Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for August, 2013

Why Unions Are Essential to Tackling the Technology Challenge to Good Jobs

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Image: Richard KirschNew technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it’s society’s responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?

In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.

The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.

But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.

If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.

This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.

We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.

The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.

This article originally appeared in The Next New Deal Blog on August 29, 2013, and was cross-posed on AFL-CIO Now on August 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Chicago Students Boycott Class, Demanding an Elected and Accountable School Board

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

“David Vitale, we don’t recognize you as the board chairperson… You’re fired!”

Thus Jitu Brown, education organizer at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization on Chicago’s South Side, began today’s protest rally of about 400 students, parents and community members outside the downtown headquarters of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where Chicago Board of Education president Vitale and the rest of the board were holding their monthly meeting.

Activists like Brown have been incensed by unpopular board decisions like the recent 50 school closures and massive budget cuts, and students haven’t been happy at the changes, either. Today, dozens boycotted school to join community organizations from around the city at the rally.

The protesters demanded that the school board be directly elected by Chicagoans, rather than appointed by the mayor, to make the body accountable to community needs.

“We have jumped through every hoop CPS has said to jump through, and still, they make the same decisions over and over again that have damaged schools in our communities,” Brown said. “We need an elected school board!”

The boycott was called by community groups earlier this summer. Yesterday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pleaded with parents not to keep their children home from school.

“You have a disagreement [about school closings]? The court has spoken to that. You don’t like something? There’s another way to speak of it. Do not take the kids out of school and harm them and their future,” Emanuel said.

No boycott organizers or union officials knew the exact number of students who participated in today’s boycott. But the number of students skipping class for today’s rally was far below Civil Rights-era CPS boycotts, like the one in 1963 protesting extreme racial segregation and miserable conditions in the city’s schools. According to community and teachers union staff, most schools continued business as usual.

However, the clamor for an elected board seems to be growing.

Standing in the middle of the crowd with her three children participating in the day’s boycott, Mae McLeninen, a janitor at Curie High School on the South Side, said she kept her elementary-age kids out of school to join the effort against Emanuel and the board.

“We’ve gotta get rid of the mayor, but not just him. We have to hold them accountable through an elected school board,” McLeninen says.

“TIF money is our money. We should be able to tell them to put that money into schools,” says McLeninen, referring to tax increment financing (TIF) dollars—public funds initially designed to alleviate blight that critics say have taken resources away from schools and have become a giant slush fund for the mayor to dole out giveaways to corporations like MillerCoors and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The Chicago Teachers Union did not officially endorse the day’s boycott, though CTU staffers and members in red T-shirts could be seen throughout the crowd.

“We can’t ask kids not to go to school, but if parents think that’s the best thing for their children, we fully support them,” says Kristine Mayle, the CTU’s financial secretary.

Mayle says she understands the frustration of many parents at massive class sizes in many schools throughout the district and the failure to deliver promised items like iPads and air conditioning to sweltering classrooms during a Midwestern heat wave this week.

“The reports we’re getting from schools are that the promises the district gave them are not being kept, so it’s understandable they want to fight,” Mayle says.

As I reported for Al Jazeera America last week, many CPS parents were worried before the school year began on Monday that schools would not be able to meet students’ basic needs, thanks to budget cuts of $162 million and teacher layoffs throughout the district, as well as school closings and consolidations in neighborhoods of color on the South and West Side.

That worry has come true, according to several of the day’s speakers. After the protesters marched from the school board headquarters to city hall, Jamie Adams, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in the Albany Park neighborhood, told the crowd that her school saw $1.6 million in budget cuts and layoffs of six teachers and counselors, leading to overcrowding.

“We’re literally fighting over desks. Some of us are sitting on the floor,” Adams said.

Adams joined a group of about 20 students affiliated with the newly-formed Chicago Students Union, who say they will be waging a campaign for a seat on the city’s school board for students.

At the Board of Education meeting this morning, parents, teachers, union officials, and community organization representatives denounced the board’s actions during the public comment period, in a scene that has become routine in this city. Lane Tech parent Adenia Linker promised parents will keep fighting “until this board is history.”

The beginning of last year’s school year saw the Chicago Teachers Union walk out in a historic strike. With several hundred parents and students marching on the third day of school, a growing campaign to end mayoral control of the city’s school board, and rising anger among parents and students over austerity measures, the new school year promises to be just as contentious.

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 28, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Micah Uetricht is an In These Times contributing editor. He has written for SalonThe Nation,The American ProspectJacobin, and the Chicago Reader. Most importantly, he is also a proud former In These Times editorial intern. Follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht or contact him at micah.uetricht [at] gmail.

A Victory for Silica Dust Exposed Workers?

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Mike ElkToday, after a much-criticized delay on issuing a rule to limit workers’ exposure to cancer-causing silica dust, the Obama administration put forward a proposed rule for public consideration. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that once the rule is in effect, it could save 700 lives a year and prevent nearly 1,600 cases of silicosis annually.

In an OSHA press release, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, commented, “Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential. Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

Workplace safety advocates applauded the decision. In a press release issued by the non-profit National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, executive director Tom O’Conner noted that workers who are most exposed to silica tend to be those least able to advocate for themselves.

“Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure—and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses,” O’Conner said. “This new rule will help to pull them out of the shadows and make them safer at work. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves a safe workplace.”

However, some in organized labor say the fight to enact the rule has just begun, as it will have to undergo a public comment period before it is issued. In his response to the news of the rule, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka cautioned:

But this rule is only a proposal–workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued.  Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks. The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that does not happen. We urge the Obama administration to continue moving forward with the public rule-making process without delay. The final silica rule should be issued as fast as humanly possible, to protect the health and lives of American workers.

This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on August 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Strike in Colombia Highlights Free Trade Failure

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Dave JohnsonThere is a big strike in Colombia, and you probably don’t know about it. Farmers and others are protesting over a variety of grievances including the devastating effect of free-trade agreements, privatization and inequality-driven poverty. Corporate-owned American media is not covering it. These trade agreements make the really rich really richer while outsourcing jobs to places where people can’t object to the low pay and working conditions. This undercuts wages here. The end result is a race to the bottom.

The Strike

The BBC is reporting that 200,000 Colombian farmers are on strike in 11 of Colombia’s 32 provinces. They are blocking roads, cutting off the central province. The Economist reports that “Colombian miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers, public health-care workers, students and others” took to the streets on August 19.

Almost the only American outlet covering this strike is the Miami Herald. Last week the paper reported,

The agrarian strike, as it’s known, is broad-based and far-flung. Coffee, cacao, potato and rice farmers have joined ranks with cargo truckers, gold miners and others. Teachers and labor unions are also joining in. Their demands are equally ample, calling for reduced fuel and fertilizer prices, the cancellation of free trade agreements, increased subsidies and the end of a crackdown on informal mining operations, among others.

Reasons For Strike

Stone throwers clash with riot police as Colombian farmers demanding government subsidies and greater access to land block the road in La Calera, Cundinamarca department, on August 23. (EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)

According to the Herald report free-trade agreements are part of the reason for the strike. “Javier Correa Velez, the head of a coffee-growers association called Dignidad Cafetera,” … “High fuel prices, expensive agrichemicals, government neglect of rural areas and free trade agreements — without adequate safeguards — have made it impossible for farmers to compete, he said.”

Miami Herald report the next day also says that the strikers are demanding an end to free-trade agreements.

Common Dreams has more, in Colombia Nationwide Strike Against ‘Free Trade,’ Privatization, Poverty. Common Dreams reports, (click through for links)

“[The strike is a condemnation] of the situation in which the Santos administration has put the country, as a consequence of its terrible, anti-union and dissatisfactory policies,” declared the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the country’s largest union, in a statement.

[. . .] Meanwhile, the Colombian government is handing out sweetheart deals to international mining companies while creating bans and roadblocks for Colombian miners. Likewise, the government is giving multinational food corporations access to land earmarked for poor Colombians. Healthcare workers are fighting a broad range of reforms aimed at gutting and privatizing Colombia’s healthcare system. Truckers are demanding an end to low wages and high gas prices.

Labor Murders In Colombia

Labor “strife” is not new to Colombia. In February, 2012 AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a letter asking President Obama to delay the implementation of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, because of continuing murders of labor activists.

The letter states that through January, one union member was killed by Colombian troops, a second was shot to death along with his wife, a third worker was “brutally murdered” and a fourth union member employed by the National Industry of Sodas (Coca-Cola) was “murdered by gunfire.”

Over 2,900 union members have been murdered in Colombia over the last 25 years…

The Common Dreams report drives this home,

Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for union activists, according to the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and 37 activists were murdered in Colombia in the 1st half of 2013 alone, leading news weekly Semana reports.

Effect Of US-Colombia Agreement

The US-Colombia Trade Agreement went into effect May, 2012. A year later The Nation carried the story, The Horrific Costs of the US-Colombia Trade Agreement describing the consequences on Colombia’s poor and farmers. The new agreement forces Colombian farmers “to compete against heavily subsidized US products” and an Oxfam report estimates “that the average income of 1.8 million grossly under-protected small farmers will fall by 16 percent.” “The study concludes that 400,000 farmers who now live below the minimum wage will see their incomes drop by up to 70 percent and will thus be forced out of their livelihoods.”

And the threats and murders continue. According to a May Public Citizen report on the effects of the recent Korea, Colombia and Panama trade agreements,

In the year after the launch of the Labor Action Plan, union members in Colombia received 471 death threats – exactly the same number as the average annual level of death threats in the two years before the Plan. At least 20 Colombian unionists were assassinated in 2012 according to the data relied upon under the Labor Action Plan, while the International Trade Union Confederation reported the assassination of 35 unionists. … In addition, violent mass displacements of Colombians increased 83 percent in 2012 relative to 2011, when the U.S. Congress passed the FTA, adding to the five million Colombians who have been displaced in the world’s largest internal displacement crisis.

The Colombian trade agreement is hurting Colombia’s small farmers and they are reacting. They are pitted against America’s giant, industrialized, government-subsidized farms and losing the battle. And in America these giant, corporate farms largely only enrich the 1%, providing low wages for the rest and forcing smaller American farmers out of business as well.

Korea Free-Trade Agreement Already Costs 40,000 American Jobs

Our free-trade agreement with Colombia is not the only recent agreement that is not going so well for 99% of the people involved. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported in July that the US-Korea free trade agreement has already costs the US 40,000 jobs and increased our trade deficit by $5.8 billion. Already.

The tendency to distort trade model results was evident in the Obama administration’s insistence that increasing exports under KORUS would support 70,000 U.S. jobs. The administration neglected to consider jobs lost from the increasing imports and a growing bilateral trade deficit. In the year after KORUS took effect, the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea increased by $5.8 billion, costing more than 40,000 U.S. jobs. Most of the 40,000 jobs lost were good jobs in manufacturing.

NAFTA Wiped Out Small Mexican Farmers, Sending Them North

This is similar to the after-effect of the NAFTA agreement that allowed US-subsidized corn into Mexican markets, wiping out many small farmers and sending them north desperately looking for work. NAFTA forced at least 4,000 pig farms under, losing 120,000 jobs. (China being the beneficiary, now buying American pork-producer Smithfield.) It helped increase rural poverty from 35% to 55%. Tobacco and coffee farmers also went under.

A Wilson Center report says NAFTA “Subsidized Inequality,” displacing “many hundreds of thousands of small-scale corn producers.” A McClatchy report estimates the number of Mexican corn-farming jobs lost at 2 million, worsening illegal migration.

Then U.S. corn imports crested like a rain-swollen river, increasing from 7 percent of Mexican consumption to around 34 percent, mostly for animal feed and for industrial uses as cornstarch.

Meanwhile NAFTA didn’t turn out so well for American workers, either. Estimates are that NAFTA has cost 700,000 American jobs, and a quick look at 1989?s Roger & Me shows what it did to cities and regions. Many of Detroit’s auto jobs have moved to Mexico, for example.

China Trade

The Alliance for American Manufacturing has a state-by-state map of jobs lost to China (don’t forget the more than 50,000 factories), with the introduction, “The growth of the U.S. trade deficit with China since that country entered the World Trade Organization in 2001 has had a devastating effect on U.S. workers and the domestic economy. Between 2001 and 2011, 2.7 million U.S. jobs were lost or displaced.”

Our trade deficit with China drained $26.9 billion from our economy just in the month of June. And that was actually down from 27.9 billion the month before.

No Jobs From Trade Deals

In No Jobs from Trade Pacts EPI’s Robert Scott explains that the appeal of these job-killing trade deals is the job killing nature of the deals,

FTAs and other trade agreements make it enormously profitable to outsource production to countries such as South Korea and China that use currency manipulation, dumping, and other unfair trade practices to undercut production and wages in the United States. U.S. MNCs, including Apple, Boeing, Dell, Ford, GE, GM, and Intel have also profited enormously from outsourcing to Mexico, China, and other low-wage trade partners under the protection of FTAs and the WTO. The end result is a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions for most members of these agreements.

These trade agreements make the really rich really richer. They outsource jobs to places where people can’t object to the low pay and working conditions. This undercuts wages here. The end result is a race to the bottom, while the 1% get richer and richer.

Promises, Promises

Free-trade proponents always promise jobs and prosperity, then later we get the bill. The promises sound great but the record is that only a wealthy few benefit at the expense of the rest of us.

The Korean and NAFTA free-trade deals and China’s entry into the WTO led to terrible job losses (and millions of Mexicans pressured to migrate north), our trade deficit accelerated, factories were closed and entire regions of our country were devastated. Just look at Detroit, Flint, and similar cities.

But the promises … In 2011 the Koch brothers’ Cato Institute promised, in Trade Agreement Would Promote U.S. Exports and Colombian Civil Society,

[T]he U.S.-Colombia trade agreement would eliminate barriers to billions of dollars of U.S. exports. Colombia is home to 45 million consumers and is one of the largest economies in Latin America, and a major market for U.S. exports in the Western Hemisphere. …

Anytime trade barriers can be lowered anywhere, at home or abroad, Americans benefit from greater competition and specialization. …

The Colombia trade agreement would extend investor protections and guarantees of equal treatment to service providers in a broad range of sectors. …

Gains in market access would be especially strong for the U.S. financial sector. …

Cato offered promises for Colombia as well,

The FTA with the United States would boost the Colombian economy and complement other important market reforms carried out in that country in the last decade. …

After a decade of substantial improvements in the areas of security and the economy, Colombia stands to benefit from a free-trade agreement with its most important partner. By approving this FTA, the United States would contribute significantly to Colombia’s economic development at a crucial point in the country’s history.

And so on. This is typical of the promises we hear every time a new free-trade deal is brought before the Congress for approval.

Last year the Heritage Foundation looked at our trade relationship with China (which has cost millions of jobs and drained trillions from the economy). Heritage explained why the loss of jobs and massive trade deficit are good for us, because this means prices are low, and the owners of American (and Duth and Korean) corporations make out like bandits, we go further into debt with them, and then they buy our companies and land,

Every day we buy things made in China, though they may be made there by American or Dutch or Korean corporations. China buys a lot of our government’s debt and lately it has been buying small pieces of American companies and land.

Heritage goes on to say that if our government did something about it, that would make us “less free” and “would pick winners and losers” and that “comparative advantage” means China should do this work. Because their “comparitive advantage” is that no democracy, no unions, no environmental protections means they can make things for less so giant corporations have higher profits.

This, by the way, is a different way of saying what I wrote above, “These trade agreements make the really rich really richer. They outsource jobs to places where people can’t object to the low pay and working conditions. This undercuts wages here. The end result is a race to the bottom, while the 1% get richer and richer.”

Beware

Yes, free-trade agreements can increase exports. Corn to Mexico, for example. Raw materials to China. But if they increase imports even more, it is still a net loss for jobs and the economy. (No, by “imports” I do not mean the mass migration north of desperate Mexican agricultural workers wiped out by giant, government-subsidized US agricultural corporations.)

huge new trade deal is coming up soon. This is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), called by some the “mother of all free-trade deals” and by others the “Corporate Deathstar.” It is a job-loss runaway train that is coming straght at us. The corporate lobbyists are asking Congress to give up their Constitutional duty to scrutinize and amend this agreement by passing “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. Call your Senators and Representative today and tell them you oppose “Fast Track” — and tell everyone you know to do the same.

This article originally appeared OurFuture.org on August 26, 2013.   It can also be found on AFL-CIO NOW blog.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson is Dave Johnson  is a Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future, writing about American manufacturing, trade and economic/industrial policy.

At MLK March, Renewed Call For Obama Executive Order on Wages

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Bruce VailWASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, labor and civil rights activists are calling on President Barack Obama to honor King with an executive order that would raise wages for as many as two million workers.

One of the most poignant calls came Wednesday from Alvin Turner, a veteran of the famous 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike. Recalling a recent face-to-face meeting with Obama, Turner said “he told me personally he was working hard for the little man. If he don’t sign, he’ll disappoint me badly.”

Turner and others are pressing for an executive order that would establish a “living wage” for workers whose employment is tied to federal government contracts, grants, loans, or property leases. Earlier this year, the labor-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign produced evidence that many fast food workers at government-owned buildings in Washington, D.C., are earning below poverty-level wages, and that the same problems extend to other workers whose jobs are tied to federal government action. A study earlier this year from the pro-labor group Demos estimated an executive order could raise the income of about two million low-wage workers nationwide.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are making the order a centerpiece of their pro-worker “Raise Up America” campaign launched in late June. The Change to Win federation—backed most notably by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters—is a partner in the Progressive Caucus campaign.

Such an order would not require a vote in Congress or any cooperation from the anti-labor Republicans, noted Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Ellison. The president has sole discretion on whether to issue such orders, and pressure is rising on Obama to do so from prgressive Democrats, labor unions, faith-based groups, and others, Casca said.

If Obama fails to sign the executive order, “the federal government is complicit in the perpetuation of poverty,” charged Bill Lucy, a retired executive of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, who joined Turner Wednesday for a public panel discussion of the issue. A similar executive order was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, he added, so “it’s not like it’s anything new.”

Radio talk-show host Joe Madison said marchers at the Aug. 24 events to honor the 50thanniversary of King’s speech will hear repeated calls from the speaking platform for an executive order. “We will do a disservice to those (original 1963) speakers—to Dr. King, to A. Philip Randolph—if we do not demand” presidential action on an executive order,” Madison said. Without a demand for action “it’s just a ceremony, and we don’t need any more ceremonies,” he said.

“King was at the intersection of the civil rights and labor movements,” commented Moshe Marvit, a lawyer, author and labor activists. King would have understood that “we need bold action from the president in the form of an executive order” to begin raising wages across broad sectors of the economy, Marvit said.

Change to Win spokesperson Paco Pabian told Working In These Times that there has been no unequivocal response from the White House yet on calls for the living wage executive order. There have been reports that Ellison asked Obama directly for such an order at a June 6 meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had made a similar request, he said. In both cases, lawmakers were told that the matter would be reviewed by White House staff and that a definitive answer would be forthcoming sometime soon, Fabian said.

The push for the executive order gained an important backer on August 12, Fabian noted, when the New York Times published an editorial endorsing the idea.

“Many laws and executive actions from the 1930s to the 1960s, require fair pay for employees of federal contractors. Buth over time, those protections have been eroded by special-interest exemptions, complex contracting processes and lax enforcement. A new executive order could ensure that the awarding of contracts based on the quality of jobs created, challenging the notion that best contract is the one with the lowest labor costs,” the New York Times editors wrote.

Full disclosure: AFSCME is a web sponsor of In These Times.

This article originally appeared on In These Times on August 24, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Twelve arrested in protest of Walmart firings and retaliation against activists

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Laura ClawsonBeginning shortly after the early June strike by around 100 Walmart workers, 20 of the strikers were fired and another 50 were disciplined in retaliation; Walmart basically treated their absences as if they’d been playing hooky rather than engaging in legally protected concerted activity. Now, in a protest against that retaliation, 9 former and one current Walmart workers and two allies have been arrested in planned acts of civil disobedience outside a Washington, D.C., Walmart office Thursday afternoon. The workers are setting a deadline of Labor Day for Walmart to reinstate fired workers and raise wages or face an escalation of worker activism.

Walmart wants to turn this into an argument about labor law, claiming that the workers’ actions constitute “intermittent strikes” that aren’t protected by law. However, Josh Eidelson reports:

Asked in June about Walmart claims that workers were fired for threatening customer service by violating attendance rules, former Obama-appointed NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said, “the case law doesn’t sustain that as a valid defense” against the charge of illegally punishing strikers. As for the lack of legal protection for “intermittent strikes,” Liebman told The Nation, “I think it would be hard on the facts so far to say that the conduct constitutes intermittent striking.”

By turning this into a dispute about the specifics of labor law, Walmart can both drag things out for months or years before potentially being forced to reinstate the workers and can try to shift the conversation from Walmart’s own rampant abuse of workers and damage to the economy. They’d like to shift the conversation from the workers’ voices, while letting workers who haven’t yet joined the protests and strikes know the cost of doing so:

Another of the fired workers arrested today, Brandon Garrett, yesterday told The Nationthat his termination had taken a toll in his Baker, Louisiana, store: “When we came back from striking and we wasn’t fired right away, even more associates wanted to join the organization. But I guess Walmart got a sense of that, and when they terminated me, they kind of scared a lot of them off.” Now, said Garrett, “they’re still behind us,” but “a lot of them are scared to be retaliated against. So that’s another reason I’m standing up like I am.”

These efforts to change the subject and silence workers are why it’s important to hear what the workers had to say at Thursday’s protest:

Jovani ‘Virtually impossible to go to school with #walmart schedules. We should all be able to pursue our dreams’ #walmartstrikers
— @ForRespect

Pam from CA ‘I am here taking a stand for every Associate too afraid to speak out.’ #walmartstrikers
— @ForRespect

Lucas, gay, out and proud, faced discrimination at #walmart and was fired for speaking out. ‘Today I take a stand.’
— @ForRespect

Tell Walmart and the Walton family to respect workers and pay a real wage.

 

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos on August 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos

EEOC loses battle (but not war) on discriminatory background checks

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Christian SchreiberWhen it dismissed a federal lawsuit last week, the U.S. District Court for Maryland made it even harder for workers with poor credit histories and past criminal convictions to find a job.  Civil rights advocates hope the decision is not a bellwether for similar cases pending around the country.

The lawsuit, brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged Freeman, a privately-held event-management company, with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through its use of credit and criminal background checks.  According to the EEOC’s complaint, the employer’s decision to use background checks to screen out job applicants amounted to discrimination because it disproportionately impacted African-American and male job applicants.

Freeman’s hiring process involved detailed inquiries into both the applicant’s credit histories and criminal backgrounds.  Freeman “regularly ran credit checks for 44 job titles,” and excluded all applicants from certain positions who met any of 12 different categories of purported credit-unworthiness.  Even common credit blemishes, such as credit card charge-offs, medical liens, unpaid student loans, or foreclosures would result in the applicant being rejected.

The Freeman court joined the chorus of employers extolling what some consider the “common sense” of performing credit and criminal background checks.    These proponents also ignore the studies demonstrating that credit problems do not predict employee performance, as well as those that document atrocious error rates on credit checks.   A report released by the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year found that a quarter of consumers identified errors on their credit report that might affect their credit scores.

In 2011, California limited the use of credit checks in employment.  After three prior attempts were vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the bill was itself an object lesson in persistence.  However, the law also established broad exceptions to the “prohibition” on employment-related credit checks, effectively blessing their use across jobs and industries where the need or utility has never been demonstrated.

In addition to the credit-check hurdle, Freeman’s standard employment application form asked, “Have you ever pleaded guilty to, or been convicted of, a criminal offense?”  Applicants were told certain convictions would not be considered in the hiring process (yeah, right), but the company acknowledged a “bright-line rule” that disqualified any applicant who “failed to disclose a conviction, seriously misrepresented the circumstances of a criminal offense, or made any other materially dishonest statement on the application.”

In June, the EEOC filed two similar complaints against Dollar General Corp and BMW, alleging that the companies’ use of criminal background checks resulted in a disparate impact against African-American job applicants.  Referred to as “disparate impact” cases, these types of challenges stand or fall on the persuasiveness of the parties’ statistical evidence.  In the EEOC v. Freeman case, the court let loose on the EEOC’s expert, excoriating his methodology and ultimately calling his findings “an egregious example of scientific dishonesty.” (Ouch.)  Though it may be possible to blunt the impact of Freeman simply by putting on better statistical evidence, the decision nonetheless entrenches practical misconceptions and legal standards that are hostile to workers.

These cases are being watched closely by consumer and civil rights advocates, who still hold out hope that the EEOC’s oversight of these employment policies will curtail the increasing use of background checks to screen out applicants.   Advocates hope Freeman doesn’t signal that more bad news lies ahead.

This article originally appeared on CELA Voice on August 19, 2013.  Re-posted with permission. 

About the Author: Christian Schreiber is an active member of the California Employment Lawyers Association, where he serves on CELA’s Legislative Committee and Wage and Hour Committee.  He is also a member of the American Constitution Society, the Public Justice Foundation, and the Consumer Attorneys of California. Mr. Schreiber received his B.A. from UCLA in 1996.

T-Mobile US Workers Unite for Respect

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Image: Mike HallWith a new website—TMobileWorkersUnited.org—workers at T-Mobile US are connecting with each other to build strength in their drive for workplace justice and respect.

Working with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), T-Mobile Workers United (TU) is an alliance of hundreds of call center representatives, retail associates and technicians who are standing up to discuss the issues and challenges they face at the new T-Mobile US, a merger of T-Mobile USA and MetroPCS.

For the past several years, T-Mobile workers say they have faced an extensive anti-union campaign by the company that last year closed seven call centers in the United States and shipped more than 3,300 jobs overseas.

Before the merger, MetroPCS shared T-Mobile’s U.S. job-killing record. The company “outsourced all of its customer contact center services to maintain low operating expenses” through a partnership with Telvista, a call center outsourcer. Good American jobs are now going to Mexico, Antigua, Panama and the Philippines, according to MetroPCS’s 10-K filing.

Ronald Ellis, a T-Mobile US call center worker in Nashville, Tenn., writes on the new website:

With the recent acquisition of MetroPCS (9 million no-contract customers, and no customer service based in the USA), the winds of change are blowing. T-Mobile USA stopped employees’ raises and stopped the phone incentive for employees. We feel if we don’t unite soon, more call centers may soon be on the chopping blocks for downsizing.

The workers say they want this new company to succeed, and they believe that justice and respect in the workplace are essential for that success.

In 2011, CWA, ver.di, the German union that represents workers at T-Mobile’s parent company Deutsche Telekom, and a coalition of community and labor groups around the world, partnered on an international campaign to win workers a voice and respect at T-Mobile. Read more about the global campaign here and here.

This article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW blog on August 19th, 2013.  Reposted with permission. 

About the Author:  Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland 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

Caring for Workers Who Care for Our Loved Ones

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Michelle ChenFor many seniors, growing older means facing new kinds of stress—such as fragile health, a tight budget on a fixed income, or the travails of living alone.

And for the people who care for the aging, the stress can be just as severe. When her client is going through a rough time, one domestic worker says she lives through every minute of it, too: “Sometimes we stay there for five days…and we don’t know what’s outside…You cannot leave the job.”

Stories like this one, recorded as part of a survey of New York’s care workers, form the invisible pillar of an evolving industry that is making the private home the center of public health, and in the process, reshaping our relationships of family, work, community and social service. Yet the home care workforce, which is driven largely by poor women of color, mirrors inequities embedded in the low-wage economy. At work, caregivers manage the lives of our loved ones while often facing exploitation and abuse, and after a long day of delivering comfort to vulnerable clients, many struggle themselves to cope with ingrained poverty their communities.

To open a conversation about the economics and ethics of caregiving, ALIGN (Alliance for a Greater New York) has partered with the national advocacy campaign Caring Across Generations, along with various community and labor groups, to study New York City’s more than 150,000 home care workers. The surveys and investigations published by ALIGN reveal structural problems in the industry and identify potential for reforms that work for those who give and those who receive care.

In New York, the home care industry is booming as more seniors opt to live at home rather than in institutions. Thousands across the city earn their living by taking care of seniors and people with disabilities. Overall, according to the study, the sector “will be the single biggest driver of employment in the city in the coming years.”

On a typical day in New York, these workers, mostly women of color and immigrants, act as both therapists and companions, managing medications, bathing and feeding, and helping seniors feel dignified even on the days they can’t get out of bed. On top of this, the workers have to negotiate with stressed families about hours and pay–and typically take home low wages that keep them and their families mired in poverty.

And yet it turns out that consumers and providers of care want the same things. ALIGN’ssurveys of New Yorkers, including both caregivers and care “consumers,” show strong concern about decent pay for workers, along with retirement and healthcare benefits. These labor conditions are many cases dictated by insurance companies and Medicaid, not by the families receiving care.

The fact that consumers and caregivers both recognize that labor should be fairly valued “really does challenge this zero-sum notion that good jobs and affordable care can’t coexist,” says ALIGN policy analyst Maya Pinto. “And it suggests that people understand the connection between the quality of care and the quality of jobs.”

The converse is also true: When workers are miserable, it shows up in their work. Nearly 40 percent of people receiving care complained that the quality of services was “fair” to “very poor.”

But from a workers’ standpoint, this is the consequence of a job that treats them poorly. One worker described her situation bluntly: “It is a very difficult job at times because there are patients who think the home care workers are slaves.” Workers reported being subject to verbal and physical abuse, sometimes racial slurs, on the job.

Nonetheless, many care workers feel deep devotion to their job—they just want to their labor to be appreciated and duly compensated. “I do my work well…and the person I care for is very satisfied with my work,” said one worker. “It is very dignified work but it needs to be paid better.”

A priority across all respondent groups was providing appropriate training and monitoring–indicating that workers, contrary to stereotypes, are not instinctively resistant to greater accountability and oversight, and that all stakeholder groups realize the depth and complexity of responsibilities involved in caring for vulnerable seniors.

One area of divergence between consumers and workers was the importance placed on career advancement. The issue was a higher priority for caregivers, especially domestic workers who serve seniors but lack the official credentials of “formal sector” workers—a category that includes certified “home health aides” and “home attendants,” and who are generally employed through an agency. Lacking the formal qualifications associated with specialized, better-paying positions, domestic worker-caregivers (who are disproportionately low-income immigrant women, both documented and undocumented) often remain stuck in the most grueling, precarious jobs.

Some of New York’s privately employed home care workers benefit from a recently enacted domestic workers’ “Bill of Rights” that provides stronger workplace protections and wage standards than does federal labor law. However, domestic workers overall, who include nannies and housekeepers as well as direct caregivers in private households, still suffer from poverty, discrimination and exploitation. According to ALIGN’s survey of caregivers’ household incomes, about nine in 10 domestic workers earn less than $25,000 annually, compared to six in 10 formal sector workers. That is, despite the strides that domestic workers made with the Bill of Rights, in material terms, they still lag behind those employed through agencies or with more formal credentials.

ALIGN recommends several reforms to ensure dignity for both caregivers and people receiving care. More training and certification options–such as programs equipping domestic workers with emergency medical skills–would expand workers’ access to more formal and higher-paying positions and lift up standards for the workforce overall. On a policy-making level, the report calls for a expansion of publicly funded insurance programs so care workers, many of whom cannot afford medical coverage, can safeguard their own health as they care for others.

Since so many families struggle to pay the cost of community-based elder care, especially if they fall outside the income-eligibility bracket for Medicaid, the report recommends a more comprehensive publicly supported insurance program as an alternative to private long-term care plans. Noting that the current rollout of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid overhaul present an opportunity for fudamental reforms in home care funding, ALIGN suggests creating a broadly accessible long-term care benefit that would be funded through payroll contributions, like Social Security.

The report also highlights why workers need not just laws but organization and collective bargaining power. In recent years, SEIU and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have organized tens of thousands of workers to win fairer contracts for workers and to press for reforms to extend labor protections for care workers. Meanwhile, some workers are changing how care is delivered in their communities by forming their own cooperatives.

ALIGN cites the worker-owned cooperative model as a system that can empower caregivers, by enabling them not only to share in the ownership and profits of the enterprise but also to access training, negotiate better working conditions, and “improve compensation for workers while keeping the cost of care relatively low.” One impressive case study is New York’s Cooperative Home Care Associates, one of the country’s leading cooperatives with about 2,000 workers, half of whom own a part of the business.

Despite the sometimes harsh conditions, Vilma Rozen, a 52 year-old home care worker, remains unshakably devoted to her job and embraces the challenges. “If you want to take care of elderly people, you have to keep your feelings very in touch [with] the person, because the elderly people in some cases are very alone and very depend[ent],” she says. At the same time, she adds, many seniors “suffer so much, because the home-carers, they have a very sad life, very underpaid… They don’t have happiness.” Rozen, a native of Costa Rica, says that if Americans want to place their elders in the care of attentive, dedicated people, “they need to change the system.”

Whether they give or receive care, everyone wants dignity–both seniors and their aides want to look forward to seeing each other every day in a relationship of mutual respect. The labor issues in senior care show the consequences of neglecting shared needs, but also open space for creating a fairer system of care, by making the home a more welcoming workplace.

This article originally appeared on Working in These Times on August 17, 2013.  Re-posted with permission. 

About the Authory: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI.

Workplace bullying targets winning unemployment benefits appeals in New York State

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

davidyamadaThanks to a developing line of administrative appeal decisions, workers in New York State who resign their jobs due to bullying and employer abuse could still retain eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Under New York State labor law, workers who voluntarily resign without good cause are presumptively ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. Most other states follow a similar rule. Of course, this frequently leaves targets of workplace bullying in a bind when it comes to qualifying for unemployment benefits. All too often, quitting is the only way to escape the abuse.

That’s why I was so pleased to hear from James Williams, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, who sent news of a recent decision in a case he argued before the New York Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.

Case Details

The claimant appealed a denial of unemployment benefits holding that he voluntarily resigned his job with a local government entity, without good cause. The Administrative Law Judge overruled the denial of benefits, rendering these findings and a decision:

The undisputed credible evidence establishes that the claimant left employment voluntarily . . . after being notified . . . that he was on probation, because he felt bullied, harassed and set up by his supervisor. I credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that his supervisor’s repeated criticism and scolding of him in a raised voice made him feel bullied and harassed, especially in the presence of other employees. I further credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that the supervisor’s actions including pointing and reprimanding him, consisted of the word “stupid”, and other language which embarrassed the claimant and that the claimant believed he was being ridiculed by the supervisor. An employee is not obligated to subject himself to such behavior. Given that the claimant had complained to the employer about the supervisor’s behavior just two months earlier, and that the supervisor’s mistreatment not only continued, but escalated, I conclude that the claimant had good cause within the meaning of the unemployment insurance Law to quit when he did. Additionally, while disagreeing with a reprimand or criticism about work performance may not always constitute good cause to quit, receiving reprimands in the presence of one’s co-workers may be. . . . Under the circumstances herein, the supervisor’s treatment of the claimant exceeded the bounds of propriety, with the result that the claimant had good cause to quit. His unemployment ended under nondisqualifying conditions.

Other Decisions

Attorney Williams relied upon previous decisions by the full Appeal Board holding that disrespectful and bullying-type behaviors that exceed the bounds of propriety (that appears to be the key phrase) may constitute good cause to voluntarily leave a job and thus not disqualify someone from receiving unemployment benefits. They may be accessed at the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board website:

  • Appeal Board No. 571514 (July 3, 2013)
  • Appeal Board No. 559667 (February 28, 2012)
  • Appeal Board No. 558223 (January 25, 2012)
  • Appeal Board No. 549810 (September 10, 2010)

Jim added in an e-mail that potential New York claimants who may fit this scenario “are advised to take steps to try and save their jobs prior to quitting.  They will want to be able to show to the Department of Labor and to an ALJ that they took steps to try to change the situation – complaining to management, human resources, etc. – before quitting.”

Using These Decisions

The reasoning in these decisions is limited to unemployment benefits cases. Furthermore, the holdings of these cases are not binding upon unemployment benefits claims in other states. However, they can be brought to the attention of unemployment insurance agencies elsewhere as persuasive precedent.

In addition, this serves as an important lesson to those who may have been initially denied unemployment benefits after leaving a job due to bullying behaviors. It is not uncommon for initial denials to be reversed on appeal, and these cases provide genuine reason for optimism in situations involving abusive work environments.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Workplace on August 13, 2013.  Reposted with permission. 

About the Author: David Yamada is a tenured Professor of Law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.  He is an internationally recognized authority on the legal aspects of workplace bullying, and he is author of model anti-bullying legislation — dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill — that has become the template for law reform efforts across the country.  In addition to teaching at Suffolk, he holds numerous leadership positions in non-profit and policy advocacy organizations.

 

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