Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for the ‘Employee Free Choice Act’ Category

‘Undercover Boss’: A Fairy Tale That Ignores Grim Reality

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Image: Mike HallAs kids, we all loved the sugar-coated fairy tales of handsome and brave princes rescuing beautiful princesses from despotic kings.

The new CBS “reality” show “Undercover Boss” that debuted last night after the Super Bowl is a 21st century sugar-coated fairy tale. But this time, the brave prince is actually a CEO who goes undercover as a regular worker near the bottom of the food chain. There he finds how hard and dirty the job is; how stifling and draconian the company’s workplace rules are; and how crappy the pay is.

Then after walking so many miles in an employee’s work boots, the boss sees the light and promotes workers, raises pay, eases rules and promises a new found respect for all workers.

(If your boss isn’t going undercover anytime soon, be sure to check out American Rights at Work’s new website, Fix Our Jobs, where you can vent about how lousy—and even how great—your job is and learn how to make it better. Click here to watch the video.)

But just like our childhood stories ignored the dark, bloody and scary Brothers Grimm originals, “Undercover Boss” ignores the grim reality of too many of today’s workplaces.

“Undercover Boss” is a sweet, happy-ending tale for a handful of workers, but make-believe for millions of others. The best way to make workplace improvement and worker rights a reality is with the Employee Free Choice Act, that would restore the right of workers to form unions and bargain for a better life.

The bosses portrayed on the show may indeed be sincere and a handful of workers will enjoy the benefits of their foxhole conversions. But what about the millions of workers whose CEO’s will never be on TV? That’s where unions come in: to ensure employees have a voice at the workplace, with family-supporting pay and affordable health care and retirement security.

Along with the restoring the freedom to form unions, rebuilding the middle class means fighting for health care legislation, strong enforcement of wage and hour laws, holding Wall Street accountable and most importantly creating jobs. Unions and their members at the forefront of all these battles—out in the open—not undercover.

*This article originally appeared in the AFL-CIO blog on February 8, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

**For more information on the Employee Free Choice Act visit the Workplace Fairness EFCA Resource Page.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

U.S. Chamber's "Card Check Compromise" Poll Compromises the Facts

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Image: Kate ThomasYesterday, the U.S. Chamber released a “nationwide poll,” which claimed to reveal the public’s fears about how the “Employee Free Choice Act” would hurt job growth.

If the Chamber really wanted to stir up some press on their reinvigorated anti-worker campaign, perhaps they should have picked a less-obviously right wing polling company to make their intentions appear less transparent. Although the sources of every dime of the $144.5K the Chamber spent last year on lobbying may be completely anonymous, the Republican client list of the Chamber’s partisan bent polling company

Voter/Consumer Research is not. Consider their list of clients:

Political – National Bush Cheney 2004 and Bush Cheney 200 || President George W. Bush || Republican National Committee (RNC) || National Republican Senatorial Committee || National Republican Congressional Committee || Mitt Romney for President

Political – States?Governor Don Carcieri || Governor Charlie Crist || Senator Mitch McConnell || Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison || Senator John Cornyn || Senator Richard Shelby || Congressman Mike Castle || Congressman Brett Guthrie

Corporations/Associations Wal-Mart || RJ Reynolds || Credit Union National Association || PhRMA || The Business Roundtable

Chamber Poll Neglects Truth, Sticks to Anti-Worker Rhetoric

It’s telling that the Chamber’s new poll also neglects to mention one of the most important aspects of labor reform: adding strict penalties for companies that break the law and intimidate or fire workers who want to form a union.

In the last 20 years, employer opposition to unionization has increased dramatically. Employers threaten to close plants and factories in 57 percent of union organizing drives and threaten to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent–while ultimately firing pro-union workers 34 percent of the time. Those are not good odds.

The authors of the poll say if employers and workers can’t reach an contract agreement in a reasonable amount of time, government bureaucrats will swoop in to mandate a binding agreement. This simply isn’t accurate. In arbitration, either side can bring in an independent, trained arbitrator to settle the dispute who both sides agree on. The bottom line is that arbitration encourages compromise, and no one has anything to fear from a process that is fair, neutral and promotes compromise instead of confrontation.

When confronted with legislation to improve American workers’ lives, the Chamber of Commerce invariably threatens economic ruin and rampant government control. This time, their fear hyperbole takes the form of this “Card Check Compromise” poll, which was writtenby and for people who want to keep the power to deny workers the choice of a union. The Chamber says their poll found little enthusiasm for various “compromise” proposals floated by labor supporters–but the only thing the Chamber is compromising away is workers’ interests, on behalf of the corporate special interests that pay them.

