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Savers Workers Fight Pregnancy Discrimination

Last Thursday, at my job at Savers in Henrietta, NY, I clocked out early for lunch and stepped out into the bitter February wind to join the fight for labor justice already in progress.  Outside, coworkers and organizers from the union local were gathering with local activists, ready to deliver a statement to management on behalf of Betzaida Cruz, another coworker of mine who, back in August of 2014, Savers saw fit to fire because she was pregnant.

Allow me to repeat that for emphasis.  In the United States of America, in 2014, this billion dollar corporation fired a young woman, because she was pregnant.

Betzaida’s affidavit to the EEOC describes a senseless, frustrating battle with bureaucratic authority worthy of Franz Kafka, complete with the brutal, winner-take-all amorality of an Ayn Rand novel.  Suffering from pregnancy-related illness, Betzaida spent more than a week ping-ponging between the doctor’s office and the manager’s desk, receiving notes and authorizations, explaining that she could work, but with a twenty-five pound lifting restriction.  The restriction should have been no problem, as her position as a cashier never required her to lift anything that heavy.  Nevertheless, in the end the store manager and a representative from Savers corporate HR kindly advised her to “go home and take care of her pregnancy,” as Savers would not be providing her with any more work.

Since then, Betzaida has been unable to find another job.  She is currently couch surfing, moving from one friend’s house to the next, which is a slightly more palatable way of saying that she is homeless.  She lives the kind of chaotic, nomadic life that I enjoyed when I was a beer-swilling punk rocker in my mid-twenties, except she is still under the legal drinking age, and expecting a child in less than two months.

So often my life has been touched by young single mothers, like my mom, like my sister, like Betzaida, and I find myself dumbstruck by their sacrifice, by the depth of their courage, and I ask myself how they do it.  When I can barely stay awake for prime time TV after a long shift on the job, I wonder, where do these underpaid and discarded heroes find the strength to carry on?  Cases like Betzaida’s beg another question: how in God’s name we allow billionaire corporations to punish them and to make their lives harder than they already are?

Thursday, while the union reps and I were handing out leaflets to workers and customers, a group of volunteers from the local community activism group Metro Justice delivered the charges to the manager and asked for an explanation.  Her response was craven.  She claimed to have no idea who Betzaida was, and asked the activists what right they had to be in the store confronting her with the facts of her own actions.  The other managers on duty busily snatched leaflets from the hands of employees, to save us from the burden of becoming informed.

In response, the next day management called the employees into the breakroom and read us a statement.  Predictably, Savers denied any wrongdoing.  They claimed, contrary to the facts established in the EEOC investigation, that Betzaida ended her employment of her own accord.  The statement went on to claim that Savers does not practice discrimination, and that they are very proud of their diverse workforce.

As a member of that diverse workforce, I’d like to point out that Savers pays us all minimum wage.  They provide us with shoddy healthcare coverage and force us to incur co-pays for doctor visits if we get sick and need to stay home for even one day.  In Betzaida’s case, she did it all right.  She jumped through all the hoops, got all the doctor’s notes, and still, the manager and the HR rep took her behind closed doors, and told her, “respectfully”, they claim, to kiss off.

Thrown out of work with one in the oven.  Some respect.

Finally, to my fellow workers, all of us in our diverse array of races and nationalities whose meagerly paid hours of hard work makes Savers’ millions in corporate profits possible, I say, we are all Betzaida.  When we were hired, we all signed statements saying that our employment was “at-will”, meaning the company can fire us at any time, with or without cause.  We all deserve better than this.  No one should work a forty hour week and still not make enough money to provide for their family.  No one should lose their job because the boss doesn’t like them, because they are sick, or because they are having a baby.  This is why we need to stand together to help each other out.  Put simply, this is why we need to form a union.

Who can we look to for help if we don’t organize to help one another?  The store manager and the corporate hierarchy are simply different faces of the same power structure, each one blaming the other when they disregard our needs.  Your pay raise doesn’t carry over when the minimum wage increases?  Blame corporate!  Can’t get the day off when your sick kid is vomiting all over the place and the daycare won’t take him?  Blame the manager!  It’s a game we can’t win, because we weren’t meant to.

By contrast, when we are organized, we are no longer subject to termination at will.  With a union, we have a contract, and we have real, binding power to fight with management for the kind of pay, benefits and policies that we need.  If we had a union when Betzaida was fired, she wouldn’t have been in a locked room with two different bosses telling her to hit the bricks.  We wouldn’t have to take the company’s word for it that they did the right thing.  Instead, there would have been a steward in that room, one of us, whom we elected, whose job it was to make sure that she, or any of us who find ourselves in that position, would be treated fairly.

Now that’s democracy, and it’s the way it should be everywhere.  That’s the world we need to live in.  So let’s keep handing out flyers in the cold, let’s keep fighting with the boss in the morning meeting, let’s keep standing together and holding our heads high, until we make it real.  Power to the people.

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This is What’s Happening in America

Because what’s happening at my job is also happening in America, this matters.

I work in a retail store, part of the service industry, that disregarded and maligned sector of the work force in which most of the new jobs in this so-called economic recover are being created.  So, for example, when my coworker develops a case of carpal tunnel after two years of repetitive labor in a dusty warehouse, and the boss tells her (and I quote!), that, “Everybody has it,  You just need to deal with it,” that’s a direct assault on every worker in this country.  That’s an employer refusing to improve their labor standards because they know, in this job market, they don’t have to.  That’s the new economy.  That’s the country we live in.  We should all pay attention.

Here at the store, we make $8.15 an hour, fifteen cents above New York’s minimum wage.  Most of us work full time, during daylight hours.  Exactly none of us are high school kids working after school so we can afford a used Dodge Neon.  Many of us have kids to take care of, and since we’re living in the real world and not in some well-heeled ideologue’s fantasy of what the nuclear family should be, we’re also supporting ourselves on a wage that leaves us several thousand dollars shy of the federal poverty line for families.  And with all of that, we’re lucky.  We’re lucky we have full time jobs, lucky we make more than the national minimum wage of $7.25.  It’s a frightening reality of the broke and work-weary world that three decades of neoliberalism has left us that- viewed through the eyes of the multitudes of unemployed and many more working multiple part time jobs- we’re the fortunate ones.

As the bosses are fond of reminding us whenever we complain about our low pay or the pace of work, the constant, arbitrary push to make quota, to keep our numbers up, we could do worse.  In fact, there’s an army of out of work folks out there who know how to fill out an online application and who can start tomorrow, if we decide that we want something better than this.  We’ve all been part of that army before, and we’re not eager to reenlist.

Still, quitting this hellhole and looking for work elsewhere is an option that more people take, week after week.  Employers like ours count on high turnover, comfortable in the knowledge that finding another crappy job somewhere else is always easier than coming together at the job we already have to fight for higher wages.

So what other choices do we have?  Besides putting ourselves back on the job market, what can we look to as a source of positive change?

Should we “lean in,” knuckle down, cowboy up, put on a big, fake smile and work twice as hard as we already do in anticipation of a raise or a promotion that may await us like the Emerald City on the horizon, assuming we don’t get sick or injured or fired somewhere along the yellow brick road first?  Maybe, if we all kick in hard enough and put the company’s profits ahead of our personal needs for long enough, at some point the corporation that employs us will become so fantastically profitable that they will pay us more and offer us a better health plan out of sheer abundance.  Not really.

In the first place, there is overwhelming statistical evidence to show that this sort of trickle-down prosperity is an idealistic fantasy that never comes to pass.  When corporations make more money, they invest that profit in other money making schemes; they don’t use it to make their workers’ lives better.  And besides, the company we work for is already enormously profitable.  They bring in over a billion dollars in annual revenue and their EBITDA profit margins are higher than those of major corporations like Wal-Mart and Macy’s.  How they maintain such stratospheric rates of return is no mystery; they do it by writing off most of their expenses as charitable donations and, more importantly, by paying their 19,000 worldwide employees next to nothing.

Perhaps we should rock the vote, hope for the Democratic Party to deliver us change through the electoral process.  After all, election day is upon us yet again.  But once more, prospects for the kinds of changes that will improve our lives are bleak.  Research shows that the power of corporate lobbying in American politics, even on the local level, is all encompassing and that the power of ordinary citizens and community activist groups to affect changes in government policy is near zero.  Six years ago, Obama swept into the White House amid a carnival-like atmosphere of civic involvement, promising, with his trademark vagaries, to deliver a change that millions of Americans seemed desperate for.  But instead his administration has delivered us six years of corporate backed double talk and lock-step conformity with the same rank economic policies that wrecked the working class in the first place.  Looking at the hyperbolic, schizophrenic stalemate that is our national political discourse, can any of us honestly believe that some politician more liberal than Obama will ride in and snatch our democracy from the jowls of the corporate leviathan?

No, the change we need will never come from our bosses, or from the politicians who our bosses pay to keep wages low and make sure the bulk of the tax burden falls on the middle class.  We have very little power to change anything from the ballot box.  we have power in our communities and in our jobs.  In our communities we have the power to support one another, to lift each other up and provide the kind of social safety net the government gave up on back in the Reagan years.  In our jobs, we have the power to unite together and withhold our labor.  Our labor is the only source of the bosses’ wealth, and that’s the one thing they hope we never figure out.  It’s our hand on the spigot.  Every penny the bosses make comes through us first.

There is a union organizing drive going on at my job, and it has brought some changes.  They put a TV in the breakroom, and they let us watch dvd’s at lunch time.  Over all, the management style has gotten less Stalin-esque and more friendly, more approachable.  If you take a sick day or come in late because your babysitter flaked and you need to make sure your kids get on the bus, you’re less likely to get fired for it than you were a year ago.  But as measly and inconsequential as these changes are, they didn’t come from the bosses suddenly having a change of heart.  It has happened because the bosses are afraid of what will happen when we are actually organized.  If we ever made it past the level of idle chatter and joined together in a union, they would have to meet us at the negotiating table and offer us a contract with the kind of wages we would vote on and agree to.  That terrifies them.

We’ve just come through the Halloween season, which, for the for profit thrift store industry, is the busy season.  For the last two months, we’ve been asked to work extra hard.  There has been a chart on the wall in the shape of a skeleton, where the manager charts our daily sales to show how close or how far away we are from making our quarterly and holiday bonuses.  Those bonuses have been the carrot dangling i our eye-line for months.  Last week, during the morning meeting, our store manager let us know, with a magnanimous grin spread across her cheeks, that we were on course to make at least the quarter bonus, if not the extra payday for Halloween sales.  Those bonuses would be $150 each, for a total of three hundred.  But, she told us, that money would be taxed at 55%, meaning that if we get them both, the reward for our having brought who knows how many thousands of dollars in sales into our store will be less than a hundred and fifty bucks each.  That’s not store policy, she said, that’s the federal government.  Blame them.

Well, pardon me for being a drag on workplace morale, but balls to that.  I say, let’s get on a different program, one where we make a decent wage for our hard work and we have a contract that guarantees our rights in the workplace.  I’m working on a little scandal where we, the people, actually get to have a say as to what goes on in the workplaces where we spend most of our waking lives, where we stop working ourselves ragged for pitiful bonuses and start working together to make life better for our families, and to make this country a decent place to work for a living.  I got a plan.  It’s called democracy, and it starts when we all get together and decide we’re not going to be exploited any more.

Because this is America, home of the brave, and this is the change we really need.

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Brothers and Sister, This Job Stinks: An Open Letter to my Coworkers, Regarding our Union Organizing Drive

Hello,internet, it’s been a while.  The following is the text of a letter I wrote a couple of months back to persuade some of my coworkers here in Rochester to support our store’s unionization drive.  I offer it up here for anybody else out there working your Heineken off at some crappy job for low pay, for everyone like me who dreams of a better world and a real democracy.

flourpeople

Brothers and Sister, This Job Stinks:

An Open Letter to my Coworkers, Regarding our Union Organizing Drive

Brothers and sisters, this job stinks.  Sometimes literally, like when I’m rolling out a fresh cart of somebody’s old kids’ clothes that reek of whiz from ten feet off, when I try to sing along to David Bowie or whatever on the Muzak, try to smile through it all, but I can’t fight the awareness that I’m putzing around in an invisible cloud of whatever ammonia scented particulate might infest a dirty old pile of boys activewear pants.  This job stinks metaphorically, too, but I don’t need to tell any of you guys that.  I see you every day, the strain and fatigue written on your face as you drag yourself off the bus line and into another long day of quotas, dust, daily lectures, low pay and general disrespect.  I’ve been working here long enough that I’ve seen most of you in tears, at one time or another, over how you’ve been treated.  If I haven’t seen you cry, then I’ve probably seen you shaking with rage, the way you’ve all seen me before, when my happy-go-lucky act wears thin and I go off like a roman candle of cuss words.  I done seen it all.  I’ve seen you on the job, limping like a zombie, sweat and mucus dripping from your face, when you’ve been too sick to work but couldn’t stay home because the boss said you need a doctor’s note, and you couldn’t afford to go to the doctor just to have him tell you what you already know: that you were too damn sick to work.  I’ve seen people who have been with this store since it opened fired for the flimsiest reasons, or maybe for no reason at all, just so the boss could send us a message.  The message was simple: “You ain’t shit, homeboy, and you better do just what we say, or we’ll find some other desperate American willing to come in here and fritter away her life for a wage a few pennies higher than what Congress has determined is criminal.”  If for no other reason than the fact that they don’t pay us enough to live on, and we all end up working two or three jobs to get by, this job stinks, out loud, 24/7, even when the store is closed.

It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way.  That’s why we’re organizing a union.

The Bosses say this is a bad idea.  They even sacrificed a full hour of their precious productivity, an hour that they would have fired any one of us for wasting for any reason, to drag us all into the break room and show us a video about what a rotten idea the union is.  They say we don’t know what we’re getting into, that we’ll be sorry.  But isn’t that always their story, that they know better than us, that we’ll be happier if we just follow the rules and leave all of the decisions that affect our lives, our pay, our benefits, our working conditions, our childcare, our healthcare, our break times, our days off, to them?  When we know that they make every one of those decisions, from how many employees they have at a given store to how many pieces of merchandise we’re expected to process in a day, on the basis of maximum profitability.  When will the company finally be profitable enough that they can start sharing the wealth with all of us who put in the work and make that profit possible?  Will it be when they have a store in every small town in the US of A and none of us are working there anymore?  Maybe when Macklemore finally puts us in a video and gets the white hipster crowd spending their student loan checks here?  Try never.  It will always be more profitable for them to give us less, so you can rest assured that they will never give us a dime that we don’t stand up and fight for.

You all know me.  I stay on the grind, rolling that product, all day long, I guzzle coffee with too much sugar, sit around reading the socialist newspaper and stuff like that.  I have no reason to lie to my coworkers, because we all work the same job for about the same pay.  The company has a simple and obvious reason to lie to us; they don’t want to pay us more.

The truth about the union drive is that we will never have to accept a contract that we haven’t all voted on and agreed to.  The truth is that none of us will ever pay a penny in union dues until we’ve negotiated a contract that not only gives us more pay and better benefits, but also protects our jobs and gives us real power over what goes on and how we’re treated, day in and day out, in our own workplace.  Because while for us this might all boil down to what we bring home on our paychecks every two weeks, for the Bosses this all boils down to power.  They like the current state of affairs, where they listen to our complaints once or twice a year and then tell us how it’s going to be.  They like the system where they keep us hustling, promising us raises and bonuses that never seem to materialize, regardless of how hard we work, and there is exactly doodley squat we can say about it.  They’ll take time out of our day to show us lying videos, they’ll hire lawyers and bring in the corporate drones to eyeball us all like sheep, just to keep the union out, because they don’t want to deal with us on our own terms.  They want to grant us the privilege of begging for crumbs, and they know that when we’re organized we’ll have the power to demand a seat at the dinner table.  Because the union isn’t some gang of organizers off in Buffalo living off dues money.  Those are the people who work for the union.  The union is us, all of us, doing our jobs every day and standing together.  When they say they want to keep the union out, what they really mean is that they want to keep us powerless, working for nothing, scared to death that we’re not going to have a job tomorrow.

The one simple fact that the company tries to cover up with their intimidation tactics, their half-truths and outright lies, is that we only stand to gain in this struggle.  In the worst case scenario, if we win the right to organize and we’re never able to negotiate an acceptable contract, then the union goes away, we never pay a dime, and we end up in the same place we’re in right now.  On the other hand, if we stand together in this struggle, the more cards we sign, the more workers we have united, fighting for our union, the more power we have at the negotiating table.  Raises, vacations, childcare; when we come together in solidarity the only limits to what we might achieve are our love for each other, and our courage to stand and fight.

What we stand to gain in this struggle is more than just higher pay and a better job.  It’s human dignity.  It’s an opportunity to make America a better place for all of us who don’t have family money to fall back on and private school connections.  This is our chance to be a part of a movement to make life better for all us refugees whom the last thirty years of trickle-down economics has left barely scraping by, moving from one underpaid job to the next, always hoping for something better.  This is how we make it better, with our struggle, our union, our lives.  This is where “Power to the people” stops being a catchy slogan and becomes something with concrete power to transform the lives of ourselves and the people we love.  In this fight, we have the occasion to stand together on the side of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., to let this nation reverberate with the echoes of, “Si, se puede,” and, “I am a man,” and to unite against the George Bushes, the Hitlers, and the Rush Limbaughs of the world who want to tell us, whatever their rationale, that we’re not good enough, that we don’t deserve decent pay for honest work.

So that’s my bit.  I’ll see you all out on the floor, in production, in the break room.  You might notice that I’m not scowling the way I used to, not muttering curses and shoving product around on the racks like I’m trying to kill it.  That was the way I acted back when I had no power, when I was withering away at a meaningless, minimum wage job that insulted my humanity every second of the day.  Since the union drive started up a couple weeks ago, I no longer feel that way.  Now, every time I go into work, I know that I’m building something that matters.  I’m doing something that will make life better for me and for all the other people who I see every day, putting in work.  These days, nothing the management says or does can faze me.  When the boss comes up, singing that tire old refrain, “You ain’t shit, homeboy, you better do what we say,” I don’t get mad.  I get moving.  And I hope you all join me, because the only thing it takes to win is for us all to care enough to stand together.

Peace,

Dave.

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