Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for July, 2017

Don’t Dawdle on Economic and National Security

Monday, July 31st, 2017

The future of the American steel and aluminum industries is not a matter for dithering.

Each mill and smelter that remains operating is too vital. Each is too crucial to the economic viability of a corporation, a community, and thousands of workers and their families.

Each also is too essential to national security, which relies on American-produced metals for critical infrastructure, from bridge construction to the electrical grid, and for munitions, from fighter jets to bullet-proof vests.

There is no more time for waiting. International trade law must be enforced now. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump pledged his support to workers and these industries. And he followed through by launching within three months of taking office as president special investigations into the effects of steel and aluminum imports on national security.

Such inquiries may take as long as a year to conclude, but the administration expedited the process. Until it didn’t. Now steel and aluminum corporations, their communities and their workers are being told to wait. It’s a delay that could kill more American mills and smelters.

The nation lost nine aluminum smelters over the past six years, leaving only five in the entire country, and most of them are now operating at reduced levels. Beginning in January 2015, steel companies laid off 14,000 workers as they closed mills and sections of mills.

For example, Allegheny Technologies shuttered a plant that made grain oriented electrical steel in 2016, leaving only one U.S. company, AK Steel, now producing this component critical to electricity transmission.

As mills and smelters disappear, the military is further restricted in its ability to secure domestically produced essential metals in time of crisis.

The primary culprit in this scary scenario is overcapacity and overproduction in China, which overwhelms the world market with illegally subsidized, grossly underpriced aluminum and steel.

China has promised repeatedly to solve this problem. On Thursday it pledged again, this time contending it wanted to work globally to deal with the issue of aluminum overcapacity – a problem Beijing created. Over the past six years, using massive government subsidies, China quickly ramped up capacity to become the largest aluminum producer in the world.

China can’t be trusted on this because it never keeps its promises. It has never cut its steelmaking capacity after announcing again and again that it would.

In negotiations two weeks ago, Trump cabinet members could not even get a specific commitment out of China to do it. There’s no evidence China will stop overproducing steel or aluminum now. Waiting is useless. And destructive to American manufacturing.

The American steel and aluminum industries have fought back, filing and winning dozens of trade cases against imports of specific products. But the resulting tariffs and other penalties imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department and U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) didn’t solve the problem.

Instead of paying U.S. tariffs, China shipped its government-supported excess of these products to other countries, artificially suppressing world prices and warping what is supposed to be a free market.

Also, this traditional process for seeking relief from unfair trade takes too long. More than a year may elapse before companies and workers get a final decision. And that will be for just one product, like aluminum extrusions, aluminum foil, welded stainless steel pressure pipe or corrosion-resistant steel, to name a tiny number of cases from recent years.

That’s part of what made the special investigations into steel and aluminum imports so attractive. If the U.S. Commerce Department determined under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 that imports of steel and aluminum jeopardized national security, then the president could impose penalties broadly to ensure the country could meet its own needs. The effort might also spur allies to join the United States in finally pressuring China sufficiently to actually reduce capacity.

Although Section 232 allows for nine months of investigation, after which the President would have three months to determine a remedy, the administration promised quick action when it announced the inquiries in April. The steel report was to be completed by June 30, with a speedy decision by the president after that.

That suggested the administration understood this was urgent.

But June 30 came and went. Now there’s an official delay. The administration told the Wall Street Journal that the steel investigation is on hold until after health care reform, tax changes and infrastructure spending are accomplished.  “We don’t want to do it at this moment,” the president said last week of the steel case.

That’s devastating. Especially because steel imports have jumped 22 percent since Jan. 1, placing additional pressure on the American industry.

The delay occurs as efforts are made by a new company to reopen at least one potline at an aluminum smelter in New Madrid, Mo., that the now-bankrupt Noranda company idled last year. Postponing the Section 232 decision makes for uncertainty for these investors.

It also occurs as a Chinese company is trying to buy Aleris, an Ohio-based manufacturer that supplies aluminum for use in vital infrastructure and military applications. That Asian firm, China Zhongwang, is accused of dodging tariffs and is under civil and criminal investigation for possible smuggling, conspiracy and wire fraud by the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and Commerce Department.

Maybe the Aleris smelters would keep operating if China Zhongwang bought them, but at what risk to national security?

The delay occurs as companies that buy steel fear monger that tariffs or quotas would raise prices.

