In America today, only 11.8 percent of workers are union members. When the labor movement was more powerful, union workers generally had a 20 percent wage advantage and many nonunion firms tended to mimic the wages and benefits of their unionized competitors. If we want to fight economic inequality, we have to bring back the unions.
Today, the United States is perilously behind other countries in protecting workers’ rights, according to a new survey released last May by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The rankings are based upon 97 internationally recognized indicators and standards to evaluate where workers’ rights are best protected, in law and in practice.
The nations are rated on a scale from one (the best with merely occasional violations of workers’ rights) to five (with no guarantee of workers’ rights at all). The United States received a mark of four. The ITUC says: “Workers in countries with the rating of four have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.”
Unions and economic justice activists have been reaching out to the general public in various ways. Jobs with Justice (JwJ) — a national grassroots coalition of labor, community and religious groups — has campaigns to support workers at Walmart, Verizon, T-Mobile as well as direct-care providers for the elderly and disabled, immigrant workers and college students burdened by debt.
In many cities, JwJ hosts “Workers’ Rights Boards,” which are public forums where workers can bring complaints against employers for violating their human and legal rights in the workplace. Many years ago, the Denver area JwJ was able to get Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, a Catholic bishop, the mayor and city auditor of Denver to sit on a board. They got results. Once, a single letter produced thousands of dollars in overtime pay that had been denied to workers in a nonunion bakery.
On June 18, they revived the tradition and held a Workers’ Rights Board for DIA SuperShuttle drivers who are fighting the company for imposing a 30 percent pay cut. Fekadu Eijegdesew told the board that he graduated from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia in 1983 and eventually became director of Ethiopia’s national park system. However, he wanted to escape Ethiopia’s murderous military dictatorship. Eijegdesew traveled to London and became a cab driver for a while. But he really wanted to go to America.
“I have always wanted to provide my family with everything they wanted. Working in the United States would finally allow me to do this,” Eijegdesew said.
Eijegdesew started with Denver SuperShuttle in May 2005. The company promised him the American dream of becoming a small businessman. He was an “independent contractor.” That sounds good but it actually meant he would be denied workers’ rights under U.S. labor law.
Noureddine Berezqi came from Morocco and began with SuperShuttle in 1997.
“Drivers were able to work comfortable schedules in order to fulfill their personal financial needs,” he said.
After the French multinational Veolia purchased SuperShuttle in 2002, drivers in Denver saw their income fall when SuperShuttle began contracting with more franchisees, which reduced opportunities for fares. Drivers now put in 60-hour weeks, working six to seven days each week.
“Exhausting schedules left workers no time for bathroom breaks while working 10- to 12-hour shifts,” Berezqi said. “There were harsh new disciplinary actions with no justification. The company began firing and suspending drivers without cause or for minor infractions.”
Berezqi said there was verbal abuse with racial and religious slurs. The majority of Denver SuperShuttle drivers are black African immigrants. Many are Muslims. There was a supervisor who joked about the high turnover of drivers by saying “Muhammed comes, Muhammed goes” and “Monkey comes, monkey goes.”
So Eijegdesew and Berezqi arrived looking for the American dream and ended up working for a European multinational which was attracted to our banana republic labor laws.
Meanwhile in the U.K. and Germany, SuperShuttle workers have good pay and working conditions. This is due to strong unions and good labor laws. So a better life is possible — if we fight for it.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.