Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for June, 2016

Would You Trust Henry Kissinger with Your Social Security?

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

Years ago a political scientist said that the mass media can’t influence what people think, but it can influence what people think about. Today it does both. If you’re a billionaire who wants to manipulate public opinion, that means you’ll keep feeding it stories that serve your ideology and self-interest.

Hedge fund billionaire Peter G. “Pete” Peterson is a master of the art. At a time when 47 million Americans (including one child in five) live in poverty, when our national infrastructure is collapsing and the middle class dream is dying before our eyes, he’s managed to convince a few voters, a lot of politicians, and far too many major-media journalists that our most urgent problem is … federal deficit spending.

They don’t just want you to be concerned about it. They want you to be afraid.

The front for this effort (one of many assembled by the Peterson Foundation) is called “The Coalition for Fiscal and National Security,” and they’ve assembled a list of prominent figures to promote it. Let us consider the message, and the messengers.

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The group’s mantra is a statement that retired Admiral Mike Mullen first made when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”

That’s a surprisingly bold and naive proclamation, especially from someone of Mullen’s stature. It takes a lot of imagination, and some highly implausible assumptions, to believe that our national security is really endangered by federal deficits.

The Peterson Foundation provides both, of course. Unfortunately its manipulated facts and figures fail to make their case, even when taken at face value.

What would a rational list of nonmilitary risks look like? Climate change would almost certainly top the list. Many military experts already consider it a grave national security threat. A bipartisan group of 48 defense leaders and experts – including, perhaps paradoxically, some of the Peterson group’s signatories – signed a full-page ad let year entitled “Republicans and Democrats Agree: U.S. Security Demands Global Climate Action.”

One defense expert called climate change “the mother of all risks.”

It’s easy to see why. Rising sea levels threaten many of our coastal towns and cities, including most of lower Manhattan. Millions of Americans are likely to become internal refugees in their own country, posing the risk of widespread lawlessness and instability.

Climate change is expected to trigger a number of future conflicts around the globe, as nations and peoples compete for increasingly scarce resources. Some scientists believe that climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Wealth inequality also belongs near the top of the list. Extreme inequality makes a society unstable. Today millions are trapped in poverty while the20 richest Americans own more wealth than half the entire nation – some 150 million people in 57 million households.

Persistent poverty plagues minority communities, while the 400 richest Americans own more than the nation’s entire African-American population (plus one-third of this nation’s Latinos). There are growing rates of suicide, opioid overdose, and deaths from alcoholism among lower-income whites. Economist Anne Case calls them “deaths of despair.”

What will happen if the middle class continues to collapse, if poverty remains inescapable for generation after generation, if most people face working years filled with dashed hopes and retirements plagued by penury?

Despair can turn to rage, sometimes without warning.

That’s one reason why it’s especially imprudent for the corporate-friendly “Coalition” to target Social Security, along with the rest of the social safety net. Sure, they try to sound reasonable. They even mention cutting the military budget (although they tip their hand by emphasizing military health care and payroll expenses, rather than cost overruns or expensive weapons systems.)

But they always turn to social programs, sometimes with not-so-subtle transitions like this: “Defense spending is the largest single category of discretionary spending… In 2015, it was second only to Social Security spending.”

See what they did there?

There’s little chance of getting tax increases or cuts in military spending through this Congress or the next, and they know it. The drumbeat for lower deficits only serves to undermine the social safety net – when we should be spending more to rebuild our economy.

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When a group uses prominent people to promote its arguments, it’s prudent to ask: Who are these people? Can we trust them? Are they wise and just?

Well, there’s former Michael Hayden, who headed both the NSA and the CIA. History will remember Hayden for giving sworn testimony to Congress that contained numerous falsehoods, as documented by the Senate Subcommittee on Intelligence. (Experts say it’s very difficult to convict someone for lying to Congress, but it’s still wrong — and illegal.)

Hayden signed off on detainee abuses that he argues were not technically“torture.” He insists other torturers have done much worse, in case that’s your moral standard.

Madeleine Albright’s on the list too. She was widely criticized for answering “we think the price is worth it” when asked about the Iraqi children who died as the result of sanctions against Iraq.

But the most prominent name on the list is Henry Kissinger’s. Is Kissinger credible?  It’s true that he’s popular among media and political elites, but that sad fact only serves to remind us that some memories are short – and that, for some people, the ties of social status outweigh those of morality and decency.

It was Kissinger who reportedly fed confidential information to then-candidate Richard Nixon – information that was used to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks, extracting a massive toll in human lives just to boost Nixon’s election chances.

It was Kissinger who delivered the illegal order to bomb Cambodia and Laos. More bomb material rained down on these tiny nations than was used in all of World War II. His actions cost countless lives and gave rise to the mad, massacring Pol Pot regime.

It was Kissinger who ignored the pleadings of a US diplomat and gave the green light to Pakistani atrocities in what is now Bangladesh, praisingPakistan’s dictator for his “delicacy and tact” while ridiculing those who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”

“Yahya hasn’t had so much fun since the last Hindu massacre!” Kissinger said of Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan. (The government of Bangladesh reported that 3,000,000 people died in the “fun.”)

Kissinger supported the violent overthrow of the Chilean government by a right-wing dictator. Kissinger gave the go-ahead to the Indonesian government’s massacre of from 100,000 to 230,000 people in East Timor. (Estimates vary.) Kissinger’s other offenses and blunders are too numerous to list here.

His intellect is overrated, too. Princeton professor Gary Bass writes that “Kissinger’s policies were not only morally flawed but also disastrous as Cold War strategy.”

Would you trust this man with your Social Security? Do you think he’d make wise and humane decisions about our society’s priorities?

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Sure, there are some decent people on the Coalition list. But they’ve been misled by tricksters and lulled by the groupthink that comes from decades inside a bubble of insular privilege.

And what a bubble it is. It’s a glassy gold bubble that filters out every color of the rainbow except its own, bathing its occupants in a warm autumn-colored glow as strangers shiver in the cold blue daylight outside. The bubble speaks with the voice of false authority. It’s a floating oracle with the soul of a confidence man.

But the crowd is thinning out. There are real threats to face outside the bubble: poverty, inequality, a crumbling infrastructure, a dying planet. It’s time for the bubble to disappear, as all bubbles eventually do, by blowing away on the wind or vanishing with a soft pop in the light of the midday sun.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on June 16, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

The War on Workers’ Comp

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

Stephen FranklinFor nearly a century, millions of workers have endured punishing jobs in construction, mining and factory work—jobs with high levels of work-related disability and injury. As a tradeoff for the dangers, they’ve had the assurance of workers’ compensation if injured permanently on the job. Employers accepted this deal, albeit sometimes grudgingly, because it  removed the possibility of being sued over work-related injuries.

But as labor has weakened and Republicans have won control of more and more statehouses, states have slowly chipped away at workers’ compensation benefits.

Since just 2003, more than 30 states have passed laws that have “reduced benefits for injured workers, created hurdles for medical care or made it more difficult for workers to qualify,” according to a recent investigative series by ProPublica and NPR. Some of the harshest cuts came in California, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Kansas, Indiana and Tennessee. Today, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), many injured and disabled workers “never enter the workers’ compensation system.” OSHA also estimates that workers’ compensation covers only about 21 percent of the lost wages and medical bills encountered by injured workers and their families.

Illinois, long a union stronghold, could nevertheless join the pack of those closing the doors for some to workers’ compensation if right-wing millionaire Gov. Bruce Rauner gets his way.

Traditionally, when companies hired workers, they bought their work histories. That is, they assumed responsibility for the physical problems employees developed over years of difficult work. But Rauner wants to narrow eligibility for compensation dramatically, requiring an injury to account for at least 50 percent of the claim.

Rauner’s argument is that workers’ compensation was designed for “traumatic” injuries, and that including repetitive injuries which accrue over time, effectively requires employers  to pick up non-workplace injuries. He contends that changing this standard would put Illinois on the same track as many other states.

John Burton, a veteran workers’ compensation industry expert, disagrees.

“What the governor is proposing is to take a lot of cases that have been compensable for the last 50 years and to throw them out,” he said.

One of these is Steve Emery.

The third-generation coal miner rode the wave downward, working in one mine after another as the industry collapsed. Then his hands, once powerful enough to manage the grueling job of breaking up large chunks of coal with a sledgehammer, failed him.

The spiraling numbness in his wrists and hands ended with a doctor saying he would never work in a mine again. He was 50 years old and had spent more than 30 of them in southern Illinois mines.

After a four-year battle with insurance companies arguing that Emery’s injuries were not job-related, he received $1,815 a month in workers’ compensation—enough to live on, but one just about one fourth of what he used to earn

Under Rauner’s proposed rules, Emery might not have received workers’ compensation at all. Democrats asked Emery to tell his story at an Illinois State House hearing last year as an illustration of the workers who would be left out in the cold under Rauner’s plan.

Dave Menchetti, a veteran workers’ compensation attorney in Chicago, adds that the shift proposed by Rauner would be “extremely difficult for doctors,” who are not trained to quantify the causes of injuries. “It would severely prejudice older workers and workers in heavy industries because those are the kind of workers who have pre-existing conditions.”

So what happens when business-minded workers’ compensation reformers get their way?

What the bottom looks like

A federal commission that examined workers’ compensation laws in 1972 was “disturbed” by the wide divergence of rules between states, and an “irrational fear” driving states and employers to search for “less generous benefits and lower costs.”

“We were talking about a race to the bottom,” explains Burton, a Republican, lawyer and economist, who led the groundbreaking study.

The study recommended mandatory federal standards; none were ever put in place.

And the race hasn’t abated, Burton says.

Indiana offers an example of what happens when a state wages the race to the bottom.

Starting decades ago, as Indiana’s leaders sought out factory jobs to supplant the state’s mostly rural economy, they embraced  a low-cost, employer-friendly workers’ compensation system. And it has stuck, as the state’s Senate has largely stayed under control of the GOP.

Workers in Indiana must wait seven days before receiving benefits (as opposed to three in Illinois). While permanently disabled workers in Illinois can receive benefits for life, Indiana caps benefits at 500 weeks, just under 10 years.

To qualify for permanent total disability in Indiana, workers must meet a “pretty high bench.” as Terry Coriden, a former chairman of the Worker’s Compensation Board of Indiana, describes it. “If you can be a greeter at any type of store, then that type of employment could be deemed to be reasonable, which would preclude you from total permanent disability,” he says.

Only 45 workers out of 597,058 who filed claims between 2005 and 2014 received permanent total disability status in Indiana, according to statistics from the Worker’s Compensation Board of Indiana. The rate was twice as high in Illinois, according to data from the National Council on Compensation Insurance provided by Burton. Only 13 percent of the Indiana workers who filed claims over those years qualified even for permanent partial impairment.

And the system simply pays out less.

Consider the case of a steelworker in northwest Indiana who suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over two-thirds of his body after being hit by hot metal and slag from a blast furnace.

In the nine years since, he has undergone 38 surgeries and still has no feeling in parts of his arms and legs.

Before the injury, he was earning as much as $130,000 year because of extensive overtime. Today, he gets $600 a week in workers’ compensation as a totally disabled individual, as well as $2,200 monthly in Social Security Disability income. In order to stay afloat, he has dipped heavily into his savings and his wife has picked up low-wage part-time jobs.

The worker did not want his name used because he feared that the company would retaliate. “I don’t want any blowback from the company until my workers’ comp ends,” he says. “I don’t want them kicking me out of it.”

He is especially concerned, he says, because despite having his employer authorize and provide the majority of his treatment, several recommended procedures were not authorized In Indiana, workers must go to the company’s doctors and follow whatever they prescribe. If they don’t, they lose their benefits.

Steve Emery, in Illinois, saw what happened when he visited a company physician.

His hands were “killing” him when he saw a local Southern Illinois physician of his own choosing in 2010. “The doctor said, ‘We’ll have to do surgery and you’ll never do work again,’ ” he recalled.

Peabody Energy, however, said he had to see the company’s physician in St. Louis. “[The doctor] said, ‘Mr. Emery, did you hurt this way when you was a kid playing baseball or mowing grass?’ ” Emery recalls. “I told him I didn’t play baseball and didn’t push a push mower “ Nonetheless, he says, “They denied my claim ASAP.” Peabody officials in St. Louis did not reply to requests for comment.

Fortunately for Emery, Illinois workers typically have the right to choose their doctor as well as their treatment (unless their employer has set up a “preferred provider” network, in which case they have the right to choose any two doctors within the network). Illinois also allows workers to seek a boost in their payments if they can show that they will suffer from a marked decrease in earnings. Indiana lacks both of these rights.

Low workers’ compensation payouts mean that workers in the state may even have more difficulty getting a lawyer to help them pursue a claim, given that legal fees are set according to the settlements received.

“The well-known truth is that it is hard to make money doing the work,” said Kevin Betz, an Indianapolis lawyer.

The business argument

To justify his plan, Gov. Rauner blames the “high costs” of workers’ compensation with driving jobs to other states, including Indiana.

“Employers are flat-out leaving the state, and they are saying it is because of the workers’ compensation policy,” says Michael Lucci, an official with the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that has received financial support from Gov. Rauner and also supports Rauner’s anti-union right-to-work drive.

There’s no disputing that nationwide, the downward race has paid off financially for employers. Workers’ compensation costs as a percent of payroll fell in 2014 to the lowest figure since 1986, Burton notes. Some of the decline has come from improved safety, but some, he says, has come from restrictions on workers’ compensation.

Lucci’s organization has churned out reams of information backing up the argument that Illinois’ workers’ compensation’s costs are uncompetitive as compared to its neighbors, especially Indiana. For Illinois steelmakers, workers’ compensation costs account for about 7.3 percent of their payrolls, for example, as compared to only 1.3 percent in Indiana, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

That’s just as Indiana intended it. The logic behind its laws is “inducing businesses from other states to Indiana,” explains Coriden.

Experts say that the idea that high costs are actually driving companies to relocate, however, may be little more than a myth.

West Virginia is one of those states that have slashed benefits to drive down costs for employers. But Emily Spieler, a former head of the state’s Workers’ compensation Fund, says it didn’t boost business much in the economically troubled state. Similarly, Spieler, a professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law, says she has yet to see any studies showing a positive financial impact for states. She is also dubious that workers’ compensation is a large enough factor to lead a business to change locations.

Asked for evidence that workers’ compensation costs may be driving firms out of state, officials from the Illinois Governor’s office cited their contacts with employers and site selectors and suggested contacting business groups for more information.

But when In These Times posed that question to the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which has been outspoken about the need to drive down workers’ compensation costs in order to remain competitive, Jay Shattuck, a contract lobbyist for the group, said he was not aware of any studies specifying that workers’ compensation alone made Illinois noncompetitive. (He also notes that the Chamber, while supporting most of Rauner’s plan, doesn’t see Indiana’s low payout system as the ideal.)

Victor Bongard, a lecturer in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, is familiar with Indiana’s pitch about attracting businesses through its low-cost workers’ compensation. He agrees that it is one factor in where businesses choose to settle, but “not a determining factor,” he says. He points to California, which “draws business to relocate there and manages to foster lots of new businesses despite its high workers’ compensation costs.”

Cost-shifting—but to whom?

With employers and the states’ workers’ compensation systems paying less, who picks up the bill?

In addition to workers themselves, the federal government is on the hook. These changes shift injured workers from state workers’ compensation programs to the government’s Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) system, as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) pointed out in a June 2015 report. OSHA estimated that in 2010, SSDI picked up as much as $12 billion to cover injured and ill workers.

Looking at the District of Columbia and 45 states, where the ranks of workers receiving compensation fell by 2.4 million between 2001 and 2011, researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research said last year that more than one-fifth of the rise in disability income payments appeared to be linked to cuts in workers’ compensation.

The calculations were age-adjusted to take in the growing ranks of elderly receiving the federal Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

“The logic of cutting back on workers’ compensation is that we’ll be tough on these workers,” says Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the organization. “But if you are just shifting the cost from workers comp to disability, you aren’t saving public money.”

Shifting the financial burden raises another problem. The workers’ compensation system was created to make employers responsible for the problems encountered by their employees. The shift to SSDI not only frees them from any financial accountability, but makes it harder for public officials to spot troubled workplaces and jobs.

In Indiana, because worker compensation payments are so low, attorney Richard Swanson said that injured workers who can’t return to their jobs “often make SSDI their first choice for income replacement.” That’s especially the case for older factory workers used to higher wages. “That’s their first question if they cannot return to work due to their work injury. You see it constantly,” he says.

Which way Illinois?

In Illinois, the fate of injured workers has become hostage to a larger political squabble that has left the state without a budget since last July.

Reforming workers’ compensation is part of a broad package of anti-union measures from Rauner, policies that have had no traction in the Democrat-dominated state legislature.

Rauner’s workers’ compensation proposal isn’t as draconian as some of his other policies aimed at workers, such as letting communities strip out numerous issues from collective-bargaining arguments, killing the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act, and allowing local communities to set up right-to-work rules. His cost-cutting proposal would mirror  the national downward trend in workers’ compensation—but he isn’t proposing (yet) the squeezes that states like Indiana, Florida and Oklahoma have put on injured and disabled workers.

But state Democrats think it’s only a matter of time.

“There isn’t much support for ending the workers’ compensation system, which is where the governor is going,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for State Rep. Michael Madigan, the powerful speaker for the State House.

The thinking of the Democrats, and the state’s trial lawyers, is that Illinois has already opened the door to reforms and cost cutting for the workers’ compensation system with the 2011 reforms and they should be allowed to roll out.

And the figures reflecting the impact of a 2011 reform by the state are significant, as reported by the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. The state’s worker compensation premiums dropped from the nation’s fourth highest to the 7th highest between 2012 and 2014—the largest decline among all states. So, too, benefits payments fell by 19 percent between 2011 and 2015.

Whatever Illinois’ private carriers lost in premium income seems to have more than offset by the savings on benefit payouts. After losses in 2009 and 2010, state insurers broke even in 2011 and have since seen profits climb steadily, according to data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. According to Menchetti, “it seems that some of the decision-makers would like stricter scrutiny [of the industry], evident in a provision in House Bill 1287 that has to do with how the Department of Insurance would regulate excessive premiums.”

So it appears that the new law has been a boon for both employers and insurance companies—if not workers.

And if employers’ costs have been dropping, “Is there really need for more reform?” Menchetti asks.

The wrong kind of reform

There’s a case to be made that workers’ compensation needs to be reformed in a different way—to help workers get on their lives, not to force them down the economic ladder and into a bureaucratic hell.  Even in relatively worker-friendly Illinois, Steve Emery saw firsthand the determination of employers and insurance carriers not to give up a cent they don’t have to.

Before his hands failed him, Emery worked six or seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, and was taking home as much as $80,000 a year. He worked at a number of mines across southern Illinois, and the last was the Willow Lake mine, owned by a subsidiary of the Peabody Energy Corp., which calls itself the world’s largest coal producer. It recently declared bankruptcy.

The company shuttered the mine and laid off 400 workers in the fall of 2012. The shutdown took place soon after a worker died, and the company said it had difficulties meeting safety and performance standards there. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had put the mine on notice in 2010 for repeat safety violations.

After filing for workers’ compensation, Emery fought the company for four years. Despite the fact that his exceptionally punishing job had left his hands virtually frozen, his attorney Steve Hanagan says, the coal company considered his injuries not job-related. It is a “typical dilemma” that applies “to many,” he said. “The battle over causation is very common.”

Emery appealed his case to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, which found that his his injury was job-related and hindered his ability to work.

“He essentially used his hands more than you can imagine, having bangs and jolts and all kinds of trauma,” said Hanagan. “The causation is quite evident.”

Confronted by money problems as he waded through his workers’ compensation battle, Emery’s marriage broke up. His wife “just couldn’t take it” and they couldn’t keep the house. He moved into a small apartment and started learning how to cope on his $1,815 a month benefits. He never qualified for a pension or had a pension plan despite decades of work in mostly non-union mines.

Emery, whose father and both grandfathers were miners, never expected things to end this way.

“I lost everything, man. My whole life changed.”

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on June 13, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for theChicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.  He can be reached via e-mail atfreedomwrites@hotmail.com.

This Year's Top Five Reasons They're Attacking "Greedy" Trial Lawyers and "Frivolous" Lawsuits

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

Arthur BryantWhen corporations or the government value money over lives and safety, injure people, or discriminate against them, the courts are where they can be held accountable. But corporate and government wrongdoers don’t want to be held accountable.

That’s why, for decades, they’ve been waging a massive propaganda campaign to demonize trial lawyers, litigation, juries, and our system of justice. They’re trying to poison public perception by attaching toxic adjectives to everything that could make them pay. They attack “greedy” trial lawyers, “frivolous” lawsuits, “runaway” juries, and “jackpot” justice— and call our legal system a “lottery”—because they don’t want justice to be done.

Each year, Public Justice counters this self-serving, corporate PR campaign by making sure people know the truth. We recognize the lawyers who made the greatest contribution to the public good by trying or settling a case as finalists for our nationally-prestigious Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.  This year’s finalists, listed alphabetically by case name below, will be honored—and the winner will be announced—at Public Justice’s 34th Annual Gala & Awards Dinneron Sunday, July 24, at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.  Their cases show what trial lawyers and lawsuits can do — and why they’re really being attacked.

Andrews v. Lawrence Livermore National Security

In 2008, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was taken over by a private company, Lawrence Livermore National Security (LLNS), controlled by the Bechtel Corporation and the University of California. LLNS promised to save the federal government $50 million annually. To do so, it then fired more than 400 of the lab’s most senior workers, including many top scientists and researchers. It gave them one hour to pack up their belongings and return their badges before they were “perp-walked” out of the lab.

Gary Gwilliam and his team at Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer and Omar Habbas of Habbas & Associates would not let this stand. They sued on behalf of 130 workers, litigated for more than seven years, and won a $2,728,327 jury verdict for breach of contract and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing for five test plaintiffs. They then negotiated a $37.25 million settlement for 129 of the 130 plaintiffs—the equivalent of over three years’ salary for each. When the defendants insisted that the settlement be confidential, the plaintiffs’ counsel refused—because the public had a right to know the disastrous effects of the government’s attempt to privatize a national lab.

Fox v. Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is famous for its healthcare and hygiene products, which have become staples in American homes. Consumers trust that J&J will ensure that its products are safe and alert them to any potential dangers it knows. A deadly breach of that trust led to the death of Jacqueline Fox, who used two of the company’s talc-based feminine hygiene products—J&J’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower Body Powder—daily for over 35 years.

Jere Beasley and his colleagues at Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, along with attorneys from Onder, Shelton, O’Leary & Peterson, LLC, The Smith Law Firm; and Ferrer, Poirot & Wansbrough proved J&J knew that long-term use of talc had been linked to ovarian cancer, but never disclosed that fact—even after the company’s talc supplier began warning of its dangers.  In the first case holding the company liable for talc-caused injuries, the jury awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages. The case laid the groundwork for the 1,200 similar suits J&J is currently facing.

Jones (Varden) v. City of Clanton
and similar cases

Every night in America, about 500,000 people sit in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail—the largest pretrial detainee population in the recorded history of the world. These detainees, who have not been tried yet and are often held for minor, non-violent offenses, constitute 60 percent of the U.S. jail population and cost counties $9 billion in 2011 alone. While they’re held, they can lose their jobs or homes, be beaten or attacked, or simply fall prey to unsanitary and depressing conditions. So many plead guilty, regardless of whether they committed the crime, just to get out and go home.

Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law in Washington, DC, along with counsel from Dawson Law Office, McGuire & Associates, ArchCity Defenders, the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and William P. Quigley used litigation to start ending this practice. In a series of lawsuits first filed on behalf of Christy Dawn Varden, a mother of two held in jail because she could not afford to pay bail, they argued that keeping a person in jail because she could not pay bail—without an inquiry into her ability to pay—was unconstitutional. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed. Their lawsuits stopped unconstitutional poverty jailing practices in Clanton, AL; Ascension Parish, LA; Velda City, MO; Moss Point, MS; Similar lawsuits have been filed in dozens of other cities.

Linde v. Arab Bank

The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1990 allows people who were injured by acts of terror abroad to bring civil suits in federal court. Linde was a mass tort consolidation case with 117 plaintiffs who were injured in suicide bombings and attacks in Israel, 40 wrongful death cases, and 440 family members of those injured or killed. The plaintiffs charged that Arab Bank administered a Saudi-funded universal insurance plan for the benefit of Palestinian terrorists killed, injured, or apprehended by Israeli security forces. For years, branches of the Saudi charity authorized payments ranging from $140 to $5,316 to terrorists and their families.

Michael E. Elsner and two of his colleagues at Motley Rice, C. Tab Turner of Turner & Associates, and lawyers from Osen LLC; Sayles Werbner;Stone, Bonner & Rocco; Heideman, Nudelman & Kalik; MM-Law; Kohn, Swift & Graf; Zuckerman Spaeder;  AG International Law; and Peter Raven-Hansen worked for over a decade to bring the case to trial.  In September 2014, a federal jury held Arab Bank liable. In August 2015, three days before the trial on damages was supposed to start, the parties reached a confidential settlement. This is the first case to hold a financial institution liable under the ATA. It and related cases aim to curtail the flow of money to terrorist organizations by holding financial institutions that aid them responsible.

Reckis v. Johnson and Johnson

In 2003, seven-year-old Samantha Reckis came down with a fever that her parents treated with over-the-counter Children’s Motrin, made by J&J and its subsidiary, McNeil-PPC. After two doses, she developed a rash that spread from her face to her trunk. After several more doses, Samantha’s body was covered in blisters and she was diagnosed with a potentially deadly adverse drug reaction called Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN). The affliction left Samantha legally blind and in need of a lung transplant. She suffered moderate brain damage and was left unable to bear children. When she was discharged, she weighed just 30 pounds.

Bradley M. Henry and his co-counsel at Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, along with Robert S. Peckof the Center for Constitutional Litigation, helped the Reckis family get justice. They sued J&J, proving the company had known since the 1980s—and failed to warn customers—that Motrin and other ibuprofen-based products were causally linked to Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a life-threatening skin condition, and TEN, which has a 40% mortality rate and almost always leads to blindness and other severe life-long ailments. The jury awarded Samantha and her family $63 million, which grew to $112 million over three years as J&J fruitlessly appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Public Justice honors these lawyers because of their extraordinary work fighting injustice, taking great risks (trial lawyers don’t recover any fees unless they win), and accomplishing great things. The short paragraphs above are just summaries of these teams’ incredible work. Fore more details, including the names of all the finalists, click here.

But let’s be clear. These cases exemplify what lawsuits and trial lawyers do. That’s why Corporate America and irresponsible public officials keep talking about “frivolous” lawsuits and “greedy” trial lawyers. It’s a lot easier than talking about their outrageous misconduct, their fear of liability, and their hope for immunity for their wrongdoing.

Don’t let them get away with it. Share this with others. Spread the word.

The problem isn’t “frivolous” lawsuits or “greedy” trial lawyers. The problem is the injustice we need lawsuits and trial lawyers to expose, remedy, and prevent.

This blog originally appeared on Public Justice on June 13, 20016. Reprinted with permission. 

Arthur H. Bryant, Chairman of Public Justice, has won major victories and established new precedents in several areas of the law, including constitutional law, toxic torts, civil rights, consumer protection, and mass torts. The National Law Journal has twice named him one of the 100 Most Influential Attorneys in America.

Mindless Underfunding Of Schools Continues, Doing Harm To Kids

Monday, June 13th, 2016

Jeff BryantHigh school graduation season is in full bloom in many communities around the nation, but in some places, parents with children still in schools have to be worried about the conditions of the schools they’ll return to in the fall – or even if the schools will open at all.

As states wrap up their budget seasons, many lawmakers are proving they simply aren’t up to the task of adequately funding schools. State spending, which accounts for about half of most public school districts’ budgets, has been in steep decline for a number of years in most states, leaving most local taxing authorities, which provide about the other half, unable to keep up unless the populace is wealthy enough to withstand higher property taxes. (Federal spending accounts for less than 10 percent of school funding, historically.)

Many of these lawmakers say the problem with the nation’s education system is lack of accountability, but school kids and their teachers are being hurt by government officials not being accountable to adequately and equitably fund our schools.

In Chicago, the nation’s fourth largest school system, the district’s school chief announced schools may not open in the fall due to a budget impasse in the state capital. Separate funding bills in the state House and Senate have drawn the ire of conservative Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who would prefer to inflict on schools a program of tough love that includes a $74 million cut in funding to Chicago.

It’s not as if the city’s schools are living in the lap of luxury. Inadequate budgets have driven up class sizes in every grade way beyond the point they are officially permitted. District chief Forest Claypool has already told Chicago principals they should prepare for whopping cuts of between 20 to 40 percent to their school budgets, which will drive class sizes through the roof.

The budget impasse, according to a report from the Associated Press, imperils schools across the state. According to the AP reporter. Democrats want new taxes, “but Rauner first wants pro-business and union-weakening reforms, ideas Democrats say hurt the middle class.”

In other words, no more money for schoolchildren until teachers make sacrifices.

As Rauner was defending his miserly stance, he took a swipe at Chicago schools, comparing them to “crumbling prisons.” That set off a firestorm on Twitter, where Chicago teachers defended the good things their institutions do to provide to students despite the budget cuts.

Actually, if the schools were more like prisons, they might be more apt to get a funding increase, as Rauner has proposed a substantial increase to prison spending for 2016.

Illinois isn’t the only state hell-bent on cutting money for schools.

The Wall Street Journal reports that state lawmakers across the nation, especially in the Midwest, are at seemingly intractable odds over how “to make sure the next school year can start on time.”

In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback has called a special session of the state legislature “after the state’s supreme court last month once again ruled that the state’s funding formula is inequitable and threatened to shut off funding to the schools,” according to a report from Education Week.

The court keeps telling state lawmakers the state is not funding schools based on what they deserve, according to another EdWeek report. State Republican lawmakers have considered various ways to circumnavigate the ruling, including changing the state constitution, but Democrats siding with the court forced their hand by petitioning for the special session.

Meanwhile, schools in Kansas City, Kan., where nearly 90 percent of the students are poor, “had to cut more than $50 million from its already tight budget because of state cutbacks,” according to The Hechinger Report.

The cuts are promulgated regardless of how the schools perform. In the case of Kansas City, schools had been making “double-digit” increases in some measures of achievement prior to the financial cutbacks that started in response to economic downturns in 2008.

Hechinger quotes a district administrator, “You could see the performance begin to decline as we had to cut back on people, human resources and all kinds of things to support our students.”

In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers enacted improvements to the state funding formula, a long-standing problem in the state, but left budgets mired at levels below what is needed to make the formula meaningful. Due to the inadequacy of state funding, a statewide survey of local officials finds “at least 60 percent of Pennsylvania school districts plan to raise property taxes and nearly a third expect to cut staff,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A third of respondents said their schools will increase class sizes in the year ahead.

This time the governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat leading the charge for increasing school funding, but the legislature controlled by Republicans “oppose new taxes and say the state needs to cut costs and find new funding streams.”

In Michigan, Detroit public schools will be out of money and unable to make payroll by June 30, according to a report from Reuters. House Republicans narrowly passed a bill to bail out the beleaguered school system, but Democratic leaders and the city’s mayor and teachers call the proposal a wasteful stopgap that funnels more money to charter schools while leaving the district adrift.

The big problem left unaddressed is how the state continues to underfund schools throughout the system. As a blog post from a district superintendent in the state explains, education funding in Michigan is in a 20-year decline. “This makes it impossible to provide the same level of teacher staffing, instructional materials, facilities maintenance, administration and operations,” he laments.

Outside the Midwest, “natural resource-dependent states” – such as Alaska, Louisiana, Oklahoma and West Virginia – are pulling “millions from their rainy day funds,” rather than raising taxes, to fund schools, according to Education Week. In Louisiana, the budget proposal would still leave schools in the lurch financially, leading to “teacher layoffs, cuts to programs, and cuts to the state’s department of education.”

Arizona is taking generally the same course, passing new legislation that raises education funding by raiding the state’s permanent endowment that supports stable financial resources for schools.

In Trenton, New Jersey, hundreds of teachers and school supporters rallied to protest funding cuts being proposed by the state’s conservative Republican Governor Chris Christie.

In North Carolina, conservative lawmakers are bragging about new teacher raises they just passed, but the state budget cuts millions from principal training, school Internet service, after-school programs, and a scholarship program to help fill shortages in math and science teachers.

“Can [school] districts raise expectations and improve achievement on a shoestring?” asks the author of the Hechinger article cited above. “How little money is too little for schools to function well?”

Maybe instead of cutting school funding to see how low it can go, it’s time we asked instead, “How much money for education is too much?” Indeed, without any real evidence that excess funding in the system is actually harming students and taxpayers, this continued austerity in education spending is mindless.

This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on June 10, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.

The Advocate: North Carolina's Transgender Discrimination Bill Hurts Everyone

Friday, June 10th, 2016

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallThe Advocate has a piece by Catalina Velasquez, director of People For the American Way Foundation’s “Young People For” program, that explains why the recently passed transgender discrimination law in North Carolina hurts everyone, not just the direct targets of the legislation.

An excerpt:

The recent passage of House Bill 2, the North Carolina law that includes a provision preventing trans people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, has been met with an avalanche of protest. So far the conversation has largely centered on the devastating effect the law has on transgender North Carolinians—and rightfully so. Based on zero evidence, legislators framed trans people as predators, a smear that protects no one while harming many. One transgender woman in Greensboro, N.C., told PBS, “Being out in public now, I feel like I might have a target on me.”

A suicide prevention hotline serving transgender people reports that the number of calls has doubled since H.B. 2 became law. There’s no question that this shameful law targets trans people, and it’s impossible to overstate the harm of that dehumanization. But what has been largely missing from the discussion are the ways in which this is also about disability justice, about economic justice, about families and much more. Quite simply, this fight affects everyone.

Read the full article.

 

This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on June 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I 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.  My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

Consumers are getting new protections from predatory lenders, and the lenders are outraged

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is cracking down on some of the payday lending industry’s most abusive practices, and boy are payday lenders getting whiny about it. So very whiny—and all kinds of poutraged.

“The CFPB has made eminently clear that it cares little for preserving consumers’ ability to access credit, or conducting a rulemaking process grounded in sound data,” said Jamie Fulmer, the spokesperson for lender Advance America, in a statement Wednesday.

Fulmer called the rules “a direct threat to millions of Americans’ access to affordable, transparent and reliable credit” and said that for smaller lenders, “they are a death sentence.”

Ha ha ha ha. “Affordable” credit being threatened by rules targeting payday lenders. Tell me another one! What’s the CFPB proposing that’s so awful?

The first measure requires lenders to assess if the borrower has the income to fully repay the loan when it is due without reborrowing. This idea, known as “ability to repay,” targets at the cycle of debt that unaffordable payday loans can trap people in.

The proposed rule also prohibits lenders from making more than two unsuccessful attempts to withdraw money from borrowers bank accounts. Repeated debit attempts cause consumers to be hit with overdraft fees from their banks. Such fees hit half of all online borrowers, costing an average of $185.

Additionally, there would be limits on how often the borrower could go back to the well for another loan if their financial situation hadn’t improved, which would further help prevent situations where people take out one loan after another to repay earlier loans, leading to giant pile of interest and fees after giant pile of interest and fees.

In contrast to the payday lending industry’s whines, consumer advocates called on the CFPB to go further, with the National Consumer Law Center calling it “a strong start” but saying that “the proposal has worrisome loopholes.” Allied Progress executive director Karl Frisch, meanwhile, called on members of Congress “to speak up and let us know where they stand”—a relevant question given that not only do Republicans love to go after any advance proposed by the Obama administration, but even Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz co-sponsored a bill to gut the CFBP proposal before it was even released.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on June 2, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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

The Anti-Job-Creation Party Wants Welfare Recipients To Work

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Isaiah J. PooleHouse Speaker Paul Ryan ended up overshadowing his own efforts Tuesday to highlight the Republican Party’s proposals for overhauling aid programs for low-income people by telling reporters that he was still planning to endorse and vote for a presidential candidate that had earlier uttered what he called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

The Speaker of the House shredding his moral credibility – in the heart of one of Washington D.C.’s historic African-American communities, no less – to remain loyal to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was indeed far more worthy of media attention than the ostensible purpose of his crossing the Anacostia River, which was to use a church-based substance abuse treatment center as a backdrop for his effort to rebrand the Party of the 1 Percent as the party that cares the most about the poor.

Nonetheless, the package of proposals that Ryan began unveiling this week, under the branding of “A Better Way,” should not be ignored, even though many of their tenets will be familiar to people who have followed what passes for anti-poverty policy in the conservative movement. What Ryan hopes is that at least Senate and House candidates will use the “Better Way” proposals to give the impression that the Republican Party is more than the “Party of No” and a party that thinks the solution to every economic problem is a tax cut for the wealthy.

People who are interested in a detailed rebuttal of the “Better Way” anti-poverty proposals should refer to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which has posted a series of commentaries on Ryan’s plan.

Much of the analysis is around the ways Ryan and his Republican allies try to avoid the fundamental truth contained in a statement issued Tuesday by Deborah Weinstein of the Coalition for Human Needs: “It costs money to give people the tools to escape poverty” – and Republicans just don’t want to spend that money. Weinstein notes that this year, under Ryan’s leadership, House Republicans proposed cutting low-income programs “by $3.7 trillion over 10 years, mostly in health care, but also cutting [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps] by $150 billion (a 30 percent cut between 2021-2026), and cutting Pell Grants and other low-income education programs.”

There is another familiar theme that will jump out if you look at Ryan’s plan: the insistence that “our welfare system should encourage work-capable welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits.”

The principle that every person who wants to work should have a job is one that progressives and conservatives could unite around – if conservatives believed that government had a role to play in helping to create the jobs that they are so adamant that people take in lieu of being “dependent on government.”

But there is nothing in the 35-page report on poverty programs and the Republican alternative that speaks to actual job creation. There is a lot of righteous hectoring about how people receiving government assistance – whether it’s the now-rare cash assistance, SNAP benefits, or housing aid. But the section of Washington Ryan chose as the setting for his news conference has an unemployment rate of 12 percent, more than two-and-a-half times the national average.

What the people in the community don’t need is to be lectured about the value of work. They need jobs. And this is where the Republican rhetoric does not match reality, since the Republican Party has dramatically cut spending on every economic development program that would support job creation, ranging from badly needed infrastructure investment to the kinds of economic development programs that enabled communities to improve themselves without the destructive, zero-sum game of gentrification.

Ryan and his party also does not believe that the federal minimum wage should eventually be raised to $15 an hour, so that people who work and raise a family can actually rise above poverty through their wages. It is the double-whammy that renders all of Ryan’s posturing about “a better way” to deal with poverty just that – election-year posturing. It’s just like his attacks on Donald Trump’s “textbook” racism – designed to project an air of moral probity to cover immoral actions.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on June 7, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives inWashington, DC.

Social Security’s Enemies Are Down – But They’re Not Out

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Not so long ago, Social Security was endangered by a “bipartisan” consensus that sought to cut its benefits – already lower than those of comparable countries – as part of a “grand bargain.” President Obama even put a slow-motion benefit cut into one of his proposed budgets, in the form of a reduction in cost-of-living increases.

And nobody talked much about raising taxes on the rich. That, they said, was “politically impossible.”

Things have changed dramatically. The Democratic president, virtually all of his party’s senators, and both its presidential candidates now say they want to expand benefits. An idea that was widely dismissed when it was proposed by Bernie Sanders is now the Democratic position. The “bipartisan” anti-Social Security army seems to be in ragged retreat, its campfires dying and its tents torn down.

But this isn’t over.

The president’s declaration is a major win for the left, as Nancy J. Altman and The Huffington Post political team explain. But the counterattack has begun.

It’s true that the anti-Social Security contingent seemed to be struggling last month at its annual convocation, the austerity-pushing “Fiscal Summit” funded by right-wing hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson. Peterson’s been financing this movement for decades, aiding friendly politicians in both parties and backing a variety of messaging vehicles designed to disparage government’s role in the social contract.

(They include “The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget,” “Fix the Debt,” and my personal favorite, “Budgetball.”)

Peterson’s Fiscal Summits were once all the rage with luminaries on both sides of the aisle. Former President Bill Clinton’s been a frequent attendee. (Not this year, though. Wonder why?)

This year’s event wasn’t the same. Sure, some politicians showed up. But a melancholy torpor seemed to hang in the air. It didn’t get much coverage (Clinton’s absence undoubtedly hurt). Three or four bored reporters munched on sandwiches in the press room while being barraged by rock music like they were Manuel Noriega under siege, except that the song choices were relentlessly upbeat – “Beautiful Day” by U2, “Gimme Some Lovin” by the Spencer Davis Group, “Eye of the Tiger” by whoever sang that, “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After.

(I don’t think anyone at the Summit vetted that last song’s lyrics, which include the line “Tax the rich, feed the poor/until there ain’t no rich no more.”)

But Social Security’s adversaries are still out there. Republicans still embrace the economic austerity that has wounded Europe and hamstrung our own recovery. Democrats at the Summit kowtowed to their hosts’ fiscal fixations. And the media personalities in attendance (were they paid?) offered chipper testimonials – pitches, really – for deficit reduction.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain,” said Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin, “everybody talks about the deficit but nobody does anything about it.”

“You’re somebody who’s trying to do something about the debt and not just talk about it,” CNN’s Dana Bash said to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) before praising the “Simpson-Bowles” deficit reduction plan – an impractical, unpopular and ultimately failed austerity proposal from former Sen. Alan Simpson and Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles – as a “solution.”

CNBC’s John Harwood recounted a “depressing” lunch with a former aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell he approvingly quoted as saying, “We can’t (fix) Social Security” – presumably a euphemism for “cut” – until “the baby boomers retire and the crisis is upon us.”

All of this fiscal folklore has been heavily promoted by Peterson-backed outfits.

Later, predictably, The Washington Post editorial board slammed the president. Democrats want “fatter checks for the elderly,” wrote the editors, for whom increasing a grandmother’s slender stipend is apparently a form of moral obesity.

The Post drew on the above-mentioned “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” and another Wall Street-funded group, “Third Way,” for discredited tropes like “the government spends six times as much as seniors as it does on children.” Statements like these are designed to fuel the notion of a “war between generations,” even though Social Security cuts would hurt younger people more.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in Washington still take these fictions seriously. Social Security’s adversaries are well-funded, their myths are deeply embedded in our political culture, and they’re not giving up.

Harwood, Bash, and other journalists in the Peterson umbra will keep reporting on these issues, skewing public perception.

If the Republicans win all three branches of government, Social Security will be in immediate mortal danger.

And while the rhetorical shift among Democrats is welcome, they’ll need to be held to it. Hillary Clinton’s website says she would “expand Social Security for those who need it most and who are treated unfairly by the current system.”

That’s not enough, given the current retirement crisis. The Sanders proposal, which is detailed and covers everyone, must be written into the Democratic platform. And activists must send the message that there will be dire political consequences if it isn’t honored. Otherwise, a new “grand bargain” is still a very real possibility.

The Peterson crowd’s expressed concern about government debt rarely leads them to propose tax increases on the wealthy, and never with any conviction. They’re cutters, not builders – even when it comes to Social Security, which is forbidden by law from adding to that debt. If they were real budget hawks they might consider that fiscal proposal from Ten Years After:

“Tax the rich, feed the poor …”

Say what you will about its politics, but it wouldn’t add a penny to the deficit.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on June 7, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

First Women Graduate from Fort Campbell Welding Program

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Kenneth QuinnellOne of the great benefits of joining the military is the opportunity to learn skills that benefit a soldier after their service is completed. Some soldiers, such as Specialist Tanya Preddy and Sergeant Alyssa Tamayo, prepare for careers that provide good jobs while breaking ground at the same time. Preddy and Tamayo just became the first women to graduate Fort Campbell’s Veterans in Piping program in Kentucky. Veterans in Piping is a program of the United Association (UA).

Preddy said: “I was pretty excited going into this, to be honest, because I mean, who wouldn’t be excited about making stuff with fire,” she joked. “That’s awesome to me. I’d never welded before this class, ever. I just thought it would be really cool and fun.”

“I think the guys were surprised to see us [in the classroom],” Tamayo added. “A lot of people think welding is just for men and with us being the first two females at Fort Campbell ever, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘I have to beat everybody in here.’ I just felt like I had to be perfect.”

Read the full story.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on June 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell is a long time blogger, campaign staffer, and political activist.  Prior to joining AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as a labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  He was the past Communications Director for Darcy Burner and New Media Director for Kendrick Meek.  He has over ten years as a college instructor teaching political science and American history.

New Survey Reports Uber Drivers Are Investing Big in the Company But Get Little Stability

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Don Creery had been driving for Uber in Seattle for several months when in May 2014 the clutch wore out on his Kia Soul. A former music teacher, Creery had enjoyed his work for Uber and said he made enough to live comfortably. So, anticipating much more driving in the future, he took out a $10,000 loan to purchase a brand new Soul with an automatic transmission—a smart investment, he judged, for his career as an Uber driver.

“I never go into debt,” Creery told me, “but this seemed totally logical.”

Initially, everything went according to plan. But soon, Uber would cut the rates it charges customers for rides, effectively slashing the wages of its drivers. The move triggered protests and caused Creery to suddenly second-guess the wisdom of his choice to take out the loan.

“It all of a sudden went from being a good decision to being a bad one,” Creery says. “Before that rate cut, it was a middle-class job as far as money goes, and now it’s not. It’s a lower-class job or in some instances a desperate-class job.

Creery’s experience is not entirely unique, according to a survey of hundreds of Uber Drivers across the country that is being released today. Conducted by the Partnership for Working Families and Coworker.org, an online platform meant to generate worker campaigns, the survey polled more than 300 Uber drivers between March and May of this year and found that a majority of them have, like Creery, made significant personal investments for their future with the service. Fifty-seven percent of Uber drivers have “have bought, leased, or made substantial investments in vehicles to drive for Uber,” according to the report.

Despite having taken on risk to maintain their freelance career with Uber, only 23 percent of the drivers polled see driving for the ride-hailing app as a source of stable income.

“Anecdotally both in and outside the survey, we have heard from drivers who were struggling to make payments on cars that they have purchased to drive with Uber,” says Mariah Montgomery, the Future of Work Strategist for The Partnership for Working Families. “These drivers are investing substantial funds to be able to drive.”

These results appear in tension with survey data that Uber has touted as proving that drivers most often do not rely on the service as their only source of income but see it instead as a convenient, highly flexible way to supplement their existing work. “Uber Fits Around Drivers’ Lives, Not The Other Way Around,” the company declared last year, referring to a survey that states that 88 percent of Uber drivers polled started “driving for Uber because it fits their life well, not because it was their only option.”

Today’s survey, which included drivers who had previously used coworker.org, found that the vast majority (80 percent) of drivers polled identified their wages as a top priority and support raising fares. In recent months, Uber has slashed fares in cities across the country, arguing that the fee reduction will actually benefit workers due to a resulting increase in customer demand. “This survey suggests that drivers don’t necessarily agree,” says Montgomery.

Perhaps in response to such issues, 70 percent of the surveyed Uber drivers—who are independent contractors with no shared setting to naturally meet each other—said they were interested in connecting with one another to communicate about things like maximizing earnings, sharing information and forming drivers’ associations.

In response to a request from In These Times, Uber did not comment on the study’s findings.

Today’s survey also states that it found anecdotal evidence that, after Uber’s announcement in April that it will officially condone drivers receiving tips, the freelancer respondents want the company to go further in facilitating such transactions. Namely, there is no option in the app through which customers can pay a tip via credit card. “Although the survey did not specifically ask Uber drivers about tips, many drivers wrote in that they would like an option for riders to provide tips within the app, like Lyft,” according to the report released today. “One driver wrote: ‘Please put a place [in the app] where people can tip. People want to tip me all the time but do not have cash.’”

The survey’s release coincides with a hearing today where a federal judge in San Francisco will weigh whether or not to accept a proposed settlement in one of the most high-profile legal actions drivers have brought against Uber. In April, the company agreedto pay $100 million to settle two class action lawsuits that alleged the ride-hailing service had wrongfully classified its drivers in California and Massachusetts as independent contractors and thus denied them the rights and benefits of full-employee status.

The proposed settlement infuriated some drivers and advocates, not only because of what appeared to many as a paltry sum for a company valued in the tens of billions of dollars, but also because its terms appeared to have the effect of helping cement in place Uber drivers’ status as independent contractors, the very issue many drivers have most fiercely protested.

As independent contractors, Uber drivers are responsible for paying for their own cars, vehicle repairs, tolls, gas and other inputs necessary for the job. Drivers like Creery, who also sells rides for Lyft and is a leader of an Uber driver association in Seattle, say that being on the hook for such expenses, including interest payments for auto investments, means the job hardly pays a living wage.

Drivers’ own financial borrowing to pay for their vehicles is part of what has propelled Uber’s rapid global expansion. This week, Bloomberg News published a look into Uber’s Xchange program, which offers vehicle leases at subprime rates for would-be drivers with poor credit history—people who often would not otherwise be able to drive for the company. Uber says that Xchange and other financing programs will expand its fleet by 100,000 in coming years.

The company says that Xchange offers a high degree of flexibility by allowing drivers to walk away from a lease at any point after the first month. But several Uber drivers expressed displeasure with the arrangement. One driver told Bloomberg that, like Creer, he could hardly keep up on his vehicle payments after one of Uber’s rate cuts.

“It got to the point that I would drive just to meet my payment,”the driver said. “If you were short on your payment for a week it would roll onto the payment for next week. It starts adding up.”

This blog was originally published on inthesetimes.com on June 2, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Spencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at@spencerwoodman and reach him via email atContactspencerwoodman@gmail.com

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