Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for August, 2009

Got Feedback?

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Last time I talked about how most of us treat feedback like castor oil, something that may be good for you but is tough to swallow. As a registered member of the Feedback Junkies, I solicited feedback from readers and colleagues. This week I’ll review the most interesting comments, both good and bad, to hopefully inspire you to get out there and solicit some of your own feedback.
 
First the questions that I asked people to respond to:

1.    What do you like best about me?
2.    If you had a magic wand, what would you like to change?
3.    Do you have a favorite story that sums up the essence of who I am?
4.    Anything else?

Readers comments were uniformly upbeat. Sure I’ve gotten my share of flame emails in the past, but for some reason this week the missives were all kind. Here is a representative sample:

“I just caught up to your latest column–How am I doing?–and wanted to let you know I’m still here reading it, enjoying it and, at times, disagreeing with it.  As I’ve written you before, we come from the opposite sides of the political spectrum.  Politics aside, I enjoy your ability to craft an insightful post which always makes me think.  You have a great writing “voice” so please keep up the great work, even the posts that tweak my conservative sensibilities.”

“A friend is trying to coach me toward a successful conversion from regular worker to entrepreneurial leader. My feedback to you is not very specific, I’m afraid. My friend selects various articles for me to read each day, and I go over them carefully, sending my responses back for his evaluation. My feedback to you is: When I find a Bob Rosner article in the mix, I smile. That’s it.”

“I read your column today and you wanted to know how you are doing.  I think you’re doing fine. I hope you continue to do the column for a long time to come.”

I guess it was a good week for readers of this blog.
 
My colleagues had a bit more to say. I’ll group their comments with the questions above.
 
1. What do you like best about me?
“Endlessly cerebrally entertaining. Always find a new way to look at things in the world, which brings new insights and realizations about what we take for granted. If I were going to live on a Mars base, I’d want you along.”
“I like best your sense of humor, your chutzpah and your impact on the world in areas like second-hand smoke and in helping employees (and employers) make some sense of work situations.”
“Great spirit and enthusiasm.  Honesty and appreciation of real feedback.”
“This question sent me running to the dictionary because I knew there were two words that apply here. They look alike, but they mean different things. One is indefatigable – which means basically that you are impossible to fatigue or wear out. The other one is undefeatable. (I’m not sure this is a word.) They both apply to you. You are so positive and optimistic and “I can do it” oriented that I think if somebody tried to knock you out, you might go down for a minute but you’d pop right back up like a rubber inflated version of yourself.”

2. If you had a magic wand, what would you like to change?
“Your Color Palette! Man, with what you wear, you look too bland for that technicolor personality of yours. Let that lady of yours take you shopping and pick out some threads that put some color on your visible persona.”
My brother offered to pay for an appointment with a therapist. You just gotta love your family.
“Better sense of humor…just kidding.  I can’t think of any needed magic wand transformations at the moment…I need more time to learn you’re really annoying qualities.”
“I’m not into doing a magic wand thing. You’re very much your own person, all of a piece. I think you’re making the things you want to have happen in your life happen and I have no desire to toy with the workings.”

Well, I guess you could say, except for my brother, I got mostly a pass on that question.
 
There you have it, I’m glad I asked for feedback and chances are good that you will be too.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. 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.

Senator Kennedy - A Health Care Champion

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Senator Kennedy’s legacy cannot be defined within one issue, no matter how important. But it would not be an understatement to say that his life’s work revolved around health care for all. He said so himself, calling it “the cause of [his] life” in a passionate Newsweek op-ed published just last month.

