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Archive for April, 2017

The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Democrats unveil plan for a $15 minimum wage

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Congressional Democrats have unveiled their strongest minimum wage plan yet. And while Republicans will block this, it’s important to get the word out: this is what we’d be moving toward if Democrats were making the laws.

Their legislation, dubbed the Raise the Wage Act, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, increasing it from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $9.20 an hour once it’s passed and then adding about a dollar a year for seven years until it gets to $15. It would rise automatically after that as the country’s median wages rose.

The bill would eventually do away with the separate tipped minimum wage, which currently allows those who earn tips as part of their compensation to be paid as little as $2.13 an hour by their employers. It would increase that rate to $3.15 and then gradually raise it so it would eventually reach $15 an hour.

Seven years is slow, but otherwise, this plan checks some important boxes—in particular, raising the tipped minimum wage and setting it so that the minimum wage rises automatically rather than requiring a fight each and every time it’s raised. If Democrats had done that the last time they raised the minimum wage, it wouldn’t still be stuck at $7.25 an hour nearly eight years after its last increase, years during which it’s lost nearly 10 percent of its purchasing power. The Raise the Wage Act would also ensure that people with disabilities are paid the full minimum wage.

Every single time you talk about lawmakers backing a $15 minimum wage, you have to remember that it’s low-wage workers who pushed $15 into the realm of possibility, organizing around a number nearly $5 higher than the high end of Democratic proposals at the time. Their organizing has changed the discussion—and in two states and several large cities, it’s helped change the law.

We need to change the Congress, though, before we’ll see nationwide progress.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on April 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Under Trump, coal communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Blair Zimmerman, Pennsylvania’s Greene County Commissioner, knows coal. As a mine worker for 40 years and then a politician in southwestern Pennsylvania, he knows how important coal is to both the identity and economic stability of his community. He’s even called the White House a few times since President Donald Trump took office, asking the president—who ran on a platform of supporting coal miners that he argued had been forgotten by Washington—to renew health insurance for thousands of retired coal miners.

But he doesn’t think that anything Trump does will bring coal jobs back to levels seen in the industry’s heyday.

“The coal industry is going to be around for years, but to bring it back—that’s not going to happen. [Utilities] are not going to invest in fossil-fueled power plants,” Zimmerman said. When he talked about the promises Trump made to places like Greene County, a community of just over 36,000 situated on the state’s southwest border, Zimmerman laughed, raising his voice a little.

“He doesn’t have a plan. That was all political B.S.,” Zimmerman said. “He said it just to get elected.”

And it worked, because of places like Greene County—in November, Trump overwhelmingly carried the county’s vote, beating Hillary Clinton by 40 points.

One hundred days into his presidency, however, Trump’s actions to help coal communities have been limited to cutting environmental regulations that experts say will do little to help bring mining jobs back.

Meanwhile, Trump’s skinny budget, released in March, would cut funding to seven of the 12 federal programs aimed at revitalizing struggling coal communities. Since 2015, these programs have functioned together under the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, Initiative. These Obama-era programs include things like workforce training, to help unemployed coal miners obtain necessary skills for finding new jobs, and economic development, to help new businesses move into these communities. According to a new Center for American Progress analysis, Trump’s proposed budget would cut at least $1.13 billion from these programs. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.

“A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners.”

“Having the administration fund programs that direct money into economic development in the coalfields is really the only way to truly help people right now that are living and working in these communities,” Veronica Coptis, a lifelong Greene County resident and executive director of Coalfield Justice, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners, but more concerned with ensuring that coal companies continue to have more control.”

In Greene County, where the unemployment rate is currently 6.7 percent(about two percent higher than the national average), POWER Initiative funds have been hugely useful for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, a body that oversees programs aimed at helping job seekers find employment and learn skills in southwest Pennsylvania.

Ami Gatts, who has worked for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board for 25 years, rising to the position of director two and a half years ago, said that the board has received over $1.5 million in POWER Initiative funds, which has paid for things like supportive services to help unemployed workers get computers or transportation for school, or training seminars aimed at helping out-of-work miners obtain new skills. Through POWER Initiative funding, for instance, the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board can reimburse companies up to $8,000 taking a chance on an untrained worker. The employee gets a full salary, while the company is taking less of a financial risk on its new hire.

“When you cut those funds, we don’t have the money to train people to make a skilled workforce,” Gatts said. “It’s going to affect our employers, and it’s going to affect the people who need those skills. It’s very detrimental.”

Beyond cutting programs, however, Gatts said that Trump’s rhetoric about coal jobs coming back has a paralyzing impact on coal communities, where many workers would rather go back to familiar jobs than embark than learn a new trade or skills. Many unemployed coal workers have been hesitant to take advantage of the workforce training services provided to the community?—?because they are convinced that the coal industry, with Trump’s help, will rebound to its former glory.

