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Walmart patents technology to eavesdrop on workers

Monday, July 16th, 2018

Walmart has just patented surveillance technology which would allow it to eavesdrop on worker’s conversations and help monitor them to ensure they meet the company’s “performance metrics.”

The “Listening to the Frontend” system would collect audio data from the stores’ cashier areas, allowing it to pick up everything from beeps to conversations with customers to, potentially, conversations between workers.  It would then analyse the sounds to ensure the employee is working efficiently — and help Walmart achieve “cost savings” and “guest satisfaction.”

“We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers,” a Walmart spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, who first reported the story. “We don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”

It’s unclear when, or even if, Walmart will ever actually introduce this technology. But it is another example of how corporate giants are using technology in an attempt to track and control their workers — despite evidence showing that excess surveillance makes workers feel nervous and actually ends up slowing them down.

Amazon — whose profits topped $3 billion in 2017 — recently patented wristbandswhich can precisely track where its warehouse workers are, and point them in the right direction via vibration. In 2013, the Financial Times also documented how Amazon workers’ personal sat-navs set target times for them to shelve packages, and reports them to management if they’re behind schedule.

The surveillance isn’t just relegated to Amazon’s warehouses either. A 2015 New York Times story documented a similar Big Brother-esque atmosphere at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle. In a rare internal email, CEO Jeff Bezos pushed back on the article, saying it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

Uber’s instant rating system is similarly stressful on workers, punishing drivers who fall bellow a 4.6.

Unsurprisingly, being constantly tracked and asked to meet robot-like targets is having a devastating effect on workers. The British GMB trade union previously warned that the kinds of “regimes” Amazon employers worked under were causing them to have musculoskeletal problems as well as stress and anxiety.

“It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh,” Elly Baker, GMB’s lead officer for Amazon, said. “You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

Kavanaugh: Threat to Workers and to OSHA

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

While most of the discussion of President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court focuses on the possibility that he will be the deciding vote to repeal Rowe v. Wade or that the will bend over backwards to help Trump out of the Russia investigation, there is clear evidence that Kavanaugh is overly friendly to corporate America, and hostile to workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the environment.

In 2010 a killer whale dismembered and drowned a Sea World trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in front of hundreds of horrified men, women and children looking forward to a day of fun and frolic with sea animals. The whale that killed Brancheau had been implicated in three previous human deaths.

OSHA issued a $70,000 willful General Duty Clause Citation against Sea World and ordered the company to reduce the hazard by physically separating trainers from the whales. OSHA proved that Sea World and its employees knew from previous incidents and close calls that the all of its killer whales were dangerous, and that Tilikum, the whale that killed Brancheau, was particularly dangerous.  Experts also described a feasible means of protecting employees — actions that Sea World in fact implemented following Brancheau’s death.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld OSHA’s citation, and Sea World appealed to the Court of Appeals. The D.C. Circuit court decided 2-1 in favor of OSHA. The Court found that  “There was substantial record evidence that Sea World recognized its precautions were inadequate to prevent serious bodily harm or even death to its trainers and that the residual hazard was preventable,” and that there was substantial evidence that there were feasible means to protect employees without impacting the business. The majority opinion upholding OSHA’s action was written by Circuit Judge Judith Rogers. Also supporting OSHA was Chief Judge Merrick Garland.

The lone dissenter, opposing OSHA’s citation, was Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

According to former OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, “In his dissent in the Sea World decision, Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.”

Judge Kavanaugh made the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows Sea World trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.  He clearly has little regard for workers who face deadly hazards at the workplace.  —  David Michaels

Garland, as you may remember was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, infamously refused to consider Obama’s nomination, allowing Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Court. And the lead attorney representing Sea World was Eugene Scalia, son of deceased Justice Antonin Scalia.

Are Whale Shows A Sport Like Football?

Kavanaugh calls OSHA’s action “arbitrary and capricious” because regulating the safety of killer whale shows is allegedly no different than regulating the safety of tackling in football, or speeding in sports car racing, or punching in boxing — things in which OSHA has never involved itself.  And just as you’d have no football if you didn’t have tackling, or no sports car racing if you didn’t have speeding, there would allegedly be no Sea World if there was no close human contact with killer whales.

One problem with this argument, as Rogers points out, is that no one — except Kavanaugh — claims that whale shows are a sport where you are there to see who “wins.”

Or, to put it more bluntly, people go to boxing matches to watch people punch each other, and go to football games to watch one team physically stop the other from scoring. But tourists — including small children — go to Sea World to watch attractive trainers lovingly interact with adorable sea creatures. Killer whale shows are not supposed to be modern gladiatorial contests where the audience looks forward to seeing whether the trainers will successfully keep their limbs attached or finish the show bleeding and dead at the bottom of a pool.

Not even Sea World made the football/car racing/boxing analogy, Rogers and Garland point out. By making that argument, Kavanaugh is just makin’ stuff up — adding his own opinions on matters that weren’t even part of the case.

Second, as the majority opinion points out, “physical contact between players is ‘intrinsic’ to professional football in a way that it is not to a killer whale show.” Spectators can take pleasure from a whale jumping out of the water and doing back flips even without close personal contact with a human trainer.

In fact, the show went on even after the OSHA citation. Following Brancheau’s death, Sea World implemented many of the controls that OSHA recommended in its General Duty Clause citation — and still managed to attract customers to the park — and even to the killer whale shows — without the close personal contact.

Hostility Toward OSHA

Kavanaugh’s dissent drips with hostility toward OSHA and a basic misunderstanding of the act and the principles — and law — behind it. Comparing killer whale shows to football, boxing, car racing, as well  as other “extremely dangerous” sports such as “Ice hockey. Downhill skiing. Air shows. The circus. Horse racing. Tiger taming. Standing in the batter’s box against a 95 mile per hour fastball….” etc., etc., Kavanaugh objects to OSHA’s “paternalistic” intervention because “the participants in those activities want to take part.”

And then goes on to state (cue the heroic music)

To be fearless, courageous, tough – to perform a sport or activity at the highest levels of human capacity, even in the face of known physical risk – is among the greatest forms of personal achievement for many who take part in these activities. American spectators enjoy watching these amazing feats of competition and daring, and they pay a lot to do so.

He then asks:

When should we as a society paternalistically decide that the participants in these sports and entertainment activities must be protected from themselves – that the risk of significant physical injury is simply too great even for eager and willing participants? And most importantly for this case, who decides that the risk to participants is too high?

Not “the bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Labor,” according to Kavanaugh.

Happily, Garland and Rogers were more knowledgeable about the Occupational Safety and Heath Act than Kavanaugh. They point out that the OSHAct puts the duty on the employer to create a safe workplace, not on the employees to choose whether or not they want to risk death — especially when the employer can make the workplace safer.

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.  Back then employers who maimed or killed workers often escaped legal responsibility by arguing that the employee had “assumed” the risk when he or she took the job and the employer therefore had no responsibility to make the job safer.  Maybe the worker even liked doing dangerous work.  Employers also escaped responsibility by showing that the worker was somehow negligent. (Interestingly, Sea World originally blamed Brancheau for her own death because she hadn’t tied her hair back.)

Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed.

Rogers and Garland were forced to remind Kavanaugh that the employer’s duty under the OSHAct isn’t reduced by “such common law doctrines as assumption of risk, contributory negligence, or comparative negligence.”

Workers Comp laws, originally passed in the early 20th century, were supposed to be no-fault. It didn’t matter who was at fault, if the worker was hurt, the worker got compensated.  And the OSHAct, passed in 1970, further states clearly and unequivocally that the employer is responsible for ensuring that the workplace is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees,” and sets up a mechanism to enforce the law and penalize employers who violated it.  Even if the macho employee wants to defy death, the law states that the workers may not work at heights without fall protection or go down into deep trenches without shoring. And it’s the employer’s job to make sure that employees are not endangered.

Did Brancheau enjoy her job? Undoubtedly.

Did she “willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job?”  Unlikely. And legally irrelevant.

Did she deserve a safe workplace? Absolutely.

Nothing New Under the Sun?

Kavanaugh also objected to OSHA’s citation because the agency allegedly “departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new regulatory arena.”

Well, first, Congress put the General Duty Clause into the OSHAct to address “unique” recognized hazards for which there is no OSHA standard.

Second, objecting to OSHA “storming into a new arena” brings back memories of the arguments used by previous OSHA heads, politicians and the health care industry when unions petitioned the agency in the late 1980’s for a bloodborne pathogens standard to prevent HIV infection and over 300 health care worker deaths a year from hepatitis B. At that time, infectious diseases were “a new regulatory arena.” Thankfully, Judge (or Justice) Kavanaugh wasn’t around then to rule on that standard. Thousands of health care workers owe their lives to OSHA’s move into the “new regulatory arena” of infectious diseases.

Bad for the Environment

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail reminds us that Kavanaugh is not only anti-worker (and anti-OSHA), but also anti-environment (and anti-EPA). In 2011, Kavanaugh was the lone dissenter in a case where Arch Coal had challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to cancel a mountain-top removal permit that had been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 2,300-acre Spruce operation that would have buried more than seven miles of streams.  “The EPA cited the growing scientific evidence that mountaintop removal mining significantly damages water quality downstream and noted an independent engineering study that found Arch Coal could have greatly reduced the Spruce Mine’s impact.”

Kavanaugh’s argument is that EPA didn’t do a proper cost benefit analysis. Suddenly becoming a champion of working people and unions (at least when it benefits the company), Kavanaugh argued that EPA had failed to factor in the costs of  putting more than 300 United Mine Workers union members out of work.  Once again, Kavanaugh was making stuff up (legally). Arch Coal hadn’t even made that argument.

Kavanaugh also criticized the agency’s examination of potential damage to aquatic life as an “utterly one-sided analysis.” Perhaps the fish had also “accepted the risk” of living in streams near coal deposits.

One of the judges in the majority was an Ronald Reagan pick, and the other was appointed by President Obama.

Conclusion

Kavanaugh stated at last night’s press conference that one of his legal principles is that “A judge must interpret statutes as written.”  He might have added that to interpret the law as written, one must first read and understand the law.

He also warmly told the world that his mother was a prosecutor whose trademark line was: “‘Use your common sense. ‘What rings true? What rings false?’ That’s good advice for a juror and for a son. ”

Indeed it is. And maybe he could explain to the parents and husband of Dawn Brancheau why it rings false to him that the company responsible for their daughter’s safety should be held responsible for her death —  and held to the same standard as every other employer in the country.

Until he does that, he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court.

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Serena Williams’ French Open ordeal proves maternity rights in pro sports have a long way to go

Friday, July 6th, 2018

Last month, Serena Williams — the greatest athlete of our time (don’t @ me, it’s true) — played in her first major tournament since giving birth to her daughter. But, as excited as fans and media touts were to have her back competing, most were outraged when they discovered that she would have to enter the French Open unseeded, as her protected No. 1 ranking from the Women’s Tennis Association did not apply to the tournament’s seeding.

Ivanka Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying that Williams was being “penalized professionally for having a child,” and calling on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to change the rule “immediately.” USA Today said that Williams was being “punished” for having a baby.

The outrage cycle was effective. Wimbledon seeded Williams No. 25 for the Championships — not high enough for the liking of many, but far better than nothing — and the U.S. Open announced that it would change its seeding protocol to account for pregnancies. Behold, the power of Serena! Mission accomplished, right?

Well, not so fast. Because when it comes to maternity rights for professional female athletes, seeding for top players isn’t even in the top half of the list of their biggest concerns. And the outsized focus on Williams’ seeding folderol could end up distracting attention from the biggest problems that pregnant athletes face — both during their pregnancies and in their comebacks — such as insurance, protected contracts, and child care.

If those sound like the kinds of basic things that should have already been taken care of long ago, well then, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, the ideal is far from the reality.

Women who compete in sports can’t simply continue to work right up until the moment they’re ready to pop like their desk-bound counterparts, so it’s not unusual for them to take a year — or more — out of competition and training. And in many cases, these pro athletes have little-to-no guaranteed income during that time.

In team sports, such as basketball, they’re sometimes eligible to earn 50 percent of their contract when they’re off for maternity leave. But even that isn’t a given. For WNBA players, it is only applicable if they’re currently under a contract; players who are free agents or on expiring contracts when they get pregnant are in a much more precarious position. And while women’s soccer players on the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) are eligible for maternity leave, rank-and-file players in the National Women’s Soccer League, who already earn much less money than their national team counterparts, don’t have any such maternity protections.

But the situation is even worse in individual sports, where the fulfillment of sponsor contracts hinge upon results — or at least appearances — in tournaments, and where if you’re not competing, you’re obviously not getting any prize money.

There was, however, a recent breakthrough for athletes seeking a solution to this problem — though it didn’t come from Serena. Just last week, Stacey Lewis, a two-time major champion on the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association Tour (LPGA), made a landmark announcement: One of her main sponsors, KPMG, is going to pay Lewis the full value of her contract while she is off of the LPGA Tour on maternity leave. Believe it or not, this is the first time this has happened in LPGA Tour history.

“I think a lot of people were shocked to learn that that had never happened before,” Lewis told CNN. “Players that were, that are moms and have kids, they thought it was the greatest thing ever, just because they had been in my position before and they know what that feels like. They just thought it was — I mean, they thought it was unbelievable.”

Getting pregnancy leave written into contracts in both team and individual sports would be a huge boost for pregnant athletes, as would arranging insurance options that would be affordable and effective even if a player found out they were pregnant during, say, free agency. But these mothers also need support when they return to pro competition as well. Babies don’t just watch themselves, you know.

The NWSL currently provides no child care assistance for its players, and neither does the WNBA. (Many individual teams have very family-friendly atmospheres, but that is not the same as actually assisting with child care.) And, in the WTA, former WTA No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, was shocked when she returned from pregnancy last year to find out that the women’s tennis tour offered far less child care than the men’s tour, because historically men have traveled with families, while women have not.

“I have been already talking about this point (of needing daycare services at tournaments) to some of the people in WTA,” Azarenka told reporters. “From my own power, I’ll do anything to make that happen, because I think it’s really important. The guys [playing the ATP Tour] do have that luxury of having the nurseries and stuff at every event and I think it’s time for women to have the same benefit. Because I think for women it’s much more important and harder.”

This year, Azarenka, who is a member of the WTA Player’s Council, said she understood why people were upset with the fact that Williams wasn’t seeded upon her return to professional tennis. However, she pointed out that she and Williams are the exception, not the rule, both when it comes to talent and financial means. They have earned enough in their careers to afford all the child care they need; and have had enough success to earn enough wild cards to get into any tournament they want as they get their body and game back into form.

On that note, in addition to getting more day care services at tournaments, Azarenka wants to work on extending the amount of time that players returning from pregnancy can use their protected ranking (so that they don’t have to rush back to competition), and she would like to see the protected ranking used at more tournaments than a typical injury layoff permits.

“My focus right now is to protect women who want to start a family,” Azarenka said, “because it’s still unusual for women to have a family during their career, especially in tennis.”

In general, maternity policies for pro athletes need to focus on providing care for the parent and child during pregnancy, and providing support and time for the parent during their comeback. This doesn’t mean coddling these athletes — or handing them a competitive advantage. Indeed, the athletes should still have to do the necessary work to get into the physical condition to justify their spot on the roster, earn their place back in the starting lineup, or, as it may be, qualify for a seed in a major tournament.

It’s definitely good that a larger discussion of fair policy governing the seeding for players coming back from maternity leave, has come out of Williams’ experience on the professional tour. But it’s crucial that the conversation doesn’t end there. The correct policies and resources need to be articulated and made available in order to keep pregnancy and child care from being a impenetrable barrier for pro athletes, especially those who aren’t household names.

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

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Grand Theft Paycheck: How Big Corporations Shortchange Their Workers

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

A new report, Grand Theft Paycheck: The Large Corporations Shortchanging Their Workers’ Wages, reveals that large corporations have paid out billions to resolve wage theft lawsuits brought by workers. The lawsuits show that corporations frequently force employees to work off the clock, cheat them out of legally required overtime pay and use other methods to steal wages from workers.

“Our findings make it clear that wage theft goes far beyond sweatshops, fast-food outlets and retailers. It is built into the business model of a substantial portion of Corporate America,” said Philip Mattera, the lead author of the report and director of research for Good Jobs First, which produced the report in conjunction with the Jobs With Justice Education Fund.

Here are nine things you need to know from the Grand Theft Paycheck report:

1. The top dozen companies from the report, in terms of wage theft settlement payouts, are Walmart, FedEx, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase & Co., State Farm Insurance, AT&T, United Parcel Service, ABM Industries, Tenet Healthcare, Zurich Insurance Group and Allstate. With the exception of Tenet Healthcare, each of these companies had profits in 2017 of $3 billion or more.

2. More than 450 big companies have paid out $1 million or more in wage theft settlements.

3. Since 2000, there have been more than 1,200 successful collective actions that have been resolved for a total in penalties of more than $8.8 billion.

4. Only eight states enforced wage theft penalties and provided data for the report. Those eight states combined with the federal totals bring the number of cases to 4,220 and the cumulative penalties reaching $9.2 billion. This includes no data from the remaining states.

5. Fortune 500 and Fortune Global 500 companies account for the bulk of the penalties, with 2,167 cases and $6.8 billion in penalties.

6. Seven individual settlements exceeded $100 million. The worst case was a $640 million omnibus settlement with Walmart, covering more than 60 different initial lawsuits.

7. The retail industry is the most frequent violator, followed by financial services, freight and logistics, business services, insurance, miscellaneous services, health care services, restaurants and food service, information technology, and food and beverage products.

8. The most penalized industries tend to be those that employ a large percentage of women, African American and Latino workers.

9. These numbers only include penalties that have been publicly disclosed. More than 125 confidential cases were found involving nearly 90 large companies, including AT&T, Home Depot, Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast, Lowe’s and Best Buy.

Read the full report.

Boeing Workers in S.C. Have Finally Unionized. But Trump’s Labor Board Could Kibosh It.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

On May 31, technicians at the Boeing factory in North Charleston, South Carolina voted to unionize and join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. However, Boeing has appealed the vote and Donald Trump’s GOP-controlled National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could reverse the decision by ruling that workers had no right to hold the election to begin with.

Boeing built a Dreamliner factory in South Carolina in 2009, after its Washington workers went on strike four times in a roughly 22-year period at its previous Washington location. South Carolina is a “right to work” state with a small number of unionized workers. The NLRB filed a lawsuit against Boeing after the company moved, claiming that the relocation constituted union busting, targeting the machinists’ union in Washington. In 2011, the NLRB dropped the case at the request of the union, after Boeing agreed to raise wages and expand its production back in Washington.

The May 31 labor victory follows two prior attempts to form a union. In 2015, the machinists withdrew a request for a union vote, claiming that a fair election couldn’t be held due to “an atmosphere of threats, harassment and unprecedented political interference.” Last year, the union suffered a huge defeat after employees voted 2,097-731 against joining the union.

This time, the union voted within a smaller bargaining unit, often referred to as a “micro unit,” and secured a 104-65 win on May 31. However, this win could be in jeopardy as Boeing has appealed the vote, arguing that the micro-unit election violates federal labor law. That challenge will be heard by the NLRB, which Trump has filled with pro-management forces since taking office, tipping the agency back to a 3-2 Republican majority.

There is reason to be concerned that the NLRB will side against workers. In 2017, Trump’s NLRB reversed an Obama-era ruling that made it easier for smaller bargaining units to organize for unionization, the very strategy that Boeing workers used to secure their recent victory.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, workers can petition the NLRB to hold a union election, while the board gets to rule on what constitutes an appropriate bargaining unit. In the 2011 Specialty Healthcare case, the NLRB determined that employers can’t petition to add more workers to a bargaining unit unless the added employees share an “overwhelming community of interest” with the workers already in the unit. The ruling, which made it more difficult for employers to thwart union efforts, was predictably opposed by business groups and large companies. “This makes it almost inevitable that any union target will eventually be organized,” lamented David French, the vice president of the National Retail Federation, in 2016.

In December 2017, Trump’s NLRB reversed the decision when ruling that a group of 100 welders at an Oregon company can’t legally organize without the participation of the other employees. “[Corporations] simply want to make it easier for employers to defeat an organizing campaign, by manipulating who is in a bargaining unit,” wrote the Economic Policy Institute’s Associate labor counsel Marni von Wilpert at the time. “By overturning this rule, the Trump administration has once again shown that it wants to make it harder for workers to organize and join unions.”

This May, an NLRB regional director in Seattle ruled that the welders can establish a union after all, despite the Specialty Healthcarereversal.

Despite the fact that the NLRB denied Boeing’s request for the election to be paused shortly before the vote, there is concern that the agency will side with the employer in response to the May 31 union vote. In addition to the board’s pro-management bent, there’s a looming conflict-of-interest worry. Although he’s been cleared to rule on the case by an NLRB ethics official, board member William Emanuel’s former law firm represented Boeing on a number of occasions.

Emanuel’s potential conflicts of interest were a major component of his confirmation hearing, and this February the NLRB voted to undo the reversal of an Obama-era ruling on joint employers, after it was revealed that Emanuel’s former law firm represented one of the parties involved. In a report on the matter, Inspector General David Berry wrote that “Member Emanuel’s participation … calls into question the validity of that decision and the confidence that the Board is performing its statutory duties.”

South Carolina’s Boeing plant was one of the first companies Trump visited after becoming president. “We’re here to day to celebrate American engineering and American manufacturing,” Trump said at the event. “We’re also here today to celebrate jobs. Jobs!” Five months later the factory announced a round of layoffs.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria
This article was originally published at In These Times on June 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Check out how unions make California's economy more equal

Monday, June 11th, 2018

As the Supreme Court gets ready to deal a major blow to public sector unions, here’s a reminder of how much unions do to increase equality in this country. A University of California-Berkeley Labor Center report on the effects of unions in California shows how unions help close racial and gender gaps in wages and more:

  • Union coverage increases wages by 26 percent for women, compared to 15 percent for men.
  • Black and Latino/a workers see a bigger increase in their average wages from union coverage
  • (19 percent for Black workers and 40 percent for Latino/a workers) compared to White workers (9 percent).
  • Immigrant workers also see slightly larger wage gains from union coverage (19 percent) compared to U.S.-born workers (18 percent).

Effects are similar for having employer-sponsored health coverage and retirement plans—unions make it more likely workers will have these benefits, and they make the economy a little more equal. And if more workers were in unions, that could make the economy a lot more equal.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 9, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

For Big Corporations Like Walmart, Wage Theft Penalties Are Just the Price of Doing Business

Friday, June 8th, 2018

A scathing new report finds that hundreds of major corporations in the United States are repeat wage-theft offenders—committing the violations and then paying the subsequent fines as part of the cost of doing business. Jointly published on June 5 by Good Jobs First and Jobs with Justice Education Fund, the report finds that, since 2000, 450 firms have each paid at least $1 million each in settlements or judgments related to wage theft. And 600 companies paid a penalty in multiple cases of wage theft, indicating that punitive measures are not deterring these companies’ violations. In some cases, the number of settlements and fines was stunning, with Hertz seeing 167 cases since 2000 and Walmart seeing 98 cases and shelling out $1.4 billion.

The report is authored by Philip Mattera and includes a chapter on policy recommendations, written by Adam Shah. Through a compilation of available lawsuits, ranging from January 2000 to the present, Mattera finds 4,220 cases filed against large companies where employers were penalized for wage theft to the tune of $9.2 billion total.

Mattera tells In These Times he was shocked by the number of large companies that were involved in wage theft. “I had thought that wage theft would turn out to be mainly an issue for a limited number of large corporations,” he said. “The fact that it is so pervasive in big business highlights the power imbalance between capital and labor.”

Wage theft is a practice in which companies withhold their employees’ overtime pay, force off-the-clock work, violate minimum wage laws or steal tips. Victims of wage theft range from low-wage workers like cashiers, cooks and security guards to higher-paid positions such as nurses, pharmaceutical sales reps and financial advisors. In the 10 most populous states in the country, 2.4 million workers lose $8 billion annually (an average of $3,300 per year for year-round workers) to minimum wage violations, according to a 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). In 2015 and 2016, a total of $2 billion in stolen wages were recovered for workers by the U.S. Department of Labor, that EPI study found.

The biggest players in wage theft are Fortune 500 companies, like Walmart, FedEx and AT&T, according to the Mattera and Shah report. Five of the top dozen companies heavily penalized were banks and insurance firms, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan and State Farm Insurance. Mega-corporations account for half of the total cases.

Other top industries where wage theft is ubiquitous are within the business services, insurance and healthcare services—industries that are employed by a predominantly woman workforce. Wage theft also disproportionately affects Black and Latino workers who make up a greater percentage of the workforce within the top ten industries that the report finds are heavily penalized.

The fast food industry should be on the top violators list, according to the Mattera and Shah report. However, high-profile companies like McDonalds run on a franchise model, exempting the corporations from signing checks, which allows them to more easily get away with illegal labor practices, like wage theft. In fact, Shah notes in the report that nine out of ten people working in fast food have experienced wage theft.

The report is a compilation of the cases in which companies were taken to court to be penalized—where records were made public. Most of the cases hail from California, which is attributable to the state’s relatively strong labor code that gives working people greater access to the courts. In most states, wage theft cases proceed through private arbitration, a process usually controlled by the employer that is often lengthy, expensive and time-consuming, which many wage theft victims simply don’t have the means to pursue, according to Shah’s policy analysis of the report. Due to the fact that the data from private litigation practices are not made public, the results of the report are minimized, cementing the fact that the American workplace is even more rife with wage theft than the report illuminates.

Fighting wage theft just became even more difficult thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling, Epic Systems v. Lewis, that allows corporations to force employees to sign away their rights to engage in collective action. Shah argues in the report that other states should follow California in implementing anti-wage theft laws to combat the austerity of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Another strategy to combat wage theft is for workers to unionize. Mattera tells In These Times that only a few of the wage theft cases found involved unionized workplaces, emphasizing that “the presence of unions seems to keep labor standards abuses in check.”

“Working people who are victims of wage theft must alert government agencies to the theft, but they must also realize that government is never permanently on their side,” Shah tells In These Times. “The best way to ensure justice in the workplace is to organize and assert their own power.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sasha Kramer has a degree in environmental studies and has been published by Oakland Institute. She is a winter 2018 In These Times editorial intern.

Teamsters are preparing for what could be the nation’s largest strike in decades

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

The Teamsters union represents the 280,000 UPS employees who voted overwhelmingly in favor of going on strike if a deal is not reached before the current labor contract expires on August 1. More than 90 percent voted for a strike.

Issuing a strike authorization vote does not necessarily mean UPS workers will order a work stoppage, but it does give the union leverage over management to win their negotiations.

Since UPS began offering regular Saturday delivery service just a year ago, labor demands have increased. While the company hasn’t announced plans for Sunday service, the union claims UPS has made several proposals to expand weekend deliveries.

Both sides have reached tentative agreements on non-economic related issues and have only begun discussions on healthcare and raises. According to CNN, one proposal from the company promote part-time workers to full-time, while keeping their wages at $15 an hour. Full-time drivers currently earn more than double what part-time employees earn at $36 an hour, or roughly $75,000 a year. The union is divided on the proposal.

The shipments UPS transports comprise an estimated 6 percent of the United States GDP. A labor strike among the company’s workers would have a sizable effect on the economy and would be the largest U.S. labor strike in decades. Three bargaining sessions ago in 1997, UPS workers went on strike for 16 days, and there were 180,000 Teamsters at UPS at that time. There hasn’t been a bigger strike since.

The possibility of one of the largest labor strikes in recent decades comes just weeks after thousands teachers across the country went on strike to demand better wages and healthcare. In almost all the cases, the teachers won their demands from GOP-controlled state governments.

This article has been updated to correct an error that incorrectly described the UPS wage proposal “a two-tier wage system that would allow part-time workers currently making $15 an hour to be paid the same wage as a full-time employee.” The company is proposing part-time workers be promoted to full-time while maintaining their part-time wage.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant on the NPR Business Desk. She has also worked for NPR member stations WFSU in Tallahassee and WLRN in Miami.

Rank-and-File Union Members Are Leading Another Massive Strike. This Time It’s AT&T Workers.

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Thousands of AT&T employees across the Midwest are entering the sixth day of a rare, rank-and-file-led work stoppage over alleged unfair labor practices. The union representing them, Communications Workers of America (CWA) District 4, has been in contract negotiations with AT&T since March. While members voted overwhelmingly in April to authorize a strike if necessary, the decision to walk off the job last week was not coordinated by union leadership or subject to an official vote.

Instead, the union says that the action was a spontaneous one resulting from widespread anger at the company. In recent weeks, the union alleges that AT&T has tried to bypass its elected bargaining team by e-mailing thousands of workers directly. A May 22 e-mail outlined what the company termed a “final offer” and encouraged employees “to urge CWA leadership to provide you with an opportunity to vote for it.”

CWA filed unfair labor practice charges against AT&T, alleging that this message constitutes bad-faith bargaining and “direct dealing” that violates the company’s duty to negotiate with the union as workers’ sole collective bargaining representative. The charges are still pending.

But in the meantime, the company sent three more e-mails, and workers’ frustration reached a boiling point, according to the union. Resentment had already been bubbling up over the AT&T’s decision to conduct more than 1,000 layoffs soon after receiving a windfall from the passage of federal tax reform. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was a prominent backer of the tax law, which he said would allow the company to create 7,000 jobs.

Not only were the e-mails from the company “disrespectful,” says Beth Dubree, secretary treasurer of CWA Local 4900 in Indiana, they “didn’t even really discuss job security.” Throughout last week, she says, “Our members kept calling, wanting to know why the company was doing this.”

Work stoppages that protest illegal behavior by employers are generally considered protected activity under federal labor law, and so-called unfair labor practice strikes are often an important component of union strategy. But spontaneous, rank-and-file-led walkouts that cross state and occupational lines are almost unheard of in recent years. CWA District 4 represents some 9,500 AT&T technicians, call center representatives and other personnel across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Thousands of workers in every state eventually took part, but the walkout started in Indiana.

In These Times spoke to several local elected officials and members about how the strike picked up momentum.

Early Thursday morning, one group of technicians in Local 4900 “decided that they had had enough” and walked off the job before their 7:00 a.m. shift, according to Dubree. Thanks to a group text chat, “the entire local knew about it by 7:30,” she says. Most workers’ shifts started at 8:00 a.m., and by that time, “no one went to work.”

“It was amazing how fast it spread,” says Dubree. “There wasn’t even a hesitation.”

Word traveled quickly to other states with the aid of a closed Facebook group to coordinate mobilization across the district. Jim Simons, executive vice president of Michigan’s CWA Local 4009 and a 28-year AT&T employee, said that he began receiving calls with news of the Indiana walkout at 8:00 a.m. “The next thing I know, all of Ohio is out,” he says. “At 1:00 p.m., I got the call that two of my garages had walked out.” Soon after, most of the local’s more than 800 members joined in.

Simons says that workers in his local were already livid about layoffs and outsourcing. AT&T was among the companies praised by President Trump for giving out $1,000 dollar bonuses to employees after the passage of tax reform. But according to CWA, the company also laid off more than 1,500 employees in December. “When you do the math, those bonuses were paid for by the layoffs,” says Simons. Some workers in his local donated their bonuses to members who lost their jobs.

AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the walkout, but the company has released a statement that reads, “We’re offering a generous package including annual wage increases, continuation of job security provisions that are virtually unheard of in the U.S., and comprehensive health care and retirement benefits. In addition, the offer includes a commitment to hire 1,000 people in the region. All employees covered by the offer would be better off.”

But in April, CWA released a report charging that in the past seven years, AT&T has laid off more than 16,000 call center workers nationwide, shipping jobs to lower-paying call centers overseas. Last year, AT&T and other big companies boasted that tax reform would allow them to create more jobs in the United States, and CWA is among several unions now pushing the companies in bargaining to reveal whether they plan to follow through. In its fourth-quarter 2017 financials, AT&T said that tax reform helped boost the quarter’s net income to $19 billion, compared to $2.4 billion in the same period a year before.

Anger over the tax cuts was front and center at a demonstration in Chicago this spring, where thousands of members gathered at AT&T headquarters to rally for a contract. During the rally, someone in the building put a sign in the window that read, “No one cares,” according to Simons. “You put all that together, and people were ready” to strike, he says.

As of Tuesday, most members in Wisconsin and Illinois have returned to work, but thousands in Michigan, Ohio and all of Indiana remain on strike, according to the union.

Tim Strong, president of CWA Local 4900 and a member of the District 4 bargaining team, also credits the wave of teacher strikes this year in inspiring members to walk out. Bargaining with AT&T is continuing this week over key issues including job security, use of contractors and healthcare costs, he says.

In the meantime, members have pulled off the longest work stoppage their union has seen since 1989. “I think it’s a reflection of the movement in this country—that you saw teachers who in many cases don’t even have collective bargaining rights going on strike,” says Strong. “And now 9,000 members decided to take this leap of faith and fight.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago ReaderThe Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

Former Houston Texans cheerleaders sue team over low pay and harassment

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Five former Houston Texans cheerleaders are suing the NFL team, claiming they weren’t paid for many hours of work and were subjected to intimidation and harassment on the job.

“We were harassed, bullied, and body shamed for $7.25 an hour,” former cheerleader Ainsley Parish said at a press conference Friday.

The women, who are represented by prominent women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, accuse the team of failing to pay its cheerleaders minimum wage and overtime, as well as failing to provide a safe working environment.

“I was attacked by a fan at a game leaving abrasions on my shoulder. My attacker was not approached, nor was he removed from the game,” former cheerleader Hannah Turnbow said during the press conference. “I was told to just suck it up.”

The five women aren’t alone; just last month, three other former Houston Texans cheerleaders sued the team and its cheerleading supervisor for failing to adequately compensate the women for hours worked, and accused the supervisor of body-shaming and failing to protect the cheerleaders from physical harm.

The suit alleges that the cheerleader director, Altovise Gary, told one cheerleader that she had a “jelly belly,” and criticized another cheerleader’s hairstyle, threatening to “find another Latina girl to replace her.”

In a statement, the team said it is “proud of the cheerleader program” and “will continue to make adjustments as needed to make the program enjoyable for everyone.”

The legal actions against the Texans are the latest in a growing body of reports and lawsuits detailing the exploitation of cheerleaders across the NFL.

Last month, the New York Times reported on disturbing allegations from former cheerleaders for Washington, D.C.’s NFL team, who claim they were forced to pose topless during a trip to Costa Rica in 2013 while male sponsors and suiteholders watched. Some of the women were then told they had to escort the men to a club later that night.

A former New Orleans Saints cheerleader filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission earlier this year, claiming she was fired for posting a photo of herself in a bathing suit on her private Instagram account and for attending a party where Saints players may have also been present. Saints cheerleaders are instructed to avoid players in any setting, even on social media, and as ThinkProgress’ Lindsay Gibbs wrote, the onus is fully on the cheerleaders to comply.

In recent years, cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and New York Jets have all filed lawsuits just to be paid the minimum wage for their work.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kiley Kroh is a senior editor at ThinkProgress.

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