True to form, Kennedy turned his passion into real results. The list of health care legislative accomplishments he was part of is stunning. From the website set up by his family dedicated in his honor:

  • In 1966, Kennedy helped establish the community health center model in the United States. Community health centers are now serving 20 million low-income Americans around the country.
  • In 1985, Kennedy led the fight to enact COBRA, giving workers the ability to purchase health care through their employer after they have been let go from their job.
  • In 1996, Kennedy co-sponsored HIPPAA, which now ensures access to health care coverage for an estimated 25 million Americans who move from one job to another, are self-employed or have pre-existing medical conditions.
  • In 1997, Kennedy was instrumental in passing the CHIP program that gives health care to millions of children.
  • In 2006, Kennedy passed the Family Opportunity Act, which provides states with the opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage to children with special needs, giving low- and middle-income families with disabled children the opportunity to purchase health coverage under Medicaid.
  • From 1997-2008, Kennedy helped grant Massachusetts the Medicaid waivers it needed to pass its state health care reform plan.
  • In 2008, Kennedy enacted legislation to reform the inequities in the way mental health and substance use disorders are treated by the insurance industry, a 10 year battle.
  • And finally, in 2009 under his leadership and the leadership of his close friend, Senator Chris Dodd, Kennedy passed the Affordable Health Choices Act – which would give everyone in America a guarantee of quality, affordable health care – through the Senate committee he chaired, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The bill awaits a vote by the Senate as the health reform process moves forward.

Senator Kennedy’s towering vision for health care was built on his numerous accomplishments. While there is sadness in knowing Senator Kennedy won’t be with us to see his life’s work completed, we will keep him in our thoughts as our fight continues and we finally achieve quality, affordable health care for all this year.

About the Author: Jason Rosenbaum is a writer and musician currently residing in Washington D.C. He is interested in the intersection of politics and culture, media consolidation issues, and making sense out of our foreign policy disasters. He currently works for Health Care for America Now and he is also the webmaster for The Seminal.

This article originally appeared on the Health Care for America NOW! Blog on August 27, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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On the Death of My Older Brother, Jeremy, and Ted Kennedy

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

In the coming days, many great eulogies of Ted Kennedy will be written. Many will offer personal anecdotes about what a great man he was. I do not intend to write one here.

I have no great anecdotes or personal stories to tell about how Ted Kennedy directly touched my life. I meet the man once briefly in passing while walking in the U.S. Capitol.

I did however lose an older brother, far too young, much as Senator Kennedy did. Anyone who has ever lost an older brother understands the intense pressure that the surviving younger brothers to live up to the legacies of their older brothers. Its an inescapable burden.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my brother. I find myself wondering often what my brother would do if he were still alive. He died at the young age of twenty one of leukemia far before he could develop into the type of activist that I am today. He never got the chance to fight for working people the way that I so luckily have.

Ever since I turned twenty-one, I have treated every day like it was one extra day and cherished it. It has made me want to get up in the morning and worker harder and be smarter because I feel so lucky to be alive. I feel that to not work as hard and diligently as I possibly could would be a disservice to my brother’s legacy. My brother’s legacy serves as a constant source of inspiration for some of the darkest hours and toughest fights.

Senator Kennedy cited his brother’s legacy too in passing health care reform with a public option out of his committee earlier this year. In his statement he said:

“This room is a special place. In this room, my two brothers declared their candidacy for the presidency. Today, the nation takes another major step toward reaching the goals to which they dedicated their careers, and for which they gave their lives. They strived, as I have tried to do, for a fairer and more just America — a nation where every American could share fully in the promise of quality health care.”

America has lost an older brother in the death of Ted Kennedy. We must all be fortunate that we are still alive and around to fight to make a public health insurance plan available for all Americans that Ted would have loved to fight for. We must work harder for the things that we believe in. If Ted were still alive today, he would be fighting like hell for the public health insurance option that he considered a fundamental human right.

Lets fight for my brother too. He died tragically and far too young. His death shocked my family. Fortunately, my father was a member of a union and the union provided us with excellent health care. In the closing days of my brother’s lives, we did not have to worry about medical bills. We spent them enjoying the company of my brother, Jeremy.

Every American deserves the same type of high quality health care that my brother, Jeremy, had in the closing days of his life. There is no reason why people in the richest country on the planet should have to suffer because their only crime was being too poor to afford quality health care.