An expert, Stephen Koplan, chairman of the U.S. ITC under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, says that’s hogwash. “Predictions of disaster were wrong 15 years ago when I chaired the ITC, and they are wrong again today,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Hill newspaper last week.

When President George W. Bush imposed tariffs and quotas on steel imports under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, there was no price shock afterward, according to a study by the nonpartisan U.S. ITC.  Here is what Koplan, who also served as an attorney at the Small Business Administration, wrote:

“Downstream industries were not devastated by higher steel prices. Nor was the U.S. economy thrown into depression. The U.S. steel industry, however, earned a much-needed relief as the result of action taken by the president that allowed it to restructure and reinvest for the long term. In other words, the Section 201 measures worked as intended.

“We are facing similar challenges again today. . .Now, however, U.S. national security is at great risk if firm action is not taken immediately. The U.S. primary aluminum industry is on the verge of disappearing entirely, and the U.S. steel industry is not far behind.”

AK Steel Corp. CEO Roger Newport agreed with Koplan’s assessment that this is not a time for dawdling, telling the Commerce Department in his testimony on the steel case:

“High-end electrical steel is an incredibly difficult product to manufacture, as it requires a significant amount of dedicated, capital equipment and a sophisticated, well-trained workforce.

Therefore, if AK Steel were to exit the market, there would be no operational electrical steel manufacturing equipment in the United States, the specialized labor and related expertise in operations would be lost, and many of AK Steel’s talented operators and researchers would either relocate to other businesses, industries and/or foreign countries, or become unemployed.”

Workers’ and companies’ economic security is at risk. The nation’s security is at risk. Resolution of these cases should be speeded, not delayed.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on July 31, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO

Trump has bad news for millions of workers in line for overtime pay under Obama

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Donald Trump’s major life goal at this point seems to be rolling back everything good President Barack Obama did for the country and its people—and now he’s coming for your overtime pay. Obama had sought to raise the overtime eligibility threshold to include millions more workers, a change that was supposed to go into effect in December but was blocked at the last minute by a judge. Now, of course—of course—Mr. Populist is rolling back Obama’s expansion. Trump’s Labor Department announced Tuesday that it would be doing something to the overtime eligibility threshold, but it’s not clear what, and they’re definitely not going to be raising the threshold to $47,000 like Obama proposed.

In the final days of the Obama administration, the Labor Department had appealed the judge’s decision blocking implementation of the raise, and Trump’s Labor Department agreed in court that it has the power to set the eligibility threshold. But Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta plans to use that power in a very different way than Tom Perez did under Obama:

On Tuesday, the department said in light of the pending appeal, it decided to issue a request for comments rather than skip immediately to rescinding or revising the rule.

The agency asked for input on whether the current threshold of $23,660 set in 2004 should be updated for inflation, and whether there should be multiple levels based on region, employer size, industry or other factors. […]

The department also asked employers to explain how they prepared for the rule to take effect and whether it has had an outsize impact on small businesses and particular industries.

The department said it was considering eliminating the salary threshold, leaving overtime eligibility to be based on workers’ job duties.

Mind you, the Obama administration already had a lengthy comment period and took 300,000 comments. But we know the Trump regime will be listening to comments from one set of people in particular: bosses who want to exploit their workers.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos by Laura Clawson on July 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Justice Department brief argues against protections for LGBTQ workers

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

On Wednesday evening, the Department of Justice moved to undermine rights for LGBTQ people to ensure they are treated fairly in the workplace. The department filed a brief arguing that prohibition of sex discrimination under federal law does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The federal law in question is Title VII, which is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

The case before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Zarda v. Altitude Express, centers on a now deceased skydiver. In 2010, Zarda said he was fired because of his sexual orientation. In April, the Second Circuit decided that it would not accept the argument that discrimination on sexual orientation isn’t permitted under Title VII. However, Lambda Legal requested that the ruling be reconsidered, which is why the Justice Department planned to file its amicus brief.

The power of the federal government to influence LGBTQ workplace rights can’t be underestimated, said Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“It is the Justice Department of the U.S. It’s not just anyone, so it’s definitely going to have a lot of weight because it is the position of the U.S. government, so it will be interesting to see how Second Circuit takes those arguments,” Gruberg said.

The role of Title VII in protecting lesbian, bisexual, and gay people against discrimination has been fuzzier than the issue of whether it can protect transgender people from discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized that Title VII protects transgender people from discrimination in 2012. In 2015, the agency also held that Title VII covers claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But court decisions on sexual orientation protections have been mixed.

The strongest decision for the recognition of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII was in Hively v. Ivy Community College, in which the Seventh Circuit held that sexual orientation was covered under sex discrimination in Title VII for three reasons. In that ruling, Chief Judge Diane Wood referenced Price Waterhouse V. Hopkins, a case that is commonly used to support sexual orientation as protected through Title VII by arguing that says sex discrimination includes sex stereotyping. If a stereotypical woman is considered to be heterosexual, then dating women is a failure to conform. Looking at it another way, if a woman were a man dating a woman she would not face discrimination; therefore she is facing discrimination because she is a woman. And yet another way to consider discrimination would to look at the matter of association. The Loving v. Virginia case found that discrimination based on association with someone of a different race is discrimination on the basis of race. In the case of sexual orientation, Wood used this “associational theory” to say that a refusal to promote someone based on their association with someone of the same sex qualifies as sex discrimination.

Gruberg said that with conflicting decisions from the courts, including a March 11th Circuit ruling that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation, and statements from judges such as Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is likely covered under Title VII, the issue could come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There has been an indication last time they considered this, where Chief Katzmann noted that this is still a developing issue in courts and he felt that court should reexamine whether sex orientation discrimination is covered under Title VII, so it has been mixed,” Gruberg said. “We’re already at a circuit split so it’s something I am convinced is going to be in front of the Supreme Court soon.”

In the brief, the Justice Department noted in Hively, Judge Diane Sykes said sex as “common, ordinary usage in 1964” means “biologically male or female.” Gruberg, who commented before the brief was released, said it would not make sense for the department to address gender identity, given the courts’ past rulings.

“Courts have been much more willing to see that gender identity discrimination is straight up sex discrimination. That has not really been a question. Sexual orientation is a little bit [of a question], so it is shocking that DOJ would bring that [gender identity] up,” Gruberg said. “That is not as contested in federal courts and yet they are bringing it up as an assault on the idea that trans people have civil rights protections.”

Gruberg said that the department will likely take the most prevalent argument against including sexual orientation and say that the statute doesn’t explicitly mention sexual orientation.

“But it doesn’t say sex stereotyping either, and the courts ruled on that, and it doesn’t mention sexual harassment but we now see harassment as covered,” Gruberg said. “What it means under Title VII has been understood as far more broad than what Congress in 60s believed it meant… It is a willful disregard of the evolving definition of sex discrimination.”]

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress.

The GOP’s Trojan Horse on Health Care Repeal

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

On Tuesday, 50 Republican senators showed contempt for their constituents by voting to move forward on repealing our health care, with Vice President Mike Pence stepping in to break the tie.

Nine GOP senators later broke ranks in a late-night session to vote down the Senate’s toxic version of the bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) – which would have rolled back much of the Affordable Care Act and gutted Medicaid, ending coverage for 22 million – but there are more votes to come, including one that may simply repeal care and and strip coverage from 32 million.

The final version of the bill may be nothing more than a placeholder – a Trojan horse for setting up a Republican Senate-House conference committee that will use yet another secretive, undemocratic process to craft yet another version of health repeal.

GOP leaders will want the new version to look just like their previous versions: cut taxes for corporations and the rich, raise the price of coverage for the rest of us, unravel Medicaid, and take health care from 22 to 24 million people.

Among Republicans, only Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen Lisa Murkowski of Alaska had the courage to stand with their constituents and vote no on moving forward.

By voting to move ahead on the health care debate, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada caved to pressure from Trump and casino mogul Steve Wynn. Almost 630,000 Nevadans get their health care through Medicaid and are now in jeopardy.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia caved under the weight of right-wing donor money and attack ads. With three in 10 West Virginians getting their health care through Medicaid, Capito’s state will be harder hit than almost all other states the country.

Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman also caved, representing a state where hundreds of thousands of people finally got coverage because of expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

It was extremely irresponsible of Portman, Capito, and Heller – who have all expressed concern for constituents enrolled in Medicaid – to throw their weight behind this reckless process without a clear plan for protecting Medicaid coverage.

In statements, Capito and Portman have both said they’ll make good on their concern in the days to come, but both voted with their GOP colleagues for the BCRA on Tuesday night. Heller, who voted against the BCRA, said he wants the bill to be improved.

They need to show this is more than talk. Now more than ever, their constituents need them to stand strong, resist any bullying, and protect Medicaid and health care overall. They’ll do that, if they really do care about their constituents.

And let’s not forget the true heroes in this fight.

These heroes include the West Virginians who’ve been holding Capito’s feet to the fire for months with creative protests and civil disobedience. They also include the Mainers who delivered messages in a pill bottle to Sen. Collins and tracked Rep. Bruce Poliquin down at a Boston fundraiser and reminded him who he’s supposed to represent. And let’s not forget the seniors who braved a Great Lakes blizzard to protest in front of Speaker Paul Ryan’s Racine office.

Like these heroes, tens of thousands of people have shown up at protests and town halls, often speaking up for the first time in their lives. In every corner of the country, people have put their senators on speed-dial, camped out in congressional offices, and rallied friends.

We really are in a fight for our lives. Yet we’re motivated not just by fear but also by moral outrage. We know how fundamentally wrong it is to deprive people of health care.

And our fight isn’t over. Republican leaders wanted to put health care repeal on Trump’s desk in January. It’s the end of July, they’re still scrambling. That’s because of us.

In the coming days, let’s keep making calls and showing up at rallies and protests. Let’s track every vote this week, and raise the pressure on senators and representatives alike if repeal moves to a conference committee.

We’ve shown an incredible persistence in our fight. We’ll show plenty more when it comes to holding politicians accountable for a vote that favors big-money bullying over the people they’re supposed to represent.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on July 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julie Chinitz is lead writer for People’s Action.

New CFPB Rule – a Poster Child for Regulation

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

The new CFPB rule is critically important in its own right, but it is also interesting to view the battle over this rule as a microcosm of the fight we so often see between free market devotees and fans of regulation. Bankers, credit card issuers, payday lenders and the Chamber of Commerce have urged for many years that consumers should be free to “choose” to resolve disputes through individual arbitration – supposedly a quicker, cheaper better mode of dispute resolution as compared to litigation and class actions.  In contrast, those who oppose forced arbitration assert that such arbitration is unfair for consumers and bad for society as a whole.  Ultimately this battle between free marketeers and pro-regulation forces turns on principles of economics, psychology, and political philosophy, as I have detailed elsewhere.

While those who oppose regulation urge that financial consumers should be free to choose to resolve future disputes through individual arbitration rather than through class actions, empirical studies and common sense tell us that consumers do not knowingly choose a contract based on the arbitration clause.  We do not focus on such clauses, we do not usually understand them and our human psychology leads us to be overly optimistic that no disputes will arise in any event.  Nor would it make sense for all consumers to spend the time and energy to try to figure out such clauses.

We also cannot count on the miracle of Adam Smith’s invisible hand to ensure that financial service companies act in the best interest of consumers.  The lack of perfect competition, customers’ lack of complete information, the impact of clauses on third parties and the unequal initial distribution of resources all ensure that the market will not miraculously do what is best for customers.

Philosophically, how can one argue with a straight face that clauses imposed unknowingly in small print contracts are supported by principles of freedom or autonomy?  As Professor Hiro Aragaki has explained, perhaps autonomy supports freedom from contracts of adhesion more than freedom of contracts of adhesion.

So, we need regulation. What should the regulation look like? Is forced arbitration the quicker, cheaper, better form of dispute resolution that its advocates suggest? Do class actions help consumers or do they only enrich the lawyers who bring them? The CFPB used extensive empirical investigation to answer these questions.  It found that (1) financial consumers are typically unaware of the arbitration clauses to which they are subjected; (2) only miniscule numbers of financial consumers actually bring claims in arbitration; and (3) financial class actions, e.g. over improper check bouncing charges, have brought billions of dollars of benefits to millions of consumers and also imposed non-monetary sanctions, all helping to deter future illegal conduct.  Thus, CFPB concluded that, at minimum, it should prevent financial companies from using arbitration to insulate themselves from class actions.  It issued the rule to achieve that end.  The new CFPB rule also requires companies to submit additional information to CFPB regarding their arbitration programs so that CFPB can conduct additional analyses and decide whether more/different regulation may be needed.

Hurrah for the CFPB!   Its new rule is supported by psychology, economics, and political philosophy.  Nonetheless, the new rule is under serious threat.  Congress may consider proposals to gut the rule as early as next week, and the Acting Comptroller of the Currency is threatening to void it on the ground that allowing financial consumers to sue in class actions would threaten the soundness of the banking system.

The CFPB says otherwise, and expresses surprise that such a claim is being made at the tail end of a very public three year study.

Let’s now all take what steps we can to preserve this rule against the attacks that are coming in Congress, from elsewhere in the bureaucracy, and in the courts.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) just issued a new rule prohibiting financial service providers from using forced arbitration to prevent their customers from suing the company in class actions.  While many of us believe this rule is a “great win for consumers,” others are trying to gut it in Congressin the courts, or through administrative action by the Comptroller of the Currency.

Eight years after the last minimum wage increase, Democrats want to give 41 million workers a raise

Monday, July 24th, 2017

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since July 24, 2009—for eight years. Thanks to Republicans in Congress and the White House, it won’t be going up any time soon, and though many states have raised their minimum wages, 21 states remain stuck at $7.25 an hour. That’s a poverty wage. A new analysis from the National Employment Law Project shows what the Democrats’ Raise the Wage Act of 2017—which would take the minimum wage up to $15 by 2024, a gradual raise by any standard except the Republican “no raise ever” standard—would do for low-wage workers:

  • 20.7 million workers would see pay raises in the 21 states whose minimum wages are stuck at $7.25.
  • Fully half of the 41.5 million workers who would see pay increases are in the 21 states stuck at $7.25.
  • In the 13 other states with minimum wages of less than $9, nearly 13 million more workers also would see their hourly pay rise.
  • Of all the workers nationwide who would receive raises, 8 in 10 are in the 34 states with the lowest minimum wages.
  • In 19 of the 21 states at $7.25, more than 30 percent of wage-earners would benefit from raising the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024; the highest share is in Mississippi, with 44.4 percent.

Republicans want these workers stuck at poverty wages. There’s no other serious explanation for their refusal to raise the minimum wage over the past eight years.

 This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos. 

On the CFPB’s Birthday, Stand Against Sharks

Friday, July 21st, 2017

July 21 marks the six-year anniversary of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created in the wake of the Wall Street crime wave that led to the financial crisis of 2008.

The CFPB was first conceived by law professor Elizabeth Warren, now Senator Warren from Massachusetts, as an agency that could protect the American people from being mistreated, defrauded, and otherwise ripped off by powerful bankers who ran institutions that engaged in massive criminal behavior and yet never spent a day in jail.

It is a day to celebrate, and a day to fight.

Why Celebrate?

Why celebrate? Because, despite a number of attempts to tie its hands, the CFPB has been enormously successful. It has provided almost $12 billion in relief to 29 million victims of bank malfeasance.

It has provided nearly 50 million borrowers with new protections from dirty mortgage tricks – including surprise fees and mistreatment for those who fall behind in their payments.

The CFPB has rewritten credit card rules, saving customers more than $16 billion in hidden fees. It has helped stay-at-home spouses and Americans serving in the armed forces.

Why fight? Because Republicans – helped at times by some venal Democrats – are doing their best to gut the CFPB and leave consumers defenseless against the predators on Wall Street.

Inside the Shark Tank

Does the word “predator” seem too harsh a word for bankers? William Dudley, then President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in 2013 that Wall Street’s big banks suffered from “deep-seated cultural and ethical failures” and “the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust.”

2015 survey of banker ethics found an extraordinary tolerance for corrupt behavior and “a marked decline in ethics” since the study was first conducted in 2012. More than one-third of bankers earning $500,000 or more per year said they “have witnessed or have first hand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.”

One in four said they would break the law themselves if they could make $10 million or more by doing it.

Wall Street’s offenses include “price fixing, bid rigging, market manipulation, money laundering, document forgery, lying to investors, sanctions-evading, and tax dodging.”

At last count, banks had paid more than $200 billion in fines and settlements to settle fraud charges. Bank of America had paid more than $77 billion.

Checkered Citi and Chase

Citigroup, the megabank created with bipartisan cooperation from Republican Senator Phil Gramm and Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (who later became the bank’s chief executive), had paid nearly $20 billion.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon considers himself a worthy commentator on economic issues. But, under his leadership, his bank paid nearly $30 billion for crimes over a four-year period.

These include, according to an investors report, violations of the Bank Secrecy Act; money laundering for drug cartels; violations of sanction orders against Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Liberia; violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act; the fraudulent sale of unregistered securities and derivatives; bribery of state officials; and, obstruction of justice, including refusal to release documents in the Bernie Madoff case.

Voters Aren’t Fooled

new poll finds that “More than nine in ten Americans (91%) believe it is important to regulate financial services, including 71% who believe it is very important. Strong bipartisan majorities say financial regulation is very important.” That includes Democrats (81%), independent voters (75%), and Republicans (58%).

They’re right. When Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney boasts that the fiction he calls “MAGAnomics” will lead to economic growth of more than 3 percent per year, he doesn’t explain that we routinely had that level of growth until unregulated bank fraud led to the financial crisis of 2008.

If we let the Republicans deregulate Wall Street again, it will set the stage for another crisis.

Republicans Are a Shark’s Best Friend

These bankers may break the law – and be unpopular with voters – but they’ve still got friends on Capitol Hill. Right now Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotten are working to undermine the CFPB’s new arbitration rule, which is set to take effect in September.

This rule ends banks’ ability to force customers into arbitration, a process that’s skewed in Wall Street’s favor. The CFPB rule would make it possible for customers to once again file class-action suits. Given Wall Street’s deep pockets for attorney’s fees, class-action suits are one of the few tools customers have for defending themselves in court.

House Republicans also passed the so-called “Financial Choice Act” – “Financial Carnage Act” might be a better name – a bill that would gut the CFPB and strip away other consumer protections.

When the Republicans fight the CFPB, they’re standing with the student loan predators at Navient. That’s the loan servicing company the CFPB sued earlier this year for cheating borrowers of their rights. That means they’re standing against the 44 million Americans who owe more than $1.4 trillion in student debt.

When the Republicans fight the CFPB, they’re standing with the bankers who defrauded mortgage holders and fraudulently foreclosed on American families. That means they’re standing against the millions of Americans who currently hold more than $14 trillion in mortgage debt.

When the Republicans fight the CFPB, they’re standing with the payday lenders who have trapped hundreds of thousands of lower-income Americans into a debt trap that can lead to annualized interest rates of 300 percent. That means they’re standing against the estimated 12 million Americans who pay an average of $520 per year in interest on eight $375 loans. These borrowers would be protected by the CFPB’s proposed payday lending rules.

People’s Action is repeating its annual “shark week” tradition, which draws attention to  this year, with anti-payday lender actions timed to coincide with the Discovery Channel’s “shark week” programming.

The CFPB has provided an extraordinary amount of help to millions of Americans in just six years. Now it needs our help.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on July 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard (RJ) Eskow is a writer and radio journalist who has worked in health insurance and economics, occupational health, risk management, finance, and IT. He is also a former musician.

As Media Focuses on Russia Collusion, Trump Is Quietly Stacking the Labor Board with Union Busters

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

It might not get as much press coverage as other Donald Trump administration calamities, but the U.S. president is set to appoint a known union buster to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), push the body to a Republican majority and reverse Obama-era protections that rankle Big Business.

On July 13, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held hearings on Trump’s two NLRB selections and his deputy labor secretary pick. All three of these men are expected to be confirmed.

William Emanuel, one of Trump’s NLRB appointees, is a management-side attorney and a member of the conservative Federalist Society. He is also a shareholder of Littler Mendelson, an infamous union busting firmthat was most recently brought in by Long Island beer distributor Clare Rose to negotiate a contract full of pay cuts.

After being selected, Emanuel disclosed 49 former clients and declared he would recuse himself for up to a year if any of the companies found themselves in front of the NLRB. The list included multiple businesses that have clashed with the labor board, including JPMorgan Chase Bank, MasTec Inc, Nissan and Uber.

Uber’s ongoing skirmishes with the NLRB have, perhaps, been the most publicized. At the end of 2016, the ride-share company battled with the NLRB after the agency sent out subpoenas aimed at gleaning information about whether Uber drivers were statutory employees.

In 2016, Emanuel authored an amicus brief that defended class-action waivers in employment contracts. Workers often depend on class actions to fight sexual and racial discrimination, and their existence is an important part of upholding wage laws. The NLRB ruled that such waivers were illegal under Obama.

Emanuel was asked about Littler Mendelson’s anti-union work by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “You have spent your career at one of the country’s most ruthless, union-busting law firms in the country,” she said. “How can Americans trust you will protect workers’ rights when you’ve spent 40 years fighting against them?”

In response, Emanuel claimed that he would be objective whenever making decisions for the agency.

Emanuel is not the only appointee raising concern among workers’ rights advocates. Marvin Kaplan, another Trump nominee to the NLRB, is a public-sector attorney and current counsel to the commissioner for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. The Kaplan pick excites business executives and their advocates, who envisioned him helping overturn Obama-era labor regulations.

At the time of the announcement, Kristen Swearingen, chair of the anti-union group Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, declared that “Marvin Kaplan will begin to restore balance to an agency whose recent and radical decisions and disregard for long standing precedent have injected uncertainty into labor relations to the detriment of employees, employers and the economy.”

The excitement is well-founded. Kaplan served as counsel for Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The New York Times reports, “The committee held hearings during his tenure scrutinizing prominent NLRB actions in which the witnesses skewed toward business representatives and other skeptics.” Kaplan also helped develop the The Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act, legislation that would kill a labor board rule that shortened the amount of time between when the board authorizes a workplace unionization vote and when the vote actually takes place. Since 2014, the number has been set at 11 days. But this act would increase it to at least 35, thus allowing more time for union efforts to be squashed. The legislation hasn’t passed in congress yet.

Concerns do not stop at the NLRB. Trump’s Labor Department nominee is Patrick Pizzella, a Federal Labor Relations Authority Member who was grilled by Minnesota Senator Al Franken on his ties to the infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Pizzella worked with Abramoff during the 1990s to exempt the Northern Mariana Islands from federal labor regulations.

The Senate has only been in session for 10 days since the Pizzella and Kaplan nominations, and only four days since Emanuel’s. A group of civil rights and labor organizations sent the committee a letterasking for the hearings to be postponed. During her opening remarks, Sen. Patty Murray called Trump’s attempt to jam through the nominees without proper oversight “unprecedented.”

Roughly 10 workers representing the pro-labor organization Good Jobs Nation stood up during Thursday’s hearing, put blue tape over their mouths and walked out of the room in silent protest. Groups like Good Jobs Nation are concerned about a pro-business majority in the agency amidst Trump’s proposed cutsto the Labor Department.

Trump is putting the NLRB in the position to undo a number of important Obama-era labor decisions. His NLRB could potentially reverse rulings that made it easier for small groups of workers to unionize, established grad students as employees, put charter school employees under NLRB jurisdiction, and held parent companies jointly liable for with franchise operators who break labor laws. Writing about the imminent anti-union crackdown on this website in May, Shaun Richman wrote, “Unions and their allies should be convening research teams to plot out a campaign of regulatory and judicial activism. That work should begin now.”

Early in the hearing, Washington Senator Patty Murray asked Emanuel if he had ever represented a union or a worker. Emanuel explained that he worked exclusively for management for his entire career. “You just don’t do both,” he told her. “It’s not feasible.”

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Republicans Working Against Workers

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Ever-worsening is the chasm between the loaded, who luxuriate in gated communities, and the workers, who are hounded at their rickety gates by bill collectors.

Even though last week’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed unemployment at a low 4.4 percent, wages continue to flatline, killing both opportunity and the consumer economy. Meanwhile, corporations persist in showering CEOs and their cronies with ever-fatter pay packages and golden parachutes when they mess up.

This would all be sufferable if workers felt those in control in Washington, D.C. were striving to turn it all around. But the Republicans, who boast majorities in both houses of Congress, are just the opposite.

Their legislation shows they’re indentured to big business. Ever since they took power, they’ve labored tirelessly to destroy worker protections. They’ve swiped money from workers’ ragged pockets and handed it to 1 percenters on a silver platter – a plate bought with massive campaign contributions by the 1 percent.

The most blatant example is Republicans’ so-called health insurance bill. Both the House and Senate versions would strip health care from tens of millions of Americans while granting corporations and the nation’s richest tax cuts totaling $700 billion.

The Tax Policy Center determined that households with incomes above $875,000 a year would get 45 percent of those benefits. For the wealthiest, the annual tax cut would be nearly $52,000, a big fat break that is almost exactly the entire household income for the median American family.

In other words, Republicans want to hand millionaires a check that equals what a typical family earns by working an entire year.

Those massive tax breaks for the rich cost workers big time. Republicans’ so-called health insurance bill slashes Medicaid, so workers’ frail, elderly parents will lose the coverage they need to remain in nursing homes, babies born with cancer and crippling congenital diseases will be cut off care, and relatives who are victims of the opioid epidemic will be denied treatment. But, hey, the rich get richer!

Meanwhile, Republicans are pushing legislation in Congress to hobble labor unions and suppress wages. One House bill would delay union elections, giving corporations more time to bully and fire workers who consider joining. This proposed legislation would also stop workers from organizing small groups instead of the entire roster of employees.

Yet another GOP proposal would change the definition of democratic election. As it is now, a congressional candidate wins when he or she receives the highest number of votes cast. Candidates aren’t deemed losers if they receive votes from fewer than half of all potential voters.

Securing ballots from more than half of potential voters would be a very hard standard to meet because in many elections little more than a third of eligible voters go to the polls. In the 2016 Presidential election, 58 percent of potential voters exercised their franchise. That means neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton would have won under the more than 50 percent of eligible voters standard.

Even so, the bill under consideration in Congress would impose that standard on unions. When workers want to form a union, this legislation would require that they get positive votes from more than half of all eligible workers, not more than half of those who actually vote.

It is a standard no politician would want to be held to, but Republicans are willing to require it of workers to prevent them from organizing and bargaining jointly for better wages and working conditions.

At the bidding of corporations, Republicans are working against workers because labor organizations succeed through concerted action in wresting from fat cat CEOs a more fair share of the fruit of workers’ labor. Workers in labor unions receive higher wages, better health benefits and pensions and safer conditions.

When more workers were unionized, the space between rich and poor was more like a crack than the current chasm. In the 1950s, 33 percent of workers participated in labor organizations. Now it’s 10.7 percent. In the ’50s, the ratio of CEO-to-worker pay was 20-to-1. That means for every dollar a worker made, the CEO got $20. Now the ratio is 347-to-1. For every dollar a worker earns, the top dog grabs $347. CEOs of S&P 500 corporations pulled down an average of $13.1 million in total annual compensation in 2016, while their typical worker received $37,632.

The high point of unionization in America, the 1950s, was the low point in income inequality. It is called the time of the great compression. And a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research reaffirms that unionization produced better wages.

In a report titled “Unions, Workers, and Wages at the Peak of the American Labor Movement,” scholars Brantly Callaway of Temple University and William E. Collins of Vanderbilt University analyzed new data and determined “the overall wage distribution was considerably narrower in 1950 than it would have been if union members had been paid like non-union members with similar characteristics.”

They go on to say, “Our historical interpretation is that in the wake of the Great Depression, workers sought and policymakers delivered institutional reforms to labor markets that promoted  unions, reduced inequality, and helped lock in a relatively narrow distribution of wages that lasted for a generation.”

That time is gone. Unions have been declining for decades, largely as a result of onerous requirements legislated by Republicans. As unions shrank, so did worker bargaining power. The result is that while workers’ productivity increased, their wages stagnated for the past three decades.

Still, Republicans are squashing unions even more by, for example, reversing a rule requiring corporations to report when they hire union busters to strong-arm workers into voting against organizing.

And Republicans are working hard on other measures to ensure workers make even less money. For example, Missouri Republicans reversed a minimum wage increase in St. Louis and prohibited the state’s cities from requiring union-level wages on public construction projects.

In addition, in Washington, the Republican administration refused to defend in court a new rule that would have made millions more workers automatically eligible to receive time-and-a-half pay when they work overtime.

If workers feel like the system is rigged against them, that’s because it is. Republicans working at the behest of CEOs and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have created a government by corporations for corporations.

And none of the government welfare and benefits that corporations and one percenters got for themselves in this process ever trickled down to workers.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on July 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: 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.

Washington state gets paid family leave

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

 Paid family leave is becoming law in Washington state. The state legislature passed and Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a law giving workers up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for birth, adoption, or the worker’s own or a family member’s medical condition, and up to 16 weeks in a year:

The Washington state program would benefit low-wage workers because those earning less than half of the state’s weekly average would receive 90 percent of their income—to a maximum of $1,000 per week. The benefits are based on a percentage of the worker’s average weekly wage and the state’s weekly average wage, which was $1,133 in 2016.

The program is largely funded by workers, who will pay a premium of 0.4 percent of their wages each paycheck into a state-run insurance fund. This would cost a minimum-wage worker about 3 cents an hour, according to the bill’s sponsor. Employers are responsible for picking up at least 55 percent of the medical leave premium—or more if they choose to do so.

“This new law is an affordable and predictable solution to providing an important benefit for life’s emergencies,” Sara Reilly, co-owner of Darby’s Café and Three Magnets Brewing Co. in Olympia, Washington, said in a statement.

How’s that for a much-needed piece of good news? But of course every time a state or city passes a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, or paid family leave, it’s a reminder of how far short our federal laws fall, and how much of a fight we have to elect Democrats to Congress and the presidency before we can change this.

 This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor for DailyKos. 
Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog