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Why the Fed Isn't Close to Achieving Full Employment and Shouldn’t Be Discussing Raising Interest Rates—the Case of Black Workers

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

William SpriggsThe recently released minutes of the last meeting of the Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market Committee revealed there was serious discussion of the fact the labor market still showed signs of weakness. A primary issue was the lack of evidence of strong wage growth, which would be a clear signal the labor market was tightening. This has unleashed the Wall Street bettors, who want a jump on the Fed’s changing monetary policy, giving them more active play on the bond market, where interest rate movements can fuel their gambling addiction. The voices being raised to have the Fed raise interest rates march out lots of theory to predict uncontrolled inflation, despite a global slowdown, falling oil and natural resource prices, and flat real wages. We must hope that the Fed makes policy based on what is good for the economy, not what is good for the reckless gamblers on Wall Street.

The current directive to the Fed comes from the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which in 1978 established that the nation’s primary economic policy is to achieve full employment, within reason—not by creating unsustainable budget deficits or igniting uncontrollable inflation. Unfortunately, many have twisted the legislation’s purpose to their own ends, changing the act’s intent to balance budgets and maintain low inflation in hopes those policies don’t increase unemployment. The act does not place full employment on equal footing with fighting inflation; it merely constrains full-employment policy to a measure of prudence.

With that in mind, the Fed should understand it is not at full employment. In addition to wages rising with productivity, a main tenant of evidence of full employment, the Fed needs to embrace some additional senses of full employment. One is that discrimination would disappear, since it would become prohibitively costly in a full-employment economy.

A problem for the Fed is that there is little diversity in its staffing, which reflects the low level of diversity among economists. Economists have convinced themselves there is little to explain about the persistence of the disparity in black and white unemployment rates, the ratio of which remains stubbornly at 2-to-1. It is enough to assume there are lower skill levels among African Americans and societal structural issues that permanently disadvantage African Americans, and that these circumstances will persist no matter what the level of unemployment.

Of course, many economists do appreciate that this pat answer is hard to reconcile with the great sensitivity that the black unemployment rate has to the economy—a tightening labor market brings down the black unemployment rate at twice the rate for whites. That makes the structural argument difficult to maintain.

There is another key element. The unemployment rate gaps between blacks and whites are stubborn at every education level, and the gaps are glaring. In fact, what the unemployment rate gaps for blacks suggest is the old adage that blacks must be twice as good to compete in the labor market with whites. The unemployment rate for blacks with more education is similar to that of whites with less education. This is true for blacks at all education levels, from college graduates to associate degree holders to high school graduates. And it is very difficult to argue that those huge gaps do not reflect discrimination.

When the labor market tanks, and the number of unemployed workers per job opening goes up, the gaps faced by better educated blacks to less educated whites get wider. Black college graduates find themselves with unemployment rates closer to white high school graduates, and blacks with associate degrees find themselves with unemployment rates worse than white high school dropouts.

When the labor market tightens, unemployment rates for blacks with more education improve such that they are better than those of less educated whites, though still off the mark compared with equally educated whites. When employers are faced with two unemployed working people for each job opening, many stop seeing color and start seeing qualifications. Employers faced with a growing economy and smaller applicant pools find it would now cost to discriminate by passing over the qualified African American applicant. We don’t know what would happen if the nation maintained its commitment to full employment, because just as the black unemployment rates near parity with whites, our economic policy switches all reverse to slow the economy, increase unemployment and push blacks off the path to equality.

The Fed needs to see that its policies are part of that problem. Slowing the economy before we reach full employment means employers never have to raise wages nor understand the costs of their discriminatory practices.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 21 ,2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

What Is the Federal Reserve Doing?

Friday, June 26th, 2015

William Spriggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Legacy Remembered

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015


Every February, people across the country celebrate Black History Month. We honor the  heritage and struggle of African Americans in the United States while looking with hope  toward the future. This year, I am honored to look back at organizers and activists who  inspire me daily in my work as a leader in the labor movement. The history of the  modern labor movement, which is positioned to speak, fight and win on behalf of all  workers, is filled with strong black figures who fought for civil and economic justice  during a time when justice was not guaranteed for all.

When I arrived in the United States at the age of 15 as a refugee of war-torn Ethiopia, I  struggled to take care of myself financially while also trying to focus on my academics.  When I started college at Cal Poly Pomona on an athletic scholarship, I also got a job as a night shift loader for UPS as a member of Teamsters Local 396. UPS was my first union job, and it opened my eyes to the world of labor and all of the trailblazing African American organizers who had come before me.

