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February 2017 Archive:

Obama’s fair-pay order for contractors under attack in Congress

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From The Washington Post:

by Joe Davidson

Who could be against fair pay and safe workplaces?

Nobody.

Yet Capitol Hill Republicans and federal contracting firms are working to rescind President Barack Obama’s executive order, named after that notion, with decisive action. That would be in step with the call by Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist, for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Earlier this month, the House approved a measure to stop implementation of Obama’s 2014 “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” order, which was designed to ensure that contractors “understand and comply with labor laws.” Senate action is expected soon. The order had been stalled, if not killed by, a federal court ruling in Texas.

If repeal efforts are successful, it would be “the start of what we fear will be a sustained assault on America’s working families,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement.

Under the executive order, contractors would be required to report workplace violations for the previous three years. Agency contracting officers then would use that information to determine if the business “is a responsible source that has a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics.”

In other words, a firm’s prior violations of fair-pay and safe workplace standards could be used to prevent that company from getting future contracts, among other options.

Sounds reasonable enough. But contractor organizations have hyperbolically demeaned the order as “blacklisting,” though it does not require barring companies from government work.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Congress, 19 organizations criticized the executive order as “Obama administration’s costly and flawed ‘blacklisting’ regulation [that] circumvents congressional authority, harms the economy and efficiency of the federal acquisition system and disrupts fair and open competition in federal contracting.”

The next day, the House followed business lobby recommendations and voted to block Obama’s order.

One of the organizations was the Professional Services Council (PSC), which represents technology and professional service companies. “This blacklisting rule fails to provide companies with basic due process, imposes significant new and non-value added reporting requirements, and risks denying federal buyers access to the best private-sector providers to meet government needs,” PSC President and CEO David Berteau said in a statement. “With the disapproval of this rule by the House, and we hope with prompt action by the Senate and then signature by the President, a significant overhang will be removed from the acquisition process.”

The legislative moves employ the Congressional Review Act, which was little used until President Trump took office. It allows Congress to participate in administrative deconstruction by killing regulations with expedited procedures. “As a result, hundreds of health, safety, pocketbook and environmental protections are in danger of being repealed, and we won’t be able to get them back any time soon,” said Rules At Risk, a coalition of progressive groups that says regulatory protection “secures our quality of life.”

Congressional action against the fair-pay executive order would be an early and blunt blow demonstrating that “big business and its lobbyists — and not the interests of workers — will drive the administration’s agenda,” said Owens.

Obama’s order “was designed to protect workers and safeguard taxpayer dollars,” she added. “The idea was that before federal agencies award contracts of more than $500,000 to a contractor, they should check whether the company has complied with labor laws. The rule simply required that contractors disclose any violations of worker protection laws — the same way they have to disclose violations of other laws when bidding for a contract.”

Read more from The Washington Post

Former Bow Truss employees suing coffee chain, alleging wage theft

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From the Chicago Tribune:

by Meg Graham

Former employees of Chicago-based coffee roaster and cafe chain Bow Truss said they have filed a wage theft lawsuit against the company and its management.

The suit, which the group’s attorney said was filed Monday morning in Cook County Circuit Court, alleges the company’s incomplete or late payment of regular and overtime wages. The 10 employees also allege Bow Truss made deductions from wages for tax withholdings and benefits programs — including health and dental insurance and a retirement savings plan — but said those deductions were not put toward those purposes.

The lawsuit names Bow Truss and its founder Phil Tadros. It also names Darren Marshall, Tadros’ business partner, and their digital agency Doejo.

In mid-January, all local locations of Bow Truss shut down as the business struggled to pay employees and rent. The company’s employees said at the time they closed stores and refused to return after many had paychecks bounce. All but two locations — one in the Loop and another in River North — have remained closed.

Two former employees announced the lawsuit Monday morning at a press conference outside Bow Truss’ 406 N. Wells St. location.

“We have friends still who have not been paid, even though the company closed most of its shops a month and a half ago,” former employee Benjamin Creech said.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, Ald. Scott Waguespack, Ald. Ricardo Muñoz and Cook County Board Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia also spoke in support of the Bow Truss employees at the conference.

“We have legislation on the state level to put more teeth in the law, and the process starts when workers are willing to stand up for their rights and fight, the way these workers are doing,” Biss said. “This is an important step to send a message to businesses, to employers, across our region to let them know, they might think that in the past they could get away with behavior like this but that’s not going to happen anymore.”

Read more from the Chicago Tribune.

Lawyers: ICE detainee with brain tumor removed from hospital

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From The Hill:

by Rafael Bernal

An undocumented immigrant diagnosed with a brain tumor while under Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody was returned to a detention center from a Texas hospital, her lawyers said.

The woman, a Salvadoran national identified only as Sara, was released from Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, and taken to Prairieland Detention Center against her will, according to her lawyers.

"She told us they tied her hands and ankles in her condition," Melissa Zuniga, a member of Sara's legal team, told The Hill. "She's complaining of a lot of pain."

Zuniga said Sara, 26, was cut off from communication with her family and lawyers, even after the hospital and ICE had cleared Sara's mother for unrestricted phone access.

"Requests by family members to visit detainees who have been hospitalized are permitted but must be approved in advance with ICE and the appropriate consulate. ICE reached out to the family to explain the process," said Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman.

Zuniga also said the Salvadoran consulate had been unresponsive, and a team of volunteers was heading to the detention center to demand Sara's immediate release.

Sara's exact condition wasn't immediately available, but according to previous reports she was transferred from Prairieland to Huguley after complaining of severe headaches and collapsing on Feb. 10.

Doctors at the hospital diagnosed Sara with a tumor and told the Daily Beast they would soon perform surgery.

Zuniga said Sara complained of profuse nosebleeds and of long-term memory loss, while not receiving treatment at the hospital.

"Huguley no longer wants to be in charge of her case because they’re getting hounded by calls and a potential lawsuit," said Zuniga.

Sara's family is threatening to sue the hospital because they claim her condition deteriorated in the 12 days she spent there.

Sara's sister and legal team, all based in New Jersey, were flying to Texas Wednesday night to make the case for her release.

Sara told Zuniga she was given a CD with her medical records at the hospital, and instructed by doctors not to turn them over to ICE. The CD was taken from Sara upon her return to the detention center, Zuniga said.

In the first month of the Trump administration, several cases of immigration detention have drawn national attention, as pro-immigration activists decry what they consider heavy-handed tactics by immigration enforcement agents.

Read more from The Hill.

Employees Across U.S. Fired After Joining 'Day Without Immigrants' Protest

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A day without immigrants, May 1, 2006.

From NBC News:

By Avalon Zoppo

More than 100 protesters across the country were fired from their jobs after skipping work to take part in last week's "Day Without Immigrants" demonstration.

Restaurants and day cares were among the businesses in states like Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma and New York where bosses fired workers after they didn't show up for work in order to protest.

In Nolensville, Tennessee, nearly 20 employees at Bradley Coatings, Incorporated — a commercial painting company — were laid off after participating in the nationwide strike on Thursday, NBC4 reported.

The company's attorney, Robert Peal, said in a statement obtained by the news station that all employees were told they risked termination if they skipped work on Thursday, but 18 did so anyway.

The attorney wrote: "Regretfully, and consistent with its prior communication to all its employees, BCI had no choice but to terminate these individuals. The reason these employees missed work — to engage in peaceful demonstrations — had nothing to do with BCI's decision to terminate them."

That same day in Florida, several staff members at Grace Community School in Bonita Springs told NBC2 they planned participate in Thursday's protest. Two employees claimed they were fired as a result, though the head of the school insists no one was terminated.

Asked by a reporter why the cause was important, Brenda Botello, who quit on Friday because she was afraid of being fired, said: "Because we are Mexicans... We need to find another job."

At Ben's Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers in Long Island, New York, 25 workers were fired Friday when they returned to work, according to Telemundo 47. Police escorted the workers from the restaurant — most of whom were undocumented and have worked there for years.

Some social media users are calling on others to boycott the small businesses and restaurants that fired immigrant workers.

Local news outlets also reported that 21 employees were fired at a boat manufacturing company in South Carolina, 12 workers at an Oklahoma restaurant and 30 masonry workers in Denver. The Oklahoma restaurant I Don't Care Bar and Grill has already published a job posting looking to replace the fired cooks, NBC12 reported.

Last week's nationwide "Day Without Immigrants" protests were aimed at showcasing the impact immigrants have on the U.S. economy.

Read more from NBC News.

Bank Workers Will Protest to Form Their First US Union — and the Whole World Is Watching

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Photo of the exterior of the Santander bank branch at Piccadilly Gardens. Santander is also one of the banks caught up in the PPI mis-selling scandal.

Money Bright/Flickr

From Policy.Mic:

By Jack Smith IV

Behind the pristine business attire and impeccable offices, banks in the United States have a secret: Their public faces — tellers and salespeople — are harried working-class people. These bank employees don wide smiles and deliver well-rehearsed pitches in their daily dealings with customers, but they earn low wages, face job instability and contend with demands that make them choose between ethical practices and keeping their jobs.

Now, bank tellers in the United States will ask for the same protections enjoyed by workers across the world: a union — and they're fighting not only to take care of themselves, but also to take care of their customers.

On Tuesday, over 15,000 U.S. bank workers with the Spain-based bank Santander will declare their intent to establish this country's first bank workers' union. They'll deliver petitions, take over corporate lobbies and begin the long struggle to bring collective bargaining to an industry with predatory practices and lots of low-wage workers. And across the world, in European and South American countries with strong banking unions, hundreds of thousands of bank employees are expected to demonstrate in solidarity.

