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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rejected a National Chicken Council petition to increase line speeds in poultry processing plants. This is a significant victory for thousands of poultry workers across the country and a direct result of the worker-led coalition of IWJ affiliates and allies that have been organizing tirelessly for years on the issue.
Just last month IWJ affiliates, staff, and coalition leaders met with USDA officials to urge them to reject National Chicken Council’s proposed elimination of the line speed regulation and presenting the officials with hundreds of petitions signed by poultry workers. The USDA also received 100,000 public comments in opposition to the industry proposal.
Our coalition met with USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Carmen Rottenberg in Washington, DC
Under current rules regulating line speeds, working men and women resort to wearing diapers and forgo water breaks in sweltering processing plants just to keep up with current quotas. They work through serious injuries that frequently cause lifelong disability and chronic pain.
"We applaud the USDA decision to stop the petition of increasing the line speed in poultry processing plants," said Magaly Licolli, Executive Director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center, an IWJ affiliate. "This is a huge victory for thousands of poultry workers who often risk their health and safety by processing chicken at high speeds. However, we will keep fighting to assure poultry companies don’t get away with continue petitioning line speed waivers for individual processing plants.
So while we celebrate today’s decision by USDA, we know that there is much work ahead for IWJ, our affiliates, and our allies — together we will continue our organizing to challenge the already-breakneck speed and inhumane conditions that working people endure in so many poultry processing plants from coast to coast.
All members of Congress must do better or this cycle of short-term stopgaps and legislation that hurts working people will continue unabated.
by Maxine Phillips
Four years ago I shivered with a handful of people in front of a McDonald's in midtown Manhattan agitating for a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers. The only news outlet that covered the demonstration was Al Jazeera, which had a U.S. office at the time. The demonstration was part of a national campaign of one-day strikes by workers in fast-food restaurants in an effort to improve conditions in an industry marked by high turnover and low wages.
The strikes were supported by coalitions of unions, clergy, and community groups across the country. Few people thought that they had much chance of success. In New York, Michael Bloomberg was mayor, and the restaurant industry was united in its opposition to a living wage and regulation.
This week, I stood with dozens of fast food workers and their allies at the office of the New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to mark the official launch of Fast Food Justice, which is the first nonprofit worker organization to register under legislation that allows fast-food workers to take payroll deductions for the organization. Under the legislation, passed last year by the New York City Council, 500 workers in the fast-food industry needed to sign up for payroll deductions that their employers would send to the non-profit, non-union organization.
Critics warned that it would be hard to get 500 signatures in an industry notoriously hard to organize. The law went into effect in late November, and organizers quickly gathered 1,200 signatures. The Restaurant Law Center, the legal arm of the National Restaurant Association, filed suit in federal court to overturn the legislation, but Fast Food Justice maintains that it is not a labor organization of the kind regulated by federal law.
With monthly deductions of $13.50, the organization hopes to make gains among New York City's 65,000 fast-food workers and guarantee a steady stream of income so that it can work toward improvements in the industry.
Speaker after speaker praised the efforts of the workers, who have been fighting for several years for a rise in the minimum wage (now $13.50, rising to $15 per hour by the end of 2018) and of legislators who have also passed fair scheduling standards. The fair scheduling standards require fast-food employers to give advance schedules to workers and to offer more hours to existing workers before hiring more part-time staff.
"We want to be able to feed our families," said one worker, who told of starting out a few years ago at the then minimum of $7.25 an hour and being fired when she needed to take a sick day.
The legislation is part of a package of progressive steps being fought for that include affordable housing, decent health care, lower cost transportation, and equality in the workplace.
"Faith leaders have been proud to stand with fast-food workers in New York City over the past five years as they fought for and won a $15 minimum wage," said Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director, Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition (far left in photo).
As Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Lorelei Salas (at podium) said, the demands of fast-food establishments have made workers "endure unpredictable schedules and incomes that make it hard for them to create budgets, schedule child care, or pursue education or a second job." The combination of a progressive mayor and city council, persistent organizing by workers, and broad coalition-building with groups as diverse as Planned Parenthood of New York City and the Fair Workweek Initiative of the Center for Popular Democracy has brought some measure of financial security and work stability to fast-food workers.
Other cities have passed a $15 minimum wage law over bitter opposition, and others have initiated fairer scheduling, but organizers hope that this launch is for the first of what will be many worker organizations that can bring justice to workers in an increasingly hostile and anti-worker environment.
Maxine Phillips is a co-convener of the Religion and Socialism Working Group of Democratic Socialists of America.
After a four-month international investigation that resulted in the release of the Interfaith Worker Justice report Breaking Faith: Outsourcing and the Damage Done to our Communities alongside Congressman John Lewis in December, Mondelēz executives will soon receive at home a package including the Breaking Faith report and letters from faith leaders and members of Congress urging the mega-corporation to stop outsourcing American jobs to Mexico to avoid paying a living wage.
The letter signed by 35 faith and labor leaders who comprise the Interfaith Worker Justice board of directors urges Mondelēz to “recognize the moral urgency in respecting your workers on both sides of the border by paying a living wage and ensuring stability of employment as an alternative, values-driven strategy that will at once bolster your bottom line, retain the loyalty of your consumers, and ensure a healthy return for Mondelēz investors while redefining your brand as one committed to worker justice and corporate stewardship.”
After attending the report release in December, Congressman John Lewis and four other members of Congress composed a letter to United States Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer using Mondelēz’s outsourcing to illustrate the need to ensure that trade agreements like NAFTA include “strong, enforceable labor standards that raise wages in Mexico and reduce incentives for offshoring; encourage domestic investment; and support well-paying American jobs.”
“Companies like Mondelēz must understand that treating its workers with dignity and respect while paying a living wage is both the right thing to do and a savvy business strategy,” said Doug Mork, president of the Interfaith Worker Justice board of directors. “Time and again, we see companies that commit to corporate responsibility and worker justice thrive in terms of positive brand association and increased consumer loyalty. We will continue to work to convince Mondelēz that a commitment to good, family-sustaining jobs on both sides of the border is good for workers and good for business.”