Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for March, 2012

Company Denies Creating Jobs in Indiana Because of Anti-Union Law

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Laura ClawsonIndiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been bragging about a secret list. It’s the list of companies that he claims are thinking about moving to Indiana and creating jobs there because of the passage of the state’s new right to work free rider law, and it’s 28 companies long, three of them supposedly committed to moving to Indiana. That sounds like a genuine boost to a state’s economy. The catch is that the only company Daniels has been able to name as having brought jobs to Indiana because of the anti-union law says that’s not actually what happened:

MBC Group President Eric Holloway said Thursday that he always planned to expand his Brookville operations and that a state news release issued two weeks ago mistakenly quoted him as saying “right to work” legislation factored into his decision.

“We are not a union shop. The effect that this was going to have was not going to affect our decision one way or another,” said Holloway, whose company estimates that its planned $4.1 million expansion will create up to 101 new jobs.

When your evidence that a law is creating jobs is 28 companies you can’t name and one that says the jobs it’s creating have nothing to do with your law, that’s called grasping at straws. Also “making shit up.”

*Disclaimer: The opinions of the author are the opinions of the author alone and not those of Workplace Fairness.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on March 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Getting on the BRT Bus: U.S. Cities Eye Mexico Program That Benefits Workers

Friday, March 16th, 2012

kari-lydersenMEXICO CITY—Almost any time of day on Avenida de los Insurgentes, one of Mexico City’s busiest streets, people crowd onto the constant parade of shiny red buses that pull up to platforms every few seconds, whisking passengers to different neighborhoods in the city of 22 million.

This is the Metrobus system, one of the bus rapid transit or BRT projects that have been instituted in the past decade or two in Bogota, Johannesburg, Guangzhou and other Latin American, Asian and African cities. They’ve been proposed for an increasing number of U.S. cities.

The system is meant to enhance public transportation, help revitalize marginalized neighborhoods and reduce air pollution, with less expense and construction than new light rail lines. On a tour this week paid for by The Rockefeller Foundation and run by the international Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Metrobus official Gonzalo Garcia Miaja told me and other journalists that the system also means a major improvement in working conditions for bus drivers. And it makes the workday easier for hundreds of thousands of regular residents, who now have a much quicker, healthier and safer commute to work.

Intracity transport has a complicated and dramatic history in Mexico City. In the 1980s and 1990s the powerful bus drivers union fought bitterly with the administrations of presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo over plans to privatize the public bus system. Union leaders were jailed and massive protests rocked the city, as In These Times contributor David Bacon explained in this 1996 article. Unlike many unions of the time, Mexico City’s SUTAUR-100 bus union was not affiliated with the then-ruling PRI party, and they supported the Zapatistas during their 1994 uprising.

The labor clashes changed the face of standard public bus transport in Mexico City, with use of these “high capacity” buses dropping dramatically between 1990 and 2000. Standard public buses were largely replaced by a chaotic and allegedly corrupt system of private small microbuses, or “combis,” with a mosaic of small fleets run by extended families and syndicates, with relatively little oversight from the government. According to the ITDP, the percent of trips by microbus increased from 36 percent in 1989 to 54 percent in 2000 as the use of high-capacity public buses plummeted.

As in many other cities in the “developing world,” Mexico City microbuses are infamous for driving wildly through crowded and perilous streets, motivated to pick up as many passengers and reach their destinations as quickly as possible—for more profit. The operators also typically delay repairs and maintenance and run the vehicles for as long as possible, meaning many archaic, heavily-polluting and dangerous microbuses on the street.

Enter the BRT system starting in 2005, wherein city and private officials with the new agency Metrobus essentially convinced seven of the city’s main private microbus operators to become partners in the new public-private Metrobus organization in exchange for removing their microbuses from key routes.

The Metrobuses have their own dedicated lanes, and people pay fares on platforms as at light rail stations, so the buses can move very rapidly. The city government oversees the Metrobus program, while the collectives of private operators pay the costs and reap the profits.

Many microbus drivers lost their jobs because of the conversion, since a total of 1,077 microbuses (with at least that many drivers) were removed from the streets, while currently about 800 drivers now operate the city’s fleet of almost 300 Metrobuses.

Garcia noted that many of the microbuses were family operations “where the father drives in the morning, the brother in the afternoon and the son in the evening,” and the whole family profits; so the streamlining of operations into the Metrobus system wouldn’t necessarily mean devastating layoffs for drivers’ families.

But Garcia said working conditions are much better for the drivers who now pilot Metrobuses instead of microbuses. They now have health insurance and pensions, he said, and work 8-hour days, compared to workdays that could last 20 hours in the past. And they are paid based on numbers of kilometers driven on established uniform routes rather than by the number of passengers they pick up—so the actual driving is much safer and more relaxed.

“Previously their income was directly proportional to the number of passengers they were carrying, so they were literally killing themselves to get more passengers,” Garcia said.

Additionally drivers and passengers in the old microbuses were exposed to high levels of benzene, particulate and other air pollution extremely harmful to health. Tests have shown the air emissions from Metrobuses are much lower—about 35 percent less benzene exposure and 54 percent less exposure to carbon monoxide for riders and drivers, and of course less pollution for the city as a whole.

The Metrobus drivers are not unionized and they are employed directly by the private operators. Garcia said the city government closely regulates the private operators to make sure working conditions are decent and drivers are safe and qualified, undergoing mandatory training and testing related to alcohol use and other factors.

Official policy and reality regarding working conditions, customer protection and civil rights are often far apart in Mexico, so U.S. advocates and analysts usually take official statements with a large grain of salt. However, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the center-left PRD, whose six-year term expires this fall, has generally been supported and praised by people across the political and economic spectrum for his populist policies and his efforts in revitalizing and securing the city.

Bus rapid transit has been proposed for an increasing number of U.S. cities including Chicago and Detroit. In Latin America the systems are typically run by private operators, with the contracts bid out or, as in Mexico City, run by the operators of previously existing microbus systems. In the U.S. such bus rapid transit would typically co-exist with current light rail and regular public bus systems, in most cases replacing some regular bus routes. Bus rapid transit could be incorporated into the existing public systems or privatized or some hybrid of the two approaches. It is not clear how it will play out exactly in different U.S. cities, whether workers will be unionized or whether there will be opposition from public transit unions.

On March 12 a fleet of 17 new Metrobuses including prized “bi-articulated” (three-car) ones lined up in formation in front of Mexico City’s Plaza de la Republica, a monument to the 1910 Revolution. The grand structure was under construction as the country’s new Congress building at the time of the Revolution; it was left unfinished and later revamped as an homage to revolutionary leaders including Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Ricardo Flores Magon. Nearby is an historic massive jai alai stadium where workers have been on strike since 1994. An occupation continues inside and faded red and black flags cover the entrances.

(Protests and strikes are a constant presence in Mexico City. For example, during our tour, one Metrobus line was blocked by a public protest, and a separate protest of union pensioners against the government of Tabasco state blocked one of the separated bike lanes that are also part of the current administration’s sustainable transportation initiative.)

Facing the Revolution monument with the buses lined up expectantly behind him, Mayor Ebrard described the Metrobus system as part of a larger effort to make Mexico City more livable, sustainable and healthy. Ebrard, an ally of famous former Mexico City Mayor and presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), has won international attention for his “green” initiatives in Mexico City and his outreach to poor and working people.

“It’s dramatically changed the culture of the city,” he told a crowd at the unveiling of the new Metrobuses.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

Makers, Takers and $2-A-Dayers

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Michelle ChenOne official measure of poverty around the world is surviving on $2 per day or less. It’s a condition many Americans could barely imagine living in. And yet the official data suggests that while politicians insist the U.S. is insulated from such deprivation, a large share of the country is feeling a cold draft from the “Third World.”

A set of new analyses from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), drawing from a study of income data by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, shows that for well over a million households, many of them with children, are besieged by hardship of an epic magnitude:

The number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person per day — which the study terms “extreme poverty” — more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million, the study finds… The number of children in extremely poor households also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

The World Bank’s $2-per-day metric derives from widespread cliche in humanitarian circles, generally used to describe poor countries in the Global South. But while some question the usefulness of such simplistic measures, the phrase has a unique application in a country that’s historically represented the top of the human development scale. And one reason why the U.S. has so many people stuck at the bottom is because in many communities, this inequality is practically written into the law, with public assistance programs virtually enforcing the extreme poverty line.

Since bipartisan welfare “reform” under the Clinton administration, which precipitated the gutting of programs and erosion of benefit levels over time, the poorest households have become mired in outmoded welfare systems that don’t correspond to real social needs:

Benefits are below half of the poverty line in every state.  For a family of three, benefits are only about $2 per person per day in Mississippi and Tennessee and only slightly more than $2 per person per day in Alabama and South Carolina, for example.

It’s basic math: Add the recent recession to years of wealth-hoarding by the richest Americans, factor in endemic socioeconomic, racial and gender inequality, and you get polarization that’s global in scale and intensity. This is reflected in each individual whose daily standard of living is worth the cost of a Wall Street financier’s morning coffee.

Although the stimulus package enacted by the Obama administration gave a temporary boost to welfare programs, those dollars have dried up. The safety net is further unraveled, according to the CBPP, by a block-grant funding system in which the benefit “does not increase in response to increased need.” Meanwhile, recently proposed budget cuts to federal housing assistance (from both the White House and Congress) would raise the cost of rent for hundreds of thousands of struggling families. In other words, the “ownership society” is effectively disowning its neediest members.

Extreme poverty is acutely painful for already vulnerable demographics. The largest jump in $2-a-day poverty—a stunning three-fold increase since 1996—hit female-headed households. Children in poverty, who face long-term barriers to education and healthcare, and are disproportionately black and Latino(but including many whites as well), tend to carry these hardships into adulthood.

According to CBPP researcher Arloc Sherman, these trends affirm other research suggesting that “it has become harder to access welfare.” Since the reforms of the 1990s, which instituted onerous work requirements and other restrictions, the percentage of very poor families covered by TANF has tumbled.

On the other hand, what’s left of the safety net continues to play a critical role in preventing total devastation for many.  “I suspect for those who lost jobs in the recession, Unemployment Insurance—thanks in part to [The Recovery Act]—played a big role in keeping people’s cash incomes above $2 per person per day,” Sherman told In These Times.

While the presidential hopefuls race to outdo each other in gratuitously denigrating the poor (along with people of color, single women and other time-honored scapegoats), it’s important to keep in mind that these populations don’t fit the standard caricatures of welfare queens and freeloaders.

The CBPP’s research also reveals that the population that uses public assistance–those conservatives demonizeas the “entitlement society”-primarily consists of old folks, people with disabilities–oh, and people with jobs. In fact, “People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.” So in a labor market offering about one slot for every four job-seekers, a good chunk of those  “entitlements” go to the very same “hardworking Americans” that right-wing rhetoric contrasts with the supposedly undeserving poor.

The right pushes a delusional narrative of country divided between “makers and takers”—the productive go-getters versus the welfare-hungry sloths.  But when you crunch the numbers, it becomes all too clear who the real takers are: the ones who make it harder for everyone else to make a living.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @ inthesetimes,com.

Black Unemployment Has Topped 10 Percent For Most Of The Last 50 Years

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

waldron_travis_bioSome semblance of recovery has blossomed in the American jobs market over the last three months, with more than 200,000 jobs created in each of December, January, and February and the unemployment rate falling to 8.3 percent. The private sector has added jobs for 24 consecutive months, and though the economy is still far from healthy, it has improved markedly from the bottom of the recession.

The vast majority of Americans benefiting from that recovery, however, are white. The black unemployment rate in February was 14.1 percent, and though that is an improvement from the 27-year high it reached in August, the official unemployment rate for blacks barely changed in 2011. The 9.6 percent unemployment rate America experienced during the worst of the recession, in fact, would be a drastic improvement over the black unemployment rate in most of the last 50 years, as Algernon Austin noted at the Economic Policy Institute:

Since 2008, the Black unemployment rate has exceeded 10 percent. My current projections are that the Black unemployment rate will continue to exceed 10 percent through 2015.

The sad fact is that for most of the past 50 years, the Black unemployment rate has been above 10 percent.

The extremely high unemployment rate blacks are currently experiencing is tied to another major drag on the recovery. While the private sector continues to add jobs, the public sector — where one in five blacks find employment — has shed more than 600,000 jobs at the state, local, and federal level, and those layoffs have continued despite the modest recovery.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on March 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

Department Of Justice Blocks New Texas Voter ID Law For Discriminatory Impact On Hispanic Voters

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Scott KeyesThe U.S. Department of Justice blocked Texas’ new voter ID law Monday, noting that the measure would unduly disenfranchise Hispanic voters.

Texas passed an election law overhaul last May which included a requirement that voters present a certain form of government-issued photo ID or be turned away from the polls. Neither Student IDs nor Social Security or Medicaid cards, and no exceptions are allowed for the poor or elderly. Unlike some states which ask for photo ID but have recourse such as a provisional ballot for voters who lack an acceptable ID, the Texas law simply turned away these folks. As a result, thousands of Texans stood to be disenfranchised, including a longtime Texas voter ThinkProgress interviewed named Jessica Cohen who had her personal papers stolen and could not afford the fee to pay Missouri officials for a replacement, all in order to get an acceptable voter ID.

Fortunately, Texas is one of nine states with a history of discrimination that must get any changes to their election law cleared by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act before they can take effect. The burden of proof is one these states to show that any new laws will not have an adverse impact on minorities.

That preclearance was denied today in a letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez because the law would have unduly discriminated against Hispanic voters. For instance, nearly one-third of counties in Texas lack driver’s license offices, and in these counties, 10 percent of Hispanics lack a license, double the rate of non-Hispanics. Across the state, Perez notes, “Hispanic voters represent only 21.8 percent of the registered voters in the state, Hispanic voters represent fully 29.0 percent of the registered voters without such identification.”

He sums up:

Thus, we conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.

The Department of Justice has shown an admirable amount of courage in protecting the voting rights of minorities against the recent onslaught of regressive state voting laws. Last year, they denied preclearance to South Carolina for a similar voter ID law that would have had a discriminatory effect on black voters.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on March 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Scott Keyes is a reporter for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Scott went to school at Stanford University where he received his B.A. in Political Science and M.A. in Sociology. He has appeared on MSNBC and TBD Newstalk TV and been a guest on many radio shows. His writing has been published by The Atlantic, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott comes to DC from southwest Ohio, a state very near and dear to his heart.

Jane Espenson on Getting More Women in the Writers’ Room

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Alyssa RosenbergJane Espenson, in a provocative and I think important essay for the Huffington Post, argues that the key to getting more women in the writers’ rooms of television shows is actually to walk away from the idea that women have something particular to add to the conversation:

Good writers can write across the gender line. We just can. And even those who can’t have undoubtedly convinced themselves that they can. So a male showrunner, confident in his abilities and those of his male writers, is probably not wringing his hands over how he’s going to get his female characters onto the page. By advertising ourselves as female character generators, we’re trying to provide a service that no one is clamoring for. Showrunner-dude is happy creating his own female characters. Making the case that there is a deficiency he’s unaware of is probably not going to resonate with him.

Even if you get such a showrunner to hire a woman, if you suggest that female writers have a specific (and limited) purpose, you are inviting those showrunners to feel they don’t need to hire additional women writers once they have one woman in the room; they have their female character generator, their lens onto the female point of view.

And beyond that, the argument leaves us with no basis to promote the value of women on a show with few or no female characters. In fact, it provides a frighteningly sound argument for not hiring us on such a show.

I actually think, if asked, that most male showrunners would say that they’re in agreement with Jane’s initial argument, that gender is not a legitimate factor in deciding not to ask someone to join their writing staff. But I do think there’s a gap between that theoretical agreement and actually seeking out women to work on a show. Dan Harmon’s said that it took an order from NBC programming head Angela Bromstead to get him to hire more women, an experience that ultimately convinced him that he wants to work with more women in the future. And I know he’s not alone in enjoying working with women.

I believe that Jane is correct that the best, most thoughtful male and female writers can create marvelous male and female characters interchangeably, that argument can as easily bolster the status quo as it can govern a more progressive future. But no one person, male or female, has the full range of experience with their own gender, or with people of the other gender—the more kinds of experience you have in a writer’s room, the more access you’ll have to the range of human life. And I think there are a lot of men who write female characters who are best flat and at worst are ugly distortions—and that there are more men who have the opportunity to write these sorts of depictions of women than there are women who have the chance to write stereotypes of men. Those men shouldn’t get a pass, and they shouldn’t get feedback that suggests that they’re doing just fine on their own. Because they’re not.

And if there’s absolutely no reason why white males need insights from women and people of color, why should they ever bother to hire them, especially if it means giving up job slots that otherwise would go to people who look like them? I wish I trusted more male showrunners to reach out from curiosity and a commitment to pure meritocracy, but the evidence just don’t particularly support that. Every major survey of women writers in television suggests that gains in that space are not durable: a single-year spike in the number of women in writers’ rooms tends to disappear, or even go backwards, in the next.

It might not pay to offend male show-runners sense of their capacity, but abandoning the argument that women and people of color have a definitive value add due to their experiences and perspective also means giving up a positive, substantive case for getting women and people of color—not to mention people of different class backgrounds—on writing staffs. I’d love it if we could peacefully talk our way into substantive gains in employment for women in television writing. But I don’t see the path to doing that without some difficult conversations.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on March 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a B.A. in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American ProspectThe New RepublicNational Journal, and The Daily Beast.

Starbucks Served Venti-Sized Discrimination Lawsuit

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Leah BraukmanTwenty-five year old Eli Pierre has only one full arm, but he says he’s never been told there was something he couldn’t do.

That is, until last month, when a San Diego, California Starbucks interviewed and then refused to hire him. Mr. Pierre is now suing the Seattle-based company in California state court alleging discrimination and wrongful failure to hire “despite his capable work history,” in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). He’s also claiming failure to prevent discrimination, to make reasonable accommodations, to engage in the interactive process in violation of FEHA, wrongful failure to hire in violation of public policy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

According to ABC News, Mr. Pierre, a former bartender, claims he wasn’t hired because he is missing half of his left arm, and that throughout his interview, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to work there – besides being teased about a previous job he’s held at Victoria’s Secret. (“Maybe he can help you find the right bra size”, the interviewer allegedly said to another Starbucks employee.)

A spokesperson for the coffeehouse chain contends that Mr. Pierre’s version of the interview is “vastly different” from what actually took place, and that he wasn’t hired because of his qualifications and answers to interview questions.

While ABC and the rest of the media provided plenty of information about Mr. Pierre’s lawsuit, it didn’t size up the strength of his claims. LASIS will.

ABC had what little law it did report, wrong. It stated that Mr. Pierre sued for discrimination in violation of the Federal Employment and Housing Act. Such a law doesn’t exist.

California has a state law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, that is more expansive than federal employment discrimination laws, and that is what Mr. Pierre is relying on.

FEHA prohibits an employer from either refusing to hire or for firing someone based on a physical disability, defined in part as any anatomical loss that affects a body system and limits a major life activity. Not having an arm certainly qualifies as a physical disability, but it hasn’t stopped Mr. Pierre from working, a major life activity under the Act. A former boss even told ABC that Mr. Pierre “can carry more than somebody…with two arms.”

Even so, Mr. Pierre is clearly disabled and his discrimination argument seems pretty solid. Especially if what he said of the interview is true. In a 2002 California Court of Appeals case, a man with a prosthetic leg sued the Los Angeles Police Department when he wasn’t hired as a police officer. The court found no discrimination because the man didn’t meet the physical requirements of the job. And this makes sense. It would be ineffective for a police officer with a prosthetic leg to chase after a fleeing suspect by scaling fences and jumping over obstacles.

It’s harder for Starbucks to argue that it requires both arms to pour coffee. On the other hand, doing some field research I watched the baristas make my drink at a local Starbucks recently, and using two hands surely helped them work as quickly as they did.

But the crux of Mr. Pierre’s argument isn’t that Starbucks should have hired him on the spot, it’s that it didn’t engage in the “interactive process” of identifying reasonable accommodations that would allow him to work there.

In 2008, the California Court of Appeals said an employer is liable if the workplace could be modified to allow an employee to perform the essential functions of the job. For Starbucks, it wouldn’t take much. The interviewer had told Mr. Pierre it would never work out for him at Starbucks because he wouldn’t be able to reach certain syrups while making the drinks. Well, one place for Starbucks to start in trying to accommodate Mr. Pierre would be to move the syrups within reach.

Mr. Pierre also claims that when Starbucks didn’t give him the job or explore any potential accommodations, it violated public policy. The California Court of Appeals recognizes this as a separate claim, but as violations of FEHA are automatically violations of public policy, Mr. Pierre will likely succeed on this public policy argument, as his discrimination claims are rather robust.

Aside from the alleged FEHA violations, Mr. Pierre is suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress. To win on an emotional distress claim, Mr. Pierre would have to prove that Starbucks’ conduct was “outrageous” and exceeded “all bounds…tolerated by a decent society.” In 2006, the California Court of Appeals ruled that unlawful discrimination doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful emotional distress claim. That’s not to say a Starbucks interviewer should have treated Mr. Pierre as he did, but what happened during the interview doesn’t amount to the extreme behavior the court is probably looking for.

As a frequent Starbucks customer, I was disappointed when I heard of these accusations, especially as this isn’t the first time the company has been accused of discrimination. Last year, a Starbucks employee with dwarfism was fired after asking for a stool or stepladder because, the company said, “she could be a danger to customers and workers.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company for discrimination and Starbucks shelled out $75,000 to settle. I’ll keep going to Starbucks for now because I’m hooked. But if I hear of more offensive behavior like this, I might just try Dunkin’ Donuts instead.

This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke, a project of the  Law and Journalism track at New York Law School, on March 5, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Leah Braukman (2L) is first and foremost a proud graduate of the University of Florida — Go Gators!  While a “Gator” at heart, she is thrilled to be in New York City and studying law at New York Law School, and is equally excited about contributing to this blog. Leah is a member of Law Review, the Institute for Information Law and Policy, the Media Entertainment Fashion Law Association, and the Program in Law and Journalism.

Chicago Airport Workers Seek Fairness, Unionization

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

David MobergCHICAGO—Even more than frustrated airline passengers who find the skies increasingly unfriendly, airline and airport workers—who only walk the airport terminals’ long corridors—are discovering that the air travel business is growing less and less congenial for them. In reaction, workers at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports—the nation’s second and twenty-seventh busiest—are trying to defend and improve the quality of their worklives by forming unions and pushing for more supportive public policy.

Local 1 of UNITE HERE, the hotel and restaurant union, has been successfully organizing workers in the retail concessions of both airports off and on for many years and, thanks to a new surge, now represents about 1,300 of the 2,300 concession workers at both airports. But the turnover of retail concession contracts mandated by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel could threaten the jobs or income of 1,500 of the concession employees in coming months.

Meanwhile, the Service Employees Union’s own Local 1 is organizing a wide range of passenger services workers—the people who push wheelchairs, drive shuttles, clean airplane cabins and do other essential but low-skill tasks.

A new study reveals just how bad their working conditions are: Over one-third, for example, don’t make the Illinois minimum wage, partly because they rely on tips—which many passengers don’t realize, and by federal law the personal service assistants can’t say anything to encourage tipping.

At the same time, even though employers break the law by refusing to bring the combined wage and tips up to the minimum, they report the workers’ income as if they made the minimum, thus taking out a bigger chunk for taxes than warranted by the real income. UNITE HERE promotes legislation—nominally supported by 31 of the city’s 50 aldermen, but indirectly opposed and delayed by Mayor Emanuel’s administration and his hardestcore loyalists in the council—that would help both sets of workers.

The “Stable Jobs, Stable Airports” ordinance would guarantee workers their jobs during a change in concessionaire contracts, require employers to maintain labor peace (not only helping maximize city revenues and increasing convenience for travellers but also restraining anti-union actions), and close an anomalous loophole in the existing living-wage law that exempts airport contractors. Similar rules govern several other major airports, such as those in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“It’s not like this is a real burden for Chicago to do because other cities have done it successfully,” says UNITE HERE organizer Jim Baker.

The law would immediately boost pay for about two-thirds of the workers to $11.18 an hour (providing on average a pay hike of about 22 percent or $4,000 a year, according to a study by a group of researchers from the University of Chicago and elsewhere). Chicago’s economy would benefit from $3 million to $8 million in new purchasing power. And the cost would be borne by a small reduction in the super-profits of airport sites, a slight increase in passenger costs, and savings in training costs with a more stable workforce.

The provisions for labor peace and transitional job protection would also help workers like Margaret Shields, a 38-year old mother of two boys in high school, who worked 12 years in retail shops at O’Hare’s international terminal building. When the city’s newly hired management firm subcontracted with The Hudson Group, a Swiss-owned airport retailer to run the store where she worked, Shields was the first of 12 workers (out of 21 total employees) who were fired.

Although a member of UNITE HERE, the contract at her store and union recognition had not been re-affirmed. The fired workers were disproportionately more experienced and higher-paid, says Baker. Shields had never been disciplined or criticized for her performance over her dozen years. But she was also a union stalwart. On Monday, January 11, after she had already prepared to leave at the end of her shift, Shields says, she refused to do work her supervisor told her to do, and she was charged with insubordination the next day. That was also the time a leaflet became public about a meeting with management on worker grievances, and Shields’ name was on it. The next day, at the end or her shift, she was fired.

Baker worries about what will happen as more new concession contracts are signed. “There are gains [from the new union presence], while limited, which could be eroded,” he says. But he also worries about the way in which the Stable Jobs, Stable Airports proposal has been buried in the committee of a council floor leader for the mayor. “I would think when an ordinance is introduced, it would get a hearing and vote,” he says.

The personal service workers, whom SEIU Local 1 is organizing in both Chicago and Houston, would gain from the legislation. But workers in both groups need unions and better across-the-board labor law enforcement. Most work for a few contractors who are hired by the airlines, and over half are foreign-born, either from eastern Europe or Latin America.

Beyond finding how many workers report not even receiving the minimum wage, the new study by University of Illinois Labor Education Program researchers reports that employers

  • failed to pay wages owed to one-third of workers at least once a year;
  • paid one-fifth of workers less than legally required overtime;
  • retaliated against 44 percent of workers who expressed some grievance;
  • illegally punished a third for union organizing;
  • illegally interfered with workers compensation rights of half of those injured on the job;
  • verbally abused more than one-fourth of workers;
  • deny over half the workers’ scheduled breaks;
  • either do not offer health insurance or charge so much that 95 percent of workers do not get health coverage through their jobs.

The personal service workers typically have no sick days or vacation and rely on public assistance programs to make minimal ends meet. Now Shields thinks many other airport workers like her are ready to work to change these conditions.

“You’ve got to put hope in the good fight,” she says. “I believe they expect us to give up. But we’ve got to keep it up for the next set of people, so they won’t have to go through this.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com

American Workers: The Best Bet

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Leo GerardRemember the fear in 2008? Think of the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Wall Street melting down. Pension savings disappearing. Housing values plunging and foreclosures skyrocketing. Three million workers losing their jobs.

It had all the makings of another Great Depression. As Barack Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, he faced a dilemma. In this crisis he could play it safe and hold steady on his predecessor’s path of pampering the rich and pandering to corporations, pretending that possibly, eventually, some benefit would trickle down to workers. Or President Obama could keep candidate Obama’s promises of change.

He went with change. He focused on workers, believing restoration of the nation’s great middle would drive economic recovery for all. He secured an economic stimulus package and rescued the American auto industry. Both measures worked to halt, and eventually reverse, the previous year’s relentless economic decline. Both, as well as other changes President Obama has proposed, emphasize creating and securing jobs for everyday workers. He wagered on American workers. And it paid off.

As unemployment slowly eases, as the Big Three automakers report huge profitsand hire workers, as the stock market slowly climbs and foreclosures slowly drop, Republicans, particularly the GOP presidential candidates, refute it all. They simply deny that the stimulus created the 1.2 to 3.3 million jobs that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reports it did. They continue to insist that America should have let Detroit go bankrupt. Instead of betting on American workers, they would double down on Bush’s tax breaks for the richsubsidies for fabulously profitable corporations and deregulation of Wall Street.

GOP front runner Mitt Romney supported the government bailout for Wall Street but opposed rescuing GM and Chrysler. Like so many Republicans, he’s all for preserving the jobs and institutions and million dollar bonuses for executives. But Republicans offer nothing but cutbacks and pain for workers.

They want to cut back food stamps, raise the retirement age, slash funds for education and Pell Grants for college, slice Medicaid and repeal the health care reform law that will lower the deficit while enabling 32 million uninsured American to get coverage. At the same time, all four GOP presidential contenders would lower or eliminate corporate taxes and further cut levies on the wealthiest so much that their budget plans would increase the national deficit that they’re so keen to criticize.

They’re betting that more tax cuts for the rich will prompt reinvestment and economic resurgence. That’s the gamble former President Bush took when he twice cut taxes on the wealthiest. After seven years, here’s how Bush’s bet on the rich paid off: the economy and jobs were contracting at an alarming rate. Remember the fear in 2008?

Now, three years later, after President Obama placed his faith in workers, the nation’s economic outlook is brighter. As is that of GM and Chrysler.

Both companies suffered managed bankruptcies. Tens of thousands of workers lost jobs. Retirees took health care benefit cuts. Remaining workers accepted pay reductions. Plants and dealerships closed. It was pain all around.

Now, GM is back as the world’s number one automaker, making the highest profits in its history. Chrysler is growing faster than any other American car company. Ford is investing $16 billion in its American operations and plans to bring thousands of jobs back from overseas. Altogether, the industry added 200,000 jobs. In addition, rescuing the industry meant preserving hundreds of thousands of jobs in auto parts factories across America, and all the service jobs they support.

Here’s what President Obama told the 2012 United Auto Workers convention about his wager on them:

“I placed my bet on American workers. And I’d make that same bet again any day of the week. Because three years later, that bet is paying off for America. Three years later, the American auto industry is back.”

In the past few weeks, President Obama has doubled down on his wager on working Americans. He has called for a tax break reversal – ending the deal corporations get for shipping jobs overseas and instead giving it to those who move jobs back on shore. And, just last week, he demanded an end to the $4 billion in subsidies that taxpayers give massively-profitable oil and gas companies, explaining:

“You can either stand up for oil companies, or you can stand up for the American people.”

Republicans immediately attacked the President for the proposal. They criticized him for talking to the auto workers as well. While Republicans regard workers in general as second class citizens, not to be given the deference they reserve for the rich, members of the GOP particularly despise auto workers because they’re members of a labor union. Republican lawmakers hate unions – maybe even more than they loathe President Obama. They can’t tolerate any organization of workers that succeeded in bargaining with fat cat factory owners for weekends off, paid sick days, good pensions and middle class wages, even though the GOP lawmakers themselves benefit from decades of union activism by receiving weekends off, paid sick days, good pensions and very decent wages.

Obama, by contrast, told the auto workers he was honored to be with them, to bet on them:

“It’s unions like yours that fought for jobs and opportunity for generations of American workers. It’s unions like yours that helped build an arsenal of democracy that defeated fascism. It is unions like yours that forged the American middle class – the greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known.”

It’s a sure bet: Wagering on workers is a winner.

This blog originally appeared in Campaign for America’s Future on March 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard is a steelworker and a Canadian and American labor leader. He was elected president of the United Steelworkers in 2001, and is the second head of union. He is also vice president of AFL-CIO.

The NFL Bounty Scandal Is a Labor Issue As Well As a Safety Issue

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Alyssa RosenbergIt’s awful to hear the news that the during their recent great years, the Saints were involved in a system that offered players bounties if they injured the players on opposing teams. The scandal is a setback for the NFL’s efforts to make football a safer, more sustainable game, showing that team and player cultures are fiercely resistant to that league-wide imperative. But it’s also a failure of the NFL collective bargaining agreement by the players who ought to be protected by it, and an illustration of the difficult web of financial incentives players negotiate.

The explanation of how the bounty system worked is a fascinating look at the financial stratification within NFL teams. The bounty system was organized by the Saints’ former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, and he kept running the system even after he was specifically ordered by the team to shut it down. But the bounties themselves were offered—and paid—not by the team but by Saints players to Saints players. And they worked as incentives because special teams players who are in a position to inflict those injuries make less than the teammates who offered them the bounties. And that doesn’t even always work out. As Deadspin pointed out, the fines Bobby McCray was assessed for a hit to Brett Favre probably cost him more than he made based on the report’s assessment of what he would have made in bounties.

But however complicated the financial interests are here—and even scarier than the fact the bounties were being offered in the locker room is the news that folks outside the team appeared to be ponying up money—it’s a worrisome illustration of how the league’s compensation patterns could make bounties seem worth reaching for, and could lead to them violating their own collective bargaining agreement. It’s hard to believe that the Saints or any other team would offer bounties in the expectation that they were the only team doing it. And if everyone’s ignoring the collective bargaining agreement’s ban on bounties, then everyone’s ramping up their own risk of being injured by participating in the system. I don’t envy the NFL and the players’ union the task of tweaking those incentives and enforcement to try to make the ban on bounties operative.

Especially since players are coming into the NFL after years of a training that incentivizes hard hits, even if there pride rather than money at stake. I do think that there is a difference between a reward for making a good play and a reward specifically for injuring someone. But I don’t know how meaningful that difference is. I love football, and I struggle with that love and my questions about whether the game as played can be made safer while still remaining exciting.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on March 5, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a B.A. in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American ProspectThe New RepublicNational Journal, and The Daily Beast.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog