Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for August, 2008

What DOES Labor Day Really Mean, Anyway?

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Of all of us currently in the throes of the Labor Day weekend, how many are thinking about what Labor Day really means?  For many people, Labor Day signifies the end of summer and back-to-school time.  It’s the first guaranteed three-day weekend since Memorial Day, and the first holiday since July 4.  The more fashion-conscious among us may be worrying about whether they can still wear white.  (Apparently, that rule is loosening.)  The politicos are gearing up for the home stretch of this year’s election campaign season, while sports fans are welcoming football’s return.  (See Labor Day – Wikipedia entry.)  But how many people who work for a living are thinking about what Labor Day means to them personally?  Or to us collectively as a nation?

Those who spend the most time observing Labor Day in a manner closest to its original purpose of facilitating “a street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’” tend to be the modern incarnation of those organizations — labor unions.  (See History of Labor Day.)  However, we live in a time where the strength of the labor movement has declined, and many of the parades have become secular in purpose, featuring high school marching bands and glad-handing politicians, not proud union members.  And how many workers actually identify with those organizations, with less than 10% of the workforce currently unionized?  Most workers don’t see Labor Day as being about them, or if they do, it’s only because they get an extra paid day off that they wouldn’t have otherwise (or bonus pay for working that day.)

Passing the Employee Free Choice Act could help change that dynamic, and you’ll hear a lot about that proposed legislation this Labor Day, both here at Today’s Workplace and elsewhere. Making it easier for people who want to join unions to do so will undoubtedly increase the sheer numbers of unionized workers and strengthen what we know as the traditional “labor movement.”

But the labor movement, regardless of its power and strength, cannot alone transform the workplace:  many have a role to play.  Lawyers representing union and non-union workers in discrimination and wage and hour cases have helped transform individual employers and even entire industries.  Authors, journalists and legal scholars can help us look at where we’ve been and where we’re going, so that we can avoid past mistakes and make the very best of what we have now the standard for the future.  Even progressive employers can play a significant role, as those who not only obey the law–but go above and beyond to treat their workers fairly–find that decreased labor strife, morale problems, and turnover contribute to a better bottom line while being the right thing to do.  Between 90 million American workers, and all those who have a stake in what happens in the workplace, there’s no reason why virtually everyone shouldn’t consider themselves part of the labor movement, yet too few see themselves that way.

At Workplace Fairness, we’ve assembled some of the best and brightest minds this Labor Day who can tackle what the holiday really means–what workers should be thinking about right now, when wages are stagnant, the housing market is unstable, and economic fears are weighing heavily on our minds.  As Steven Greenhouse (who will be joining this conversation) points out in his new book, The Big Squeeze:

A profound shift has left a broad swath of the American workforce on a lower plane than in decades past, with health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress levels, and often wages growing worse for millions of workers.  That the American worker faces this squeeze in the early years of this century is particularly troubling because the squeeze has occurred while the economy, corporate profits, and worker productivity have all been growing robustly.  In recent years, a disconcerting disconnect has emerged, with corporate profits soaring while workers’ wages stagnated.

(See The Big Squeeze at 4-5.)

It’s a trying time for workers.  And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s an election year.  While as a nonprofit organization, we cannot tell you who to vote for, we can tell you that it’s very important to pay attention to what all of the candidates are saying about the economy, jobs, and the importance of workers vs. big business.  If you’re either currently — or a paycheck away — from experiencing what Greenhouse describes, your vote in November is a very real decision about what kind of future you want to have, for yourself and your families.  We hope this conversation will give you the kind of information you need to make that choice.

We’re very excited about this conversation, and hope that you too will join us in our effort to Take Back Labor Day.  If you would like to join our roster of guest bloggers, contact us;  we certainly don’t want to exclude anyone with something important to say.  Otherwise, please jump into the conversation in our comments section, and tell your friends as well.  It will take more than just talk — no matter how eloquent — to transform the American workplace, but we have to start somewhere, and what better time to do it than now?

Today's Workplace is Taking Back Labor Day!

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

On Labor Day, September 1, Workplace Fairness will launch the Take Back Labor Day blog project right here, on the new and improved Today’s Workplace blog.

We hope you’ll support Take Back Labor Day by visiting the blog and sharing your opinions and insights with our bloggers and our readers through the comment function. Please help us start a real conversation about workplace fairness in this country.  Most importantly, we’d love for you to tell your colleagues, members, readers, friends, family and whoever you think would be interested? Would you talk about Take Back Labor Day on your blog, website and/or in your newsletter?

Some of the most influential and provocative thinkers on workplace issues today have agreed to participate in Workplace Fairness’s Take Back Labor Day blog project. They are:

Take Back Labor Day is part of a larger effort, where upwards of 40 blogs have agreed to blog about Labor Day and labor issues on Labor Day 2008, to rally American workers and remind the American public about what Labor Day is really about – that’s it’s much much more than just a three-day weekend!

At Workplace Fairness, we hope the Today’s Workplace blog will become the premier online discussion forum for experts, thought leaders, organizers, practitioners and the general public to mix freely with each other to find common ground and shape the public discourse around labor – what’s discussed, how it’s discussed, and ultimately impacting policy.  Visit us in September and join the conversation!

UPDATE: Thanks to Michael Whitney at American Rights at Work, we’ve been plugged on DailyKos!  Michael will be joining us as a blogger as well.

UPDATE 2: More guest bloggers have joined us, including David Moberg, Senior Editor of In These Times, and Paul Secunda, law professor at Marquette and blogger, Workplace Prof Blog.  Don’t be left out — if you have something to say, contact us, or be sure to participate in the comments section once we launch on Labor Day, September 1.

UPDATE 3: We’re still adding bloggers to our list:  Cynthia Estlund, law professor at New York University School of Law, Robin Runge, Director of the Commission on Domestic Violence at the American Bar Association, and Dr. David Madland, the Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, will also be joining the fun here at Today’s Workplace.

Making the Call for Health Care

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Workplace Fairness is part of the Health Care for America Now coalition, and we want to know:  where do our members of Congress stand on health care? Are they with us for quality affordable health care for all? Or are they with the insurance industry, working to preserve our broken system?  With the help of a groovy new tool, you can instantly call Congress to find out.  It really couldn’t be easier!

Click to call your member of Congress and demand quality, affordable health care!

Over the next few weeks, HCAN is going to ask every member of Congress which side they are on. We’ve already sent a formal letter to every office asking them to get on our side. And over the next few weeks, members of Congress will be getting personal visits from Health Care for America Now supporters in every state asking them which side they’re on. But first, we need your help to get the message across.

HCAN’s goal is to make 100,000 calls to Congress, making sure every member is asked at least a few times which side they are on.  Supporters of Workplace Fairness can help us reach that goal.

Click here to call your member of Congress.

With formal letters, in-person visits, and tens of thousands of phone calls, our message will be impossible to ignore: We want quality, affordable health care for all, and we want every member of Congress on our side!

We’ve put together an easy-to-use webpage for you to call your members of Congress. Just click here, enter in your information – including your phone number – and click the “Call” button. In a few moments, you’ll receive a call to that phone number that will automatically put you in tough with your member of Congress.

It couldn’t be easier!

Or, if you’d prefer, you can be automatically connected to Congress by calling, toll free, 888.436.8427.

Either way, can you help us make 100,000 calls to Congress? Click here to call!

Thank you for your efforts and all that you do for Workplace Fairness.

Vote in November: Wal-Mart Says So

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

Wondering whether it’s important for you to vote in November? The recent actions of America’s largest employer, Wal-Mart, should tell you all you need to know. Wal-Mart claims it wasn’t telling its employees how to vote, and as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, neither will we. But we will ask you to look at what Wal-Mart has been up to and make your own decision about the importance of voting in November.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Wal-Mart has been

mobilizing its store managers and department supervisors around the country to warn that if Democrats win power in November, they’ll likely change federal law to make it easier for workers to unionize companies — including Wal-Mart.

(See Wall Street Journal article.) In a series of mandatory meetings with its management staff, Wal-Mart officials have been standing up and saying things such as: “I am not telling you how to vote, but if the Democrats win, this bill will pass and you won’t have a vote on whether you want a union.” A Wal-Mart customer-service supervisor from Missouri responded for the article, “I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote.”

Once the Wall Street Journal article appeared, Wal-Mart’s backpedaling began. The company said that “We believe the Employee Free Choice Act is a bad bill and we have been on the record as opposed to it,” but that it wasn’t advocating that its employees vote against backers of the legislation. Spokesperson David Tovar said, “If anyone representing Wal-Mart gave the impression… they are wrong and acting without approval. He said that Wal-Mart has been working with both Republicans and Democrats, donating to political action committees representing both sides of the aisle, and recently promoting some policies that are considered more progressive, such as environmental sustainability, its program to offer $4 prescription drugs and improved benefits for workers. (See Associated Press article.)

What is this bill that has the behemoth Wal-Mart running scared? The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for workers to join a union in their workplaces. In a time when paychecks are shrinking, health care is skyrocketing, and America’s workers are struggling to make ends meet, workers in unions earn 28% higher wages on average, and are 62% more likely to have health care coverage. Right now, companies who want to make it harder for employees to join unions can resist tooth-and-nail, by forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings, threatening to move overseas, and delaying elections as long as possible. Thirty percent of employers faced with an organizing effort fire workers for supporting a union. (See Undermining the Right to Organize: Employer Behavior During Union Representation Campaigns.)

Some think Wal-Mart’s behavior might backfire. Art Levine reports at Huffington Post,

Wal-Mart may have inadvertently done workers a big favor with its threats that a Democratic victory in November could lead to passage of a new law making organizing unions easier. Now progressive media and cable shows are giving the right to unionize greater attention, and a petition drive has been launched by pro-union groups asking the Federal Election Commission to investigate Wal-Mart for illegal electioneering ( a charge the company denies.)

(See Huffington Post article.) If you haven’t been paying attention to Wal-Mart lately, don’t think they’re not up to their same old tricks. As recently as June 2008, the New York Times was reporting that Wal-Mart’s conduct has improved significantly enough that some of its opposition was backing off. (See Wal-Mart’s Detractors Come In From the Cold.) Given that unions have funded the leading opposition groups, Wal-Mart Watch and WakeUpWalMart, perhaps Wal-Mart’s apparent softening was just a ploy to distract us all while they geared up to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. It certainly doesn’t represent a significant deviation from the Wal-Mart we’re used to opposing at every turn.

So, what’s a worker to do? First, join those who want to see the Employee Free Choice Act by signing a petition that will add your name to the expected one million workers who support making it easier to join unions.

Sign The Petition

Then, join those who are calling for Wal-Mart to be investigated by the Federal Election Commission for violating federal election law. (See Time To Investigate Wal-Mart’s Anti-Democrat Electioneering for more information about this effort.)

Tell the FEC to Investigate Wal-Mart

And if you don’t think signing petitions is nearly enough, then plan to vote in November. If you’re not registered yet, what are you waiting for?

Register to Vote: Rock the Vote, powered by Credo Mobile

Shocking: Justice Department Used Political Considerations to Make Hiring Decisions

Friday, August 1st, 2008

By the time the Inspector General’s investigative report was issued on July 28, not too many were surprised to learn that political appointees at the Justice Department, starting back in 2002, attempted to pack the department with conservatives by screening out candidates with so-called liberal references on their resumes. While it’s almost amusing to learn the lengths to which Monica Goodling and other true believers went to ferret out lefty leanings, what’s less amusing is that in most situations in the private sector, discrimination on the basis of political affiliation is not against the law. Just something to think about when your water cooler conversation gets a little overheated…

In 2006, nine U.S. Attorneys were forced to resign their posts in the midst of a presidential administration, triggering an investigation of what many considered at the time to be a scandal, charging that the resignations were required for improper reasons. See Wikipedia: Dismissal of U.S. Attorneys Controversy.) An investigation of the U.S. Attorneys firings led to allegations that these firings were part of a much larger problem at the Department of Justice, namely that there was a concerted attempt underway to transform the political makeup of the department by selecting conservatives for open positions.

While the U.S. Attorney investigation is still underway, recently the Inspector General’s office released two reports, confirming the suspicions of many that political considerations were indeed hard at work shaping the DOJ hiring process over the last five years in an impermissible way. This effort was primarily the handiwork of one Monica Goodling, whose work at DOJ was designed to stock the department with conservative lawyers who espoused the ideals of the current administration, even though the hiring process for career DOJ attorneys is supposed to be merit-based without regard for political considerations.

The first report, released in June and entitled An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring in the Department of Justice Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program, indicated that in hiring for the program to bring new lawyers into the department, either for the summer or for their first job following law school, once the hiring process was shifted from the supervision of career attorneys to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s advisors, the process became more politicized. (See Washington Post article.) This program was investigated once a group of Justice Department attorneys unhappy with the politicization of the process wrote an anonymous letter to Congress in 2007 drawing attention to the change in policy. (See Letter from A Group of Concerned Department of Justice Employees.)

As a result of the letter, the process was restored to again have career DOJ attorneys making the hiring selections for the DOJ programs. (See Washington Post article.) Now, some of the rejected applicants are suing, and the Office of Special Counsel is trying to figure out whether it can discipline the Justice employees who acted improperly, since they are no longer with the Department of Justice. (See Washington Post article.) (Ironically, the Office of Special Counsel has its own similar problems right now, as Special Counsel Scott Bloch is under investigation for obstruction of justice, and–you guessed it–using his office for partisan political activities.) (See NPR article.)

On July 28, a second report was released, focusing on whether certain Justice employees violated the law when politicizing the hiring process at the Justice Department. (See An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring by Monica Goodling and Other Staff in the Office of the Attorney General.) As the title of the document suggests, Monica Goodling’s behavior was the focus of the investigation, although as the investigation concludes, she apparently wasn’t the only one engaged in inappropriate behavior: several other Justice employees, including the chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, and Goodling’s predecessor as White House liaison, Jan Williams, all “violated federal law and Department policy…by considering political and ideological affiliations” in hiring processes.

In Goodling’s case, not only did she engage in improper conduct on the basis of political affiliation, but also on the basis of sexual orientation. Based on rumors about an assistant U.S. Attorney’s (AUSA) relationship with her boss, a U.S. Attorney (a relationship which both women steadfastly have denied), Goodling denied an extension to the AUSA’s detail, and prevented her from accepting a plum assignment for which she was very qualified. Her boss, the U.S. Attorney, was ultimately one of the ones fired in the purge of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. (See Los Angeles Times article.) Unfortunately, however, Goodling was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony before Congress in May 2007. (See Goodling Testifies Before The House Judiciary Committee.) Therefore, it is unclear what, if anything, can be done to penalize her illegal and inappropriate behavior.

As outraged as many are about Goodling’s behavior, it is also outrageous that if Goodling were in charge of hiring decisions in the private sector, many of her actions would not violate the law. Only a handful of states have laws prohibiting discrimination or retaliation on the basis of political activity or affiliation, so the bulk of Goodling’s misconduct wouldn’t violate any laws. (See Retaliation: Political Activity.) While more states have laws prohibiting discrimination and retaliation on the basis of sexual orientation (and generally perceived sexual orientation is included in that), there are still 30 states which don’t have these laws. (See Discrimination: Sexual Orientation.)

So the next time those talks around the watercooler start to involve politics or speculation about a co-worker’s sexual orientation, remember that there might not be any legal recourse if those in charge of hiring and firing use that information against an employee. Since it looks like Monica Goodling is going to have to get a job in the private sector (the investigative report recommends that her misconduct be taken into account if she requests to be rehired by the government ever again), be sure she’s not standing anywhere nearby when these conversations take place. Since she received immunity, we can’t be sure she’s learned her lesson.

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