Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for June, 2012

Supreme Court Increases Regulation on Unions

Friday, June 29th, 2012

mike elkA recent Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. SEIU Local 1000 has some labor advocates howling that the Court is beginning to come after workers. The 7-2 ruling last week states that public sector employees must opt in to have their money spent on political action, instead of opting out as had been previously mandated in the case Beck v. CWA. The ruling could dramatically decrease the amount of money that public-sector unions, whose members currently compose 37 percent of all union members, have to spend on political action. Many public-sector union members are already financially strapped and may choose not to give their money to political campaigns.

The drop in the number of public employees giving money could increase dramatically if employers put pressure on public employees to not opt in to giving money to their unions’ political action funds. The recent Supreme Court ruling Citizens United eliminated protections that previously barred employers from pressuring workers on political matters. Now, combined with the Citizens United ruling, employers in the public sector could possibly pressure their employees to decline to give money to their unions’ political action funds.

“Unfortunately this decision continues the attack on the right of public-sector workers to act collectively to impact their workplace on important issues” says SEIU Local 1000 spokesperson Jim Herron Zamora, whose union was sued for imposing an assessment fee for political action on workers without first getting their consent.

“I think it’s more symbolic than anything. It’s going to be a pain for unions. Unions are going to have send in affirmative opt-in notices. The court is right in the basic principle that public employees have a right not to pay for that political work of unions and I agree with that even if it goes against the union,” says Elon University labor law professor Eric Fink. “It bothers me more for what it symbolizes, in that the court is going out of [its] way to fuck unions, and what that symbolizes in future cases”.

A few days after the decision, the Court also struck down a 1912 Montana law that limited the amount of money corporations could spend on local and state elections in Montana. Fink sees the Supreme Court setting a double standard in its increasing regulation of how unions spend political money while deregulating how corporations can spend money.

“Corporations have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders. However, unlike unions, corporations don’t have to ask their shareholders to make any political expenditure,” says Fink. “The Supreme Court doesn’t say a word about that when it comes to shareholders, but they say something about unions. It’s unions that are more democratic than any other institution [and] they want to sit down and micromanage how they spend their money.”

Unions are some of the most heavily regulated institutions in America. Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, every union is required to file quarterly LM forms with the Department of Labor that lay out all of their expenses in detail, including salaries of officials, political action expenditures and reimbursement of expenses. These databases are searchable online at the Department of Labor’s website. Corporations, by contrast, are not required to file forms outlining all of their expenditures.

UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend says that unions must stand and be defiant of this Supreme Court decision and protest it with vigor.

“We can’t let them get away with this decision. If we let them get away with this decision, we are only another two or three court decisions away from the Court saying right-to-work is a constitutional right,” says Townsend. “It’s time for labor to fight back on this issue, and tell the Supreme Court to go to hell if needed. Has the labor movement pressed the current regime to end the intrusive and unfair regulation of unions? Of course not. Until we do, we can expect more of these attacks. Do Democrats stand up for us on this issue, even though they benefit for the most part from labor’s efforts? Of course not.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on June 28, 2012.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at [email protected]

Reclaiming Our Working Class Family Values

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Todd FarallyAs we move further into the twenty-first century, I have come to the realization that many of us have forgotten where we came from. I would wager many who are doctors, lawyers, elected officials and captains of industry came from humble means. Working class families, such as construction workers, maintenance people and factory workers, just to name a few. And many (oh so many) have turned on the same sort of people that bore and raised them, clothed and fed them, put them through college and called them son or daughter. How do we end this cycle?

To solve any problem we first need to address the main cause and move from there towards a solution.

Much of the problem starts with us, the parents. Do we tell our children about what we do? Do we educate them on the struggles of those who have come before us? Those who had endured, bled and sometimes died so that the generations to come could have a better life than their parents had. Sadly, I don’t think so.

Many parents back in the seventies and eighties probably never thought there would be attacks on the people that build our country, that teach our children, or even those that protect us while we sleep. And that was our first mistake. Never underestimate the greed of those that have no conscience. Never think for a second that people won’t watch you suffer while they profit.

Something else that has put us in this predicament is that some of us in skilled labor put down our professions, expressing horror at the thought of our children following in our footsteps. This happens more often than we might want to admit and it has lasting consequences. We act as though working with our hands is something to be ashamed of, that it’s something to look down on. And we’re ok with that? I’m certainly not and you shouldn’t be either.

Now, to end the cycle.

We need to talk to our children. We have to tell them that those of us that work with their hands, those that earn their wages from the sweat of their brow, those that put themselves in danger to serve the public good, work in an office and teach our children are not expendable. That these people ought to be treated with the same respect and dignity we all want in life.

We should remind our kids that men, women and even children were degraded, abused, beaten, stabbed, shot and killed all in the name of a few very wealthy people that didn’t want to pay their fair share to raise this nation to its full potential. More importantly, that those who fought prevailed, it was not in vain and they won a lasting period where most had a fair shake. And this is what has been under attack. This is what is at stake.

The fight for all working people throughout the nation starts with us as workers, blue and white collar alike. We need to erase the lines that divide us, realize that we all labor; we all scrape and scratch for a better life for our families. We must get past these superficial and petty differences or we will all fall. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

If we’re going to end this cycle now, we need to stand together, take pride in our work and teach our children that everyone has worth. Preserving our way of life starts at home.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos on June 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Todd Farally is a third generation Union Sheet Metal Worker, blogger and activist who has been involved in the Labor Movement and political activism most of his life. He was raised to believe in speaking out when injustice is imposed upon those without a voice and to never give up, no matter how tough the fight may seem.

Veterans working for government contractor forced to attend anti-union meetings at Fort Lewis

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Mark E. AndersonYou survive two combat tours and you come home and find a job as a mechanic, refurbishing the Stryker combat vehicles that protected you while you were in a hostile land, with a government contractor that pays a decent wage. The workforce is about 50 percent veteran and 50 percent civilian. Your work place is on post at Fort Lewis, Washington.

You and your coworkers want to join Local 286 of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). Your employer, General Dynamics, does not want you to join a union.

Jason Croic, a Marine combat veteran, is one of those veterans:

We have had these meetings where they provided one side of the story. The message is we won’t be as employable to the Army as we are now because we won’t be as versatile. Being non-union, they say we are more attractive to the Army because we can be moved around easier. I think it’s bullshit the way they are talking to us,”says Croic. “You think when it’s prior military veterans who have done their part, they wouldn’t do this kind of thing to us.

The employees of General Dynamics Land Systems have scheduled a vote for union representation for June 29th. For the past month the employees have been forced to sit through anti-union meetings every day.

General Dynamics Land Systems President Mark C. Roualet [stated] “We believe it is important for our employees to have both sides of the story, and that is exactly what we have been trying to communicate during the meetings you describe. We have conducted these meetings in a non-threatening and non-coercive manner and in according with applicable laws. Meetings held since January 2012 have not been charged as training and have not been billed to our customer.”

By the way, the customer Mr. Roualet is talking about is the United States Army and by extension taxpayers; however, in a letter to General Dynamics Congressman Adam Smith (D-Wash) noted that General Dynamics has coded funds being used for union busting for reimbursement.

General Dynamics Land Systems spokeswoman Marie Remboulis stated.:

General Dynamics is a fair and equitable company that wants to take care of our employees. From that perspective we believe it’s important for our employees to have both sides of the information. We have conducted these meetings in the spirit of openness in a manner that is in everything way applicable with regulatory laws.

Yep General Dynamics is so fair and equitable that they let the union post meeting notices on the bulletin board; however have repeatedly blocked union organizers from holding meetings at Fort Lewis. They are so fair and equitable that they have lied to veterans by telling them that they are less valuable to the Army if they are union members.

General Dynamics is crying poverty to the employees while they fly corporate executives into Fort Lewis to make anti-union pitches. Which combined with the almost daily anti-union meetings is turning the employees towards the union.

