Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for December, 2014

New Pages to wrap up 2014!

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Paula Professional CroppedTo wrap up 2014 Workplace Fairness has added 105 new pages to keep you informed about the latest developments in employment law.

We now offer detailed information, by state, on the processes for filing a workers compensation claim, and for filing an unemployment claim. Find out how to file a claim in your state, what deadlines you might face, and what benefits you may be eligible for.

In our Discrimination section we’ve added a new page on genetic information discrimination, including the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”).  As technology progresses by leaps and bounds, new issues of privacy and discrimination can come up in the workplace.  This page answers questions that many workers may have about how accessible their genetic information is to employers.

In our Harassment section our new page on the effects of domestic violence in the workplace helps victims of domestic violence to understand how their situation at home may affect their work and what rights they have when they are treated negatively because of it.

Finally, in our Unions and Collective Action section we’ve added information about the 24 states that currently have right-to-work laws, and what that means for workers.  This page provides an explanation of what right-to-work laws are, and what they mean for workers in states that have instituted them.

USA Today Editorial: Court Secrecy Kills

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

USA Today has just run a startling and powerful editorial that shines a bright light on a dark practice. All too often, corporations that have manufactured defective and sometimes deadly products, or are engaged in other severely illegal behavior, ask courts to cover up the wrongdoing. Through the excessive use of secrecy orders, far too many courts have sealed evidence and allowed corporations to conceal facts that – if they had become publicly known – would have stopped dangerous and illegal behavior.

In particular, USA Today focuses on the case of Rich Barber, whom we had the privilege of successfully representing in a challenge to abusive court secrecy. Rich’s son was killed because a Remington rifle had fired without the trigger being pulled due to a design defect that Remington knew about and concealed for decades. USA Today argues that a pattern developed over a number of cases: a particular plaintiff would discover key internal documents of the gun manufacturer relating to the defect and its knowledge, and Remington would settle the cases and demand (and get) broad secrecy orders sealing up the evidence. As a result, the public didn’t learn of the defect for many years, and many more people died.

USA Today notes that Rich Barber’s work, and that of Public Justice, helped break down this wall of secrecy. Rich championed important legislation in Montana that now restricts courts from sealing records in cases involving public safety.

I urge you to read USA Today’s editorial in its entirety, and to share it with others. Their editorial board put the entire problem in perspective:

Clever use of court secrecy – confidential settlements and ‘protective orders’ to seal documents – helped keep evidence of the rifle’s potential dangers under wraps. Had court documents been public, injuries might have been prevented and lives saved.

This blog originally appeared in publicjustice.net on December 30, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors

F. Paul Bland, Jr., Executive Director, has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy.

Leslie A. Bailey represents consumers who have been cheated, advocates for the public’s right of access to court records, and litigates complex public interest appeals in federal and state courts throughout the country.  As a leading expert on the enforceability of arbitration clauses in consumer contracts, she has represented plaintiffs and amici in numerous arbitration-related appeals

Bargaining Power to the People

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Leo GerardEarlier this month, in the sparsely populated Kentucky county that’s home to Bowling Green, officials voted to convert the place into a right-to-work (for less) sinkhole.

The county officials did it at the bidding of big corporations. They certainly didn’t do it for their Warren County constituents because employees in right-to-work (for less) states get smaller paychecks than those in states that support the right to unionize. They did it at the demand of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heritage Foundation, both of which are corporate owned and operated.

They did it despite the fact that there’s no evidence they have any legal authority to create an anti-union bastion on the county level, which means they’ve subjected the residents of Warren County to substantial costs for a legal battle that Warren is likely to lose.

Moving right-to-work (for less) from the state to the county level is the latest tactic in the relentless campaign by CEOs and corporations to reverse gains made by workers in the 1930s New Deal. With laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress slightly moved toward workers the lopsided balance of power that heavily favors corporations. Over the next several decades, the middle class thrived and income inequality decreased substantially. Now, however, income inequality is back up to the point where it was in the robber baron days because CEOs and corporations have stuck their fat thumbs back on the scale.

