Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Tasini’

Missing it Again on the Minimum Wage

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

jonathan-tasiniSee, this is a good example of how the conventional wisdom we hear day after day warps the brain. More people are, in fact, being pushed into minimum wage jobs:

The number of workers in New York state earning minimum wage has increased sharply since the start of the recession, one of the driving factors underlying a debate in Albany over whether to raise the hourly rate.

In 2011, the number of minimum-wage earners statewide stood at about 91,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure represents a significant jump from 2008, when an estimated 6,000 people worked at the lowest rung of the income ladder.

The swelling ranks of minimum-wage earners has lent some ammunition to a push by Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to increase the hourly rate for the first time since 2009. It was boosted that year to $7.25 an hour.

Mr. Silver has backed a bill that would an increase the wage to $8.50 an hour, a rate that would be among the highest in the nation. It would then be indexed annually to the inflation rate.

But, the problem is that the solution is a cruel lie. The minimum wage today, if it reflected productivity gains over the last 30 years, should be between $19-$20 an hour. Raising the minimum wage, then, to $8.50 an hour seems like a big deal–except when you understand that it hides the vast robbery that has taken place of the past 30 years and it certainly will not make it possible for people to live with dignity and respect.

This blog originally appeared in Working Life on February 13, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

A Civil War: We're Eating Each Other For the Crumbs

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Jonathana TasiniIn a crisis, it’s a tough thing to watch people scramble to survive. And those that already have a lot usually are in the driver’s seat, ready to pit one person against the other. The same is true for states–ever desperate to try to get a few jobs for its citizens (and, need I point out, voters) elected officials are ready to give away the store to corporate leaders, no matter what the price might be.

Per the Financial Times today:

As US states jockey to attract jobs to push down high unemployment rates, companies are benefiting from a host of tax breaks and other government-funded incentives.

But the race to offer sweeteners to corporations is raising questions about whether they are worth the cost.

And:

Maryland is looking at expanding benefits for biotechnology and research and development groups, while Missouri’s legislature is considering a $6m programme to keep jobs from decamping to neighbouring Kansas.

In the New York metropolitan area, competition between New York and New Jersey has generated millions of dollars in subsidies to businesses.

Does this create new jobs? Not really.

“Generally such moves involve just moving jobs around,” said James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “Companies play one [state] off the other.” He argued that for most businesses, “location is so important that no matter what the subsidy is, it can’t be the decisive factor in where they’re going to locate”.

Essentially, it’s corporate blackmail.

By the way, this is nothing new. Four years ago, I wrote about how companies were lying about jobs created in return for tax breaks given out in New York.

And one of the great corporate scam artists in this “give me a tax break to save jobs” is…surprise…Goldman Sachs, as I wrote five years ago. The leader in the financial debacle in 2008 had a lot of experience under its belt: in 2005, it extorted money from New York, threatening to leave the city unless it received tax breaks and low-interest bonds. It did so in a fairly ugly way.

Using the specter of September 11th as a club, the company pocketed an unbelievable deal: $1.65 billion in low-interest, triple-tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, enabling the firm to save as much as $9 million a year in financing costs, which would save Goldman about $250 million over the life of the bonds. If that wasn’t enough, the city also threw $115 million in sales and utility tax breaks at the company, in return for a commitment to maintain its headquarters in Lower Manhattan and employ more than 9,000 people through 2028; those breaks could rise to as much as $150 million if Goldman adds 4,000 new jobs by 2019.

And, then, came a real beauty: rather than pay those tax breaks back, it set aside $16.5 billion in cash to pay out as bonuses at the end of 2006—an average pay day of $622,000 per worker. Of course, average really is misleading—the top dogs at the company will reap the big windfalls (CEO Lloyd Blankfein was in line to cash a check of up to $50 million), with the support staff probably getting a free Metro Card or maybe a nice holiday gift basket, at best.

These are not new stories. A great organization, Good Jobs First, has been banging this drum for a long time.

But, here we are. A crisis has drawn the piranhas to suck up any dollars at the expense of the people.

This post originally appeared in Working Life on September 26, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

The Filthy Rich Shout "Greed Is Good" and Party With The Politicians

Friday, August 19th, 2011

jonathan-tasiniWhen I wrote the “The Audacity of Greed” in 2008, I had a chapter called “Vodka and Penises” which detailed a rather unique birthday party thrown in Sardinia, Italy, in 2000 by Tyko CEO Dennis Kozlowski in honor of his wife–it featured vodka spraying from the penis of a replica of Michelangelo’s David. Kozlowski, who eventually went to jail for stealing lots of company money including the funds to pay for this little soiree, flew seventy-five guests to the Hotel Cala di Volpe where the privileged invitees played golf and tennis, ate fine food, listened to a performance by the singer Jimmy Buffett (who was paid a fee of $250,000 to appear) and enjoyed a birthday cake in the shape of a woman’s breasts festooned with sparklers on top.

It was a symbol of the greed and avarice coursing through American business.

And it ain’t over–as Leon Black is happy to demonstrate.

Let’s set the backdrop first: millions of Americans are without work, millions more can’t find decent paying work, we still are trying to dig out of a financial crisis caused largely by greed and avarice on Wall Street, we have the greatest divide between rich and poor in 100 years, and we are enduring a longer-term attack against the people by a bankrupt “free market” system that values a few CEOs over the rest of us.

No matter. The party must continue:

Last Saturday night, the financier Leon D. Black celebrated his 60th with a blowout at his oceanfront estate in Southampton, on Long Island. After a buffet dinner featuring a seared foie gras station, some 200 guests took in a show by Elton John. The pop music legend, who closed with “Crocodile Rock,” was paid at least $1 million for the hour-and-a-half performance.

And:

Mr. Black had his backyard transformed into a faux nightclub setting, constructing a wooden deck over his swimming pool and building a tent for Mr. John’s concert. After a buffet of crab cakes and steak, partygoers sat on couches with big puffy pillows.

Who was there?

The stars of music and fashion collided with a who’s who of Wall Street. Revelers included Michael R. Milken, the junk-bond pioneer and Mr. Black’s boss at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s; Julian H. Robertson Jr. , the hedge fund investor; Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs; and Mr. Schwarzman, head of Blackstone Group.Rounding out the guest list were politicians including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, who rubbed elbows with the media celebrities Martha Stewart and Howard Stern.[emphasis added]

And:

On Saturday night, to be sure, there was little talk of carried interest at the Blacks’ home on Meadow Lane, one of the Hamptons most desirable addresses for its panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and Shinnecock Bay. He counts among his neighbors Calvin Klein and David H. Koch, the billionaire industrialist.[emphasis added]

So, here is what is important to glean from this obscene affair, which underscores how we have been robbed–and how we will continue to be robbed in the future.

In my most recent book, “It’s Not Raining, We’re Being Peed On,” I wrote about “carried interest”. Private equity firms get a special tax break—it’s called “carried interest”, Rather than being taxed at the top rate of 35 percent, the private equity fund managers like Black only pay 15 percent through a loophole called “carried interest.” To understand carried interest, you have to first understand how money managers get paid in the yacht-sailing, mansion-buying world of private equity.

First, they receive a fee, which is a percentage of the funds they invest. This fee is usually in the range of two percent, and is taxed like your run-of-the-mill wage income.

Second, and far more lucratively, money managers get a fee based on the performance of their fund—a fee in the range of 20 percent. It’s the second fee that is the so-called “carried interest”—and it’s how the money managers of private equity really rake in the big bucks that pay for their Picassos, yachts and mansions.

In the normal world of taxable income (and let me say that nothing in the tax code is simple when it comes to schemes that allow people like Black to shelter their money), carried interest is taxed as investment income—at the capital gains level of 15 percent (much lower than the top wage income rate), even though most of these managers invest very little, if any, of their own money.

So, a private equity big shot honcho hauling down millions of dollars in “incentive” is taxed at a 15 percent rate, while the receptionist who works in his office, or the police officer who guards the equity baron’s property, probably earn $50,000 or so if they’re lucky—and those average working people pay a 25 percent tax rate on that income (not to mention payroll taxes), a far larger share of their income than the fellow who banks “carried interest.”

Which is how Black can afford to throw obscene birthday parties.

How “carried interest” continue to remain in place can be summed up, in large part, with two words: Chuck Schumer. Schumer has been one of Wall Street’s greatest defenders. And, while there have been calls to eliminate the “carried interest” bonanza, Schumer has blocked that effort time and again, and has also, most recently, flip-flopped on the absurd proposal to give corporate American a tax holiday on the profits companies have stashed over seas.

I understand the movtivation: Wall Street is a huge honeypot for campaign contributions. That is Schumer’s obsession.

But, keeping “carried interest” costs billions of dollars in money lost to our government’s treasury–money for schools, health care for seniors, research, and jobs.

One final point on the private equity world. Even if the “carried interest” is eliminated, we need to keep another point in mind: private equity firms make their huge profits by buying up companies and stripping them of hundreds of thousands of workers in the name of “efficiency”. The longer-term economic crisis is, at heart, a hammering down of wages–which has led to deep despair among the people who can’t make ends meet. Private equity firms have been at the leading edge of feeding that disastrous economic system.

Which is why we should care–and take notice–of the people who party and rub shoulders at these kinds of obscene events.

They just do not care.

Ultimately, for all the rhetoric, this is about the power and wealth of the business and political elite.

It is not about us. Until we torch this system.

*This blog originally appeared in Working Life on August 19, 2011.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

Football On The Brink

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

jonathan-tasiniI’ve been following this from a far–not because I like the sport (I don’t)–but it is a fight that is a tough one for the workers.

