LaborPress

Labor’s Tide Rises From Southern Streets to the C-Suite

New York, NY – While the nation was reeling from the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas — well organized labor protests extended into the historically union hostile so-called southern ‘right to work states’ and at stockholder meetings where public pensions took aim at worker-hostile corporate leadership.

On May 25, in what New York City Comptroller Brad Lander called a “stinging rebuke” of Amazon’s corporate leadership, 27-percent of outside shares voted to reject the re-election of Amazon Director Judith McGrath, chair of the Leadership Development and Compensation Committee which signed off on paying its top five executives $400 million last year, including $212 million in time-vested shares to CEO Andrew Jassy. 

Last month, Lander on behalf of the five New York City Retirement Systems, along with New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, called on Amazon shareholders to oppose the re-election of key Amazon directors for their lack of oversight of the company’s anti-worker business model.

“A critical mass of shareholders delivered a stinging rebuke to Amazon’s leadership regarding the company’s high injury rates, unsustainable turnover, and blatant violations of workers’ rights to freedom of association,” Lander wrote in a statement. “The significant percentage of no confidence votes in Director McGrath, chair of the board committee overseeing workforce issues, show that Amazon must take these concerns seriously. Shareholders, like the New York City Retirement Systems, recognize that the company’s long-term value depends on the well-being of its workforce, the second largest in the nation. The Board must demonstrate to investors that they are responsive to shareholders and taking action to address these risks to the company’s long-term value.”

DOLLAR STORE

Also on May 25, in Goodletsville, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, Rev. Dr. William Barber was turned away from an annual stockholders meeting of the Dollar General Corporation held in the local municipal town hall. Dollar General employs 163,000 workers at over 18,000 locations in 47 states. It has come under fire for its business model which relies on paying less than a living wage in the struggling communities of color where it locates.

Dollar General is notorious for its scorched earth approach to resisting unionization including shutting down a store location rather than be bound by duly-held National Labor Relations Board election if they lose. Last year, its CEO Todd Vasos got $16.45 million in total compensation, or 986 times the media pay of a Dollar General worker, according to the AFL-CIO.  

Close to 200 clergy members, labor activists and Dollar General employees from as far away as Florida and  North Carolina rallied outside Goodletsville town hall as Dr. Barber was turned away along with organizer Gabriel Bolden Shaw and Dollar General employee Kenya Slaughter who were all in possession of shareholder proxies which should have entitled them to entry.

On the shareholder meeting agenda of the company with $34 billion in annual revenue was a stockholder motion requiring the company to publicly disclose its political spending which the corporate leadership opposed.

The Nashville Scene reported that “when Barber, Bolden Shaw and Slaughter entered the building, Dollar General representatives packed up check-in materials and kept the meeting room’s doors locked, explaining that the three individuals had shown up four minutes late.”

‘IN JESUS’ NAME…’

“There’s no rule that says we can’t go in,” Barber told the Dollar General official. “We are members. We are shareholders. You saw us coming. We are shareholders. We are shareholders. We are shareholders.”

Not deterred, Barber stepped up to the clocked door and repeatedly rapped on it with his cane.

“In the name of Jesus—in the name of Jesus—in the name of Jesus —I am a shareholder.  I have a right to be here,” he proclaimed. “If you can get me a cop here tell me I don’t have a right to be here I will stop. This is a public building. We are shareholders.”

Still  knocking to no avail Barber added “we don’t want to disrupt or come to do violence. You see what they do to working people. We are shareholders. They are scared of the people. We are shareholder in a City Hall, a public space where anybody can come in.”   

“Reverend Barber, whom we understand to have been designated as the representative of a beneficial shareholder (and not a shareholder himself), was present outside the Goodlettsville City Hall well in advance of the shareholder meeting and as part of the demonstration,” wrote a Dollar General spokesperson in a response to LaborPress. “The shareholder meeting began promptly at 9am, its official start time.  We are unaware of any individual, including Reverend Barber, who sought access to the meeting at or before that time and was denied access.” 

The Goodletsville rally was sponsored by Step Up Louisiana, a New Orleans-based community based economic justice non-profit that works with Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign that is planning a national march on June 18 to highlight the struggles of the national tens of millions of low wage households often as essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“We’re here for respect, dignity and better pay,” one Dollar Store employee told the Nashville Scene. “We’re sick and tired of the bullshit in these stores. We get paid little to nothing, and this is where we need to make our statement. Those executives get top dollar.” The worker, who came from Louisiana, told the news outlet that over two years his hourly wage of $8 per hour had only gone up  to $9.25. 