The FLSA created the 40-hour work week by mandating time-and-a-half pay beginning at the 41st hour worked. Before the law, managers could force employees to labor 50, 60 even 70 hours a week at no extra pay. During the Great Depression, bosses could fire those who dared complain and easily replace them. Corporations had all the power. FLSA gave a little of that muscle to workers by enabling them to demand extra pay for extra work. As a bonus, FLSA encouraged businesses to hire rather than pay overtime, which increased employment.

The NLRA provided workers with a pathway to unionize. It established standards for employees to form a union at a workplace and for employers to recognize that union as the collective bargaining agent for the workers. Before the NLRA, Pinkertons, police and national guardsmen all too frequently killed striking workers. After the NLRA, unions multiplied, and collective bargaining achieved better wages, benefits and pensions for workers.

But from the day these laws passed, corporations and lackey groups like ALEC and the Heritage Foundation fought to reverse them. They wanted all power and wealth to remain with the one percent.

They invented right-to-work (for less) laws to do that. When a majority of workers at a factory vote to be represented by a union, federal law requires the union to work for all of them, to negotiate agreements that cover all of them, to file grievances for any worker wronged by management. That costs money. And that’s what union dues pay for.

What right-to-work (for less) laws say is that workers who receive these benefits don’t have to pay for them. Federal law requires unions to continue representing workers who are freeloaders. Unions may even have to pay to hire lawyers to represent freeloaders in grievances. That handicaps the union and strengthens the corporation.

And it’s a big part of the reason that employees in right-to-work (for less) states earn less. They lack bargaining power.

In the case of Kentucky, ALEC, the Heritage Foundation and other anti-worker groups resorted to seeking anti-worker legislation from counties when they failed in November to secure a Republican majority in the House of Representatives to provide it on the state level. They’re pushing this new scheme even though federal law gives right-to-work (for less)  legislative authority to states and territories, but not to counties.

The anti-worker groups formed a new organization to help persuade counties to pass the laws. It’s called Protect My Check. Its purpose is to defend the compensation of CEOs. Right-to-work (for less) legislation means fewer dollars in workers’ paychecks and more in CEOs’, so clearly the role Protect My Check is to pad CEO pay.

Similarly, CEOs are grabbing for themselves the overtime pay that workers once received. Workers are laboring more and more hours, and fewer and fewer of them are getting paid overtime. That’s because the level at which federal law requires overtime pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation. It’s $23,660 a year. An employer who claims fry cooks are supervisors and sets salaries at one dollar more ­– $23,661 – doesn’t have to pay time and a half for 10, 20, even 30 hours worked above 40.

In 1975, Republican Gerald Ford raised the threshold significantly to account for inflation, making 65 percent of salaried workers eligible for overtime pay. Now, only 12 percent qualify. Studies by the Economic Policy Institute have shown that if the threshold had kept pace with inflation since then, it would be $50,440 a year – more than twice the current level.

In the meantime, corporate demands for overtime work have increased. A Gallup poll of workers in August found 60 percent laboring more than 45 hours a week. Sixteen percent said they worked more than 60 hours.

Last spring, President Obama proposed raising the wage under which corporations would have to pay overtime. Immediately, anti-worker groups protested. Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, said, for example, “If they push through something to make a certain class of workers more expensive, something will happen to adjust.” He suggested that would be pay cuts or layoffs.

A certain class of workers has grown extraordinarily more expensive. That is CEOs. The pay for the top 1 percent rose 31.4 percent in the three years from 2009 to 2012, according to research by Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Income for the bottom 99 percent of workers was stagnant, rising only 0.4 percent.

Cato’s Mitchell is right. A certain class of workers is more expensive, and the thing that happened is that 99 percent of workers are suffering for it.

President Obama is trying to rebalance this gross inequality by raising the overtime threshold. But to more permanently tip the scales closer toward equality for workers, he should take measures to support workers’ right to form unions and collectively bargain for a fair share of the profits derived from the sweat of their brows.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on December 23, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo Gerard International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

 

Women With The Same Qualifications As Men Get Passed Over For Promotion

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Bryce CovertEven when women have the same experience, tenure, and jobs as men, they have a much lower chance of being promoted, according to a new study.

Authors Astrid Kunze and Amalia R. Miller examined private sector employment data from Norway, known as a generally women-friendly country, between 1987 and 1997. They found that even when controlling for industry, occupation, age, education, experience, tenure, and whether workers are full or part time, women are 2.9 percentage points less likely to get a promotion than men. On top of that, they found that “[f]or men, fatherhood is associated with a greater chance of promotion,” but for women, “children have a negative effect on promotion rates and that effect is even more negative if they are younger.”

Chances of promotion aren’t much better even if women stick it out with one company. Women experience internal promotion rates that are 34 to 47 percent lower than for men. It also doesn’t matter whether they’re entry-level or at the top of their company: at every level, women are less likely to be promoted to the next rung by the following year.

Given how low their chances are of advancing, it may not be surprising that women are huddled toward the bottom of the hierarchy. The authors found that the lowest rank is over 80 percent female, while men make up more than 90 percent of the employees in the top three highest ranks. This problem is persistent. “Across all years in our data, women are never more than 6 percent of the top three ranks, on average, even as their overall share of the average workplace increases from 25 to 33 percent,” the authors write. Meanwhile, female bosses are rare: more than a quarter of the workers they looked at don’t have any women leaders, while just 1 percent has all female bosses. Here in the U.S., women make up less than 15 percent of executive officers.

The lack of mobility to higher ranking jobs also impacts the gender wage gap. In their data set, women make 76 percent of men’s pay (in the U.S., that ratio is currently a similar 78 percent). But within each job rank, women make between 88 to 98 percent of what men do, and taking job rank into consideration decreases the gap by 59 percent.

Since the data for the study was collected, Norway and some other countries have implemented a gender quotas for women on boards, seeking in part to increase women’s representation in firms generally by promoting women in leadership. That may be a smart way to address it, as the study found that the more female bosses there are, the more likely it is for women below them to get promoted, while men aren’t impacted. Increasing the share of bosses that are women by .24 percent would decrease the gender gap in promotions by more than 40 percent. This “suggests that one reason for women’s slow progress to the top of corporate hierarchies is the historical male domination of those ranks,” the authors conclude.

This blog originally appear in thinkprogress.org on December 22, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

Eleanor Roosevelt Fought for Human Rights and Union Rights

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Image: Mike HallToday is International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the day in 1948 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the prime movers behind the declaration was Eleanor Roosevelt. As Mary Jo Binker and Brigid O’Farrell write on the History News Network that was just one piece of her long post-White House, progressive—and pro-union—activist life after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1945 death. Something they say was glossed over in the recent Ken Burns series “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

“This period is a complete mystery to most Americans who usually associate Eleanor with Franklin and assume that her role in American life ended with his death in 1945 or that her postwar life merely echoed his New Deal.”

They write that the later part of Roosevelt’s life was marked by three key concepts, political courage, civic education and citizen engagement. Political courage was highlighted by her stand against McCarthyism, while her civic education activities included a six-day-a-week newspaper column, 27 books and several radio and TV public affairs programs.

Binker and O’Farrell point to Roosevelt’s action on civil rights within a then-divided Democratic Party and helping found Americans for Democratic Action as two components of her civic engagement. They also write:

“Another important aspect of ER’s [Eleanor Roosevelt’s] civic engagement philosophy was her support for American labor. ER did more than foster the labor movement, she actually joined it. In 1937, one year after she started writing My Day, she became a member of what is today The Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO. Despite allegations that her membership implied communist affiliation, she remained a member for over 25 years. Indeed, her union card was in her wallet when she died. ER also numbered many union leaders among her personal friends. She was particularly close to United Auto Workers Union President Walter Reuther. Reuther and ER worked and relaxed together—staying at each other’s homes and befriending each other’s families.

During the postwar years, ER gradually became a strong supporter of public-sector unions and vigorously led an effort to defeat so called “right-to-work laws” in six states. She was a keynote speaker at the AFL-CIO merger convention in 1955, a merger she had championed for 20 years. When A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, asked her to join the National Farm Labor Advisory Committee in 1959, despite failing health she agreed. She attended meetings, wrote columns and testified before Congress on behalf of migrant farm workers.”

