Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for September, 2009

What Today's Vote on the Public Option in the Senate Finance Committee Means

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Today, the Senate Finance Committee voted on two amendments from Senators Schumer and Rockefeller to add a public health insurance option to the Baucus Bill. Both of those amendments were defeated, 8-15 and 10-13 respectively.

In a long debate on the amendments, Senators spoke out vigorously in favor of the idea. Rockefeller exhorted his colleagues to consider the people of this country as they vote. Schumer asked why the insurance industry was afraid of a little competition. Cantwell, Menendez, Bingaman, Kerry, Bill Nelson, and Stabenow all made their cases and pushed back hard on the misinformation coming from the opposition. The intellectual and moral case for the public health insurance option was clear. And there were some pleasant surprises as Senator Wyden voted for both amendments, and Senators Bill Nelson and Carper voted for the Schumer amendment.

On the Rockefeller amendment, which would have created a public health insurance option based on Medicare, the roll call was:

Democrats

Max Baucus, MT – No
John D. Rockefeller IV, WV – Aye
Kent Conrad, ND – No
Jeff Bingaman, NM – Aye
John Kerry, MA – Aye
Blanche Lincoln, AR – No
Ron Wyden, OR – Aye
Charles Schumer, NY – Aye
Debbie Stabenow, MI – Aye
Maria Cantwell, WA – Aye
Bill Nelson, FL – No
Robert Menendez, NJ – Aye
Thomas Carper, DE – No

Republicans

Chuck Grassley, IA – No
Orrin Hatch, UT – No
Olympia Snowe, ME – No
Jon Kyl, AZ – No
Jim Bunning, KY – No
Mike Crapo, ID – No
Pat Roberts, KS – No
John Ensign, NV – No
Mike Enzi, WY – No
John Cornyn, TX – No

On the Schumer amendment, which would have created a “level playing field” public health insurance option, the roll call has:

Democrats

Max Baucus, MT – No
John D. Rockefeller IV, WV – Aye
Kent Conrad, ND – No
Jeff Bingaman, NM – Aye
John Kerry, MA – Aye
Blanche Lincoln, AR – No
Ron Wyden, OR – Aye
Charles Schumer, NY – Aye
Debbie Stabenow, MI – Aye
Maria Cantwell, WA – Aye
Bill Nelson, FL – Aye
Robert Menendez, NJ – Aye
Thomas Carper, DE – Aye

Republicans

Chuck Grassley, IA – No
Orrin Hatch, UT – No
Olympia Snowe, ME – No
Jon Kyl, AZ – No
Jim Bunning, KY – No
Mike Crapo, ID – No
Pat Roberts, KS – No
John Ensign, NV – No
Mike Enzi, WY – No
John Cornyn, TX – No

In the most conservative committee in the Senate, which is itself the most conservative house of Congress, a public health insurance option got the support of an overwhelming majority of the governing party. And as such, it sets the stage for the next step.

As has been reiterated over and over on this blog, the public health insurance option saves money and lowers costs, it’s the only way to hold insurance companies accountable, and it is overwhelmingly popular – both in Congress, where four out of five committees have already passed a public health insurance option, and with the American people, 77% of whom support the idea. The next time the public health insurance option will come up for consideration is when Harry Reid merges the Finance bill with the HELP bill. The above facts should be kept in mind during that process.

Today was the first step in building momentum for a public health insurance option in the Senate. Clearly, the idea has weight – even self-described moderates such as Bill Nelson and Tom Carper voted for it. As we move to the floor and into conference, with Schumer, Rockefeller, and other champions pledging support and whipping their colleagues, those numbers can and will continue to grow. As Schumer says, a public health insurance option will be in the bill President Obama signs into law. It’ll take work, but it can and will happen.

Chris Bowers has an update to our Senate whip count proving we have 51 votes in the Senate for a public health insurance option. Senator Harkin concurs. As today made clear, there will be surprises as this debate commences. Senators Wyden, Carper, and Nelson (FL) made clear that they support a public health insurance option, something that we didn’t know beforehand. Who knows what other surprises await us as the push continues.

Today was the first step. Today, Senators voted for the first time on the sole question of the public health insurance option, and a huge majority of Democrats supported it. There is no question that this was a big day for health reform, and it will shape the ground going forward.

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 in Health Care for America Now on September 29, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Eighth Circuit Sets Record Straight On Age Discrimination

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Age Discrimination Plaintiff Gets Great Decision From Court of Appeals

It looks like a typical age discrimination scenario. A supervisor makes hostile remarks about older employees and expresses a preference for younger ones. An older employee with an excellent record gets fired for trumped-up reasons and a younger employee is hired to replace her.

What seems like an obvious case of age discrimination was not so obvious to the Federal District Court in the Western District of Missouri when it threw out the case of Baker v. Silver Oak Senior Living Mgt. Co. on summary judgment.

Fortunately, the Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed this month in an important opinion about the proper interpretation of evidence in an age discrimination case. 

What Happened In The Case

Kathy Baker worked as the director of assisted living at a center operated by Silver Oak since 2003. Her 2004 review was excellent in every category.

