield some beneficial results for all of us as their voices grow more dominant in collective bargaining, strikes, and policy debates.

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Strong Grassroots Energy Pushes Congress to Unanimously Pass Anti-Wage Theft Measure

As workers’ rights advocates around the country raise their voices in ever-louder protest of wage theft, it appears some in Congress may finally be listening. This week the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), decided to persist in re-introducing an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that would take away federal contracts from contractors who engage in wage theft.

Wage theft protest in Seattle, Aug 1, 2013. Photo via

Wage theft protest in Seattle, Aug 1, 2013. Photo via

Just a few weeks ago, House conservatives blocked a similar amendment to deny contracts to employers with documented wage theft violations (see our timeline of attacks on low-wage workers), so nobody was expecting this new amendment to pass.

But as the votes were tallied, the amendment not only passed, it received a unanimous “yea” vote from the Republican-controlled House.

“Sometimes employers ask workers to show up 30 minutes before their shift starts, while others pay workers with debit cards that charge fees for every use,” Grijalva and Ellison said in a statement released Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter which form it takes—wage theft is wrong and it needs to stop.”

Despite President Obama unilaterally raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour back in February, it’s still possible—given the rampant problem of wage theft for all low-wage workers—that some of those earning the minimum on government contracts are still experiencing some form of wage theft.  Rescinding the contracts is a first step to establish the principle that if you’re getting taxpayer money and you’re engaging in illegal activity, then you won’t get taxpayer money anymore.

The National Employment Law Project found in a recent survey that low-wage workers make up about 77 percent of government contract employees who work in food service, retail or janitorial service.

Building on grassroots success

The grassroots energy that pushed Mr. Obama into signing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers also gets the credit for pushing the anti-wage theft amendment. At a time when bankers and corporate executives are hoarding so much of the nation’s cash that they resemble the robber barons of the early 20th century, workers and their advocacy organizations are grabbing headlines with true tales of employers who rob their own workers. Wage theft, as Sally Dworak-Fisher of Maryland’s Public Justice Center told me in an interview for my PRA report on attacks on low wage workers, “has become for many industries the way they do business.” (Even hiphop icon Snoop Dogg stands accused of failing to pay $3 million in wages to his own bodyguards, who are reportedly now suing him.)

“I’m grateful to the President for raising my wage to $10 an hour, but it’s not enough to care for my son,” says Rodelma Acosta, a McDonald’s worker at the Pentagon, in a statement from the group. “As a single mom, I still have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid because there’s nothing left after paying the rent. Most of my coworkers are like me – we’re single moms and barely making it. We need more than the minimum wage, we need a union to win the living wages and benefits necessary to take care of our families and give our kids a chance to succeed in the world.” – Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC

Low-wage worker advocacy groups like KIWA in Los Angeles are leading the fight to publicize and combat wage theft.

Though the rules for implementing and enforcing Congress’ new anti-wage theft measure for federal contractors haven’t come out yet, the rules did just come out this week for implementing and enforcing the $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers. The workers, many of whom work at fast-food and retail companies housed in federal buildings, were right there to meet the new wage with additional demands. As Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC reported in a blog post earlier this week, Good Jobs Nation is the name of the organization representing the low-wage federal contract workers.

We’ll be watching this summer, as the Congressional Progressive Caucus plans to add the wage theft amendment to every single appropriations bill left in the Congressional session. Will they all get the same unanimous votes from a House that has tended not to care much about workers’ rights?

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Dark Money, Dirty War: The Corporate Crusade Against Low-Wage Workers

Corporate interests have taken credit for reducing private-sector unions to a fraction of their former strength, and for eroding public-sector collective bargaining, especially since the  2010 “Tea Party midterms.” A resurgence in low-wage worker organizing, sparked by growing inequality in the United States, promises to help defend the rights—and paychecks—of vulnerable workers. But corporations and their paid shills aim to snuff out the movement before it catches fire. 

PE Cover Spring 2014 NO DATE

During an April 16 event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Joe Kefauver—a lobbyist and PR man for the National Restaurant Association and the Convenience Store Association—warned the audience of business leaders about an emerging challenge to their corporate dominance. The threat comes, he said, from groups that “have the ability to leverage infrastructure to bring a multi-pronged attack, and force internal corporate changes [that] they wouldn’t have been able to get through [union] collective bargaining.”Though the organizing efforts the Chamber warns about take many forms, corporate PR lumps them together under the label “worker centers.”

At the same Chamber event, Kefauver gloated about industry’s recent successes in weakening “the union movement,” which, he said, “has hit a lot of roadblocks, in large part due to the good work of a lot of folks in this room.”1 Building on their victories, over unions, corporations are now deploying their firepower against a resurgence in low-wage worker organizing prompted by the worst economic inequality in a century.

The stakes are high. For too many working Americans, chronic debt and economic insecurity have become inescapable facts of life. Institutions that once offered refuge and the hope of escape from poverty have been hollowed out by decades of policies that concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Labor unions have been decimated by business interests’ relentless anti-unionization campaigns, and by their successful lobbying in Congress and state legislatures for laws and regulations that favor employers.

As workers face intimidation and legal challenges to their right to join unions (including a case that would damage public sector unions, Harris v. Quinn, on which the Supreme Court is about to rule2), the United States has gained a reputation for lousy treatment of workers. In a new report, the International Trade Union Confederation used a five-point scale to rank countries on their commitment to workers’ rights, with five being the worst. The United States received a ranking of four, meaning there are systematic violations.3 Only about 11 percent of U.S. workers are now represented by unions, down from a peak in the private sector of around 35 percent in the 1950s.4 Today, most union members are public-sector employees such as police officers, teachers, and government workers.

Without unions to advocate for workers’ rights at the local level, employers are able to keep wages low and suppress worker self-organization with impunity. Workers’ rights advocates have documented abuses—such as wage theft, intimidation, and sexual harassment—being committed against immigrant and low-wage workers without fear of prosecution. Inequality is at its highest level since 19285, and studies show that 95 percent of the financial gains made during the current recovery have gone to the top one percent of income earners.6

Into this breach has stepped small but vibrant constellation of low-wage and immigrant-worker organizations. This organizing resurgence features a variety of structures and approaches striving to ensure that workers’ voices are heard in public-policy debates on wages and employment practices. According to a recent briefing paper by United Workers Congress, a federation of such groups, Worker centers [and other low-wage and immigrant worker advocates] have won changes in local policies and practices, built vocal and active membership, and raised public awareness of workers’ issues. These efforts have laid the groundwork for the recent spread of legislative efforts to protect the rights of workers not covered under existing labor law, and to raise the minimum wage for all workers.”7

Such organizing efforts have also drawn the attention of corporate wolves—PR flacks and conservative-leaning think tanks answering to the same business interests that are responsible for the decline of unions and other anti-poverty institutions. While some new worker organizations have endured and even thrived in the face of relentless attacks, their antagonists have generally hailed from the particular industry (restaurant, agribusiness, big box retail, etc.) or social sector (e.g. anti-immigrant movement) that they challenge.

In the court of public opinion, low-wage and immigrant worker organizing campaigns are gaining a reputation for being scrappy underdogs, standing up for the little guys. (More often than not, these “little guys” are actually women; a recent study from the National Women’s Law Center found that women represent almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers.8) But the business lobby is trying to use its megaphone to reverse that momentum. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association are taking advantage of low public awareness of new worker organizations to frame these loosely connected groups as part of the union “Goliath”—a familiar frame that allows corporations to repurpose decades of anti-union messages and tactics.9

Although the attacks are well-coordinated, there are opportunities for low-wage and immigrant worker organizing to respond strategically. The business community is trying to hit a field of small, moving targets with independent leadership. The strength of the field lies partly in its diversity—its networked strength rather than its deep pockets. The opposition is trying to homogenize a heterogeneous field of grassroots organizing in order to simplify, vilify, and attack it. The experienced operatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce refer to their chosen targets as “worker centers,” using the term to merge all organizing efforts—union and non-union, immigrant rights’ groups, domestic workers, food service and retail workers, day laborers, supply chain workers, and more— together into one single, seemingly formidable enemy.10

Wage Thieves

OUR Walmart challenges poor working conditions outside the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Marc F. Henning.