“Every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

“Every time they put out hope, it stymies people. They just stop and they don’t move forward,” Gatts said. “Change is not something people welcome, and every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

The story of the fall of the coal industry has been one of a steady, decades-long decline, with the number of coal mining jobs falling from 177,500 in 1985 to just over 50,000 today. As both a candidate and as president, Trump has made a great many promises to coal communities devastated by a rise in automation and competition from natural gas and renewable energy. He has promised to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-administration’s signature domestic climate regulation aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. He has pledged to repeal environmental regulations aimed at protecting streams from mining pollution, and has promised to do away with other regulatory burdens that he argues have been killing the coal industry.

But while these moves may boost coal production slightly—and line the pockets of coal executives in the process—they will do little to stem the production of cheap natural gas or slow the automation of the coal industry. Utilities have already said that Trump’s recent actions have not changed their outlook on coal as an energy source, nor have the actions caused utility executives to reconsider previously scheduled coal plant closures. In short, Trump’s regulatory assault will do little to bring back coal jobs to the regions where he’s promised relief.

Mining jobs paid well—an average of $60,000 a year for people just starting in the industry. And finding unemployed miners jobs that pay similar wages is not easy—especially when workers lack particular skills that employers are looking for. Many unemployed miners, as well as potential employers, are either unwilling or unable to take on the financial burden of paying for a particular kind of skill training, which is why POWER Initiative funds have been so crucial for entities like the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board in trying to address the gap between unemployed workers and potential employers.

“In order to get the skills, you need to have money to pay for the training,” Gatts said. “If you take that away from us, you’re not going to be offering our employers any trained workers.”

Both Gatts and Commissioner Zimmerman note, however, that POWER Initiative funds can only go so far—and that it means little to the community to have a trained workforce without opportunities for employment within the community.

“The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

“We have to bring in other industries, and support the guys that are here now in the coal industry,” Zimmerman said. “The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

Both Zimmerman and Gatts are looking to the technology sector as a potential new industry for Greene County—they argue that since tech work really only requires an internet connection, companies could find lots of potential workers in economically-depressed coal communities, as long as those communities have access to education and training. It’s a strategy that is similar in many ways to candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposed plan for revitalizing coal communities, which involved federal support for local education and training programs as well as major investment in expanding broadband access for rural communities.

Since 2015, Greene County has been partnering with a nonprofit called Mined Minds, which was started by tech consultant Amanda Laucher, who was born in Greene County but moved to Chicago to work in tech. Together with her partner Jonathan Graham, Minded Minds has begun offering coding bootcamps to teach software development and tech skills to unemployed miners and others in Greene County and the surrounding area.

“We strongly believe that there is talent in these areas,” Graham told ThinkProgress. And he said the program is mutually beneficial. “The tech industry is continuing to grow and getting a talented workforce is difficult and expensive.”

Graham and Laucher also offer their students both pre-apprenticeships—a combination of real world tech work and continuing workshops—as well as full apprenticeships. Mined Minds also works with companies from Silicon Valley to New York to help place graduates of the programs in tech jobs that can be done remotely, so that graduates don’t have to leave their homes, once they have completed the bootcamp and apprenticeships.

The Mined Minds programs, thus far, are self-funded, but POWER Initiative Grants have helped the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board pay for some of the associated training costs for Greene County residents. Mined Minds also recently applied for their own POWER Initiative funds, with the hopes of expanding their boot camps and reaching more residents in southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I think as a model, it makes sense. Having the support of grants means that we’re not taking all the risk ourselves in trying to bring more industry into an area,” Graham said.

He said that if the Trump administration were to cut POWER Initiative funding, it would slow—but not completely derail—their ability to expand their training programs.

“Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

But for Gatts, who has worked in economic development in this community for over a decade, losing federal funding would be a blow.

“I do think these programs are very necessary,” she said. “Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on April 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Natasha Geiling is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her at ngeiling@americanprogress.org.

The Looming Writers Strike Is About Much More Than What’s On TV

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

People say we’re living in the golden age of television. Fans enjoy more high-quality choices than at any time in history. But this could all grind to a halt if the Writers Guild of America (WGA) follows through with authorizing a strike, which would start May 2 barring any last-minute deals with the major studios.

In the short-term, late-night talk and sketch shows could go dark or resort to improvisation, and the fall broadcast schedule could be threatened. (The WGA covers screenwriters as well, but movies operate on such a long timeframe that a strike wouldn’t affect releases for over a year.) But more broadly, the battle would determine who benefits from the billions of dollars sloshing around Hollywood: well-off studio executives or the creators who bring unforgettable characters to life.

As Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner told colleagues in recommending a strike, writers simply want “to participate in this windfall we created in the last five years.”

Squeezed on all sides

Writers last walked out in 2007-2008, when YouTube was three years old and the concept of delivering original scripted programming over the Internet was scarcely in anyone’s head. The WGA had the foresight to secure revenues from streaming residuals in that contract. But nobody was prepared for how the industry would change.

Increasingly, scripted shows have shorter and shorter seasons. Sixty-eight percent of all programs aired 13 episodes or fewer last season, according to WGA calculations, rather than the traditional 22. Because writers are compensated on a per-episode basis, that change amounts to a halving of their pay.

In addition, studios are giving shows more time to make those limited numbers of episodes, which is great for the craft but bad for writers’ bottom line. Other behind-the-scenes talent gets paid based on their presence at work; only writers lose money when they get three weeks per episode instead of two.

You might think shorter runs allow writers to hook onto more shows over their careers. But under current terms, writers sign exclusive contracts, with an option to return to their show if it gets renewed. They can’t stack up three shows in a year to make up for lost wages. And exclusive holds can last a full year, if networks delay in confirming a definitive air date. If the delays last long enough, writers can become ineligible for union healthcare and other benefits.

In the past, writers filled these gaps with residual payments. But networks, fearful of tough competition, air far fewer re-runs now. Instead, they sell entire seasons to video-on-demand (VOD) services. Writers make less money from these formats than from network residuals. For example, a network repeat for a 1-hour show yields a writer more than $24,000, while an ad-supported VOD airing nets just $1,228 for the writer, according to union contract rates.

For movie writers, the issues are different. The big studios are making fewer movies, down to 139 releases in 2016 from 204 in 2006, limiting writers’ opportunities. Studios have also begun to reduce script “development,” even demanding free rewrites instead of offering paid time to hone and perfect a screenplay. The vanishing of DVD revenues has also taken a bite. Earnings for screenwriters today are roughly equivalent to earnings from 2000, the WGA estimates.

Finally, the WGA has a large gap in its healthcare fund: It expects a $56 million deficit over the next three years. While negotiations seem like they will yield higher base wages for writers, healthcare has become a critical sticking point. The studios have agreed to fill much of the gap, but with “wage diversions” that would effectively come out of writers’ paychecks. The WGA wants a much higher contribution from management to fund a rainy-day reserve. The two sides are roughly $45 million apart.

“A very, very big pie”

TV and film remains very profitable, at least for executives and shareholders. The “Big Six” studios (Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Disney) reported operating profits of $51 billion last year, twice as much as in 2007. Upfront TV ad rates increased last year to well over $9 billion, as live programming becomes highly valued in an era of ad-blockers and DVRs. Upstarts like Netflix or Amazon have even more riches at their disposal to pay for programming.

The studios are mostly arms of large conglomerates, whose parent companies run telecommunications or electronics businesses. Leslie Moonves, head of Viacom/Paramount’s CBS Corp., earned $69 million last year. These giant corporations with diverse, worldwide revenue streams clearly carry the ability to pay writers fairly for what they generate in value. Stories about slow growth in box office receipts or significant studio challenges mask the tremendous cash still available to multinational giants.

But the studios want to hang onto their bounty, and they have resources to take the sting out of a writer’s strike. A decade ago, the full catalogs of practically every television show ever made weren’t as readily available on demand. Plus, not incorporating reality show storytellers into the 2008 contract could come back to burn the WGA now, as this would become the non-union scab programming replacing sidelined scripted shows on many networks. Add to that a Hollywood strike’s impact on thousands of other ancillary jobs—from stagehands to catering to limo services to hair and makeup—and the WGA could have some challenges this time around.

This would be the sixth WGA strike since 1960, and previous efforts have secured important advances for the backbone of the entertainment industry. Moreover, they have become teachable moments for a country unused to labor strife—a way to directly explain the concepts of fair wages and workers demanding to share in a company’s success.

But now, writers are fighting concentrated power brokers who have devised all sorts of ways to maintain a stranglehold on the billions of people worldwide who fork over money to watch their favorite characters.

