Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

The Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike Is a Mutiny Against Austerity

April 5th, 2018 | Michelle Chen

Oklahoma teachers proudly marked themselves absent from school since Monday, and they had an excellent excuse: They made themselves present in politics instead, with a historic march on the Capitol in hopes of finally capturing the legislature’s undivided attention

Lawmakers thought they could eke through another austerity budget with the last-minute addition of a $6,100 wage hike. But an estimated 30,000 educators stopped work starting Monday to force some 200 schools to shutter, in order to send the message to elected representatives that their gesture is insufficient. The planned raise paled against teachers’ demands for a fully funded school budget, as part of a $3.3 billion package to restore massive cutbacks across state agencies, as well as the basic dignity of a living wage for all state workers.

Following a decade of bruising austerity, the numbers still don’t add up for Oklahoma schools. They lead the nation in annual budget cuts, and rank 45th in funding equity levels and 46th in academic performance, according to recent national rankings. With pay scales for teachers statewide frozen since the recession, salaries have declined in real terms to rank near dead last in the country.

Cathy Benge, a library media specialist at Longfellow Middle School in Enid, calculates the average age of a book in her library’s collection is 40, while many textbooks are 10 to 12 years old. This leaves her middle schoolers with crumbling textbooks about as old as they are. “Our services are being cut to the core,” she said.

As a 15-year veteran educator and a parent of three herself, Benge notes that, while teachers appreciate the short-term bonus, they’ll accept nothing less than real long-term security, including parallel raises for school staff and cost-of-living adjustments for pensions. And fundamentally, their rebellion isn’t about wages, but respect for themselves and the young people they educate. “We are walking to advocate for our students,” she says. “Our students are being robbed of a properly funded education.”

Even with the proposed pay hike, teachers’ salaries are still devastatingly low, despite being years into the economic “recovery.” With the 15 to 18 percent salary boost offered by state lawmakers, a typical teacher’s pay would reach the $40,000 tier only after eight years. That still trails the estimated annual living-wage income for a family of four with one working parent in Tulsa County, according to the MIT living-wage calculator. By comparison, workers in the construction and extractive industries often earn about the same amount. But while school budgets have bled nearly $200 million since 2009, the fossil-fuel industry receives special protections and subsidies, including rock-bottom tax rates.

The state’s austerity axe delivers daily punishment to a struggling student population: The proportion of special needs and English-language-learner children has soared in Oklahoma in recent years, according to the OEA, and the majority of kids are so impoverished they need subsidized lunches.

Not even educators like Rae Lovelace are spared. “If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps” she told CBS at the Capitol. To cover her family’s basic needs, the English teacher splits her class time between third graders at her northwest Oklahoma school and the distance-learning students of an online charter school. The state’s extraordinarily high teacher turnover rate shows that many are opting to leave their job to for higher-paying sectors or teaching jobs in other states.

Benge witnesses this grim civics lesson playing out locally in her small city of Enid. Her library’s budget, after shrinking for several years, was just zeroed out. Understaffing in paraprofessional support staff across the public school system, she adds, leaves teachers overwhelmed with classes often exceeding 30 students. And the students are coming from households facing parallel deficits in welfare and healthcare supports, due to state’s massive divestment from family social services, on top of education cuts.

No wonder many other civil servants rallied in solidarity with this over-stressed, mostly woman public workforce. Schools are on the front lines of so many overlapping unmet needs, Benge explained. “If [children] have trauma going on in their lives at  home, and [Department of Human Services] doesn’t have enough case workers or foster care to help them out,” she said, “then they’re not in place where they’re prepared to learn the next day.”

Noting that her colleagues have stretched their paychecks to buy students the shoes or eyeglasses they otherwise could not afford, Benge says, “I cannot in good conscience sit and not do anything. Do I have to feed them? No, I don’t, but I can’t not.”

