Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for November, 2013

I Heart Kozinski

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

It’s not every day that I profess my adoration for a public official so, well, publically. Especially not for a sitting Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge who is often called conservative.

But I heart Kozinski. 

It’s not because of his reportedly big personality, his colorful turn of a phrase, or his willingness to take on controversial topics.  I must confess; I often disagree with his politics and his findings.

It’s that he gets it.

At least he gets it when it comes to the critical importance of vigorous discovery in civil cases to plaintiffs . . . now that he’s involved in a consumer class action suit against Nissan Motors.

What made this otherwise conservative judge see the light?  It turns out that Judge Kozinski is unhappy with his attorney’s failure to delve into Nissan’s alleged illegal behavior before entering in what Judge Kozinski suggests is a “sweetheart” settlement deal in Klee, et al. v. Nissan North America, Inc., a class action on behalf of Nissan Leaf car owners for warranty and alleged battery defects.  He was so enraged with his attorney’s failure to delve into the knowledge of Nissan regarding these alleged defects before selling the vehicles to consumers that he filed a pleading asking the Judge to deny court approval to the proposed settlement.   In his thirty page opposition, he (and his wife) passionately made the case that “extensive” and “vigorous” discovery is needed to demonstrate liability of corporate defendants.

After deriding his high-powered attorneys for failing to obtain evidence that would be necessary to prove liability at trial, such as internal memos, emails, incident reports and prior complaints, Judge Kozinski wrote: “it’s the job of the lawyers suing to find out everything the company knows and hopes to conceal.”

Judge Kozinski took the words right out of my mouth.

His observation pinpoints the controversy over changes to federal rules now being proposed that would limit discovery in all civil cases, including those involving consumer, employment and civil rights claims, filed in federal courtroom across the country.  The proposed changes to the federal rules that govern discovery would cut the number of depositions allowed by half (from 10 to 5) and limit them to six hours each.  Documents requests are slashed imposing a limit of only to 25 requests; interrogatory requests from 25 to a paltry 15 and admissions having new numeric restrictions of only 25.

The proposed changes, recently submitted by the Judicial Conference of the United States to Congress are now open for public comment. Public hearings, which have already begun, are being held in Phoenix, Arizona on January 9, 2014 and Dallas, Texas on February 7, 2014.  Public comments received from civil rights, consumer rights, and environmental champions argue that the rules will effectively do away with the discovery needed to enforce laws for the protection of all citizens.

On the other side, comments received from representatives of big corporate interests complain that the cost of discovery is too high, requiring a “trim” of discovery for all cases in federal court.

If these proposed changes to the federal rules of civil procedure take effect, Americans who bring consumer, employment or civil rights claims against large corporate entities will feel Judge Kozinski’s pain.   An employee who was wrongfully fired for, say whistleblowing, won’t get to find out very much and certainly not what the company hopes to conceal.  Instead, it is far more likely that companies who are intent on doing bad things and firing employees who bring unlawful practices to light will play possum until the meager discovery afforded under the proposed changes are all used up in a game of “gotcha.”

Judge Kozinski’s experience as a class member in a consumer rights case has led him to provide a vivid example of how paramount discovery is to prosecuting cases that that are brought under federal laws enacted to protect the public from false claims or faulty products.  Judge Kozinski’s experience demonstrates how important this yawn-inducing technical “fix” to the discovery rules is to the general public.  People and their elected representatives should be paying attention too.

[To learn more about how the proposed changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would harm civil right cases, read Wendy Musell’s earlier blog post,Gaming the system: If you can’t beat em, change the rules.]

This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on November 24, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Wendy Musell is a partner at the civil rights law firm Stewart & Musell, LLP, a bi-coastal law firm located in San Francisco, California, and Freehold, New Jersey.  Stewart & Musell, LLP is a firm devoted to protecting civil rights in employment and in criminal law. Ms. Musell is committed to representing employees in public and private employment and protecting their civil rights.

Workers say Walmart's 'Extra Day's Pay' for Thanksgiving is a Sham

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Laura ClawsonTo make it sound less problematic that its stores are opening at 6 pm on Thanksgiving, Walmart has been telling anyone who’ll listen that it’s giving “an extra day’s pay” to those working the holiday. Awesome! Now tell me what you mean by “day.”

