Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘labor’

This week in the war on workers: Did Kevin Johnson destroy black mayors group over charter schools?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Laura Clawson All-Star NBA point guard Kevin Johnson is now the mayor of Sacramento, California—and the destroyer of the 40-year-old National Conference of Black Mayors. At Deadspin, Dave McKenna details how Johnson first tried to take over the group, and then, when that failed, went to war against it while starting his own black mayors group, the African American Mayors Association. So why am I writing about this as a labor issue? Because Johnson, who is married to corporate education reform star Michelle Rhee, was trying to use the NCBM to promote charter schools:

[East Orange, New Jersey, Mayor Robert] Bowser says that Johnson, before his coup, had proposed a resolution saying NCBM endorsed the charter-school movement.“We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser says. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.”

During his takeover attempt of the NCBM, Johnson also tried to turn a civil rights event, the commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, into a charter-boosting event.

Then there’s Ballard Spahr. During the takeover, Valarie J. Allen, a partner in Ballard Spahr’s Philadelphia offices, sent a missive to the NCBM’s general counsel, Sue Winchester, threatening to report her to “the California Bar” if she didn’t comply with Johnson’s dictates. It turns out that Allen’s prime role with the firm is to run its charter school portfolio. And that’s a big job. “In the past 10 years, Ballard Spahr has helped more than 60 charter schools … secure more than $676 million in tax-exempt bond funding,” reads the sales pitch Allen makes to charter schools operators on the firm’s website. Allen goes on to boast that Ballard Spahr handles “more than 10 percent” of all charter-school financing nationwide.

Surprise, surprise, Johnson’s new African American Mayors Association is holding a charter-dominated education panel at its convention this year.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on May 30, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. She has been a Labor editor since 2011.

Florida County Makes It Easier For Workers To Get Unpaid Wages From Bosses

Friday, March 20th, 2015

AlanPyke_108x108Workers who get cheated out of their due pay in central Florida will have a much easier time recovering what they’re owed after Osceola County approved a tough new wage theft law, making it the latest in a string of local governments to take on increased responsibility for enforcing federal wage and hour laws.

Under the new rules, workers will be able to file cases with the county and employers who are accused of wage theft could end up having to repay triple the amount they stole from employees if they fight a case and lose. Workers in Miami-Dade County have so far recovered about $1.8 million since that wage theft law came online in late 2010.

Osceola’s law adds an important, tougher element to the basic model laid out in Miami-Dade. Companies that fight a wage theft claim and lose can have their business license revoked by the county.

Efforts to combat wage theft at the local level appear to be spreading, according to Tesedeye Gebreselassie of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “It’s clear that existing laws and resources on fed state level are insufficient, and we’re starting to see more cities and counties take action in any way that they can,” she said. “There’s a growing trend to figure out what can be done on the local level now that everybody’s acknowledged that wage theft is a huge problem.” Propagating enforcement systems that work will be especially important if low-wage workers are to actually realize the economic benefits that should come from a rash of state and local minimum wage increases around the country, as the NELP argues in a new report.

There is no perfect deterrent, since a business owner willing to ignore wage laws in the first place is often going to choose to go out of business rather than dole out back pay. And the prevalence of low-wage, low-skill jobs in the American economy has helped create a sort of race to the ethical bottom among employers who are more interested in cutting corners than giving honest pay for honest work. As David Weil, the top federal official in charge of enforcing wage and hour laws for the Department of Labor, told the New York Times in 2014, “We have a change in the structure of work that is then compounded by a falling level of what is viewed as acceptable in the workplace in terms of how you treat people and how you regard the law.”

“I have a very close relative that had this happen to him,” Osceola County Commissioner Michael Harford (D) told ThinkProgress. “It was very difficult for him to understand how he was getting paid.” Harford gradually realized that wage theft was relatively common among his constituents, and helped push the law through this spring after voters elected four Democrats and one Republican to the commission last fall.

Harford’s reforms not only increase the consequences of wage theft for employers who get caught, but also make it easier for workers to find legal help. If the new adjudication process finds a company liable for wage theft, it must pay treble damages for the withheld pay and also cover the legal fees incurred by the workers who brought the allegation. “If we had more of an incentive for representation in these cases, we’d see hopefully the same effort to vindicate workers’ rights that we see to vindicate the rights of the injured in personal injury cases,” Rep. Alan Grayson (D) told ThinkProgress.

There’s no reason other localities can’t follow Osceola and Miami’s lead. Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice and a key member of the coalition that researched the wage theft question for two years before bringing a legislative proposal in Miami-Dade, told ThinkProgress she thinks the model ought to be easily transferred even beyond the state line.

“I tell people not to just change the name on it, make sure it works,” Smith said. “But in general I think this kind of process is portable, as long as you’ve got a division of your government that can pick it up and administer it, and you have the political will, and frankly that you have responsible businesses that speak up.” Partly that’s because the laws don’t require business owners to comply with any new regulations and they don’t require local governments to hire new enforcement officers. “These ordinances do not put new regulations in place. Nothing at all. It’s simply offering a venue where the workers can go,” Smith said.

The real cutting edge of a law like Osceola’s comes well before a lawyer would ever get involved, in a pre-hearing process called conciliation. After a worker notifies the county of a wage theft allegation and provides evidence for the claim, the county contacts the employer and invites him to address the complaint voluntarily. Conciliation has produced a little over half of the $1.8 in recovered wages and damages under Miami-Dade County’s law and 53 percent of cases brought under the law were resolved at that early stage, according to Smith.

“There’s a big emphasis on conciliation, because the idea is that these are predominantly low-wage workers and they need to get their money right away. These are people who can’t go to court and wait all that time,” Smith said. By creating a two-stage process and giving employers immunity from the damages provision of the law as long as they resolve a legitimate wage violation in the conciliation stage, these laws give employers an incentive to be responsive to complaints. “There is gonna be that smaller group of completely unscrupulous employers that just completely disappear, often people who never even had a business license to start with,” Smith said. But even if workers for such employers never get made whole under this new process, the law still discourages willful violators from setting up shop in the area.

Wage theft steals more money from American workers each year than the combined haul from every robbery and heist nationwide. The term refers to violations of federal wage and hour protections, and that federal jurisdiction is part of the reason that local protections like the ones just passed in Osceola County are rare. Workers who think they’re being cheated by the boss can file a suit anywhere, regardless of local ordinances, and they have done so at a rapidly increasing clip in recent years. Workers have won court settlements from retail logistics firms, trucking companies, strip clubs, and fast food companies. They’ve also lost one significant case before the Supreme Court, though it only narrowly curtailed the types of employer policies that can be considered wage theft.

But going to court is expensive, in both dollars and time, and Osceola is the most recent place to erect a more worker-friendly system for addressing the complaints. Wage theft laws intended to help workers recoup wages without getting tied up in court have come into effect in Chicago, Houston, andColorado in recent years.

Lowering the local barriers to recovering stolen wages is a good start, Grayson said, but it does not address the various other ways in which workers have been pitted against one another by recent attacks on union solidarity on the job. “The right to organize has been frustrated and in many cases defeated by business groups. That’s left a disorganized low-wage labor base that can be exploited at will by unscrupulous employers, so the problem increases over time,” Grayson said. Right now, “crime does pay if you’re cheating your employees. And we have to stop that.”

This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

How Our Trade Policies Kill Jobs

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Dave JohnsonTrade is great. We all trade. A lot of us trade labor for money that buys other things. A farmer trades corn for money that buys other things, and so on. No one is “against trade.”

But is anything called “trade” always good for all involved? Imagine you’re a farmer and you make a deal to trade corn and wheat to get money for a new tractor. So the farmer orders a new tractor, but the “trade partner” never buys any corn or wheat. After a while the “trade partner” shows up with a big bill, saying the farmer owes money for the tractor. And then the farmer finds out that the “trade partner” plans to use the proceeds from the sale of the tractor to grow their own corn.

In modern terms, we would say that the farmer was “running a trade deficit.” How much damage do you think that “trade deficit” is doing to that farmer, and the farmer’s ability to make a living in the future? How long do you think that farmer would let that “trade agreement” continue?

Ongoing U.S. Trade Deficits

The U.S. is currently running a net trade deficit of over $500 billion dollars each year with our “trade partners.” We have been running trade deficit every year since the late 1970s. We buy from them, but they don’t reciprocate and buy from us, so the trade is out of balance – way out of balance.

These other countries use the proceeds from our purchases to set up their own industries so they don’t have to buy from us in the future. We let this happen so as our industries move away we will have no choice but to import. In many cases our own so-called “American” corporations are voluntarily “deindustrializing” and sending the factories and equipment to “trading partners” elsewhere.

The Damage

When a country runs a trade deficit it means that the “demand” for goods and services created by that country’s economy is being exported, and people are being hired in other countries instead of that country. It means that the growth of that country’s economy and number of jobs available is lower than it would be. Last week’s Wall Street Journal report, “U.S. Trade Gap Narrows in January,” for example, called our trade deficit “a drag on overall growth.” They quantified how much, reporting that, “Net exports—the difference between exports and imports—subtracted 1.15 percentage point from fourth-quarter gross domestic product.”

In “Stop Currency Manipulation and Create Millions of Jobs,” Robert Scott at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) writes, “Rising trade deficits are to blame for most of the 5.7 million U.S. manufacturing jobs (nearly a third of manufacturing employment) lost since April 1998.”

John Olen writes at Economy in Crisis in, “Lack of Jobs is Due to Our Trade Deficit“:

Trade policy that encourages businesses to relocate production of goods to other nations without penalizing them for selling those goods back to this nation has resulted in millions of lost jobs. White House estimates show that for every $1 billion in goods exported, the economy creates 5,000 jobs. Unfortunately, that street goes both ways — data from the Economic Policy Institute shows that for every $1 billion in goods imported, the economy loses 9,000 jobs.

In “The Trade Deficit: The Biggest Obstacle to Full Employment,” Dean Baker explains that fixing “…the persistent trade deficit, through which the United States exports labor demand, would help a great deal in moving the job market toward full employment.” (Full employment results in wage growth as employers bid for employees.)

This massive loss of jobs, of course, has an effect on wages. This chart, from the post, “Does Trade Deficit Drive Inequality?” shows the correlation between the trade deficit and the way people’s wages stopped rising along with productivity in the late 1970s – the same time as the trade deficits started putting downward pressure on wages. In other words, regular, working people stopped sharing the benefits of improvements in our economy.

 

future_chart

The ongoing trade deficit has hamstrung our economic recovery and continues to threaten to derail it. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog recently explained that danger, using this long headline: “The one thing that could cut the economic recovery short: If you want a picture of the recovery’s future, imagine a trade deficit stamping on the economy’s face—forever.”

… Whenever one part of the economy takes off, like consumer spending has now, another falls off, like net exports. The difference now, though, is that, for the first time, you can see the potential for the recovery to break out of this cycle, and finally take two steps forward. … But there’s only so far these things can grow—people can’t keep spending more unless they save less—which is why we can’t afford for the trade deficit to be a persistent drag on GDP.

Since The 1970s!

How long have we – the United States – been letting that continue? We have been running trade deficits every single year since the late 1970s, when the neoliberal “free market” and “free trade” ideology came to dominate our thinking. This didn’t just happen. It had the help of billions of corporate and billionaire dollars invested in conservative “think tanks” and other PR and marketing efforts to convince the public that privatization and “trickle down” and tax cuts and letting corporations handle things instead of We-the-People government was the best way to do things.

Since the late 1970s American corporations have been closing factories here and replacing with them factories elsewhere. We have been moving entire industries out of the country, and not bothering to compete for new, strategic industries of the future.

Why Does This Continue? Protecting Investments Over People.

Why would a country run trade deficits year after year? Because the trade deficit benefits a few people. In ““Free Trade” Was Never Really About Trade” Stan Sorscher explains, (emphasis added, for emphasis)

Our free trade policy encourages production to leave the country. We’ve lost millions of manufacturing jobs. More than 60,000 manufacturing plants were closed between 2000 and 2010 as production moved overseas. These costs are real.

[…] Free trade agreements are bad for millions of people because they are not really about trade. More importantly, they limit the political process so investors are relieved of responsibility for protecting the environment OR recognizing labor rights or human rights, OR dealing with public health OR worrying about prudent financial regulation.

Sorscher says here that protecting investments over people results in “downward pressure” on everyone except the investors. It means lower environmental protection costs for corporations. It means lower costs for protecting health and safety and rights. It means higher unemployment, which means downward pressure on wages. Lower wages and other such costs are great if you are an employer, but of course are bad for the rest of us.

Mike Collins writes at Forbes, in “America’s Trade Deficit – The Job Killer“:

Trade deficits must be financed. A country simply cannot have a trade deficit unless private or government investors are willing to finance it. This is not simply an accounting convention – it is real debt.

[…] But why isn’t the government, Wall Street, multinational corporations, and many pundits and bloggers worried about the growing trade deficit? Why is the trade deficit largely ignored while everyone is more concerned about the federal deficit? Wall Street, the Multi-national corporations and the Obama Administration have adopted a policy of appeasement where foreign mercantilism seems to be irrelevant and attempts at balancing trade are ignored. It is as if the trade deficit is an open-ended charge account that is simply an accounting summary that will never have to be paid back.

He is not quite saying that Wall Street and our government are financing our trade deficit in order to keep jobs scarce and therefore wages low – just that this is the net result of policies, decisions.

If People Understood The Trade Deficit

This continues because we – the United States as a country – do not have national industrial/economic policies that recognize the U.S. as a country with national economic interests. Instead, our leadership and opinion elite have been convinced by the ongoing conservative campaign that government should not “interfere” and that acting as a country to protect our national economic interests – known as “protectionism” – is bad. Meanwhile other countries are doing exactly that, and their economies and industries benefit from it.

This ongoing trade deficit has transferred trillions of dollars out of our economy. It has cost us millions of jobs, tens of thousands of factories and entire industries. As it continues it is costing us our ability to make a living as a country – except for our financial sector.

This has made a very few people unimaginably wealthy, but it has made the rest of us, and the country, poorer.

If people understood the trade deficit and the harm it does to approximately 99.9 percent of us, they would demand that our politicians do something to fix it. And if that happened, great things would happen for working people and our economy.

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on March 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

The 32-Hour Workweek That's Grown One Company By 204 Percent

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Bryce CovertWhen Cristian Rennella first co-founded elMejorTrato.com, a Latin American search engine, he and his employees worked five days a week just like nearly all other companies. But then two years in they decided to try something different: they stopped working on Fridays.

“We said we’re going to try it for only three months and if everything is working and the same amount of work is done, we can say three more months,” he told ThinkProgress. “Five years later we haven’t stopped.”

And in that same timespan the company has grown annual revenue by 204 percent.

Rennella credits that growth in large part to the different work schedule. He says it makes everyone at the company get more done in a shorter amount of time. “We know we have Friday off, so we can be more productive because we know we have to focus,” he said. “We only have 32 hours to do all the work.” Rather than spending some work hours on Facebook or doctor’s appointments, he and his employees use all of them for work-related tasks.

His hunches are supported by the data. The most productive workers around the world are those who put in fewer hours. Meanwhile, different studies have found that working more than 60 hours a week can boost productivity in the short term but that boost will disappear after a few weeks.

The model makes particular sense in his sector. “We’re in the technology age, we’re not working in the industrial age,” he pointed out. “In the industrial age, people thought that the more you work the more you will get done. Now for us it’s the opposite. It’s not the most work you do, it’s the quality of the work that matters.” For programmers especially, the quality of the code they write in the shortest amount of time is more important than the hours clocked sitting at a desk. A few other technology companies have tried shorter workweeks, like Treehouse in the U.S.

The policy brings other advantages to his company. “We want to make [work/life balance] a reality,” he said. “It’s impossible to have balance with work and life with your family if you work five days and you have only two days to spend time with family.” The balance he feels they achieve is a big draw for prospective employees. The company has a “competitive advantage…to hire only the best and excellent professionals,” he said. It’s hard to lure the best engineers to a company, but his workweek is a big draw. “Compared to competition with the same salary, they’re happier here and they say it’s an important thing… We can hire better people,” he said. Studies have found that shorter hours do make people happier.

And once they come onboard, his employees rarely leave. “They don’t go to work in another place because they’ve been working so few days,” he said. “Everywhere [else] is five days for eight hours, 40 hours a week.” Here in the United States, the 40-hour week is even a myth: the average full-time American worker puts in 47 hours a week. Retaining employees comes with huge benefits for his company. “When you have a new person on the team or have to replace a person who leaves, you have to start from zero,” he said. Keeping people “allows us to have long-term sustainability. We can grow much more quickly than our competition because we have no problem with members of the team going to another company.”

That’s definitely true for Rennella himself. “If I want to go to a new startup or work for another company, I would like to work four days…because my family is expecting me to be with them Friday.”

This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on January 5, 014. Reprinted with permission.

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

The Supreme Court Just Rejected A Wage Theft Suit Against Amazon. What Does It Mean For Other Workers?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Retail warehouses don’t have to pay workers for the time they spend in security screenings to make sure they’re not stealing, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a unanimous decision that reverses a lower court’s finding that workers must be paid for that time.

The ruling is a blow to wage theft claims by the poorly paid workers who fill orders for Amazon.com and similar online retailers in punishing conditions with little job security. It effectively ends 400,000 workers‘ hopes of recouping hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay from the company in 13 different class-action suits.

But an employment law expert tells ThinkProgress that workers who are bringing a host of other prominent wage theft cases in other industries have nothing to fear.

“It says absolutely nothing about whether other pay practices violate the Fair Labor Standards Act,” said Prof. Catherine Keck, who teaches employment and labor law at the University of California Irvine School of Law. “I don’t think you can read this decision as anything but a very narrow interpretation of a particular portion of the law.”

The case targeted Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS), a temp agency that Amazon pays to staff its warehouses. The warehouses require staff to clock out prior to lining up for mandatory security screenings, which workers say take up to 25 minutes to complete because the company won’t invest in setting up enough metal detectors to turn the process into a quick, simple pause on the way out of the building.

A 1947 law called the Portal-to-Portal Act exempts employers from having to pay workers for the time they spend on activities “that take place before and after the workday proper,” the New York Times explains. Workers can’t demand wages for the time it takes to walk from their car to the time clock, for example, or for the time they spend commuting. How you read on-site security screenings in the context of that law, Keck said, is a judgment call.

“There’s truth in both points of view on this. This is not like commuting,” Keck said, and “essentially the employer’s choice about how it wants to run its business and its unwillingness to invest in a security system means it is wasting a lot of its employees’ time.” But the Portal-to-Portal Act specifically says companies don’t have to pay workers for anything they do after the end of their principal work duties.

“I think that language could be construed both to include the security screenings and to exclude them. And the court chose one plausible interpretation, which is that their principal job is to put stuff in boxes in a warehouse and [not] the searches to make sure they’re not stealing stuff,” Keck said. Solving the problem requires either a change to the law from Congress to clarify how mandatory security screenings relate to existing labor law, or a decision by Amazon to spend the money it would take to make the screenings efficient enough that they don’t trap workers on site after their shift’s end.

A series of high-profile wage theft suits against McDonald’s from last spring could prove crucial to the long-running, increasingly rowdy campaign to force the fast food industry to stop paying poverty wages and start letting workers unionize. But while those suits also pivot on allegations that a corporate giant systematically deprived its most exploited employees of money they should have been paid for time they spent on site, the nature of the allegations is so different from those in the Amazon case that worker advocates have nothing to fear from Tuesday’s ruling.

McDonald’s allegedly uses a computer system to police cash flows at its stores in real time, giving managers an incentive to monitor the ratio of cash register revenue to staff wage costs from moment to moment. Workers allege that managers respond to that information by forcing them to clock out but continue working, or clock out but not go home, or otherwise manipulate their time cards and deprive them of their due pay — something multiple former managers have confirmed.

Such timesheet abuses are “clearly illegal and there’s no argument on the other side,” Keck said. “That’s a totally different issue, it arises from a totally different part of the statute.”

This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/12/10/3602000/amazon-wage-theft-ruling/

About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

 

City Passes Historic Retail Workers Bill Of Rights

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

On Tuesday evening, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, the country’s first-ever legislation aimed at improving life for retail employees.

The new rules will require retail chains that have 11 or more locations across the country and employ 20 or more people in San Francisco to provide advance notice of schedules, improve the treatment of part-time employees, and give current workers the opportunity to take on more hours before hiring new people. Employers will have to give their workers at least two weeks’ advance notice of their schedules, and if they fail to do so they will have to give those workers additional “predictability pay.” Workers also get paid if they’re required to be on call but their shifts are canceled. Employers will have to give part-time employees the same starting wage as those working full time in the same position and access to the same benefits.

The bill’s passage comes at a time when erratic schedules are increasingly wrecking havoc on people’s lives, particularly in retail. Nearly half of part-time workers and just under 40 percent of full-time ones only find out their schedules a week or less in advance. In a survey of more than 200 retail employees in New York City, nearly 40 percent said they don’t get a set minimum of hours they’ll work each week and a quarter are required to be on call for shifts, often finding out just hours ahead of time that they’ll have to go to work. Many say schedules are posted on Saturdays for workweeks that start on Sunday.

Workers also show up just to be told to go home thanks to computer software that uses algorithms to determine if there are too many employees compared to sales volume — McDonald’s employees have sued the company over its use of exactly this technology.

At the same time, workers often struggle to get enough hours to survive. There are 7 million people in the country working part time who want to be full-time, an increase from 4.5 million in 2008. Employees in retail note that getting more hours or full-time status is treated like a reward, and docking hours is used as a punishment. Employers also keep workers just under what would qualify as full-time hours to avoid having to give them benefits.

Bills similar to its Retail Workers Bill of Rights are being pushed in Milwaukee, New York, and Santa Clara, California. Federal lawmakers have taken notice as well. In July, Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Schedules that Work Act. It would require all the country’s employers to give at least two weeks’ notice on schedules, give employees an hour’s pay for each shift changed within 24 hours, and pay them some wages if they get sent home before the end of their shifts or call in but aren’t given one. Workers would also have the right to request their own schedules.

This article originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on November 26, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/11/26/3597287/san-francisco-retail-bill-of-rights/

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

U.S. Pressure Needed to Make Honduran Elections Free and Fair

Friday, November 15th, 2013

On Sunday, Nov. 24, Hondurans will vote in national elections for president, legislators and local governments. The last elections in Honduras, in November 2009, were run by the de facto government that took office after the June 2009 coup and the electoral process was tainted by severe limits on civil liberties and low levels of participation. Candidates from diverse parties withdrew before the election, stating that the ruling party made fair campaigns and elections impossible. As a result, many Honduran and international groups questioned the legitimacy of the elections and the government that took office in early 2010. Numerous governments in Latin America explicitly rejected these elections.

Since the 2009 coup, those who resisted the coup have built a progressive alliance in which unions are a key partner and one of the founders of the resulting LIBRE party. Its candidate for president, Xiomara Castro, has been leading in the polls for more than nine months. Labor has presented numerous LIBRE party candidates, including one for vice president. At the same time, LIBRE members, activists and candidates have suffered violent attacks, threats and intimidation when attempting to exercise their rights and build a movement for social justice. Eighteen LIBRE candidates and immediate family members of candidates were murdered between May 2012 and Oct. 19, 2013, and 15 more suffered armed attacks. Countless more members of LIBRE have been victims of this violence, which observers say has been both increasing and more focused against the LIBRE party. U.S. citizens and taxpayers should insist that the U.S. government play a positive role in the Honduran elections, advocating for full rights and democratic freedoms for all Hondurans.

At the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention, delegates passed a resolution to support free and fair elections in Honduras by having local labor councils ask their members of Congress to insist that the U.S. Embassy call on the Honduran authorities to run the elections free of threats, coercion or intimidation of candidates, their supporters or voters. As the resolution urged, the AFL-CIO is sending a delegation to witness the elections, along with regional unions from Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere in Central America that are also affiliated to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas.

Since the 2009 coup, the ruling government has failed to respect human rights, advance economic development or provide security to citizens. In this context, labor rights in Honduras have been violated consistently and recent reforms have reduced job stability and workers’ income. As a result, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint in 2012 under the terms of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). In March 2012, 94 members of the House of Representatives wrote to the U.S. State Department to insist that U.S. policy follow laws that link foreign assistance to respect for human rights. Meanwhile, poverty, unemployment and inequality all have increased over the past four years. Lastly, Honduras remains one of the most violent countries in the world outside of war zones.

While some members of the U.S. Congress have properly expressed concern recently about the role of the United States in Honduras and strong concerns about the upcoming elections, the State Department and its embassy in Honduras have not sent a sufficiently clear and public message denouncing the violence faced by opposition candidates and their supporters. Along with others, the United States has called on the current government to respect the democratic process, yet more vigilance will be needed to defend the rights of all Hondurans in the upcoming elections. The Nov. 24 election presents a great opportunity for Honduran citizens and workers to change course toward a more just and peaceful society. They must be allowed a chance to exercise their rights and seize that opportunity in free, fair and fully inclusive elections.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 15, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.

Labor Day 2013: Things Have Never Looked Worse for Workers—Or Brighter

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

 

David MobergFour young men breakdancing on the Federal Plaza last week in downtown Chicago say a lot about why this Labor Day provides occasion for both celebration and protest.

 

The dancers—black, white, Latino, all of them putting on a spectacular show—were fast food and retail workers on strike for the day for $15 an hour pay and the right to form a union without retaliation. They were among about 400 low-wage workers from more than 60 stores convening for a celebration after a day of delivering their key demands—with specific additional grievances tailored to each workplace—to their employers, who, from McDonald’s to Sears, make up a  Who’s Who of brand-name fast-food and retail companies.

 

It was the third strike for many of the workers. The strike wave began last November in in New York, with Chicago holding protest marches late last year as well, and it spread in July to five other traditional union strongholds. On Thursday—just after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—thousands of workers from a total of approximately 60 cities joined a national day of action, the largest yet. Strikes cropped up in the South, in cities such as Raleigh, N.C. and Memphis, Tenn., and in smaller Northern cities, such as Bloomington and Peoria, Ill. In tiny Ellsworth, Maine, a community-labor group demonstrated support for higher pay fast food workers even though none went on strike. In some cases, workers appear to have organized themselves after hearing about the earlier actions, calling whomever they could contact and asking how they could take part in the next strike.

 

The dark side of this jubilant surge of activity is the many reasons why it is needed—weak job growth, underemployment, flat or declining wages, feeble labor standards, a stalled union movement, an occupational structure shifting toward more low-wage service jobs, growing inequality, and widespread abuse of power by the very rich.

 

The decline in the official unemployment rate masks the degree to which American workers face a very grim world of work. Much of the improvement in the unemployment rate simply reflects a growth in the number of discouraged or “marginally attached” workers (people who want a job but have given up looking). The share of the workforce working part-time involuntarily has risen as well.

 

Such slack in the demand for labor, along with the declining power of unions and the cuts in pay demanded by both private and public employers (often accompanied by outsourcing or, at public employers, privatizing), holds down—or pushes further down—wages that had improved little even from 2000 to 2007, when the recession began. Between 2007 and 2012, even as productivity grew by 7.7 percent, wages declined for the bottom 70 percent of the workforce, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.

 

The weakness of the labor movement, especially in growing, low-wage sectors like retail and fast food, accounts for much of the decline, but the diminishing value of the minimum wage plays a big role. According to another recent EPI study, by Sylvia Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts, if the federal government restored the minimum to its peak value in 1968, the minimum wage would be $9.44 today in inflation-adjusted dollars, not $7.25. And if it matched in real terms the $2.00 minimum wage demanded 50 years ago by the March on Washington, the minimum wage would be $13.39—not far from the striking fast food workers’ demand and not far from the minimum in many advanced countries (approximately $12 an hour in France and $15 an hour in Australia, for example). If the minimum wage had risen as much as worker productivity since 1968, it would be $22 an hour.

 

Any rise in the federal minimum would especially help people of color and women, Allegretto and Pitts report. Contrary to stereotypes of low-wage workers as teenages, a raise would help many adult, family-supporting workers. In a report for EPI published in March, David Cooper and Dan Essrow calculated that with even the modest $10.10 minimum proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the average age of low-wage workers whose pay would likely increase is 35. Eighty-eight percent are over 20 years old, and 35.5 percent are 40 or older. In addition, 44 percent of the beneficiaries would be workers with some college education, and 28 percent with children.

 

The plight of low-wage workers is becoming a much more acute problem as the nation’s occupational structure, that is, the kinds of jobs being created or retained, has changed. According to Daniel Alpert of the Century Foundation, 70 percent of the jobs created in the second quarter of this year were low-wage, like retail and hospitality work, about twice the percentage of such jobs in the overall workforce. And about 50 percent of all new jobs in the first half of 2013 were part-time.

 

Wages have risen for the top 5 percent, however, especially for the very richest. The top 1 percent—mainly executives and financial managers—captured 121 percent of the nation’s new income during the first two years of the recovery, according to University of California, Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez. How do they do that? Essentially, they direct all national income gains to themselves while simultaneously taking more away from the 99 percent.

 

Looking more closely makes the picture even uglier. The success of the very rich often involves large elements of chicanery, fraud and exploitation of public resources, according to a new study, “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted,” the 20th annual Labor Day edition of the Executive Excess reports from the Institute for Policy Studies. The researchers compiled data from 20 years of their studies, which relied on annual Wall Street Journal surveys of CEO pay.

 

Their final survey covered 500 CEOS—the 25 highest-paid CEOs each year for the two decades. IPS reports that 38 percent of these CEOs had performed extremely poorly as executives of their firms. Of those poor performers, 22 percent of the top pay winners led their firms into bankruptcy or bailout; 8 percent were fired (but got golden parachutes worth $38 million on average); and 8 percent were found guilty of fraud.

 

Then there are simply the super-excessively paid, making over $1 billion during their tenure, and other executives who fed at the “taxpayer trough,” collecting top pay while their companies profited as major government contractors.

 

Any move towards equality will have to hold down the excess at the top as well as raise the bottom. But beyond basic fairness, society would reap additional benefits—faster and more stable growth (and therefore a speedier, more robust recovery); less crime and social tension; a stronger democracy; and better health, longer life and lower medical expenses, to mention a just few. (See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.)

 

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was not speaking rhetorically, but quite practically, when she told strikers in Chicago, “These workers are among thousands and thousands of low-wage workers around the country, who have a really reasonable and simple request, and that is that they be paid a living wage. …These are the makers; they are the takers. I want to thank these brave workers who walked out. They are doing it for themselves and they are doing it for America.”

 

And it seems the strikers are doing it their way, with people volunteering and reaching out to other workers to spread the word. Most events include raps composed by strikers about their work, and protest strategies reflect their decisions. For example, in Chicago, the strikers this time wanted actions at every store where someone walked out, not just a couple of highlighted targets, as in the July strike. And they wanted a celebration at the end. If the fast food fight succeeds, it will be a result of that insurgent sentiment.

 

The spirit was there in the breakdance—introduced in Spanish and English, as all the program was before the crowd of comfortably mixed ethnicities, performed under a banner reading, “Fight for 15, Valemos Mas.” Dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” two stands-in for CEOs in mock-suits faced off against two workers from Potbelly’s.

 

The workers won. It wasn’t Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers singing “Roll the Union On.” But I’m sure Pete would have approved

This article was originally published on Working In These Times on September 2, 2013.  Republished with permission. 

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. .

Why Unions Are Essential to Tackling the Technology Challenge to Good Jobs

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Image: Richard KirschNew technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it’s society’s responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?

In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.

The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.

But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.

If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.

This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.

We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.

The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.

This article originally appeared in The Next New Deal Blog on August 29, 2013, and was cross-posed on AFL-CIO Now on August 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

A Victory for Silica Dust Exposed Workers?

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Mike ElkToday, after a much-criticized delay on issuing a rule to limit workers’ exposure to cancer-causing silica dust, the Obama administration put forward a proposed rule for public consideration. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that once the rule is in effect, it could save 700 lives a year and prevent nearly 1,600 cases of silicosis annually.

In an OSHA press release, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, commented, “Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential. Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

Workplace safety advocates applauded the decision. In a press release issued by the non-profit National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, executive director Tom O’Conner noted that workers who are most exposed to silica tend to be those least able to advocate for themselves.

“Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure—and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses,” O’Conner said. “This new rule will help to pull them out of the shadows and make them safer at work. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves a safe workplace.”

However, some in organized labor say the fight to enact the rule has just begun, as it will have to undergo a public comment period before it is issued. In his response to the news of the rule, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka cautioned:

But this rule is only a proposal–workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued.  Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks. The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that does not happen. We urge the Obama administration to continue moving forward with the public rule-making process without delay. The final silica rule should be issued as fast as humanly possible, to protect the health and lives of American workers.

This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on August 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

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