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Archive for September, 2009

The Annoying Part About Innovation

Monday, September 21st, 2009

One of the most important innovations of all time—the tin can—was first patented in 1810 by a British merchant named Peter Durand.
 
What’s so important about the tin can? It dramatically extended the reach of the British fleet, providing its sailors access to well-preserved food which allowed them to go on much longer voyages.
 
Which leads to an important question—what year was the can opener first patented?
 
The answer is in the next paragraph, but I’m going to stall a bit for dramatic effect. I’d really like for you to guess before you look at the answer. Come on, it’ll be fun.
 
Ezra Warner, an American, got the patent in—drum roll please—1858. For almost fifty years, if you wanted to open a can, you had to hit it with a chisel and hammer and spew most of the contents on the wall or floor. Or you could try a hack-saw and get lots of little shards of metal in your food.
 
If you read most books and articles on innovation, it makes the process seem so logical, structured and orderly. Obstacles come up and they are overcome. The correct decisions are magnified and the mistakes minimized. So the entire process of innovation is sanitized, homogenized and glorified.
 
This is dangerous because it gives a false sense of security to organizations that they can actually “manage” a process of innovation. And nothing could be further from the truth. Like an unruly pet or teenager, innovation is often survived—not managed.
 
Take Viagra. It redefined the entire field of male enhancement products when it was first discovered and has generated huge profits. But the drug was discovered almost by accident when a certain side effect started to rise in male patients recovering from heart attacks.
 
The other problem with innovation is that we all spend a lot of time studying things that worked. I maintain that we can often learn far more from things that didn’t. For every Starbucks or 747, we can learn a valuable lesson or two. But we can learn even more from the New Cokes and the Enrons and the other colossal failures of our time. Unfortunately most of us tend to be success junkies and we don’t have the patience to sort through the tales of woe from a bunch of losers.
 
But there is something even more annoying about innovation. As interesting as it is to read about the innovations of others, the most valuable stories about innovation are from within your own organization. That’s right. If you really want to understand why innovation is such a struggle, do some digging to find the last few attempts at innovation in your organization.
 
If your experience is like mine, you’ll discover that your organization has its own immune system that seeks out innovation and kills it. Corporate policies, management and profit targets are just three of the villains.
 
However, if you are grounded in the reality of what, and who, has been successful in your organization, you’ll dramatically increase the odds of success as you embark on your voyage of innovation. Hopefully this article will help to provide sustenance for you to maintain a can-do attitude when the journey gets bumpy, as it undoubtedly will.

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.

Insurance companies go before Kucinich panel

Friday, September 18th, 2009

In a room filled almost to capacity with K street lobbyists and company lawyers, executives from the nation’s top six insurance providers testified before the Domestic Policy subcommittee during day two of the subcommittee’s hearings. While yesterday committee members heard from victims of insurance companies and industry whistleblowers who shared their disheartening stories of industry abuse, today brought a much different tone.

The witness list included executives from United Healthcare Group, WellPoint, Aetna, Humana, CIGNA and Health Care Service Corporation. They repeatedly expressed their support for health care reform, but when questioned about specific industry practices or guidelines, they tirelessly dodged the issue. Whether the committee members asked about rescission policies or executive salaries, the witnesses seemed reluctant to provide anything beyond vague generalities extolling the virtues of their industry.

However, it seemed that many of the committee members took yesterday’s testimony to heart. Following up on Dr. Linda Peeno’s statement from yesterday that her salary was directly related to how many claims she denied, Representative Cummings asked all the witnesses if there was any reward at their company for doing likewise. Frustrated by the complete denial of such practices by all executives, Rep. Cummings said “Well, I guess there must be those other insurance companies out there doing this.”

Rep. Conyers also dropped in on the hearings, even though he is not a member of the subcommittee. He took a slightly different line of questioning, asking the witnesses if they were aware of a wide variety of insurance-related facts, such as the existence of the organization Healthcare for America NOW. None of the witnesses said they had ever heard of it.

Overall, the hearings posed several tense moments between the Democratic representatives and witnesses. At one point, Rep. Conyers asked Patricia Farrell, the Aetna representative, how much she made per year. She refused to disclose the amount to the committee, offering instead to submit it in written form after the hearing. All of the other witnesses, except the Humana and Health Care Services Corporation executives, refused as well.

While it is unclear exactly how much light today’s hearing shed on the internal practices and operations of the insurance companies, the committee members did request large amounts of additional information from the witnesses, including tapes of internal meetings discussing raising profits and compensation listings for their top executives. Rep. Kucinich closed the hearing by noting that this is just the beginning of an ongoing process to learn exactly how the insurance companies operate and how they can be reformed to better served the American people.

About the Author: Maria Tchijov is an online organizer & new media specialist in healthcare on SEIU’s New Media team. SEIU is the nation’s largest union of health care workers, with over half of the union’s 2.1 million members working in the field, including 110,000 nurses and 40,000 doctors.

This article originally appeared in the SEIU blog on September 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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Specter In Pittsburgh: Punishment and Reward at AFL-CIO Convention

Friday, September 18th, 2009

“More than ever before, we need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies, and criticizes those who, well, can’t seem to decide which side they’re on.” –Rich Trumka, in the Washington Post Sept. 7, 2009

PITTSBURGH – When the history of the bi-partisan undermining of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is written, Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter will be assigned a pivotal role.

Back on March 24, when he was still in the GOP, Specter announced that he was no longer going to be the much-prized 60th vote for “cloture” on EFCA. That’s the procedure Senate Democrats will have to employ sometime later this year to overcome a Republican filibuster, and make what retiring AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was still predicting on Sunday would be “the greatest advances in labor law reform in 70 years.”

Senator Arlen Spector

In 2007, Specter supported bringing EFCA to the floor for a Senate vote, after it was passed overwhelmingly in the House. But according to the same Senator in March, “the problems of the recession” make this year “a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice.”

In organizing campaigns, where NLRB elections have been by-passed and “card check” used instead to demonstrate majority support for unionization, Spectre said “there has been “widespread intimidation” by “union officials” when the latter “visit workers’ homes with strong-arm tactics and refuse to leave until cards are signed.”

To deal with this alleged coercion, Specter recommended making it an unfair labor practice for any “union official” to visit “an employee at his/her home without prior consent for any purpose related to a representation campaign.”

While letting everyone know in March that he was no longer for cloture, Specter also positioned himself to play a key role brokering a compromise with colleagues like Tom Harkin and Chuck Schumer, who might “choose to move on and amend the NLRA” in ways more acceptable to Arlen.   

With a labor law reform record like this, Specter would seem to be just the kind of politician who needs a little labor “punishment” to send a message to the rest of his wavering breed — particularly since he now faces a Democratic primary challenge next year by a pro-EFCA congressman.

In several recent interviews, new AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka indicated that he favored holding politicians more accountable, “so they don’t listen to the moneyman and continue to erode away or negotiate away” key labor goals, a trend most evident lately in healthcare reform.

Nevertheless, here we are at the Pittsburgh Convention Center, on day three of the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial meeting, listening to that same Rich Trumka give a warm welcome to none other than Arlen Specter. From Trumka, we learn that his friend Arlen has been a rare “pro-labor Republican” for years.

From the wrinkled, frail-looking 79-year old Specter, we get a quick recitation of his past responsiveness to top union officials when job safety and health enforcement, or some other federal government function of benefit to workers, was under siege by the string of Republican presidents that he helped elect (two Bushes and a Reagan).

Today, the senator noted, he was working for a “robust public option in healthcare,” sanctions on imported Chinese tires, and emission standards that wouldn’t jeopardize jobs in coal mining, steel making, or other manufacturing.

On the matter of what he called “employees’ choice,” Specter reassured his audience that his latest position—spelled out in little detail—met the three standards set forth by Trumka, in a Sept. 5 New York Times article headlined “Union Head Would Back Bill Without Card Check.” (That was a reference to Sweeney’s own Labor Day weekend expression of willingness “to accept a fast election campaign instead of card check.” 

As described by Specter, Trunka’s three minimum requirements for “labor law reform” now include “prompt certification,” “tough penalties,” and “binding arbitration” of first contracts. According to Specter, a half dozen Senators, plus himself, Harkin, and Schumer, are working on a new version of EFCA that will “be totally satisfactory to labor.”

Specter both referenced —and was aided in his performance— by a local headline today announcing an impending Right-to-Work Committee “ad blitz” directed at him and the now abandoned “card check” method he criticized, much like the RTWC, back in March.  A full-page ad in yesterday’s Post-Gazette, run by the business-backed “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace,” still urged Specter to “oppose any versions of the job-killing” EFCA that would “shift power from workers to union bosses” or give “government-appointed bureaucrats more control in setting wages.”

These costly exertions by the anti-EFCA lobby reflect quite a different stance than elements of corporate America have taken vis-à-vis health care. In that ongoing “reform process,” labor defenders and facilitators of compromise (like SEIU leader Dennis Rivera) can at least point, as President Obama does, to what they consider to be positive movement on the part of some management players. When the subject is labor law reform —either as originally conceived or sans card check— the labor concessions made so far, brokered by the likes of Specter, have yet to be matched by anyone speaking for the employer side.

In the meantime, President Obama, who also addressed the convention today, is flying off to Philadelphia with his arm around Specter. They’ll be there together tonight at a big Specter re-election fundraiser, where Obama will be offering the same kind of reward for Specter’s party-switch that the AFL-CIO is prepared to give as well, in the hopes of getting EFCA-Lite in return.

About the Author: Steve Early is author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, is a labor journalist and lawyer who has written for numerous publications. He was a Boston-based international representative or organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years, and is a member of the editorial advisory committees of three independent labor publications: Labor Notes, New Labor Forum and Working USA.

This article was originally published in Working In These Times on September 15, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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Baucus Bill Is Far Short of Real Health Care Reform

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee’s health care reform proposal released this morning falls far short of the comprehensive reform that would provide working families with the quality and affordable health they desperately need, say health care advocates.