Let’s fight like hell for the public health insurance plan that Senator Kennedy so dearly fought for in the closing days of his life.

My deepest condolences to the friends and family of Senator Kennedy.

I hope that Ted is in heaven now finally reunited with his brothers as I hope to someday be reunited with mine.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). Currently, he works at the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he has worked as a staffer on the Obama-Biden Campaign and conducted research on worker owned cooperatives at the Instituto Marques de Salamanca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When Mike is not reading twenty blogs at a time, he enjoys jazz, golden retrievers, and playing horseshoes.

This article originally appeared in Campaign for America’s Future on August 26, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.


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You're Invited to Write for "Taking Back Labor Day"

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

This September Workplace Fairness and the Today’s Workplace Blog will be hosting our second annual “Taking Back Labor Day” blog carnival.  Since last Labor Day our blog has been relaunched and improved and our website continues to grow.  This year we were nominated for a Webby Award for Best Law Site and have increased our number of website visitors annually to over 400,000.  Today’s Workplace is a source for commentary and discussion on the most important issues in labor and employment facing workers today.

Labor Day should be a time to remind people of why the labor movement is still important and to discuss and take inventory of critical issues affecting workers.  We are inviting you to write an original blog for Labor Day.  A few broad topics we’d like to touch on are as follows:

* Why is the labor movement still important?
* How can it be further revitalized?
* How can unions and employment lawyers work together more closely to advance the rights of workers?
* What things should the Obama administration be focusing on with regard to the labor movement?
* In 5, 10, 15 years, what will be the most important workplace issue to consider on Labor Day?
* Given the state of our economy and all that has happened since late 2008, what part should the labor movement play and how will it change?

Last year we ended up with 35 guest bloggers for “Taking Back Labor Day” and this year we hope to make it even bigger.  If you do not have time to write an original piece we would also be happy to crosspost from your ‘home’ blogs if you would like to send something.  Also we encourage all our contributors and readers to make comments and really turn the blogs into a conversation. Perhaps through this effort more people will remember that Labor Day is not just a good day to go shopping, but a day, as Peter McGuire put it circa 1882, to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

If you have any questions please feel free to contact Paula Brantner at blog@todaysworkplace.org. Articles can be sent as word documents to the aforementioned email address or if you are familiar with blog publishing we can set up a user account for you.  If you would like to post a blog that is pertinent to our audience but not specific to Labor Day you are welcome to send it and we will post it later in the month. 

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Shannon Lichtenberg & Paula Brantner
Workplace Fairness

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Women's Equality Day - Continuing the Fight

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Eighty-nine years after women finally won the right to vote, we honor the past success of the women’s suffrage movement and recommit to today’s continuing fight for equality.

There is still much work to be done. Women still earn less than men, and are still more likely to live in poverty. The lack of workplace policies means it is still difficult for working women, particularly those earning low wages, to meet our dual responsibilities at work and at home. And, even though we’re in the toughest economic times in recent memory, there is still no federal legislation that guarantees the time to care for yourself or your family in times of illness without losing your pay or your job.

Even as we recognize the struggle that won women the right to vote, the fight to win a minimum labor standard of paid sick days is at full pitch. In Milwaukee, 9to5 has filed an appeal to a judge’s ruling to void the sick days ordinance passed by 70 percent of Milwaukee voters last November. And in Washington DC, the Healthy Families Act, federal legislation that would guarantee paid sick days to American workers, is moving in the Congress. 9to5’s members, activists and allies are contacting members of Congress, telling their stories, and helping to build awareness that paid sick days are good for working families, good for the flailing economy, good for business.

Visit www.9to5.org to learn more about how we organize women to speak out to end the pay gap, change work-family policy and win paid sick days.

On this Women’s Equality Day, the legacy of the suffragists who organized women to win the right to vote compels us to recommit to winning equality and justice for working women.

Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, an inclusive multi-racial membership organization founded in 1973 to strengthen the ability of low-income women to win economic justice through grassroots organizing and policy advocacy.