No, silly, Walmart doesn’t mean everyone who works Thanksgiving gets eight hours of extra pay. They get the average of the hours they’ve worked over the previous two weeks. And that’s where some Walmart workers say the problems lie:

Gertz and other Wal-Mart workers say their hours are cut prior to the holidays, so their average daily wage also goes down.Last year, Gertz’s hours were cut by five hours a week before the holiday. Her hours were also cut in the weeks after the holiday, which bit into her paychecks further. She said some associates in her store had their hours slashed from 40 per week to 24 in the weeks after.

Raise your hand if this sounds like something Walmart wouldn’t do. [A handful of Walmart spokespeople raise their hands, alone.] Because that’s Walmart: consistently adding the insult of pretending they’re really generous to the injury of poverty wages and poor treatment. Not unlike pretending it’s a kind, caring thing to hold a food drive for their workers who can’t afford Thanksgiving dinner on Walmart pay.

10:17 AM PT: Walmart points out that the worker quoted in this story didn’t work Thanksgiving last year. It continues to not rebut the claim that it cuts workers’ hours ahead of giving them “extra” pay.

This article was originally printed in Daily Kos on November 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

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

The Hunger Games Are Real

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Jackie Tortora“The Hunger Games” are real. If you’re familiar with the books and movies, or have at least heard of the “Hunger Games” phenomenon, you’re probably aware that the series tackles some pretty serious issues of poverty and economic inequality that hit way too close to home. If you’re not, here’s some background.

“The Hunger Games” takes place in the fictional world of Panem, which is a dystopian North America sometime in the far off future. All the wealth in the country is concentrated in the Capitol and people in the 12 districts are constantly in fear of starvation. Everything the people in the districts produce, whether it is coal, grain, machinery or clothing, is controlled by the Capitol. People are forbidden to hunt or grow their own food, thus relying on the Capitol’s meager grain and oil rations. To punish the people of Panem for District 13’s rebellion (the Capitol wiped out the region in a nuclear war), each year two teenage tributes from each of the 12 districts must sacrifice their lives in an arena where they fight to the death, with only one victor remaining.

While the story is fictional, it reminds us of a lot of the issues surrounding economic inequality we see today. Some sobering facts:

  • Nearly all—95%—of the income gains from 2009–2012 have been captured by the wealthiest 1%.
  • In recent years, the wealthiest 1% have gotten richer and richer, while the median household income is down 8% since 2000.
  • Wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of national income since 1966, while corporate profits are now the largest share of national income since 1950.
  • The federal minimum wage, $7.25, hasn’t risen since 2009. The tipped minimum wage, $2.13, hasn’t risen in two decades.
  • One in 6 people in America are hungry and 1 in 5 children are.

Check out 8 Ways Economic Inequality in America Is Like the “Hunger Games.”

“The Hunger Games” bestseller books and blockbuster films represent a rare opportunity where these issues of social and economic justice are being widely discussed in pop culture and in homes across the United States.

Check out this video from the Harry Potter Alliance:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmVJaBuoEY

Disclaimer: Having a union doesn’t guarantee no workplace injuries on the job, but union mines have 68% fewer fatal injuries than nonunion mines.

Working families, union members and leaders are joining the online movement to lift up these issues of economic inequality and poverty using the “Hunger Games” as a jumping off point. Check outoddsinourfavor.org, where you can join the “resistance” and post a photo doing the “salute,” the symbol of solidarity of the working people.

Below is a graphic you can share on social media showing various union members, leaders and working people representing each of the 13 districts of Panem.

#WeAreTheDistricts

Click here to share the graphic above.

Pictured from left to right:

District 7: Carmen Berkley, director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights, AFL-CIO

District 2: Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

District 1: Tefere Gebre, executive vice president, AFL-CIO

District 3: Stan Sorscher, labor representative, Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA)

District 4: Michael Sacco, president, Seafarers (SIU)

District 6: Veda Shook, international president, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA)

District 9: David B. Durkee, president, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM)

District 5: Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer, AFL-CIO

District 8: Gregory Cendada, executive director, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

District: 11: Ana Avendaño, assistant to the president and director of Immigration and Community Action at the AFL-CIO

District 10: Jennifer Angarita, national worker center coordinator, AFL-CIO

District 12: Richard Trumka, president, AFL-CIO

District 13: Ai-jen Poo, executive director, National Domestic Workers Alliance

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Failed By Florida

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

seiu-org-logoAlthough Marie Museau, a nursing assistant at Palmetto Hospital in Hialeah, Fla., works as a healthcare provider, she does not have health insurance. She and thousands of other healthcare workers in the Sunshine State spend their days attending to the health of others, yet cannot afford to visit a doctor themselves.

Museau makes too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford the family health insurance plan she could purchase from her employer, which would cost her closer to $600 per month. “That’s almost half my take-home pay,” she said.

If Museau lived in Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky–or any one of 23 other states–she would qualify for fully paid healthcare thanks to the new healthcare law. The law transfers billions of federal dollars to the states, so they can expand their Medicaid programs to cover millions of additional working Americans.

However, because politicians in Florida have blocked the state from accepting the funding–which is fully paid by the federal government initially and later 90 percent federally paid–she and three of her children will continue to go without health insurance.

Museau has a fourth child–a son who requires intensive care at home after a car accident several years ago. She worries about her own health, and her ability to care for her injured son if she gets ill. “I have heart issues and need to see a cardiologist, but at this point I just can’t afford to,” she says.

Museau was failed by her state. By refusing to accept the $51 billion in fully paid federal funding, Florida politicians lost their chance to insure 1.2 million Floridians and create 120,000 new healthcare jobs in the state. All of this just to try to sabotage the new healthcare law and appease tea party extremists who are demanding its repeal.

The fight is not over. SEIU members have been working overtime to persuade Florida lawmakers, including Gov. Rick Scott, to finally accept these dollars that will give hardworking Floridians just like Museau the affordable healthcare they need.

“I’m hoping the state of Florida accepts that money,” Museau said. “It would really help me and my family.”‘

This article was originally printed on SEIU on November 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications.

Why Port Truckers Are Striking: 12-Hour Shifts, Noxious Fumes and $12.90 Paychecks

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

sarah jaffe“We are on strike today to have respect and dignity at work,” says Walter Melendez, one of approximately 40 Los Angeles port truck drivers who walked off the job at 5a.m. morning in protest of alleged unfair labor practices. The strikes featured the rolling “ambulatory pickets” that the truckers have excelled at—chasing down trucks as they leave the port and setting up picket lines in front of them.

Melendez works for California’s Green Fleet Systems, a company that moves freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to nearby distribution hubs. The drivers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the company retaliated against them for pushing forward with a drive to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The push continues even as, according to Melendez, the company does its best to intimidate workers: pulling them into one-on-one meetings to dissuade them from unionizing, and even following and photographing them engaging in organizing activities outside work. Melendez believes that more Green Fleet drivers would have joined the strike this morning, had they not been deterred by these tactics.

In total, some 100 port truckers from three different companies—Green Fleet, American Logistics International and Pacific 9 Transportation—walked off the job today in a coordinated effort to raise working standards. Unlike the truckers at Green Fleet, who are employees, the workers from Pacific 9 Transportation are considered independent contractors. They argue that this is an illegal misclassification because they have none of the benefits of real independence—such as being able to set one’s own hours or work for different companies. Meanwhile, their bosses deduct operating costs from their paychecks, something that would be illegal if they were indeed employees. More than 50 Pacific 9 drivers have filed claims with the California Labor Commissioner alleging that this practice has robbed them of more than $7 million in wages. According to the labor federation Change to Win (which is backing much of the port trucker organizing), hundreds of similar claims filed in recent years by port truck drivers have all resulted in “substantial penalties” for the employer.

“They’ve taken from us everything that a human being needs to have a decent life,” says Daniel Linares, who’s worked for Pacific 9 for seven years as a so-called independent contractor.

Linares says that he and his colleagues marched to Pacific 9 management offices today and attempted to deliver a letter collectively explaining why they were on strike, but no one would come out to meet them. Eventually, Linares says, one worker was allowed to go inside to deliver the letter.

