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What Is the Federal Reserve Doing?

Friday, June 26th, 2015

William Spriggs

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its numbers for inflation and for real wage movements. The numbers reflected the weak numbers of the first quarter for economic growth: Zero inflation and zero real wage growth in the past three months. The economy is showing signs that it is fragile. It can be spoofed by international developments that raise the value of the dollar and slow U.S. export growth, or by bad weather—events, the Federal Reserve cannot control or easily predict.

So what is the Federal Reserve doing? At its June Open Market Committee Meeting, where Federal Reserve policy is set, the Fed stayed put on interest rates.  Yet, it gave indications that it was considering giving in to the stampede for the Fed to act sometime this year to raise interest rates in a deliberate move to slow the economy. A policy to slow the economy is based on beliefs, not on the hard data before us on wages or inflation. This is regrettable.

The deeper reality is that the Fed took unprecedented moves to build up huge reserves of U.S. Treasuries. What is really going on is more that the speculators on Wall Street are nervous. They are afraid that somehow, from some unknown source, inflationary pressures will rapidly appear and the Fed will quickly unwind its position with, for some of them, disastrous consequences on bets they have placed on bond prices. They would prefer the certainty of having the Fed start to unwind its position now, slowly divesting itself of its bond reserves and easing the economy to higher interest rates. This has nothing to do with the economy, and everything to do with Wall Street speculation. Unfortunately, the press plays sycophant to these speculators, who are constantly quoted as giving “economic” advice when they state with certainty the need for the Fed to raise interest rates.

Sources of global instability abound. The discussions over the Greek debt, the Eurozone bankers and the International Monetary Fund are far from a workable solution. In the meantime, the Swiss Franc is rising uncontrollably in response to that uncertainty. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the ongoing conflict with ISL make the Mideast equally unpredictable. And, if snows were the issue in the first quarter, the California drought, the Texas floods and Midwest tornadoes so far this quarter should not make anyone confident that the current hurricane season is going to be a sleeper. Further incidents in Charleston and now Charlotte with violent attacks on African American churches and the constant stream of discontent with the ongoing and unresolved issue of police misconduct make the domestic situation equally volatile.  With so many uncontrollable and unpredictable risk factors that could slow the economy, the fears of Wall Street speculators should and must take a back seat.

These risks are not all unrelated. A more robust U.S. economy will help the world economy and help reduce some risks associated with weak economic performance; especially in the Eurozone. And a more robust U.S. economy will hopefully speed job growth to reduce the economic tensions that overlay the raw social tensions domestically.

The Fed must expand its view of measures of full-employment. The Wall Street gamblers base their assumptions on full employment from a time gone by. For instance, economists today still persist in viewing the high African American unemployment rate as a “structural” issue, since African American workers are assumed to be so low-skilled they cannot find jobs in a modern economy. So, they ignore the warning signs that job growth is frail when the African American unemployment stalls, as it has, at around 10%.

In May, the unemployment rate for adult African American workers (those older than 25) with associate degrees was 5.6%, which was higher or about the same as the unemployment rate for white, Asian and Hispanic high school graduates. Those numbers are inconsistent with full employment. They indicate a market where employers are very free to pick and choose which workers they want. A faster growing economy will force employers to be less choosy.

The slow economy cascaded higher educated workers down into jobs that require less education. If the economy does not speed up, that misallocation of productive capacity could become permanent, as employers may continue to seek only college graduates to serve coffee. This costs us in loss productivity growth.  It is another sign of a labor market that is not at full employment.

Locking in high African American unemployment and college degree requirements for entry-level jobs is not in the economy’s interest. And covering Wall Street bets isn’t either.

This blog was originally posted on AFL-CIO blog on June 26, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is William E. Spriggs. William E. Spriggs is the Chief Economist for AFL-CIO. His is also a Professor at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.

The Right To Birth Control Just Won Its Most Significant Victory To Date In A Post-Hobby Lobby Case

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Ian Millhiser Judge Jerry Smith is a deeply conservative judge. He once voted to allow a man to be executed despite the fact that the man’s lawyer slept through much of his trial. He’s a reliable vote against abortion rights. And he once described feminists as a “gaggle of outcasts, misfits and rejects.”

So when Judge Smith writes an opinion protecting women’s access to birth control, even when their employer objects to contraception on religious grounds, that’s a very big deal.

East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell is a consolidated batch of cases, handed down on Monday, involving religious employers who object to some or all forms of birth control. These employers are entitled to an accommodation exempting them from federal rules requiring them to offer birth control coverage to their employees. Most of them may invoke this accommodation simply by filling out a form or otherwise informing the federal government of their objection and naming the company that administers their employer health plan. At this point, the government works separately with that company to ensure that the religious employer’s workers receive contraception coverage through a separate health plan.

Several lawsuits are working their way through the federal courts which raise the same legal argument at issue here. In essence, the employers claim that filling out the form that exempts them from having to provide birth control makes them complicit in their employee’s eventual decision to use contraception, and so the government cannot require them to fill out this form. So far, every single federal appeals court to consider this question has sided with the Obama administration and against religious employers who object to this accommodation.

Few judges on any court, however, are as conservative as Judge Jerry Smith, a Reagan appointee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit whose law clerks frequently go on to clerk for the most conservative members of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Smith makes short work of the claim that the fill-out-a-form accommodation burdens religious liberty.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides that the federal government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in limited circumstances. Applying this language, Smith writes in a unanimous opinion for a three-judge panel that “[t]he plaintiffs must show that the challenged regulations substantially burden their religious exercise, but they have not done so.”

The crux of Smith’s analysis is that the plaintiffs in these cases object to birth control, but nothing in the law requires these plaintiffs to do anything whatsoever involving birth control. Rather, their only obligation, if they do not wish to cover birth control, is to fill out a form or send a brief letter to the federal government — and neither of those things are contraception.

“Although the plaintiffs have identified several acts that offend their religious beliefs, the acts they are required to perform do not include providing or facilitating access to contraceptives,” Smith explains. “Instead, the acts that violate their faith are those of third parties.” Specifically, the plaintiffs object to the federal government working with an insurance administrator to provide contraception to certain workers. But the law does not “entitle them to block third parties from engaging in conduct with which they disagree.”

Indeed, Smith writes, if the plaintiffs in these cases were to prevail, it could lead to absurd challenges to basic government functions. “Perhaps an applicant for Social Security disability benefits disapproves of working on Sundays and is unwilling to assist others in doing so,” Smith explains. “He could challenge a requirement that he use a form to apply because the Social Security Administration might process it on a Sunday. Or maybe a pacifist refuses to complete a form to indicate his beliefs because that information would enable the Selective Service to locate eligible draftees more quickly. The possibilities are endless, but we doubt Congress, in enacting RFRA, intended for them to be.”

Smith’s opinion, in other words, should offer a fair amount of comfort to women whose employers seek to cut off their access to birth control coverage. Though there are signs that at least some of the justices would like for the plaintiffs in cases like East Texas Baptist to prevail, the fact that a judge as conservative as Jerry Smith rejected their legal arguments suggests that a majority of the Supreme Court will not embrace these lawsuits.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on June 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Ian Millhiser. Ian Millhiser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Slate, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Yale Law and Policy Review and the Duke Law Journal. Ian’s first book is Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Democrats Propose Most Ambitious Minimum Wage Bill Yet

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Bryce CovertSen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) are introducing a minimum wage bill on Thursday that would raise the federal floor from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour by 2020, eliminate the lower tipped minimum wage that currently stands at $2.13 an hour, and automatically increase it as median wages rise.

Much of that plan is brand new. Previously, Democrats had set their sights on a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour, indexed to inflation thereafter, and only raised the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.

Sen. Murray said she took inspiration from the state she represents in deciding to get rid of the lower tipped wage. “Tipped workers are most exposed to the ups and downs of the economy. The unpredictability of wages makes it even more difficult to make ends meet, on top of trying to scrape by on low wages. So eliminating the tipped wage is long overdue,” she told ThinkProgress in emailed statements. “Washington state has led the way in this, and we’ve seen that it works for restaurants, businesses, and workers.”

Murray also told ThinkProgress that Washington inspired her to target a higher wage level. “There has been great work done in Washington state and across the country to increase wages even further to help the families and businesses in those communities, and I support those efforts,” she said. Washington has long had the highest wage in the country, which is currently $9.47.

A $10.10 wage would have brought it in line with about where it would have been if it had kept up with inflation since its peak in 1968. But this was, according to economist David Cooper with the Economic Policy Institute who has worked with lawmakers on crafting the $12 wage bill, “the lowest possible threshold for where you could be aiming.” He added, “What you’re saying is that low-wage workers should have seen no material improvement in their standard of living over the last 50 years.” That’s despite the fact that there has been significant economic growth, driven in part by rapidly increasing worker productivity.

Even though the Republican-led Congress is unlikely to take such a bill up, Democrats have recently decided they need to take the debate around the minimum wage further. The new benchmark, Cooper said, is to “return the minimum wage to where the distance between the lower paid worker and typical worker is no greater than it was back then.” If lawmakers use a ratio of the minimum wage to the median wage for all workers, which was 52 percent back in 1968, then a $12 wage by 2020 makes a lot of sense, as it would bring the minimum up to 54 percent of the median wage, which today stands at just over $17 an hour. “It’s essentially returning the minimum wage to the same value it had in 1968 in relative terms,” he said.

Real-life experiments beyond Washington state also help give a higher wage level credibility. The majority of states have now raised their minimum wages above $7.25, and evidence shows that critics of a higher wage who worry about job losses may not have a reason to fear an increase. Last year, job growth wasactually stronger in states that raised their wages than in those that didn’t, and economics have generally found that minimum wage increases have little impact on job growth. Even fears that Seattle’s increase to $15 an hour were making businesses close were overblown. “Places are pushing minimum wages into territory that we haven’t done before, and the sky hasn’t fallen,” Cooper noted.

Democrats may also have been pushed into a higher wage by low-wage workers who organized and staged repeated strikes demanding a $15 minimum wage in the fast food, retail, home care, and adjunct professor industries. “I think the Fight for 15 [movement] started to recalibrate people’s thinking in terms of what the minimum wage could be,” Cooper said. “From a political standpoint and also from a national awareness standpoint, the Fight for 15 just did a fantastic job highlighting how low pay is in a lot of these industries.”

That kind of national movement has paved the way for lawmakers to reach higher. “I think the Fight for 15 has created space for Democrats, for any politician, to come out in favor of a minimum wage in the $12 range and look reasonable,” he noted. While Congress isn’t looking at a federal $15 minimum wage at this point, some cities and states have taken up the call. Seattle and San Francisco have passed wage hikes to that level, and many other cities and even some states are considering doing the same.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on April 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

Malpractice Lawsuit Alleges Flawed Defense Strategy in SOX Whistleblower Case

Monday, May 4th, 2015

jason zuckermanPlayboy has sued Sheppard Mullin for malpractice and is seeking $7.6M in damages for losing a Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower case at trial “in spectacular fashion.” The complaint alleges that Sheppard did not properly evaluate, or inform Playboy of, the true damage exposure and missed several opportunities to settle the case for a fraction of the policy limits of Playboy’s employment practices liability insurance policy. The SOX whistleblower case was brought by Catherine Zulfer, a former accounting executive who alleged that Playboy terminated her employment for raising concerns to Playboy’s Chief Financial Officer and Chief Compliance Officer about accruing discretionary executive bonuses without Board approval.

The complaint alleges a flawed approach to potential settlement that, in my experience, is fairly typical in employment litigation.

  • About two weeks before trial, Sheppard predicted a 75% chance of defeating Zulfer’s SOX whistleblower claim.
  • At trial, the jury returned a verdict of $6,000,000 in compensatory damages and a finding of malice, oppression or fraud after deliberating only 1 hour and 45 minutes.
  • Playboy’s insurance policy afforded $5,000,000 of coverage above a $500,000 self-insured retention.
  • In August 2013, Zulfer offered to settle for $1M and Sheppard failed to put any pressure on the insurer or on Playboy to settle.
  • Following depositions in November 2013 that were damaging to Playboy, Zulfer’s attorney reiterated the demand of $1M with a willingness to negotiate downward. Sheppard again neither informed Playboy of the increased exposure in excess of policy limits nor advised Playboy to insist that its insurer accept a demand within policy limits.

Sheppard had the misfortune to lose in “spectacular fashion” largely because Zulfer was represented byDavid DeRubertis, a preeminent trial lawyer who has obtained large verdicts in several employment cases.  But the approach to potential settlement Playboy alleges is typical of what I see in hard-fought whistleblower cases.  The playbook usually consists of offering only nuisance value pre-litigation, digging up dirt about the whistleblower that is wholly irrelevant to the merits of the case, making misleading accusations about the whistleblower’s job performance, using discovery to harass the whistleblower, trying to focus the case on the after-acquired evidence defense, and withholding damaging documents until the whistleblower prevails on a motion to compel. The super-charged version of this playbook includes bringing SLAPP suits against the whistleblower and threatening to file a frivolous Rule 11 motion.

While in my experience these tactics often backfire and do not benefit the employer, such tactics generate hefty fees for defense counsel. As big firm attorneys are under increasing pressure to meet high billable-hour requirements, there is little incentive to perform a realistic case assessment or to lean on a client to settle. And in whistleblower cases, the employer often resents the whistleblower and is far more inclined to vigorously defend the claims than to make a good faith effort to settle.

While this malpractice case against Sheppard was probably widely read in the employment bar, the typical defense playbook is unlikely to change. In-house counsel, however, would be well advised to assess employment cases through the perspective or eyes of the jury

rather than rely solely on outside counsel assuring the company that the whistleblower will never win at trial.

 Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jason Zuckerman is Principal at Zuckerman Law (www.zuckermanlaw.com)  and represents whistleblowers nationwide.  He is the author of the Whistleblower Protection Law Blog (www.whistleblower-protection-law.com).

Florida Passes Law That Bans Discriminating Against Pregnant Women In Public

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Bryce CovertLast week, the Florida legislature passed a bill banning discrimination against pregnant women at work as well as in public places like restaurants or hotels.

The bill amends the state’s Civil Rights Act by adding pregnancy to race, sex, and physical disability as protected classes. It got unanimous support in the state senate and near-unanimous passage in the House. It now heads to Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) desk, whose office didn’t return a request for comment on whether he would sign it.

Lawmakers introduced it to codify a ruling from the state’s Supreme Court last year in favor of plaintiff Peggy Delva, a front desk manager at a condominium building who sued her employer for barring her from covering other workers’ shifts after she became pregnant and firing her when she returned from leave. The court ruled that she was discriminated against on account of her pregnancy and that violated Florida’s law against sex discrimination, overturning lower courts who ruled against her.

Federal law, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, is also supposed to protect pregnant women, but they still experience widespread discrimination. An estimated quarter million womenevery year are denied their requests for employers to give them accommodations at work so that they can stay on their jobs throughout their pregnancies, so they end up pushed onto unpaid leave or suffering health complications such as miscarriages if they stay. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Peggy Young, who had sued UPS for refusing to give her light duty after she became pregnant, forcing her onto unpaid leave without benefits.

A number of women in a variety of industries have also sued their employers for firing them just after they disclosed their pregnancies.

At the same time, however, more and more women are choosing to work while pregnant. Today, two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, up from less than half in 1960. Of those who do, 80 percent keep working into their last month, compared to just a third in the ’60s. But past court cases show that employers often vilify or stereotype pregnant women, such as relying on the idea that they’ll just end up leaving after they have their babies, to justify firing them.

Some states have taken further action to protect pregnant employees, passing Pregnant Worker Fairness Acts to require employers to give them accommodations to stay on the job. A similar law has been introduced at the federal level but hasn’t moved forward.

Florida’s law should also protect women who say they have been barred from entering bars because they might appear to be pregnant.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on April 27, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

$357 Billion: The Clock Ticks

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

ericJust a moment to pause and update everyone: going back to 1968, workers have lost more than $357 billion because of the robbery due to the stagnant minimum wage.

Did you ever wonder what the minimum wage would be worth if it kept its value going back to 1968? Well, it would over $20-an-hour. And thanks to our friends at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, we can watch the loss tick by literally every second, counting the dollars lost by workers since 1968 because of the sinking value of the minimum wage.

This clock shows how “many dollars America’s minimum wage workers have lost since July 24, 2009 if the minimum wage had instead been raised to its 1968 level and then kept pace with inflation since then,” CEPR says (and if you’re reading this after it was posted, the clock will keep ticking and likely be above $358 billion…and more):

And every minutes, hour, day that goes by, the robbery continues.

This article originally appeared in workinglife.org on April  22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author:  Jonathan Tasini on any given day, I think like a political-union organizer or a writer — or both. I’ve done the traditional press routine including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Business Week, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. One day, back when blogs were just starting out, I created Working Life. I used to write every day but sometimes there just isn’t something new to say so I cut back to weekdays, with an occasional weekend post when it moves me. I’ve also written four books: It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis (2010 and, then, the updated 2nd edition in 2013); The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and The Looting of America (2009); They Get Cake, We Eat Crumbs: The Real Story Behind Today’s Unfair Economy, an average reader’s guide to the economy (1997); and The Edifice Complex: Rebuilding the American Labor Movement to Face the Global Economy, a critique and prescriptive analysis of the labor movement (1995).

The Words of Dead Workers

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Leo GerardTo give voice to 35 workers killed on the job over the past 35 years at a massive refinery in Texas City, hundreds of surviving family members, co-workers and friends gathered there last month to erect white crosses marked with their names.

They conducted the ceremony on the 10th anniversary of an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170, including townspeople.

Marathon Petroleum Corp., which bought the refinery from BP two years ago, did its best to shut the mourners up. Marathon uprooted the crosses and tossed them in a box like trash within hours of the commemoration.

For years during contract negotiations, the United Steelworkers (USW) union has pressed ungodly profitable oil companies to improve safety. This fell mostly on deaf ears. On Feb. 1, USW refinery workers began loudly voicing this demand by striking over unfair labor practices (ULP). Ultimately 7,000 struck 15 refineries. Within six weeks, all but five oil corporations settled.  Marathon is a hold out. It wants to cut safety personnel. It does not want to hear about dead workers.

Yet the (ULP) strike is about dead workers. Over the past five years, at refineries nationwide that employ USW members, 27 workers have died – incinerated, gassed or crushed to death. And the peril of refineries spills into communities. In Texas City at the refinery owned by BP in 2005, flying glass from windows shattered in the explosion injured townspeople. In the first six weeks of this year, explosions occurred at three refineries, closing streets, raining eye-irritating white ash on neighborhoods and forcing residents to shelter indoors for hours.

As the USW strike over unfair labor practices drags on in Texas City at what is now called the Marathon Petroleum Corp. Galveston Bay Refinery, USW members feel Marathon’s demands for reduced safety measures indicate the corporation refuses to hear the cautionary tales of the facility’s deadly past. Brandi Sanders, treasurer for the local union there and a 10-year veteran maintenance worker, told me that it is as if Marathon believes the 2005 explosion and the 20 other deaths since 1980 don’t exist because they didn’t occur on Marathon’s watch.

“But the union does not want to go back. We lived through those experiences. And we learned from that history. And we should not be forced to repeat it,” Sanders said.

That was the reason for the candlelight ceremony on March 23. To make those deaths real for Marathon managers who did not experience them in the visceral way that co-workers and families and neighbors did.

The mourners marked each of the 35 crosses with the name of a worker killed at the nation’s fifth largest refinery since 1980, which is the year of the last nationwide strike at refineries. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” as the participants, holding candles aloft in the dark, marched two blocks from the local union hall to the refinery. They wanted to place the crosses on the site where the workers had lost their lives.

But police officers blocked their path. Marathon had called the cops. Marathon refused to acknowledge the tragic anniversary, even with a moment of silence at the refinery as BP had done annually. And it wouldn’t allow a commemoration by anyone else on its property either.

The officers permitted the mourners to erect the white markers in a median strip along the highway, as often is done by family and friends of car crash victims. The ceremony participants called out each name, tolled a bell and placed the marker. Tears flowed.

Just a few hours later, picketers saw managers leave the plant, descend on the memorial in the darkness and rip each of the 35 crosses out of the ground.

Larry Burchfield, a member of the USW’s National Oil Bargaining Policy Committee and a machinist at the refinery for 20 years while it was owned first by Amoco, then BP and now Marathon, told me that disrespect Marathon showed for the dead is the same disregard Marathon shows for the living.

If Marathon valued the lives of workers, the corporation wouldn’t try to save a couple of bucks by eliminating the safety measures put in place to preserve workers’ lives after the 2005 explosion, Burchfield said. “Marathon’s safety policies are called life critical policies,” he told me, “But your life is not so critical when it is going to affect Marathon’s bottom line.”

Marathon’s “it wasn’t me; it was BP” reasoning for downgrading safety just doesn’t cut it. Don Holmstrom, director of the Western Regional Office of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB),explained why in an interview with the Galveston County Daily News for a story on the anniversary of the 2005 blast.

“I think it is sad to report that not enough appears to have been learned, and the problem persists. It is not a BP problem. Although the incident occurred at (BP’s) Texas City refinery, there is an industry problem,” said Holmstrom, who was the CSB’s lead investigator into the 2005 blast.

Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Assistant Administrator Jordan Barab said of recent refinery explosions, “each repeated a lesson that the industry should have already learned.”

Marathon is no outlier, operating in perfect safety. Numerous problems have occurred at the plant since Marathon took over. An explosion and fire at the refinery on Feb. 21 last year critically injured Oscar Garcia, who was employed by a company Marathon contracted to perform work on the site. Garcia has sued Marathon for negligence. The refinery released more than 128,000 pounds of silica and alumina oxide into surrounding communities in two incidents this year. Several fires have occurred since the strike began, including two within 24 hours witnessed by picketing workers.

After the BP explosion, the CSB and others recommended refineries refrain from placing personnel in temporary facilities near volatile units, especially during shut downs and startups. Many of those killed in the BP explosion were in temporary trailers during a unit start up. Despite that, within the past year, Marathon erected three lunch tents during a repair cycle on the same ground where bodies and debris had been haled away after the 2005 blast.

Not one of the 1,100 USW members who work for Marathon has crossed the picket line. They’ve gone without pay for nearly three months because they know what’s at stake: their lives.

In another attempt to help Marathon hear that, workers replanted the 35 white crosses in a long line in front of the union hall. They managed to get them back from Marathon through the police department.

Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, which commemorates those who have lost their lives on the job, the USW members will place a solar spotlight in front of each cross, to highlight the lives sacrificed when safety was compromised. Hopefully, that will open the eyes of Marathon managers who deliberately closed their ears to the words of dead workers.

This article originally appeared in ourfuture.org on April 28, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Get Ready for DC Labor and Film Fests

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

The second annual DC LaborFest begins Friday, May 1, and runs the entire month and includes the 15th annual DC Labor FilmFest, as well as labor arts, including music, theater, poetry, books, art and history. The DC LaborFest features one of the most well-established film festivals in the world dedicated to showcasing labor art and screening films featuring workers and workers’ issues.

The DC LaborFest includes more than 50 labor arts events from the labor films to concerts, walking and biking history tours, conferences and happy hours. Click here to download a detailed schedule of events andhere for LaborFest updates.

You also can click here for trailers of a dozen of the films that will be screened as part of the DC Labor FilmFest.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on April 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Rana Plaza, 2 Years Later: Garment Workers Under Siege

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Image: Mike HallApril 24 is the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,130 garment workers. The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center’s Tula Connell reports that in the months after the 2013 tragedy, global outrage spurred much-needed changes, including the closing of dozens of unsafe factories, the adoption of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and, most significantly, the formation and recognition of workers’ unions by the Bangladeshi government.

But in recent months, those freedoms are increasingly rare, say garment workers and union leaders….Despite garment workers’ desire to join a union, they increasingly face barriers to do so, including employer intimidation, threatened or actual physical violence, loss of jobs and government-imposed barriers to registration. Regulators also seem unwilling to penalize employers for unfair labor practices.

In addition, thousands of workers still toil in unsafe factories. In the two years since the fire at Tazreen Fashions, at least 31 workers have died in garment factory fire incidents in Bangladesh, and more than 900 people have been injured (excluding Rana Plaza), according to Solidarity Center data

Read the full story here, and on Wednesday be sure to check back with the Solidarity Center for stories from the survivors and about the lack of sufficient compensation for survivors and families of those killed.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on April 21,, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

11 Ways Big Banks Make Life Harder for Working Families

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Kenneth QuinnellA new report from the Center for Popular Democracy examines the ways that large financial institutions are helping dismantle the middle class and making life more difficult for working families. The top 10 banks alone bring in some $100 billion in annual profits, and a significant amount of that revenue is generated from sometimes unethical and questionable tactics that working families have a hard time fighting back against.

Here are 11 ways the big banks are making life harder for working families:

1. While 27% of Americans have no or little access to financial services, the big banks are closing local branches, making the problem worse.

2. Banks are pressuring their workers to push customers to purchase services that use predatory banking practices instead of sound financial principles. Quotas drive the process rather than the needs of customers.

3. The large financial institutions are cutting wages, benefits and hours for workers, making it harder for them to serve customers and increasing work-related stress.

4. Core banking activities for the average worker, such as helping people open and manage accounts or plan for retirement or obtain a credit card, are considered low value services by the banks, and they are actively trying to avoid those services in favor of higher profit activities such as mortgages.

5. Workers who can’t fill their quotas for pushing mismatched or predatory products and services are threatened with termination or had their paychecks docked for the amount they fell short of their quotas.

6. Since 2011, 17 lawsuits have been settled by the financial services industry for alleged illegal and unethical business practices. The banks have paid out nearly $46 billion.

7. At least three banks are accused of charging people of color higher interest rates or fees than white borrowers.

8. The big five banks are accused of steering people of color into dangerous subprime mortgages.

9. Two banks have, in the past, maximized their profits off of overdraft fees by posting charges in order of the largest dollar amount first, increasing the likelihood that not only are customers more likely to overdraft their accounts, but more likely to do so multiple times.

10. Three financial institutions were charged with forcing homeowners to buy overpriced property insurance.

11. Nearly one-fifth of employees at the biggest banks reported that more and more jobs had been moved from full-time to part-time.

This blog originally appeared on aflcio.org on April 21, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Author’s name is Kenneth Quinnell.  He is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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