People like Bayard Rustin, who persevered in the face of threats and violence in his efforts to organize workers on behalf of the trade unionists. Despite enduring multiple arrests and beatings, Rustin continued in his work and went on to help organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside A. Philip Randolph, another great African American labor leader. The March on Washington was the largest demonstration the United States had ever seen, bringing together hundreds of people in the struggle for better jobs and better lives.

Thanks to the work of activists like Rustin and Randolph, all African Americans have moved closer to achieving the goals of justice and equality set forth by the civil rights movement. Rustin and Randolph are important examples of the positive role unions and collective action play in the African American struggle for economic justice. Today, African American union members earn 28% more than our nonunion peers and are far more likely to have good benefits that help us raise families. But there is still work to be done.

Now more than ever, the struggle for civil rights must include good jobs that raise wages and an economy that works for all. Without good jobs, there is no real freedom. While African American union members are weathering the economic downturn with the aid of collective bargaining, our nonunion brothers and sisters are suffering. Today African Americans have a 10.4% rate of unemployment in the United States, compared to a 4.8% rate for white Americans.

It’s time for the next generation of leaders to take up the torch and work on behalf of all workers. I am grateful for the inspiration that past African American leaders have left behind for me. This proud legacy continues to motivate fellow activists who are fighting for justice today. Let’s get to work and make them proud.

This article originally appeared at  The Huffington Post on February 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission from AFL-CIO Now.

About the author: Tefere Gebre is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO.

After Rolling Stone’s UVa. Retraction, Randi Weingarten Shares Personal Story of Sexual Assault

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

In the wake of Rolling Stone‘s statement that it could not stand by the veracity of its bombshell piece detailing an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, anti-sexual assault activists around the country performed a collective facepalm. By failing to properly fact-check the anonymous victim’s account and then walking back the story, the magazine practically invited the slimiest corners of the Right to engage in victim-blaming, slut-shaming and all-around vicious misogyny.

It’s a moment when feminist allies need to speak out on behalf of women’s rights and loudly insist that sexual violence is an epidemic that has to be taken seriously. In the past, however, unions often have not been willing to speak out about sexual assault—even among those that have attempted to carry out a broad progressive agenda, or those with large female memberships.

So it was a welcome surprise to see American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten strongly weighing in on the issue Jezebel yesterday, explaining little-covered efforts by her union to fight sexual assault on college campuses—and detailing her own experience with sexual assault:

“It was just after my junior year in college. I had an internship in labor relations at an automobile plant in Warren, Ohio. A New Yorker from birth, I was out of my element. I tried to find community to anchor my summer in Warren. I did what was familiar: I went to shul. One family invited me over for Shabbat dinner. Dutifully and hopefully, I went. They also invited a young man. He was nice enough. So, when this “nice Jewish guy” invited me for dinner, I said, “Sure.”

“A few days later, I went to his apartment. And that’s where it happened. He tried to rape me. I managed to get out after a struggle, but the emotional scarring was deep.”

She goes on to recall how the assault stayed with her for decades, and why she never spoke about it publicly:

“I didn’t report it. I thought it was my fault. I thought I should have known better. I should have been smarter.”

“I carried it with me for years and years. The shame and the fear faded but never erased completely as I graduated from college and law school, then became a lawyer, a teacher and a union leader.”

Weingarten also gives an example of what a labor movement committed to fighting sexual assault can accomplish, saying her union was central to pushing for a strong sexual assault policies at the State University of New York—what one administrator called “the most comprehensive, victim-centered set of sexual assault policies at any college campus or system of higher education in the country.” And today, the AFT launched a petition calling for a national campus sexual assault bill.

In recent years, the AFT has often been a strongly progressive union on social issues, and backing a national sexual assault bill seems to fit in with the AFL-CIO’s recent commitments to be a part of a broader progressive movement that includes the feminist movement. But rarely do such commitments come with public declarations of such deeply personal stories as Weingarten’s. If more union leaders like her can take her lead to speak up about the epidemic of sexual assault around the country, and can commit to pushing for those commitments at the rank-and-file level, it could be greatly strengthen the movement against sexual assault while expanding the purview of the American labor movement.

This blog original appeared in Inthesetimes.com on December 16, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17463/aft_randi_weingarten_sexual_assault_story

About the author: Micah Uetricht is the web editor of In These Times. He is a contributing editor at Jacobin and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. He has written for The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, and the Chicago Reader.

Frack Till You Drop

Monday, May 26th, 2014

AUTHORS: Mike Elk, Cole Stangler, and Rebecca Burns

This month, the AFL-CIO unveiled its annual “Death on the Job” report, which highlights the often-overlooked toll of workplace accidents and fatalities. This year’s biggest takeaway: the dangerous—and deadly—consequences of America’s fracking-fueled oil and gas boom.

In recent years, deaths in the oil and natural gas industry have seen an especially sharp rise. The toll jumped by a stunning 23 percent in 2012 alone. This trend dates back to 2008, when horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” ushered in a new wave of oil and gas drilling across the nation. Fracking “boom towns” in states like North Dakota and Wyoming, rich in the kinds of shale formations that frackers lust after for their oil and gas deposits, have in turn seen a wave of industry-related accidents and health problems.

“The escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention,” the AFL-CIO’s report reads. “Without action, the workplace fatality crisis in this industry only will get worse as production intensifies and expands.”

Oil and natural gas industry workers regularly face hazards such as burns and exposure to toxic substances, which can lead to serious injuries or even death. But there’s reason to believe that fracking workers face further dangers, the long-term consequences of which may not yet have even begun to manifest fully.

Use of frac sand, which typically has high silica content, is an integral part of the fracking process. In industry-speak, it’s known as a “proppant”: Injected deep into rock formations, frac sand creates fissures in the ground, releasing oil and gas. Recent studies suggest that fracking workers are at particularly high risk of exposure to silica dust from that frac sand. Over time, silica dust exposure can cause cancer, silicosis and other fatal diseases.

But while labor has decried the dangers associated with fracking, some unions have been taking increasingly aggressive stances in favor of the practice. In a bid to reverse devastating job losses, energy and construction unions have entered into labor-management partnerships with the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other industry groups, lining up alongside the same interests that oppose union organizing efforts and tougher safety regulations.

“We hear a lot of commotion from those who want to unnecessarily limit job growth, force higher energy bills on us all and stifle opportunity tied to this abundant domestic energy source that is improving our environment and our standard of living,” declared Dennis Martire, vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) (an affiliate of the AFL-CIO’s Building Construction Trades Department), in an pro-fracking op-ed that he co-authored with a local Pennsylvania-based Chamber of Commerce president. In a recent statement to the Associated Press, Martire called shale drilling a “lifesaver and a lifeline for a lot of working families.”

This raises the questions of whether some unions are taking a contradictory approach to workplace safety in the oil and gas industry: urging intervention to stop accidents while encouraging expansion of a practice that has increased them. Critics say this approach is a self-defeating one. Now, this tension is playing out in a fight over a long-awaited federal rule that would limit workers’ exposure to silica dust.

Unions say ‘frack it’

Silica exposure is one of the oldest known workplace dangers, but the federal standards regulating it are more than four decades out of date, leaving them out of sync with both changes in the nature of workers’ exposure and the science surrounding silica-related diseases. Now, after years of entreaties by workplace safety advocates, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel for silica-exposed workers.

In April, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concluded public hearings for a new rule that would effectively halve the permissible exposure limits for “respirable crystalline silica”—that is, the particles that, inhaled over time, can lead to silicosis and other diseases. OSHA estimates that the rule would save 700 lives per year.

While the AFL-CIO and a host of other labor groups struggle to ensure the new rule’s quick approval, they’re facing familiar foes: business lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the rule. The API, which represents a slew of companies heavily invested in the fracking industry, charges that the proposed regulation would impose new compliance costs that are too painful for businesses to swallow. This is a familiar complaint from an industry famously averse to regulation.

But even as construction and building trades unions battle with the API over the new rule, they’ve aligned with the industry group when it comes to the expansion of fracking.

In 2009, 15 unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Building Construction Trade Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO, joined the pro-fracking, pro-Keystone XL “Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee,” billed as “the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally.” According to a forthcoming briefing paper from the climate-conscious coalitionTrade Unions for Energy Democracy, the alliance “has been the source of numerous pro-fracking resolutions adopted by state-level federations of the AFL-CIO.  … In [multiple] states, unions have stood alongside the Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute in supporting and promoting fracking.”

Critics say that the partnership has also locked building trades-affiliated unions into a “transactional relationship” with the oil and natural gas industry (as In These Times has reported previously). The API, for instance, was a key sponsor of the BCTD legislative conference this March. Meanwhile, unions have spent millions lobbying for the expansion of oil and natural gas projects that depend heavily on fracking. In New York State, for example, pro-fracking unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) spent $1.4 million between 2007 and 2013 on lobbying in favor of expanded fracking in the state, according to watchdog group Common Cause. In Kentucky, LIUNA quickly emerged as one of the most prominent champions of the now-stalled Bluegrass Pipeline, a project that would transport natural gas liquids from the shale fields of Ohio to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.

This relationship doesn’t end with drill-to-pipeline projects, either. More recently, building trades and their affiliates have backed industry efforts to start exporting a potentially lucrative and fracking-derived product from the United States—liquefied natural gas (LNG). Most notably, the BCTD has lobbied heavily for the construction of the hotly contested Cove Point export facility in Lusby, Maryland, siding with terminal operator Dominion Energy against a large protest movement. The United Association of Plumbers, Fitters and HVAC Techs, meanwhile, supports reforms that would speed up the federal LNG export-permitting process. Thanks in large part to this swell of pressure from the building trades, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered his broad support for gas exports for the first time in January.

In all of these cases, construction and building trades unions say they’re motivated by the prospect of well-paid jobs. And indeed, partnerships with the energy industry have helped some unions win contracts to build energy pipelines and infrastructure serving export facilities. LIUNA Vice President Dennis Martire has said that the number of hours worked by LIUNA members on pipeline projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia as a result of shale drilling increased from 400,000 hours in 2008 to 5.7 million hours in 2012.

But job figures have often fallen far short of industry projections. While industry-financed studies have claimed that fracking creates as many as 31 new jobs per well, a November 2013 analysis by the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative, a coalition of policy groups who oppose fracking, found that on average, each new well drilled in the Marcellus Shale region between 2005 and 2012 created fewer than four jobs. And when it comes work at drilling sites, one of the most dangerous aspects of fracking operations, the workforce is still almost exclusively non-unionized.

“For the most part, [fracking jobs] are not good jobs, and they’re highly destructive,” says Joe Uehlein, a former Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and current director of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “The idea of being for jobs simply because it’s a job, that’s something we have to re-examine.”

Dust in the wind

Silica-related diseases are typically associated with industries such as mining, construction and masonry. But as the shale boom continues—according to an October 2013 report from Environment America, fracking operations are now under way in 17 states—so, too, do the risks for workers in an industry that’s highly dangerous and still heavily non-union.

Silica-related diseases take far longer to manifest than the burns, broken bones, and the type of fatalities outlined in the AFL-CIO report, but recent evidence suggests that fracking workers are being exposed to alarming concentrations of silica. OSHA and NIOSH issued a hazard alert in 2012 after nearly 50 percent of air samples taken from a field survey of 11 fracking sites in five states were discovered to have silica rates exceeding the current rule’s permissible levels. That’s particularly notable because many safety experts consider the current exposure limit to be inadequate.

“These exposures were, in some cases, 10 times the amount of the allowable limits,” says Peter Dooley, a health and safety consultant for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) who testified before OSHA last month.

OSHA has said that approximately 25,000 workers at 444 fracking worksites would benefit from the proposed new rule, and estimates that additional protections—including better ventilation, a misting system and enclosed “operator booths” for the most exposed workers—would be required for 88 percent of fracking workers in order to comply with the change.

Concerned with the costs of compliance, business and industry groups are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the proposed new rule. “In drafting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Congress never intended to protect employees by putting their employers out of business,” the American Petroleum Institute said in its written comments to OSHA, also arguing that while silica exposure does pose a hazard to workers, existing methods of reducing this exposure have been effective.

Meanwhile, a host of labor groups have testified in favor of the new rule, including the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department and the International Union of Operating Engineers.

During API’s April 4 testimony, Walter Jones, associate director of occupational safety and health for LHSFNA, rebutted arguments made by the industry group on a number of points.

Though API has criticized OSHA for relying on insufficient evidence in its rulemaking, Jones notes that the industry group has kept its own data on fracking-related silica exposure—gathered through a survey of the fracking industry, as part of a voluntary safety effort focused on respirable silica—close to the vest. Currently, the API survey results are not available to federal regulators. A spokesperson for the STEPS Network, the API-coordinated safety effort, told In These Times in mid-May that the study was still ongoing, and that the data hadn’t been released simply because there wasn’t yet enough data to make analysis worthwhile.

But LHSFNA’s Jones calls API’s unwillingness to share this existing data “unfair and unfortunate.”  Following the OSHA hearings, he told In These Times, “The issue for me was that API member organizations are out there right now characterizing exposures and looking at controls, and I’d like for them to submit that to the record so that we can have a fuller picture of what’s going on.”

API also contends that silica-related deaths are decreasing, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. In response, Jones contends, “Fracking is a relatively new phenomenon, and silicosis has a latency period of up to 20 years. This is a case where there are long-term consequences that we [typically] don’t deal with until after the bodies start piling up.”

An unsavory alliance

The fate of the proposed rule still remains uncertain. After extending its initial public comment period this year by nearly two months following pressure from industry groups, OSHA will now continue taking post-hearing arguments and briefs until July, leaving any potential regulation still a long way off.  While LIUNA and a number of other unions can attempt to counter API efforts to slow or weaken the new regulations during the hearing process, they remain key members of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee. To some critics, this strategy—opposing API’s stance on a particular regulation, while allying with it and other industry groups on wide-ranging policy issues—looks a lot like labor shooting itself in the foot.

The new silica rule is the latest in a long line of workplace safety regulations opposed by API. The institute has fought union-led efforts to implement new regulations reducing workers’ exposure to the carcinogenic element benzene, as well as the lead in gasoline. API opposition to such regulatory efforts may have delayed these rules from coming into effect sooner, thereby putting affected workers’ lives at risk. In the same fashion, API’s demand that OSHA withdraw its current proposal on silica exposure could delay the rule’s future implementation.

Some in organized labor say the oil and gas industry can be made safer—it’s just going to take better regulation and eventual union representation of workers at drill sites.

On a press call discussing the new AFL-CIO report, In These Times asked AFL-CIO Director of Safety and Health Peg Seminario if she believed that labor-management partnerships in the oil and gas industry were productive in light of the sector’s alarming workplace fatality rate.

“I think it is a sector that needs organization, as do many,” Seminario said. “One of the things I would compare is what the experience has been in coal mining, for example. Which is a very dangerous industry where you’ve had a strong union and you have strong government oversight and has made a huge difference. I think we need to … bring that into oil and gas because clearly it’s just as hazardous.”

But others point out that the path of labor-management partnerships is unlikely to produce strong regulations. “I don’t recall a single time that API did anything other than obstruct, delay or file lawsuits over the introduction of any worker safety and health program,” says Bob Wages, former president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). “I can’t understand why [the building trades] would have anything to do with people who absolutely don’t give a shit if people die on the job.”

Moreover, this sort of approach still neglects the industry’s environmental impact, says Bob Wages, whose union mobilized a highly successful labor-environmental partnership during the 1973 Shell Oil Strike.

“The idea that a union will sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re going to cooperate with them because if we’re there, we’re gonna enforce health and safety, and that’s gonna have a positive effect on the environment’—I’ve never seen it [play out] in terms of how the industry responds to any of these concerns,” he says. “That’s just happy talk. There’s no relationship between building [a facility], and enforcing health and safety regulations in that phase of it, and what the industry does generally once it comes to pollution, [flouting] environmental regulations and damaging the environment.”

Some trade unionists have another path in mind: They argue that it’s time to seriously consider moving beyond fossil fuels. Not only is renewable energy generation better for the planet in the long-term, they note, it’s far safer for workers and their communities in the here and now.

The Canadian union UNIFOR, for example, has been at the forefront of such a forward-thinking approach within labor’s ranks, arguing that energy workers must also consider the health of the communities they work and live in. Even though the union represents workers in the oil and gas industry, last November it passed a resolution calling for a nationwide fracking moratorium.

“We’re going to find a way to build a sustainable future, we’re going to find a way to solve the climate crisis,” says Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “Labor will be far better off if it figures out how to get on that train and be a part of that movement, as opposed to sitting back and fighting it the way they often do.”

(In These Times reached out to the offices of the Building Trades Unions and the Laborers’ Mid-Atlantic region for comment, but did not receive a response).

 This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Authors: Cole Stangler, Rebecca Burns and Mike Elk are Schumann Fellows at In These Times magazine.

Maryland Unions Hit Jobs Jackpot with New Casinos

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Bruce VailLabor unions in the Washington, D.C. area got an early Christmas present December 20, when Maryland state officials announced their approval of a plan to build a massive MGM Resorts International casino complex just a few miles from the nation’s Capitol building.

The news comes as a welcome sign of organized labor’s vitality in Maryland, which has seen falling union membership during the last decade. As of 2012, unions represented just 12.3 percent of Maryland jobholders—a decrease of 23,000 workers from the previous year.

One of Maryland labor’s responses to this challenge has been to lobby on behalf of expanded gambling long before casino construction ever takes place, usually in return for a mutually beneficial “labor peace agreement.” In the case of MGM Resorts, the gambling powerhouse received its approval from the Maryland Video Lottery Facility Location Commission with the help of an ad-hoc coalition of local labor unions, says John Boardman, an officer of D.C.-based Unite Here Local 25. He estimates that the $925 million project will generate about 2,000 temporary construction jobs and 4,000 permanent ones.

“We have a labor peace agreement with MGM, so I expect we will be moving pretty quickly to organize wall-to-wall,” Boardman tells Working In These Times. About 2,000 of the permanent casino workers are likely to be represented by Local 25, he says, with the remainder spread out among Teamsters Local 639, International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 99 and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 22. Similarly, the 2,000 temporary construction jobs are expected to be filled by union members linked to the Washington, D.C. Building Trades Council (AFL-CIO), a regional alliance of 15 union locals of electricians, ironworkers, painters, plumbers and others.

As the sixth major gambling site in the state, MGM’s construction signifies the emergence of casinos in Maryland as “a billion-dollar industry,” notes James Karmel, a historian, author and gambling industry analyst. This growth has been aided in large part by the lobbying efforts of local labor, particularly where casino-friendly legislation is concerned. Unions supported a 2008 state constitutional referendum that legalized slot machine parlors; its passage prompted the opening of four such establishments throughout Maryland. And after another 2012 statewide referendum—also strongly supported by unions—granted slot machine operators the right to expand into other types of gambling and to commence 24-hour operation, an expanded Caesars Entertainment Horseshoe site began construction in Baltimore.

All this has added up to a regional gambling boom, Karmel says, with the creation of more than 9,000 permanent jobs in addition to thousands of temporary construction ones. But allying with labor is nothing new for casino companies, who have successfully negotiated deals with labor unions in other locations around the country.

“It’s logical that the big casino companies like MGM and Caesars would bring unions with them when they expand into Maryland,” because these same companies are also heavily unionized in Las Vegas and elsewhere, says Karmel. “They are used to having unions … there is a long tradition of unionization in gambling.”

Indeed, in April 2013, Working In These Times reported that Caesars had struck a deal to unionize most of its estimated 1,700 permanent casino jobs in Baltimore, paralleling its existing agreements in other cities. And Boardman expects the yet-to-be-negotiated labor contracts at MGM’s Maryland location to mirror the “middle class wages and benefits” established by the company’s labor pacts with Unite Here locals at its branches in Las Vegas. He says many MGM entry-level jobs will likely pay about $17 an hour and come with fully paid health benefits.

The opportunity for organizing is so great, in fact, that it may be causing dissension among various unions when it comes to employee coverage. For example, the November 2013 issue of The Seafarers Log, the official publication of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), reported that a joint effort between the SIU-affiliated Seafarers Entertainment and Allied Trades Union (SEATU) and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 27 had succeeded in signing up about 2,500 new union members working at the expanded slot parlors. Sources indicate that some local unions regard SEATU as an intruder into their own jurisdictions. (Representatives from SIU and UFCW declined to comment for this story.)

For the most part, however, with labor peace agreements now in place for Maryland’s two large new casinos, leaders are counting the boom as a success. Fred Mason, President of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, says the growth is a good example of the kind of gains that can be made when unions engage politicians and the public in job-creation initiatives.

“It’s creating jobs and pumping money into the economy generally,” he says. “And, of course, it is important that these are good-paying union jobs.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on January 8, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: 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.

8 Ways That ALEC Is Targeting Working Families

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallInformation about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) working in secret to push state-level policy to more extreme levels is coming to light more and more and America’s working families are starting to stand up to the group’s corporate-driven agenda. While ALEC’s agenda is all over the policy map, the organization has a particular focus on pushing new laws that attack working families and undercut the rights of workers, both in the workplace and in retirement.  Here are eight of the most dangerous and most widespread ways that ALEC is targeting workers and their right to a voice on the job.

8. Voter ID Act: Laws directly based on or similar to ALEC’s Voter ID Act have been introduced in recent years in nearly every state, with more than a dozen states passing or strengthening such laws in the past three years. These laws disproportionately affect working families, senior citizens, people of color and residents of rural areas and help elect legislators who vote against the rights and needs of workers.

7. Paycheck Protection Bills: ALEC has at least four different versions of this legislation, each one more extreme than the last, that were introduced 20 times in various states in 2013. These bills range from requiring that each employee sign an annual form authorizing that their union dues be allowed to be used for political purposes to preventing payroll deductions from being used for union dues. These bills provide no additional rights to workers and do nothing more than weaken the ability of workers to collectively bargain by depriving unions of the funds they need to fight on behalf of their members.

6. Direct Union Assaults: Through model legislation such as the Election Accountability for Municipal Employee Union Representatives Act and the De-certification Elections Act, introduced in Idaho and Arizona, respectively, ALEC is seeking to make public employees vote over and over again to retain their union status, giving ALEC and other groups the opportunity to flood workers with anti-union propaganda.

5. Public Employees’ Portable Retirement Option Act: Through this and similar bills, 10 states have attempted to weaken or eliminate defined-benefit pension plans and replace them with defined-contribution plans, which make retirees depend on the market for how much money they have for retirement and health care.

4. Council on Efficient Government Act: As Orwellian a name as any in the ALEC arsenal, this legislation does nothing but use government money to create a commission to figure out ways to privatize government services. In other words, yet another example of ALEC attempting to get taxpayer money into the hands of private corporations without any accountability or taxpayer recourse.

3. “Right to Work” Act: This incredibly misleadingly titled legislation gives no one any new rights and does nothing but prevent employees from paying for the benefits that unions earn on their behalf. So-called “right to work” for less states end up paying their workers a lot less than states that don’t have such laws. In 2013, 15 states introduced this legislation.

2. Parent Trigger Act: These laws give parents the option, once a majority of parents sign a petition, to change a public school into a charter school, give students vouchers or close the school. Seven states have passed parent trigger laws similar to the ALEC bill. Parent Trigger laws force parents to make a bad choice—either stick with a poorly performing school, or take drastic actions that are likely to make things worse, do little to help students and are a boon for corporate groups that run private schools. Meanwhile one of the best tools for helping working families reach the middle class—public education—gets less and less funding.

1. Wage Protections: In 14 states, ALEC model legislation attacking wage protections were introduced. The bills sought to weaken or eliminate laws that require prevailing wages, living wages or minimum wages. Big corporations heavily support these efforts, which would only serve to lower wages for workers.

On Thursday, Aug. 8, working families and other opponents of the ALEC agenda will be rallying at the conservative group’s convention in Chicago. Those who are in the area can RSVP online.

This article originally appeared on AFL-CIO NOW blog on August 7, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Indiana Working Families Win Dramatic Improvements In Workers' Compensation Insurance

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallThe Indiana State AFL-CIO fought for and won dramatic improvements in the workers’ compensation system this year. Over the next three years, several major increases in benefits and new workers’ rights will be phased in. This will mitigate the effect of workplace injuries on those hurt on the job and their families in the Hoosier State, the Indiana State AFL-CIO reports.

The first part of the new legislation will increase wage replacement benefits. Starting in July 2014, the cap (currently at $975) will be raised by 20% over the following three years to a total of $1,170 in 2016. More workers will receive a full two-thirds of their weekly wage.

The next effect of the legislation deals with increasing compensation for people permanently impaired from a work-related injury. Current law requires doctors to determine how much the injuries impair the employee and compensation is paid to the injured party based on the severity of the impairment. Starting in July 2014 and phased in until 2016, the compensation for work-related injuries will be increased 18 to 25% (based on the severity of the impairment).

Finally, the last new effect of the law will be to place a cap on the amount hospitals will be paid for their services. Hospitals will be paid 200% of the amount Medicare would pay for the same service. Injured employees will not be charged for medical services, which are paid by the employer or the employer’s insurer.

Nancy J. Guyott, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, applauded the changes as a move in the right direction via press release:

“Let’s be clear: it’s never OK when your job hurts. And we have a long way to go to make our worker’s compensation system what it should be for workers and their families when an injury does happen. However, these increases are the largest increases workers have won in decades and they begin to move us in the right direction. “

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO NOW on July 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

80% of Low-Wage Workers Lack Even One Paid Sick Day a Year

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Jackie TortoraMore than four in 10 private-sector workers and 80% of low-wage workers do not have paid sick days. This means people, especially women who are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, constantly have to choose between their health and a paycheck.

A post in Jezebel, brought to you by the AFL-CIO, explains why the lack of paid sick days causes a ripple effect on our health and communities:

In fact, more than 80% of low-wage workers don’t receive a single paid sick day all year. This contributes to the creation of a sickness loop: contagious kids go to school because mom can’t stay home with them; expensive emergency room trips are made that could’ve been prevented; employees show up to work and spread viruses to their customers and co-workers.

When young women can’t stay home to get their sleep and soup on, they venture out into the world where they touch handrails with contaminated hands and sneeze on things. This is the sick, sad world Daria warned us about.

The National Partnership for Women & Families reports that adults without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely to come to work sick with a contagious illness like the flu:

For example, more than three in four food service and hotel workers (78%) don’t have a single paid sick day—and workers in child care centers and nursing homes overwhelmingly lack paid sick days. This threat to public health is clear.

Last week, House Democrats released a women’s economic policy agenda that including expanding paid sick and family leave.

Originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on July 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Why the Revival of US Labor Might Start with Nonunion Workers

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

abdFor workers in America, it can be hard to know where to turn when a boss pays you late or not at all, doesn’t provide benefits, or just yells at you for no good reason.

That’s why a Working America, a “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO that focuses specifically on nonunion workers, launched a website last month that makes it easy to get that kind of information. FixMyJob.com is a bit like WebMD, but instead of typing in your aches and pains, you tell it about problems at your workplace. Launched on June 5, the site has already garnered 5,000 visitors, according to Working America organizer Chris Stergalas.

After choosing from a comprehensive list of workplaces and problems, visitors to FixMyJob.com get a set of resources and options for taking action. While unionization is a part of the solution for many problems, the site also informs workers about labor laws and instructs them on how to advance proposals to defend their rights. The site is a part of Working America’s expanded new campaign to organize people in their communities in all 50 states, says Executive Director Karen Nussbaum.

In both online and offline campaigns, Nussbaum said, the aim of Working America is to reach beyond the workplace and rally support at the local level for a pro-labor agenda. Working America’s list of priorities includes living wage laws, expanded health care, adequately funded public schools, and the protection of voting rights.

Before the launch of Working America, Nussbaum had served as founder and director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women; as director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor; and as an advisor to former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. I recently spoke with her about her vision for Working America, about FixMyJob.com, and about what the 50-state expansion means for the prospects of union revival.

Working America was founded in 2003 partly as an answer to the question of how to mobilize people who are not union members but would benefit from activism by and for working people. Nussbaum said that, from the beginning, her staff “concentrated on talking to workers in their communities.” Scoring success in mobilizing blue-collar voters for electoral campaigns, the organization created a foundation of members, and it is increasingly attempting to mobilize them around broader issues like working conditions, paid sick leave, and the right to join unions.

She added that the ultimate goal of Working America is “finding the connections with collective bargaining.” But she’s experimenting with different ways of organizing that might lead there. “It’s about taking whatever path opens on the way.”

In past years, Working America focused on battleground states during elections. But regional and statewide labor federations have pushed the organization to expand to all 50 states over the next five years. At first, Nussbaum said, that goal seemed “preposterous,” but she has come to embrace it. Ultimately, she said, she appreciated the strategic value of supporting local labor structures as they connect with community allies and work on issues that go beyond a single workplace.

One reason why the 50-state strategy is necessary is the national proliferation of so-called “right-to-work” laws and attacks on voting rights, two issues that Working America has taken up in Pittsburgh, Penn..

Nussbaum describes the approach taken by activists leading the Pittsburgh campaign:

These are a group of mostly white people in their 40s and 50s. They decided that voter protection actually was the key issue for them. Their group set a goal of reaching a million people in the Pittsburgh area on the issue. Part of that million was going to be reached by doing letters to the editor and circulation of the newspaper and so on. It also included things like a guy who said, “I go to my hardware store every weekend and everybody there knows me, so I will set up a table at the hardware store every weekend,” which is what he did. Another woman said that she dropped her father off at adult daycare every day, and so she would talk to the workers and other people at the adult daycare center.

This type of organizing taps into the existing frustrations that people have—in the Pittsburgh case obstacles to voting—and showing them how they can make a difference. “It’s everybody recognizing their own networks,” Nussbaum said. “I think that’s the key to organizing, isn’t it?”

She explained that Working America encourages people to see themselves as leaders within their own social circles, and, as it did in the case of the man in the hardware store, this recognition makes it easier to take action.

Nussbaum sees FixMyJob.com as a complement to these offline campaigns and as a means for introducing people to the labor movement. “Some people who use these tools will get turned on and they will become activists for life,” she said. “Some will fail, but it will help create a new environment that I think supports what we’re already beginning to see bubble up.”

This article was originally posted on Yes! Magazine on July 8th, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Amy B. Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations.  Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy

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