Lawmakers should have seen the revolt coming. Weeks ago the OEA published online polling results showing that if the state failed to provide living wages and full funding “for education and core government services,” organized school closures and mass walkouts to the Capitol would be supported by overwhelming majorities of teachers, students and parents.

The Oklahoma rebellion caps a wave of mass mobilizations in the past few weeks, including similar wildcat actions in West Virginia and, more recently, Kentucky, with potential strikes brewing in Arizona. The uprisings evoke a decades-old tradition of teachers’ labor militancy. Yet the latest eruptions signify a bold new anti-austerity resistance, fueled by an undercurrent of simmering left-wing backlash in Trump Country.

Weak union power and overarching right-to-work policies in Republican-dominated Oklahoma mean any mass political action carries risks, especially given the sensitive nature of schools’ role in the community. Teachers’ strikes are essentially “wildcat” in Red States like West Virginia and Oklahoma, where educators are legally restricted from striking and have anemic union protections. The political constraints on workers’ collective actions—which may presage the gutting of public-sector union protections in the upcoming Janus Supreme Court case—could have a radicalizing impact. When the rules can’t contain them, teachers have no choice but to write their own, including grassroots work stoppages.

Meanwhile, some teachers are even schooling political elites: A major progressive surge in last September’s special election launched Oklahoma educator Jacob Rosecrants from the classroom to the State House in a key swing seat.

“A lot of teachers and educators that I listened to today feel like we are being pacified, or patronized, or placated—any of those wonderful ‘P’ words,” said Benge. “They’re patting us on the heads and saying, ‘Okay, here you go. Now be happy and go away.”

But unlike many legislators who budget year-to-year with a cynical eye toward voting cycles, Benge takes the long view on educational investment. “The students that have these gaps in their education, it’s going to take a long time to fill those gaps, if we’re fortunate enough to make it up,” she says. “They haven’t been in school ever in Oklahoma with a fully funded education program.”

In this year’s budget battle, Benge adds, “The pay raise is much appreciated, but it is one block of accomplishment in a marathon of problems.” The rallies at the Capitol this week just mark one step in teachers’ long march toward equity.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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Trump Is Making It Harder for Low-Wage Workers to Organize, But This Fast Food Union Could Win

April 4th, 2018 | Michael Arria

Workers at a Burgerville in Portland, Oregon declared on March 26 that they will file for a federal union election. If union campaigners win, the restaurant will become the first federally recognized fast food union shop in the United States. The local effort, which has a significant chance of victory, offers a powerful antidote to the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-worker agenda.

This move comes after years of worker organizing as part of the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU), which is an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The workers gave Burgerville 48 hours to voluntarily acknowledge the union, which management refused.

BVWU went public in 2016, seeking raises for hourly workers, affordable healthcare, a sustainable workplace and consistent scheduling. In addition to these demands, workers asked Burgerville to stop using the E-Verify system, which they say targets undocumented workers. E-Verify compares employee information with Department of Homeland Security and other federal records to confirm that people can legally work in the United States.

Today, six of the Washington-based company’s 42 stores have publicly active unions, and workers say they’ve been fighting union busting and resistance from management throughout the entire process.

In an interview with the website It’s Going Down, Luis Brennan, an employee at Burgerville’s Portland Airport location, alleged that the company retaliates against organizers by accusing them of minor infractions that wouldn’t otherwise be enforced. He told the story of two Burgerville workers who were recently let go. One of them was allegedly fired for putting a small amount of ice cream in his coffee. The other was allegedly fired for smelling like marijuana. According to Brennan, the latter worker never admitted to smoking marijuana and the company didn’t ask him to take a drug test. The employee, who is black, did have a medical prescription for marijuana because of his epilepsy. “They gave him a week’s suspension and then they fired him,” said Brennan. “He’s an active union supporter, and the combination of racism and anti-unionism in that is pretty transparent to everybody.”

Last year, Jordan Vaandering, a Burgerville-employee who had worked at the store’s Vancouver Plaza location for fourteen months, was allegedly fired for eating a 70-cent bagel without paying for it. Vaandering said a manager gave him the bagel during a paid-break and didn’t ask him for any money. While the bagel was the pretext for Vaandering’s termination, he believes he was let go because he was recruiting co-workers to join the BVWU.

Asked about the alleged retaliations earlier this year, the company released the following statement: “Burgerville does not comment on individual employee matters or internal company policies.”

Earlier this year, in response to management’s refusal to negotiate with the union and its alleged retaliation against organizers, BVWU called on consumers to boycott Burgerville. The boycott call came during a three-day strike that started at the company’s Northeast MLK Boulevard location before spreading to its Southeast Powell and 26th store, two locations in Portland.

Mark Medina, an employee at the Southeast Portland store and a member of BVWU, told In These Times that, while the union campaign has been active for more than 20, now is the perfect time to file for a union election. “It took a lot of work to get where we are right now,” said Medina. “This was all built from the ground up: no money, all volunteers. We’ve had major strikes and many shops, and now we’ll have more leverage during the process. Our level of organization is concrete now. It’s better.”

Burgerville workers’ call for a union election comes on the heels of a potentially major defeat for fast-food workers at the federal level. Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Peter Robb recently negotiated a tentative settlement between McDonald’s and the NLRB over a landmark case pushed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-backed Fight for $15 campaign that aimed to hold the company responsible for its individual franchises’ labor violations. The details of the tentative settlement, which is pending approval by an NLRB judge, remain undisclosed. But McDonald’s admits to no wrongdoing, and the settlement allows the company to avoid the “joint employer” designation that would allow groups like Fight for $15 to unionize fast food locations more effectively.

“In a real settlement, McDonald’s would take responsibility for illegally firing and harassing workers fighting to get off food stamps and out of poverty,” said Fight for $15 attorney Micah Wissinger.

“We think a union contract is just one tool to help build the working class we all deserve,” Chris Merkel, who works at the Convention Center Burgervillel, told In These Times, “The NLRB can change all the rules, but we still have to do the work on the floor and in our communities to get our basic needs met.”

Medina said he has “love and affection” for unions like the SEIU and campaigns like Fight for $15. “Fight for $15 is great,” said Medina, “I support raises, but a raise alone doesn’t empower workers to change their own lives and community.”

Despite the fact that the IWW is a rank-and-file union working independently from the bigger labor organizations, Medina said he’s been blown away by the support it has received in Portland. “You see the AFL-CIO at an IWW event,” he explained. “SEIU has turned out. Carpenters 503 has manned our picket lines. We’ve shown we’re here to stay and the community has shown so much support.”

After BVWU announced their call for the election, Burgerville’s Senior VP of Operations Beth Brewer released a statement: “Burgerville respects the right of every employee to support or not support the organization of a union. If there is enough support, we anticipate they will file a petition with the NLRB. Burgerville will abide by the NLRB’s decision and guidance.”

Medina told In These Times that he hopes the Burgerville efforts inspire others throughout the country. “You can organize fast food workers,” he said. “If you put in the effort to organize them, you can. Take what we did and replicate it.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

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Caution: Your Right to a Timely Vote May Be at Risk

April 3rd, 2018 | AFL-CIO Now

Three years ago, the National Labor Relations Board took modest steps to streamline, modernize and improve the process by which workers petition for an election to vote on forming a union at work. The rules reduced unnecessary delay caused by management lawyers litigating issues in order to slow down elections and deprive workers of their right to vote.

Under the rules, workers get to vote two weeks sooner—the median time from petition to election is 23 days, compared with 38 days under the old rules. This shows that the goal of reducing unnecessary delay has been met.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests have been campaigning to get rid of the rules, saying they are unfair to businesses. First they tried lawsuits—and lost, with the rules upheld in full by courts in Washington, D.C., and Texas. Then the Chamber and their allies tried to block the rules with legislative action, which has so far failed.

