Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

HELP Committee Should Ask Acosta for Commitments to the DOL Mission

March 21st, 2017 | Shannon Rusz

Ahead of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Alexander Acosta as Secretary of Labor, workers and workers’ advocates have been vocal about their concerns with his appointment. Workplace Fairness, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others, are seeking assurances from Mr. Acosta about how he intends to protect workers and carry out the mission of the Department of Labor.

While we haven’t seen the level of outrage with the Acosta nomination that we saw with former nominee Andrew Puzder, Mr. Acosta still has a lot to answer for, and his relative lack of a record on workers’ rights issues is cause for concern. Will he protect against political influence and work to uphold the Department’s mission to promote worker welfare and assure workers’ benefits and rights?  Or will he toe the line of the Trump administration, fail to aggressively pursue investigations and litigation, and leave American workers out in the cold?

Transparency

Earlier this month, Workplace Fairness sent a position statement to the Senate HELP committee in charge of the confirmation hearing. Workplace Fairness focuses generally on advocating for workers’ rights, and more specifically on ensuring that America workers have access to comprehensive, easy to understand, information about their legal rights and remedies in the workplace. Workplace Fairness made clear that in light of recent issues with information going missing from government websites, Mr. Acosta should commit to ensuring that DOL continually provides transparency about his intentions going forward, and provides comprehensive information to the public about our rights in the workplace and how to enforce them.

Politicized hiring

Another issue sparking a call for assurances from Acosta is the potential for politicized hiring at the Department of Labor. The Trump administration is actively promoting an anti-worker agenda, from appointing a cabinet full of millionaires, to cutting the budget for programs that help workers, and working to repeal the Affordable Care Act which will dramatically impact all workers’ health benefits, even those insured through their employers. It is vital that the Secretary of Labor guard against politicized hiring that would turn the Department into an ally of the current administration rather than an agency committed to protecting workers. Acosta will most certainly have to answer questions about the 2008 report from the Office of the Inspector General which implicated him in politicized hiring at the Department of Justice when he was an Assistant Attorney General. The report found that he failed to properly supervise his deputy assistant who was clearly engaged in politicized hiring, in violation of civil service laws. He will need to explain to the HELP Committee how he intends to ensure that this type of hiring doesn’t happen at the Department of Labor. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right recently issued a statement (joined by Workplace Fairness and 86 other organizations) specifically asking how Acosta would prevent political interference with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, the Wage and Hour Division, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics as they carry out their missions to enforce rules and laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Overtime Rule, and report vital statistics and information to the  American public.

Budget cuts

Senator Elizabeth Warren also raised grave concerns about a variety of issues, including politicized hiring and budget cuts at the DOL in her 23-page letter to Acosta, asking him to respond by March 27.  Senator Warren asks Acosta to detail how he intends to continue the work of investigating and litigating labor law violations under Trump’s proposed 21% cut to the DOL budget. She says

“I am also concerned about how you will respond to President Trump’s plan to cut more than 20% of DOL’s budget-the third biggest cut to any agency after the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency…These draconian cuts will hobble your ability to run core parts of the agency, including the divisions that investigate and enforce the federal health and safety standards that keep workers safe on the job and the federal wage and hour laws that ensure that workers are paid fairly.”

The cut would bring the DOL budget to its lowest level since the 1970’s, according to the New York Times.

The upshot

It is expected that Acosta will be confirmed, as confirmation only requires a simple majority vote, and the Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate. Democrats and workers’ rights advocates hope to use this confirmation hearing as an opportunity to get some important assurances and commitments from Acosta on the record.

Many workers’ rights groups and other organizations, like the Economic Policy Institute, with its Perkins Project, are poised to pay close attention to what the Department does in the coming years, and to hold the Secretary of Labor accountable for the promises he makes. And as always, Workplace Fairness will continue to maintain free, up-to-date, comprehensive, easy to read information for the public about what their rights are in the workplace, and how to enforce them. These efforts will become even more critical in the days ahead as government agencies are forced to eliminate staff positions and enforcement activities, and potentially lessen their commitment to protecting the rights of workers.

SHANNON RUSZ has been associated with Workplace Fairness since 2009. Since 2014 she has worked as Content Manager for Workplacefairness.org, and most recently has taken on the role of Acting Executive Director of Workplace Fairness. Shannon is an attorney practicing in the Annapolis, Maryland area. She received her undergraduate degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and her Law degree from The George Washington University Law School.

Permalink


Ahead of CFPB Rule, Congress Prepares for a Showdown over the Future of Forced Arbitration and Consumer Class Actions

March 21st, 2017 | Amanda Werner

Last week, lawmakers laid the groundwork for a battle over consumer rights and forced arbitration that likely will play out through the spring.

First, congressional Democrats introduced several bills to restore consumers’ right to hold corporations accountable in court for wrongdoing. Led by U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), lawmakers on March 7 introduced a slate of bills aimed at ending the use of forced arbitration in various sectors. Forced arbitration provisions, also known as “ripoff clauses,” block consumers from challenging illegal corporate behavior.