Los Angeles is not the only port where drivers are speaking out. Militancy has increased in recent months among port drivers around the country, whether classified as employees or independent contracters. Last month, a self-organized coalition of port truckers held a wildcat strike to protest the costs of new environmental regulations for the Port of Oakland being dumped entirely on their shoulders. Savannah, Ga., port truckers recently crashed a City Council meeting to ask for the city government’s support for their efforts to improve their jobs, and last summer, drivers at ports in New York and New Jersey became the latest port truckers to join the Teamsters.

As I wrote this summer, a report from the National Employment Law Project and Change to Win likened the situation of the independent contractor drivers to “sharecropping on wheels,” because the drivers have to pay for their own trucks and maintenance costs. In return, they are paid only by the load—meaning that time that they spend sitting in line at the port awaiting another load, breathing the fumes from their own trucks, is time unpaid.

Paula Winicki, a research and policy analyst for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy,breaks down the costs that Pacific 9 deducted from a single contractor’s paycheck: $125 a week for the lease of the truck, $530.05 in fuel, $50 for repairs, other miscellaneous deductions for parking, insurance, permit and license fees, and more, that with fuel, repairs and lease add up to $962.90. The paycheck for one week after the deductions was $12.90. Winicki notes that these issues are endemic to port trucking companies, so leaving wouldn’t help much. And in any case, once they sign a long-term lease for a truck with Pacific 9 or another company , “They’re tied to the company. … If they walk away, they lose a truck— and maybe get sued for breaking the lease agreement.”

Even the Green Fleet workers, who are actual employees, face the problem of piecework at the ports. Says Melendez, “When we started they told us [we’d get paid] by the hour, and then when we started working they’re like, ‘We pay you guys by the truckload.’ It’s like they pay us how they want to pay us.”

That means constant pressure to work harder and for longer hours. One of the things Melendez wants to change is the 12-hour shifts he’s pulling. “After ten hours you get tired working in the trucks, our bodies and our eyes and everything get tired, they don’t understand us, they say ‘Keep going, keep going.’ ”

2009 study [PDF] from nonpartisan think tank Demos, authored by David Bensman, Professor of Labor Studies and Employer Relations at Rutgers University, looked at the roots of the crisis in port trucking: the Federal Motor Carrier Act of 1980. This piece of deregulatory legislation shifted costs onto workers and, Bensman argues, the public, leaving taxpayers to pay for increased pollution, at risk of traffic accidents caused by unsafe trucks, and picking up the health bills of workers who have no health insurance. Goods for companies like Walmart, Forever 21 and Skechers shoes are made cheaply overseas thanks to low-wage labor and then moved cheaply through the ports thanks to drivers shouldering much of the costs.

Bensman says that the way deregulation ”destroyed” the port trucking industry “speaks volumes about the neoliberal labor markets of our time.” He concludes:

The deregulation of the port trucking industry, which began in 1980, has achieved some of its goals of increasing competition and driving down freight rates, but the public cost of this success is now clear: Ports compete for business by abdicating responsibility for air quality, chassis and container safety, and labor standards. Logistics firms benefit directly from lower freight rates, but suffer indirectly from a broken, unreliable, inefficient drayage system, which cannot share business information in a transparent and timely manner.

Drivers like Melendez would love to have safer, cleaner trucks to drive, but when the cost of updating the trucks comes out of their wages, they have to choose between breathing and eating. This is a problem around the country—drivers in Savannah made the same complaints, as I reported before.

In other words, the workers aren’t the enemy when it comes to dirty air around the ports—they’re victims of a thankless system. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports aims to take into consideration the workers’ issues alongside the environmental impact of the trucks—an impact that is usually felt in low-income communities that are nearest the ports—and includes labor groups such as the Teamsters and Change to Win as well as community organizations such as Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The support of community groups is key for short-term strikes by non-union workers, a tactic that has grown in popularity since Wal-Mart and fast-food workers took to it over the past year. Without a union contract, the best protection workers have against increased retaliation by the bosses is the watchful eyes of supporters who show up to join the picket lines and then walk them back to work the next day.

And as workers from different companies strike together in coordinated fashion, they multiply the impact they can have on their whole industry. “The companies are a little scared because it’s not [only] Pac 9, in the area, that is getting organized,” Linares says. “This is a general movement now.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 18, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belaboredpodcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

Super Conservative Judge Alex Kozinski Inadvertantly Undercuts Rationale For Corporate Proposals to Narrow Discovery Under Federal Rules

Monday, November 18th, 2013
PaulBlandWeb-172

Last week, an outburst by Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, one of the most conservative and generally pro-corporate judges in the country, showed that the corporate arguments in favor of amending the federal rules to make it harder for individuals to prove their cases are unfair and unwise.
Judge Kozinski didn’t make the statements in a judicial decision, but instead in a pleading while representing himself in objecting to a class action settlement some lawyers brought against Nissan involving an alleged defect in some cars.  Among the judge’s objections to the settlement were that it was the “job of the lawyers suing [Nissan] to find out everything the company knows and hopes to conceal.”  This strong statement sharply contrasts with the general argument that corporations are making to the Committee considering changes to the federal rules, where the Chamber of Commerce and its allies are all arguing that plaintiffs conduct too much discovery as it is and that it should be made much harder for them to do so.  The truth, as Judge Kozinski’s argument makes clear, is that if corporate America gets its way, plaintiffs’ lawyers won’t be able to “do their jobs” in representing their clients.
So what is going on with the discovery rules?  Why are Judge Kozinski’s angry opinions in this one case against Nissan of greater interest?  The answer is one of the latest initiatives in the series of corporate efforts to close the courthouse doors to individuals who have been cheated by, polluted upon, discriminated against, or otherwise been illegally dinged by corporations.  There are a set of proposals to sharply narrow the discovery available under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  The dynamic driving this campaign is that the burden of proof is on plaintiffs bringing a case, but the corporations possess and control nearly all the documents that relate to most cases.  So if you can make it harder for plaintiff’s to ask for evidence, you can make it harder (or often impossible) for them to prove their cases, and push them right out of court.
The Chamber of Commerce and its various buddies say that narrowing discovery is necessary because it’s supposedly unfairly expensive for corporations to search through their computers for evidence relating to law breaking.  In fact, as Public Justice has argued in some detail, the costs have been exaggerated, and in any case the biggest cause of costs and problems is that corporations stonewall and cover up inconvenient evidence—not that cheated consumers (or workers or pollution victims, etc.) ask for too much information.  But will a lack of serious data get in the way of an exceptionally well financed Chamber effort to help wrongdoers hide the ball?  No one knows yet, but the last several rounds of “reforms” have always turned out to be heavily tilted in favor of corporate interests.
But Judge Kozinski’s lambasting the plaintiffs’ lawyers in his objections to a settlement involving Nissan are way off-message for corporate America.  The background is that Judge Kozinski was a member of a class in a case against Nissan where the plaintiffs and the defendants reached a proposed settlement.  The way class actions work, a settlement has to be approved by a court, and in the vast majority of cases, class members have a choice between being part of the settlement (and getting their share of whatever relief is provided under the deal), opting out of the settlement (which means that the class member has the choice of bringing their own case in an effort to do better than the settlement), or objecting to the settlement.  Judge Kozinski objected to this settlement.  And one of his biggest gripes is that he is mad that the plaintiffs didn’t take enough discovery.  His argument is that the deal is very suspect if the plaintiffs didn’t do enough work to find out a lot about how badly the corporation actually behaved.  There are cases where this can be a very good point; I don’t know enough about the settlement to say whether he is right or wrong here.
While he says a lot of colorful things (Judge Kozinski hasn’t become one of our more famous judges by lacking in personality), the best thing he says is this gem: “It’s the job of the lawyers suing them to find out everything the company knows and hopes to conceal.”  That sounds about right to me – good lawyers need to get to the bottom of what really happened in a case, and if a corporation acting illegally gets away with concealing key evidence, then that increases the risk that the people harmed won’t be made whole.
So how can Judge Kozinski’s point about the importance of searching discovery be squared with the corporate campaign to make it harder and harder to take discovery?  The answer is obvious.  Judge Kozinski’s statement that lawyers have to dig through the concealment to get to the truth is completely inconsistent with the campaign to make it harder for plaintiffs to take discovery.
The obvious corollary of the judge’s comment is that proposals to limit discovery conflict with the campaign to choke off a good deal of the discovery available to individuals.  In the judge’s own words, if plaintiffs’ lawyers can’t find out “everything the corporation knows and hopes to conceal,” then they can’t do their job.
I can see why corporations that break the law want to make it impossible for lawyers for human beings to do their job.  I hope the Federal Rules Advisory Committee won’t agree with them on this round.