A few months later, Carolyn Thomas was hired as Baker’s new supervisor. After taking over, Thomas told Baker that:

  • Silver Oak needed people that were “young and vivacious, not slow and old”
  • Baker “needed to get rid of the dead wood”
  • Employees who had been fired were “slow and old”

She also told Baker that:

  • She dressed like an old lady
  • Everyone had to “keep up with” two supervisors who were in their thirties

The CEO, Eric Lindsey, made similar remarks at meetings attended by Baker.

Thomas also admitted that she teased Baker about walking slowly and having poor hearing. She also repeatedly asked Baker to fire and discipline older employees.

When Baker told Thomas that  “you can’t get rid of employees just because they’re old,” Thomas responded that:

  • “firing older employees would allow Silver Oak to hire younger employees for less money’”
  • “younger employees would be better workers, have more energy, be more enthusiastic, and stimulate the residents”

After refusing Thomas’ demands to get rid of the older employees, Baker was disciplined and placed on indefinite probation.

The reason given was that Baker allegedly failed to get proper approval before admitting a special-needs resident and dismissed an employee without having an administrator present.

Baker claimed that that these allegations were false.

Following those events, Thomas gave Baker a negative performance evaluation and asked Baker whether she was going to quit. She said no.

A couple of months later, Baker went on an approved medical leave. She was called in at some point during her leave, told that she had been temporarily replaced and that she was being transferred to another city.

She was again asked if she wanted to quit and again she said no.

Shortly after that she was fired. The reason given was that she did not call in each day during her medical leave. Baker was 53 years old at the time.

Angela Thomas, age 30, temporarily took over Baker’s duties until a new director — 22 year old Starr McGinnes –  was hired to replace Baker a couple of months later.

The Lawsuit

Baker filed a lawsuit claiming age discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

While it may seem hard to believe in the face of this record, the federal district court threw out the case and granted judgment in favor of Silver Oak on all claims stating that Baker:

  • failed to present any direct evidence that age was a motivating factor in her termination (a misinterpretation of the Gross decision)
  • offered no evidence that Silver Oak’s stated reasons for firing her were a pretext for age discrimination
  • did not engage in any protected activity which would support a retaliation claim

The Court Of Appeals Reverses

Baker appealed the incomprehensible ruling of the district court. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on all counts and gave Baker her day in court.

Here’s the gist of what the Court had to say.

Evidence of Age Bias

Statements by Lindsey (CEO) and Thomas (supervisor) — who participated in the decision to fire Baker — were evidence of a preference for younger workers over those protected by the ADEA.

As stated by the Court:

Lindsey’s statement to his management team that Silver Oak was ‘missing the boat by not hiring younger, vibrant people,’ and that employees ‘should start looking over applications better and try to consider hiring younger people’ is evidence that a reasonable jury could take to reflect a discriminatory attitude by one who participated in Baker’s termination.

Other evidence that the Court considered to support Baker’s age discrimination claim included:

  • Thomas’ criticism of Baker for dressing like an old lady
  • Thomas’ comments about keeping up with younger employees
  • Baker’s refusal of Thomas’ directions to discipline older workers
Evidence of Pretext

The Court also found that Baker presented plenty evidence of pretext — meaning that the reasons given for the discharge were not believable. Evidence of pretext can give rise to an inference of age discrimination and can be proved circumstantially.  “Direct evidence” is not essential.

In this case, that evidence of pretext included:

  • Baker’s explanation for why the probation was not warranted
  • Silver Oaks’ failure to follow its normal progressive discipline policy
  • Shifting explanations for why Baker was terminated:

As the Court stated:

Not every supplement to an employer’s initial statement of the reasons gives rise to an inference of pretext, but substantial variations raise suspicion.

[The evidence of pretext] is combined with evidence from which a jury could find that the management of Silver Oak harbored a discriminatory attitude toward older employees and desired to displace them in favor of a younger workforce.

Viewing all of the evidence together, we conclude that Baker has presented a submissible case of age discrimination under the ADEA.

Retaliation Claim Survives

Baker claimed that she was retaliated against because she opposed Silver Oak’s conduct which she believed to be unlawful age discrimination.

Baker filed an affidavit in which she stated that she repeatedly told Thomas:

  • That terminating older employees was wrong
  • You can’t get rid of employees just because they’re old

It’s a technical argument but in sum, the district court ignored the evidence because it was presented in an affidavit and not in Baker’s deposition or other court pleadings.

The Eighth Circuit held that the district court made an error in striking Baker’s affidavit and allowed Baker’s retaliation claim to proceed.

What’s Important About This Case

Everything but here’s the big three:

1.The case gives excellent illustrations about the kind of evidence from which a jury may infer age discrimination — including hostility towards older workers and/or a preference for younger ones.

2. On the subject of pretext the Court makes note of a failure to follow normal progressive discipline policies, and shifting explanations for the discharge.

This kind of evidence is quite common in discrimination cases, and it’s very helpful for employees to have a Circuit Court of Appeals affirm it as proof of pretext.

3. While it’s a technical point, mostly for the lawyers, it’s extremely helpful that the lower court was reversed because it struck Baker’s affidavit.

Clients don’t always remember everything important about their case when interrogated in a lengthy deposition. Many times salient points are not ever asked.

Consequently, adding important evidence to the record by way of a sworn affidavit is often necessary to fill in the evidentiary gaps. The Eighth Circuit recognized this necessary practice and affirmed its propriety.

It’s really good news for plaintiffs in discrimination cases and their lawyers.

All in all, it’s just a great case for employees who are unfortunate victims of age discrimination. It should also be instructive to employers as to what illegal age discrimination can look like in front of a jury.

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.

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on September 28, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

image:therawfeed.com

Robbed on the Job

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

(Reposted from Open Left)

Wage Theft Is Rampant-Estimated at Roughly $2.9 Billion Annually

Last week I wrote a diary on a new report about widespread wage theft among low-income workers, “”Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers””.  I said that I was working on an article for Random Lengths News.  It was published on Thursday, and I’m republishing here below.

*****

Property crime is a serious concern in America today.  In 2007, the total dollar value of all property officially reported stolen in California-population about 38 million-was just over $2.8 billion, almost half of which was motor vehicle theft. The rest came to $1.47 billion.  Of that $2.8 billion close to one-third of it was recovered-$912 million.

But a new report indicates that these statistics are woefully incomplete.  “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” finds that wage theft is rampant among the bottom 15 percent of the workforce, and so widespread that workers in just three cities-Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City (total population about 15 million)-had roughly $2.9 billion in wages stolen from them in 2008, a rate more than double that of reported theft in California.  As for recovering any of it, workers were more likely to get fired for asking than ever seeing a dime of what had been stolen from them.

“The reason we did this study, we were running to into this in our qualitative work,” said Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at UCLA who was one of eleven co-authors of the report. “My collaborators had all encountered this,” she said, “But nobody really knew how common it was.  We thought, wow, we could really figure this out.”

Paul Rosenberg :: Robbed On The Job

The study involved a representative survey of 4,387 workers, who were robbed in various different ways.  More than two-thirds-68 percent-experienced at least one pay-related violation the previous work week. The average stolen was $51-bad enough for anyone. But these are the lowest-paid workers in the economy.”Their average earnings for a week were $339,” said Milkman. “The amount lost was 15 percent.”

This equals an average yearly loss of $2,634 out of $17,616. The report estimates that over 1.1 million workers are affected. But they weren’t the only ones hurt, Milkman noted. “If these people were being fully paid, they would spend it locally and local businesses and communities would benefit,” she pointed out.”  What’s more, she added, it also hurts companies that are obeying the law, and paying workers what they’re owed, making it harder for them to compete with lawbreakers.

Breaking the violations down, the report found that 26 percent of those surveyed were paid less than the minimum wage the previous work week. Of those, 60 percent were robbed of more than $1 per hour.  Over one quarter worked more than 40 hours the previous week, of which 76 percent were robbed of legally required overtime pay. On average, this amounted to 11 hours of overtime “either underpaid or not paid at all.”

Additionally, almost 40 percent of those surveyed worked off the clock-either before or after their paid shift. Of these 70 percent were not paid for their extra work.

Milkman cites one example of a nurse’s aide she interviewed. “She told me that over and over again she would clock out for the day, and then the supervisor would say, ‘Maria, could you check in on so-and-do in Room 23?’”

Adding insult to injury is the feeling of helplessness. “She didn’t feel she could do anything about it,” Milkman said.

That feeling is common among crime victims-but how many other sorts of crime victims are victimized day after day, week after week? And what does it means to be robbed by someone you interact with every day?  What does this do corrode people’s determination and belief in the American dream?

“Great question,” Milkman responded, “But not one we tried to probe, so I can’t presume to comment.”

Tipped jobs not only suffered sub-standard pay-30 percent were paid less than the tipped worker minimum wage-but also theft of their tips-which was reported by 12 percent of tipped workers.

In a country where crime stories pepper the local tv news every night, it’s astonishing that such a massive crime wave has been going on, virtually undetected right under our noses. One reason for this is what happens to the victims if they try to complain. According to the report, one in five workers reported trying to complain to their employer, or trying to form a union in past year. For their troubles, “43 percent experienced one or more forms of illegal retaliation from their employer or supervisor.” These included suspensions or firing, threats to cut hours or pay, and threats to call immigration.

“One case that really affected me involved a woman, a housekeeper in a hotel chain, well-know, but I can’t say which one, in the Valley,” Milkman recalled. “She cleaned rooms in the hotel. She was undocumented. She received her pay in cash. She wasn’t paid even minimum wage.  She worked over 40 hours a week.  Finally, she complained to the supervisor and was told they didn’t need her the next week. She was fired.”  But there was more. “This is also a tale about tip work,” Milkman explained. “When she got done cleaning, the supervisor would go into the rooms before she returned, to steal her tips.”

“I was in tears when I heard that,” Milkman said.

There are things that can be done, and the report cites three principles that it says “should drive the development of a new policy agenda to protect the rights of workers.” First is to strengthen enforcement of existing labor laws, both by increased staffing and by new enforcement strategies.  Second is updating legal standards for today’s labor market-including strengthening the right to organize. Third is to establish equal status for immigrants in the workplace.

Now that the problem is known, action is possible-but not guaranteed.  Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has promised increased enforcement, Milkman noted, but that’s only one part of the solution. Key to a full solution is public sentiment and political will.

“The danger with this is, this is a new enough phenomena that people are horrified when they hear about it,” Milkman said. “But the real danger is that it becomes a part of the economic landscape,” she cautioned. “Now the question is what are we going to do about it?”

There is a real danger that it could become something that we simply accept, she warned  And here Milkman drew an analogy to the emergence of mass homelessness in the early Reagan era.  “When it first started, there was a lot of distress and intense discussion and debate about it, and now we take it for granted. It’s like we live in India.”

The hope is that times are different now, and the direction of the economy can change.

“These laws were put in place when the economy changed directions during the Great Depression,” Milkman said. “We have an opportunity, with the Obama Administration, to change directions again.”

“But it’s not just going to happen,” she warned. “People have to push for it.

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 and Random Lengths News on September 27. 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

What If The Jerk is YOU?

Monday, September 28th, 2009

I’ve seen a lot of articles about trying to work with jerks. Heck, I’ve even written a couple of ‘em. But I’ve not seen many articles that talk about how to deal with a jerk who you know intimately—yourself. What can you do if you are the jerk?

This is probably the most embarrassing missive I’ve ever written. I’m not a total buffoon and I’m certainly not trying to turn you against me. But I did recently come to the realization that I’ve had a self-sabotage streak that has made me act like more of a jerk than I’d like to admit.

My point is not to make excuses for my behavior, to gain your sympathy or to get on the Dr. Phil Show. No, the purpose of this blog is to own up to my jerkiness so that maybe a few of you out there might cop to some of yours. And to help you gain new insight on the next jerk that you run into at work.

My jerkiness has a clear starting point. I was twelve and driving in the car with my mom. I can even remember the exact location, it was in the median on Route 23 in Pompton Plains, NJ. My mom was telling stories and I remember that my stomach hurt from laughing.

Suddenly a wave of anxiety came over me. Don’t get too happy, because she’ll turn on you. My mom had the ability to go from jovial to attack mode faster than Lindsay Lohan can rack up driving violations. So I learned to not let my defenses down when I was with her.

Okay, I can see what you are thinking. This isn’t an exploration of my jerkiness, it is a blame-your-mom game. No, my mom plays a relatively minor role in this drama.

The point is that I used my mom’s hot and cold running personality to not get too close to anyone, lest they would be in a position where they could hurt me. And I took this challenge on with gusto. I never allowed myself to get too close in relationships, at work, with groups, with family. I always kept a distance.

Looking back, at least I tried to keep a distance. I wasn’t always able to do this. So there were plenty of times when someone or some group would start to embrace me. To make me feel a part of something. And what I only recently realized is that it was at this point that I could try to sabotage the relationship. By not doing something that I said I do. Or by a cutting remark. Or worse.

Sure I knew that I seemed to have a problem making attachments with people and groups. But I never realized that it was because I was scared of being hurt. In fact, I always thought that I was the strong one.

How did I break out of this cycle? I finally met someone who embraced me no matter how jerky my behavior. I’m not saying that she was all warm and squishy, no this was definitely tough love. But she pushed back against my behavior and this helped me see how my finger prints were all over most of the destroyed relationships of my past.

If you find yourself getting isolated at work or thinking that you are the only sane one out there, take a hard look in the mirror. You might find that the problem isn’t them. It is you.

And what if you are working with a jerk? Some jerks are so talented at pushing people away that it is impossible to reach them. So I understand the “ten foot pole” approach, as in here is the ten foot pole you want to put between you and them. But when you come across that jerk who has shown you a small bit of vulnerability, you might want to consider not pulling away. Hanging in there with support and respect. It’s tough, but I’m sure glad that someone did that for me.

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.

Boston’s Hyatt Hotels: Not Much Hospitality Toward Their Own Workers

Friday, September 25th, 2009

An ongoing labor story here in Boston underscores why jobs and employment must remain one of our highest political, economic, and policy priorities. It involves three Hyatt hotels whose management abruptly terminated some 100 housekeeping workers after having them train replacement workers from a Georgia-based contracting company. The workers claim they were deceived into thinking they were training vacation fill-ins.

As reported last week in the Boston Globe:

When the housekeepers at the three Hyatt hotels in the Boston area were asked to train some new workers, they said they were told the trainees would be filling in during vacations.

On Aug. 31, staffers learned the full story: None of them would be making the beds and cleaning the showers any longer. All of them were losing their jobs. The trainees, it turns out, were employees of a Georgia company, Hospitality Staffing Solutions, who were replacing them that day.

Labor advocates and elected officials have responded with dismay and outrage, and with good reason. Hyatt employees with 20 years service were making a modest wage of a little over $13/hour plus benefits, which based on a full-time work week adds up to annual earnings of around $26,000. Their replacements will earn about $8/hour, which leads to annual earnings of around $17,000. Hyatt, in effect, has eliminated 100 jobs that pay barely a living wage and replaced them with jobs that pay less than subsistence wages in an expensive metro area like Boston.

In response to the growing firestorm, the Hyatt Corporation said that it is setting up a task force to help the terminated workers find employment and extending their health benefits to the end of the year. This strikes me as being too little, too late, and a shallow attempt to look better in the public eye.

Contracting has become a common form of replacing full-time employees, and at times, economic necessity may require changes in staffing arrangements. But one has to wonder about the social responsibility and ethics of a major corporation that deems loyal 20-year employees earning $26,000 “too expensive.” And if the allegations about deceiving their workers into training their replacements are true, then we can only wonder if they have any decency.

On a broader scale, this disturbing situation raises at least three questions that are front and center when we consider jobs and employment:

1. How can we create an economy that delivers a living wage for all who work to support themselves and their families?

2. The Hyatt workers were not unionized. How can we encourage unionization as one path toward safeguarding America’s workers from this type of sudden, devastating job loss?

3. How can we ensure a viable safety net of health care benefits, transitional income replacement, and placement assistance for those who have lost their jobs?

About the Author: David Yamada is the Founder of New Workplace Institute and a Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. He is an internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and psychologically abusive work environments, having written leading analyses of workplace bullying and the law and authored the Healthy Workplace Bill, model anti-bullying legislation that has been the basis of bills introduced in over a dozen state legislatures since 2003.  For more about David’s background, see his bio at: http://law.suffolk.edu/faculty/directories/faculty.cfm?InstructorID=59.

This article originally appeared in Minding the Workplace on September 24, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

Real 'Norma Rae' Dies of Cancer After Insurer Delayed Treatment

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

The North Carolina union organizer who was the inspiration for the movie “Norma Rae” died on Friday of brain cancer after a battle with her insurance company, which delayed her treatment. She was 68.

Crystal Lee Sutton, formerly Crystal Lee Jordan, was fired from her job folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in her hometown of Roanoke Rapids, N.C. for trying to organize a union in the early 1970s. Her last action at the plant — writing the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her co-workers to turn off their machines in solidarity — was memorialized in the 1979 film by actress Sally Field. The police physically removed Sutton from the plant for her action.

But her efforts ultimately succeeded, as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers won the right to represent the plant’s employees on Aug. 28, 1974. Sutton later became a paid organizer for the union, which through a series of mergers became part of UNITE HERE before splitting off this year to form Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

Several years ago, Sutton was diagnosed with meningioma, a type of cancer of the nervous system. While such cancers are typically slow-growing, Sutton’s was not — and she went two months without potentially life-saving medication because her insurance wouldn’t cover it initially. Sutton told the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News last year that the insurer’s behavior was an example of abuse of the working poor:

“How in the world can it take so long to find out [whether they would cover the medicine or not] when it could be a matter of life or death,” she said. “It is almost like, in a way, committing murder.” 

Though Sutton eventually received the medication, the cancer had already taken hold. She passed away on Friday, Sept. 11 in a Burlington, N.C. hospice.

“Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally,” Field said in a statement released Friday. “Portraying Crystal Lee in ‘Norma Rae,’ however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being.”

Field won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of the character based on Sutton. The film in turn was based on the 1975 book “Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance” by New York Times reporter Henry P. “Hank” Leiferman.

Sutton was only 17 when she began working at the J.P. Stevens plant in northeastern North Carolina, where conditions were poor and the pay was low. A Massachusetts-based company that for many years was listed on the Fortune 500, J.P. Stevens is now part of the WestPoint Home conglomerate.

In 1973, Sutton, by then a mother of three, was earning only $2.65 an hour. That same year, Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner from West Virginia, came to Roanoke Rapids to organize the plant and began working with Sutton, who was fired after she copied a flyer posted by management warning that blacks would run the union. It was that incident which led Sutton to stand up with her “UNION” sign.

“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world,” she said in a newspaper interview last year. “That my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality.”

For more on Sutton’s life and work, visit the website of the Alamance Community College’s Crystal Sutton Collection.

(Photo of Sutton speaking in Minnesota in 1988 from the Crystal Sutton Collection.)

About the Author: Sue Sturgis is Editorial Director and Co-Editor, Facing South. She joined the Institute in November 2005. A former staff writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.), she is co-author of the Institute reports “One Year after Katrina” (August 2006) and “The Mardi Gras Index” (February/March 2006). Sue holds a Masters in Journalism from New York University.

This article originally appeared in Facing South on September 14, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

The Lesson of Pittsburgh for G-20: Manufacturing Matters

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

The revival of Pittsburgh, site of the G-20 summit this week, can provide valuable lessons for the world’s leaders. Among them: Manufacturing matters and poor trade policies hurt everyone.

Pittsburgh, G-20 and the New Economy: Lessons to Learn, Choices to Make,” a report released today by the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), makes clear that the renaissance of Pittsburgh after the collapse of the steel industry was cut short because of the lack of a national industrial policy and the nation’s trade policies.

During a telephone news conference, CAF Co-Director Robert Borosage said some manufacturing jobs in Pittsburgh were replaced by high-end jobs in education or medicine.

But many were replaced by jobs in hotels and food services—jobs that never paid as well and proved even more vulnerable in the recent downturn. Some manufacturing jobs were never replaced at all. That helps explain why the city’s population is declining, especially among youth, who seek opportunity elsewhere.

That idea was echoed by more than 400 people who marched through the streets of Pittsburgh on Sept. 20 calling for an economic recovery that includes jobs for the unemployed.

The march set out from a local church where some 25 people slept overnight in tents to symbolize the poverty that lies behind the glitz of the renewed downtown Pittsburgh.

During the news conference today, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said trade policies were at the core of the steel industry decline. He praised President Obama’s recent decision to provide relief to the domestic consumer tire industry in response to surging tire exports from China.

Obama’s action was significant, Brown said, because it is the first time a president has really enforced trade rules. He said he hopes it leads to even more complaints as U.S. industries see that their government cares about fair trade.

Brown added that the country “cannot tolerate” trade policies that spawn low wages and allow illegal trade subsidies in China and other countries to decimate our economy.

Economist Jeff Madrick of the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, said the nation’s manufacturing sector has been the victim of deliberate neglect by policymakers. It is clear, he said, that union manufacturing jobs pay better wages and have more benefits than service jobs.

The G-20 summit is a perfect time for U.S. officials to take a hard look at what has happened to workers over the past decades. For example, the median wage for males is less today than it was in the 1970s when you take inflation into account. And workers’ wages have not kept up with productivity for 25 years.

We need new policies to stimulate manufacturing. This [decline] has gone on too long.

The report specifically proposes an industrial policy that promotes manufacturing. Eric Lotke, author of the report, writes:

We need to dispel the notion that America has moved beyond the production of goods. From cars to computers to refrigerators, a country needs things. If we don’t make those things here, then someone else gets our money.

The report also says the experience with the steel industry in Pittsburgh should spawn new trade policies that reflect the truce functioning of the market. It cites Obama’s decision in the tire case as a first step in this new direction.

Read the CAF report here.

Lotke also says the G-20 summit provides an opportunity to examine American patterns of production and consumption. Even when the economy was growing, America ran a combined trade deficit and interest payments of more than $700 billion every year, he said.

We borrowed $2 billion every day to cover the difference. That might have worked well for the countries we bought and borrowed from—but it worked less well for America. It was never sustainable anyway.

As the G-20 leaders plan a recovery from the global downturn, they should not assume that the United States will remain the world’s consumer—spending more than we earn and paying for it with personal and national debt. The G-20 must chart the process by which the global economy that emerges from the crisis is more balanced, and less dependent on U.S. consumption. Growth must be sustainable in Pittsburgh as well as Beijing.

One avenue to create more manufacturing jobs is through the green revolution. Tomorrow, the Alliance for Climate Protection’s Repower America campaign, the USW and the Blue Green Alliance will conclude their Clean Energy Jobs Tour with a rally in Pittsburgh.

The Jobs Tour, a monthlong campaign with more than 50 events in 22 states, is highlighting how a transition to a clean-energy economy will create jobs while reducing harmful carbon pollution and breaking our dependence on foreign oil.

Says David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance:

We can create millions of jobs building the clean energy economy—whether it’s manufacturing the parts for windmills, building hybrid car batteries or weatherizing homes to make them more efficient. By transitioning to a clean-energy economy, we can revitalize America’s manufacturing sector and boost our economy for the long run by creating jobs here at home.

“Building a clean energy economy can revitalize American manufacturing, but only if we commit to using domestically produced components,” said USW President Leo Gerard.

In confronting the challenges of recession, global warming and energy independence, we have an opportunity to transform our economy and create good jobs that truly are Made in America.

About the Author James Parks: had his first encounter with unions 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. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also 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 the AFL-CIO blog on September 22, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

Congress Moves to Extend Unemployment Insurance to Hard-Hit States

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

There are six jobless workers for every job that is open. The official unemployment rate stands at 9.7 percent and is expected to top 10 percent in the coming months. By the end of this month, some 400,000 workers will run out of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits—another 1 million by the end of the year.

Tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to throw a lifeline to many workers due to exhaust their UI benefits before finding new work. Legislation to provide an additional 13 weeks of benefits to workers in high unemployment states is likely to win approval, and the Senate could take it up later this week.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who introduced the bill (H.R. 3548), says the added weeks of benefits will help hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their jobs through no fault of their own in this so-called Great Recession.

The bill will cover workers in the 27 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico where the jobless rates are 8.5 percent or higher. Beth Shulman, chairwoman of the National Employment Law Project’s (NELP’s) board of directors, says the bill is “a good first step” but problem of long-term joblessness impacts workers in every state who need and should receive additional assistance.

Every state has experienced record increases in unemployment rates and unemployment claims over the course of the recession, and in every state, long-term jobless workers will be exhausting all benefits by the end of the year without being able to find work.

This past summer, McDermott introduced a bill to provide extended benefits to jobless workers in all states. But because expected opposition from Republican leaders would have delayed or even derailed the bill, he decided to move a scaled down version “in order to respond to the urgent needs of Americans who were about to run out of benefits.”

Some three-quarters of the long-term jobless live in the states covered by the bill. If the jobless rates in the remaining states hit the 8.5 percent threshold, workers there also will qualify for the extension.

The bill provides extended benefits to workers in Alabama, Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on September 21, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

2010 Vehicles Built By Union Members In The United States and Canada

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Support union jobs in the U.S. and Canada

This guide is prepared by the UAW to provide information for consumers who want to purchase vehicles produced by workers who enjoy the benefits and protections of a union contract.

All these vehicles are made in the United States or Canada by members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) or Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).

Because of the integration of U.S. and Canadian vehicle production, all these vehicles include significant UAW-made content and support the jobs of UAW members.

However, the vehicles marked with a single asterisk (*) are produced in the United States and another country. Light-duty (LD) crew cab models of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, marked with a double asterisk (**), are only manufactured in Mexico. Other models are made in the United States.

When purchasing one of these vehicles, check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

A VIN beginning with “1″, “4″ or “5″ identifies a U.S.-made vehicle; “’2:’ identifies a Canadian-made vehicle.

Not all vehicles made in the United States or Canada are built by union-represented workers.  Vehicles not listed here, even if produced in the United States or Canada, are not union-made vehicles.

UAW CARS
Buick Lacrosse
Buick Lucerne
Cadillac CTS
Cadillac DTS
Cadillac STS
Chevrolet Cobalt
Chevrolet Corvette
Chevrolet Cruze
Chevrolet Malibu
Chrysler Sebring
Dodge Avenger
Dodge Caliber
Dodge Viper
Ford Focus
Ford Mustang
Ford Taurus
Lincoln MKS
Mazda6
Mitsubishi Eclipse
Mitsubishi Galant
Pontiac G6
Pontiac Vibe
Saturn Aura
Toyota Corolla*

UAW PICKUPS
Chevrolet Colorado
Chevrolet Silverado**
Dodge Dakota
Dodge Ram Pickup*
Ford F Series
Ford Ranger
GMC Canyon
GMC Sierra**
Mazda B-series
Toyota Tacoma*

UAW SUVs/CUVs
Buick Enclave
Cadillac Escalade ESV
Cadillac Escalade/Hybrid
Chevrolet Suburban
Chevrolet Traverse
Dodge Nitro
Ford Escape/Hybrid
Ford Expedition
Ford Explorer
Ford Explorer Sport Trac
GMC Acadia
GMC Tahoe/Hybrid
GMC Yukon/Hybrid
GMC Yukon XL
H2 Hummer
H3 Hummer
Jeep Commander
Jeep Compass
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jeep Liberty
Jeep Patriot
Jeep Wrangler
Lincoln Navigator
Mazda Tribute/Hybrid
Mercury Mariner/Hybrid
Mercury Mountaineer
Mitsubishi Endeavor
Saturn Outlook

UAW VANS
Chevrolet Express
Ford Econoline
GMC Savana

CAW CARS
Chevrolet Camaro
Chevrolet Impala
Chrysler 300
Dodge Challenger
Dodge Charger
Ford Crown Victoria
Lincoln Town Car
Mercury Grand Marquis

CAW SUVs/CUVs
Chevrolet Equinox
Ford Edge
Ford Flex
GMC Terrain
Lincoln MKT
Lincoln MKX
Pontiac Torrent

UAW/CAW Vans
Chrysler Town & Country
Dodge Grand Caravan
VW Routan

* The vehicles marked with a single asterisk (*) are produced in the United States and another country.

** The light-duty (LD) crew cab versions of the vehicles marked with a double asterisk (**) are only manufactured in Mexico. Other models are made in the United States.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

This article originally appeared in UnionReview.com on September 18, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

Unions, Progressives To Launch Wall St. Reform Drives This Week

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Unions and progressive coalitions are seeking to add grass-roots organizing power to President Obama’s calls for financial reform, with stepped up activism from the AFL-CIO, Jobs for Justice and the progressive Americans for Financial Reform coalition all starting this week.

Following last week’s AFL-CIO convention that aimed to jump-start reform drives and the union movement, new president Richard Trumka and other leaders will be taking their case for economic reform to Wall Street and the  public. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reported:

The team’s tour continues Sunday and Monday in Atlanta, including a rally outside Wachovia, where Trumka will condemn its predatory financial practices, such as foreclosures. On Monday night and Tuesday, the team travels to New York City where Trumka will issue a strong warning to Wall Street at a press conference outside the New York Stock Exchange.

The goal: create a fairer economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.

On Thursday, the Jobs for Justice Coalition plans an action—one of many protests scheduled for over 20 cities over the next week—outside a meeting of the pro-banking Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C., a key lobbying coalition opposed to the Administration’s proposed consumer financial protection agency, as well as other reforms.

As a Jobs for Justice press release proclaimed:

Thousands expected to participate in over a dozen cities to mark the one-year anniversary of the bank bailouts.

Nearly a year after Congress authorized hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the financial industry, major banks continue to pay outrageous salaries and bonuses, drive layoffs and foreclosures, and spend millions lobbying against the interests working people.

Rallies across the country will condemn the “bailout bandits” and “corporate criminals” at Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo.

Actions will take place in at least 21 cities, and new cities are being added every week. See below for local contacts and find an up to day list of actions at www.jwj.org/recovery.

There are good reasons for all the anger. But it has has yet to lead to a massive public outpouring for progressive reform, as opposed to the corporate-abetted “Tea Party” events that also decry bailouts along with healthcare reform, while leaving the current toothless oversight of the financial industry in place.

Even though federal officials allowed a free-spending set of bailouts with no requirements and little oversight, virtually nothing has been done to make sure the money isn’t wasted and is spent in ways that benefit the economy. Indeed, nobody really knows how the $700 billion in bailout funds was actually spent.

So while inside-the-beltway analysts claim that Obama has an uphill fight in Congress, out-of-control banks and  Wall Street firms are now squandering taxpayers’ funds while returning to trading in risky investments. And credit is still largely frozen, worsening the “jobless recovery.”

As the Media Consortium summed up in its year-later review of the Wall Street collapse:

While workers experienced increasing pressure on their pocketbooks, Wall Street gambled away their retirement investments. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy one year ago today, a move which created chaos in the financial sector and heavy damage in the rest of the economy. Things were looking bad for the economy before Wall Street imploded, but the financial crisis made those problems a lot worse.

“In a modern society, a credit freeze means instant death to the real economy, since virtually every enterprise, big and small, runs on credit,” Les Leopold explains for In These Times. “When the financial sector froze, it pushed the real economy off a cliff.”

But incredibly, after a year marked by massive financial bailouts, not one new law has been signed to protect our economy–and taxpayers–from Wall Street. Not one.

Even the modest plans to rein in executive pay for taxpayer-supported companies have proved toothless. Leopold notes that President Barack Obama’s refusal to crack down on the banks has left both the financial regulatory process and other important progressive plans–like overhauling the broken health care system–in a precarious political state. The largesse we have shown for bailed-out bankers gives conservatives ammunition against other, more productive activities.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-media-consortium/weekly-audit-one-year-aft_b_287290.html

Perhaps the biggest promoter of refom, outside of the president himself, is the potentially influential coalition of 200 labor, consumer and  progressive groups, Americans for Financial Reform. It is planning grassroots actions while working with federal and state government officials to promote greater oversight of the financial system.

Indeed, to shore up support for administration proposals to rein in risky  investments, limit pay and offer a new consumer protection agency — all facing stiff industry opposition — the Treasury Department is reaching out to likely consumer allies, including the AFR organization.

So while some progressives and experts, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, remain skeptical about how committed this administration is to truly reforming a broken financial system, Bloomberg News reports that

Treasury Department officials are meeting with consumer allies to build support for a regulations overhaul for Wall Street as President Barack Obama ramps up a campaign to win legislation by year’s end.

The Treasury roundtables have been largely unpublicized, by invitation only and billed by some Democratic lawmakers as consumer-protection forums. The audiences are drawn in part from the rolls of a consumer-advocacy coalition that is pushing the legislation. They are designed to channel public anger at Wall Street and sidestep the financial industry, which is fighting to block the measure…

Audiences for the events are drawn largely from the membership of Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of more than 12 dozen consumer, labor and civil rights groups that joined this year to push for oversight. The coalition includes the Service Employees International Union and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Illinois Roundtable

The group will hold its next roundtable in Aurora, Illinois, on Sept. 21. State Attorney General Lisa Madigan will lead the session, and the group has invited Representative Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.

Another non-profit group, Boston-based American Business Leaders for Financial Reform, is recruiting corporate executives to make the case for legislation. Tim Duncan, a Republican and founder of advisory firm Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Story Street Investment Management, created the organization after a conversation with Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who oversees the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“There are a lot of people in the industry who realize reform is needed,” Duncan said in a telephone interview. “I’m surprised at the knee-jerk reaction industry is taking.”

But long-time observers of the financial industry aren’t suprised that a major battle lies ahead—and unions hope to play a leading role in pushing for reform.

And yet if this drive for reform falters, the fate of the entire economy is at stake. As Robert Reich described the risks we’re now facing:

Put simply, the Street has been given too many opportunities to play too many games with other peoples’ money.

But, like the health care industry, Wall Street has platoons of lobbyists and an almost unlimited war chest to protect its interests and prevent change. And with the Dow Jones Industrial Average trending upward again — and the public’s and the media’s attention focused elsewhere, especially on health care — it will be difficult to summon the same sense of urgency financial reform commanded six months ago.

Yet without substantial reform, the nation and the world will almost certainly be plunged into the same crisis or worse at some point in the not-too-distant future. Wall Street’s major banks are already en route to their old, dangerous ways — now made more dangerous by their sure knowledge that they are too big to fail.

About the Author: Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly who has also written for The American Prospect, Alternet, In These Times, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. He’s written investigative articles on unionbusting and other corporate abuses, and recently completed Cornell University’s Strategic Corporate Research summer program. He blogs regularly for Huffington Post, and co-hosts a weekly Blog Talk Radio show, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.

This article originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 20, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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