At the brink of an all-out labor war Thursday, the NFL players union weighed an 11th hour-proposal by National Football League owners designed to keep the two sides at the bargaining table. The sides were considering extending a midnight deadline for the expiration of the current collective-bargaining agreement.

At stake was the future of the world’s most successful professional-sports league, a $9 billion annual juggernaut now threatened by the sort of deep-seeded labor strife that has caused months-long work stoppages and billions of dollars in losses for professional baseball, hockey and basketball in the U.S.

During a 10th day of talks mediated by George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, the two sides discussed extending the current CBA, a move that would prevent what could become a lengthy and ugly litigation. If the talks break down, the National Football League Players Association is expected to to decertify their union, a move that opens up the door for the players to file an antitrust suit against the owners if a lockout ensues.

It has always been even harder for sports figures compared to other workers (harder than it is for public workers too!) to generate a lot of sympathy among the public for a strike–but the truth is this a battle between big corporations and their workers. But, football players are slightly different:

The public tends to be sympathetic to the players. Most fans are well aware that football players — unlike many other well-paid athletes — put their health and safety at risk every time they step on the field. They know that NFL careers are short. That the contracts are, for the most part, not guaranteed. If the public chooses sides, it will likely be with the players.

I sure hope so. And the players will need everyone out there on the streets if the lock-out does take place.
This blog originally appeared on Working Life on March 3, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

Why We Need A Job Party--Today's Jobs Figures

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Jonathan TasiniIt is still very grim out there for those people who want decent paying work. Not just a job–but a job that pays a fair wage. Today’s numbers make even more clear–we need a Job Party.

I’ll talk about the Job Party a bit more. But, first, let’s look at the numbers:

While the overall picture showed improving job growth, the additions in the private sector in December were not enough to significantly reduce the ranks of the unemployed or keep pace with people entering the work force. The outlook remains bleak for many workers. More than 14.5 million people were out of work in December.

The Department of Labor says the “official unemployment rate” is now at 9.4 percent. Even The Wall Street Journal points out:

The U.S. unemployment rate has now been above 9% since May 2009, or 20 months. That is the longest stretch at such an elevated level since the Second World War. In the recession of the early 1980s, the jobless rate crept to 9% in March 1982 and remained above that mark until September 1983.[emphasis added]

But, the depth of the crisis is better seen here by looking at the U-6 level, which measures “Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force”.

That number is at 16.7 percent.

And that doesn’t even reflect how bad things are. I have pointed out that the minimum wage–which millions of people work for–is a poverty-level wage and a national scandal that covers up the depth of the economic crisis. It should be more than $19 an hour if we took in account the productivity rises over the last 30 years–that is, how hard people have worked compared to the rise in wages.

So, it isn’t just the number of jobs but the QUALITY OF JOBS.

I’m guessing that at least one in five Americans–20 percent–in the U-6 and minimum wage categories does not have decent full-time paying work. And I think the crisis is far bigger if you really look at what it takes to get by in today’s world of higher prices.

Which brings me to the Job Party. Several of us concluded recently that we needed a movement that is focused entirely on the job crisis:

The Job Party is a nationwide grassroots movement to demand an Emergency Jobs Bill for 15 million jobs so every unemployed American can go to work, feed their families, and put a roof over their head.

In December, Congress passed a $900 billion tax bill for 2 years that will produce only 1 million jobs through “trickle-down” economics for the rich. For that same $900 billion, Congress could create 15 million jobs paying $30,000 per year for 2 years!
Not only is that morally right, but it’s economically right too – because those 15 million paid workers would massively increase consumer spending, fuel growth for the whole economy, and greatly reduce the national debt.

It’s a revolutionary change from the failed “trickle-down” policies of the past 30 years that created the Great Recession that’s killing us. We call it “gusher-up” and we demand the politicians in Washington DC embrace it before we all starve and the nation goes broke.

And if this current Congress doesn’t act, we’ll elect a new Congress in 2012 that will.

Move over, Tea Party – the Job Party has arrived. Join us today!

We would like to have people help build this. This is the economic crisis of our times. We can’t wait for the current political system to act.

We are gathering together the best ideas for creating jobs–and we want your ideas. Please contribute YOUR IDEAS.

We are collecting YOUR storiesabout your experience trying to get a decent job.

We are gathering the people who will take to the streets to demand that we start creating real jobs in this country. Sign up!.

This article was originally posted on Working Life.

About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

Class Warfare and Korea "Free Trade": An Open Letter to UAW, My Union

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Jonathan TasiniSo-called “free trade” is part of the relentless class warfare under way in America. And the so-called “free trade” deal with South Korea is no exception. That said, a lot of the shallow criticism of the UAW’s support for the deal is–well, shallow. Here’s my view about how we should engage the UAW–my union–via an open letter to the union’s president.

December 9th 2010

Bob King
President
UAW
8000 East Jefferson
Detroit, MI  48214

Dear Bob:

Over the past few weeks, I keep coming back to one question: where do we draw the line to oppose the unrelenting class warfare now under way in our country, and the rest of the world?

From listening to the rhetoric and watching the back-slapping among members of the deficit commission, Democrats and Republicans, we have a bi-partisan agreement, apparently, that working Americans have to “share the pain” for an economic crisis that they had no hand in creating; our president buys into the mantra of a phony debt “crisis” and, then promptly turns around and stands ready to treat the already-staggeringly wealthy top one percent to hundreds of billions of dollars of the U.S. Treasury’s bank account; Wall Street bonuses are back in bullish amounts; and corporate profits are at record levels, partly because of a plague of slashing jobs that will not come back.

When do we say finally: no more, enough is enough.

And, then, there is the South Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). In my view, this deal is another disaster for the working people of this country, and for the world. I hope that you, and others, read the concerns I raise about this deal in the spirit in which they were written.

First, we’ve known each other a very long time. As a proud UAW member, I think of you not only as one of the most progressive and visionary leaders in the labor movement but also as a person of enormous integrity. When you took office this year, you said, “We are one union. We are one society, and we are one world. If we don’t stand up and fight for our own membership in every sector and if we don’t stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we’ve given up.” [emphasis added]

And you want our union to live those words. You just spearheaded a rally in Michigan on December 6th to support Hyundai workers who are engaged in a bitter strike in South Korea because you understand the nature of global solidarity. As you said at the rally, “Bosses around the world, even at tremendously profitable corporations like Hyundai, are trying to reduce the number of permanent workers and expand the number of temporary workers, weakening the middle class. We want permanent, middle-class standard of living jobs for every person working in the world.”

Second, I also understand that, while it is easy for liberal/progressive observers to sit back in the comfort of their offices or homes and pontificate from hundreds of miles away about “fighting” and “not selling out”, you have to fulfill your mission to protect the livelihoods of UAW members, livelihoods that have been under brutal assault from transnational auto companies for the past two decades. While I understand both intellectually and emotionally what our sisters and brothers face, I know you grapple with this every day you walk into the office.

Almost two decades ago, I remember exactly where I was standing when NAFTA passed: Mazey’s bar at the union’s Black Lake education center. We had just finished the day working to build coalitions between the UAW and non-UAW activists—the mission that our Region 9A leadership, under then-Director Phil Wheeler, had dedicated the week to. We gathered around the television bracketed on the wall to watch the vote. At the end, when the vote was announced, I remember thinking: this is the end of the American middle class.

NAFTA was a disaster. Not just because it ruined the lives of millions of American, Mexican and Canadian workers. As important, it became the model for all future so-called “free trade” agreements: protect capital and investors. In my view, the South Korea deal is baked in the same NAFTA mold.

People are going to argue about whether the concessions given to the UAW in the KORUS were sufficient in terms of significant changes in tariffs or rules of origin and other similar issues. I’m going to stay away from those points in part because I think that whether X or Y cars will be allowed into Korea gets us down into the weeds and misses some crucial points:

  1. Is This Deal Worth The Paper It Is Written On When It Comes To Enforcement?
  1. Can The President Be Trusted?
  1. Does This Transform The Debate About Global Fairness?

A quick observation about why I use the term so-called “free trade”. There simply is no such thing as “free trade”, at least not if we are talking about the NAFTA model. “Free trade” is as real as the phony government deficit-debt “crisis”, as real as the Wall Street “reforms” (that left mostly the same people in charge of the financial system, making it almost a certainty we will have another financial calamity) and as real as Robert Reich’s promise that if we all just get smarter and get a college education, we’ll be fine (no one uses the absurd term “symbolic analyst” anymore and thank god for that).

I could write a “free trade” agreement in 10 pages, okay, maybe 20. But, these deals are hundreds and thousands of pages long because they are very much managed and tightly controlled corporate trade—-they set forth very specific, detailed protections for capital and investor rights (particularly, the Chapter 11 rules).

And the sooner we stop repeating the term “free trade”—which is a great marketing phrase because who isn’t for something “free” and who doesn’t want to trade—the better for the American people and our understanding of what is really afoot here: we are being robbed by these trade deals. Not simply because of the off-shoring of jobs. But because NAFTA-style trade is based on one thing and one thing only: wage and regulation arbitrage.

Every NAFTA-style deal essentially sets up a framework that allows companies to move production in search of low wages and/or undermine regulations that protect people and communities. That is what trade is about today.

You were right when you said that if “we don’t stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we’ve given up.”

Respectfully, every NAFTA-style so-called “free trade” deal pushes us further from the vision that you so passionately and powerfully speak of.

They are playing us. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.

Enforcement: A Sham

In the past, the UAW initially made clear, in its own testimony, that the “KORUS FTA has inadequate protections and enforcement mechanisms to enforce either the spirit or the letter of the law.”

Now, the UAW’s statement in support of the South Koreal deal says that the language of the agreement “includes labor and environmental commitments”. It goes on to say: “This agreement is an important step toward a global rule-based trade system, an important step in giving labor a real voice in trade negotiations. We look forward to working with the Obama Administration on the issue of global rights for workers — especially the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

I don’t see the progress.

As I understand it, the deal keeps in the very same NAFTA-style, Bush Administration language that prevents the deal from living up to the conventions of the International Labor Conventions (ILO). To be sure, the ILO’s conventions lack much in the way of enforcement power. But, when these NAFTA-style trade deals try to even keep high-minded ILO rhetoric from muddying the waters, what are we to think?

That enforcement is a sham.

In February 2008, I posed a challenge to then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who were both pledging to renegotiate NAFTA in order to enhance enforcement of labor and environmental enforcement. As you recall, the labor and environmental provisions were added on to NAFTA because that was the only way to buy a handful of Democratic votes to ram through the agreement.

NAFTA enforcement was supposed to have been under the purview of the Commission for Labor Cooperation (CLC). The CLC was supposed to be funded, partly by the U.S., via a $2 million-a year appropriation, which would have meant that, over the period between 1993 and 2005, the CLC would have had $22 million from the U.S.

But, as Public Citizen found:

In another example of the gap between promised authorizations and actual funds appropriated to such programs, the CLC has only been granted $7.2 million of the $22 million it was authorized to receive from the United States as of 2005, or less than a third of the promised amount.

The game was rigged from the beginning. For argument’s sake, let’s say the CLC got the full $22 million? Would that have been sufficient?

I like to use this analogy. In the U.S., we have accepted, under Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, that injury, illness and death in the workplace are a cost of living in the wonders of the “free market”. We make a show of enforcement—-the same show that was proposed for NAFTA enforcement—-but the truth is that the system embraced, in a bipartisan way, does very little to ensure a safe workplace.

Here’s what the AFL-CIO found in its 2007 report [the emphasis is mine]:

At its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 133 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. In seven states (Florida, Delaware, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, and South Dakota), it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace. In 18 states, it would take between 100 and 149 years to visit each workplace once. Inspection frequency is better in states with OSHA-approved plans, yet still far from satisfactory. In these states, it would now take the state OSHA’s a combined 62 years to inspect each worksite under state jurisdiction once.

The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 63,670 workers. This compares to a benchmark of one labor inspector for every 10,000 workers recommended by the International Labor Organization for industrialized countries. In the states of Arkansas, Florida, Delaware, Nebraska, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1/100,000 workers.

When the AFL-CIO issued its first report “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” in 1992, federal OSHA could inspect workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 84 years, compared to once every 133 years at the present time. Since the passage of the OSHAct, the number of workplaces and number of workers under OSHA’s jurisdiction has more than doubled, while at the same time the number of OSHA staff and OSHA inspectors has been reduced. In 1975, federal OSHA had a total of 2,405 staff (inspectors and all other OSHA staff) responsible for the safety and health of 67.8 million workers at more than 3.9 million establishments. In 2005, there were 2,208 federal OSHA staff responsible for the safety and health of more than 131.5 million workers at 8.5 million workplaces.

The 2008 OSHA budget proposed $490 million. Yes, that was a Bush budget. But, even in Democratic Administrations, OSHA has always been underfunded given the task described above. The 2010 Obama budget proposed a $559 million—-a significant increase but still inadequate.

So, think about that for a moment: we have an entirely inadequate system in this country just to watch over safety and health in the workplace, funded at a miniscule level of several hundred million dollars—and, yet, we even more ludicrously proposed, in the past, to oversee labor rights enforcement over three countries (the U.S., Mexico and Canada) at a laughingly pathetic and criminal level of a couple of million bucks?

The fact is enforcement is a farce. It was a farce created to buy a few votes to jam NAFTA through a Democratic Congress. It was a farce concocted by a Democratic president and his Labor secretary (Robert Reich), who were both full-throated champions of NAFTA and so-called “free trade”.

It is not clear to me how the agreement with Korea to enforce labor rights is anything but a continuance of the farce. There is simply no way—no way—that these provisions can be enforced. None. Please explain how I am mistaken.

But, here is a larger point: there is no enforcement that can work. Ever.
The problem is not enforcement of NAFTA-like agreements.

It is NAFTA-style trade itself and its very conception and framework. Labor and environmental rights are slapped on as add-ons to deals that are sideshows to the meat of these agreements—protecting capital and investors’ rights. We cannot “fix” NAFTA-style trade deals unless we destroy the fundamental motivation behind them—lower wages and a careful obliteration of every reasonable regulation to protect individuals.

We are being played. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.

The President’s Promises

This president cannot be trusted. I don’t mean that in some Tom Delay-Newt Gingrich venal “he will lie” manner. I believe that he is who he is—-and who he has always been: a person who believes in marketing phrases like “free trade” and the “free market”, a person who surrounds himself first and foremost with the Robert Rubins of the world; and, regretfully, a person who does not have the best interests of organized labor as a first and overriding principle.

It is also not clear to me, as a political matter, how he can help. He appears unwilling or unable to fight. Why do we think he will go to the mat for organizing rights when he will cave in and let the raiding of the U.S. Treasury by the richest people in the land continue, even after those richest people have pocketed a king’s ransom in wealth over the past 30 years?

He has promised to aid our organizing efforts, particularly in the South. Why should we believe he has a strategy to do so, beyond rhetoric? If we learned anything from the recent tax fight, it isn’t going to happen. The expiration of the tax breaks for the wealth was something he, and the rest of the Democratic Party, knew was coming from the first day the president took office.

So, a reasonable person could ask: why did he not take that on from the get-go when he was riding high? Why not take that mandate then, when he had the attention of the people (in a good way) and say, “today, we are taking a first step towards ending class warfare in America”.

Because there was no strategy.

So, I am skeptical that there is a winning strategy behind the promises on organizing.

Transforming The Debate

Even if you believe that you could find enough money to deploy inspectors all around the world and even if you are willing to believe that this president—or any president in the current political environment—will fight for the UAW at the cost of alienating large corporate contributors, there is a much bigger challenge:

How do we stop the stupefying, unrelenting class warfare of which so-called “free trade” is an integral piece?

Where do we draw the line?

Sure, each union, for the price of its support, can get a few concessions in any so-called “free trade” deal. We can get jobs some jobs. I certainly can imagine, given the dire predicament of UAW members, that any promise of some jobs is welcome.

But at what price?

Is the price of a hammering down of wages worth it—because that is precisely what will happen if we continue to let the NAFTA-style of trade grown and mutate.

Is it worth letting another NAFTA-style deal pass which is a link in a chain that connects tax cuts for the rich, the growing divide between rich and poor, the decline of union power, and Wall Street greed?

At the end of the day, if the UAW has to support this agreement, I understand the real world: we have very little power to get a better deal right now. In some peoples’ minds, we’ve gotten very little from fighting these NAFTA-style deals over the past two decades. True, nothing good has come from these rancid products.

But, let’s not, to abuse the cliché, put lipstick on a pig. Why not simply say: this deal stinks but it is the best we can get. “Free trade” is a disaster for the working people of the world. But, we have to swallow this bitter pill because of our weakness today.

I am planning on posting this letter on my blog and would also do so for any thoughts you had in response. I think these issues are crucial for labor to consider and I think a lot of people would be interested in your point of view.

Solidarity,

Jonathan

This article was originally posted on Working Life.

About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

Wall Street Bonuses For Haiti

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

The president is going to announce today a tax on the big banks and financial institutions:

The tax on banks, insurance companies and brokerages with more than $50 billion in assets would start after June 30 and seek to collect $90 billion over 10 years, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters late Wednesday.

The Administration is calling the tax a “financial crisis responsibility fee”. I like that handle. But, there are two problems. First, the bankers themselves still don’t get it:

“Using tax policy to punish people is a bad idea,” J.P. Morgan Chase Chief Executive James Dimon told reporters after a hearing in Washington. Mr. Dimon said it would be unfair for banks to be left shouldering the cost of the auto bailout.

This isn’t punishment, Mr. Dimon. This is about responsibility. To your country. To the people whose hard-earned money you used to save your institution.

Second, frankly, the projected $90 billion to be collected over ten years is a pittance–and that cost is being shouldered by the shareholders of the banks and financial institutions and I’m guessing its customers who will end up paying for the tax in higher fees that the institutions slip into their “cost of doing business”.

The tax avoids any personal responsibility on the part of the individuals who created the economic crisis.

Here is another idea: demand that the Wall Street bonuses go to pay for the recovery efforts in Haiti, and to make taxpayers here whole. After all, the very economic system that Dimon and his peers created over the past several decades is the system that impoverished countries around the world, leaving them with a weak infrastructure to be able to deal with natural disasters. Putting the Wall Street bonuses towards Hait relief will perhaps make Dimon and his peers feel virtuous and not punished–but I would not count on it.

*This post originally appeared in Working Life on January 14, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

The Minimum Wage--And Why the Recovery is Not Coming

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Today, the minimum wage rises to $7.25 an hour. We should all be glad that millions of people are going to get a bit more money in their pockets. But, this hike masks a very grim fact: the “recovery” is not going to happen anytime soon, if the measure we use for “recovery” is that working Americans are going to find meaningful, full-time, decently-paid employment.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the scandal of the minimum wage–a level of income that at the grand sum of the new $7.25 per hour, if you worked every single week, every day, you would earn $14,645 a year–with likely no health care, no retirement, no vacation days, no sick days. By comparison, the federal POVERTY LEVEL for a family of three is $17,600–a number that is outdated because it doesn’t take into account the real cost of living. But, even that number is higher than what a person would earn at the new minimum wage.

So, the truth is that by feeling good about the new minimum wage, we are quietly accepting the fact that millions of people will continue to work as slaves–laboring at sub-standard wages. In New York State, the minimum wage hike will do very little for workers because the state minimum wage is already $7.15 and, as the Fiscal Policy Institute points out,”New York’s minimum wage will still be more than 21 percent below its peak value in 1970, which was $9.23 in today’s dollars. The 10 cents an hour increase for New York’s minimum wage workers amounts to only a 1.4 percent raise, well below the 4 percent general rate of inflation since January 2007 and even further below the nearly 7 percent inflation rise in the New York City metropolitan area.”

Remember that fact and, then, take into account what we now face in America: an effective unemployment and underemployment rate of more than 16 percent.

Yes, 16 percent. Not the 9.5 percent that the we mostly hear about. The typical number the media reports–the Labor Department’s U-3 rate–excludes people who have given up looking for work and people who only have part-time work because they can’t find full-time work (part-time workers are counted as “employed” even if they only work ONE HOUR A WEEK).

And, thanks to the glories of the “flexible” free-market, the economy we now live in has forced more people into part-time work–because that allows companies to hire and fire people without having to assume all those annoying things like health care and pensions for the workers.

16 percent of our fellow citizens do not have full-time, decent paying work. And that does not count those people working full-time for the minimum wage–who end up in poverty.

This is a national crisis and a national scandal. It is what I call The Audacity of Greed (and, in a quick shameless bit of promotion, the title of my new book just about out–feel free to join the Facebook Fan page)

So, when we hear the discussions about “recovery”, my reaction is this: until we know that we have returned to the concept of FULL EMPLOYMENT in the country (which no one seems to talk about) and until we begin to see people working for above-poverty level wages and until people can join unions in large numbers so they can have some power in the marketplace (not just to raise wages and benefits but to have dignity and respect on the job), there will be no recovery.

Why are we not marching, by the millions, to protest what is effectively the robbing of working Americans?

Jonathan Tasini: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

This article originally appeared on Working Life on July 24, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

An American Scandal: The Minimum Wage

Friday, July 10th, 2009

The minimum wage is a scandal. It masks poverty. It must be dramatically raised.

On July 24th, the minimum wage will rise to $7.25 an hour. I applaud people who worked hard to pass the three-step hike. The new level will put some extra money in the pockets of millions of Americans and, modestly, bump up wages that hover above the minimum wage because some employers will want to keep workers they value.

But let’s be honest: the minimum wage is an American scandal. It is a wage that makes us think that we have set a reasonable floor for wages so employers do not exploit people.

But, the minimum wage IS a poverty-level wage. At the grand sum of the new $7.25 per hour, if you worked every single week, every day, you would earn $14,645 a year–with likely no health care, no retirement, no vacation days, no sick days. By comparison, the federal POVERTY LEVEL for a family of three is $17,600–a number that is outdated because it doesn’t take into account the real cost of living. But, even that number is higher than what a person would earn at the new minimum wage.

That is a scandal.

The minimum wage should be raised to $10 an hour, to be followed by additional hikes in the minimum wage so that it begins to reflect both the real cost of living and the incredible productivity of American workers that has not been reflected in their wages over the past 30 years. This is a proposal advocated by a variety of organizations, including Let Justice Roll.

Yesterday, I debated the minimum wage issue on CNBC:

What is startling to me, both from this recent debate and other discussions on the topic, is the continued lies that are spread about who “benefits” from the minimum wage and what truly contributes to a healthy economy.

Here are some facts (drawn from various sources, including the Economic Policy Institute):

Almost 10 percent of the workforce is affected by the minimum wage, either directly or indirectly (“indirectly” means that a rising minimum wage often increases wage levels just above the new minimum wage).

It isn’t true that the minimum wage is just a “starting wage” that people move out of, or that it is a wage just for teenagers working summer jobs or some other false argument. Four out of five minimum-wage workers are adults, and almost 3 in five of those are women. More than half work full-time. A quarter of minimum-wage workers have kids under the age of 18 and 1.2 million are single parents.

It also simply false to say rises in the minimum wage have a large, negative effect on jobs–meaning, that companies have to cut jobs because of the increased cost of a higher minimum wage. There is a logic here, as EPI points out:

“New economic models that look specifically at low-wage labor markets help explain why there is little evidence of job loss associated with minimum wage increases. These models recognize that

employers may be able to absorb some of the costs of a wage increase through higher productivity, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale.”

But, we should only be defending the minimum wage, in my opinion, as a concept–not praising the level that it stands at. It must be far higher.

So, what is going on here?

The truth is that the scandal of the minimum wage is part of the larger picture of a decades-long robbery of the American worker. The economy that we live in thrives on the backs of people who work for poverty-level wages.

I’ve made this point before: productivity has skyrocketed over the past 30 years but wages have remained essentially flat. Some of that productivity did come from technology advances. But, most of it came because workers labored harder than ever, partly out of fear of losing a job in an economy that has forced people to pile up debt and rely on credit cards to survive.

The astounding wealth hoarded by CEOs and the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans was built up on the backs of hard labor and poverty-level wages. We do not have the slave-labor conditions seen in some other countries around the world. But, without question, the wealth of the country has been created by millions and funneled to a few.

Had the minimum wage tracked productivity over that period of time, the minimum wage should be $19 an hour.

I have also argued that the minimum wage scandal is far more important than the Bernie Madoff-type scandals. My friends, we got into the financial crisis we are in precisely because of the theft of wages of the American worker. Oh, how the free marketeers rejoiced at the decline of unions and the orgy of deregulation. But, as political leaders of both parties stood silent and were swamped by campaign cash from Wall Street and corporate interests, workers’ wages were pummeled.

And, then, what was left? An economy where people had to finance their lives through credit cards and, then, home equity–all illusions of wealth that are now gone.

So, now what? How do people like the CNBC talking heads and our political leaders, who still do not recognize wage collapse as the number one reason for our economic debacle, envision us reviving a decent standard of living for millions of people?

I say that one step is clear: a $10-an-hour minimum wage in 2010 as a small down-payment and a first step towards pushing wages back to a moral level.

Jonathan Tasini: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

This article was originally posted on Working Life on July 7, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

Victory at Smithfield: An Independance Day Symbol

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

One of the ugliest fights for worker justice has taken place in Tar Heel, North Carolina, which is about 80 miles south of Raleigh. For 17 years, thousands of workers, who labor under some pretty brutal conditions in the largest pork processing plant, have sought a modicum of justice and dignity. And they just got it.

After a two-day vote, the workers approved the first-ever union contract at the Smithfield Foods plant. Here are the details via the United Food & Commercial Workers:

The new contract includes:

* Wage increases of $1.50/hour over the next four years. * Continued company-provided affordable family health care coverage. * Improved paid sick leave and vacation benefits. * Retirement security through protection of the existing pension plan. * Continued joint worker/management safety committee, including company funded safety training for workers. * Guaranteed weekly hours that protect full-time, family supporting jobs in the community * A system to resolve workplace issues. * Three working days of paid funeral leave following the death of immediate family members.

“This contract will completely transform our workplace,” said Orlando Williams. “This is the biggest four-year wage increase Smithfield workers have ever had and it will make a real difference for our families and in this community. We could never have gotten that increase without a chance to bargain with the company. We will finally have a sense of security on the job because through our union we can make sure we have a safe place to work, and that everyone’s treated fairly.”

The first thing to note is that the UFCW deserves a lot of credit. It stuck with this organizing campaign over 17 years through, among other things, a racketeering suit Smithfield filed against the union because of a very persistent corporate campaign waged by the union. In two previous union representation elections, the company brutally harassed the workers, and in particular, the union supporters, to the point that the National Labor Relations tossed out the results of the elections. Finally, last December, the union won overwhelmingly in an election that was more fair then anything in the past.

Which brings us to this point: when workers have a chance to vote for a union–free of intimidation and threats–they will do so. And certainly one step in that direction will come with the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The point that I think is valuable to remember is this one:

Workers and union officials say that perhaps the most important change is that workers will be allowed to voice concerns and challenge management decisions through a formal grievance process. In the past, many workers have said they were treated disrespectfully by their supervisors and fired after speaking out or being injured.

“We really did accomplish something with this union,” said Mattie Fulcher, a 10-year employee who helps usher pigs to their deaths. “We might not have gotten the raise that we wanted, but that will come in time. This is our first contract, and it is a start.”

Too often, in the public sphere, and among the talking heads, the focus on union jobs is about wages and benefits. No doubt, that is important. But, what the workers at Smithfield gained was some POWER over how they will be treated.

Independence Day is about a lot of symbols–patriotism, flag-waving and I suppose mostly, now, a long weekend at the beach. But, it is also about gaining power and the triumph over tyranny. It is always ironic and sad to me that, too often, we assert that triumph by showcasing the very instruments of power that we now use to the detriment of other people around the world.

But, I forget that when I sit back and think, for a moment, what these workers went through–the struggle, the fight, the commitment that held them together over so many dark days–this is the America that inspires me. They have triumphed over tyranny, they have gained back the power they deserve to shape their lives. That’s what Independence Day means to me.

Jonathan Tasini: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

This article originally appeared on Working Life on July 3, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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