Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for June, 2009

Congress Hears Demands for Health Care Reform in Town Hall Meetings

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Members of Congress met in town hall sessions Thursday with constituents who were on Capitol Hill to rally and demand health care reform. Read dispatches from some of the meetings.

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Ohio Weighs In

After the rally, more than 250 activists from Ohio met at the Columbus Club at Union Station to plan for an afternoon of lobbying and hear from members of Congress about health care reform.

“Nothing is more important to me than ensuring that President Obama passes health care reform.”

The session was introduced by Tim Burga of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who decried the “free market run amok” in the current health care system and affirmed that we must have a serious public health insurance option.

He introduced Hattie Wilkins, who made one of the most moving speeches of the event.

Her situation illustrates the deep problems working families have with the way the current system operates. Hattie is a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) union who worked for 35 years for Brentwood Originals, a pillow factory in Youngstown, Ohio. The USW struck Brentwood Originals in 2008, and more than three-quarters of the workforce has been laid off. She was fired because of her strong support for the union, Hattie said. She has been collecting $887 a month in unemployment since then. She has COBRA coverage, and now pays $275 per month—31 percent of earnings from unemployment—for her health insurance. She pays another $450 per month for her mortgage payment, leaving her only $162 each month for food, utilities, transportation and all her other expenses. Now her unemployment payments are ending and she doesn’t know what she is going to do.

At 58 years of age, Hattie is searching for another job at places like McDonald’s but has to compete with applicants much younger than she is. She gave us her cell phone number, though she wasn’t sure how much longer she would have it. Hattie came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the rally and make sure her elected representatives heard her voice on this critical issue.

Sen. Arlen Specter says health care is a right.

The Latest on Pennsylvania Town Hall

Sen. Specter has arrived, and compliments the crowd on its tenacity and commitment. Specter says he agrees that health care is a right and believes health care legislation will pass and will include a public option component. Of course, in a room full of union members, the Employee Free Choice Act came up. Specter says he is working hard to find an answer for early union certification and gaining first contracts.

Pennsylvania Update

The folks at Capitol City Brewing Co. are waiting for Sen. Arlen Specter to arrive. We hear reports he’s been at the White House.

From the North Carolina Meeting

Sen. Kay Hagan just arrived. She says the fight for health care reform is the “most important thing going on in our country.” Everyone in America must have health care coverage, she says, and patients with pre-existing conditions should be able to get health insurance.

About a public health insurance option plan, Hagan says some critics are getting caught up in nuance about language used in the debate. “I don’t care what you call it as long as it provides affordability accessibility and covers pre-existing conditions,” she says. We’d heard earlier reports that her staff told union leaders Hagan believes if health care reform passes, it will include a public option. The senator herself did not specifically say she supports the public option.

I think the key is if you have health insurance, you keep it. We don’t want to dismantle what exists.

More Pennsylvania Town Hall

Rep. Sestak arrived and talked about his daughter’s brain tumor and his health care plan to help keep her alive. Everybody deserves health care for themselves and their families, as well, he said. Sestak says his support for health care reform is “payback” to the country that provided health care for him and his family when he was in the Navy.

Everybody must be covered under health care reform, according to Sestak, and a public health insurance plan must be an option.

Nothing is more important to me than ensuring that President Obama passes health care reform.

Pennsylvania Town Hall

Hundreds of union members from Pennsylvania have packed a hall just a block from the U.S. Capitol to hear from their elected officials on the status of real health care reform. As they wait for Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) to appear, the chanting is in full force:

Congress, This is our demand. The option of a public plan.

What do we want? HEALTH CARE!

When do we want it? NOW!

Congress, This is our demand, the option of a public plan!

We are waiting for Specter and Sestak so we can spring that on them.

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) did not attend. A staff member is delivering her talking points.

Health care reform that guarantees quality, affordable health care reform must be passed.

We must ensure that patients’ choices are protected.

Maryland Town Hall

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Rep. John Sarbanes and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speak to hundreds of Maryland workers and all support public option.

Rep. Blumenauer at Town Hall on Small Business

At a town hall focused on small business issues this morning at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) advocated a public insurance option plan, guaranteed coverage and a “pay or play” system that would require businesses to provide health care coverage for their employees or pay into a fund. These reforms would level the playing field and reduce cost burdens on small businesses, he said.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now. Re-printed with permission by the author.


G8 Union Leaders Issue Urgent Call to Tackle Jobs Crisis

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

The global union movement is issuing an urgent call for the leaders of the Group of Eight nations to tackle the deepening jobs crisis at their summit meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, next month.

The leaders must develop a coordinated and jobs-orientated international recovery and sustainable growth plan that focuses on creating good jobs and re-regulating the global financial system, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told a gathering of G8 union leaders today in Rome.

 The global economy continues to deteriorate at an unprecedented rate.  Workers around the world—who are the innocent victims of this crisis—are losing their jobs and incomes.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) predicts that unemployment is likely to increase by up to 59 million worldwide by the end of 2009. Unemployment in the G8 countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and United States—is likely to almost double over the next 18 months, according to the ILO. At the same time, more than 200 million workers could be pushed into extreme poverty, lifting the number of working poor to 1.4 billion.