This article was originally printed on Public Justice on November 18, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: F. Paul Bland, Jr. is a Senior Attorney at Public Justice since 1997, is responsible for developing, handling, and helping Public Justice’s cooperating attorneys litigate a diverse docket of public interest cases.

This Week in the War on Workers: Supreme Court Case Could Sharply Restrict Union Organizing

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Laura ClawsonUnion organizing campaigns run up against the fact that labor law enforcement, wealth, and power in the workplace are all stacked against workers, and if bosses fight a union with everything at their disposal, it is damn hard for workers to win. That environment could get a lot worse, though, with the Supreme Court hearing a case this week that challenged the legality of a key organizing tool.

As Labor Notes’ Jenny Brown explains:

Neutrality agreements create rules for union and employer behavior during organizing drives. Often an employer signs such an agreement only after years of targeted union pressure. The employer promises not to try to sway workers’ opinions, allowing them some breathing room when labor law is mostly on management’s side.

For their part, unions may offer the employer some promises—for instance, that they will avoid strikes. But in the case the Supreme Court heard this week, a federal appeals court ruled that neutrality agreements may violate a provision of the Taft-Hartley Act prohibiting employers from giving unions “anything of value.” According to the appeals court, the fact that Mardi Gras gaming gave UNITE HERE access to its facilities and the names and addresses of employees could count as something of value.

The paragraph is designed to keep employers from bribing unions with money, jobs, loans, or other inducements, said Massachusetts labor lawyer Robert Schwartz.“No employer would think to bribe a union by making it easier for the union to organize,” noted UNITE HERE in a press release.

The Supreme Court hearing a case that could seriously limit union organizing efforts is a terrifying prospect. There were some promising moments during questioning:

Justice Elena Kagan said that the argument from Mulhall’s lawyer, William L. Messenger, could mean that employers would never be able to do simple things like invite union representatives on their property to talk to their employees without running afoul of the law.”So this is to say that the National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from providing access to their premises, from granting a union a list of employees, or from declaring itself neutral as to a union election?” Kagan said.

Messenger agreed, prompting a reaction from Justice Anthony Kennedy. “Do you acknowledge that your answer to Justice Kagan is contrary to years of settled practices and understandings?” Kennedy said.

But still. This is not a pro-worker Court, and it’s going to be a nervous wait for the decision.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on November 16, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

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

U.S. Pressure Needed to Make Honduran Elections Free and Fair

Friday, November 15th, 2013

On Sunday, Nov. 24, Hondurans will vote in national elections for president, legislators and local governments. The last elections in Honduras, in November 2009, were run by the de facto government that took office after the June 2009 coup and the electoral process was tainted by severe limits on civil liberties and low levels of participation. Candidates from diverse parties withdrew before the election, stating that the ruling party made fair campaigns and elections impossible. As a result, many Honduran and international groups questioned the legitimacy of the elections and the government that took office in early 2010. Numerous governments in Latin America explicitly rejected these elections.

Since the 2009 coup, those who resisted the coup have built a progressive alliance in which unions are a key partner and one of the founders of the resulting LIBRE party. Its candidate for president, Xiomara Castro, has been leading in the polls for more than nine months. Labor has presented numerous LIBRE party candidates, including one for vice president. At the same time, LIBRE members, activists and candidates have suffered violent attacks, threats and intimidation when attempting to exercise their rights and build a movement for social justice. Eighteen LIBRE candidates and immediate family members of candidates were murdered between May 2012 and Oct. 19, 2013, and 15 more suffered armed attacks. Countless more members of LIBRE have been victims of this violence, which observers say has been both increasing and more focused against the LIBRE party. U.S. citizens and taxpayers should insist that the U.S. government play a positive role in the Honduran elections, advocating for full rights and democratic freedoms for all Hondurans.

At the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, delegates passed a resolution to support free and fair elections in Honduras by having local labor councils ask their members of Congress to insist that the U.S. Embassy call on the Honduran authorities to run the elections free of threats, coercion or intimidation of candidates, their supporters or voters. As the resolution urged, the AFL-CIO is sending a delegation to witness the elections, along with regional unions from Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere in Central America that are also affiliated to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas.

Since the 2009 coup, the ruling government has failed to respect human rights, advance economic development or provide security to citizens. In this context, labor rights in Honduras have been violated consistently and recent reforms have reduced job stability and workers’ income. As a result, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint in 2012 under the terms of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). In March 2012, 94 members of the House of Representatives wrote to the U.S. State Department to insist that U.S. policy follow laws that link foreign assistance to respect for human rights. Meanwhile, poverty, unemployment and inequality all have increased over the past four years. Lastly, Honduras remains one of the most violent countries in the world outside of war zones.

While some members of the U.S. Congress have properly expressed concern recently about the role of the United States in Honduras and strong concerns about the upcoming elections, the State Department and its embassy in Honduras have not sent a sufficiently clear and public message denouncing the violence faced by opposition candidates and their supporters. Along with others, the United States has called on the current government to respect the democratic process, yet more vigilance will be needed to defend the rights of all Hondurans in the upcoming elections. The Nov. 24 election presents a great opportunity for Honduran citizens and workers to change course toward a more just and peaceful society. They must be allowed a chance to exercise their rights and seize that opportunity in free, fair and fully inclusive elections.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 15, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.

"It's good to know that at the end of the day you'll have the help if you need it."

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

seiu-org-logoJerry Depeine is a single father of two and works as a dietary aide at a West Palm Beach, Fla., nursing home. Despite working in a healthcare setting, Depeine doesn’t have insurance since he cannot afford the plans his employer offers.

For Depeine, getting sick often meant he’d have to miss more time from work than normal because he couldn’t always afford the treatment that would speed his recovery. “Not long ago, I had a throat infection and the prescription was too much for me to pay. I couldn’t afford it, so I just walked away. I just had to bear the pain and not go to work,” he explained.

Now Depeine is in the process of enrolling in one of the insurance plans created by the federal marketplaces–one that will cost less than his employer’s plan and will fit into his monthly budget.

Depeine looks forward to some of the preventive care that is a hallmark of the new law. He feels that regular checkups, which he’s never been able to afford, are a key to staying healthy. “Now that I’m turning 30, I want to get routine checkups so I can find out what going on with my body and stay informed about the status of my health,” he says.

Depeine is also looking forward to the protections he’ll have in case of an accident or a medical emergency. “It’ll make me feel safe and protected knowing that if something happens it’s not going to break me with all the medical bills,” he says. “It’s good to know at the end of the day you’ll have the help if you need it.”

Now that he is on his way to getting affordable insurance, Depeine shifted his focus to educating his fellow UHW-East members and folks in his community about the new healthcare law. “Everyone should know about their options, and everyone should be able to feel safe and secure in terms of their health,” he added.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on November 13, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications.

Exploitation Remains the Name of the Game at Dell’s Chinese Factories

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Michelle ChenThere is nothing newsworthy in the latest investigative report on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories—just the same old story, really: Once again, there’s evidence of systematic exploitation of workers, suppression of labor organizing, poor living conditions and chronic economic insecurity for young workers. What has changed is the intensity of the industry’s resistance to cleaning up the worst labor practices of China’s global manufacturing model. Even as a rising generation of young workers are increasingly disillusioned with harsh working conditions and dismal job prospects, high tech manufacturers are still taking the low road on their rights.

The report, authored by the Denmark-based DanWatch, with support from U.S.-based China Labor Watch and in collaboration with other European consumer advocacy organizations, describes disturbing workplace troubles at factories that supply the computer giant Dell.