Lawmakers were joined at a packed press conference by people who had been harmed by forced arbitration: a veteran illegally fired from his job while serving in the military and blocked from suing his employer; a victim of Wells Fargo fraud whose class action was kicked out of court; and former news anchor Gretchen Carlson, barred from speaking out about sexual harassment she had suffered at Fox News.

Among the bills introduced were Franken’s Arbitration Fairness Act, which would prohibit forced arbitration in consumer, employment, civil rights, and antitrust cases and Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) Justice for Victims of Fraud Act, which would close the “Wells Fargo loophole” by restoring consumers’ right to sue when banks open fraudulent accounts without their knowledge.

However, in stark contrast to this push to strengthen rights and restore corporate accountability, GOP lawmakers began pressing to make it harder for consumers to band together when harmed and take corporations to court.

Two days after the Franken press conference, the House passed H.R. 985, the so-called “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act” would effectively kill class actions by imposing insurmountable requirements to file group lawsuits. This would make it nearly impossible for consumers to hold corporations accountable for illegal and abusive behavior.

Among other onerous provisions, H.R. 985 would require that each harmed person suffer the “same type and scope of injury.” Under this absurd standard, a Wells Fargo customer with two fake accounts opened in his or her name could be barred from joining together with customers who had three fraudulent accounts. The bill also would build in costly and unnecessary delays and appeals, limit plaintiffs’ choice of counsel, and drastically restrict attorneys’ fees.

Joining together in a class action often is the only chance real people have to fight back against widespread harm, including corporate fraud and scams – particularly when claims involve small amounts of money, where it would be too costly for an individual to pursue a separate claim. Class actions have also been critical vehicles for overcoming race- and gender-based discrimination and have been instrumental in achieving victories as momentous as desegregation of our schools, as was the case in Brown v. Board of Education.

Beyond protecting the rights of the disadvantaged, class actions act as a crucial check on corporate misbehavior by returning money to harmed consumers and workers. Removing the threat of class liability would encourage systemic fraud, as banks and lenders that pad their bottom lines by committing fraud would have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In the financial sector, the proposed CFPB arbitration rule is a major target of financial industry lobbyists precisely because it would restore the right of consumers to join class action lawsuits. According to the CFPB’s arbitration study, class actions returned $2.2 billion in cash relief to 34 million consumers from 2008-2012, not including attorneys’ fees and litigation costs. While the CFPB rule is expected to be finalized this spring, it would be rendered largely ineffective should H.R. 985 become law.

You can watch our video against H.R. 985 here and follow developments on Twitter using the hashtag, #RipoffClause.

This article originally appeared at FairArbitrationNow.org on March 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Amanda Werner is Arbitration Campaign Manager with Public Citizen and Americans for Financial Reform, where her work focuses on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s arbitration rulemaking. She represents a broad coalition of consumer, civil rights, labor, and community groups as part of a robust public campaign in support of a strong final rule against the #RipoffClause.

Permalink


21 Female Senators to Help Decide Fate of Bill That Would Kill Harassment, Discrimination Suits

March 20th, 2017 | Paul Bland and Leah Nicholls

Asking female applicants whether they were married and planned to have children in a job interview. Telling female employees how to dress (and show more skin). Overtly and concretely penalizing female employees for taking maternity leave. Promoting low-performing men over the highest-performing women. Asking women employees to have sex with their boss to advance their careers. Penalizing female employees for not taking part in alcohol-fueled corporate partying when they were pregnant or breastfeeding. Bragging about how many female subordinates a male executive had had sex with.

This sounds like the bad old days but, unfortunately, it isn’t. Just a few years ago, current and former female sales representatives at a medical cosmetics company, Medicis Pharmaceutical (now owned by Valeant Pharmaceuticals), banded together to bring a class action against their employer for regularly doing all of these things, and more, including unequal pay and retaliation for reporting discrimination and harassment. Each of the approximately one hundred women in the class who filed claims received an average of $44,000 in back pay and damages, and the attorney’s fees were not taken out of that compensation. That’s not small change.

But there’s more. In theory, an individual woman could have brought the case and gotten back pay and damages. What an individual woman could almost certainly not have done was force Medicis to change its practices – Medicis could have paid her money and washed its hands. Here, though, the class was able to use its leverage to get Medicis to agree to, among other things, create anti-discrimination policies and training; establish systems for investigating reports of discrimination and harassment; be transparent about how it set and measured sales goals; eliminate penalties for taking parental leave; and establish policies about alcohol at corporate events and intra-office romantic and sexual relationships. In other words, it took a class action to ensure that Medicis follows the law not just with regard to the women who sued, but with regard to all the women who come after.

In the minefield of workplace discrimination and harassment, there’s another advantage to class actions, too. One woman bringing these types of claims may (unfortunately and wrongly) be easily dismissed as too sensitive, as not qualified for the promotion she sought, or as subject to one-off comments from a single troublesome executive. She may also be retaliated against for speaking out – as many of the women in this suit were. But where woman after woman after woman tells the same story, she cannot be so easily dismissed.

And yet Congress is on the verge of wiping away the ability for women to band together and challenge such discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Last week, the House GOP narrowly approved the so-called “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act.” The bill would drastically roll back the ability to bring class action lawsuits like the one against Medicis. Fourteen Republicans opposed the bill, along with every single Democrat in the House, but that wasn’t enough to defeat it. After being pushed through the House Judiciary Committee – without a hearing, and with a nighttime vote – the bill now makes its way to the Senate, where a record 21 female Senators will be among those deciding its ultimate fate. While the Senate has not yet scheduled any action on the issue, civil rights groups and their allies are mobilizing to ensure the House proposal never becomes law.

There are a lot of big, important and downright frightening ideas making the rounds on Capitol Hill these days, from taking away Americans’ health insurance to eliminating Meals on Wheels and turning the Environmental Protection Agency over to oil and gas lobbyists. But it’s imperative that voters insist their Senators give proper attention to this all-out assault on the courts. Unless they do so, a key tool in battling discrimination could quickly disappear. That threat is too real, too serious and has too many dire consequences for too many Americans for Senators to do anything other than give it the deliberative attention – and debate – that it deserves.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on March 19, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Bland, Jr., Executive Director, has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy. Follow him on Twitter: .

Leah Nicholls joined Public Justice’s D.C. office in September 2012 as the Kazan-Budd Attorney. She was previously senior staff attorney for civil rights and general public interest at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation. Leah had also been a teaching fellow and adjunct law professor at the Law Center.

Permalink


What Slashing the Labor Department Budget by 21 Percent Would Mean

March 17th, 2017 | Elizabeth Grossman

The Trump administration’s “budget blueprint” would devastate worker safety, job training programs and legal services essential to low-income workers. Its cuts include a 21 percent, or $2.5 billion, reduction in the Department of Labor’s budget.

The budget would reduce funding for or eliminate programs that provide job training to low-income workers, unemployed seniors, disadvantaged youth and for state-based job training grants. It eliminates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) training grants as well as the independent Chemical Safety Board. Also targeted for elimination is the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal assistance to low-income Americans.

“Cutting these programs is cutting the safety net for the most vulnerable workers, those striving for the middle class,” said Matt Shudtz, executive director at the Center for Progressive Reform. “This budget would eliminate training programs for them, the kind of things people need to move up in the world. It is very anti-worker and anti- the most vulnerable workers.”

Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project (NELP) federal advocacy coordinator, didn’t mince words.

“This budget will mean more illness, injury and death on the job,” she said Thursday, the day the proposed budget was released.

Targeting programs that prevent injury and illness

The White House budget proposal justifies its enormous cuts to the Department of Labor by saying it focuses on the agency’s “highest priority functions and disinvests in activities that are duplicative, unnecessary, unproven or ineffective.”

The budget would close Job Corps centers that serve “disadvantaged youth,” eliminate the Senior Community Service Employment Program, decrease federal funding for state and local job training grants—shifting more financial responsibility to employers and state and local governments. The budget would also eliminate certain grants to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which helps people with disabilities stay in the job market.

Also slated for elimination are OSHA’s Susan Harwood training grants that have provided more than 2.1 million workers, especially underserved and low-literacy workers in high-hazard industries, with health and safety training since 1978. These trainings are designed to multiply their effects by “training trainers” so that both workers and employers learn how to prevent and respond to workplace hazards. They’ve trained healthcare workers on pandemic hazards, helped construction workers avoid devastating accidents, and workers in food processing and landscaping prevent ergonomic injuries. The program also helps workers for whom English is not their first language obtain essential safety training.

“The cuts to OSHA training grants will hurt workers and small employers,” said David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “Training is a proven, and in fact necessary method to prevent worker injuries and illnesses. OSHA’s training grants are very cost effective, reaching large numbers of workers and small employers who would otherwise not be trained in injury and illness prevention.”

“Everyone, labor and management, believes that a workforce educated in safety and health is essential to saving lives and preventing occupational disease. That is the purpose of the Harwood grants,” said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers.

The White House says eliminating these grants will save $11 million, a miniscule fraction of the $639 billion the Trump administration is requesting for the Department of Defense.

“No words to describe how cruel it is”

Eliminating the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) would mean no independent federal agency dedicated to investing devastating industrial accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the West Fertilizer plant explosion, Freedom Industries chemical release in Charleston, West Virginia, and the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California. Those are among the hundreds of cases CSB has investigated over the past 20 years or so.

“Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi. The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget. The American public are safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB,” said CSB chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland in a statement.

“The cost of even one such accident would be more than the CSB’s budget over its entire history. And that calculation is only economic. The human cost of a catastrophic accident would be enormous,” said Wright. “The CSB’s work has saved the lives of workers in chemical plants and oil refineries, residents who could be caught in a toxic cloud, even students in high school chemistry labs.”