Earlier this week, President John Sweeney and the union leaders of the world’s top economies outlined a plan to stimulate the global economy. Click here to read more about that plan.

When the global economic crisis is over, said Sweeney, the G8 leaders must ensure there is no return to “business as usual.”

While this crisis was caused by global economic imbalances and financial speculation, it was underpinned by the lack of effective economic regulation over preceding decades. Rather than planning “exit strategies” that are a more brutal version of failed past policies, there is a need to establish a new model of economic development that is stronger and more efficient, socially just and environmentally sustainable.

And this time, workers’ views should be represented in the plan, Sweeney said.

Trade unions and the workers we represent have no confidence that this time governments and bankers alone will get it right.  We are asking for a seat at the table.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. Parks is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on June 26, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

How Productive Are You?

Monday, June 29th, 2009

According to the U.S. Government, productivity is the measure of economic efficiency where economic “inputs” are turned into economic “outputs.” That’s not insight gleaned from my MBA program, I’ve long since forgotten every last bit of economics that I was taught. Or to describe my personal situation more precisely, despite considerable economic input, my personal economic output has trailed off to bubcus.
 
That productivity formula came from your very own U.S. Department of Labor, specifically the Department of Labor Statistics. I encourage you to visit their web site, where even the statistics even have statistics. It’s like Disneyland for the slide rule and plastic pen case set.
 
But I’m starting to think that I may be the only one who lacks interest on this topic. Just visit Google and you’ll learn that productivity is popular. No, make that POPULAR. It’s got over 133,000,000 links. Just to put that in perspective, Britney Spears is at 82,700,000 and Death is at 387,000,000. So productivity clearly a topic that we just can’t get enough of.
 
According to our government, productivity is both important to our national well-being and on the rise. It’s important because productivity is like the coins you find when you clean your sofa, it’s wealth that doesn’t take labor or capital to create. Think of it as “found” wealth.
 
And by almost all measures, we’re finding a lot of productivity increases of late. There are many possible reasons—technological efficiencies, the longer hours that we’re all working to cover for our dearly departed former coworkers or the proverbial cliché, we are finally working smarter. Whatever the reason, we appear to be a virtual productivity machine.
 
What is behind my sudden fascination with productivity? Gallup did a survey where they asked how much time do you waste at work and how much time do the people you work with waste at work?
 
I thought this study provided a much more realistic take on our productivity—in other words, that we aren’t that productive after all. According to Gallup each of us personally admits to wasting just under an hour a day. But when asked about our coworkers, the number rises to an hour and a half.
 
I can sense that you’re getting annoyed being called a slacker, because you never waste time at work. Get used to being in the minority if you feel this way. Because only a quarter of those surveyed report that they never waste time at work and slightly less than 20% of us feel that way about our coworkers.

Which leads me to my favorite part of the study. This is so good, that I’m going to quote Gallup directly. “There are no significant differences between men and women, younger and older workers, higher income and lower income workers, employees in private companies and government workers, those who work less than 40 hours per week and those who work more hours, and employees who are ‘completely’ satisfied with their jobs and those who are less satisfied or dissatisfied.”

In other words, productivity is on the rise and we all seem to fritter it away at a consistent pace. I hope you felt that this blog was a productive use of your time.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist and popular speaker. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com .

Labor “Solutions”

Monday, June 29th, 2009

“Our clients receive happy, appreciative employees that will thank you for allowing them the opportunity to work for you,” boasted Kansas City staffing company Giant Labor Solutions. Contract for workforce needs with their company and “your recruiting, hiring, and payroll expenses will dramatically drop.”

What a pity trifles like alleged racketeering, forced labor trafficking, wire fraud and money laundering can come between employers and a cheap, compliant workforce.

As Thomas Frank describes the federal charges against Giant Labor in a recent Wall Street Journal column:

“The Kansas City ring recruited hundreds of workers from Jamaica, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic with promises of visas through the federal H-2B seasonal worker program. To get the process started, however, the indictment says that workers had to pay the accused racketeers hefty fees.

“Once in America, the workers found themselves at the mercy of the traffickers, who allegedly kept “them as modern-day slaves under threat of deportation,” in the words of James Gibbons of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The recruiters apparently took care to keep the workers in debt, charging them fees for uniforms, for transportation, and for rent in overcrowded apartments. Paychecks would frequently show “negative earnings,” in the words of the indictment. And if the workers refused to go along with the scheme, the traffickers held the ultimate trump card, the indictment claims: They “threatened to cancel the immigration status” of the workers, rendering them instantly illegal.”

The situation vividly illustrates the perils of guest worker programs. But it’s not only the trafficked immigrants who lost out at Giant Labor.

The exploited laborers primarily worked on hotel housekeeping staffs, cleaning rooms. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they shared the occupation with more than 400,000 U.S. workers in 2008, making a national median wage of $9.13 an hour. It’s not hard to imagine that hotel owners might not ask too many troublesome questions when a company like Giant Labor stepped in with a deal to slash their labor costs. But neither is it hard to conceive the impact of those lower wages and miserable working conditions on other hotel employees trying to get by on what is already a poverty wage for families.

But if we can drag hotel workers down, we can also raise them up. In the New York City metro area, for example, housekeepers average $15.30 an hour and many get full family health benefits. The reason, of course, is the high unionization rate in the area’s hotel industry, which pushes even non-union hotels to offer competitive pay and benefits to prevent their most efficient employees from leaving – or worse yet, organizing a union of their own.

