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Archive for January, 2011

AFL-CIO, Global Unions Applaud New Egyptian Labor Movement

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Image: James ParksRepresentatives of the Egyptian union movement announced they are forming a new labor federation, the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, which will represent workers in more than a dozen industries and  enterprises. The federation also plans to set a date for a nationwide general strike for democracy and fundamental rights. Many people believe the labor demonstrations in the past two years played a significant role in giving Egyptian citizens  courage to stand up to the government.

In a letter today to Egyptian union leaders Kamal Abbas and Kamal Abu Eita, recipients of  last year’s George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised the workers’ “extraordinary courage and defiance of a ban on free and independent unions.”

Yesterday we learned that your organizations joined with retirees, the technical health professionals and representatives of workers in the important industrial areas to announce the organization of a new labor federation to represent workers in a new era of democracy in Egypt. We salute you in this brave endeavor and join the international labor movement in standing with you.

The people’s movement for democracy in Egypt and the role unions are playing for freedom and worker rights inspires us and will not be forgotten.

Abbas is general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) and Eita heads  the Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (RETA), the first independent trade union in Egypt in more than 50 years. The Egyptian government has not formally recognized RETA, but has ignored its application for recognition.

The Egyptian government tried to silence the CTUWS, closing down two of its regional offices and its headquarters in 2007.  Bowing to an Egyptian court decision and international criticism, the government allowed CTUWS to reopen in July 2008.

RETA was formed after municipal tax collectors held an 11-day sit-in strike in front of the Ministry of Finance, gathered 30,000 signatures and elected local union committees in the provinces.

Read a statement from the CTUWS here about the situation in Egypt and workers’ demands.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) joined in congratulating the Egyptian unions and supporting the call for a general strike. In a statement, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said:

The union actions will increase pressure for genuine democratic change and respect for human rights. Just as in Tunisia, where the ITUC-affiliated UGTT has been at the forefront of the democracy movement, we salute the courage and determination of Egypt’s working people in standing up to an autocratic and illegitimate regime.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on Jan 31, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author, James Parks: My first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when my colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. I saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. I am a journalist by trade, and I worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. I also have been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. My proudest career moment, though, was when I served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

Do the New NLRB Rules Really Help Workers Organize?

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Mike ElkA series of rules have been proposed recently by the National Labor Relations Board that improve the rights of workers on the job. The rule changes by the NLRB have been hailed by organized labor as great triumphs that will promote the right to organize. But some question whether the regulations go far enough.

In December, the NLRB ruled that employers must start posting the rights of workers to join a union. This decision was met by many congratulatory press releases celebrating a great victory for unions. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hailed these rules saying:

Every working person in America deserves to know his or her rights. Just as employers are currently required to post information regarding the laws that protect workers’ health and safety, their rights to a minimum wage and to a workplace free from discrimination, this rule ensures that workers’ rights are effectively communicated in the workplace. It is necessary in the face of widespread misunderstanding about the law and many workers’ justified fear of exercising their rights under it.

In November, the NLRB ruled that expressing one’s negative opinion of a boss using social media such as Facebook or Twitter was free speech protected by the Constitution. This was hailed as a major victory for workers trying to organize because it gave broader protection to workers criticizing their companies. In October, the NLRB issued a decision saying that employers now must electronically inform workers through email of their union busting violations. Previously companies were forced to only post a notice on a bulletin board.

Each time these rulings are issued by the NLRB, they are lauded as signs of great progress by organized labor. However while the NLRB has expanded the rights of workers in theory, it still has not changed the penalties for illegal union busting. Requiring an employee to send out an e-mail as opposed to posting a paper notice or having to post the rights of a worker to join a union does not change an employer’s behavior of intimidation.

Employers still face no serious financial penalties or lose government contracts for illegally firing a worker. Nor has the NLRB shortened the election period to seven days—as many in labor hoped—in order to prevent the boss from running effective intimidation campaigns for months. So why do so many in organized labors celebrate these rulings with such great hope?

What these ruling represent is that the NLRB has shown the willingness to change the rules ever so slightly in order to protect the rights of workers. The NLRB has shown it has the power and willingness to do it. However, until the NLRB is willing to issue tough penalties and improve voting conditions for workers, these expanded workers’ rights will help workers little as they exercise their right to organize.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.

Union-Haters Want to Make Public Employees Public Enemies

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

bill-londrigan1Since the November elections attacks on public employees and their unions have exploded.  Everywhere you turn you read of attacks on public sector workers, from teachers to janitors, firefighters to administrators.  Wealthy right-wing corporations and their political pawns and media enablers have tried to make public employees into public enemies.

Even in union-dense states like California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Ohio, public employees and their unions are suddenly in the crosshairs of right-wingers hell-bent on starving state budgets along with public employees and their unions.  Attacks on public employees and their unions are nothing new.  For decades public employees have been scapegoats for right-wing government haters who have accused them of doing nothing while falsely claiming that they make considerably more money than their private sector counterparts.

To fully appreciate the significance of the present attack on public employee unions it must be considered in the context of the four decade war being waged by corporate America against the American labor movement.  Over the past forty-plus years corporations and their political pawns have systematically attacked unions in each economic sector having significant density as well as political and economic power.  In the late 1960s large corporations, working in concert, decided the time was right to wage a serious, well-organized and well-financed war on the American labor movement.  The era of cooperation, conciliation and collective bargaining of the 1940s, 1950s and part of the 1960s was tossed on the proverbial ash heap of history.

We can look back and see the carnage that the corporate war on workers and their unions has wrought: a decline in wages, benefits, unions and jobs–while corporations and the wealthiest one-percent have amassed the largest concentrations of wealth in history.

It may come as a surprise to many that the current assault on public employee unions has its roots in the late 1960s when a deliberate, well-organized and financed effort by 200 of America’s largest corporations to destroy the building trades unions got underway.  With the organization of the Construction Users’ Anti-Inflation Roundtable, chaired by U.S. Steel’s Roger Blough, the largest U.S. industrial corporations dependent upon the skilled union trades organized around the desire to have their projects built and maintained without having to pay union wages and benefits.  The “Roundtable” commissioned a series of studies designed to provide cover for their efforts to undermine the building trades unions and began giving unwarranted competitive advantages to nonunion contractors.

This original “Roundtable” later merged with another corporate backed anti-labor organization known as the Labor Law Study Committee to form the Business Roundtable.  Of the many schemes hatched by the Business Roundtable was the conspiracy to award billions of dollars of industrial construction work to the largest nonunion contractors in the nation.  To make this a reality they helped establish the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) as the counterpoint to the well organized labor/management committees among the union sector of the construction industry.  The ABC became the mechanism for challenging the supremacy of union construction in every market in the nation and one of the most vehemently anti-union organizations in the nation.

In May 1979, J.C. Turner, President of the International Union of Operating Engineers, made the following observations:

“It has become apparent that a systematic and well planned campaign is being conducted to totally destroy the building trades… the current attack is the result of a decade of planning and groundwork by the Business Roundtable acting in concert with regional and local construction user associations, the contractor associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pro-business academic institutions and their allies in government… Our real enemy is clearly these large industrial concerns, organized as the Business Roundtable, who are using the contractors and their associations as soldiers in the battle.  Their purpose is to put the lid on costs by pressuring their construction contractors to slash wages… The Business Roundtable represents a threat not just to the building trades unions but to the trade union movement as a whole… If corporate America can weaken the hard-won gains of this country’s construction unions, the ultimate target will be the entire trade union movement…”

Double-breasting, where union contractors establish so-called alter ego nonunion firms to compete with and undermine their own union companies became rampant. The federal government purposefully failed to enforce federal prevailing wage and workplace safety laws.   Legal restrictions, such as repeal of common situs picketing further restricted building trades’ efforts to maintain or expand market share and membership.

While the corporate assault on the building trades unions was in full swing, it gained a powerful ally when Ronald Reagan became President on January 20, 1981.  Following his election Reagan wasted no time and quickly met with the president of the ABC and signaled his strong support for the war on the building trades unions.

Reagan’s alliance with the Business Roundtable and the ABC was certainly not his only contribution to union busting.  On August 5, 1981, in the single most infamous act of anti-unionism in memory Reagan fired striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

PATCO was a good target for Reagan since PATCO was a “professional” organization and was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  Lacking critical relationships necessary for support and solidarity in times of crisis it was unlikely that the rest of the labor movement would rise up and defend this small, professional, independent organization that may have made a grave tactical error by calling a prohibited work stoppage.  PATCO had endorsed and supported Reagan in his campaign for president, adding to its outsider identity and alienation from the rest of the labor movement.

It is universally agreed that by firing and decertifying PATCO, Reagan signaled to employers that his administration would be complicit in the corporate war on workers and their unions.  Reagan’s actions were just the opposite of what FDR had accomplished for unions when he declared, “If I went to work in a factory the first thing I’d do is join a union.”  FDR, through his words, deeds and legislation did more to spur the growth of unions in America than any single political leader in history.  Reagan’s actions accomplished just the opposite and began an era of union busting in which high paid consultants used every legal and illegal trick in the books, with the assistance and cooperation of the Reagan NLRB and DOL, to harass unions and thwart organizing at every turn.

Reagan’s action ushered in an era in which the use of permanent striker replacements became the norm, effectively nullifying labor’s most powerful weapon – the strike.  In disputes where workers engaged in work stoppages to pressure employers into negotiating reasonable terms and conditions, employers emboldened and encouraged by Reagan’s treatment of PATCO, simply hired permanent striker replacements and eliminated the persuasive impact of work stoppages as a means of pressuring employers to bargain in good faith.

The extent to which the use of permanent replacements became the favored method to undermine the effect of strikes is borne out by the fact that strikes have become virtually non-existent and are no longer considered a very useful weapon.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2009 (the latest year available) the number of work stoppages reached it lowest level since 1947, when they first began collecting data on work stoppages.

With the building trades unions on the defensive, PATCO busted and the use of permanent striker replacements widespread, the next major assault on organized labor focused on industrial unions like the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, Machinists, IUE, etc.  It came in the form of so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA and provided employers with another mechanism to undermine unions by placing American workers directly in competition with much lower paid workers in other countries.  With unionized workers in industries like auto, steel and aerospace making the highest wages and benefits they became primary targets of employers wanting to lower labor costs and the most vulnerable to foreign outsourcing.

Under not-so-free-trade agreements corporations can simply close down factories and move them to Mexico, India, China or wherever.  Corporations pay little or no tariffs on the products they export back to the U.S.  On top of that they can get tax breaks for moving good-paying union jobs to foreign countries.  What a great deal!  Also, foreign corporations that agree to operate non-union factories in America, like large auto assembly plants, receive huge tax breaks, incentives and other competitive advantages over the unionized domestic producers and you get the same result–workers pitted against each other between unionized and non-union employers.

Not-so-free-trade-agreements, which facilitate the movement of factories to foreign countries, are an extension of the old “runaway shop” used by corporations for more than a century to run away from union shops in the heavy unionized industrial northeast and Midwest.  Prior to the not-so-free-trade agreement era corporations ran away to southern states where adherence to Jim Crow, right-to-work-for-less and other traditions kept unions from expanding and gaining political and economic power.

Not-so-free-trade can be thought of as the runaway shop on steroids and has become an effective and widespread tool for getting rid of American unions and cowing those that remain.  Corporations don’t really have to get their hands dirty either.  They really don’t have to hire high priced union busting attorneys.  They really don’t have to deal with the NLRB or DOL.  All they have to do is close the plant and move it to a foreign country where unions are weak, compliant or nonexistent and cooperative governments keep workers in line and union power to a minimum.  Not-so-free-trade agreements have wiped out millions of good-paying American manufacturing jobs–a disproportionate number of these union jobs.

Now it is the public sector unions that are in the crosshairs of anti-union politicians and their corporate bosses.  Given the history of anti-unionism in America over the past forty years it should come as no surprise they are now the target of large scale coordinated union busting.  Just as the building trades and industrial unions have been targeted for destruction, public employees are now facing a gauntlet of anti-unionism aimed squarely at them.  With more public sector employees belonging to unions than those in the private sector (7.9 million v. 7.4 million) and union membership rates for public sector workers substantially higher than the rate for private industry workers (37.4% v. 7.2%) it should come as no surprise that public sector unions are now the primary targets in the corporate war on workers and their unions.

The preceding condensed version of the last forty years of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions brings to mind one of the most moving and incisive quotations over the consequences of being divided against a common enemy.  It is from Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) referring to the rise of Nazi power in Germany and the complicity of those who failed to act to prevent the spread of the Nazi plague:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Using Pastor Niemoller’s words as a template and with profound respect, I would submit the following requiem for American workers for their complicity in or ignorance of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions:

Requiem for The American Worker First they attacked the building trades unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of the building trades;

Then they fired the air traffic controllers,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not an air traffic controller;

Then they shipped millions of union manufacturing jobs overseas,
and I did not speak out –
because I did not work in a union shop;

Then they vilified and attacked public sector unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of a public employee union;

Then I needed a union –
and there were none left to speak out for me.

*This post originally appeared in Union Review on January 26, 2010.

About the Author: Bill Londrigan is President of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.

Time to Wield the Foreign Policy Stick

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Leo GerardAmerica plays the role of abused partner in its relationship with China. Although the Asian giant repeatedly injures U.S. industry by violating international trade rules, America has responded, almost exclusively, by pleading and begging for China to stop.

China says it’s sorry. And continues to violate the rules. America respectfully beseeches China to discontinue manipulating its currency, and China says it will. Then it allows the value to increase a completely insignificant amount. Still America does nothing. Nothing. It simply accepts the abuse.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Michael Williams, senior vice president of U.S. Steel stood with me Wednesday at a press conference in Pittsburgh to urge President Obama in his meetings this week with Chinese President Hu Jintao to announce that America is done with soft talk. We want President Obama to tell President Hu that America has heard enough promises; the United States is bucking up and pulling out that big stick that Teddy Roosevelt carried in foreign policy negotiations.

This is a rare issue on which politicians, Republican and Democrat, manufacturers and organized labor all agree. Here’s what Sen. Casey said at the press conference, “In my estimation, and that of a lot of Americans, the time for talking is over. The time for action is now.” He, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., plan to introduce legislation next week to force the federal government to hold China accountable, to enforce compliance with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules – rules that China agreed to comply with when WTO countries permitted it to join even though it is a non-market economy.

Mr. Williams described the effect of China’s unchallenged trade practices on American steel production:

“Our facilities in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States are among the most advanced in the world:

  • We make the highest quality steel for the most demanding applications;
  • Our technology is world competitive; and
  • Our workers are second to none in skill and know-how.

However, the more than 21,000 U.S. Steel employees nationwide, and the more than 4,700 employees here in Pennsylvania, know all too well that we do not always operate in a fair global marketplace. Instead, we are often faced with the reality of a distorted market – a market where we have to compete against job-stealing dumped and subsidized imports from countries that abuse the rules to gain a false competitive advantage.

No country more than China hurts all American manufacturing by the way it artificially undervalues its currency – making its exports artificially cheap and making competitive imports from the U.S. and elsewhere artificially expensive.”

Here are the facts: American industries have found that they can produce products, ship them to China and price them lower than Chinese competitors. But all too often, China prohibits sale of the American-made products on the mainland.

Sen. Casey gave an example, C.F. Martin & Co., which manufacturers its world-famous guitars in Eastern Pennsylvania. Martin tried to register its mark to sell its instruments in China. But it has been unable to do that because a Chinese manufacturer already registered the mark and is counterfeiting the guitars. “To say it is unlawful does not begin to describe the gravity of it,” the senator said.

In addition to countenancing counterfeiting, China provides illegal subsidies to its export industries, violates international regulations forbidding forced technology transfer when American companies seek to manufacture in China and deliberately undervalues its currency to falsely lower the price of its exports.

When Mr. Williams, Sen. Casey and I all said this must be stopped with enforcement of international regulations, someone in the audience asked if that would prompt a dreaded trade war. That won’t happen because we already are in a trade war. The United States simply is not fighting back. We are playing the passive partner in a perverted relationship, repeatedly allowing the abuser to pound us.

Mr. Williams said it best:

“U.S. Steel wants a strong America. To have a strong America, we need a strong manufacturing base. To have a strong manufacturing base, we need strong enforcement of international trade regulations.”

Sen. Casey agreed, “Our government must take every step necessary. It is not enough to say to the unemployed, ‘We are trying and we are asking.’”

Wield the stick, President Obama.

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.

Too Much Money Can Make the Boss Mean

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Image: James ParksHere’s another reason to do away with runaway CEO pay.  A study shows bloated CEO pay can make the boss mean.

The study examined the corporate behavior of 261 companies and found a close correlation between pay inequality and poor treatment of workers. In companies where CEOs made much more than their average workers, the companies were more likely to underfund pensions or cut corners on health and safety. Often, according to the study, the bosses engaged in a cost-benefit analysis, calculating that a fine would be a cost of doing business, compared with the profits they could make.

“You end up basically thinking of those at the bottom as numbers,’’ Sreedhari Desai, a Harvard research fellow who co-authored the study, told The Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss. “You feel somehow that they aren’t even worthy of the normal people that you’d meet. They’re disposable.’’

Writing about the study last summer for the Campaign for America’s Future, Sam Pizzigati sums it up this way:

The…data and the lab games, in the end, would both generate findings that point to the same conclusion. Wide pay gaps between executives and workers…enhance the sense of power executives feel and cause them to “objectify lower level employees.”

Or, to put the matter more plainly, “executives with higher income treat employees more meanly.”

Click here to read the study, “When Executives Rake in Millions: Meanness in Organizations.”

This article was originally published 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.

Getting Back at the Man

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Image: Bob RosnerThis blog will undoubtedly make many of you ask one question, how good is my mental health benefit with my HMO?

I realized I was really happy today, because the Super Bowl will feature Green Bay and Pittsburgh. Or to be more factually correct, because it will not feature New York and Chicago.

But it didn’t stop there. I realized that in terms of all sports, I now mostly cheer for the smallest media market to triumph.

Not the underdog. Now that would be too American. I root for the smallest two cities, whether they’re favored or not.

San Francisco and Texas, yippee!

Boston & Los Angeles, well because I reside in Seattle, the NBA is dead to me. So I sat that particular series out.

Remember, I began this blog by questioning my own mental health.

But I wonder if there are at least a few other people out there who revel in the natural order of all things sporting gets messed with. In a world where the same people who argued that continuing unemployment insurance was going to add to the deficit, suddenly had no problems cutting taxes for billionaires.

In that world it’s odd how much fun it can be when the billionaires get stuck with a team in the big game that’s named after the Indian Packing Company, which provided the field where they practiced early in the last century.

I wasn’t always this cynical. There was a time when I didn’t live to see a billionaire stumble. But after watching Lehman Brothers, WAMU and AIG executives walk away with no accountability for their crimes, and able to keep all their ill gotten gains, well my cynicism level has dramatically increased.

Is it only me? Or do you find yourself enjoying another Chapter 11 filing by Donald Trump just a little too much. Or when a really rich person spends $120 million to run for office and gets beaten by a really old guy who used to date Linda Ronstadt.

Really I’m not trying to be too cynical here. But to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, it seems like these days no matter how cynical you are, it just never seems like enough.

And for all those disappointed fans in Chicago and New York, remember the great observation by Jerry Seinfield. They may seem like your team, but mostly you’re cheering for laundry. Especially with the lockout looming, most players really don’t feel as strongly as you do about the team you just painted your face for.

Will I be watching the Super Bowl? You bet, but mostly for the ads.  

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@work[email protected]

Why We Need A Jobs Summit

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Isaih J. PooleTo break the inside-the-Beltway consensus that a robust, government-led effort to lower the unemployment rate this year should not be on the table for legislative debate, the Campaign for America’s Future this week announced that it is convening a “Summit on Jobs and America’s Future” on March 10 in Washington.

This summit is based on the proposition that it is both economically and politically insane for there not be an alternative to the conservative agenda, misnamed “cut and grow,” which would have the federal government fold its arms and back away as the job market continues to stagnate. Absent a bold, galvanizing jobs plan from either the White House or the Democratic leaders in Congress, it is up to the progressive movement itself to raise up such a plan and use it to change the limits of the unemployment debate.

The jobs summit is intended to be a place where progressive members of Congress, together with activists and the movement’s best thinkers, can forge the elements of political movement for sustainable economic growth, dynamic job creation, and a revival of the American economy. (To register for the day-long conference, which is free, click here.)

President Obama actually helped set the framework for this in his State of the Union address. His call for a “winning the future” agenda that would include bolstering education, repairing and expanding our transportation networks, supporting universal availability of high-speed broadband and boosting research and development efforts can, done correctly, move us toward a new, greener and more sustainable economy of broadly shared prosperity.

In contrast, conservatives are doubling down on their blind faith, discredited by the slow decline of the middle class during the past decade and the climactic crash of the economy in 2007 and 2008, that cutting taxes and regulations alone will create an overflowing fountain of jobs from the private sector. Add to this the deficit mania that is fueling Republican plans to go beyond President Obama’s unprecedented pledge of a five-year freeze on federal spending to call for cuts of as much as $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending.

Of course, the conservative agenda is couched as being faithful to the message voters sent in the 2010 elections: focus on jobs and take actions that will reduce the federal deficit. But these cuts would truly be job-killing, not job-creating. On the chopping block would be a variety of aid programs that help fund state and local governments, which would force the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of public workers. More layoffs in private and nonprofit agencies would result from cuts in a broad swath of other services. Right-wing rejection of plans to build high-speed rail and bolster the rest of our transportation network has already killed thousands of jobs in the New York City area, and hundreds of thousands more jobs will be stillborn if the rejection is allowed to prevail.

The budget plans currently being embraced by congressional Republicans will deprive the nation of the basic building blocks the private sector needs to fuel long-term job growth: an educated workforce, a transportation network that moves people and goods effectively, a universally accessible Internet that is a platform for innovation and efficiency, research that can lead to the creation of the industries of tomorrow.

These policies are guaranteed to prevail, with disastrous consequences to our short-term and long-term economic future, if the only choices on the table are conservative and a “conservative lite” that accepts the basic premise that working-class Americans have to accept an era of austerity that includes unemployment above 8 percent for years into the future (while increasing shares of wealth continue to flow to the top) but is willing to offer an aspirin to dull the pain.

One way progressives must counter this is with an economic program that spends federal dollars today to put people to work today on the jobs that must be done today. That is a program that we should rally behind regardless of whether the political establishment deems it practical. The truth is, it is the right thing to do. It makes no sense that while we have close to 15 million people unemployed—6.4 million out of work for more than six months—we’re not funding jobs that would support the needs of thousands of communities. That would be especially true in the eight states—California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and South Carolina—where unemployment last month exceeded 10 percent.

Progressives must also frame a long-term jobs agenda that adds meaningful substance to President Obama’s vision of “winning the future” through investment in education, research and infrastructure. The president’s past speeches have made the case that we cannot afford to drift into a re-creation of the old economy, with its cycles of bubbles and bursts, its stagnant middle-class income growth and its decaying public assets. And yet, yielding to the austerity crowd threatens to lead us down that very road. The result will be a nonexistent recovery for a broad swath of American workers and no progress on addressing the federal deficit. We can, and must, make the case that public investment in the essentials of economic growth now is the only way we can make progress toward bringing our budget deficit down to a sustainable level.

Getting this message into the center of the political discussion will require taking a page from the Tea Party playbook. On the right, a group of renegades embraced a platform based on a narrative that blamed the nation’s economic woes on the size of government—and mobilized voters in ways that shook the Republican political apparatus. If the Tea Party can do that with a fundamentally flawed analysis of our economic ills and the role of government, imagine what progressives can do with a sound analysis of where America is, where America must be and policies that can get us there that will revive hope and confidence in the future.

This article was originally published by OurFuture.org.

About The Author: Isaiah J. Poole has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007 and also directs the Campaign for America’s Future’s online communications. Previously he had worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

The Truth About Public Employees, the New Convenient Scapegoats

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

kari-lydersenIt’s become a common refrain: public employees from teachers to parking meter attendants to firefighters to nurses are bleeding state and local budgets dry with exorbitant wages and pensions.

As recent news reports and communiqués by conservatives have pointed out, a portion of public sector employees do earn what many middle- and working-class Americans would consider very generous wages and benefits. USA Today reported that on average, public workers earn $11.90 more per hour than comparable private sector workers.

But such numbers constitute misleading propaganda, according to labor analysts and proponents and several recent studies, including an April report by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS). “At its heart,” Amy Traub wrote in the The Nation in July, scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests.”

The NIRS study noted that when education and work experience are considered, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers; and their compensation is still lower when their benefits plans are figured in (6.8 percent lower for state workers and 7.4 percent lower for local workers).

The study notes that while public employees may appear to earn more than their private sector cohorts (for example in Michigan), when their education is considered they are actually earning less than they theoretically could on the private market. The study found 23 percent of local and state workers have college degrees, compared to only 16 percent of all federal workers.

The average state worker appears to earn more only because the state hires more of those in the highly educated categories that tend to earn more, not because workers with the same education earn more in the public sector.

When public employees do earn high wages and receive great benefits, rather than engendering resentment and jealousy, labor proponents say, these should be held up as examples of the security and quality of life that all working people should enjoy, whether in the public or private sector.

Although a small percentage of public sector salaries may be relatively high, they are doubtless still only a drop in the bucket compared to federal spending on defense, state tax breaks to corporations and the like.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently opined:

Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers…It’s far more convenient to go after people who are doing the public’s work – sanitation workers, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, social workers, federal employees – to call them “faceless bureaucrats” and portray them as hooligans who are making off with your money and crippling federal and state budgets.

The story fits better with the Republican’s Big Lie that our problems are due to a government that’s too big.

Public employees do periodically make headlines for gaming the system – collecting two pensions simultaneously, collecting a pension while still working a public job, or getting a “promotion” immediately before retirement to boost their pension, for example.

But Reich notes that such pension exploitation is a relative rarity, and most public employees are lucky to collect modest pensions that don’t even cost much to taxpayers. An average government worker who retires with a salary of $45,000 will collect a $19,000-a-year pension, he says—“few would call that overly generous.”

While they’re working, most public employees contribute a portion of their salaries into their pension plans. Taxpayers are directly responsible for only about 14 percent of public retirement benefits. Remember also that many public workers aren’t covered by Social Security, so the government isn’t contributing 6.25 [percent] of their pay into the Social Security fund as private employers would.

CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, describes the reality for California public employee pensions, on a “myth busting” website addressing common misconceptions—including the idea that “public pension benefits are excessive and a drain on the public.”

The average CalPERS pension is about $25,000 per year. Half of CalPERS retirees receive $16,000 per year or less in benefits. Unlike the private sector, many CalPERS members do not receive Social Security, making their CalPERS pension their sole source of pension income, other than savings.

The site also says that: “California public retirees put back $2 into the economy for every $1 they receive in pensions.”

Many Republicans argue that even granting collective bargaining rights to public sector employees is a recipe for financial disaster and endangers the public. Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona are among the states that don’t allow collective bargaining for government employees. Labor advocates argue there’s no reason a right enshrined in labor law and guaranteed to private sector workers should be denied to dedicated public employees. If the right to strike endangers public welfare in any way – for example among firefighters or police officers – they can still be allowed collective bargaining rights with some of the same strike-related caveats that affect workers in private industries from transportation to healthcare.

The NIRS “Out of Balance” study concludes:

Although the current recession calls for equal sacrifice, the long-term pattern indicates that state and local workers are not, on average, overcompensated. If the goal is to compensate state and local sector employees in a manner comparable to those in the private sector, the data do not call for reductions in state and local wages. If anything, they call for increases.

An organization called Brave New Foundation has collected stories of public employees facing layoffs and wage freezes, describing the effect on their own lives and on citizens who need their services. A blogger on the site NewsHound reported:

It absolutely infuriates me the way the right wing is trying to demonize – in an effort to cut back benefits of public workers at the same time that they demand a giant windfall from the public by way of tax cuts for the wealthy.

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.

Employee Rights Short Takes: Scalia's Impartiality Questioned, Two Punitive Damage Awards, Disability Discrimination And More

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Here are a few employee rights Short Takes worth noting:

Scalia Says Due Process Clause Does Not Prohibit Sex Discrimination

For those who may have missed it, Justice Antonin Scalia recently expressed his view that neither women nor gays are protected against discrimination under the 14th amendment of the Constitution. The statement was made in an interview this month published in the California Lawyer.

While it’s newsworthy because of the shock value alone, Scalia has expressed this view before. All one has to do is read the 1996 decision of  United States v. Virginia, in which Scalia was the only justice to dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision to end the Virginia Military Institute’s 157 year old state supported practice of only accepting male students.

Not surprisingly, Scalia’s recent remarks angered liberals and was criticized by many legal scholars. Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-President of the Women’s Law Center, as reported in the Huffington Post, called  Scalia’s comments “shocking in light of the decades of precedents and the numbers of justices who have agreed that there is protection in the 14th Amendment against sex discrimination, and struck down many, many laws in many, many areas on the basis of that protection.”

Scalia’s comments stem from his view that the 14th amendment , when written, was not intended to ban sex discrimination. As to Scalia’s originalist view, Eric Segall, a professor at Georgia State College of Law, had this to say in his letter to the editor published in the New York Times:

On issues of affirmative action, gender rights, gun control and campaign finance reform, among most other controversial constitutional law questions, Justice Scalia does not truly use an originalist methodology. Much more of his judicial style can be gleaned from looking at the Republican Party Platform than at the drafters of either the original Constitution or the 14th amendment.

For Justice Scalia, it is about results, not process, no matter how much he protests otherwise.

In the same vein, Scalia also also made news with the announcement of his role as a featured speaker at  Michele Bachmann’s tea party / “Constitutional Conservative Caucus” later this month. For more about questions raised regarding Justice Scalia’s impartiality, read Nan Aaron here.

EEOC Settles Disability Discrimination Case For 3.2 Million

Jewel –Osco’s parent company Supervalu  Inc. has agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle a federal lawsuit claiming that the company discriminated against its disabled employees.

The suit, filed by the EEOC, alleged that Jewel-Osco fired employees with disabilities at the end of their leaves rather than bringing them back to work with reasonable accommodations.

According to the EEOC, roughly 1000 employees at Jewel-Osco stores were fired under this policy. One employee who will benefit from the settlement is Rosemary Bednarek who is representative of the class.

Bednarek injured her back lifting boxes of chicken at a Jewel-Osco store in 2004. When she was able to return to work, her doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds but the company would not accommodate the restriction. Bednarek re-injured her back and was fired a year later.

This is a great settlement that will not only benefit the plaintiffs in the case, but also serve to remind employers of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate employees with disabilities — including those who are injured on the job.

Two New Decisions On Punitive Damages

We do not often see employment law decisions in which punitive damages are addressed, so to see two in the last few weeks is worth talking about.

Generally speaking, punitive damages are available in some cases in which the defendant engaged in a deliberate or reckless disregard of the rights of others.

The jury, in determining the amount of the punitive damage award, is permitted to consider a number of factors, including a sum of money that would discourage the defendant from engaging in the conduct in the future as well as the income and assets of the defendant. Some large punitive damage awards are challenged on grounds that they violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the cases:

Hamlin v Hampton Lumbar Mills, Inc.:  Plaintiff Ken Hamlin was injured while working at the Hampton Lumbar Mills. When he was released to return to work, the defendant falsely asserting that he was a “safety risk” and refused to to reinstate him as required by Oregon law.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded lost wages of $6000 and punitive damages in the amount of $175, 000. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the punitive damage award was “grossly excessive” under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and reduced it to a sum equivalent to four times the amount of the compensatory damages.

In an instructive review of the case law on punitive damages, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed holding that a punitive damage award may exceed a single digit multiplier of a compensatory damage award without violating due process or being “grossly excessive.”

The case is an excellent reference point for anyone briefing an argument for punitive damages in an employment case.

Claus v. Intrigue Hotel, LLC:  In this age discrimination case, the jury awarded $50,000 in actual damages and $150,000 in punitive damages in a bifurcated trial. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in a decision issued late last month.

In brief, Glenda Claus worked for Intrigue Hotels (including its predecessor) since 1984. Her last position was housekeeping supervisor. In 2007, Claus was fired and replaced by a 31 year old employee.

Claus, 63 at the time, testified that she was completely blindsided by the news of her termination. With a record of positive job performance evaluations, a failure to admonish Claus regarding job deficiencies, and replacement with a 31 year old employee with performance issues, the Court of Appeals held that the jury could have rejected Intrigue’s after the fact rationale that Claus was fired for poor performance.

In addition, there was evidence that her new supervisor (Galaviz ) stated he wanted employees who would be at the hotel for the “long haul” and that Claus was “resistant to change.” The Court held that the jury could have reasonably taken these statements to mean that Galaviz did not want older employees and that Claus’s age was a factor in her firing.

The evidence also showed that Galaviz had been engaged as a human resources consultant and had an extensive knowledge of employment law at the time he made these comments and fired Galaviz.

Worth noting is the Court’s statement that the same evidence which supported Claus’s substantive claim for age discrimination also supported her claim for punitive damages  As the Court pointed out,  both Copidas (the owner of the hotel) and Galaviz:

  • knew it was against the law to fire an employee because of age
  • fired a 63 year old employee with a spotless record
  • replaced her with a 31 year old with documented performance problems
  • promoted several younger employees with performance issues
  • altered its rationale for firing Claus several times and created pretextual reasons for firing her

In sum, the Court concluded that the jury’s award of punitive damages was supported by the evidence. The case was remanded to the trial court for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs — a great victory for Claus and her lawyer.

This case is a good example of the kind of evidence which supports a claim for age discrimination as well as a claim for punitive damages. As stated above, since we don’t often see decisions affirming a punitive damage award, these cases are worth noting.

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.

When I’m 84 (Dedicated to Joe Paterno & Hugh Hefner)

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Image: Bob Rosner

When I get older losing my hair,
Many losses from now,
Will you still be sending Joe PA a valentine,
Bowl bids and high school stars divine.

If Hef’s been out for dinner at quarter to three (pm),
Would you lock the mansion’s door?
Will you marry a guy who’s 60 years your senior,
When he’s 84?

We’re all older too
And most don’t marry or coach,
If we could only stay with both of you.

You can still be handy selling a recruit
To get them in a Nittany Lion’s suit.
Getting married, sure is against the tide,
As Hef tries not to get taken for a ride.

While we’re doing the garden digging the weeds,
Unemployment leaves us asking for more.
How can we feel old, when we look at you,
When you’re 84

Every bummer in our job search.
Jobs that don’t seem right, and drain us dear.
We shall scrimp and save.
Grandchildren at the alter & on the field.
Joe and Hef.

We can all learn from you, to bolster our line
And change our aging point of view
Learning that at 84 we can continue to play
No longer just wasting away.

Joe and Hugh have given us the answer
Ours forever more.
We are still in need, we don’t need to bleed,
When we’re all 84.

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 protected]

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