Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for June, 2010

Can You Succeed in Business Without Being a Jerk?

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerWhen Kobe Bryant was recently asked what his fifth championship meant to him he replied, “One more than Shaq.”

Which got me thinking, why does it appear that so many successful people are jerks?  Or worse. Do good guys really finish last?

When it comes to success and the jerk factor, you quickly discover that there is an embarrassment of riches to plume. And I do mean embarrassment.

John Thune, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch who managed the remarkable trifecta of bludgeoning his company’s market value, laying off thousands of people and doing a one million dollar plus remodel of his own personal office.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein who sold his customers financial products and then bet that these products would fail. He then had the temerity to call his performance, “Doing God’s work.”

Tony Hayward, BP CEO. The jerk of not only the year, but of the decade. Tony, the only person who wants you to have your life back more than you do, is the rest of us. Really.

Enron, Lehman Brothers…okay, this is too easy.

It’s unfortunate that many jerks in the workplace are successful. And often their success can be tracked to their jerkiness. However, that begs the most interesting question here. Can you be successful without being a jerk?

Yes, I believe that you can. For the simple reason that I believe that jerks often instill fear in the people around them. And fear works, for a while. But eventually people realize that there are sane bosses out there, that they don’t have to tolerate boorish behavior at work. That good guys mostly finish first and that’s a much better team to be on.

Jerks succeed in spite of who they are, not because of it. Thankfully, the jerkiness eventually has a way of biting them in the butt.

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. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Social Forum Focuses on Workers’ Issues

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Image: James ParksWorkers’ issues were the focus of  five days of  marches, rallies and workshops at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, which ended over the weekend. Grassroots activists and progressives from across the country came together to build new alliances, create new strategies and put new energy into the movement to turn around the American economy.

Writing in Workday Minnesota, Howard Kling quotes a UAW leader who says the forum was an opportunity for labor to build relationships with other movements and encourage a “strong, fight-back attitude toward the intense corporate agenda that is blocking change on health care, labor rights, fair trade policies and a host of issues that we believe in.”

Throughout the forum, union members were hard at work making sure working peoples’ voices were heard. In a brainstorming session at the start of the forum, the hundreds of union members attending the five-day event listed the changes most needed to improve conditions for workers in the United States. The list included passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, immigration reform, a public blacklist of employers who mistreat workers, enforcement of existing labor laws, a federal jobs bill and the criminalizing of labor law violations.

On the first full day of the forum, newly elected UAW President Bob King joined Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams; Al Garrett, president of AFSCME District Council 25; and Armando Robles, UE Local 1110 president, in leading a march and rally through the streets of Detroit. Chanting “Full and Fair Employment Now!” and “Money for Jobs, Not for Banks!” participants demanded Congress address the pressing jobs emergency.

One of the forum highlights was a joint meeting of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) to develop strategies to better protect the rights of some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers.

Domestic workers often are afraid to join unions for fear of losing their jobs. There is little job security and some have no employer-provided health care, and most toil in isolation, said Ai-Jen Poo, director of NDWA.

They are completely vulnerable to the whims of their employers. Some have good employers but some work in homes where they earn 50 cents an hour and work around the clock.

At the global and local levels, officials are beginning to recognize the need to protect domestic workers. Earlier this month, the New York State Senate passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, guaranteeing better working conditions for domestic workers. In California, a Bill of Rights resolution for domestic employees has been introduced in the state legislature.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) this month took a giant step forward in the fight to create workplace justice for the millions of housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers around the world. At its International Labor Conference the ILO began the process to establish a first-ever international standard (“convention”) to protect the rights of domestic workers.

Nadia Marin-Molina with the NDLON said the most common problem for day laborers is wage theft.

The employer will say, “We’ll pay you tomorrow,” and then the employer never  shows up. Sometimes we have to go to court to get their money.

NDLON and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) are working to stop wage theft among mostly immigrant low-wage workers. The nation’s economy suffers when millions of workers are denied their just pay, IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo said in a workshop on faith and labor. It is also a moral issue, she added, since every major faith group has some variation of the commandment that “Thou shalt not steal.”

On June 25, faith activists at the forum led a protest against JPMorgan Chase & Co., calling on the Wall Street financial institution to declare a moratorium on foreclosures in Michigan and sever its ties with R.J. Reynolds. The tobacco giant refuses to meet with the Farm Labor Organization Committee (FLOC) to discuss the slave-labor working conditions of contract growers in North Carolina.

Throughout the week, workers and union staff took the lead in discussions on building communities by rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and on the fights for justice for domestic workers, Immokalee farm workers, immigrant workers and sweatshop workers. Activists talked about strategies for gaining full employment in a new economy, changing our trade policies and creating safe workplaces.

The forum followed the Great Labor Arts Exchange, which was held in Detroit, the first time in three decades that it was produced on the road.

This article was first published by AFL-CIO Now Blog.

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. Author photo by Joe Kekeris.

Family Leave Politics Move Toward Workplace Fairness and LGBT Equality

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Michelle ChenWhen a child is sick, the last thing a parent should be worried about is her next paycheck. Yet that’s the perverse dilemma that besets millions of workers in an economy that’s radically out of sync with the rhythms of modern family life. Activists are working to ease the strain by making the option of paid time off not only more generous, but also more open to all types of families, whether they’ve got one mom or two dads.

This week, the Labor Department moved to make family and medical leave policy accessible to same-sex households, showing that time off for caregivers isn’t just a perk, but a civil rights issue in a labor force rife with discrimination.

In sharp contrast to European societies, millions of American workers are burdened by a lack of guaranteed paid leave time for sickness or family emergency. Meanwhile, even those limited, inflexible policies are especially punitive for same-sex couples, largely shutting them out of federal law. Same-sex partners are thus denied both full economic citizenship as well as the dignity of recognition of their loving relationships.

The Labor Department plans to clarify the rules of the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows many employees (but not all) up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick child. Under the Labor Department’s revision, if Mary’s kid gets sick, her partner Jane could stay at home to take care of the child, even if Mary and Jane can’t officially get married.

According to the advocacy group Family Equality Council, most children of same-sex partners do not live in states that legally recognize their relationship to their parents, and in the states that do, parents are generally “unable to extend health benefits to their kids or to make medical decisions on their behalf in the event of an emergency.” An estimated two million children nationwide are in the care of LGBT families.

The new reading of the legislation would build on other baby steps for LGBT rights under the Obama administration, including plans to extend hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples, the incorporation of same-sex partners into the Violence Against Women Act, and perhaps a repeal of the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. All these measures inch toward equality in the absence of sweeping legislation, or a court ruling, that grants same-sex marriage rights.

But in their push for visibility in the workplace, same-sex partners also push the debate beyond marriage itself. A more inclusive definition of family dovetails with the gender justice struggle for the huge swath of the workforce that doesn’t want to choose between earning money and caring for family.

Rights advocates have long campaigned for local, state and federal paid leave programs. Sherry Leiwant of A Better Balance, which has supported paid leave initiatives in several states and cities, including New York and San Francisco, told In These Times that the group includes same-sex domestic partners in its campaigns:

It is very important to us that domestic partners be included in bills extending paid family leave benefits and paid sick days to workers…. Working with the National Partnership for Women and Families we have created model statutes for both paid family leave and paid sick time and they define family member to include domestic partners.

While the Obama administration’s FMLA clarification applies specifically to children, the model concept recognizes same-sex partners as caregivers and as adult family members entitled to care.

While the benefits of paid family and sick leave are clear, the widespread lack of it deepens the racial, gender and income stratification of the workforce. A study by the Center for American Progress and U.C. Hastings Center for WorkLife Law suggests that a culture of overwork and inequality corrodes social stability:

Discrimination against workers with family responsibilities, illegal throughout Europe,  is forbidden only indirectly here. Americans also lack paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work-time flexibility without retaliation, and proportional wages for part-time work. All exist elsewhere in the developed world.

So it should come as no surprise that Americans report sharply higher levels of work-family conflict than do citizens of other industrialized countries.  Fully 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report work-family conflict. And yet our public policymakers in Congress continue to sit on their hands when it comes to enacting laws to help Americans reconcile their family responsibilities with those at work.

