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Confessions of a Liquor Store Clerk

Tue, 2021-11-23 22:05

By Conrad Codder

In a small town a liquor store is more than a place to get booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets. It becomes that impromptu place where locals gather to catch up on news, engage in more than a little gossip and commiserate about their lives. In some cases this may be their only human interaction of the day. 

Summer on Cape Cod begins on Memorial Day weekend. The solitude of the Outer Cape evaporates with a 100,000 tourist explosion. These Summer people all arrive hell-bent for their annual gratification, while the locals scramble from their off-season hibernation to try to make as much money as possible.

The economy of the Outer Cape is a playground for tourists, supported by a workforce of locals and seasonal immigrants and commanded by mostly itinerant business owners. They arrive tanned from their winter homes to reclaim their positions as pillars and benefactors of the communities they abandon during the off-season. They have spent their winters vacuuming up tourist dollars down South and now begin the process again here, amongst us. It is upon the beneficence of these vultures that most locals depend to make enough money to survive the coming winter.

Image provided by Conrad Codder

One summer I worked at a liquor store in another town nearby. Every town on the Cape is a bit insular with its own cast of characters, local lore and culture. Locals are largely uninterested in what goes on elsewhere and so I entered this town as a stranger from another world. 

The average wage of retail workers on the Outer Cape is under $700 a week[1]. Most local workers persist by working multiple jobs. These meager wages do not attract sufficient help, so businesses turn to the J1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program to import seasonal workers mostly from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

On my first shift, which was Memorial Day weekend, I was introduced to my new best friend Alice with whom I would share shifts throughout the summer. She showed me the ins and outs of how to use the cash register, run the credit card and the lottery machines. She taught me where all the stock was and where to shelve it. Most importantly, she introduced me to every character in town, told me their secrets and whether they could be trusted or not. I liked Alice very much; she would do anything she could for me. I could always count on her support.

There was a regular routine at the store. I worked nights and would always show up around 5pm to start my shift. There were usually two clerks each night. The store manager might float in every once in a while just to check up on us. Our top agenda items were to make sure there was sufficient cold beer in the cooler and that the counter display was full of nips.  When necessary, the lottery ticket and cigarette dispensers would also need to be filled.  

Almost on the strike of 6pm an elderly woman would always come in to purchase her single bottle of Guinness. I would patiently listen to her tell me all about her grandchildren and how much she missed them. The conversation was always the same and its content didn’t really matter. The surfers would show up around 8pm to purchase their thirty pack of Miller High Life and trot off to their beach parties before sunset. The local underage  hooligans would always be trying to sneak into the store to steal a bottle of something only to be chased out by one of us. A stained glass artist whose shop was a few doors down would punctuate the evening by popping in and exclaiming that he “needed a nip!” as he took a break from creating his latest bauble. Such was the cavalcade of characters that enlivened our shift.

There was always a steady stream of Lottery players as well. They had their own angles on how to best play: some were quick pickers, some played their children’s birthdays, and others had more secret numerologies. There were also a variety of rules for the scratch tickets. Luck sometimes varied depending on the position of the ticket in the roll and for each game the day of the week had some effect. It was all inscrutable to me. 

Occasionally I would have to work a shift with Butch. Butch was a brutish man who worked construction and loved to dispense his rules to the local kids or anyone else he thought he could bully. I hated working with Butch. Butch would be all smiles and compliments at the beginning of the shift when the manager and her husband were there. Always willing to help when in front of them: he would show off his prowess with putting beer cans into 6-Pack ring holders using his massive mitts. But when they were gone the self-appointed tyrant would emerge. 

Shifts with Butch were punctuated by calls from his co-conspirator with updates on the latest conspiracy theories. When the identity of “Deep Throat” was exposed during one shift he spent the rest of the night on the phone denouncing that traitor. When things got slow Butch would decide that there was only need for one clerk and would tell me to go home. I never protested; to be rid of Butch was a pleasure.

We also had the unpleasant responsibility of enforcing the rules of the shop. Certain feral kids were banned and not allowed in. It was a constant task of kicking the little devils out. One evening when filling up the nips display I was shocked to look up and find a poodle staring back at me. At the counter was a tall slim woman with black curly hair (much like the poodle’s) glaring impatiently at me. “Would you please ring this up!” she snapped. “Ma’am is that your dog?” I responded. “Of course this is my dog! Did  you think it was a turtle?”. “Ma’am you’re not allowed to have dogs in this store; the Board of Health does not allow it.” ”Why?” she retorted “Do they think my dog is less sanitary than someone like you?” “Ma’am the dog needs to leave now.” In a huff she grabbed the dog’s leash and stormed out of the store, leaving her bottle of “Belle de Brillet” on the counter. Happily, she never returned. 

When things became really slow we needed to resort to amusements to keep our sanity. Alice standing behind the counter exclaimed one night: “Jesus Christ can it get any slower!” At which point she took off her shoes and placed them on the counter, pulled her shirt up just below her bra, pulled her arms out of her sleeves and replaced them with two gloves from under the counter, and then placed her hands into her shoes. She then proceeded to tap dance across the counter with her diminished body belting out a rousing rendition of “Mr Bojangles”. I have never experienced something more hilarious and I roared with uncontrollable laughter. These are the things that kept us going. 

At the end of our night at 11 I would usually give Alice a ride home unless she wanted to walk. Her housing was always precarious at best and a constant traveling adventure. At the time she was living in a friend’s basement. Luckily she was well liked and always found a spot to land. 

Rents on the Outer Cape are high, averaging over $1200 per month[2] and remain high in the offseason, even as over 60%[3] of homes remain empty. Second home ownership has devastated the real estate market on the Outer Cape with wealthy “Off Cape” buyers inflating housing prices and contributing to an average home price of over $400,000[4] which is far beyond the means of most locals. The seasonal cottages and motels rented to summer people become the rental stock in the offseason for locals. These rental opportunities typically disappear during the summer as the owners evict their off-season tenants to rent to tourists at substantially higher rates. (Many locals find housing in the summer by renting campsites.)

My adventures at the store ended on Labor Day when I was informed that my services were no longer needed during the offseason. This is when most workers here would file for unemployment and attempt to survive off it through the winter. Fortunately, I still had a day job to keep me afloat and so I faded from the collective consciousness of that place, leaving with a slightly fatter bank account and an abundance of wonderful memories. 

Around 9%[5] of Outer Cape residents live below the poverty line and it is a hard life for most. Nevertheless, they choose to live here because it is home: a place of beauty, community and inspiration.







Conrad Codder is a member of Cape Cod DSA.

Emerson College Workers Fight For Fair Pay

Mon, 2021-11-01 21:54

By Binx Perino

Two years of labor organizing started in the Service Employees International Union Local 888 office on Tremont Street, when John Albert-Moseley and Anna Feder walked in to unionize the staff workers at Emerson College. John had emergency surgery shortly after being hired by the College and didn’t have the sick hours to cover his leave. Anna asked HR if she could donate her sick hours to him, and HR didn’t agree until after repeated insistence. While John recovered, the two set in motion to organize their workplace. Their first fight: a sick bank, where employees can donate their unused sick time and withdraw paid hours in case of emergency.

After several years of rigorous organizing, about 70 clerical, technical, and professional employees at Emerson College voted to unionize with the SEIU Local 888. At the time, Emerson College said in a statement that it “look[ed] forward to entering into a collective bargaining process” with the newly-elected union. By the spring of 2018, attitudes at Emerson College had changed and the union filed unfair labor charges against the College for failing to bargain in good faith. After the union ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with Emerson that same year, management at the College hired known union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis.

From 2018 to 2020, the number of students at Emerson College grew by 13% while the number of staff employees reduced by 2%. When COVID struck in the spring of 2020, the union’s fight for higher salaries and new benefits grew more difficult. Citing financial uncertainties, the College gave the staff an ultimatum: suspend retirement benefits, commuting benefits, and raises for the year, or the College would start laying off workers. Workers reluctantly agreed to the suspension for 12 months, until the College had a clearer financial outlook––in practice, this has become an indefinite delay. Since the pandemic, the shrinking staff at Emerson College is proving to make things more challenging for students who need assistance.

Though union and non-union staff employees agreed to this delay in the interest of saving as many jobs as possible, by December of 2020, the College told employees that they would not have solid numbers on their financial outlook until February 2021. During a meeting in February, the College claimed that the outlook was still unclear. Administrators refused to negotiate and ignored correspondence from the union. Staff employees adjusted to unanticipated changes over a whole year of COVID, such as losing office space and upgrading personal internet plans or providers. These changes took a financial toll on many, while the College refused to reimburse staff for expenses related to the work-from-home transition.

Frustrations mounted. During the spring of 2021, Emerson administrators held a forum for staff via Zoom, where attendees discovered that they were muted and their chat feature was disabled. Staff had to submit questions to management through a Google form to be vetted before being addressed. In protest, union members added “SEIU/Proud Union Member” to their Zoom display names and changed their backgrounds to an SEIU graphic. Shortly thereafter, union members attended the May 2021 commencement with flyers and signs, asking new graduates to email management for better treatment of Emerson workers, and to sign a postcard addressed to trustees of the College.

Their protests were met with a small return: a flat 3% bonus for 2021 in recognition of their “hardships.” Union members declined the flat bonus, demanding their contractual raises. They took to the streets again in September with a petition demanding that the College return to negotiations. This petition proved successful: the College, represented by Jackson Lewis, agreed to negotiate. Though the union’s first contract expired at the end of September, a limited extension is under consideration. While the union waits for Emerson to return to negotiations, union members remain intent on having their demands met.Their negotiating committee have been toiling over the language of three articles with the hope that the union can take concrete steps in their next contract to provide better accommodations for staff with disabilities, and make Emerson a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. The union wants to expand the Sick Bank and make it available to more employees. They are working to establish a regular Teleworking policy that will better address the needs of departments and allow for more flexibility for employees. The union also introduced a new article that will establish a better framework for addressing issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This new article includes new processes to find and address bias in hiring and promotions, recognition and compensation for staff of color who take on the extra burden of DEI-related work, and regular anti-bias training for staff. In the long-term, they hope that these measures will retain staff employees.

 While it isn’t clear what the union is planning next, it’s important that we keep our eyes on them for any future support they may need. Follow their twitter for updates.

Binx R Perino is a member of Boston DSA, an MFA candidate at Emerson College, and a housing advocate in the city of Boston’s homelessness services.

Opinion: HB1094 Is Our Best Weapon Against Uber’s Assault on Worker Rights

Fri, 2021-10-22 07:59

By Henry De Groot

Big Gig’s tidal wave of propaganda is coming to Massachusetts. 

Do you remember when Michael Bloomberg’s radio and TV ads flooded the airwaves? As a presidential candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary, Bloomberg spent around $1 billion dollars—or $3 per U.S. resident—on his campaign. It seemed like his ads—on TV, radio, webpages, and social media—were inescapable. 

If Bloomberg’s messaging annoyed you, just wait until Uber and Lyft’s ads start running for their 2022 Massachusetts ballot initiative. The app companies collectively spent over $220 million in California—or $5.50 per resident—to push through Proposition 22, which stripped app-workers of important labor rights. For a cool $33 million these companies’ new pet organization – the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work—could spend at the same rate, flooding the Massachusetts airwaves from Mount Greylock to Provincetown with their corporate messaging. 

To stand against Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and the rest of Big Gig, unions and community groups have formed an organization of their own, the Coalition to Protect Worker Rights. But what will it take for labor’s coalition to emerge victorious?

If we fight the battle Big Gig has picked, we will lose

These companies are not stupid. Their ads will not trumpet how their business model is based on avoiding and eroding basic labor protections. We can get a sense of their strategy from their campaign in support of  HB1234, “An Act Establishing Portable Benefit Accounts For App-Based Drivers”—a stalking horse for their ballot initiative which faced strong opposition at a state house hearing on Wednesday, October 6th. They aim to disguise their attack on worker rights—in this case, exempting drivers from regulations around employee benefits  – in the shroud of financial  “guarantees” which a recent UC Berkeley study found were worth a measly $4.82/hour. 

Fear-mongering will accompany the sweet talk. These corporations will warn that ensuring driver rights will strip drivers of their coveted flexibility, and seize on popular social justice narratives to present employee rights as a threat to the best interests of their largely immigrant and POC workforce.

At the statehouse hearing earlier this month, panel after panel of well-spoken drivers—obviously hand-picked and groomed by Big Gig—testified in support of H1234. They spoke about how they appreciated the flexibility of app-work, which allowed them—as mothers, retirees, and students—to better manage their other commitments. 

UC Hastings professor Veena Dubal – an expert on labor and employment law – fired back at this company narrative. She pointed out that there is no law which requires employees to have set schedules, and that the only threat to drivers’ flexibility comes from the app companies themselves. 

Convincing drivers that they should be employees is an uphill battle because it runs counter to their lived experience. The fact of the matter is that for many drivers, being classified as an independent contractor means flexibility, while being classified as an employee means set schedules and tight supervision. We must remember the second of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals—“Never go outside the experience of your people.” In my personal experience—more than two years of organizing app-based drivers—convincing a driver that they would be better off as an employee is no easy feat, even in a fair fight.

But this will not be a fair fight. We can have all the community groups, all the experts, and a well-funded campaign. But Uber and Lyft can and will drop $30 million, $100 million, or even $200 million to convince drivers and the public that employee status means losing flexibility. We will be pushing a boulder up a hill in the middle of a mudslide.

Fighting for the workers’ voice

In the fights over California’s Proposition 22 initiative and Massachusetts’ Safe Staffing Initiative – where hospital corporations successfully beat back proposed improvements to nurse/patient staffing ratios – both sides sought to lay claim to the voice of the workers. In both initiatives, both labor and corporate put the voice of impacted workers at the core of their messaging strategies, because both sides knew that voters would trust workers. 

In the early stages of the Safe Staffing campaign, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) had polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly trusted nurses. Therefore, the MNA deployed the slogan, “Nurses Say Yes!” 

But what they didn’t anticipate was that anyone—or at least anyone with millions of dollars—can hire an actress to put on scrubs, buy the airwaves, and raise the counter-slogan “Nurses Say No!” Voters trusted nurses, but the nurses themselves appeared—and because of fear-mongering about hospital shutdowns, were to a degree – divided.

In California, it was more of the same. One poll shows that 58 percent of all voters – including 40 percent of those who backed Uber’s initiative—thought they were helping drivers’ ability to earn a liveable wage, while only 33 percent thought they were ensuring that businesses like Uber and Lyft could continue to exist.

Ultimately voters—not drivers—will decide this initiative. But if Uber or the MNA’s experience is any indication, voters will largely vote for what they think is best for drivers.

HB1094 breaks Uber’s false choice

HB1094—An Act Establishing A Driver Bill of Rights—is our best weapon to cut across Uber’s ballot strategy.

The bill was democratically drafted by drivers and specifically designed to win driver support to our cause and away from Uber’s proposal.

Because it does not  undermine existing law or create a third category of workers under the law, HB1094 skirts the issue of classification to give drivers the rights that all workers deserve—including paid sick leave and overtime—regardless of status. It also legally guarantees driver flexibility by banning set schedules for drivers. Drawing on legislation passed in Seattle, HB1094 sets mandatory minimums for driver per-mile and per-minute rates, establishes a Driver Resolution Center to advocate for drivers, and gives drivers a path to unionization. 

Drivers may not agree on employment status, but drivers can all agree that we would like higher pay rates, more rights, and protections from unfair deactivations. If we can present  drivers with a  choice between Uber’s bill and the Rideshare Driver Bill of Rights, we can win an army of drivers who can proselytize to voters during every Uber and Lyft ride in the Commonwealth. 

If the Coalition to Protect Worker Rights decides not only to fight Uber’s legislation, but also endorses HB1094, it will have a crucial weapon to organize drivers in its fight against Big Gig’s assault on worker rights.

If we lose, we can still win

Furthermore, HB1094 is relevant even if Big Gig is successful in hoodwinking drivers and voters. If HB1094 is passed in the legislature after a defeat at the polls, it makes the app-companies’ legislation largely irrelevant. Does it matter if drivers are called independent contractors if they have all the rights afforded to employees, as well as pay guarantees well above minimum wage, just cause termination provisions, and a path to unionization with terms more favorable than those afforded under the National Labor Relations Act? 

In California, unions spent over $18 million to fight Proposition 22; after they lost, they had little to show for that money. Building support for HB1094 now as part of the fight against BigGig’s initiative means that even if they win, we will have invested that money in an enduring project for driver rights.



Henry De Groot is an editor of Working Mass, a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group, and a board member of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.

MNA Healthcare Workers Strike For Fair First Contract With Boston VNA

Sun, 2021-08-08 10:30

By Danish Kidwai

Amid prolonged negotiations for their first union contract, the 39 healthcare professionals (HCPs) at Visiting Nurse Associates Care (VNA Care) of Boston just concluded a seven day strike that interrupted home care for hundreds of patients in the greater Boston area.

The HCPs at VNA Care of Boston offer countless services for at-home patient care throughout the greater Boston area. Collectively referred to as HCPs, the physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, and speech therapists have endured a growing burden as many aspects of patient care are relocated from the hospital to the patient’s home. VNA Care has neglected to address this shift, resulting in understaffing and challenging work conditions for HCPs that ultimately compromise the quality of care that their patients receive.

In December of 2019, the HCPs voted to unionize with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), joining the ranks of the registered nurses (RNs) at VNA Care who had previously unionized with MNA. For the last 18 months, negotiations have taken place for the first contract, with a lackluster showing from VNA Care. One year and 13 negotiations in, VNA Care had only offered worse conditions than the employees had prior to unionizing, so they delivered a petition to the CEO, Todd Rose, to request fair and good faith negotiations for the good of the patients and HCPs. 

Image provided by Geoff Carens

Seeing no signs of progress in the following six months, the HCPs officially voted to authorize a strike on June 22nd. On July 15th, they gathered with local supporters at the apartment of Rita S. Advani, the Board Chair of VNA Care, and announced that they would withhold services and care from July 26th to August 1st.

The HCPs propose a fair contract providing limits to the daily patient assignments for each HCP, healthcare and retirement benefits that match other employees of the VNA Care network, and a wage scale that recognizes the value of the HCPs’ labor and experience. VNA Care has rejected all of these stipulations and instead proposed cutting health insurance with the alternative of higher costs, cutting sick days to less than half, and cutting bereavement days.

VNA Care also refused to include language of grievance and arbitration and “just cause”, two fundamental conditions of many union contracts. Grievance and arbitration language designates a procedure and a third party arbitrator for employee complaints, or grievances, that they believe may violate the contract. “Just cause” is a standard for employee disciplinary action that, as the name suggests, demands a reasonable and fair justification. In the absence of these key elements, a contract could hardly be enforced and employees could be terminated at the whim of the employer.

The HCPs have found support on the picket line from local community members, the Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians (BABAM), Boston DSA members, and mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George. Additionally, some of the MNA nurses from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, MA joined the picket line at the VNA Care offices on July 26th. As this battle continues with VNA Care of Boston, the 800 MNA nurses of St. Vincent’s Hospital are upholding a strike that they started in March to get their employer, Tenet Healthcare, to address similar issues of understaffing.

These are just two of the numerous battles our healthcare heros are waging across the country for fair and reasonable working conditions. In the past two months, thousands of nurses and hospital staff initiated strikes across several hospitals and clinics in Chicago and Los Angeles, with the same primary goal of addressing understaffing. Just last week in Detroit, Mount Clemens hospital conceded to provide increased staffing, a pay raise, and a ratification bonus for the Mclaren Macomb union nurses, just 4 days before their strike was set to start.

Boston DSA will continue to support the HCPs as they return to negotiations for a fair contract. These strikers and their healthcare comrades across the country surely signal a continued increase in labor consciousness. The ongoing pandemic has placed a massive burden on healthcare workers with their employers offering no substantial relief. The guiding principles of capital have no interest in helping the working class, so each of these nurses, HCPs, and hospital staff must fight for themselves and for their patients, and we will stand by them. 

Danish Kidwai is a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group.