But now three Republican appointees to the NLRB are asking for public comments on whether the rules should be changed. The two Democratic appointees to the NLRB—Mark Gaston Pearce and Lauren McFerran—disagree, saying the rules have worked well and there is no reason to change them.

The NLRB is taking public comments until April 18 on whether it should change the 2014 rules. Add your voice to the growing chorus telling the NLRB to keep the rules.

This blog was published at the AFL-CIO on April 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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Teacher strikes close schools across Oklahoma and Kentucky

April 2nd, 2018 | Laura Clawson

The red-state teachers rebellion that started in West Virginia continues to grow, with teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma walking out on Monday after the Kentucky teachers shut down schools in nearly two dozen counties on Friday. In Oklahoma, dozens of school districts have announced closures for Monday, and many Kentucky schools are closed as well.

The Kentucky teachers are protesting a sudden retirement overhaul, while Oklahoma teachers are fighting for increased investment in their schools even after lawmakers voted them a substantial pay increase.

This package does not overcome a shortfall that has caused four-day weeks and overcrowded classrooms that deprive kids of the one-on-one attention they need,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a video posted on Facebook. “We must keep fighting for everything our students deserve.”

Arizona teachers, too, are calling both for pay raises and for increased education funding—and planning to take action if they don’t see improvements. Music teacher Noah Karvelis told NPR that he often has 40 students in a classroom with just seven pianos, and “The math just doesn’t add up. There’s no way to reach those kids. Every day you’re going home and you’re just feeling like, I failed. I failed these students. And that’s honestly the worst possible feeling any teacher could ever have.”

There’s a simple explanation for the education underfunding:

  • Arizona cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006, cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, reduced taxes on capital gains, and reduced taxes in other ways over the last couple of decades.
  • Oklahoma cut personal income tax rates starting in 2004. The top income tax rate fell from 6.65 percent to 5 percent, with the latest drop taking effect in 2016 even as the state faced a $1 billion shortfall. Oklahoma also substantially reduced its severance tax on oil and gas, increased tax exemptions for retirement and military income, exempted capital gains income from taxation, and abolished the estate tax.

Disrespect for teachers is certainly at play in Republican-controlled states that pay salaries that leave teachers working second, third, and even sixth jobs, but it’s not just that. It’s also disrespect for students combined with short-term thinking that will harm people and economies. But hey, rich people will have really low taxes.

And that’s why teachers are fighting.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

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EPA reportedly ‘distorted’ meeting notes and workers could be more vulnerable to pesticide exposure

March 30th, 2018 | Esther Yu-Hsi Lee

In November 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met with several groups representing farmworkers to talk about three provisions of the worker protection rules to make farming safer. Organizers walked away feeling like there was some consensus between the groups, even though there was more work to be done on these issues.

But when the EPA made their two-day meeting notes public and summarized its notes to Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-NM) office a month later, organizers noticed major discrepancies and inaccuracies between their notes and those made by the agency.

In an early March letter addressed to the federal agency, organizers expressed concern that the agency had provided not only a “distorted account” of the meeting, but may have used their group’s participation “to validate or justify Agency actions which are completing at odds with both the EPA’s mission and our own goals of protecting the workers who grow our food, and the communities that surround them, from the harmful effects of pesticides.”

The concerns arose from the two-day November 1 and 2, 2017 meeting when EPA officials met with members of the Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee (PPDC) — comprised of farmworker and health organizations to discuss the Agricultural Worker Protection Final Rule. At the meeting, both sides discussed enforcing a minimum age of workers allowed to handle pesticides; requiring agricultural employers to provide pesticide application information and safety data sheets to a designated representative; and requirements to limit pesticide exposure for agricultural employers to keep workers and other people out of areas known as application exclusion zone (or “AEZ”).

Concerns have persisted since the EPA’s letter to Udall’s office, which appeared to “conflate” some feedback from PPDC members that actually came from those in the agency. Udall has an oversight role over EPA rulemaking.

The EPA’s assertions to Udall about the minimum age provisions were “not correct,” PPDC stakeholders wrote, explaining that the letter made it seem like the PPDC stakeholders agreed that the “family exemption” provision — in which immediate family are exempt from many worker protection standard requirements —  was “not flexible enough to accommodate family-owned and operated businesses of commercial applicators.” In a follow-up email sent from the agency to Udall’s office in January, it clarified that the input was not from PPDC members but rather from comments received as part of the Regulatory Reform docket.

On the issue of a designated representative provision, the PPDC criticized the EPA for telling Udall that “there was not agreement on a practical way to alleviate stakeholder concerns regarding who could qualify to be a designated representative and how the information could be used.”

“This is simply not correct,” the PPDC letter signers wrote, explaining that they agreed on addressing the concerns through the establishment of a short-term workgroup on the issue.

PPDC stakeholders had fewer issues on the discussion of the AEZ, but they said the EPA’s letter to Udall “fails to mention” the “overwhelming support for the provision and that the next step was to issue additional guidance.”

The PPDC members further wrote that they had expressed “serious concerns” about the EPA’s decision to overturn its proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, “[h]owever, this input is completely omitted from your letter [to Udall].” Last August, the agency rejected a ban on chlorpyrifos, a widely-used insecticide that has been linked to brain damage and other negative human health outcomes.

“We do not have an expectation that the EPA’s decisions will always correspond with our specific points of view, yet we do expect our views to be heard and we certainly do not expect them to be ignored or mischaracterized simply because they do not fit into a pre-determined political narrative,” the letter signers added.

The alleged troubling mischaracterization of EPA’s public releases of its interaction of stakeholders may perhaps be forgiven if this was a one-off occurrence. However,  pesticides like chlorpyrifos are manufactured by Dow Agrosciences, a division of Dow Chemical which donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. And under the leadership of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency has appeared to take on stances that break from mainstream scientific consensus. Recently, the EPA released guidelines that “promote a message of uncertainty about climate science and gloss over proposed cuts to key adaptation programs,” the Huffington Post reported.

Moving beyond the EPA and PPDC’s war of words, the inconsistency in characterization and feedback ultimately affect one group the most: the 2.5 million farmworkers in the country. The National Agricultural Workers Survey estimated that about half of all farmworkers are undocumented. Under this presidency, they may be afraid to seek medical help if they’re exposed to pesticides out of deportation fears.

“We have to acknowledge that what we know about pesticide poisonings relies on the farmworker actually reporting the issue either via their employer at their worksite,” Andrea Delgado, the legislative director of the health communities program at EarthJustice, told ThinkProgress. “Or they actually went to a doctor to get taken care of and that the medical provider actually knows how to identify the signs of pesticide poisoning.”

“Think about all the things that have to be aligned  — that someone has to feel empowered enough to say I know enough about my rights when it comes to pesticide exposure,” Delgado reasoned.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 30, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Esther Yu Hsi Lee is a reporter at ThinkProgress focusing on domestic and international migration policies. She has appeared on various television and radio shows to discuss immigration issues. Among other accolades, she was a White House Champion of Change.

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Corporate America’s Stealth Campaign to Stop Worker and Environmental Protections

March 29th, 2018 | Jordan Barab

Admit it. If they could, Trump and most Republicans would like to just get rid of OSHA, EPA the Consumer Product Safety Commission and any other agency — or law — that protects workers, consumers or the environment.

This is all part of Steve Bannon’s goal of “deconstructing the Administrative State” — making sure that corporate America’s quest for ever higher profits and control over our lives is not hindered by any of these damn government agencies that Congress created when the liberals ruled the earth.

But simply repealing the Occupational Safety and Health Act or the Clean Water Act probably wouldn’t play well even in Trump-America where people still like to come home alive at the end of the day and hate the idea of their kids drinking poisoned water.

So what to do, what to do?

How about just making sure the government can’t issue any new protections: the standards and regulations that put teeth into the laws?

The thriving New York Times has described two of their clever strategies that would do just that.

Get Rid of the Science: “Weaponized Transparency”

The Times reports that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is proposing to “no longer consider scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public for other scientists and industry groups to examine.” Pruitt is doing this in the name of “transparency.” After all, what could be wrong with only allowing science where the raw data is available for other scientists to critique?

Well, here’s the problem.

Opponents and supporters agree that the proposed new policy has its roots in the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University study that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths. The “Six Cities” study, widely considered one of the most influential public health examinations ever conducted, tracked thousands of people for nearly two decades and ultimately formed the backbone of federal air pollution regulations.

The problem is that this study used the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 individuals.  And if this private data were made available for public review, EPA “would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a federal estimate, to redact private information.”

The bottom line, critics say, is that if the E.P.A. is limited to considering only studies in which the data is publicly available, the agency will have a narrower and incomplete body of research to draw on when considering regulations.

It’s not like no one has ever looked at this data critically. It’s all peer reviewed by other specialists in the field.

It’s “weaponized transparency,” according to Former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels, currently a professor at George Washington University and author of Doubt Is Their Product:  How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.

This is not just an academic debate. Not only would this policy chill scientific study and make it more difficult to protect workers and the environment, it would cost lives — thousands of lives:

Opponents of the proposed E.P.A. policy say the effort all comes back to the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long frustration over the Six Cities study and a related one sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Those studies, which have been independently evaluated and have had their findings confirmed, underpinned the first Clean Air Act regulations on fine particulate matter. Based on the research, the E.P.A. in 1997 estimated the rule would prevent 15,000 premature deaths annually and hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and bronchitis.

So who’s behind this nefarious, and not so subtle plot? Who else but the Koch brothers, as well as Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy and the American Chemistry Council.

Oh, and there’s also a bill in Congress that would mandate the same thing: The “Honest and Open New E.P.A. Science Treatment Act,” also known as the “Honest Act.”

Honestly.

Weaponizing the Judiciary

Just in case restricting the data that forms the basis of protective regulations doesn’t work, the Trump administration, Republicans in Congress and corporate American have another card up their sleeve: making sure the courts reject any regulations that manage to slip through.

One area that the Trump administration has seen great success has been in the selection and confirmation of conservative judges who have passed a critical “litmus test.” Usually, when we hear the words judicial “litmus test” it’s related to the debate over abortion.

But according to an article in this morning’s New York Times, the Trump administration is applying another litmus test: reining in what conservatives call “the administrative state” by limiting the discretion that agencies like OSHA or EPA have when they issue complex regulations.

What does that mean? When Congress passes a law like the Occupational Safety and Health Act, they give OSHA the authority to issue specific standards, and the law provides some guidance for the criteria the agency has to follow. For example, OSHA has to ensure that their standards are economically and technologically feasible.  But Congress doesn’t have the time or expertise to issue the specific standards — like those to protect workers against silica exposure, trench collapses or falls. They leave that lengthy and complex work to the agency.

When the new standards are inevitably challenged in court by the affected industries, the business associations argue that the agency didn’t evaluate the science properly, or didn’t ensure feasibility in the affected industries. The judges, who like your local Congresspersons, are not experts in toxicology or risk assessment, have traditionally deferred to the agencies’ expertise: “You’ve got some science here; you’ve got some science there. Congress says that the agencies have the expertise, so we defer to their decision.”

But not for much longer, if Trump and corporate America have their way. He is appointing federal judges who are “devoted to a legal doctrine that challenges the broad power federal agencies have to interpret laws and enforce regulations.”

Are you scared? If not, you should be:

This approach has shaped what could be one of Mr. Trump’s most enduring legacies, with the potential to dramatically shrink the body of federal regulations and programs that touch almost every aspect of American life — like workplace safety, environmental protection and health care.

If it is successful, the Trump administration could come closer than any Republican White House has to achieving a goal conservatives have longed for since the New Deal: curtailing the reach of a federal government they say has grown far too large and invasive.

According to Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), these ideas have been around for a long time, “but have never been weaponized in the way that Trump is doing now with his judicial nominees.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on March 28, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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

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The utterly nonsensical way NFL cheerleaders must live their lives comes out in discrimination suit

March 27th, 2018 | ThinkProgress Staff

It’s no secret that NFL cheerleaders are underpaid, undervalued, and held to ridiculous beauty standards by NFL organizations.

But on Sunday, the New York Times published an infuriating report that reveals that some teams exert almost maniacal control over both the public image and personal lives of cheerleaders — all based on toxic, outdated notions of how both men and women should behave.

The article tells the story of Bailey Davis, a former New Orleans Saints cheerleader who has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The main issue at hand involves the restrictions that NFL teams routinely put in place barring players from fraternizing with their respective team’s cheerleaders. As it turns out, the Saints are so particularly worried about the matter that they put the impetus fully on the cheerleaders to avoid NFL players in all social situations, be it on social media, at a restaurant, or at a party.

In her complaint, Davis claims she was fired by the Saints for posting a photo of herself in a one-piece bathing suit on her private Instagram and for attending a party at which Saints players may have been in attendance. On the latter charge, Davis denies that she violated any team regulation. But as the report makes clear, undertaking a good faith effort to avoid NFL players in this fashion may simply be an unreasonable thing to expect of anyone.

According to the Times, keeping themselves away from NFL players on social media and in person is a never-ending job for Saints cheerleaders, who are considered part-time, contract employees, and barely earn minimum wage.

Cheerleaders are told not to dine in the same restaurant as players, or speak to them in any detail. If a Saints cheerleader enters a restaurant and a player is already there, she must leave. If a cheerleader is in a restaurant and a player arrives afterward, she must leave. There are nearly 2,000 players in the N.F.L., and many of them use pseudonyms on social media. Cheerleaders must find a way to block each one, while players have no limits on who can follow them.

These rules are offensive on multiple fronts. First of all, they put sole responsibility for behavior on the women, making it their duty to ensure they don’t in any way “tempt” football players. It also insinuates that their mere presence is an enticement of sorts, that they’re inviting sexual attention or even harassment merely by living their lives or posting pictures on social media.

It also paints NFL players as men who lack self-control, the ability to behave properly around women, or the capacity to follow simple rules.

The difference in rules and regulations between men and women is the crux of Davis’s EEOC gender discrimination complaint. In the suit, she argues that she qualifies as “NFL personnel,” which means the NFL’s personal conduct policy applies to her as well as her fellow cheerleaders.

That same personal conduct policy prohibits any discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation. Davis asserts that because the rules governing both social media use, as well as who is allowed to be with whom in public, are restrictions that are only placed on cheerleaders. As the team cheerleaders are all women, Davis argues that this is a form of discrimination.

“If the cheerleaders can’t contact the players, then the players shouldn’t be able to contact the cheerleaders,” Sara Blackwell, Davis’s lawyer, told the Times. “The antiquated stereotype of women needing to hide for their own protection is not permitted in America and certainly not in the workplace.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 26, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

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The Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

March 26th, 2018 | AFL-CIO Now

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.

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California laws protect undocumented workers from abuse by the boss

March 23rd, 2018 | Laura Clawson

Undocumented immigrant workers are some of the most vulnerable in the U.S., with employers all too often targeting them for abuse, paying them less than the law requires, and basically using ICE to put down worker organizing efforts. But California, which has the highest proportion of undocumented immigrant workers of any state, is leading the way in protecting them and penalizing abusive employers, the Economic Policy Institute’s Daniel Costa reports.

Seven laws enacted since 2013 send a message to employers: the law still applies. You don’t get to break labor laws just because your workers are undocumented.

  • California’s AB 263 (2013) prohibits employers from using threats related to immigration status to retaliate against employees who have exercised their labor rights. For example, if an employee complains to an employer about wages owed to her, and if the employer retaliates with threats related to the worker’s immigration status as an excuse to discharge or not pay the worker, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) can investigate and fine the employer, or the worker can bring a civil lawsuit against the employer. Employers guilty of retaliation based on immigration status may be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 and the employer’s business license may be temporarily suspended.

Several other laws expand or clarify AB 263, including penalties for filing or threatening to file false reports and say that an “employer’s business license may be revoked (not just suspended temporarily) if the employer is found to have retaliated against an employee based on immigration status. In addition, a lawyer who participates in retaliatory activities on behalf of an employer may be suspended or disbarred.” Making threats about someone’s immigration status can lead to criminal extortion charges. Also:

  • California’s AB 450 (2017) can provide due process for workers in the face of an I-9 worksite audit and discourage employers from using the I-9 audit process to retaliate against employees. Under AB 450, employers are prohibited from providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with access to nonpublic areas of the workplace and employment records when ICE has not obtained a warrant or subpoena, and AB 450 requires employers to notify workers when ICE plans to conduct an audit and inform workers about the details of the audit. Employers can be fined $2,000 to $5,000 for the first violation, and $5,000 to $10,000 for each additional violation. In addition, employers are prohibited from requiring their existing employees to reverify their work authorization at a time or manner not required by federal immigration law, and may face penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation.
  • California’s SB 54 (2017), also known as the California Values Act, includes a provision that has the potential to make courts and government buildings more accessible to unauthorized workers (by decreasing the risk of detention by ICE agents while pursuing claims for workplace violations by employers). In light of increasing immigration enforcement activities at courthouses and state government buildings by ICE, unauthorized immigrant workers will face significant difficulties accessing the judicial system and due process. SB 54 provides for the upcoming publication (by October 2018) of model policies for ensuring that public facilities “remain safe and accessible to all California residents, regardless of immigration status.” These model policies have the potential to provide unauthorized immigrant workers with greater certainty that ICE agents will not be present in California courtrooms, thus creating a safer environment for immigrants to access the legal system and obtain due process.

But the fact that these laws were necessary goes to show how much exploitation, retaliation and abuse undocumented immigrants face on the job—and California is just one state. In too many places, these laws don’t exist to protect the workers who need them.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president under investigation for sexual harassment

March 22nd, 2018 | ThinkProgress Staff

John Bailey, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment, according to an exclusive Variety report published Friday. A probe into the academy president’s alleged misconduct was immediately opened after the academy received three claims of sexual harassment against Bailey.

In a painful twist of irony, Bailey’s tenure has been marked by the #MeToo movement, which forever changed the way the academy approaches misconduct by its members, almost using membership as a tool to punish those accused of sexual assault and/or harassment.

Just 10 days after The New York Times published its bombshell report on film producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault and harassment, the academy voted to expel him from the organization. In spite of this, however, many prominent actors themselves accused of sexual harassment or assault — such as Casey Affleck, Bill Cosby, and Roman Polanski — remain members of the academy.

In January, the academy proposed a new standards of conduct as part of the organization’s attempt to respond to the sexual harassment and assault scandals.

“The Academy’s goal is not to be an investigative body, but rather ensure that when a grievance is made, it will go through a fair and methodical process,” CEO Dawn Hudson said in an email sent to members.

The standards outlined how the academy will approach sexual misconduct allegations going forward. According to a document sent to members, individuals will be able to report misconduct through an online form the academy plans to launch in the summer of 2018, or by phone to the academy’s membership department. The allegations must be substantiated by evidence, and will be subject to a review by the academy’s membership committee. If the allegations are deemed serious enough, the committee may refer the issue to the board of governors, which can then vote to suspend or expel a member.

But Bailey’s alleged actions put the academy in the precarious position of choosing how to handle potential misconduct at the organization’s highest level. Should the academy choose to let Bailey go, Lois Burwell, a veteran makeup artist, will fill the role until the next election in July.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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

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