"In every other developed economy in the world, bank worker unions are the backbone of the labor movement," Teresa Casertano, the global campaigns manager for the Committee for Better Banks, which was instrumental in developing the union effort, said in an interview. "They're strong unions with highest union density, and they usual have broad sectoral bargaining so that every bank worker is covered."

The U.S. bank workers have three demands. The first is greater wages and greater share of the profits, and the second is stable, full-time jobs. Crisp uniforms and polished storefronts aside, bank tellers are solidly low-wage employees — and wages have only taken a downturn over the past decade; as of May 2015, the median annual wage for a bank teller was $26,410.

The third demand isn't just about protecting workers or shoring up their jobs — it's about stopping predatory banking practices that pit bank workers against their own communities.

When it comes to consumer banking's more devious practices, like hawking off high-interest loans or subprime auto loans, it's the salespeople and tellers who end up convincing hapless customers to sign on. The pressure on bank salespeople comes in the form of overbearing quotas and benchmarks that they have to meet for fear of losing their jobs. Santander workers wishing to remain anonymous told Mic that this can even mean hourly quotas that don't give salespeople adequate time to explain the fundamental terms of the loans. The victims are often people of color and neighbors in their communities.

So that third demand for the bank workers is an end to the overbearing quotas that perpetuate these exploitative tactics.

"These workers are caught between doing what's good for the customers and being able to provide for their families," said Arnise Porter, an organizer with the Communications Workers of America.

Porter has spent the past year working with Santander Consumer USA workers in Dallas, where many of the subprime auto loans are sold. Workers tell Porter that the office has a nepotism problem, with family members being hired or promoted over the qualified or experienced. On Tuesday, she'll join a group of nearly 50 Santander employees in a lobby takeover of the Santander Consumer USA offices.

The Dallas contingent will also deliver so-called neutrality letters asking the bank to respect a fair election for union formation, as delegations of bank workers in New York City and Boston deliver signed petitions making their demands.

The American banker workers won't be alone in their demonstrations.

In other countries like Brazil, banker worker unions are a staple of collective bargaining power and the labor movement. Contraf-Cut, the Brazilian bank workers union that has gone on strike every year since 2004, ended their longest strike ever — of 31 days — in October, winning an annual 8% wage increase and raises in food and childcare allowances.

And so, the low-wage bank workers of the world will stand in solidarity with Santander employees as they begin their fight Tuesday. In Brazil, over 130,000 bank employees will open their bank branches an hour late, spending that time briefing the nation's bank workers on the American initiative while a rally is held at Santander's corporate headquarters in Brazil.

In Argentina, there will be rolling strikes throughout the banking sector, where different banks will close for a day throughout the week — they'll present similar demands as American workers, and hold marches and rallies. In Italy, Portugal, Spain and Germany, delegations of Santander bank workers will deliver letters of support to European banking officials.

The international support isn't just symbolic. The CBB initially kicked off the union drive at the urging of organizers in São Paulo and other foreign banking unions like UNI Global. The logic is that when international banks are introduced to the U.S. labor force — where labor has been systematically weakened — they want to spread those practices to workers in other countries where those banks do business, the CBB's Casertano said.

Read more from Policy.Mic.

House Panel OKs Making Wage-Theft Findings Open To Public

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Striking Philadelphia Restaurant Workers Win Back Wages from Sushi Restaurant.

From CBS Denver:

By James Anderson

DENVER (AP) — For about a century, any finding by Colorado labor officials that an employer cheated his or her workers on wages has been considered a trade secret that’s off-limits to the public.

That may change this year after a House panel unanimously approved a bill Thursday to include those findings under Colorado’s Open Records Act.

Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jesse Danielson, the bill would allow citizens to know if they are patronizing or considering employment with an offender — and level the playing field for the vast majority of employers who abide by wage, overtime and other pay laws or contracts.

It would make that information subject to records requests after an employer has exhausted all appeals.

“Most companies across the state of Colorado value their workers,” Danielson told the House Judiciary Committee. “However, in some cases wage theft does occur. Employees are asked to work off the clock, or don’t get overtime pay.”

In 2016, there were 274 wage claim violations, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Because those cases are kept secret under state law, “these bad actors are shielded and are less likely to value their employees,” Danielson said.

A similar bill failed last year in the Republican-led Senate.

Since then, Danielson worked with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, the Plaintiff Employment Lawyers Association and other groups to specify that only final determinations of a wage violation — after appeals — would be subject to open records requests.

Patrick Teagarden, director of policy and legislation for the Department of Labor and Employment, called it “a common sense application of open records.”

Read more from CBS Denver.

N.J. Company Named Among Worst for Wage Theft Fined $3.2 Million

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2 men on construction site during daytime.

From NJ.com:

By Paul Milo 

NEW YORK-- The New York City Comptroller levied a huge fine on a Parsippany company that cheated dozens of workers, mostly immigrant laborers, out of millions of dollars in wages for work on city projects.

K.S. Contracting, owned by Paresh Shah, was ordered to pay $3.2 million and will also be barred from receiving state contracts for five years.  

In its statement the comptroller's office did not identify the headquarters of Shah's company, but an Internet search turned up multiple Parsippany addresses for the business. State records tie Shah to at least one of those addresses, The Daily Record reported.

The company, named in  2015 as one of the worst wage theft violators in the city by the Center for Popular Democracy, was awarded more than $21 million in contracts between 2007 and 2010.  

K.S. Contracting came under investigation in May 2010, when an employee filed a complaint. An investigation over the next several years uncovered a kickback scheme targeting immigrant employees, Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said.

Following a four-day administrative trial in May 2016, Stringer's office learned that checks were regularly issued to just half the workforce, which was ordered to cash them and return the money to supervisors. The cash was then given to all the workers at a rate significantly below the prevailing wage.

At least 36 workers were cheated out of $1.7 million in wages between 2008 and 2011, with some workers who were to be paid a combined wage and benefits package of $50 an hour receiving just $90 a day in cash. Most of the victims were workers of Latino, West Indian or South Asian descent, Stringer said.

Read more from NJ.com.

This McDonald’s Cook Helped Raise The Minimum Wage. Now He Wonders if Trump Will Lower It.

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n April 14, fast food workers around the USA walked out on strike. Protesters gathered outside the McDonald's restaurant at Lake Street and 3rd Avenue in Minneapolis. They called for a $15 per hour minimum wage, paid sick days, and union rights. Within the last year, the cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

From The Huffington Post:

By Dave Jamieson

WASHINGTON ― The first time Luis Chiliquinga went on strike, he joined fellow fast-food workers and marched into his McDonald’s inside the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. He wasn’t satisfied with his $8.25-per-hour wage, and he was tired of burning his hands on hot grease. As the strikers chanted, Chiliquinga walked right up to his manager and held up a protest sign.

“I wasn’t scared,” Chiliquinga says of that first walkout, in 2013. If anyone seemed nervous, the 67-year-old says with a smile, it was management: “They were scared.”

Chiliquinga has taken part in more than a dozen strikes and protests since then, all of them pillorying federal contractors for paying low wages and opposing unionization among their workers. The rabble-rousing has led to concrete gains. Chiliquinga now earns $12.77 per hour and gets paid time off. He doesn’t believe he’d have either if not for the pressure fast-food workers like himself brought to bear on employers and politicians.

Yet Chiliquinga and his striking colleagues accomplished much more than that. They helped shape federal policy in a way that affects hundreds of thousands of other workers. Several of President Barack Obama’s executive orders may not have been issued at all if not for the courage of low-wage contract workers in Washington. Chiliquinga should know: He was invited to stand at Obama’s side in the White House when one of them was signed.

Under President Donald Trump, those gains may not be permanent. While on the campaign trail, Trump promised to unwind Obama’s executive orders, and he has already started to make good on that pledge. Chiliquinga wonders if some of the progress he and his co-workers made could be vacated with the stroke of a pen ― even though Trump vowed to bring back good jobs and raise wages for struggling workers like him.

“We fought very hard,” says Chiliquinga, a father of three. “We expect a living wage, not a minimum wage. It’s dignity. That’s why we pursued it.”

Chiliquinga, who immigrated from Ecuador in 1996, lives in a group house with family in suburban Maryland, about 40 miles from the Air and Space Museum. The commute alone costs him more than an hour’s pay each day. In 2013, he joined a new, union-backed worker group called Good Jobs Nation, made up of D.C.-area fast food workers, janitors and cooks, all of them employed on federal properties. They wanted to call attention to the fact that the federal government underwrites a lot of poverty jobs.

If the labor of people like Chiliquinga is funded by taxpayers, they argued, then their employers should be held to a higher standard. They called upon the Obama administration to use the federal government’s contracting power to improve pay and working conditions on federal properties around the country.

The workers found allies in prominent liberal members of Congress, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). They held rallies, filed complaints against their employers, and appealed directly to the White House.

Soon, the president got the message.

In 2014, Obama announced that he would set a minimum wage of $10.10 for all workers employed under federal contracts, including people in fast-food joints at government buildings. Democrats wanted to set a nationwide minimum wage at the same level, but Republicans would not give that proposal a vote. Through his executive order, Obama made sure at least some workers would be paid a higher wage.

A few months later, the Obama administration issued another executive order, this one creating a new rule punishing contractors with a history of labor law violations. The rule was crafted with input from Chiliquinga’s group. If a firm had a record of ripping off workers or putting them in danger, then the rule would make it harder for them to secure contracts with the government. The idea was to encourage contractors to treat their workers decently if they want to benefit from taxpayer money.

Then Obama signed a third executive order related to federal contracts, this one guaranteeing paid sick days for workers. Democrats sought a nationwide paid leave law, but Republicans blocked that proposal just like the minimum wage. The White House estimated the executive order would bring roughly 300,000 workers up to seven sick days per year.

Taken together, the executive actions represent a stunning success for the workers’ campaign. Powerful labor groups like the Service Employees International Union lobbied the White House for the reforms, but it was people like Chiliquinga walking off the job that created the public pressure for them. Just as the broader Fight for $15 spurred minimum-wage hikes coast to coast, it was the sight of federal contract workers taking to the streets that gave Obama the mandate to take unilateral action.

“It was a consequence of our struggle. If we don’t do strikes, that might never happen,” Chiliquinga explains. “The government needs pressure. They are always under the pressure of the companies. If workers don’t make pressure, then they don’t move.”

Already, some of that success has started to unravel since Obama left office. Earlier this month, House Republicans used an arcane procedural maneuver in an effort to undo the new rule barring companies that had committed wage theft from getting new contracts. Chiliquinga and his colleagues showed up at the Capitol to protest the vote, chasing after Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) in an effort to confront her over gutting the new worker protections. 

If the Senate follows suit, the Labor Department will be forbidden from moving forward with Obama’s executive order, known as the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule. (It is already tied up in court, blocked by a temporary injunction.) By using the Congressional Review Act to kill it, Republicans would assure that the same rule cannot be revived in the future.

Trump could reverse the minimum-wage and paid-leave measures, too, by writing his own executive orders vacating them. But doing so may not be worth the political costs. The minimum wage for contractors has become less relevant as more states and the District of Columbia raise their own minimum wages. Meanwhile, Americans overwhelmingly like the idea of hiking the wage floor and requiring employers to provide paid leave. If Trump wanted to abolish Obama’s rules and lower the minimum wage for cont, he would be taking positions out of step with most voters.

Read more from The Huffington Post.

Wrangling continues on raising New Mexico minimum wage

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REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

From The New Mexican:

by Andrew Oxford

A proposal to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage drew opposition from business organizations and workers rights groups alike on Monday.

Co-sponsored by House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, House Bill 442 would appear to be a compromise that boosts the statewide minimum hourly wage to $9.25 from $7.50, less of an increase than some Democrats have proposed.

But a section of the bill that would strip local governments of the power to adopt certain labor regulations, such as the Work Week Act previously proposed in Albuquerque, drew sharp criticism from workers rights advocates.

And business groups as well as some Republicans argued that $9.25-an-hour would still be too high. The bill would also raise the hourly minimum wage for tipped employees such as waitresses to $3.70 from $2.13.

Disagreements surrounding the bill demonstrated the messy process of making good on what was a major part of the Democrats’ political agenda in last year’s elections but also seemed to help the prospects of a compromise bill emerging from the 60-day session.

The House Labor and Economic Development Committee voted 6-5 along party lines to advance the bill, sending it to the House Judiciary Committee.

Some Democrats on the committee expressed reservations, however, about the section that would prohibit cities, towns and counties from regulating how businesses schedule employees.

The section could stop local governments from adopting policies that would curb flexible scheduling by employers, a practice workers rights advocates argue leaves low-wage laborers with uncertainty about the number of hours they might work in a week.

“How do you make and keep to a family budget when you don’t know how many hours you will work?” Holly Beaumont, director of Interfaith Worker Justice New Mexico, asked the committee.

And some lawmakers raised concerns that the section would block local governments from requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave for employees.

Members of the Albuquerque city council have proposed such ordinances in the past and similar policies have become major causes for workers rights groups around the country that see local governments as holding the best hope for improving the pay and benefits of low-wage laborers.

Chairman Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, warned Democrats on the committee against opposing an increase in the minimum wage, even if it is through a bill that workers rights groups consider less than ideal.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” McCamley said. “To not give a 23 percent increase to our lowest paid employees would be tragic.”

Raising the minimum wage was a central campaign theme for Democratic candidates for the Legislature last year and this is just one of several such bills wending through the Legislature during this 60-day session. On the lower end, Senate Bill 321 would raise the statewide minimum wage to $9 per hour but would allow employers to pay staff in training $8 per hour for up to 60 days from the date they are hired. On the high end, House Bill 27, would hike the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Read more from The New Mexican.

Pope Francis to activists: Stand with migrants, do not deny climate science, there is no such thing as ‘Islamic terrorism’

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L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP

From America Magazine:

by Michael O'Loughlin

In a letter written to a leaders of grassroots organizations and social movements meeting this week in California, Pope Francis said Christians must resist the temptation to demonize others, protect the earth and fight against “the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Writing that the world is in the midst of an “historic turning point,” Francis said the “worsening crisis” presents both danger and opportunity, using language sure to recall tensions between some Catholic leaders and the fledgling Trump administration.

“The grave danger is to disown our neighbors. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realizing it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus,” Francis wrote in the letter, which was dated Feb. 10 and published in Spanish.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican’s department for Integral Human Development, read the pope’s letter on Feb. 16 to participants at the opening of the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements meeting in Modesto, a new event based on similar international meetings previously held in Rome and in Bolivia. The California gathering includes participants from a dozen countries.

“I know that you have committed yourselves to fight for social justice, to defend our Sister Mother Earth and to stand alongside migrants. I want to reaffirm your choice,” the pope’s letter read.

In his letter, Francis condemned what he dubbed a global “hypocritical attitude” toward suffering and he called for more action to address a range of social ills.

“Sooner or later, the moral blindness of this indifference comes to light, like when a mirage dissipates,” he wrote. “The wounds are there, they are a reality. The unemployment is real, the violence is real, the corruption is real, the identity crisis is real, the gutting of democracies is real.”

Francis condemned leaders who rely on “fear, insecurity, quarrels, and even people’s justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills onto a ‘non-neighbor.’”

Though he wrote in the letter that he was not speaking about any particular leaders but of “a social and political process that flourishes in many parts of the world” that “poses a grave danger for humanity,” the letter, delivered in a border state with a large Hispanic population, is sure to suggest tensions between church leaders and U.S. President Donald J. Trump.

Last year, the pope said political leaders who propose building border walls were not Christian, a statement interpreted by the Trump campaign as a slight against the candidate.

More recently, Catholic bishops in the United States have condemned several executive orders signed by Mr. Trump placing restrictions on immigration and refugee resettlement, including an executive order to move forward with plans to build a border wall.

Rather than looking to political leaders as models to solve the world’s various crises, the pope said in his letter that “Jesus teaches us a different path.”

“Do not classify others in order to see who is a neighbor and who is not,” he wrote. “You can become neighbor to whomever you meet in need, and you will do so if you have compassion in your heart.”

Francis also repeated his warning against describing terrorism as Islamic, another major theme of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

“Christian terrorism does not exist, Jewish terrorism does not exist, and Muslim terrorism does not exist. They do not exist,” Francis wrote.

“There are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions—and with intolerant generalizations they become stronger because they feed on hate and xenophobia,” he continued.

Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized his predecessor for refusing to label acts of terror committed by Muslims “radical Islamic terrorism,” a phrase he has used often since his election.

“By confronting terror with love, we work for peace,” the pope wrote.

Read more from America Magazine.

Workers, Businesses Back Proposal to Stop Wage Theft

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Photo by Michael Moore, Union Advocate

From Portside:

by Barb Kucera

Workers and communities suffer – and businesses face unfair competition – when companies cheat their employees through wage theft, advocates said Wednesday at the state Capitol. They called on the Legislature to pass measures that would strengthen enforcement against this widespread problem.

“If you work for a living, you should get paid!” said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, one of the authors of the anti-wage theft legislation. Several legislators, Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith and state Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Ken Peterson listened as workers described how their paychecks have been stolen by unscrupulous employers.

One of the most egregious current examples is Lakeville Motor Express, a trucking company that allegedly changed its name and location to avoid paying thousands of dollars to its employees. The workers’ union, Teamsters Local 120, is leading an effort to recoup what was lost.

"We are union strong and we are here to fight for our rights!" said Samuel Nunn, one of the 95 affected workers.

The Department of Labor and Industry has filed suit against Lakeville Motor Express for more than a half million dollars in unpaid wages. But the department lacks the resources to investigate half of the complaints it receives, Commissioner Peterson said.

An investigation by Workday Minnesota has found wage theft in Minnesota is larger and more widespread than most people realize – and the problem is growing. The department estimates that 39,000 Minnesota workers suffer from wage theft each year, resulting in $11.9 million in wages owed, and that's only what goes reported. Wage theft occurs when:

  • Employers refuse to pay their employees for work performed
  • Employers violate minimum wage, prevailing wage, and overtime protections
  • Employers make unlawful paycheck deductions
  • Employers coerce employees to work off the clock
  • Employers misclassify employees as an independent contractors to avoid paying workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance

Businesses that follow the law face unfair competition from those that are cheating, said Shawn Larson of RTL Construction in Shakopee.

“They skirt laws in order to improve their bottom line,” Larson said. “It’s obviously bad for workers but it’s also bad for businesses and it’s bad for the state of Minnesota.”

The Wage Theft Initiative proposes policy changes to give the Department of Labor and Industry more enforcement tools and an increased budget to hire four additional wage and hour investigators to do proactive outreach across the state. It would empower workers with more information and impose stiffer penalties for violators.

“I had to live out of my car and then a friend’s house for several weeks because of the wage theft and the problems it created for me,” said Gloria Rojo, a janitor who experienced wage theft while cleaning car dealerships and other buildings for a subcontractor of ROC Commercial Cleaning. Since then, she has become a leader in CTUL, a Minneapolis-based worker center that is challenging wage theft.

Read more from Portside.

U.S. accelerates deportation of Haitian migrants

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From The Arizona Republic:

by Daniel Gonzalez

A detention officer handed Lemoine Denera a cardboard lunch tray. The 32-year-old migrant from Haiti took a look at the food and slid the tray away.

He hasn't felt like eating since being locked up in a federal immigration detention center in the desert near Eloy, an hour's drive south of Phoenix.

Because of his stomach problems, medical staff have placed him on a low-sodium, low-fat, high-fiber diet, which Denera finds unappetizing. That day he was served a slice of ham and American cheese between a hamburger bun, along with green beans, apple sauce and coleslaw. 

He also suffers from a hernia, hypertension and a faulty heart valve. But he said the main reason he's not hungry is because his detention by federal immigration authorities has separated him from his wife and infant daughter.

The family of three arrived together at the Nogales border crossing in December after traveling through Mexico seeking refuge in the U.S. They are part of a surge of Haitian migrants arriving at ports along the southern border after fleeing from Haiti to Brazil following the 2010 Haitian earthquake. After four days, his wife and daughter were released; Denera, meanwhile, was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and locked up.

His wife and daughter are now living with an aunt in the New York City area. It has been more than two months since he has seen them. Their only communication is by phone once or twice a week.

"I am suffering. I miss them," Denera said, during a recent interview conducted in a conference room at the Eloy Detention Center. "Sometimes I try to talk, but when I hear my daughter crying, it’s not easy for me."

Denera is one of about 4,000 Haitian migrants being held in immigration detention centers in Arizona and other states. Now he faces being quickly deported back to Haiti, while his wife and daughter remain in the U.S.

While the majority of Haitian migrants who have arrived along the southern border are men, there are many cases like Denera's involving families that have been separated, said Guerline Josef, director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance in San Diego, an advocacy group.

"That is one of the main issues that we are having is the fact that a lot of the women and children that were released, their husbands and fathers were sent home or are still in detention," she said. "So basically the family units are being broken, so it becomes really hard for them to survive. They don’t have that partner with them. They don’t have the father to help out."

The possibility Denera will be deported is real.

Since November, the number of people deported to Haiti has risen rapidly, according to ICE data. The deportations reversed a longstanding policy of not sending Haitians without permission to be in the U.S., except criminals, back to Haiti while the country is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake.

The deportations resumed under former President Barack Obama's administration. But immigrant advocates are concerned they will increase even more rapidly under President Donald Trump's new executive orders on immigration, which call for expanding priorities for who can be detained and deported.

Through the end of January, ICE had deported 2,186 people to Haiti, according to data provided by ICE to The Arizona Republic. The number includes 204 individuals with criminal records, ICE said, or about 9 percent of the total.

In comparison, ICE deported 310 individuals to Haiti in all of fiscal year 2016, which ended on Sept. 30. The vast majority of the 2016 deportees, 267, were people with criminal records, or about 86 percent of the total.

The deportations to Haiti have alarmed immigrant rights advocates. They fear Haitians are being sent back to one of the most impoverished countries in the Western Hemisphere at a time when Haiti is still recovering from a string of calamities, and in the process separating families such as Denera's. In addition to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was struck by a major hurricane in October. The country is also struggling to control an ongoing cholera outbreak that has killed more than 10,000 people.

"It's obscene," said Steven Forester, the Miami-based immigration policy coordinator at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, an advocacy group.

"The reason it’s obscene is that Hurricane Matthew just devastated a large part of Haiti," Forester said, pointing out that Haiti was "already suffering" from the after-effects of the earthquake, and the cholera epidemic when Hurricane Matthew hit. The destruction is "as if a quarter of the United States had been leveled. It’s not safe to deport anyone to Haiti and it hasn’t been."

What's more, Forester said, many Creole-speaking Haitians currently being detained may qualify for asylum in the U.S. because of ongoing political turmoil in Haiti. But many of the detained Haitians may be unaware of their rights or have difficulty communicating their fear of persecution because of a lack of Creole-speaking interpreters and legal counsel in detention centers, he said.

"There has been a lot of repression and persecution in Haiti which caused many people to flee. The rule of law in Haiti is extremely weak," Forester said.

In December, the Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami dispatched two Creole-speaking attorneys to the federal detention centers in Eloy and Florence, said Randolph McGorty, the group's executive director.

The two lawyers held meetings over a week with about 400 Haitian detainees to inform them of their rights and determine if they might qualify for asylum, McGorty said.

To qualify, asylum seekers must first pass a hearing with an asylum officer who determines whether they have a "credible" fear of persecution if returned to their home country.

While a Creole-speaking interpreter is provided by phone for the hearings, migrants may be unaware of the process for requesting a hearing because of language barriers, he said.

"This is a very unsophisticated group," McGorty said.

Deportations under Obama administration

When the U.S. suspended deportations to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, officials were concerned sending the immigrants back would put their lives at risk and could further destabilize the country.

But in September, the Obama administration announced the government would resume deportations in response to a sudden surge of Haitian migrants arriving at border crossings in Tijuana and other cities along the southern border, including Nogales, seeking refuge in the U.S.

A total of 6,426 Haitian migrants arrived at ports along the southern border in fiscal year 2016, according to Customs and Border Protection data. Another 7,129 have arrived since the start of fiscal year 2017 on Oct. 1, according to CBP.

Before the U.S. resumed deportations, a majority of Haitian migrants were detained for several days and then allowed to stay in the U.S. on what is called humanitarian parole pending the outcome of their immigration cases, said McGorty.

The Obama administration suspended the deportations again in October after Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti, causing more devastation. But in November, the Obama administration announced that deportations to Haiti had resumed once again, despite the country's ongoing recovering from the hurricane, the cholera outbreak and the 2010 earthquake.

Read more from The Arizona Republic.

Republican Health Proposal Would Redirect Money From Poor to Rich

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From The New York Times:

by Margot Sanger-Katz

Republicans in Congress have been saying for months that they are working on a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare in the Trump era. Now we have the outline of that plan, and it looks as if it would redirect federal support away from poorer Americans and toward people who are wealthier.

A white paper drafted by House leadership and the staff of the House and Senate committees that oversee health policy details a structure that could replace large sections of the Affordable Care Act. Crucially, the proposal largely contains provisions that could be passed through a special budget process that requires only 50 Senate votes, and fulfills President Trump’s promise that the repeal and replacement of the law would take place “simultaneously.”

The plan would make major changes in how health care is financed for Americans who don’t get coverage from work. It would greatly expand the number of Americans who could benefit from federal help in buying health insurance, but it would change who benefits most from that support.

Obamacare, as the A.C.A. is known, extended health coverage to 20 million Americans through two main mechanisms. It expanded Medicaid coverage to Americans below or just above the poverty line in states that participated, and it offered income-based tax credits for middle-income people to buy their own insurance. Obamacare was a redistributive law, transferring money from rich to poor.

The Republican plan would alter both of those programs, changing the winners and losers. It would substantially cut funding for states in providing free insurance to low-income adults through Medicaid. And it would change how tax credits are distributed by giving all Americans not covered through work a flat credit by age, regardless of income.

That means that the biggest financial benefits would go to older Americans, like, say, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If he didn’t have a job in the Trump cabinet and access to government coverage, a 64-year-old multimillionaire like him would get the same amount of financial assistance as someone his age, living in poverty, and he would get substantially more money than a poor, young person.

The idea of matching tax credits to age makes some sense. Older people tend to have higher medical bills, and insurers, even under Affordable Care Act rules, charge them substantially higher prices. The new plan would also simplify the current system, which requires verifying every applicant’s income and then giving just the right amount of financial assistance. It would also eliminate incentives for low-income people to avoid earning more (higher earners can face a reduction in benefits).

But the current system is set up to ensure that low and middle-income Americans can afford the cost of their premiums. The Republican plan would not do that, and would result in many more low-income people losing out on coverage if they couldn’t find the money to pay the gap between their fixed tax credit and the cost of a health plan.

Older people without employer-based insurance typically earn more than young people, who tend to be starting out in their careers. It’s hard to know precisely how many people would lose coverage under this proposal because it’s missing some numbers. But similar tax credit plans from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Tom Price, the new secretary of health and human services, would result in millions losing coverage, according to independent estimates. (Mr. Ryan said Thursday in a news conference that the Congressional Budget Office was evaluating the new proposal, which means that we may see firm coverage estimates in the coming weeks.)

The plan includes additional features that redistribute resources from the poor to the rich. It would allow Americans to sock more money away for health spending in special tax-free health savings accounts. The benefits of such accounts fall largely to higher income-people who pay more in taxes, and a recent analysis of current health savings accounts found that they are held disproportionately by families with high earnings. (The white paper is silent on two Obamacare taxes that target wealthier Americans, but other Republican plans have proposed eliminating them. It does eliminate a number of taxes on the health care industry.)

What the plan doesn’t do, currently, is change any of the Obamacare regulations on health insurance that Republicans say drive up the cost. Those rules, including requirements that every plan cover a standard package of benefits, and those requiring companies to charge the same prices to healthy and sick Americans, would stay on the books, because they can’t be easily changed through the budget process.

Changing those rules could make insurance cheaper but would rankle many consumer advocates — and would require separate legislation, with 60 Senate votes. Under this proposal, the health plans would look largely the same, but the way the government helps people pay for them would change.

Read more from The New York Times.

Five things you should know about Alexander Acosta, Trump’s new pick for labor secretary

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Associated Press

From The Washington Post:

by Jonnelle Marte

Labor groups, unions and lawmakers in both political parties are still getting to know Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s latest pick for labor secretary.

Acosta, 48, is the dean of Florida International University’s law school and was a member of the National Labor Relations Board from 2002 to 2003. He also worked as an assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. After building a career in Washington, Acosta returned home to Miami as a U.S. attorney.

Acosta has been confirmed by the Senate for three positions, which may help him have a smooth vetting process.

Here is a look at some other aspects of Acosta’s record:

1. He is a conservative Republican.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Acosta clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. He served as a fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington-based think tank, between 1998 and 2000. Acosta is also a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

His conservative views came under scrutiny while he was heading the civil rights division. A 2008 report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General found that Acosta “did not sufficiently supervise” the hiring patterns of a former senior division official who favored people with “conservative political or ideological affiliations” over those with more human rights or civil rights experience.

2. At the Justice Department, he wrote a controversial letter supporting poll watchers. 

When Acosta was at the Justice Department, he took what some say was an unusual step of writing a letter to an Ohio judge four days before the 2004 election. The judge was hearing a lawsuit challenging Republican plans to place poll monitors in predominantly black neighborhoods, which critics claimed was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Acosta, who was an assistant attorney general at the time, said in the letter that there was “nothing in the Voting Rights Act” that condemns the use of poll monitors, which supporters said would help eliminate voter fraud but which critics viewed as voter intimidation.

It was considered unusual for someone from the Justice Department’s civil rights division to write a letter to a judge without asking to intervene in the case, said Kristen Clarke, an attorney who worked at the division at the time. The move was considered “problematic” by a team vetting Acosta when he was being considered for the role of dean at the University of Florida’s law school in 2014, and contributed to him not getting the job, according to the Miami Herald. The letter made it appear as if the Justice Department was “putting political pressure on the judge,” University of Florida law professor Michelle Jacobs told the Herald.

3. Acosta has defended civil rights for Muslim Americans.

There are at least two notable cases in which Acosta has defended the civil rights of Muslim Americans. One is a case from 2004 when Acosta, who was then with the civil rights division, intervened to help defend an 11-year-old student who had sued her Oklahoma school district for requiring her to remove her hijab because it violated the school’s dress code. “No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education,” Acosta said in a statement at the time, according to a report from CNN. The school district settled with the Justice Department and changed its dress code.

In 2011, as dean of the law school at Florida International University, Acosta testified before Congress in support of protecting Muslim Americans’ civil rights. He told the story of the 11-year-old he helped to defend years before. and he also shared the anecdote of a Muslim American college student who had served in the National Guard and the U.S. Army. He closed by saying that even though “emotions remained charged” 10 years after 9/11, it was a good time for Americans  to remember “that no community has a monopoly on any particular type of crime.”

The comments and work are relevant now because Acosta would be tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws if confirmed as labor secretary.

4. He worked on some high-profile cases as U.S. attorney.

As a top federal prosecutor in Miami, Acosta led the case against Washington GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was charged with five counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy related to the purchase of gambling boats. Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax charges in 2006. Acosta was also involved in the prosecution of accused terrorist Jose Padilla, who was allegedly part of an al-Qaeda support cell in South Florida that was raising money for terrorists.

Acosta achieved convictions against Colombian drug cartel members Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. He led the case against Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., who was convicted of torturing people who opposed his father, a former Liberian president. He also oversaw the case against Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier accused of running a sex ring with underage girls. Epstein avoided federal charges when he pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting prostitution, an agreement that was criticized by some of the alleged victims.

5. Acosta is the chairman of a community bank.

In addition to his role at the law school, Acosta is chairman of U.S. Century Bank, a community bank in South Florida. Acosta, who joined the bank in 2013, was credited by colleagues with helping to turn the bank around, according to Bloomberg News. Under his leadership, the bank diversified its loan portfolio to rely less on commercial real estate and had a profitable year in 2016.

Read more from The Washington Post

Right to work fails in New Hampshire House

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From the Concord Monitor:

by Allie Morris

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu says he is “deeply disappointed” the House voted to kill a proposed right-to-work bill.

Sununu set the policy as a priority of his first term and met with representatives before the vote to try and ensure its passage. 

“While it is clear that some House members did not understand this opportunity to unleash the untapped potential of our economy, I know that we can continue to work collaboratively on initiatives that will drive new business into the state,” he said in a statement. 

Other Republican leaders might not be happy with the outcome, but are relieved the fight is over. 

“To put it behind us and move forward is what’s best for the Republican caucus,” said House Speaker Shawn Jasper. He had backed the bill, but warned on Wednesday it could fail due to the opposition of some Republican members.  “We have to start moving forward, there has got to be some healing.” 

Top state Republicans had spent the days before the vote trying to sway opinions toward right-to-work. On Wednesday, leaders at the GOP state party suggested they may not help Republicans who oppose the bill in the next election cycle. 

The last-minute lobbying, however, proved fruitless.

“It’s a good day for New Hampshire,” said Rich Gulla, who heads the largest union of state employees. “We’re ready to get down to business now that this is behind us.” 

Read more from the Concord Monitor.

N.Y. Labor Groups Join Forces to Attack President Trump's Anti-Worker Policies

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SEIU Janitors Protest Firing by JPMorgan Chase

SEIU/Flickr

From NY Daily News:

By Chauncey Alcorn

Some of New York’s largest labor organizations announced Friday they are joining forces in an early attack on what they say are President Trump’s anti-worker policies.

The gathering — which included community activists and leaders — specifically targeted some of Trump’s corporate allies, who are “trying to take advantage of the political moment to decimate workers’ rights,” the coalition said.

Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, a union that was a driving force in New York’s successful Fight for $15 campaign, said labor is pushing for a more progressive agenda — first in the White House, but also in Albany.

“We are witnessing not only an administration populated by billionaires (who don’t) have workers’ interest at heart — we are beginning to see the consolidation and expansion of workers’ exploitation that we thought were gone,” the labor leader said.

He stood with Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and several other groups as they criticized the influence of so-called “gig” tech companies in Albany.

The corporations are banding together to push for legislation that favors them, the group said.

“For a long time, Uber has cloaked itself in a lot of liberal rhetoric as if to say, ‘We are the progressive voice in our industry,’” Desai said at the meeting Friday.

“(But) it’s the drivers that are the progressive force in this movement, not the $64 billion Wall Street darling,” she added.

Saru Jayaraman, executive director of a coalition of New York restaurant workers, said they’re not covered by the state’s new $15 minimum wage law — and they’re being left behind economically as a result.

“Four hundred thousand restaurant workers saw their wages decline when everybody else’s wages went up,” she said.

Read more from NY Daily News.

Chicago’s lax enforcement of minimum wage hike leaves workers in the lurch

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

From The Chicago Reporter:

by Melissa Sanchez

Sabrina Jackson looked forward to a raise last summer at her job as a crossing guard near her children’s Englewood school.

Chicago’s minimum wage was slated to increase from $10 to $10.50 per hour under a city ordinance, providing a small but welcome boost to Jackson’s paycheck.

But when the new school year rolled around, Jackson discovered, “I didn’t get a raise.” Chicago Public Schools refused to pay the higher wage for the 1,300 crossing guards, telling nonprofit groups that run the program that the district had budget problems and claiming the workers were exempt. The district never explained why it considered the workers an exception.

The underpayment of Safe Passage workers is just one example of how the city’s minimum wage ordinance has fallen short since it took effect in July 2015. A Reporter analysis estimates that thousands of workers have been left behind because of exceptions in the law, which will raise the city’s minimum hourly wage to $13 by 2019.

Meanwhile, the city department responsible for enforcement has investigated just a quarter of 454 wage complaints, recovered lost pay for only a few dozen people and has yet to fine a single company for violating the ordinance. Following repeated questioning by The Chicago Reporter about the department’s lax enforcement, city officials now say they will levy fines. Also following the Reporter’s inquiries, CPS reversed course and said it would cover the wage increase, as well as back pay, to its crossing guards. “CPS is committed to meeting the city’s minimum wage ordinance, and we have begun the process of guaranteeing that all Safe Passage workers will be properly compensated this year,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement in late January.

Other cities that have passed higher minimum wage laws, like San Francisco and Seattle, have had much greater success with more rigorous enforcement.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) agreed that Chicago needs to consider ramping up its oversight of the law. He recalled intervening last year to resolve a wage dispute in his ward between the owner of an Albany Park warehouse and a worker, who was undocumented.

“I’m happy to use that leverage,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “But ultimately we need to make sure there are better enforcement opportunities. It’s extremely important that the City of Chicago put teeth behind its existing ordinances. And if what we’re doing is inadequate, we need to get serious about having the right resources and enforcement mechanisms in place.”

For Jackson, who continues to look for higher-paying work and depends on food stamps and a public housing subsidy to support her four children, even a small pay increase is significant.

“It will help out a lot. That 50 cents does add up,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be an extra bill that you don’t have to worry about, extra things I can now get for my kids.”

How Chicago raised pay—for some workers

In the months leading up to his re-election campaign in 2014, Mayor Rahm Emanuel formed a task force to look at raising the city’s minimum wage. Community groups, including those involved in the national Fight for $15 fast food workers’ wage campaign, lobbied for $15 an hour. Business groups pushed back, warning that small businesses would close down or cut workers.

While cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles adopted a $15 minimum, Chicago City Council approved a $13 minimum in December 2014. The task force acknowledged that $13 fell far short of a living wage, given the city’s high housing costs. (The Living Wage Calculator, a project developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sets the amount at $24.91 per hour for a single adult with one child in Cook County.)

Still, Emanuel touted the increase as a way to lift working families out of poverty, and supporters viewed it as just a first step. “It’s a big part of the puzzle for people to be upwardly mobile, to start getting paid fairly and have a better way to make ends meet,” said John Bouman, president of the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, who co-chaired the task force. (Since Chicago’s ordinance, Cook County passed a $13 minimum wage in 2016. State legislators are considering a proposal to raise the Illinois minimum to $11 an hour.)

City officials estimate that more than 270,000 low-wage workers have benefited from the increase. Yet the Reporter’s analysis found that more than 20,000 workers are exempt, in part because the ordinance incorporated a number of exceptions in state law. The list of exemptions includes certain younger workers, such as those in the city’s One Summer Chicago program, other teens under 18, and student workers at public colleges and universities; disabled workers; workers in transitional employment programs, such as those for the homeless and former-inmates; new employees in their first 90 days on the job; workers for certain small businesses and other groups.

Bouman called that a “tactical decision” to avoid a bigger battle over the ordinance itself. Neither the city nor the task force came up with its own estimates of exempt workers. “The idea was it was going to be hard enough to get a substantial increase in the minimum wage, that it would fracture and get more and more complicated the more of the exemptions and sub-provisions were included in the debate,” Bouman said.

Yet advocates for several groups called on the city to use the ordinance as a chance to level the playing field for all workers.

The exemptions make it “more difficult for people with disabilities to contribute to the workforce and live independently,” said Gary Arnold, spokesman for Access Living, a disability rights group.

Other groups, including those that help place youth in the One Summer Chicago program, were surprised to learn of the exemptions after the ordinance took effect.

“They should be getting paid the minimum, especially those youth who were placed in businesses where there are other employees getting the minimum wage,” said Juliet de Jesus Alejandre, youth program director for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “It was a disproportionate number of young people of color, who applied to many different places and this opportunity was the only one that called them back.”

Alejandre sees this as an issue of equity, as white youth from higher-income families tend to have more connections and job opportunities in their neighborhoods. In fact, she recalled that one of the few white participants in the program last summer ultimately turned down a slot after her mother helped her find a higher-paying internship elsewhere.

Once the ordinance passed, the mayor formed a Working Families Task Force to analyze other issues, including sick leave policies and worker scheduling practices. That group heard from fast food workers whose hours were cut as their hourly pay rose. They were workers like Aiesha Meadows McLaurin, who works at three Burger King restaurants to make ends meet. “They cut back on a lot of our workers’ hours,” she said. “Now I’m running between three jobs and still relying on public assistance.”

The city’s 2016 ordinance mandating paid sick leave for workers was recommended by the Working Families group. But the task force decided to table recommendations to improve scheduling, citing the need for more study.

“You can get a huge increase in your hourly rate, but what happens if the hours you work get cut?” said Robert Bruno, director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a task force member. “The honest answer is nobody knows what the impact of the higher minimum wage has been. Nobody has done a good, statistically comprehensive assessment.”

The university’s Project for Middle Class Renewal will analyze the impact of the higher wage on working hours, scheduling and earnings as part of a larger study on low-wage work.

Chicago enforcement spotty

As more cities enact measures to raise the local minimum wage or guarantee sick pay, some have created specialized departments to police the new labor laws. Chicago has not. Instead, the city dumped oversight of three labor ordinances — minimum wage, paid sick leave and a 2014 measure that guards against wage theft — onto the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection without hiring additional employees.

“The scope of this department has changed and expanded, and yet the resourcing and supports and restructuring of that agency that will be necessary has not happened,” said Adam Kader, who directs the worker center at the nonprofit Arise Chicago. Wary of the city department’s capacity, labor activists like Kader often encourage aggrieved workers to consider negotiating with employers or taking other action to resolve pay issues, or even to file lawsuits in particularly egregious cases.

The department declined to provide copies of the minimum wage complaints or files from its investigations, or to allow the Reporter to inspect the documents, which would provide more details and identify the businesses involved. The department claimed this would be “unduly burdensome” and that all files are kept on paper, scattered across different departments.

But data obtained by the Reporter through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the department received 454 complaints from July 2015 (when the ordinance took effect) to December 2016.  So far, only 112 complaints, or about 1 in 4, have led to investigations, mostly because workers don’t submit the required affidavits.

Yet the department’s procedures appear to discourage workers from doing so. The department sends employers a copy of the affidavit, which activists say creates a fear of retaliation among workers (especially undocumented immigrants). Other cities, like San Francisco and Seattle, keep worker affidavits confidential and allow employees to give information over the phone without having to fill out the paperwork.

Department spokesperson Angel Hawthorne said the city doesn’t hesitate to take action. “When we receive complaints we fully investigate them and take action when necessary,” she said in a statement. “We have recovered tens of thousands of dollars in wages owed to workers and stand ready to shut down any business found to be violating wage theft laws.”

City officials told the Reporter that the department recovered wages for 51 workers. The total amount recovered: $82,000.

However, the city has not issued a single fine to or revoked the license of any of the companies found in violation of the ordinance, which states that businesses “shall be subject to fines of $500 to $1,000 per day.

Read more from The Chicago Reporter.

Fort Smith Sen. Jake Files' construction company avoiding $10,000 payment to subcontractor

1 Comment(s) | Posted |

From the Arkansas Times:

by David Koon

The Northwest Arkansas Worker's Justice Center, which is representing a subcontractor from Northwest Arkansas, claims that Arkansas Sen. Jake Files (R- Fort Smith) owes the subcontractor they represent almost $10,000 for roofing work done for Files' construction company, FFH Construction. After many attempts to reach Files, they say, he still hasn't paid. 

Files is the chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, and has been in the Senate since 2011. 

Alex Canales, who owns roofing and construction company RG Construction, claims to have subcontracted with FFH to roof a building. Canales claims that himself and a crew of four workers spent roughly a month on the job, using materials purchased by FFH. Canales claims Files did pay him $2,090 for the job in the last week of November, but says FFH still owes him around $10,000. Canales said he's been trying to reach Files since November, and that Files has stopped taking his calls. 

The Northwest Arkansas Worker's Justice Center, a Springdale-based non-profit which lobbies and provides assistance on behalf of low-income and immigrant workers, reached out Files to see if they could help resolve the issue. When that didn't produce results, the group came to the Arkansas State Capitol with Canales in tow a few weeks back to see if they could locate and speak to Files during the session. 

Fernando Garcia, a caseworker with the Worker's Justice Center. said that during that trip to the Capitol, they tried to have Files paged in the Senate and sent notes for Files into the Senate chamber twice, but he never came out to speak with them. When they checked back later, Garcia said, they were told that Files had left for the day. 

Garcia said they had previously sent a letter to FFH Construction, and had been in touch with a person who identified himself as a general manager with the company. As of Friday, Feb. 3, Garcia said Canales hadn't received payment or been contacted by either Files or a representative of FFH to talk about the issue. 

Contacted by Arkansas Times, Files said he didn't know anyone named Alex Canales, and didn't recall receiving notes from anyone by that name during the session. Files said he has a subcontractor who has hired roofing crews for FFH jobs in the past. 

"It's a little strange," Files said. "I don't even know. It sounds like a misunderstanding and I don't know that it's newsworthy. I get that you've got things to print but I don't know anything about it. So I'll do some digging to see what I can find out." 

A short while later, Files called back to say that an employee he worked with had hired roofing crews in the past. though Files himself "didn't even interface with them." Files said the subcontractor he contacted had "used a guy named Alex before, but he didn't know his last name and I've never seen the name. So I don't know what the end of it is. I'll try to get a number and try to get in touch with him and go from there. As far as I know, I don't owe him any money." 

"I may have written checks to some but a lot of them I wrote to [the FFH subcontractor] and he paid them on from there," Files said. "I have heard the name RG Construction but I didn't know who it is associated with and I didn't know that we possibly owed them any money." 

Garcia said that number one issue the NWA Worker's Justice Center receives complaints about is wage theft.  "In the construction industry, it's very common," he said. "I think it's because there's a lot of confusion between the General Contractor, who can hire a subcontractor, who might hire another subcontractor along the way as well. What we've heard is: 'Well, I can't pay because I haven't been paid by the person who hired me.' Then we talk to them, and it's: 'I already paid them. I don't know why they're not paying you.' It can get a little confusing when there's a lot of subcontracting going on." 

Asked if he believes Files is actively dodging Canales to avoid paying him, Garcia said: "I'm sure his general manager told him what was going on. We've sent a letter to the company and we've had a little contact with the general manager. It wouldn't surprise me if he passed on the info to the Senator." 

Read more from the Arkansas Times.

State Investigates Wage Theft Claim at Luxury Downtown Apartment Project

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Edward Gonzalez found out he was getting paid about half as much per hour as his co-workers.

From WCPO Cincinnati:

By Lucy May, Dan Monk, Craig Cheatham 

CINCINNATI -- Edward Gonzalez felt fortunate to be earning the best wages of his life when R & R Steel hired him to work on the 8th and Sycamore development Downtown.

But his attitude changed when, six months into the job, Gonzalez found out he was getting paid about half as much per hour as his co-workers.

Gonzalez and two other Hispanic ironworkers -- all of whom are entitled to protections under state and federal labor laws -- claim R & R underpaid them by thousands of dollars and took advantage of Hispanic workers.

Their complaints have prompted investigations of the company by the city of Cincinnati, the Ohio Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The 8th and Sycamore development is a "prevailing wage" project where non-union construction workers are required to be paid the same rate as union workers.

As a ironworker, Gonzalez learned, he was supposed to be earning $46 per hour. Instead, R & R Steel hired him at a wage of $19 an hour. He got a raise that took him up to $26.80 before he found out what he was supposed to be making.

"I was angry," said Gonzalez, the father of four young children. "I do the hardest work out there. How is that guy making more than me?"

He began asking questions and said he believes he got fewer hours of work as a result. He left the job in June and sought help from the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center.

R & R Steel's president maintains the problems with pay were a misunderstanding that he has rectified.

Read more from WCPO Cincinnati.

Right to Work is Wrong for Your Family - Whether You are Union or Not. Here’s Why

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Anti-right-to-work sign being held by worker.

From Medium:

By Jesse Isbell

I spent 36 years working at the Bridgestone Tire Plant in Oklahoma City. The work was hard but rewarding, it afforded me the opportunity to provide for my family, always ensure there was enough food at the table and that my kids were afforded every modest opportunity to grow up in a household that was stable, secure and free from worry. That all changed suddenly in 2006, five years after Oklahoma passed a so-called “right to work” law that was billed by politicians as a job-creator. For the 1,400 men and women who worked at the plant, Right to Work didn’t work as advertised. Not only did the plant close, but the effects of the closing and the chilling effect that Right to Work has on a state’s economy were felt by everyone.

What is Right to Work anyway?

“Right to Work” is a dangerous and divisive bill that politicians use to intervene in the rights of people like you and me to negotiate with our bosses as we see fit. The bill is championed by big companies, the same ones that ship jobs overseas, by taking away our rights to organize and negotiate for fair paychecks and safety standards on the job. These companies argue that this will make states more competitive and attract jobs, but, in reality, that doesn’t happen.

So then, what does happen?

All evidence, actual facts, from non-partisan sources show that “Right to Work” doesn’t create jobs and actually has a negative effect on state’s economies. We saw this in Oklahoma. In the wake of Right to Work, the number of new companies relocating to our state has decreased by one-third and the number of manufacturing jobs has also fallen by a third. That’s according to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics. That same thing is happening in other right to work states as well, seven of the top ten states with the highest unemployment are “Right to Work” states. Worse, the jobs that stay in “Right to Work” states are lower paid. On average, workers in “Right to Work” states make about $5,000 less a year than in other states.
That means that everyone has less money to spend in the community.
That’s the thing that supporters of this bill don’t want you to know. This law takes money out of EVERYONE’s pockets. It means that you will be paid less, that you will have less to spend on groceries, in pharmacies, on going out to dinner or to the movies, on your hobbies and home improvement projects. It means that everyone that you PERSONALLY interact with on a daily basis has less to spend, spends less and then can’t spend on other things…it’s a vicious cycle.

WORSE, Right to Work means that our communities will be less safe.

Another thing that supporters of “Right to Work” don’t tell you is that Nurses, Teachers, Firefighters and Police Officers come together collectively to negotiate with politicians over the critical equipment they need to keep our communities safe. Nurses negotiate to ensure there are enough on staff working humane hours to respond when our life is in danger in a hospital emergency rooms. Firefighters negotiate for the equipment they need to safely and quickly put out fires. Police Officers negotiate for new equipment to respond to violent emergencies. Teachers negotiate over class sizes. All of these critical negotiations by folks who know how to keep our community safe get threatened by the consequences of this bill.

Read more from Medium.

Gov. Eric Greitens Signs Missouri Right-To-Work Bill, but Unions File to Overturn It

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Gov. Eric Greitens held multiple signing ceremonies Monday for right-to-work legislation, the last inside the Capitol in Jefferson City.

From The Kansas City Star:

By Jason Hancock

 In an abandoned warehouse in Springfield, Gov. Eric Greitens on Monday signed legislation making Missouri the country’s 28th right-to-work state.

Hours later, organized labor struck back by filing a rarely used referendum petition seeking to freeze the law and put it before voters in 2018.

Greitens’ signature was thought to be the final step in a decades-long push by Republicans and business groups to enact a right-to-work law in Missouri. But if the law’s opponents gather enough signatures, the battle will carry on.

In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees in unionized workplaces can opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented.

Proponents of right-to-work argue it will bolster Missouri’s economy by making the state more hospitable to businesses.

Unions vehemently oppose right-to-work laws, arguing that the real motivation is political: Republicans want to weaken a political nemesis by allowing some workers to benefit from the contracts labor unions negotiate without having to contribute to covering the costs of those negotiations.

By signing the bill, Greitens fulfilled one of his major campaign pledges. Labor unions spent heavily to defeat Greitens last year based largely on his promise to enact right-to-work legislation. He also mentioned the idea in his State of the State address last month, saying that “Missouri has to become a right-to-work state.” 

Greitens held multiple signing ceremonies for the bill Monday, the first being held in Springfield at an abandoned warehouse that Parker Briden, the governor’s press secretary, called in a press release “a far too familiar sight for many towns across Missouri.”

The owner of the warehouse, Gary Newkirk, told the Springfield News-Leader that his company went out of business five months ago, but that lack of a right-to-work law wasn’t to blame. While Newkirk said he supports the legislation, he told the newspaper that offshore competition was the real culprit.

Monday afternoon, Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis and Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel filed a petition for referendum with the secretary of state’s office. They have until Aug. 28 — the day the right-to-work measure is scheduled to go into effect — to collect enough signatures to place the law on the ballot. If they succeed, right to work won’t take effect until Missourians get the chance to have their say in 2018.

A “yes” vote would mean right to work becomes law, while a “no” means it doesn’t.

Citizens may call a referendum on a measure approved by the General Assembly and not vetoed by the governor as long as they collect signatures totaling 5 percent of the voters from two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts. That would appear to be roughly 90,000 signatures.

Although the referendum petition was regularly used in Missouri during the early 20th century, the last time it was used was 1982.

Of the 26 times a referendum has been placed on the ballot, voters have rejected actions by the General Assembly all but twice.

Read more from The Kansas City Star.

California Unions Playing Defense as Trump Presidency Begins

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SEIU Protest.

LCCR & LCCREF/Flickr

From KQED News:

By Katie Orr

Labor unions in California helped push successful efforts for increasing the minimum wage, mandatory paid sick leave and expanding overtime rules for farmworkers in the state. But the Trump administration has unions playing defense, even in labor-friendly California.

The new administration worries Belinda Beeks-Malone. She’s a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). She says her biggest concern is actually very basic.

“One is if we’re even going to have a union,” she says. “Is it going to be a right-to-work-state here in California? So that’s one of the things I’m concerned about is our collective bargaining rights.”

In California, union representation continues to grow. But nationally it’s on the decline. Over half the states in the country are right-to-work states. That means employees cannot be compelled to join unions. Sylvia Allegretto is a labor economist with the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at UC Berkeley. She says it will be telling to see how the federal Department of Labor will act on workplace policies under Trump.

“Do they believe in expanding paid leave? Instituting better scheduling practices, especially for part-time workers?” she asks. “What will they do with the overtime the Obama administration wanted to expand and pass?”

Allegretto says early signs indicate the administration won’t be very helpful to union workers. She points to Trump’s pick of Andy Puzder to be labor secretary. Puzder is chief executive of a company that franchises fast food restaurants. He has criticized minimum wage increases and paid sick leave. And Allegretto says the U.S. Supreme Court will likely revisit a case that could expand those right-to-work laws, which many regard as anti-union.

Still, California labor groups are trying to stay positive. Laphonza Butler, president of California’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) State Council, says many of Trump’s campaign promises actually align with union goals.

“Trump has said to the American people that he was going to be a jobs creator,” she says. “He was going to bring manufacturing back. And he was going to keep auto plants thriving in our nation. And those are union jobs.”

Butler says SEIU wants to focus on protecting the Affordable Care Act and protecting immigrants. But she doesn’t believe California’s strong labor laws can shield unions from changing federal policies.

Steve Smith is with the California Labor Federation. He acknowledges unions are under siege.

“But we also look at this as an unprecedented opportunity to organize, to talk to workers about the value of having a union, to talk to workers about being able to stand together to demand fair treatment from their employers,” he says. “We don’t want to just play defense for four years, we want to go on offense.”

Read more from KQED News.

Andy Puzder Is an Indefensible Nominee Who Can and Must Be Stopped

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Andrew Puzder speaking at an event in Las Vegas, Nevada.

From The Nation:

By John Nichols

 Donald Trump’s cabinet picks are greedheads and grifters, blank-stare ideologues and full-on neocons, Koch brothers mandarins and campaign donors who have bought their way into the White House. But the rigid partisanship of Republican senators and the wobbly responses of some Senate Democrats have moved nominee after nominee into positions of immense authority.

 They are stepping into those positions with insufficient scrutiny and in the face of scandals that should disqualify them. Yet a collapse of the system of checks and balances holds out the prospect that most will be approved—as became all too evident last week, when Republican-controlled Senate committees endorsed inadequately scrutinized and scandal-plagued nominees such as attorney-general pick Jeff Sessions, Treasury-secretary pick Steve Mnuchin, and Department of Health and Human Services secretary pick Tom Price. Even Betsy DeVos, the administration’s shockingly inept nominee for secretary of education, won committee approval and—despite the principled objections of two Republican senators, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski—was being propped up by rubber-stamp Republicans in the Senate and Vice President Mike Pence.

With Republican committee chairs ripping up the rules (and holding votes without Democratic senators present), with partisan lines being drawn ever more deeply in the sand, can any of Trump’s nominee be stopped? Yes. 

 The confirmation process should continue to be a focus of Americans who object to Trump’s assembling of a wrecking-crew cabinet—even as the resistance focuses energy on the fight over the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the US Supreme Court seat that Republicans denied Judge Merrick Garland. That focus should target the worst of the nominees, including the atrocious Andy Puzder—Trump’s pick for secretary of labor.

The Department of Labor is powerful, with a budget in excess of $12 billion, more than 17,000 employees, and a charge to protect the rights of more than 125 million workers and to assure than 10 million employers respect those rights. And it is a defining agency that sets not just the specific standards of regulations and mandates but a societal standard that is, at best, an extension of the vision former labor secretary Frances Perkins outlined when she said, “The people are what matter to government [and] a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”

“Being Secretary of Labor is about making sure working men and women of this country are treated with decency,” says Congressman Mark Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat who is a key player on labor issues in the House: 

The nomination of Andy Puzder is another broken promise to the American people. President Trump likes to talk and tweet about putting hard-working Americans first, but at the end of the day, he wants to make sure only big business and special interests have seats at the table.

 Pocan’s comments highlight why the fight against Puzder is vital. 

 It is also winnable. 

 Puzder’s nomination is on shaky ground. On Monday night, the wealthy businessman acknowledged that he had for many years employed an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper — admitting to engaging in the sort of wrongdoing that derailed the nomination of George W. Bush’s pick for Labor Secretary, along with the nomination of Bill Clinton’s choice to serve as Attorney General.

Last week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Puzder’s nomination was delayed for a fourth time, with a committee aide telling The Washington Post that a new hearing will not be set until the fast-food company CEO provides the Senate with necessary paperwork—including Puzder’s financial disclosures and his plan for avoiding conflicts of interest.

“There are also reports that Puzder is considering dropping out of the running for the position,” notes AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who says, “The pressure we’re putting on our senators is working, but we need to keep it up. They need to hear us loud and clear: Puzder would be a disaster for working families.” 

 Trumka says that Puzder’s anti-worker record could fill a book: 

He’s railed against increasing the minimum wage and expanding overtime. He’s shortchanged workers at his Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants and even refused to pay managers overtime they earned. He’s talked about replacing working people with machines.

 Trumka has plenty of company in opposing the Puzder pick. This week, 105 farm and food-safety groups, including Friends of the Earth to Food & Agriculture Watch, Organic Consumers Association, and National Family Farm Coalition, wrote senators to argue that the Puzder nomination “betrays [Trump’s] promise to improve the lives of working people.”

Arguing that the fast-food CEO’s record proves he would be miserable Labor Secretary for fast-food workers, the groups explained in their letter opposing the Puzder nomination that, 

Contrary to what Puzder and other corporate leaders at the National Restaurant Association say about good working conditions in the restaurant sector, the majority of restaurant workers are women and people of color, making as little as $2.13 per hour and rely on tips to survive. These workers face disproportionate rates of poverty, discrimination, and sexual harassment and deserve a Labor Secretary who believes that, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “All labor has dignity.” Instead, with the National Restaurant Association’s champion heading the Department of Labor, workers will have to rely on vocal opponents of labor regulations to protect their basic workplace rights.

Read more from The Nation

Exploiting Black Labor After the Abolition of Slavery

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African-American, Slavery, Man, Woman, Black, Family, America

From The Conversation:

By  Kathy Roberts Forde and Bryan Bowman

The U.S. criminal justice system is riven by racial disparity.

The Obama administration pursued a plan to reform it. An entire news organization, The Marshall Project, was launched in late 2014 to cover it. Organizations like Black Lives Matter and The Sentencing Project are dedicated to unmaking a system that unjustly targets people of color.

But how did we get this system in the first place? Our ongoing historical research project investigates the relationship between the press and convict labor. While that story is still unfolding, we have learned what few Americans, especially white Americans, know: the dark history that produced our current criminal justice system.

If anything is to change – if we are ever to "end this racial nightmare, and achieve our country," as James Baldwin put it – we must confront this system and the blighted history that created it. 

During Reconstruction, the 12 years following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, former slaves made meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.

As the prominent historian Eric Foner writes in his masterwork on Reconstruction, "Black participation in Southern public life after 1867 was the most radical development of the Reconstruction years, a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century."

But this moment was short-lived.

As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, the "slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery."

History is made by human actors and the choices they make.

According to Douglas Blackmon, author of "Slavery by Another Name," the choices made by Southern white supremacists after abolition, and the rest of the country's accommodation, "explain more about the current state of American life, black and white, than the antebellum slavery that preceded."

Designed to reverse black advances, Redemption was an organized effort by white merchants, planters, businessmen and politicians that followed Reconstruction. "Redeemers" employed vicious racial violence and state legislation as tools to prevent black citizenship and equality promised under the 14th and 15th amendments.

By the early 1900s, nearly every southern state had barred black citizens not only from voting but also from serving in public office, on juries and in the administration of the justice system.

The South's new racial caste system was not merely political and social. It was thoroughly economic. Slavery had made the South's agriculture-based economy the most powerful force in the global cotton market, but the Civil War devastated this economy.

How to build a new one?

Ironically, white leaders found a solution in the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States in 1865. By exploiting the provision allowing "slavery" and "involuntary servitude" to continue as "a punishment for crime," they took advantage of a penal system predating the Civil War and used even during Reconstruction.

A New Form of Control

With the help of profiteering industrialists they found yet a new way to build wealth on the bound labor of black Americans: the convict lease system.

Here's how it worked. Black men – and sometimes women and children – were arrested and convicted for crimes enumerated in the Black Codes, state laws criminalizing petty offenses and aimed at keeping freed people tied to their former owners' plantations and farms. The most sinister crime was vagrancy – the "crime" of being unemployed – which brought a large fine that few blacks could afford to pay.

Black convicts were leased to private companies, typically industries profiteering from the region's untapped natural resources. As many as 200,000 black Americans were forced into back-breaking labor in coal mines, turpentine factories and lumber camps. They lived in squalid conditions, chained, starved, beaten, flogged and sexually violated. They died by the thousands from injury, disease and torture.

For both the state and private corporations, the opportunities for profit were enormous. For the state, convict lease generated revenue and provided a powerful tool to subjugate African-Americans and intimidate them into behaving in accordance with the new social order. It also greatly reduced state expenses in housing and caring for convicts. For the corporations, convict lease provided droves of cheap, disposable laborers who could be worked to the extremes of human cruelty.

Every southern state leased convicts, and at least nine-tenths of all leased convicts were black. In reports of the period, the terms "convicts" and "negroes" are used interchangeably.

Of those black Americans caught in the convict lease system, a few were men like Henry Nisbet, who murdered nine other black men in Georgia. But the vast majority were like Green Cottenham, the central figure in Blackmon's book, who was snatched into the system after being charged with vagrancy.

A principal difference between antebellum slavery and convict leasing was that, in the latter, the laborers were only the temporary property of their "masters." On one hand, this meant that after their fines had been paid off, they would potentially be let free. On the other, it meant the companies leasing convicts often absolved themselves of concerns about workers' longevity. Such convicts were viewed as disposable and frequently worked beyond human endurance.

The living conditions of leased convicts are documented in dozens of detailed, firsthand reports spanning decades and covering many states. In 1883, Blackmon writes, Alabama prison inspector Reginald Dawson described leased convicts in one mine being held on trivial charges, in "desperate," "miserable" conditions, poorly fed, clothed, and "unnecessarily chained and shackled." He described the "appalling number of deaths" and "appalling numbers of maimed and disabled men" held by various forced-labor entrepreneurs spanning the entire state.

Dawson's reports had no perceptible impact on Alabama's convict leasing system.

The exploitation of black convict labor by the penal system and industrialists was central to southern politics and economics of the era. It was a carefully crafted answer to black progress during Reconstruction – highly visible and widely known. The system benefited the national economy, too. The federal government passed up one opportunity after another to intervene.

Convict lease ended at different times across the early 20th century, only to be replaced in many states by another racialized and brutal method of convict labor: the chain gang.

Convict labor, debt peonage, lynching – and the white supremacist ideologies of Jim Crow that supported them all – produced a bleak social landscape across the South for African-Americans.

Black Americans developed multiple resistance strategies and gained major victories through the civil rights movement, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow fell, and America moved closer than ever to fulfilling its democratic promise of equality and opportunity for all.

But in the decades that followed, a "tough on crime" politics with racist undertones produced, among other things, harsh drug and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were applied in racially disparate ways. The mass incarceration system exploded, with the rate of imprisonment quadrupling between the 1970s and today.

Michelle Alexander famously calls it "The New Jim Crow" in her book of the same name.

Read more from The Conversation