It turns out that the chips and motherboards that bring modern efficiency to western offices are made under pretty backward conditions. Through site visits and personal interviews with workers at four factories that supply Dell (all managed by Taiwan-based companies) in Jiangsu and Guangdong, researchers uncovered evidence of numerous violations. At all four of the facilities, employees reported working long hours that sometimes totaled more than 60 a week or exceeded the legal overtime cap of 36 hours per month. In some cases, workers reported working seven days straight, without a day off. This non-stop schedule violates the voluntary standards Dell agreed to under the framework of the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC), an industry consortium that promotes ethical sourcing.

The report quotes one worker, Zhao Lili of Guangxi Province, describing physical exhaustion and seemingly toxic conditions on the shop floor:

“Because of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don’t get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,” she says.

Zhao explains the work is exhausting because of the repetitive movements and long hours. “We have to stand up the entire 12 hour shift; to sit down, you have to ask for permission.”

Many, according to investigator interviews and observations, were living in cramped dormitories, with poor quality food and a single toilet for as many as 50 people. Often, employers hired “student interns” to do essentially the same work as regular full-time employees, but with less pay and job security. China Labor Watch Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells Working In These Times that this is common practice in an industry bent on squeezing every last drop of profit from its workforce:

The tremendous use of student workers and dispatch or temporary workers is in part a symptom of brand companies, like Dell, driving down prices for production. The factories run on relatively slim profit margins, and the factories attempt to use every trick in the book to cut labor costs, including the use of illegally large proportions of temporary workers.

DanWatch’s investigation aims to implicate the whole electronics-manufacturing sector, but targets Dell specifically because it is a major supplier of electronics to European procurement markets, including corporations and government institutions. Dell has responded to the findings by vowing to strengthen its internal monitoring and claiming that “corrective actions plans are in place” for noncompliance issues it has detected (a recent corporate social responsibility report revealed that most internal workplace audits had also found excessive working hours).

Labor advocates are pessimistic about the industry’s glass-half-full promises.

Following a series of worker suicides at the Taiwan-owned electronics manufacturer Foxconn that provoked public shock, numerous tech companies—most notably Foxconn client Apple—vowed to address supply-chain labor problems and exploitation. But watchdog groups have repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of these voluntary efforts, as they allow multinational corporations to effectively control the oversight of their own supply chains, often through quasi-independent, management-friendly auditing agencies.

But Dell is hardly the only offender in China’s bustling global manufacturing sector, nor is it the first to issue dubious assurances to consumers that their favorite gadgets are ethically made.

Late last month, a group of student investigators who went undercover as workers at several factories in the southern city of Shenzhen revealed that “trade unions in these factories played no effective role in representing the workers or in upholding their rights,” while abuses such as inadequate safety protections, excessive working schedules and minimum-wage violations were rife. The experience is typical for the countless young migrant workers who fuel the tech manufacturing sector. China’s urban economy relies heavily on a vast army of constantly churning migrant labor, and the workforce is becoming increasingly unstable as frustration with the low wages and drudgery of factory work has led to scores of uprisings and wildcat strikes in recent months.

The banner of “corporate responsibility” isn’t enough to quiet these workers’ troubles. What they need instead is a real voice at work, in the form of an independent labor movement. China generally lacks real independent unions, separate from government-affiliated unions that typically work in tandem with management. At several of the audited Dell supplier factories, workers reported “no knowledge of whether they have a trade union or workers’ representative at their factory.” While worker unrest has roiled, activists have accused Wal-MartFoxconn and other companies of suppressing or resisting worker organizing in the Chinese workplaces that drive their supply chains.

With the indigenous labor movement only in its fledgling stages, consumer-led campaigns and groups like China Labor Watch might help encourage worker activism. But in terms of achieving systemic, sustainable change in the industry, Slaten says, “Even if consumers could act in unison, the answer would not be to boycott electronic products manufactured in a given Chinese factory. From the perspective of worker interest, this will only serve to get a great number of workers laid off.”

For workers’ interests to supersede corporate interests, change will need to start where the products do: on the assembly line, where workers can act in unison and stand up for their rights. Outside China, the rest of us—community groups, unions, and ourselves as individual consumers—have a responsibility to keep global public pressure on multinationals, showing solidarity with workers both by getting their back and by making sure the bosses get out of their way.

Correction: The names of the locations of factories now properly cite Jiangsu and Guangdong, along with Shenzhen in particular, as the sites studied.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 7, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: 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.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog