Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for June, 2010

On 47th Anniversary, the Equal Pay Act Must Finally Live Up to its Name

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Image: Linda MericImagine for a moment that you work in a department with three employees: one African-American, one Caucasian and one Latina. One day, someone new is hired.

Imagine discovering that this new hire is to be paid much more than any of you; even more than the Latina, who has been employed there for 14 years. Imagine your outrage; especially since the only difference is that all of you are women — and the new hire is a man.

This story, from a Denver woman who now works in the financial industry, might be shocking to those of us who believe in equity and fairness, but it’s not unique.

All over this country, similar stories play out, most anonymous and a few now famous — like that of Lilly Ledbetter, who worked 20 years at a Goodyear plant in Alabama before learning that the men who performed the same job as she had been earning more all along.

It’s time that pay discrimination end and the pay gap close in this country — and there is something we all can do about it right now! Push the U.S. Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

On average, women earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. For women of color, African American women and Latinas, the gap is even wider. Men of color experience a pay gap, too, compared to white men. Some don’t like to talk about it; some even refuse to believe it. Some think we got past this kind of blatant discrimination long ago.

Forty-seven years ago, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, women’s rights activists celebrated. After years of effort, finally there was a law that prohibited women from being paid less than men for doing the exact same jobs.

Women finally had some equality in their paychecks — at least by law. When the Equal Pay Act passed, women earned, on average, 60 cents for every dollar earned by men. In the forty-seven years that have passed, the pay gap has closed by less than less than 20 cents.

Now, we have a chance to make further progress to close the pay gap: the Paycheck Fairness Act.

A desperately needed update to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 182) would close loopholes, strengthen business incentives to end pay discrimination, prohibit retaliation against workers who share wage information, and bring the Equal Pay Act in line with other civil rights laws.

The Paycheck Fairness Act has passed in the House of Representatives. President Barack Obama is ready to sign it into law. But it’s bottlenecked in the U. S. Senate. If it doesn’t move forward this year, we’ll have to start all over again.

Meanwhile, paying women less affects not only us and our families, but our communities and even our nation because it means we have less to spend on rent and mortgage payments, medical care, taxes, retirement savings and other basic necessities.

Women can’t afford to lose another penny. Our nation can’t afford to wait another year.

Speak out now. Encourage the Senate to pass this much needed update so that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 can finally start to live up to its name.

Help us support the Paycheck Fairness Act by contacting your Congressman and urging their voice behind the bill.

About The Author: Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, an inclusive multi-racial membership-based organization founded in 1973 to strengthen the ability of low-income women to win economic justice through grassroots organizing and policy advocacy. Linda has spent more than 30 years as a labor and community organizer. She also serves as an adjunct professor specializing in sexual harassment and other workplace issues.

Shareholders Move to Curb Extravagant Pay for WellPoint CEO

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

headshotWilliam H.T. Bush – a WellPoint board member and President George H.W. Bush’s younger brother — collapsed at the annual shareholder meeting the other day, just as the health insurer’s CEO, Angela Braly, was trying to explain to angry shareholders why profits are up but the company’s reputation is in the tank. Thankfully, Bush improved enough to go home from the hospital, but the meeting never recovered. Braly refused to continue after paramedics wheeled Bush out, so she got away without answering any of the tough questions about her company.

Shareholders never got to ask why WellPoint and its Blue Cross plans in 14 states look like a train wreck to 34 million uneasy customers. Before Bush collapsed, the AFL-CIO, Connecticut’s public employee retirement system and other shareholders criticized WellPoint for abusing consumers, funding a duplicitous campaign to block health reform, and misusing premium money to give indefensible compensation packages to top executives. In 2009, Braly’s pay jumped 51 percent to $13.1 million. Many of us didn’t get a raise at all last year. Ten percent didn’t even have jobs.

Shareholders at the meeting didn’t get answers to some other big questions on the minds of investors. Why did legendary stock picker Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest man, dump 1.3 million shares (worth about $70 million at today’s price) of WellPoint stock during the first quarter. Buffett knows a little bit about money. What’s the deal? And what’s up with the company’s outrageous submission of inaccurate data to get California regulators to permit premium increases as large as 39 percent for individuals this year? And why is the company driven to pursue sleazy policies, like targeting patients with breast cancer for fraud investigations, and then calling President Obama a liar for saying the practice should stop? Is that really in the interest of the owners of $23 billion worth of WellPoint stock? Most investors want WellPoint to make money, not enemies.

Maybe Braly wasn’t worried about how things would look because her P.R. team decided shortly before the shareholders meeting to drop plans to webcast the event. Only reporters who attended in person could observe. Just like the health insurer Cigna did at its annual shareholder meeting last month, WellPoint shut out the media to minimize the impact of embarrassing questions.