In a statement this morning, outgoing AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says the bill

“fails to meet the most basic health care needs of working families and it fails to meet the expectations we have set for our nation.”

The labor leaders say the Finance Committee bill’s reliance on so-called health care co-ops as an alternative to a public option

fails to put pressure on private insurers to control health care costs. There is no history or logic behind the claim that health care co-ops would provide real competition for the giant private insurers that have a stranglehold on health coverage today.

While the bill’s main author, committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), spent weeks trying to win some moderate Republican backing for the plan, not a single GOP senator has endorsed it. One key Finance Committee Democrat has already announced he will oppose the Baucus bill unless significant changes are made.

Along with dropping the public health insurance option-which is part of the House bill (H.R. 3200) and the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pension (HELP) committee bill-the Baucus bill also taxes some health plans and individuals who fail to buy private insurance, while providing no penalties to irresponsible employers who do not provide coverage.

While taxing group plans that may have higher costs because the plans cover older workers, workers with worse than average health histories or who simply live in higher cost areas, it imposes no taxes high cost individual plans.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a long-time advocate of health care reform, says because the bill abandons the public health insurance option-among other objections–

there is no way in present form I will vote for it. Therefore, I will not vote for it unless it changes during the amendment process by vast amounts… I am putting down a marker, which I think others should put down, too, who might feel the same way I do.

There are, some provisions in the bill that do provide important insurance industry reforms and improvements in how health care is delivered and paid for with a focus on quality over quantity. But say the AFL-CIO leaders

But the proposal’s strong points are nowhere near sufficient to outweigh its problems. However well intentioned the attempts at bipartisanship, the final product reflects the bankrupt policies of the past more than the forward-looking policies needed to drive meaningful health care reform.

We are counting on finance committee Democrats to fix the bill and side with working families, not insurance companies.

The Finance Committee is scheduled to begin mark-up of the bill-when improving amendments can added-next week. The Senate HELP committee has approved its version and action on the House legislation is expected later this month.

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. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. He 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. He’s also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold blood plasma, and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

This article was originally published in AFL-CIO blog on September 16, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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‘Young Workers: A Lost Decade’

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

Take a look around this Labor Day. Chances are, you’ll see a lot of young workers on the job, because something bad happened in the past 10 years to young workers in this country: Since 1999, more of them now have lower-paying jobs, if they can get a job at all; health care is a rare luxury and retirement security is something for their parents, not them. In fact, many—younger than 35—still live at home with their parents because they can’t afford to be on their own.

These are the findings of a new report, “Young Workers: A Lost Decade.” Conducted in July 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO and our community affiliate Working America, the nationwide survey of 1,156 people follows up on a similar survey the AFL-CIO conducted in 1999. The deterioration of young workers’ economic situation in those 10 years is alarming.

Nate Scherer, 31, is among today’s young workers. Scherer lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with his wife, his parents, brother and his partner.  He spoke at a media conference at the AFL-CIO today to discuss the report.

After getting married, my wife and I decided to move in with my parents to pay off our bills. We could afford to live on our own but we’d never be able to get out of debt. We have school loans to pay off, too. We’d like to have children, but we just can’t manage the expense of it right now…so we’re putting it off till we’re in a better place. My [work] position is on the edge, and I feel like if my company were to cut back, my position would be one of the first to go.

During today’s press briefing, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka summed up the report’s findings this way:

We’re calling the report “A Lost Decade” because we’re seeing 10 years of opportunity lost as young workers across the board are struggling to keep their heads above water and often not succeeding. They’ve put off adulthood—put off having kids, put off education—and a full 34 percent of workers under 35 live with their parents for financial reasons.

Just last week we learned that about 1.7 million fewer teenagers and young adults were employed in July than a year before, hitting a record low of 51.4 percent.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said:  

Young workers in particular must be given the tools to lead the next generation to prosperity. The national survey we’re releasing today shows just how broken our economy is for our young people…and what’s at stake if we don’t fix it.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • 31 percent of young workers report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don’t have coverage because they can’t afford it or their employer does not offer it.
  • Strikingly, one in three young workers are currently living at home with their parents.
  • Only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside—22 percentage points fewer than in 1999—while 24 percent cannot even pay their monthly bills. 
  • A third cannot pay their bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
  • 37 percent have put off education or professional development because they can’t afford it.
  • When asked who is most responsible for the country’s economic woes, close to 50 percent of young workers place the blame on Wall Street and banks or corporate CEOs. And young workers say greed by corporations and CEOs is the factor most to blame for in the current financial downturn.
  • By a 22-point margin, young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit. Young workers rank conservative economic approaches such as reducing taxes, government spending and regulation on business among the five lowest of 16 long-term priorities for Congress and the president.
  • Thirty-five percent say they voted for the first time in 2008, and nearly three-quarters now keep tabs on government and public affairs, even when there’s not an election going on.
  • The majority of young workers and nearly 70 percent of first-time voters are confident that Obama will take the country in the right direction.

Trumka, who is running for AFL-CIO president without announced opposition at our convention later this month, is making union outreach to young people a top priority. He said one of the report’s conclusions is especially striking:

Young people want to be involved but they’re rarely asked. Their priorities are even more progressive than the priorities of the older generation of working people, yet they aren’t engaged by co-workers or friends to get involved in the economic debate.

Currently, 18-to-35-year-olds make up a quarter of union membership. And at the AFL-CIO Convention, we will ask Convention delegates to approve plans for broad recruitment of young workers, as well as plans for training and leadership of young workers who are currently union members. And that’s just the beginning of a broad push towards talking and mobilizing young workers in the coming months and years.

According to the report, more than half of young workers say employees are more successful getting problems resolved as a group rather than as individuals, and employees who have a union are better off than employees in similar jobs who do not.

Read the full report here.

About the Author: Seth D. Michaels is the online campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, focusing on the Employee Free Choice campaign. Prior to arriving at the AFL-CIO, he’s worked on online mobilization for Moveon.org, Blue State Digital and the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also spent two years touring the country as a member of the Late Night Players, a sketch comedy troupe.

This article originally appeared in employeefreechoice.org. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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As Obama Speech Fires Up Base, Insurance CEOs Emerge As New ‘Villains’

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

President Obama’s well-received health reform speech not only boosted public support for reform, but helped fire up much of the progressive base—despite his failing to draw a firm line in the sand on the public option.  

Yet as Mike Lux, co-director and CEO of Progressive Strategies, pointed out Thursday on the Web radio show I co-host, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” Obama accomplished a key goal of inspiring progressives, including influential labor leaders, to push harder for reform—while starting to recapture the “narrative” about healthcare back from the right-wing.

Lux observed: “In order to get big pieces of legislation passed, you have to have people who are pumped, ready to go, fired up, willing to knock on doors. He was having trouble generating that. People were confused and down in the mouth. But the speech did what he needed to do and did it in a big way.

More sparks for a reform drive are expected to start this weekend, when the AFL-CIO begins its convention, and Obama appears before them next week, following up on his fiery Labor Day rally appearance and Wednesday’s congressional speech.

Before the president’s address to Congress, Lux added, “we never really had control of the narrative. Obama, for all his eloquence, had trouble laying out a story of what was wrong and why he wanted it changed. In order to tell a compelling story, you have to tell who the villains are, and he’s not very good at that. We never really had a story being told that people could latch on to, understand and get excited about.”

“We now have that,” Lux said on Thursday about the President’s messaging. “Last night, he went after insurance companies in a big way, and went after people lying about the plan, and called them out in a big way. And now have a narrative we can take to people.”

(Of course, long before the speech, many activists in the union movement have been working hard for healthcare reform — an issue that’s now become a legislative priority ahead of the Employee Free Choice Act — but the speech can reignite their fervor while broadening the range of people involved in grass-roots activism.)

Meanwhile, insurance industry executives continue to play their part as villains: a new report by the California Nurses Association shows that up to 40 percent of claims are denied in California insurance companies, making those profit-driven bureaucrats part of the real “death panels.” On Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! show this week, she highlighted the nursing association report and featured an interview with a mother, Hilda Sarkisyan, whose daughter died after she was initially denied a liver transplant by CIGNA, which has a 33-percent claim rejection rate so far this year. After a massive public campaign, the insurance company finally relented, but it was too late:

HILDA SARKISYAN: Well, we miss her. We don’t have our beautiful daughter with us anymore. And CIGNA is doing this every day, every day. And that’s why I’m out there to help other families to stop them. It’s not only CIGNA; it’s all the insurance industry, that they are placing profit before patient, and it’s not right…You know, they should not enforce the care of the people to their deep pockets. It’s all about their pocket, all about the CEO, how much he makes. I miss my daughter. I had a beautiful, perfect daughter. I don’t have her anymore. I don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilda, describe what happened to your daughter.

HILDA SARKISYAN: Well, we had insurance. We were covered. We thought we had insurance. So it’s like having insurance and not having insurance is the same thing. People who have insurance and don’t have it, they get the same care. But having insurance and knowing that you do have it, and you are recommended to a certain hospital, because the insurance company only pays if you go to that hospital, you go to that hospital, which in our case was UCLA. We were transferred there. By the way, that’s our fourth hospital within, I would say, three years, because they were jumping us around. And finally, you go there. My son gave her the perfect bone marrow transplant, perfect match. And my daughter needed a liver transplant. And so many requests, so many requests, and they were—the doctors were denied. We were denied, until the California Nurses Association stepped in, helped us out.

We had to get out and go to their headquarters in Glendale, make a scene with our family, the Armenian Youth Federation, our church. Why do we have to do that? I’m a mother who should have been next to my daughter. Only if I knew she was going to die that same day, you think I would have that energy to go out there and do that? I could have been holding my daughter’s hand and praying with her. This is not right.

Fueled by such outrages, it’s welcome news for advocates of reform that labor leaders were, by and large, cheered by the president’s speech, which included his toughest attacks yet on insurers. The labor leaders’ enthusiasm can help rally the union movement’s ground troops to do even more work to promote the legislation. For instance, Gerald McEntee the president of a leading public employees union, the 1.6 million-member AFSCME, said:

With his speech to Congress last night, President Obama re-energized the forces for reform and has set a clear path for victory. We’re going to do our part and hold Congress accountable – the time has come for Congress to put people above profits and enact real health care reform. We’re also going to pull out all the stops to take on the insurance industry. The President’s right – ‘The time for games has passed – now is the season for action.’

President Obama made clear his support of a public option, which is just that – an option that will help improve quality, lower costs and keep the insurance companies in check.

With an estimated 150,000 workers attending events, Labor Day turnout for the AFL-CIO alone showed that unions are starting to push back hard against the right-wing Tea Baggers, whose bullying tactics dominated early August news coverage. These union members and allies are energized by a desire to fight for reform and battle the insurance industry. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reported:

Labor Day marches and rallies capped off more than a month of an incredible union member mobilization to move the health care reform debate beyond the screaming diatribes and disruptive tactics by opponents that marred the start of the congressional recess.

During the weekend, some 150,000 union members turned out for rallies, parades and picnics that not only celebrated the workers’ holiday, but showed broad support for comprehensive health care reform.

Those events followed the more than 400 August town hall meetings, health care forums and other events where more than 24,000 union members spoke up for health care and wrote letters, made phone calls and went door to door to educate their neighbors.

The President’s speech, Mike Lux said, can help boost such activism and add pressure to pass meaningful legislation. That’s in part because the speech added confidence to progressives and  Democrats in Congress who have been engulfed by what he calls the “culture of caution” and fear created by the onslaught of the right-wing noise machine. He said, “Momentum is really a key. Psychologically,  when people are confident and not on the defensive, they feel like something is going be done and they want to be part of it.” As a result, Lux declared,”People are willing more to deal [with shaping the legislation.]”          

And as the author of the important book, The Progressive Revolution, he pointed out how grassroots activism around the focused goal of medical care for seniors combined with the political head-knocking skills of LBJ to deliver Medicare.

The challenge is even tougher now to pass broader health reform than it was to win Medicare in 1965, but he’s hopeful that President Obama will show the toughness needed to get the job done—and that in turn will spur more reform in other key arenas.

Lux says, “If we can break through on healthcare and beat the insurance industries, it strengthens us against big banks and big energy companies.”

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.

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Worst Places to Work

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Having personally responded to over 50,000 emails from workers and bosses, as you can imagine, I’ve received screenfuls of emails about awful workplaces—or should that be screamfuls of emails?
 
A few examples from my inbox—there was the guy who got a daily soaking trying to spray clean dumpsters with a pressure washer, the woman who had to work next to the guy who would have loud, long conversations with his wife totally in baby talk, the guy who had to inventory used underwear after fashion shows, the guy who wrote to me that he just goes to work hoping that he’ll come home with all of his body parts intact and the woman who worked for a boss who asked his assistant to type her own termination letter.
 
Ouch!
 
Woody Allen once said that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. And I think this is also applies to work. For every horrible, outrageous, over-the-top and borderline cruel workplace like the ones above, there are millions more that are miserable. Note I didn’t say “merely” miserable, because I believe that miserable workplaces have a way of building up in your system, like mercury in a fish. Over time this buildup can be just as toxic.
 
Still not seeing the distinction here? I like to think of horrible as a meteor that crashes to earth destroying everything in its path. Miserable? That is the pebble in our shoe that most of us must walk around in day after day after day. After being miserable for twenty years, admit it, there are times where you wish that meteor would strike, if for no other reason than to put you out of your misery.
 
Examples of miserable at work would include the boss who is always looking over your shoulder and second guessing everything that you do. The coworker who always manages to go AWOL so that you have to answer the phone or cover their work just when you are facing your own big deadline. The customer, who even after they’ve bought your product, is still pushing you for a discount or some swag. The accounting department that rejects your expense reimbursement requests on average three times. The coworker who is an expert on all parts of your job but dumber than a rock about doing his. The company that announces that it will be laying off thousands of workers, but not saying who for another six months. You get the drift, heck, you have your own stories of misery and woe at work.
 
So how do we survive? I’ve developed a simple litmus test. Are the problems that you’re facing the “right” kind of problems or the “wrong” kind of problems? Sorting out that distinction, to me, is the key to a satisfying career.
 
At least a couple of you out there are asking, why all the focus on problems? “Sure, work has it’s downside, but it also has a lot of virtues too.” And to that line of reasoning I would say, sure, life is good when you have a parking spot right next to the building, an expense account, a fancy title and a corner office. Yes, work can have its privileges. But for the overwhelming majority of us, work is a minefield of problems.
 
What are the “wrong” kind of problems? Demeaning bosses, unsafe working conditions, crying on a regular basis, getting lied to—yes, when people write to me describing any of these circumstances, I always say the same thing, start networking and cleaning up your resume.
 
