Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for January, 2013

What Wal-Mart and Lance Armstrong Have in Common

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Leo GerardOddly, the top international cyclist—Lance Armstrong—and the top international retailer—Wal-Mart—revealed last week that they have much in common.

No, not doping. 

It’s their dopey concept of the atonement process.

Armstrong, already punished for misdeeds he’d denied, took to television on Thursday to finally confess. But he didn’t apologize. He didn’t follow the redemption steps: admission and regret; a pledge to reform and a plea for forgiveness, then penance. Wal-Mart didn’t follow those steps either. Its CEO made national news last week when he announced the retail giant would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and buy $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10. But Wal-Mart has never admitted wrongdoing or expressed remorse.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But, like Armstrong’s admission, Wal-Mart’s announcement was met with skepticism because the retailer skipped atonement steps. Meaningless to the economy, The Atlantic wrote of the Wal-Mart promise. “A public relations stunt,” Time wrote.

Wal-Mart has much for which to atone. There is, for example, its leadership in blocking an effort to improve safety at factories in Bangladesh, where 112 workers would later die in a fire; its serial bribing of Mexican officials to circumvent regulations, and its snubbing of American warehouse laborers who are seeking better working conditions.

Let’s start in Bangladesh. There, Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion in garments each year. The lure is the lowest garment factory wages in the world—$37 a month. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart and other garment purchasers demand such low prices from Bangladesh factories that managers cut costs in ways that endanger workers.

After two Bangladesh factory fires in 2010 killed 50 workers, labor leaders, manufacturers, government officials and retailers like Wal-Mart met in the Bangladesh capital. A New York Times investigation found that Wal-Mart was instrumental in blocking a plan proposed at that April 2011 meeting for Western retailers to finance fire safety improvements.

Just a little over 18 months later, 112 garment workers died in a horrific fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, where inspections repeatedly had revealed serious fire hazards. The New York Times found that during those 18 months, six Wal-Mart suppliers had used the Tazreen factory. In fact, in the two months before the fire, the Times found that 55 percent of Tazreen factory production was devoted to Wal-Mart suppliers.

 A month after the fatal fire, a Wal-Mart executive promised the company would not buy garments from unsafe factories, but the giant retailer hasn’t offered any solution for improving conditions in Bangladesh factory fire traps, and a Wal-Mart executive has admitted the industry’s safety monitoring system is seriously flawed.

Now, let’s go to Mexico. There, Wal-Mart executives routinely bribed government officials to get what the retailer wanted—mostly permits to locate Wal-Mart stores, according to a massive New York Times investigation that involved gathering tens of thousands of documents regarding Wal-Mart permits. Times reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote last December:

“Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance …It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.”

After being informed of the bribes by someone involved, Wal-Mart briefly investigated but then squelched that inquiry. Now Wal-Mart is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Here in the United States, workers at warehouses contracted by Wal-Mart in Southern California and Joliet, Ill., walked off the job last year protesting low pay, lack of benefits, unsafe working conditions and faulty equipment. Wal-Mart indicated it might discuss solutions with the workers, but last week, the retail giant rebuffed them.

Wal-Mart’s promise of 100,000 jobs for veterans is a good thing. Even if some of those jobs will be part-time. Even if the average Wal-Mart wage is $8.81 an hour —$15,576 a year—hardly enough for a veteran, or anyone else, to live on. Even if Wal-Mart will pay less than half those wages because the federal government will give companies that hire veterans tax credits of up to $9,600 a year for each veteran they employ.

Wal-Mart’s promise to buy an additional $5 billion a year in American-made products is a good thing. Even if $5 billion is a tiny number to Wal-Mart, which sold $444 billion worth of stuff last year. Even if Wal-Mart’s demand for ever decreasing prices from suppliers is the reason many say they moved factories overseas where laborers are overworked, underpaid and endangered and where environmental are fire safety laws are ignored. Even if Wal-Mart is buying more American not out of patriotism but because it makes sense financially with both foreign wages and transportation costs rising.

More American manufacturing and more jobs are always good. Thank you, Wal-Mart.

But Wal-Mart and Armstrong shouldn’t be surprised if their schemes don’t win them reconciliation with the American people. Armstrong’s failure to apologize reinforced the sense that he fessed up now only to secure the reprieve he wants from his punishment, from his banishment from certain sports. And Wal-Mart’s failure to even acknowledge that it has not been a perfect yellow smiley face of a corporation only evokes cynicism about its motives. No remorse, no redemption.

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.

This article was originally published by Working In These Times on January 22, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Time to Move Beyond the Board

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

kahlenbergThe stunning decision today by a federal court to invalidate President Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is being treated by the media primarily as a constitutional power struggle between the president, the Senate and the judiciary. But for labor unions—and the millions of workers they represent—the court ruling is just the latest evidence that the NLRB—a New Deal-era federal agency set up to handle all labor disputes—needs updating. It’s time for a new, more decentralized approach to protecting worker rights that supplements the current structure, which funnels all worker complaints through a single central agency in Washington D.C.

The current NLRB delivered a number of significant pro-worker decisions in 2012, all of which may now be in jeopardy. In a single year, workers gained greater protections in their use of social media; protections from employer-mandated dispute resolution programs; and greater protections for automatic dues deductions, among others. After years of pro-employer boards, many in labor saw the current incarnation, which has served since January 2012,  as providing a necessary rebalance of power. However, the NLRB was only able to reach these pro-worker decisions because President Obama used his recess appointment powers to appoint progressive members.

Now, that act may be erased. On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Federal District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously held that President Obama violated the Constitution when he made three recess appointments to the NLRB last January. The court rested its analysis on the definition of the word “the,” stating, “Then, as now, the word ‘the’ was and is a definite article.” Therefore a recess appointment must take place during “the recess” rather than “a recess.” In this instance, the Senate was not in session, but was not strictly in “the recess,” as it was gaveled in and out every few days. 

If this decision stands, the NLRB of the past year will have had only one properly appointed member, Chairman Mark Pearce. Hundreds of board decisions will be retroactively invalidated, and the board will be unable to function until at least two additional members are confirmed by the Senate. With the latest attempt at filibuster reform having failed, it is unlikely that the Republican minority in the Senate will allow new appointees to proceed quickly, if at all.

Since all labor disputes must proceed through the NLRB, this ruling could leave workers with no venue to protect their unionization and bargaining rights. As former Board Chair William Gould wrote in the New York Times in 2011, before Obama made the recess appointments, no quorum on the Board would mean that:

Workers illegally fired for union organizing won’t be reinstated with back pay. Employers will be able to get away with interfering with union elections. Perhaps most important, employers won’t have to recognize unions despite a majority vote by workers. Without the board to enforce labor law, most companies will not voluntarily deal with unions.” 

It was this reality that led the sole Republican member on the then-three-person board to consider resigning in order to rob it of a quorum. (The GOP has long loathed the NLRB). Now, the D.C. Circuit Court has held that millions of workers will have their workplace rights suspended because of the definition of a definite article in the Constitution.

The Obama administration will certainly appeal the D.C. Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, but given the high court’s current composition, it is unlikely that the decision will be overruled. The four conservative Supreme Court Justices can usually be counted on to vote against workers’ rights, and Justice Kennedy will likely be persuaded by the D.C. Circuit’s constitutional exegesis and appeal to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.

Labor should take this opportunity to look beyond the NLRB as the sole source of workers’ labor rights. The court’s decision on Friday has made apparent that the board has become too weak to remain the only venue where workers can seek relief for labor rights violations.

It is time to broaden the rights of workers by making labor organizing a civil right, so when employers illegitimately fire or discriminate against workers for organizing a union, workers can appeal not only to the NLRB, but also to a federal court. Just like victims of gender or racial discrimination, workers who suffered discrimination on the basis of union activity would get their day in court. As we discuss in our recent book, this proposal has many discrete benefits under a fully functional board. But it becomes a dire necessity with the prospect of the NLRB remaining defunct for a long stretch of time.

Writing labor rights into our civil-rights legislation does not entail scrapping the NLRB, but rather giving workers the same choice they have with other forms of discrimination: to proceed through an agency or through the courts. The conferral of such a choice may actually strengthen the NLRB by removing some of the enormous political pressures that the noard currently faces as the sole arbiter of labor rights. An NLRB that doesn’t have to carry the weight of every labor rights fight could devote itself to pursuing egregious or particularly difficult cases. Conservatives would have less incentive to rob the NLRB of a quorum if workers could still proceed through the courts and receive potentially greater remedies. 

It’s unlikely we’ll see compromise on this issue from an increasingly intransigent GOP that has proven happy to gum up the works of government. Republicans have no incentive to confirm Obama’s NLRB nominees when a non-functioning board will render moot many of the nation’s labor laws and dramatically shift power from workers to corporations, which has been a core GOP goal. Labor should continue to work to strengthen the NLRB, but should also think about moving beyond it. A year’s worth of pro-worker precedent has been erased in a single day; that should be a wake-up call. 

This article was originally published by Working In These Times. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Authors: Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a Century fellow and labor and civil rights attorney, are coauthors of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice (2012).

Why California Is a Pro-Union State (Sort Of)

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Ask Los Angeles Times reporter Alana Semuels why union membership in California rose by 100,000 in 2012, and she’ll give you a simple answer:

“Latino workers.”

To explain the contrast between the trend in California and the United States as a whole—where union membership dropped last year by 400,000—Semuels turned to some credible sources, including Steve Smith of the state labor federation who cited “an appetite among these low-wage workers to try to get a collective voice to give themselves opportunity and a middle-class lifestyle.”

Quoting Smith and others, Semuels finds that, “After working hard to get here, many Latino immigrants demand respect in the workplace and are more willing to join unions in a tough economic environment, organizers say.”

True enough: Immigrant workers have been particularly important for unions in California and Latino organizing has helped reignite the state’s labor movement.  But that’s only part of the story.

Many California unions, allied with progressive groups up and down the state, have dedicated enormous resources to community and economic organizing. This has influenced California’s political culture. Union-friendly city councils, boards, commissions, a democratic legislature and statewide office holders produce a relatively pro-worker political and economic atmosphere.

Though employer resistance to unions can be as fierce in California as in other states, there is also a growing sense that a cooperative relationship with labor can be good business (note the expedited permitting for the construction of downtown L.A.’s Farmers Field).

California unions were ahead of the curve in recognizing the power of Latino workers and voters and then led other states in building diverse constituencies around progressive economic development strategies. The number of “living wage” districts around the state testifies to that.

There is no pro-union state in the United States. But California (with 18.4 percent of the workforce unionized) may be pointed in that direction.

Despite its failure to offer context, the Los Angeles Times piece draws the same conclusion.

“Labor’s more optimistic proponents say that California could serve as a blueprint for unions across the country as they seek to stem membership declines,” writes Semuels. “The trend comes amid forecasts that the Latino population in the United States is likely to double in two decades.”

This post originally appeared on LaborLou.com and was also reprinted on AFL-CIO NOW.

About the Author: Labor Lou – Laborlou.com began in 2009 as commentary on the Obama Presidency and then became more open-ended.  This past year Labor Lou posted several autobiographical narratives.

Workplace Fairness and Wages: The Ethical and Legal Implications of Unpaid Internships

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Robby SlaughterIf you asked me about the most significant issue in workplace fairness today, I wouldn’t cite any of the common answers. Although there are widespread issues such as corporate bullying, the wage gap between men and women, and a general lack of freedom among employees, there is one problem that is more widespread and more egregious than anything else. There is no aspect of the modern American workforce which is as unfair as the unpaid internship.

The Ethics of Payment

Work for pay is part of the social contract of modern life in a capitalist society. We all adhere to the same agreement: if you offer people a chance to contribute in a way that is valuable and if you define requirements around that work, they deserve to receive fair compensation for their efforts.

Our organizations really are that simple: if there’s defined work to be done, you get paid for that work. If you’re not receiving some kind of payment—such as volunteering—then there is no expectation that you will work at a particular time or place, or that the work will be completed according to certain parameters. Work equals wages. That’s the only way to make things fair.

The Apprenticeship and the Internship

Compensation doesn’t always mean cash. Sometimes, we pay people in-kind. We feed them. We provide housing stipends. We offer them credit or teach them something of value. In Europe, these programs are called apprenticeships. Individuals spend years working with a master craftsman to learn the trade. They often sign agreements to work for the employer full-time after their training is complete. And overseas, apprentices are paid for their efforts.

But the internship has become something different. For many, this is not a job training program. Instead of working on actual projects of value to the company, interns fetch lunches and clean closets. They make coffee and photocopy documents. They perform concierge work such as picking up dry-cleaning or delivering packages. Many interns aren’t doing much work related to the business. These internships are not apprenticeships.

Furthermore, perhaps one-half of all internships are unpaid. That means all of that grunt work is done simply for the chance to be near the people in the industry.

Requiring individuals to perform work—but refusing to pay them for their work—is wrong.

Unpaid Internships: Often Illegal

In the United States, unpaid internships are often (if not usually) illegal. The Department of Labor defines six criteria for interns that do not receive cash compensation:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

It’s extremely difficult to design an internship experience that meets all six of these requirements. Consider the first item. Most workplaces are nothing like schools. Do interns attend classroom-style instructional sessions? Do they have assignments which are graded? Do they receive individualized feedback? Do they study academic curriculum and report on their newfound knowledge and perspective?

Furthermore, the fourth point is nearly impossible to meet. For an internship to comply with this statement, the intern cannot conduct effort that the employer can consider valuable. That means an intern cannot produce a work product that will be purchased by a customer. They cannot write articles for the company newsletter or the blog. They are prohibited from substantial contributions in sales presentations or marketing efforts.

Ultimately:  any work that an unpaid intern completes must be graded and then discarded. If you put an intern’s efforts to use in promoting your company, creating your products, or delivering your services—then that intern must be paid.

Hampering the Economy

The unpaid intern is not only an issue of workplace fairness, but also has a tremendous impact on our economy. When people perform work for free, they limit the growth of business by devaluing productivity. The more interns complete unpaid work—and the more that employers recruit unpaid interns—the less true economic activity is possible.

In simple terms: if people are working for free, why invest money in paying for work?

Therefore, the right thing to do for the country as well as for the people in your lives is to pay your interns. And if you can’t afford to pay them, that probably means you don’t have the resources to treat them like students and invest in their education.

Do the right thing. Pay your interns. Or, send them somewhere that they can earn a living wage.

About the Author: Robby Slaughter is with a business consulting firm based in the Midwest. He is the author of several books and hundreds of published articles.

Minnesota Janitors and Security Officers Set Strike Vote, Say Corporate Elite Has Power to Unlock Better Future

Friday, January 25th, 2013

seiu-org-logoFor janitors and security officers in Minneapolis, members of SEIU Local 26, a raise would help bring them above the poverty line. It would allow them to  pay for basic necessities, including groceries, school, rent or mortgage. And they’re  prepared to fight for themselves, their fellow workers, and their families in order to achieve those things.

As the next step in their fight for a living wage and and affordable health care, members of Local 26 held  a rally in downtown Minneapolis yesterday after contract bargaining came to a standstill. At the rally a strike petition was circulated, with a strike vote is scheduled for February 9.

“It’s not fair that while our productivity is going up, our wages are not keeping pace,” said Margarita Del Angel, a janitor who spoke at the rally. “We are being forced to do more and more work for the same amount, so our employers can cut back on workers and save money at our expense. And now, they are demanding to pay us even less. They want to cut wages for more than half of us…They want to lock us into poverty, while continuing to grow richer at our expense.”

For the first time ever, more than 6,000 janitors and security officers in the Twin Cities and suburbs are negotiating new contracts simultaneously. In 2008, a new contract was negotiated for 1,000 security officers after they struck in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. In 2006 and 2009,  janitors voted to authorize strikes, but both were narrowly averted.

local 126.png

The average worker in Local 26 earns $20,503 annually. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $23,050.

Members of SEIU Local 26 clean and protect some of the Twin Cities’ largest office buildings that house some of the wealthiest corporations in the country, including Target, US Bank, and Wells Fargo. The contracts expired December 31, but after months of negotiations, employers are still unwilling to bargain in good faith.

“We’ve tried to bargain in good faith,” said Demetruis Moore, a member of the bargaining committee who’s worked as a security officer for more than five years. “But it’s clear they have no intention of doing so. Either come to the table and bargain in good faith, or we’re done. We’ll see you in the streets.”
If Local 26 members vote on February 9 to authorize a strike, the bargaining committees would then decide when and if a strike was necessary, as well as set a date for a strike. If a strike were to happen, it would be one of the largest strikes to ever happen in downtown Minneapolis.

“While we are proposing fair raises to move workers forward, our employers are demanding cuts. This would move workers backwards,” said Moore, the member of the bargaining committee. “The corporate elite in this country have the power to help unlock a better future for all of Minnesota. It’s time they do that.”

This post was originally posted on SEIU on January 25, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mariah Quinn is a writer for SEIU.

Women Account for 72 Percent of the Decline In Union Membership from 2011 to 2012

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Katherine GallagherToday the Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data on union membership for 2012. We did some number-crunching which shows that while unions are really important to women, their membership is dropping.

What’s going on with women and unions?

  • Between 2011 and 2012 the number of union members dropped by 398,000. Women were less than half (46 percent) of union members in 2011 – but they accounted for 72 percent of the decline.
  • Men are more likely than women to be members of unions. The gap between men’s and women’s union membership has narrowed over time. Last year it grew, for the first time since 2008, by 25 percent. Women’s rate of union membership (11.2 percent) was 1.2 percentage points lower than men’s (12.4 percent) in 2011. In 2012, women’s rate (10.5 percent) was 1.5 percentage points lower than men’s (12.0 percent).

Why does this matter?

  • Union membership is critical for women’s wage equality. Among union members, the typical full-time woman worker has weekly earnings that are 88 percent of the typical man’s. Among workers not represented by unions, this figure is 81 percent.

Why is it happening?

  • It’s likely that women’s concentration in public sector jobs (women comprised 57 percent of the public sector workforce in 2012) was a key factor in this union membership decline.
  • The rate of union membership in the public sector workforce in 2012 was more than five times higher than in the private sector (35.9 percent as compared to 6.6 percent). Public sector workers comprise just over half (51 percent) of union members in 2011, but they accounted for 59 percent of the declines in union membership between 2011 and 2012.

A few wonky data details: BLS data on union membership include all employed wage and salary workers 16 and older. Figures are 2011 and 2012 annual averages. Data are not available broken down by gender and sector. Data on the wage gap for union members differ slightly from the often-used measure of median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers. Using this figure, the typical woman makes 77 percent of what the typical man makes.

This post was originally posted at NWLC. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Katherine Gallagher Robbins is a Senior Policy Analyst for Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center where she examines how tax and budget policies influence the financial stability and security of low-income women and families.  Before joining the Center in 2010, Ms. Gallagher Robbins worked as an organizer for the California Public Interest Research Group at the University of California, San Diego. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a graduate of the College of William and Mary.

United Workers Win WARN Act Victory in Baltimore ESPN Zone Case

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

kari-lydersenWhen the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore’s touristy Inner Harbor development closed abruptly on June 16, 2010, about 150 workers lost their jobs. Most were paid low hourly wages with few benefits, barely making ends meet and relying on the busy summer tourist season to get them through the slow winter months. Because they’d only found out about the closing only a week earlier, they had little chance to find new employment for the summer.

In October 2010, United Workers, a grassroots advocacy group running a larger campaign for economic justice and human rights at Inner Harbor establishments, helped some of the laid-off workers file a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. The lawsuit named the Walt Disney Company—which owned the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone, as well as four other locations around the country that also closed in summer 2010—and its subsidiary Zone Enterprises of Maryland LLC, which operated the Inner Harbor location. On Jan. 3, 2013, more than two years after the lawsuit was filed, a U.S. District judge issued a ruling that United Workers see as an important victory, stressing the importance of the federal WARN Act and launching a process wherein workers will be able to collect additional pay due to them under the act.

The WARN Act requires that companies give workers at least 60 days’ notice of mass layoffs and mandates that if a company fails to give adequate notice it must pay workers 60 days’ worth of wages from the date notice is given. The amount is to be based on the worker’s average wages over the last three years or their pay rate at the time of closing. When the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone closed, Disney gave the workers “notice pay”—in the form of weekly paychecks and an end lump sum—and based the amounts on the employees’ earnings during the previous six months. But since the restaurant closed in June, that meant the notice pay was based on a slow season, not the much higher pay for long summer hours they would have actually received had they worked in June, July and August.

The lawsuit argued that this was a violation of the WARN Act, and U.S. District Judge Catherine C.  Blake agreed that workers were due additional pay, launching a second ongoing legal phase in which the pay due to each individual worker will be determined. Andrew D. Freeman, the attorney representing the workers, said they will also seek class action status, meaning all the laid-off workers could be eligible for compensation.

Emanuel McCray, who was a host at the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone, told In These Times that he loved his job and that it had inspired him to want to open his own sports bar and restaurant some day. But he felt betrayed and disrespected by his employers in the way the closing was carried out. “I felt disgusted with them,” McCray told In These Times. “I grew up as a kid watching Disney movies and dreaming of going to Disneyland. What happened killed all that. Now when I see Mickey Mouse or anything to do with Disney, I get really upset.”

Emanuel said that the not only was the pay rate unfair, but the company’s failure to give the workers advance notice was devastating because they couldn’t seek other jobs for the summer. By the time ESPN Zone closed, he said, “all the summer restaurant jobs were already locked up.”

McCray said some workers lost their homes and had to move to other cities with their families after the closing. He has struggled to find steady work since—he does D.J. gigs and was a service manager at Wal-Mart. He also does work with United Workers and the Waterfront Partnership, a company that works with city officials and business owners to promote sustainable development along Baltimore’s waterfront.  (A silver lining in the ESPN Zone situation has been that McCray thinks he’s found his true calling as a social justice activist, building on his college major in political science. He is considering running for elected office and otherwise working to improve the local community.)

Freeman, the workers’ attorney, told In These Times that the situation laid bare larger disturbing truths about “the disrespect this country shows to hardworking people in low wage jobs.”

“What Disney failed to pay these workers is a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “Disney has probably paid more than that to its lawyers to fight this case—and to my firm in attorneys’ fees. So the lawyers end up making more money than the workers this law was intended to benefit, who have been waiting for two-and-a-half years and will wait some substantial additional time, when they’re the ones who really need the money.”

Freeman told In These Times that about 35 ESPN Zone workers showed up to United Workers’ initial meeting about the situation, and he realized that all of them combined probably made less per hour than he charges as an attorney. “There’s something wrong with our society,” he said, “when you can hire 35 of those workers for the cost of one hour of my time or the time of Disney’s lawyers.”

In its response to the lawsuit, Disney argued that the WARN Act allows temporary pay reductions of up to 50 percent without notice, and said the workers got more in notice pay than they would have in such a situation. But Freeman noted that the pay reduction provision of the WARN Act is only supposed to apply during a temporary downturn when the business is ultimately remaining open—not in a closing situation like ESPN Zone’s. In her decision, Judge Blake agreed with Freeman that the provision did not apply to the case at hand.

Blake also agreed with the plaintiffs in finding that Disney illegally tried to get out of paying some workers the full amount due under its own corporate severance pay provisions, by essentially subtracting the WARN Act pay from the additional severance due the employees (Disney’s written severance pay policy specifically says that notice pay given under the WARN Act will count toward the severance pay the company owes workers). “I found that one of the most offensive parts of this,” Freeman told In These Times.  “They wrote their severance plan in a way that explicitly compensated violating the WARN Act. As the judge said, that’s a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

Freeman said Blake’s decision should help strengthen the WARN Act for future litigation. “There’ve been arguments that ESPN Zone and some other employers have tried to rely on to avoid giving workers notice that the Act requires, or paying them less than their full wages if they did violate the Act,” he said. “The court in this case made clear that the Act means what it says.”

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times on January 15, 2013. 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 is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]

“Just Cause”: Isn’t It Time For All Workers to Have Some Job Security?

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013
randwilsonDuring World War Two, employers were prohibited from raising wages because of wartime Wage and Price controls.  With labor in short supply, employers and union leaders sought ways around the government limits and agreed to new health insurance benefits as an alternative to increased compensation. Thus was born our odd system of employer-based health insurance.  
 
That seemed like a good idea at the time because union leaders could achieve through collective bargaining what had been elusive through government reform: health security for their members.
 
Over the next thirty years or so, health insurance benefits expanded.  As more and more workers were covered by private insurance plans provided through their employers, the urgency of winning broad political reforms diminished and labor backing to win universal coverage faded. Our failure to expand the health benefits achieved through collective bargaining to the entire working class eventually left union members in a vulnerable position. At a certain point, union health benefits for the relatively few union members were far more generous than what most workers had. Faced with out-of control health costs employers sought to make cuts and throughout the 90s and 2000s union members increasingly were not able to defend them.
 
The final result is the very mixed result of ObamaCare, a plan that is sadly not universal and now is actually being used by employers to attack so-called “Cadillac Plans.”
 
“The United States is alone among industrialized countries in allowing at-will employees to be terminated for arbitrary reasons.”
 
That lesson shouldn’t be lost as we face what I predict will be the next collective bargaining battleground: the job security provisions of union contracts, including the “just cause” clause.
 
Instead of waiting for such an attack, we should seize the opportunity to champion passage of “Just Cause” standards into state laws. It’s a labor law reform proposal that will appeal to all workers while putting employers on the defensive.
 
It’s long overdue. The United States is alone among industrialized countries in allowing at-will employees to be terminated for arbitrary reasons. Governments such as France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom require employers to have a “just cause” to dismiss non-probationary employees. Just cause appeals to basic fairness, just as due process does in court.
 
Just cause marks the dividing line between employees with job security and “at-will” employees. At-will employees have no job security: they can be fired for a mistake, an argument with a supervisor, a critical comment about the enterprise or management, taking a sick day, a complaint about working conditions or pay, or involvement in outside political campaigns* – all activities that just-cause covered workers can take part in without worry.
 
One state has passed a law.  The Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act was passed in 1987. Applicable to non-union non-probationary employees,
it prohibits discharges without good cause, allows workers to sue for up to four years of back pay, and provides a method for workers to recover attorneys’ fees. Despite fear-mongering by opponents, the Big Sky state’s robust economic growth has not been affected. Statutes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands also prohibit termination without “good cause.”
 
Winning “just cause” legislation would certainly not be easy. But building a movement to win it offers union leaders and activists an opportunity to champion an issue that would benefit all workers and also help union growth. Short of state or federal legislation, local unions, CLCs (Central Labor Councils) and workers’ centers could seek to enforce a just cause standard through workers’ rights boards and / or community pressure.
 
A “just cause” campaign would potentially engage working people at many different levels. One can imagine communities declaring certain areas, “Just Cause Zones” and fighting to enforce it as a community standard with employers. Other supporters could be involved using the proposed legislation as a “litmus test” for labor support in electoral campaigns. Still others could be involved in holding hearings on the importance of achieving a “Just Cause” standard and lobbying for passage with city councils and state legislatures.
 
If “just cause” campaigns succeed, workers will have more security to participate in union campaigns. Union leaders and organizers will be able to make the point that they are experts at enforcing just cause protections and can provide representation at hearings etc.
 
Even if campaigns for just cause do not succeed, millions of non-union workers will learn about the concept (especially if campaigns are based on ballot referendums) and the increased security it could bring to their lives. By popularizing the “Just Cause” concept, more workers may respond by thinking, “If we can’t get this important protection through the legislature, let’s get it by forming a union!”
 
Meanwhile, if employers do seek to roll back the just cause articles in our contracts, union members won’t be in the same position we were with the attacks on health care. Instead, we will have laid important groundwork to win broad public support and the employers’ attack can be parried, perhaps even used to strengthen the broad campaign.
 
Imagine the labor movement leading a campaign to win Just Cause protections for all workers. The sooner we get started the better!
 
 
Readers interested in learning more about the Just Cause standard should read Robert Schwartz‘s new book, “Just Cause: A union guide to winning discipline cases.” The book lays out seven tests that are the guiding principles for discipline and discharge in most union workplaces. With reform, those same standards could apply to everyone. More info go to Work Rights Press.
 
 
This article was originally posted on Union Review on January 8, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy. 

Oh Great, More CEOs Telling Us We Need to Cut Social Security and Medicare Benefits

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Jackie TortoraAs if we didn’t already have enough on our plates (having to fend off attacks from the “Fix the Debt” CEOs), now there’s another group of CEOs, the Business Roundtable, telling us we need to “modernize,” a.k.a. cut, Social Security and Medicare benefits by raising the eligibility ages and reducing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). How helpful. 

R.J. Eskow took on the Business Roundtable in his latest blog, How Extreme Is the Business Roundtable? Check Out Its Attack on the Elderly.

Yesterday, Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment Corp. and head of the Roundtable’s “health and retirement committee,” told Politico that “[a]ny effort to address the country’s fiscal problems has to have as a centerpiece reform of its principal entitlement programs.”

Added Loveman: “None of us [CEOs]—very few of us—are ideologically driven. We’re pragmatists….”

“I am encouraged by how relatively easy these remedies really are,” said Loveman. “… (and) they have a tremendously sanguine effect on the government’s fiscal health.”

That’s true. It is pretty easy. Just kick in a few rich people’s doors, seize their belongings…oh, wait. That’s the other extremist scenario. Loveman’s is the one where people who have paid for Social Security and Medicare coverage throughout their working lives must give some of their benefits up—for him and his friends.

These CEOs are the same people cutting back on pensions and retiree health benefits. Now they want working people to have even more economic insecurity in retirement by cutting the few benefits that keep seniors afloat. 

Raising the Social Security retirement age is especially damaging. Not only is it a benefit cut, workers 55 and older have the longest bouts of unemployment. The average time unemployed is nearly a year (51.3 weeks, compared to 34.3 weeks for workers younger than 55).  

Eskow points out that 8.9% of American seniors already live in poverty, while 5.4% are on the edge. The average Social Security recipient collects $1,164 per month.

Anyone who claims they can cut those benefits by 3%—and use those meager benefits to end elder poverty—is selling snake oil.

Snake oil indeed. There’s nothing more cynical than calling devastating cuts to vital lifelines “modernization proposals.” Working people know the difference. 

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on 1/17/2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO. Interviewing union musicians was her introduction to the labor movement. Her first job after graduating college was in Syracuse, New York, where she wrote and edited the International Musician, the monthly magazine for the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Protecting Social Security and Medicare from benefit cuts brought me to Washington, D.C., where she spent two years as a new media coordinator at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. She came to the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2012, just in time to re-elect President Barack Obama. When she’s not tweeting about America’s unions, it’s likely she’s watching Syracuse basketball and football. 

"This is Not Just a Steelworker Issue"

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
berry craigShowing solidarity with our union brothers and sisters is a great way for us to ring in the New Year, says Jim Key, vice president at large of Steelworkers Local 550 in Paducah, Ky.
Key, also his local’s legislative and political chairman, is asking union members and union supporters nationwide to take a minute to put their John Hancock on a White House cyber-petition against corporations that file for bankruptcy “to circumvent their liabilities for workers’ pensions and post-retirement health care benefits.”
The link to the petition is http://wh.gov/Reqy.
Added Key: “The stark reality is that many unions will likely be facing the same thing in the very near future.”
The future is now, says Chris MacLarion, vice president of USW Local 9477 in Baltimore. One of his members, Eric Schindler, started the petition, using their former employer, RG Steel, as an example of corporate greed run amok.
The petition, addressed to the Obama administration, explains that in March 2011, RG Steel, LLC, entered into a contract with the USW. But in June 2012, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While in bankruptcy proceedings, RG Steel asked to be permitted to pay $20 million in bonuses to 10 “key managers” to help the company “secure a buyer,” the petition also says. “…After the buyer was named these managers were to be paid their salaries and other monies” including funds to purchase health insurance.
“Meanwhile the 2000+ Union workers were laid off and unemployed,” the petition says. “Their medical benefits were stopped September 1 of 2012. Unfortunately the insurance provider was issued an order to stop paying claims two weeks before the end date.” Union members also lost “other monies promised in the contract that was voided.”
The petition urges, “stop companies from rewarding bad behavior. Make them abide by the contract.”
MacLarion says his local represented about 1,850 USW members in RG’s Baltimore mill — the former Sparrow’s Point Bethlehem Steel works — and approximately 150 more in amalgamated units that serviced the factory.
“RG Steel’s demise has left all of them without jobs, while the management group made a grab at $20 million in bonuses,” he said. “While that grab at the money proved futile, as the judge rejected their attempt, they nonetheless were able to secure another set of bonuses and pay under a second motion.”
Added MacLarion: “While this was a much smaller amount it is still appalling that the same people that ran the company into the ground were able to take payments of three-quarters of $1 million. That money would have been better served paying the medical bills that our members were stuck holding the tab for.”
MacLarion says he and the members of his union liken the RG Steel bonus grab to paying the captain of the Titanic a bonus for hitting the iceberg while managing to keep his ship afloat for almost three hours afterwards.
MacLarion says RG’s actions also devastated USW members in the company’s Warren, Ohio, and Wheeling, W.Va., mills.  “They were part of the bankruptcy. All in all, I’d say roughly 5,000- plus USW members lost out in the RG Steel bankruptcy.”
Meanwhile, Key has gained the support of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, which represents AFL-CIO affiliated unions in the Bluegrass State’s 13 westernmost counties. Key is a recently-elected council trustee.
“We all need to sign this petition,” said Jeff Wiggins, council president and president of Steelworkers Local 9447 in nearby Calvert City, Ky. “This is not just a Steelworker issue. This is an issue that affects all union members, retirees and members still working, and our families.
“It’s happening all over the country. You work hard for a company all of your life, retire with dignity and the company ends up trying to cheat you of what should be rightfully yours. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
This article was originally posted by Union Review on January 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.
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