CLOSED UP SHOP

In 2020, Dollar General, which is headquartered in Goodletsville, opted to close a store in Missouri where it lost a union election 4 to 2, rather than negotiate with its employees, according to the Washington Post. Before shuttering the location, it spent 28 months fighting the legitimacy of the vote in the courts. It fired an employee who had initiated the organizing effort and ultimately, under the terms of an NRLB settlement, had to compensate the dismissed worker as well as post signage in the store break room notifying its employees the company would not fire workers for union activity. 

In 2015, the newspaper reported, Dollar General’s employee handbook proclaimed that its “union free status is one reason we continue to grow and provide employment while many unionized companies have declined.” 

“Dollar General has carved out a niche that allowed it to thrive in communities where people were struggling to put food on the table and pay their bills, and there were more and more of these places popping up throughout the country every year,” the Washington Post reported which added the company stocked products like pain relievers in “small sizes instead of bulk to keep prices low and profit margins high.”

On the company’s May 26 earnings call, Dollar General officials announced in their first quarter they were spending a half-billion more on stock buybacks then they spent on physical investment in their business.

“Total capital expenditures for the quarter were $282 million and included our planned investments in new stores, remodels and relocations, distribution and transportation projects and spending related to the strategic initiatives, John Garrett, Dollar General’s CFO told the call participants.  “During the quarter, we repurchased 3.4 million shares of our common stock for $747 million and paid a quarterly cash dividend of $0.55 per common share outstanding for a total payout of $125 million. At the end of Q1, the remaining share repurchase authorization was $1.4 billion.”

Investigative economist and attorney James Henry, a global justice fellow at Yale University and a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Investment, said investors should be concerned by Dollar General’s decision to plough hundreds of millions of dollars into a stock buyback.

“That’s one of poorest investments that management can make in a company is to repurchase stock shares,” Henry said during a phone interview. “It is often done just because the executives have shares in the company but it is an indication that they look around the world and they see all the things they could be investing in as a company and they don’t see any opportunities of real investment or real job creation. It’s a sign that the company is out of ideas.” 

CWA ORGANIZING CALL CENTERS

Earlier in the week, scores of call center workers who are under contract with Maximus went on strike and set up picket lines in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Bogalusa, Louisiana, according to the tech journalFCW, which tracks federal government tech contracts. Maximus, which holds billions of dollars in federal government contracts that include outsourced Medicare and Medicaid call centers that employ 10,000 workers at ten sites in eight states. According to the Communications Workers of America, the call center workforce is composed primarily of women and people of color. 

On a press call organized by the CWA, Yasming Johnson, a call center employee from the Hattiesburg location, told reporters she “went on strike for a simple reason – a reason to demand better pay and affordable healthcare coverage. My family is hurting right now. Everything is going up except for the pay.”

Johnson continued. “”It is shameful that we work for a federal contractor that grosses billions of dollars from the government… and it is also shameful that we help millions of Americans around the world and we don’t have access to our own healthcare. We can’t afford our own healthcare.”

In a statement sent to LaborPress, Eileen Rivera, a Maximus spokesperson wrote that since the company had acquired the call center business it had worked at “improving compensation, reducing employees’ out-of-pocket health care expenses and continuously improving the work environment” and in “creating opportunities for advancement and promoting a diverse workforce.”

“Maximus routinely meets with its employees to address various concerns and issues,” Rivera wrote. “We have an ‘open door’ policy at all our sites and our employees frequently use it. We also have employee hotlines where employees can submit issues anonymously.”

“These workers are doing enormously important work for CMS and are entitled to decent wages, decent benefits and certainly the right to organize a union without employer harassment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “Maximus has a federal contract worth over $5 billion, and the taxpayers of our country want to know that people who receive federal contracts like that treat their workers with respect and dignity.”

President Biden tossed a lifeline to low wage federal workers and contract workers earlier this year with an executive order that required a $15 minimum wage for those workers. Currently, the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 and hour where it had been stuck since 2009. An effort to raise it early in Mr. Biden’s tenure failed when several Democrats in the U.S. Senate sided with Republicans to reject it. 

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