Ross D. Franklin / AP

Workers’ rights are human rights

Workers need humane working conditions and vigorous enforcement of laws protecting their rights

December 22, 2014 2:00AM ET

On Dec. 10, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Walmart to stop punishing and intimidating workers for union organizing and protests against low wages and working conditions. A day earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that an Amazon.com contractor, Integrity Staffing Solutions Inc., does not have to pay nonunionized warehouse workers for the time they spend in security screening after the official end of their shifts. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the worker’s claims “are properly presented to the employer at the bargaining table.” But since these workers are not unionized, there is no bargaining table.

The two decisions come on the heels of workers’ rights protests, strikes and organizing across the U.S. during the holiday shopping season. Many corporations took advantage of the 2008 recession to curtail workers’ rights and income. Now workers are fighting back against the increasingly abusive practices they face. The holiday shopping season offers prime time to focus public attention on their struggle.

The protests target fast food chains, big box retailers and airports with demands for workers’ rights and for a living wage of $15 per hour. Fast food workers and retail workers live with erratic scheduling, arbitrary demands and lack of protection. These sectors have high levels of part-time employment. Workers often get schedules at the last minute. Some work split shifts such as a couple of hours over the breakfast rush and more hours at lunchtime. They are often ordered to work regardless of illness or family needs.

Last month Walmart employee Lisa Austin described the problems this causes for her family. Austin and her husband have to work opposite shifts because they could not afford child care for their 6-month-old. The store denied Austin time off when her husband had National Guard training.

Austin’s story highlights workers’ demands for greater rights. On Dec. 5, San Francisco passed a Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which addresses the abusive scheduling practices that disrupt workers’ lives and families. As NPR reported last month, retail workers such as Sandra Herrera would benefit from the new law. Herrera gets unpredictable assignments, working late one day and early the next day and getting her schedule only a few days in advance.

The ordinance requires employers to post schedules at least two weeks beforehand. They will have to pay an extra hour’s wages for schedule changes with less than a week’s notice and an extra two to four hours for schedule changes with less than a day’s notice. If workers are required to be on call for a shift, employers will pay a penalty for canceling the shift. Other provisions require employers to offer more hours to their part-time employees before hiring additional part-timers.

Sick time is also a key issue. At a Black Friday march in St. Paul, Minnesota, Guillermo Lindsay said McDonald’s forced him to go to work even though he was sick. The result? A couple of his co-workers got sick, he said. Allowing workers to stay home when they are sick without jeopardizing their employment is the first step. A second step would be legislation mandating paid sick leave. 

Courts must heed the workers’ call and enforce already guaranteed worker rights, mandate a living wage and ensure humane working conditions for those whose work is vital to our economy.

Workers also want better enforcement of existing laws such as payment of wages and compensation for overtime. Yet in case after case, employers have cheated workers out of payment due. In August, The New York Times interviewed retail workers from coast to coast. Workers told of paychecks repeatedly missing hours of work and overtime. David Weil, director of the federal Labor Department's wage and hour division, told the Times that wage theft is increasing.

The Supreme Court decision in the Integrity Staffing Solutions case sets a terrible precedent. For example, retail cleaning workers organized by the Center for Workers United in the Struggle (CTUL), which mobilizes cleaning workers across Minnesota’s Twin Cities, tell of forced seven-day-a-week schedules and subpoverty wages. As with the Amazon warehouse workers, the cleaning workers are hired by contractors, which set the terms and conditions of their employment. That leaves them in a tough bargaining position because they are not actually employed by the big-box retailers where they work. And unlike Amazon.com or Target, the contractors are not responsive to consumer pressure.

The rise in workers’ organizing underscores the need for unions to protect worker rights. For example, on Dec. 2, Delta fired Kip Hedges, a baggage handler who worked for the airline for 26 years, for his outspoken advocacy in the 15 Now campaign demanding a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Since Delta employees are not protected by a union contract, the company can restrict worker speech. Delta’s move may backfire: Hedges’ termination has given impetus to the union organizing campaign for baggage handlers.

The demand for a $15 minimum wage would double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. More than half the states will have minimum wages higher than the federal level in 2015. Three states (Oregon, Washington, California) have minimum wages from $9 and $10. Some cities have raised minimum wages higher — $13 in Chicago, $15 in Seattle, $11.05 in San Francisco on Jan. 1 and $15 by 2017, and $15.37 for hotels near the airport in Los Angeles. The 15 Now movement includes pressure for local jurisdictions, including airports, to set minimum wages. Kip Hedges was speaking in support of a movement for the Metropolitan Airport Commission to set a $15 minimum wage in Minnesota.

Across the country, workers are on the move, demanding respect for their human rights and a living wage. Unions strongly support their protests, whether or not the workers are unionized. Courts and employers must heed their call and enforce already guaranteed worker rights, mandate a living wage and ensure humane working conditions for those whose work is vital to our economy.

Mary Turck is an adjunct faculty member at Macalester College and a former editor of The Twin Cities Daily Planet. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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