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO. org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Global-Action/Eleanor-Roosevelt-Fought-for-Human-Rights-and-Union-Rights

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.

After Rolling Stone’s UVa. Retraction, Randi Weingarten Shares Personal Story of Sexual Assault

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

In the wake of Rolling Stone‘s statement that it could not stand by the veracity of its bombshell piece detailing an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, anti-sexual assault activists around the country performed a collective facepalm. By failing to properly fact-check the anonymous victim’s account and then walking back the story, the magazine practically invited the slimiest corners of the Right to engage in victim-blaming, slut-shaming and all-around vicious misogyny.

It’s a moment when feminist allies need to speak out on behalf of women’s rights and loudly insist that sexual violence is an epidemic that has to be taken seriously. In the past, however, unions often have not been willing to speak out about sexual assault—even among those that have attempted to carry out a broad progressive agenda, or those with large female memberships.

So it was a welcome surprise to see American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten strongly weighing in on the issue Jezebel yesterday, explaining little-covered efforts by her union to fight sexual assault on college campuses—and detailing her own experience with sexual assault:

“It was just after my junior year in college. I had an internship in labor relations at an automobile plant in Warren, Ohio. A New Yorker from birth, I was out of my element. I tried to find community to anchor my summer in Warren. I did what was familiar: I went to shul. One family invited me over for Shabbat dinner. Dutifully and hopefully, I went. They also invited a young man. He was nice enough. So, when this “nice Jewish guy” invited me for dinner, I said, “Sure.”

“A few days later, I went to his apartment. And that’s where it happened. He tried to rape me. I managed to get out after a struggle, but the emotional scarring was deep.”

She goes on to recall how the assault stayed with her for decades, and why she never spoke about it publicly:

“I didn’t report it. I thought it was my fault. I thought I should have known better. I should have been smarter.”

“I carried it with me for years and years. The shame and the fear faded but never erased completely as I graduated from college and law school, then became a lawyer, a teacher and a union leader.”

Weingarten also gives an example of what a labor movement committed to fighting sexual assault can accomplish, saying her union was central to pushing for a strong sexual assault policies at the State University of New York—what one administrator called “the most comprehensive, victim-centered set of sexual assault policies at any college campus or system of higher education in the country.” And today, the AFT launched a petition calling for a national campus sexual assault bill.

In recent years, the AFT has often been a strongly progressive union on social issues, and backing a national sexual assault bill seems to fit in with the AFL-CIO’s recent commitments to be a part of a broader progressive movement that includes the feminist movement. But rarely do such commitments come with public declarations of such deeply personal stories as Weingarten’s. If more union leaders like her can take her lead to speak up about the epidemic of sexual assault around the country, and can commit to pushing for those commitments at the rank-and-file level, it could be greatly strengthen the movement against sexual assault while expanding the purview of the American labor movement.

This blog original appeared in Inthesetimes.com on December 16, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17463/aft_randi_weingarten_sexual_assault_story

About the author: Micah Uetricht is the web editor of In These Times. He is a contributing editor at Jacobin and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. He has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, and the Chicago Reader.

Thanks to Labor Board Ruling, You Can Now Use Company Email to Organize a Union

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

This week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision and a rule that could make organizing a union significantly easier for American workers.

First, yesterday the Board recognized that email is one of the primary ways that workers communicate, and that its case law and election rules needed to reflect this reality. The NLRB issued a landmark decision in Purple Communications which opens the door to allowing workers to use employers’ email systems for union purposes—and admitted that it had misunderstood in previous cases how email works. In doing so, it overturned a Bush-era Board decision, Register Guard, which allowed employers to prohibit use of company email for non-work related purposes, including organizing and union purposes, unless the employer can show special circumstances that justify specific restrictions.

In the 2007 decision, the Labor Board analogized email to other employer equipment—such as bulletin boards, telephones, photocopiers and televisions—and found that the employer had a “basic property right to regulate and restrict employee use of company property.” In dissent, Members Liebman and Walsh criticized the Board, stating that the decision “confirms that the NLRB has become the Rip Van Winkle of administrative agencies. Only a Board that has been asleep for the past 20 years could fail to recognize that e-mail has revolutionized communication both within and outside the workplace.”

