Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for September, 2017

Supreme Court takes up case that will devastate public sector unions

Friday, September 29th, 2017

In what is all but certain to be a terrible blow to organized labor, the Supreme Court announced on Thursday that it will hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case seeking to defund public sector unions. The case presents an issue that was recently before the Court, and where the justices split 4-4 along party lines.

Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies the seat that Senate Republicans held open for more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, he holds the fifth vote to deliver a staggering blow to the union movement.

The issue in Janus involves what are sometimes referred to as “agency fees” or “fair share fees.” As ThinkProgress explained when this issue was last before the Court:

Unions are required by law to bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, even if those workers opt not to join the union. As such, non-members receive the same higher wages (one study found that workers in unionized shops enjoy a wage premium of nearly 12 percent) and benefits enjoyed by their coworkers who belong to the union.

Absent something else, this arrangement would create a free-rider problem, because individual workers have little incentive to join the union if they know they will get all the benefits of unionizing regardless of whether they reimburse the union for its costs. Eventually, unions risk becoming starved for funds and collapsing, causing the workers once represented by a union to lose the benefits of collective bargaining.

To prevent this free-rider problem, union contracts often include a provision requiring non-members to pay agency fees.

The plaintiff in Janus asks the Supreme Court to declare these agency fees unconstitutional, at least in contracts involving public sector unions, under what can charitably be described as an aggressive reading of the First Amendment. Indeed, prior to his death, even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes appeared skeptical of the plaintiff’s legal theory (although he did join an opinionthat embraced much of it).

With Gorsuch on the bench, however, there is little suspense regarding how Janus will come down. Unions will almost certainly be severely weakened by this decision. And, as a benefit to the Supreme Court’s increasingly partisan majority, that will also weaken a key arm of the Democratic party’s political infrastructure, making it more likely that the Court will remain in Republican hands.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Divide and Conquer: Employers' Attempts to Prohibit Joint Legal Action Will be Tested in Court

Thursday, September 28th, 2017
On Monday, October 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the most consequential labor law cases to come to the Court in a generation, which could fundamentally alter the balance of power between millions of American workers and the people who employ them.

So why are so few people paying attention?

At first glance, the cases may seem dry and complex, as they involve 80-year-old laws that most people have never heard of. But the issue at stake is actually quite simple: should your employer be able to force you to give up your right to join your coworkers in a lawsuit challenging working conditions as a condition of getting or keeping a job?

The federal courts of appeals for the Seventh and Ninth Circuits say the answer should be no. They point to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a law passed by Congress in 1935 to end “industrial strife and unrest” and restore “equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” The NLRA gives workers the right to join unions and to “engage in other concerted activities” for “mutual aid or protection,” and it makes it illegal for employers to “interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise” of those rights.

But in recent years, more and more employers are requiring their employees to agree, as a condition of working for that employer, that they must resolve any disputes that might come up in the future in a private arbitration proceeding, and not in court. Many of these so-called arbitration agreements also prohibit the arbitrator from hearing more than one employee’s claim at a time—in other words, they ban employees from taking legal action together, either in court or in arbitration. A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute found that 23.1% of private sector, non-union workers, or 24.7 million Americans, work for employers that impose such a concerted legal action ban.

Sheila Hobson was one such employee. She worked at a gas station in Calera, Alabama that was run by Murphy Oil. When she applied to work there, she had to sign an agreement stating that she would not participate in a class or collective action in court, “in arbitration or in any other forum” and that her claim could not be combined “with any other person or entity’s claim.” Two years later, she joined with three coworkers to file a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act. She and her coworkers claimed that they were routinely asked to clean the station, stock shelves, check prices at competitors’ stations and perform other tasks while “off the clock” and without pay. Murphy Oil moved to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing to their arbitration agreement and arguing that each employee had to pursue their claims individually.

The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency created by Congress to enforce the NLRA, stepped in to defend Ms. Hobson and her coworkers. The NLRB ruled that Murphy Oil’s arbitration agreement interfered with its employees’ right to engage in concerted activity for their mutual aid or protection in violation of the NLRA. But the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with Murphy Oil, leading to this showdown before the Supreme Court.

The crux of Murphy Oil’s position, which is shared by the employers in the cases out of the Seventh and Ninth Circuits that are also being argued on Monday, is that the employers’ bans have to be enforced because of the Federal Arbitration Act. This law, passed back in 1925 at the request of businesses who wanted to be able to resolve commercial disputes privately under specialized rules, says that agreements to arbitrate should be treated the same as any other contracts. And because their concerted action bans are found in arbitration agreements, the employers argue, the FAA requires their enforcement.

But the FAA includes a “saving clause” that allows arbitration agreements to be invalidated on any “grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” One such ground for revoking a contract is that it is illegal, and the Seventh and Ninth Circuit opinions pointed out that a contract that interferes with employees’ rights under the NLRA is illegal and thus unenforceable under the FAA’s saving clause. Moreover, as the NLRB explained, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the FAA cannot take away anyone’s substantive rights; it merely allows those rights to be pursued in arbitration rather than in court. But the concerted action bans in these cases, and those like them that other employers force employees to sign, do take away the very substantive right to join with coworkers that the NLRA guarantees. By preventing workers from banding together in court or in arbitration, these agreements deprive employees of the ability to pursue their concerted action rights in any forum whatsoever.

Given the high stakes these cases present, both employer and employee positions have garnered a large number of friend-of-the-court briefs before the Supreme Court. The Chamber of Commerce has weighed in on the employers’ side, as have other groups representing industry and the defense bar. The Justice Department, which had originally represented the NLRB, switched sides with the change in presidential administration and is also supporting the employers.

Meanwhile a group of ten labor unions pointed out that given the economic power employers wield over employees who need jobs to support their families, “few workers are willing to put a target on their back by bringing legal claims against their employer on an individual basis.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and more than 30 other civil rights groups, including Public Justice, explained how joint legal action has unearthed patterns of discrimination and brought about systemic changes in workplace policies that individual cases could never have achieved, listing 118 concerted legal actions challenging discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability and sexual orientation that would not have been possible under concerted action bans like Murphy Oil’s. The National Academy of Arbitrators disputed the employers’ premise that joint or collective claims can’t proceed in the more streamlined forum of arbitration, noting that labor arbitrators have been resolving group claims in unionized workplaces for decades and that requiring each case against the same employer – with the same evidence – to proceed separately would actually be far less efficient and more costly. Finally, the Main Street Alliance argued that concerted action bans reduce enforcement of minimum wage and employment discrimination laws, which disadvantages responsible businesses relative to corporations that mistreat employees and break the law.

With nearly a quarter of U.S. non-union employees already subject to concerted action bans, a green light from the Supreme Court telling employers to continue this practice will no doubt cause that figure to soar. But Public Justice is hopeful that the Court will follow the plain meaning of the NLRA and find these bans to be the illegal acts that they are—attempts to coerce employees into giving up their right to join forces to increase their bargaining power. That right applies equally whether employees want to join a union, join a lawsuit or join a boycott or picket line. The Supreme Court should stop this employer power grab and reaffirm the right to concerted activity, which is just as important for workers now as it was when Congress established it over 80 years ago.

This article was originally published at Public Justice on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Karla Gilbride joined Public Justice in October 2014 as a Cartwright-Baron staff attorney. Her work focuses on fighting mandatory arbitration provisions imposed on consumers and workers to prevent them from holding corporations accountable for their wrongdoing in court.

NFL Players Association Responds to Attacks on Free Speech

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

After President Donald Trump and others attacked the free speech rights of athletes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) responded to the president’s comments.

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said:

The peaceful demonstrations by some of our players have generated a wide array of responses. Those opinions are protected speech and a freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history. This expression of speech has generated thoughtful discussions in our locker rooms and in board rooms. However, the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just “shut up and play.”

NFL players do incredible things to contribute to their communities. NFL players are a part of a legacy of athletes in all sports who throughout history chose to be informed about the issues that impact them and their communities. They chose—and still choose today—to do something about those issues rather than comfortably living in the bubble of sports. Their decision is no different from the one made by countless others who refused to let “what they do” define or restrict “who they are” as Americans.

No man or woman should ever have to choose a job that forces them to surrender their rights. No worker nor any athlete, professional or not, should be forced to become less than human when it comes to protecting their basic health and safety. We understand that our job as a union is not to win a popularity contest and it comes with a duty to protect the rights of our members. For that we make no apologies and never will.

NFLPA President Eric Winston said:

Our players are men who are great philanthropists, activists and community leaders who stand up for each other and what they believe in.

I am extremely disappointed in the statements made by the President last night. The comments were a slap in the face to the civil rights heroes of the past and present, soldiers who have spilled blood in countless wars to uphold the values of this great nation and American people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations who seek civil progress as a means to make this country, and this world, a better place.

The divisiveness we are experiencing in this country has created gridlock in our political system, given voice to extreme, fringe beliefs and paralyzed our progress as a nation. Divisiveness breeds divisiveness, but NFL players have proven to unify people in our country’s toughest moments and we will continue to do so now.

We will not stop challenging others on how we can all come together to continue to make America the greatest country on earth.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on September 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Supreme Court opens its new term with a direct attack on workers’ rights

Monday, September 25th, 2017

The Supreme Court returns next Monday from its summer vacation for the first full term where Neil Gorsuch will occupy a seat at the far end of the Court’s bench. And the Court will open this term with a trio of cases that are very likely to immunize many employers from consequences for their illegal actions.

The three cases — National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USAErnst & Young LLP v. Morris, and Epic Systems v. Lewis — all involve employment contracts cutting off employee’s rights to sue their employer for legal violations.

In at least one case, employees were required to sign the contract as a condition of beginning work. In another, employees were forced to give up their rights as a condition of keeping their job. These contracts contained two restrictions on the employees: 1) a “forced arbitration” provision, which requires any legal disputes between the employer and the employee to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system; and 2) a provision prohibiting employees from bringing class actions or other collective suits against their employers.

Requiring private arbitration favors employers over employees. As an Economic Policy Institute study determined, employees are less likely to prevail before an arbitrator than before a court, and they typically receive less money from an arbitrator when they do prevail.

Banning class action suits, meanwhile, effectively permits employers to violate the law with impunity, so long as they do not do too much harm to any individual employee.

If an employer cheats one employee out of $300,000 worth of wages, for example, that employee is likely to be able to find a lawyer who will take his case on a contingency basis — meaning that the lawyer gets a percentage of what the employee collects from the employer if they win. If the same employer cheats 10,000 employees out of $30 each, however, no lawyer is going to represent any one of these workers on a contingency basis. Plus, few employees are likely to bother with a $30 suit. It’s too much hassle, and too expensive to hire a lawyer who won’t work on contingency. The solution to this problem is a class action suit, which allows the 10,000 employees to join together in a single case litigated by a single legal team.

Banning such class actions effectively leaves these employees without remedy. As one federal judge explained, “the realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.”

The employer’s claim that they can combine a forced arbitration clause with a class action ban arises out of two previous Supreme Court cases that took an extraordinarily creative view of a nearly 100-year-old law.

In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act to allow, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once explained, “merchants with relatively equal bargaining power” to agree to resolve their disputes through arbitration. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the Court started to read this law expansively to permit forced arbitration between businesses and relatively powerless consumers and employees.

Then, the Court got even more aggressive. By its own terms, the Federal Arbitration Act exempts “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Nevertheless, in its 5-4 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court held that the Act applies to most workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce. Thus, forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts were given special protected status, even though the federal law governing these clauses says otherwise.

Similarly, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a 5-4 Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion that the Federal Arbitration Act has penumbras, formed by emanations from its guarantees that give it life and substance. The right of businesses to insert class action bans, Scalia claimed, is one of these penumbras contained in the 1925 law. And so businesses gained the power to add no class action clauses to their forced arbitration agreements, even if a ban on class actions violates state law — and despite the fact that the Federal Arbitration Act says nothing about class actions.

Nevertheless, the employees in Murphy Oil and its companion cases hope that another provision of law will protect them from signing away their right to join a class action.

A provision of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Several lower courts have held that an employee’s right to engage in “concerted activities” protects their right to join class actions, and they cite multiple previous Supreme Court decisions which lend credibility to this claim.

In a world governed by the text of the law, employees would have a strong case that they cannot be forced to give up their right to bring class action litigation. But we live in a world governed by Circuit City and Concepcion — both of which demonstrate the Supreme Court’s willingness to take liberties with the law in forced arbitration cases.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

This Lawyer Helped Reagan Bust the Air Traffic Controllers Union. Now Trump Wants Him on the NLRB.

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Former President Ronald Reagan had a long history of clashing with organized labor, but his most infamous moment came in 1981, when he busted the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and fired more than 11,300 air traffic controllers who were on strike. This act weakened the power of U.S. unions and set the stage for an all-out assault on organizing rights.

Thirty-six years later, Reagan’s lead attorney in the air traffic controllers case is poised to make decisions about thousands of unfair labor practices throughout the country.

As anticipated, President Donald Trump has nominated the management-side labor attorney Peter Robb, of Downs Rachlin Martin in Vermont, to serve as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This is a four-year position, and the individual who holds it is responsible for investigating unfair labor practices. Obama administration general counsel Richard Griffin’s term expires this November and, if confirmed, Robb would take over the position.

In 1981, Robb filed unfair labor practice charges against PATCO on behalf of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) after a court ruled that the air traffic controllers’ strike was illegal. The FLRA case led to the decertification of PATCO, and Reagan subsequently banned most striking workers from federal service for their rest of their lives.

Reagan’s move set a new precedent for employers, emboldening them to attack labor more openly. In an interview with The Real News Networkfrom 2014, Joseph McCartin, Georgetown history professor and author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed Americaexplained the long-term impact. “When Ronald Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers [in] 1981, it was still not common for American employers in the private sector to deal with strikes by trying to break them and by permanently replacing workers who’d gone out on strike,” said McCartin, “Employers saw that Reagan was able to do this and, in effect, get away with it. Many private-sector employers took a similarly hard line when workers went out on strike in the private sector.”

Robb’s connections to union busting certainly don’t end with the landmark PATCO case. In 2014, he was hired by the Dominion Nuclear power plant when the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) began organizing workers. The Downs Rachlin Martin website contains a blurb boasting that Robb “represented a major national corporation in a National Labor Relations Board representation case proceeding, which had 34-days of hearing over 3 months to resolve 80 contested classifications covering hundreds of employees.”

In an interview this September, John Fernandes, a business manager for IBEW Local 457, told Bloomberg BNA that Robb represented used “scorched earth” tactics to thwart the organizing efforts. Fernandes says the plant added workers to the proposed unit in order to water down the union vote and sent videos of managers explaining the dangers of unionizing to the homes of employees. Ultimately, the plant was able to add more than 150 workers to the original petition and defeat the organizing drive.

“[Robb] handled most of the direct examinations, and his witnesses were well-schooled in advance—he’d ask one question and they’d go on forever,” Fernandes told Bloomberg BNA. “I was at a disadvantage, not being an attorney, but [the legal fees] would’ve been overwhelming for our local to pay … we certainly viewed it as union busting—it was a very long case.”

Robb also has previous connections to the NLRB. He worked as an NLRB field attorney in Baltimore during the late 1970s. He returned to the agency in 1982 as a staff lawyer and chief counsel for former member Robert Hunter. As a Republican, Hunter was an important ally to then-Chairman Donald Dotson, a staunchly anti-union member. In 1985, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Washington Post that Hunter had been the, “most loyal supporter of Donald Dotson in the transformation of the NLRB into a fundamentally anti-union entity.”

More recently, Robb’s firm harshly criticized the Obama-era NLRB, as captured in a slideshow compiled by Robb and Downs Rachlin attorney Timothy Copeland Jr. The presentation took aim at some of the pro-labor positions made by the NLRB under the previous administration. “The [Democratic] NLRB majority continues to narrowly define NLRB supervisory status, sometimes defying all common sense,” one slide reads. New Republican members are “likely to agree that the Obama board went too far,” the slideshow explained.

One of the decisions that Robb objects to is a 2014 rule that cuts back the amount of time between the filing of a unionization petition and the union vote to 11 days. The GOP has been attempting to extend the number of days to at least 35. This move would give businesses more time to construct a plan to stomp out union activity, like the aforementioned Dominion Nuclear strategy.

“The NLRB has made it clear that the intent of the new regulations is to run an election as quickly as possible which, of course, will give the employer the shortest period of time to respond to a union election petition,” Robb and three other Downs Rachlin lawyers wrote in a 2015 advisory.

The Trump administration has already quietly laid the groundwork for the NLRB to emerge as a much more business-friendly entity. This reality was underscored in August, when Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced that Ronald Reagan would be inducted into the department’s hall of fame. Trump’s previous NLRB nominees all have connections to union-busting, and the expected nomination of Robb would effectively make the NLRB—responsible for enforcing labor law—an anti-labor agency.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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

Seattle's minimum wage increase deals a blow to yet another Republican scare tactic

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

Here’s yet another study that punctures all those scare tactics about what will happen when the minimum wage is raised. Seattle’s minimum wage for large employers went to $13 an hour in 2016—and a recent study from the University of Washington School of Public Health finds that the increase didn’t affect grocery prices in the city:

Otten and colleagues collected data from six supermarket chains affected by the policy in Seattle and from six others outside the city but within King County and unaffected by the policy. They looked at prices for 106 food items per store starting one month before enactment of the ordinance, one month after, and a year later.

Researchers found no significant differences in the cost of the market basket between the two locations at any point in time. A second analysis to assess the public health implications of potential differential price changes on specific items, such as fruits and vegetables, was also conducted and researchers found no evidence of price increases by food group. Meats made up the largest share of the basket, followed by vegetables, cereal, grains and dairy.

So people were earning more money to buy groceries (and other necessities) with, but they weren’t paying more. Add that to Seattle’s booming economy, and the picture looks pretty darn good.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos Labor on September 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

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

9th Circuit Revists Ruling on Unequal Pay in Some Situations

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

In a conundrum with profound implications, a federal appeals court will revisit whether – in some circumstances — men can be paid more than women for the same job.

On the surface, that conflicts with the Equal Pay Act. But a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled in April that salary history could justify unequal pay. In essence, the panel determined the male hires in question were paid more because of their last paycheck and that their gender was a coincidence.

The EEOC appealed, saying that the ruling perpetuates the gender gap and conflicts with precedent in other circuits. The full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to review the case, with oral arguments set for December.

She was hired at less pay than all the men in her job

Aileen Rizo, a math consultant, took a job with the public schools in Fresno County, California. Her $62,000 salary was a nice bump from her previous teaching job. But she soon learned that a male colleague was hired at $79,000 for the same job. Further investigation revealed that all her male colleagues earned more.

When human resources did not act on her complaint, Rizo sued for employment discrimination. The school district’s rationale was that the men’s higher pay was based on their salary history. Per county policy, starting pay was determined by adding 5 percent to the hiree’s preceding salary.

The Equal Pay Act allows unequal pay for men and women doing the same work if the disparity is based on factors other than gender, such as seniority. In ruling against Rizo, the appeals court panel cited a prior 9th Circuit decision that salary history can be a factor if the practice (a) effectuates some business policy and (b) is implemented in a reasonable way.

Salary history exception may perpetuate the wage gap

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) strongly disagrees and appealed the panel’s ruling. Before the 9th Circuit took up the review, the panel had remanded the case to the trial court to explore the “business reason” for the Fresno County salary policies.

The EEOC contends that the ruling enables the pay gap’s vicious cycle. If men are routinely paid more than women, their salary history will dictate they be paid more at the next job, and so on. The American Association of University Women, which studies the gender pay gap, says the wage gap is partially rooted in outdated concepts of men as family providers. For example, AAUW statistics reveal that women who are moms earn less than their female peers (the “Motherhood Penalty”), but men who are dads are paid more than average (the “Fatherhood Bonus”). This bias can be perpetuated in salary history and parental leave policies.

The AAUW says that women earn, on average, 80 percent of their male counterparts. The wage gap varies, but it is true across all industries and all levels of employment, including public sector employees. There is already a pay gap when females enter the workforce in their teens. While women tend to top out in salary in their 40s, male salaries continue to rise into their 50s and 60s.

On the other hand, many economists say it’s a myth that women are paid 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. Rather than a wage gap, they say, it’s an earnings gap. Men gravitate toward – or have more access to – higher-paying jobs. Some moms drop out of the workforce or scale back. Et cetera. Without settling the broader pay gap dispute, the 9th Circuit case is in fact about unequal pay for equal work.

This blog was originally published by Passman and Kaplan, P.C. on September 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

How the Canadians Are Trying to Use NAFTA to Raise Your Wage

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Finally, after nearly a quarter of a century, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is being renegotiated. This is a good thing. NAFTA is called a “trade deal,” but it’s mostly a collection of rules that give corporations more power over the three economies of North America. It gives companies tools to undermine laws and rules that protect America’s working families. It increased threats by U.S. employers to close workplaces and move to Mexico. And once the companies got there, NAFTA provided strict rules for them, but only vague guidelines to protect working people’s rights and freedoms.

NAFTA negotiations have not progressed very far, and it is too early to say whether the effort will bring a New Economic Deal to working people or simply more crony capitalism. But there was some fantastic, surprising, excellent news recently.

The Canadian negotiating team did something big: They told the U.S. negotiators that U.S. laws that interfere with people’s freedom to negotiate on the job are dragging down standards for Canada and need to be abolished. Guess what? Canada is right.

These laws, known as “right to work,” are another example of the wealthiest 1% rigging the rules to weaken the freedom of people joining together in union and negotiating with employers for better pay, benefits and conditions at work. Not surprisingly, states with these freedom-crushing laws are less safe and have lower wages, dragging down workplace standards for those in other states, and apparently in Canada, too.

Canada gets the obvious: These laws take away working people’s freedom to join together and raise their wages. Canada is pushing the United States to be fairer to working people, just as the U.S. is pushing Mexico to be fairer to its working people. Will the U.S. negotiators see the light and agree to this proposal in NAFTA? We certainly hope so. It will tell us a lot about who the president stands with: Corporate CEOs or working families?

Learn more about laws that take away working people’s freedom.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO.org on September 19, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Celeste Drake is the trade and globalization policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, where she advocates for reforms to U.S. trade policy to create shared gains from trade on behalf of working families. She has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, various House subcommittees and the U.S. International Trade Commission, and made presentations before the European Union’s Economic and Social Committee.

Wage gap between blacks and whites is larger today than it was 40 years ago

Monday, September 18th, 2017

It’s near impossible for black Americans to achieve parity with their white counterparts in the labor market, according to two new studies which show that they are underpaid and discriminated against throughout the hiring process.

Earlier in September, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reported that the wage gap between black and white Americans is increasing, based on findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1979, the average black American man made 80 cents on the dollar to what a white American man made; in 2016, he made just 70 cents on the dollar. There was a similar widening in wage gap for black and white women, who made 95 cents for every dollar an average white woman made in 1979, but only 82 cents in 2016.

“The findings point to persistent shortfalls in labor market outcomes for black men and women… that cannot be fully explained by differences in age, education, job type of location,” the report read. “Especially troubling is the growing unexplained portion of the divergence in earnings from blacks relative to whites.”

Economists are worried about the growing “unexplained portion of divergence,” which has grown from 8 percentage points in 1979 to 21 percentage points in 2016. The researchers note that factors such as “discrimination, differences in school quality, or differences in career opportunities – are likely to be playing a role in the persistence and widening of these gaps.”

But these wage disparities don’t even account for another major problem facing black Americans: getting a job in the first place. In another recent studyresearchers from Harvard, Northwestern University and the Institute for Social Research in Norway have found there has been no change in the level of hiring discrimination in more than 25 years.

The study sent out resumes with similar levels of education and experience, the only difference being the name – some resumes had stereotypically black and Latinx names while others had stereotypically white names. As a second part of the study, applicants with similar qualifications (but of different races) went in to apply for a job in person.

Researchers concluded that, on average, a white job applicant was 36 percent more likely to receive a callback for an opening than an equally qualified African-American candidate. White job seekers also received 24 percent more callbacks than equally qualified Latinx candidates. “These findings lead us to temper our optimism regarding racial progress in the United States,” the study read. “At one time it was assumed that the gradual fade-out of prejudiced beliefs, through cohort replacement and cultural change, would drive a steady reduction in discrimination treatment. At least in the case of hiring discrimination against African-Americans, this expectation does not appear to have been born out.”

These two studies come only a week after new Census Bureau data showed the grim inequality that persists in American society. While there was an overall increase in median wealth for Americans, African-American and Latinx families still lagged far behind. An average white families now earns around $65,041, compared with $47,675 for a Hispanic family and $39,490 for an African-American family.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and Narratively.

OSHA's Claims About Hiding Information on Worker Deaths Fall Flat

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Since January, government agencies under the Donald Trump administration have taken steps to hide information from the public–information that was previously posted and information that the public has a right to know.

But a recent move is especially personal. Two weeks ago, the agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety and health—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—removed the names of fallen workers from its home page and has stopped posting information about their deaths on its data page. In an attempt to justify this, the agency made two major claims discussed below. Like many efforts to decrease transparency by this administration, these claims are unfounded, and the agency whose mission is to protect workers from health and safety hazards is clearly in denial that it has a job to do. Here’s how:

OSHA claim #1: Not all worker deaths listed on the agency website were work-related because OSHA hasn’t issued or yet issued a citation for their deaths.

Fact: It is public knowledge that 1) OSHA doesn’t have the jurisdiction to investigate about two-thirds of work-related deaths but does issue guidance on a wide variety of hazards to workers that extend beyond their enforcement reach, and 2) OSHA citations are not always issued for work-related deaths because of a variety of reasons, including limitations of existing OSHA standards and a settlement process that allows employers to remedy certain hazards in lieu of citation. (The laborious process for OSHA to develop standards deserves a completely separate post.) But neither of those points mean the agency cannot recognize where and when workers are dying on the job, and remember and honor those who sought a paycheck but, instead, did not return home to their families.

In fact, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, also housed in the Department of Labor, counts and reports the number of work-related deaths each year. The agency reported that in 2015, 4,836 working people died of work-related traumatic injury—”the highest annual figure since 2008.” So, another agency already has taken care of that for OSHA (whew!). But this is just a statistic. Luckily for OSHA, employers are required to report every fatality on the job to OSHA within eight hours, so the agency has more specific information that can be used for prevention, including the names of the workers and companies involved, similar to the information the public has about deaths that occur in any other setting (outside of work).

OSHA claim #2: Deceased workers’ families do not want the names and circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ death shared.

Fact: Removing the names of fallen workers on the job is an incredible insult to working families. The shock of hearing that your family member won’t be coming home from work that day is devastating enough, but then to hear that their death was preventable, and often the hazards were simply ignored by their employer, is pure torture. The organization made up of family members who had a loved one die on the job has stated repeatedly that it wants the names of their loved ones and information surrounding their deaths shared. It does not want other families to suffer because of something that could have been prevented. The organization has made it very clear that it opposes OSHA’s new “out of sight, out of mind” approach.

So why shield this information from the public? We know the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have long opposed publication of this information. The Trump administration seems to live by very old—and very bad—advice from powerful, big business groups whose agenda it’s pushing: If we don’t count the impact of the problem or admit there is a problem, it must not exist.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on September 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Reindel is a senior health and safety specialist at the AFL-CIO.

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