Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Demanding Respect for Worker Safety

February 10th, 2015 | Leo Gerard

Leo GerardIn Anacortes, Wash., last week, approximately 200 Tesoro workers began picketing the oil refinery where an explosion incinerated seven of their co-workers five years earlier.

Butch Cleve walks that picket line, serving now as strike captain for the USW local union at Tesoro. On the day of the catastrophe in 2010, Cleve walked the coroner to the shrouded bodies of three of his friends.

Steve Garey, who helped make the decision to strike as a member of the USW’s oil bargaining policy committee, wept repeatedly that April day five years ago as he told the relatives of his dead friends that their loved ones would never come home.

Kim Nibarger, a USW health and safety specialist, suffered flashbacks of an earlier blast as he investigated the one at Tesoro. He was an operator in 1998 at the refinery adjacent to Tesoro in Anacortes when a massive detonation instantly cremated six of his co-workers.

The Tesoro strikers are among more than 5,000 USW members nationwide on unfair labor practice strikes demanding corporations respect their bargaining rights and the rights of workers and communities to safety.

Over the past two negotiation cycles, the USW’s 30,000 refinery and chemical workers struggled to persuade their highly profitable employers to include strong safety language in the collective bargaining agreements. The deaths at Tesoro, as well as fatalities, injuries, explosions, fires and toxic releases at other plants nationwide since then, demonstrate that the measures didn’t go far enough. Now refinery and chemical workers are trying to increase the odds that they aren’t killed at work and that their communities aren’t engulfed in flames or fumes.

Last year, when the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent federal agency that investigates industrial disasters, issued its report on the Tesoro explosion, it found “a substandard safety culture at Tesoro which led to a complacent attitude toward flammable leaks and occasional fires over the years.”

The CSB said a nearly 40-year-old heat exchanger, one that Tesoro knew leaked, violently ruptured, triggering the fatal blast and fire. That caused the largest loss of life at a refinery since 2005 when 15 workers died and 180 were injured in an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City. CSB chair Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said last fall, “The CSB is seriously concerned by the number of deadly refinery accidents in recent years.”

Moure-Eraso said regulators and refiners must work continuously to lower risks because the loss of seven lives at Tesoro “should not have happened.”

The blast occurred a little after midnight on April 2. Steve Garey was at home, asleep. His sister in Seattle, up late, heard a news bulletin and called him. Garey got to the refinery at about 5:30 a.m.

Emergency responders, deputy sheriffs and the refinery’s fire brigade were all still there. “Everyone appeared to be shell shocked,” Garey recounted, “They looked haggard. They looked drawn. Some people were in grief, crying. Others had blank stares on their faces, not wanting to talk. Others were very, very angry, wanting to talk a lot.”

Garey, a machinist at the refinery who served on the local union’s negotiating team then, said some Tesoro officials asked him to help them break the terrible news to families after the company’s first visit went poorly.  “I spent the bulk of that first day travelling to people’s homes with stone-faced supervisors,” Garey recalled. His face, by contrast, was crumpled in grief.

“All you can do is go in and cry with them, hug them, tell them how you feel and let them know they are not alone,” said Garey, who now serves as the local union’s president.

Butch Cleve got to the plant at about the same time Garey did that morning in April, 2010. Unlike Garey, Cleve didn’t know what had happened until a supervisor told him. Cleve recounted the guy saying, “We had an explosion and fire. Four were taken to the hospital and three are missing. Well, they are not really missing, but we are not sure who is who.”

The four taken to the hospital were horribly burned. Two died that day, one later that week, and the fourth within a month.

After escorting the coroner to the places where the bodies lay, Cleve stayed at the plant another 15 hours, trying to console his co-workers. “The people from the area of the blast in particular were my concern at that point,” he said. “It was kind of taking care, talking to people, gauging them and trying to offer whatever moral support I could.” Other union leaders did the same.

“Some people were in shock. Some were inconsolable. Some were just in a haze,” recounted Cleve, who was a process equipment operator then but now works full-time on safety.

Cleve said he was angry that the company knew this equipment had a history leaks and fires and hadn’t made the repairs necessary to prevent the catastrophic failure.

“A big part of this strike is that none of us wants to be the next person to lose his life for no good reason,” he said.

At about 12:30 a.m. on April 2, 2010, Kim Nibarger, who lives in Pittsburgh now, had just arrived at his parents’ home in Washington State for a visit. He heard a sound in the distance he describes as “whoop, whoop.”

He knew it was an explosion at one of the two refineries in Anacortes. He drove to an overlook and saw flames at the Tesoro refinery and helicopter landing lights flash on at the community hospital.

As he walked onto the site the next day with federal investigators, he was angry. “I was madder than anything else because this had happened again.”

He was the local union president at the neighboring refinery in 1998 when an explosion instantly killed six workers.

That time, he was driving with his parents to a restaurant across the highway from the plant for lunch when he saw smoke and flames. His pager went off, summoning emergency responders.

He was among those who volunteered to go into the unit and retrieve the bodies. He described the condition as charcoaled.  Like Garey, Nibarger spent a lot of time crying with victims’ families.

Since 2004, Nibarger has worked full-time on the staff of the USW International trying to prevent these catastrophes. But he’s frustrated. Off the top of his head, he can cite fatal case after fatal case.

In 2012, highly toxic hydrofluoric acid was released from the CITGO East Refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. This followed an explosion in 2009 when the deadly acid escaped the perimeter of the same refinery and a fire that critically injured a worker burned for several days.

Also in 2012, a fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., sent 15,000 members of the community to hospitals with breathing problems. Richmond has sued the company accusing it of placing profits over public safety.

In 2013, a heat exchanger explosion at the Williams Olefins Plant in Geismar, La., killed two workers and injured 114, in what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said was a serious violation of safety practices.

Also in 2013, a heat exchanger fire at ExxonMobil’s Beaumont, Texas, refinery killed two workers and injured 10, some critically. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited ExxonMobil and two other companies involved for safety violations.

In 2014, two workers at the Chevron Phillips Chemical plant in Port Arthur, Texas, were severely burned in a flash fire.

Just three weeks ago, a worker fell to his death at the CITGO refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“We keep asking, ‘how many guys have to die?’” Nibarger said. “We think there have been plenty already.”

This article originally appeared in ourfuture.org on February 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

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One State That Could Take The Gender Wage Gap Head On

February 10th, 2015 | Bryce Covert

Bryce CovertOn Monday, Oregon lawmakers considered a pair of bills that could significantly reduce the gap in average earnings between working men and women, which currently means the state’s women make 80 percent of what men do.

House Bill 2006 would make it unlawful for employers to pay workers of different genders who do equivalent work differently. House Bill 2007 would make it illegal to punish workers who ask about or discuss their pay with each other.

The first bill’s language is subtle, but it could have important consequences for women in the state. As written, equivalent jobs wouldn’t rely on having the exact same role at the exact same company. Rather, equivalent jobs would be those that are the same when the required skills, training, education, effort, responsibility, and working conditions are the same. For example, women who coach girls’ teams couldn’t be paid less than men who coach boys just because boys’ teams bring in more money. Employers could still have differing pay grades based on merit, seniority, training, and education differences among workers.

Rather than pay equality as we imagine it now, where only men and women with the same job titles should be paid the same, such an approach, often called comparable worth or pay equity, would seek to equalize pay for people doing different but similar work. This focus addresses the part of the gender wage gap caused by the fact that women choose or are limited to lower-paid work. Low-skilled fields that are 25 percent or less female pay nearly $150 more a week than those dominated by women. At the higher end of the skillset, male-dominated jobs pay nearly $500 more a week than those crowded with women.

Such an approach used to be widespread: As of 1989, 20 states had made comparable worth adjustments within their own workforces, spending more than $527 million between 1983 and 1992 to adjust 335,000 lower-paid women’s pay. This eliminated 20 percent of the gender wage gap, and in five states — Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Connecticut — it was reduced by 25 to 33 percent. And a research paper found that the reductions in the wage gap were due to the programs, not other factors.

 

But they have since mostly faded away. One state, Minnesota, still has a robust program that requires all cities, counties, school districts, and other government entities to assess and adjust the pay scales between men and women every three years. Gaps crop up in the intervening time — last year, just 64 percent of the entities had equitable pay when the compliance process began — but they get addressed in the end. Yet it still focuses on the public sector; a push to move it into the state’s private sector by requiring companies that contract with it to analyze pay equity didn’t get approval last year.

Oregon’s second bill, HB2007, could also have a big impact on the state’s gender wage gap. Currently, about half of all workers across the country say that they are prohibited or discouraged from discussing their salaries. That makes it hard for anyone experiencing wage discrimination to find out what’s going on and correct it; Lilly Ledbetter, for whom the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was named, didn’t find out she was being unfairly paid less than her male coworkers for 19 years.

On the other hand, wherever there’s salary transparency there’s a smaller wage gap. It’s much smaller for the federal workforce, where few workers are prohibited from talking about pay and wage scales are usually public, and has shrunk significantly over the last decade. It’s also 40 percent smaller for unionized workers than for non-union ones and has been falling, and union representation often helps make wage scales transparent.

Little improvement on the gender wage gap has been made nationally. It steadily shrank between the 1960s and 1900s but progress has since slowed to a crawl, with basically none made over the last decade. A federal bill would similarly ban salary secrecy but has been repeatedly blocked by Republicans, while the pay equity, which is part of the Fair Pay Act, hasn’t been on the agenda in many years.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on February 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Why buying Made-in-America matters, and how to do it

February 8th, 2015 | David Tindell

david“There’s something happening right here in this country. It’s the sound of America…working with American materials in American factories.”

The excerpt comes from WeatherTech’s second Super Bowl commercial, watched by millions of viewers on Super Bowl XLIX (if you missed it, check it out here). Highlighted by this commercial, something besides Russell Wilson’s fourth quarter goal-line pass was on America’s mind that night.

Made in America matters, both for the future of America’s economy and for workers.

The U.S. manufacturing industry has seen modest growth recently. Although American production has declined in the last forty years, manufacturing activity has been growing more rapidly than the overall U.S. economic GDP for the first time in 50 years. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, manufacturing has contributed $2.09 trillion to the U.S. economy, up from $1.73 trillion in 2009.

This growth is motivated by many factors including a decreasing cost advantage of outsourced labor, competitive energy costs, and a desire to manufacture closer to customers. To be sure, this is no reason for workers to be overly optimistic. The absolute number of U.S. manufacturing jobs has declined 30% from 2000 to 2014. But his sort of information does show hope for an industry that’s an important part of the U.S economy.

If every American family spends an extra $49.95 on American-made goods during the holiday season, 150,000 American jobs would be created. For every $1 spent on American-made goods, it invests an additional $1.32 in the U.S. Economy. That means money spent here, stays here, and creates more wealth for everyone.

The manufacturing industry also creates middle class jobs. The average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,506 annually including pay and benefits. This is higher than the average worker in all industries, who earned $62,546. And American manufacturing workers earn every penny of it. Manufacturers in the United States are the most productive in the world, two and a half times greater than 40 years ago and far surpassing worker productivity of any other major manufacturing economy.

And jobs aren’t just created in the warehouse. Not only does buying American manufacturing employ production workers, inspectors, sorters, machinists, and team assemblers; manufacturing also creates higher skill service jobs like accountants, lawyers, engineers, and operations professionals. Currently in the United States, 12 million Americans hold jobs directly in manufacturing, while another 5.6 million workers are supported by this industry. The manufacturing industry also drives more innovation than any other sector, performing 75% of private sector R&D in the United States.

So how do I buy American made?

If you don’t know where to look, finding American-made products at your local retail store can be a challenge. It’s not that these products don’t exist; you may just not know where to look. Here are three resources to help:

  • Union Plus – Union Plus was founded by the AFL-CIO to provide consumer benefits to union members. On Union Plus’ Buy Union Made page, you can find lists of union-made products such as beer, appliances, pet supplies, and more. You can also find the nearest union grocery store with the new UFCW Mobile app.
  • Labor 411’s Directory – A one-stop resource for people looking to buy union-made, American goods and services. Comes in both print and online.
  • Union Label & Service Trades Department, AFL-CIO – The UL&STD was founded in 1909 to promote the products and services produced in America by union members — especially those products and services identified by a union label, shop card, store card and service button. Check out their Do-Buy lists, as well as the Boycott List, to help you shop ethically.

About the Author: David Tindell is a Marketing Assistant for Union Plus. He joined Union Plus in 2012, and has written for the Union Plus Consumer Bargains blog since 2013.

This article was written by David Tindell of Union Plus. Union families who want to stay updated on the benefits of union membership can sign up for Union Plus’ free E-Newsletter here.

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Economy Adds 257,000 Jobs in January

February 6th, 2015 | Mike Hall

Image: Mike HallThe economy added 257,000 jobs in January and the unemployment rate ticked slightly up to 5.7% from December’s 5.6%, according to figures released this morning  by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was unchanged from December at 2.8 million, but the median duration of unemployment went up, because of a rise in the share of workers unemployed more than 15 weeks. So, those who have returned to the labor market still find it hard to find work.

AFL-CIO Chief Economist William E.  Spriggs said 2014 was the best year for job growth since the 1990s, and America is experiencing a record number of consecutive months of private-sector job growth. But he added:

In 2014, workers’ wages barely outpaced inflation, increasing only 2.1%. In fact, throughout the recent economic expansion, workers’ wages have stayed the same. If you adjust for inflation, median weekly wages for full-time workers are stuck where they were in 2011. That’s a big problem, because those are workers in their prime who are holding steady jobs.

Last month’s biggest job gains were in retail trades (46,000), construction (39,000), health care (38,000), food services (35,000), professional and technical (33,000), financial activities (26,000) and manufacturing (22,000).

Employment in other major industries, including mining and logging, warehousing, transportation, information and government, showed little change over the month.

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates in January for teenagers increased to 18.8% from 16.8%. The jobless rate for adult women (5.1%), adult men (5.3%), blacks (10.3%), Latinos (6.7%) and whites (4.9%) showed little change in January from December.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

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Obama Administration Honors Coalition of Immokalee Workers for Fight Against Forced Labor; Strengthens Regulations to Combat Trafficking

February 3rd, 2015 | Charlie Fanning

charlie fanningForced labor and human trafficking exist in worksites and industries where workers’ rights are routinely violated and where a culture of exploitation reigns. In the tomato fields of Florida, more than 1,200 farm workers once toiled in conditions of forced labor. However, thanks to the organizing efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), these workers now have respect on the job, higher wages and a say on the job.

Doug Molloy, former chief assistant U.S. attorney for southwest Florida, told the Fort Myers News-Press that the CIW:

“As the eyes and ears and conscience of the community, they helped liberate more slaves and helped develop more successful prosecutions than any other group of people I am aware of in all the work I have done in human trafficking.”

In recognition of CIW’s work to end a system of exploitation, Secretary of State John Kerry recently presented the 2015 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking in Persons to the CIW. Said Kerry:

“They’ve helped uncover and investigate several farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States. I hope everybody hears that: farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States.”

CIW has fought for the rights of Florida’s farm workers for more than 20 years and has pioneered a worker-based social responsibility model, the Fair Food Program, to include workers in addressing exploitation and abuse and to eradicate forced labor in Florida’s tomato fields. CIW’s highly successful program leverages the buying of major corporations and strong consumer awareness to increase the price of tomatoes a “penny per pound” to raise farm worker wages.

The scope of the problem extends much more broadly than Florida’s tomato fields. Forced labor and human trafficking pervade the supply chains of many of the most recognizable brands today. Often, the chain of actors involved in forced labor enterprises runs from the recruitment of workers in local communities into factories in the supply chains of multinational enterprises, which are able to evade responsibility for abuses through layers of subcontracting and distanced staffing arrangements. With nearly 21 million people worldwide in conditions of forced labor, the issue of eliminating forced labor and trafficking in supply chains is one of the world’s most pressing human rights concerns. It also puts ethical businesses on an unleveled playing field and greatly concerns government officials in charge of contracting and procurement.

Kerry, at the award ceremony, said:

“The sources of the problem include individuals desperate for work; unscrupulous labor brokers who lie to recruit those workers; companies greedy for profits, who turn a blind eye to abuses; and customers looking to just save that extra dollar or two without regard to what the implications of those savings may be.”

In 2012, the Obama administration issued the Executive Order “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts” and, last week, published updates today to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)—the set of rules in place to govern the activities of government contractors—as required by the Executive Order. The updates establish a number of new safeguards and provide compliance guidance to businesses.

Both measures prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from confiscating passports or charging workers recruitment fees or using misleading or fraudulent recruitment practices (a common way for unscrupulous labor brokers to put workers in conditions of debt bondage and forced labor), and they require contractors and subcontractors to develop and maintain a compliance plan and to certify to eliminate forced labor in their operations. These new regulations are largely modeled on successful business practices and the input from the AFL-CIO, labor unions, civil society organizations, federal contractors and academia.

The Executive Order and FAR update are major steps forward in the fight against forced labor and human trafficking. But as CIW reminds us, it must be workers at the center of any enforcement mechanism, enforcing their own rights and having their voice heard. We can only hope that the administration’s example will be followed by U.S. lawmakers who have the power to expand these regulations to the private sector and by other governments and corporations that seek to end this scourge.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Charlie Fanning is the Global Advocacy and Research coordinator for the AFL-CIO

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Trumka: Obama Budget Falls Short on Corporate Tax Reform, Infrastructure

February 3rd, 2015 | Richard Trumka

Richard TrumkaAFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released the following statement on President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal:

In the State of the Union, President Obama forcefully advocated for working families and the bold actions we need to create an economy that truly works for all working people. His budget follows through with a number of proposals that would benefit American workers, such as repeal of harmful sequestration cuts, higher taxes on capital gains and a financial crisis fee on the largest financial institutions. These are all pieces to a robust program to raise wages.

But when it comes to fixing our rigged corporate tax system, the actual proposals in President Obama’s budget don’t match the rhetoric. As this budget stands, it falls short of a very simple standard: our tax system should not encourage corporations to shift jobs or profits overseas. We are also disappointed that the administration continues to propose corporate tax reform that does not raise significant amounts of revenue over the long term.

President Obama’s budget proposal to increase infrastructure investment is an important step in the right direction. But it does not go nearly far enough. Our economy needs trillions of dollars in investment to drive the productivity growth vital to raising wages. Our current infrastructure deficit, taken in context with the egregious level of inequality in our economy, means that we have to completely rethink our sense of progress.

Our crumbling roads and bridges need more than one-time or short-term fixes. We need a big vision if we are to build the future America and its workers deserve.

This originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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The Supreme Court Case That Could Decimate American Public Sector Unionism

February 3rd, 2015 | Moshe Marvit

photo_321703[1]Last week, an appeal was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court for a case that could prove to be the most damaging case to labor in decades.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association aims to overturn a nearly 40-year precedent which allows the use of “fair share” fees for public sector unions, wherein all union members must pay for the costs associated with collective bargaining and contract administration. Since all workers in unionized workplaces share the benefits of unionization—and since unions are legally compelled to represent all of those workers, which requires use of unions’ financial resources—unions say that workers who choose not to become members of unions must at least pay these fees in order to not become “free riders,” gaining benefits from union representation without paying for them.

From its beginnings, the case has been specially crafted for the Supreme Court, and if successful would affect tens of thousands of union contracts and would force millions of public employees into a right-to-work model.

Justice Alito has been inviting a case like Friedrichs for several years, and anti-union groups have been paying attention. In the 2012 Knox v. SEIU decision, which changed the way in which public sector unions assess optional fees (those not associated with collective bargaining, such as political and public relations activities and other matters not related to collective bargaining)  from an opt-out to an opt-in procedure, Justice Alito, writing for the Court, said that “acceptance of the free-rider argument as a justification for compelling nonmembers to pay a portion of union dues represents something of an anomaly.”

At the time, many understood this statement to indicate that the free-rider and labor peace arguments propounded by previous Supreme Court decisions were no longer enough to convince the Court’s conservative majority of the justification for the allowance of fair share fees. Writing about the case for the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse recognized that “the issue in Knox seemed narrow, even arcane”; however, she explained, the decision set the stage for a full frontal assault on labor using the First Amendment.

In case his message in Knox wasn’t clear, Alito left no room for misinterpretation in his Harris v. Quinn decision last year.

In Harris, the Court held that home healthcare workers were not “full-fledged public employees,” and therefore the 1977 Abood case, which explicitly permitted fair-share fees for public sector workers, was inapplicable.

Alito could have stopped there, but instead he decided to thoroughly trash Abood and indicate that it is ripe for overturning. In paragraph after paragraph, Alito wrote that the Abood Court’s “analysis is questionable,” “seriously erred,” “fundamentally misunderstood,” “failed to appreciate,” “does not seem to have anticipated,” “did not foresee the practical problems,” and “a critical pillar of the Abood Court’s analysis rests on an unsupported empirical assumption.”

Alito was essentially begging for someone to petition the Court with a case that would allow the justices to address the First Amendment issues involved in fair share agreements.

In April 2013, the right-wing Center for Individual Rights (CIR), whose mission is to “aggressively litigate and publicize a handful of carefully selected cases that advance the right of individuals to govern themselves according to the natural exercise of their own reason,” filed such a suit on behalf of a handful of California teachers and a Christian educator organization. The case then began its race to the Supreme Court.

In federal district court, the CIR took the unusual step of filing a motion arguing that the court should rule in favor of the union. The group did this because they knew that the law is not on their side: Under current Supreme Court precedent, the CIR would lose in front of a California judge, since the district court must follow the law. But CIR is banking on the Supreme Court changing the law. The District Court obliged them by ruling for the union, which allowed the CIR to quickly appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the Ninth Circuit, the CIR took the same tack, asking the court to quickly rule in favor of the union so it could get the case before the Supreme Court.

This week, approximately a year and a half after the complaint was first filed in district court, the CIR filed its petition to the Supreme Court. Though the Court may decide not to accept Friedrichs if four justices do not vote to hear it, this case looks like exactly the sort that Justice Alito could use to finally usher in a national public right-to-work law from the bench.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the CIR asks the Court to rule on two related First Amendment questions: (1) whether the agency shop (a workplace that permits fair-share fees) should be ruled unconstitutional under the First Amendment, and (2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require public employees who don’t want to join their unions to opt out rather than requiring everyone to opt in.

The petition then proceeded to rehash the old argument that all the bargaining issues for public sector unions are inherently political, and therefore all such workers should be under a right-to-work model. In essence, the CIR argues that any bargaining for increases in worker pay or benefits, or negotiations over work conditions, are inherently ideological issues that not all workers may agree on, and such negotiations are identical to lobbying.

Therefore, because money is equivalent to speech in the Supreme Court’s view, workers who have to pay a fair-share fee are being compelled to lobby the government on an issue they may disagree with.

Seattle University School of Law Professor Charlotte Garden told In These Times that although there are some superficial similarities between lobbying and public sector collective bargaining, there are critical differences.

“First—and most important to the Friedrichs case—unlike lobbyists, unions owe a duty of fair representation to all of the workers they represent, which means they (unlike lobbyists) have to spend money representing non-members,” Garden says.

“Second, the scope of bargaining is circumscribed by governments themselves—governments decide under what conditions they will bargain with unions, and unions are constrained by those restrictions. So, for example, a government might limit collective bargaining to the subject of wages, but of course government can’t limit the scope of what lobbyists can ask for.”

There is nothing new in the CIR’s argument, but it may succeed now because the Court’s views on the First Amendment and labor have changed dramatically over the years.

The Roberts Court has used the First Amendment in a manner that significantly advances corporate interests—from striking down campaign finance limits in Citizens United and related cases to striking down laws that limit pharmaceutical companies’ sale of doctors’ drug prescription data because they infringe upon corporate speech—and the Court’s decisions in Knox and Harris indicate that core union practices violate the First Amendment.

If the Supreme Court accepts this case, the decision could have enormous impacts on public sector workers by either allowing agency fees to remain but requiring all workers to opt in, or eliminating fair-share fees all together. That the agency fee in its current form could remain is possible, but unlikely—otherwise, the court would not have agreed to hear the case.

Professor Garden says that even the more limited opt-in ruling by the Court, which would require unions to obtain affirmative consent from non-member workers who are covered by the contract before charging them the optional portion of dues, could represent a significant drain on union resources. “This would mean that unions would have to go out and solicit workers to opt in—spending more organizing dollars on workers who are already covered by a union contract.”

If, on the other hand, the Court uses the First Amendment to declare all fair-share fees unconstitutional, it could represent the most radical shift in labor law in decades. Public sector unions, which represent one of the last bastions of strong unionism in the U.S., could lose millions of dollars through free riders, untold thousands of members and a significant portion of their already diminished institutional power.

This article originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on February 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Moshe Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book “Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.”

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Six Years After the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Still More Work to Do

January 29th, 2015 | Sharon Vinick

Sharon_vinick[1]Six years ago today, President Obama signed his first piece of legislation — the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – to extend the time period in which an employee could file a claim for pay discrimination.  The Act overruled the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, which Ledbetter said allowed her employer to pay her unfairly “long enough to make it legal.”

At the time of its passage, President Obama said that the passage of the Act would “send a clear message that making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone.”

Sadly, in the six years since the passage of the Act, the gender pay gap has – at best – barely budged.   Indeed, by some estimates, the wage gap has actually widened in the last few years.

If the new Congress is truly committed to the goal of pay equity, concrete steps must be taken.  First, Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which will strengthen the Equal Pay Act and help secure equal pay for equal work.  Second, Congress must act to increase the minimum wage, as women make up two-thirds of the country’s minimum wage earners.   Third, Congress should enact a universal, government-paid preschool program, as 10% of the wage gap is attributable to time that women spend outside of the workforce.

While the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a step in the right direction, Congress still has a lot of work to do to close the persisting wage gap.  Let’s hope by the Seventh Anniversary of the Act, we are closer to pay equity and an economy that truly works for everyone.

This article originally appeared on celavoice.org on January 29, 2015. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

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Labor Relations Board Under Renewed Attack

January 29th, 2015 | Meghan Byrd

Meghan-Byrd_avatar_1422562197-140x140[1]Conservatives in Congress this week launched a renewed effort to weaken the ability of workers to get justice in the workplace against anti-labor behavior by businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced a bill Wednesday that would cripple the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an agency that is instrumental in solving labor disputes and helping workers who have been treated unfairly by their employers. It’s the same bill that was introduced last year by McConnell and Alexander but was held up in committee when the Senate was controlled by Democrats.

Among its recent actions, the NLRB has filed multiple complaints against McDonald’s and its franchisees for illegally punishing workers who were involved in protesting fast-food labor practices.

The board currently seats five members – three Democrats and two Republicans. The proposed “National Labor Relations Board Reform Act” would increase the number of sitting members to six and require that each party have equal representation. All decisions would require a four-vote agreement, essentially guaranteeing partisan gridlock.

Republican members would have no incentive to compromise with Democrats when it comes to resolving disputes that reach the NLRB. When no agreement is reached, big business wins and workers’ treatment is left to the wills of corporations. Sen. Alexander claims that this bill would turn the NLRB “from a partisan advocate to a neutral umpire.” But what’s an umpire with no ability to make calls, much less the right ones?

The bill furthers Republican goals in advancing business interests at a high cost to workers. Party officials dislike the board because, they claim, it advances union interests and is bad for business. In reality, the NLRB allows workers to file claims of unfair management tactics and holds businesses accountable for the treatment of their employees.

Unions oppose the bill, as should every worker in the country. The President of the Communications Workers of America, Larry Cohen, in reaction to the introduction of this bill in 2014, called it “the worst revisionism on an economic issue I’ve ever heard.” He cited the preamble to the National Labor Relations Act, which – far from being neutral – states that “we must promote collective bargaining.” He called on senators to enforce that law.

Partisan gridlock would worsen a backlog of cases, undermining workers’ ability to seek justice, returning the board to the state of near-paralysis it was left in at the end of the George W. Bush administration. If the GOP can’t compromise with Democrats in the legislature, what’s to say they will on the NLRB – given their persistent antipathy against unions and worker empowerment? Unless workers unite and demand that Congress reject this bill, this will end up being a huge win for business and yet another kick in the gut of hard-working Americans.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on January 29, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Meghan Byrd is a student at Bucknell University studying political science and Spanish. In 2015 she spent a semester at American University. She is originally from Palo Alto, California in the San Francisco Bay Area and center of Silicon Valley. She is interested in public policy and the intersection between government and technology.

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Three Changes to Improve the Lives of Low Income and Middle Class Families

January 28th, 2015 | Olivia Nedd

olivia_headOn January 20, 2015, President Obama laid out what I think are three things that can make a difference in the lives of low income and middle class workers.

1. Child Care

There is a need now more than ever for affordable child care, especially since in many homes both parents are in the workforce. Child care is often viewed as an issue specific to women, and it is often the woman who has to choose between a pay check or caring for their sick child. President Obama called for us to stop treating this as a woman’s issue but to see it one that affects us all. President Obama proposed for more available and affordable child care. Additionally he proposed a tax cut of up to $3,000 to families for each child in child care.

Please visit http://www.workplacefairness.org/family-responsibilities-discrimination for more information.

2. Sick Leave

The United States, unlike Germany, France, Sweden and at least 145 other countries, does not guarantee paid sick leave or maternity leave to workers. President Obama proposed that we being to work with states to assist them in adopting paid leave laws, but also that we work toward creating a bill.

Please visit http://www.workplacefairness.org/sickleave for more information.

3.Higher Pay

President Obama urged for a commitment to an economy that generates rising income and provides a chance to everyone who makes an effort. Congress has yet to pass law that provides women the equal pay to men. President Obama stated that “It is time,” especially since it is 2015. Additionally, President Obama is seeking to raise the minimum wage, and challenged congressional members who were against it to live on an income of $15,000. Please visit http://www.workplacefairness.org/minimumwage for more information.

Finally, on a side note President Obama seeks to make community college $0. The benefits this will add for those in the workplace are numerous. Not only will workers be able to upgrade their skills but it will also give them the tools they need to participate in this growing economy. If we being to educate and encourage our workforce through, free education, higher pay, and affordable child care I believe we will see more growth than ever in our economy.

About the Author Olivia Nedd is a legal intern for Workplace Fairness and a student at Howard University School of Law.

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