Protest for workers’ rights at South L.A. Wal-Mart

Religious leaders and workers’ rights advocates gathered in front of a South Los Angeles Wal-Mart on Monday morning to voice their support for the Employee Free Choice Act.

The pending legislation, which was introduced in the U.S. Congress on March 10, would “amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an easier system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations” and “provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts.”

The protest was organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), an organization of more than 600 religious leaders from across Los Angeles County that advocates for the working poor.Protestors in front of Wal-Mart show their support for workers' rights.

The current law intended to protect workers’ right to unionize is the National Labor Relations Act, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law in 1935. But workers’ rights advocacy groups like CLUE argue that the penalties are not severe enough to prevent employers from using harassment or intimidation to prevent workers from joining unions. In addition, CLUE said that even if workers are able to form a union, they are frequently unable to negotiate a contract with employers.

“We really believe that the Employee Free Choice Act is the best legislative option right now for lifting the working poor out of poverty,” said Pastor Bridie Roberts, Program Director for CLUE. “When workers’ right to organize is protected, when they can form a union, they make 20 to 30 percent more an hour almost immediately, and they almost always have access to family health insurance.”

Robert Branch, a security officer for a private security firm near LAX, spoke at the protest in support of the new legislation. Branch said that during a six-year battle between his union and his employer over a contract, three of his co-workers died because they did not have health insurance.

Under the Employee Free Choice Act, an employer would be legally required to recognize a union after a majority vote by employees, and contracts would be settled by a neutral third party if a union and an employer cannot reach an agreement within 120 days.

“The Employee Free Choice Act is so vital to working people,” Branch said. “If it passes, it’s going to be a benefit to working people, taking the stick of power out of the employer’s hand and putting it in the hand of working people, where it belongs.”

The location for the protest was chosen because “Wal-Mart is one of the most infamous and well-documented anti-union companies,” Roberts said.

Despite the location of the protest, no Wal-Mart employees appeared to be present. “I believe that they would be chastised or harassed or fired or just mistreated because of the way the company deals with its employees,” Branch said.

Professor Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California Santa Barbara is the editor of “Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism” and author of “The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business.” He spoke about the tactics Wal-Mart uses to “deprive workers of free choice.”UCSB History Professor Nelson Lichtenstein speaks about Wal-Mart's anti-union policies.

“The way that Wal-Mart is structured internally is that managers of stores, their bonus is dependent upon keeping labor costs down,” Lichtenstein said. Therefore, managers feel the need to “squeeze workers in every way they can.” According to Lichtenstein, the Wal-Mart system “can only be broken by the unionization of Wal-Mart workers.”

Lichtenstein also said that some politicians, including Dianne Feinstein, have argued that this is the wrong time for new labor laws because wages should not be raised during an economic recession. However, Lichtenstein said that the National Labor Relations Act, which was passed during the Great Depression, helped stimulate the economy by giving people greater purchasing power, and the Employee Free Choice Act would do the same.

Roberts agreed that now is the wrong time to neglect workers. “We’re in an economic crisis, and it’s really easy to forget the people at the bottom,” she said. “But unless you invest in the working people, which is the largest group of people in our country, we are going to spiral farther down this path.”

Roberts also pointed out that what she and fellow protesters are really asking for is the enforcement of rights that workers are already supposed to have. “The right to organize is granted to workers already, and there are so many things standing in the way,” she said. “It needs some correction. And it’s the people’s right to ask for a transformation of the law to make sure that it represents the people.”

Labor unions deliver Easter cheer to at-risk children in South LA

Union leaders and volunteers from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor gave Easter baskets to more than 200 children in need at the Children’s Institute in South Los Angeles on Friday.

An MTA bus carrying Easter baskets and, of course, life-size Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny, arrived at the Children’s Institute early Friday morning. All of the volunteers were wearing matching lavender shirts, some sporting stylish bunny ears and a cottontail.

Elated children, some wearing glittery paper bunny ears, gathered around Mr. And Mrs. Bunny as they sang songs and did the bunny hop. The Easter bunnies gave each child a basket filled with goodies–Barbie’s, my little ponies, racecars, motorcycles, crayons, sidewalk chalk, handballs and candy.

For the past 14 years, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO’s Community Services Program and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles have distributed Easter baskets to homeless and abused children at more than 30 locations in the greater Los Angeles area. This is their ninth year at the Children’s Institute. Union leaders and workers come together to donate their time and resources to organize, fund and carry out the Easter event. More than $20,000 was raised to fund this year’s Easter events.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO is the second largest labor council in the country, representing more than 800,000 workers in over 350 unions. The Federation’s mission is to fight for good jobs that rebuild the middle class in Los Angeles.

Armando Olivas, the Western Regional Director for the Department of Labor Participation and the United Way of America, started the program in 1995 when he realized the only time of year the community came together to help children was Christmas.

“I thought that it would be a good idea to have another project for children because we don’t want them thinking that we forgot about them,” Olivas said. “So we came up with the spring project. We were naive in the beginning because we thought we would get a couple hundred baskets and drop them off but it just grew.”

Now the program donates more than 2,500 baskets to more than 30 locations across Los Angeles.

“Every year it’s renewed and you have a feeling of giving to somebody and it touches your heart,” Olivas said. “The first time we came out here the Easter bunny was in tears at how appreciative the children were.”

Olivas’ 8-year-old son, Matthew, described the event as “heartwarming.” He has been attending the annual Easter celebration for many years, but this year he joined the festivities as a volunteer, helping to bring joy to less fortunate children on Easter.

“Homeless children get what they want and they now have a good thought in their hearts,” Matthew said.

Glen Rosales, a Metro Mechanic Union Representative, said in his six years participating in the program, the best part is seeing the children smile.

“We did Miller Children’s hospital [Long Beach] and there was a little girl maybe 18 months old with cancer…and she ran down the hall so fast to hug the bunny,” Rosales said. “You think you’re having a bad day then you see something like that and it’s all worth it.”

According to Director of Communications for the CII, Lizanne Flemming, the Children’s Institute was founded in 1906 when the first female probation officer in Los Angeles, Minnie Barton, started taking women who were jailed or on the streets into her home. The program evolved over the years into an organization that makes sure vulnerable adults and children are taken care of. Their main emphasis, she said, is on children who have experienced some form of trauma.

“As the employees, it’s magical for us. We drop what we’re doing and greet the volunteers and you see the kids and the joy is just contagious,” Flemming said. “You can’t help it and the excitement when two big bunnies come into your play yard, it doesn’t get better than that.”