New Kennedy bill would further boost minimum wage

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced July 24 that he has introduced a new minimum wage hike bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011 and index it to inflation after that. The new bill was unveiled at a Capitol Hill celebration on the day that marked the first of the three stages in the minimum wage hike passed by Congress earlier this year, despite opposition from big business and an initial Bush veto.

The federal minimum wage is scheduled to rise to $7.25 an hour by 2009. It had been virtually frozen at $5.15 an hour for 11 years because of GOP opposition in Congress to any increase. The federal minimum was stalled for so long that 32 states hiked their own minimums above the $5.15 figure during that period. Some of them also indexed future raises to the cost of living.

Kennedy’s bill, if passed, would be historic because for the first time in 30 years it would set the minimum wage at a rate that equals 50 percent of the average hourly wage.

John Edwards, a Democratic candidate for president, has a $9.50 minimum wage by 2012 proposal written into his campaign platform.

Jack Kern, director of the Living Wage Resource Center for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said his group will incorporate the Kennedy bill into its “Working Families Platform.” ACORN has been a leading organizer of and advocate for low-income families.

Kennedy’s initiative comes on the heels of a 10-year battle he waged for passage of the current minimum wage hike.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, another longtime advocate for the minimum wage hike, spoke at the Capitol Hill celebration where the Kennedy bill was unveiled and endorsed the measure.

Port truckers petition to be employees

Truck drivers at the Port of Oakland were joined by environmentalists and community leaders July 17 as they presented port commissioners with a petition saying they wish to become employees instead of being independent contractors.

The petition, signed by over 1,200 drivers, the great majority of drivers working regularly at the port, urged the commissioners “to ensure that all trucking companies recognize us as employees instead of independent contractors, so we can form a union with the Teamsters and improve our lives with better pay, benefits and respect.”

The petition also called on the port “to ensure that the financial burden of buying and maintaining clean trucks falls onto private industry, not the drivers or taxpayers.”

Driver Lorenzo Fernandez, flanked by fellow workers, told the commission, “We work 12 hours a day, we breathe the diesel fuel all that time. We don’t have health insurance; we can’t afford to buy new trucks or maintain the ones we have.”

Since deregulation of the industry in 1980, truckers have been classified as “independent contractors” ineligible for union membership.

It is estimated that between 1,200 and 1,500 truckers work for firms that contract with shippers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot to move goods at the Port of Oakland. They endure “sweatshop on wheels” conditions, with long hours of work and waiting time in return for low pay and no benefits.

Meanwhile, neighborhoods near the port suffer diesel pollution five times higher than surrounding areas.

The Port of Oakland is drafting a truck management plan as part of its Maritime Air Quality Improvement Program. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, representing environmental, labor, faith, community and business organizations promoting sustainable economic development at West Coast ports, is calling on the Oakland port to establish a relationship with the trucking industry under which the drivers will become employees, the company will take responsibility to maintain the trucks, and a local hire program will focus on West Oakland residents.

Congress hears calls for single-payer national health care

Health care activists, including one woman whose family went broke because of high medical bills, used a congressional hearing on bankruptcy resulting from medical bills to push for government-run national health care.

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee gathered information on July 17 about the causes of bankruptcy and particularly about how many are caused by huge medical bills. More than 1 million people declare bankruptcy every year, and data released at the congressional hearing showed that medical bills account for as much as 46 percent of bankruptcies.

A common scenario was sketched out by Aurora, Colo., resident Donna Smith, who appeared briefly in the Michael Moore film “Sicko.” Smith’s husband was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and a hereditary arterial ailment. The coronary ailments required multiple surgeries.

Smith worked to support both of them, and the couple struggled to pay medical bills and premiums, until she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. They ran through their savings and sold the house. Still, the bills kept piling up and medical creditors started garnishing her paychecks, Smith testified.

“Bankruptcy was the only way to stop the garnishment,” but it didn’t stop the bills, she said. “Our problems with extreme medical costs and the resulting bankruptcy hurt a wide variety of businesses and individuals. We’re collateral damage of the national health care crisis, I guess.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), committee chair, lobbied for his own universal government-run single-payer health care bill (HR 676) and said it would prevent future bankruptcies. He said problems like the Smiths’ would occur less with it because his bill would cut costs by eliminating the huge profits made by insurers and by eliminating their “administrative” costs.

“It’s particularly difficult to separate the health care crisis from medical bankruptcy,” the veteran Democrat from Detroit said. “They’re tied together.”

“You are in a system of structural violence, where the statistics are so bad that the outcome will be bad too,” he said. “You’re trapped in a system of bad statistics on health care, longevity, death rates and birth rates — and all come in on you. Medical bankruptcy is one of the consequences of health care in America.”

Alluding to the auto industry, which is pushing to cut workers’ pay and retirees’ health care benefits, Conyers said: “Michigan people used to tell me that ‘Oh, HR 676 is fine, but I’m with the UAW and Ford, so I’m covered.’ They’re not telling me that anymore.”

AFL-CIO’s LGBT group urges marriage equality

Pride at Work, in mid-July, deplored the unfair denial of health benefits to same-sex partners of union-represented United Parcel Service employees in New Jersey and their families, and said the primary responsibility lies with the New Jersey Legislature, which failed to grant full marriage status to same-sex couples last year.

Pride at Work, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) constituency group of the AFL-CIO, is writing to New Jersey Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts and Senate President Richard Codey to ask them to scrap the civil union system and give same-sex couples the status of married couples.

“We know that the Teamsters Union and its LGBT members are working hard to rectify this situation,” said Nancy Wohlforth, Pride at Work’s co-president. “Nevertheless, it is the state Legislature that could quickly remedy the problem by changing the separate and unequal civil union status that it created for same-sex couples last December to full marriage equality.”

UPS denied health benefits to the families of two Teamster-represented drivers, claiming that drivers’ partners are not “spouses” under the civil union law. Pride at Work characterized this as hair splitting that is an unfortunate consequence of the Legislature’s failure to do the right thing last year when the state Supreme Court ordered that same-sex couples be afforded all rights and responsibilities granted to heterosexual couples.

“When the Legislature opted for civil union instead of marriage, it invited private parties to try to find ways to continue discriminating against same-sex couples,” said T Santora, co-president of Pride at Work. “It’s unfortunately all too predictable that the result would be this kind of unfair denial of vital health benefits to working families in New Jersey.”

This situation arose even as the Teamsters and UPS are negotiating a new national contract that will go into effect next year. Pride at Work has urged UPS to be fair on all outstanding issues, including benefits, wages, pensions and health care, but takes the position that the ball is in the New Jersey Legislature’s court. Last year, the group notes, when the civil union law was enacted, legislative leaders promised to revisit the issue if civil unions failed to deliver the promise of equality. “The verdict is in now,” Wohlforth declared.

“Now is the time for the Legislature to rectify the mistake it made last year, and give same-sex couples the only status that will prevent employers from discriminating against them,” said Wohlforth, adding, “That status is marriage, and nothing else will do.”

This Week in Labor is compiled by John Wojcik ( Marilyn Bechtel and Press Associates Inc. contributed.