Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Just Putting America Back to Work is Not Enough
Donald Trump wants to get America back to work. But does he care about those who are already working, especially for him? At Trump’s five star hotel in Las Vegas the answer seems to be “no.” While 95% of hotel workers on the Strip are unionized, Trump’s management has blocked organizing efforts at every turn. In December a large majority of Trump’s housekeepers, cooks, and waiters voted to join the Culinary Workers Union. Trump’s management challenged the vote to the National Labor Relations Board, and lost. They are now appealing that decision. Experts say that if a company really wants to fight unionization, it can delay for years.
The stakes for the workers are significant. Miguel Fuentes works at both the Trump Hotel and the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Wages for Fuentes at the unionized Mandalay Bay Hotel are over $4.50 higher than at Trump. At Mandalay, Fuentes has a pension plan and an employer covered health plan. At Trump Fuentes gets a half an hour off for lunch – without pay. At Mandalay he receives a paid hour long lunch break. (By the way, in case it makes a difference to Mr. Trump, Fuentes, a native of Honduras, is an American citizen.) Getting America back to work is hardly a goal worth fighting for if the employer is determined to avoid paying a living wage in decent working conditions with the opportunity for health care and a livable retirement.
Mr. Trump, of course, is not an isolated offender. This week I participated in a press conference on behalf of workers at sixteen Dunkin’ Donut shops in downtown Chicago owned by one man. Workers routinely have wages stolen in the form of overtime not paid or being forced to work off the clock. Any discrepancies in the cash register are deducted from employees’ paychecks. Paychecks periodically bounce, imposing service fees on the workers. If workers are sent to a neighboring store to get supplies, the time away from the store is not paid. These shops are open 24 hours a day; at night workers are often on duty alone to deal with the homeless people, mentally ill, or those with criminal intent who frequent the area. No, just having a job is not enough.
Aurelia is a domestic worker who struggles to care for her own family while caring for the family of her employer. “I cleaned eight or nine hours every day without a break. I wasn’t allowed to eat. I wasn’t allowed to drink water. I couldn’t answer phone calls from my children when they were sick or had an emergency at school.” Not every employer of a nanny or a housekeeper abuses his or her domestic worker, or pays below minimum wage, or refuses to pay overtime. But many do. And currently most domestic workers in this country are completely unprotected by federal or state labor laws. The laws that cover most workers do not include domestic workers; they were excluded in the 1930s when Roosevelt needed the votes of southern congressmen to pass the National Labor Relations bill. In exchange for the needed votes, the southerners exempted their domestic workers and farm workers – mostly African American – from the law. Workers across the country are seeking to pass the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, a collection of labor protections that will parallel the current national protections. In Illinois the bill has languished for months.
Getting unemployed Americans back to work is an important political agenda. But so too is ensuring that the work places those Americans work at are marked by dignity and respect. Far too many people with jobs are not earning a living wage, receive no health care benefits or paid sick days or access to a pension plan, experience wage theft on a regular basis, work under dangerous health and safety conditions, have no recourse for addressing hostile workplace environments, and watch their legal organizing efforts undermined. No, it’s not enough just to get Americans back to work. Look for “putting America back to work” to feature in the ads for both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump, and to be included in the platforms of both parties. It’s unlikely that the dignity and rights of those already working will receive equal billing. But Mr. Trump could at least begin by putting his own house in order.
John H. Thomas
May 5, 2016