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From Kentucky Miners to Toys ‘R’ Us Employees, Workers Confront Corporate Greed

It is worker organizing, not CEO platitudes, that is forging a path toward a more equitable future.

Coal miners who work for Blackjewel pass time chatting on the railroad tracks that lead to one of the company's mines on August 8, 2019, near Cumberland, Kentucky.

For the last few weeks, all eyes have been on Kentucky as coal miners blockade a railroad in protest of what’s essentially highway robbery. The coal miners in Harlan County are demanding their unpaid wages from Blackjewel, the company that employed them before suddenly declaring bankruptcy earlier this year. Their physical blockade of a train full of coal is critical given that Wall Street investors are still looking to eke out money from Blackjewel — even if it means leaving workers without the paychecks they’ve already earned.

The standoff is among the latest instances highlighting a system that funnels the wealth created by workers upwards to the elite. The statistics are startling. Incomes of the top 1 percent of U.S. households have grown more than seven times more quickly than those of the bottom 20 percent of households over the past four decades. CEO compensation rose by 940 percent since 1978, the Economic Policy Institute reports. Meanwhile, the typical worker’s wages grew by only 12 percent.

Workers — from retail employees to rideshare drivers, teachers to bank tellers — are taking on the structures that allow this lopsided economy to thrive. Last year, more than 485,000 workers were involved in major work stoppages, the Bureau of Labor Services found — the highest number since 1986. They’re taking action against the insatiable corporate greed and predatory financial forces widening the chasm between the elite and everyone else.

What does that corporate greed look like? It’s industries that rake in billions and still pay their workers poverty wages, as airlines do. That’s why dozens of airline catering workers were arrested outside American Airlines headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this month, announcing that one job should be enough for them to live with dignity, especially during what their union calls “a time of unprecedented prosperity” for the industry.

The workers aren’t employed directly by American Airlines, but by a subcontractor that provides the company’s in-flight meals and beverages. But they know this type of system is essentially run as a scam — companies can pit subcontractors against each other to get the lowest price, all while avoiding direct accountability to the workers that allow them to prosper. Meanwhile, CEOs like American Airlines’ Doug Parker rake in nearly $12 million in annual compensation.

Thousands of airline workers have authorized a strike if negotiations continue to fail. Despite the fact that they negotiate directly with the subcontractors, workers know where the power lies, which is why they’ve taken their fight to American Airlines’s front door.

This is the same logic that animated the Uber and Lyft strikes, timed to the public offerings of their companies earlier this year. While executives were set to become instant billionaires as the companies went public, workers went on strike to show investors who actually generated the wealth and to ensure their concerns were front and center.

Like the airline industry, rideshare companies have found a way to avoid any responsibility to ensure their workers live with dignity. In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing ahead of the public offering, Uber essentially admitted that its business model relies on misclassifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, keeping the company from being required to provide a minimum wage, much less health care or other benefits.

Drivers were keen to contrast this fundamentally anti-worker business model with the sky-high profits expected by company executives, including disgraced former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Lenny Sanchez, a rideshare driver and co-founder of Chicago Rideshare Advocates, said he wished he could tell Kalanick how drivers reacted when they heard how much he had to gain. “They’re like, ‘I have to work. I’m away from my home for 14 hours, six to seven days a week … and this guy is going to make [billions] overnight.’”

It’s no secret that an economic system that allows executives to make such exorbitant profit off the backs of its workers is exploitative. But some worker campaigns are also pointing out how disparities between worker and CEO pay add a new level of risk into the economy, encouraging executives to pursue profit over absolutely everything else.

Bank workers, for example, are highlighting how the inequality baked into financial companies hurt the country’s economic systems as a whole. The Committee for Better Banks is a coalition of bank employees, community and consumer groups, and labor organizations fighting for better conditions for bank workers and advocating for more protections for bank customers. Bank workers in the coalition have blown the whistle on predatory bank practices, like a harmful quota system used by Wells Fargo connected to the fabrication of millions of additional bank accounts for depositors.

Bank workers are the ones both most motivated and most knowledgeable to regulate from below, as the Committee for Better Banks argues. That regulation is critical given that missteps from banks can bring down the entire global economy. Bank executives are more focused on a feedback loop of tax cuts, stock buybacks and inflated CEO compensation, further distorting inequality within their industry. Building power among bank workers helps the entire economy.

For retail workers, taking on predatory institutions means challenging the private equity vultures that profit off the job losses in their sector. Thanks to Wall Street’s “investments,” more than 1.3 million retail jobs have been lost over the last decade, a recent report found.

Toys ‘R’ Us workers, among the most affected by private equity’s greed, staged several protests, including a mock graveyard in the New York lobby of Bain Capital, one of the firms that drove the company into bankruptcy. Those workers initially didn’t receive severance pay when they were laid off — despite the fact that the company’s executives took home millions in bonuses.

The retail workers received a boost from public sector employees, who used their own financial power to challenge the companies that play an active role in destroying the well-being of their fellow workers. State pension funds across the country that had invested in KKR, Bain and Vornado Realty Trust — the profiteers who benefitted off the Toys ‘R’ Us bankruptcy — threatened to divest their ample capital.

“My teacher friends are disgusted,” Ann Marie Reinhart, a former Toys ‘R’ Us employee and an organizer for United for Respect, said. “They say that we’re all hard-working people, and it makes them sick to know their pensions are funded by people losing their jobs.”

Thanks to protests from retail workers and the solidarity from public sector workers, KKR and Bain Capital eventually agreed to put $20 million toward a worker severance fund.

All of this organizing has gotten attention from politicians, like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin and Sherrod Brown, and Reps. Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal — the sponsors of the Stop Wall Street Looting Act introduced in Congress last month. A direct response to the role of private equity and hedge funds in the demise of retailers like Toys ‘R’ Us, the legislation puts safeguards in place to protect the 5.8 million workers employed by private equity-owned companies, from newspapers to nursing homes.

Corporate leaders are also taking notice. In a recent statement from Business Roundtable, 181 CEOs announced a shared commitment to “investing in our employees” and “supporting the communities in which we work” — additions to their past mottos that put shareholders over everyone else. They may think a populist tone will help stem off criticism about heightened inequality, especially as concerns about a recession grow. But their statements amount to embarrassingly little, and far too late. Look to worker organizing, not CEO platitudes, for the path toward a new, equitable economy.

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