President Obama hosted a “White House Summit on Worker Voice” Oct. 7, which focused on the importance of unions in the modern economy, a welcome national spotlight that comes as more Americans say they approve of unions.
“It was heartening to hear many panelists today talking about the essential role that unions and collective bargaining play in fixing an economy that is badly out of balance, and improving incomes for all working people,” said AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders, who attended the summit along with other labor leaders.
In his opening remarks, President Obama allowed that labor unions have been a driving force for progress in the United States. “The 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, health insurance, retirement plans. The middle class itself was built on a union label,” he said.
Obama linked the growing disparity between the rich and ordinary working Americans to the decline of unions, saying “in today’s economy, we should be making it easier, not harder, for folks to join a union.”
Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Minnesota Council 5 and an International vice president, participated in a panel discussion at the summit and touted the importance of people coming together in a union. “Collective bargaining is the extension of democracy into the workplace,” he said. “Saying we don’t need union contracts to protect worker rights is like saying we don’t need the Constitution to protect civil rights.”
Obama also stressed the importance of collective bargaining, pointing out President Saunders and saying, “Lee likes to quote this – ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ So we’ve got to get more working Americans to the table,” Obama concluded.
The White House underlined the importance of unions by releasing a new report by the Council of Economic Advisors, prompting economist Jared Bernstein to call for new policies that eliminate so-called right-to-work laws, make it easier for workers to organize in the “gig” economy, and strengthen the National Labor Relations Board.
BERKELEY, Calif. – A longtime custodial contractor at the University of California is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor after former and current employees alleged the company is denying overtime pay to employees who provide essential services at the California Memorial Stadium here.
Performance First Building Services has provided janitorial services at UC Berkeley for seven years. It came under investigation after employees told the Labor Department the company dodged overtime rules by issuing checks under two names for the same employee.
“The majority of people were being paid under two names. I thought about reporting it. But at the same time I didn't want to, because I was scared,” Juliana Robles, a former Performance First employee, told the Los Angeles Times.
Though recent research has shown that UC is increasing its reliance on low-wage contractors to meet its permanent staffing needs — inviting more poverty and exploitation of communities of color — UC continues to turn a blind eye. The university even spent resources lobbying against equal pay — seemingly supporting a system in which employees work for years alongside full-time employees who are paid twice as much for the same jobs.
“As more of the abuses committed by UC private contractors against low-wage workers in the name of profit surface, it only highlights the need for legal protections that guarantee equal pay for UC contract workers, and the moral imperative of insourcing those contract workers who are already doing the work of permanent UC staff,” said AFSCME 3299 Pres. Kathryn Lybarger, also an International vice president.
AFSCME Local 3299 and allied students and community groups have been successful in getting the California Legislature to pass legislation that would guarantee contract employees are paid commensurate wages as career UC employees performing the same jobs. The bill awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.
The live, on-air interview with AFSCME union leader Marty Beil wasn’t even over and MSNBC host Chris Matthews could barely contain his glee.
“You look like the real thing to me sir, I’d like to meet you some time,” Matthews said.
Beil deflected the personal attention, and without hesitating pointed to the tens of thousands of protesters amassed behind him on the Wisconsin statehouse grounds.
“Chris, this is where democracy is,” Beil said with pride. “Right here. The people walking and the people talking.”
A grinning, impressed Matthews ended the segment with more praise. “This guy was great. I mean this is the kind of evocative leader you want to get (in) the labor movement.”
For thousands of families across Wisconsin and countless more across the nation, Beil was indeed the real thing. A fierce and courageous advocate for working people, he died at his home in Mazomanie, Wisc., Thursday at the age of 68.
Beil recently retired after more than 40 years as an AFSCME leader, culminating in his position as the executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, AFSCME Council 24. He began his career in 1969 as a Wisconsin probation and parole officer. He quickly became active in the union, serving as president of his statewide local and a member of its bargaining team. In 1978, he was elected Council 24 president, a position he held until becoming the council’s executive director in 1985.
But it was during the 2011 protests ignited by Gov. Scott Walker’s vicious attacks on Wisconsin public workers that Beil was thrust into the national spotlight. From the steps of the statehouse, inside the rotunda, on television, and on radio airwaves, Beil rallied workers, students, retirees, and community allies to rise up in defense of workers’ rights. He helped light a spark that reignited the labor movement.
In turn, people across this nation joined together in defense of workers’ rights. Beil helped change the conversation about what it means to respect the dignity of working men and women.
Today, all public service workers in Wisconsin are unified in the newly formed Council 32. Public support for unions is at its highest levels since 2008, and Beil’s message of fairness for all working people is front and center in a national discussion of income inequality. Scott Walker was recently forced to abandon his campaign for president.
Pres. Lee Saunders honored Beil Friday and pointed to his influence not only on what happened in Wisconsin, but on the very infrastructure of labor activism in this country.
“A generation of labor activists learned from Beil and were inspired by his determination and unwavering courage,” Saunders said. “Their commitment and passion is his legacy. He backed up his words with actions. He never asked anybody to make sacrifices that he wasn’t willing to make himself. Today, our union is stronger than ever because of Marty Beil’s dedication and lifetime of service.”
Within his AFSCME family, Beil was regarded as a gentle giant: outspoken and pointed with foes of working men and women, but a soft-spoken mentor and friend to his union sisters and brothers, and colleagues. He is survived by his wife, Susan, his children, Natalie, Audra, and Nick, and his granddaughter, Trinity.
Even as he was retiring this summer, Beil remained committed to advancing the cause of working men and women in this country. It was his life’s passion, and that wasn’t going to end on his last day of work.
“I have a strong message,” Beil wrote in an email to his Wisconsin union family. “Workers will eventually prevail. Working families will once again set the agenda.”