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NEWS TO US: LABOR DAZE

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In a month that’s usually light on news of any kind, August proved to be an active time for organized labor. Here are just a few of the local stories that you might’ve missed while you were summering down on Cape Cod, or summering up in Maine, or working in a restaurant listening to people use ‘summer’ as a verb.

NO DOCTORS FOR NURSES?

The irony of a nurse not having health care doesn’t strike the employees of Bridgewater State Hospital (BSH) as funny. Especially given that they work at a hospital for the criminally insane.

MHM Services Inc., a subcontractor hired by the Department of Corrections to staff BSH, has proposed stripping the hospital’s 130 nurses and mental health workers of their current health plan and replacing it with one which forces them to pay thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses.

Many workers at BSH earn as little as $13 an hour, and operate under the persistently stressful conditions expected at the home of some of Massachusetts’ most dangerous criminals.

About 60 nurses turned out to protest the proposed contract changes on Wednesday, August 21. Mary Hammond, a mental health worker who attended the protest, described her fear of having to quit and seek state-subsidized health insurance, should MHM’s plan take effect.

“I have not been able to sleep because I am so worried about how we would survive. We live paycheck-to-paycheck and could never afford the cost of our prescriptions if this is allowed to happen,” Hammond said.

Although premiums would drop by over $1,000 under the new plan, the replacement family plan would offer employees no coverage until they have spent $6,500 out-of-pocket in a given year. For an individual plan, out-of-pocket expenses would jump from nothing to $3,666, under MHM’s current proposal.

MHM attempted to introduce the changes after the nurses’ contracts expired on June 30. Since then, they have been operating under their old contract until a deal can be struck.

“This is a workforce providing care to the criminally insane who, under this proposal, would no longer be able to provide care for their own families,”

said Jeff Hall, a spokesperson for 1199SEIU United Health Care Workers East, “It’s both ironic and unacceptable.”

MHM declined to comment on the changes to its employee’s health plans, saying that “it is our policy not to discuss the details of our negotiations in the public forum.”

A WOBBLIE COOKIE PICKET

On the evening of Sunday, August 18, four night-shift employees at Insomnia Cookies in Harvard Square voted to go on strike, and promptly shut down the store.

“We sent a mass email out, and cc’d everyone in corporate,” said Chris Helali, 24, a (former) Insomnia shift manager and one of the strike’s organizers. “Attached was a picture of the store covered in signs that said ‘Strike’ and ‘Power to the people!’”

All four employees were immediately terminated.

Insomnia workers are alleging that Insomnia Cookies, a late-night cookie store and delivery service with 30 locations in the Northeast and Midwest, have been paying the store’s employees substandard wages without benefits.

The employees who work behind the counter at Insomnia earn $9 per hour for their work, which includes both baking the cookies and staffing the cash register. Delivery drivers—or cyclists, more accurately—get $5 per hour, plus tips, and like their kitchen counterparts work until 2:45 a.m. delivering cookies to the city’s sleepless citizens.

Insomnia’s employees are attempting to organize through the anarchist-leaning Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as “the Wobblies,” which centers itself around the idea of “One Big Union” for all workers.

In recent years, branches of the IWW has made several attempts to organize food service workers, including Starbucks employees in New York and Chicago and workers at the sandwich shop chain Jimmy John’s in Minnesota.

Helali says that while the remaining nine workers at Insomnia’s Harvard Square location have not officially joined the strike, “there is broad support among the working staff.”

“All of them are just as frustrated as we are,” he added.

Insomnia Cookies did not return a request by DigBoston for comment on the worker’s attempts to unionize.

FAST FOOD FRUSTRATION

On Thursday, August 29, thousands of fast food workers in over 50 cities across the U.S. walked off the job, demanding higher wages—drastically higher wages, at that.

Throughout the summer a campaign to improve the wages of fast food workers has been gearing up, with the main demand being a wage increase to $15 per hour. Many fast food workers currently make their state minimum wage—$8 in Massachusetts—with the median wage falling at about $8.94 per hour nationally.

In Boston, about 200 workers, union members, clergy, and community supporters gathered in the Boston Common as a part of the national day of action. Worker walkouts took place at one Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, and Dunkin Donuts location each, and were backed by MassUniting and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“It’s wrong when fast-food companies make hundreds of millions of dollars, but employees like me, who work hard in their restaurants, have to depend on government programs and food stamps to get by—and it’s time to do something about it,”

said Jussara Dossantos, a KFC worker from Boston.

Rob Greene, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, released a statement dismissing the protests as little more than (presumably greasy) hot air.

“A few scattered protests organized by outside labor groups hardly amounts to a nationwide ‘strike’ or movement,” Greene said.


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One Response to NEWS TO US: LABOR DAZE

  1. Dear All,

    On August 18, four Insomnia Cookies workers declared a spontaneous strike at the company’s Harvard Square location, demanding higher wages, healthcare, and the freedom to build a union. All were quickly terminated by a manager who also threatened a lawsuit for “violating contractual obligations.” Although the company’s website promises, “above average wages,” Insomnia’s bakers make just $9/hr. “Drivers,” who have to use their own bicycles to make deliveries, make just $5/hr plus tips and work until 3 am. At times workers don’t even get the 30-minute meal break they’re entitled to by state law after a 6 hr shift.

    All four strikers joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which is assisting employees in their struggle to form a union (please consider a donation to the IWW’s strike fund, created for direct relief to the workers who took the courageous decision to strike). You’re invited to join IWW’s and members of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), as we add our collective power to the movement of fast food strikes that has been sweeping like wildfire across the country. We will gather on Thursday evening, starting at 8 pm, at 65 Mount Auburn Street in Harvard Square, Cambridge, just two blocks from the Harvard Red Line T stop. The Facebook event is here
    .

    Solidarity Forever!