Greed has made WellPoint completely lose touch with the founding mission of the nonprofit Blue Cross companies it acquired over the last 15 years (in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin). The Blue Cross plans, once seen as a refuge for each state’s sickest residents, have been transformed by Braly and her ilk into cash machines to satisfy the unbridled greed of Wall Street and corporate executives.

Rather than accept responsibility for the insurance industry’s unwillingness to slow the growth of health costs through tougher negotiations with doctors, hospitals and drug makers, Braly and her industry peers prefer to just keep raising prices, cutting benefits, denying care and boosting their profits and compensation. They serve the needs of the high rollers on Wall Street instead of millions of Americans.

The good news is that more shareholders are refusing to accept WellPoint’s unconscionable behavior and are taking action. The evidence of that came at the meeting when shareholders adopted a resolution to limit excessive CEO compensation by giving themselves an advisory vote on executive pay during the company’s annual meetings. Among the shareholders who demanded more “say on pay” was Connecticut State Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, who controls investments for the $23 billion pension plan for state employees. Similar proposals were defeated by WellPoint shareholders in 2008 and 2009, but the tide has turned.

The grotesque compensation paid to insurance CEOs costs more than the face value of their pay packages. It also exerts unhealthy influences on CEOs’ decisions about company finances and health care policy even when customers’ lives are at stake. That’s why shining a light on companies like WellPoint is so important.

Even by the standards of people who believe that it’s okay to do just about anything to make money, WellPoint consistently goes too far. Their turbo-charged greed is out of control, and their lack of any moral compass is shocking.

About The Author: Ethan Rome is executive director of Health Care for America Now and served as deputy campaign manager in HCAN’s 2009 successful campaign to win comprehensive health care reform. Rome has been a grassroots organizer, political activist, and strategic communicator for progressive issue and electoral campaigns for more than 20 years.

Capturing Wages for Off-The-Clock Work in California Retail Stores

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

W-F-BlogDuring the past several years, we have represented employees of several clothing retailers, including sales associates working for Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap and Banana Republic, and Chico’s in California-wide class action cases. All of these cases were prosecuted under California labor law. Our most recent employment class action against Polo Ralph Lauren challenged its failure to pay employees for the time they spent waiting for and undergoing “bag checks” or internal theft prevention inspections at the end of their shifts. Our clients alleged they sometimes had to wait for up to a half an hour for managers to perform bag checks and let them leave the stores. They alleged that under California law this off-the-clock time was “work” and that they were entitled to wages for the time they spent in their stores between “clock out and walk out.”

Bag Checks Are Common In the Retail Setting

In the retail store environment, many companies require employees to undergo bag check inspections before they can leave their stores for breaks or at the end of their shifts. According to industry experts, bag checks are a loss prevention tool used by retailers to discourage internal theft. These bag checks are permitted under California law and are generally a mandatory condition of employment for certain types of retail workers. The problem arises when employees are required to wait for their managers or other authorized personnel to perform bag checks on them after they have clocked out and are no longer being paid for their time. Is this waiting time compensable under California, however?

Under California Law, an Employer’s Control Over the Worker Is Key

With certain limited exceptions, hourly employees in California are entitled to be paid for all the time they are “subject to the control of an employer.” Bono Enterprises, Inc. v. Bradshaw (1995) 32 Cal. App. 4th 968. This “includes all the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.” Industrial Welfare Commission Order 7-2001. In the Polo case, our clients alleged they had been locked inside their stores after they had clocked out at the end of their shifts. From our clients’ perspective, physical confinement plainly satisfied the “control” requirement under California law.

The Federal De Minimis Defense

Polo defended the claims by relying on a federal legal doctrine called the de minimis defense. The de minimis defense arose out of the Portal-to-Portal Act (a 1947 amendment to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act). 29 U.S.C. § 254(a), a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, provides that certain activities performed before (preliminary) or after (postliminary) the worker’s principal activities are not compensable.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, principle activities include any work of consequence performed for an employer, no matter when the work is performed. If the activity is necessary to the business and is performed by the employees for the primary benefit of the employer, it is generally compensable time, unless it is deemed to be de minimis. It is de minimis when the unpaid time is short, occurs infrequently and is difficult for the employer to track. Lindow v. United States, 738 F. 2d 1057 (9th Cir. 1984)

As the United States Supreme Court explained more than 60 years ago,

When the matter in issue concerns only a few seconds or minutes of work beyond the scheduled working hours, such trifles may be disregarded. Split-second absurdities are not justified by the actualities of working conditions or by the policy of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It is only when an employee is required to give up a substantial measure of his time and effort that compensable working time is involved.

