DNAinfo reporter Ben Fractenberg speaks to writers, journalists, and labor activists at a protest at City Hall. The site was shut down a week after its employees voted to unionize. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
By Danielle Tcholakian
If you haven’t already read about it, on the afternoon of November 2, DNAinfo New York and Chicago, as well as Gothamist and all its sister sites in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. were shut down by their owner, billionaire Joe Ricketts, a week after 25 employees in New York voted to join a union. Ricketts had founded DNAinfo in 2009, merging it with the older, more profitable Gothamist sites this spring, shedding staff and catalyzing the union effort.
The end came quickly. One employee returned from the restroom to find that he and all of his colleagues had been fired, and the site’s archive had been removed from the internet. (The archives have since been restored after a public outcry.) Shutting Gothamist and DNAinfo meant 115 people lost their jobs that day.
ProPublica’s Michael Grabell published a thoroughly investigated and thoroughly alarming exposé of the dangerous, exploitative labor practices at Case Farms, a grower whose billion pounds of chicken a year supplies chains like KFC and Taco Bell. As if the dangerous working conditions and twisted uses of immigration law weren’t bad enough, they specifically target refugees to make up their abused labor force.
Beecher arrived at the church in time for Sunday Mass, and set himself up in its office. He had no trouble recruiting parishioners to return with him to the Case Farms plant in Morganton, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those first Guatemalans worked so hard, Beecher told the labor historian Leon Fink in his book, “The Maya of Morganton,” that supervisors kept asking for more, prompting a return trip. Soon vans were running regularly between Indiantown and Morganton, bringing in new recruits. “I didn’t want [Mexicans],” Beecher, who died in 2014, told Fink. “Mexicans will go back home at Christmastime. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot.” Shelton approved hiring the immigrants, Beecher said, and when the plant was fully staffed and production had doubled “he was tickled to death.”
A lot of people make a university run, but many of those people are invisible to the students they serve. The janitors, maintenance workers, and food-service employees who keep dorms clean, buildings open, and dining halls operating can be so behind-the-scenes that students don’t think about them. (Of course, the self-absorption of youth contributes to that problem, too.) In her story about a labor dispute between food-service employees and Georgetown University, Manuela Tobias interviews representatives from both sides and conveys the workers’ frustration and management’s reasoning. Through thorough research and reporting, Tobias contextualizes workers’ dissatisfaction with the university and even their union while explaining the costs and contracts from the university’s point of view. It’s a labor story with a heart.
The origins and the politics of the New York-based Freelancers Union—now 150,000 members strong:
The shift toward short-term contracts was underway long before the 2008 financial crash. Charles Heckscher, director of the Center for Workplace Transformation at Rutgers University, sits on the board of the Freelancers Union, and likes to describe this shift in terms of “flexibility.” As the economy shifted away from manufacturing jobs and toward knowledge- and tech-based ones, he argues, “companies have clearly and widely moved away from taking responsibility for long-term careers. These certainly include crude cost-cutting considerations, but they also reflect the deeper economic changes…with skills and demand metamorphosing so rapidly in so many domains, it is often more effective to look for those with needed skills on the open market rather than developing them internally. Once companies begin to do that, they tend to break the whole pattern of expectations and commitments which grounded the classic system.”
I used to think a union started like this: You round up all the hotheads, get them in one room, and storm the castle. Which would be great if it were true because then it would only take a couple of weeks out of people’s lives instead of years. First you have to build a good organizing committee. Ideally, that means getting people from all jobs and shifts, ethnicities, genders-about one person for every ten workers-so you can talk to each other in some kind of sane fashion. These were things I’d learned talking to union folks at the WTO protests and I wanted to pass them on. My plan, if you could call it one, was to get people together in a room and get out of the way. It wasn’t my place to weigh in on their future. But I had to find the people who could find the right people, not just anybody who was frustrated. They had to really love their jobs and love the company because those are the only people who would stick around to make it better. All of which meant that the people I was looking for were the ones who believed in Amazon and Bezos the most. But why would they talk to me? I was a temp.