Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for August, 2011

Hershey Strikers Say Solidarity is the Best Cultural Exchange

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

mike elkSinging the Italian solidarity song “Bella Chao” in a variety of different languages, approximately 30 cultural exchange guest workers rallied last Friday at SEIU’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the end of exploitation of guest workers in the United States.

“These students came to this country to get a cultural exchange, Hershey didn’t give it to them so now we are giving them a true cultural exchange in solidarity,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, whose union helped organize solidarity with guest workers when they decided to go out on strike to protest unfair working conditions.

Two weeks ago, 300 students walked out of a Hershey warehouse run by subcontractor Exel. The guest workers were students who signed up to work in the United States on a four month cultural exchange visa. Students pay fees and travel ranging from $3,000-$6,000 to work on a temporary contract and then travel freely in the United States.

The guest workers were supposed to be paid $7.85-$8.35 an hour. The workers, however, were forced to live in company housing and were charged $395 a month for rent – nearly twice the rate of rent for Americans living in similar housing in rural central Pennsylvania, according to the National Guestworker Alliance spokesman Stephen Boykewic. After deducting rent and other fees from their paychecks, guest workers took home between $40-$140 a week. The jobs they were originally filling were union jobs paying $18 an hour before Hershey subcontracted the warehouse jobs out to Exel, who hired the student guest workers.

Guest workers had initially staged a three day strike, with about 300 of the 400 guest workers in the warehouse participating. The guest workers are demanding a return of the $3,000-$6,000 each student paid for the cultural exchange program to work at Hershey, that Hershey end its exploitation of J-1 student cultural exchange workers, and that the 400 jobs the guest workers filled instead be given to local workers paid a living wage. According to the National Guest Worker Alliance, Hershey has yet to make a direct response to the students demand. Instead, Hershey opted to merely give guest workers a week’s paid vacation in order to comfort those who were upset by the exploitation.

After three days of most of the workers being out on strike, the majority have returned to work. 30 guest workers have refused to return to work and touring the country to speak at union halls, churches and college campuses about the growing problem of guest worker exploitation. On Monday, students delivered a petition to Hershey’s trust board chairman LeRoy Zimmerman signed by 63,000 people calling on Hershey to meet the guest workers’ demands for an end to the exploitation of the guest workers program and to provide good jobs for local workers.

Now, 30 students are embarking on a tour of the nation, organized by the National Guest Worker Alliance, that will help draw attention to a growing problem of the exploitation of guest workers in the United States. Increasingly, companies in the United States are using guest workers for jobs that could easily be filled by American workers at a time of record unemployment. The National Guestworker Alliance was formed as a project of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice after thousands of guest workers were brought to the Gulf Coast for clean-up operations.

“It was outrageous. We had guest workers working at hotels when there was record unemployment and at the same time we had guest workers being held in conditions of essentially forced labor,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “So we saw how these two problems were connected and we started the National Guestworker Alliance as result of the organizing we were doing of guest workers in the Gulf Coast.”

The use of guest workers is increasingly becoming a big problem in the United States, as these workers can easily be exploited to work for less than minimum wage through a variety of tricks and traps (made possible by poor oversight of guest worker programs) as Hershey did to its guest workers. Currently, according to Economic Policy Institute immigration analyst Daniel Costa, approximately one and half million people come to the United States every year to work under a variety of guest worker programs. Increasingly companies are turning to J-1 cultural exchange work programs to use workers, since it is not considered a guest worker program but a cultural exchange program and is regulated by the State Department. The State Department only has 13 compliance officers to monitor a program in which 353,603 guest workers participate.

Hershey may have picked the wrong visa category of students to exploit in the J-1 visa cultural exchange guest worker program. While many of the student guest workers do indeed come from third world countries, they are typically college students from middle and upper class backgrounds. They of course were shocked to find themselves working in sweatshop warehouse conditions for little pay. Now, the Hershey guest workers are starting to do something about it. In the J-1 visa program alone, 30 of the Hershey guest workers have vowed to tour the country, spreading awareness of these abuses.

“I never imagined when I came to the United States that I would go to some labor meeting and get involved in the labor movement, but Hershey forced us to become part of the labor movement,” said Godwin Efobi, from Nigeria, who is studying medicine in Odessa, Ukraine. “The solidarity and support from Americans has truly been incredible. In a roundabout way this is the best cultural exchange we could have had.”

Appeared originally in Working In These Times on August 30, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times contributing editor, has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers union, the Campaign for America’s Future and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, NPR, Democracy Now! and MSNBC. His work has also appeared at Alternet and in The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.

Bloomberg Did Not Discriminate Against Women by Treating New Mothers the Same as Other Leave-Takers

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Piper HoffmanArticle first published as Judge: Bloomberg Did Not Discriminate Against Women on Blogcritics.

The judge who ruled that Bloomberg LP did not illegally discriminate against women for taking pregnancy leave raised an important policy question in her written opinion. Judge Preska did not drop “an anvil…on the work-life balance scale,” despite commentators’ efforts to portray her decision as a calculated blow against work-life balance; in deciding in Bloomberg’s favor, all she did was follow the existing law. In her commentary, however, she questioned the wisdom of the law itself, and noted that one alternative might be for employers to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.” Judge Preska did not say whether she thinks that would be a good idea. It is a dreadful idea.

The judge’s legal reasoning in the Bloomberg ruling is by the book. The federal law bans pregnancy discrimination as a form of gender discrimination, as it should – only women get pregnant. The law does not require employers to treat pregnant women better than other employees, just not to treat them worse. Based on the evidence Judge Preska summarized in her decision, Bloomberg LP did not treat women who took pregnancy leave worse than other leave-takers; to the contrary, if that evidence is to be believed (in an earlier ruling Judge Preska threw out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s expert witnesses, leaving the evidence lopsided in Bloomberg’s favor), women returning from maternity leave may have fared slightly better in terms of compensation than employees returning from other kinds of leave.

The evidence also showed that taking leave for any reason is not a wise career move at Bloomberg. The company policy is, in essence, that employees must put Bloomberg LP ahead of God, country, family, and whatever else figures in their particular pursuits of happiness. Bloomberg scoffs at work-life balance, and while that might be poor business judgment or even reprehensible, Judge Preska was correct that it is not against the law.

Judge Preska makes it clear that the law, whether she likes it or not, grants employers the right to ignore and even discourage workers’ lives outside of work. She quotes former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s grim assessment that there is “no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

The judge writes that “it is not the Court’s role to engage in policy debates or choose the outcome it thinks is best. It is to apply the law.” Judge Preska goes on to discuss all the things that courts do not have the power to police. She includes in that list what she calls “work-family tradeoffs” – she does not believe one can have it all. But maybe one can have more than Bloomberg gives: the judge observes that it “may be desirable” and “may make business sense” for companies to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.”

I disagree. Treating pregnant women and mothers more leniently than other employees is not desirable. The view that pregnant women and mothers deserve special treatment may appear feminist, but it actually serves the interests of those who want women pregnant and at home while daddy wins the bread. The law already bars employers from discriminating against women because of pregnancy and related medical conditions, so this policy question is not about whether women’s biology holds them back in the workplace. It is about whether some mothers’ choices to spend more time away from work than fathers and non-parents do should be underwritten by the government and employers.

“Treat[ing] pregnant women and mothers better…than others” would be an insult and a disservice to several groups of “others.” First, fathers: why should employers treat mothers better than fathers? To ensure that women take more time off work and that men don’t? To reinforce sexist stereotypes that, compared to men, women are better at/prefer/should be raising children? Those stereotypes don’t need much reinforcement: studies have shown that men who take paternity leave are later penalized in terms of compensation and promotion compared to men who leave all the child-rearing to women. The attitudes behind those penalties are the same attitudes that support treating mothers better than other employees.

The second group of slighted “others” is the ill and disabled: why should pregnant women and new mothers be treated better than employees who take leave that is necessary for different medical reasons? Pregnant women at least chose to suffer their medical condition, unlike people who have to take leave for, say, a kidney transplant, or to care for a dying parent. Pregnant women and new mothers should not be treated worse than others with medical conditions, and they should not be treated better.

Third, non-mothers: treating female employees who choose to bear children better than those who do not (and in some cases cannot) devalues the lives of women without kids. Requiring employers to treat mothers better in the workplace than women who are not mothers would divert both public and private resources to subsidize the individual lifestyles of people who choose to have children. People do not have children for the greater good or out of a sense of civic duty – they have children because they want to. It makes no sense to force employers to grant preferential treatment to women who choose to spend their time and resources having children over women who choose to spend their time and resources doing something else. It is not up to employers to value any of these private, non-employment-related choices over the others.

Judge Preska put a point on this policy debate by referring to “work-family tradeoffs” rather than “work-life tradeoffs.” But these are not the same thing. Family is not a substitute for life; family is a part of life, but there is more. For most people blessed with the resources to choose how to spend their time, life includes friends, the arts, physical activity, spirituality, or any of many other interests. The judge’s phrase, “work-family tradeoffs,” frames the issue as a question of trading family time for work time, implying that family is the only thing that could possibly merit time off of work. In the context of a gender discrimination case like this one, this framing is not only reductionist, it is frightening in its confinement of female employees to only two spheres: family and making a living.

Judge Preska merely outlines the policy choice of favoring mothers over other employees. She does not claim it as her own. But it is not a straw man: it is at the heart of many “work-life balance” criticisms of the judge’s ruling. Critics are not satisfied with the law’s requirement that employers treat women who take medical leave related to pregnancy the same as other employees who take leave for other reasons. They want pregnancy and motherhood to be privileged.

I am not on Bloomberg’s side. Expecting employees to put work above all else is a recipe for misery for all but workaholics, and an ugly manifestation of corporate greed. But putting children above all else is not the answer for everyone either.
Judges lack the power to force employers to facilitate humane work schedules, and in a free market with more workers than jobs, employees lack the leverage to reach company- or industry-wide bargains for a better balance. At least for now, people who choose to have children will have to make trade-offs to pursue their dreams the same way that people without children do. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Judge Preska’s ruling, pregnancy and related medical conditions are not a part of that trade-off – they should have no different effect than any other medical condition.

If other “work-family” trade-offs continue to fall more heavily on mothers than fathers, they will have a discriminatory effect. The most immediate and attainable palliative is for fathers to step up and mothers to step back. As more fathers take more parental leave the stereotype of women as children’s natural caretakers will begin to erode, and if women take less leave, the stereotype that women are not as committed to their work as men are may begin to erode too. Parents who can afford for mom to take non-medical time off with the kids should not wait for the courts or the legislature to solve their childcare challenges. They should tap underutilized in-house talent instead: dads.

This blog originally appeared  at Piper Hoffman on August 26, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Piper Hoffman is a writer and employee-side employment lawyer. She holds degrees with honors from Harvard Law School and Brown University. Hoffman blogs regularly on law and social justice issues at piperhoffman.com.

Stupidity on Steroids

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Image: Bob RosnerA Wethersfield, CT city councilman summed it all up when he observed, “Common sense lost it’s voice on this one.”

Turns out that there was an ethics compliant against the local school board’s chairwoman because her son had taken a $400 high school course for free.

The town’s ethics board then conducted more than 60 hours of hearings over 11 months. The bill, $407,000 in legal expenses.

Remember this is over a $400 course.

Eventually the ethics board voted 3-2 to uphold the complaint and ask the chairwoman to pay for the course.

But then the board voted to absorb all of the legal costs involved. $407,000.

This perfectly describes how lost most of our institutions have become. And don’t tell me this is just in the public sector, my email is full of these kinds of stories from private companies too.

Don’t get me wrong, we need lawyers and rules to keep things running smoothly. But we also need common sense to be sure that $407,000 is spent on education for the kids of Wethersfield and not on absurd follies like this investigation.

Common sense seems so uncommon in so many organizations today.

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].

NLRB Says Workers Need to Know Their Rights

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Image: Mike HallThe National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a new and simple rule today. It says employers must display an  11 by 17 inch poster informing workers of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, where they usually post notices to let workers know their rights.

Saying he applauded the new rule, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says:

Just as employers are required to notify their employees of their rights around health and safety, wages and discrimination on the job, this rule gives clear information to employees about their rights under this fundamental labor law so that workers are better equipped to exercise and enforce them.

Yet from the reaction of the Big Business, the notice is just a step away from the NLRB giving workers the right to drag employers into the street and beat them severely about the head and shoulders.

Keep in mind, this is a just a poster.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) calls it an “unprecedented overreach of its authority… a punitive new rule…a new low…a trap for millions of businesses.”

It’s just a poster.

Peter Schaumber, a former NLRB chairman appointed by former President George W. Bush, told Bloomberg News, “It’s arbitrary, it’s capricious.”

It’s just a poster.

On the right-wing website GOPUSA the new rule is “another disgusting government intrusion into private business.”

It’s just a poster.  Just a poster similar to the ones the Department of Labor requires the thousands and thousands of federal contractors to post.

The NLRB says employers will not  be required to distribute the notice via e-mail, voice mail, text messaging or related electronic communications “even if they customarily communicate with their employees in that manner and they may post notices in black and white as well as in color.”

All it needs to say is that employees have the right to act together to improve wages and working conditions, to form, join and assist a union, to bargain collectively with their employer. It also must say, “employees may refrain from any of these activities.” Pretty even handed, huh?

BTW, it won’t cost employers a penny because the NLRB will provide copies for free or employers can download it.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on August 25, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall- I’m a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I 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. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

"Sitting Ducks" and "Walking Targets": Risking Life on the Job

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Image: Adam KaderWe all know the phrase “going postal,” right?  It’s when someone becomes extremely angry to the point of become violent, usually in the context of work.  It came about in response to a number of horrific incidents of violence committed by postal workers in the 1980s and ’90s.*

But this past week the Chicago Tribune ran a revealing story about the risks of violence posed to postal workers just doing their jobs.  In a place like Chicago, the workplace for mail carriers–the outdoors–presents natural health and safety risks, such as heat illness.  Being in Chicago, extreme weather conditions can be expected and prepared for.  But when routes run through high-crime areas, carriers’ work can become life-endangering from human factors of violence.

In the Tribune story, mail carrier Khalalisa Norris tells her story of being nearly gunned-down in a drive-by shooting (watch a video here).  Rodney Nelson, another mail carrier, describes being taken into an alley and held at gunpoint to hand over his mail bag.  And Berenda Walker was assaulted while organizing mail in her truck.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that an average of 1.7 million people were victims of violent crime while working or on duty in the United States each year from 1993 through 1999 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that “Violence in the workplace is a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 521 workplace homicides in the preliminary count of 2009 in the United States, out of a total of 4,349 fatal work injuries.”  (For more information, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries summary).

More than simply a neighborhood safety story, the Tribune article shows that this is a workers’ rights issue.  Mail carriers have had to battle management to be transferred to other routes after being the victim of a crime.  And there is currently no policy that requires supervisors to inform carriers when co-workers are robbed or assaulted.   According to the Tribune, the carrier’s union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, (NALC) “is pushing for a better system of reporting incidents, more flexibility for carriers who have experienced violence, and a system that would notify all carriers after an assault, robbery or shooting.”

The story shows how local residents are not the only victims of neighborhood violence.  Norris reports that now some of the residents on her route will stay on their porches until she finishes delivery on that block, to ensure her safety.  This suggests the need for a coordinated effort between local community groups and worker organizations like the NALC.

* Despite this spate of tragedies, research has shown the phrase “going postal” to be unwarranted: “Researchers have found that the homicide rates per 100,000 workers at postal facilities were lower than at other workplaces. In major industries, the highest rate of 2.1 homicides per 100,000 workers was in retail. The next highest rate of 1.66 was in public administration, which includes police officers. The homicide rate for postal workers was 0.26 per 100,000.”

This blog originally appeared in Dignity at Work on August 21, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Adam Kader is the Worker Center Director at Arise Chicago.

Revive the Dream

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Post authored by AFSCME Secretary Treasurer Lee Saunders

On the eve of the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders writes why the nation needs to revive King’s dream.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to gather this weekend in Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. Few can doubt that this is an extraordinary and historic moment. Only four other Americans—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—have been given this honor: a national memorial on the hallowed grounds of our National Mall. As the first memorial to honor an African American, and the first to honor an individual who was never elected to high office, the memorial for Dr. King stands as a symbol of progress and purpose, dedicated to a man whose vision and courage transformed our nation and gave hope to the world.

The dedication this weekend also coincides with the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was at that march where Dr. King delivered the speech that proclaimed his vision of an America that would live up to the words of our founders and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

“I have a dream,” he said, “it is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” On that August day, Dr. King also challenged the economic injustices that existed in America. He spoke of Americans living “in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” and of those who languish “in the corners of American society,” living as “an exile in his own land.”

Too many of those challenges remain in our society today. In the depths of the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, middle- and lower-income Americans have been hit hard. Unemployment among young, African American males, for example, is above 30 percent. As National Urban League President Marc Morial noted last month on “Meet the Press,” unemployment among blacks has actually worsened since the start of the recovery.

Dr. King was a champion of both civil rights and economic justice. They were both essential parts of his Dream for America. That is why he fought so strongly for the right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively. He was a longtime supporter of unions and understood the role of organized labor in creating the middle class and forging opportunity for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. As he said in a 1961 speech to the delegates at the AFL-CIO Convention: “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had an especially close bond with Dr. King. On three occasions in 1968, he traveled to Memphis to stand with the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733—thirteen hundred men who went on strike to secure their right to collective bargaining, to decent wages and to dignity on the job. They were public employees earning poverty wages, working long days in back-breaking labor. When the workers went on strike, they were risking everything. But the signs they carried, “I AM A MAN,” made it clear: Their action was about much more than wages. It was also about dignity.

Dr. King understood. “All labor has dignity,” he told the AFSCME members in Memphis. “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” Their cause was crucial to him because, as he said: “What good does being able to sit at a lunch counter do if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” Dr. King recognized that civil rights and workers’ rights are intertwined. If workers do not have a voice in the workplace or the right to stand up for themselves to negotiate at the bargaining table, then the voices of some people—those with wealth and power—matter more than others.

Dr. King would be gratified today that millions of Americans share his commitment to social and economic justice. Moreover, they are mobilizing in numbers that have been rarely seen since the 1960s. Throughout the country, we see the beginnings of a Main Street Movement that will reinvigorate and revive Dr. King’s hope for a beloved community, where all Americans work together for the common good. We see it in the opposition mounting in more than a dozen states to right-wing efforts to limit the ability of minorities, the poor, seniors and students to vote by passing Draconian voter-identification bills. Nearly a half century after Dr. King’s dream of voting rights was enacted into law, Americans will not stand for backdoor efforts to return to Jim Crow.

The Main Street Movement has brought together working families, civil rights organizations, church groups, students, environmentalists, the LGBT community and others to counter the efforts of radical elected officials, who have tried to turn back the clock to a time when only the powerful had a voice and a future. As we commemorate Dr. King with a remarkable memorial on the National Mall, we need to remember the challenge he posed to all of us: to create a nation that provides every citizen with the opportunity to stand with dignity. We need to be involved in this struggle and to do everything in our power to revive the dream for which Dr. King gave his life.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on August 24, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Help Fight Discrimination Against the Unemployed

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Image: James ParksSome 25 million Americans are unemployed, underemployed or have stopped looking for work, and wages are essentially flat. Workers are struggling to get the few jobs that are available—there are 4.7 unemployed people for every one job open.

As if those odds weren’t difficult enough, jobless workers face another obstacle: Many employers are discriminating against the jobless by prohibiting them from even applying for open positions. Their “Help Wanted” signs come with a caveat—if you are unemployed, you need not apply.

American Rights at Work alerts to an action by the advocacy group USAction, which is taking a stand against this unfair policy. Click here to sign a petition and join USAction in asking the popular job search sites CareerBuilder and Monster.com to stop promoting ads for companies that discriminate against the unemployed.

Last month, The New York Times reported that its review of job vacancy postings on sites like Monster.com, CareerBuilder and Craigslist revealed:

hundreds that said employers would consider (or at least “strongly prefer”) only people currently employed or just recently laid off.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) also released a report last month that found:

employers and staffing firms continue to expressly deny job opportunities to those workers hardest hit by the economic downturn, despite increased scrutiny and strong public opposition to the practice.

The report coincided with the introduction in the House of the Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011, a measure sponsored by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) to create a level playing field for unemployed job seekers by prohibiting employers and employment agencies from screening out or excluding job applicants solely because they are unemployed.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on August 22,2011. Reprinted with permission.

bout 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.

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.

XX

Therapeutic Suffering

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Image: Bob RosnerI was at the gym discussing my less than perfect posture this morning with Kyle Davis, a master trainer at 24 Hour Fitness in Seattle.

I told Kyle that my shoulders were killing me after doing the rotator cuff exercises that he’d shown me to help stand me up straighter. He just laughed and called my pain, “therapeutic suffering.” Suffering that was required to get me to a better place.

Immediately I knew that I’d have to steal his phrase for the workplace. Because it explains so much about what we all need to know to survive today’s turbulent economy.

Call me a tad too cynical, but the workplace has two kinds of suffering right now. Therapeutic and Non-Therapeutic suffering. Sure I’ve heard that there are happy people out there, but after over 50,000 emails from readers, I can count them on one hand. Then again, before I changed the name of my weekly column to Workplace911 it was called Working Wounded.

Back to therapeutic suffering, when a boss hassles you to make a presentation perfect, that would qualify as therapeutic, the goal is to make you better. When a boss yells at you for the sake of yelling, as had happened to a friend of mine earlier last week, well that’s the non-therapeutic version. Or abuse, short sightedness or just bad management.

The key is to take the time to sort out the therapy level in whatever pain you’re experiencing. Give the challenging economy, most of us aren’t in a position to jump ship at our first non-therapeutic treatment. But if the suffering becomes too non-therapeutic, we can always get Human Resources, our Union or other loyalists in the company to support our cause.

The interesting part. Even if you can’t change the behavior or your job, just knowing that you’re being treated unfairly just might be able to help you to keep your cool and to maintain your perspective.

Use the concept of therapeutic suffering at work and you just might find yourself improving your posture too.

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]

Striking Verizon Workers to Return to Work Tuesday

Monday, August 22nd, 2011
Image: From AFL-CIO

Image: From AFL-CIO

The 45,000 striking Verizon workers, represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Electrical Workers (IBEW), will return to work Tuesday under the existing contract as bargaining resumes.

The CWA and IBEW announced:

We have reached agreement with Verizon on how bargaining will proceed and how it will be restructured. The major issues remain to be discussed, but overall, issues now are focused and narrowed.

We appreciate the unity of our members and the support of so many in the greater community. Now we will focus on bargaining fairly and moving forward.

Verizon, which amassed more than $20 billion in profits in recent years and paid its top five executives more than $258 million in the past four years, forced workers in Northeast states into a strike by demanding $1 billion in concessions. Seen as an attack on middle-class jobs and workers, the move prompted massive shows of support by working families across the country.

This post originally appeared in AFI-CIO Blog on August 20, 2011

About the Author: Donna Jablonski is the AFL-CIO’s deputy director of public affairs for publications, Web and broadcast. Prior to joining the AFL-CIO in 1997, she served as publications director at the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund for 12 years. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Southwest Florida, and since have written, edited and managed production of advocacy materials— including newsletters, books, brochures, booklets, fliers, calendars, websites, posters and direct response mail and e-mail—to support economic and social justice campaigns. In June 2001, she received a B.A. in Labor Studies from the National Labor College. Most important: she’s the very proud mom of a spectacular daughter.

The Filthy Rich Shout "Greed Is Good" and Party With The Politicians

Friday, August 19th, 2011

jonathan-tasiniWhen I wrote the “The Audacity of Greed” in 2008, I had a chapter called “Vodka and Penises” which detailed a rather unique birthday party thrown in Sardinia, Italy, in 2000 by Tyko CEO Dennis Kozlowski in honor of his wife–it featured vodka spraying from the penis of a replica of Michelangelo’s David. Kozlowski, who eventually went to jail for stealing lots of company money including the funds to pay for this little soiree, flew seventy-five guests to the Hotel Cala di Volpe where the privileged invitees played golf and tennis, ate fine food, listened to a performance by the singer Jimmy Buffett (who was paid a fee of $250,000 to appear) and enjoyed a birthday cake in the shape of a woman’s breasts festooned with sparklers on top.

It was a symbol of the greed and avarice coursing through American business.

And it ain’t over–as Leon Black is happy to demonstrate.

Let’s set the backdrop first: millions of Americans are without work, millions more can’t find decent paying work, we still are trying to dig out of a financial crisis caused largely by greed and avarice on Wall Street, we have the greatest divide between rich and poor in 100 years, and we are enduring a longer-term attack against the people by a bankrupt “free market” system that values a few CEOs over the rest of us.

No matter. The party must continue:

Last Saturday night, the financier Leon D. Black celebrated his 60th with a blowout at his oceanfront estate in Southampton, on Long Island. After a buffet dinner featuring a seared foie gras station, some 200 guests took in a show by Elton John. The pop music legend, who closed with “Crocodile Rock,” was paid at least $1 million for the hour-and-a-half performance.

And:

Mr. Black had his backyard transformed into a faux nightclub setting, constructing a wooden deck over his swimming pool and building a tent for Mr. John’s concert. After a buffet of crab cakes and steak, partygoers sat on couches with big puffy pillows.

Who was there?

The stars of music and fashion collided with a who’s who of Wall Street. Revelers included Michael R. Milken, the junk-bond pioneer and Mr. Black’s boss at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s; Julian H. Robertson Jr. , the hedge fund investor; Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs; and Mr. Schwarzman, head of Blackstone Group.Rounding out the guest list were politicians including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, who rubbed elbows with the media celebrities Martha Stewart and Howard Stern.[emphasis added]

And:

On Saturday night, to be sure, there was little talk of carried interest at the Blacks’ home on Meadow Lane, one of the Hamptons most desirable addresses for its panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and Shinnecock Bay. He counts among his neighbors Calvin Klein and David H. Koch, the billionaire industrialist.[emphasis added]

So, here is what is important to glean from this obscene affair, which underscores how we have been robbed–and how we will continue to be robbed in the future.

In my most recent book, “It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On,” I wrote about “carried interest”. Private equity firms get a special tax break—it’s called “carried interest”, Rather than being taxed at the top rate of 35 percent, the private equity fund managers like Black only pay 15 percent through a loophole called “carried interest.” To understand carried interest, you have to first understand how money managers get paid in the yacht-sailing, mansion-buying world of private equity.

First, they receive a fee, which is a percentage of the funds they invest. This fee is usually in the range of two percent, and is taxed like your run-of-the-mill wage income.

Second, and far more lucratively, money managers get a fee based on the performance of their fund—a fee in the range of 20 percent. It’s the second fee that is the so-called “carried interest”—and it’s how the money managers of private equity really rake in the big bucks that pay for their Picassos, yachts and mansions.

In the normal world of taxable income (and let me say that nothing in the tax code is simple when it comes to schemes that allow people like Black to shelter their money), carried interest is taxed as investment income—at the capital gains level of 15 percent (much lower than the top wage income rate), even though most of these managers invest very little, if any, of their own money.

So, a private equity big shot honcho hauling down millions of dollars in “incentive” is taxed at a 15 percent rate, while the receptionist who works in his office, or the police officer who guards the equity baron’s property, probably earn $50,000 or so if they’re lucky—and those average working people pay a 25 percent tax rate on that income (not to mention payroll taxes), a far larger share of their income than the fellow who banks “carried interest.”

Which is how Black can afford to throw obscene birthday parties.

How “carried interest” continue to remain in place can be summed up, in large part, with two words: Chuck Schumer. Schumer has been one of Wall Street’s greatest defenders. And, while there have been calls to eliminate the “carried interest” bonanza, Schumer has blocked that effort time and again, and has also, most recently, flip-flopped on the absurd proposal to give corporate American a tax holiday on the profits companies have stashed over seas.

I understand the movtivation: Wall Street is a huge honeypot for campaign contributions. That is Schumer’s obsession.

But, keeping “carried interest” costs billions of dollars in money lost to our government’s treasury–money for schools, health care for seniors, research, and jobs.

One final point on the private equity world. Even if the “carried interest” is eliminated, we need to keep another point in mind: private equity firms make their huge profits by buying up companies and stripping them of hundreds of thousands of workers in the name of “efficiency”. The longer-term economic crisis is, at heart, a hammering down of wages–which has led to deep despair among the people who can’t make ends meet. Private equity firms have been at the leading edge of feeding that disastrous economic system.

Which is why we should care–and take notice–of the people who party and rub shoulders at these kinds of obscene events.

They just do not care.

Ultimately, for all the rhetoric, this is about the power and wealth of the business and political elite.

It is not about us. Until we torch this system.

*This blog originally appeared in Working Life on August 19, 2011.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.
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