Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for February, 2019

After Janus, Cities and Towns Are Poised to Become the New Battleground Over “Right to Work”

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

In December 2015, Lincolnshire, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with a population of a little over 7,000, passed a right-to-work (RTW) ordinance. While a slim majority of states have enacted RTW laws over the past several decades, RTW measures at the county or municipal level are rare in comparison. A group of unions quickly sued to strike down the ordinance, and after nearly three years of litigation, the next stop for the legal battle might be the Supreme Court.

The unions have been successful so far in their fight against the ordinance, winning first in the U.S. District Court and then again after Lincolnshire appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. But on February 14, Lincolnshire filed a petitionwith the Supreme Court, which will now decide whether it will hear the village’s appeal. Lincolnshire is being represented in the lawsuit by the Liberty Justice Center, one of the groups that represented plaintiff Mark Janus in Janus v. AFSCME, the case that abolished public-sector fair-share fees nationwide.

The legal arguments in the case, which is named Village of Lincolnshire v. IUOE Local 399, are not particularly complicated. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) clearly allows employers and unions to enter into union security agreements, which require workers to pay union dues (or reduced “fair-share fees” for non-members). However, a provision in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allows states to pass RTW laws, which permit workers to refuse to pay union dues while still enjoying all of the benefits of union representation. The unions argue that the Taft-Hartley provision means what it says—that states can pass RTW laws, not counties or cities. Lincolnshire argues that the law’s reference to “states” actually includes states and their subordinate political bodies.

Allowing local RTW ordinances could lead to what the unions described in their Seventh Circuit brief as a “crazy-quilt” of overlapping and inconsistent regulations. Illinois alone could be home to more than 300 different RTW ordinances among counties and municipalities with home rule authority. And numerous different laws could apply to the same collective bargaining agreement, as agreements commonly cover multiple facilities or job sites.

There is reason to suspect that the Supreme Court will decide to hear Lincolnshire’s appeal. The Seventh Circuit’s decision in favor of the unions conflicted with a 2016 decision of the Sixth Circuit, UAW Local 3047 v. Hardin County, which held that counties and municipalities have the legal authority to enact RTW measures. The Supreme Court will often hear an appeal to resolve this kind of conflict, which is called a circuit split. Troublingly, the Supreme Court refused to hear the UAW’s appeal of the Sixth Circuit decision, leaving that decision as law of the land in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and potentially tipping the justices’ hands on the issue.

In Janus, the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court overturned more than 40 years of precedent to make the country’s entire public sector RTW. There is no reason to expect Justice Kavanaugh to be any more sympathetic to labor rights than now-retired Justice Kennedy. If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it may well be the next step in the steady erosion of labor rights that has occurred under the Roberts Court.

Meanwhile, local RTW laws have started to spread elsewhere. Lobbying efforts by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity have made quick progress in New Mexico, with 10 of the state’s 33 counties and one village passing RTW ordinances since January 2018. The group previously used the same county-by-county approach in Kentucky, where over a dozen counties passed RTW ordinances before statewide RTW legislation passed in 2017.

In Delaware, attacks on unions at the local level have been less successful. In late 2017 and early 2018, two local governments in the state were considering RTW measures. While a proposal in Sussex County eventually stalled following union protests and warnings from the Delaware Attorney General and the county’s own attorney that the county lacked the legal authority to enact the proposal, the town of Seaford quietly enacted a RTW ordinance without holding any public hearings. The Seaford ordinance was quickly quashed in June 2018 when Governor John Carney signed legislation permitting private union security agreements statewide.

Local RTW laws have been slow to spread in part because local governments like Sussex County fear that they violate the NLRA. But with union busters running out of states in which they could realistically seek to pass RTW laws, they have looked to local RTW laws as a way to make inroads into non-RTW states. If the Supreme Court gives local RTW laws their blessing, the significant legal risks will be removed and right-wing groups will begin pushing them on counties and towns throughout the country.

What can the labor movement do in the meantime? One strategy is legislative. In states where Democrats hold the governorship and the majority in both state legislatures, we can push politicians to follow the Delaware approach and enact laws guaranteeing the right to enter into union security agreements. But even after significant Democratic gains in the midterm elections, there are only 13 of these states other than Delaware.

Another strategy is for private-sector unions to conduct vigorous internal organizing campaigns as public sector unions did in preparation for Friedrichs v. CTA and then Janus. Unlike public-sector unions, private-sector unions do not have onerous restrictions on the subjects over which they can collectively bargain, which many public sector unions have been forced to deal with in recent years. These campaigns to increase worker participation in existing unions and to sign up fair-share-fee payers as full members will prepare unions to contend with local RTW laws in unexpected locations, while also building stronger unions if we are fortunate enough to avoid another attack from the Supreme Court.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Nick Johnson is a union lawyer in New York.

Reports of Klobuchar’s treatment of staff highlight poor workplace standards on Capitol Hill

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has come under intense scrutiny this month, as several media outlets have reported on her reputation as a bad boss, highlighting instances of alleged abuse against staffers. The media coverage points to a broader problem, however, as labor experts say workplace standards on Capitol Hill need to be reformed.  

Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential race, has reportedly thrown binders and telephones at staffers, engaged in office-wide shaming of employees, and called prospective employers to hurt staffers’ opportunities elsewhere. Sources told The New York Times thatworkers who took parental leave were then required to stay in the office three times as many weeks as they took leave or pay back the money they earned during their leave (though a spokesperson from Klobuchar’s office said that policy had never been enforced and would be officially changed in the staff handbook). Her office also has one of the highest rates of staff turnover in the Senate, according to the Huffington Post.

Klobuchar’s staff (present and former) have pushed back against some of the claims — notably on the office’s paid leave policies — and Klobuchar herself has said that she simply has high expectations for herself and her staff.

But a lot of Klobuchar’s behavior reportedly goes back a decade, and only received considerable media attention after she announced her presidential bid.

So the bigger question is this: Is the type of behavior that has recently been reported simply tolerated on Capitol Hill — and if so, why?

Experts on labor and staffing issues on Capitol Hill say that, on the Hill, the culture is centered on employer loyalty. There are few opportunities for accountability, regardless of whether the problem is centered on a member of Congress or a someone like a chief of staff, and workers are often left on their own in abusive work environments.

Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, a cross-political reform group, said that there is very little guidance on the human resources on Capitol Hill.

“Standards and operations on the pure human resources side vary tremendously, and things that in corporate America would either be considered inappropriate or just standard operating procedure don’t exist on Capitol Hill for the most part,” she said. “One of the things that has happened over several years is that some of those offices — the Library of Congress, the police, Architect of the Capitol, and those who aren’t in the representatives’ offices — have gone through a series of changes to address HR issues. The only people who were left out of that were the members and the staff and the committee offices themselves.”

Judith Conti, government affairs director at National Employment Law Project, said it’s particularly difficult to seek accountability when dealing with anyone in any kind of political office because a reference is required and elected officials are difficult to remove from their position.

“My first job out of law school was for a lifetime-tenure federal judge who was extremely abusive to staff in incredibly well-known ways, and people put up with it because there wasn’t anything you could say to anybody that was going to get him removed from the job,” she said. “It’s not like when you’re working for a private corporation and then your boss sexually harasses you and, if you complain to HR and it’s founded, that person will be fired.”

“An elected official or a lifetime-tenured judge, these aren’t people who are getting fired through conventional means and they are people who, when they give you a good recommendation it’s very prestigious.”

The complicated process of reporting violations

Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training for congressional staff and conducts research, said it’s interesting that Congress does not have an HR department and instead has various structures to deal with things like workplace abuse and sexual harassment.

Congress recently overhauled its policies on sexual harassment, reforming the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to mandate climate surveys and annual public reports on data on awards and settlements. 

Still, the process right now is complicated. For certain violation claims, including bad behavior that is allegedly targeted by race, sex, or age, there’s a multi-step dispute resolution. This process will change on June 19 under the CAA Reform Act and more information on that process will be rolled out soon. Until then, the worker has to file a request for counseling with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) within 180 days of the violation. After the counseling — which involves informing workers about their rights — if the worker wants to continue with the claim, they must request mediation within 15 days. If the other party doesn’t agree to mediation or if mediation doesn’t resolve the claim, they can move forward with an administrative hearing or file a lawsuit in federal district court. The worker must do this within 90 days after the mediation.

“It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

Under the new changes, mediation will be optional and and mandatory counseling will be eliminated. A worker can confidentially seek consultation and assistance from the office and a confidential adviser may help assist in drafting a claim.

Laura Cech, spokesperson for OCWR, said that depending on the situation, workers can seek resources with ethics committees, employee assistance programs, and legal assistance from the Office of Employee Advocacy. OCWR has provided a list of legal organizations and attorneys for employees and employers looking for legal representation.

Cech said that not all workplace disputes and situations allege a violation of the CAA and workers can try to resolve issues through an internal grievance process or talk with their employee assistance program. An example of something that would go through that process is bad behavior because of race, sex, or age.

And regardless, a broader culture change is just as key as the HR resources being in place.

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure,” Fitch said. “… You have 535 small businesses on Capitol Hill and each one of these offices is a culture unto itself. It’s not House Republicans or Senate Republicans… It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

A culture of high turnover

The high turnover that results in a bad boss reputation isn’t good for the public interest either, McGehee said. When staff with expertise leave, one result is that members of Congress don’t ask good questions. McGehee cites last year’s Facebook hearings, where members of Congress often embarrassed themselves when they asked questions that showed they didn’t understand the most basic facts about how social media operates.

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure.”

“The members looked terrible in those hearings — and a member’s capacity to represent their constituents and really grasp and handle a policy on this wide range of issues, it is largely dependent on staff,” she said. “Two things happen when you don’t retain staff. First of all, you don’t have that expertise and gravitas, people who know what they’re doing. And the other part of that is when you have a lot of staff turnover, whether you’re in a personal office or in a committee, K Street-types can run circles around these folks.”

She added, “I’ve seen a number of occasions where, where you put this comma, how you describe this thing, can totally change the impact of the bill. And if you’re inexperienced, you don’t know that. You have no clue and it’s a real problem … if you don’t have deep knowledge of an issue it can be very difficult to understand the impact of what it is you’re trying to put together.”

McGehee said that since a chief of staff is usually hired not for their managerial skills, but for, say, their knowledge of the district, it is particularly important for them to have standards to follow. Fitch also agreed that there are huge barriers to getting staff to attend trainings on the proper management of offices.

“The challenge is both the structure and the culture does not lend itself to professional development on Capitol Hill,” he said. “An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

In February, his organization hosted a training for about 50 managers on helping workers with managing expectations, being self-aware, and avoiding inappropriate behavior that offends people.

Part of the problem, Fitch said, is that staffers tend to ignore office processes until there is a huge problem that forces their attention to it.

“An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

“These people didn’t come to Capitol Hill to be better managers. They came here to pass health care legislation or tax cuts and the end result drives everything,” he said. “I have to constantly remind my staff we are not the most important thing to Congress — until we are. Then you get that office that is running into problems because of sniping between the district office and D.C., or a chief of staff is killing morale, or a member is killing morale. It’s a challenge and usually when it gets to that kind of state is when we are pulled in.”

Fitch said he does believe that things on the Hill are improving. There have been recent changes following major harassment scandals in Congress, such as a mandated sexual harassment training. Fitch said House is also offering a new program that will help staffers learn about management and legislative research and communications.

What’s the solution?

For the sake of retention, as much as workers’ rights, Congress needs to create a healthy workplace environment beyond just the guarantee that bosses won’t shame you or throw things in the office, Fitch said. He added that retention could be improved by giving workers more incentives, such as tuition assistance or more frequent pay periods. (Currently, House staffers are only paid once a month.) A LegiStorm analysis found that the number of staffers in their 40s has declined from more than 14 percent of all staff in 2001, to just over 9 percent today.

Congressional staff are also not allowed to unionize, which would help introduce more protections for workers and possibly curb abusive behavior. McGehee said unionization in members’ offices is “considered kind of a radioactive topic” on the Hill on both sides of the aisle.

Unionization can make a difference, however. Conti said that, currently, in any sector, unless the workforce is unionized and tries to enforce certain standards of conduct, it’s tough to hold people accountable for workplace abuse that isn’t targeting someone by gender or race or another protected class. A reputation for being an abusive boss, even in severe circumstances, isn’t usually enough to push someone out of office or prevent them from consideration for government office.

Conti said, “There’s nothing illegal in most circumstances. If you’re working in a unionized workforce, that’s one thing. But there’s nothing illegal in being, as people in my field colloquially refer to as, an equal opportunity offender. You’re awful to everybody so it’s not like you’re discriminating against anybody. It’s inhumane. It’s immoral. It’s unethical. But it’s not illegal.”

“We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

There are often gender differences in who is targeted, however. A 2017 survey of 1,008 adults found that almost 60 percent of U.S. workers are affected by workplace bullying. Seventy percent of those bullies were men and 60 percent of their targets were women. Additionally, the survey found that women bullied other women more often than men.

Conti said a worker could use a civil tort called intentional infliction of emotional distress. A worker could also pursue a workers compensation claim if there are severe mental health consequences. But these are often hard cases to make.

“That’s where if somebody treats an employee in such a way that it is just outside the bounds of reasonableness and the person suffers severe mental anguish as a result of it, then that is illegal, but it’s damn near impossible to prove,” Conti said.

She referred to a case in which someone knowingly falsely accused a worker of stealing things from their employer in order to get them fired — but the case still wasn’t severe enough to rise to the occasion of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“It really has to be above and beyond, like shrieking and humiliating people and being mercurial and changing the rules all the time, so you really have to think through, is there some sort of harassment?” she said. “We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

McGehee said that without ensuring accountability, implementing better office practices and standards, and addressing what she calls the “blood oath” of loyalty on the Hill, staffers are left to deal with toxic workplaces on their own.

“You’re pretty much in the world saying, ‘I guess my career on the Hill is gone. My career on K Street is not good, since they will probably say no one wants to talk to me.’ So you may as well leave Washington …There’s nobody to go to.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering education and labor issues. Their work has also been published in The Establishment, Bustle, Glamour, The Guardian, and In These Times.

Missouri Supreme Court opens the door to LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a gay employee’s case alleging sex discrimination in the workplace could proceed, reversing a lower court ruling and establishing a new precedent that could help protect embattled non-heterosexual workers in the future.

The court also ruled on a separate but similar case involving a transgender student who claimed his school discriminated against him by blocking him from bathrooms and other facilities, saying the student deserved a fair hearing.

At stake in the first case is the extent to which gay, lesbian, and bi people in Missouri are protected on the basis of their sex. State law does not extend employment nondiscrimination protections on the basis of “sexual orientation,” meaning it’s fully legal to fire someone based on their sexuality. But in this case, while the plaintiff acknowledged that he is gay, he claimed that he faced discrimination because of sex stereotyping, not because of his sexual orientation.

Harold Lampley, an employee in the state’s Department of Social Services Child Support Enforcement Division, filed a complaint arguing that he was harassed at work for his non-stereotypical behaviors, noting that employees with stereotypical behaviors were not similarly treated. He claimed to have experienced regular verbal abuse and forced closed-door meetings about his performance. After he complained, he also alleged that he experienced retaliation in the form of poor performance evaluations not consistent with his work.

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Lampley’s friend and coworker Rene Frost likewise claimed that she suffered discrimination merely for her affiliation with Lampley. The employer allegedly violated her privacy by publicly announcing her performance review. After she complained, she said she faced retaliation, such as having her desk moved away from Lampley’s and other coworkers with whom she collaborated. Frost claimed she was also banned from eating lunch with Lampley and allegedly faced similar verbal abuse and harassment.

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights concluded this discrimination wasn’t actionable because Lampley’s sexual orientation isn’t protected, and a lower court agreed. It relied on a similar ruling against a recycling company employee named James Pittman, who claimed he had been called a “cocksucker,” asked if he had AIDS, and harassed for having a same-sex partner. The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that Pittman could find no relief under state law, and a circuit court concluded the same must be true for Lampley and Frost.

But in Tuesday’s ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that being gay does not preclude an employee from protection on the basis of “sex,”which includes sex stereotyping. “[A]n employee who suffers an adverse employment decision based on sex-based stereotypical attitudes of how a member of the employee’s sex should act can support an inference of unlawful sex discrimination,” the majority wrote.

“Sexual orientation is incidental and irrelevant to sex stereotyping. Sex discrimination is discrimination, it is prohibited by the Act, and an employee may demonstrate this discrimination through evidence of sexual stereotyping,” they explained. The Commission was wrong not to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their sex-stereotyping claim, and the Court ordered it to issue Lampley and Frost right-to-sue letters.

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The second case on which the Court ruled this week similarly focused on the debate over protections on the basis of sex.

Student “R.M.A.” filed a complaint against Blue Springs School District for denying him access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms. The school initially countered both that “gender identity” was not protected under the state’s “sex” protections and also that it should not be considered a “public accommodation” and thus the nondiscrimination law should not apply to it at all. Without specifying which reasoning informed its opinion, a lower court dismissed R.M.A.’s complaint outright.

In a 5-2 ruling this week, the state Supreme Court reached a different conclusion. Rather than considering sex stereotyping, the majority recognized that once a transgender individual has legal changed their sex, as R.M.A. has, they are protected on the basis of that sex. In a footnote, the majority called out the dissenting justices for relying on a distinction between “legal sex” and “biological sex” that is not actually found anywhere in the law. R.M.A. is a boy, and if he’s not being allowed to use boys’ facilities, then he deserves his day in court.

This pair of rulings opens the door to far greater protection for LGBTQ people under Missouri state law — but with some limitations.

The first ruling, for example, accepts the premise that sexual orientation is not itself connected to sex stereotyping, even though expectations about the gender of a person’s romantic partners are obvious stereotypes themselves. This means that while Lampley and other gay, lesbian, and bi workers will now have an opportunity to pursue discrimination claims moving forward, it will require them to prove that they were targeted because of sex stereotypes not directly connected to their sexual orientation.

Likewise, the ruling in favor of R.M.A. seems to rely on transgender people legally changing their sex designation before they are eligible for protection. State law requires transgender people provide proof of surgery to update their birth certificates, although some judges have granted the new gender markers without that requirement. This means that there may still be inconsistent financial and medical obstacles to qualifying for legal protection.

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Neither ruling weighs the merits of the discrimination claims, so it also remains to be seen whether Lampley or R.M.A. will prevail once their complaints are given due consideration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

When a Company Tries to Decertify Its Union

Monday, February 25th, 2019

Cable provider and mass media company Charter Communications, which offers its services under the Spectrum brand, is pushing to decertify the IBEW Local 3 union in New York City, whose workers have been on strike since March 28, 2017. Decertification votes are used by workers to get rid of a union or replace it with a different one, with the vote to get rid of IBEW Local 3 being pushed by replacement workers.

Roughly 1,800 workers represented by IBEW Local 3 went on strike over a contract dispute with Charter Communications, which bought out Time Warner Cable in May 2016. A majority of workers voted to authorize a strike in response to cuts to healthcare and pension benefits in the wake of the buy-out.

As the strike approaches two years, Charter Communications is advocating workers to vote to decertify the union with the National Labor Relations Board.

In an internal email from January 31, obtained by In These Times, Charter Communications Regional Vice President of New York City Operations, John Quigley, told workers, “In my opinion, Local 3 has not earned the right to represent you. Over the past several years they have mislead (sic.) their members, led them out on a strike without a clear plan, mishandled almost every aspect of the strike, made it very clear what they think of employees who are working with us today, and continue to make empty threats about harming our business.”

Quigley added, “we hope that you vote ‘no’ and give us a chance to continue to make Charter a great place to work-together.”

The email reveals that Spectrum encouraged its workers to get rid of the union. A Spectrum spokesperson told In These Times via email, “the vote is between our employees and IBEW Local 3. We have no further comment.”

“A standard tactic in a union-busting campaign is to be intransigent in bargaining and thereby provoke a strike, hire replacement workers who are eligible to vote, schedule a decertification election and hope the replacement workers vote in greater numbers than the strikers,” Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, told In These Times via email. “It illustrates the need for labor law reform that would permit workers to bargain and, if necessary, strike without losing their jobs and their rights to bargain collectively.”

The petition to decertify the union was filed with the National Labor Relations Board by Bruce Carberry, who the union alleges is a supervisor who transitioned to a survey technician role in order to file the petition and become a part of the bargaining unit represented by the union. Union members allege this individual was demoted for the purpose of undermining the union. Once a decertify petition is filed and approved with at least 30 percent of workers signing in favor, a vote is held where a majority determines the outcome. The vote went forward after negotiations to end the strike broke down in December 2018.

On his LinkedIn profile, Carberry lists his role as a supervisor until January 2018; the petition was initially filed in May 2018. Carberry began working for Charter Communications in May 2017, shortly after the union went on strike. Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director John Walsh approved Carberry’s petition to allow a decertification vote in June 2018 despite these allegations from the union that Carberry was ineligible to file the petition due to his supervisory position. The ruling explainedthe union did not prove Carberry was not in a supervisory role at the time of filing the petition, despite proving he served in a supervisory role prior to its filing.

If the vote passes to decertify the union, the outcome would essentially end the strike in Spectrum’s favor rather than continue to pressure Spectrum to make concessions in bargaining a new union contract. It’s unclear how many replacement workers, permanent and contracted employees have been hired by Spectrum during the strike. When the strike first began, Spectrum’s contingency plan included hiring contractors from out of state and the company has recently been scrutinized by city officials for not hiring enough local labor.

The attorney representing Carberry and his petition, Matthew Antonek, has previously represented union busting efforts at Verizon as the company’s Executive Director of Labor Relations.

“He’s a union buster,” said Tim Dubnau, an organizing coordinator for the Communications Workers of America which has led efforts to unionize Verizon employees, of the petitioner’s attorney. “The labor law is completely broken in this country. It’s amazing how coercive employers can be and are.”

Since the petition went through, a campaign that includes an anti-union blog surfaced to try to sway workers to vote in favor of decertifying the union. One blog post includes ten reasons to vote “No,” including claims the union hates current Spectrum employees, the union lies, and that workers would be better off without the union representing the workplace.

“Around the new year starting when the NLRB said the vote was going to go through, a charter tech blog showed up saying things like you can’t get anymore raises,” Chris Fasulo, a Spectrum worker on strike, told In These Times. “There are also a couple of Twitter accounts out there, all of a sudden they started trolling a lot of guys on strike like myself who are very outspoken on Twitter.” A Spectrum spokesperson denied the blog or accounts are affiliated with the company.

The NLRB sent out ballots to all eligible workers this month for the decertification election, which includes workers on strike and any hired before January 2019. Ballots were due February 22, and the outcome of the vote is not yet known.

“Even though none of these people are part of the union, the law seems to give them the ability to vote on whether or not a union should represent the workplace,” said Troy Walcott, a Spectrum worker on strike. “So while we’re out on strike all the people who are working in place of us who don’t have a union are now allowed to vote on whether a union gets to represent the workplace.”

He added a grassroots movement has started in the wake of the strike to create apublicly owned cable service in New York City. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and union leaders in New York have recently renewed calls to boycott Spectrum and its services over the company’s union busting. The company is currently in negotiations with the New York Public Service Commission to be able to continue providing cable services in New York State after the commission voted in July 2018 to revoke approval of Spectrum’s merger with Time Warner.

“The company is basically union busting in New York City, and they’ve come in, raised rates on people and set their own terms because they hold a monopoly right now and there’s really no one to stop them from doing what they’re doing,” added Walcott.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Sainato is a journalist based in Albany, NY. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1

Calls Increase for Trump Labor Sec. Alexander Acosta To Resign

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

A U.S. District judge ruled Thursday that U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta committed a crime in 2007 when, as a U.S. prosecutor at the time, he secretly gave a lenient plea deal to a politically-connected billionaire accused of sex trafficking underage girls.

In a case brought by victims of billionaire and Trump associate Jeffrey Epstein, Judge Kenneth Marra found that Acosta and other federal prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by brokering a plea deal with Epstein, allowing him to serve only 13 months in a county jail for his crimes, and then sealing the agreement.

The ruling came nearly three months after the Miami Herald‘s explosive report on the plea deal, which prompted the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the prosecutors’ conduct.

Marra’s decision led to renewed calls for Acosta—who was appointed by President Donald Trump and who as head of the Labor Department is responsible for combating sex trafficking—to resign.

By sealing Epstein’s plea agreement, Acosta stole from more than 30 of Epstein’s victims—some of whom were as young as 13 when they were recruited by his paid employees and then coerced into sex acts by him—the chance to attend Epstein’s sentencing and demand a harsher punishment.

“While the government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the [agreement] with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims,” Marra found.

“The government-aligned themselves with Epstein, working against his victims, for 11 years,” Brad Edwards, the attorney representing the women who survived Epstein’s abuse, told the Herald. “Yes, this is a huge victory, but to make his victims suffer for 11 years, this should not have happened. Instead of admitting what they did, and doing the right thing, they spent 11 years fighting these girls.”

Epstein’s victims and the U.S. government now have 15 days to come to a resolution following Marra’s ruling.

This article was published in In These Times on February 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julia Conley is a Maine-based staff writer for Common Dreams.

Now That Government Is Funded, Here Is What Workers Want to See

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

Last year, in communities all across the country, millions of Americans mobilized and called for an economy that works for all of us. From state houses and governors mansions to Capitol Hill, we elected advocates who committed themselves to advancing that cause. That election was defined by a movement of hard working people who stood together to reject the meager crumbs we are being handed and reclaim what is rightfully ours.

In electing more than 900 union members to office, we secured a great opportunity to right the structural wrongs of our economy. Our mission was not simply to rack up victories on election night last November. We changed the rulemakers. Now it is time for them to change the rules. As legislators move past the manufactured crisis that defined the first weeks of the 116th Congress, working people are ready to fight for that change.

Above all, that means affirming our ability to have a real voice on the job. A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that half of all nonunion workers, or more than 60 million Americans, would choose to join a union if they were given the chance, yet aspiring union members continue to face countless obstacles. The power of working people must be unleashed. Whether we work for private companies or public employers, in an office or a mine or a factory, all of us have the right to freely negotiate higher wages and better working conditions.

Congress should modernize the badly outdated National Labor Relations Act to truly protect our freedom to organize and mobilize together. Top lawmakers have put forth promising proposals that would ensure workers can organize a union without facing scorched earth tactics and hostile campaigns from corporations. If workers sign up for a union, they deserve to know their decision is protected by law. It is not the job of executives, governors or right wing operatives to make those decisions for them.

However, our fight will not end with one piece of legislation. An agenda for working families means building a fairer economy and a more just society for everyone in our country, whether you are in a union or not. That means achieving full employment where every American is able to access a good job, passing a $15 federal minimum wage, and refusing to approve any trade agreement that lacks enforceable labor protections.

It means providing a secure and prosperous future for all our families by expanding Social Security, strengthening our pensions, and making a serious federal investment in our infrastructure. It means defending the health and lives of working people by shoring up the Affordable Care Act, removing onerous taxes on health insurance plans negotiated by workers, expanding Medicare coverage to more people, and lowering prescription drug costs. It means passing laws that ensure paid sick and family leave.

All of these guarantees are long overdue for working people, but there is arguably no task so vital as defending our right to safety and dignity on the job. Congress should also extend comprehensive federal protections, including the Equality Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, to LGBTQ and immigrant workers, whose livelihoods and families too often rest on the whims of their employers.

As one of a handful of men in my family to survive the scourge of black lung in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, I cannot overstate the dire need for broadly strengthened safety regulations, including the expansion of Occupational Safety and Health Administration coverage to all workers, toughened federal enforcement, and ironclad whistleblower protections.

Corporations and right wing interests continue to try their best to deny working people our fair share of the enormous wealth that we produce every day. In November, we stood up to change that twisted status quo. We made our voices heard at the ballot box, and we intend to hold the people we elected accountable to an economic agenda that will raise wages, move our country forward, and lead to better lives for all of us.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on February 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO.

This MLB power couple is fighting to save 200 union jobs

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

It all started so innocently.

On Sunday night, Eireann Dolan — the wife of Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle — was in the car with her husband doing some research on official MLB hats, because her friend was interested in buying one for his son.

But when she searched for New Era — the official manufacturer of baseball caps for Major League Baseball for nearly 60 years — articles immediately popped up about the company closing its unionized shop in Derby, New York, and moving to a non-union shop in Florida. More than 200 workers are scheduled to lose their jobs as a result.

“It’s basically union busting, plain and simple,” Dolan told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “The only people wearing [the New Era caps made in Derby] are the players, and these are the players in the union, so we want to make sure they’re wearing caps that are made by people earning a union wage.”

MLB has an exclusive contract with New Era for its caps. Most of the caps New Era makes for the MLB — the ones that fans buy — are made overseas. But the contract stipulates that hats worn by players during games must be made in America.

Dolan — who is in the midst of her thesis project at the Fordham Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education — considers research her forte. So when she came across the New Era story, it only took a few miles of driving before she and Doolitle were so immersed in the subject they had to pull the car to the side of the road. It was the day before Spring Training began for Doolittle and the Nationals in West Palm Beach, Florida, and everyone in the MLB Players Association was busy dealing with free agency drama and responding to commissioner Rob Manfred’s press conference. Despite all of that, within 24 hours, Dolan and Doolittle launched the #NewEraHatsOff campaign on Twitter, with the approval of his union.

Taking a principled stand is nothing new for Dolan and Doolittle. They have helped spearhead LGBTQ initiatives in baseball, hosted Syrian refugees for Thanksgiving dinner, and openly called for better mental health services for veterans. This latest issue hit home because Doolittle grew up in Buffalo, not far from Derby, and even has family friends who work at the facility and will lose their jobs if the deal goes through.

But ultimately, they were drawn to this fight because they feel passionately about protecting the rights of union workers.

“As players who continue to stand together it’s important that we also continue to stand in solidarity with the union labor that has helped make our game what it is today,” Doolittle tweeted. “From the garment workers who make our uniforms to the stadium workers, vendors & security staff at our ballparks to the transportation workers who people rely on to get to games — their work makes our game possible. Baseball could not have grown into a [$10 billion] industry without them.”

Unfortunately, Dolan and Doolittle didn’t become aware of this issue until very late in the game. New Era has already reached a deal on severance with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the union that represents Derby workers. That deal will be voted on come March 15. Still, there’s a chance.

“There is a glimmer of hope here,” Dolan said. “Companies change their mind. It’s not over until it’s over.

It helps that there’s recent precedent here. In 2017, MLB officials — including Commissioner Rob Manfred — stepped in to help save the jobs of 600 union workers of Majestic in Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, the plant that produces MLB uniforms.

“Our fans and our players have a unique bond with the uniforms that they wear,” Manfred told the Majestic employees at the time. “And, in fact, our uniforms stir emotions among people. Because you cater to that emotion with the quality work you do each and every day, you are, and shall remain, a part of the baseball family.”

Ultimately, they hope the increased attention and awareness to the cause — with some outside public pressure mixed in — will force New Era to change course. At the very least, they want to send a message to other MLB partners that union busting will not be tolerated.

“Those caps [at the Baseball Hall of Fame] in Cooperstown? They were made in Derby. It’s an iconic symbol,” Dolan said.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs is a sports reporter at ThinkProgress.

But ultimately, they were drawn to this fight because they feel passionately about protecting the rights of union workers.

“As players who continue to stand together it’s important that we also continue to stand in solidarity with the union labor that has helped make our game what it is today,” Doolittle tweeted. “From the garment workers who make our uniforms to the stadium workers, vendors & security staff at our ballparks to the transportation workers who people rely on to get to games — their work makes our game possible. Baseball could not have grown into a [$10 billion] industry without them.”

Unfortunately, Dolan and Doolittle didn’t become aware of this issue until very late in the game. New Era has already reached a deal on severance with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the union that represents Derby workers. That deal will be voted on come March 15. Still, there’s a chance.

“There is a glimmer of hope here,” Dolan said. “Companies change their mind. It’s not over until it’s over.

It helps that there’s recent precedent here. In 2017, MLB officials — including Commissioner Rob Manfred — stepped in to help save the jobs of 600 union workers of Majestic in Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, the plant that produces MLB uniforms.

“Our fans and our players have a unique bond with the uniforms that they wear,” Manfred told the Majestic employees at the time. “And, in fact, our uniforms stir emotions among people. Because you cater to that emotion with the quality work you do each and every day, you are, and shall remain, a part of the baseball family.”

We’ve Been Fighting for $15 For 7 Years. Today I’m Celebrating a Historic Victory.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

On Tuesday, Illinois became the first state in the Midwest to enact legislation phasing in a $15-per-hour minimum wage, giving 1.4 million workers a raise every year between 2020 and 2025.

Upon hearing the news last week that both houses of the Illinois General Assembly had passed the $15 minimum wage bill and would be sending it to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk, I immediately thought back to just over seven years ago, when I was present at the creation of the Fight for $15 campaign.

It was late 2011. Centrist Democrats in Washington—more worried about closing the national deficit than addressing rising poverty—searched for a so-called “grand bargain” to slash the social safety net in exchange for raising taxes. But starting that September, a multitude of fed-up activists united under the banner of Occupy Wall Street to call out extreme economic inequality through direct action.

After spending several weeks camped out in New York’s Zuccotti Park as a participant in Occupy Wall Street, I returned home to Chicago and followed Newt Gingrich’s sage advice to “take a bath and get a job,” getting hired in December as an organizer with the community organization Action Now. A handful of other newly hired organizers and I were assigned to a campaign with the seemingly ambitious goal of raising Illinois’ minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 an hour.

From the start, the philosophy of the campaign, known only internally as “LWWO”
(“low-wage worker organizing”) was that lawmakers in Springfield would not prioritize raising the minimum wage unless workers collectively demanded it through mass action. A group of other newly hired organizers and I would roam the stores and restaurants of Chicago’s Loop and Magnificent Mile at all hours of the day, trying to get as many workers as possible to sign petition cards calling for a $10 minimum wage. A common response early on was that $10 would be nice, but was unrealistic.

As the campaign proceeded in early 2012, my fellow organizers and I realized we were part of something bigger than we had first assumed. The campaign, we learned, was being funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In the wake of Occupy—which had greatly contributed to the reinvigoration of class politics with the popular 99% vs. 1% slogan—SEIU’s top officials were exploring the possibility of a nationwide effort to unionize the food-service and retail sectors, site of the largest post-recession job growth.

The only problem was that union leaders, often averse to taking risks, have traditionally viewed low-wage, service sector workers as “unorganizable” due to the precarious nature of their employment and the intense anti-union animus of companies like McDonald’s. Our job was to gather enough contacts among downtown Chicago’s low-wage workforce to prove to SEIU officials that these workers could indeed be organized and that they should greenlight the proposed unionization effort.

Of course, managers at downtown stores and restaurants did not like us entering their place of business and talking with their employees about how wages were stagnating while the cost of living kept rising. My fellow organizers and I did not ask for permission, but would talk with workers any way we could—behind the manager’s back, on shift changes or smoke breaks, or walking into the kitchens of restaurants uninvited. We got kicked out of virtually everywhere, but we kept coming back. Most effective of all, we recruited some of the workers themselves to begin circulating our petition among their coworkers.

By the spring of 2012, we had gathered over 20,000 contacts. This, along with the simultaneous success of a similar effort in New York City, was enough to convince SEIU leadership to move forward with the organizing drive in both cities. Over the summer and into the fall, after months of one-on-one conversations and small group meetings, hundreds of fast-food and retail workers came together to found the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, while a similar organization was formed in New York.

In late November and early December2012—deliberately coinciding with the holiday shopping season—workers in both New York and Chicago held 1-day strikes to demand a $15-per-hour minimum wage and the right to form a union. The Fight for $15 was officially on.

I had left the campaign in late summer to go to graduate school, and was surprised to see that the wage demand had jumped from $10 to $15. But it made sense from a strategic standpoint. Ten, even twelve dollars would seem a lot more reasonable if workers were demanding fifteen. More importantly, it made sense from a moral standpoint. Workers needed and deserved at least a $15-an-hour wage.

In talking with so many retail and fast-food workers, I had come to know in vivid detail how exploited they truly were—not only in terms of being paid poverty wages by multibillion-dollar corporations and having to work multiple jobs or receive public assistance just to scrape by, but also in terms of being subjected to daily harassment, abuse and disrespect by managers and customers.

The Fight for $15 has never been solely about boosting workers’ wages, but also boosting their dignity. The demand for “15 and a union” in the early 21st century has become as iconic to the labor movement as the demand for the 8-hour workday was in the late 19th century. In the years since the campaign went public, there have been countless short-term strikes by low-wage workers across the country, and the globe.

While the Fight for $15 has faced justified criticisms for being too top-down and too focused on media attention, it has also scored numerous victories. Dozens of cities and states have raised their minimum wages, hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees now have a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and millions of workers in five states and the District of Columbia are now on the path to a $15-per-hour minimum wage. As progressives in Congress push for a federal $15 minimum wage, workers in low-wage sectors will have to keep organizing to win unions so they can bargain for increased pay raises, benefits and other workplace rights—the next horizon of the movement.

To me, the passage of Illinois’ $15 minimum wage bill this week is proof that no matter how “impossible” they may seem, bold initiatives aimed at dramatically improving the lives of working people are, in fact, achievable.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

West Virginia teachers strike (yes, again) to protest attack on public education

Monday, February 18th, 2019

This is not a blast from the recent past: West Virginia teachers are on strike again, just a year after they kicked off a wave of teacher uprisings that is still reverberating around the nation. The teachers won a badly needed pay raise last year, but now they’re protesting as their state legislature considers a bill that would undermine public education across the state.

Schools were open in only one of West Virginia’s 55 counties on Tuesday, ABC News reported, but “school parking lots were nearly empty anyway” in Putnam County. Teachers again flooded the state capitol. Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, said “We are left with no other choice.”

The teachers are protesting an education bill that would chip away at the state’s already fragile and underfunded public education system by creating charter schools and allowing education savings accounts to pay for private schools. “It’s really disheartening to see the process play out and to see that people are using public education as a form of retaliation,” Mingo County high school English teacher Katie Endicott told USA Today. “But, at the same time, we’re really resolved in the fight and we’re not going to back down. We’re not going to quit because we know that the future of public education is at stake.”

One way to gauge the continuing rage among teachers and their willingness to keep up the fight is that, when the Denver teachers strike ended on Feb. 14, with the Los Angeles teachers strike having ended on Jan. 23, it seemed remarkable that Oakland teachers were on the brink of striking. The Oakland strike is planned to start on Thursday, Feb. 21—a week after Denver teachers got a deal. That seemed soon! But somehow West Virginia teachers have slid into that one-week gap to remind us all of their place in this movement, and of the severity of the attack on public education in the U.S.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on February 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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

Federal judge blocks military from discharging service members with HIV

Friday, February 15th, 2019

A federal judge in Virginia ruled Friday that the U.S. military must suspend its practice of discharging service members because they have HIV.

The injunction followed a lawsuit filed by two airmen who learned in November that they would not be permitted to continuing serving in the military because of their HIV status. This is despite the fact that both were in treatment and had undetectable viral loads, making it virtually impossible for them to transmit the virus to others.

The discharges were part of a policy the Pentagon implemented last year colloquially known as “deploy or get out” (DOGO). It was an attempt to trim military personnel based on who was fit to serve across the globe at any given time. In the case of the two plaintiffs, they were deemed unfit to deploy despite supporting recommendations from medical personnel.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, a Clinton appointee, agreed the new policy discriminated against people with HIV. “Plaintiffs have made a strong and clear showing that defendants’ policies are irrational, outdated, and unnecessary and their decisions arbitrary, unreasoned, and inconsistent,” she wrote.

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The military, she explained, is operating “based on a flawed understanding of HIV” that is causing HIV-positive service members to be “irrationally and arbitrarily swept from the ranks.”

“Because of advances in medicine and science, HIV is no longer a progressive, terminal illness,” Brinkema wrote. Considering the medical expertise the plaintiffs brought forward, she noted that even if there is a sustained disruption to an HIV-positive service member receiving their medication, “an individual’s risk of transmitting HIV during military service remains vanishingly low.”

The military, by contrast, could not present any recorded cases of accidental HIV transmission on the battlefield.

Plenty of other medical conditions, including some that require regular medication, still allow for service members to be deployed. “There appears to be no reason why asymptomatic HIV is singled out for treatment so different from that given to other chronic conditions, all of which are subject to worsening upon disruption of daily medication,” the decision read.

Moreover, the military did not present a single expert of its own to justify the double standard. Brinkema chastised the military for citing a report that “contains no scientific data, evidence, or real-life accounts, but rather is a mere recitation of defendants’ policies.”

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In addition to the two plaintiffs, the LGBTQ military organization OutServe-SLDN also joined the lawsuit on behalf of several other service members who feared they might also be discharged based on their HIV status, and Brinkema agreed that the DOGO policy could potentially impact others.

The judge’s order enjoins the military from separating or discharging not only the plaintiffs, but any similarly situated active-duty member of the Air Force because of their HIV status.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

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