The nation faces a stark choice when it comes to hotel work, or any other employment. We can pass the Employee Free Choice Act, and watch a wave of union organizing lift workers throughout the country. Or we can expand guest worker programs and stick with a status quo where Americans compete for work with millions of undocumented workers with no effective rights on the job. You can bet hotel employees in Kansas City will feel the difference.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This article originally appeared in DMI Blog on June 23, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

To Hell With Pensions: Let Them Eat Dog Food

Monday, June 29th, 2009

The other day, I saw an amazing spectacle: a firefighter responded to a call to a burning building in New York City and, as he was dragging the fire hose to the fire, a crowd of angry people stopped him and said, “Stop. Your pension is too generous so don’t you dare put that fire out”. Absurd, you say? Well, yes–if you mean the intensifying attacks against the pensions people earn.

Yesterday, there was an attack against firefighters’ pensions in the pages of the Daily News:

Even in the midst of a deep economic downturn, New York City taxpayers are paying billions every year to provide city workers with retirement benefits that are extraordinarily generous by any standard.

Since fiscal year 2003, the taxpayer contribution to municipal workers’ pensions has more than tripled – to $6.4 billion in fiscal year 2009. At this rate, in four years, every working-age New Yorker will be putting an average of $1,250 a year into the pension funds of municipal workers.

We cannot keep giving new workers retirement benefits at the current levels.

Take current city firefighters, for example. They are entitled to retire after 20 years of service at half pay, with their overtime included in that calculation. In 2006, the last year for which data are available, the pension benefit for a newly retired firefighter averaged just under $73,000 annually. On top of that, many get another $12,000 every December as a “Christmas bonus” to bring the annual cash total to $85,000 – all of which is exempt from state and local income taxes.

That attack came from someone from the “Citizens Budget Commission”, a self-perpetuating organization which has zero grassroots links and is simply a front run primarily by corporate leaders in New York.

Today, The New York Times carries another attack:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is sounding the alarm over New York City’s pension system these days, calling it “out of control.”

Costs have ballooned, he says, threatening to bankrupt the city. Municipal unions and lawmakers in Albany created the crisis, he suggests, and left the city holding the bag.

But interviews and budget records show that the Bloomberg administration itself is responsible for much of the growth in city pension costs over the last eight years, and has repeatedly missed opportunities to rein in the spending.

Since Mr. Bloomberg took office, city contributions to the pension system have jumped nearly five-fold to $6.3 billion, from $1.4 billion, and they now account for one out of every 10 dollars in the city’s budget.

A major reason: the mayor has given the city’s 300,000 workers generous pay increases, guaranteeing that they retire with bigger pensions, which are typically 50 percent of salary. Such raises force the city to make heftier payments to the pension system now.

So, let’s talk about the real world. The average pension for a transit worker in New York is about $20,000-a year–after a job that very few of the people who attack transit workers’ “generous benefits” would ever take. Other city workers’ pensions are in the low 30s. And firefighters’ pensions average around $70,000.

If you think for a moment about what the cost of living is in New York, that isn’t a lot of money even at the “high” end.

So, what is going on here? In the public sector, the hue and cry over “generous pensions” obscures a major point: the reason city and state governments are facing budget deficits is not because of “generous” pensions. Putting aside the most recent budget shortfalls made worse by the economic crisis, the real problem is that in New York–and in virtually every other state in the country–we’ve allowed the richest people in society to escape paying their fair share.

Last December, I pointed out that New York would easily have billions more in revenue to use for basic services if the wealthiest people in the state paid a fairer share of the dues that should be required in a decent society. It is ironic, indeed, that the very people who escape paying higher taxes are some of the very people who were at the helm–incompetently, one might add–of the financial industry which, with its spectacular collapse, wiped trillions of dollars in wealth held by regular people who believed, in the absence of a real pension, that their 401(k)s would provide a decent retirement.

Indeed, the hammering of pensions in the private sector–where a decent pension is increasingly a thing of the past–is directly related to the ideological assault in the private sector. The “free marketeers” are clever–they can whip up the public’s anger about “generous” public employee benefits by effectively saying to people whose pensions in the private sector are evaporating, “look over there, people, at those overly generous benefits YOU are paying for”. It is the classic Henry Ford strategy about dividing one half of the working class against the other half. And it makes people blind and distracted–and prone to forgetting about the transit worker who gets them to work, the firefighter down the street who their kids look up to and the rest of the army of people who make life run in our society.

As progressives, though, we have to fight this ugly strategy. The answer should not be: someone doesn’t deserve a decent pension because I don’t have one. It should be: everyone deserves a decent pension and, if the very wealthy would stop for a moment from avoiding their responsibility in the public sector (by paying a fair share in dues) and stop the wide-scale looting of the wealth created in the private sector (by ending the enrichment of a handful of CEOs and top executives who reap millions of dollars in pensions benefits while the rest of the workforce gets crumbs), everyone could retire with dignity and respect.

Now, where are our political leaders with that message?

