First Person

We Voted for a Union at Columbia and We’re Willing to Fight For It

Graduate workers at Columbia are the people who teach courses and discussion sections, grade papers and exams, hold office hours and meet with students. We’re the teaching assistants and research assistants who conduct the daily work essential to keeping the university’s many labs and research institutes running.

However, the pay and benefits we receive do not reflect our vital role within the institution, so we voted to unionize in December 2016. The federal government certified the union election months ago, but the university has refused to come to the bargaining table. We went on strike in April to protest this denial to recognize our democratically chosen union, and we’re willing to do so again.

The inability of Columbia workers to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits has many concrete consequences. They are felt day by day, such as when one of us is sitting at the dentist, reading through treatment plans and weighing the costs.

Fillings? Have to happen. Everything else can certainly wait, right? New glasses might be in order, but aren’t covered by insurance, either.

During the academic year, around half of our pay goes toward rent, and our summer stipends force us to stretch around $3,300 (before taxes) across three months. Stipends vary across departments, but they aren’t all guaranteed and can depend on individual advisers’ access to grant money. So we do what many of our colleagues do: Take care of only the most urgent concerns while putting everything else off.

For some, that even means putting plans to have a family on hold, since Columbia’s $2,000 annual child care subsidy, while a saving grace for those who receive it, still barely puts a dent in covering the cost of child care in New York City.

The university has not only refused to recognize our union, but also engaged in a long battle to prevent us from holding a vote in the first place. In fact, the Columbia administration argued in front of the National Labor Relations Board that graduate workers are not workers at all, and then actively propagandized in an attempt to dissuade workers from voting to unionize.

The administration lost both battles, with the NLRB affirming graduate workers’ right to unionize in August of 2016, and 72 percent of the graduate worker body subsequently voting in favor of a union in December.

It would require a minuscule fraction of Columbia’s budget to cover dental and vision insurance for its graduate workers or to increase the child care subsidy, which makes its refusal to recognize our union worse. What amounts to pocket change for a university with an endowment of $10.9 billion would mean a drastic increase in the quality of life for graduate workers.

Harvard, Brown, Cornell, NYU, The New School, Tufts, Brandeis, American University, and Georgetown have all recognized their graduate worker unions and are at various stages of negotiations or already have agreed to a contract, while Columbia remains steadfast in its attempts to deny us our rights. The contract negotiated at NYU awarded grad workers some of the benefits we deserve, such as dental coverage, and increased their stipends.

We know that rising inequality in the United States is making it increasingly difficult for those without privileged backgrounds to succeed.

As sociologists, we know that rising inequality in the United States is making it increasingly difficult for those without privileged backgrounds to succeed. We also know that unions reduce inequality, increase wages, and improve conditions for workers of color. The issues at stake are not just material, however. For example, union organizing is helping to provide much-needed support for graduate workers experiencing sexual harassment.

Columbia’s administration is led by a Board of Trustees whose members include investment bankers and venture capitalists, high-powered lawyers, real estate developers, and a pharmaceutical executive. When they persistently — and illegally — ignore multiple NLRB decisions and refuse to bargain with our graduate worker union, it is clear that they are engaging in the same attack on workers that has led to the concentration of income and power for those at the top of the economic hierarchy.

These attacks make apparent the hypocrisy and ease with which powerful institutions depicting themselves as defenders of democracy align with some of the Trump administration’s worst policies, so as not to forgo a drop of their control and capital.

And as sociologists, we know, too, that power concedes nothing without a demand. Since the administration has made it clear that it does not intend to respect the NLRB’s rulings, and since recent Trump appointees to our nation’s courts are unlikely to side with workers, we have few options left other than withholding our labor – which, of course, Columbia claims is not labor at all. We hope a prolonged strike will tip the cold economic calculations surely underlying the administration and the Board of Trustees’ decisions.

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a co-chair of the prestigious National Academies of Sciences’ committee on the future of voting, has said that “Nothing is more essential to a functioning democracy than the trust citizens have in casting their ballots.” However, he and the rest of administration have not extended that principle to recognize the results of our legal, democratic vote in favor of unionization.

So our union is ready to demonstrate not only that our labor is critical to the functioning of the university, but that as workers, we have power in numbers – and the power to strike. Because when democracy is under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back.



Unionized Baseball Players Making Millions Just Crossed a Hotel Picket Line

On October 4, the New York Yankees were in Boston for the playoff series against the Boston Red Sox. A Boston Magazine reporter posted a video to Twitter of the Yankees walking into their hotel, the Ritz-Carlton. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be newsworthy.

This was different; the Yankees were crossing a picket line of unionized hotel workers who were striking outside the hotel. The players mostly avoided eye contact with the workers, keeping their heads down as they walked through the protest and into the hotel. Crossing a picket line is considered egregious enough, but what made it even more galling to some is that Major League Baseball players are themselves members of one of the strongest unions in the country: The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

The hotel strike has been ongoing since October 3, after months of negotiations between the hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE, and Marriott failed. It has grown to include workers in eight cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, Detroit, Honolulu, and Maui. UNITE HERE Local 26 is representing hotel workers at seven Marriott properties across Boston, the first to strike, as they fight for more consistent hours, greater job stability, job protection against automation, and increased protection from sexual harassment on the job. Thousands of workers have participated in the strike, according to the union. On Wednesday, two weeks after the strike began, Boston City Council unanimously voted to support the workers.

For the striking workers, the actions of the Yankees players felt like a personal affront. “It was a huge slap in the face, honestly,” says Courtney Leonard, a 28-year-old server in the Birch Bar inside the Westin Boston Waterfront, where she’s worked for seven years. “They’re a union and we’re a union and we’re supposed to all stick together.” Why didn’t the Yankees players see themselves as allied with fellow union members in the hospitality industry?

According to The Nation, the Boston hotel workers are at least 60 percent female and 85 percent Black, Latino, and Asian, and include many immigrants. “Housekeepers—by far the largest segment of the unionized hotel workforce—earn an average of $21.45 an hour, the equivalent of about $44,000 for those who work 40 hours a week year-round,” The Nation reported. By contrast, the minimum salary for MLB players is $545,000, and the average salary is $4.5 million.

Baseball players officially gained union status in 1966, after struggling to get a foothold in the years before that. Their ability to become an officially recognized union came thanks to Marvin Miller, a former steelworkers’ union economic advisor and Brooklyn Dodgers fan. A year after Miller took charge of the union, the minimum salary was set at $6,000 ($45,984 in today’s dollars) and the average salary was $19,000 ($145,616). Under Miller, the MLBPA helped the players go from what Miller called “the most exploited group of workers I had ever seen—more exploited than the grape pickers of Cesar Chavez,” to a group with incredible strength and bargaining power. Over the years, this has allowed players to negotiate things from more control over their schedule to better travel arrangements to being able to achieve free agency, which would allow them opportunities to make more money and play in different markets.

UNITE HERE is also in the organizing tradition of Chavez; he personally supported UNITE HERE, speaking at one of their rallies and saying during a televised interview in the 1980s, “I couldn’t believe the conditions the workers were working under when I came in.”

Over the years, there have been several player strikes in major league baseball, with players utilizing their collective power to demand better job conditions—like the UNITE HERE workers are doing in Boston. A Yankees player who makes $11.5 million per season, like Brett Gardner does, may not feel like he has much in common with the hotel workers he brushed past. But his job security and salary were negotiated through the same organizing tactics the UNITE HERE workers are using to negotiate theirs.

Under criticism, the MLBPA released a statement to SBNation about the Boston strike, saying, “From what we understand, these workers have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for more than six months. They deserve to be heard and they deserve our support.”

What would it look like for members of the MLBPA to support the UNITE HERE strike? As union workers with considerably more power, the athletes could put pressure on Marriott by bringing attention to the strike and expressing their solidarity with the workers by not staying at Marriott-owned hotels while the workers are on strike. Instead, not a single New York Yankee—nor the team itself—has issued a statement of any kind, nor does it seem any individual athletes have, either.

Not a single New York Yankee—nor the team itself—has issued a statement of any kind, nor does it seem any individual athletes have, either.

“They like being able to come here and stay in these luxurious hotels but the men and women who are the ones who actually work to make sure their accommodation is up to their standards, we have to work two sometimes three jobs just to make that happen,” says Leonard, who has been priced out of her hometown of South Boston and now commutes 105 miles each day to work from New Bedford, Mass. “It’s not easy for any of us to be out here, but we’re all out here because we know we can’t keep going at this pace and we know we work for the largest and richest hotel company in the world. Their support would have been much appreciated, but it is what it is now, unfortunately.”

Today, the MLBPA is run by Tony Clark, a former member who lacks the experience of the various labor lawyers that preceded him. With the exit of the staunch union men, it’s possible that players lack the kind of worker solidarity that may have existed at another point in time; MLB players haven’t been exploited and underpaid in the way they once were for decades, and it’s certainly not anything that the current crop of players has ever experienced. While many of the players have increased social status that comes with being a professional athlete, many of them are also children of immigrants or come from working class backgrounds. The upward mobility of the athletes themselves may help explain why the two unions have such comparatively different positions.

Still, the Boston workers expect more from the ballplayers. After all, as D. Taylor, the International President of UNITE HERE, told The Nation, “We are fighting for exactly what the baseball players once fought for.”



How Banks Slid Into the Payday Lending Business

Meet the new payday loan. It looks a lot like the old payday loan.

Under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau attempted to rein in abusive payday lending, by, among other measures, forcing lenders to ensure borrowers had the means to pay back their loans. The Trump administration, under interim CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney, is looking to roll back those rules and give payday lenders, who as an industry donated significant amounts of money to Mulvaney when he was a congressman, more room to operate. A high-profile rule proffered by the CFPB to govern payday loans is under review, and Mulvaney’s CFPB has also dropped cases the bureau had previously pursued against payday lenders.

Payday lenders have taken notice, and are already adapting their business to evade regulation. Meanwhile, small-dollar, high-interest lending has migrated to other parts of the financial industry, including traditional banks. Banks aren’t actually calling their loans “payday loans” — preferring names like “Simple Loan” — but the problems, including high costs and the potential for creating a debilitating cycle of debt, are largely the same.

Payday loans are short-term loans, so named because they are meant to be paid back when the borrower earns her next paycheck. The interest rates on these loans are high, running up to 400 percent or more. (For comparison’s sake, a borrower will pay about 5 percent interest on a prime mortgage today, and between 15 and 20 percent on a credit card.) Payday lenders tend to cluster in areas where residents are disproportionately low-income or people of color, preying on economic insecurity and those for whom traditional lending and banking services are unavailable or insufficient.

It’s not only those high interest rates that make the loans lucrative for lenders and damaging for borrowers. Much of the income payday lenders derive comes from repeat business from a small population of borrowers who take out loan after loan after loan, engaging in so-called “churn.” According to the CFPB, more than 75 percent of loan fees come from borrowers who use 10 or more loans per year. These borrowers wrack up big fees that outweigh the economic benefit provided by the loans and become stuck in a cycle of debt.

This is serious money we’re talking about: Prior to the Obama administration’s attempt to more strongly regulate the industry, payday lenders  made some $9.2 billion annually. That total is down to about $5 billion today, even before the Obama team’s rules have fully gone into effect. Meanwhile, many states have also taken positive steps in recent years to regulate payday lending. (The loans are also outright banned in some states.)

However, that doesn’t mean payday lending is going out of style.

Payday lenders seem well aware of the state of regulatory flux in which they find themselves.

For starters, old payday lenders have revamped their products, offering loans that are paid in installments — unlike old payday loans that are paid back all at once — but that still carry high interest rates. Revenue from that sort of lending increased by more than $2 billion between 2012 and 2016. The CFPB’s rules don’t cover installment-based loans.

“They claim that these loans are different, are safer, are more affordable, but the reality is they carry all the same markers of predatory loans,” said Diane Standaert, director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending. These markers include their high cost, the ability of lenders to access borrowers’ bank accounts, and that they are structured to keep borrowers in a cycle of debt. “We see all of those similar characteristics that have plagued payday loans,” Standaert said.

Meanwhile, big banks are beginning to experiment with small-dollar, short-term loans. U.S. Bank is the first to roll out a payday loan-like product for its customers, lending them up to $1,000 short-term, with interest rates that climb to 70 percent and higher. (Think $12 to $15 in charges per $100 borrowed.)

Previously, American’s big financial institutions were very much discouraged from getting into small-dollar, high-interest lending. When several major American banks, including Wells Fargo and Fifth Third, rolled out short-term lending products prior to 2013, they were stopped by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national banks. “[These] products share a number of characteristics with traditional payday loans, including high fees, short repayment periods, and inadequate attention to the ability to repay.  As such, these products can trap customers in a cycle of high-cost debt that they are unable to repay,” said the OCC at the time.

In October 2017, however, the OCC — now under the auspices of the Trump administration — reversed that ruling. In May 2018, it then actively encouraged national banks to get into the short-term lending business, arguing that it made more sense for banks to compete with other small-dollar lenders.  “I personally believe that banks can provide that in a safer, sound, more economically efficient manner,” said the head of the OCC.

However, in a letter to many of Washington’s financial regulators, a coalition of consumer and civil rights groups warned against this change, arguing that “Bank payday loans are high-cost debt traps, just like payday loans from non-banks.” Though the terms of these loans are certainly better than those at a traditional payday lender, that doesn’t make them safe and fair alternatives.

Per a recent poll, more than half of millennials have considered using a payday loan, while 13 percent have actually used one. That number makes sense in a world in which fees at traditional banks are rising and more and more workers are being pushed into the so-called “gig economy” or other alternative labor arrangements that don’t pay on a bi-weekly schedule. A quick infusion of cash to pay a bill or deal with an unexpected expense can be appealing, even with all the downsides payday loans bring.

Payday lenders seem well aware of the state of regulatory flux in which they find themselves; they have made more than $2 million in political donations ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, the most they’ve made in a non-presidential year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s real money, but it’s nowhere near as much as borrowers stand to lose if payday lending continues to occur in the same old way. In fact, a 2016 study found that consumers in states without payday lending save $2.2 billion in fees annually. That’s 2.2 billion reasons to ensure that small-dollar lenders, big and small, aren’t able to go back to business as usual.



North Carolina Legislators Want to Add Tax Breaks for the Rich to the State Constitution

North Carolina Republicans have been on a mission over the last few years to remove every shred of progressivity from their state’s income tax. They’ve largely succeeded, passing several rounds of tax cuts since 2013 that, among other changes, turned the income tax from one with a progressive structure into a flat tax.

So now it’s time for the coup de grace: An amendment enshrining those tax breaks for the state’s wealthiest residents into the state constitution.

In November, North Carolina residents will be voting on a ballot initiative that would amend the state’s constitution to cap its income tax at 7 percent, down from a current cap of 10 percent. Considering that North Carolina’s income tax currently tops out at 5.499 percent, and is scheduled to fall further to 5.25 percent next year, that may not seem like a big deal. But it is.

First, the background. The change to a flat tax helped those at the top of the income scale, who saw their rates drop the most. Along with a host of other tax cutting measures, including a corporate income tax reduction, it cost the state a big chunk of money.

“Since 2012, when Republicans took full control of the legislature and governorship for the first time in modern history, they’ve been on a tax cutting rampage,” said Meg Wiehe, a North Carolina native and deputy director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “The state will be about $3.6 billion shorter in revenue than it would have been otherwise, which is a pretty significant difference in a state with a general fund of just around $21 billion.”

By pushing a cap on the income tax into the Constitution, lawmakers hope to lock those reductions in, making future legislators go through the same long amendment process in order to raise taxes or add progressivity back into the code. (Amendments to the North Carolina constitution are placed on the ballot via a three-fifths vote of both houses in the state legislature and require approval by voters, whereas legislation can be passed by a simple majority of lawmakers.)

As recently as 2013, the top income tax rate in North Carolina was 7.75 percent, so it’s not out of the question that lawmakers would want to implement an increase from today’s levels. Even setting the cap at 7 percent was a compromise of sorts among the Tar Heel State’s Republicans: Many wanted to cap the income tax at its current level, or even below that, forcing a constitutionally-mandated tax reduction.

A cap poses several problems, in addition to the simple unfairness of leaving such a low tax rate on the wealthy in a state where more than 100 percent of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the richest 1 percent of the population (meaning those at the other end of the income spectrum actually lost ground). For starters, it could undermine important state investments, as Alexandra Forter Sirota, director at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center, explained.

“To maintain current service levels for our population, we won’t have enough revenue under our tax code in 2019,” she said. “So they’ll have to either cut services or raise revenue or some combination of both.” And those cuts tend to fall disproportionately on low-income communities and people of color, she said, as will potential revenue raisers if the state has to resort to fees or sales taxes in lieu of being able to raise income taxes.

Since 2012, when Republicans took full control of the legislature and governorship for the first time in modern history, they’ve been on a tax cutting rampage.
– Meg Wiehe

Already, that dynamic has been evident in the state. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted recently, spending on public colleges in North Carolina is still nearly 20 percent below where it was before the 2008 recession. Previous rounds of tax cutting have made it so that North Carolina can’t raise K-12 education funding, which is already among the lowest in the nation.

This problem will be magnified when another economic downturn inevitably comes. “There have been key times even in recent history when the state, in an emergency situation, has relied on the wealthiest taxpayers to pay more to help ensure that critical services don’t have to be deeply cut,” explained Wiehe. “Future lawmakers who maybe would prefer to use the income tax as their tool wouldn’t have that available to them.”

Case in point, the state enacted a temporary top tax rate of 8.25 percent on the state’s richest residents in response to the Great Recession – helping to preserve funding for public schools and public health programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program – a  move which would be rendered much more difficult if lawmakers needed to spend time getting voters to approve a new amendment.

North Carolina has been a political battleground in recent years, the quintessential “purple” state that is home to the weekly Moral Mondays march, but with a state legislature controlled by conservatives. In addition to the tax cap, voters there will be assessing amendments that would restrict voting rights and remove some of the (currently Democratic) governor’s powers. Locking in tax cuts for the wealthy fits right in.

According to a recent Elon University poll, 56 percent of North Carolinians support the tax cap amendment as written, with 15 percent opposing it. However, after being provided an explanation that includes the amendment’s possible adverse effects, the gap falls to 45-27. That has Sirota optimistic that voters grasp what’s at stake.

“I think that North Carolinians are incredibly smart about this issue right now,” said Sirota. “They understand that since 2013 the vast majority have not seen a big difference in their taxes, but they have seen their communities struggle with having to figure out how to meet needs.”



Ben Carson Wants HUD to Stop Fighting Housing Segregation

Today, a child born to a low-income family and raised in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans will have beaten the odds if they live past age 67. They can also expect to make just $20,000 a year by the time they reach their thirties.

Just a 20-minute drive away, in the Uptown/Carrollton neighborhoods near Tulane and Loyola Universities, that same child could expect to live 20 years longer and take home roughly $53,000 more in annual salary.

These communities are just six miles apart, yet designed and resourced in such a way that there’s a world of difference between the lives their residents can hope to have. Being raised in different neighborhoods can determine everything from the jobs you have access to, the schools your kids attend, and the groceries you can buy.

In 2015, the Obama administration created the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to fix this disparity. But Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has moved to indefinitely delay implementation and is proposing drastic changes that analysts predict will all but gut its efficacy.

Why this matters.

While the idea of furthering fair housing appears in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, it wasn’t meaningfully enforced over the last half century. So under the 2015 rule, communities that receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to develop action plans to not only remedy their existing racial and ethnic segregation and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, but to also ensure that every U.S. community is equipped with the resources and opportunities to meet their residents’ housing needs.

As nationwide data released this month grimly reinforced, the neighborhood or ZIP code you grow up in, more than ever, has a dramatic impact on whether you earn more or less than your parents did. Researchers found this impact is particularly acute for black boys who, regardless of their families’ income, face the worst outlook for escaping poverty, building wealth, and doing better than their parents.

This is merely one aspect of a racial wealth gap that has persisted since the formal founding of this nation. Today, a typical black family with an income of $50,000 lives in a poorer neighborhood than a white family earning $20,000. Government-sponsored public policies intentionally crafted to hold back people of color and cut off their communities from wealth-building opportunities, through practices like segregation and redlining, continue to drive these disparities.

What the rule was starting to do, before HUD attacked it.

The 2015 rule was meant to begin addressing this man-made problem. And early results were promising. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor of Law and Urban Planning, Justin Steil, pointed out, several municipalities were beginning to create meaningful, measurable goals as part of the new rule.

For example, New Orleans committed to developing 400 units of affordable housing in Tremé, a neighborhood near the French Quarter that is quickly gentrifying, and Seattle proposed expanding its housing affordability requirements into new areas of the city.

Other regions’ goals included increasing access to existing opportunities, such as Chester County, Pennsylvania, which committed to building 200 affordable housing units in neighborhoods already well-resourced with good jobs, quality education programs and health care services, as well as access to other essential amenities such as grocery stores, parks, and community centers. Paramount, California proposed changing its zoning codes to increase housing accessibility for people with disabilities. Wilmington, North Carolina’s goals prioritized workforce development via job training and placement programs tailored to its local economy.

America continues to grapple with the ongoing byproducts of state-sanctioned separate and unequal neighborhoods.

Dozens of communities had submitted plans under the rule. And yet HUD suddenly and without warning removed a key assessment tool from its website in May that communities were using to shape their goals.

Carson cites a “high failure rate” of analyses submitted by communities among his reasons for delaying the rule, but that justification isn’t valid. Of the 49 analyses that communities submitted to HUD between 2015 and 2018, 65 percent were accepted immediately. The remaining 35 percent were returned to communities with detailed guidance about how to fix the problems; almost all have since been corrected, re-submitted, and accepted by HUD.

This degree of success is remarkable considering the rule was being newly implemented. And, contrary to Carson’s reasoning, the fact that a few of the initial submissions were sent back to communities for corrections signals that the new rule’s standards are exacting and meaningful, and should not be interpreted as evidence of failure.

Indefinitely suspending the rule and eliminating the federal assessment tools that have been helping local communities fight segregation as well as identify, increase and ensure fair housing opportunities for all means HUD has brought this long-overdue and much-needed progress to a halt.

What now?

America continues to grapple with the ongoing byproducts of state-sanctioned separate and unequal neighborhoods that set their residents on very disparate and divergent achievement paths. The rule that the Trump and Carson HUD aim to derail and ultimately demolish is designed to tear down those longstanding structural barriers and shrink the ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots.

It is important to keep in mind that the rule is not only focused on stopping segregation and discrimination but also on actively investing in neighborhoods where people currently live so that those communities are well resourced. The bottom line is that people should not be forced to move away from their community and existing social networks in order to access the basic supports necessary to have a good life.

The department is required to accept public comments until Oct. 15 about these proposed changes. Any member of the public — individuals, organizations, or community groups — can submit comments and let their voices be heard on the importance and fate of this equity tool.

Editor’s note: The public can submit comments on the proposed rule in the Federal Register. For additional instructions, see the guide produced by the Center for Effective Government.