The right kind of problems? Being frustrated because your bold new idea isn’t quite ready for prime time. Having to scramble each day because you are always learning and adapting to new situations. Feeling the weight of the responsibility and authority that your boss has entrusted in your hands.
 
If I had a magic wand I would put everyone in a position where they had the right kind of problems and a nurturing workplace community that would provide support during the search for solutions. But since I don’t have a magic wand, it’s up to you to escape the horrible and the miserable in search of the right stuff. Good luck in your journey.

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.

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Big Pharma Whistleblower Gets $51 Million

Monday, September 14th, 2009

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

It’s an amazing story and one worth talking about.  Gulf War veteran and former Pfizer sales representative John Kopchinski is getting $51 million dollars as a result of his whistleblowing lawsuit against Pfizer – the world’s biggest drug maker — and that’s big news.

Pfizer to Pay $2.3 Billion for Fraudulent Marketing 

According to a statement from the Justice Department,   Pfizer’s illegal practices in connection with its promotion of an anti-inflammatory drug called  Bextra is what got it into big trouble.

Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, a company must specify the intended uses of a product in its new drug application to FDA. Once approved, the drug may not be marketed or promoted for so-called “off-label” uses.

It turns out that Pfizer promoted the sale of Bextra for several uses and dosages that the FDA specifically declined to approve because of its safety concerns.

As a result of that conduct, (as well as violations involving other drugs) the company will pay a criminal fine of $1.195 billion, the largest criminal fine ever imposed in the United States for any matter.

Pharmacia & Upjohn (Pfizer subsidiaries) will also forfeit $105 million, for a total criminal resolution of $1.3 billion.

All in all, Pfizer settled the case( which included civil and criminal penalties) for a whopping $2.3 billion dollars.

False Claims Act Liability

Pfizer also agreed to pay $1 billion to resolve allegations under the civil False Claims Act (also know as Qui Tam).

Under the Act, it is illegal to knowingly present a false or fraudulent claim for payment to the federal government or use a false or fraudulent record to get paid. The way it works is:

  • individuals and entities with evidence of fraud involving the United States or its programs or contracts can sue the wrongdoer on behalf of the government
  • the government has the right to intervene and join the action
  • if the government declines, the private plaintiff may proceed on his or her own behalf

Those who violate the Act are liable for three times the dollar amount of the fraud and additional civil penalties. As far as the whistleblower goes, the Whistelblowers Protection Blog explains it this way:

A qui tam plaintiff can receive between 15 and 30 percent of the total recovery from the defendant, whether through a favorable judgment or settlement. To be eligible to recover money under the Act, you must file a qui tam lawsuit. Merely informing the government about the violation is not enough. You only receive an award if, and after, the government recovers money from the defendant as a result of your suit.

 In this case, Kopchinski (and others) claimed that Pfizer:

  • illegally promoted four drugs  (Bextra an anti-inflammatory; Geodon, an anti-psychotic drug; Zyvox, an antibiotic; and Lyrica, an anti-epileptic drug),
  • for uses that were not medically accepted, and
  • caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs.

As a part of the resolution of the case,  six whistleblowers will receive payments totaling more than $102 million from the federal share of the civil recovery.

Kopchinski, whose reporting instigated the government investigation, will get $51.5 million.

Great Result For This Whistleblower

It’s a fantastic result for Kopchinski and the end of a long road. Most whistleblowers go through an enormous ordeal and so did Kopchinski,

First they struggle with the difficulty of reporting the illegal and/or dangerous practices to the corporate hierarchy and the pressure that goes with it.

What happens next —  when they are ignored as they often are — is that they are labeled as troublemakers and then fired because of trumped up charges of misconduct.

Once they report the wrongdoing to a government agency, they are blackballed in their industry and can’t get work. The stress, anxiety, guilt, and financial distress is overwhelming for most.

Kopchinski had this to say in a statement he released:

In the Army I was expected to protect people at all costs, 

At Pfizer I was expected to increase profits at all costs, even when sales meant endangering lives. 

I couldn’t do that.

That’s why Kopchinski got fired. At the time (2003) he had a baby and his wife was pregnant with twins. He went from earning $125,000 a year, to depleting his 401(k), to finally getting a $40,000 a year insurance job.

We appreciate Mr. Kopchinski’s courage and conviction and congratulate him (as well as his legal team and the Justice Department ) for a superb result.

It doesn’t often turn out this way — and it’s sure great to see it when it does. It’s a wonderful Labor Day story.

Image: images.huffingtonpost.com

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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A Tribute on Laborless Day

Friday, September 11th, 2009

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

This time, grill some burgers, raise a glass of beer and drink a toast to Laborless Day, in honor of the 10% to 20% of the American workforce who cannot find work, or anything meaningful that pays a living wage.

The current state of labor affairs in the United States is this: We’ve just barely survived eight years in which corporations amassed even more political power and societal control than they had before.