Federal Courts, including the Ninth Circuit, have developed a three-part test to evaluate when unpaid work time can be described as de minimis. In Lindow v. United States, (9th Cir. 1984), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained that to excuse an employer from its wage obligations under the de minimis defense, the courts must evaluate: “(1) the practical administrative difficulty of recording the additional time; (2) the aggregate amount of compensable time; and (3) the regularity of the additional work.”

Thus, if the work time is short, occurs only on rare occasion and is very hard to track, under federal law the employer can essentially ignore it.

But, Does the De Minimis Defense Apply Under California Law?

One of the central legal issues in the Polo case was whether the federal de minimis exception applied to wage and hour claims under California law. We argued that applying the de minimis defense to our clients’ off-the-clock claims would undermine California’s “subject to the control” test. In other words, if employees under California law are entitled to be paid for all time they are under the employer’s control, it does not matter whether the time is preliminary, postliminary or de minimis. The only thing that matters is whether the worker is under the employer’s control. If control is present, then the worker is entitled to be paid for the time they are under that control.

While the de minimis defense has not been tested by any California appellate court, one thing is clear: “The federal authorities are of little if any assistance in construing state regulations which provide greater protection to workers.” Bono Enterprises, Inc. v. Bradshaw, 32 Cal. App. 4th 968 (1995). This distinction is of great benefit to California workers and is one reason most wage and hour cases in California are prosecuted under California, and not federal, law.

So, does the de minimis defense apply to wage and hour claims under more employee-friendly California law? We still do not know. Just days before the trial court in the Polo class action was scheduled to decide whether to apply the federal de minimis defense to our clients’ claims, the case settled for $4 million.

Eventually, of course, a California appellate court will be asked to decide whether the de minimis defense applies to California off-the-clock claims. For now, California law remains unclear. What if the de minimis defense is deemed to apply to California claims? If workers can establish that the off-the-clock work occurred regularly, amounted to substantial time during the course of employment and that it would have been feasible for the employer to track the time, the de minimis defense should not have a substantial impact on their right to be paid wages for all the time they are subject to their employer’s control.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

What do you believe about work that is wrong?

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerAfter fifteen years of writing Working Wounded/Workplace911, I’ve concluded that there are a lot of myths about work. I thought it would be fun to tackle some of the bigger ones in this week’s blog. Check out my list below and send me some of your favorites.

It’s impossible to be overpaid when someone else signs the paycheck. Let me offer a short translation of this rule—as long as someone is willing to pay you a ridiculous amount of money to work for them, then you aren’t overpaid because they have established a market for your services. I disagree. Corporate salaries are absurd. Cost cutting, layoffs and a myriad of other organizational sacrifices should float more than just the boats of the CEO and a few top executives. I’m no Marxist, CEOs do deserve a big paycheck when they are successful. But this escalator only seems able to go up.

Greed is good. The biggest problem here is that when Oliver Stone came up with this mantra for his Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street it was meant as parody. Yet I hear some variation of it whenever I talk to traders, salespeople, etc. Henry Ford, hardly a commie himself, once said that only a fool holds out for the last dollar. I think wretched excess is a terrible way to run a company.

The bigger the jerk, the better the boss. Probably my favorite quote on management came from President (and General) Dwight Eisenhower. He once said, “Hitting people over the head isn’t leadership, it’s assault.” Sure jerks do get your attention and possibly results over the short term. But most employees will flee at the first chance they get. There are just too many sane bosses out there to continue to slave away for a jerk.

You’ve got to be first to market. Microsoft seems to me to be the only company that consistently puts second-rate products on the market and lives to tell the tale. It worked for a long time until Apple recently passed them in market capitalization. The rest of us have to pick our spots and often the first to market position can’t justify launching a crappy product. So it often pays to wait.

Innovation is the middle name of American corporations. Despite rising productivity, I believe that corporations in the U.S. are running on fumes. Don’t believe me? Listen to most people talk about the management of their companies. It’s not a pretty sight. I see far more innovation right now coming from abroad and from the not-for-profit sector and I think it’s time that corporations started walking their talk.

Corporations are drowning in regulation. Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, etc. left in their wake Sarbanes Oxley and a host of other regulations. Undoubtedly Lehman, Goldman Sacks, etc. will leave their mark too. There is a lot of talk now about how corporations are being held back by senseless regulations. I hate filling out government forms as much as the next guy, but these laws came into place because of abuse by corporations. And in order to maintain the trust of the average investor these regulations need to remain in effect, no matter how much whining you hear from big business.

The bottom line isn’t just the bottom line. If I’ve learned one thing as an observer of business and the founder of four corporations, it’s that there are many bottom lines for a business. In addition to economic there are also social and environmental considerations. The financials really only are a part of the picture. The sooner that corporations take a broader view of the bottom line, the sooner they’ll begin to fully reach their potential.

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.

South Africa’s World Cup Brims with Broken Promises

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Michelle ChenSouth Africa is the center of world this week, kicking off the first-ever World Cup Games on the African continent. But as the cameras pan across green fields and lavish festivities, labor activists are keeping their eye on the ball.

According to a report on soccer ball manufacturing from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), more than a decade since the sporting goods industry was scandalized over rampant child labor abuses, the exploitation continues. In Pakistan, India, China and Thailand, ILRF says, “precarious labor, low wages, poor working conditions and violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights are found in the value chain of hand-stitched soccer balls.”

As degraded child workers in Asia supply the games played by other youth around the world, FIFA promotes a platform of “corporate social responsibility.” Since the late 1990s, following international condemnation of labor abuses in Pakistan, FIFA has established a Social Responsibility code, “pledged its commitment to fight child labour and has been supporting the International Labour Organization (ILO) and its International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in its efforts towards eradicating child labour from the soccer ball industry in Pakistan.”

Additionally, FIFA now plans to develop twenty “Football for Hope Centres to promote public health, education and football in disadvantaged communities across Africa,” based on missions such as rehabilitating children with disabilities and promoting the socioeconomic advancement of women.

But the ILRF report suggests that the glossy charity projects are overshadowed by the failure of the industry to live up to the principles of the 1997 Atlanta Agreement, including both abolishing child labor and fostering rehabilitation and education in manufacturing communities.

In India, soccer balls are at the center of a deeply entrenched labor hierarchy: “Half of India’s stitchers live below the poverty line, and 90% of these households are part of the ‘untouchables’ caste…. Under such conditions, families have no choice but to make their children work.”

The ball isn’t the only symbol of oppression at play at the games; the lavish stadiums sit astride signs of racial and economic inequalities that have exploded in recent years. According to Khadija Sharife of the South Africa-based Center for Civil Soviety, “estimated expenditure for new stadiums totalled US$1,346.9 billion,” and FIFA “has already cashed in” on the spending spree spawned by aggressive overdevelopment leading up to the games. Sharife argues, “Fifa’s Cup erodes rather than aids SA’s political economy,” and the country will see little long-term benefit, as job creation and tourism have fallen short of rosy expectations.

Critics in South Africa even doubt the potential to boost national pride, as the games mainly cater to affluent foreigners and price out a huge portion of Africans. Columnist Andile Mngxitama told the UK Independent:

The World Cup is a colonial playground for the rich and for a few wannabes in the so-called South African elite… Whereas in the past we were conquered, the South African government has simply invited the colonisers this time.

The ANC government’s branding attempt in fact started showing cracks long before the kickoff. In a 2008 issue of Against the Current, Sam Ross reported:

In September 2007, construction workers building the new Green Point stadium in Cape Town demanded increased compensation for travel costs to the worksite. After two strikes in a month, 1,000 workers were locked out of the stadium, which will host the World Cup Semi-finals.

In early October 2007… FIFA Organizing Committee’s Chief Competitions Officer Dennis Mumble claimed the committee was “very happy with the progress being made and believe more than ever that we are on track to host an extremely successful 2010 World Cup.” He made no mention of labor disputes or of the fact more than one million South African workers went on strike between June and October.

Since then, strikes have popped up regularly, including a major transport union strike in May. Meanwhile, class strife has swelled with the threat of displacement. A ban on street vendors has stoked public frustration. And the longstanding Black township Joe Slovo in the Western Cape, Socialist Worker reports that some 20,000 people have resisted the authorities’ attempts to evict them:

Zodwa Nsibande is the youth league secretary of Abahlali base Mjondolo, a movement of shack dwellers set up to protect and advocate for people living in shacks.

“People are being forced from their homes and treated like animals,” she told Socialist Worker. “We live under constant threat. People are scared to move because they know they can’t come back – they will have built something on the land.”…

In South Africa the police have also been instructed to clear the streets of homeless people for the World Cup.

Isaac Lewis, who is homeless, has been arrested six times in the past month for loitering.

“Police harassment is increasing,” he says. “They want to make a good impression for the foreigners coming. We are like insects to them – like flies.”

And so South Africa joins a long tradition of mass sporting events causing mass displacement. A study by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, published in 2007 ahead of the Beijing Olympics, found that “The Olympic Games have displaced more than two million people in the last 20 years, disproportionately affecting minorities such as the homeless, the poor, Roma and African-Americans.”

It’s inevitable, perhaps, that in a sporting event that draws together people of all classes, creeds and colors, shameful paradoxes will emerge: the interplay between child workers in Pakistan and sports industry marketing agendas; the dissonance between the overbuilt stadiums and the poverty of the workers who poured their sweat into the concrete.

In such a starkly divided polity, Udesh Pillay, co-editor of Development and Dreams: The urban legacy of the 2010 Football World Cup, told the AP that the Cup “now is the emotional glue that holds the country together.”

After the last match is played, South Africans will seek another goal to bind the fractured nation together. That pursuit, symbolically tied to the fate of the entire Global South, should compel South Africa to return to the suspended vision of equity that defeated apartheid, but today remains an unfinished triumph.

This article was originally posted 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

No Pattern To Be Found

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Ravi BakhruDepartment of Labor news releases rarely get the attention they so rightly deserve. But I’m a fan of giving credit where credit is due, so when Assistant Secretary Joseph Main issued this statement, I perked up.

After an investigation by Federal officials, a mine operated by Massey (think Upper Big Branch explosion) was cited for 29 violations in its Tiller No. 1 Mine. The violations ranged from hazardous roof conditions to inadequate ventilation to, wait for it….

Non-permissible electrical equipment with the potential to explode methane gas.

Section 104(d)(1) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act describes a significant and substantial violation as being “of such nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard.” A violation of this provision essentially means there is a reasonable likelihood that the hazard will result in serious injury or illness. The problem is not just the standard, but in the requisite number of violations that meet the standard to establish a pattern.

Judge David Barbour, who issued an oral ruling (written decision to come) on the matter, found that although he believed all 29 violations had occurred, only 19 of the violations amounted to significant and substantial, 6 less than the 25 needed to establish a pattern. Don’t bother asking if that’s a typo, 25 “significant and substantial” violations are necessary in order to establish a pattern. Establishing a pattern means that any significant and substantial violation found within 90 days thereafter automatically triggers a withdrawal order until the mine has a clean inspection with no S&S violations. In short, establishing a pattern would immensely help those who work in such unsafe conditions by forcing mine operators to clean up or face losing money every day.

“No mine has ever been successfully placed into pattern of violations status.” This is perhaps the most profound statement made with regards to the matter. In 2006, the American public endured the Sago Mine explosion and watched as a single miner emerged with his life. And in April of this year the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 coal miners.

Mining is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we continually disrespect those who risk their lives for our energy by refusing to recognize and fix a broken system of oversight. Employees of these mines should be disgusted, if they aren’t too busy being frightened. The Federal Mine and Health Safety Act is designed to provide regulations and oversight into one of the most hazardous industries known to man. It was not designed to protect the companies who owned the mines, but the average worker who spent a full 8-10 hours in a black hole.

A message needs to be sent to the mine industry: we will no longer tolerate such blatant disregard for workers. We may not be able to bring mining from one of the most dangerous jobs in the world to the safest job in the world, but surely we can help those facing such conditions. And we can do that by easing the restrictions on establishing patterns of violations. Doing so would allow regulators to shut mines down when they see violations deemed S&S, and force mine operators to think about safety more than once every explosion.

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.

Why Taking on Blanche Lincoln Was the Right Call

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

photo_65399Challenges within the primaries allow us to define what it means to be a real Democrat—to insist that the party truly puts the interests of working people first.

That’s what makes elections like Tuesday’s run-off in Arkansas between Bill Halter and incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln, the victor, so important. Labor and progressive movements got together to target Lincoln because she had opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, helped to block a robust public option in health care reform, and refused to back one of President Obama’s key nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.

Conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party states that we need strong majorities in order to pass better public policies in Washington, DC. But the logic of “more” doesn’t add up if those people we elect do not provide us with the votes we need. As long as our political strategies ask only that candidates have a “D” behind their names, we’ll never get the type of majorities that will take hard stands to confront the power of big business and create real reform.

Going back to the Carter years in the 1970s, we had large Democratic majorities in Congress, yet we saw labor law weakened and the right to collective bargaining eroded. Under Clinton, Democratic majorities gave us NAFTA and more unfair trade.

If we don’t want history to repeat itself with the current administration, we cannot get wrapped up in the temporary excitement of a given electoral campaign. We need to have the memory, foresight, and strategy to craft something different. That’s why we should hope that challenges within the primaries become more standard.

‘Different,’ not ‘more’

Doing politics differently means two things:

1) having a higher standard of accountability; and

2) judging our success in electoral contests based on a dual bottom line.

Accountability first means being clear about what our agenda is. Strong health care and labor law reforms are key structural changes needed in our economy if we are to rebuild the American middle class. We can’t forget these in the next Congress and simply move on to new matters. Rather than waiting for the White House to lead and hoping that candidates follow, we must lead by putting our priorities forward. We don’t need friends on issues that are foundational to working people, such as health care, living wages, and making collective bargaining the norm; we need champions.