Recognizing the changing nature of the workplace, Liebman and Walsh explained that email was becoming the new water cooler, and that the Board fundamentally misunderstood how email systems work. In a passage that reads almost as if written by a millennial to her out of touch grandparents, the two members explained in basic terms to the Board majority the difference between emails and more traditional communication media: “If a union notice is posted on a bulletin board, the amount of space available for the employer to post its messages is reduced. If an employee is using a telephone for Section 7 or other nonwork-related purposes, that telephone line is unavailable for others to use.”

Emails, they explained, were different, because many employees could use the system simultaneously, subject lines clue the employee into whether to read or dispose of the message, and the marginal cost for an email is almost zero.

Yesterday, the Board vindicated Liebman and Walsh’s dissent and held that the majority’s 2007 decision was “clearly incorrect,” and that it “undervalued employees’ core Section 7 [of the National Labor Relations Act] right to communicate in the workplace about their terms and conditions of employment, while giving too much weight to employers’ property rights.” Therefore, employees who have access to work email can use the email system on nonwork time to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment and engage in other organization activity.

In correcting itself yesterday, the Labor Board finally recognized the central place that digital communications has in workers’ lives. The Board recognized that email is different than other employee equipment, and that most employers tolerate the personal use of employer email. Furthermore, the number of employees that “telework” has grown exponentially, with an expected 63 million employees teleworking by 2016. Recent surveys have found that approximately one third of employees report that their employer expects them to stay in touch outside of working hours and 69% frequently or occasionally check their email outside of normal working hours.

Taking these new realities to heart, the Board concluded that email was less like a photocopy machine as it was a “new natural gathering place and a forum in which coworkers who share common interests will seek to persuade fellow workers in matters affecting their union organizational life and other matters related to their status as employees.” In shifting from an equipment analysis to an analysis that recognizes emails as a basic form of communication, the Board finally recognized the ubiquity of emails and the ways in which employer limitations effect workers’ associational rights.

And the Board doubled-down on recognizing the realities of modern communications this morning in a much-anticipated final rule that significantly changes union election procedures. The new rule includes a number of significant benefits for workers who are organizing, including postponing employer litigation over union election issues until after the election takes place to eliminating the waiting period between the time when an election is ordered and when it occurs (the time when many bosses carry out their union-busting campaigns through tactics like firings or threats of closing down a workplace).

But perhaps the most overdue change is the modernization of the “Excelsior List” rules. Prior to today’s rule, employers were required to turn over to the union an Excelsior List, which contained the names and home addresses of workers within seven days after a union election is ordered, so that the union can effectively communicate with all the workers it seeks to represent.

The new rule requires the employer to also turn over any employee email addresses and telephone numbers it possess, and shortens the amount of time management has to turn over the list to two days.

The week’s decisions are two long overdue correctives and will hopefully restore some of workers’ basic rights on the job. Given the bad news for workers from the Supreme Court earlier this week, the correctives are certainly welcome.

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com December 12,2014. Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17442/company_email_union

About the author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Are “Works Councils” Really Such a Good Idea for Workers and Unions?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

douglas williamsLabor may be at a turning point in this country. New campaigns have started to infuse fresh energy into a moribund and declining movement, and new models of collective action are being proposed in the course of these ongoing efforts. While the existing National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)/National Mediation Board (NMB) certification election-contractual bargaining system still functions on paper, in practice it has broken down.

Employers do not hesitate when flouting the law while trying to head off a union vote going against them. Even when they lose, bosses are willing to sandbag their workers by refusing to even bother to negotiate, and striking has been defanged as a tactic through legal injunction and wrongly decided precedent about permanently replacing strikers. While corporate campaigns, which focus on pressuring shareholders and embarrassing companies into acting humanely, have met with some success, they have not delivered the kind of widespread worker empowerment that the postwar period did.

There’s absolutely no doubt that if workers are going to ultimately make their own destiny that a new model or approach is needed for unions. One that has been proposed, separately by the UAW at the much-discussed Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkwagen plant, by Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs, and by labor lawyer and writer Tom Geoghegan is the implementation of works councils in the United States.

The works council model is one that is used across Europe, with the most prominent examples being in Germany, although such councils also exist in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium. There, employees are elected to four-year terms on the works council, where they negotiate the terms of employment and workplace conditions with the employer.

In Germany, this is enabled through the Works Constitution Act, which was first passed through parliament in 1952 and allows the formation of works councils in any private workplace of at least five people. While the employees who serve on the works council are not required to be in a union, over 77 percent of them are. As such, the works council functions as a strong facilitator of union power in German labor relations, especially in the large auto plants there.

Works councils are imagined in the United States as an unprecedented form of economic democracy. Our conception of a Board of Directors has very little to do with a company’s employees or their demands; rather, it is an oligarchy of investors and corporate officers who run our nation’s business apparatus. So the thought of workers getting a say in the dealings of two of our nation’s largest industries, automotive and fast food, is one that is understandably exhilarating for those supportive of the labor movement.

But there are a few problems with implementing such a model in the U.S.. First, the National Labor Relations Act explicitly bans “company unions,” a worker organization dominated by an employer rather than as an independent body for workers, in Section 8(a)(2). Sachs makes that clear in his piece, saying that implementing a works council model at McDonalds would require significant legal wrangling to avoid being proscribed by Section 8(a)(2).

Another concern is that the works council model could mollify working-class radicalism at a time where it is on the upswing. Few could have predicted that fast-food workers would be engaging in waves of walkouts with the demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage. Combined with the recent demonstrations against state violence in major cities across the country, spurred by the decisions not to prosecute police officers in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson and the Eric Garner case in New York City, and the connections between these movements, working-class organizing might be in a stronger position now than at any other time since mass deindustrialization began in the 1970s.

Furthermore, stor after story is raising awareness of how other countries have paid their fast-food workers a living wage and still managed to turn a profit. To turn all of this potential for a paradigm-shifting movement and steer it towards a highly formal and bureaucratic process before any real gains have been secured would seem to be an error. In fact, many have argued that the bureaucratization of the labor movement is a key part of why it is in such dire straits in modern times. Why voluntarily repeat the errors that got us where we are today for a system that we are not even sure will work in the United States?

Finally, is winning a process that privileges the interests of management at the same level as the interests of the workers really worth it? Given all of the effort, energy and time that would get put into organizing works councils, is it a big enough win? The purpose of works councils is for smooth functioning of commerce at a given employer by addressing the collective concerns of its workers. Whether the emphasis falls on the front half of that statement—the smooth functioning of business—or the back half—addressing workers’concerns—in an American implementation of works councils remains up in the air.

At a time when labor is frequently discussing issues in terms of “labor-management partnerships,” will workers’ interests be better served by a system where the union is not even an independent body but rather an organ inside the corporate structure?

Works councils have significant power in Europe and are able to redress major issues for the workers who participate in them. However, they gained this power in the shadow of the Cold War, at a time when capitalism had to provide Western workers with some concessions lest they fall “victim” to Communism.

That threat does not exist now. There is no indication that the works councils that are being proposed would be able to address the larger problems that the working class faces on a day-to-day basis. While alternatives to a dysfunctional NLRA-focused process should be considered, the idea of a labor-management partnership can only function when labor has sufficient power to make everything stop.

Labor can only rebuild power through advancing the interests of the working class as a whole. Investing more in organizing, training, mobilization and educating union workers about their rights is a part of this equation, but only by fundamentally aligning the labor movement with the communities it represents will we start to recover.

This article originally appeared at Hack the Union and then on Inthesetimes.org on December 15, 2014. Reprinted with permission.http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17454/american_works_councils

About the Author: Douglas Williams is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Alabama, researching the labor movement and labor policy. He blogs at The South Lawn.

The Supreme Court Just Rejected A Wage Theft Suit Against Amazon. What Does It Mean For Other Workers?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Retail warehouses don’t have to pay workers for the time they spend in security screenings to make sure they’re not stealing, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a unanimous decision that reverses a lower court’s finding that workers must be paid for that time.

The ruling is a blow to wage theft claims by the poorly paid workers who fill orders for Amazon.com and similar online retailers in punishing conditions with little job security. It effectively ends 400,000 workers‘ hopes of recouping hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay from the company in 13 different class-action suits.

But an employment law expert tells ThinkProgress that workers who are bringing a host of other prominent wage theft cases in other industries have nothing to fear.

“It says absolutely nothing about whether other pay practices violate the Fair Labor Standards Act,” said Prof. Catherine Keck, who teaches employment and labor law at the University of California Irvine School of Law. “I don’t think you can read this decision as anything but a very narrow interpretation of a particular portion of the law.”

The case targeted Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS), a temp agency that Amazon pays to staff its warehouses. The warehouses require staff to clock out prior to lining up for mandatory security screenings, which workers say take up to 25 minutes to complete because the company won’t invest in setting up enough metal detectors to turn the process into a quick, simple pause on the way out of the building.

A 1947 law called the Portal-to-Portal Act exempts employers from having to pay workers for the time they spend on activities “that take place before and after the workday proper,” the New York Times explains. Workers can’t demand wages for the time it takes to walk from their car to the time clock, for example, or for the time they spend commuting. How you read on-site security screenings in the context of that law, Keck said, is a judgment call.

“There’s truth in both points of view on this. This is not like commuting,” Keck said, and “essentially the employer’s choice about how it wants to run its business and its unwillingness to invest in a security system means it is wasting a lot of its employees’ time.” But the Portal-to-Portal Act specifically says companies don’t have to pay workers for anything they do after the end of their principal work duties.

“I think that language could be construed both to include the security screenings and to exclude them. And the court chose one plausible interpretation, which is that their principal job is to put stuff in boxes in a warehouse and [not] the searches to make sure they’re not stealing stuff,” Keck said. Solving the problem requires either a change to the law from Congress to clarify how mandatory security screenings relate to existing labor law, or a decision by Amazon to spend the money it would take to make the screenings efficient enough that they don’t trap workers on site after their shift’s end.

A series of high-profile wage theft suits against McDonald’s from last spring could prove crucial to the long-running, increasingly rowdy campaign to force the fast food industry to stop paying poverty wages and start letting workers unionize. But while those suits also pivot on allegations that a corporate giant systematically deprived its most exploited employees of money they should have been paid for time they spent on site, the nature of the allegations is so different from those in the Amazon case that worker advocates have nothing to fear from Tuesday’s ruling.

McDonald’s allegedly uses a computer system to police cash flows at its stores in real time, giving managers an incentive to monitor the ratio of cash register revenue to staff wage costs from moment to moment. Workers allege that managers respond to that information by forcing them to clock out but continue working, or clock out but not go home, or otherwise manipulate their time cards and deprive them of their due pay — something multiple former managers have confirmed.

Such timesheet abuses are “clearly illegal and there’s no argument on the other side,” Keck said. “That’s a totally different issue, it arises from a totally different part of the statute.”

This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/12/10/3602000/amazon-wage-theft-ruling/

About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

 

Got a T-Shirt? Chances Are Child Labor Was Involved

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Cotton production involves the most child labor and forced labor in the world, according to the 2014 “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” by the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

Overall, 126 goods are produced annually by child labor and 55 goods produced through forced labor. Most of the goods, like cotton, are found in common items like T-shirts or are among popular foods, such as melons and rice.

The sixth annual report, released this week, added 11 goods produced with children’s labor: garments from Bangladesh; cotton and sugarcane from India; vanilla from Madagascar; fish from Kenya and Yemen; alcoholic beverages, meat, textiles and timber from Cambodia; and palm oil from Malaysia. Electronics from Malaysia made the list for being produced with forced labor.

Uzbekistan, listed among countries using forced labor, including children, for cotton production, routinely requires teachers to leave classrooms and work in the country’s annual cotton harvest, according to a report the Uzbek-German Forum issued last month.

The lengthy list of goods produced with child labor and forced labor includes garments, fish, coffee, shrimp and other shellfish, tea, corn, tobacco and peanuts.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO.com on December 4, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Global-Action/Got-a-T-Shirt-Chances-Are-Child-Labor-Was-Involved

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

 

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