As a veteran I feel it is disgraceful what General Dynamics is doing to these men and women. How much money has General Dynamics made off of making war machines over the years? How many billions or triilions of dollars? And when the men and women who used these war machines come home and work for General Dynamics they are told that joining a union will make them worth less to the Army. What a crock of shit. General Dynamics just wants to keep whatever profit they make off of the American taxpayer to fund their corporate jets and to pay big dividends to their investors and for their stock price to go up. They don’t give a rat’s ass about the men and women using the machines they build or the men and women who refurbish those same machines.

Solidarity to the employees of General Dynamics Land Systems. I hope you are soon represented by IUOE Local 286.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on June 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Anderson, a Daily Kos Labor contributor, describes himself as a 44 year-old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. You can learn more about him on his Facebook, “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”

Most Minimum Wage Earners Are Women

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

One of the stats that always amazes is this: If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with the rising cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.52 per hour today.

Instead, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That translates to $15,080 per year, below the poverty line for a family of three—if the work is full-time.

Stunning as that is, it gets even worse when you realize that the majority of those paid the minimum wage are women: In 2011, more than 62 percent of minimum wage workers were women, compared with only 38 percent of male minimum wage workers, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

It’s especially bad that women make up the majority of minimum wage earners because women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a typical man earns. Women of color are far more likely to hold low-wage jobs than men, and two-thirds of mothers now are either the breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. Their lower wages mean they will receive less from Social Security, their primary source of retirement income.

Slightly more than 2.5 million women earn the minimum wage or less, while about 1.5 million men do.

Pointedly, the report notes:

From 1968 to 2010, incomes for the top 1 percent of earners increased by 110 percent, but the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage has fallen by 31 percent. If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with the rising cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.52 per hour today.

But these same 1 percenters are some of those who block efforts at the local and national levels to raise the minimum wage. In fact, research has shown no job loss results from reasonable minimum wage increases, even when the economy is struggling.

On the contrary, a minimum wage increase boosts consumer spending and can improve the nation’s weak economy by growing demand through increased purchasing power.

This blog originally appeared in ALC-CIO on June 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

So Rich, So Poor: What to make of America's poverty problem

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Eric MogelCurrent Georgetown University Law Center Professor Peter Edelman knows a thing or
two about poverty. While serving in the Health and Human Services Department under
the Clinton administration, Peter famously resigned in protest to Clinton’s signing of the
1996 Welfare Reform Act. He believed that the move from federal control of welfare
grants to a system in which individual states were able to control these funds themselves
would result in an increase in the poverty rate and the disappearance of a safety net for
America’s poorest citizens. Sixteen years later, Peter Edelman’s new book So Rich, So
Poor
paints a portrait of the effects of welfare reform on Americans in the lower and
middle classes and makes a compelling argument for an increase in government aid and
intervention.

So Rich, So Poor details some of the troubling facts about just how much income
disparity has affected the poorest and wealthiest citizens. In 1979 the top one percent of
America’s wealthiest citizens earned nine percent of all personal income. However, in
2007 the same top one percent pulled in over twenty three percent of all personal income.
On the other end of the spectrum, twenty million Americans are living in a state of deep
poverty. According to Peter Edelman, deep poverty is a state in which a family of three
is earning below nine thousand dollars per year. While the twenty million Americans in
deep poverty come from all backgrounds and states, some groups are disproportionately
overrepresented. Single mothers and minority groups make up a large percent of the
people living in deep poverty. As So Rich, So Poor notes however, it is not only single
mothers that suffer when they are living in deep poverty. The children being raised by
these single mothers are also living in a state of deep poverty, with untold consequences
on these children’s abilities to grow up and reach their full potential.

So Rich, So Poor looks at the policy decisions that are increasingly driving America’s
lower class into a state of deep poverty. Peter Edelman traces some of the blame all
the way back to 1996, and the decision to allow states to decide for themselves how to
distribute welfare funds. Peter notes that states have the option of not distributing any
cash assistance to low income citizens, and that the lack of federal cash assistance to
low income families has removed a safety net for America’s poorest citizens. The effect
of allowing states to decide how to distribute welfare funds has resulted in six million
Americans whose only source of income is food stamps. Clearly it is impossible to live,
let alone raise a family, when the only government support is food stamps and no cash
assistance.