OUR Walmart challenges poor working conditions outside the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Marc F. Henning.

Attacks on worker organizing are taking place against a backdrop of an economy in crisis. A 2013 New York Times article, quoting a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that the “median income for working-age households (headed by someone under age 65) slid 12.4 percent from 2000 to 2011, to $55,640. During that time the American economy grew more than 18 percent.”11

As real wages stagnate or fall, consumers have less money to spend. In response, big corporations seek to preserve their profits in ways that further squeeze workers and their disposable income. This squeezing takes many forms: scheduling workers for fewer hours on the shop floor, spreading fear and anti-union propaganda, cutting back on benefits packages, and, perhaps most shockingly, committing outright wage theft.

Imagine being hired as a cashier at a big-box retailer and being told that you’ll make $8.81 per hour, the average wage of a Walmart cashier.12 Imagine getting your meager paycheck and finding that it’s even less than you expected. Now imagine learning that the missing money isn’t being withheld by mistake. It’s being stolen by your employer. Such wage theft is pervasive across all U.S. industries, and the sums involved amount to much more than petty larceny.

“When we measure it,” Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center, recently told Moyers & Company, “the total amount of money stolen out of American workers’ paychecks every year is far bigger than the total amount stolen in all the bank robberies, gas station robberies, and convenience store robberies combined.”13

“It really has become for many industries the way they do business,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, lead attorney in the Workplace Justice division at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “By not paying overtime or paying less than the minimum wage, they are eroding the bedrock of labor protections in this country.”14

As real wages stagnate or fall, big corporations seek to preserve profits by further squeezing workers and their disposable income: scheduling workers for fewer hours on the shop floor, spreading fear and anti-union propaganda, cutting back on benefits packages, and, perhaps most shockingly, committing outright wage theft. As political economist Gordon Lafer has asserted, “The total amount of money stolen out of every American workers’ paychecks every year is far bigger than the total amount stolen in all the bank robberies, gas station robberies, and convenience store robberies combined.”

The phenomenon of wage theft is especially cynical given the amount of money that low-wage employees already produce for their employers: McDonald’s, for instance, makes an average per-employee revenue of $65,000, according to a report from the business blog “24/7 WallStreet,” derisively titled “The Companies with the Least Valuable Employees.”15

In an article for Alternet in 2013, Paul Buchheit wrote that “McDonald’s employs 440,000 workers worldwide, most of them food servers making the median hourly wage of $9.10 an hour or less, for a maximum of about $18,200 per year.”16 That $9.10 per hour McDonald’s employee is being paid less than one-third of what she earns for her employer in a year. Now she is also having those meager wages stolen, as the Labor Department found in at least two recent cases in New York and Pennsylvania.17

Wage theft is just one of a variety of weapons that private-sector businesses have deployed in order to cheat workers and maximize profits. Other tools include public policy instruments like so-called right to work laws that hamper union organizing; threats of deportation to keep unauthorized immigrant workers from asserting their rights; and lobbying to carve out loopholes in new worker-protection laws, among other devices.

For the past few years, in metro regions and states, workers and their communities have galvanized around the problem of wage theft, standing together to sue and win back money that rightfully belongs to the workers who earned it and the local communities where they spend their paychecks. Additionally, low-wage and immigrant workers are seeking relief from abusive and exploitative working conditions by expanding the laws that defend their interests—raising the minimum wage, creating stiffer penalties for wage theft, and instituting paid sick days and other basic workplace protections. Their grassroots organizing—sometimes, but not always, conducted in partnership with unions—has been effective, and a growing number of cities and states are passing these new laws.

Corporate interests are striking back with bills to pre-empt cities from passing their own minimum wage increases or to mandate paid sick days. These pre-emption bills are produced by right-wing bill mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and pushed by state lawmakers who are often groomed for office by corporate lobby groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.18

The legislative attack is well underway. Eleven states, including Wisconsin, Florida, and Oklahoma have already passed state-level “pre-emption” laws banning cities and counties from mandating employer-provided paid sick days. At least six other states, according to the watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, are currently considering similar pre-emption bills that would prohibit local governments from raising the minimum wage.19

Chamber of Horrors

When the Los Angeles-based Koreatown Immigrant Workers’ Alliance (KIWA) began urging city voters in 2012 to support a state bill that would allow workers to place a temporary lien on the business owner’s property if the business owner committed wage theft, KIWA’s members were excited. The bill would have allowed workers whose employers had stiffed them to place a lien—that is, a transfer of possession— on the employer’s property until workers received the back pay they were owed. A lien is a red flag for lenders and can become a PR problem for employers. “We see this lien as a tool to bring employers who are committing wage theft to the table,” said Alexandra Suh, KIWA’s executive director. “If there’s a lien on the table, they’re going to pay attention.”20 One state—Maryland—passed a similar lien law that went into effect in October 2013.

Dworak-Fisher of the Public Justice Center said she expects that Maryland’s law will deter employers from committing wage theft. “We’re just getting it up and running,” she said. “We’ll be bringing wage lien claims over the summer and into the fall. The unscrupulous employers will be on notice.”21

As the California campaign gained steam, however, local politicians and business owners—some of whom were involved with KIWA projects in the community—started getting notifications from the California Chamber of Commerce. These Facebook ads, blog posts, and other advertising materials claimed that the anti-wage theft bill posed a danger to homeowners.

In one ad shared with PRA, the California Chamber falsely claimed that if the bill passed, it would mean that a third-party homeowner who had a contractor or cleaning service work in the home could wind up with a lien on the home. “Despite the fact that the third party homeowner had absolutely no control over the employee’s work or the wages he/she was paid,” read the statement from the California Chamber, “that homeowner could have his/her property leveraged for unpaid wages of the company’s employees.”22

In reality, the bill explicitly prevents third-party liens, or liens from one company’s workers on a third party’s, or homeowner’s, property. Yet the Cal Chamber’s lie confused and frightened California homeowners. The anti-wage theft measure died in the state Senate in January 2014. When it was brought up again for a vote in the State Assembly on May 28 of this year, it passed by a vote of 43-27. It now moves back to the California Senate for a potential vote later this year.

The corporate smokescreen also obscures the widespread nature of the problem, which continues to be “very, very serious,” as Suh said.23 Indeed, a 2010 UCLA-sponsored survey showed that the vast majority of workers are experiencing some type of wage-related violation on the job in Los Angeles County. “Low-wage workers in L.A. County frequently are paid below the minimum wage, not paid for overtime, work off the clock without pay, and have their meal breaks denied, interrupted, or shortened,” according to the report. “In fact, 88.5 per­cent of workers in the L.A. sample had experienced at least one type of pay-related workplace violation in the week of work before the survey.”24

Lies, Smears, and Innuendo

The high-profile battle in California may have helped provoke an aggressive response from the national business lobby: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative (WFI) has released three faux-academic reports on low-wage worker organizing since last fall, starting with one in November 2013 that purported to expose a cabal of left-wing, foundation-funded, low-wage worker advocacy groups like KIWA.

The report presents a kind of historical analysis of how low-wage and immigrant worker organizations emerged; labels this highly diverse landscape of organizations “worker centers”; charges that they are “union front groups” (UFOs) that circumvent the many restrictions that tie the hands of unions; and maps foundation funding for the low-wage organizing sector (implying that foundations are as responsible as unions for its existence). The report fingers worker-advocacy groups of varying forms and sizes—from small worker centers such as KIWA to larger national organizing efforts like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart).25

Each subsequent U.S. Chamber report builds on the insinuations and distortions of the previous ones. Common to all of them is an effort to redeploy the rhetoric and regulatory efforts developed over decades against unions to attack these varied immigrant and low-wage worker projects that, while generally small, have become among the most dynamic sites of the worker-organizing resurgence. The Chamber’s approach requires convincing the public, policy makers, and judges that so-called “worker centers” are more or less all the same—that they are functionally unions, trying to represent workers for the purposes of collective bargaining while evading the regulatory scrutiny and restrictions on their behavior and funding that unions must endure.