There have been countless calls from labor and other progressive constituencies for accountability from politicians. Nobody disagrees that elected officials should be made to answer for their votes. But there is not much said about how to make this happen–about what the vehicle for ensuring accountability will be.

The answer is an organized base. None of the progressive lobbies in Washington, DC can hold any elected official accountable without strong, organized, permanent grassroots organization in the home states.

The dual bottom line

That gets to my second point about doing politics differently. When labor and progressive movements enter into any electoral contest, they should measure their success based on a dual bottom line: Did we get our candidate elected? And what did we leave behind in terms of lasting organization?

If we have to parachute people in to run a campaign, it’s a good sign that we need to invest more in building local talent and developing local capacity in the area. In A New New Deal David Reynolds and I profile case studies from around the country that show how regional activism will lead to building the type of progressive infrastructure we must have to hold politicians accountable: We need local organizations that have their own ability to run their own political campaigns. We need organizations that can form alliances across institutional boundaries, crafting coalitions between unions, community groups, and other progressive institutions. And we need organizations that can develop policy proposals and do top-flight research.

This type of organization is what will allow us to be part of a governing coalition. Accountability means that, in candidates’ eyes, our core constituencies are as just as essential to governing as they are to getting elected.

Labor and progressives have an urgent need to think long-term. Let’s not abandon our strategy just because we lost on the Halter drive. It will take several attempts before we will really start to send a message about what a new approach to politics means.

Come November, simply restoring or exceeding a 60-vote majority won’t solve the problems we face. Instead, we must go beyond “more” and start doing politics “different.”

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

NY's Domestic Worker Bill of Rights

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Workers Comp Insider LogoIn the 1930s, when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) passed, these two laws offered labor protections to workers nationwide – with the exception of two large segments of the work population: domestic workers and agricultural workers. These groups were excluded in the interests of political expediency since a large proportion of both groups were comprised of blacks and women, two populations that weren’t generally afforded full rights in many public and social arenas at the time.

With the 33-28 vote passage of the New York State Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in the Senate, New York is likely to become the first state in the union to remedy that. The Bill is not yet final law – first, the Senate bill needs to be reconciled with the bill passed by the state Assembly and then Governor Patterson must sign it.

Bill Number S2311D would “… amend the labor law, the executive law and the workers’ compensation law, in relation to establishing regulations regarding employment of domestic workers including hours of labor, wages and employment contracts.” The purpose of the bill is stated as being to: “… provide domestic workers with a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights which would set out the responsibilities of employers and employees as well as rules for paid holidays, paid vacations and standard overtime.”

It’s estimated that there are about 200,00 domestic workers in New York, 93% of which are women and 95% of which are people of color. Because the Bill covers all domestic workers – both legal and illegal – it’s been fairly controversial. Opponents decry the increase in regulation, which some say will result in fewer jobs. Many opponents also bridle against any protection for illegal workers, feeling that offers a legitimacy. Proponents say that it will go a long way to regulating an industry that has no standards or oversight and afford basic worker rights to a largely ignored worker population. Many of those in favor of the bill also think that shedding light on some of unregulated business segments which have historically been magnets for undocumented workers will be an important step in coming to grips with the hiring of illegal workers.

In a column in the New York Daily News, Albor Ruiz notes the irony that although we trust these domestic workers with our children, our elderly parents and our homes, they are among the most exploited of society’s laborers. He cites a study by Domestic Workers United and DataCenter, which found that, “…26% of domestic workers make less than the poverty line or the minimum wage rate. Also, 33% say they have been abused verbally or physically, and half report working overtime but not being paid for it. Health insurance from their employer is a rare luxury – only 10% get it.”

From our viewpoint, we think all employers have the responsibility to provide a fair and safe workplace for all employees, regardless of the work population involved – legal, illegal, here in the US, or offshore in other countries. It’s simply the right thing to do. But for those who don’t share this value, it generally makes sense from a cost perspective, too. In our experience, doing the right thing by employees is less costly in the long run.

This blog originally appeared in WorkersCompInsider.com on June 7, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julie Ferguson is an insurance industry consultant with more than 20 years experience developing and implementing communications programs for workers compensation, workplace health & safety, employee communications, and general insurance programs. She founded and serves as editor for the nation’s first insurance weblog, Lynch Ryan’s Workers Comp Insider. She also founded and manages HR Web Café, a weblog for ESI Employee Assistance Group; Consumer Insurance Blog for the Renaissance Insurance Group; and is one of the administrators of Health Wonk Review, a bi-weekly health policy carnival. If you have a question for Julie, you can reach her at jferguson@lynchryan.com.

Chaos 1, Order 0

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerBefore Northwest Airlines became a memory following its merger with Delta Airlines, it offered a moment of brilliance. The company decided it would no longer board their planes by rows. You know, seating people in ten row clumps starting from the back of the plane.

Why would they end what is clearly the most orderly and effective way to board an airplane? Precisely because it wasn’t.

Instead, they decided to let first class customers, the disabled, the kids and frequent flyers board first. After that, first come, first served. Now here is the wild part. According to Northwest Airlines, letting people get on the plane randomly, instead of by row, would cut five to ten minutes from the boarding process. By boarding randomly, the airline expected to get 200 people on a plane in 20 to 25 minutes. If my math is correct (and since I’m a graduate of the New Jersey Public Schools, you should have your doubts), that could result in up to a 30% reduction in boarding time.

Think about it. Forcing people to go onto a plane section by section creates logjams in different parts of the plane. On the other hand, letting people on randomly spreads the logjams all over the plane.

Why is this important for those not in the airline industry? Because it’s my experience, reinforced by my emails for the last ten years, that the vast majority of corporations think like Northwest Airlines used to think. They like to command and they like to control. Even when involved with a creative project, organizations want to see plans, projections, reports and lots and lots of meetings.

This announcement reminds us that sometimes a little chaos can get us all where we need to go faster. Significantly faster.

So why do corporations value order so highly? Oddly enough it all comes from our experience in elementary school. A number of years ago I worked for former Army General turned Superintendent of Schools for Seattle, John Stanford. He observed that our school system was largely set up in the early part of this century to create factory workers. And it hasn’t changed from its earliest days. That’s why if you’re like me, you probably remember so much of an emphasis on discipline from your early years.

Factory workers. Obviously these days most of us are not on the line, but rather in jobs that require creativity and initiative. Yet, our brains were trained during the majority of our formative years to value order over all else.

I know what you’re thinking, that I’m taking one little example and getting totally carried away. Ironically, I’m going to accuse you—the corporate people reading this blog—of doing the very same thing. Stop embracing command and control at the expense of allowing pockets of chaos to thrive throughout your organization.

3M, widely seen as the corporation that consistently generates the most revenue from new products, allows each employee time to work on their pet projects during working hours. Sure they’ve got to finish their regular assignments, but they are given a little bit of leash to do something outside the scope of their jobs.

Which reminds me of the arch enemy of Maxwell Smart in the old TV show “Get Smart.” It was “Chaos.” All of our lives we’ve been told that chaos is the enemy. Make it your friend, like Northwest Airlines did, and you just might be surprised at how much more your organization will accomplish.

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.

On Being Unemployed

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Image: Mitchell HirschI am unemployed, and have been now for a little more than three months. People like me often say “I lost my job” — as if their situation were the result of some personal failing or act of stupidity. Like “I lost my car keys” or “I lost my wallet.” No. Let me say, instead: My job was taken from me.

For nearly a year, roughly 15 million Americans have been officially unemployed, according to the monthly reports. So I know I am not alone. But there are many times when it doesn’t feel that way.

On a freezing night with a biting wind, around the holidays this past winter, I went to see the film Up in the Air with my wife, her sisters and my two teenage kids. Laura mentioned the film in a great post last January. The film’s protagonist, played by George Clooney, works for a firm that gets hired by other companies to fly him around and fire people from their jobs. In addition, he has the temerity to promote a kind of sidecar career for himself, lecturing people looking for work about how they need to clean out their backpacks, or whatever.

I sat there trying to contain my anger, while part of me felt a deepening sadness — not just for the people being thrown out of work, but for the spreading epidemic of corporate callousness and for the needless devastation wrought by this monster recession. On the way out of the theater my kids asked me what I’d thought of the film, and all I could say was “this all just makes me so angry,” adding I was glad that I still had my job.

Two months later, I did not.

For nearly twenty years I had managed a successful, multi-million-dollar retail store, part of a specialty chain. In a move to further reduce store payrolls, which along with overall benefits had already been reduced several times in recent years, it was determined that my modest salary — which was below the median household income in my state — no longer fit the new payroll scheme. The day I was informed of this I was also told it was my last day.

I was stunned. To say that I had been the face and the name, the personification of the store and the company in a highly coveted market would be an understatement. Yet, no new role was offered, no severance, nothing. Less than a year earlier, after a significant restructuring in which a number of long-time employees had been let go, particularly at the firm’s headquarters, the company’s president had indicated to me that my job was safe. So much for that.

I came home to find my wife having lunch in the kitchen. When I told her what had happened, she cried. I held her and told her we’d be alright. But part of me didn’t really believe it. That I haven’t cried yet probably isn’t a healthy thing.

Within a couple of weeks, my long-time assistant manager was also let go. We happen to both be 59 years old. It had been determined that the new payroll scheme would not support having two assistants. Apparently, the private equity group that had financed the company’s buyout several years earlier now wanted to see more of the ‘R’ part of their ‘ROI’. Think back to my post titled “Sharks”.

I applied for unemployment insurance for the first time in my life. I began submitting claims online, but was told on the phone that I would not see any payments for a while, because my eligibility had to first be determined in a telephone hearing — and, because of the high volume of first time claims (this was, by the way, late February 2010) that hearing wouldn’t be scheduled for a month. Fortunately, I had filed my 2009 tax returns early and we’d already received our refunds.

I filed to continue our family’s health insurance with the COBRA administrator, and for the federal COBRA subsidy — the one that, while you’re unemployed, temporarily reduces monthly premiums by 65 percent, but that got stripped out of the jobless aid bill in the House last week. So, unless the continuation of that program is restored, newly unemployed people will no longer be eligible for the reduced premiums.

Despite the lightning fast online application process, COBRA insurance approvals appear to take weeks. So prescription medications, of which there are several for my son and myself, were paid for in full until the COBRA insurance was confirmed. I postponed an annual physical checkup.

Meanwhile, of course, the networking, resume writing, posting, emailing and door-knocking began and has continued unabated. Unlike many folks I’ve heard about, I’ve actually had several responses and even some interviews. But, as yet, no actual offers. Have I mentioned that I’m 59 years old?

The stories of these mundane details may vary from person to person. Mine are certainly not unique. What are far more significant are the stories of how being unemployed affects your life, your thoughts, your emotions, your self-esteem and your sense of social worth.

On these matters, I can only speak for myself. What struck me most immediately was that, without my job, I had no place to go to. Not just the routine of going to work, but having a sense of ‘place’ and belonging in and to a place, was suddenly taken from me. The psychologist James Hillman has written extensively on the subject of the soul being nourished by its sense of place, and that our workplaces are, or should be, vital places that help instill a sense of shared purpose, of mutual encouragement, so that they themselves have a sense of soul.

But increasingly our workplaces are being robbed of their soulfulness, replaced by the cold domination of callous cost-cutting and disregard for people. The layoffs don’t just harm those laid off. It is as if the lost souls of those laid off linger in the workplace, haunting those who remain on the job.

While it is difficult to admit, for me the sense of rejection has been palpable. Several decades of experience and prior accomplishments at times feel all but negated, as if they not only mattered little but may as well not have happened at all. I find myself struggling, at times to fight off a sense that society has deemed me expendable.

And a fear of the future, which while I was working had receded largely to lurk only in a far-off corner somewhere, is now back with a vengeance. What will happen if I need surgery? What if my old car dies on me? Will we ever be able to have a real vacation or travel anywhere again? Will I be able to help my kids go to college in a couple of years? Will I ever be able to afford not to work? Will I ever be able to work?

The staggeringly huge number of unemployed Americans has been fading from the headlines. In a series of diaries posted on Daily Kos in the spring and late winter of 2009, I noted to the astonishment of some that with nearly 15 million unemployed, the number of unemployed Americans was more than it was in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression. I made note of that fact again in my very first post here on Main Street last September. And it’s as true now as it was then.

Now, however, there appears to be a growing sense that mass unemployment is something that must be accepted, as if it’s somehow unavoidable. Moves are already underway by some in Congress to chip away at and begin to dismantle the jobless aid programs for the unemployed. Two months ago, when I wrote “Wall Street Declares War on the Unemployed” some readers probably thought I was exaggerating in order to make a point.

Where is the outrage? Where the fierce urgency to find and implement effective solutions to this, our most pressing national economic emergency? My sense of being socially expendable is increasing. When a society begins trashing its human capital on a mass scale, it is headed down a very ominous road. How can this be happening?

One reason, I think, is the sheer invisibility of much of our current-day unemployment. Gone are the Depression-era breadlines and the mass street demonstrations of the 1930s by unionists and the unemployed. There’s no longer a need to stand in line at the unemployment office to file your claims — it’s all done so privately and invisibly online. And the sense of isolation, which Susan wrote about here, is reinforced by the media’s disregard and the implicit message that if you’re unemployed it’s your own fault.

But it’s the silence and the impersonal invisibility of our nation’s unemployment nightmare that must be countered creatively. Perhaps this blog post will help.

*This post originally appeared in Working America’s Main Street blog on June 3, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Mitchell Hirsch is a featured blogger for Working America’s ‘Main Street’ blog.  He writes frequently on the economy, jobs policy, unemployment, politics and legislative issues.

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