Under Linda’s leadership, 9to5 has won important victories on minimum wage, good jobs, work-family, anti-discrimination, pay equity, welfare, child care and other issues affecting low-income women. Linda has spent more than 30 years as a labor and community organizer. She also serves as an adjunct professor specializing in sexual harassment and other workplace issues.

Linda is a member of the Governor’s Colorado Pay Equity Commission, serves in the leadership of several state and national policy coalitions, and has received several awards for her work with and on behalf of low-income women, including the “Be Bold” Award presented by the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. She was recently appointed to the National Board of Directors of the American Forum, a progressive media organization.

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How Am I Doing?

Monday, August 24th, 2009

When Ed Koch was Mayor of New York he was famous for asking, “How am I doing?” He’d ask CEOs, bus drivers and everyone in between. When it came to feedback he was almost indiscriminate in terms of who he’d ask.

Which leads me to this week’s confession. I’m Bob Rosner, and I’m a feedback junkie. Like Mayor Koch, I love to hear how I’m doing. And not just the good stuff either, because if I’m screwing up, and I screw up a lot, I’d rather hear about it sooner than later.

But when I think of feedback I don’t only think of Mayor Koch, I also think of Melissa. She was a top executive of a publishing company in Seattle. I served as her coach for the better part of a year. After a series of conversations, I felt that Melissa had no idea of her strengths. So I encouraged her to ask for feedback from a people she trusted—former coworkers, friends and family. To make the process totally safe for her, she alone would pick the people to ask for feedback.

Melissa resisted making the feedback calls for months. Something always came up that prevented her from doing it. Finally she got the courage to contact a former coworker. She said that the coworker gushed about how Melissa was always there for her. Melissa was so moved that she started to cry. Then Melissa called her brother who surprised her by saying that she was his hero. He recounted a series of stories describing how much she had helped him through the years, most of which she had forgotten. Melissa said that her only regret was that she waited so long to ask people to take a Melissa moment.

I’m sure that at least a few of you who are reading this are in the Melissa-before-she-made-her-request-for-feedback camp. Feedback conjured up a picture of castor oil, something that was good for you but that undoubtedly would trigger your gag response or the gag response of those closest to you.

That’s why I decided to conduct an experiment to see if I can encourage you to join the Feedback Junkies Club. I’m going to ask everyone who reads this column to email me your feedback about this column, past blogs or Working Wounded (bob@workingwounded.com). I’m also going to write to a group of people who I’ve worked with or known through the years and ask them to answer a few simple questions:

1.    What do you like best about me?

2.    If you had a magic wand, what would you like to change?

3.    Do you have a favorite story that sums up the essence of who I am?

4.    Anything else?

I’ll be back next time with the good, the bad and the ugly from the responses. But hopefully this won’t just be about me and will encourage you to ask similar questions to the people who matter in your life.

About the Author: Bob Rosneris a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. 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.

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Trumped-Up Reasons For Termination Can Prove Retaliatory Discharge

Friday, August 21st, 2009

When employees are fired for misconduct, employers often think that they have an airtight defense to any charges of wrongful discharge. But that’s often not so.

The case of Upshaw v. Ford Motor Company, decided last week by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, brought this point home.

What Happened In The Case

Here’s a brief synopsis of what happened in the case.

Carolyn Upshaw worked for Ford Motor Company in Michigan as a production supervisor for several years. In spite of the fact that she received excellent reviews, she was repeatedly denied a promotion.

In 2003, she filed a charge of race and gender discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Upshaw alleged that Ford had “improperly promoted similarly-situated while male production supervisors to Salary Grade 7 while continually denying her the same promotion.”

She later filed two more EEOC charges alleging various retaliatory acts by Ford. In 2004, she filed a lawsuit. In 2005, Upshaw was fired.

In response, Upshaw filed an additional EEOC charge claiming that she was terminated in retaliation for filing her prior EEOC charges and filing a lawsuit.

Upshaw also amended her complaint to contain a claim for retaliatory discharge. All of her claims were filed pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The district court judge threw out Upshaw’s case against Ford. Upshaw appealed, and the Court of Appeals found in her favor on her claim for retaliatory discharge.

Why The Lower Court Was Reversed

Ford claimed that it fired Upshaw for cause. These were the reasons the company gave to support the discharge:

  1. Falsification of company records by under-reporting scrap
  2. Harassment of and retaliation against one the employees she supervised
  3. Violation of company safety policies on multiple occasions by driving an  uninspected personnel scooter and continually failing to wear a required safety vest, and
  4. Insubordination

Upshaw submitted proof that none of these reasons would warrant the termination of a supervisor on its own or together.

Upshaw presented evidence to prove that business reasons for the discharge were not true or not believable (what’s called evidence of “pretext”) Therefore, she contended, she should have been allowed to present her case to a jury. The Court agreed.

Evidence of Pretext
The Court had several problems with Ford’s justification for Upshaw’s termination, not the least of which was that other employees who engaged in the same misconduct were not terminated.  As the Court put it:

As a threshold matter, Upshaw has established that two of Ford’s four proffered reasons for terminating Upshaw – safety violations and her failure to timely resolve union health and safety complaints – do not typically warrant any formal discipline at Ford’s Sharonville plant, let alone termination.

In addition, the charges which were raised because Upshaw allegedly was insubordinate when she failed to timely resolve union safety complaints in a timely fashion were neither valid nor true. 

According to the Court’s opinion:

Ford employees testified that no supervisor could be expected to resolve nineteen health and safety complaints by a union representative within a twenty-four hour period, and that they did not know of anybody who has ever been disciplined or fired for failure to complete health and safety forms within 24 hours.

What’s more, the supervisor involved with the so-called insubordination testified that “she could never recall asking Upshaw to do something that she did not do.”

Finally, as to  the incorrect scrap reports,  the evidence showed that Ford had never previously treated misreporting scrap as a serious offense that would result in discipline or termination of a supervisor.

In sum, what you have in the case is evidence that employees who engaged in the same conduct as Upshaw were not disciplined or terminated.  The other reasons given by Ford for the discharge were simply not credible or plainly false.

The Court’s Conclusions

Viewing the evidence presented by Uphsaw (in a light most favorable to her at the summary judgment stage as the rules require) the Court concluded that her case should not have been thrown out and Upshaw should be entitled to take her retaliation case to a jury.

This is some of what the Court had to say when it reversed the lower court:

Although Ford is entitled to terminate an employee for an actual violation of its internal policies, Upshaw has introduced evidence suggesting that these actual violations were nothing more than trumped -up charges.

The Court also said:

When an employer waits for a legal, legitimate reason to fortuitously materialize and then uses it to cover up his true longstanding motivations for firing the employee, the employer’s actions constitute the very definition of pretext

In addition, the Court also relied on its previous decision in Hamiliton v. General Electric, ((discussed in Employee Rights Post)) — a case in which the employee filed a charge of discrimination and  was then fired for misconduct :

Plaintiff alleged that after he had filed an age-discrimination claim against GE with the EEOC, his supervisors intensified their scrutiny of his work and harassed him more that they ever had before.

GE terminated plaintiff when he allegedly engaged in “unacceptable conduct;” the parties disputed the details of the incident.

The district court granted summary judgment for GE but we reversed explaining that “a reasonable fact-finder could determine that GE waited for, and ultimately contrived a reason to terminate Hamilton to cloak its true, retaliatory motive for firing him.

Therefore since the jury could find that Ford’s reasons for the discharge were “contrived” following the filing of her EEOC charges and the filing of the lawsuit, Upshaw should  — according to the Court — have a right to prove her case to a jury.

Lessons From The Case

This case is a huge help for employees who face charges of misconduct to mask a discriminatory or retaliatory motive for discharge under any civil rights statute.

When employees are not comparably disciplined for the same misconduct, or the reasons given for the discharge just don’t hold up to scrutiny, employers can find themselves in big trouble as far as liability for civil rights violations is concerned.

Employers need to watch out for trumped up charges that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

This article originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on August 16, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She has been listed in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. Ellen has been listed as one of The Best Lawyers in America for her landmark work representing individuals in precedent-setting cases. She also received regional and national attention for winning a record $30.7 million verdict in an age-discrimination case; the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Ellen has served as an adjunct professor of employment law and is an experienced and popular orator. Ellen is Past-Chair of the Employment Rights Section of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and is honored to be a fellow of the International Society of Barristers and American Board of Trial Advocates. In additional to work as a legal analyst, she currently acts as co-counsel on individual employment cases, is available as an expert witness on employment matters and offers consulting services on sound employment practices, discrimination awareness and prevention, complaint investigation and resolution, and litigation management. 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, and her website is www.ellensimon.net. Ellen has two children and lives with her husband in Sedona, Arizona.

 


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Teabaggers Are To Congresspeople What Union-Busters Are To Workers

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

After reading an article by Chris Townsend the other day, I noticed the the strong similarities between union busting and the tactics of teabaggers — namely, how they suppress, intimidate, and delay action at all costs. They both rely on intimidating people to the point where there is no longer any space left to make any logical argument.

From Chris Townsend, who started off his career as union activist thirty years ago as a garbageman in Upstate New York and thirty years later is continuing to take out the trash in Washington, D.C. as Political Action Director for United Electrical Workers (UE):

House and Senate Democrats should know that what they are now witnessing in their meetings is nothing more than what hundreds of thousands of working people are subjected to every year when they try to join a union. The only difference is that working people are forced to endure months of intimidation, lies, disruption, and chaos – and frequently termination from their jobs — when they try to exercise their right to join a union. The Democrats should be glad that they are only forced to tolerate a few hours of this corporate attack.

Think about the hell that these Congressman are going through at these meetings and then think about what workers must experience when they try to join unions. You’d be folding the way Democrats are folding on the public option if you feared losing your job in the same way.

Bosses and union busting consultants rely on threats to intimidate and coerce people. In 57% of all union drives they threaten to close factories, but only close them 2% of the time. Indeed, they do fire workers in about 34% of all union drives just to intimidate the rest of the works.

From Townsend:

When workers try to join a union today in the private sector, in almost every case the boss goes into action; he hires a lawyer to delay, and then he hires a union busting consultant to launch the legal and illegal counterattack. The boss never admits to this, however, and claims throughout that he just wants everyone to have a “secret ballot” election someday to settle things fair and square.

Hmm sound familiar? We just need some more time to make sure we do this right? Isn’t this what Republican and their corporate allies Blue Dogs in Congress did last month hoping to buy some time so they could get to the rough intimidation sessions of August. Townsend goes on to explain:

The boss and [union busting] consultant then turn the workplace upside down — just like they are doing in the town hall format — with their contrived chaos and terror. They lie, misrepresent, instill fear, generate chaos, and completely muddy the waters with their sophisticated and unsophisticated tactics at the same time. And not satisfied to browbeat workers in a group setting.

The boss and his [union busting] consultant then subject workers to one-on-one interrogation and humiliation sessions all intended to make it clear to the worker that voting “no” is their only option. By the time the “secret ballot” election rolls around the damage is done. Confused and terrorized workers then vote “no” and against joining the union. Their desire or need for a union does not matter any more. The laws protecting the worker don’t matter because they are rarely enforced. By election day workers just hope to just have some sense of normalcy returned to their workplaces after the bosses contrived turbulence has run its course.

Sounds exactly what members of Congress are experiencing right now. They are being threatened in completely safe districts by opponents using lies and violent outbursts to scare them into voting against the public option. Townsend goes on to wonder what would happen if they held an election:

We suggest that they go so far as to conduct a “secret ballot” election after their meeting has been destroyed by the current crop of disruptors, and then we’ll ask them how legitimate they think the results are. Democrats must learn this lesson; the operators storming the town hall meetings are interested in killing-off all reform efforts, and they will do or say or raise a stink any way they have to in order to win. Because just like in the world of the anti-union consultants, they know full well that when the confusion and terror has run its course, large numbers of people who were formerly in favor of health care reform might not be in favor of it anymore.

Free and fair elections don’t exist in the workplace in America because of the intimidation and lies that employers use against their workers. Studies have shown that 60 percent of workers want to join a union if they were able to but only 8 percent of private sector employees are members of unions. I don”t know how conservative can claim an election could be considered democratic if you have to choice between your job and voting your conscience.

These teabag protests have showed to the nation what conservatives and their corporate bedfellows consider “democracy”. Democracy for the corporate right wing is “You Shut Up or I’ll Destroy You”. The Corporate Right Wing and their allies engage in lies because if they told the truth that they were putting people before profits, nobody would support them.Teabag protests have demonstrated their form of democracy. Democracy to the corporate right wing is the so called secret ballot union elections in which 1 in 5 workers lose their job.

What they are really creating is climate of fear in which no logical argument can be made. My experience as a union organizer has taught me that the only way to counter these types of arguments is to fight fire with fire. If 10 protesters show up at a town hall to shout lies about “killing grandma”, we need to show up with 100 protesters to stop the smears and shout about how lack of health care is killing us all.

It’s time to stand up and be counted that’s the only way to win. Please go to Campaign for America’s Future website to see how you can attend your town hall meeting.

Mike Elk: is a third-generation union organizer and worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). He works currently as an editor at AlterNet.

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post on August 19, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

Workers ‘Becoming Backbone’ of Health Care Reform Effort

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

The active participation of union members is changing the tone of the health care reform town hall meetings going on now during the August congressional recess. What began as forums for anti-Obama propaganda are now becoming platforms for real debate over what kind of reform is needed.

Much of the credit goes to union members who have mobilized to take back the town halls from the campaign of misinformation being waged by extremist groups, some backed by corporate donors and fueled with talking points from extremist Republicans.

Even the stalwart conservative newspaper, The Washington Times, had to admit that union members are making a difference in the tone of the town halls. In today’s edition, the Times says:

Members of the nation’s labor unions have made up a hefty segment of the audiences that flocked to town halls Mr. Obama held in the past week, and they have played an even larger role in a nationwide campaign for an insurance overhaul. Financially, and with boots on the ground, unions have become the backbone of the president’s effort.

The Times quotes Troy Goodson, a member of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 969 in Grand Junction, Colo., who explained why health care reform is needed. Goodson, 55, said he has triplets at home, and their hospital delivery costs alone would have left him underwater financially had he lacked adequate insurance. He said he’s glad to see union members out in force, pushing for the president’s plan.

He told the Times:

The big corporations and the insurance industry, they’re lobbying 24/7. Someone has to fight against that.

And we are fighting back in a big way.

When President Obama held a town hall meeting in Helena, Mont., the crowd inside reached about 1,300, many of them union members. Outside, another 1,100 people rallied for and against reform. The Montana State AFL-CIO reports that 700 of the 1,100 were union members and pro-health care reform supporters, outnumbering opponents by about two to one.

Montana union members came by bus from Missoula, Billings and Great Falls to the town hall, followed in each case by long car pool caravans. One caravan came from Havre, which is on the Canadian border, about a five-hour drive away from Helena.

In Mason City, Iowa, between 50 and 60 people were turned away from a health care reform town hall meeting hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) because of fire code concerns. So many people came to the meeting that they couldn’t all fit into the room where the town hall was scheduled.

That was not the case in Nashville, Tenn., where only one anti-health care reform opponent showed up at a protest on Friday. According to the Associated Press, Tom Kovach, state director of America’s Independent Party, said he’d hoped to see at least 50 people at the protest.

Instead, the only company he had was a handful of reporters and a few passing joggers. Kovach acknowledged that Friday was school students’ first day back and that protesters may have wanted to be “cautious,” considering the group was criticized for protesting near the school.

In Nebraska, some 40 people rallied in downtown Omaha Saturday afternoon to show their support for health care change. The rally was part of AFSCME’s “Highway to Health Care” tour, which will stop in 21 cities over three weeks. It was organized by AFSCME and the AFL-CIO. The tour also traveled to the state capitol in Lincoln on Sunday.

It seems that anti-worker forces are not only using the town halls to oppose health care reform but also are taking aim at the Employee Free Choice Act. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has sent out a list of town hall meetings and is encouraging its members to show up and speak out against the bill, which, according to NAM, says “that any version of the [Employee Free Choice Act] is unacceptable to manufacturers.”

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

This article originally appeared on the AFL-CIO Blog on August 19, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.

Free Trade Gets Some Fresh Thinking

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

The Obama administration has taken some nice first steps toward a more worker-friendly vision of global trade. New free trade agreements pushed by the Bush Administration, such as those with Colombia and South Korea, are apparently getting some deep re-thinking – or at least, being put on the back burner while the new Administration sorts out climate change, health care and domestic trade union rights. And refreshingly, on July 16, the new United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced a more proactive strategy to enforce labor provisions in existing free trade agreements. Here’s what’s new under the sun.

First, a bit of explanation about what he’s talking about. Existing free trade agreements from NAFTA on through the most recent deals require our trade partners- at least on paper- to enforce their labor laws and to try to live up to international labor standards.  So what’s so striking about USTR Kirk saying that the Administration wants to make sure existing language in our trade deals is enforced?

In truth, no prior administration has ever sought to actually take the initiative when it comes to these provisions. Instead, we have assumed that of course all our trade partners are enforcing labor rights protections- except when someone points out they aren’t. In other words, enforcement of these provisions has been carried out largely on a complaint-driven basis. This model can’t really work, as the people who are most affected- the most exploited workers in the countries with which we trade- just don’t have practical means to access the mechanisms that have been set up for filing complaints. Thus, not surprisingly, very few complaints get filed, no matter how many abuses actually occur. Even when complaints do get filed- for instance, my organization, ILRF, filed about a dozen cases on behalf of Mexican workers in the early years of NAFTA- those cases take years to resolve, and workers see little return for the effort of engaging in the process.

But there is no downside to the US Trade Representative taking a new look at how we enforce these deals- and, we hope, finding a better way to do it. Real enforcement of the labor provisions in trade deals would be a win-win for both US workers and workers overseas.  Promoting policies that protect workers in other countries makes good sense for the US, economically.  Creating decent and sustainable jobs that raise developing country workers into the middle class is a win-win for workers and businesses, as it expands markets for US and global products. That has long been the main moral argument for more global trade- although few have cared to deal with the ugly reality that many workers in export industries in these countries have been getting sweatshop jobs, not decent jobs, and have not been able, in their lifetimes, to afford the goods they are producing.

Poor working conditions in developing nations not only strip laborers in those countries of their rights, but also create unfair competition in the global labor market. This global “race to the bottom” leads to degradation of conditions, to the increase in ‘sweatshop jobs,’ here at home. We need to bring up the bottom for everyone.

It’s great that USTR Kirk wants to hold trading partners accountable for labor rights, and would be even better if the new Administration sought ways to hold investors- the multinational companies that chase cheap labor around the globe- accountable as well. This would get us past the current ‘free trade’ model to one of what we might call fair trade. For example, we should be supporting terms of trade requiring that investors who benefit from trade deals agree to a floor of decent wages and working conditions that ultimately enable workers to lift themselves out of poverty, and should reward governments that institute laws and policies to regulate ‘footloose’ investors and require companies to make long-term commitments to investments- and their workforce- in developing countries. This is in all of our long term interests.

About the Author: Bama Athreya
is the Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

This article originally appeared on Union Review on August 4, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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