Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

The sinister history underlying Neil Gorsuch’s decision lashing out at American workers

May 23rd, 2018 | Ian Millhiser

The ink was barely dry on Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in Epic Systems v. Morris before Ogletree Deakins — a management-side employment law firm that earned nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in profits per equity partner last year — started hawking an “innovative new product” that would enable employers to enrich themselves at the expense of their most vulnerable workers.

Epic Systems held that employers may force their employees, under pain of termination, to sign away their right to bring a class action lawsuit against their employers. It is an invitation — if not an incentive — for wage theft, as class actions are often the only recourse available to someone robbed of a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars by their boss.

Employment lawyers have known this decision was coming for months. And many of them are going to cash in.

Yet, while this Epic Systems decision became inevitable the minute Gorsuch claimed ownership of a Supreme Court seat that Senate Republicans held open more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, the Court’s decision would shock the lawmakers who actually enacted the laws at issue in this case.

Gorsuch’s opinion is a mix of willful historical ignorance, ideological blindness, and a smug insistence that he has a special window into the law that many of his more experienced colleagues lack. Now, it threatens to revive one of the Supreme Court’s most disgraceful chapters.

The new Lochnerism

The conceit of Gorsuch’s Epic Systems opinion is that workers and their bosses sit down like equal bargaining partners to hash out their terms of employment. “Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration?” Gorsuch begins his opinion with a question framed as if it could only have one answer. “Or should employees always be permitted to bring their claims in class or collective actions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?”

In reality, the facts of Epic Systems bear little resemblance to the civilized negotiation presented by Gorsuch. Workers at one of the companies at issue in this case received an email one day informing them that they must give up their right to bring class actions. Employees who “continue[d] to work at Epic,” according to the email, would “be deemed to have accepted” this agreement. A similar email was sent to the employees of one of the other companies that prevailed in Epic Systems.

These employees, in other words, only “agreed” to the terms proposed by their bosses in the same sense that a person accosted by a gunman in a dark alley “agrees” to give up their wallet. Their choice was to give up their rights or to immediately lose their jobs.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court ignored the fairly basic fact that employers typically have far more bargaining power than their workers — and can use this greater share of power to exploit their employees.

In its anti-canonical decision in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court struck down a late nineteenth century law prohibiting bakeries from overworking their bakers. Such a law, Justice Rufus Peckham wrote for the Court, “interferes with the right of contract between the employer and employes [sic],” adding that “there is no contention that” bakery workers were unable “to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State.”

In reality, bakers faced horrific working environments before the “protecting arm of the State” intervened to improve these conditions.

At the time, the overwhelming majority of New York City bakeries were basement operations located in the same tenements in which their customers lived. “’Filth, cobwebs and vermin’ filled these basements,” according to a city inspector’s report. Sewer pipes ran through many such bakeries, leaking their raw contents onto the workers, their workplaces, and the dough. In one such bakery, “’the water closet walls were literally black’ with roaches from floor to ceiling.”

Bakeries often had no windows and little ventilation, filling the air with irritating flour dust and fumes. Ovens heated the workplaces into infernos. Low ceilings required many workers to crouch, and the floors were typically either dirt or rotten wood filled with rat holes.

The average bakery worker labored at least 13 hours a day in these conditions, though some worked as much as 126-hours a week. Workers, moreover, were often required to sleep on the very same tables where they prepared the dough, and the cost of these makeshift beds were then deducted from their wages.

These were the sorts of conditions that the free market offered workers who, without the law to protect them, were forced to bargain alone with their employers. Perhaps, in some narrow sense, these workers “agreed” to work countless hours among the roaches, the heat, and the raw sewage. But only a judge blinded by their own ideology could conclude that these workers had any real choice in the matter.

“Concerted activities”

By the mid 1930s, Congress understood what men like Peckham and Gorsuch refused to see. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains in her Epic Systemsdissenting opinion, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) on the premise that “employees must have the capacity to act collectively in order to match their employers’ clout in setting terms and conditions of employment.”

The law may not have the power to equalize bargaining power between workers and their bosses, but, by enabling those workers to join together, it could give them a fighting chance.

One provision of the NLRA — a provision that Gorsuch refused to honor in his Epic Systems opinion — provides that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Class actions are precisely this — a form of “concerted activity” that workers may use for their own “mutual aid or protection.”

The idea behind a class action is that multiple workers with the same legal claim against their employer can join together under a single lawsuit. Such concerted activity is necessary for the simple reason that litigation is often prohibitively expensive. As Ginsburg notes in her dissent, employers at one of the companies at issue in Epic Systems “would likely have to spend $200,000 to recover only $1,867.02 in overtime pay and an equivalent amount in liquidated damages.”