In reality, worker organizing groups use a variety of tactics to achieve their strategic goals: a community organization files a lawsuit to stop local police from using traffic stops to hand immigrant workers over to immigration authorities; a worker center holds workshops to train members to prevent wage theft; or a local domestic workers’ organization holds a rally to call for an end to deportations. In none of these cases is a worker organization “seek[ing] to negotiate with employers on behalf of employees,” as the WFI report asserts.26

It is unsurprising that the corporate Right should want to fight on familiar ground. The loud “union front” accusation represents a clever bit of bait: an invitation for community groups to deny the charge of being unions (as if that were a bad thing) and thereby enter into a potentially endless cycle of defending themselves from that charge. In fact, the relationships between traditional unions and low-wage/immigrant worker organizing groups vary greatly: some have no working relationships with unions, some work occasionally and amicably with unions, and others engage with unions quite frequently and even openly aspire to become more union-like.

But the broad-brush labeling of “worker centers” could have potential legal and regulatory consequences, too. The U.S. Chamber is using its reports–plus attack ads, articles from right-wing think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, and op-eds in major newspapers echoing similar refrains—to persuade the public and the government that all low-wage and immigrant worker organizing groups should be subjected to the same financial reporting and internal structuring requirements that unions face. They aim to impose severe restraints on charitable contributions and to limit or ban secondary boycotts (among other activities). If their opponents are successful, the low-wage worker sector—including groups with no active relationships with unions—could be hobbled.

The Chamber is not only recycling anti-union tactics. In one particularly revealing statement in its first report, author Jarol Manheim compares the loose network of worker centers to the anti-poverty network ACORN, which was targeted and ultimately broken apart by right-wing attacks in the mid-2000s. Manheim names a foundation (Needmor) that supports “organizing to achieve social justice, and was once a major contributor to ACORN chapters in several communities. Between 2009 and 2011, its grantees included, among others, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association (KIWA).”27

This comparison of worker centers to ACORN may be a dogwhistle to business leaders that low-wage worker groups are vulnerable to the same take-down tactics, including pseudo-journalistic video exposés, congressional hearings, and public defunding. As Lee Fang pointed out in an April article in The Nation, the case of ACORN, which dissolved its national structure in 2010 in response to this onslaught, could be seen as a sort of cautionary tale for immigrant and low-wage worker organizing efforts: to avoid the same fate, they will need to recognize and strategically respond to this national threat.

Chamber of Secrets

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s stated mission is “representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions,” but watchdog groups say the U.S. Chamber represents the interests of a select few big industry groups that want to crush worker organizing.28 In some states, where the local Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders tend to operate from the same playbook as the U.S. Chamber, anti-worker campaigns tend to proliferate. The California Chamber of Commerce, for example, has been actively lobbying to prevent the state legislature from passing a bill that would help to prevent wage theft. Watchdog groups such as ChamberWatch have had some success in persuading smaller Chambers of Commerce and even a few big corporations to leave and/or denounce the U.S. Chamber for its history of opposition to any regulation of corporate behavior, including environmental and safety regulations.29

But identifying who is—and isn’t—part of the U.S. Chamber can be a challenge. Unlike many local Chambers of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber keeps its member and donor lists secret. Despite its claim to represent three million businesses, watchdog groups have documented that its actual membership hovers around 300,000. What’s more, local chambers of commerce have publicly denounced or left the U.S. Chamber by the dozens in recent years. U.S. ChamberWatch reported that nearly 60 Chambers have done so since 2009. Though it does not disclose its donors, OpenSecrets has been able to track major donations to the U.S. Chamber from industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Associated General Contractors of America, and the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, itself a hard-line, right-wing business association.30

These and other industry groups are funding a broader, coordinated push to preserve the low wages and exploitative working conditions that now characterize many industries. Their targets include groups such as ROC United, which is a national network of worker centers that is challenging the American model of low-wage service sector employment.

ROC United “really carefully looked at the restaurant industry and thought about what it would take to improve wages and working conditions and standards,” said Janice Fine, a scholar of labor studies and worker centers at Rutgers University. “They are doing a number of interesting innovative things.”31 These include  surveys of restaurant workers to find out what their wages and working conditions actually are; a code of conduct that employers can adopt to take the “high road” and treat workers better; picketing bad-actor employers; and promoting “high road” employers to socially-conscious diners.

In addition to attacks from the corporate sector, some worker organizing efforts have been under constant assault from nativist anti-immigrant groups. Other vectors of attack have come from cultural conservatives such as the American Life League, which has used smear tactics to pressure faith communities and congregations.

For their efforts, ROC United has been subjected to consistent and intense attacks from industry, and has fought back doubly hard. A January 16 New York Times article exposed the restaurant industry’s PR campaign against ROC: “A prominent Washington lobbyist, Richard Berman, has run full-page ads attacking the Restaurant Opportunities Center, accusing it of intimidating opponents,” according to the piece. “He has even set up a separate website,, to attack the group.”32 Restaurant owners have also filed frivolous lawsuits against ROC, aiming to force ROC to spend money and time fighting in court instead of organizing.

In one 2005 case involving ROC’s New York chapter, reports the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “Three restaurants filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that ROC-NY’s activities made it a labor organization subject to the National Labor Relations Act. If ROC-NY were subject to the Act, it would also be subject to a series of requirements… and potentially jeopardize its tax exempt status. The restaurants said that ROC-NY’s filing of litigation, and seeking settlements that provided for improvements in working conditions…, such as promotion policies or language access policies, made ROC a labor union.”33 Such lawsuits are another attempt to shut down new worker formations by calling them unions and seeking to restrict their activities accordingly.

“It’s a sign of their effectiveness,” Fine said.34 And, indeed, the workers’ groups are winning in court. The National Guestworkers Alliance, a network that advocates for guestworkers who are brought in from other countries to work for a specific employer, won more than $200,000 in back wages and damages for a group of McDonald’s employees who had been forced to live in a manager’s basement and were paid sub-minimum wages and denied overtime. ROC United, according to an issue brief from the United Workers Congress, also has had a significant track record of court victories on behalf of workers: “The Restaurant Opportunities Center has won 18 campaigns against exploitation in large, high-profile restaurant corporations that resulted in higher wages and better benefits for these workers, as well as $9 million in recouped wages.”35

Even if these numbers don’t significantly affect the bottom line of mega-corporations such as Walmart or Darden Restaurants (which owns the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains), Fine said, the undeniable power of workers winning back their rightfully earned wages is pulling public opinion over to the workers’ side. “Before, they might have been irritants, but not enough to raise the ire of big, corporate dark-money groups like the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”36

Another approach that worker organizers have taken, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Hoffman Plastic decision—which stripped undocumented immigrants of the right to win any back pay that is withheld during a unionization campaign—is to seek relief from workplace abuses under international human rights law. The Hoffman decision has had real consequences for workers trying to organize themselves into unions to combat wage theft and other abuses. “Workers have abandoned trade union organizing campaigns because of the fear instilled by the Hoffman decision,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a 2005 report on human rights violations in the meat-processing industry.37

In addition to the attacks from the corporate sector, some worker organizing efforts have been under constant assault from nativist anti-immigrant groups. These include groups like FAIR, JudicialWatch, and NumbersUSA. Other vectors of attack have come from cultural conservatives such as the American Life League, which has used smear tactics to pressure faith communities and congregations into withdrawing their support for the Interfaith Worker Justice coalition of worker centers.

A Gathering Storm

If halting low-wage and immigrant worker organizing efforts is the goal, then it appears corporations and industry groups are testing out a variety of strategic models for achieving this goal.

Previous attacks have generally targeted specific worker centers or specific organizing campaigns through legal strategies or PR campaigns. The pattern of recent attacks against new worker organizations suggests not only a growing frequency and intensity but also a kind of nationalization of the attacks. The flurry of op-eds, attack videos, legal briefs, and state legislative interventions draw on a broad range of right-wing infrastructure and tactics (see PRA’s related timeline of attacks on low-wage workers).

One example is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s recent series of reports purporting to “expose” worker centers as being well-funded efforts to unionize low-wage workers.

So far, it appears that the organized opposition to the resurgence in low-wage and immigrant worker organizing has not landed on the kind of PR, legal, and policy package (e.g. “right-to-work,” “paycheck protection,” anti-public employee collective bargaining) that has proven devastating to unions and other anti-poverty groups such as ACORN. But the Chamber, NRA, and others are moving aggressively to box in and take down any challengers to their corporate dominance.

Meanwhile, big businesses are finding that former campaign managers for Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates are willing to act as PR attack dogs to spread rumors that worker centers are corrupt, or “commies,” or fronts for unions. “Picking fights with restaurant workers has been good business for out-of-work GOP operatives,” writes Lee Fang in a recent article in the Nation.38

The battle is joined. The U.S. chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative is stafed with lobbyists and consultants, who visit industry associations and present worker centers as a threat to business. Meanwhile, members of Congress use their subpoena power on Capitol Hill to advance the anti-worker organizing cause.

And so the battle is joined. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative is staffed with lobbyists who, along with consultants like Kefauver, visit local and state-based industry associations, presenting worker centers as a threat to business. Meantime, members of Congress use their subpoena power on Capitol Hill to advance the anti-worker organizing cause.

In September 2013, Reps. Phil Roe and John Kline, two Republican House committee and subcommittee chairs, convened a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions titled “The Future of Union Organizing,” which featured speakers from lobbying groups claiming to represent small business owners, as well as anti-union lawyers. Speakers called on Congress to subject worker centers to same restrictions as unions.

Earlier in the summer, Roe and Kline had also penned a letter to Labor Secretary Tom Perez, requesting that he designate six specific worker centers as labor organizations under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA). Perez refused; but had he fulfilled their request, legal experts say it could have resulted in worker-organizing groups losing the right to picket bad-actor employers, loss of their tax exempt status, and other restrictions.

And should additional industry groups and big companies decide to join the U.S. Chamber’s campaign to squash worker organizing, recent events have made it clear they will find eager friends in high places. At that April 16 U.S. Chamber event hosted by staff at the Workforce Freedom Initiative, the chief of staff for Steve King (R-IA), a right-wing representative who carries the flag for anti-immigrant groups, took the microphone during the Q&A period. He asked a question that low-wage worker organizations and the foundations that fund them might view as a chilling signal that the recent wave of attacks may be mere prologue to an intensified onslaught. “Is there something on Capitol Hill,” the Congressional aide asked the panel of industry lobbyists and lawyers, “we could be doing?”39

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1 Notes from the webcast of this event (held on April 16, 2014)—titled “Shifting Tides: Worker Centers and a New Model of Representation”—were shared with the author by a staff member for Center for Media and Democracy. The webcast was subsequently removed from the Chamber’s website:
2 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.
3 “The World’s Worst Countries for Workers” (International Trade Union Confederation, 2014),
4 Steven Greenhouse, “Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2013,
5 Drew Desilver, “U.S. income inequality, on rise for decades, is now highest since 1928,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 5, 2013,
6 Steven Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 2013,
7 “The Rise of Worker Centers and the Fight for a Fair Economy,” United Workers Congress (April 2014),
8 “Minimum Wage,” National Women’s Law Center.
9 David Sirota, “Making Goliath Walk,” In These Times, Sept. 9, 2008,
10 David Kinkade, “Old Wine in New Bottles: Worker Centers Are the New Face of Union Organizing,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 31, 2014,
11 Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle.”
12 “FY 2013 Sam’s Club Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Field Non-Associate Pay Plan,” Huffington Post,
13 Joshua Holland, “Inside the Dark Money-Fueled, 50-State Campaign Against American Workers,” BillMoyerscom, Nov. 5, 2013,
14 Sally Dworak-Fisher, interview with Mariya Strauss, May 23, 2014.
15 “Companies with the Least Valuable Employees,” 24/7 Wall St, Sept. 26, 2012,
16 Paul Buchheit, “Apple, Walmart, McDonald’s: Who’s the Biggest Wage Stiffer?” Alternet, July 28, 2013,
17Candice Choi, “McDonald’s hit by lawsuits over worker pay,” Associated Press, Mar. 13, 2014,
18 Mary Bottari, “Efforts to Deliver ‘Kill Shot’ to Paid Sick Leave Tied to ALEC,” Huffington Post, Apr. 3, 2013,
19 Amy B. Dean, “The drive to ban mandated paid sick days,” Aljazeera America, May 6, 2014,
20 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.Alexandra Suh, interview with Mariya Strauss, Apr. 7, 2014.
21 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.Dworak-Fisher, interview with Mariya Strauss, May 23, 2014.
22 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. “CalChamber Stops ‘Job Killer’ on Assembly Floor,” CalChamber, Jan. 31, 2014,
23Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Suh, interview.
24Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Ruth Milkman, Ana Luz Gonzalez, and Victor Narro, Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles (KIWA, 2010),
25Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Jarol B. Manheim, The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing (Workforce Freedom Initiative, 2013)
26Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Blue Eagle Has Landed (Workforce Freedom Initiative, 2014),
27Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Manheim, “The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing.”
28Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. See Sam Jewler, The Gilded Chamber (Public Citizen, 2014),
29Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. “Local Chambers vs. U.S. Chamber,” Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch,
30 “Top Organizations Disclosing Donations to US Chamber of Commerce, 2014,”,
31 Janice Fine, interview with Mariya Strauss, April 28, 2014.
32 Steven Greenhouse, “Advocates for Workers Raise the Ire of Business,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2014,
33 Rebecca Smith, Take Action against Wage Theft! (National Employment Law Project, 2007),
34 Fine, interview.
35 “The Rise of Worker Centers and the Fight for a Fair Economy.”
36 Fine, interview.
37Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants (Human Rights Watch, 2005),
38 Lee Fang, “Look Who the Folks Who Took Down ACORN Are Targeting Now,” Nation , Apr. 30, 2014,,1.
39 Sam Jewler, “Corporate center points finger at worker centers,” Citizen Vox,Apr. 21, 2014,

California Wage Theft Prevention Bill Puts the Thieves On Notice

“NOTICE TO PROPERTY OWNER, if the person that has given you this notice is not paid in full for work performed at real property you own, a lien may be placed on your property after a period of 20 days from the date this notice is served. Foreclosure of the lien may lead to loss of all or part of your property. You may wish to protect yourself against this by (1) ensuring that the person that has given you this notice is paid in full for work performed, or (2) any other method that is appropriate under the circumstances.”

Wage Theft Protection Bill CASo reads the opening part of the notice that could soon be sent by certified mail to California employers who illegally withhold, steal, or deny their workers’ wages.  Passed by the State Assembly in a 43-27 vote on May 28, California’s Wage Theft Prevention bill is designed to address wage theft, a catch-all term that workers’ rights advocates use to cover the range of abuses that low-wage workers in the state suffer “all too frequently,” according to a 2008 report  from the UCLA Labor Center. “Almost 30 percent of workers surveyed were paid less than the minimum wage in the previous week,” according to the study’s authors, and “and almost 80 percent of workers who worked more than 40 hours a week were not paid the legally required overtime rate of pay.” Other violations that fall into the category of “wage theft” include being denied paid breaks and lunches, and being forced to work off the clock.

What’s more, a 2012 study  from UCLA and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found that when workers sue to get their stolen wages back, even when they win, they rarely get anything back. In California, the study found, between 2008 and 2011, just 17 percent of workers who prevailed in their wage claims and received a judgment were able to recover any payment at all.

Finally, though, workers’ rights advocates appear to have located a pressure point for unscrupulous employers who steal wages from their workers: the lien. “Nobody wants a lien on their property,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Maryland, where a wage lien law slightly different from the one being considered in California was passed in October 2013. “We expect to begin changing the playing field with this new law by using this simple process.”

“Passing the Assembly was a victory for low-wage workers,” says Alexandra Suh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), “Workers deserve to be paid for the work they have done.”

JanitorIndeed, nobody wants a lien. Liens can spook creditors, sometimes causing lenders to withdraw existing lines of credit–such as a mortgage–that can lead to things like foreclosure. A business with a lien against its property is also a poor risk for investors, who will quickly look elsewhere for places to put their money. Business owners, then, may rank high among the groups of people who would not want a lien on their property.

The California Chamber of Commerce revved up its lobbying machinery when the bill was first introduced in 2013, beginning with a PR campaign designed to confuse and frighten the electorate. Using every tool at their disposal to spread the word, they falsely claimed the bill could be used to file a lien against a private homeowner if cable or other utility contractors were underpaid for their service calls. The wage theft protection bill subsequently died in committee that year. Afterward, the Cal Chamber gloated about its death in a press release, and on their Facebook page called the bill a “Job Killer,” asserting that “It is patently unfair to hold an innocent third party liable for the alleged, unproven acts of another.”  This claim that “innocent third party” homeowners could have liens placed on their homes for unpaid contractor work done in the home, which Suh says is false, has been repeated over and over in the press. It even appears in a May 28 Associated Press  article  about the bill’s passage in the Assembly.  Since 2013, though, the bill has been changed, so that now, according to Suh, no private residence can have a wage lien placed on it unless the worker who did the work was hired directly by the homeowner.  The bill, Suh emphasizes, is designed to target commercial employers that employ many low-wage workers.

Of course, few business owners are willing to self-identify as lawbreakers in order to fight something as virtuous-sounding as the CA Wage Theft Prevention Act. But, it appears, they will pay the Cal Chamber to fight it. KIWA, along with Assembly member Mark Stone (who authored the bill), is part of a coalition of ethical business owners, workers’ rights groups and community members who plan to work through the summer to move the bill through the state Senate and to expose the Cal Chamber’s defense of wage-stealing bad-actor employers.  “As we head into the Senate fight, it’s going to be a fight with the Chamber,” said Suh. “It’s definitely going to be a hot summer.”

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Minimum Wage and Attacks on Worker Organizations

 image via CNN Money

image via CNN Money

May Day – Yesterday, Senate Republicans shut down a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. A recent poll put popular support for the increase at 72%. Not incidentally, the Senate defeat coincided with the National Restaurant Association’s national lobby day. Known among restaurant workers as “the other NRA” for its political clout in Washington, the NRA is among the leading forces opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage currently underway in cities and states around the country, as well as in Congress.

This is a David v. Goliath contest, with the (other) NRA representing industry giants such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Starbucks. Calling out the NRA’s undue influence over workers, the economy, and Congress, earlier this a coalition of economic justice groups published a full-page ad in the New York Times challenging members of Congress to stop taking NRA campaign contributions. The contest between everyday working people and industry power over questions of basic economic fairness is intensifying in communities across the country. And the corporate is taking notice.

Groups representing low-wage workers—including domestic and agricultural laborers excluded from New Deal-era reforms—are building power.  We’ve seen domestic workers Bill of Rights legislation pass in New York and California; the recovery of millions of dollars in wages stolen from low-income workers; powerful organizing in fast-food restaurants; momentum toward a $15 minimum wage; and paid sick-days legislation in states around the country.

This resurgence of low-wage worker organizing—which builds on decades of effort to win living-wage standards—is a hopeful sign in an economy otherwise characterized by falling wages, precarious job security, and a massive expansion of corporate power over our workplaces, politics, and society. As might be expected, the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups that have worked to decimate private and public sector unions are now determined to prevent the rise of new worker organizations that dare to challenge their dominance.

Last November, a group of demonstrators with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were out in the streets of Washington, D.C. calling on the Wendy’s chain of fast food restaurant to sign a “fair food agreement.” The measure earns Florida farmworkers an extra penny per pound of tomatoes. Industry giants like Burger King and Walmart have signed on, and those pennies have added up to more than $10 million passed on to workers over two years.

The D.C. action drew more than supporters, however. Among the demonstrators appeared a young man, unknown to CIW, wearing an Obama cap and brandishing the red flag of the former Soviet Union, with its distinctive hammer and sickle. He refused organizers’ requests to put the flag away and posed among CIW supporters for a man with camera lurking nearby.

Fortunately, quick-thinking CIW activists foiled the apparent redbaiting stunt, snapping their own picture of the photographer – who turned out ot be none other than Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch—a hatchet-job PR project funded by The Chamber of Commerce. The incident evokes the notorious right-wing smear tactics used against ACORN and Planned Parenthood. The intensifying PR attacks on new worker organizations are one prong of an evolving industry campaign to attack the low-wage worker field.

The same month as the Soviet flag stunt, the national Chamber of Commerce’s “workforce freedom initiative” issued a 50-page report arguing that worker centers are simply unions by another name, and suggesting they should be brought under the same union regulations that ban secondary boycotts and restrict foundation funding. That same line was used at a September Congressional Subcommittee hearing, championed by the National Restaurant Association. The Chamber is promoting a road show to educate local chapters about the so-called “ominous threat” of new worker organizations.

Meanwhile, right-wing policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are pushing state-level “pre-emption” bills that ban improvements to sick leave and other common-sense public policies. The National Restaurant Association is a key player in these policy fights, lobbying to deny states the right to pass nutrition labeling requirement and fighting women’s equality by opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act.

The Chamber’s new focus on worker centers and other grassroots economic justice groups is a significant threat given industry’s history of expending massive resources to bring down worker organizations. A new report from the United Workers Congress finds that “corporate forces are building a dark money infrastructure of lobby groups and public relations firms to weaken public support for worker centers” and distract from the fundamental problem of growing economic inequality.

At PRA, we’re closely following the mounting corporate attacks on the low-wage organizing sector. Watch this space.

**Also: read this important piece by The Nation‘s Lee Fang on the campaign to take down low-wage worker groups.

“Zero Tolerance” for Silenced Histories: Neglecting Civil Rights Education in Schools

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders

It’s been a busy few weeks for education policy in America. (Then again, when is it not?)  Just last week, the College Board announced changes in the SAT to make the test a better assessment of school curricula and predictor of college success.  Mayor Bill DeBlasio and charter school champion Eva Moskowitz continued to butt heads over the role of charter schools in New York City.  The Center for American Progress released a new report, Beyond Bullying, focusing on LGBTQ students and the school-to-prison pipeline. And with the snow beginning to thaw and spring right around the corner, teachers and students are gearing up for a new onslaught of high-stakes testing designed to ensure “accountability” and “achievement.”

Many leading advocates of school choice and education “reform” are actually well-established right-wing players whose other political priorities—including anti-unionization efforts, regressive tax policies, and cuts to welfare—demonstrate little interest in defending public institutions or promoting racial justice.  Yet by using people of color as the spokespeople for privatization campaigns, these reformers can claim to be strengthening public schools and combating inequality even as they advance a pro-privatization agenda that is fundamentally at odds with commitments to racial and economic justice.

For example, as Political Research Associates’ fellow Rachel Tabachnick and others have documented, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been a vocal advocate for vouchers and private school choice in Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Its founder, Howard Fuller, previously played a pivotal role in establishing a voucher program in Milwaukee.  The resulting voucher and corporate tax credit programs have helped redirect millions of public dollars from public schools to private schools.

People for the American Way has described BAEO—which was established in 2010 and receives major funding from both the Walton (i.e. Walmart) and Bradley Foundations—as “better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families.”  Indeed, the promise of the education reform movement to “close the achievement gap” and “end educational inequality” is disingenuous at best and empty and pernicious at worst when considering the role of its primary funders in perpetuating racial, economic, and gender inequality.

A few other recent news stories, however, have suggested ways to engage with substantive questions of racial justice in public schools.  President Obama, for example, recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a new initiative that, while far from perfect (particularly in its neglect of female and LGBTQ students), is designed to support young men of color and intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center just released an updated version of Teaching the Movement, which evaluates civil rights education across the United States. The report serves as a powerful reminder that improving public schools must go beyond debates over high-stakes testing, reading comprehension, and complex fractions.  Unfortunately, the report also makes clear that we still have a long way to go.

The authors note that some states have made important improvements to their curricula since the report was first released in 2011. Still, 20 states still scored a big red “F” according to the SPLC’s criteria, and an additional 14 states still earned a “D.”  As the report’s authors state bluntly, “We remain concerned that students are likely to remember only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and ‘I have a dream.’”

While education reformers remain hyper-focused on test scores and “achievement,” SPLC’s criticism regarding a lack of civil rights literacy is about far more than just getting 11th graders to ace the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.  In his introduction to the report, Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes, 

“All of us are aware of the pressures our teachers and children are under to keep pace with the world’s students in science and math, but without a steep grounding in our history, what will rising generations have to pivot from? What will inspire them to remake their world with the confidence that comes from knowing it has been done before?”

Too often, debates over public education sidestep discussions of how schools can teach students not only to master Common Core standards, but also to be active, thoughtful, justice-driven members of society. Quoting civil rights historian Taylor Branch, the report offers one response: “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”  Notably, Branch does not mention suspensions, high-stakes testing, or Teach for America as citizenship-building.  In the conclusion to Teaching the Movement, the report emphasizes just how high the stakes are: “When students learn about the civil rights movement, they learn about the democratic responsibility of individuals to oppose oppression and to work for justice. We gloss over the civil rights movement at our own peril as a nation working to achieve equal opportunities for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, as reformers lament a (non-existent) decline in test scores and wax nostalgic about the 1960s when American students “were so much smarter,” they obscure critical gains in public education access for students of color since the end of Jim Crow-era segregation and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.  Even after Brown in the 1960s, Black students in the United States often still found themselves in segregated, woefully underfunded classrooms.  “At the same time,” the report notes, “the very school districts that Brown desegregated have now re-segregated”  While some charter schools have managed to raise test scores, they may contribute to the resegregation of public schools, while also pushing out ELLs, students with disabilities, and others.

Ultimately, our failure to prioritize civil rights education in American classrooms is not an isolated problem.  Rather, it reflects a much broader and arguably misguided discussion about what constitutes racial justice within public education.  We talk endlessly about the “achievement gap,” but we do far less to fight back against efforts to ban ethnic studies in Arizona and elsewhere.  Many charter schools—the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) being the most well-known—place a heavy emphasis on character development and strict discipline policies. But as we debate discipline and “zero tolerance,” we neglect the shoddy teaching of the Civil Rights Movement and other substantive discussions of curriculum.  In doing so, we fail to make schools critical sites of intervention against a history of oppression and injustice, prioritizing “grit” and “zero tolerance” over the too often hidden histories of people resisting, dreaming, and building toward a better future.

The Hammer of Justice

**This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine

Pete Seeger’s life as an activist lasted eight decades, beginning in the 1930s when he joined the Young Communist League and started roaming the nation with Woody Guthrie. He made one of his last appearances at the Farm Aid concert last September, apologizing that he didn’t have much of a voice left but leading the crowd in a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land,” just as he had countless times across the years.

Seeger, who was born in Manhattan in 1919 and died there in January, told Mother Earth News in a 1982 interview that “it’s impossible to have education without controversy.” He was often a radically divisive figure, charting a course that put him in conflict with the U.S. mainstream. Read More

Issue Brief: This Month in Economic Justice

Economic Justice

Every Friday, PRA brings you a monthly update on a different social justice issue. This week, we are recapping the last month in Economic Justice.

White House Backs Proposal to Increase the Minimum Wage
During his State of the Union address in February, President Obama called for an increase of the national minimum wage to 9 dollars per hour. On November 7th, the White House confirmed rumors that it would support an even higher minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, introduced in March by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), would be the first minimum wage increase since former President George W. Bush set the wage floor at $7.25 per hour in 2009. Over 30 million Americans stand to receive a wage increase if the bill is passed. The current minimum wage pays only $15,000 per year, well under the poverty line for a family of three. But the proposed raise would boost the annual wage to over $21,000, bringing millions of families to just over the poverty line. The proposed legislation also ties  the minimum wage to inflation.

Amnesty  Report Exposes Attempt by Shell Gasoline to Cover up Oil Spills in Nigeria
The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International published a report on November 7th that uncovered repeated attempts by the Shell corporation to manipulate and mislead oil spill investigations in Nigeria. The report highlights “specific cases in which Shell has wrongly reported the cause of oil spills, the volume of oil spilled, or the extent and adequacy of clean up measures.” Since Shell controls its own investigations, it has been able to create its own findings without fear of repercussion. While the company has told customers, investors, and the media the spills were a result of theft and sabotage, the findings in the report do not support their claims. The misleading findings have resulted in Nigerians “receiving little or no compensation” for the damage caused by the oil spills.

Los Angeles Police Arrest 54 Protesters Outside Walmart
On the night of November 6th, over 500 activists gathered in front of a Walmart in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Upon arriving at the scene, the LAPD declared the protest to be an unlawful assembly, and arrested 54 protesters for failure to disperse. The protest was organized by OUR Walmart, an employee-based group that calls for fair wages, health benefits, and the right to unionize. According to the 2010 census, Walmart employs 1 percent of the entire American workforce, but as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy notes, their employees make 20 percent less than the average retail employer. Walmart has recently resorted to hiring temporary workers and cutting employee hours down to avoid providing employee health benefits, which “has led to the company placing dead last among department and discount stores in the most recent  American Customer Satisfaction Index.”

NBA Coach Speaks Out on Behalf of Veterans
When asked by a reporter to comment on Veteran’s day, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich made headline news by claiming veterans “don’t really get honored the way they should be.” He noted that while the holiday is a joyous occasion, our country is failing to adequately provide our veterans with proper assistance. In particular, he spoke out against the recent cuts to food stamp benefits by asking “how many vets might have to do without food stamps because of what’s going on with the government right now? That program is huge to a lot of these families.” The most recent cuts to SNAP benefits went into effect on November 1st, which the Pentagon estimates will impact over 5000 veterans. With the pending house bill to cut an additional $40 billion from the program, families of veterans, in particular older veterans, might see their assistance cut even deeper. Popovich, a veteran of the Air-Force, is one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time, having won four NBA titles since 1998.

Sequester Cuts Already Hurting Essential Government Programs
On November 12th, NDD United released a 136-page report showing how the sequester cuts have already affected thousands of government programs. The cuts, which went into effect on March 1st, sliced “$80 billion from defense and non-defense programs this year, creating a drag on an economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.”  Government programs across the country have already felt the impact, such as Head Start, Reading Corps, job training for the unemployed, and meal programs for senior citizens. The impact is even being felt overseas, as “571,344 fewer malnourished children in developing countries received ‘nutritional interventions’ to prevent permanent damage caused by starvation” in 2013 alone. The report was released the day before congress begins preliminary talks begins over the 2014 budget. Lawmakers will decide if they wish to go ahead with an additional $110 billion in sequester cuts, set to begin in January.

