Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

This week in the war on workers: New Balance presses the Pentagon to move on US-made sneakers

July 15th, 2015 | Laura Clawson

Laura ClawsonBuying American-made products is a good way to support jobs. If you’re looking for American-made shoes, New Balance is one of your major options. And the shoe company is pushing the U.S. military on that:

Massachusetts-based shoe company New Balance says that the military is dragging its feet on a promise it made to outfit soldiers with American-made shoes.  The promise came in April of 2014 when the military announced it would honor the Berry Amendment, a 1941 law requiring the Department of Defense (DoD) to give priority to American goods.  The Department of Defense had previously argued that sneakers were not part of the official uniform and therefore not subject to the Berry amendment.More than a year later it seems little progress has been made. New Balance claims retaliation while the military claims the transition is moving at an acceptable speed. Other apparel companies who have done business with the DoD have come to the military’s defense using the backhanded compliment that they really do move that slow.

(That second paragraph seems like it belongs in a “this week in weak defenses” round up.) Sneakers by New Balance are undergoing an extensive testing process now; Saucony says it’s working on a sneaker that might ultimately be used by the military.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on July 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

Permalink


Tips for Improving Workplace Culture for Colleagues with Disabilities

July 14th, 2015 | Charlie Graham

Charlie Graham Headshot ColorDisabilities come in all forms and most employees don’t realize that many of their colleagues have a condition that qualifies them as disabled in some way. Organizations can create a positive work environment and culture that brings out the best in their fellow team members with or without disabilities by creating a work atmosphere that fosters creativity, cooperation, trust and respect. Especially a respect and acknowledgement for what people can accomplish for the good of the team.

As with anything that differs from what might be regarded as “normal”, employees do not typically want to disclose a disabling condition for fear they might be judged or not presented with the same opportunities as their co-workers. Therefore, their condition may remain invisible. A secret, if they can.

But first, let’s get to the fundamentals, especially the language we use and the thinking that goes with it. People, who have a disabling condition, have a condition. They are not the condition. For example, many people regard a person with blindness as a blind person. But blindness, like many other conditions, is a matter of degrees. Even a person with complete sight loss, might still have sufficiently acute perceptions to be able to navigate freely in public places. So we would say that they HAVE a visual impairment – not that they are a blind person. Deafness too is a gradient scale, but of hearing. Additionally, we would certainly never say a person who has cancer is cancerous any more than we should say a person with diabetes is a diabetic.

And watch what you say. “Blind as a bat” is an old colloquialism which was never really true – bats “see” using a means other than their eyes to swoop in on mosquitos in full flight. And “deaf and dumb” likewise was never really true – deafness has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. A good friend of mine is nearing completion of her PhD in Biology, yet she has severe hearing loss at times.

Organizations can ensure that employees with disabilities feel comfortable disclosing their disability and coming to work each day by removing the barriers of judgment, stereotypes and mistrust that may exist. A tense environment can impact a team member’s involvement in daily tasks or their loyalty to the organization, eventually resulting in decreased productivity. Creating an inclusive and trusting culture opens up opportunities for collaboration and creates a sense of mutual respect among co-workers.

Here are a few tips to help you ensure you’re treating your colleagues with the upmost respect and creating an ideal workplace for employees with disabilities.

Communication

  • While it’s a no brainer, communicating with your team is important in all aspects of the workplace, but it’s also important how you go about it. For example, if you see a coworker with a hearing aid, don’t start yelling at them. Raising your voice introduces emotions that you may not intend and they will most certainly feel those emotions emanating from you. Speak as you normally would until asked by that person for clarification.
  • Employees working with someone who is visually impaired should treat them like any other person they might encounter and be willing to help, if asked.
  • Co-workers might have a myriad of other conditions that you know nothing about and for which you are completely unprepared. Your inquiry about such a condition should be limited to the kinds of questions you might ask if a person had a big wart on the end of their nose – leave it alone, don’t draw attention to it. It’s embarrassing to them to have it, so if the wart isn’t affecting their work, then let it be.

Physical Considerations

  • If working with someone who uses a wheelchair, make no assumptions. There are many conditions for which the use of a wheelchair is elective. The old phrase “wheelchair bound” is often no longer applicable. A person with a broken leg often uses a wheelchair for a few days or weeks, but is certainly not “wheelchair bound,” as is the case for someone with new prosthetics. And when communicating with them, follow common courtesies – get eye level – pull up a chair.
  • At certain times, a colleague with a disability may need assistance in performing physical tasks or something job-related. Again, assume nothing. But if asked for help, be ready to lend a hand. Without judgment, inquiry, or asking for reasons. Do it, lift the box and move on.
  • People who have a disabling condition often have devices or even animals to aid them in bringing the universe around them into equilibrium with their limitations. These items are an extension of the person themselves – much like an arm or a leg. Leave it alone. And if it’s an animal, let the animal do its job without interruption. Respect is key.

Attitude:

  • Don’t be surprised to learn that many of the people I describe here are as determined to succeed as you are, or perhaps more so. Many have acquired their condition as an adult, so they have known success – in school, in society, in careers. And many are so determined that they are resolved to not let a little “condition” get in the way of reaching their goals.

Having a disabling condition changes your perspective on life, sometimes in an instant. Every single person on Earth is literally one nanosecond from acquiring a disabling condition – be it from an accident, or a genetic anomaly. But for many, does not change your ability to perform quality work.   Peak Performers has been successfully employing people with disabilities for more than 20 years for the State of Texas and we’ve seen our employees excel in many challenging environments. First and foremost it has been our absence of judgment – an extension of trust and confidence that has enabled our entire team to flourish. Limitations are an inherent part of this universe, but as humans, we have the power to overcome – even people with “conditions.”

 

About the Author: The author’s name is Charlie Graham. Charlie Graham is the founder and CEO of Peak Performers, a nonprofit staffing agency headquartered in Austin, Texas. Over the last 20 years, Charlie has led Peak Performers to employ and transition thousands of people who have disabilities into family wage jobs in and around Central Texas, increasing opportunities for individual professional growth and economic prosperity. To learn more about Peak Performers, visit: www.peakperformers.org.

Permalink


Obama Administration Proposes Expansion of Overtime Rights for Workers

July 13th, 2015 | Jillian Johnson

jillian johnson1Millions of workers who have not been receiving overtime pay would become eligible under a newly announced rule change. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the number of newly overtime eligible workers could be as high as 15 million. The change would update what is known as the “white collar” exemption to the overtime pay rules that covers certain executive, administrative and professional employees. Currently, these types of employees can be classified as “exempt” (meaning not entitled to mandatory overtime pay) so long as they are paid a salary of at least $455 per week ($23,660 per year) – an amount that is below the poverty line for a family of four and that has not been adjusted since 2004. Under the new rules, the minimum salary requirement for exempt white collar workers would increase to $970 per week ($50,440 per year) for 2016 and be indexed going forward to keep pace with inflation. Workers whose salary falls below this level would now be classified as “non-exempt” and guaranteed time-and-a-half for all hours worked over 40 per week.

While some big business groups are opposing the proposed changes, claiming terrible economic consequences will result if their labor costs increase; this is nothing new and the same cry that is heard every time they are forced to increase wages. The facts and history do not, however, support their dire warnings. In cities such as San Francisco and Santa Fe where the minimum wage has for years been set well above the federal minimum, and even coupled with other employee benefits such as paid sick leave and health-care, the impacts on employment have been essentially zero. Contrary to the claims of catastrophic job loss and business closing, studies have shown “no measurable” negative effect on employment when cities or states have raised their minimum wage above the federal minimum wage. Historically, increased pay for workers tends to generate a positive feedback loop – workers earn more, spend more, resulting in positive economic activity.

To put the pay figures in perspective, look back 40 years. In 1975 the minimum salary amount was adjusted and set to $250 per week. At that time, 65% of the American workforce was paid less – entitling them to overtime pay. Today, however, a mere 11% of the workforce earn less than the $455 per week minimum. Today, the $250 per week minimum salary would equate to more than $980 per week (approximately $51,000 per year) if it had been annually adjusted per the Consumer Price Index. So, to merely keep middle-class workers in the same economic position they were in as of 1975, the current $455 per week minimum salary would need to be increased to at least $980 per week. This is roughly what is being proposed under the new rules.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was implemented in 1938 to specifically address the serious problems caused by the overworking and underpayment of our nation’s core middle-class workforce. The two primary reasons the FLSA was put into place are:

  • First, to protect against working conditions that are “detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.”  The law recognizes that employees need some time off to spend with family and relaxing from often stressful work and provides an economic incentive to not overwork employees. If an employer is going to demand work hours that deprive employees of this precious down time, the law places a premium value on such time – a cost that the employer must cover.
  • Second, requiring the payment of time and a-half for all hours over 40 per week creates and strong economic incentive for employers to hire more people and spread the work, instead of overworking their existing staff. This helps to reduce overall unemployment in the U.S. economy, an issue every bit as relevant today as it was 75+ years ago.

The proposed changes to the overtime pay regulations are important to restore fair pay to millions of middle-class workers and are consistent with the overall goals and policy objectives that originally inspired the federal overtime pay laws.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jillian Johnson. Jillian Johnson is a freelance writer from New Jersey who has contributed to an array of blogs of various industries, particularly business, finance and health.  She freelanced for a local NJ parenting magazine “Curious Parents” magazine and wrote for her college newspaper, “The Tower,” ultimately becoming the Editor-in-Chief. Jillian holds a BA in Communications and is currently working towards a BSN.

Permalink


ANOTHER Walmart Made in America Infographic Needed Some Work, So We Fixed It

July 10th, 2015 | Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch

elizabeth brotherton_bunchWe’re calling Walmart out on its misleading public relations push.

Welp, they’re at it again!

Walmart kicks off its annual U.S. Manufacturing Summit in Arkansas on Tuesday, highlighting “progress” in its 10-year commitment to purchase $250 billion in American-made goods. For the second year in a row, the retail giant has unveiled a handy infographic touting the progress its made thus far.

And just like last year, we decided to take their infographic and add some much needed context. See, when you start to dig just a little bit, you find that Walmart’s committment is pretty misleading.

Looking for more details on our data? Click here.

Want more? We’ve included last year’s blog post and infographic below.


From 2014: The web filter at the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) caught a big ol’ piece of chaff this week, in the form of a release from Walmart. America’s largest retailer has announced plans to purchase $250 billion worth of American-made goods over the next decade. It decided to share the good news of its sudden economic patriotism via an infographic, which is heavy on the fancy font but light on context.

So AAM took a stab at filling that context in, via an infographic of its own. Sure, Walmart is spending a big chunk of change on American-made products. But the company regularly moves gigantic gobs of money around, so is it spending any more on America than usual? And where are the rest of the goods on its shelves coming from? Does Walmart deserve a round of applause (that it started itself) for cozying up to the Made in America movement? See below:

Want to dig a little deeper into Walmart data? Read our fact sheet here.

 

This blog was originally posted on American Manufacturing on July 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

 

About the Author: The author’s name is Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch. As Digital Media Director, Beth helps spread the word about smart public policies that guide the creation of American manufacturing jobs. In this role, she is tasked with helping grow AAM’s social media presence, implementing online advocacy campaigns and overseeing communications with an active online community of supporters. Prior to joining AAM, Beth was charged with content development, branding and promotion at the nonprofit organization Netcentric Campaigns. She created and edited content such as action alerts, campaign emails, newsletters, guest articles and social media for many Netcentric projects. Beth worked on behalf of multiple clients, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, American Heart Association and Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Beth began her career as a reporter, which included a nearly six year stint at the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. She authored the popular gossip column “Heard on the Hill” and covered key players in the Capitol Hill community, such as the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police. Her work also has appeared in publications including the Orange County Register, Press-Enterprise, TakePart, MomsRising and Almanac of the Unelected. A Golden State native, Beth holds bachelor’s degrees in political science and journalism from the University of Southern California. She lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband and rescue dog. You can follow Beth on Twitter at @ebrotherton.

Permalink


Union Is the New Black: Labor Organizing in Orange Is the New Black, And What It Means For You

July 9th, 2015 | Leslie Tolf

Leslie-Tolf2In its third season with Netflix, Orange Is the New Black has had a significant effect on America’s consciousness regarding: race, women and incarceration, and transgender issues. This season highlighted many character backstories, but personally, the most interesting plot-line was that of the security guards and their efforts to organize a potential union. We see labor issues in popular culture and television on occasion, and this example in particular shines light on issues that that arise when workers don’t have labor protection. In this instance, the security guards at Litchfield women’s prison were dealing with cut hours, a loss of benefits and job security, and how to protect themselves. The answer to that, in addition to having an ally in management, was to form a union. We’re not often exposed to unionization in mainstream media, so I want to take the opportunity to explain the importance of unionizing and what it takes to get the protection you need when it comes to labor.

A Little Bit of History

During the 18th century and Industrial Revolution in Europe, the influx of new workers in the workplace warranted regulations and conversations around worker protection. In the US, the founding of the National Labor Union in 1886 – though not largely successful – paved the way for unions in the US. Labor protection brought us things we see as customary now, like: the weekend, minimum wage, or national holidays. Without unions, and despite our economy veering towards entrepreneurship and fewer professional boundaries, many of us would be in danger of job loss. Think about what you see on OITNB, where the prisoners work without pay, are demeaned by the prison and are endangered at every moment. Now, imagine that was your job. Less than a century ago, Americans worked for poverty wages alongside their children in dangerous factories; the same factories where the bosses that degraded them also turned workers against other workers by exploiting racial and ethnic prejudices. Imagine that your death was just another cost of doing business, like the overhead and taxes.

This was America before the labor movement – before workers acted together to demand fair wages, safe workplaces and laws that reflected the values of the working class. Workers not only won things like the weekend, minimum wage and national holidays, but also the less-sexy (but equally important) rights to bargain collectively, to take collective action and to even just talk to your coworkers about your wages and working conditions. People died for these things. While we may live in a great democracy, it’s worth remembering that true progress is really made through the mobilization of people. After all, women didn’t get the right to vote by voting on it.

Should You Unionize?

For a long time, a powerful labor movement allowed all American workers the ability to share in economic prosperity and take advantage of what is now an anachronism: if you work harder, you’ll get more. Wages and productivity went hand in hand until the decline of union membership began to drop as a result of anti-union laws and well-funded corporate attack on organized labor. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy at a constant rate during the years of higher unionization, it would now be closer to $92,000 a year instead of just under $52,000. The fundamental purpose of a union is to balance the overwhelming power of the few people making huge gains in our economy.

Put another way: how many people can afford their own lobbyist to get a slice of that pie? That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is you and your job. You know how great the constitution is? Freedom of speech and assembly? The right to due process? Democracy? You can throw all that out when you enter the workplace. If you don’t have a union, you can be fired for any reason that’s not based on a relatively small list of protected classes. But let’s talk money: union members have wages that average 27 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, are more than 79 percent likely to have health benefits through their employers, and 60 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension.

What it Takes to Build a Union

Solidarity. Practically speaking, it takes a small group of you and your co-workers who can first quietly assess how others in your workplace feel about their jobs. What matters most to you? Is it the low pay? The poor benefits? Safety? Lack of respect? Focusing on what really matters will be crucial to winning the right to collectively bargain. The labor union you contact will help shepherd you through the election process to a contract, but the most important thing that you and your coworkers can do is to educate yourselves and stick together. And always remember that the union is you and your co-workers, not the third-party intruder your bosses might suggest. It’s your union and you’re trying to fix issues that matter to you.

Why It’s Important

Despite common belief, unions aren’t just for factory workers and building trades, they’re for everyone who wants to make a better life for himself or herself and earn a fair wage for the work they do. When you have a union, hard work can once again equate to sharing in the benefits of your labor. Even a college degree hardly guarantees a good paying job like it once did; too many people with piled student loan debt have found themselves underpaid and struggling. At the end of the day, a union is about how you will provide for yourself and your family.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leslie Tolf. Leslie Tolf is the President of Union Plus. You can follow Leslie Tolf  on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/ltolf.

 

Permalink


California Moves To Pay Professional Cheerleaders Minimum Wage

July 8th, 2015 | Katelyn Harrop

katelyn harropThanks to what is believed to be first of its kind legislation, legal minimum wages and worker protections may be on the horizon for California’s professional cheerleaders.

A bill proposed by State Rep. Lorena Gonzalez (D) in January, and approved by the Senate on Monday, requires California sports teams to adhere to state and federal minimum wage requirements and to provide overtime pay and sick leave to professional cheerleaders.

Despite the athletic skill and training required for participation in professional-level cheering — plus the branding and visual expectations that come along with acting as the public face of a sports team — cheerleaders are often considered independent contractors and therefore are not protected by minimum wage and other labor standards.

This is particularly jarring considering professional cheerleaders act as some of the most public symbols for leagues like the NFL, which is worth over $33 billion, according to recent estimates.

“A.B. 202 would explicitly require that professional sports teams provide cheerleaders with the same rights and benefits as other employees, protecting against the sort of financial and personal abuses that have been reported throughout the country,” said Gonzalez, who is a former college cheerleader herself, in an April press release. “A.B. 202 simply demands that any professional sports team — or their chosen contractor — treat the women on the field with the same dignity and respect that we treat the guy selling beer.”

A similar bill has been proposed in New York State, but Gonzalez’s will be the first to hit a governor’s desk. Both measures come as a response to a string of lawsuits brought against NFL teams over the last two years. The first suit was brought by a former Oakland Raiders cheerleader who claims that she and other members of the cheer team were paid less than $5.00 an hour and were denied overtime and other benefits associated with standard labor laws.

In bringing the lawsuit against the Raiders, attorney Sharon Vinik dismissed the team’s justification for the contractor status of the cheer squad, stating that the NFL team dictated the choreography and music used by the cheerleaders among other strict limitations. The defense also rejected the common claim that the opportunity to cheer for a professional team opened up other doors such as endorsements and modeling, and therefore acted as a career stepping stone.

“If you are a young starting quarterback, you get lot of notoriety for that, but you also get paid for that work,” said Vinik at the time. “The fact that the women might get some opportunities doesn’t justify not paying them.”

According to the Associated Press, Vinik thinks the new California legislation is a good step, but one that may not be big enough to actually change the payment culture surrounding professional cheerleading.

The Raiderette’s lawsuit was followed by similar legal complaints from other teams, including cheerleaders from the Buffalo Jills cheer squad, who claim that they were not paid for up to 20 hours of their weekly work with the Buffalo-based NFL team.

While the new California legislation may be a step in the right direction, the vast majority of professional sports teams and states have yet to address the significant wage gap and labor violations associated with the professional cheerleading industry.

This blog was originally posted on July 1, 2015 on Think Progress. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Katelyn Harrop. Katelyn Harrop is a summer intern at ThinkProgress. She is a rising senior at Ithaca College, where she is pursuing a B.A. in journalism and a minor in international politics. Katelyn is an editor for Buzzsaw Magazine, Ithaca College’s independent, student-run publication, and a staff writer for the community radio station in Ithaca, New York. Katelyn is originally from McMinnville, Oregon.

Permalink


Post-Euphoria: SCOTUS Gears Up To Destroy Unions

July 7th, 2015 | Jonathan Tasini

jonathan-tasiniI’ve kind of laughed at the analysis percolating around that, oh, surprise, the Supreme Court is a liberal bastion…or not so conservative. Well, it was a great day when marriage equality became the law of the land. But, while everyone can now marry, the Supreme Court has a very clear five-vote conservative bloc when it comes to empowering business, enhancing class warfare and making it impossible to make a decent living…married or not.

And it is now gearing up to potentially destroy public sector unions.

The Court has now accepted for argument Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Essentially, the case is another one ginned up by right-wing, anti-union forces to eviscerate public sector unions by challenging the right of unions to collect dues and use them for the whole range of activities unions perform, particularly political lobbying.

The Court’s conservatives have been pining away for a case to destroy public sector unions. In June 2012, The Court essentially invited a huge challenge, in a ruling in Knox v. Service Employees International Union. As the incomparable Linda Greenhouse wrote:

But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for a five-member majority that included Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, went beyond the confines of the case to suggest strongly that the decades-old accommodation between union members and non-members in public workplaces violates the First Amendment rights of the non-members.To avoid the problem of “free riders,” agency-shop provisions require that those who object to joining the union nonetheless pay a fee that represents the portion of union dues that goes to the collective bargaining activities from which all employees benefit. The non-members, at their request, are entitled to be excused from contributing to the union’s political activities. Since the non-members must affirmatively exercise this “opt-out” option, this system tends to favor the union; as students of default rules well understand, inertia inevitably keeps some people from bothering to assert their rights.

The opt-out system “represents a remarkable boon for unions,” Justice Alito wrote in his majority opinion characterizing the arrangement as one the court had endorsed haphazardly and without adequate thought. He went on to challenge the basic agency-shop structure, calling it “an anomaly.” Compelling nonmembers to pay any portion of their dues to a union with which they don’t care to be associated is a substantial impingement on the First Amendment right to be free from compelled speech and association, Justice Alito said, adding: “Our cases to date have tolerated this impingement and we do not revisit today whether the court’s former cases have given adequate recognition to the critical First Amendment rights at stake.”

In case he hadn’t made it sufficiently clear that 60 years of Supreme Court precedents are now hanging by a thread, Justice Alito continued: “Our prior decisions approach, if they do not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate.” As for the special dues assessment at issue in the case, he concluded, the opt-out system was constitutionally insufficient, and the objecting employees were free of any obligation unless they chose to opt in.[emphasis added]

Then, came Harris v. Quinn–and an almost fatal blow to public unions. It was bad:

The petitioners in Harris were several home-care workers who did not want to join a union, though a majority of their co-workers had voted in favor of joining one. Under Illinois law, they were still required to contribute their “fair share” to the costs of representation — a provision, known as an “agency fee,” that is prohibited in “right to work” states.The ability of unions to collect an agency fee reflects a constitutional balance that has governed American labor for some 40 years: Workers can’t be forced to join a union or contribute to its political and ideological activities, but they can be required to pay for the cost of the union’s collective bargaining and contract-administration activities.

The majority in Harris saw things differently. Making workers pay anything to a union they oppose is in tension with their First Amendment rights — “something of an anomaly,” in the words of the majority. But the real anomaly lies in according dissenters a right to refuse to pay for the union’s services — services that cost money to deliver, and that put money in the pockets of all employees.

And:

While a majority declined to strike down agency-fee arrangements for “full-fledged” public employees, as the petitioners had requested, and as unions had feared, the majority makes clear that such fees now rest on shaky constitutional ground, at least in the public sector, and are vulnerable to broader attack in the future.

What the Court did not do was strike down a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which really is the basis for the framework for public sector unions being able to charge fees to pay for the costs of operations–particularly, the costs that go into collective bargaining. The only reason the conservatives did not destroy Abood in the Harris decision was because Justice Alito said that home healthcare workers were not actually “full-fledged” public employees, so putting a stake into Abood was not necessary.

That, however, is what the Court will attempt to do with this new case, which will be heard in the coming term, and likely be decided in 2016. The issue is clear:

Whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education should be overruled and public-sector “agency shop” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment; and (2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively object to subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions, rather than requiring that employees affirmatively consent to subsidizing such speech.

I am not optimistic.

This blog was originally posted on Working Life on June 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jonathan Tasini. Some basics: I’m a political/organizing/economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years; my goal is to find the “white spaces” that need filling, the places to make connections and create projects to enhance the great work many people do to advance a better world. I’m also publisher/editor of Working Life. 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 more than a decade ago, 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 (slacker), 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). I’m currently working on two news books.

Permalink


Labor Lost the Fight Over Fast Track. But the Fact That Unions Oppose the TPP at All Is a Big Deal.

July 7th, 2015 | Leon Fink

leon finkOrganized labor’s recent “victory” over President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, was short-lived, as “fast track” was passed by Congress shortly after it had been denied him earlier in the month. But labor’s strong opposition to the deal is worth examining a bit more closely, as the fight was more than an uncommon rift between the administration and one of the Democratic Party’s steadiest and most powerful constituency groups. Labor’s opposition to the TPP is a dramatic sign of the transformation of popular opinion on a vintage issue of American public policy since World War II.

That the TPP could so easily be linked by its critics to the job-killing, wage-reducing interests of the “one percent” reflects deep and changing understandings of how the global economy works (or rather all too often doesn’t) for ordinary Americans. On this issue, the AFL-CIO, rather than reflecting narrow, let alone petulant comeuppance, is speaking with the wizened voice of collective experience after two terms of relative presidential neglect.

No one was a bigger champion of free trade at the end of World War II than the AFL-CIO, along with New Deal Democrats to whom the labor federation attached its deepest political loyalties. From a critique of controlled trade and top-down economic manipulation most notoriously associated with Japanese zaibatsu and German cartels like the I.G. Farben chemical empire, American liberals stressed the importance of both the free flow of commerce and workers’ freedom to organize. Only unencumbered access to markets and raw materials, such a view suggested, could assure the continuing growth of the American as well as worldwide industrial order.

In fulsome support of the Marshall Plan and surrounding international capitalistic institutions like Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the labor movement—having expelled its own Communist-linked affiliates by 1948—was often more anti-communist than the State Department itself during the Cold War years. In an era when strong unions claimed up to 80 percent of workforce representation in basic industries, it was not surprising that labor leaders would identify their own members’ welfare with that of the free-enterprise economy in which they were employed.  Indeed, Philip Kaiser, assistant secretary of labor for international affairs under President Truman, later recalled the suspicion that the American labor liberals originally faced in Europe among those who could not “[see] the difference between American competitive capitalism and their own national monopoly capitalism built on old feudal structures.”

More than mere freedom from government or employer control, open markets were linked to a period of economic growth and rising incomes that publicist Henry Luce anticipated as “the American Century” and that, in retrospect, also heralded a relatively egalitarian social structure. Thus for good reason—with the exception of garment and textile unions who first felt the sting of a new order of international wage competition—U.S. unions long endorsed “free-trade” unionism. Not until the NAFTA debates of 1993-1994, when the threat to American-sited factories from what maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot had popularized as the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the U.S. and going to Mexico, did the labor federation first seriously reverse course, albeit ( in a standoff with another Democratic President, this time Bill Clinton) in a losing cause.

But changing attitudes came too late to effectively redirect social policy.  In an increasingly competitive world market, the link between corporate profit margins and worker welfare had become increasingly frayed. In the name of “social partnership” or “social dialogue,” America’s Cold War allies generally found ways to shield themselves from the worst of free-market competition and/or to blunt its impact for their own labor forces.

The European Common Market, for example, with stringent initial protections for European farmers and auto makers, was, according to historian Judith Stein, “really a customs union that violated [the core principles of] the GATT.” In addition, by various forms of “industrial policy,” or strategic subsidy of selected economic sectors and worker training, Japan and West Germany leaped ahead of the U.S. in key sectors of economic development, while even smaller states like Israel and Singapore blossomed thanks to outright state investment in the private sector or openly protectionist trade policy.

American workers realized little or none of such benefits, even when their preferred representatives presided over Congress and the White House. The unions watched, meanwhile, while their memberships dropped precipitously, from a high of 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to a paltry 11 percent today (including a mere 7 percent in the private sector). With the strike weapon now often a nearly suicidal non-option, American workers have watched their living standards decline, even as in the legislative realm, trade union rights, especially in the public sector, have become ever more restricted.

In an ever-more-expansive world economy, some Americans have prospered as never before, but the middle (where collective-bargaining contracts once reigned) has all but been wrung out of an hourglass economy. But for a few impotent side agreements to major free-trade treaties, workers have simply not been cut into the ‘deal’ of free trade.

All this is why American unions saying “Enough!” in the face of President Obama’s fast-track authority and attempt to pass the TPP and coming T-TIPP is such an important shift for American unions. The interesting question is not why they adopted the position they did, but what took them so long?

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leon Fink. Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

Permalink


Teachers Say 17 Firings at Urban Prep Charter Schools Were Retaliation for Unionization

July 6th, 2015 | Ariel Zionts

Ariel Ziontscrystal stella becerrilOn June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall. The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.

Last Thursday, around 100 teachers, students, parents and supporters attended Urban Prep’s board meeting to protest the firings and accuse the board of harming their community and hindering student progress. They also accused the board of resisting transparency and accountability, and creating a high teacher-turnover rate through firings and policies that push teachers out of the school.

This is only the latest case of such allegedly unjust firings, as more and more charter schools in Chicago and across the country are organizing to unionize despite the legal hurdles, backlash, and the common belief—at least among school management—that charter teachers don’t need unions.

Matthias Muschal told Catalyst Chicago he was fired after working as a lead English teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus for six years for “insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration,” according to the administration. He says the real reason was his union activism—a huge disappointment because “I wouldn’t be able to teach my students anymore,” Muschal told In These Times.

Urban Prep CEO Evan Lewis wrote in a statement that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … “We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

At the board meeting, 26 people signed up to speak, although roughly half were allowed to address the board. Parents also delivered over 200 letters in support of the fired teachers in an effort to influence the board’s decision. Not all board members, however, were present at Thursday’s meeting—even though, according to Samuel Adams, a former Urban Prep English teacher, they all live in Chicago. Those who did not attend the meeting called in—a gesture seen by some union supporters as disrespectful.

Teachers, parents and students who attended the meeting praised Urban Prep’s mission and success, but said the recent firings go against the school’s mission and will ultimately harm the students. Englewood Junior Lamar Strickland told the board he “would just like to ask that you guys bring back our teachers because … they have all taught us something different that we can take in our life.”

Students were especially upset about the firing of English teacher Natasha Robinson. Robert DuPont, a junior at the Englewood campus, said Ms. Robinson went above and beyond her responsibilities like calling students she knew were having trouble getting to school on time. Mr. Adams said that his former colleague had the highest freshmen test scores in the school and continued to teach even soon after her mother died.

Of the outpouring of student support over the past weeks, Robinson said, “It’s nice to know I made an impact during my time at Urban Prep—to know that I was able to help these young men.” (Urban Prep is an all-male school.)

At the meeting, James Thindwa of the American Federations of Teachers (who is also a member of the In These Times board of directors) also accused Urban Prep’s majority-black board of directors of harming the black community and instituting measures similar to anti-union, right-wing politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“I can’t believe that this institution, this publicly funded institution, … anchored in the black neighborhood, that is itself reeling from economic disinvestment that in part has been caused by the attack on labor unions … is participating in a vile attack on a legitimate institution that serves as a legitimate counterweight to what we’re seeing as unchecked corporate power in the United States.”

In a press release, Thindwa wrote that because black Americans hold a disproportionate share of public-sector jobs, they have been hit especially hard by the decline of public-sector jobs and the attacks on their unions.

The audience highlighted the irony in these firings, as one of the main reasons teachers wanted to unionize was to change what they say are Urban Prep’s high teacher turnover rates. They say students don’t know if their favorite teachers will return the following year, which affects their learning environment.

“It’s unfortunate that they would fire veteran teachers and that there will be so much uncertainty for these students going into the new school year,” said Robinson, who had taught at the school for seven years. Teachers say high turnover rates also mean devoting important time to train new teachers rather than to develop the skills of existing ones.

According to Brian Harris, a special education teacher at CICS Northtown Academy and Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) president, “across the network, only nine teachers have been at Urban Prep more than five years. Now, only about half of them are returning.”

“Students are calling for a stable learning environment, and their teachers know that unionization is the only way to get stability for these students and their communities,” says Rob Heise, an educator and activist who says he was fired from an UNO Network charter high School earlier this month for his involvement in helping unionize his school last year. Heise filed his own unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB two weeks ago.

Chicago Teachers Union members made their way to the South Side school from their own union’s contract negotiation meeting earlier that afternoon to show support for the fired Urban Prep teachers. Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, was among them. Chambers said that all the Urban Prep teachers who voted to unionize wanted was a voice for their students. Having played a major role in preparing her school for the historic 10-day CTU strike back in 2012, Chambers knows first hand the power of belonging to a union and added that teachers “know that if they don’t have a union they don’t have a voice.”

“Urban Prep punished their staff for unionizing. They lied about what ACTS is and used teachers’ professional development time to spread anti-union propaganda,” said Brian Harris. “Their actions show a real disrespect for teachers and democracy and scream ‘we don’t want to be accountable to anyone.’ ”

Chris Baehrend, Vice President of Chicago ACTS and English teacher at Latino Youth High School, said retaliation is the main reason why 39% of eligible voters chose not to join the Urban Prep union. “They’re afraid. They’re afraid of things like exactly what happened right here happening to them.”

An unfair labor practice suit has been filed with the NLRB, and Chicago ACTS will be planning future demonstrations.

During the public comment period, Samuel Adams called on supporters to put pressure on Urban Prep by sending emails, and parent Shoneice Reynolds called for a local school council. Reynolds cited Urban Prep’s creed to make her point: “It states, we have a future for which we are accountable. I challenge you all to be accountable for our children’s future.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: The authors’ names are Ariel Zionts and Crystal Stella Becerril. Arielle Zionts is a freelancer writer and, beginning in August, a producer at the Interfaith Voices radio show in D.C. She studied anthropology at Pitzer College and radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based Xicana activist, writer and photographer who regularly contributes to Socialist Worker, Red Wedge and Warscapes.

Permalink


Jobs Report: Flat Wages, Shrinking Workforce

July 6th, 2015 | Robert Borosage

Robert-Borosage_The June Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report shows continued growth — 223,000 new jobs added with the official unemployment rate declining to 5.3%. Jobs growth remains steady — rising for 57 straight months, now setting a new record each month – but slow, lagging previous recoveries.   The decline in the unemployment rate was largely due to 432,000 people leaving the labor force, reversing the increase that took place in May.

The headline unemployment figure is always misleading. Nearly 17 million people are still in need of full-time work. Long-term unemployment has declined, but remains higher than before the great recession. The employment-population ratio has also not recovered, remaining at 59.3%, marginally lower than a year ago. The portion of the working age population that is employed or wants a job, the labor force participation rate, declined last month and is lower than a year ago. This is not a picture of robust growth.

The BLS reports are important largely as signposts for the Federal Reserve and its pending decision on when to raise interest rates. Fed Chair Janet Yellen sensibly has been focused on disappointing wage growth and looking for “additional strength in the labor market.” She won’t find much that is encouraging in this report.   In this month’s report, hourly wages showed no growth, with the yearly average up barely 2%, despite hikes in the minimum wage by more and more cities and states and more and more companies. Average hours worked remained steady.

Speculation is that the Federal Reserve is headed towards beginning to wage interest rates in September. Higher interest rates will be a drag on growth, jobs and thus wages. The Fed would be well advised to wait until more workers find jobs, and the greater demand for workers is reflected in continuing rising wages.

Government employment showed no increase. The US Congress continues to block any investment to rebuild our decrepit infrastructure at a time of record low interest rates. With the US able to borrow for virtually nothing, an investment in infrastructure, as Larry Summers argues, would pay for itself, with even a minimum return in efficiency. No business leader with a whit of sense would refuse to grasp this opportunity. Perhaps Donald Trump who has built his fortune by making far riskier bets with borrowed money could explain this to his colleagues.

Manufacturing employment showed little change, adding 4,000 jobs. For the president to meet his pledge of adding 1 million manufacturing jobs in his second term, he would have to average over 32,000 a month. This seems less and less likely, as manufacturing is weakened by our rising trade deficits, resulting from the strong dollar and our perverse trade policies that the president is intent on extending.  The economy has gained only 38,000 manufacturing jobs in the first six months of this year.

The economy continues to add jobs, which is an indisputably good thing. But the pace is slow, and little of the recovery is reaching most Americans. Surveys show that Americans are growing more optimistic about the economy. This is reflected in rising non-revolving consumer credit – significantly student and car loans – which is outpacing after-tax income growth. If the Fed raises interest rates, these debts will grow more costly, putting a crimp on consumer demand. Again, with the Congress refusing to act sensibly, the Fed has every reason to wait until wages are rising and more Americans are working before starting to put on the brakes.

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on July 2, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Robert Borosage. Robert L. Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. The organizations were launched by 100 prominent Americans to develop the policies, message and issue campaigns to help forge an enduring majority for progressive change in America. Mr. Borosage writes widely on political, economic and national security issues. He is a Contributing Editor at The Nation magazine, and a regular blogger at The Huffington Post. His articles have appeared in The American Prospect, The Washington Post,Tthe New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He edits the Campaign’s Making Sense issues guides, and is co-editor of Taking Back America (with Katrina Vanden Heuvel) and The Next Agenda (with Roger Hickey).

Permalink



Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog