Sunday, September 09, 2012

Wage theft in Philadelphia -- and elsewhere

 My write-up on two articles by Jake Blumgart on wage theft and low wage workers in Philadelphia appeared on Talking Union and Teamster Nation.

                                                                                 by Stuart Elliott

Talking Union contributor Jake Blumgart has written a couple of outstanding articles on low-wage workers and wage theft.  In an interesting cover story  on wage theft in Philadelphia’s City Paper. He portrays some victims of wage theft: an undocumented carpenter, a waitress forced to share tips with her manager, and a coffee shop worker who wasn’t paid overtime despite working every day for two weeks. He also places the problems of low wage workers in historical perspective with some surprising facts.

In the past, unionization was a strong option for workers who wanted to defend against employer abuses. During the 1950s, within the now theft-wracked restaurant industry, 25 percent of America’s waitresses were unionized. Today, just 1.5 percent of food-service workers are organized. There are few remaining unionized independent restaurants in greater Philadelphia: the stadium-adjacent McFadden’s, Hymie’s Deli in Lower Merion and the Pen and Pencil Club, for example. Now, organizers tend to focus their efforts on the industry’s biggest employers, like food-services provider Aramark.
Nontraditional worker organizations provide an alternative to unions, but in Philadelphia there are only two options: the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which is barely a year old.

A recent report from the Progressive States Network gives Pennsylvania an F for its anti-wage theft efforts and shows why they are so inadequate.

They are alternatives, Blumgart notes.
The fact is, legislative models do exist. In recent years, Seattle and Miami passed anti-wage-theft ordinances, while Madison, the District of Columbia and San Francisco have bulked up enforcement. 
The wage-theft law passed in Florida’s Miami-Dade County in 2010 is one of the nation’s most compelling. It allows workers to contact the Department of Small Business Development with wage-theft complaints, and requires employers to answer those complaints with documentation. If the case cannot be settled, it goes to an administrative hearing. If the employer is found guilty, he or she must pay back the original wages and damages worth twice the original amount to the employee and administrative costs to the county.
In another article (“Want to Fight Poverty, Philly? Start at the Bottom, With the Low-Wage Jobs“) in the Next American City, Blumgart notes
Manufacturing isn’t intrinsically remunerative work: Workers, citizens and legislators faced challenges through the years to eventually turn those jobs into potential gateways to the middle class. 
Now that the economy has changed dramatically, these battles are being fought on new ground. Security guards in the office towers of Center City are organizing with the gargantuan Service Workers International Union, while their counterparts at the Art Museum and the University of Pennsylvania have formed an independent, locally based union.

South Africa in Crisis 1977

The August 2012 police shooting of approximately 34 striking miners has been widely compared to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. It should also be compared to the 1976 Soweto uprising in which more than 170 youth were killed.  The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of ANC and the Pan African Congress and their shift from passive to armed resistance.  Soweto was also a turning point.

I wrote the following article for New America, the paper of Social Democrats USA on the fallout a little more than a year later when the South African government instituted a severe political repression.  My last sentence was "Only a political miracle seems capable of reversing a political dynamic that is inevitable heading for confrontation and explosion." There was a miracle in 1990.  But it is now seems that the terms of the miracle and decisions since have had their own contradictions and that South Africa is entering a period of intense crisis.  I don't yet have a handle on all that is involved.

In the meantime, here is my 1977 take with some modern links added.

South Africa Lurches to The Precipice

by Stuart Elliott New America  Nov 1977 (?)

The most dramatic crackdown in two decades [a reference to the Sharpeville massacre] virtually forecloses the possibility of a peaceful resolution to South Africa's racial crisis. On October 19, the South African government banned black protest groups, closed down the leading black newspaper and arrested its editor, Percy Qoboza, and arrested at least fifty people and served an unknown number with banning orders, which bar them from political activities and curtail their freedoms for five years. Both urban black leaders, regarded as moderates, and white liberals were victims of the repression.

The Black ConsciousnessMovement, founded by Stephen Biko in 1969, which filled the gap left by the earlier banning of the African National Congress and the Pan-AfricanistCongress, was only one of many organizations to be banned. Also proscribed were non-political self-help organizations like Black Community Programs, a business-financed group which ran a network of medical clinics. The main targets of the crackdown, however, appear to be the organizations which are the political expression of urban blacks. Among the groups covered by the ban are the South African Students Movement, a high school group; the South African Students Organization, a university group ; and the Black People's Convention, an umbrella group that is the closest thing to a black political party. The Soweto Teachers Action Committee which coordinated the resignations of several hundred high school teachers last month in support of students who have boycotted classes for more than three months in demand for the upgrading of black education was also banned. Leaders of the  Committee of  Ten, an organization of black moderates, which was formed earlier in the year in an attempt to end the near-anarchy that prevailed in Soweto since last year's rioting, were also arrested. The action of the South African .government was a clear statement that : not only has no intention of ever allowing blacks to have a voice in a federal structure, but that it will not even permit blacks to organize for peaceful political change.

The South African government also struck at leading white liberals like those around the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, an ecumenical group noted for its authoritative reports on apartheid. Donald Woods, the white editor of the Daily Dispatch, was arrested as he was preparing to board a flight to New York. Invited to the United States by the American ambassador to South Africa, William G. Bowdler, Woods was to have met with Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and possibly President Carter. Under banning, Woods is forbidden to work as a journalist or to write or speak for publication. In addition, he is restricted to East London in Cape Province, subject to a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and limited to meeting only one person at a time other than members of his own family. Just as the crackdown was a clear rebuke of Western opinion, the arrest of Woods was a challenge to the Carter administration's human rights policy and its opposition to apartheid. The South African action undoubtedly complicated the British-American effort to secure a peaceful transition to majority rule in Rhodesia as well.

The crackdown also marked an accelerating restriction of the political freedoms that have long been South Africa's selling point in asking for time and tolerance from the West. Not only was the World, the leading black newspaper and the second largest in all of South Africa, closed down, but its editor Percy Qoboza was detained without trial, a status that can be prolonged indefinitely by the government. Along with the arrest of Woods, this was clearly intended to warn other newspapers "not to abuse" the right of criticism. Threats against the press have become a regular feature of speeches by government leaders in recent weeks and it is widely expected that harsh measures controlling the press will be passed by the new Parliament in January.

The willingness to consider the need for change that existed among white South Africans for a brief interlude following the Soweto riots has been extinguished. With white liberals and moderates weak and disunited, the overwhelming majority of whites appear determined to retain their domination by increased repression and the abridgement of democracy, whatever the cost. The cost is likely to be high. Only a political miracle seems capable of reversing a political dynamic that is inevitable heading for confrontation and explosion.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Blues on a Saturday: Taj Mahal "Bourgeois Blues"

On Labor Day weekend what better BoaS selection than Taj Mahal's 1991 performance of Ledbetter's "Bourgeois Blues." The instrumental backing of Taj's barreelhouse piano and mandolin may seem a little odd to modern ears. But the mandolin did make appearances on some early blues records and there was a vibrant black string band tradition, which was neglected by both commercial recording companies and folklorists.