I am curious to hear about stories about the attacks against pensions in other places.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

This article originally appeared in Working Life on June 23, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

New Supreme Court Age Discrimination Decision Will Be Gone in a Flash

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Did the Supreme Court Discriminate Against Victims of Age Discrimination?

The only good thing to say about the new age discrimination case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. is that it will be gone in a flash. 

There are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to begin, and because I really do believe that it will be legislatively overruled in the very near future, I don’t want to beat it to death.

Let me say this. For those immersed in discrimination law, the opinion and the dissenting opinions are a must read.

For the rest of the country, I believe that the decision will have little impact and there are several reasons why that’s so.

Case Background

The question before the Supreme Court was whether a plaintiff must present direct evidence of age discrimination in order to obtain a mixed motive instruction in a suit brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

It’s a pretty dry academic issue with little to no practical effect in the real world of age discrimination litigation. 

For those interested in the background of the issues presented in the case, you can take a look at the article I wrote on the case when it was argued in March.

What The Court Did In The Gross Case

Instead of deciding the issue before it, the Court did two really strange things in this case:

  1. It decided an entirely different issue than the question accepted for review — one that was not properly presented or briefed.
  2. The issue it chose to rule on manifested a complete disregard for Supreme Court precedent and Congressional intent.

Here’s an attempt at an explanation.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that a person can’t be discriminated against  in his/her employment “because of ” his/her race, color, sex, religion or national origin.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) was passed in 1967.  Like Title VII, the ADEA prohibits discrimination in employment  “because of ” age.

The Supreme Court has interpreted the “because of” language and so has Congress. 

The issue first came up for interpretation before the Supreme Court in the Price Waterhouse case in 1989.  In that case, Justice Kennedy pushed for a “but for” standard which meant that the plaintiff in a Title VII case would have to prove that “but for” his race (sex, national origin, religion, etc.) he would not have been terminated (demoted, transferred, etc.).

The Price Waterhouse decision rejected the “but for” standard and held that the plaintiff in a Title VII employment discrimination case bears the burden of  proving that membership in the protected class was a “motivating factor in the employment decision” in order to prove that he or she was discriminated against because of it.

Congress ratified the “motivating factor” interpretation when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991.The precise language of the statute is as follows:

An unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.

What happened in the Gross case last week is that the majority resurrected thebut forstandard and held that:

To establish a disparate treatment claim under the plain language of  the ADEA, the plaintiff must prove that age was the “but-for”cause of the employer’s adverse decision.

It’s important to point out that Title VII and the ADEA have previously been interpreted uniformly by courts throughout this country including the Supreme Court.

After all discrimination is discrimination, and it make no sense to use different methods, burdens, or standards of proof for age discrimination cases than sex or race discrimination cases, and it’s not been done before.

Why The Decision Makes No Sense

For all of the reasons why the majority opinion written by Justice Thomas (joined by guess who) is in my opinion, just  plainly wrong (there are other words I would love to use but I am constrained to be respectful) I recommend that you take a look at  Justice Stevens scathing dissent. Here’s a glimmer:

The Court is unconcerned that the question it chooses to answer has not been briefed by the parties or interested amici curiae.  It’s failure to consider the views of the United States, which represents the agency charged with administering the ADEA, is especially irresponsible.

Unfortunately, the majority’s inattention to prudential Court practices is matched by its utter disregard our our precedent and the Congress’ intent.

Not only did the Court reject the but-for standard in [Price Waterhouse], but so too did Congress when it amended Title VII in 1991. Given this unambiguous history, it is particularly inappropriate for the Court, on its own initiative, to adopt an interpretation of the causation requirement in the ADEA that differs from the established reading of Title VII.

The Court’s endorsement of a different construction of the same critical language in the ADEA and Title VII is both unwise and inconsistent with settled law. 

I disagree not only with the Court’s interpretation of the statute, but also with its decision to engage in unnecessary lawmaking. 

(Justice Souter agreed with Justice Stevens and also wrote a separate dissent. He raised additional problems with the “but for” language — not the least of which is that it’s a tort concept of causation that has no place in the actual context of a discrimination case and its proof.)

What’s Coming

The talk has already started about a Congressional bill which will overturn the decision. As reported in the Washington Times on Friday:

 Democratic lawmakers seized on Justice Stevens’ dissent as constitutional lawyers predicted Congress would make a law to lower the courts new bar for age discrimination cases. 

‘It is even more troubling that these five justices decided to go further than the question presented to the court,’ said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

“This overreaching by a narrow majority of the court will have a detrimental effect on all Americans and their families. In these difficult economic times, American workers need to be protected from discrimination.”

Mr. Leahy said Thursday’s decision reminded him of the court’s “wrong-headed ruling in Ledbetter,” a reference to Lily Ledbetter, whose pursuit of equal pay to her male counterparts at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. was thrown out in 2007 because she filed the lawsuit after the expiry of a 180-day statute of limitations.

What’s the Practical Effect of the Decision?
  • As far as the loss of getting a mixed motive instruction in an age discrimination case, most plaintiff’s lawyers don’t care. It’s too confusing to the jury. So until it’s fixed legislatively, it really doesn’t matter.
  • Most experienced employment lawyers know that the “but for” language will have little effect on a jury.
  • Age discrimination plaintiffs will still have the opportunity, through the use of direct and circumstantial evidence, to prove that they were discriminated against because of their age — and this decision does not change that fact.

While some interpret the decision to  require proof that age was the sole reason for the discharge, I don’t think that’s clear at all from the language of the decision.

The majority opinion relies on a previous Supreme Court case, Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggens, and the language in it that says that “an age discrimination plaintiff can win if it proves that the discrimination played a (not the) role in the employer’s decision making process and had a (not the) determinative influence on the outcome.”

Plaintiffs in age discrimination cases can and will rely on that language to rebut the contention that a higher bar has been set. Justice Thomas also writes in a footnote that  the decision sets no “heightened evidentiary requirement for ADEA plaintiffs ” — so why not take him at his word.

In sum, I think it’s all academic and that the opinion will have little effect on the litigation or trial of age discrimination cases in the future. It will, however, make for a whole pile of briefing on what will shortly become a moot point.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that Congress has certainly never said that it should be harder to prove age discrimination than any other kind of prohibited discrimination and never intended that result.

It’s fundamentally unsound and intellectually dishonest to interpret the same words differently because one discrimination statute refers to race and sex and another refers to age. What’s more, it’s just totally confusing.

That’s why the Gross decision will, in my opinion, be gone in a flash.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post. Her website is www.ellensimon.net.

This article originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on June 22, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

Images:  www.roadtransport.com and farm1.static.flickr.com

Small Business Owners and Support for the Public Option

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Republican opponents of serious health reform like Senator Mitch McConnell love to claim that a public option would hurt small business owners. On the ground, though, the picture is more complex and, if anything, the opposite. Small business owners are suffering under the current system, and many of them strongly support health reform that includes a public option. That’s because enacting real health reform would be a boost – not a blow – to America’s economy.

Looking at the status quo, we find “health care costs choking small businesses.” Listen to the story of this businessman:

Maryland auto shop owner Brian England offers health care coverage to his 18 employees, including part-time staff. He calls it “the right thing to do,” and besides, he knows taking care of his employees makes good business sense.

But every year his insurance premium costs rise another 10 or 20 percent, and England worries about the day when the fees will overwhelm him. After payroll and rent, health care is his largest business expense.

“A business down the road could have their labor rate $5 cheaper than us because that’s how much it costs for us to provide health care,” England said, referring to the hourly rates his business and competitors might offer customers.

[snip]

For England, shopping for policies and finding a way to afford to offer the benefits has become a yearly headache.

I’m in the business to do auto repair,” England said. “I’m not in the business of trying to find out how to provide health coverage and how to get the right sort of plan…. And it’s not easy.”

Brian England goes on to say that he supports a public option.

But anecdotes don’t tell us everything we need to know. In the same story, one of Brian’s peers (albeit someone who employs over nine times as many people) expresses some skepticism about the public option. Turning to quantitative data, then, we get another perspective on small business owners and health care.

Last week, New York Small Business United for Health Care released the results of its statewide survey of 202 small businesses in New York (.pdf). 73% of respondents favored the public option.

Turning to the economic impact of health reform, we see that even the conservative small business groups that oppose a public option recognize the potential economic benefits of an overhaul in the health system.

The prospect of health care reform raising costs for small businesses is “a legitimate fear,” said John Arensmeyer, CEO of Small Business Majority, an organization that believes employers should provide insurance to their workers.

BUT:

A study commissioned by the organization found that businesses with fewer than 100 employees could save as much as $855 billion over the next 10 years if health care reform is enacted.

And going back to the story of Brian England’s auto shop, we learn that

Of the 46 million Americans living without health care, an outsized majority — about 60 percent — work for small businesses, according to the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute. Owners of those businesses say Congress needs to find a solution to an increasingly costly problem — but they disagree about how to get it right.

Taking all these pieces together, it’s clear that small business owners recognize our current health care system is broken. Moreover, it’s clear that when Republicans say small business owners oppose a public option, they are speaking for a minority. Both survey data and anecdotal evidence suggests that small businessmen are far from united in their viewpoints on health care, and that within the business community many support the public option.

Is that a surprise? Not with over 70% of Americans in favor of the public option. Surely that number includes thousands of hard-working small businessmen and women.

Whether it’s the uninsured, the underinsured, the struggling middle class, or the business owner worried about how to do the right thing for her employees and make her business more competitive, Americans want health reform with a public option. Let’s hope Congress doesn’t get mislead into believing that the men and women who are the engine of our nation’s economy do not want this change.

About the Author: Alex Thurston is a research intern for Healthcare for America Now.

This article originally appeared in Health Care for America Now! Re-printed with permission by the author.

The REAL Bipartisan Consensus on Health Care

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

As noted by glacierpeaks in Quick Hits, there’s solid GOP support for a public option–among the Republican public, not the Republican elite. From the NYT poll:

It could not be clearer. In America, as in Iran, the deepest cleavage is between the public and the political elites. The difference between Iran and America is the nature of the dynamic. In Iran, the unelected elite selected a group of “safe” opposition candidates it allowed to run for President, and the people themselves turned one of those candidates into the vehicle of their desire for real reform. In America, propelled through the primary system, people voted for someone who really appeared to be apart from the establishment–someone who spoke out against the Iraq War, for gosh sakes! Authentic progressives (TM) could not accept anything less! And what we got was a relentless centrist, not in the “center of America” sense as the above poll result so clearly shows, but in the “center of Versailles” sense.

