Archive for November, 2010
Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
In a continued crackdown on coal mines with histories of serious safety and health violations, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has issued notices that 13 mines will be placed in a special stepped-safety enforcement program unless mine owners begin immediate corrective actions.
The mines were notified earlier this month that they were on the verge of being put in what is known as pattern of violations (POV) status because of chronic and persistent safety and health violations uncovered during inspections in the past 12 months. A POV status brings the mine under more intense scrutiny and gives MSHA broader power to stop mining operations and withdraw miners.
These notifications are the first MSHA has issued since it began reforming the pattern of violations program after the Bush administration, at the urging of the coal industry and with former coal industry executives running MSHA, changed the rules to make it harder to crack down on pattern violators. Says MSHA administrator Joe Main:
I have been saying since I arrived at MSHA that the POV system is broken. This screening represents a positive step forward, but it won’t be the only step. POV is on MSHA’s rulemaking agenda, and there are also statutory changes pending before Congress that would further improve the system.
The mines notified by MSHA had an elevated rate of “significant and substantial” (S&S) violations and have been subject to closure orders, including closure orders for serious issues such as failing to correct violations after MSHA cites them. MSHA has established S&S violation rate-reduction goals for each mine that received a potential POV notification. If they do not meet those reduction targets, the mines will be placed in the POV program. Says Main:
Along with impact inspections and injunction actions, POV represents an important enforcement method for MSHA to change the behavior of mine operators who don’t take seriously the health and safety of miners.
This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW Blog.
About The Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Monday, November 29th, 2010
If you feel like the recent recession screwed most of us over and left the fat cats even fatter, the next bit of information is going to really set you off. So I’d suggest that you go into the room with the most padding, remove all sharp objects and concentrate to keep your last meal down. Really, concentrate.
Last week American corporations announced their best quarter ever. $1.659 trillion in profits during the third quarter of 2010. Trillion, with a “T”.
For the last 60 years, since such things were tracked, that’s the biggest profit ever. Even bigger than 2006 when it was a paltry $1.655 trillion.
2006, when the unemployment rate was 4.6%.
Do you see a problem here?
Okay, I understand that today’s economy is full of uncertainty. And that it’s important for corporations to stash away some cash for a rainy day. But with $1.659 trillion in profits in just three months, isn’t it a good time to start hiring again to take the unemployment rate down from it’s current 9.6%?
I had feared that corporations would take advantage of the recession to drive down salaries and hiring. And that appears to be happening, although the business press tends to lump those two phenomenon into the phrase “increasing productivity.”
There is one major problem here, corporations need people with money to keep the 70% of the economy that is based on consumer spending running. The more corporations only see their profits, at the expense of actual markets where people can buy their products, well that’s the rub.
Employment and markets matter. I just fear that a trillion and a half in profits with an unemployment rate of 9.6% or 4.6% might not matter that much to the corporate corner-office crowd. But it makes a huge impact on society as a whole.
I know what you’re thinking. That I’m some kind of socialist. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve got an MBA, I’ve taught at the MBA level and I’m current an executive for a company. It’s just that I take a longer view and think about who is really the foundation for our economy, the people with the paychecks that buy stuff. Whereas many corporate executives that I’ve talked to practice magical thinking where the people who buy stuff are separated from how the economy really functions.
It could be argued that the corporate sphincter muscle needed to be tight. But I can give you 1.659 trillion reasons why the time has come to relax it a bit and start spending some of the cash.
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 email@example.com.
Friday, November 26th, 2010
Should we tear down the city’s middle class? Or work to turn lousy jobs into good ones? That’s the policy choice facing New York’s city and state leaders. So far, their decisions aren’t encouraging: for years New York has failed to use its economic development programs to promote the creation of good, family-supporting jobs. Now it is welcoming Walmart’s industry-decimating low-wages with open arms. The state has so far failed to take a stand against $1 billion a year in wages stolen from New York’s lowest-income workers, but instead is spoiling for a fight of a very different sort: vowing to scale back the pay and retirement security of middle-class teachers, transportation workers, and other public employees.
The result? A disappearing middle class amidst the proliferation of lousy, low-wage jobs. It doesn’t have to be this way.
For the time being, New York City is getting more lousy jobs. We are gaining retail and restaurant jobs — positions that often lack benefits and fail to pay a living wage – while losing middle-class jobs in the public sector and manufacturing. To make matters worse, education and health care – among the few bright spots in New York City’s recovery over the past year (as well as the state’s job growth over the past decade) — are the very areas Governor-elect Cuomo has vowed to cut.
As a result, the disappearance of New York’s middle class is likely to accelerate. We may continue to be home to more millionaires but we’re also apt to see more people with jobs showing up at food pantries because they’re not earning enough to feed their families.
None of this is inevitable. The economic trends impacting New York today were heavily shaped by past public policy decisions at the federal, state, and local level. Meanwhile the choices made by our political leaders today could redirect (or intensify) the way the city’s economy develops. What will New York stand for?
If we’re stung by the loss of good jobs, one reaction is to turn our resentment on the folks who still have solid middle-class careers: deplore teachers who still have protection from arbitrary layoffs and insist that the biggest problem New York faces is that parks department workers still have pensions. We could assert the worker protections they enjoy are outdated, trash the compensation these public workers earn, and turn their jobs into lousy jobs too.
While we’re at it, we can welcome Walmart into the city and insist that it’s perfectly acceptable for people to go to work every day and still need food stamps to feed their children. Maybe the teachers we’re laying off can get jobs there.
Or we could try something different.
We could, for example, to look at the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development subsidies the city spends every year and insist that these taxpayer dollars be used to promote jobs that allow working people to support their families. New York could emulate Pittsburgh’s decision to stop using subsidies to foster poverty wages. We could pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act to insist that the mega-developments underwritten by our public dollars pay decent wages. These measures won’t put an immediate halt to the decline of job quality in New York, but at least they’ll put the city’s economic muscle on the side of the angels.
We could also work to ensure that the job standards we have now are enforced. New York’s minimum wage is an inadequate $7.25 an hour, yet a fifth of the city’s low-wage workforce (317,200 working people) are cheated out of even that meager pay or fall victim to other workplace violations in a typical week. The state’s Wage Theft Prevention Act, now languishing in Albany because the Assembly and Senate passed slightly different versions, would be a step towards enforcing the laws now on the books to protect New York’s lowest paid workers.
It’s not too late for New York to take a stand for good jobs, strengthening and expanding the city’s middle class rather than tearing it down. But the longer New York waits to reverse course, the more difficult it will be.
This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.
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. 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.
Thursday, November 25th, 2010
Julius Getman’s latest book offers a compelling answer
In the early 1990s, trade unionists in the United States abandoned the strike as a central component of trade union strategy. In its place, unionists and academic supporters focused on organizing the unorganized, one-day strikes and community campaigns. Yet on the main concern of the traditional labor movement—how to extract concessions from employers through collective bargaining—there has been virtual silence.
University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman stands out as a rare exception to this trend. For several decades, Getman has urged the labor movement to focus on the fundamentals of trade union power. Getman’s 1998 book, The Betrayal of Local 14, chronicled the heartbreaking International Paper strike of the early 1990s, making a strong plea for banning the permanent replacement of striking workers.
Fortunately for labor activists, Getman has written another about book about labor: Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement (Yale University Press). The first half of Restoring the Power of Unions focuses on the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). Getman believes HERE’s member-centered unionism can serve as an example for the entire labor movement. The second half of the book provides insightful analysis on all-too-often ignored topics of trade union strategy, the shortfalls of the organizing approach and the need for labor law reform.
But throughout the book, Getman constantly directs the labor movement back to its true source of power: a mobilized rank and file.
Getman chose to focus on HERE because he believes that this union, “more than any other union, has focused not only on organizing and bargaining but also on creating a spirit of movement.” With hotel workers currently engaged in a high-profile, strategic battle against national hotel chains, Getman’s analysis is certainly timely.
Getman traces HERE’s transformation from a mobbed-up union into one of today’s more dynamic international unions. Along the way, he provides valuable analysis and history of HERE’s strikes at Yale University and the transformation of local unions in San Francisco and Las Vegas. To Getman, key to HERE’s transformation was the rise of a grouping of leaders who firmly believed the power of the union comes from movement building— thus the title of the book.
Restoring the Power of Unions makes another valuable contribution by analyzing the conflicted 2004 merger of HERE and UNITE, the garment workers union, into UNITE-HERE. Drawing on his decades of relationships with UNITE-HERE leaders, Getman provides a detailed account of the battle between former HERE leader John Wilhelm and former UNITE leader Bruce Raynor. To many media observers, this was merely a personality dispute—a fight over who got the corner office. To Getman, however, the dispute was over fundamental differences in union philosophy: between the top down philosophy held by Raynor and his allies in SEIU, and the member-centered unionism of Wilhelm and the core HERE leadership.
With the labor movement wracked by internal conflict in recent years (the split of Change to Win, the UNITE-HERE conflict, the civil wars in SEIU), figuring out the underlying politics can be mystifying. Restoring the Power of Unions helps explain part of the puzzle. (Luckily, another piece will soon be filled in by Steve Early’s highly anticipated book The Civil Wars in Labor, which will dissect the politics and practice of Raynor’s ally, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and is due out next year.)
Halfway through the book, Getman switches to trade union policy. Getman covers topics such as details on how labor law is stacked against workers, the restrictions on the right to strike and a critical analysis of the Employee Free Choice Act. Getman disagrees with many other labor scholars that simply amending labor law to include card check will resolve labor’s crisis.
Drawing on decades of research, Getman argues that issues of access to employees and underlying union strength are more important to union growth. To Getman, such problems can be only be resolved through pressure tactics such as comprehensive campaigns. The comprehensive or “corporate” campaign is the strategy of strategic mobilization and pressure on employers used by some unions, including UNITE-HERE.
At some points, Getman overemphasizes the power of the comprehensive campaign. When properly utilized, the strategy has proven able to beat back some of the worst concessions. For example, earlier this year mineworkers at Rio Tinto utilized member mobilization and international pressure to force an end to a lockout and reach a contract settlement. Represented by the ILWU, the members beat back some, but not all, of management’s concessions.
After 25 years, however, it is time to admit that strategy alone will not revive the labor movement. To do that, we need a labor movement willing to confront the system of labor control—the legal restrictions on the right to strike and solidarity—that hamstrings the labor movement.
Most labor commentators ignore the system of labor control’s restrictions on the right to strike. They focus on organizing or social unionism, ignoring the fundamental questions of union economics. Not Getman. He argues the restrictions on the right to strike are critical, particularly changing the rule allowing permanent replacement of striking workers. Unlike many commentators, Getman also discusses the importance of labor’s long-lost tactics of solidarity, the powerful secondary strikes outlawed by the Taft Hartley Act of 1947. To Getman, union power comes from solidarity—from workers acting together.
The main problem facing the labor movement is not employers, politicians or labor law. It is our way of thinking—a problem of incorrect strategy. It is time for trade unionists and all involved in the broader worker’s movement to debate the critical question of how to “restore the power of unions.” With Restoring the Power of Unions, Getman provides an invaluable contribution for those in the labor movement looking for answers.
This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.
About The Author: Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the forthcoming book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, November 24th, 2010
Real men, real human beings, with feelings and families, fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the Union, to ensure, as their president, Abraham Lincoln, would say later, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Perversely, afterwards, non-humans commandeered the constitutional amendment intended to protect the rights of former slaves. Corporations wrested from the U.S. Supreme Court a decision based on the 14th Amendment asserting that corporations are people with rights to be upheld by the government – but with no counterbalancing human responsibilities to the republic. No duty to fight or die in war, for example. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court expanded those rights – ruling that corporations have a First Amendment free speech right to surreptitiously spend unlimited money on political campaigns.
Today, Lincoln would have to say America’s got a government of the people by the corporations, for the corporations.
The proposed trade agreement with South Korea illustrates corporate control of government for profit. It’s the same with efforts to revive the moribund trade schemes former President George W. Bush also negotiated with Panama and Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country by far for trade unionists, with 2,700 assassinated with impunity in the past two decades, 38 slain so far this year.
Nobody likes these trade deals – except corporations. They’re all modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), both of which killed American jobs while giving corporations new authority to sue governments (read: taxpayers) for regulations – like environmental standards – that corporations contend interfere with their right to make money.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the South Korea so-called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) would cost America 159,000 jobs and enlarge its trade deficit by $16.7 billion in its first seven years.
Americans, now suffering though corporate-caused 9.6 percent unemployment, know a deal when they see one – and the South Korea FTA is not one. In a September poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 53 percent of Americans said so-called free trade agreements have injured the country. Only 17 percent said those trade schemes benefited the United States. Disgust with these deals spans party lines, including Tea Partiers, 61 percent of whom said they’re bad for America.
Many politicians, particularly Democrats, abhor the schemes as well. In July, just after President Obama announced that he would try to get the South Korea pact passed, 110 House Democrats described their disdain for the deal:
“We oppose specific provisions of the agreement in the financial services, investment, and labor chapters, because they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of small businesses and workers.”
In addition, during this fall’s midterm election campaign, 205 candidates, Republican and Democrat, ran on platforms condemning job off-shoring and unfair trade, and house Democrats who ran on fair trade were three times as likely to survive the GOP “shellacking” as Democrats who supported so-called free trade schemes.
Significantly, the South Korean public and some South Korean politicians also oppose the trade proposal. In the week leading up to the G-20 meetings in Seoul, trade unionists, farmers, peasants and students filled the streets in marches and candle light vigils to express outrage with the proposed agreement, including its provisions giving U.S. corporations the right to challenge South Korean laws in private tribunals.
In October, 35 South Korean lawmakers joined 20 U.S. Representatives in writing President Obama and Korean President Lee Myunk-bak to protest the proposal.
Despite all that opposition, when Obama and Lee emerged from talks without an agreement, the American press, pundits and “analysts on both sides of the aisle,” described the situation as a major diplomacy failure, “a serious setback for the president.”
They were wrong. It wasn’t a setback for Obama. It was the president refusing to sign a bad deal for American workers.
It was, however, a humiliation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which just spent at least $50 million from secret corporate donors to elect Republicans who will do its bidding. The South Korea deal is a priority for the Chamber. Here’s what Chamber senior vice president for international affairs Myron Brilliant told the New York Times after the South Korean negotiations broke down and Obama pledged to attempt to complete the deal over the following six weeks:
“This will be an early test for this president with the new Congress, particularly the House leadership.”
The “Brilliant” test is whether the president of the United States will comply with Chamber demands to complete trade deals that kill jobs and that Americans despise.
When Obama went to Seoul, Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue was there to, as he put it, help win the trade deal. He also was among 120 executives given exclusive access to international leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev in a conference before the G-20 meeting.
The international organizers didn’t invite to the trade talks or the conference the students, farmers, environmental groups, organized labor and untold millions of individuals who oppose the so-called free trade deals. The human beings who will be hurt most by the trade deals didn’t get a seat at the table. The corporate-people who stand to gain everything did.
Brilliant’s comments express the corporate sense of entitlement. They spent tens of millions to get what they wanted from politicians to increase profits. Now they expect it to be delivered. It’s their recompense, their corporate reward.
If fatter profits mean fewer American jobs and wider trade deficits, that’s simply not a problem for corporations. That’s among the perks corporations got when the Supreme Court awarded them the privileges of personhood in America but none of the pesky personal and patriotic responsibilities of actual people in American society.
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.
Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010
Texas Doctor To Collect Over 10 Million On Defamation/Breach of Contract Case
The Supreme Court of Texas cleared the way for Dr. Neal Fisher, a Dallas physician, to collect his 9.8 million dollar verdict against Pinnacle Anesthesia Consultants – an anesthesia group of which he was a shareholder and founding member.
Fisher sued Pinnacle for defamation and breach of contract when Pinnacle falsely accused him of alcohol and drug abuse after he raised concerns about an increasing volume of patient complaints and questionable billing practices. In 2007, a Dallas jury unanimously rendered a verdict in his favor. Last year the court of appeals upheld the verdict.
This month, the Supreme Court of Texas issued an order declining to hear the case which means that the verdict stands. With pre and post judgment interest, it is reported that Pinnacle will have to pay Dr. Fisher somewhere in the vicinity of $10.8 million dollars. Fisher has been recognized as one of the top five anesthesiologists in the state of Texas. For more about the case, read here.
EEOC Issues GINA Regulations
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued final regulations this month for purposes of implementation of the Genetic Information Non Discrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). Under GINA, it is illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants for employment because of genetic information. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
GINA was enacted, in large part, in recognition of developments in the field of genetics, the decoding of the human genome, and advances in the field of genomic medicine. Genetic tests now exist that can inform individuals whether they may be at risk for developing a specific disease or disorder. But just as the number of genetic tests increase, so do the concerns of the general public about whether they may be at risk of losing access to health coverage or employment if insurers or employers have their genetic information.
Congress enacted GINA to address these concerns….
The final GINA rules published by the EEOC on November 9, 2010 prohibits the use of genetic information or family medical history in any aspect of employment, restricts employers from requesting, requiring, or purchasing genetic information, and strictly limits employers from disclosing genetic information. Family medical history is covered under the Act since it is often used to determine whether someone has an increased risk of getting a disease, disorder, or condition in the future. The Act also prohibits harassment or retaliation because of an individual’s genetic information. For more about the new rules and how to lawfully comply with them read here.
Firing for Facebook Posts About Work May Be Illegal
A Connecticut woman who was fired after posting disparaging remarks about her boss on Facebook has prompted the National Labor Board to prosecute a complaint against her employer – and this is big news. As noted by Steven Greenhouse in the NY Times:
This is the first case in which the labor board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticism of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.
Dawnmarie Souza, an emergency medical technician was fired late last year after she criticized her boss on her personal Facebook page. The Harford, Connecticut office of the NLRB announced on October 27th that it plans to prosecute a complaint against her employer, American Medical Response of Connecticut as a result of its investigation.
The NLRB determined that the Facebook postings constituted “protected concerted activity” and that the employer’s internet policy was overly restrictive to the extent that it precluded employees from making disparaging remarks when discussing the company or its supervisors.
It is not unusual for companies to have comparable policies in place as they attempt to deal with lawful restriction of social networking by their workforce and that’s why this news made a huge impact in the employment law world this month.
Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) restricts employers’ attempts to interfere with employees’ efforts to work together to improve the terms or conditions of their workplace. The NLRB has long held that Section 7 was violated if an employer’s conduct would “reasonably tend to chill employees” in exercising their NLRB rights and that’s what prompted the complaint.
You can bet that both employers and employees will be keeping a careful watch for the decision which is expected some time after the hearing before an administrative law judge currently scheduled for January 15, 2011. For more about it, read here.
Supreme Court Hears Case Claiming Unconstitutional Gender Bias In Citizenship Law
The Supreme Court heard arguments in Flores-Villar v. U.S. this month, a case which challenges the constitutionality of a law that makes it easier for a child of unwanted parents to obtain citizenship if the mother is a U.S. citizen rather than the father.
Ruben Flores-Villar was born in Mexico but grew up in California. He was convicted of importing marijuana, was deported, and illegally reentered the country. In 2006, immigration authorities brought criminal charges against him. At that time, Flores-Villar sought citizenship, claiming his father was a U.S. citizen. The request was denied by immigration authorities because of a law requiring that a citizen father live in the United States for at least five years before a child is born in order for the child to obtain citizenship. Mothers need only to have lived in the county for one year for the child to obtain citizenship.
Flores-Villar claimed a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment claiming that the Act discriminated on the basis of gender. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found against him and held that the law’s disparate treatment of fathers was not unconstitutional. The last time the Court considered the issue of gender differences in citizenship qualification was the case of Nguyen v. INS in which the Court upheld a law creating a gender differential for determining parentage for purposes of citizenship. Flores-Villar’s attorney argued that Nguyen was distinguishable because it was based on biological differences whereas this case was based on antiquated notions of gender roles.
There is no doubt that this will be an interesting and important decision from the Supreme Court. For more about the case, including the Supreme Court filings, read here.
This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Post.
About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the leading employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.
Monday, November 22nd, 2010
A number of years ago I was running a small non-profit that I’d founded. We negotiated a big six-figure payday with a video production company to produce a four part video series. We also tossed in exclusive distribution rights to an award winning video we’d created.
Can you say windfall? We could.
Thinking that this was ongoing revenue for my organization, instead of a one-time bonanza, I went out and hired two new staffers.
Six months later, as the money was running out, I had to lay off the two staffers. Painful stuff that can still keep me awake at night.
At the time, a friend told me something he’d learned in his life guard training. If you were swimming back to shore with someone who couldn’t do it on their own, there is one cardinal rule. If you feel yourself being pulled beneath the waves, you need to let go of them. Because your primary job is to save yourself. Anything else is icing, not the cake.
Even though I’ve been speaking out against layoffs for a long time, I also realize that there are times where an organization needs to make tough calls for the good of everyone.
Given all the layoffs and turmoil in the economy, it never ceases to amaze me at how there are still people out there who believe that they are entitled to have their job. The float through their day partying like it’s 1999.
Organizations need to realize that if these sacred cows restricted their damage to their own lack of production, it would be difficult but not a back breaker for a company. But unfortunately these people often send the message out to everyone else that mediocrity is not only tolerated, it’s embraced.
Tough calls. It sounds tacky but addition by subtraction really does mean something in today’s workplace. Take a longer view and you might be surprised at how you look at your organization entirely differently.
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 email@example.com.
Friday, November 19th, 2010
The entrance is rather mundane. It has a dark red brick front with metal- framed, smoked-glass doors that lead me into its government offices. Such places are little talked about and, as direct providers of services to citizens, are funded even less. Now, I have arrived here at this place to turn another page of my life.
The hurt, pain, and embarrassment still sting like it happened yesterday. I step into the line to sign up for unemployment compensation. Although it’s been three weeks since I was called into the executive director’s office and given my separation papers, only now, with monthly bills due and no meaningful employment on the horizon, have I ventured into this place.
The line has not moved once, giving me ample time to review my surroundings. Every wall seems to be covered with full-color posters, pastel handbills, and stark black and white newspaper clippings. These signs are notices for cooks, clerks, dishwashers, and hotel staff. Other signs note retraining opportunities and the latest government regulations on what you must do and have for this dubious “benefit.” The drab gray cubicle partitions have frayed edges and dents in their metal corners. The lighting hangs from the ceiling from metal poles painted a cream color that does nothing to enhance the brightness in the room. It is a huge open space, filled with divided places and shattered lives, where no one gets the dignity of privacy to tell their story or learn if they even “qualify” for this benefit.
I fight the urge to walk out, ignoring the thought whispering in my mind that I can always come back tomorrow. Suddenly, the person in front of me speaks to the lady behind the counter: “My job didn’t last; I wasn’t fired…” She replies, “Use the phone system every two weeks to qualify…” The time starts to have a slow-motion feel to it. The smell of fear fills the air like stale cigarette smoke wafting up from the carpeting or long-discarded butts. This smell gets into your hair, clothes, and skin as you try to neutralize your awareness of the seriousness of your plight. But then the despair becomes apparent as you listen to the questions and reactions of those around you. It is in the faces of men and women who, like myself, have studied, worked, and lived sometimes hard lives for tens of years or more and now find themselves and their families subject to the whims of the market forces far beyond their daily lives.
I stare at the faces around me for answers. The dejection and pressure facing these unemployed people is palpable. The practiced indifference of the staff is a painful sight that you can read on any face of the personnel behind the counter. Day after day these state employees gamely try to placate and process hundreds or even thousands of honest, working Americans whom they can neither point to new, suitable employment (read as “make as much as the job you were laid off from”) nor offer appropriate compensation that will meet their families’ basic needs.
At a long desk I, along with five other applicants, struggle to complete the forms and answer questions to get the benefits. First, any part-time work is counted against the amount of unemployment money received. So, that extra job you were working nights to help make ends meet is now deducted from the 40% maximum of your previous full-time salary that you would have been eligible for as the rate of payment. Some men shake their heads in disbelief, knowing that they are already at the brink of financial meltdown.
Soon, a young woman comments about continuing to study to get her nursing assistant certification while she receives unemployment. “No,” the clerk quietly replies. “If you are attending school, then you are not available to work, and thus are not eligible for benefits.” The young woman gasps and says, “But I’m only six months from completing my courses. I have been working and going to school and…” “It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry,” the clerk says firmly. The clerk looks sincere, but the young woman is becoming increasingly distraught. A gray- bearded man who almost looks homeless leans across the table and in a low voice says, “Look, that’s a self-reporting item. If you are in between classes now, you can answer no to get at least some benefits.” She pulls herself together a little, and I am reminded how people often have to help each other get through this process, learning the ins and outs of the bureaucratic rules. The government is not always there to assist you. It often gives an image of aid, only to prescribe a method and a box to live in that many of us could never fit into.
Lastly, you are asked if any potential employer offered you work and did you refuse. Of course, if you had refused, your benefits would be terminated. This is true no matter how unsuited the work or pay is to your life.
After completing the forms, getting copies of my documents, a phone number, and procedure to follow, I stumble to the door. Numb and carrying an armful of legal forms and papers to document my job search, the walk back to the car is a lonely one. The terrible reality is that the means to provide for your family are precariously hanging in the balance of apathetic state employees and a government increasingly unconcerned with those left behind by corporate mergers, downsizing, and the movement of manufacturing plants to places ranging from Mexico to Malaysia.
All you want is a decent job to support your family. Now you have to deal with the global economy. I head for home or the local bar. And I never want to come to the unemployment office again….
This piece, the first of an ongoing biweekly series, originally appeared in the Journal of Ordinary Thought, published by NWA. Find more stories and voices at NWA’s blog.
About The Author:Kenneth Hagans is formerly the business manager at Hales Franciscan High School, a parochial all boys school on the South Side of Chicago. Hagans, who completed his undergraduate studies at the Illinois Institute for Technology, writes to balance his analytical world of numbers and give voice to his life’s experiences. Currently unemployed, Hagans is active in several community groups including A Just Harvest, formally known as The Good News Community Kitchen.
Thursday, November 18th, 2010
In June the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore’s trendy Inner Harbor shopping and entertainment district closed after workers were given just a week’s notice and state regulators were given only one day notice.
In a class-action lawsuit filed Monday naming ESPN Zone’s owner Disney, five workers allege this was a violation of the WARN Act, which requires at least 60 days notice—or 60 days severance pay—in the case of mass layoffs at companies with 100 or more employees. About 150 workers lost their jobs when the restaurant closed. About 50 workers and supporters protested Monday outside ESPN Zone, then marched to Baltimore District Court where the lawsuit was filed. (See photos by Bill Hughes here).
After the ESPN Zone closed June 16, workers were given a month’s pay on administrative leave and an additional severance based on length of service, which the company has said constitutes WARN Act compliance. But the workers’ attorneys and a grassroots labor group called United Workers says the total pay and severance is still less than what they would be due under the WARN Act. Severance was due under an agreement with Disney that should be separate from WARN Act compliance, they say.
The case has become a centerpiece of United Workers’ Economic Human Rights Zone campaign in the Inner Harbor, a novel strategy uniting workers at various restaurants and stores to demand that as the area has received substantial taxpayer subsidies, developers of the two major malls should be responsible for making sure workers are paid a state living wage and basic workers rights are respected. Monday’s march came on the second anniversary of the declaration of the Human Rights Zone, and eight years after United Workers’ founding out of a struggle on behalf of homeless vendors at the city stadium.
United Workers began targeting individual employers in the Inner Harbor, but decided it was a more pragmatic and meaningful campaign to target the development as a whole, and demand the two major companies—GGP and Cordish—that lease and sell space commit to making sure their tenants treat workers right.
In a playful post on the United Workers website, they describe the pervasive problems uncovered during an investigation by a pro-labor “Sherlock Holmes.”
Holmes discovered that the trail of worker human rights abuses did not stop with the ESPN Zone, but extends throughout the harbor. Hearing from workers from the Cheesecake Factory, Phillips, and Hooters, he uncovered what lies beneath the surface: poverty wages, stolen tips, sexual harrassment, lack of healthcare, and barriers to education. ‘Different vendors, but the same story? The Inner Harbor is a Poverty-zone! But who is in control?,’ thought Sherlock.
ESPN Zone workers discovered by word of mouth that, they say, managers didn’t intend to give them any notice of the closing at all, until word leaked out over social media websites. That, in fact, is how numerous workers first heard the news. “We would just come to work one day and all the doors would be shut and locked,” said Lenard Gray, 28, who’d worked there more than six years.
The closing was especially problematic since it came during the busiest summer months, when workers count on racking up long hours that – even at pay rates just barely above minimum wage – allow them to save money for leaner seasons. Workers reported becoming homeless, having to withdraw kids from programs and being evicted since the closing.
“We were stunned. It was like walking through a dream. We were just devastated,” said former cook Winston Gupton. He had worked there for more than seven years, and lost his housing after the closure.
The WARN Act – which received national attention during the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in Chicago two years ago – was meant to provide workers time to look for other jobs and state agencies time to offer retraining and social services. The acronym means Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification. Even when WARN Act notice is given, an outpouring of state services or retraining opportunities is a rarity. And the Act is regularly violated with few repercussions.
Enforcing it takes lawsuits like the one filed by ESPN Zone workers, which are costly and time-consuming for low-income workers who hardly have time to wait around for a judgment.
But as in the Republic Windows and Doors struggle, the ESPN Zone workers’ lawsuit serves not only to try to hold an employer accountable but also to raise the public profile of WARN Act violations in general and of the Economic Human Rights Zone campaign. Organizers say they will continue to investigate possible labor law violations and working conditions at various Inner Harbor outlets including the Cheesecake Factory, Phillips Seafood and Hooters. When United Workers initially surveyed restaurants trying to find the “worst of the worst,” Phillips’ name came up, they said.
Former ESPN Zone cook Debra Harris said in a statement:
We are sending a message to Disney, ESPN Zone and Inner Harbor developers that private gain should not take precedence over human life. Corporate executives think they can break the law and just get away with it, because harbor developers do not enforce any human rights standards, but we are human beings and we have the right to dignity and respect.
This post was originally published on Working In These Times.
About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
Many countries around the world, including the United States, depend on immigrant labor to boost economic development, but do not protect the rights of their immigrant workers. Trade union representatives at the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GMFD) meeting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, last week called on the world’s governments to respect and protect the rights of migrant workers.
In a statement, the global unions said governments must be vigilant in fighting against racism and xenophobia, which are on the rise in several countries. They also urged countries to ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on migrant workers, eliminate abusive guest worker programs and assure the rights of domestic workers.
Says Ambet Yuson, general secretary of the Geneva-based Building and Wood Workers International:
Migrant workers contribute to the economic and social development; however, they are consistently marginalized, exploited, and abused. It is the fundamental responsibility of all governments to protect the rights of migrant workers.
While each country has its own particular experiences with migration, several common themes emerged at the conference. For example, nearly all the union representatives told of efforts to defend domestic workers from human rights abuses. In June 2010, the ILO took a giant step forward in the struggle to create workplace justice for the millions of housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers around the world, by beginning the process to establish a first-ever international standard (“convention”) to protect the rights of domestic workers. If the convention is passed at the ILO’s meeting in 2011, it would require governments that ratify it to ensure domestic workers are covered by the fundamental rights and principles of the ILO, which include the freedom to form unions, elimination of forced labor, abolition of child labor and the elimination of discrimination.
Migrant workers face horrific treatment ranging from rape to torture, Ana Avendaño, assistant to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview with Frontera Norte Sur, a publication of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University.
The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions are working to protect migrant workers by helping them join unions and fighting for their rights under the law, Avendaño said. The AFL-CIO is actively supporting an international campaign to ratify the new convention on domestic workers.
“Domestic work is a particular kind of work, not just because it takes place in the household, but also because of its fundamental importance in the very fabric of society,” according to a statement by RESPECT, a European network of domestic worker groups and supporters.
Without provision for child care, care for the elderly, cooking and cleaning, society simply couldn’t function.
In the United States, New York State recently enacted a law that gives basic labor rights to domestic workers. Nationally, the AFL-CIO is supporting independent domestic worker efforts to form unions, Avendaño added, as well as a new initiative called the Excluded Workers Congress that brings together domestic workers, day laborers, taxi drivers, farmworkers, unemployable ex-felons, and other people at the margins of the economy.
To read the Global Unions’ statement click here.
This article originally appeared on 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 is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. 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