The United Mine Workers of America is sitting out this presidential race as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama battle over parts of coal country. But former UMWA president and current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke to the press Monday not just as an advocate for all workers but from the perspective of a third-generation coal miner.
While Romney has centered his coal country campaign on inaccurate claims that overregulation by the Obama administration has weakened the coal industry (Romney’s beloved free market is the real culprit), Trumka pointed to how workplace safety is enforced in this dangerous industry:
[President Obama] has appointed people who are enforcing safety laws, these are the real regulations coal operators don’t want enforced….MSHA [Mine Safety and Health Administration] is enforcing the laws and now coal operators are not able to get away with violations like they did before, especially high violators.
Among the regulations and oversight that Romney would weaken or abolish are those that save miners’ lives. So it’s important that Romney’s “Obama’s war on coal” rhetoric not be allowed to cloud the picture, obscuring that coal’s recent struggles aren’t due to regulation, and that when he talks about regulations, he’s talking about people’s lives. Beyond that, Trumka drove home the distance between the coal miners Romney pretends to care about and Romney’s own life:
Mitt Romney says coal country is his country. Well, he’s wrong—it’s ours….Mitt Romney doesn’t know about getting his hands dirty, and he sure doesn’t know anything about coal mining.
This article was originally published by The Daily Kos on Monday, October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006, and a Daily Kos Labor editor since 2011.
NEW YORK CITY—National Labor Relations Board Chairman Mark Pearce says his agencycould pursue new remedies to punish employers who retaliate against undocumented immigrants for organizing. Last year Pearce interpreted a 2002 Supreme Court decision to rule out back pay as a remedy in such cases, limiting the NLRB’s options of financial penalties.
Interviewed Friday by Working In These Times, Pearce called the tension between immigration law and labor law “extremely frustrating,” and the tools available for protecting undocumented workers against employer crimes “insufficient.”
“The concept of ‘made whole’ by us needs to be examined,” said Pearce, referring to a legal guideline for NLRB remedies. “Perhaps there are things within that concept that we can utilize. Now I can’t articulate what they are, because we’ve got to consider it.”
Pearce made these comments following a forum hosted by Cornell University’s ILR School. In his remarks to the assembled attorneys, Pearce said he “had angst over” his ruling in the NLRB’s Mezonos Maven Bakery case last year. In that 3-0 decision, the NLRB found that a bakery that fired a group of workers who had collectively complained about a supervisor could not be required to pay them back pay, because they were undocumented.
The Mezonos decision cited the US Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, which overturned an NLRB ruling granting back pay to an undocumented worker who was fired after trying to form a union (the NLRB is tasked with enforcing and interpreting private-sector labor law, but federal courts have the power to overturn the NLRB). Writing for a 5-4 majority, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that “awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations.”
At Friday’s forum, Pearce said that the Hoffman decision had forced him to deny back pay in Mezonos and “continues to create that problem where an employer could get away scot-free” with firing undocumented union supporters. Pearce said he had “struggled with the tension between the National Labor Relations Act, immigration law, and the rights of undocumented workers.” While the NLRB can still use non-economic remedies in such a situation, like requiring a company to post a notice saying it will comply with the law in the future, Pearce said that “seems a little empty” without a financial cost attached.
After the forum, Pearce told Working In These Times that the tension he’d identified could be resolved if a future Supreme Court case offers the NLRB “a more promising, or a more significant remedy to be applied for discriminatees who happen to be undocumented. But otherwise, it would probably have to take a change in the law.”
In the meantime, said Pearce, “the board has a certain degree of discretion with respect to the remedies.” He noted that the NLRB is legally empowered to “make whole” workers who are illegally punished or discriminated against, but is barred from assessing punitive damages against employers. That means that financial penalties against companies generally come in the form of back pay—which Mezonos took off the table for undocumented workers. “So exploration would have to be had,” said Pearce, “as to the full parameters of [the ‘made whole’] concept, to see whether or not a remedy could be fleshed out [for] those kinds of violations.”
Such a move “would be significant,” said Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action. “Because under the current structure, employers basically get a free bite at the apple. They can violate the law with impunity.”
Interviewed Saturday by phone, Avendaño disputed Pearce’s view that the Supreme Court’s Hoffman ruling required the NLRB to deny back pay in Mezonos. She said that a lower-level NLRB judge had been right to find that Hoffman didn’t apply in Mezonos, because in Hoffman it was the undocumented worker that had been proven to have violated immigration law, and in Mezonos it was the employer. Avendaño, who was among the attorneys arguing for back pay in Mezonos, said she hopes the second circuit court will reject the NLRB’s Mezonos reasoning and send the case back for a new ruling.
But Avendaño echoed Pearce’s criticism of Hoffman, which she said “has a chilling effect” on undocumented immigrants seeking to organize at work. Ultimately, she said, new legislation will be necessary to restore such workers’ rights, perhaps as part of a broader immigration reform.
Still, Avendaño welcomed the NLRB Chairman’s comments about the possibility of other remedies under current law. Given that the law bars punitive damages, and Hoffman restricts back pay awards to workers, Avendaño said, “one idea that advocates have—and the legal basis for this is sound—is that there could be a fund established, where employers would still have to pay the back pay, but it would go into the fund, not directly to the worker.”
Avendaño said such a “special remedy” would be “less than ideal,” but would be an improvement over the status quo, where employers face a “perverse incentive … to just violate the immigration law, and then violate the [National Labor Relations Act], and have no responsibility for it.”
If a fitting test case reaches the NLRB, said Pearce, “We would have to see whether the board has that kind of authority, or is there something that causes us to feel that we are able to create an exception to the standard remedy.” Avendaño said the AFL-CIO hopes that will be the case: “If there was an opportunity, and we may have one soon, then we certainly are going to advance that argument.”
This article was originally posted on In these Times on October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson
This week, Broward County—one of the most populous counties in South Florida—became the second county in the state to pass a local wage theft ordinance, joining Miami-Dade County. In a 7-2 vote, the Board of County Commissioners voted to create the new law to deal with a significant and growing problem in Florida. Wage theft occurs when workers are not paid overtime, not paid at least the minimum wage, are forced to work off the clock or are not paid at all for work they have completed.
“I was at the meeting yesterday asking commissioners to vote yes for the ordinance, speaking on behalf of my close friends who are victims of wage theft in our county and haven’t been able to recover their wages after months of effort,” says Maria Isabel Fernandez, a resident of Dania Beach in Broward County. “I was thrilled when the ordinance passed! It may be too late for my friends, but it will help other people like them in the future who will now have the possibility of recovering the salaries they earned through their work without having to hire a lawyer and wait months without any income.”
Several factors contribute to the problem. Florida does not have a state-level Department of Labor, has a high percentage of workers who are not covered by federal wage and hour laws and has a legislature that is openly hostile to wage theft laws, so much so that it recently tried to ban such laws at the local level.
Cynthia Hernandez of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University says:
Policymakers need to consider the ramifications of Florida becoming a glaring example of a state that tolerates and even encourages wage violations. Broward County and Miami-Dade’s wage theft ordinances are examples of good government policy addressing this growing issue. These ordinances are critical to maintaining a fairly competitive business environment so critical to Florida’s economy.
Alachua County, where Gainesville and the University of Florida reside, is considering becoming the third county to pass a wage theft ordinance. For more information or to report wage theft in Florida, contact the Florida Wage Theft Task Force.
This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on Monday, October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is is senior writer for AFL-CIO. He is originally from Florida and is the father of three sons. He can be reached at [email protected]
Jed Lewison wrote a piece today about Mike White, the CEO of Rite-Hite industries, and his threat to his employees:
“all employees should understand the personal consequences to them of having our tax rates increase dramatically if President Obama is re-elected, forcing taxpayers to fund President Obama’s future deficits and social programs (including Obamacare), which require bigger government.”
Turns out Wisconsin, which has a history of being a pretty progressive state, has a law on the books against that sort of thing.
Statute 12.07 (3)
No employer or agent of an employer may distribute to any employee printed matter containing any threat, notice or information that if a particular ticket of a political party or organization or candidate is elected or any referendum question is adopted or rejected, work in the employer’s place or establishment will cease, in whole or in part, or the place or establishment will be closed, or the salaries or wages of the employees will be reduced, or other threats intended to influence the political opinions or actions of the employees.
The question now is will the Republican Attorney General, J.B. Van Hollen, do his job and prosecute this CEO for violating the law? I am not holding my breath on it…
3:41 PM PT: From Occams Hatchet in the comments – more of the e-mail that makes the threat very clear:
The other big impact on Rite-Hite employees, if President Obama is re–elected, is the good chance of losing Rite-Hite insurance and being put into Obamacare. Employers have the choice (though competition in the marketplace will dictate), to continue their existing plans or to pay a penalty and have employees go into the Government Plan. Our plan costs much more per family than the penalty and hence the possible competitive need to drop the Rite-Hite Health Plan. Every opportunity to make up for lost profits to taxes will have to be evaluated.
This article was originally published on The Daily Kos on Thursday, October 25, 2012.
About the Author: Mark E. Andersen is a U.S. Army Veteran who served during the cold war, spending two years in Wildflecken, Germany. He returned to school much later in life, received his Bachelor’s in 2006, and is currently working on a MS in Professional and Technical Writing from the University of Wisconsin – Stout.
Mark credits his dad, a Teamster, for putting the fire in his soul for the rights of workers and the downtrodden. Both of Mark’s parents were children of the depression and instilled much of their generation’s values in him. He is the single father of a son. You can find him on Facebook – his page is “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen).”
Watching another politician visit a local diner on the campaign trail, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of politicians—who, research shows, have become exponentially wealthier than the average American family—claiming to understand the daily challenges facing the middle class. Outside of the campaign trail, do our elected officials know what it’s like to have to clock in and out, or live paycheck to paycheck?
With the cost of campaigning growing dramatically with every election, it’s almost impossible for regular working people to run for office, leaving many of us to wonder if our elected representatives truly understand our struggles and represent us in the halls of power. How we can ever expect policymakers to share our concerns as their wealth further removes them from the day-to-day experiences of Americans who are trying to stay afloat in this economy? Aside from campaign finance reform, how can we fix the disconnect between elected officials and the people they represent?
One potential solution comes from the labor movement. Unions across the country have been encouraging their members—often workers from solidly middle-class backgrounds and professions—to run for elected office at the local, state, and even federal level.
As union members, workers can ascend as leaders by taking on active roles in negotiating collective bargaining agreements on behalf of their colleagues to help protect their fellow members’ interests on the job. These positions require both an enormous amount of transparency, accountability, and leadership—bargaining leads can’t just spin, smile, and handshake their way out of a bad deal. They need to look their colleagues straight in the eye and work next to them after a vote’s over.
Las Vegas is home to the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a union which is actively proving how to run a citizen farm team by engaging and recruiting future political stars through the ranks of its membership. Las Vegas may not seem like a typical training ground for politicos, but through leadership roles with their union, members are learning the skills necessary to serve in public office.
Maggie Carlton is a Local 226 member who waitressed at the Treasure Island casino coffee shop. She got hands-on leadership training while participating in negotiations for three major collective bargaining agreements, covering casinos across the strip.
Carlton was inspired by her ability to impact the lives of her colleagues and wanted to do more for them and others in the community. With the support of her union, she eventually ran for public office and won. Through leadership positions she held within her union, Carlton gained experience directly crafting workplace policy and advocating for workers’ interests. She brought these skills with her when she moved to the Nevada Statehouse, first as a state senator and then as an assemblyperson.
Once a working mom like Carlton is elected into office, she doesn’t forget where she came from. In the current era of political back-scratching, we could easily conclude that a union recruiting their members to run for office is just an attempt to pack legislatures with union sympathizers. But in fact, when American Rights at Work analyzed the 1994–2011 voting records of federal legislators who either had a working-class or middle-class occupation or who self-identified as a union member, we found that a politician’s union background significantly and positively influenced his or her likelihood of taking a policy position benefiting all working families, not just unions. Members with a union background had more “worker-friendly” voting records on issues ranging from protecting Social Security and unemployment to enacting stronger workplace safety laws workplace discrimination even when controlling for other factors, including party affiliation.
Politicians love to extol the virtues and the values of hard work—in their stump speeches, press releases, and in debates. But how many of them are going to bat legislatively for those who work hard for a living? Clearly, an individual’s life experiences and personal history shape how they vote. We need to elect more working moms, public teachers, nurses, truck drivers, and small business owners: people who bring the real perspective and values of working people to the table when developing policy that affects our daily lives.
About the Author: Sarita Gupta is the executive director of Jobs with Justice (JwJ) and American Rights at Work. Jobs with Justice works to build a strong, progressive labor movement working in concert with community, faith, and student organizations to build a broader global movement for economic and social justice. In over 45 communities in 25 states, JwJ local coalitions are organizing to address issues impacting working families. American Rights at Work is an independent labor policy and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the right to organize and collectively bargain.
According to Good Jobs First, an organization that promotes accountability in economic development, several states allow corporations to literally pocket their employees’ tax payments. Rather than having those taxes go towards public services, the companies withhold money from their workers’ paychecks and just keep it, never remitting it to the state, under the guise of a job creation program.
Republican Governor Tom Corbett is deciding whether or not to sign legislation that would require some workers to pay taxes to their bosses. Yes, you read that right. The bill, which would allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95-percent of the workers’ withheld income tax, is an effort to to recruit Oracle to the state.
Your taxes would get withheld by your boss like normal, but they would then keep them and spend it on private jets or monogrammed bathroom fixtures or whatever instead of turning them over to the state–turning your tax dollars over to the state being the whole reason they were ostensibly “withheld” in the first place.
“These deals typify corporate socialism, in which business gains are privatized and costs socialized,” wrote Reuters David Cay Johnson. “Leaders in both parties embrace these giveaways because they draw campaign donations from corporate interests and votes from people who do not understand that they are subsidizing huge companies.” The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center listed a host of reasons that Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) should reject the law, including its effect on state revenue and its loopholes that will allow companies to collect their workers’ tax payments even if they create no new jobs.
About the Author: Pat Garofalo is an Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Pat’s work has also appeared in The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times. He has been a guest on MSNBC and Al-Jazeera television, as well as many radio shows. Pat graduated from Brandeis University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis’ community newspaper, and worked for the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.
Americans faced with a tough economy face significant struggles when they lose their jobs. Since the 1930s, workers who are without jobs through no fault of their own have had the safety net of the unemployment compensation program to serve as a backup plan until they get back on their feet. Under new rules implemented by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his allies in the state legislature, it is getting harder and harder for working families who have lost their jobs to obtain the unemployment compensation that they have earned.
Florida’s unemployment compensation system was already one of the toughest in the nation before Republicans revised the rules to make it even more difficult for workers who have hit tough times to receive vital financial resources. Unlike any other state’s system, applicants are now required to apply online, with no option available for those who do not have Internet access to complete the application. Historically, applicants could use a call-in system to complete the requirements, but that option has been eliminated. The legislation was originally sponsored by state Rep. Doug Holder, (R).
“Florida’s revised procedures make it just about as difficult as possible for unemployed workers to access unemployment insurance now,” said Valory Greenfield, staff attorney at Florida Legal Services.
The effect is that the state is blocking workers from accessing help they are qualified for and twisting the knife in the state’s ailing economy. Nowhere in the country is it this hard to get help when you lose a job.
The online application also now requires a 45-question skills review, asking questions about applied mathematics, reading for information and locating information. The skills test is not available for review as the governor’s administration claims it is “proprietary.” This means, there is no way to independently verify that the test is a valid measure of worker skills. Scott’s office claims that the review is a “common sense” reform designed to create a more skilled workforce, but in reality, the review serves to discourage Floridians from completing the application. The denial rate for applications jumped more than 66% in the first three months of 2012. Other new rules require those who receive compensation to provide documentation that they have applied to a minimum of five jobs per week. The new rules also reduced the maximum number of weeks of that someone can be in the system from 26 weeks to 23. More dangerously for Floridians, is the fact that the legislation pegs the number of weeks workers can receive compensation to the unemployment rate, dropping the number of weeks all the way down to 12 if the state’s unemployment rate drops below 5%. That could certainly cause problems for workers in any fields that are not in line with the overall employment situation and does not allow for flexibility to deal with the complexities of the state’s diverse economy. The shorter duration of compensation offered by Florida could also diminish federal benefits that workers receive, since the federal benefits are tied to the compensation that states give. Florida’s average payment is $230 a week, with a maximum of $275—both among the lowest in the nation.
Scott renamed the program the “Reemployment Assistance Program” and cut the tax that funds the program by $800,000. The funding cuts have led to a logjam in the system as the call volume for the staff whose job it is to help applicants through the process is very high. There are numerous reports of people calling for assistance and never getting any help as calls go unanswered for days. Reporters who attempted to call into the system for help said that automated messages told them that there were hundreds of calls ahead of them in the queue and that the system hung up on them without them ever having talked to a human being. The cuts to the tax that funds the program have led to a massive deficit where the state borrowed $2.7 billion from the federal government to cover shortfalls.
Applicants also complain that the state’s website contains misinformation about the program and that it is difficult to navigate. Failure to complete any portion of the application or skills test results in delays in compensation or outright rejection of access to the program. Frequently, those who face delays or rejection are not even told that they have failed to complete the full process and they can wait weeks without knowing why they are not being paid. The new rules also allow the state to deny compensation to workers for their actions that take place outside of work and have no connection to any job.
The effect of the new rules has been dramatic—hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers have lost compensation that they have earned at a time when they most need it. Florida now has the lowest rate of unemployed citizens who receive jobless benefits, with a mere 15% of eligible Floridians receiving compensation. That rate is much lower than the national rate of 27%. Only one-third of applicants ever receives any money, despite the fact that the program costs taxpayers no money and unemployment compensation is part of the benefits package that employees receive from their employers. Nationally, 29% of first-time applicants are denied compensation. The rate in Florida is more than 50%.
After a complaint was filed by Florida Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project, the United States Labor Department is investigating the new rules to determine whether or not they are illegal and require an undue burden on the jobless.
“This complaint is not challenging Florida’s right to operate an unemployment insurance program that already pays some of the lowest benefits in the country. Rather, this complaint is saying that no state, including Florida, is free to erect procedural barriers that keep otherwise eligible workers from accessing unemployment insurance,” said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.
States receive federal grants to administer their unemployment insurance programs, and one of the conditions for those grants is that they have procedures in place that facilitate the prompt payment of benefits to workers who meet basic eligibility criteria. Florida’s new procedures force workers who already satisfy the basic eligibility requirements to jump through additional hoops in the form of complex online transactions. Thousands of workers are being unfairly disqualified as a result. We are asking the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate and find that Florida’s procedures are in violation of federal law.
Gov. Scott frequently uses the drop in Florida’s unemployment compensation recipients as a talking point about how his policies have improved the economy, despite the fact that the largest reasons for the drop is recipients reaching their maximum number of weeks and being ineligible for further compensation, or people getting frustrated with the system and giving up—not finding new jobs. Florida has a higher unemployment rate than the national average and approximately 800,000 residents of the state are currently without work.
This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO NOW on October 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is senior writer for AFL-CIO. He is originally from Florida and is the father of three sons. He can be reached at [email protected]
No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.
A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers andreproductive problems.
Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.
But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.
There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.
PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”
While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:
Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.
The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.
Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”
Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”
The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.
Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.
Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.
Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.
About the Author: Michelle Chen’s 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 [email protected]
In a June 6, 2012 conference call posted on the anti-union National Federation of Independent Business’s website, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney instructed employers to tell their employees how to vote in the upcoming election.
Romney was addressing a group of self-described “small-business owners.” Twenty-six minutes into the call, after making a lengthy case that President Obama’s first term has been bad for business, Romney said:
I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections. And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope, I hope you pass those along to your employees.
The call raises the question of whether the Romney campaign is complicit in the corporate attempts to influence employees’ votes that have been recently making headlines. On Sunday, In These Timesbroke the news that Koch Industries mailed at least 45,000 employees a voter information packet that included a flyer endorsing Romney and a letter warning, “Many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences [of a bad election result], including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills.” Last week, Gawker obtained an email in which the CEO of Westgate Resorts, Florida billionaire David Siegel, informed his 7,000 employees that an Obama victory would likely lead to layoffs at his company. This week, MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes unveiled an email by ASG Software Solutions CEO Arthur Allen in which he, too, warned employees that an Obama second term would spell layoffs.
In the June call, Romney went on to reassure his audience that it is perfectly legal for them to talk to their employees about how to vote:
Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision and of course doing that with your family and your kids as well.
He’s correct that such speech is now legal for the first time ever, thanks to the Citizen United ruling, which overturned previous Federal Election Commission laws that prohibited employers from political campaigning among employees.
In the post-Citizens United era, “there is not much political protection for at-will employees in the private sector workplace,” explains University of Marquette Law Professor Paul Secunda, a pro-union labor lawyer. “It is conceivable, under the current legal regime, that an employer like Koch could actually get away with forcing his employees, on pains of termination, to campaign for a given candidate or political party.”
Romney provided his call audience with a number of talking points to relay to their employees:
I particularly think that our young kids–and when I say young, I mean college-age and high-school age–they need to understand that America runs on a strong and vibrant business [sic] … and that we need more business growing and thriving in this country. They need to understand that what the president is doing by borrowing a trillion dollars more each year than what we spend is running up a credit card that they’re going to have to pay off and that their future is very much in jeopardy by virtue of the policies that the president is putting in place. So I need you to get out there and campaign.
Beyond Romney’s statements on the call, it’s unclear whether his election operation is actively coordinating workplace campaigning by businesses. Romney press secretary Andrea Saul did not respond to In These Times’ request for comment.
However, the conference call raises troubling questions about what appears to be a growing wave of workplace political pressure unleashed by Citizens United.
This year, it’s called Prop. 32 and it’s a near-clone of 2005’s Prop. 75 and 1998’s Prop. 226, which voters defeated by 53% to 47%. Both times, huge mobilizations by working families turned back the millions of dollars from Republican PACs and corporate and anti-worker extremists. These are the same groups that are behind Prop. 32.
Deceptively titled, “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” Prop. 32 would ban the use of voluntary payroll deductions by union members who want to contribute to their union’s political activity. It would do nothing to stop the campaign spending by secret corporate-backed PACs and the wealthy.
Prop. 32 exempts secretive super PACs and corporate front groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporate special interests and billionaire businessmen, to support their candidates or defeat their enemies. The measure does nothing to prevent anonymous donors from spending unlimited amounts to influence elections.
Prop. 32 is NOT campaign finance reform, as its backers claim. The wealthy supporters of this initiative created exemptions for Wall Street hedge funds, real estate investors, insurance companies and other well-heeled special interests, allowing them to continue contributing directly to the coffers of political candidates.
Prop. 32 would severely restrict union members in both the public and private sectorfrom having a voice in our political process. As a result, teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers and other everyday heroes would be unable to speak out on issues that matter to us all—like cuts to our schools and colleges, police and fire response times, patient safety and workplace protections.
This measure would give corporate CEOs and their lobbyists even greater influence over our political system. Corporations already outspend unions 15-1 in politics. This measure would effectively clear the playing field of any opposition to big corporations’ agenda, which includes outsourcing jobs, gutting homeowner protections, slashing wages and health benefits and attacking retirement security.
This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 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 have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.