Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Obama Administration’

AFL-CIO Backs Dakota Access Pipeline and the “Family Supporting Jobs” It Provides

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

o3ytsjwl_400x400The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) came out this week in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of which was delayed last week by an order from the Obama administration—a decision that itself stemmed from months of protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux.

In a statement, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, said, “We believe that community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americas.”

This week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. (Peg Hunter/ Flickr)

This week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. (Peg Hunter/ Flickr)

But it “is fundamentally unfair,” he added, “to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay. The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.

“(Trying) to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved. The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”

It’s an open secret in labor that North America’s Building Trades Unions—including many that represent pipeline workers—have an at-times dominating presence within the federation’s 56-union membership. Pipeline jobs are well-paying union construction gigs, and workers on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) can make some $37 an hour plus benefits. As one DAPL worker and Laborers International Union member told The Des Moines Register, “You’ve got to make that money when you can make it.”

But an old blue-green mantra says, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.” The parts of organized labor that have taken that phrase to heart are far from unified around Trumka’s DAPL backing—even within the AFL-CIO. National Nurses United (NNU) has had members on the ground at Standing Rock protests and others around the country have participated in a national day of action.

“Nurses understand the need for quality jobs while also taking strong action to address the climate crisis and respecting the sovereign rights of First Nation people,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, NNU’s executive director and a national vice president of the AFL-CIO.

In response to the federation’s endorsement, DeMoro cited the work of economist Robert Pollin, who found that spending on renewable energy creates approximately three times as many jobs as the same spending on maintaining the fossil fuel sector.

NNU isn’t alone. As protests swelled this month, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) released a statement in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, stating that “CWA stands with all working people as they struggle for dignity, respect and justice in the workplace and in their communities.”

Unions like the Amalgamated Transit Union and the United Electrical Workers have each issued similar statements supporting protests against the pipeline, and calling on the Obama administration to step in and block the project permanently.

For those who follow labor and the environment, however, the above unions might be familiar names. Many were vocal advocates for a stronger climate deal in Paris, and sent members to COP21 at the end of last year. They were also those most vehemently opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline, and all supported Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. While friendly to progressives, these unions have tended to have a relatively limited impact on bigger unions, like the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

According to Sean Sweeney, though, this small group of unions might now be gaining strength. “Progressive unions are becoming a more coherent force,” he told In These Times.

Sweeney helped found a project called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, which works with unions around the world on climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels, including the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ in the United States. He also runs the International Program for Labor, Climate and the Environment at City University of New York’s Murphy Institute.

“It could be said that it’s just the same old gang making the same old noise, but for health unions and transport unions to go up against the building trades and their powerful message and equally powerful determination to win … that was a bit of a cultural shift in the labor movement,” he said, referencing the fights against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. “That suggests that it’s going to continue.”

Sweeney mentioned, too, that it wasn’t until much later in the fight around Keystone XL that even progressive unions came out against it. “A lot of these unions,” he added, “know a lot more about energy and pollution and climate change than they did before.”

Between Trumka’s DAPL endorsement and the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president, this week has shown a stark divide between parts of American labor and today’s social movements. Progressive unions face an uphill battle on many issues, within and outside of organized labor. The question now—on the Dakota Access Pipeline—is whether today’s “Keystone moment” can break new ground in the jobs versus environment debate.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on September, 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the 2016 election and the politics of climate change. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

Obama administration cracking down on bosses who use temp workers to dodge labor laws

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Businesses don’t just use temp staffing agencies to add workers for short periods when they need extra hands. Staffing agencies can also serve the valuable (to crappy employers) purpose of dodging responsibility. “That person may work in our business on our terms, but the staffing agency is their employer, so we’re not responsible for violating labor laws to exploit them,” is how the dodge basically goes. Now, the Department of Labor is taking steps against that, issuing guidelines on when the company using the staffing agency to hire temp workers should be considered a joint employer that’s responsible for the people working in its facilities.

“I think the majority of noncompliance that we see is people just not getting what the law is, and what their responsibilities are under it,” [Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division director David] Weil said in an interview. “We also find cases of people who are clearly playing games, and clearly trying to shift out responsibility, and often have structured things in a way that lead towards more noncompliance.”

Weil’s division has stepped up its proactive enforcement of situations where companies are functionally controlling the workers they order up from labor providers — and broadcasts its enforcement of egregious violations. Back in October, for example, investigators found that temp workers at a snack food producer in New Jersey were cheated out of overtime wages, and ordered the company to pay back wages, damages, and civil penalties.

That’s the most typical form of joint employment — a “vertical” arrangement, with one company hiring another, as the guidance describes. But joint employment can also be “horizontal,” when a worker might employed by two subsidiaries of the same company, but they never get overtime because their hours are tracked separately.

Business groups and congressional Republicans are predictably pissed that the Obama administration would have the nerve to suggest that employers follow the law, with House Republicans pointing out that the Department of Labor talked to the National Labor Relations Board, which is also cracking down on joint employer issues.

Low-road businesses have found a lot of ways around laws protecting workers, from these joint employer dodges to misclassifying workers as independent contractors to deny them minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, and more. And every time the Obama administration cracks down, it’s a reminder of what’s at stake this November. The next president won’t just argue with Congress or even appoint Supreme Court justices. The next president will make the appointments that determine whether the Department of Labor is trying to make sure workers get paid for the hours they work or is looking for ways to let bad bosses off the hook.

This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on January 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

Obama is a step closer to expanding overtime, but for how many American workers?

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

Laura ClawsonThe Labor Department is moving ahead with President Obama’s eagerly awaited overtime pay expansion. That’s good news, but we don’t know yet how good. Currently, workers who make as little as $24,000 a year can be denied time-and-a-half if they’re considered managers—even if most of the work they do isn’t managerial. Obama has promised to raise that threshold to cover more salaried workers, but hasn’t said how high it will go, and the fact that the Labor Department has finalized a plan doesn’t change that. Yet:

The full proposal is now under review by OMB officials and won’t be made public for at least several weeks. After it is published, there will be a review period during which interested parties can comment on the proposed rule. The details of the rule are eagerly awaited by employers and worker advocates — not to mention overworked Americans — since they will ultimately determine who receives time-and-a-half pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week.

Just 11 percent of salaried workers qualify for overtime under the current rules. To cover the same proportion of workers who were eligible for overtime in 1975, the threshold would have to be raised from $23,660 to $69,004 ($58,344 if you adjust for increased education). To adjust for inflation since 1975, the number would be $51,168. Any increase will be an improvement that means overtime eligibility for millions more workers—meaning employers can’t save on wages by hiring salaried “managers” and expecting them to stock shelves 10 hours a day—but here’s hoping the Obama administration has chosen a number that will get us back to 1975 by one measure or another.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on May 5, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

Employee Free Choice Act: Good for Everyone

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

With the election of a new president, there naturally is a lot of talk about what legislation we might expect from the Obama administration and substantial Democratic majority in Congress.  High on everyone’s list is the Employee Free Choice Act — a bill that would make it easier for workers to form and join unions.  But perhaps you are not convinced that unions are the solution to making things better for workers, either in your workplace or any workplace.  Guess what:  you should support the Employee Free Choice Act anyway, and here’s why:

The specter of EFCA passage has a lot of employers — and their advisors — running scared.  Right now, employers who strongly oppose having unions in their workplace can hire specialists — let’s call them “unionbusters,” since that’s what they are — to use all legal and often illegal means to discourage workers from union organizing activity.  Guest blogger Art Levine, in an article published last year called Unionbusting Confidential, talked about the strategies he learned about while attending one of the many seminars that law firms sponsor for employers who want to remain union-free:

What if we felt like saying a lot of anti-union stuff to our workers? [The presenter Michael] Lotito introduced a segment called “You Can Say It.” Could we tell our workers, for instance, that a union had held strike at a nearby facility only to find that all the strikers had been replaced—and that the same could happen to the employees here? Sure, said Lotito. “It’s lawful.” He added, “What happens if this statement is a lie? They didn’t have another strike, there were no replacements? It’s still lawful: The labor board doesn’t really care if people are lying.”

(See Unionbusting Confidential.) (Note: Obama’s appointments to the labor board (NLRB) might care a little more about employers’ lies than those appointed by George W. Bush, but I digress.)

However, some of the tactics unionbusters use to discourage union organizing simply aren’t going to fly under EFCA.  Refusing to bargain is one of the tactics described by Levine, where employers say “I’m not inclined to agree to that proposal at this time” when they do not intend to agree to any proposal at any time.  This strategy will be countered by a provision that allows either side to request mediation after 90 days with the sides at an impasse.  (See Why Mediation and Arbitration Rules are Needed.)

One of the most egregious strategies, firing workers for union organizing, will also be penalized more heavily.  Levine writes that employers are being advised,

[Firing workers] was possible to do, said [Michael Stief of Jackson Lewis], as long as you were careful to do so for other reasons. “Union sympathizers aren’t entitled to any more protection than other workers,” he explained. But the firing could not be linked to their union activity.

One survey estimates that employees are fired in up to 25% of organizing efforts.  (See Why Stronger Penalties are Needed.)  EFCA increases the damages due to fired workers to three times their back pay, and allows employees to go to court to enjoin their employers from taking punitive actions.

But what really makes EFCA a win-win for everyone?  It’s that with the real threat of unionization, employers are going to be forced to make their workplaces better — to convince their employees that they don’t need unions. As one management lawyer recently pointed out, apparently with no sense of irony,

Making nonunion workplaces better for employees could be the real unintended consequence of the Employee Free Choice Act.

(See How Employers Can Mitigate ‘Card Check.’) (Hat tip to Matt Stoller of Open Left.)

This lawyer is encouraging employers to develop programs now “that will be better than
anything a union could provide, including steps to increase employee involvement and to allow peer resolution of disputes.”  Steps to increase employee involvement?  Allowing peer resolution of disputes?  All at a level better than unions? Those things all sound pretty good to me, and just maybe, they weren’t merely an “unintended consequence.”

According to Levine, unionbusters are already advising their employers to “institute an open-door policy with employees, encouraging them to air any grievances or concerns fully.”  Because it’s the right thing to do?  Not really — it’s so they can “sniff out whether there was unionization afoot.”  But what if they had to do it for real?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if employers and unions were finally engaged in a race to the top, instead of to the bottom?  If the realities of competition made both the employer and the union be at the top of their games when making working conditions more hospitable? If workers finally had the upper hand when it comes to a more democratic and fair workplace?

Let’s put the unionbusters to work actually trying to make the workplace better.  If they really believe that unions are bad for business, then they’re going to have to convince their employees that they’re genuinely willing to go the extra mile to make things better for their workers — farther than a union is likely to go.  If they can’t make that case, then employees will finally have a real shot at forming a union and empowering themselves that way.

Either way, with EFCA’s passage, we have an unprecedented opportunity to get rid of some of the imbalances that currently exist.  Because in this economic climate, with employers already laying off employees left and right, workers are otherwise going to be even more powerless, and the unionbusters even more empowered to ensure that employers don’t feel the sting like their workers do.

One Million Signatures for the Employee Free Choice Act:  add your signature today!

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