Only a truly fanatical worker — and one with very deep pockets — might be willing to spend such an exorbitant sum for such a small amount of money. The only real hope for such a worker is to join a class action lawsuit with colleagues who were also cheated out of their fair pay.

Except that workers will soon be unable to seek this remedy. An estimated “23.1% of nonunionized employees are now subject to express class-action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements,” according to Ginsburg’s dissent. Now that the Supreme Court has endorsed such illegal agreements, this number will skyrocket. Law firms are already lining up to show employers how to draft such agreements, and workers throughout the country will soon be left powerless against wage theft.

Twisted commerce

Gorsuch concludes his Epic Systems opinion with a flourish. “The policy may be debatable but the law is clear,” Trump’s Supreme Court nominee claims. “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

As it turns out, Gorsuch is half correct. The law is, indeed, clear. It just doesn’t say what he wants it to say.

The contracts at issue in Epic Systems are “forced arbitration” contracts, meaning that they not only strip employees of their right to bring a class action, they also require employment disputes to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor employers more than real courts of law. Though a law known as the Federal Arbitration Act protects arbitration agreements in certain contexts, that very same law explicitly exempts employment contracts.

Nevertheless, in its 2001 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court wrote this safeguard for workers out of the law.

Circuit City turned on two interlocking provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act. The first provides that “A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable” except under limited circumstances. The second exempts “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

To understand the scope of these two provisions, it’s important to understand some of the history surrounding the Federal Arbitration Act, which was enacted in 1925.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — the same period when the Court handed down Lochner — the Supreme Court also imposed strict limits on Congress’ constitutionally granted power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.” During this period, the Court defined the word “commerce” narrowly, to encompass little more than the transit of goods across state lines. Manufacture of goods to be sold, mining of raw materials, and the farming of commodities were all deemed to be beyond Congress’ power to regulate.

Among other things, the Court relied on this stingy definition of the word “commerce” to strike down a federal law banning the interstate sale of goods manufactured by child labor.

In the 1930s, a little more than a decade after the Federal Arbitration Act became law, the Supreme Court abandoned this narrow understanding of Congress’ power to regulate commerce. Under modern precedents, Congress’ power over “commerce” now includes broad authority to regulate economic matters of nearly all kinds.

Which brings us back to the text of the Federal Arbitration Act. When Congress wrote this law, it understood phrases like “a transaction involving commerce” or “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” to use the narrow, pre-New Deal understanding of the word “commerce.” As the law was originally understood, it only protected arbitration agreements involving the transit of goods for sale.

Contracts involving manufacture, mining, or agriculture were beyond the scope of Congress’ authority, according to the Supreme Court at the time, and therefore beyond the scope of the Arbitration Act. Similarly, when the Act exempts “seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” Congress sought to exempt all employment contracts that it believed that it had the power to regulate at the time.

Of course, the Arbitration Act could also be read anachronistically. If the modern definition of the word “commerce” is inserted into the law, that would mean that nearly all contracts are governed by the law, but all employment contracts are exempt. Thus, under either plausible reading of the statute, contracts between workers and their employers are exempt.

Circuit City, however, read the statute a third way. It reads the phrase “a transaction involving commerce” using the modern definition, while reading the phrase “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” using the 1925 definition. Thus, the policy favoring forced arbitration is given the broadest scope, while the exemption favoring workers is read exceedingly narrowly.

It’s a sick double-standard — the kind that should make anyone who reads the Court’s Circuit City opinion doubt the good faith of the justices in the majority.

Without Circuit City, there could not be a decision like Epic Systems. Gorsuch’s opinion builds upon Circuit City‘s holding that the word “commerce” can mean one thing in one provision of the law and something completely different in another provision of the same law. Circuit City is one of the Supreme Court’s greatest sins against the English language, and the text of the law itself is entirely at odds with Gorsuch’s claim in Epic Systems that “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

So the law, as Gorsuch condescendingly asserts, is indeed clear. The Federal Arbitration Act exempts all employment contracts, and any claim to the contrary requires the Court to turn a blind eye to history.

Which, of course, is exactly what Gorsuch did in Epic Systems. He ignored the way the law was originally understood, ignored the text of the National Labor Relations Act, ignored the law’s hard-won understanding that employees and employers do not have equal bargaining power, and ignored Congress’ explicit efforts to strike a different balance of power between workers and their bosses.

It is a great day for law firms that profit off the exploitation of workers. And it is an even greater day for their clients.

The rest of us can either sign away our rights or lose our jobs.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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The Supreme Court’s Latest Anti-Worker Decision Deals a Major Blow to the #MeToo Movement

May 22nd, 2018 | Rima Parikh

After months of sustained public pressure targeting sexual harassment in workplaces across the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday significantly undermined the power of workers to collectively challenge discrimination and abuse at the hands of their employers. In a 5-4 decision on the Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis casethe Court ruled that private-sector employees do not have the right to enter into class-action lawsuits to challenge violations of federal labor laws.

“[T]he Supreme Court has taken away a powerful tool for women to fight discrimination at work,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, in a press statement. “Instead of banding together with coworkers to push back against sexual harassment, pay discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, racial discrimination, wage theft and more, employees may now be forced behind closed doors into an individual, costly—and often secret—arbitration process. This will stack the deck in favor of the employer.”

The case concerns tens of thousands of employees at three companies—Epic Systems Corp., Ernst & Young LLP and Murphy Oil USA Inc.—who were forced to sign away their right to join class-action lawsuits against their employers as a precondition to being hired.

The workers argued that their right to file class-action lawsuits over alleged wage and hours violations is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was passed in 1935 to offer employees greater leverage to collectively challenge unjust treatment on the job. But, echoing the employers’ arguments, Justice Neil Gorsuch—who was appointed by Trump—wrote in the majority opinion that the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act supersedes the NLRA.

The ruling means that workers do not have the right to take bosses to court over alleged violations of federal labor laws. It also means bosses can force workers to arbitrate complaints individually instead of collectively, which overwhelmingly slants in favor of employers. This ruling is poised to impact a large swath of the U.S. workforce, where 41 percent of private-sector employees have already signed away their right to class-action legislation.

These workers include those who are pushing against wage and hour violations, as well as fighting patterns of racism, sexism and other forms of harassment in the workplace. Workers’ rights advocates say they are concerned that the ruling could potentially be detrimental to the #MeToo movement, which has relied on power in numbers to confront sexual assault in workplaces from Hollywood to tomato fields. Some warn that, for those facing sexual harassment in the workplace, the choice between employer-controlled arbitration or continuing on in silence is a choice between two bad options.

“#MeToo has shown us that the abuse of power is not one ‘rotten apple in a barrel’: It is widespread and systemic, especially in low-wage industries,” Palak Shah, social innovations director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told In These Times. “We need checks on power—like collective action—to counter abuses of power when they happen. While unchecked power imbalances exist between employers and workers, we can be sure abuses like sexual harassment will continue.”

Arbitration is often kept secret and, employees frequently foot the bill for the arbitration process. Experts warn that this secrecy would protect employers responsible for harmful work environments by not allowing space for workers to collectively address widespread patterns of harassment.

“In the case of sexual harassment, say there was a group of employees who claimed that they’d been sexually harassed, they can’t proceed together. They’d have to go individually [to arbitration] and they can’t go to court,” Alexander Colvin, a labor relations scholar at Cornell University, told In These Times.

According to Graves, the stakes are “particularly high” for women who “often face discrimination that is difficult to detect, like pay discrimination, or suffer from sexual harassment and face retaliation for reporting it.”

Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the 1925 law exemplified a different age for labor relations, and that employees should not be forced into “take-it-or-leave-it” agreements in order to find gainful employment.

The case is one of several currently being considered by the Supreme Court that could severely undermine workers’ rights. Much like the pending decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which could prevent unions from collecting union dues from non-union members, it furthers the ongoing anti-worker agenda pushed by the Trump administration.

“As mandatory arbitration is forced on growing numbers of employees as a condition of employment,” Graves added, “the Supreme Court should strengthen rather than undermine the rights of workers to challenge insidious and often widespread civil rights violations.”

 About the Authors: Rima Parikh is a summer 2018 editorial intern at In These Times and an incoming MSJ candidate at Northwestern University. Tanner Howard is a freelance journalist and In These Times editorial intern. They’re also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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Executive Paywatch 2018: The Gap Between CEO and Worker Compensation Continues to Grow

May 21st, 2018 | Kenneth Quinnell

CEO pay for major companies in the United States rose nearly 6% in the past year, as income inequality and the outsourcing of good-paying American jobs have increased. According to the new AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch, the average CEO of an S&P 500 Index company made $13.94 million in 2017—361 times more money than the average U.S. rank-and-file worker. The Executive Paywatch website, the most comprehensive searchable online database tracking CEO pay, showed that in 2017, the average production and nonsupervisory worker earned about $38,613 per year. When adjusted for inflation, the average wage has remained stagnant for more than 50 years.

“This year’s report provides further proof that the greed of corporate CEOs is driving America’s income inequality crisis,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “Too many working people are struggling to get by, to afford the basics, to save for college, to retire with dignity while CEOs are paying themselves more and more. Our economy works best when consumers have money to spend. That means raising wages for workers and reining in out of control executive pay.”

Here are eight key facts you need to know about from this year’s Executive Paywatch report:

  1. America is the richest country in the world at its richest point in history. And once again, CEOs got richer this year. CEO pay for major U.S. companies was up more than 6% in 2017 as income inequality and outsourcing of good-paying American jobs increases.

  2. Total compensation for CEOs of S&P 500 Index companies increased in 2017 to $13.94 million from $13.1 million in 2016.

  3. The CEO-to-worker pay ratio grew from 347 to 1 in 2016 to 361 to 1 in 2017.

  4. For the first time this year, companies must disclose the ratio of their own CEO’s pay to the pay of the company’s median employee. This change was fought for by the AFL-CIO and its allies to ensure investors have the transparency they deserve.

  5. In 2017, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 361. In 2016, the ratio was 347. In 1990, it was 107. And in 1980, it was 42. This pay gap reflects widening income inequality in the country.

  6. Mondel?z is one of the most egregious examples of companies that are contributing to inequality. The company, which makes Nabisco products including Oreos, Chips Ahoy and Ritz Crackers, is leading the race to the bottom by offshoring jobs. New CEO Dirk Van de Put made more than $42.4 million in total compensation in 2017—more than 989 times the company’s median employee pay. Mondel?z’s former CEO Irene Rosenfeld also received $17.3 million in 2017, 403 times its median employee’s pay.

  7. So far for 2017, the highest-paid CEO in the AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch database is E. Hunter Harrison, CEO of CSX Corporation. He received more than $151 million in total compensation. In contrast, the lowest-paid S&P 500 company CEO was Warren Buffett who received $100,000 in total pay in 2017.

  8. The toy-maker Mattel had the highest pay ratio of any S&P 500 company. Mattel’s median employee is a manufacturing worker in Malaysia who made $6,271, resulting in a CEO-to-employee pay ratio of 4,987 to 1. Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway Inc. had the lowest pay ratio of all S&P 500 companies, just 2 to 1.

Our economy works best when consumers have money to spend. That means raising wages for workers and reining in out of control executive pay. Executive Paywatch is a tool that helps the U.S. pursue those goals.

Learn more at Executive Paywatch.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 21, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

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Chemical Safety Board Dodges Trump’s Bullet Again

May 18th, 2018 | Jordan Barab

But is the agency selling its soul?

The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee has not only (again) defied President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board, but the committee actually plans to add a million dollars to the agency’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget.  The Committee’s bill, released Monday, funds the CSB at $12 million, $1 million above the fiscal year 2018 level.  This is the second year in a row that Trump has proposed eliminating the CSB and the House has defied him.

That’s the good news. But in other news-of-the-weird, the CSB and the Chlorine Institute (CI) have issued a joint statement that, while providing some good advice (e.g. don’t scrimp on preventive maintenance), reads like an advertisement for the Institute:

CI regularly updates its written guidance for chlorine producers and users by working with its member companies to determine best practices and contracting external scientific expertise. Additionally, members share best practices during in-person meetings throughout the year. Typically, industry colleagues review highly detailed, technical, and specific safety best practices and together improve their own safety performance and that of the entire chlor-alkali industry. Similarly, there are numerous other industry conferences, classes, and organizations focused on particular issues such as corrosion, non-destructive testing or rupture disc replacement frequency among other topics.

Now, we all love these Kumbaya moments and everything, but remember, the mission of the CSB is to “drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect poeple (sic) and the environment.” This is not to say that the CSB shouldn’t praise an organization for its consensus standards or corporate practices — and the CSB often does — but usually based on evidence resulting from an investigation about an incident that is addressed by that standard or practice.

Will this joint statement make future CSB investigations appear to be less independent and less objective in the wake of an incident that involves the use of Chlorine Institute standards?  The impact of Board investigations rests largely on the perceived objectivity of its recommendations and anything that detracts from that objectivity — or even the appearance of objectivity — will undermine the CSB’s effectiveness.

To my knowledge, this is the first time the CSB has issued this type of joint statement and it’s unclear whether the full Board even voted on it.

Agencies charged with conducting objective investigations need to maintain objectivity and the appearance of objectivity at all times.  Joint statements like this endorsing an organization’s practices that may in the future be subject to an investigation, do not generate confidence in the process.

Meanwhile, in other news, CSB staff voted last month to organize a union with the American Federation of Government Employees. The vote was 10 to 5 out of a total of 19 eligible. The CSB has been plagued by internal issues over its entire lifetime and many employees are reportedly concerned about deskilling of their jobs, dumbing down of reports with a focus on the technical causes of an incident, rather than the root causes and recommendations related to the flawed regulatory and public policy environment that can more effectively address the ongoing serious industry incidents.  Close to one-third of CSB investigators left the agency in the last year mostly due to management issues, and no investigators have been hired to replace those that have left.  Perhaps the House budget bill will encourage the CSB to begin hiring again.

Bloomberg’s Occupational Safety and Health Reporter wrote about the CSB’s organizing issues last year.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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New Arizona law pushes unemployed people to work at poverty wages or else

May 17th, 2018 | Laura Clawson

Arizona Republicans have hit on a way to make life worse for unemployed people. Currently, to collect unemployment insurance, people have to be looking for work and to accept “suitable” work if it’s offered. Under a new law, scratch that “suitable” part. People will have to accept any job they’re offered as long as it pays more than 20 percent more than their unemployment check—which means any job paying $288 a week or more.

You could be an engineer or a graphic designer or a skilled carpenter, but if McDonald’s or Walmart says they’ll have you, you have to take it or lose your benefits. Forget about looking for a job in your field that will pay you a living wage. You also don’t get to consider what’s suitable in terms of the “risk involved to the individual’s health, safety and morals.”

[Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s] press aide Daniel Scarpinato called it “common-sense reform.”

“It’s a job that the individual’s been offered, and it pays,” he noted, adding that Ducey supports the idea of people finding employment “who are getting off of benefits and finding value in work.”

Bear in mind that people don’t get unemployment insurance automatically: anyone collecting unemployment in Arizona was laid off or fired for reasons that weren’t their fault. No one just walked off the job to collect that sweet $240-a-week check. No one was fired for dealing drugs at work.

These are people who had jobs within the last few months and lost them without doing anything wrong. To keep getting UI, they are spending four days a week looking for work. They should be the poster children for the Republican obsession with the value of work. But instead, they’re being devalued and treated as shirkers whose professional skills do not matter—because in fact, Republicans just hate anyone who’s struggling. And they’d rather sentence people to low-wage jobs that don’t make use of their specific skills than pay for a few extra weeks or months of unemployment insurance to make sure that people’s skills are maximized in the economy.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on May 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

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Federal court deals a blow to Uber, Lyft drivers trying to unionize in Seattle

May 16th, 2018 | Kiley Kroh

A two-year legal battle over a Seattle, Washington law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize was prolonged again this week, after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that it can be challenged under federal antitrust law.

The first-in-the-nation law was unanimously passed by the Seattle City Council in 2015 and sought to give ride-share drivers the opportunity to unionize and bargain for better pay and benefits.

But it was swiftly challenged by business and conservative groups, namely the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing Uber and Lyft, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and the Freedom Foundation. In a 2016 lawsuit against the city of Seattle, the Chamber of Commerce claimed “the ordinance will burden innovation, increase prices, and reduce quality and services for consumers.”

One legal challenge was dismissed last year, but the law remained on hold until other legal challenges were resolved. On Friday, three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Seattle’s law is not exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act, sending it back to U.S. District Court.

Uber spokesman Caleb Weaver called the decision “a win for rideshare drivers, riders and the entire Seattle community.”

The Teamsters Local 117 and members of the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) expressed their frustration and disappointment in the wake of Friday’s ruling.

“Anti-trust laws were put in place to protect the little guy from monopolistic practices from large corporations, not to shield a company like Uber — valued at over $70 billion — from negotiating with its workers over fair pay and working conditions,” said Don Creery, Uber and Lyft driver and member of the ABDA leadership council.

One bright spot for proponents of Seattle’s law: the Ninth Circuit judges agreed in their ruling that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) can cover independent contractors, like Uber and Lyft drivers.

This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), along with other Senate Democrats, introduced legislation that would make it easier for people working in the gig economy to prove they are employees and thus be able to organize and collectively bargain. While the legislation doesn’t stand a chance in the current Republican-controlled Congress, Bloomberg notes that it has the backing of potential Democratic presidential candidates and could be a sign of things to come if Democrats are able to regain control of either chamber this fall.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kiley Kroh is a senior editor at ThinkProgress.

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The Freedom to Join

May 15th, 2018 | Kenneth Quinnell

The U.S. Supreme Court will make a decision in the coming weeks whether or not to undermine the freedom of millions of teachers, nurses and other public workers to have strong unions. Today, the AFL-CIO has launched a new website, FreedomToJoin.org, that provides critical information about the Janus v. AFSCME case, counters misinformation, explains the value of union membership and draws attention to the wave of collective action in America.

Big-moneyed corporate interests have brought Janus v. AFSCME forward because they understand how working people in unions can negotiate a fair return on our work.

While its focused on public employees, Janus is part of a multipronged attack on our institutions and values we hold dear.

Right-wing corporations have tried to crush public unions for decades, and they’ve poured tens of millions of dollars into this case alone in an effort to slash pay and cut benefits for nurses, EMS workers, 911 dispatchers, security personnel and others who keep our communities clean and safe and provide other essential public services.

Yet even in the face of these attacks, all over the country workers are organizing and striking as we haven’t seen in years.

America is waking up to the benefits of unionism, and we’ll continue to organize and mobilize, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars

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I Work with Mark Janus. Here’s How He Benefits from a Strong Union.

May 14th, 2018 | Donnie Killen

Like everyone else in the labor movement, I’m nervously awaiting the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which would weaken public sector unions by letting workers receive the benefits of representation without contributing toward the cost.

But I’ve got a unique vantage point: I work in the same building as the plaintiff, Mark Janus.

We’re both child support specialists for the state of Illinois, where we do accounting on child support cases. I do this work because it’s fulfilling to help kids and single parents get the resources they need to support themselves.

What convinced Mr. Janus to join this destructive lawsuit? Your guess is as good as mine. I do know it’s much bigger than him. He’s the public face, but this case is backed by a network of billionaires and corporate front groups like the National Right-to-Work Foundation.

But the truth is, even Mark Janus himself benefits from union representation. Here are a few of the ways:

1. Without our union, Mr. Janus’s job would probably have been outsourced by now.

A drastic provision in the state’s “last, best, and final offer” in 2016 would have given Governor Rauner the right to outsource and privatize state employees’ jobs without accountability. Our union is all that’s preventing critical public services from being privatized.

Our agency would be at particular risk, because Illinois already has a longstanding contract with a scandal-ridden, for-profit corporation called Maximus to perform some of our agency’s functions. They modify child support orders and interact with employers about income withholding—pretty simple tasks, yet state employees regularly have to correct their work. If they were to take over more complex tasks, we can imagine how badly that would go! Their concern is for profit, not kids.

If the governor could get away with it, it’s very likely he would expand the Maximus contract to privatize jobs like mine and Mr. Janus’s. He already did something similar to nurses in the prison system. But our union has to be consulted before the state can outsource anything. And when they do outsource, we monitor the contract and discuss how long it will continue. I go to those meetings for our union. Right now, instead of letting management expand its deal with Maximus, we’ve been pressing to cut that contract.

2. Mr. Janus has received $17,000 in union-negotiated raises.

Over his years working for the state, Mr. Janus has earned general wage increases and steps that would not have been guaranteed if not for the union.

3. The public—including the parents and kids Mr. Janus serves—has access to resources like childcare that our union has fought to defend.

Our union allows us speak up together on matters far beyond money. When Governor Rauner tried to cut childcare benefits for low-income single parents, we teamed up with outraged community members and made him back off. And when the budget impasse was forcing domestic violence shelters to close their doors, we kept pushing for years until a veto-proof budget was passed.

4. Our union blocked the employer from doubling the cost of Mr. Janus’s health benefits.

 

In negotiations the state has pushed to double our health insurance costs and drastically reduce coverage. The employer declared impasse and walked away from the bargaining table. AFSCME took the matter to the Labor Relations Board and the courts—securing a temporary restraining order that prevents the governor from imposing his extreme demands.

5. We make sure Mr. Janus’s office is warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

As a union we deal with health safety issues large and small. In the department that rescues children from household abuse and neglect, we’re continually pushing for sufficient staffing. The stakes are high: one member was killed on the job after she went out on an urgent call alone.

Other matters are less dramatic. In state office buildings we solve problems like flooding, mold, leaky windows, and toxic pigeon feces. One building had someone creeping up on employees in the parking lot, so we worked with management to get better lighting and security patrols.

In the building where Mr. Janus and I work, the heating and cooling system is extremely old. Twice a year they bring in a computer from 1982 to switch from heat to air conditioning for the summer, and vice versa for the winter. So when the weather fluctuates, we work to get portable heating or cooling units deployed where they’re needed.

Many of these are ongoing issues, where our union acts as a watchdog. We have a health and safety chair on the union executive board. Any time a problem comes up, he starts by approaching management to resolve it. If that doesn’t work, he can file an OSHA complaint plus a high-level grievance.

6. Thanks to our union, Mr. Janus will retire with a pension.

Our union has fought to save the defined-pension that Mr. Janus will receive upon retirement. A coalition of unions including AFSCME took the issue to court—and won. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that employees’ pension benefits cannot be cut.

7. Mr. Janus can get sick and still have a job when he comes back.

Before this job I worked without a union, in the retail industry, where I experienced what it means to be an at-will employee. Three absences would cost an employee their job—even if they called in sick and provided a doctor’s note.

8. Our union ensured that Mr. Janus could be fairly hired, regardless of his politics.

In public service our ultimate bosses are elected officials. There was a time in Illinois when to be hired or promoted, you were expected to make a contribution to the political party in power. But a 1990 Supreme Court case called Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois put an end to that. Today our union enforces a triple-blind system for fair treatment in hiring and promotions, making sure seniority is followed. It’s one more way that even Mr. Janus benefits from having a union on the job.

This blog was originally published at Labor Notes and In These Times. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Donnie Killen is a child support specialist for the state of Illinois and vice president/executive steward of AFSCME Local 2600.

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New Survey Shows Sexual Harassment a Pervasive Problem for Flight Attendants

May 11th, 2018 | Kenneth Quinnell

AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson discussed the scope of the problem:

While much of the coverage of the #MeToo movement has focused on high-profile cases in the entertainment industry and politics, this survey underscores why AFA has long been pushing to eradicate sexism and harassment within our own industry. The time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about ‘coffee, tea, or me’ needs to be permanently grounded. #TimesUp for the industry to put an end to its sexist past.

Nelson noted that the problems associated with the harassment go beyond the harm caused to the flight attendants:

Flight attendants are first responders. Their authority when responding to emergencies is undermined when they are belittled and harassed. Likewise, harassment makes it more difficult for flight attendants to intervene when passengers are harassed by other passengers. Flight attendants must be confident that airline executives will back them up when they respond to and report harassment of crew and passengers.

Here are some of the key facts uncovered by the survey:

  • 68% of flight attendants have experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers.
  • 35% experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers in the past year. 
  • Of those who have experienced verbal sexual harassment in the past year, 68% faced it three or more times, and one-third five or more times.
  • Flight attendants describe the verbal sexual harassment as comments that are “nasty, unwanted, lewd, crude, inappropriate, uncomfortable, sexual, suggestive and dirty.” They also report being subjected to passengers’ explicit sexual fantasies, propositions, request for sexual “favors” and pornographic videos and pictures.
  • 18% experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers in the past year. 
  • Of those who experienced physical sexual harassment in the past year, more than 40% of those suffered physical abuse three or more times.
  • Flight attendants said the physical sexual harassment included having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area “touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed and fondled” both on top of and under their uniforms. Other abuse included passengers cornering or lunging at them followed by unwanted hugs, kisses and humping.
  • Only 7% of the flight attendants who experienced sexual harassment reported it to their employer. 
  • 68% of flight attendants say they haven’t noticed any employer efforts over the past year to address sexual harassment at work. According to AFA-CWA, airlines Alaska, United and Spirit have led the industry in addressing this issue.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

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Full of Surprises: OSHA Spring Regulatory Agenda Released

May 10th, 2018 | Jordan Barab

When Spring is in the air, this man’s fancy turns to (where else?) the 2018 Spring Regulatory Agenda to discover  what movement OSHA will be planning to move forward (or backward) to protect American workers from injury, illness and death in the workplace.

And the news is not totally bad this time around.

The good news from the new Regulatory Agenda is that OSHA has moved several items from the Long Term Agenda to the Short Term Agenda — Emergency Response and Preparedness, an Update to the Hazard Communication Standard, Tree Care, and Preventing Workplace Violence in Health Care and Social Assistance.  The Long Term Agenda generally means that the next major action (such as an official proposal) is more than a year in the future, either because the item has been deliberates sentenced to purgatory, or because there is simply too much work to get to the next major stage within a year. (Katie Tracy of the Center for Progressive Reform has put together this handy chart to save your eyesight and help with translation.)

The other good news is that nothing was removed from OSHA’s Regulatory Agenda. Previously, the Trump administration had removed such important items as combustible dust, noise in construction, several chemical standards and protections for workers at risk from being backed over by construction vehicles.

SBREFA: One Step Forward

The Labor Department has announced an ambitious schedule of OSHA small business review (SBREFA) panels for the next year covering  Communication Tower Safety (May 2018), Emergency Response (October 2018), Workplace Violence (February 2019) a Hazard Communication Standard update (February 2019), Tree Care (April 2019).

SBREFA is a process where OSHA and the Small Business Administration’s Small  Business Advocacy office organize panels of “Small Entity Representatives” (SERs) — actual small business owners or health and safety staff — to discuss the impact of a possible standard on their industry based on preliminary economic and feasibility information compiled by OSHA. Based on the comments of the SERs, OSHA and SBA issue a report within four months of initiation of the panel, which informs the next major stage of the regulatory process — the proposal.

The SBREFA process was created under the Gingrich Congress in the mid-90s to provide small businesses with a first bite of the regulatory apple. (One might ask why the normal public comment process doesn’t provide the same opportunity, and why labor wasn’t also given a similar early bite?)  SERs generally advise OSHA that no new standard is needed, thank you very much. But they also frequently provide some useful information that OSHA later uses to tweak the proposal to address some small business concerns.

Now, this is a pretty darn ambitious regulatory schedule — five SBREFA panels in a year — especially for an anti-regulatory Republican administration. That is certainly a good thing, and especially good to see workplace violence among those panels. But there are several caveats that need to be raised.

First, I’m a more-than-a-bit skeptical they can keep to this schedule — especially since the first one is scheduled for this month.  Given the work involved here, the other smaller items OSHA is moving forward on, and the resources being put into deregulatory actions on beryllium and recordkeeping, plus the 10% cut sustained by the standards budget last year, it’s hard to see them keeping to this schedule. On the other hand, we’ve seen no forward movement on any regulatory items in the first 16 months of this administration, so it’s possible that significant preparatory work has been going on behind the scenes.

The second caveat is that these are only SBREFA panels.  The next major step is an actual proposal, which contains a proposed regulatory text and several hundred pages of “preamble” with in-depth analysis of significant risk, economic and technological feasibility. Written comments on the proposal are then solicited and a hearing is generally held — a hearing that can last days or weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the proposed standard.

Depending on the size and complexity of the standard, it can often take one to three years to get from SBREFA to a proposed standard, and then several years to get to a final standard from there.

In addition, don’t forget Trump’s “One in/Two out” Executive Order (EO) that requires agencies to repeal two standards or regulations of equal cost for every one that’s added.  While I have yet to see this EO invoked, it is assumed that the agency would have to determine which two standards are going to be revoked by the time they get to the proposal stage. Given that it takes almost as much work to revoke an old standard as it does to issue a new standard, OSHA would essentially be forced to conduct three rulemakings (one for the new rule, and two for the revoked rules) for every new rule it wants to add.  And all that is assuming that the agency can figure out which protections workers will lose when, for example, communications tower workers gain protections.

The bottom line is that none of these new standards are likely to see the light of day during this Presidential term. But any forward movement is always welcome.

There are a few small items — revisions, corrections and small updates — that are moving to the proposal and final stages — the most significant of which is the long-awaited fourth iteration of the Standards Improvement Project (SIPS) where small improvements and updates are made to numerous standards in a single rulemaking.

And Two Steps Back

Still languishing on the long term agenda are OSHA standards dealing with infectious disease and Process Safety Management which covers safety in chemical plants. Both of these had SBREFA panels during the Obama administration  They’re both fairly major rules which means a) they involve quite a bit of work to get to the proposal stage, b) OSHA budget cuts will slow the process further, and c) given their likely cost, this administration will undoubtedly be reluctant to move forward on them and hard-pressed to find protections of equal cost to remove. Slow movement on the infectious disease standard is especially disappointing considering news of another Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo., a recent severe flu season and the coming of mosquito season as the weather warms.

The bad news, of course, is that the most significant regulatory movement by OSHA continues to be in reverse with a proposal undermining beryllium protections for construction and maritime workers, delay in full implementation of the beryllium standard for general industry employees and a proposal to roll back some provisions of the electronic recordkeeping standard, which OSHA is predicting for sometime in July.

The National Employment Law Project also points out DOL backsliding in protection of young workers, action at the Department of Agriculture weakening protections for meat processing workers and EPA’s actions that could result in more worker exposure to toxic pesticides.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on May 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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