Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Immigrant Nurses Demand Equal Pay—And Win

May 11th, 2017 | Samantha Winslow

 It started when a few nurses at Temple University Hospital told stewards that they weren’t being paid for their experience.

One of the first to speak up was Jessy Palathinkal, who had become a nurse in India in 1990. She got her U.S. nursing license when she moved here in 1995. But when she started working at Temple, her placement on the pay scale was as though those five years of nursing never happened.

She asked why. Human Resources told her the hospital didn’t count years of experience in foreign countries.

“I was feeling a little bit upset. I had all the certification,” Palathinkal said. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s not right, but what can I do?’”

What Palathinkal did was tell her shop steward. The steward told officers of their union, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). And the officers started asking around to see whether anyone else was affected.

They put out a call in their monthly newsletter—did anyone else think that their pay was incorrect for their level of experience? Three more nurses had the same complaint.

Four nurses joined a class-action grievance. Management denied it. That’s when union officers decided this was a hospital-wide issue.

Double standard

Management’s argument was that foreign experience was not comparable to U.S. experience. But the underpaid nurses coming forward had something else in common: they were primarily people of color, mainly from India.

That struck nurse Mary Adamson as unfair. After all, everyone had met the requirements to become a registered nurse in the U.S. “All these people had to take the test, and they passed it,” said Adamson, the union’s membership secretary. “They had the knowledge.”

“Maybe in H.R. they were thinking, because India is a third-world country, maybe they don’t want to take my experience,” Palathinkal said. “I can prove my knowledge and skills here, based on my work in India.”

“They were chipping away at contract language, doing it covertly, and targeting people that they knew would be afraid to speak up,” Adamson said.

An attack on the contract

She and other union officers at Temple saw this pattern of underpayment as an attack on the contract. If members aren’t vigilant, management can underpay nurses in many ways—overtime, shift differential, holiday pay. This was no different.

“Truthfully, their experience is just as valuable as working down the street,” Adamson said. “Health care is health care.”

The officers brought the grievance to the bargaining team, already in contract talks. This wasn’t a question of the difference between nurses trained abroad and those trained in the U.S., they argued—the problem was management not respecting the contract. The union’s 20-member bargaining team agreed to raise the issue in negotiations.

Although it was nothing like 2010, when Temple nurses struck for 28 days, the 2016 contract campaign was vigorous. A hundred nurses packed into bargaining sessions; 1,000 signed petitions for better staffing. The union threatened an informational picket before winning a final contract agreement that included a provision spelling out that foreign nurses’ experience should be treated equally.

Meanwhile the original grievance was headed to arbitration, but at the last minute, management caved and agreed to grant back pay to the original four nurses, in addition to bumping them up to the right place on the wage scale.

Winning clear contract language was a breakthrough, but the fight wasn’t over yet. “That expanded the universe” of nurses who might be affected, Adamson said. At membership meetings the union found more underpaid nurses. Ultimately a dozen were brought up to their correct places on the scale.

Raising consciousness

The whole saga was a new experience for Palathinkal, who had never worked at a union hospital before. At the start, “I didn’t have any knowledge of what I was supposed to do or who was I supposed to talk to,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘This is not going to work.’”

But it did. “The union stood up for me,” she said.

This grievance fight gave union activists a way to get recent hires involved and show them what the union is about. “Not everyone has been through a strike,” Adamson said. “We are constantly trying to raise the consciousness of new people who are coming in.”

Many of the affected nurses have stayed engaged, signing petitions and coming to meetings. “People become more aware of, ‘The boss might be cheating me,’” Adamson said. “Any time we get a win, people are happy about it. It reinforces among the workers that we’re watching.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Samantha Winslow is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.

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The Trump Administration is About to Put Nursing Home Profits Ahead of Nursing Home Patients

May 10th, 2017 | Paul Bland

Some of the most heart-wrenching stories of abuse, mistreatment and neglect you’re likely to hear involve nursing homes. As America’s baby boomers age, and nursing home populations continue to grow, big corporations have, not surprisingly, started to take note. In fact, the vast majority of nursing homes in the United States – 70%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – are run by for-profit corporations, and an increasing number of homes are being snapped up by Wall Street investment firms.

And that, in turn, can often mean that high quality care takes a backseat to high profits.

Increasingly, these giant corporations are using forced arbitration clauses — contract terms that say that people cannot sue them, no matter what laws they break, and instead people harmed by illegal acts can only bring cases before private arbitrators who are generally beholden to the corporations. These clauses make it far harder for the victims of mistreatment to hold a facility accountable where there’s abuse or serious negligence, and they minimize the incentive to provide the highest quality of care.  The secretive arbitration system also effectively lets homes sweep the facts about problems under the rug, so that the public and regulators never learn about widespread or egregious abuses.

That’s why, in 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said nursing homes should no longer receive federal funding if they use arbitration clauses in their contracts. It was a commonsense proposal that would ensure families can hold nursing homes accountable for abuse and neglect. The government essentially said – and rightly so – that protecting desperately vulnerable people is more important than squeezing out an extra percentage of profit for hedge fund owners.

But that was 2016. Now, the Trump Administration appears to be gearing up to kill the proposal.

Senator Al Franken (D-MN), a fierce opponent of arbitration who has fought corporate lobbyists to protect Americans’ right to their day in court, said on Tuesday that “the Trump Administration is planning to lift the ban on nursing home arbitration clauses.”

So the White House, it appears, is ready to deliver another gift to hedge funds and banks – the corporate entities that increasingly control the nursing home industry – at the expense of the sick and elderly and their families.

It’s no wonder why corporate lobbyists working for the nursing home industry have made killing the CMS proposal a top priority: unlike the public court system (where trials are open to the public, press and regulators), nursing homes benefit enormously from the secretive system of arbitration, where the facts about abuses can be (and often are) buried. “Confidentiality” provisions – which really translate into gag orders – and non-transparent, non-public handling make it easier for systemic problems to stay hidden, and to continue.

If nursing homes are permitted to continue opting out of the civil justice system, we can expect to see lower levels of care, and higher numbers of preventable injuries and deaths. If they succeed in keeping families out of court, the potential savings to their bottom line are enormous when you consider that abuse is very widespread (according to the government’s own study).  Public Justice, our national public interest law firm and advocacy organization, set forth an extensive factual and legal case in support of the CMS proposal, where a great deal more background is available.

Consider just a handful of the plaintiffs who were able to successfully challenge nursing homes in court:

  • A 90-year-old woman allowed to languish with a festering pressure sore, acute appendicitis, and a urinary tract infection so severe it has entered her blood.
  • A diabetic patient injected with the incorrect dose of insulin, sending them into hypoglycemic shock and causing brain damage.
  • An 81-year-old man who was viciously beaten by a roommate who’d been involved in 30 assaults prior to moving in with the victim.
  • An 87-year-old woman whose calls for help were ignored after she fell and broke her hip.

Had any of those patients been subject to an arbitration clause – as no doubt many future cases would be if the Administration folds to pressure from for-profit homes – they likely would have never had a chance to have their case heard by a jury.

Nursing homes have complete control over some of the most vulnerable and fragile people in the entire country: people who are gravely ill, who are often cognitively impaired in ways that make it hard for them to protect themselves, are completely at the mercy of these institutions.

Now, rather than working to give those patients some small measure of protection and security, the Trump Administration is poised to give them the shaft. It’s unconscionable back-pedaling that would leave millions with little recourse when they, or their loved ones, are mistreated or abused.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos.com on May 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Bland, Jr., Executive Director, has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy. Follow him on Twitter: .

 

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5 Things You Need to Know from the AFL-CIO's New Executive Paywatch Report

May 9th, 2017 | Kenneth Quinnell

Today, the AFL-CIO released the 2017 edition of its Executive Paywatch report. The Executive Paywatch website, the most comprehensive, searchable online database tracking CEO pay, showed that in 2016, the average production and nonsupervisory worker earned some $37,600 per year. When adjusted for inflation, the average wage has remained stagnant for 50 years.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka explained the importance of these details:

This year’s report provides further proof that the greed of corporate CEOs is driving America’s income inequality crisis. Big corporations continually find ways to rig the economy in their favor and line their CEOs’ pockets at the expense of the workers who make their businesses run. Too often, corporations see workers as costs to be cut, rather than assets to be invested in. It’s shameful that CEOs can make tens of millions of dollars and still destroy the livelihoods of the hardworking people who make their companies profitable.

Here are five key things you should know from this year’s Executive Paywatch report:

1. The average compensation for an S&P 500 CEO last year was $13.1 million. In contrast, production and nonsupervisory workers earned only $37,632, on average, in 2016. The average S&P 500 CEO makes 347 times what an average U.S. rank-and-file worker makes.

2. Last year, S&P 500 CEOs got a 5.9% raise while working people struggled to make ends meet.

3. Many U.S. corporations aren’t paying taxes on their offshore profits, shifting the burden to working people. The worst of the tax avoiders, 18 Fortune 500 companies, paid $0 in federal taxes between 2008 and 2015.

4. Fortune 500 corporations are avoiding up to $767 billion in U.S. federal income taxes by holding $2.6 trillion of “permanently reinvested” profits offshore. This offshoring isn’t an accident, it’s a choice, and it has an impact on the lives of Americans. For example, last year, Mondel?z International chose to offshore some 600 jobs from its Chicago Nabisco bakery. In the same year, its CEO, Irene Rosenfeld, made $16.7 million.

5. Seven years ago, Congress passed a law that included a rule requiring all publicly traded companies to disclose their CEO-to-worker pay ratio. But Wall Street and big corporations have lobbied hard to stop the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from enforcing this rule. Take action now to change that.

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on May 9, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

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

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The GOP Just Got One Step Closer to Taking Away Your Overtime Pay

May 5th, 2017 | Elizabeth Grossman

Republicans have passed yet another bill that erodes protections for working families.

A bill Republicans have been pushing for years that undermines overtime pay just cleared the House. Called the “Working Families Flexibility Act” (H.R. 1180), it would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow private companies to offer employees “comp” time instead of overtime pay for hours worked beyond a 40-hour work week.

The bill is being sold by Republicans as family friendly and “pro-worker,” allowing workers to take time off to attend to family needs. But Democrats and scores of labor and worker advocacy groups oppose the bill, saying it offers employees a false choice between pay and time off, effectively depriving workers of earned overtime without providing guarantees of family leave or stable work schedules.

The bill passed Tuesday, by a vote of 229-197, with six Republicans joining the 191 Democrats voting “no.” Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, has introduced a companion Senate bill (S. 801) but no further action is scheduled. The Senate bill, like the House bill, has no Democratic sponsors. A spokesman for Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chair Lamar Alexander, who supports the bill, said the senator “hopes to see the bill taken up by the Senate when time allows.”

“With working families across the country scraping to make ends meet, Congress should strengthen protections for workers—not gut protections already on the books,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in statement. With their vote, she said, “House Republicans are actually voting to make it legal for employers to cheat their workers out of overtime pay. This is a disgrace.”

“This is no substitute for paid sick leave, paid family leave and the genuine protections families need. This is a way for employers to avoid paying overtime,” said National Employment Law Project federal advocacy coordinator Judy Conti.

Other critics, including the American Sustainable Business Council, call the bill “badly designed, with too much potential for abuse by employers.” Concerns include potential wage theft, favoring workers who choose comp time over paid overtime and employees’ inability to use the comp time when they actually need it. A letter from nearly 90 groups opposing the bill notes that the bill provides no guarantee that workers would get their earned overtime if a company goes bankrupt or closes up shop.

The bill would allow employers to hold the cash equivalent of overtime their workers earn. Employees could then take those hours off at a later date or cash out at the end of a calendar year. Employers would also be required to pay workers overtime owed within 30 days of receiving a written request from an employee who changes her mind and wants cash rather than time off.

Analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows how the bill doesn’t offer workers anything new and could leave them worse off financially. Or, as House Committee on Education and the Workforce Ranking Member, Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, said during the bill’s markup, “H.R. 1180 doesn’t give employees any rights they don’t already have … The bill does, however, create a new right for employers to withhold employees’ overtime pay.”

Committee Republicans say workers are being held back now by current rules and that the bill includes “numerous protections” to ensure employee choice. Democrats, however, say it does nothing to strengthen “existing workplace protections” or “flexibility.” Labor groups on record opposing the bill include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Restaurant Opportunities Center United, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, National Partnership for Women and Families and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The legislation comes as the Obama administration’s rule to extend overtime pay to workers making up to $47,476 (double the current limit of $23,660) remains in legal limbo. That rule was expected to benefit more than 4 million workers. The bill also comes while most U.S. workers remain without access to paid family leave.

A recent Pew survey found that in 2016, only 14 percent of U.S. civilian workers had paid family leave, while 88 percent relied on unpaid family leave guar
anteed to those eligible by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“The so-called Working Families Flexibility Act is not a solution,” committee member Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, said in a statement. It’s “long past time,” she said, “that Congress enacted meaningful solutions to raise workers’ wages, increase access to paid sick days and family leave, provide flexible and predictable scheduling.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American,Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

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Trump’s Immigration Gag Order

May 5th, 2017 | Patrick R. Kitchin

Like many employment lawyers in California, I’ve represented a number of undocumented immigrant workers in lawsuits against their employers. Some of my undocumented clients had been sexually harassed, some discriminated against because of their ethnicity, and some had been denied minimum wages for performing menial work.

Of course, these clients and millions of others are working here in violation of our immigration laws. But once they enter the workplace, they are entitled to all of the legal protections guaranteed their American coworkers. The 14th Amendment protects everyone in the United States, regardless of how or why they are here. So any law whose purpose or effect is to deny workers access to the full protection of our employment laws violates the Constitution.

Although I worry about the slow pace of our journey toward workplace equality, I have more immediate concerns these days. The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration executive order are creating barriers to the justice system for entire communities. If you believe there is a reasonable chance that you or a family member will be deported if you file a civil complaint, or even if you call the police to report a crime, you will be less inclined to complain.

Silencing Crime Victims

Look at what is happening in the criminal justice arena. We are barely 100 days into the Trump administration and already we are measuring its detrimental impact on crime reporting. According to the Los Angeles Police, Latino immigrants in L.A. have suddenly become less willing to report serious crimes. Chief Beck reported that complaints by immigrant Latinos dropped 25 percent in 2017 when compared to the same period last year. Reports of domestic violence fell 10 percent. Beck asked us to “imagine a young woman, imagine your daughter, your sister, your mother,” he said, “not reporting a sexual assault, because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart.” While undocumented families have always lived with the fear of deportation, the current political climate is amplifying those fears.

Reports are coming in from around the country showing a strong correlation between the Trump administration’s immigration policies and a drop in crime reporting in immigrant communities. We know reports of rape and domestic violence against women are chronically underreported for many reasons, including the very real fear that the criminal justice system will fail the victim. Now, under the Trump administration, the very act of reporting any crime to law enforcement has become unbearably more dangerous for millions of immigrant families in America.

Just last month California’s Chief Justice said, “When we hear of immigration arrests and the fear of immigration arrests in our state courthouses, I am concerned that that kind of information trickles down into the community, the schools, the churches. The families and people will no longer come to court to protect themselves or cooperate or bear witness,” she said. “I am afraid that will be the end of justice and communities will be less safe and victimization will continue.” As an employment attorney in California, I share these concerns.

Immigration policies that discourage individuals from reporting crime is bad for America. They cannot be justified on the grounds they are part of broader campaign to find and deport “bad hombres.” More crime victims, including legal residents and American citizens, will remain silent and unprotected, and more perpetrators of crime will go unpunished, because of these policies. Whether Trump’s promised border wall is ever built, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE directives have already constructed formidable barriers within America.

Silencing Employees

When those same immigration policies discourage individuals from reporting violations of employment laws, our workplaces become more dangerous too. Imagine the conversations immigrant families across America will be having about their workplace rights in the coming years. Workers will be forced to decide whether the risks of deportation of themselves or a family member makes it worth challenging wage theft, discrimination, harassment or workplace safety violations. If an undocumented worker complains about the absence of a safety guard on a factory machine or the lack of personal safety devices by filing an OSHA claim or civil lawsuit, she might be arrested and torn away from her American-born children. So, she doesn’t complain, and the workplace protections we have fought for are placed in jeopardy for all.

In the past I have assured undocumented workers that prosecuting employment claims in court likely will not subject them to heightened ICE scrutiny. I continue to believe this to be true today. Although lawsuits are open to the public, they are in practice private affairs that concern only the litigants. Employees are almost never required to step foot near the actual courthouse where their cases are pending. Most cases settle out of court and are subject to confidentiality. The immigration status of the employee is deemed by law to be entirely irrelevant and non-discoverable in almost every employment case.

Trump’s deportation directives will not change the way employment lawsuits are resolved, whether they involve citizens, legal residents or undocumented immigrants. But his threats of deportation, coupled with stories of immigrant arrests in halls of justice across America, will make it far less likely that an undocumented immigrant will complain to anyone about working conditions.

Fewer immigrant workers will file employment-related claims during the Trump years, and not just those who are undocumented. In sanctuary cities like San Francisco where I practice law, the impact is not likely to be as great as elsewhere. In communities that support the Trump immigration agenda and accept his immigrant narrative, however, the fear of deportation is likely to keep a lot more workers quiet. And we know from long experience that any governmental policy designed to silence complaints about working conditions is not in our national interest.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

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Facebook’s gender bias goes so deep it’s in the code

May 3rd, 2017 | Lauren Williams

A hurricane has been brewing at Facebook.

After years of suspicion, a veteran female Facebook engineer decided to evaluate what if any gaps there were in how female and male engineers’ work was treated.

She did it “so that we can have an insight into how the review process impacts people in various groups,” the Wall Street Journal learned exclusively.

Her analysis, conducted in September, found that female engineers’ work was rejected 35 percent more than their male counterparts based on five years of open code-review data. Women also waited 3.9 percent longer to have their code accepted and got 8.2 percent more questions and comments about their work.

Only 13 percent of Facebook’s engineers are women, 17 percent across all tech roles.

The identity of the engineer is unknown, but her findings sparked a whirlwind discussion of gender bias inside the social network after it was released last year. A group of senior Facebook officials led by Facebook’s head of infrastructure, Jay Parikh, conducted their own review of the engineer’s analysis and concluded that the rejection gap was because of the engineer’s rank rather than gender.

Facebook confirmed Parikh’s findings, calling the engineer’s data incomplete, the Wall Street Journal reported. Parikh said in an internal report revealing his analysis that while the gender component wasn’t “statistically significant” it was “still observable and felt by many of you,” and urged employees to take the company’s voluntary implicit bias training.

The report is the latest incidence of the tech industry’s rampant diversity and inclusion problem. In recent years, tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo have tried to tackle this by releasing annual diversity reports, which have shown marginal improvements in racial and gender disparities.

But Silicon Valley’s gender problem goes beyond the numbers. Facebook is the second major tech company this year to have potentially damning evidence of gender bias exposed by an employee. Earlier this year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler detailed her experiences with sexual harassment and stalled career path at the company. Fowler’s story ballooned into a media firestorm, one that Uber still hasn’t recovered from.

Neither of Facebook’s analyses and methodologies have been independently verified, but the preliminary results and Facebook’s response fall in line with how companies have previously dealt with allegations of sexism. Past surveys and studies have found that men in tech often don’t think there’s a gender problem in the industry. And when women report incidents of sexual harassment as culturally pervasive, men have said they were unaware.

Hopefully, Facebook’s voluntary bias training, which stresses bias’ impact and how to get rid of it, will become mandatory.

This post appeared originally in Think Progress on May 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Lauren C. Williams is the tech reporter for ThinkProgress. She writes about the intersection of technology, culture, civil liberties, and policy. In her past lives, Lauren wrote about health care, crime, and dabbled in politics. She is a native Washingtonian with a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s of science in dietetics from the University of Delaware.

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Food Workers Take On Fowl Play at Tyson—And Win Better Conditions

May 2nd, 2017 | Bruce Vail

A consumer pressure campaign against labor abuses in the chicken-processing industry has produced some initial results, with a detailed pledge this week from Tyson Foods to build a better workplace for its 95,000 employees.

The campaign, led by the famed hunger-fighting group Oxfam America, is challenging Tyson and three other large chicken producers to improve on their collective record of chronic worker safety problems, poverty-level wages and anti-union attitudes. It was launched in late 2015 with the help of a coalition of like-minded groups, including the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. Tyson’s pledge is the campaign’s first visible success.

An announcement from Tyson executive Noel White carefully avoided the language of labor rights and emphasized, instead, “investing in sustainability … to create a beneficial cycle of contributing to the future.” Nevertheless, the pledge promises some real improvements in the lives of workers on the shop floor, including:

  • Improving workplace health and safety with a commitment to achieving a 15 percent year-over-year reduction in worker injuries and illnesses;
  • Committing to a goal of zero turnover, striving for a 10 percent year-over-year improvement company-wide in worker retention;
  • Hiring 25 or more poultry plant safety trainers, adding to about 300 trainers and training coordinators the company has hired since 2015;
  • Broadening a pilot compensation program at two poultry plants aimed at increasing base wages and shortening the time it takes new workers to move to higher wage rates;
  • Making public the results of third-party social compliance audits of Tyson plants;
  • Improving and expanding other existing company-wide programs for worker health and well-being.

“Tyson Foods’ commitment to worker safety and worker rights should not just be applauded—it should serve as a model for the rest of the industry,” said Marc Perrone, president of UFCW. “Through our ongoing partnership with Tyson Foods, we have already made valuable progress. We look forward to these new and expanded initiatives.”

Oxfam campaign chief Minor Sinclair echoed Perrone’s call that other chicken producers adopt Tyson’s approach. The three other companies targeted by Oxfam—Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue and Sanderson Farms—have thus far refused to engage with the Oxfam-led coalition, Sinclair tells In These Times. The three are now “lagging behind” in their treatment of workers and their sensitivity to the concerns of consumers, he says.

Sinclair credited other organizations in the “Big Chicken” coalition for the initial breakthrough with Tyson. In addition to UFCW, other prominent members include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center. Even the U.S. Department of Labor has supported the safety goals of the coalition, he says.

Tyson itself has only recently had a change of heart about the Oxfam campaign, Sinclair continues. For the first year or so, Tyson typically ignored Oxfam and its allies. “For many months we felt stonewalled.” But a change came in late 2016, he says, at about the same time Tyson named Tom Hayes as the new chief executive.

“I can’t really say the exact reason that Tyson changed its attitude, but I don’t think it is a coincidence,” Sinclair said about the change in leadership.

UFCW is the largest union at Tyson, representing about 24,000 of its hourly workers, says company spokesman Gary Mickelson. There is some unionization at 30 of the company’s 100 U.S. food-product plants, he says, with a handful of other unions representing an additional 5,000 employees.

One of the other union is the UFCW-affiliated Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Randy Hadley, a RWDSU organizer, tells In These Times he hopes to see results from Tyson’s pledges soon. A cavalier approach to worker safety has characterized the meat industry for decades, he says, and improvements are long overdue.

“I hope this isn’t just a bunch of PR nonsense,” he says.

RWDSU, which represents Tyson workers in one of the Alabama chicken plants, has seen an increased emphasis on safety recently, according to Hadley.

“We have seen an increase in the number of safety meetings and safety training sessions,” he says, “so I’ll give them credit for that.”

Language barriers are the biggest obstacle to effective safety training, Hadley adds, because Tyson recruits a lot of new immigrants, including political refugees from the Middle East and other hot spots, to work in the chicken plants.

“We have another plant that we represent in Tennessee. When we print out our union literature, we do it in 17 different languages. And some of these folks can barely read, even in their own home language,” Hadley says.

As part of the new commitments announced this week by Tyson, the company pledged to expand its in-house program called “Upward Academy,” which offers courses in English as a Second Language (ESL) and other services aimed specifically at new immigrants.

This week’s announcement follows the company’s 2015 move to raise wages at most of its plants. At that time, Tyson said it would establish a new minimum of at least $10 an hour, up from $8 to $9 an hour. Top labor rates for certain skilled maintenance jobs were to be raised to as high as $26 an hour at the same time.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on April 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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On May Day, Working People Across Borders Are United to Build Power

May 1st, 2017 | Richard Trumka

Throughout North America and globally, May 1 is a day to remember and respect workers’ rights as human rights. As working people take to the streets in communities around the world, a quieter but equally important movement of workers on both sides of the United States–Mexico border has been growing.

Whatever language we speak and wherever we call home, working people are building power, supporting labor rights and fighting corruption—and we’re doing it together.

Our agenda is simple. We oppose efforts to divide and disempower working people, and we oppose border walls and xenophobia anywhere and everywhere. We want trade laws that benefit working people, not corporations. And we want economic rules that raise wages, broaden opportunity and hold corporations accountable.

Nearly 20 years ago, many independent and democratic Mexican unions began an alliance with the AFL-CIO.

We’ve developed a good working relationship. We’ve engaged in important dialogue and identified shared priorities. Now we are ready to take our solidarity to the next level, turning words into deeds and plans into action.

You see, we believe no fundamental difference exists between us. We share common values rooted in social justice and a common vision of the challenges before us.

The corporate elite in the United States and Mexico have been running roughshod over working people for too long. Corporate-written trade and immigration policies have hurt workers on both sides of the border.  We each have experienced the devastation caused by economic rules written by and for the superrich.

Those of us in the United States can see how unfair economic policies have destroyed Mexico’s small farms and pushed many Mexicans to make the perilous trek north or settle in dangerous cities. Many in Mexico are worried about their own families, some of whom might be immigrants in the United States today. Workers in the United States share their concern, especially as anti-immigrant sentiment has become disturbingly mainstream.

The truth is more and more politicians are exploiting the insecurity and pain caused by corporate economic rules for political gain by stoking hatred and scapegoating Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants.

We will not be divided like this. Workers north and south of the border find the idea of a border wall to be offensive and stand against the criminalization of immigrant workers. We need real immigration reform that keeps families together, raises labor standards and gives a voice to all workers.

Instead of erecting walls, American and Mexican leaders should focus on rewriting the economic rules so working people can get ahead and have a voice in the workplace. One of our top priorities is to transform trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement into a tool for raising wages and strengthening communities in both countries.

We’re outraged by the kidnapping and murder of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, as well as too many other atrocities to list.

America’s unions are democratic in nature and independent of both business and government, but that’s mostly not true in Mexico. A key step in ending violence and impunity in Mexico and raising wages and standards on both sides of the border is to protect union rights and the freedom of association in Mexico.

We’re united. We’re resolute. We are ready to win dignity and justice for all workers.

This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on May 1, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka is the nation’s clearest voice on the critical need to ensure that all workers have a good job and the power to determine their wages and working conditions. He heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based on broadly shared prosperity and to hold elected officials and employers accountable to working families.

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The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

April 28th, 2017 | Leo Gerard

Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

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

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Democrats unveil plan for a $15 minimum wage

April 27th, 2017 | Laura Clawson

Congressional Democrats have unveiled their strongest minimum wage plan yet. And while Republicans will block this, it’s important to get the word out: this is what we’d be moving toward if Democrats were making the laws.

Their legislation, dubbed the Raise the Wage Act, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, increasing it from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $9.20 an hour once it’s passed and then adding about a dollar a year for seven years until it gets to $15. It would rise automatically after that as the country’s median wages rose.

The bill would eventually do away with the separate tipped minimum wage, which currently allows those who earn tips as part of their compensation to be paid as little as $2.13 an hour by their employers. It would increase that rate to $3.15 and then gradually raise it so it would eventually reach $15 an hour.

Seven years is slow, but otherwise, this plan checks some important boxes—in particular, raising the tipped minimum wage and setting it so that the minimum wage rises automatically rather than requiring a fight each and every time it’s raised. If Democrats had done that the last time they raised the minimum wage, it wouldn’t still be stuck at $7.25 an hour nearly eight years after its last increase, years during which it’s lost nearly 10 percent of its purchasing power. The Raise the Wage Act would also ensure that people with disabilities are paid the full minimum wage.

Every single time you talk about lawmakers backing a $15 minimum wage, you have to remember that it’s low-wage workers who pushed $15 into the realm of possibility, organizing around a number nearly $5 higher than the high end of Democratic proposals at the time. Their organizing has changed the discussion—and in two states and several large cities, it’s helped change the law.

We need to change the Congress, though, before we’ll see nationwide progress.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on April 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

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