The Family Equality Council and other groups seek a two-pronged expansion of the FMLA through the Healthy Families Act. That bill, according to spokesperson Kevin Nix–

allows employees to take time off for “any individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.” The “affinity” language is responsive to all kinds of family and caretaking configurations, and for LGBT families specifically who live in states where they can’t marry and can’t adopt the child they are raising, it means they would still qualify to take time off to care for each other when they get sick.

So whether the family member is a partner of the same gender, a grandma, or an adopted son, the law would ideally embrace a progressive concept of emotional kinship. Whatever kind of relationships give meaning to a worker’s life, an equitable paid leave policy would ensure that in hard times, everyone has the right to be there for a loved one.

This article was originally published in Working In These Times.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Racewire.org. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

Oil Worker Safety Hearing Yields Real Concerns

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Ravi BakhruOil rig worker safety has been in the news a lot lately. Nearly every major media outlet and blogger in the entire Nation has directed its attention to arguably the worst environmental disaster in our history. As a result, the headlines and attention have been comprehensive, ranging from BP’s efforts in responding the disaster, to the safety of oil rig workers and those commissioned to help clean up the coastline.

To that end, The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss worker safety oversight from the oil rig to the shoreline. Pointedly, Chairman George Miller tasked the hearing with determining whether the current regulatory framework is appropriate and effective, specifically referencing the coordination and delegation of oversight between various federal agencies. Before the committee were representatives from the Coast Guard, NIOSH, the DOL, and BOE (formerly MMS).

Major Points From The Hearing:

Whistleblower Protection. Chairman Miller at one point asked whether workers on these rigs had the benefit of whistleblower protection to provide an avenue by which they could report dangerous conditions. While OSHA provides whistleblower protection, it is clear that the agencies responsible for worker safety oversight do not have a process by which such complaints can be processed. What’s even more startling is that OSHA, the agency responsible for enforcing whistleblower statutes, has no jurisdiction where many of these rigs operate. OSHA’s jurisdiction ends 3 miles outside of the coast line, where the US Coast Guard takes over, and what became clear during this hearing is that the US Coast Guard and MMS/BOE do not have legislation in place for whistleblower protection.

“Who’s In Charge?” Ranking Republican John Kline started with a question that seemed to be a topic members were confused with. At one point the Congressman compared the current system of oversight to the lack of coordination in the intelligence community immediately after 9/11. On a related issue, the Committee seemed to gloss over the fact that the Coast Guard and BOE had a memo of understanding between them, distributing inspections over specific items on board rigs. Although the organizations meet quarterly to review their inspections, I can’t help look at this as wholly inefficient. Now, this doesn’t necessarily apply to an accident response framework. Rear Admiral Kevin Cook from the Coast Guard made it clear that the Coast Guard’s Federal On Scene Coordinator was doing a tremendous job coordinating the help from all federal agencies at the accident site. Credit should be given in this regard.

Staggering Deficiencies. Committee members asked in several different ways whether the agencies before them had the necessary resources to perform their oversight functions and the resounding answer was in the negative. David Michaels, representing OSHA, was asked to expand on a comment made during a Senate hearing explained that their resources were barely sufficient to handle their present functions, let alone take on new inspections of offshore drill sites. Doug Slitor explained his agency had a total of 56 inspectors (some with purely administrative and supervisory responsibilities) in the Gulf of Mexico for 3500 site inspections every year.

Safety Systems Management. The Committee made it very clear they consider OSHA to be the experts when it comes to safety oversight, and who would disagree with them? Sure, OSHA has their own problems as Mr. Michaels pointed out, when it comes to worker safety OSHA has the framework in place to broaden their scope if need be. Of particular concern was the current system in place, which at the moment is largely voluntary. Not only voluntary, Chairman Miller also noted the framework was largely due to suggestions from the oil industry itself. It seems clear that many are not pleased with the oversight framework currently in place, and want to see changes made. The phrase “like a duck” kept jumping out as the camera swung over to Mr. Slitor’s responses. Though he remained calm, I imagine his legs were churning furiously underwater.

We don’t yet know what caused the explosion itself, and perhaps we will never truly know. But the fact remains, something went wrong aboard that oil rig leading to the deaths of 11 workers. Hearings are a good start, but when you see problems in communications and standards, it’s time to act. Committee members repeatedly stated the need to ensure an efficient and protective system before the next disaster. I sincerely hope they live up to that.

About The Author: Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He currently works as an intern for Workplace Fairness, and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law in the future. To get in touch with Ravi, you can email him at Ravi.Bakhru@gmail.com.

It's Unanimous: Supreme Court Permits Search of Employees' Electronic Communications

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Molly DiBiancaIn Quon v. City of Ontario, the 9th Circuit held that a California police department’s review of an officer’s text messages was an invasion of the officer’s right to privacy. In a unanimous ruling issued yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Quon decision and ruled that the police department’s review of the provocative text messages sent by the officer to his wife and to his mistress from his employer-issued pager, did not constitute an invasion of the officer’s privacy. (Link to the full opinion in City of Ontario v. Quon).

For employers, the key component of the decision is the Court’s focus on the fact that the police department-employer’s review of the messages comported with its policy and was conducted for a legitimate business reason. The department’s policy provided that messages would not be reviewed unless the employee went over the allotted monthly usage. In Quon, the officer had exceeded the monthly limit and the department reviewed the messages to determine whether the overages were work-related. Officers were responsible for costs incurred for non-work-related messages if they went over the monthly limit.

The 9th Circuit ruled that this review constituted an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. That decision was based largely on the fact that the officer’s supervisor had told the officer that messages were never reviewed by the department. The federal appellate court found that, because he’d been permitted to use the pager for both personal and work-related use, the officer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in those communications.

This important decision is the Supreme Court’s first in the area of an employer’s right to monitor the electronic communications of its employees sent and received during working time or with work-issued devices.

The decision was not a free-for-all pass for employers who want to review employees’ electronic messages. The Supreme Court warned employers of the possibility that an expectation of privacy may exist in certain circumstances. Interestingly, the Court noted that the expectation of privacy may exist due to to the pervasiveness of electronic communications. Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, explained that “cellphone and text message communications are so pervasive that some persons may consider them to be essential means or necessary instruments for self-expression, even self-identification.”

But the Court also recognized that the pervasiveness of cellphones and other electronic-communication devices, has also driven down the cost of such devices, making them “generally affordable.” The low cost of electronic-communication devices, the Court found, supports the argument that there is a very low or no expectation of privacy because an employee who needs a cellphone for personal use can buy one and avoid having to use the work-issued device for anything other than work-related communications.

The decision is a critical one for employers who want to ensure employee compliance with company rules and policies without violating the employee’s privacy rights and, in turn, exposing the organization to legal liability. The Quon opinion has two key components for employers:

1. Any workplace monitoring must comply with the employer’s policy—if you don’t have a clear policy, now is the time to get one; and

2. A search of electronic communications should not go beyond what is necessary to accomplish the legitimate business purpose behind the policy—use the least intrusive means possible to make the determination at issue.

About The Author:

Margaret (Molly) M. DiBianca maintains a legal practice consisting of equal parts litigation and client counseling. She represents employers in a variety of industries in employment rights claims, discrimination matters and equal employment disputes at the state and federal court level.

American Wind Turbines Sound Like Freedom

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Leo GerardThe sound that American wind turbines produce as their giant, breeze-propelled blades whip around is a distinctive: Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh.

The anticipation is that those energy-generating, whirling arms would create a whooshing sound. And maybe they do in some countries. But here, in America, they echo the almost melodic taunt of a schoolyard victor — Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh: You can’t get me.

That’s because American wind turbines are the manifestation of freedom from foreign oil. The more American wind turbines, the fewer barrels of oil America must import to meet its energy needs. And American-built wind turbines help propel the nation out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by generating good-paying American jobs.

President Obama talked about the ugly results of the nation’s refusal to solve its dependency problem – its guzzling of 20 percent of the world’s oil while controlling less than two percent of the world’s reserves. America’s combination of oil addiction and lack of adequate oil resources enslaves the nation to foreign sources, often foreign sources hostile to America. A generation ago, former President Jimmy Carter warned of the consequences of this abusive relationship as Iran held 52 Americans hostages and long lines formed at gasoline stations during a season of shortages.

Carter installed on the White House roof a symbol of the solution — solar panels. His successor there, Ronald Reagan, pulled them down. And the nation went on its merry way forgetting the once-empty gasoline stations and ignoring its ever-increasing foreign dependency – even as the Exxon Valdez mucked Prince William Sound two months after Reagan left office.

Here’s what Obama said about that wasted opportunity:

“And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

The explosion of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the deaths of 11 workers, the uncontrolled gushing of more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day into the sea, and the mucking of brown pelicans and four states’ coastlines have given Obama the ability to take up Carter’s righteous clean energy campaign. And Obama accepted the challenge:

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

The president noted that wind turbines are being built in retrofitted factories that were once abandoned right here in America. That happened in Pennsylvania. The wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa converted defunct mills into centers for wind turbine construction. And it cooperated with the United Steelworkers (USW) to provide good-paying union jobs.

That is the potential President Obama sees – independence from foreign sources and resurgence of America’s economy. It is the potential that the USW and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) pictured when they agreed earlier this month to work together to accelerate development and deployment of wind energy production in the U.S.

Like the Steelworkers, the national trade association of America’s wind industry believes the U.S. must move toward renewable energy sources and must construct them itself. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained it simply when the USW and AWEA announced their partnership:

“We can’t replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on Chinese-made wind turbines. It’s critical that American manufacturers have the resources to develop and deploy wind energy components. Clean energy will help America regain its leadership in manufacturing. We need to ensure American workers and manufacturers are building the clean energy components that will be used around the world.”

Obama called on Americans to “seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” But like any rehab program, success won’t come easily. Oil companies will continue to lobby against it. Swayed by their money, some politicians will oppose the legislation essential to encourage it.

But symbolic solar panels must remain on the White House roof this time. Renewable energy, as Obama said, enables America to shape its own destiny

The President urged the nation to free itself from its oil dependency now:

“As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment.”

This is the time for wind turbines. For solar. For hydro. This is the moment to hear increasing numbers of rotor blades whipping up the sound of independence.

Carpe diem.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

War on Public Workers

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

amytraub4Conservatives have declared a new class war, but it’s not on bankers earning seven-figure bonuses. Instead, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels told Politico recently, the “new privileged class in America” is government employees, who “are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.” We have to escape “public sector unions’ stranglehold on state and local governments,” agreed Mort Zuckerman, billionaire editor of U.S. News & World Report, “or it will crush us.” Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal‘s Paul Gigot ominously predicts “a showdown looming across the country between taxpayers and public employee unions over pay and pensions,” while the Heritage Foundation warns that “the more the government taxes, the more it can pay its unionized workers.”

This decades-old assault on government employees has acquired new potency at a time of widespread economic suffering and populist rage. But the attacks have little basis in reality. A recent study by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security finds that when such factors as education and work experience are accounted for, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers. Even when public employees’ relatively decent pensions and health coverage are included, their total compensation still lags behind workers in private industry. A separate analysis by the Center for Housing Policy finds that despite recent declines in home prices, police officers and elementary school teachers still don’t earn enough to buy a typical house in two out of five metro areas. Firefighters and librarians are unable to afford the median home in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago metro areas. Nationwide, a school bus driver’s wage isn’t enough to pay rent on a standard two-bedroom apartment.

Despite American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding, which preserved jobs and public services, city and state workers have been affected by the recession. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 180,000 local government employees have been laid off since August 2008, while furloughs have become a fact of life for public workers across the country. Much bigger cuts lie ahead: Education Secretary Arne Duncan warns that as stimulus funding dries up, as many as 300,000 teachers and other school personnel could lose their jobs this year to budget cuts.

The lavish lifestyle of public workers is a myth, but the right-wing mythmakers know it’s a powerful talking point. By attacking public workers, they can demonize “big labor” and “big government” at the same time, while deflecting attention from the more logical target of Middle America’s rage: the irresponsible Wall Street traders, whose risky, high-profit business practices brought down the economy, and the lax regulators who let them get away with it.

At its heart, the scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests. The Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas, for example, cynically argues that cutting pensions for transit employees is an act of “pure social justice” because it might spare minimum-wage workers higher subway fares. Absent is any disussion of raising the minimum wage or of more progressive means of funding the transit system. Low-wage workers aren’t Gelinas’s real concern; they’re just a rhetorical device in her assault on public employees.

The desired result is clear: there will be less pressure to address the decades-long erosion of pay and benefits for most working people in the private sector if public anger can be focused on the bus mechanic who still has health coverage. With a slim majority of all union workers employed in the public sector, the conservative class war amounts to dragging unionized public employees down to the level of contingent no-benefits workers before they can leverage their power to help private sector workers raise their own workplace standards.

Then there’s the “big government” angle. To the right, the budget crises engulfing American cities and states stem from one cause: as Nick Gillespie of Reason repeats ad nauseam, “They spend too much!”—especially on the supposedly lavish compensation of public workers. This simplistic narrative ignores how the nation’s deep recession has shrunk city and state tax revenue and omits the fact that plummeting stock markets have decimated government pension funds. To the extent that conservatives succeed in reducing fiscal woes to a case of runaway spending, politicians find it easier to address budget shortfalls with public sector furlough days, wage freezes, layoffs and benefit cuts than with progressive tax increases that, many economists conclude, would cause the least harm to the recovery.

This orchestrated assault may already be working: witness formerly proworker politicians like New York’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to demonstrate toughness by proclaiming, “We are going to be tangling with public employee unions.”

Yet it’s a short step from lambasting public workers to rejecting the very idea of public goods and services—and of government itself. With the nation still reeling from the harm caused by underregulated markets, conservatives are using city and state budget crises to call for across-the-board privatization, entrusting unaccountable private companies with an ever greater share of the public good. At the same time, the myth of the overpaid public employee is being used to undermine a range of progressive priorities, from financial reform to job creation bills like the Local Jobs for America Act, which would boost the economy by preserving public services and public sector jobs. It’s time for progressives to fight back and confront the falsehood.

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

This piece was originally published in The Nation. Reprinted with permission by the author.

The Commencement Speech You’ll Never Hear

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerIn 1989 I gave my first Commencement Speech at the University of Puget Sound. Even though I wasn’t asked to speak to graduates this year, I decided to not let that hold me back. Actually the speech below is much less for the graduates and really directed at the corporations that seem to value these graduates so highly—much too highly. Without further ado…

Dear Graduates—after wandering the halls of academe for 16, or more years, congratulations. The good news, no more homework. The bad news, say goodbye to summer, your ten-month year is about to come to an end.

My undergraduate years were a valuable time for me. I learned how to do my own laundry, how to drink Jell-o shots, how to use a cafeteria tray as a sleigh, how to kiss with one leg on the floor, how to cram all night for a test and how to forget everything the moment that the test was over—all helpful skills to possess.

Okay, I did learn a few things along the way. Unfortunately none immediately leap to mind. (Lest I seem like a total slacker, Dear Reader, what information do you remember from your college years?)

Which is exactly my point. I think that all graduates deserve congratulations. But this is not about you. I’m concerned that far too many corporations hold the lack of a college education against employees who want to get into management.

Just last week I talked to a woman who had run an office for two U.S. Senators, been a successful entrepreneur and was currently thriving in an entirely new career. She accomplished all of this without a college degree. Yet, there are many jobs that she cannot apply for.

This isn’t coming from a place of envy. I not only have a B.S. degree (a perfect description of my undergraduate years). But I also have a Masters of Business Administration (and isn’t that what the business world needs today, more administrators?). And I’ve served as an Adjunct Professor to MBA students on four separate occasions (in case you are wondering, “Adjunct” is Latin for “poorly paid”).

So my criticism comes from a person who has “paid his dues.” I’ve got the degrees. And I think college is a totally B.S. test for how you’ll perform in today’s workplace. There is nothing wrong with a college education. To use a dessert analogy, the degree is the icing, the cake is the person’s other experiences, expertise and insight.

That does leave us with a problem. If we are going to level the playing field in terms of those with, and those without a college education, how will we decide who is the better person to hire? We’ll have to look at the person and not use a convenient, and inappropriate, yardstick.

A few considerations: What has the person accomplished at work? How do the people they’ve worked with feel about their contributions? Has the person traveled abroad? Have they done volunteer work? Do they speak another language? Do they know what’s going on in the world? Do they understand your industry and its competitors? I would argue that all of these are more reliable measures of what a person can contribute to your organization than a tired, old piece of sheepskin.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a beef with college. I just believe that the life experiences and minds of many who have not graced the hallowed halls of academia is a terrible thing to waste. So enjoy your degree. Just don’t look down on people who don’t have one. Heck, you just might be able to learn something from them.

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. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Living wages Key To Poverty Eradication

Friday, June 18th, 2010

appleby_2005Advocates for the poor are pushing against the same obstacles that 18th century opponents of slavery confronted: acceptance of an evil because of its familiarity. It’s hard to be outraged by a condition that’s been around for millenniums. Even the Great Emancipator despaired of ending poverty.

Quoting Scripture, Abraham Lincoln said that the poor will always be with us. That attitude once applied to slavery. Then, with remarkable suddenness, the idea of abolition aroused a cadre of reformers who changed public perceptions in less than a century.

So do we really have to accept that poverty is too firmly entrenched to ever be dislodged?

A worldwide movement is gaining momentum to disrupt complacency about poverty, and one of its centers is right here in Los Angeles. For nearly two decades, a robust social movement has been devising creative solutions that meld progressive ideals with a pro-business approach to ensure that people with jobs can actually provide for their families.

Its first victory came when it guided through the L.A. City Council a living-wage ordinance in 1997. Today more than 100 municipalities from San Diego to New York have passed ordinances mandating living wages for city employees and those employed by companies doing business with the city. Wages vary depending on prevailing local rates and which benefits are included.

Like slavery, the issue the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy addresses is an old one. Two hundred years ago, the British radical William Cobbett denounced the cruelty of jobs that kept sober and industrious workers fully employed but did not pay them enough to feed their families.

Arguments against raising pay through legislation come up every time Congress tries to raise the minimum wage. At $7.25 today — even after the increase passed by Congress in 2007 — the purchasing power of the minimum wage is 17% lower than it was in 1968. Raising wages is clearly an uphill battle.

Negotiations to transform the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a shopping mall foundered recently when the developer refused to accept a provision that all tenants in the proposed mall pay their prospective employees a living wage of $10 an hour plus benefits. New York City’s Bar Assn. urged the City Council to stop linking community benefits packages with zoning approvals for new developments. The bar report also asked Mayor Michael Bloomberg to rethink his support of the concept.

Opponents of living-wage ordinances and benefit packages have real concerns. In our highly competitive world economy, individual companies or nations are only going to get pounded if they let their labor costs get out of whack with their competitors’.

But paying a living wage can benefit businesses too. A study of L.A.’s 1997 living-wage law, for instance, funded by the Ford Foundation and undertaken by LAANE in conjunction with the University of California, discovered that the ordinance had increased pay for an estimated 10,000 jobs. Employment reductions amounted to 1%, or an estimated loss of 112 jobs. Most firms gained from reduced employee turnover, which can be costly and disruptive.

Findings from such follow-up studies have gone a long way toward mitigating worries about the downside of raising wages. Yet fear of pressure on wages with our present high unemployment has led reformers to stress the urgency of coming out of the recession with a stronger workforce.

More recently, a coalition of groups led by the Strategic Actions for a Just Economy and LAANE secured a groundbreaking community benefits agreement involving L.A. Live, one of the city’s largest development projects in the last 20 years. The agreement guarantees living-wage jobs for the majority of the permanent employees in the project’s two hotels, numerous restaurants and half a dozen theaters and clubs. It also secured affordable housing for local residents and a fund for neighborhood parks from this massive complex.

Taking a pro-development stance has aligned living-wage advocates with the most powerful anti-poverty force in the world today: capitalism. Market growth in Korea, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and India has lifted 300 million people out of poverty during the last 30 years. And though many of the world’s most impoverished people still have no shot — yet — at any employment, much less something that pays a genuine living wage, we’ve seen remarkable progress.

There’s even light at the end of the tunnel of capital flight to impoverished areas. The pools of cheap labor that have depressed wages for the last three decades are beginning to dwindle. Chinese workers are now gaining bargaining power, achieving substantial wage increases from major employers like Honda and Foxconn, and recently, the Beijing municipal government raised the minimum wage 20%. While some producers have moved factories to Vietnam and Bangladesh, it’s only a matter of time before those places too start to understand the importance of living wages. Economic development raises expectations among workers.

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank began micro-lending, insists that one of the underpinnings of poverty is the widespread conviction that it is an ineradicable evil, like dying. “I firmly believe,” he says, “that we can create a poverty-free world if we collectively believe in it.” In a poverty-free world, Yunus has remarked wryly, “the only place that you would be able to see poverty is in a poverty museum.”

When that happens, L.A.’s living-wage advocates can take some of the credit for convincing the public that the poor need not always be with us.

About The Author: Joyce Appleby is professor of history emerita at UCLA and a member of the LAANE Resource Board. Her latest book is “The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, 2010.”

Workplace Deaths An Epidemic

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Tom O'Connor Amid the horrific scenes of the BP oil spill, we should not neglect the fact that 11 workers died on the rig when it exploded April 20. Nor should we neglect the daily carnage that workers suffer on the job in America.

It’s been a very bad couple of months for worker safety: Seven dead in Washington following the explosion of the Tesoro refinery.

Six dead in Connecticut in the Kleen Energy power plant explosion.

Twenty-nine dead in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

And 11 dead in the Gulf of Mexico oil rig collapse.

But behind the headlines on the latest disaster is a far quieter but equally disturbing story.

In the same week as the Massey mine disaster in West Virginia, local media outlets around the country carried dozens of stories with headlines like “Man Killed in Trench Collapse” or “Fall from Roof Fatal.” The toll of these routine incidents _14 deaths a day from injuries in America — is obscured because most occur one death at a time.

Month after month, workers die, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration slaps the employer on the wrist (a median penalty of only $3,675 per death in 2007).

Like those who died on the BP oil rig or in the Massey mine, the vast majority of deaths on the job are entirely preventable. The problem is not technical but political: Our national system for ensuring health and safety in the workplace is broken.

We know how to prevent trenches from collapsing — by using trench boxes to shore them up. We know how to prevent falls from roofs from becoming fatal — by properly using safety harnesses. We know how to prevent coal mine explosions by minimizing the buildup of coal dust and monitoring methane concentrations.

But employers routinely refuse to use these established precautions, and OSHA does not force them to.

So why aren’t our laws enforced? First, it’s a problem of resources: OSHA’s budget for enforcement is pitiful, a situation that has worsened since deregulation began in the Reagan era. In the late 1970s, OSHA had one inspector per 30,000 covered workers; today it is one per 60,000.

Second, obstacles to any new workplace safety rules, put in place by deregulation ideologues in Congress, have brought OSHA to a standstill. In the last 13 years, OSHA has issued exactly one new health standard establishing the maximum safe exposure level to a chemical, and that under the duress of a court order.

Third, OSHA’s promise that all workers have the right to speak up about unsafe or unhealthy conditions without retaliation is a cruel joke. The agency’s whistleblower protection program is totally ineffective: Non-union workers who file OSHA complaints routinely lose their jobs.

The solutions to this sorry state of affairs are not complex. Congress should boost the budget for OSHA enforcement. Plus, it should protect whistleblowers and require serious penalties for egregious violators.

Under current law, even the worst case of employer neglect can result in no more than a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum six months in jail. That’s got to change.

There is a bill sitting in Congress that would accomplish much of this. But the Protecting America’s Workers Act is stalled in committee while Congress members pound their fists and demand “something be done.” Now is the time for action, before more workers die.

Reprinted with permission by The Progressive, Inc.

About The Author: Tom O’Connor is executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

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