Other “counter-intuitive” trends are afoot as well–counter to the Versailles intuition, that is…. Paul Rosenberg :: The REAL Bipartisan Consensus On Health Care Skepticism toward government is decreasing:

Concern over coverage (vs. costs) is increasing:

And all this despite the fact that people realize there could be downsides (heavens! will they never stop growing up?):

In a follow-up interview, Matt Flurkey, 56, a public plan supporter from Plymouth, Minn., said he could accept that the quality of his care might diminish if coverage was universal. “Even though it might not be quite as good as what we get now,” he said, “I think the government should run health care. Far too many people are being denied now, and costs would be lower.”

Just imagine what it would be like if we had political leadership in our country that worked in harmony with the people, instead of working against them! Legitimate concerns would be met by can-do efforts to mitigate the downsides, while staying true to the main thrust of what the people themselves wanted to be done.

This, after all, is what the Iranian people are shedding their blood for this very day. And we’re the example that’s inspired the world since our own Revolution 200+ years ago. But we still seem as far away from realizing that goal as ever before.

Yes, we’ve gotten a lot better buy-off gifts over the years. And I wouldn’t poo-poo any of them. We’ve ended slavery. Women can vote. They’re even a small minority in the Senate. But a government that actually works with the people to achieve what they want?

You can’t be serious!

About the Author: Paul Rosenberg is progressive activist and journalist who is a frontpage blogger for OpenLeft.org and Senior Editor for Random Lengths News, an alternative bi-weekly in the Los Angeles Harbor Area, where he specializes in labor, community and environmental justice issues. From his anti-war and civil rights activism as a teenager in the 1960s, through his involvement in food co-ops in the 1970s, to his Central American solidarity work, media and renters’ rights activism in the 1980s, and beyond, he has focused his energy primarily on issue activism, with increasing attention to media from the mid-1980s on. He began working as a freelance journalist with a primary focus on op-eds and book reviews in 1994, and joined Random Lengths News in 2002. He’s been published in the Progressive magazine, Publishers Weekly, the LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Dallas Morning News.

This article originally appeared in Open Left on June 21, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

Bad Distribution of Income Led to Great Depression: History Repeats in 2008

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Great Crash 1929, an economic history focused in part on the men of the market who brought on the crash, in graceful and snarky prose. In his last chapter, he tells us of five major weaknesses in the real economy that made it possible for the disaster to destroy a generation. At the top of his list is the badly unequal distribution of wealth.

He points out that the top 5% of the population earned about one third of all personal income in 1929. Those figures comport well with the figures from Emanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, whose IRS data indicates that the top 5% earned about 37% of gross income in 1929. P. 194 (references are to the Penguin Books 1992 ed.). For a discussion of the 2006 figures, see this NYT article.

Productivity increased steadily from 1920 to 1929, but wages and prices were stagnant. P. 192 Costs fell, and profits increased, but how were the wealthy to dispose of the money? The choices were consumption of luxuries or capital investment. There is only so much even the rich can consume. If anything happened to reduce the flow of money to capital expenditures, consumer spending could not increase to take its place, and the economy was headed down. In the event, it looks like a huge part of it went to speculation. There is insufficient evidence, according to Galbraith, to be certain that this was the central cause, and bless him for his warning about theorizing with incomplete data, but he thinks the explanation is consistent with the observed facts available to him in 1954.

He identifies four other factors.

1. Bad corporate structures. Although the business press praised the businessmen of that day, the fact (P. 195.) was that

American enterprise in the twenties had opened its hospitable arms to an exceptional number of promoters, grafters, swindlers, impostors, and frauds. This, in the long history of such activities, was a kind of flood tide of corporate larceny.

2. Bad banking structure. Galbraith doesn’t think bankers were any worse or better in the 20s than the 50s, but the structure of banks made runs on banks easier and more likely.

3. The balance of trade. The US was a creditor to most of the world. As the decade wore on, that status increased every year. High US tariffs made it difficult for other nations to balance their imports from the US with exports to the US, so accounts were settled in transfers of gold, or in shaky and crooked loans, like the loans made by National City Bank (predecessor, somehow, of CitiGroup) to Peru. P. 198-9. As this became more difficult, other countries had to reduce imports from the US, which caused strains in sectors of the economy, particularly agriculture.

4. Incompetent economic advice. From p. 200:

The economic advisors of the day had both the unanimity and authority to force the leaders of both political parties to disavow all the available steps to check deflation and depression.

Two and three seem unlikely culprits this time. It looks to me like a good case can be made for one, with all the money lost by the great geniuses of Wall Street and their counterparts in the banking and other businesses. What kind of country did our corporate masters think would be left when they exported all the decent jobs to other nations? Actually, it doesn’t affect them a bit. They just whine that they are being put upon by the great unwashed, and have to pretend they aren’t really all that different from you and me. When Newsweek notices it, it must be real.

As to four, judging competence isn’t easy. What do you think about the economic crowd? If you liked them under Bush, you’ll love them in their new form under Obama, including their supporters in the money party, the Blue Dogs and the rump of the Republican party. John Kenneth Galbraith would recognize these people too.

About the Author: Masaccio has a law degree from Indiana University and is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He began his career as a corporate and securities lawyer. He then worked in consumer protection and securities law for several years before becoming the securities commissioner of his home state. He has practiced business and bankruptcy law for the past 25 years. Beginning with an expensive and slightly frightening experience with Small Martingale as a young man, he has had an opportunity to see, investigate, sue and prosecute a wide variety of fraud cases, including check-kiting, critter contracts, churning, insider trading, Ponzi schemes, and stock market manipulation. This background is helpful in his work for FDL, which focuses on explaining the financial industry of today.

This article originally appeared in Firedoglake on June 21, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

Workers' Rights

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I n looking back on growing up, I always remember 1957 and 1958 at “the two good years,” They were the only years my working class redneck family ever caught a real break in their working lives, and that break came because of organized labor. After working as a farm hand, driving a hicktown taxi part time, and a dozen catch as catch can jobs, my father found himself owning a used semi-truck and hauling produce for a Teamster unionized trucking company called Blue Goose.

Daddy was making more money than he’d ever made in his life, about $4,000 a year. The median national household income at the time was $5,000, mostly thanks to America’s unions. After years of moving from one rented dump to another, we bought a modest home, ($8,000) and felt like we might at last be getting some traction in achieving the so-called “American Dream.” Yup, Daddy was doing pretty good for a backwoods boy who’d quit school in the sixth or seventh grade — he was never sure, which gives some idea how seriously the farmboy took his attendance at the one-room school we both attended in our lifetimes.

This was the golden age of both trucking and of unions. Thirty-five percent of American labor, 17 million working folks, were union members, and it was during this period the American middle class was created. The American middle class has never been as big as advertised, but if it means the middle third income-wise, then we actually had one at the time. But whatever it means, one third of working folks, the people who busted their asses day in and day out making the nation function, were living better than they ever had. Or at least had the opportunity to do so.

From the Depression through World War II the Teamsters Union became a powerful entity, and a popular one too because of such things as its pledge never to strike during the war or a national emergency. President Roosevelt even had a special designated liaison to the Teamsters. But power and money eventually drew the usual assortment of lizards, and by the mid-fifties the Teamsters Union had become one corrupt pile of shit at the top level. So rotten even the mob enjoyed a piece of the action. The membership, ordinary guys like my dad, was outraged and ashamed, but rendered powerless by the crooked union bosses in the big cities.

My old man was no great follower of the news or current events, but he tried to keep up with and understand Teamster developments. Which was impossible since his reading consisted of anti-union Southern newspapers, and the television coverage of Teamster criminality, including murders, and the ongoing courtroom trials.

All this left him conflicted. His Appalachian Christian upbringing defined the world in black and white, with no gray areas. Inside he felt he should not be even remotely connected with such vile things as the Teamsters were associated with. And he sometimes prayed for guidance in the matter. On the other hand, there was the pride and satisfaction in providing for his family in ways previously impossible. He’d built a reasonable working class security for those times and that place in West Virginia. Being a Teamster certainly made that possible. But for damned sure no one had handed it to him. He drove his guts out to get what he had.

There were rules, and log books and all the other crap that were supposed to assure drivers got enough rest, and ensure road safety and fairness for the truckers. Rural heartland drivers saw it for the bullshit it was, but it was much better paying bullshit. For a little guy hauling produce from Podunk USA to the big cities, it still came down to heartburn, hemorrhoids, and longer hauls and longer hours than most driver’s falsified log books showed. And sometimes way too much Benzedrine, or “bennies.”

Bennies were a type of speed commonly used by truckers back then because of the grueling hauls. As a former doper who has done bennies, I can avow they are some gritty nerve jagging shit. Their only virtue is making you wide awake and jumpy, and after you’ve been awake on them a couple days, which many drivers were, crazier than a shithouse rat. Nearly every truck stop sold bennies under the counter. Once while hallucinating on bennies Daddy nearly wiped out a roadside joint. He recalled “layin’ on the jake brake, down shifting, and watching hundreds of the witches like in The Wizard of Oz come down out of the sky in the dark.” Somehow he got 30,000 pounds back onto the road while several folks inside the diner were pissing themselves in the windowside booths.

My daddy ran the eastern seaboard in a 12-wheeler — there were no 18 wheelers yet. It had polished chrome and bold letters that read, “BLUE GOOSE LINE”. Parked alongside our little asbestos sided house, I’d marvel at the magic of those bold words, the golden diamond and sturdy goose. And dream of someday “burning up Route 50″ like my dad.

Old U.S. Route 50 ran near the house and was the stuff of legend if your daddy happened to be a truck driver who sometimes took you with him on the shorter hauls: “OK boy, now scrunch down and lookinto the side mirror. I’m gonna turn the top of them side stacks red hot.” And he would pop the clutch and strike sparks on the anvil of the night, downshifting toward Pinkerton, Coolville and Hanging Rock. It never once occurred to me that his ebullience and our camaraderie might be due to a handful of bennies.

Yessir, Old 50 was a mighty thing, a howling black slash through the Blue Ridge Mountain fog. A place where famed and treacherous curves made widows and truck stops and cafes bloomed in the tractor trailers’ smoky wakes. A roadmap will tell you it eventually reaches Columbus and Saint Louis, places I imagined had floodlights raking the skies heralding the arrival of heroic Teamster truckers like my father. Guys who’d fought in Germany and Italy and the Solomon Islands and were still wearing their service caps these years later, but now pinned with the gold steering wheel of the Teamsters Union. Such are a working class boy’s dreams.

I have two parched photos from that time. One is of me and my brother and sister, ages ten, eight and six. We are standing in the front yard, three little redneck kids with bad haircuts squinting for some faint clue as to whether there was really a world out there, somewhere beyond West Virginia. The other photo is of my mother and the three of us on the porch of that house on route 50. On the day my father was slated to return from any given run we’d all stand on the porch listening for the sound of airbrakes, the deep roar as he came down off the mountain. Each time my mother would step onto the porch blotting her lipstick, Betty Grable style hair rustling in the breeze, and say, “Stand close, your daddy’s home.”

And that was about as good as it ever got for our family. Daddy’s heart later gave way from a congenital defect and he lost everything. He was so scrupulously honest about debts he could never recover financially. Unable to borrow money, uneducated and weakened for life, he set to working in car washes and garages. After his union trucking days were over, we were assigned to the margins of America, a million miles from the American Dream, joining those people never seen on television, represented by no politician and never heard from in halls of power.

Now it was only a little house by the side of the road with not enough closets and ugly asbestos shingle siding. But it was ours, just like the truck and the chance to get ahead that it offered. And we had felt like we were some small part of America as it was advertised. All because of a union job during the heyday of unions in this nation.

It was also a period of Teamsters Union corruption, replete with criminal moguls such as Dave Beck, George Meany and Jimmy Hoffa. Yet the history of the few top lizards on the national rock of greed is not the history of the people.

If a few pricks and gangsters have occasionally seized power over the dignity of labor, countless more calculating, bloodless and malevolent pricks — the capitalist elites — have always held most of the cards, which is why in 1886 railroad and financial baron Jay Gould could sneer, “I can always hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” And why a speaker at the U.S. Business Conference Board in 1974 could arrogantly declare, “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II.” And why that same year Business Week magazine said, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow — the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing in modern economic history compares with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept this new reality.”

The new reality is here, and has been since 1973, the last year American workers made a wage gain in real dollars. Hell, it’s been here so long we accept it as part of America’s cultural furniture. Only about 12% of American workers are unionized and even with a supposedly union friendly Democratic Congress, unions are still fighting to exist (although government employees are unionized at 36%, because the Empire allows some leeway for its commissars). In fact, things are worse than ever. Employers can now force employees to attend anti-union presentations during the workday, at captive audience meetings in which union supporters are forbidden to speak under threat of insubordination. Back in 1978 when I was working to organize the local newspaper, the management was not even allowed to speak to the workers on the matter until after the union vote results were in.

Then there’s President Obama, the guy soft headed liberals think is going to turn this dreadful scenario around. He talks a good game about unions, when he is forced to. But Obama is working on the things that will “create a legacy,” such as health care (which is simply a new way to pay the insurance industry’s blackmail) or the economy (by appointing the same damned people who fucked it up to fix it), and immigration reform, a nicely nebulous term that can mean whatever either side of the issue wants it to mean. Obama’s not going to publicly ignore the unions. But he’s not going to sink much political capital into this corporatized nation’s most radio-active issue either. For him, union legislation is just a distraction from the “legacy building” of a very charming,savvy, and ambitious politician. That is the assessment of Glenn Spencer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most anti-union institutions in America. (Many thanks to Washington writer Ken Silverstein for publishing Spencer’s astute observations).

Things are changing though. Union membership climbed 12 percent last year. Twelve percent of twelve percent ain’t shit, but at least it’s forward motion. At that rate it will only take us 21 years to get back to the 1956 level of union membership. We can expect no miracles, top union leaders are still among the Empire’s elites. And they are still technically accountable to whatever membership will still have jobs when the 2012 elections roll around. The least they could do is make it harder for Obama to lick off those millions of hard earned union support dollars from the top of the campaign contribution ice cream cone as he did in ’08.

But who can be sure? Because the new union elites and their minions are lawyers and marketing professionals. They’ve never come down off the mountain with both stacks red hot, or gathered on the porch of a crappy but new roadside bungalow, proud because they owned it, and stood up straight because, “Boys, your daddy is coming home.”

I’m not going into the current brouhaha about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) or the “card check” bullshit here. Because what it’s gonna take to restore dignity to laboring America, ain’t gonna be more legislative wrangling. What it takes won’t be pretty, maybe not even legal in this new police state, and sure as hell won’t be “within the system.” Because the system is the problem.

So it will be up us, just like it always has been … the writer, the Nicaraguan janitor, the forty year old family man forced to bag groceries at Walmart, the pizza delivery guy, the welder and the certified nurse…the long haul trucker and the short order cook. And they will snicker at us from their gilded roosts on Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some people are bound to get hurt in the necessary fight. In fact, people need to be willing to get hurt in the fight. That’s the way we once gained worker rights, and that’s the way we will get them back. The only way to get rid of the robbers’ roost is to burn the fucker down.

Anyone got a match?

About the Author: Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com (Random House Crown), about working class America.  He is also a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com.

This article originally appeared in Counterpunch on June 19, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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