The military-industrial complex has continued to provide us with war, the banking industry gave us substandard mortgage derivatives but won’t loan money to people with good credit, and the insurance industry forced us to buy home insurance, car insurance, flood insurance and life insurance, but refused to sell us health insurance. Labor unions are on the run in many states, and the minimum wage will buy you a dry spot under the U.S. 90A bridge.

The Captains of Industry have had their way, more or less, for decades, and never more than now. You’d think they’d be flying high, but instead, on the eve of this Laborless Day, they find themselves in a quandry.

They’ve re-learned the hard way that their stock appreciation, bonuses, vacation mansions and hot cars accrue in proportion to American consumer spending.

Economists such as Michael Mandel may argue otherwise, but American consumer spending accounts for in the neighborhood of 70% of the Gross Domestic Product, which is roughly to say, our economy. (Mandel makes a good argument that the consumer impact is less than that, but doesn’t count consumer wages confiscated as taxes, which are then spent on government programs and, yes, do have an economic impact.)

After taking a financial beating in a variety of ways, directly or indirectly from numerous corporate captains, the American consumer has lost the ability to spend. The big shots still are living high on the fuel that was stuffed into the pipeline before the Last Straw, but soon nothing will be left but fumes.

Thus we find the Captains of Industry, through major voiceboxes such as the Wall Street Journal, playing a dual role. Yes, as Republicans they still have to diss the Democrats’ stimulus spending (while forgetting Bush Jr.’s). But at the same time, because consumer spending is predicated on consumer confidence, they must declare that the glass is half full and in fact the recession, which was never all that bad to begin with, is really pretty much over and we’re all in recovery now.

Sure, guys. Paper me over with charts explaining how, technically, the bell curve has rung while Southeast Asian production rates clearly are leveling off and job losses truly are not gushing out on the ground as fast as they were just a month ago.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, almost every middle-class American who still has a job and is not employed in the medical industry faces the very real prospect of sudden job loss. In Detroit, by one measure, 17.7% of the workforce was out of work by the end of July. In the El Centro, Calif., market, for some reason, the unemployment total hit 30.2%.

Some, especially over at the Journal, will say these figures are overstated, that the Labor Department figures show the average U.S. unemployment rate at the end of August was “only” 9.7%.

I say that’s more than bad enough. But it’s also an example of how figures lie.

The Labor Department also tracks more meaningful numbers, which I believe the media should use to provide a more accurate picture of U.S. employment.

Like this one: “Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force.”

“Marginally attached” workers are those who have run out of benefits, been unemployed for a year or more but are available for a job and want one. The part-time workers referred to really want full-time jobs but can’t find any.

In August of 2008, as the current collapse began, this more accurate average U.S. unemployment rate stood at 10.7%. One year later, it stands at 16.8%. I shudder to think what this rate is in Detroit.

This holiday weekend, be as patriotic as you are on holidays honoring our brave military members who died serving their country. Honor the American working man and woman, salt of the Earth and the blood that keeps our country’s heart beating.

But also honor your fellow Americans, almost one in five now, who want to do their part, secure their families and help spend the country back into recovery with honest work, only there isn’t enough to go around.

About the Author: Bob Dunn is a writer, consultant and web developer based in Richmond, Texas. He can be reached via Bob Dunn’s Brazos RiverBlog.

This article originally appeared in Bob Dunn’s Brazos River Blog on September 5, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

Mixed News for Older Workers

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Older workers are increasingly relying on the labor market—rather than savings—to salvage their retirement prospects. The collapse of the financial sector wiped out an inflation-adjusted $2.8 trillion from 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts, or IRA, between September 2007 and December 2008. But even before that, workers were not saving enough to achieve a secure retirement. Millions of elderly workers have therefore been forced to postpone their retirement plans and depend upon work to provide income in their later years.

But the labor market is a very mixed bag for older workers. Those who currently have a job have been more effective than their younger counterparts at holding onto their positions in the current downturn; the real value of older workers’ median weekly earnings has grown more during the current recession than that of younger workers; and their unemployment rates—despite reaching record highs—are still considerably lower than the national average.

Simon Norwood, a construction worker who hasn't found work in months, poses in a garage apartment belonging to a friend in Little Rock, AK, on August 27, 2009. Workers 55 and older have a higher unemployment rate than anytime since 1948, and those who are unemployed are staying unemployed much longer. SOURCE: AP/Danny Johnston

Yet the news is bleak for older workers without a job. Workers 55 and older have a higher unemployment rate than anytime since 1948, and those who are unemployed are staying unemployed much longer. Given employers’ reluctance to start hiring again, it is likely that older workers will have to continue looking for work for months before finding a job.

Unemployment reaches record levels

Unemployment among older workers has peaked in the current recession. There has been a 134-percent increase in the number of workers over the age of 55 who are looking for work since December 2007, up from 843,000 to 2.0 million last month. In June 2009, the unemployment level of this age demographic peaked at 2.1 million—a number higher than anytime since 1948 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that data. And the oldest workers—those over the age of 65—have also seen their unemployment levels rise, up to 447,000 last month from 197,000 in December 2007—a 127 percent increase.

In comparison, prime-aged workers—workers aged 25 to 54—saw their unemployment levels increase by 118 percent over the last 21 months, rising from 4.2 million to 9.1 million in August.

The age-55-and-older unemployment rate climbed to an all-time high in June 2009 of 7.0 percent, 3.9 percentage points higher than at the start of the current recession. This rate inched down to 6.8 percent last month, but that is still extraordinarily high for older workers. Workers 65 and older saw their unemployment rate reach 7.0 percent in July 2009, up 3.7 percentage points since December 2007, and higher than anytime since 1948. Their unemployment rate also inched down in August to 6.8 percent.

Despite the grim unemployment outlook, older workers have lower unemployment rates than younger workers. The unemployment rate for all workers in August was 9.7 percent, nearly 3 percentage points higher than the rates reached by older workers. Prime-aged workers—those aged 25 to 54—had an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent in August, up 4.7 percentage points since December 2007, and nearly 2 percentage points higher than the rates reached by older workers.

Older workers are working longer and in greater numbers

The aging baby boomer generation is reshaping the demographics of the U.S. population, and changing the face of the workforce. People over 55 account for 31 percent of the civilian population today, up from 23 percent in 1948. It is unsurprising then that older workers make up a greater share of the workforce today than any elderly generation of the past. Their employment rate is higher than any time since 1971, and they appear to be holding on to their jobs longer and more effectively than younger workers.

A Pew Research Center nationwide survey released yesterday found that a paycheck was not the only factor compelling older workers to remain in the labor force; respondents also cited psychological and social benefits as the main reasons for their continued employment. Younger workers, on the other hand, were found to be staying in school longer to earn a higher degree or have become discouraged at their job prospects and are dropping out of the labor market.

The inflow and outflow from the labor market in the last 21 months has shifted the composition of the labor force in favor of elderly workers. The number of workers over the age of 55 in the labor force has grown by 2.1 million since December 2007—an increase of 7.6 percent. The number of prime-aged workers in the labor force has declined by 608,000 over that same time period—a decrease of 0.6 percent. Younger workers have seen the sharpest declines, losing 608,000 labor force participants since December 2007—a decrease of 3.1 percent.

Workers 55 and older account for 18.8 percent of the labor force today—up from 17.6 percent at the start of the current economic recession—and higher than anytime since 1948. Their share of the workforce has increased by 7.1 percent over the last 21 months. In comparison, the share of prime-age workers in the workforce has declined 1.1 percent since the start of the Great Recession. Prime-age workers currently account for 67.3 percent of the workforce, down from 68.0 percent 21 months ago. Younger workers aged 16 to 24—whose share of the workforce has declined by 3.6 percent since December 2007—make up 13.9 percent of the workforce, down 0.5 percentage points from December 2007.

Elderly workers have experienced net gains in employment in recent months, especially when compared to younger workers. Workers 55 and older have gained 938,000 jobs since the start of the Great Recession, while workers between the age of 25 and 54 have lost a total of 5.5 million jobs.

Employment rates for older workers have also reached record levels. The employed share of workers over 55 climbed to 38.0 percent in the current recession, most recently in August 2008. This is a high not seen since 1970. The employment rate for this segment of the population was 37.3 percent last month, only marginally lower. The employed share of workers over 65 climbed to a record 16.5 percent in the current recession, most recently in October 2008. This is also a record not seen since 1970. And the employment rate for workers over 65 was 16.1 percent last month—down 0.4 percentage points from the current recession’s peak.

Older workers have also been relatively effective at holding onto their jobs in the current downturn. The employed share of workers over 55 has only declined 0.4 percentage points since December 2007, compared to a decline of 5.5 percentage points for workers between the ages of 16 and 24, and a decline of 4.2 percentage points for workers between the ages of 25 and 54.

Growth in real earnings

Older workers have experienced greater gains in real earnings value than younger workers in the current downturn, providing them with an additional cushion to endure the crisis. The real median weekly earnings for workers 55 and older have increased by 10.3 percent since 2007, and by 5.2 percent since 2008. Workers 65 and older have seen a 23.7 percent increase in real median weekly earnings since 2007, and an 11.2 percent increase since 2008.

In contrast, workers aged 16 to 24 have seen their real weekly earnings decline in real value by 2.8 percent since 2007, and by 0.9 percent since 2008. Real weekly earnings of prime-aged workers have increased by a modest 1.7 percent since 2007, and by 2.5 percent since 2008.

The Great Recession has decimated the retirement savings of older Americans and placed them in a very precarious position. Working later in life has traditionally been the fall back for those with inadequate retirement savings, but the labor market during the Great Recession isn’t all that great, which makes it a more difficult prospect. Older workers with a job may be doing better than their younger counterparts, but older workers without a job face an unprecedented challenge. Real solutions to this retirement crisis will require getting the labor market back on track and addressing the glaring inadequacies of our current retirement system.

See also:

David Madland is Director of the American Work Project at the Center for American Progress and Nayla Kazzi is Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress. For more on this topic, please visit our Economy page.

This article originally appeared in Center for American Progress on September 4, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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