*This post originally appeared in SEIU Blog on February 2, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr.: Let’s Protect Worker’s Rights

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr. will always be revered as one of the greatest civil rights leaders in America and the world. Most people know King died in Memphis, but did you know that he died while fighting for the right of sanitation workers to organize unions and choose their own leaders?

King called unions “the best anti-poverty program available to poor people with jobs.” He worked with leaders of all the country’s major labor unions and supported union membership all his life.

At a press conference before his assassination in 1968, King said: “It isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. … What is the profit in being able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if one doesn’t earn enough money to even buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

On this MLK Holiday, pay tribute to Dr. King’s vision of economic justice by speaking out for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

EFCA will protect every worker’s right to form, join and assist labor unions – and bargain for a better wages, benefits and a better life. The legislation now has 225 co-sponsors but hasn’t moved in Congress because of the attention focused on health care reform. Still, now is the time to contact your members of Congress. Let them know that as soon as the health care reform legislation is passed, you expect them to turn their attention to the passage of EFCA.

Dr. King said “All labor has dignity.” Let’s restore dignity to workers by moving toward passage of the Employee Free Choice Act!

*For more on the Employee Free Choice Act visit the Workplace Fairness Employee Free Choice Act page.

About the Author: Linda Meric, a nationally-known speaker on family-friendly workplace policy, is executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. A diverse, grassroots, membership-based nonprofit that helps strengthen women’s ability to win economic justice, 9to5 has staffed offices in Milwaukee, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Jose. Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

Baseball Stars Knock It Out of the Park for Employee Free Choice

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Image: Seth MichalsJust in time for the World Series, 12 members of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have added their names to the broad coalition in support of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The players have signed a statement and are appearing in print ads in Washington, D.C., papers today. World Series contenders Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies and Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees are taking part. They’re joined by Heath Bell, Dave Bush, LaTroy Hawkins, Torii Hunter, John Lannan, Andrew Miller, J.J. Putz, Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright.

In a joint statement, these players say:

All Americans should have the same opportunity we’ve had—to be able to join a union without being fired and to negotiate with their employers without being penalized. Today, our country is facing some tough times. Health care costs are skyrocketing. Families are losing homes. Savings and retirement income are disappearing overnight.

Now more than ever, we need a strong union movement to protect our jobs, our pensions, and our future. The Employee Free Choice Act simply guarantees a level playing field for all workers. It makes sure everyone plays by the same rules. That’s as important in the workplace as it is in baseball.

The serious point here is that the choice to have a union on the job and bargain for a better life matters to workers no matter the sector—whether it’s a bus driver, a journalist, a casino dealer or a Major League Baseball player. The ability to bargain along with your co-workers for fair wages, good benefits and safe working conditions is a fundamental freedom that means a stronger economy for everyone.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on October 29, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Seth Michaels is the online campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, focusing on the Employee Free Choice campaign. Prior to arriving at the AFL-CIO, he’s worked on online mobilization for Moveon.org, Blue State Digital and the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also spent two years touring the country as a member of the Late Night Players, a sketch comedy troupe.

Shilling on the Corporate Dollar

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Image: Art LevineBusiness-sponsored ‘scholars’ deliver anti-union talking points.

Testifying before the Senate labor and health committee hearing in March, economist Anne Layne-Farrar of the corporate consulting firm LECG warned about the horrendous impact of the Employee Free Choice Act. Its potential to increase union membership from between five and 10 percent, she said, “would result in an increase in the unemployment of around one and a half to three percentage points. These are sizable effects for the U.S. economy.” Earnest and well-prepared, Layne-Farrar cited her study that concluded that 600,000 jobs would be lost in the first year after the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) became law. Fox “Fair and Balanced” News, naturally, in its TV report neglected to mention that her “research” was funded by the corporate-friendly, anti-union “Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs.”

Since the report’s publication in March, this statistic has circulated through the media, showing up on MSNBC, CBS News, The Wall Street Journal and, in spades, Fox News. EFCA has been Swift-Boated for purportedly taking away the secret ballot from workers. But union supporters say it will level the playing field, offering workers the choice of whether to form a union either through an election or “card check”­—the majority sign-up of authorization cards. Plus it toughens penalties and mandates arbitration after 120 days if employers refuse to negotiate in good faith.

Yet business interests have used Layne-Farrar’s study and that of prolific legal scholar Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago to tell a different story. Ads citing the “600,000” statistic appeared on Politico and other political insider publications aimed at buttressing anti-union lobbying that targets moderate senators such as Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln, who subsequently backed away from the EFCA legislation.

Epstein, by some measures the third-most cited law professor in the country, has issued two major reports and five op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and other publications denouncing EFCA as a job-killing, unconstitutional “regime.” His wide-ranging attack on the pro-union bill for Stanford University’s Hoover Institution was paid for by the same Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs that subsidized Layne-Farrar’s work. In the past Epstein, an extreme libertarian, has attacked minimum wage and unemployment benefits, denouncing such New Deal legislation as unconstitutional “takings” that violate the Fifth Amendment. That is no surprise. Epstein has argued that, historically, sweatshop conditions can only be ameliorated by market forces, not by laws or unions. He told In These Times: “The level of wages will be determined by the intersection of supply and demand…the escape from that system is not driven by unions, which cannot increase productivity.”

Epstein’s past work is even a bit too radical for his business backers. He told In These Times that he is “unrepentant” about his earlier writings, but he concedes that his corporate-funded sponsors have asked him to omit some of those previous arguments when attacking EFCA.

Counter-attack by progressives

Progressive bloggers, law professors and economists have launched counter-attacks, but these conservatives’ talking points, theories, and, most importantly, their data cannot be easily marginalized. In fact, they strengthen the hyperbolic rantings comparing the bill to the Gestapo or Islamic terrorism, claims that may seem laughable to progressives, but set the tenor for the debate in Washington. And Layne-Farrar’s and Epstein’s conclusions serve as the academic veneer for the PR blitz that has tried to demonize the Employee Free Choice Act.

Despite the wide dissemination of Layne-Farrar’s report, critics like Chris Kromm of the Institute of Southern Living have found distortions and shoddy analysis in her work. Of the 10 Canadian provinces she studied, Kromm discovered that only three actually had significant changes in card check rules. And he found that the report itself acknowledged there wasn’t enough data to draw conclusions about the impact of card check. It further admitted that the provincial card check data they did collect was too “weak” for economic analysis. Kromm also wondered, “If unions really were the cause of unemployment, why has Canadian unemployment risen in recent years…even as union membership has declined?”

But Layne-Farrar massages the data using a complex “regression analysis” to connect the dots between card check, higher unionization rates and more unemployment, putting the loss at between 600,000 and 2.6 million new American jobs in the first year.

“That’s bullshit,” says Canadian labor economist Charlotte Yates, now the Dean of Social Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “I don’t know of any credible economists who say [now] there is a direct correlation between unionization and the rise in unemployment.”

Even so, Layne-Farrar invokes her use of “regression analysis” as a sort of holy totem to ward off criticism of her work from other economists who cite what she says are “simplistic correlations.” These include studies showing that countries such as England, Denmark and Norway have higher unionization and lower unemployment rates than the United States. She says, “This is empirical analysis, not an opinion piece, with results based on publicly available data and using well-accepted econometric tools. You can’t rig these.”

John DiNardo, a labor economist at the University of Michigan and author of the textbook Econometrics retorts, “Just because she calls it ‘econometrics’ and ‘regression analysis’ doesn’t mean that it makes any sense.” While some earlier research had found a link between unionization and unemployment, more rigorous, recent research in Europe and the United States has found no connection between unionization and unemployment. In fact, Layne-Farrar’s study concocts a negative jobs impact from unionization that is 200 to 300 percent higher than even the most critical anti-union research.

Behind the statistical wizardry

Here’s where it helps to look behind the curtain of her statistical wizardry designed to dazzle common folk and legislators alike with econometrics. Her regression analysis supposedly aims to tease out the factors driving unemployment increases. But, DiNardo says, if unemployment shoots up and the unionized percentage of the workforce goes up, that could just as well be caused by more non-union workers getting laid off—while union members still keep their jobs. Hence, the percentage of unionized workers increases.

How do you get around this thorny problem if you want to blame unions for unemployment? Layne-Farrar purportedly “corrected” for the hopeless muddle of such simultaneous factors by, in part, merely measuring the unionization rates a year earlier than the unemployment rates. Presto! Unionization causes massive unemployment, she concludes. “She has very poor research design,” says DiNardo. “She doesn’t have anything resembling a natural experiment.” And he says that his review of the economic impact in America of unionization shows the “the casual effect of union recognition is zero.”

But for Epstein, the virtually unanimous opposition of business groups to the pro-labor legislation is proof positive that it will be “a job-killer of the worst sort.” In his report for the Hoover Institution, he paints an Edenic portrait of a non-unionized labor market, and laments the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 that legalized unions. “If the National Labor Relations Act offends every principle of the voluntary exchange of private property, this new bill is much worse,” he says. “I’ve never seen a statute so draconian.”

Epstein is the labor market equivalent of Candide’s Dr. Pangloss: If employers could just be left alone, all things work for the best in this best of all possible worlds. If there were no minimum wages laws, for instance, Epstein told me, “Wages would go up because productivity gains would offset any short-term losses [to workers].”

Such anti-union assertions don’t take into account the real world of employment—and the justifiable fear of being fired. Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, asks, “What bubble does he live in?” Even the Bush labor board found that nearly 30,000 workers are illegally fired or discriminated against each year because of union activity. And these researchers don’t really consider the widespread estimated $19 billion in wage theft.

While Epstein’s more radical views are left off the table, his intellectual firepower adds to the impact of his arguments against EFCA. Both Epstein and Layne-Farrar see an idealized world waiting to be born where unions don’t exist, and where workers and businesses thrive without them.

The question remains, will Washington politicians still listen to business interests that use these researchers’ dubious claims to argue, as Epstein does: “Unions are a bad deal for most workers.”

About the Author: Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications. He wrote the October 2007 In These Times cover story, “Unionbusting Confidential.” Levine is also the co-host of the “D’Antoni and Levine” show on BlogTalk Radio, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. EST.

This article originally appeared in In These Times on May 31, 2009.

Employee Free Choice: Let's Do It for 'Norma Rae'

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Crystal Lee Sutton, the real “Norma Rae,” just died after struggling with her insurer to pay for medical coverage. Linda Meric says health care reform responds to Sutton’s death and passing the Employee Free Choice Act will honor her life’s work.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Crystal Lee Sutton, the woman whose life inspired the 1979 film “Norma Rae,” about a brave union organizer, died of cancer on Sept. 11 after struggling in 2008 with her health insurance company.

Her insurer delayed her treatment by two months, initially by denying coverage of her medications, according to an article published last year in North Carolina’s Burlington Times News.

Her untimely passing at age 68 speaks powerfully to the continuing debate over health care reform.

But it is the union movement that claims Sutton as a sheroe.

To honor her legacy, and to pay tribute to other courageous union organizers–famous and less so–we must push for the Employee Free Choice Act, which is pending in Congress.

Introduced in March by California Democratic Rep. George Miller, the act has been referred to the Committee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. It has 227 co-sponsors, but the act must still move from committee discussion to general debate. This makes it critical that members of Congress hear their constituents’ support for the Employee Free Choice Act now.

Return Power to Workers

The act will level the workplace playing field and put the power to choose a union back where it belongs–in the hands of the workers.

Workers, increasing, have faced illegal discipline and even termination for attempting to organize their workplaces. The Employee Free Choice Act provides stronger protections for workers and tougher penalties for employers who engage in such illegal practices. The act will help rebuild the middle class and restore workers’ power to bargain for a better life.

Passing this legislation would truly celebrate the life and work of Crystal Lee Sutton.

As her obituary writers have reminded us in the days since her death, in the early 1970s she was a 33-year-old mother of three, earning $2.65 an hour, folding towels at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., when she began the activism that would ultimately bring her fame. What motivated her? It was the low pay and poor working conditions at the J.P. Stevens plant that moved her to take a leadership role in trying to form a union there.

It was not an easy road.

She was shunned for her activism. “Management and others treated me as if I had leprosy” was the way she once put it in an interview.

After months of trying to organize workers, she made the move that helped create the big scene in the movie: She took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word “union” on it in large letters, got up on her work table and slowly turned it around until co-workers began turning off machines and giving her the victory sign. Quiet fell inside the plant.

The Movement Begins

The police were called to remove Sutton from the plant and she was fired. But the movement had begun.

Eventually, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union that Sutton helped organize represented as many as 3,000 workers at seven plants. And, in 1977, a court sided with Sutton, ordering that she receive back pay and be rehired. She went back to work at J.P. Stevens for two days before she left again to take a new job–union organizer.

All workers–women and men–owe Sutton a debt, and one way to pay it back is to vigorously support the Employee Free Choice Act.

A free choice means that workers would have the option of unionization if a majority of members sign up. The Employee Free Choice Act would also stiffen penalties for employers who fire organizers, shoring up the National Labor Relations Act, a document that hasn’t changed in 75 years.

Just last year, more than 29,000 violations were upheld against employers in this country for harassment and intimidation during union organizing campaigns; in 2007 there were more than 30,000 violations. Workers should not be unjustly fired because they want to be represented by a union. There must be real penalties to deter this kind of behavior by corporations. This is important for all workers, but especially female workers.

Unions Remove Gender Inequities

Liberalizing the rules for forming a union is particularly important for women because unions have proven their capacity to remove one of the most glaring inequities between the genders: unequal pay.

Union membership raises women’s pay by more than 35 percent over that of non-union women.

The benefits of union membership for women in low-wage occupations are even greater, according to a December 2008 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, based in Washington, D.C.

Among those working in the 15 lowest-paying occupations, union members not only earned more than their non-union counterparts, they were also 26 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 23 percentage points more likely to have a pension plan than those who were not members of a union.

For these women, union benefits make a huge difference in attaining and maintaining economic self-sufficiency.

Take, for instance, paid sick days. More than 60 million workers lack a single paid sick day to care for themselves when ill. Nearly 100 million workers lack paid sick time to care for an ill child.

No one should lose a job because they have to care for themselves or a loved one.

Union representation is one of the strongest predictors of family-friendly workplace policies like paid sick days. This is critically important for low-wage working women.

Sutton knew it, and we know it today.

To honor her memory, write or call your members of Congress. Let them know you want them to support the Employee Free Choice Act.

Let’s stand up for working women.

About the Author: Linda Meric, a nationally-known speaker on family-friendly workplace policy, is executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. A diverse, grassroots, membership-based nonprofit that helps strengthen women’s ability to win economic justice, 9to5 has staffed offices in Milwaukee, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Jose. Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

This article originally appeared in Women’s e-News on September 28, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Specter In Pittsburgh: Punishment and Reward at AFL-CIO Convention

Friday, September 18th, 2009

“More than ever before, we need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies, and criticizes those who, well, can’t seem to decide which side they’re on.” –Rich Trumka, in the Washington Post Sept. 7, 2009

PITTSBURGH – When the history of the bi-partisan undermining of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is written, Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter will be assigned a pivotal role.

Back on March 24, when he was still in the GOP, Specter announced that he was no longer going to be the much-prized 60th vote for “cloture” on EFCA. That’s the procedure Senate Democrats will have to employ sometime later this year to overcome a Republican filibuster, and make what retiring AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was still predicting on Sunday would be “the greatest advances in labor law reform in 70 years.”

Senator Arlen Spector

In 2007, Specter supported bringing EFCA to the floor for a Senate vote, after it was passed overwhelmingly in the House. But according to the same Senator in March, “the problems of the recession” make this year “a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice.”

In organizing campaigns, where NLRB elections have been by-passed and “card check” used instead to demonstrate majority support for unionization, Spectre said “there has been “widespread intimidation” by “union officials” when the latter “visit workers’ homes with strong-arm tactics and refuse to leave until cards are signed.”

To deal with this alleged coercion, Specter recommended making it an unfair labor practice for any “union official” to visit “an employee at his/her home without prior consent for any purpose related to a representation campaign.”

While letting everyone know in March that he was no longer for cloture, Specter also positioned himself to play a key role brokering a compromise with colleagues like Tom Harkin and Chuck Schumer, who might “choose to move on and amend the NLRA” in ways more acceptable to Arlen.   

With a labor law reform record like this, Specter would seem to be just the kind of politician who needs a little labor “punishment” to send a message to the rest of his wavering breed — particularly since he now faces a Democratic primary challenge next year by a pro-EFCA congressman.

In several recent interviews, new AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka indicated that he favored holding politicians more accountable, “so they don’t listen to the moneyman and continue to erode away or negotiate away” key labor goals, a trend most evident lately in healthcare reform.

Nevertheless, here we are at the Pittsburgh Convention Center, on day three of the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial meeting, listening to that same Rich Trumka give a warm welcome to none other than Arlen Specter. From Trumka, we learn that his friend Arlen has been a rare “pro-labor Republican” for years.

From the wrinkled, frail-looking 79-year old Specter, we get a quick recitation of his past responsiveness to top union officials when job safety and health enforcement, or some other federal government function of benefit to workers, was under siege by the string of Republican presidents that he helped elect (two Bushes and a Reagan).

Today, the senator noted, he was working for a “robust public option in healthcare,” sanctions on imported Chinese tires, and emission standards that wouldn’t jeopardize jobs in coal mining, steel making, or other manufacturing.

On the matter of what he called “employees’ choice,” Specter reassured his audience that his latest position—spelled out in little detail—met the three standards set forth by Trumka, in a Sept. 5 New York Times article headlined “Union Head Would Back Bill Without Card Check.” (That was a reference to Sweeney’s own Labor Day weekend expression of willingness “to accept a fast election campaign instead of card check.” 

As described by Specter, Trunka’s three minimum requirements for “labor law reform” now include “prompt certification,” “tough penalties,” and “binding arbitration” of first contracts. According to Specter, a half dozen Senators, plus himself, Harkin, and Schumer, are working on a new version of EFCA that will “be totally satisfactory to labor.”

Specter both referenced —and was aided in his performance— by a local headline today announcing an impending Right-to-Work Committee “ad blitz” directed at him and the now abandoned “card check” method he criticized, much like the RTWC, back in March.  A full-page ad in yesterday’s Post-Gazette, run by the business-backed “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace,” still urged Specter to “oppose any versions of the job-killing” EFCA that would “shift power from workers to union bosses” or give “government-appointed bureaucrats more control in setting wages.”

These costly exertions by the anti-EFCA lobby reflect quite a different stance than elements of corporate America have taken vis-à-vis health care. In that ongoing “reform process,” labor defenders and facilitators of compromise (like SEIU leader Dennis Rivera) can at least point, as President Obama does, to what they consider to be positive movement on the part of some management players. When the subject is labor law reform —either as originally conceived or sans card check— the labor concessions made so far, brokered by the likes of Specter, have yet to be matched by anyone speaking for the employer side.

In the meantime, President Obama, who also addressed the convention today, is flying off to Philadelphia with his arm around Specter. They’ll be there together tonight at a big Specter re-election fundraiser, where Obama will be offering the same kind of reward for Specter’s party-switch that the AFL-CIO is prepared to give as well, in the hopes of getting EFCA-Lite in return.

About the Author: Steve Early is author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, is a labor journalist and lawyer who has written for numerous publications. He was a Boston-based international representative or organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years, and is a member of the editorial advisory committees of three independent labor publications: Labor Notes, New Labor Forum and Working USA.

This article was originally published in Working In These Times on September 15, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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Happy ‘Enlightened’ Labor Day

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that workers in the United States apparently don’t want to join unions because of the “very enlightened management in this country now, treating employees better and employees have decided they don’t want to pay the dues.”

McConnell, R-Ky., husband of the most anti-union Labor Secretary in history, enlightened the rest of the country with his ridiculous reason claiming why no Republican will vote for the Employee Free Choice Act

To borrow from Rep. Barney Frank, McConnell must spend most of his time on a planet that’s much better than the planet the rest of us live on.

In truth, the Employee Free Choice Act is desperately needed on my planet, where 16 workers die on the job every day because managers ignore their health and safety. On my planet, field workers die of heat exhaustion. Laundry workers are killed by dangerous machinery. Exhausted airline pilots die in crashes.

Here’s something else very enlightened managers do on my planet: cheat poor workers of their wages. Last week, 68 percent of low-paid workers were victimized by wage violations, according to a new University of Chicago report. The typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339.

So-called enlightened Amerijet managers forced pilots and flight engineers to strike on Aug. 27. Fort Lauderdale-based Amerijet doesn’t put working toilets on its Boeing 727s, which fly from Florida to Venezuela and the Caribbean. Amerijet’s female pilots are forced to relieve themselves by squatting over bags. Male pilots urinate into bags hanging just outside the cockpit doors. There are no sanitary facilities in which to wash.

Amerijet managers are so enlightened they think it’s a good policy to force exhausted, hungry, sick pilots to fly long hours. The company pays a small fortune to union-busting lawyers who have prevented Teamster pilots from negotiating a contract for 5-1/2 years. But Amerijet managers pay their co-pilots less than $35,000 a year.

Sen. McConnell might be surprised to learn of the outpouring of support for the Amerijet strikers from their dues-paying Teamster brothers and sisters in the airline and trucking industries. Teamster maintenance workers and cleaners at Miami International Airport are refusing to cross the picket lines. Amerijet’s picket line is being walked by unions at American, US Airways, Southwest, JetBlue, UPS, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association. Other South Florida unions, as well as organized labor in the Caribbean and South America, are supporting the strikers.

So-called enlightened managers make life difficult for school bus drivers, who have an important job that requires skill and hard work. This is how managers at one private school bus company treated its drivers before they became Teamsters: At several depots, the toilet paper was removed from the employees’ bathroom. Workers had to ask for it at the office. They would get four or five squares.

Along with shabby treatment, school bus drivers earn low pay and enjoy few benefits. The Teamsters are building a movement of school bus and transit workers to change that. Almost 30,000 school bus and transit workers became Teamsters in the last three years. They are now seeing real improvements in their jobs and in their lives.

We are organizing school bus workers at First Student, Bauman/Acme and Durham School Services. Next week, we plan to file petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize 3,500 school bus drivers, aides, attendants, monitors and mechanics at 30 yards across the country.

Studies show that millions more workers would belong to unions if they had the chance. We are working hard to pass the Employee Free Choice Act over Sen. McConnell’s objections. Workers need the chance to decide for themselves – without being spied on, threatened, interrogated or fired by their employers – whether to join a union.

The Employee Free Choice Act would give them that chance.

Enjoy your well-deserved holiday, brought to you by America’s labor unions.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on September 4, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

 

Philip Dine - Taking Back Labor Day

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

When I hear questions about whether labor’s no longer relevant and has become a dinosaur, I have to chuckle – and then try to disabuse people or organizations of such a notion.

Why would it be the case that at the very time corporate influence is becoming more centralized, more powerful and more distant, that employees can suddenly cope with all their work-related issues as individuals, with no need for representation or collective efforts? On the face of it, that makes no sense.

That’s the philosophical response. In practical terms, we now have the biggest gap between rich and poor, and the largest share of the Gross Domestic Product going to corporate profits and the smallest going to wages/ salaries that we’ve had in some 80 years. And we find the middle class under assault at the very time labor’s been in decline, just as the middle class has expanded during the periods of labor’s greatest strength. This is, of course, no coincidence.

So the question is not really whether labor’s relevant or important, but what it can do to strengthen itself so it can meet those challenges. That’s such a large issue it could be the topic of a book (come to think of it, it is) but here are a couple of thoughts.

Labor needs to improve its political strategy. Spending all its time, energy and resources providing logistical assistance to endorsed candidates allows it only to have access to friendly politicians so it can remind them to live up to their promises. Barack Obama is a terrific public leader, but he’s found enough other priorities – economic stimulus, auto bailout and healthcare reform – to have the Employee Free Choice Act land on the backburner. The labor movement needs to complement its campaign work with a strong effort to make its own issues and values part of the political discussion, something that voters hear and think about as they decide how to vote, so that labor’s agenda gets a post-election mandate of its own.
 
Related to that, labor needs to effectively communicate its message well beyond elections, and explain to people why it matters to their lives. That’s not a hard case to make (see the above about wages, middle class, and so on). People need to know that it’s harder to form a union in this country than in virtually any industrialized democracy in the world, why that’s so – and why it matters. Tell them that 16 workers are killed daily on the job every day, and that union workplaces are safer. Let them know that the deindustrialization of America is damaging to our economic and national security – and that it flows in part from the way trade agreements are written and enforced, or not enforced.
 
A big part of the reason EFCA is languishing is that labor has not done enough in this political or communications sense. As a result, labor’s left waiting for the Democrats in Washington to decide to push the legislation. Meanwhile, there’s no pressure from constituents, because the public has no idea why something called the Employee Free Choice Act is necessary. Because the broader context mentioned above has not been presented, most people are simply presented with dueling ads, pro-EFCA and anti-EFCA, that they’re expected to make sense of. That’s quite a task, and many simply decide that this is a case of labor seeking a quid pro quo for its campaign work.
 
If labor is to take advantage of the current political and economic opportunities, it needs to sharpen its strategies. If it does, not only will Labor Days in the future feature a reinvigorated labor movement, working and middle-class people in this country will benefit – and so will the economy as a whole.

About the Author: Philip Dine, a Washington-based journalist, is one of the few remaining labor reporters and his labor coverage has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His book,”State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence” (2008, foreword by Richard Gephardt) has been called “one of the best books in years on the labor movement” (AFL-CIO); “inspiring” (Sen. Edward Kennedy); “a great book” (Bill Clinton); and “a playbook for a comeback for organized labor” (Boston Globe).The book outlines why labor is as relevant as ever, and looks at how labor can revitalize itself so it can meet the daily challenges faced by working and middle-class Americans. Dine is an adjunct professor of labor relations at George Washington University, a periodic labor columnist for The Washington Times, and a frequent speaker on labor issues. He has appeared over the past year on CNN, Fox, CNBC, MSNBC, C-Span, XM Satellite Radio and National Public Radio, and has spoken at various union conferences, Harvard Business School, the AFL-CIO, National Labor Relations Board, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Labor College. Dine did graduate studies in industrial relations at MIT and spent two years researching labor unions and immigrant workers in France and Germany. His op-ed pieces have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Providence Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Newsday. For a decade he wrote the only weekly labor column at a metro newspaper (St. Louis Post-Dispatch). More information is available at http://www.philipdine.com and Dine can be reached at philipmdine@aol.com.

 

Obama's Not Alone: Inviting Cities to the Labor Day Barbecue

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

(Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

*****

We always knew it would take a fight to enact the kinds of sweeping reforms we need to fix the economy so that it really works for working Americans. The Employee Free Choice Act was never set to sail through Congress without opposition from the nation’s most anti-union employers. No one expects that it will be much easier to repair our broken immigration laws, overhaul flawed trade policy, improve retirement security or ensure that parents can finally afford time off work to welcome a newborn. But the sheer nastiness of the health care reform fight begs the question: if even modest reforms are this difficult for a popular Democratic President with large majorities in both chambers of Congress, how will we ever achieve the economic restructuring the nation needs?

One way to improve the odds that working people will have more to celebrate on Labor Days to come is to ensure that our cities get a special invitation to the national policy conversation. Picture it as a giant nationwide barbecue: gathered around the grill, cities can share local policy victories that have measurably improved the lives of their own residents – and can provide a successful model for other cities and for national action. Raising the profile of proven local policies may make the reforms proposed in Washington feel a lot less lonely.

San Francisco can share its own universal health care model, which currently provides 45,000 uninsured city residents with access to affordable primary and preventive care, prescriptions and lab tests through city clinics and participating private hospitals. The track record of Healthy San Francisco, as the program is known, should be informing the national health care debate to a far greater extent than it is.

While they’re talking health, the City by the Bay can also recount its experience guaranteeing everyone employed in the city the opportunity to earn paid sick days – a policy that is projected to reduce costs and improve public health and has not increased unemployment. Washington DC and Milwaukee have already passed weaker versions of this policy. Now New York City is looking to emulate San Francisco’s success. Examples like these can boost national legislation like the Healthy Families Act which would let working people nationwide stop having to make the untenable choice between their health and a needed paycheck.

Minneapolis could also pipe up. The City of Lakes insists that when they provide subsidies for economic development, companies that get public money need to create living wage jobs. The successful policy is a vivid example to cities across the country which regularly provide lucrative private tax breaks only to lure poverty-level jobs.

Then there’s New York, where grassroots organizations citywide have teamed up with the State Department of Labor to educate employees and employers about workplace laws and identify cases where employers are illegally cheating their workers out of pay. The program, known as New York Wage Watch has attracted national controversy because it enlists unions in the effort to detect illegal activity by employers. The debate provides a perfect opportunity to consider which poses a greater threat to the country: the pervasiveness of employers stealing employee wages or the potential for groups – which have no special power to look at a company’s books or confidential documents – to intrude on private business as they uncover illegal activity? Lawbreakers may be right to fear that this local education and monitoring effort could go national.

Finally, Los Angeles should join the party. Home to the nation’s busiest seaport, Los Angeles realized it would never significantly improve air quality as long as the dirty diesel trucks servicing the port were owned by overstretched independent operators without the resources to buy or maintain cleaner vehicles. The city took bold action to both clean up the trucks and transform the drivers from exploited independent contractors into employees with a chance of improving their own working conditions. Not surprisingly, national business interests don’t like the idea of port truckers unionizing. But other port cities are considering the policy, with the potential to improve the quality of both air and jobs.

Federal policy battles cannot be won in a vacuum. Cities and towns across the country demonstrate the success of policies that improve the lives of working people. This is one Labor Day barbecue we should all attend.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This blog was originally written for DMI Blog for Labor Day 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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