Glen Mazzara, former showrunner for The Walking Dead, perhaps put it best on the WGA website: “We’re just trying to get a little bigger piece of a very, very big pie.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on April 20, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

David Dayen is a freelance journalist and the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

This week in the war on workers: Trump's top attacks on workers ... so far

Monday, April 24th, 2017

 

The Economic Policy Institute’s Perkins Project “tracks actions by the administration, Congress, and the courts that affect people’s wages and their rights at work,” and as we get to the end of Donald Trump’s first 100 days, they’ve provided a list of the top 10 things he and congressional Republicans have done to working people. Here’s a sample:

 

  1. Protecting Wall Street profits that siphon billions of dollars from retirement savers. At President Trump’s behest, the Department of Labor has delayed a rule requiring that financial professionals recommend retirement investment products that serve their clients’ best interests. The “fiduciary rule” aims to stop the losses savers incur when steered into products that earn advisers commissions and fees. The rule was supposed to go into effect April 10. For every seven days that the rule is delayed, retirement savers lose $431 million over the next 30 years. The 60-day delay will cost workers saving for retirement $3.7 billion over 30 years.
  2. Letting employers hide fatal injuries that happen on their watch. The Senate approved a resolution making it harder to hold employers accountable when they subject workers to dangerous conditions. The March 22 resolution blocks a rule requiring that employers keep accurate logs of workplace injuries and illnesses for five years. This time frame captures not just individual injuries but track records of unsafe conditions. President Trump said he would sign the resolution. If he does, employers can fail to maintain—or falsify—their injury and illness logs, making them less likely to suffer the consequences when workers are injured or killed. Blocking this rule also means that employers, OSHA, and workers cannot use what they learn from past mistakes to prevent future tragedies. If the rule is overturned, more workers will be injured, and responsible employers will be penalized.
  3. Allowing potentially billions of taxpayer dollars to go to private contractors who violate health and safety protections or fail to pay workers. The federal government pays contractors hundreds of billions of dollars every year to do everything from manufacturing military aircraft to serving food in our national parks. The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule required that companies vying for these lucrative contracts disclose previous workplace violations, and that those violations be considered when awarding federal contracts. The rule was needed, as major federal contractors were found to be regularly engaging in illegal practices that harm workers financially and endanger their health and safety. On March 27, President Trump killed this rule by signing a congressional resolution blocking it. This will hurt workers and contractors who play by the rules, while benefitting only those contractors with records of cutting corners.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on April 22, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Unionized Scientists March in Protest of Attacks on Science and Jobs

Friday, April 21st, 2017
Of all the attacks on our civil society, the attacks on evidence-based science pose perhaps the greatest existential threat. Decisions being made about climate science and environmental protection at this critical time will shape the future of our planet.

Advances in research are produced by the twin pillars of dedicated scientists and an activated citizenry who demand that the best science be applied to today’s most pressing problems. Because scientists produce the facts that expose the lies currently being purveyed, the tip of the spear is pointed at the heart of science-based policy and research.

But the imminent threat also presents an extraordinary opportunity for the scientific community to unify around a message of resistance, one in which organized labor has a critical role to play. Unionized scientists are well-positioned to fight back against the false narratives being pushed by the administration and to advocate collectively for continued funding of crucial basic research. Science professionals need a workplace free from fear of corporate power and political malfeasance influencing their results. We are the protectors of truth and facts, and in that way we all are in service to the public. With scientific integrity, we speak truth to power.

Budget cuts are the beginning of the attack. For example, the Donald Trump administration is proposing a 31% cut in funding and 21% cut in workforce at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on top of less-heralded budget cuts over the past three years. Such low funding levels have not been seen since the 1970s, prior to the enactment of most of our national environmental laws. Enforcement is also targeted, crippling the EPA’s ability to protect human health.

Is this a good way to save money? Investments in environmental protection pay huge dividends for the country. For example, air pollution reductions will avoid 230,000 premature deaths and produce total benefits valued at $2 trillion in 2020, according to a 2011 study. This benefit exceeds costs by more than 30-to-1, to say nothing of the human suffering.

Scientists have long held the view that with enough data and evidence we will be able to convince skeptics that climate change is real, that humans are responsible and that immediate action must be taken. It is increasingly clear that this approach has not worked.

For the nearly 7,000 postdoctoral researchers at the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab represented by UAW Local 5810, having a union ensures strong workplace protections as well as a powerful, nationwide platform for advocacy when research comes under threat. And the collective power of the union is not limited to the workplace.

Kathy Setian and other members of IFPTE Local 20 march at the Inauguration protest on January 20th in San Francisco.

With a diverse membership that includes both higher education and the manufacturing sector, the UAW has been a leading advocate for climate change policies that both create healthy communities and address economic and racial inequities. And at the EPA, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 20/Engineers and Scientists of California (ESC) has rallied in opposition to the cuts and will continue to speak out, including in San Francisco at the March for Science.

Make no mistake. As organized scientists, we are in solidarity with our union brothers and sisters who have lost jobs and real income steadily over the past several decades. We support the creation of jobs in clean energy sectors and in green infrastructure projects.

It is time for scientists and the citizenry who depend on science to embrace our responsibility to advocate for sound policies. Our very lives and livelihood are now dependent on stepping collectively forward into the realm of political advocacy and action.

Together we will March for Science on April 22, in opposition to the damage that the current administration seeks to do to research and in solidarity with scientists, researchers, and concerned citizens who remain resolved, undeterred, and organized in the face of these threats.

This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on April 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Carly Ebben Eaton is a postdoctoral scholar and executive board member of UAW Local 5810.

Kathy Setian was a project manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a steward of IFPTE Local 20, Engineers and Scientists of California. She will be a speaker at the April 22 March for Science in San Francisco.

Thousands of Piece Rate Workers in California’s Salon Industry Are Likely Owed Unpaid Wages

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

Salon owners in California who pay employees on commission are subject to liability for failing to pay all wages due.  Under California law, “commissions” are a form of wages applicable only to an employee who sells a product or service, not to an employee who makes a product or provides a service to the employer’s customers.  Keyes Motors v. DLSE 197 Cal.App.3d 557 (1987). Salon employees in California whose job is to cut and/or color hair, must therefore be paid on an hourly basis, a piece rate basis, or a combination of those.  Salon technicians who have been paid on a typical net commission basis are likely due unpaid wages and statutory penalties.

Piece Rate Wages for Hair Stylists and Colorists

California Assembly Bill 1513 (AB 1513) went into law on January 1, 2016, adding section 226.2 to the California Labor Code to address compensation for piece rate work.  Piece rate workers are paid according to the number of units they complete.  Piece rate units might be defined by the numbers of widgets assembled by a factory worker, the number of cars washed by a car washer or the number of haircuts given by a barber or cosmetologist.

AB 1513 did not create new wage obligations, but instead codified the legal obligations described in two important appellate decisions that addressed the wages of piece rate workers back in 2013: Gonzales v. Downtown LA Motors, 215 Cal. App. 4th 36 (2013) and Bluford v. Safeway, Inc., 216 Cal. App. 4th 864 (2013).

In Gonzales, the court held that mechanics who worked on a piece rate basis must be paid for their non-productive time (time during a shift when the worker was not actively engaged in compensable work). An employer, the court explained, cannot average the wages worked by an employee to show that the employee received at least minimum wage for all hours she was under the employer’s control.  The employer must pay no less than the applicable minimum wage for every minute an employee is under its control, including time when no compensable work is being performed under a piece rate system.

In Bluford, the court held that piece rate workers must also be paid separately for rest periods because rest periods under California law are deemed on-the-clock, compensable work time.  If a piece rate worker is only paid by the unit, then she is not being compensated for rest periods in accordance with California law.

So, although AB 1513 did not modify the duties described in the Gonzales and Bluford cases, it provided employers a “safe-harbor” period during which the employer could take steps to limit its liability to certain types of claims or lawsuits arising out of its misclassification of technicians as commissioned employees.  To take advantage of the safe harbor protections, however, the employer was required to:  (1) notify the California Department of Industrial Relations no later than July 1, 2016 that it would pay wages due to employees who had not been compensated for non-productive time or rest periods (back to July 1, 2012); and (2) make the wage payments no later than December 15, 2016.  Many piece rate employers failed to take advantage of these safeguards. A list of employers who notified the DIR of their intention to participate in the safe harbor provision can be found at the DIR website.

Labor Code § 226.2, the product of AB 1513, places specific duties on employers of piece rate workers including:

(a) For employees compensated on a piece-rate basis during a pay period, the following shall apply for that pay period:

(1) Employees shall be compensated for rest and recovery periods and other nonproductive time separate from any piece-rate compensation.

(2) The itemized statement required by subdivision (a) of Section 226 shall, in addition to the other items specified in that subdivision, separately state the following, to which the provisions of Section 226 shall also be applicable:

(A) The total hours of compensable rest and recovery periods, the rate of compensation, and the gross wages paid for those periods during the pay period.

(B) Except for employers paying compensation for other nonproductive time in accordance with paragraph (7), the total hours of other nonproductive time, as determined under paragraph (5), the rate of compensation, and the gross wages paid for that time during the pay period.

(3)          (A) Employees: shall be compensated for rest and recovery periods at a regular hourly rate that is no less than the higher of

(i) An average hourly rate determined by dividing the total compensation for the workweek, exclusive of compensation for rest and recovery periods and any premium compensation for overtime, by the total hours worked during the workweek, exclusive of rest and recovery periods.

(ii) The applicable minimum wage.

(B) For employers who pay on a semimonthly basis, employees shall be compensated at least at the applicable minimum wage rate for the rest and recovery periods together with other wages for the payroll period during which the rest and recovery periods occurred. Any additional compensation required for those employees pursuant to clause (i) of subparagraph (A) is payable no later than the payday for the next regular payroll period.

These statutory mandates codify the wage rights set out in Gonzales and Bluford.  Given the common salon industry practice of paying stylists and colorists as commissioned employee, it is likely that thousands of salon employees in California have been underpaid during the past four years.

Salon Class Action

In early 2016 Kitchin Legal filed a class action lawsuit (on behalf of 231 employees) against five jointly-owned Northern California hair salons.  The case is based on the salons’ alleged failure to abide by a wide range of California employment laws, including Labor Code § 226.2.  After months of negotiations and the exchange of thousands of lines of employee data, our clients entered into a proposed class-wide settlement valued at over $1 million.  We are now in the process of seeking court approval for the class action settlement.

Top Rated San Francisco Salon

In late 2016 Kitchin Legal filed an individual lawsuit on behalf of a stylist against one of the top ranked hair salons in San Francisco. [The lawsuit is based on the salon’s alleged violations of several California wage and hour laws, including Labor Code § 226.2.]  The salon owner, who either was ignorant of the law, or chose to ignore his legal duties, is facing a six-figure wage claim, one of the largest components of which is based on the allegation that our client was improperly paid as a commissioned employee.

Risk and Consequences

For Salon Owners

Nearly every year California passes new legislation or enacts new regulations pertaining to the duties of employers to their workers. Employers who do not have a sophisticated human resources professional on staff or a competent employment attorney on retainer to help them keep abreast of these changes can become particularly vulnerable to employment-related claims.

An employer who decides to risk non-compliance with any aspect of California’s employment laws can face significant financial consequences, including a class action lawsuit by a group of employees.  The worst decision a salon owner can make is to remain ignorant of California labor laws or to ignore its legal obligations hoping its employees will not challenge its illegal practices through a lawsuit.

The best decision a salon owner can make at any time is to have a skilled California employment attorney review its policies and practices for compliance with California labor laws, including in particular, Labor Code § 226.2.

For Salon Employees

The biggest risk facing an employee whose compensation rights have been violated is delay.  All of these claims are governed by specific statutes of limitations.  Employees can generally seek recovery of unpaid wages for up to four years (under California’s unfair completion laws).  Once the statute of limitations runs on a claim, it is gone forever, however.   Salon employees who have been paid as commissioned employees and who have not been paid separately for non-productive time and rest periods should talk with an employment attorney right away.

Patrick R. Kitchin is the founder of Kitchin Legal APC, a San Francisco, California employment law firm. He has represented tens of thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

Leaked Trump administration plan to close Chicago EPA office puts 1,000 jobs at risk

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

President Donald Trump’s proposed cutbacks to the Environmental Protection Agency may include the closure of the agency’s regional office in Chicago, a move that could undermine the agency’s ability to monitor pollution in the Great Lakes and curtail its ability to implement enforcement actions against coal-fired power plant owners in the six-state region.

The workforce for the Chicago Region 5 office would be consolidated with the EPA office in Kansas, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, citing anonymous sources. Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney singled out the EPA as a target for budget cuts and the agency, under the leadership of former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, was tasked with choosing two regional office for closure by June 15. The identity of the other regional office has yet to be disclosed.

“This decision doesn’t make sense from an efficiency standpoint. Instead, this decision makes sense from an ideological standpoint,” Nicole Cantello, the head of the union representing agency employees in the region, told ThinkProgress. She received leaked information about the possible closure of the regional office and believes it accurately represents the intentions of the Trump administration.

Cantello, who also works as a lawyer in the EPA Region 5 office, added: “If you wanted to drive a stake through the heart of EPA enforcement and EPA’s ability to protect the country, this would be one way of doing it.”

News about the Trump administration’s plans to close the Chicago EPA office leaked the same week the agency discovered a potentially carcinogenic chemical had spilled from a U.S. Steel facility in Indiana into a tributary of Lake Michigan. U.S. Steel reported last Tuesday that it leaked an unknown amount of wastewater containing hexavalent chromium into a waterway in Portage, Indiana, within 100 yards of the lake.

The Region 5 office oversees environmental protection in six states surrounding the Great Lakes: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. “It would be devastating to environmental protection in Region 5, the office that is the steward of the Great Lakes,” Cantello insisted.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the region are pushing back against the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In a March 30 letter to House appropriations committee leaders, the members of Congress explained the initiative “is showing real and measurable results, but there is still a great deal of work to do.”

EPA employees and environmental activists gather in Chicago on Feb. 6, 2017, to protest Scott Pruitt’s nomination as EPA administrator. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carla K. Johnson

Consolidating the two regions would make EPA Region 7, located in Kansas City, Kansas, the largest regional office in the nation, covering 10 states. Region 5 has expertise in dealing with the states in the upper Midwest and a deep knowledge of Great Lakes protection. “That expertise would be completely lost,” Cantello said.

Region 5 has only 500 employees, while Region 7 employs 1,000 staffers. “You could imagine how 500 people would be able to handle all the issues going on in 10 states,” she said. “It would be virtually impossible. Therefore, it would put people’s lives at stake. For the people who live in the six states, there won’t be an environmental cop on the beat.”

Under the administration’s plan, 3,000 EPA employees nationwide would lose their jobs. Closing the Chicago office, and eliminating its 1,000 positions, would help accomplish that goal. Whether any employees would be transferred to the Kansas office is unknown. But the EPA regional office in Kansas does not have adequate space to accommodate hundreds of new employees, Cantello said.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), whose congressional district includes the city of Flint, called reports of the proposed closure of EPA’s Chicago a “misguided” move that would jeopardize federal resources to help Flint recover from its water crisis.

“If true, the closure of the EPA’s Region 5 office —which serves Michigan and other states in the Great Lakes region—is very concerning,” Kildee said in an emailed statement. “EPA efforts to protect the Great Lakes through the successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative are also critical to reduce pollution run-off and combat the threat of invasive species like Asian carp.”

EPA employees rallied in early February against the impending confirmation Pruitt as EPA Administrator, in what was the first protest by federal workers against the Trump administration. Roughly 300 people—a third of whom work for the agency—took to the street outside the agency’s Chicago regional office.

With the latest leaked information about the possible closure of the Region 5 office, Cantello said her union plans to work with members of Congress from the six states to fight back against the closure of the Chicago office.

The Trump administration plans to focus on regional offices for job cuts, not the EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Along with Chicago, employees housed in other regional offices are fighting back against the administration’s plans to gut the agency. In the EPA Region 3 office, the mood “is fear, dread,” Marie Owens Powell, an EPA enforcement officer and a local union leader, told National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

The Philadelphia office employees hope they can persuade their representatives to save the EPA and convince friends and family to speak out in defense of the agency’s work, the union leader said. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed a large majority of U.S. voters oppose cutting EPA’s budget.

The proposed budget cuts are like nothing Cantello has seen in her 27-year career at the EPA. “I’ve been through many presidential transitions and have never seen this type of animosity toward our staff and animosity toward our mission,” she said. “George W. Bush, even though there were some things around the edges he wanted to do that were from a conservative bent, generally supported our mission.”

The Trump administration wants to let the states take over many of the duties of the EPA. “This idea that the states do the same work of the folks in the region is a fallacy supported by some Republicans but is not something that is a reality on the ground,” Cantello said. “The notion that there is duplication between what we do and what the states do is not reflected in reality. All the enforcement we do is requested by the states because they can’t do the work we do.”

In the six-state Midwest region, where coal-fired power plant capacity retains a sizable share of the electric power generating mix, the EPA Region 5 office has pending cases against coal plants for violations. “We don’t know if we will be allowed to follow through with those cases,” she explained. “We already have some cases on the docket against coal-fired power plants. We may not be able to get the cuts in environmental pollution that we would get under a regular course of business.”

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on April 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Hand is a climate reporter for Think Progress. Contact him at mhand@americanprogress.org.

The Plan Behind a Chicago Project to Lift Up Working People

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Manufacturing jobs have been on a steady decline for several years because of trade deals, technological advancements and economic recessions. Despite this, manufacturing remains one of the most important sectors of the U.S. economy, employing more than 12 million workers, or about 9% of the total U.S. employment.

American cities continue to spend billions each year to buy major equipment, such as buses and railcars for public transportation systems. This spending has the potential to support tens of thousands of good manufacturing jobs. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there will be 533,000 good middle-skill manufacturing jobs available over the next decade.

Jobs to Move America is working with labor, business, community and governmental groups around the country to ensure money spent on building transportation infrastructure is also used to promote equity and bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. The organization also is advocating for workforce development and training programs that prepare working people for high-skilled careers that will help them succeed in the 21st-century economy.

Jobs to Move America and community partners recently managed to ensure a project in Chicago will create good jobs and long-term economic opportunities for the community. JMA worked with the Chicago Federation of Labor, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Transit Authority for four years to ensure that the U.S. Employment Plan was included as part of the CTA’s latest $1.3 billion project, which will supply up to 846 new railcars and replace about half of the CTA’s current fleet. The employment plan is a toolbox of policy resources transit agencies can include as part of their request for proposals to encourage bus and rail manufacturers to train and create good high-skilled U.S. jobs in communities that need it most.

The company that won the contract, CRRC Sifang America committed to building a new $100 million unionized facility on Chicago’s South Side, the first in 36 years. The company will spend $7.2 million to train 300 factory and construction workers. Additionally, CRRC has signed on to a community benefits agreement guaranteeing support for South Side residents and is part of a workforce-labor-business consortium that received a $4 million Department of Labor grant to develop an apprenticeship and training program, and a pipeline into manufacturing jobs in Chicago.

The work of JMA with labor and community partners leveraged a robust manufacturing jobs program that will strengthen the middle class, stimulate increased investment in new domestic manufacturing facilities, and create opportunities for low-income communities. Most importantly, the Chicago work has set a precedent for the rest of the country, lifting up standards and creating a model for how communities and business can and should work together.

The idea behind JMA’s work is simple. There is a need to reframe the discussion about good jobs and economic prosperity away from a “cheapest is best” approach to a broader discussion about the economic impact of using taxpayer dollars to create good jobs, especially for those historically excluded from the manufacturing sector, like women and people of color.

Take, for instance, Kristian Mendoza in the Los Angeles area, a veteran who was struggling to find a good-paying job after his service. He was forced to commute to a job an hour-and-a-half each way from his home. The job paid so little he could barely afford the gas to get there and did not have the resources to take care of his two young children.

Because of the work of the JMA coalition in Los Angeles, a U.S. Employment Plan was implemented in a project of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Part of the agreement is a community-labor partnership with Kinkisharyo, the company that won that bid. The company committed to hiring and exploring skills training for disadvantaged U.S. workers. To date, the company has exceeded its commitments, employing some 400 workers, most of whom are people of color in a unionized factory.

Mendoza is one of the 400. After struggling for years, he has been able to move out of his family’s home and into a place close to the Kinkisharyo factory.

The JMA team is now working on multiple projects across the country, monitoring the industry for upcoming opportunities to maximize public transportation dollars and ensure there are more success stories like Mendoza’s.

This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on April 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Alaa Milbes is the Senior Communications Specialist for Jobs to Move America. Prior to joining JMA, Alaa served as Oxfam’s Media Officer in Jordan for the Syria crisis response on a short-term assignment, where she worked on a number of media strategies and campaigns meant to raise awareness about Syrian refugees. Alaa also did communications work for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, covering 5 regional offices in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territory.

 

Texas has a new plan to discriminate against LGBT people

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Texas’ anti-transgender bill has seemingly stalled, but inspired by North Carolina, Republican state lawmakers have a new plan to expand discrimination against LGBT people.

Last month, Texas seemed on track to follow in the footsteps of North Carolina’s HB2 and pass its own bill, SB6, mandating anti-transgender discrimination across the entire state. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) launched a massive misinformation campaign to scare up support of the bathroom bill, and the Senate passed it, terrifying the trans kids and families who testified against it. The bill was blocked in the House by various House Republican leaders who indicated they believed it was unnecessary.

But now, those House Republicans have introduced a new bill that looks awfully familiar.

Unlike the various complicated aspects of SB6, HB 2899 does only one thing: ban cities from passing nondiscrimination protections. To that end, it also would nullify any municipal nondiscrimination ordinances already in place.

This approach strongly resembles the “compromise” bill North Carolina lawmakers recently passed to replace HB2, which banned cities and school districts from passing any ordinance “regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations” until December 1, 2020.

These both, in turn, follow the example set by Tennessee and Arkansas—which have “preemption” laws that prohibit cities from protecting any class from discrimination that isn’t already protected under state law, which amounts to a de facto ban on LGBT protections. North Carolina’s law sloppily allows protections that already exist to remain in place, but Texas takes the approach a step further. By banning and nullifying all nondiscrimination ordinances, HB 2899 would prohibit cities from doing anything to address discrimination on the local level.

HB 2899 would effectively be a statewide license to discriminate against LGBT people. By regulating schools, it would also have severe consequences for LGBT students, who could not be protected from bullying. Trans students could not be guaranteed the right to use the restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identity.

Given the NCAA and NBA were convinced to abandon their boycotts of North Carolina over its replacement law, it seems likely that Texas lawmakers expect their new plan will similarly be safer from economic backlash. This is despite the fact that many cities and states are maintaining their bans on publicly-funded travel to North Carolina.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook (R), who blocked the Senate anti-trans bill, called HB 2899 “the right kind of balance” between “privacy”—i.e. discrimination against transgender people—and avoiding “a chilling effect on business.”

Cook’s committee will consider the new bill next Wednesday.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on April 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Zack Ford is the LGBT Editor at ThinkProgress.org. Gay, Atheist, Pianist, Unapologetic “Social Justice Warrior.” Contact him at zford@thinkprogress.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackFord.

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