While the situation for America’s poorest citizens might be dire, Peter Edelman does not
believe that those living in deep poverty are beyond saving. Peter has suggested that the
federal government should increase the amount of aid given to the poorest citizens, as
well as using federal legislation to create a living wage for all Americans. As noted in So
Rich, So Poor
much of America’s economic growth over the past forty years has gone
straight to America’s richest citizens. If America wants to alleviate its poverty problem,
economic growth has to support all Americans, especially the poorest citizens.

Peter Edelman interview for Democracy Now!

Purchase So Rich, So Poor

About the Author: Eric Mogel is an intern at Workplace Fairness. Eric grew up in
Manhattan Beach, California and holds a BA in history from the University of Michigan.
He is currently a second year student pursuing his JD at The George Washington
University Law School.

Studies: Increasing The Minimum Wage During Times Of High Unemployment Doesn’t Hurt Job Growth

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

waldron_travis_bioA group of House Democrats recently proposed legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour, roughly where it would have to be to match the peak buying power the wage reached in 1968. Cities and states across the country are taking action on their own, raising their minimum wages in an effort to help low-income workers.

Opponents of minimum wage increases contest that raising the minimum wage will be costly for businesses and have a negative effect on job growth and employment. An analysis by the Center for American Progress’ Nick Bunker, David Madland, and the University of North Carolina’s T. William Lester, however, found five recent studies showing that increasing the minimum wage — even during periods of high unemployment — does not have a negative effect on job growth:

A significant body of academic research has found that raising the minimum wage does not result in job losses even during hard economic times. There are at least five different academic studies focusing on increases to the minimum wage—including increases ranging from 7 percent to 12.3 percent made during periods of high unemployment—that find an increase in the minimum wage has no significant effect on employment levels. The results are likely because the boost in demand and reduction in turnover provided by a minimum wage counteracts the higher wage costs.

Similarly, a simple analysis of increases to the minimum wage on the state level, even during periods of state unemployment rates above 8 percent, shows that the minimum wage does not kill jobs. Indeed the states in our simple analysis had job growth slightly above the national average. [...]

All the studies came to the same conclusion—that raising the minimum wage had no effect on employment.

While increasing the minimum wage likely has no effect on job creation, it does have a tangible benefit for workers. Eight states increased their minimum wage at the beginning of 2012, providing extra benefits to 1.4 million workers. More than half of the workers directly affected by a minimum wage increase, as well as more than half who would be indirectly affected, are women, meaning increasing the wage provides help to a segment of the population that already faces significant disadvantages in the workplace.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on June 20, 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.

Older Workers Confront Cold New World in Harsh Job Market

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Roger BybeeLeon Burzynski, president of the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans in Wisconsin, is someone who appreciates the steps that Barack Obama has taken to bring the economy back from the brink of disaster. But he remains deeply concerned about the plight of workers aged 50 to 64. These workers—eager to work and too young to afford retirement—remain marginalized in an economy where cash-laden corporations are still reluctant to retrain full-time employees.

“It’s a dark time for older workers,” said Burzynski. “I don’t see the economy coming around for older people who want to work.”

With hiring in the private sector slow and the Republicans systematically blocking each and every stimulus measure, the prospects for older workers are bleak indeed. At a point in their lives when they expected to be making their peak earnings, this group of workers finds themselves navigating a complex minefield of problems without significant social support.

JOB INSECURITY: While the pace of layoffs has slowed considerably, corporations continue to reduce their workforces unpredictably and to send both manufacturing and white-collar professional work overseas.

PAY INSTABILITY: Even though profits have achieved record levels for major corporations, firms like General Electric are imposing pay cuts of as much as 45 percent on long-term workers. The wage-cutting wave that began immediately after the Wall Street meltdown is persisting.

REDUCED SAVINGS: Falling wages have reduced the ability of Americans to save. Meanwhile, dropping home values have been a central factor in shrinking the net worth of American families, reported The Los Angeles Times:

The typical American family lost nearly 40% of its wealth from 2007 to 2010 as the Great Recession reduced household net worth to a level not seen since the early 1990s.
The net worth of the median U.S. family — one with an equal number of families richer and poorer — fell to $77,300 in 2010 from $126,400 three years earlier, after adjusting for inflation, the Federal Reserve said in a new report.

Among working families, “most folks have all their net worth tied up in their homes,” Burzynski says.

LONG STRETCHES OF UNEMPLOYMENT
When laid off, older workers face especially long periods of unemployment, the Urban Institute found:

Job loss during the Great Recession is upending retirement savings plans for many older workers. Fewer than a quarter of workers age 50 and older who lost their jobs between mid-2008 and the end of 2009 found work within 12 months.

Another study revealed, “The median duration of unemployment for those 55 and older was 34.1 weeks in May, according to the Labor Department, in contrast to 22 weeks for all jobless people over 16.”

Prolonged periods of unemployment are remarkably stressful to both physical and mental health, with one noted British doctor equating the effects of long-term joblessness with the death of a spouse.

FORCED TO OPT FOR SOCIAL SECURUTY: With job-hunting stretching out and exhausting older workers’ savings, many older workers find that they need to opt for Social Security before age 66. This means a permanent reduction of 20 to 30 percent in benefits for the rest of their lives, but some find themselves with no other alternative, The New York Times reported:

Even as most Americans are delaying retirement to bolster their savings accounts, the recession and its protracted aftermath have forced many older people who are out of work to draw Social Security much earlier than they had planned.

According to an analysis by Steve Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, about 200,000 more people filed initial claims in 2009 and 2010 than the agency had predicted before the recession and he said the trend most likely continued in 2011 and 2012, though that is harder to quantify. The most likely reason is joblessness.

TRADITIONAL PENISONS DISAPPEARING FAST: For decades, Americans have relied on pensions that provided a predictable source of income in combination with Social Security and savings. But various Individual Retirement Account and 401(k) plans—infinitely cheaper for employers—have taken their place. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point out in their excellent book, The Great Risk Shift, “As recently as twenty-five years ago, more than 80 percent of large and medium-sized firms offered a defined–benefit plan; today, less than a third do.”

The funds being accumulated in IRA-type accounts are hardly sufficient to provide a secure and fulfilling retirement, says Burzysnki. “The average IRA contains only $55,000 to $60,000—that’s not enough for what I what I call a quality retirement.”

The lack of support for workers aged 50 and over is exacerbated by the unpredictable circumstances that can lead some to retire, often without the necessary savings and a solid plan. As Hacker and Pierson point out, “Four in ten retired workers today report that they left their jobs earlier than planned because of layoffs health problems, or sick family members.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on June 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Two Worlds: Waiters Who Starve, And Those Who Don't

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

jonathan-tasiniTwo sides of the planet. Two different systems. Two different realities for workers–and, therein, lies the lesson: economies are about power, and values.

Over in the U.S., if you are a waiter in the food industry, you are screwed, as Mark Bittman outlined in his column a few days ago, on the backs of a searing indictment called “The Hands That Feed Us”. Bittman writes:

Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.

This job, or something much like it, is held by nearly 20 million people, 10 million of whom work in restaurants. They are the workers employed in producing, processing and delivering our food, who have been portrayed in vivid and often dispiriting detail in a new report called The Hands That Feed Us. Written by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the report surveyed nearly 700 workers employed in five major sectors: production, processing, distribution, retail and service.

The upshot: Our food comes at great expense to the workers who provide it. “The biggest workforce in America can’t put food on the table except when they go to work,” says Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-U).[emphasis added]

All this comes because of the pathetic “special minimum wage”–$2.13 an hour–paid to restaurant workers:

Take that $2.13 figure, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Legally, tips should cover the difference between that and the federal minimum wage, now a whopping $7.25. If they don’t, employers are obligated to make up the difference. But that doesn’t always happen, leaving millions of servers — 70 percent of whom are women — taking home far less than the minimum wage.

Which brings us to the happily almost-forgotten Herman Cain. What’s called the “tipped minimum wage” — that $2.13 — once increased in proportion to the regular minimum wage. But in 1996, the year Cain took over as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), he struck a deal with President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democrats. In exchange for an increase in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage was de-coupled. The result: despite regular increases in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t changed since 1991.

Other disheartening facts: Around one in eight jobs in the food industry provides a wage greater than 150 percent of the regional poverty level. More than three-quarters of the workers surveyed don’t receive health insurance from their employers. (Fifty-eight percent don’t have it at all; national health care, anyone?) More than half have worked while sick or suffered injuries or health problems on the job, and more than a third reported some form of wage theft in the previous week. Not year: week.

And, as a reminder, even the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, as

I’ve pointed out for a number of years

, is far below what it should be. It should be at least $20-an-hour, if you take into account how much productivity has risen over the past 30 years.

But, now, let’s take a trip half a planet away–to Australia where I have the pleasure of hanging my hat for a bit. The national minimum wage will go up to about $16-an-hour on July 1st. Waiters make that–and usually as much as $20-an-hour. Oh, and don’t forget they also are covered by the national health care plan (called “Medicare” here).

And, so, my Aussie friends are usually mildly annoyed when I add a tip to everything I eat–including coffee. It’s not that Aussies don’t tip–they do. But, it’s seen as an extra, a little more for particularly good service or when it seems appropriate. But, no one tipping a waiter here thinks that, in doing so, they are making a difference between a waiter making the rent or going broke. It’s not that waiters are rich. It is simply that they can do their job and earn a fair wage.

That’s the difference: exploitation U.S.-style versus a fair wage Aussie-style.

That is about basic values, morality and, ultimately, power.

This post originally appeared in Working Life on June 18, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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.

Workers and Their Unions Key to Economic Turnaround, Election Outcome

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Image: Mike HallMaryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Columbia University Professor Dorian Warren both say the best way to solve the nation’s economic crisis is to grow the middle class rather than allowing wealth to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Unions, they say, will play a vital role politically and economically in building a strong middle class.

O’Malley and Warren spoke on a conference call with reporters Friday to counter recent attacks by Republican lawmakers on workers and their unions.

O’Malley pointed to Maryland’s top 10 ranking in job creation, its AAA bond rating and the fact it has the highest median income in the nation to show that economic prosperity is “achieved by a partnership with unions, not by scapegoating labor.”

We don’t see unions as an impediment to growth but organized labor helps us grow and maintain balance, invest in skills of the workforce and ensure people receive a decent wage for a decent day’s work.

From the post-war era through 1973, when one in three working people had a voice on the job, said Warren, the nation had the smallest economic gap ever between the rich and the poor, because of the growing middle class with good union jobs.

But as efforts were made to weaken unions and attempts to modernize and strengthen the nation’s labor laws were blocked, the middle class began to shrink, said Warren.

There are consequences to declining union strength and now we have the highest levels of economic injustice ever. Our economy has moved to an hourglass model with jobs at the top end and bottom end, but with the middle hollowed out.

When working people have a “strong collective voice,” said Warren, “we get a stable and strong economy with continued economic growth. Unions still remain the best tool and best route for workers to improve their lives.”

In the face of growing efforts to silence workers and their unions and the explosion of corporate cash and 1%ers’ campaign donations, Warren said:

Unions can challenge the money and power that threatens our democracy’s legitimacy….With union households accounting for about 25 percent of the electorate, union votes will be a major factor and, in battleground states, a decisive factor.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on June 17, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Workplace Toxics Reveal the Beauty Industry’s Ugly Side

Friday, June 15th, 2012

Michelle ChenYou shouldn’t have to suffer to be beautiful. But many women suffer for the beauty of others, polishing nails and styling hair with a toxic pallette of chemicals.

Working long hours amid noxious fumes, salon workers, typically women of color, are in constant contact with chemicals linked to various illnesses and reproductive health problems.

While environmental justice campaigns have historically focused on localized pollution issues, the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance organizes around the intersection of workplace environmental health and racial and economic justice. According to the Alliance’s analysis, the hazards endemic to the nail salon industry are stratified by ethnicity and gender: roughly four in ten workers are Asian immigrants, many of them of childbearing age, poor, uninsured and with limited English-speaking ability. And they are assaulted daily by invisible threats:

On a daily basis and often for long hours at a stretch, nail and beauty salon technicians – most of whom are women of reproductive age – handle solvents, glues, polishes, dyes, straightening solutions and other nail and beauty care products, containing a multitude of unregulated chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, allergies, respiratory illnesses, neurological and reproductive harm.

These toxic environments reflect the marginal nature of neighborhood beauty shops that operate with little oversight. The Alliance reports that workers are often crammed into “poorly ventilated, small workspaces,” lacking protective gear, sometimes using inaccurately labeled products, not knowing to protect themselves.

Environmental justice activists in Harlem, New York, are investigating the health implications of beauty products marketed to women of color with a “Beauty Map” project. The data visualization pinpoints where and how these ethnic beauty products are sold in the community. According to WE ACT’s research:

The presence of ethnic personal care products sold in pharmacies, discount chains, and corner stores in Northern Manhattan, revealed more than 600 non beauty related points of source in addition to the 348 beauty salons, supply stores, and hair braiding shops in the area….

Given the prevalence of ethnic personal care products sold in Northern Manhattan stores and use among residents, WE ACT is advocating for chemical policy that will better protect consumers against potentially harmful ingredients in personal products.

One particularly popular and controversial hair treatment is Brazilian Blowout, which produces formaldehyde gas linked to cancer and associated with respiratory ailments. Earlier this year, in a Nation Institute report, California-based stylist Jennifer Arce talked about becoming sick from Brazilian Blowout, recalling that among her coworkers, “We were all getting rashes, headaches, and bloody noses.” Pointing to a workplace culture of fear, she said, “I’m now hearing from hair stylists who have had their jobs threatened and are being bullied by co-workers and management if they complain about exposure to Brazilian Blowout.”

In New York City, the ACLU and labor activists have campaigned to protect, and raise public awareness about, low-income immigrant nail salon workers facing abuse from their employers and the workplace toxins.

Despite these hazards, women workers can find power at the interface between a poisonous industry and consumers who lust for beauty. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative has brought together salon workers, owners and public health advocates to provide health and safety training for salons and to push for tighter regulations on the industry.

The Collaborative, which includes Asian Health Services and other community organizations, has worked with San Francisco salons to raise workplace standards cooperatively. In collaboration with city and county environmental authorities, the Collaborative has partnered with Asian Law Caucus and Environment California to set up a recognition program for salons that keep their shops free of the “toxic trio” of nail polish chemicals (toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde). Additionally, the group is pushing to expand the bilingual services provided by safety regulators and the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

The Collaborative’s policy director Catherine Porter told In these Times that while stronger regulations are needed, a rewards system for salons that use less toxic products and greener practices could motivate local owners to promote healthier workplaces:

We see recognition programs as a way that nail salons can set themselves apart from their competition. Nail salons will say to themselves, “Oh, if I use safer products and safer practices, that’s actually something that I can market, and I can use that to attract more customers and a more loyal customer base.” Plus, we think that as more salons move in the direction of using less toxic products, that will in turn pressure nail product manufacturers to develop safer alternatives.

The state of California recently gave advocates a boost with a legal settlement that will stop deceptive labeling practices by the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout. The Collaborative and the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance has called for stronger federal labor protections and stricter labeling and reporting standards. The proposed federal Safe Cosmetics Act would not only ramp up federal oversight of personal care products but also move the industry toward phasing out the most dangerous chemicals.

But despite these community-driven efforts, the supply chain remains dominated by companies that profit by degrading environmental health, and by a consumer culture that endorses the trading of health for beauty. As workers absorb the poisonous cost of “perfection,” the ugly mirror image of the beauty business is slowly coming to light.

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

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

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