Koch Brothers-Funded Group Throws Anti-Obamacare Tailgate Party
This past Saturday, the anti-Obamacare group Generation Opportunity threw a party at a Virginia Tech/University of Miami football game in Florida. As noted by communications director David Pasch, the group hired a DJ, brought pizza and booze, and students over 21 were able to drink. Along with all the fun, the group also “educated students about their healthcare options outside the expensive and creepy Obamacare exchanges”, which included a man dressed in a creepy Uncle Sam costume. The group, funded by the Conservative billionaires David Koch and Charles Koch, will be touring 20 more campuses this year in a “$750,000 effort to convince college students that they’re better off being uninsured than getting health coverage through Obamacare.” This is not the first time the Koch brothers have funded networks of “non-profits groups” to influence public opinion. A recent report by RH Reality Check highlights how Koch-funded organizations helped fuel the current debate over abortion in states across the country.

17 Million Americans Qualify for Tax Break Under Obamacare
While the media has been in frenzy over the technical problems facing the Obamacare website, reports are showing the Affordable Care Act is already impacting Americans across the country. According to a November 5th report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 17 million Americans “will qualify for tax credits aimed to reduce the cost of health insurance under Obamacare.“ The credits are aimed at Americans who either cannot afford health insurance, or buy insurance on their own because they do not receive coverage from their employers. Most likely to receive the cuts are the younger, working class, and the value of the subsidies will vary between states. Despite estimates that over 30 million Americans could benefit from this exchange, the Congressional Budget Office expects only “7 million people will use the exchanges to obtain private health insurance for 2014.”

New York City Elects Bill de Blasio as Mayor, a Victory for Economic Justice
The City of New York elected Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio to replace outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg on November 5th. de Blasio ran his campaign on the platform of income inequality, speaking out against the “1 percent first” policies that thrived under Bloomberg’s tenure. Referring to it as the “tale of two cities”, he continually noted that nearly half of all New Yorkers, and 6 out of 10 people of color, were “were either poor or near poverty.” During his tenure as Mayor, Bloomberg actively recruited billionaires and large businesses to move into the city, arguing that while government services were important, the private sector needed to succeed to achieve economic success. As a result, New York has become the most billionaire-populated city in the world, while one out of six residents are currently unemployed. The high costs of living in New York has also led to increased homeless rates, with “one out of three of the city’s 50,000 homeless hold(ing) down at least one job, with some working two.”

Congress Votes to Cut Food Stamps, While Billionaires Receive Taxpayer-Funded Subsidies
According to a November 7th report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), at least 50 billionaires and farm business received over $11 million in farm subsidies between 1995 to 2012. The report was released in light of the proposed congressional farm bill, which will provide further farm subsidies while cutting over $40 billion from nutritional supplemental programs such as food stamps. Many of the Billionaires appeared on the 2013 Forbes 400 List, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Charles Schwab, and Chick-Fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy. Billionaires are not the only ones benefiting from farm subsidies. As the Huffington Post reported in June, “fifteen members of Congress received $237,921 in federal farm subsidy payments last year.” Two recipients of the subsidies, Reps. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) have become vocal supporters of cutting SNAP benefit, cited the bible to argue that “while Christians have a responsibility to feed the poor, the federal government does not.”

Seduction and Betrayal: The Perils of Arizona’s “Business Climate”

photo by James Brooks

By Elizabeth Tandy Shermer:

Radical journalist Andrew Kopkind once quipped that Arizona and its capital, Phoenix, were “at the mercy of [their] own myths.” That was as true in 1965 as it is today. Local promoters have long credited central air conditioning with making the Valley of the Sun livable. The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, in particular, has promoted hot, arid Central Arizona as “the air-conditioning capital of the world.” But no matter what anyone tells you, industry did not come to Arizona—and Phoenix did not sprawl—because of air conditioning.

It’s true that coolers had been built in Central Arizona decades before Phoenix exploded in size following World War II, but hardly anyone had them. Window unit prices dropped in the 1940s, but these units were still costly and ineffective in 100-degree heat (no matter how dry). Central air was rarer still. The Federal Housing Authority did not cover the cost of this amenity in new homes until 1957. Even then, Phoenix builders tended to install systems in only the most affluent neighborhoods. As a result, just a third of all Arizona homes had central air by 1970.

In truth, no single consumer product or technology was responsible for Phoenix’s meteoric growth. Manufacturers came to Phoenix because of its “business climate,” a seemingly benign term coined at mid-century to describe an area’s ability to attract, sustain, and keep investment. What mattered most to executives on the move—much more than air conditioning—was the fact that wages were low, workplace rules were minimal, and tax rates were advantageous. Boosters were particularly proud that they had convinced voters to pass a right-to-work law (the first in the American West), to eliminate inventory taxes (both for raw goods used in manufacturing and for finished products ready to be shipped), and to reduce fees on equipment used in manufacturing.

By 1960, the Arizona capital—a farming community of about 11,000 people in 1910—was an electronics and aerospace oasis with a population of nearly 440,000. Phoenicians found work producing an astonishing array of goods for defense and consumer needs, including airplanes and aircraft parts, aluminum products, chemicals, gases, electronics components, gears, controls, scientific instruments, metal parts, missiles, rockets, plastics, tools, dies, sensors, small power sources, tracking devices, and (yes) environment control systems.

But for all these short-term successes, Phoenix’s carefully calibrated business climate was in fact malignant. Bankrolling corporate welfare left Phoenix and many other communities on the verge of bankruptcy, especially when employers decamped for cheaper pastures. Phoenix (like the rest of the country) is now much better cooled than it was before, but that fact has hardly helped it retain businesses or attract new investments. Arizona has lost much of the industry that boosters recruited, most of it finding its way across the border or overseas. Arizonans, moreover, hardly stand out for their business-first credo. Executives can find similar tax advantages, giveaways, and union restrictions across the country (even Michigan has a right-to-work law now).

And it is no coincidence that cities and states across the country now find themselves on the precipice of financial catastrophe, a fact that should be kept in mind as they face the same problems as Arizona and its capital: namely, what to do about municipal debt, persistent unemployment, and sluggish housing markets. Indeed, Phoenix now stands out, writer and social critic Andrew Ross maintains, as “a twenty-first century Detroit in the making.” It certainly looked that way in 2008, when the housing crisis struck the cash-strapped state and its capital particularly hard. Many states and municipalities had, of course, tied their finances to real estate and construction and found themselves offering improbable schemes to raise revenues in 2009.

Arizona’s plight made headlines when the government sold off a collection of state properties, including maximum-security prisons and key buildings in the state capitol complex. The $735 million deal left the legislature in the unique position of leasing its legislative chambers from a private real estate company. “What are our choices?” asked House Majority Leader John McComish (R-Phoenix). “We could cut more, or we could raise taxes more. Borrowing over the long term, we think, is better for the people, better for the economy.” This agreement will cost Arizona a lot in the end, but Republican Gov. Jan Brewer was still unable to convince representatives to buy the capitol back last year after a regressive sales-tax hike provided them with a budget surplus.

Americans should keep this saga in mind this fall. Cooler temperatures will not bring fiscal relief or an end to the Great Recession. And the answer does not lie in one or two new product lines, such as the solar panels or trash-to-energy plants, that many consider a quick cure to what plagues metro Phoenix. Neither technology will make a dent in the city’s 7 percent unemployment rate, which is slightly below the national average but hardly stellar.

Small groundswells and large protests indicate that the free-enterprise myths that created Arizona’s unsustainable past may be losing their power. Many Americans now express support for making businesses pay their fair share of the tax burden. Citizens have likewise been eager to take advantage of Obamacare, whose Medicaid expansion provisions are making a real difference in the lives of low-income Arizonans. Trade unions and immigrant rights groups have also vigorously sought to empower workers, mount legal challenges to anti-union legislation, and enter into coalitions with environmental groups to make sure that new jobs will be good and green. That’s great news, because what Phoenix, Arizona, and the rest of the country need is not another gimmick or technology, but rather a new climate built on putting the public good above corporate welfare.

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an assistant professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, where she offers courses on business, labor, politics, and public policy. The University of Pennsylvania Press published her most recent book, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics. She is now writing The Business of Education, which explores how corporations shaped public universities to serve their workforce and R&D needs over the course of the twentieth century.

ISSUE BRIEF: This Month in Economic Justice

Economic Justice

Every Friday, PRA brings you a monthly update on a different social justice issue. This week, we are recapping the last month in Economic Justice.

Wisconsin Judge Rules In Favor of Unions, Holds WERC in Contempt of Court
A Madison judge found the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in contempt of court for enforcing provisions of the collective bargaining restrictions signed into law by Governor Scott Walker in 2011 that had previously been ruled unconstitutional. The Judge also issued an injunction which barred any future attempts to enforce these restrictions on any union in the state. The WERC was in the process of preparing certificate elections for over 400 school district worker unions to take place in November. The commission had claimed the previous ruling had only applied to unions in Madison and Milwaukee, giving them the right to enforce the restrictions across the rest of the state. In his decision on Monday, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled that his previous decision in 2012 had already wiped the provisions from existence. School districts are free to once again negotiate wages, hours, vacation, and workplace conditions. Judge Calos  also scolded the WERC for “conduct [that] was nothing more than an attempt to elude the application of a judgment the commissioners knew full well applied.”

Income Gap Rises to Highest Levels in Over a Century
Over the past few decades, the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans has continuously increased. Now, the gap has reached its highest level in the past 100 years.The L.A Times reported in September that between 1993 and 2012, the real incomes of the wealthiest Americans grew 86.1 percent, while the bottom 99 percent of wage earners only grew 6.6 percent. These statistics come from an examination of IRS data by economists at UC Berkely, the Paris School of Economics, and Oxford University. The study attributes the cause of the increasing income gap not only to technological advancements and outsourcing, but to the reduced power of progressive tax policies, along with “changing social norms regarding pay inequality.”

Coalition of Immokalee Workers Honored for Protecting Rights of Laborers
On October 16th, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were honored at the Four Freedoms Awards ceremony, an annual event hosted by the Roosevelt Institute. The award honors individuals and groups that “exemplify Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of Democracy outlined in his famous January 14th, 1941 address”, remembered as the “Four Freedoms Speech”. The group joins past recipients such as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama,  and Bill and Hillary Clinton. The CIW is a worker-based human rights organization which began in 1993. They are a non-hierarchical organization which uses grassroots organizing to advocate for economic justice and labor reforms. They are most known for their Campaign for Fair Food program, which sets to “educates consumers on the issue of farm labor exploitation and forges alliances between farm workers and consumers in an effort to enlist the market power of major corporate buyers to help end that exploitation”. Through the campaign, they have successfully negotiated fair food agreements with food retailers such as McDonald’s, Whole Foods, Sodexo, and Subway to establish more humane labor standards for farm workers.

Young Children of Color in the U.S Face “Crisis Levels of Poverty”
The most recent Census Bureau data shows 42 percent of African-American children and 37 percent of Latino children under the age of 5 live under the poverty line. Growing up in poverty adds extensive physical and mental stress on young children during their most cognitive years, and affects future educational and health outcomes. These numbers are further troubling, as conservatives in Congress just finished reducing federal spending on children, with  $4.2 billion in sequester cuts to children services in 2013. Adding more salt to the wound, the bipartisan organization Family First is reporting that “Congress is considering a budget plan that would lock in or deepen these cuts for next year.”

Job Market Slowly Improves
The jobs report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the month of September was released on October 22nd. Originally scheduled for October 4th, the report was delayed by the 16 day shutdown of the federal government. Though the economy added 148,000 jobs and unemployment hit a five-year low, the economy did not progress at a desired rate. The findings suggest that employers may have held back on hiring new workers in lieu of the potential government shutdown. Economists estimate the federal shutdown cut $25 billion from the U.S economy, which helped slow economic growth to about 2 percent for the current quarter.

Long-term Unemployment Reaches Highest Rate in Over 60 Years
Though there has been a steady (if sluggish) improvement in employment , the job reports do not factor in unemployed Americans who have given up searching for a job. The percentage of Americans looking for work remains at a 35-year low, as the recession continues to discourage people to look for jobs. Zach Mcdade and Austin Nicholls of the Urban Institute reported in September that “4.2 million Americans—37 percent of the unemployed—have been jobless for longer than six months, the highest rate by far in the last sixty years.” They note the relationship between long-term unemployment and poverty, where the long-term unemployed are more likely to be poor, and the longer a person is unemployed, the harder it becomes for them to find work.

Annual World Food Day Brings Awareness to Global Hunger
On October 16th, activist groups around the world participated in World Food Day. Held on the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the campaign aims to mobilize advocates to raise awareness, educate, and call for action to end global hunger. The day is observed to “create solidarity among groups working to end hunger and to educate thousands of people, young and old, about the roots of global hunger and the multi-faceted approaches to end it.” Over 450 organizations have taken part in World Food Day, highlighting effective methods of food security and the challenges facing world hunger. One of the central features of World Food Day is their annual teleconference, featuring world leaders and experts in economics, human rights, nutrition, and agriculture.

Study Finds Majority of U.S Fast-Food Workers Require Public Assistance
At the end of August, fast-food workers across the country went on strike, claiming their current median wage of $8.94 dollars per hours was unlivable and simultaneously demanding a wage increase to $15 dollars per hour. An October 15th report by Reuters, using data by the U.S Census Bureau, shows 52 percent of fast-food cooks, cashiers, and other front line staff had relied on at least one form of public assistance from 2007 to 2011. These public assistance programs include Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), and the Earned Income Tax Credit. In a concurrent report using the same data, the National Employment Law Project found  “the 10 largest fast-food companies in the United States cost taxpayers more than $3.8 billion each year in public assistance.” These companies are placing the burden of providing for their employees on the taxpayers, rather than paying them a livable wage for their service.

State Legislators In Ohio Sue to Prevent Medicaid Expansion
This past Monday, the state legislative board of Ohio approved a request by Governor John Kasich to fund the Medicaid Expansion program under the Affordable Care Act. By Tuesday morning, six Republican state legislators had filed a lawsuit to halt the expansion. The lawsuit calls for the state to reject the proposal, and prohibits the state department from receiving funds from the expansion. The expansion provides Medicaid coverage to uninsured residents in the states who choose to participate, whose earnings are at or lower than 138 percent over the federal poverty level. Set to begin in January 2014, the expansion is 100 percent federally funded for the first three years (free to the states), after which federal funding slowly decreases down to 90 percent in 2020. Despite the extremely low costs to states and the opportunity to provide their most vulnerable citizens with health coverage, 22 states have declined to participate in the expansion, leaving 5.2 million Americans without insurance who would have qualified under the expansion.

Bleak Findings on “Poverty Day”
On September 17th, the U.S Census Bureau released their annual data report on poverty, or as contributor Greg Kaufmann refers to it, “poverty day”. Kaufmann argues the biggest takeaway is not in the data itself. Rather, the overlying issue surrounding poverty in America is that “we’ve long known what to do to take the next steps in the fight against poverty, and we still know what to do to take the next steps in the fight against poverty. But we’re not doing it.” Previous reports by the Census Bureau have highlighted the potential methods of combating poverty in the United States. But the findings show they have been continuously neglected. The percentage of Americans living in poverty remains at 15 percent (over 45 million Americans living on less than $18,000 for a family of three annually). This includes 22 percent of all children, 27 percent of African-Americans, 25 percent of Latinos, and 28 percent of Americans living with disabilities. The issue goes beyond missed opportunities to create effective policy, as “we now face a Congress poised to make matters worse for those who are faring the worst in our economy.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cuts set by the sequester will cost over 900,000 American jobs by the third quarter of 2014. Beginning in November, there will be cuts to food stamp (SNAP) benefits which will effect 22 million children. And then there is the recent House vote to cut an additional $40 billion to nutritional supplement benefits in September.