Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for December, 2015

Joy to the Workers

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Leo GerardThe spirit of the season is generosity. Eight toys for Hanukkah. A partridge in a pear tree and 11 other quirky presents. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday.

It’s the thought that counts. And the thought is good-hearted. That’s why the season works so well.

To keep it all rolling happily along, however, workers need to earn enough money so that they can afford gifts and charitable donations. With wages stagnant for decades, that’s increasingly difficult.

In keeping with the figgy-pudding and potato latke traditions of the holidays, here’s a recipe for delivering joy to workers so that they can spread holiday merriment:

Ingredients

1 measure outlawing scabs
1 measure banning lockouts
1 measure raising minimum wage to $15 an hour
Knead in trade law enforcement
Filter out currency manipulation
Top it all with campaign finance reform

Directions

Start by combining legislation forbidding both scabs and lockouts. These are two weapons corporations use to ratchet down wages, ruining workers’ holidays.

Right now, for example, Sherwin Alumina and ATI have locked out their loyal workers and replaced them with scabs. That’s thousands of workers forced to walk picket lines and depend on USW lockout assistance and food pantries for holiday meals rather than donating to them.

Prohibiting lockouts and scabs would slightly shift the balance of power toward workers. That’s completely justified considering corporate profits are at record levels while wages are walking backward, lower now than in 2007.

Next, add to the mix a raise to the minimum wage. No one who works full-time should live in poverty. The current $7.25 minimum, moribund for six years, is a Dickensian disgrace, a Bob Cratchit-level degradation.

Increasing the wages of workers at the bottom to $15 an hour will force up the pay of everyone else as well. All workers benefit. Happier holidays for all.

Trade law enforcement must be blended in next. Failure to immediately punish trade law violators has pummeled commodity producers – like aluminum and steel.  Mills are closed. Thousands of workers are laid off. No merry holiday for them. Or their communities.

Several foreign countries, but particularly China, illegally prop up their exporting manufacturers. Not only that, they’re also overproducing, flooding the world market and crashing prices.

Workers need laws enabling the government to impose punitive tariffs before American mills close and families suffer. In addition, the government must file and prosecute trade cases to defend American industry, not force labor unions and manufacturers to do it.

The next step in this recipe is pulling currency manipulation out of the international market. Ending this underhanded trade cheat is crucial

Countries including Japan and China deliberately devalue their currency in order to automatically discount the price of their exports, so every day is Black Friday for their international customers. Making matters worse, this scheme simultaneously marks up the cost of products that U.S. manufacturers try to sell in currency-manipulating countries.

This makes for very bad holidays in places like Ashland, Ky., where AK Steel shut down its blast furnace earlier this month and laid off hundreds of workers. They join about 4,000 Steelworkers at plants in Illinois and Alabama threatened with holiday layoffs.

The last ingredient, campaign finance reform, makes the whole recipe possible. Nothing will happen without it.

In a democracy, each citizen should have equal influence over lawmakers. The wealthy and fat-cat corporations shouldn’t get special access and treatment because they’ve given millions to candidates. The only way to stop that is to outlaw massive political bribes.

Gifts should be to loved ones and charities, not to politicians. If gargantuan campaign “presents” aren’t stopped, workers won’t be able to afford Christmas gifts because politicians will continue to ignore their needs and, as a result, their wages will continue to atrophy. Then the holiday season will not work well for anyone.

Workers need to make this holiday recipe happen. It would bring joy to their world.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leo Gerard. Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on December 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Can A Website Give Mothers A Leg Up In The Workplace?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Bryce CovertAt two months pregnant and the mom of a one-year-old, Georgene Huang found herself looking for a job after a management shakeup at her employer, Dow Jones. She knew that she’d be needing to take maternity leave shortly after starting any new position and would also need a work culture that would support her leaving the office in time to pick her kids up.

But when she searched the internet, she couldn’t find any information on what employers might fit the bill. So instead of finding a new job, she decided to reach out to her former Dow Jones coworker Romy Newman and launch her own project to address this very problem: Fairy Godboss.

The website has been up and running since March, and it aims to be a place where women can come to leave reviews of their companies, browse through both a researched and crowdsourced database of company policies, and connect with each other about their experiences.

Huang and Newman did some research before launching and were surprised at what little information is publicly available. “We went through the websites of top Fortune 100 companies, and of them only five actually listed what their maternity leave policy is,” Newman said. “In some cases, they extensively list other benefits — health care coverage, copays, everything else — and then they just say we have maternity benefits but don’t say what they are.” They also conducted a survey, finding that 80 percent of women said they didn’t know their company’s maternity leave before they started working there and about a third were disappointed when they learned what it actually was.

“We thought, ‘Let’s create transparency around this and give a place where women have an opportunity to go and find out what maternity leave is at a company where they might work,’” Newman said. “We think that women want to have a better experience in the workplace, and we think employers want to give them a better experience…but there hasn’t been a clear and transparent dialogue. We want the site to be a place where that conversation can happen.”

The core of the site is the company reviews from women, which ask women to attest to where they work and verify their email addresses before they can post anonymously. Users can also message others about their employers to ask questions and can leave anonymous confessions about both positive and negative experiences. But the founders are committed to making it a positive environment. “We don’t want to be a place where women go and complain,” Newman said.

The site isn’t just geared toward higher-income women in white collar-jobs, either. It’s getting responses from baristas, retail employees, and nurses, as well as partners at consulting firms and senior directors at investment banks. “We’ve seen a whole range,” she said. It passed the 4,000-review mark a few months ago.

“There are so many taboos, especially around the balancing of a family and balancing a job for women,” she said. “Women are afraid to show that they wouldn’t be giving as much as anyone else…they don’t want to be suddenly mommy-tracked.”

The site’s next plan is to rope in employers, giving them a platform to share their benefits information. “Employers have the very best intentions, but it’s hard for them to always know and see what’s going on in their ranks,” Newman said. The site can help bridge that gap.

It’s not the only project trying to fill that information gap. A number of other sites have recently launched to crowdsource and research companies’ benefits and atmospheres so that employees — women and men alike — aren’t so in the dark as they try to get hired.

They’re all responding to a fundamental fact of life in the American workplace: the U.S. doesn’t require employers to offer paid family leave, just 12 percent of employees get it, and other benefits fall behind what’s on offer in developed countries. Yet women are often penalized at work when they become mothers. So asking about benefits can be tricky — necessitating some other source of information. Websites like Fairy Godboss have now stepped up to be that source.

About the Author: The author’s name is Bryce Covert. 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.

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on December 23, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Court To Catholic School: No, You Can’t Fire People Because They Are Gay

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Zack FordA Massachusetts court has ruled against a private Catholic school that denied employment to a man because he was married to a man. This warranted unlawful discrimination on the basic of sexual orientation, the court found.

Plaintiff Matthew Barrett had applied for a job at Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic prep school for girls in Milton, Massachusetts, as a Food Services Director. After several interviews, he was offered the job. On his new hire form, Barrett listed his husband as his emergency contact. Two days later, Fontbonne informed him that he could not have the job because his marriage was inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Fontbonne defended the decision, claiming its belief about the definition of marriage had nothing to do with sexual orientation. In fact, the school includes “sexual orientation” in its own nondiscrimination statement. But Associate Justice Douglas H. Wilkins found this distinction wholly unconvincing. “It is no answer to say that Fontbonne denied Barrett employment because he was in a same-sex marriage, not because of his sexual orientation,” he wrote. “The law recognizes no such distinction.”

Massachusetts’ nondiscrimination laws do include some exemptions for religious institutions, but Fontbonne did not qualify. The exception applies to organizations that limit membership to persons of the same religion or denomination, but as Wilkins pointed out, Fontbonne has no such limitations. “It does not require its employees to be Catholic. In particular, the Food Services Director does not have to be Catholic.” Moreover, “its student body has included non-Catholics, including Muslims, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Episcopalians.”

Fontbonne also claimed that hiring Barrett would have burdened its expression. This also failed to convince Wilkins, because Barrett “was not denied employment for any advocacy of same-sex marriage or gay rights; he only listed his husband as an emergency contact on his ‘new hire’ form. Nothing on that form suggested that Barrett claimed his marriage to have sacramental or other religious significance or that it was anything but a civil marriage relationship. Fontbonne presents no evidence of advocacy by Barrett.” Besides, there would be “little risk” that the school’s “involuntary compliance with civil law will be mistaken for endorsement of same-sex marriage.”

Leaving no stone unturned, Fontbonne similarly claimed that it deserved a “ministerial exception.” But Barrett would have no duties as an administrator or teacher of religious matters as Director of Food Services. Wilkins countered that “to apply the ‘ministerial’ exception here would allow all religious schools to exempt all of their employees from employment discrimination laws simply by calling their employees ministers.” It would defeat the point of having an exemption and case law that defines the limits of that exemption.

GLAD, the LGBT legal organization that represented Barrett, praised the ruling. “Religious-affiliated organizations do not get a free pass to discriminate against gay and lesbian people,” senior attorney Bennett Klein said in a statement. “When Fontbonne fired Matt from a job that has nothing to do with religion, and simply because he is married, they came down on the wrong side of the law.”

Barrett was “ecstatic,” saying simply, “What happened to me was wrong, and I truly hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Damages have not yet been determined in the case.

About the Author: The author’s name is Zach Ford. Zack Ford is the editor of ThinkProgress LGBT at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, hailing from the small town of Newport, PA. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Zack blogged for two years at ZackFordBlogs.com with occasional cross-posts at Pam’s House Blend. He also co-hosts a popular LGBT-issues podcast called Queer and Queerer with activist and performance artist Peterson Toscano. A graduate of Ithaca College (B.M. Music Education) and Iowa State University (M.Ed. Higher Education), Zack is an accomplished pianist with a passion for social justice education. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackFord.

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on December 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Ship Builder Settles $5 Million Lawsuit After Forcing Indians To Work And Live in Awful Conditions

Friday, December 18th, 2015

EstherYuHsiLeeA ship building and repair company will pay $5 million to settle a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) race and national origin discrimination lawsuit with 476 Indian guest workers who worked at the company’s facilities after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While Indian workers lived in squalid containers “the size of a double-wide trailer,” non-Indian workers were not subjected to the same conditions.

According to the lawsuit, Signal International recruited Indian guest workers through the federal H-2B guest worker program to work at its facilities in Texas and Mississippi and forced them to pay to live in deplorable conditions. In its lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that Signal forced “the men to pay $1,050 a month to live in overcrowded, unsanitary, guarded camps. As many as 24 men were forced to live in containers the size of a double-wide trailer, while non-Indian workers were not required to live in these camps.”

H-2B visas are generally used for low-skilled or seasonal work, which are valid for ten months, with the chance to extend visa renewals up to three years. As part of the visa program, employees should be reimbursed for the consulate interview fee, visa fee, border crossing fee, and transportation costs associated with obtaining their H-2B visas. Employees aren’t always reimbursed for the H-2 visa process. They are also tied to the employers during their stay in the United States.”

“We are very pleased Signal has accepted responsibility for its wrongdoing and that these workers, who have waited 10 long years for justice, will now receive compensation and can move on with their lives,” Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for EEOC’s Birmingham District, said in a statement. “In many cases, these men paid thousands of dollars to come to the United States, only to be subjected to inhumane conditions and exploitation after they arrived.”

An estimated 66,000 H-2B visas are distributed on an annual basis. But employers often us the H-2 visa programs to take advantage of legal guest workers. An Economic Policy Institute study found that temporary legal guest workers are as likely to be subjected to low wages as undocumented workers.

The $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill passed Friday included a provision to dramatically increase the number of H-2B visas. The AFL-CIO and the International Labor Recruitment Working Group criticized the visa provision because it could potentially roll back “protections for low-wage workers and guest workers… while lowering the protections for workers,” Joleen Rivera, a legislative representative at the AFL-CIO, said.

Still, the 476 Indian guest workers are not the only exploited workers from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some undocumented immigrant laborers helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina were threatened with deportation and were often unpaid for the work they did.

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on December 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Esther Yu-Hsi Lee. Esther Yu-Hsi Lee is the Immigration Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary, Esther is passionate about immigration issues from all sides of the debate. She is also a White House Champion of Change recipient. Esther is originally from Los Angeles, CA.

U.S. To Increase Worker Protection From Deadly Silica Dust for First Time in More Than 40 Years

Friday, December 18th, 2015

elizabeth grossmanFor the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is poised to increase safety standards for worker exposure to the silica dust that can cause deadly and incurable lung disease. A rule that would cut in half the amount of silica dust to which most workers could be exposed—and limit levels further for construction and maritime workers—is expected to be finalized in February.

The industries that must comply with the new rule hoped to derail the new standard, including with an amendment to the 2016 federal spending bill that would have prevented any spending to implement the new rules and required more study of silica’s health effects. While in the bill up to the eleventh hour, this rider has been dropped from the budget released late Tuesday that is expected to be voted on later this week.

According to OSHA, silica exposure is a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 whose jobs involve stone cutting, rock drilling and blasting and foundry work. Workers installing and manufacturing countertops are also at risk, along with those at hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—sites where industrial sand is used in oil and gas extraction and has been found to expose workers excessively. OSHA estimates that the new safety limits will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. OSHA also estimates that when fully implemented, the rule would result in annual financial benefits of $2.8 to $4.7 billion, benefits that far exceed the rule’s annual costs.

“It’s often been said it’s a disease that’s been known since antiquity. The fact that silica causes cancer is more recent information,” Mike Wright, United Steelworkers director of health and safety, tells In These Times. “There’s no question the new standard would save lives. The longer it takes to get into place, the more people are exposed,” says Wright.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has considered crystalline silica—particles small enough to inhale—a human lung carcinogen since 1997. The U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens classified respirable silica as a known human carcinogen in 2000. In addition to lung cancer, inhaled silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious, incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. In the lungs, silica dust can scar lung tissue and reduce lungs’ ability to process oxygen and increase susceptibility to other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.

OSHA’s existing silica standard, what’s known as a permissible exposure level, has not been updated since the agency was established. The Department of Labor’s concern about these exposures goes back to the 1930s when Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins sounded the alarm about silicosis’ toll on American workers. The new rule, which would cut most workers’ permissible exposure levels to 50 micrograms per cubic meter over the course of an 8-hour workday from the currently allowed 100, was proposed in 2013. It followed reviews begun in 2003 by both the Department of Labor and Small Business Administration. Now, after public comment periods and meetings with industry and labor groups, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is ready to finalize the rule.

Blocking the new standard?

Despite this long history, support from the Department of Labor and research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showing ongoing adverse affects of silica, industry groups mounted vigorous opposition to the new safety standard. An amendment or rider to what’s known as the omnibus spending bill—the legislation that will fund the federal government’s 2016 budget—was introduced by Senator John Hoeven (R-North Dakota). (North Dakota is among the states with the most fracking sites.) It would have stopped the Department of Labor from spending any money to implement the new silica rule and, among other measures, called for a new study by the National Academy of Sciences to justify the reduced exposure level.

“The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA’s) proposal to reduce the current exposure limit is not supported by sound science and will create a tremendous financial burden for many industrial sectors,” said the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in a statement posted to its website.

The association is among the industry groups and companies that have lobbied the White House on this issue, trying to persuade the administration that existing regulations are sufficient and that more stringent standards would be burdensome to business. Between March 2011 and 2014, OMB meeting records show 11 meetings about occupational exposure to crystalline silica. All but one were with industry groups.

In an emailed statement, Sen. Hoeven’s office explained that the amendment “would not only ensure that the latest science is used by OSHA, but also that the agency conducts a long-overdue study of the impact of current silica regulations on small businesses,” noting that the most recent Small Business Administration report on silica was completed in 2003 and that silica-related deaths dropped 93 percent between 1968 and 2007.

But as NIOSH itself has written:

There are no surveillance data in the U.S. that permit us to estimate accurately the number of individuals with silicosis. The true extent of the problem is probably greater than indicated by available data. Undercounting of silicosis occurs because there are no national medical monitoring surveillance programs, and there can be a failure to diagnose silicosis or record it as a cause of death on a death certificate. Silicosis often presents long after workers have left causative jobs. Such cases may not be detected in Bureau of Labor statistics as occupational disease and will not be detected if disease presents after retirement.

“We’re talking about people’s lives,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy. “What gets lost in so many of these discussions is that this is fundamentally about public health and safety protections that are genuinely in the public interest. They’re not going to be done by businesses on their own,” says Rosenberg.

“If you wait for this kind of evidence people will be dead,” he noted of one of the rider’s requirements.

But, says National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health acting executive director Jessica Martinez, striking a note of hope via email, “Given the overwhelming evidence about the hazards of silica, we are hopeful that the final budget agreed to by the White House and Congress will not interfere with OSHA’s scientifically sound, economically practical new silica standard.” Her wish was realized in the budget bill agreement reached last night that dropped the rider.

Additional riders’ impact on public and occupational health

But this is not the only amendment attached to the budget bill that would affect public and occupational health. Among the riders that would prevent environmental protections from being advanced is one that could keep scientists who receive federal research grants from serving on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science advisory boards. This could, for example, exclude scientists whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Another budget provision could add additional delays to regulation of harmful chemicals by requiring EPA to replicate science studies submitted as part of chemical assessments.

Both of these riders essentially replicate bills introduced last year by House Republicans that the OMB recommended the president veto. While on the surface both sound reasonable, close reading shows they could easily result in achieving the opposite of what they claim to. Versions of both appear to remain in the budget bill that will go to the full House for a vote.

“The SAB rider,” explains UCS’s Rosenberg, “tips the scale even further in the direction of industry by twisting the concept of conflict of interest on its head. It says that academics who get money from government grants have a conflict but industry-supported scientists don’t.”

And as the Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg explains further via email, “The rider attempts to hold EPA hostage by halting all Science Advisory Board activities until EPA changes its policies”—and has these changes vetted by a Government Accountability Office report. Both riders could affect all future chemical regulation and how federal occupational protection standards are set.

So what’s likely to happen?

“We’re all hoping for a ‘clean’ budget bill,” said Wright earlier this week. The bill that emerged Tuesday night is not exactly ‘clean,’ and how these riders play out, assuming the bill passes in the form currently available, remains to be seen. According to The Hill, the House is expected to pass an additional stop-gap spending measure today, to keep the government funded through December 22nd with a vote on the $1.1 trillion budget bill anticipated on Friday of this week.

But when it comes to silica, “Millions of workers will breathe easier,” says Martinez, “if this important new rule goes into effect as planned this coming February.”

About the Author: The author’s name is Elizabeth Grossman. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Working People Must Be Protected in 'On-Demand Economy'

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallToday, the AFL-CIO released its “Statement of Principles on the On-Demand Economy” laying out ways to protect working people in an ever-changing work environment.

AFL-CIO Director of Policy Damon Silvers said:

“The AFL-CIO is committed to making sure that the on-demand economy leads to better lives for working people. New technologies must not be an excuse for old-style injustice. Workers in the on-demand economy, no matter what their titles, must have decent wages and benefits, safety and, most of all, a collective voice on the job.”

Here are the principles:

1. Use technology to empower, not weaken, workers.

2. Promote economic and social inclusion.

3. Establish rules to achieve binding corporate accountability, regardless of where or how people work.

4. Make portable benefits available to all workers.

5. Safeguard the employment relationship to ensure workers’ job protections.

6. Increase opportunities to access good jobs.

7. Ensure a level playing field for business.

Read more about each of the principles.

The AFL-CIO is committed to working with business, government and communities to find solutions that work for employers and working people in the on-demand economy. Today, AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker is participating in a forum with The Hamilton Project. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler will speak on a panel at the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Future of Work” symposium on Thursday.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO.org on December 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

A Big Win for Senate Cafeteria Workers

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

poole-60x60A sustained campaign on behalf of Senate cafeteria workers – including a 63-year-old employee who was homeless because he could not earn enough money to afford an apartment – has succeeded this week in getting these workers a desperately needed boost in pay and benefits.

Thanks to the organizing efforts of Good Jobs Nation and other allies, Senate officials signed a new contract with the workers that raises their minimum pay to $13.30 an hour and brings the average pay to workers close to the $15 an hour that the workers were demanding.

News of the agreement was published Monday by The Washington Post.

The Senate cafeteria workers were held up as a prime example of the kinds of poverty-wage jobs held by people under federal contracts. The company with the contract to manage the Senate cafeteria, Restaurant Associates, is part of a multinational corporation that boasted inits 2014 annual report that it had done well enough to offer to increase its dividend payments to shareholders by 10.5 percent as well as return 1.5 billion pounds – more than $2 billion – to shareholders via share buybacks and other means.

There was plenty of room to give a raise to stockholders, but not to the Senate cafeteria workers – at least not until the Senate cafeteria workers put their own jobs on the line to call attention to their plight. Their bold decision to hold one-day strikes, lead demonstrations and tell their stories led to several Democratic senators – including Minority Leader Harry Reid, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – and their staffs announcing a boycott of the cafeteria every Wednesday until the demands of the cafeteria workers were met.

The pressure on behalf of the workers appears to have made an impression on Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, who when signing the new contract said that he was “glad their concerns were heard and taken into consideration in the new contract.”

One concern, though, remains unaddressed: the workers’ demand for the ability to form a union. Restaurant Associates remains subject to complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board that they have improperly interfered with the ability of the cafeteria workers to organize. Paco Fabian, a spokesman for Good Jobs Nation, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that the cafeteria workers “won’t stop fighting until they get a voice on the job.” And neither should we.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on December 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives in Washington, DC.

Seattle City Council Votes That Uber and Lyft Drivers Can Unionize

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

LauraClawsonCompanies like Uber and Lyft consider their drivers to be “independent contractors,” which is all about freedom—specifically, the company’s freedom to not pay for things like workers comp, unemployment, or even the minimum wage. That’s a system facing significant court challenges in some places, and now another form of challenge in Seattle. The Seattle City Council on Monday night passed a bill giving drivers union rights.

Under the bill passed Monday, “for-hire drivers” would be legally entitled to seek out “exclusive driver representatives” for the purpose of collective bargaining — i.e., labor unions. If a majority of drivers at a particular company designate a union as their representative, then by law the company will have to bargain with the union within the city of Seattle.

The law has implications well beyond Uber and Lyft. Many traditional taxi drivers are classified as independent contractors as well, and would have new rights under the law.

At least, they would if the law ever goes into effect. Uber and others in the industry are expected to challenge the law in two possible ways: by claiming that it conflicts with federal labor law, and by arguing that it runs afoul of antitrust law.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said he won’t sign the law, but he can’t block it. Despite the delays the law will face thanks to legal challenges, the pressure is growing—on multiple fronts—for Uber and Lyft and other gig economy companies to quit using the weakness of American labor law to exploit their workers.

This blog originally appeared in DailyKOS.com on December 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

How the Friedrichs v. Calif. Teachers Association SCOTUS Case Could Actually Be a Boon for Unions

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

in these timesAs unions file their legal briefs in the epic Friedrichs vs. CTA anti-union Supreme Court case, one clever legal scholar argues that Friedrichs is “an unexpected tool for labor.”

University of Chicago Teaching Fellow Heather Whitney’s forthcoming paper in the NYU Journal of Law and Liberty makes a compelling case that an adverse decision in Friedrichs would hand unions a first amendment argument to refuse to represent non-members. And, as I have argued, that is a roadmap to union competition at workplaces, competing demands on individual employers and the end of contractual no-strike agreements.

Chaos, in other words—and just the sort of chaos that this attack on unions deserves in response.

Friedrichs and labor’s response

The First Amendment is at the heart of the Friedrichs case. It is a right-wing argument that public sector employers (in other words, the government) violate individuals’ First amendment rights by compelling employees, through contracts negotiated with unions, to pay a fee to a union. Currently, unions that are certified to represent a group of employees in a bargaining unit are legally compelled to represent all of the employees in that unit. That means not just bargaining on their behalf, but expending significant resources on grievances, meetings, communications and everything else that goes into running a union.

But union membership, including the payment of dues, is completely voluntary. That’s why unions negotiate agency fees into contracts. These fees are calculated through complicated formulas to only represent the true cost of bargaining representation. Agency fees do not pay for things like political activity (unions usually have separate voluntary political funds).

But the Friedrichs case argues that any interaction that a union has with the government, including bargaining, is inherently political. Agency fees, therefore, are compelled political activity.

This ridiculous argument is only before the Supreme Court now because Justice Samuel Alito inserted the issue into last year’s otherwise unrelated Harris Vs. Quinn case. That case was only a partial defeat for unions, as Alito lacked the fifth vote to totally do away with agency fee in the public sector. In his written decision, Alito basically solicited for someone to bring a case with exactly Friedrichs’ set of facts, and it has raced up to the Supreme Court. This is the stuff of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Unions have mounted an excellent legal case, backed up by a broad array of supporting briefs. A ruling against the unions would reverse a 37-year-old precedent. The Supreme Court is supposed to be guided by the principal of stare decisis, which is essentially to let long-settled precedent stand. And finally, the case will be decided in the middle of a presidential election that is already turning on questions of inequality and workers rights. In his handling of the Obamacare and gay marriage cases, Chief Justice Roberts has shown that he does seem to care about his legacy. Would he support such a nakedly partisan political move by his Court in this election cycle?

So, on the facts, on the law and on the politics, unions really ought to win this case. And, to be clear, agency fee and exclusive representation are worth defending. They create the conditions for tremendous worker power at workplaces that have both.

But if unions lose agency fee, then exclusive representation no longer makes sense. This is not simply because of the free-rider problem that will drain union resources. It is because exclusive representation is essential to labor peace, and a Friedrichs ruling that guts union rights is the clearest signal that the billionaire class does not want—nor does it deserve—any kind of peace.

Labor’s First Amendment rights

If the Supreme Court rules that every interaction that a union has with its government employer is inherently political, Heather Whitney argues in her article, then that would open the door to unions claiming their own First Amendment right—to choose who they represent. In other words, if agency fee is compelled speech, then the duty of exclusive representation imposed on unions is also compelled speech.

Imagine a group of registered nurses at a public hospital who want to bargain for much larger raises than the rest of the members of the bargaining unit. Or imagine a group of young workers who want to bargain away pensions in exchange for larger salaries in the here and now. (Forget for the moment that both scenarios are just bad unionism.) Once these contract demands are considered by the Court to be political speech, then the fact that these workers are compelled by the government to represent workers who disagree with them, and who could outvote them, is a violation of their First Amendment rights!

I’ll also point out that unions’ rights to freely engage in actual political speech is already impeded by the duties of exclusive representation. Unions are politically cautious and loathe to wade into non-economic controversies for fear of alienating a segment of their bargaining unit. For instance, most unions were slow to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for fear of alienating bargaining unit members who were veterans or who had children in the military. Even in a so-called “Right to Work” state, those people may not be members but they could still express their displeasure by voting to decertify the union. Does that not coerce unions into more limited political activity?

This is not an abstraction. The day after the Friedrichs decision, if the Court kills agency fee by making all public sector union work “political,” does anybody doubt that the first time a non-member walks into a union office with a grievance that she will be told, “Join the union or get the hell out of our office?” And then we’ll be off to the races with a case that will go to the Supreme Court to revisit exclusive representation in the public sector without agency fee.

Then, the only question would be whether the government has a “compelling interest in requiring unions to negotiate and grieve their nonmembers’ complaints without receiving just compensation.” And here scholarship would demonstrate that it has been the employers’ preference to deal with one exclusive representative because it is easier for them, and, as Whitney writes, “convenience is no response to whether exclusive representation is properly tailored to the government’s legitimate interest.”

Breaking the peace

So far, we’re just talking about public sector unions because having the government as employer, Alito’s right-wing conspirators argue, converts all of the activities of those unions into inherently political acts. But if thisFriedrichs logic takes hold, then arguably having the government—in the form of the National Labor Relations Board—compel unions to represent workers they would choose not to (and perhaps vice versa) might become unconstitutional as well.

Currently, the NLRB will only certify unions as exclusive representatives of all of the workers in a bargaining unit, and only if the union can win a majority vote. This is often an insurmountable threshold for unions to reach in the face of intense employer opposition. In his 2005 book The Blue Eagle at Work,  law professor and labor law expert Charles J. Morris documented that in its early history the NLRB used to certify minority unions as the bargaining agent for their members only. Morris argued that this pathway was still technically open to unions to gain a foothold at a workplace and legally compel an employer to recognize a non-majority union.

The modern NLRB has dodged efforts by unions to get an advisory ruling on Morris’ theory. But if the Friedrichslogic holds, private sector unions may have a First Amendment challenge to the NLRB’s continued refusal to grant certifications for just the members they choose to represent.

And that, if you’ll follow me down this rabbit hole, could spell the end of contractual no-strike clauses. They would simply be unenforceable in an environment of competing, non-exclusive, members-only unions. Workers would simply drop their union memberships to participate in wildcat job actions. Or else join new workplace organizations that have not signed agreements committing to labor peace.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any fantasy of some huge wave of potential strike actions that would occur tomorrow if only the enraged working class would stop being “repressed” by current union leadership and our current collective bargaining agreements. But these no-strike clauses go well beyond total shutdowns of production to include all manner or slow-downs, work-to-rule and refusal to carry out selective duties.

Any experienced union rep reading this can recall at least one incident of having to talk his members off a ledge—out of refusing a new duty or clocking out for lunch at the same time. These actions would be concerted protected activity in a non-union workplace, but under a “no-strike” contract could result in all participants legally getting fired. How the hell are we supposed to get workers who don’t enjoy union protection fired up about taking action against their bosses, when their unionized peers can’t set any kind of example in terms of actually enjoying their supposed protections?

It’s funny that the First Amendment could make this possible. Union rights in this country are not constitutionally rooted in the First Amendment, but in Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce—which is one of the reasons that our labor laws make no damn sense. So, yes, Friedrichs could be a useful tool for labor by finally connecting our work to our rights of free speech and free assembly.

But if you’ve followed me down this rabbit hole and are starting to get a little excited about a possible post-Friedrichs world, let me give you an “on the other hand.” Heather Whitney’s First Amendment argument for ending the duty of exclusive representation would come before a Court that would not be weighing it against a long-established precedent as Roberts’ Court is considering Freidrichs. It will be weighing the argument against a very recent Court decision.

If labor successfully causes enough chaos of the nature I’m driving at—or even poses a credible threat to do so—don’t be surprised if the Supremes try to put the lid back on Alito’s can of worms.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on December 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

Wal-Mart Killed At Least 400,000 Jobs In A Dozen Years, While The Waltons Got Richer

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

jonathan-tasiniIf you want to know why a political revolution is necessary (and why the status quo’s most intellectually fraudulent campaign in recent Democratic primaries is such a threat to working people), you need only check out this new report from our friends at the Economic Policy Institute. Wal-Mart (that would be the board the status quo candidate sat on without uttering a peep while millions of women were discriminated against and the Waltons pursued their middle-class killing business plan) essentially obliterated, conservatively, 400,000 jobs in a decade or so.

Here’s how:

This paper updates earlier work (Scott 2007) to provide a conservative estimate of how many jobs have likely been displaced by Chinese imports entering the country through Wal-Mart:

  • Chinese imports entering through Wal-Mart in 2013 likely totaled at least $49.1 billion and the combined effect of imports from and exports to China conducted through Wal-Mart likely accounted for 15.3 percent of the growth of the total U.S. goods trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013.

  • The Wal-Mart-based trade deficit with China alone eliminated or displaced over 400,000 U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2013.

  • The manufacturing sector and its workers have been hardest hit by the growth of Wal-Mart’s imports. Wal-Mart’s increased trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013 eliminated 314,500 manufacturing jobs, 75.7 percent of the jobs lost from Wal-Mart’s trade deficit. These job losses are particularly destructive because jobs in the manufacturing sector pay higher wages and provide better benefits than most other industries, especially for workers with less than a college education.

  • Wal-Mart has announced plans to create opportunities for American manufacturing by “investing in American jobs.” To date, very few actual U.S. jobs have been created by this program, and since 2001, the growing Wal-Mart trade deficit with China has displaced more than 100 U.S. jobs for every actual or promised job created through this program.

China has achieved its rapidly growing trade surpluses by manipulating its currency: it invests hundreds of billions of dollars per year in U.S. Treasury bills, other government securities, and private foreign assets to bid up the value of the dollar and other currencies and thereby lower the cost of its exports to the United States and other countries. China has also repressed the labor rights of its workers and suppressed their wages, making its products artificially cheap and further subsidizing its exports. Wal-Mart has aided China’s abuse of labor rights and its violations of internationally recognized norms of fair trade by providing a vast and ever-expanding conduit for the distribution of artificially cheap and subsidized Chinese exports to the United States. [emphasis added]

And:

Since Wal-Mart’s exports to China were negligible, the rapid growth of its imports had a proportionately bigger impact on the U.S. trade deficit and job losses than overall U.S. trade flows with China (since the rest of U.S. trade with China does include significant U.S. exports to that country). On average, each of the 4,835 stores Wal-Mart operated in the United States in fiscal 2014 (Wal-Mart Stores Inc. 2014) was responsible for the loss of about 86 U.S. jobs due to the growth of Wal-Mart’s trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013.

So, if for some reason, you shop at Wal-Mart, think about each of those workers whose job you helped eliminate by supporting this scar on the economy. While middle-class jobs disappear and people become even more impoverished, forcing them to shop at Wal-Mart, the Waltons became the richest family in the country, with $149 billion in wealth for six people.

Be my guest: continue to believe the fraudulent rhetoric coming from the status quo. Continue to live in a dream world and ignore the reality, and the record, continue to embrace the most amazing individual cognitive dissonance imaginable and fawn over a fraud in complete ignorance of the facts laid out.

And, then, don’t be surprised and weep when Wal-Mart grows, poverty widens and nothing changes.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on December 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out more than a decade ago, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays (slacker), with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995). I’m currently working on two news books.

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