The budget proposal also jeopardizes essential legal support for low-wage workers. While not dedicated to employment issues, the Legal Services Corporation provides vital services to low-wage workers, including on issues related to workers’ compensation and other job benefits.

“Gutting the Legal Services Corporation,” said NELP’s Conti, “there are no words to describe how cruel it is, especially considering grossly underfunded the agency is.”

“The government should be investing in workers, their families, and communities, but instead this budget drastically cuts the programs meant to uplift them,” said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen.

The White House calls the budget proposal a “Budget Blueprint to make American Great Again.” On a call with reporters, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, “this is the ‘America First’ budget” and said it was written “using the president’s own words” to turn “those policies into numbers.”

“This is not so much a budget as an ideological statement,” said David Golston, government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Permalink


We Must Create Good Jobs: Sherrod Brown Shows the Way Forward

March 16th, 2017 | Robert Borosage

February, the first full month of the Trump presidency, witnessed solid jobs growth of 235,000 with the headline unemployment rate little changed, at 4.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Services monthly report.

Trump has already tweeted to claim credit for the results, but neither his plan nor his administration were in place. In fact, the February figures, a record 77th straight month of jobs growth, result from the momentum of the Obama recovery, plus whatever benefit or harm came from Trump’s bombast.

The jobs growth will harden the Federal Reserve’s resolve to raise interest rates again when its Open Market Committee meets next week. The Fed is acting in anticipation of an expected rise in inflation, that is to date not much in evidence.

By raising rates, The Fed is choosing to put a drag on the economy, even though full recovery is a long way off. Nearly 15 million people are still in need of full-time work. The share of the population in the workforce – 60 percent – is still down from 2000. If our work rate were back to where it was, about 10 million more Americans would have jobs.

Over the course of the recovery, most of the jobs created are contingent – part-time, short-term, contract work – with few benefits and often low wages. Lawrence Katz and former Obama economic advisor Alan Kreuger found that a staggering 94 percent of new jobs created from 2005 to 2015 were “alternative work,” contract or short-term or contingent.

Trump’s trickle-down agenda – to cut taxes on rich and corporations so they will create jobs – doesn’t address this reality. In fact, corporations are swimming in money, and using it increasingly to buy back shares or for mergers that do little to create jobs. Companies, contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, don’t lack capital or access to it, they lack demand for their products.

Democrats are sensibly critical of the Trump agenda, but too many fall back to a defense of Obama’s policies as the alternative. Obama helped save the economy that was in free fall when he took office, and presided over record months of jobs growth, but his policies, frustrated by Republican obstruction, did little to counter the stagnant wages, growing inequality and increasing insecurity of the modern economy.

The challenge is not simply to expose Trump’s bait and switch on the working people who voted for him, but to lay out elements of a bold alternative agenda. Bernie Sanders modeled that effort in his surging primary challenge.

Now, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is up for re-election in 2018, has stepped  boldly into the breach. Brown has released a 77 page, meticulously documented report –Working Too Hard for Too Little – that delves into how policies and power have undermined workers, and offers the elements of an agenda to rebuild the middle class.

Brown’s central insight is a direct counter to Trump’s recycled voodoo. Trump believes that cajoling and bribing companies is the way to generate good jobs. Brown argues “It’s not businesses who drive the economy – it is workers.”   Workers with decent wages and secure jobs generate the demand that allow companies to grow and the economy to thrive. As it is, “Between 2000 and 2013, the middle class shrank in all 50 states. And that’s hurting our country. When hard work doesn’t pay off – when workers have no economic security and their paychecks don’t reflect the work they do – our economy cannot grow.”

The unemployment rate, Brown argues, isn’t the measure of a good economy. “The unemployment rate is one thing, but whether workers have jobs that pay a decent wage and provide security is another. And the unemployment rate certainly doesn’t reflect the frustration, the worry, the anger, the pain that workers feel.”

Senator Brown details how the policies that have structured globalization, technology, corporate management have undermined workers, savaged unions, and pushed companies to offshore, contract out, and cut back on jobs, wages and benefits.  He then offers a worker based alternative agenda, some old and some new.

He’d act directly to lift the floor under workers – requiring a $15.00 minimum wage, setting up a national fund to finance 12 weeks family and medical leave, mandating minimum paid vacation days and enforcing overtime pay.

He calls for empowering workers at the workplace– cracking down on labor violations, curbing wage theft, policing misuse of contract labor, and reviving the right to organize and bargain collectively. While Republicans are intent on destroying unions, Brown argues that clearly we all have a large stake in challenging the current imbalance of power in the workplace.

He details measures to help workers save for retirement – including matching grants and expansion of opportunities for part-time and short-term workers.

Then Brown offers a far more coherent plan than Trump to change corporate incentives. He’d create a “Corporate Freeloader Fee,” levied against all corporations “whose pay is so low that taxpayers are forced to subsidize their workers.” The fee would force companies to reimburse American taxpayers for the insult. He’d accompany this with offering companies that do right by the workers a tax break – if they “commit to staying in the US, to hiring in the US and to providing good wages and fair benefits for workers.”

The academic rigor – complete with footnotes – of Brown’s report is a rarity among politicians. It exposes House Speaker Paul Ryan’s much celebrated power points for the thin gruel that they are. Brown doesn’t see creating jobs as a standalone – affordable health care, better schools, access to colleges and good training, aggressive anti-trust and more are also vital.

Work unites all of us, Brown writes, citing Pope Francis: “We don’t get dignity from power nor money or culture. We get dignity from work.” With Working too Hard for Too Little, Brown has shown Americans that there is an alternative. The choice is not between Trump’s antics and more of the same. Good analysis leads to bold alternatives that offer a way out. His courage and his leadership should be applauded.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on March 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

Permalink


Trump Labor Department has a message to employers: Workplace safety? Not a priority.

March 15th, 2017 | Laura Clawson

Donald Trump’s Labor Department is sending employers a message that it’s open season on worker safety—by cutting off public messages about enforcement of worker safety rules. What Fair Warning noticed 10 days ago is still going on today:

In a sharp break with the past, the department has stopped publicizing fines against companies. As of Monday, seven weeks after the inauguration of President Trump, the department had yet to post a single news release about an enforcement fine. […]

“The reason you do news releases is to influence other employers” to clean up their acts, said David Michaels, who was an administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency within the Labor Department that oversees workplace safety, during much of the Obama administration.

If there aren’t news releases, people are much less likely to hear which local companies are endangering their workers, which means that much less pressure on the companies to keep workers safe. That’s not the only red flag about the direction Trump and his people will take the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Industry groups are pushing back against an Obama-era regulation meant to exert pressure on companies to better comply with record-keeping rules. A provision of that rule, which was supposed to take effect last month, would require companies to electronically submit accident data to OSHA so the agency could post the information on a public website. As recently as early January, OSHA said on its website that it expected the site to be live in February.

But in recent weeks, the agency changed the wording so that it now states, “OSHA is not accepting electronic submissions at this time.”

“That was not an accident,” said Mr. Conn, the lawyer. “That was a big signal to employers that even if they report the data, it will not be published online.”

Republicans are also rolling back increased workplace safety fines; delaying a new rule limiting exposure to beryllium, which can cause a chronic lung disease; and in other ways weakening OSHA’s enforcement powers. But hey, the public is less likely to know about the deaths that result, so politicians are less likely to get pressure from people who care about dead workers, while industry lobby groups will stay just as active pushing for less and less enforcement. So Republicans have got it all worked out.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on March 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Permalink


Despite Some Union Support, Trump’s New Labor Pick Would Be Terrible for Workers

March 14th, 2017 | Bruce Vail

President Donald Trump’s new pick to head the Labor Department is getting an early boost from a “divide-and-conquer” strategy against labor unions and their allies, even before his qualifications and background as a civil servant are scrutinized in a Senate confirmation hearing.

The nomination of R. Alexander Acosta was announced by Trump less than 24 hours after the president’s first choice for the job, hamburger-chain executive Andrew Puzder, dropped out of consideration. Puzder faced mounting Senate opposition, even from some conservative Republicans, because of disclosures that he had personally broken labor law by hiring an undocumented household servant, and also that he had been accused of spousal abuse many years ago.

Labor unions and Democratic Party leaders in Washington, D.C., had maintained a unified front against the Puzder nomination but that unity dissolved almost immediately with the announcement of Acosta’s nomination February 16. His first confirmation hearing, which was scheduled for this week, has been moved to March 22.

The first endorsement came from the International Union of Operating Engineers, followed by one from the International Association of Fire Fighters and then the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) got on board. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka even offered lukewarm praise, telling MSNBC News: “Well, we’re going to vet him, but he does have a history of enforcing the laws that protect workers, which is a real plus, whereas Puzder had a history of violating the rules.”

Acosta, 48, is currently dean at the Florida International University’s law school, a position he has held since 2009. A Harvard-trained lawyer, he held several appointed positions in the administration of George W. Bush. Before that, he was a labor lawyer at the giant law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, known for representing large multinational corporations.

Pro-labor Democrats in the Senate have been conspicuously quiet on Acosta’s nomination—at least thus far. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, for example, was an outspoken opponent of Puzder but spokeswoman Alexis Krieg tells In These Times that the senator has no comment on Acosta.

Not so shy is Erik Loomis, assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and a labor commentator at the progressive blog Lawyers, Guns & Money. He said:

“The selection of Alexander Acosta should provide no comfort for those who worked to reject Andy Puzder. Acosta has a lifetime of anti-union and anti-worker positions. Appointed to the National Labor Relations Board by George W. Bush, Acosta consistently decided with employers during his term. His support of Ohio’s attempt to suppress black voting in 2004 is deeply disturbing. That the AFL-CIO seems to think Acosta is as good as they are going to get under Trump is depressing, but perhaps realistic.”

William B. Gould IV, a law professor at Stanford University, agrees with Loomis’ analysis of Acosta’s tenure at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). He says Acosta had “a short, and for the most part uninspiring record” at the NLRB. Acosta served at the board for just eight months in 2003, a time when anti-union Republicans were in control.

Gould, a former NLRB chairman during the President Bill Clinton administration, cites several cases as examples of Acosta’s anti-worker positions:

  • Alexandria Clinic, P.A., 339 NLRB No. 162 (2003). Acosta voted that hospital strikers could be legally fired because they delayed the beginning of an otherwise legal job action by several hours.
  • Curwood Inc., a division of Bemis Company Inc., 339 NLRB No. 148 (2003). Acosta voted to ignore otherwise illegal threats made by the employer against workers trying to form a union. He also sanctioned otherwise illegal promises of new benefits to workers who would vote against the union.
  • Beverly Health, 339 NLRB No.161 (2003). Acosta voted against a corporate remedy in spite of the fact that the company had been found guilty of extensive misconduct on other occasions. His vote was in the minority.

“Curiously, one opinion of Acosta’s, while laudable and appropriate, will give him problems with the anti-immigrants,” among conservative Republicans, Gould adds.

In the case of Double D Construction, 339 NLRB No.48 (2003), Acosta stated that a worker who used a false social security number should not be considered guilty of committing a crime. Such misrepresentations are just part of the workday reality for undocumented workers, Acosta argued. This was the correct decision, according to Gould, but will likely be viewed differently by Republicans favoring a hard line against immigrants.

Equally problematic for worker rights advocates is Acosta’s tenure at the Department of Justice, where Acosta held appointed positions starting in 2003, says Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the pro-worker Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

There are at least two “troubling” episodes in Acosta’s Department of Justice career, Jayaraman says. First, Acosta is on record supporting efforts to restrict voting rights for African Americans in Ohio in 2004. In that case, Acosta was accused of exerting political pressure to help suppress voter turnout. “Voting rights are essential to labor rights, so I see this as important,” Jayaraman says.

So does the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group that has been fighting attempts to restrict voting laws. Committee President Kristen Clarke stated:

Mr. Acosta led the Civil Rights Division at a time that was marked by stark politicization, and other improper hiring and personnel decisions that were fully laid to bare in a 2008 report issued by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG found that actions taken during Mr. Acosta’s tenure violated Justice Department policy and federal law. Political and ideological affiliations were used as a litmus test to evaluate job candidates and career attorneys, wreaking havoc on the work of the Division. This egregious conduct played out under Mr. Acosta’s watch and undermined the integrity of the Civil Rights Division. It is hard to believe that Mr. Acosta would now be nominated to lead a federal agency tasked with promoting lawful hiring practices and safe workplaces.

A second troubling incident was a plea deal that Acosta negotiated while he was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2005, Jayaraman says. In that case, a man accused of having sex with underage girls and soliciting prostitution received a light sentence, apparently because the man was a wealthy businessman who could afford expensive lawyers, she claims.

“This was a sexual predator. This is very relevant to workers in the restaurant sector because sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the restaurant industry is just rampant,” Jayaraman tells In These Times. “Acosta does not take the issue seriously.”

But in the final analysis, “it doesn’t matter whether it’s Puzder or this guy (Acosta). The agenda is the same … The secretary of labor doesn’t set the policy, the president does,” says Jayaraman.

Loomis concurs.

He says: “Trump’s selections, both Puzder and Acosta, are inherently anti-worker. But so is Donald Trump, despite the unusual level of support he received from union members.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on March 13, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Permalink


Still Getting 'It' Wrong

March 14th, 2017 | William Spriggs

On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the economy gained 235,000 payroll slots in February and upped its estimates for December and January by another 9,000 jobs. Over the three-month period, that means an average job growth of 209,000 jobs a month. Including the ups and downs, over the past 30 years, the U.S. economy has averaged job growth of about 126,000 jobs a month. So this current rate of growth would suggest a strong labor market. Further, workers who transitioned from being out of the labor force into active job search were 2.3 times more likely to land a job than to be stuck unemployed and looking.  And unemployed workers were 1.3 times more likely to find a job than if they were to quit and drop out of the labor force discouraged. Over the year, average wages (not adjusting for inflation) rose 2.8%.

Watchers of the Federal Open Market Committee, the policymaking body of the Federal Reserve Board, are sure the FOMC will stick to its forward guidance and act to raise the fed funds rate; which is their tool for setting the tightness of monetary policy. Raising the rate signals faith in the strength of the recovery by the Fed; a strong sense the economy is nearing both its target for inflation and employment. And, it is likely, given recent statements from several Fed officials that these numbers may convince them that “normal” is just around the corner. But they are wrong.

Raising interest rates is a way to slow the growth of the economy. It is useful to prevent an economy from over-heating and setting price increases on a pace that would be difficult to reign in. If done properly, the Fed can guide the economy to a soft-landing, where it will sit growing at a rate just fast enough to stay at full employment.

Well, the problem is that is where the economy is now. Despite solid job growth over the past year, the unemployment rate has remained flat and annual nominal wage growth has remained steady at around 2.6%. As a simple arithmetic, if the number of jobs created slows, then the unemployment rate will have to rise, and wage growth will slow.

If the near term had great economic certainty, then it might be possible to agree that labor market might show more signs of tightening; rather than its present “goldilocks” state of flat unemployment and wages. But the near term has great economic uncertainty.

First, while wages are beginning to show growth, the share of people employed is still a significant distance from the share employed at the peak of 2007, which was below the peak of 1999. This means that household incomes have not caught up. A large share of the workforce is employed part-time, and while the recovery has seen mostly growth of full-time jobs, household incomes have not gotten back to full employment levels.

Second, a major driver of the real economy is the automobile industry sector. After over-correcting during the depths of the Great Recession and the historic collapse in demand, it has used the financial helping hand then-President Barack Obama lent, to recover and now reach record sales and a growth in employment and investment. But a substantial and rising share of auto loans have been made to African American and Latino communities using subprime lending tools.  During the initial stages of the recovery, delinquencies on auto loans declined. But, beginning in 2016, they started to rise. And they continue to rise.

The purchase of new cars has increased the supply of used cars, so the gap between new car prices and used car prices has been rising as the price of used cars is falling. Delinquencies on auto loans began when the Fed began moving from zero interest rates, since the loan rate on automobiles is tied to short-term interest rates. Higher short-term rates will further increase consumers’ costs of buying a new car, increasing the wedge between new and used car prices.

The threat is that if job growth slows, it will first affect the African American and Latino communities, already showing struggles with the onerous terms of the subprime loans. Those communities need more time for the labor market to recover. The best solution for the economy is for their income to pick up pace and out run the debt. Income-led buying leads to healthy sustainable recoveries. Raising interest rates when incomes lead the recovery simply slow the pace of buying and encourage savings rather than spending. The worse solution is to have the debt out run their income. If delinquencies increase more, the auto market will get a greater flood of used cars, driving the price of used cars down further and increasing the gap in price between used and new cars.

Over the past six months, in fact, lending activity has become more stringent for new borrowers in the auto sector and for small business. Such a credit tightening is normally associated with an economic downturn; not a healthy growing recovery about to overheat. Higher short-term rates will only exacerbate that problem.

The problem is clear, at some point the new car market will go into recession; which means the auto industry will be in recession; which means the economy will be in recession.

Third, compounding the near term uncertainty, is the war that President Donald Trump has declared on the immigrant community. Fear and uncertainty are high in communities where many workers and family members are undocumented. These workers are fully integrated into our communities. They are wives, husbands and parents of legal residents and American citizens. These households live under a cloud. Fearing deportation, or legal fees to protect loved ones, millions of households are unlikely to buy new cars, or may be deciding to horde cash and stop making payments on cars that have been purchased. This is an uncertainty with a magnitude we have never faced, and therefore is too great a threat to ignore.

Fourth, the increase in people with health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act has meant job growth in the health sector at a faster rate than the rest of the economy. The current proposals of the Republican Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act all will lead to a decrease in the number of Americans with health insurance. For this reason, the major hospital associations and the American Medical Association oppose the Republican plan. The threat to this market will have real repercussions on job growth in the one high-wage sector with fast job growth. And the wind down of federal Medicaid support to those states that extended health coverage using Medicaid will cause huge ripple effects on state budgets, which have not fully recovered from the drastic loss of revenues during the Great Recession. This will mean further pressures on recovering state investment in public colleges and universities.

Finally, the proposed budget cuts put forth by the Trump administration would gut public investment in education, housing and the environment. The austerity that has been proposed will cut federal jobs. And, just when the Medicaid cuts are going to hurt state budgets and so put more pressure to raise tuition at public two- and four-year colleges, the Trump administration is proposing cuts to Pell Grants and returning the student loan market to the more expansive private sector.

Thoughts that huge tax cuts to high-income households will offset a downturn in automobile sales, further disruption in the rising costs of college tuition or a dismantling of the health sector are irrational. We have lived through big tax cuts to the wealthy under former President George W. Bush. They were insufficient to pull the economy out of the 2001 downturn in any timely fashion; and, he had the help of low interest rates, a federal deficit swelled by tax cuts and war time expansion of military budgets, as well as a relatively healthy state unemployed insurance system. The current unemployment insurance system is greatly weakened and cannot provide the automatic stabilizer so vital to dampening a recession.

These all point to a real danger that the Fed may be a great threat to what is a more fragile economy than appears at the moment. The drive to be “normal” in a world that is clearly not normal, may put us in danger of a downturn that will be difficult to recover from given the instability shown in the White House.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 13, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

William E. Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO, and is a professor in, and former Chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.

Permalink


Republicans Repealing A Rule To Stop Wage Theft? It’s Who They Are

March 10th, 2017 | Dave Johnson

Who could be against rules that try to protect workers from having their pay stolen, having their health and safety put at risk, and being subjected to civil rights and labor law violations? See if you can guess who.

Last August, President Obama implemented a ‘Fair Pay And Safe Workplaces’ executive order that aims to stop companies from getting federal contracts if they violate labor and civil rights laws, steal workers’ wages and risk their health and safety. Actually, it just says the government will take violations into consideration, and yes, he waited eight years to implement this.

So of course, Republicans being who they are, have now voted in the House and Senate to repeal this act, exposing workers once again to having their pay stolen, having their health and safety put at risk, and being subjected to civil rights and labor law violations.

Obama’s executive order also required companies bidding on federal contracts to disclose if they had been busted for violating federal and state labor laws. Government procurement officers would then try to work with these companies to come into compliance with the laws and could deny contracts if they refused to.

That kind of government meddling against corporate wage theft and health & safety violations was just too much for Republicans. On February 2, the House voted 236 to 187 to get rid of this rule. Three “Democrats” voted with Republicans to protect corporate wage-stealers: Jim Costa (CA 16), Luis Correa (CA 46) and Henry Cuellar (TX 28).

Remember those names, and if you live on one of those districts click this and consider running for office yourself.

On March 6, the Senate voted 49 to 46 to repeal, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces act, with all Democrats voting on the side of protecting workers, and all Republicans voting on the side of protecting corporate wage-stealers.

This bill is waiting for President Trump to sign or veto it. Will Trump, who campaigned on the side of working people, sign this repeal of an act that tries to protect workers from having their pay stolen, having their health and safety put at risk and being subjected to civil rights and labor law violations? Heh.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on March 9, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Permalink


#CampusResistance rises today at colleges and universities nationwide

March 9th, 2017 | Jason Grunebaum and Heather Conroy

Students and faculty at America’s colleges and universities stand at the confluence of many of the most troubled waters springing from the Trump administration and its corporate-driven, deeply divisive agenda.

It’s on these campuses that millions of young adults wonder whether they’ll still have health insurance if Obamacare is repealed. It’s here where those whose parents are undocumented immigrants may be forced to seek sanctuary. Hate incidents have spiked. The arts, science and intellectual freedom are under attack. Countless professors were ensnared by the administration’s ill-conceived travel ban.

This deluge is flooding a higher education system in which so many were already barely keeping their heads above water. Families can’t afford to send their kids to college, student debt has skyrocketed and faculty in precarious jobs are earning so little, many must rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that college campuses are emerging as centers of resistance in these first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Today, nationwide, at dozens of colleges and universities from Boston to Seattle, students, contingent and adjunct faculty, their fellow working people and allies are standing up, teaching in, speaking out and reclaiming higher education for the public good. A national day of action is raising the banner of #CampusResistance.

At the University of Chicago, we are standing up for part-time faculty who struggle to pay for healthcare and are in danger of their losing insurance. Elsewhere across the country there are marches, rallies and teach-ins. The energy surrounding the campus resistance movement is real and growing.

As a contingent professor of Hindi and the executive vice president of a labor union, the two of us have different vantage points as we observe what’s happening in our nation and on our campuses. However, we see the same forces at work. New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is unqualified and wrong for the job, which she has clearly demonstrated through her attacks on unionized workers and support for commoditized, corporatized higher education.

But college campuses are inherently optimistic places. That’s why we can see past Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. It’s why contingent faculty endure the challenges of the profession. It’s why graduate workers keep at it even when they are underpaid and overworked. It’s why students who wonder what kind of world they’ll graduate into are hitting the books harder than ever.

You can’t keep people down who are thinking about the future—their own and that of our country. It’s why students and faculty who joined or applauded as millions of women marched the day after Trump’s inauguration have turned their attention to what they can do right where they are.

What they can do—what they will do on today—is more than protest Trump, although it’s essential that we resist and oppose his agenda. Faculty and students will rise up to and stress how important a strong higher education system is to the well-being of the nation.

Americans deserve—and need—colleges that are gateways to a lifetime of opportunity for students. Institutions that are once again cornerstones of local and regional economies, providing good, stable jobs that can sustain a family. Places where children of immigrant families can pursue the American Dream without worrying they will be dragged away. Homes to robust intellectual inquiry that advances science and nurtures the arts, uncompromised by the pressures of partisan politics.

This is why we and thousands of others are a part of the #CampusResistance — today and beyond.

This article was originally printed on SEIU.org in March 2017 .  Reprinted with permission.

Jason Grunebaum has been a contingent professor of Hindi at University of Chicago for 12 years.
Heather Conroy
is an international executive vice president at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Permalink



Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog