Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

State of the Union Address Barely Mentions Unions

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

WASHINGTON. D.C.—Last night, President Obama gave his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress—but barely mentioned unions. The president did touch on a number of issues important to workers—such as increasing manufacturing in America, taxing the rich more equitably, increasing education funding and increasing enforcement of trade laws—but said nothing about increased attacks on workers’ rights around the country during the last 12 months.

This despite 2011 being the a year in which unions (especially those representing public-sector workers) have been under unprecedented attacks in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

The only time Obama explicitly mentioned a union was in reference to  “Master Lock’s unionized plant” in Milwaukee, which he said is now running at “full capacity” because the company brought back jobs from overseas.

At the beginning of his speech, Obama said: “At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.” However, he did not mention the fundamental role that unions played in building that middle class. Unions represented nearly one-third of all workers in the decade following World War II.

One of the only times that President Obama did indirectly to address union issues was in what could be interpreted to be a reference to wanting more “flexibility” in contract language “to replace teachers.” Obama said:

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making.

While some could interpret this language as attacking the contract clauses of teacher union contracts, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten did not see this as an anti-teacher union statement, telling In These Times, “I heard a different tone about what teachers and students need—as well as what he has always said about teacher accountability.” Weingarten further praised the speech, saying that it was about “fighting for the middle class, for economic fairness, taking on the banks, telling others to stop bashing and leading with accountability—it’s an important populist message for the times we are in. I think the president deserves that acknowledgement.”

The only other time that Obama referenced an event involving a union was in speaking about the role of workers (represented by the United Auto Workers union) in helping to revive the auto industry. Obama said: “In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker.”

While praising GM’s return to profitability, Obama did not mention how, despite the auto industry returning to profitability, the industry has done nothing to eliminate a two-tier wage system that was implemented as part of the bailout. The UAW did not return request for comment on the president’s section of the speech.

“There is little or nothing in this speech to oppose what most employers are doing; cutting jobs, busting unions, slashing wages, liquidating benefits, and running roughshod over workers in every way possible,” said UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. “As for workers, we are forced to work for a poverty existence at a “competitive wage” until we tipple into the grave. How inspiring is that?”

Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, criticized the speech for failing to emphasize the importance of protecting living standards and workers’ rights. “We need a national jobs policy that creates enough jobs for all those who are able to work, raises core standards around living wages and family-supporting benefits, stops and deters wage theft, and ensures that public and private sector workers have the right to collective bargaining,” she said in a statement Wednesday.

But despite the lack of positive references to the role of unions and organized labor, the speech did receive good reviews for Obama’s calls to renew America’s manufacturing sector, enforce trade laws more fairly, crack down on Wall Street, and reform tax laws to tax wealthy people at higher rates. (Billionaire Warren Buffet’s secretary was actually present for the speech to symbolize America’s dysfunctional tax code; her boss actually pays a lower tax rate overall than she does.) Specifically, he called for the creation of a “Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

President Obama’s speech tonight shows that he has listened to the single mom working two jobs to get by, to the out-of-work construction worker, to the retired factory worker, to the student serving coffee to help pay for college. …And tonight he made clear that the era of the 1% getting rich by looting the economy, rather than creating jobs, is over—what a contrast to the vision presented by presidential candidates squabbling over how much further to cut the taxes of the 1%.

The call for reviewing manufacturing and cracking down on unfair trade practices drew particular praise from United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo Gerard. He said:

President Obama has listened to us as American workers and laid out a vision of the America we want and need, one that creates jobs and prosperity for us and not the 1% who have looted the economy….The President’s commitment to discourage job outsourcing and promote insourcing is a ticket to a better economy.

We especially applaud the announcement to renew his policy to get tough on trade enforcement with a new unit to bring together resources and investigators from across the government to go after unfair trade practices in countries around the world, including China.

The GOp chose Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to deliver the party’s response to the State of the Union address. Daniels has spearheaded the effort to pass “Right-to-Work” legislation in Indiana, which would weaken private-sector unions. On its website, the AFL-CIO said the choice of Daniels sends a “clear signal the party is making attacks on working people a top priority in the 2012 elections.”

Surprisingly, though, Daniels didn’t say anything about unions. At least from my perspective last night, it was as if the massive fights for collective bargaining rights we witnessed in Wisconsin and Ohio last year (which, of course, continue in Wisconsin) never even happened.

Full disclosure: the UAW and USW are In These Times sponsors.

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on January 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mike Elk is a labor journalist whose investigative work has been cited on the front page of the New York Times and debated by Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters on ABC’s The View. Elk won a Sidney Award for his coverage of how corporations crafted legislation to exempt prison labor from U.S. minimum wage laws.  Elk has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Reuters and The Nation and is currently a reporter at Politico.

Obama: The First Farewell

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

The common sense was a necessary corrective to the stuff and nonsense of the political campaign trail. Noting the progress made in recovering from the Great Recession, the president reminded that the U.S. economy is the “strongest and most durable in the world,” now enjoying the longest streak of months with jobs creation in its history.

In contrast to the hysteria generated by the Trumped-up campaign, he said that the U.S. is the “most powerful nation on earth.” Its military has no competitor; “It’s not even close.” He sought to put the fears fanned by the ISIS and the acts of terror in perspective. We’re threatened less “by evil empires, more by failing states.” ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists can create terrorist acts across the world. But this is not “World War III,” and it is a disservice to call it that. The terrorists are violent thugs but “do not threaten our national existence.” Needless to say, Republicans immediately panned this common sense and revved up their hysteria. Good sense is a first casualty of terror.

The president celebrated the reality that he has begun to transform our energy policy and essentially declared victory in the debate over climate change. The debate is over. The world was acting together to begin to address climate change. And America is leading, with the president claiming that we had cut carbon pollution more than any other country on earth.

If the economy is so strong, why are the people hurting? Here, Obama reiterated his passive voice populism. Americans “feel anxious” because we live in a time of “extraordinary change.” Technology is transforming our economy in “profound ways.” That’s why workers have less leverage, companies less loyalty, wealth and income is more concentrated. We have to make change our friend, and navigate its currents. He then offered a sensible, if modest, agenda on education, extending shared security guarantees, greater support for the working poor.

But technological change has always been with us. Globalization is the result of policy, not an act of nature. Yes, we have to navigate the changes wrought by technological change. But the reason Americans are “anxious” is that the rules have been rigged to favor the few, not because technology mandates less worker leverage or company loyalty.

The president did offer a dollop of more active voice populism later on, an unstated tribute to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, when discussing the fierce debate over “what role government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations.”

“Working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules…Food stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in boardrooms…”

“In this economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less.”

Yet this populist frame led nowhere. The president offered no agenda for empowering workers, no pledge of executive action to give government contract workers the right to join a union. Instead he pledged only to “lift up many businesses” that are doing the right thing.

Similarly on foreign policy, after stating the fact that we are the most powerful nation in the world, the president argued that our challenge is how to exercise leadership without pretending to police the world. Sensibly, he argued this would require a sense of priorities. Yet, he suggested that the U.S. would be on patrol against instability in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ukraine, Central America, Africa and Asia. The challenge was to mobilize allies to “pull their own weight” in acting with us. But if the U.S. is on guard across the world, then it isn’t surprising that our “allies” as in the Middle East have their own priorities and are happy to let us do the heavy lifting elsewhere.

The president returned, somewhat wistfully, to the themes that launched his presidency – the need to recover our sense of one America, to overcome partisan division and discord, the strengths and spirit that sustain us as a nation. In doing so, he reminded us of the historic nature of his presidency, and of the dignity and decency with which he has borne the burdens of office.

He also used this theme to call for us to “fix our politics,” to change the system so people don’t think it is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or the narrow interests. That requires changing how we draw congressional districts, reducing the influence of big money, and making voting easier, rather than harder. The president pledged to spend part of the next year supporting these reforms at the state and local level, even while pushing against the wall of opposition at the national level.

Obama knows how to deliver a speech. Like Lincoln, he uses logic and common sense to stake his position and make his case. He has an author’s care about language. But in trying to describe our common ground, he has chosen not to “litigate the past,” either on our economic course or on our foreign policy follies. At a time when Americans had to learn clearly how failed conservative doctrines had led us into the fix we are in, the president chose not to issue the indictment. That was true at the start of his administration as he inherited a failed war and a collapsing economy. And it is true as his term draws to a close, despite the unrelentingly bitter partisan and ideological opposition he has endured.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on January 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

Obama Administration Proposes Expansion of Overtime Rights for Workers

Monday, July 13th, 2015

jillian johnson1Millions of workers who have not been receiving overtime pay would become eligible under a newly announced rule change. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the number of newly overtime eligible workers could be as high as 15 million. The change would update what is known as the “white collar” exemption to the overtime pay rules that covers certain executive, administrative and professional employees. Currently, these types of employees can be classified as “exempt” (meaning not entitled to mandatory overtime pay) so long as they are paid a salary of at least $455 per week ($23,660 per year) – an amount that is below the poverty line for a family of four and that has not been adjusted since 2004. Under the new rules, the minimum salary requirement for exempt white collar workers would increase to $970 per week ($50,440 per year) for 2016 and be indexed going forward to keep pace with inflation. Workers whose salary falls below this level would now be classified as “non-exempt” and guaranteed time-and-a-half for all hours worked over 40 per week.

While some big business groups are opposing the proposed changes, claiming terrible economic consequences will result if their labor costs increase; this is nothing new and the same cry that is heard every time they are forced to increase wages. The facts and history do not, however, support their dire warnings. In cities such as San Francisco and Santa Fe where the minimum wage has for years been set well above the federal minimum, and even coupled with other employee benefits such as paid sick leave and health-care, the impacts on employment have been essentially zero. Contrary to the claims of catastrophic job loss and business closing, studies have shown “no measurable” negative effect on employment when cities or states have raised their minimum wage above the federal minimum wage. Historically, increased pay for workers tends to generate a positive feedback loop – workers earn more, spend more, resulting in positive economic activity.

To put the pay figures in perspective, look back 40 years. In 1975 the minimum salary amount was adjusted and set to $250 per week. At that time, 65% of the American workforce was paid less – entitling them to overtime pay. Today, however, a mere 11% of the workforce earn less than the $455 per week minimum. Today, the $250 per week minimum salary would equate to more than $980 per week (approximately $51,000 per year) if it had been annually adjusted per the Consumer Price Index. So, to merely keep middle-class workers in the same economic position they were in as of 1975, the current $455 per week minimum salary would need to be increased to at least $980 per week. This is roughly what is being proposed under the new rules.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was implemented in 1938 to specifically address the serious problems caused by the overworking and underpayment of our nation’s core middle-class workforce. The two primary reasons the FLSA was put into place are:

  • First, to protect against working conditions that are “detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.”  The law recognizes that employees need some time off to spend with family and relaxing from often stressful work and provides an economic incentive to not overwork employees. If an employer is going to demand work hours that deprive employees of this precious down time, the law places a premium value on such time – a cost that the employer must cover.
  • Second, requiring the payment of time and a-half for all hours over 40 per week creates and strong economic incentive for employers to hire more people and spread the work, instead of overworking their existing staff. This helps to reduce overall unemployment in the U.S. economy, an issue every bit as relevant today as it was 75+ years ago.

The proposed changes to the overtime pay regulations are important to restore fair pay to millions of middle-class workers and are consistent with the overall goals and policy objectives that originally inspired the federal overtime pay laws.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jillian Johnson. Jillian Johnson is a freelance writer from New Jersey who has contributed to an array of blogs of various industries, particularly business, finance and health.  She freelanced for a local NJ parenting magazine “Curious Parents” magazine and wrote for her college newspaper, “The Tower,” ultimately becoming the Editor-in-Chief. Jillian holds a BA in Communications and is currently working towards a BSN.

With New Overtime Rule, President Obama May Have Given an Estimated 5 Million Workers a Raise

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

David MobergPresident Obama’s administration took another promised step on Tuesday towards raising the living standards of American workers, and Republicans and business groups are not likely to be able to stop it.

Using the administration’s power to update workplace rules regarding premium pay for overtime work, the Department of Labor on Tuesday began taking steps that could bring higher pay or more leisure time to an estimated 5 million middle-income workers by next year.

Business and conservative groups are likely to try to block the new overtime rules with court challenges and legislation, just as Republicans are still blocking President Obama’s modest proposed legislative increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 for low-income workers. But the political and legal winds favor the administration.

There’s a strong legal and factual case for the Department of Labor’s action. The current regulations are grossly out-of-date and out of sync with the intention of the original legislation.  According to administration calculations, the new rules should give at least 5 million middle-income workers a boost in pay if they work more than 40 hours a week or fewer unpaid hours at work and more time for themselves and their families if they are not forced into overtime work.

Now all hourly workers are guaranteed time-and-a-half pay for working more than 40 hours, but the rules do not require employers to pay time-and-half to salaried workers who make over $23,660 a year—even though that is below the poverty line for a family of four. Salaried workers below the threshold are regarded as being social equivalents to hourly workers. In 1975, 62 percent of salaried workers earned beneath the threshold and were guaranteed overtime pay by law, according to Ross Eisenbray of the Economic Policy Institute, but today the threshold only protects 8 percent of salaried workers. The new rules with a threshold of nearly $51,000 a year would provide overtime protection to about 44 percent of salaried workers.

If a salaried worker earns above the threshold and is a bona fide executive, administrative or professional employee, the employer does not have to pay him or her overtime.  But this “white-collar exemption” is now widely abused, and employers give nominal managerial titles and a few administrative tasks to people in order to avoid paying time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours of work.  Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project, a pro-worker research and advocacy group, also wants the new rules to more adequately define the kind of work that qualifies for the white collar exemption. At this point, the Labor Department has not proposed such revisions in defining who is a manager or professional.

“While we appreciate that doubling the salary threshold will extend overtime pay protections to millions of currently exempt workers,” she wrote in an organizational statement on the rules, “we are concerned that failure to address the existing tests’ vague definitions, laissez-faire approach to the mix of ‘salaried’ and ‘hourly’ duties required for exempt status and other shortcoming threaten to deny far too many workers the overtime pay protections they deserve and the statute contemplates.”  NELP, for example, wants the rules to state that exempt workers cannot spend more than half of their time on non-exempt work.

With unions at their weakest since the 1920s, more public policy action to raise wages is necessary, not only for minimum-wage workers but also for middle-income workers, such as those protected by overtime rules. Also, inequality continues to grow. University of California at Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez recently calculated  that despite recent growth in income of workers in the bottom 99 percent (an increase of 3.3 percent from 2013 to 2014), top 1 percent incomes grow faster and families in that sliver of the population captured 58 of real income growth per family from 2009 to 2014.

Overtime protection alone won’t reverse that trend, but it will make a real difference in the incomes and quality of life for millions of working families.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is David Moberg. 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. He can be reached at [email protected]

Low-wage industry tries to fearmonger on overtime pay, fails

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Laura ClawsonThe Obama administration will soon unveil its new overtime pay rules, which will mean that millions of additional workers will get overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week. Many low-wage employers are obviously upset about this—they’ve been using the weak overtime rules to make salaried employees work more than 40 hours a week for no extra pay, and they like it that way. Industry groups have been trying to make the case for keeping the overtime eligibility level low—it’s currently less than $24,000 a year—but the Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey shows just how weak those arguments are, taking a National Retail Federation report to the woodshed:

If the threshold is raised to $42,000, the NRF predicts significant changes in retail employment: while some employers will raise salaries for employees near the threshold to guarantee that they continue to be excluded from overtime protection, many salaried employees (some of whom work 60-70 hours a week for no extra pay) will have their hours reduced and as a result, 76,000 new jobs will be created averaging 30 hours per week. Altogether, half of the retail workforce that is currently excluded from coverage will be guaranteed coverage by the law’s overtime protections. That all sounds pretty good to me.The NRF’s projections are intended to be critical of the Labor Department’s rules update, but I have a hard time seeing why it would be a bad thing to create 76,000 new retail jobs, given that 8.6 million Americans are currently unemployed. Moreover, if I were a poorly paid bookkeeper or clerk in a department store, working 60 hours a week and getting paid no more than if I worked 40 hours, I’d be happy to see my hours cut and the extra work shifted to hourly employees.

Eisenbrey also points out that the NRF report suggests that the lobby group doesn’t think its members are following existing law: One of the requirements to exempt workers from overtime eligibility is that a worker have a managerial role, but the NRF report lists many traditionally non-managerial jobs such as bookkeepers, clerks, and secretaries as exempt from overtime.

Raises for some, fewer hours of work for others, and job creation. Gosh, those are some terrifying predictions for changes in overtime rules.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on June 15, 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 and a Labor editor since 2011.

Obama: ‘Challenge of Our Time’ Is Making Economy Work for Everyone

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Image: Mike HallPresident Barack Obama today said that “a relentless, decades-long trend”—“a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility…has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain: that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”

The president declared that “making sure the economy works for every working American” is the “defining challenge of our time” and drives everything he does as president. His proposals to reduce inequality include an increase in the minimum wage and “ensuring that our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to, so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.”

In the speech at a community center in a low-income area of Washington, D.C., which was hosted by the Center for American Progress, Obama said, “[T]he premise that we are created equal is the opening line in the American story.” He highlighted a series of efforts throughout American history to put those words into practice—from Abraham Lincoln starting a system of land grant colleges; to Theodore Roosevelt fighting for an eight-hour day and worker protections; to Franklin D. Roosevelt fighting for Social Security, unemployment benefits and a minimum wage; to Lyndon B. Johnson fighting for Medicare and Medicaid.

“We built a ladder of opportunity to climb and stretched out a safety net so that if we fell, it wouldn’t be too far, and we could bounce back. As a result, America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.”

However, Obama said, “starting in the late 70s, the social compact began to unravel.”

A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere. And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits. As values of community broke down and competitive pressures increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage.

As trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.

 

The result is “an economy that’s become profoundly unequal.” Income inequality has grown to record levels, with the top 1% having 288 time the net worth of the typical family, with CEO pay soaring from 20 to 30 times that of the average worker to more than 273 times and with the top 10% taking half of all income, up from a third since 1979. In addition, Obama outlined how upward mobility has been squashed at the same time.

The president said that growing inequality and lessened upward mobility “should offend all of us and it should compel us to action. We are a better country than this.” He highlighted that these trends are bad for our economy, pointing to studies that show that economic growth is more fragile in countries with greater inequality.

Obama then presented a “road map” of proposals to reduce inequality and restore economic opportunity:

  • Relentlessly push a growth agenda, making America a magnet for good, middle-class jobs in manufacturing and energy and infrastructure and technology, and ending incentives to ship jobs overseas;
  • Empower more Americans with the skills and education they need to compete in a highly competitive global economy;
  • Empower our workers. “It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class. It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so that women will have more tools to fight pay discrimination. It’s time to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so workers can’t be fired for who they are or who they love;
  • Target programs for the communities and workers who have been hardest hit by the economic change and the Great Recession; and
  • Revamp retirement to protect Americans in their Golden Years.

He said that “it was well past time” to raise the minimum wage for a growing service sector that includes “airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty.”

Obama also called for renewing the extended unemployment insurance program for the long-term unemployed and protection of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Republicans have targeted for cuts.

It makes a difference for a mother who’s working but is just having a hard time putting food on the table for her kids, [and] it makes a difference for a father who lost his job and is out there looking for a new one that he can keep a roof over his kids’ heads.

He also told congressional Republicans, who have blocked and continue to block action on the economy—from creating jobs to raising the minimum wage to ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas:

You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you’re against….If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, or provide more ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them.

Read the full speech here.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on December 4, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

White House: Insource Jobs, Decrease Inequality

Friday, January 13th, 2012
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Is it patriotic to ship American jobs overseas? President Obama doesn’t think so. He’s right, of course. We live in a globally-connected world, but let’s face it: Home-grown corporations must first focus on their own backyards–a novel concept all to many, it seems.

Obama implicitly raised the question yesterday during his Insourcing American Jobs Forum which featured representatives from more than a dozen large and small businesses that have made decisions to bring jobs to the United States and to increase their investments here.

Pointing to the CEOs in the room, Obama said they ”take pride in hiring people here in America, not just because it’s increasingly the right thing to do for their bottom line, but also because it’s the right thing to do for their workers and for our communities and for our country.

I don’t want America to be a nation that’s primarily known for financial speculation and racking up debt buying stuff from other nations. I want us to be known for making and selling products all over the world stamped with three proud words: “Made in America.” And we can make that happen.

I don’t want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany. I want them taking root in places like Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina. And that’s a race that America can win. That’s the race businesses like these will help us win.

Lack of job creation in industries that pay solid middle-class wages is in part behind our nation’s rising inquality, and today White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan Krueger addressed the issue in detail.

TPM’s Sahil Kapur says Krueger blamed inequality on economic policies “tilted to favor top earners — including income tax reforms (presumably during the Bush era) and the ‘drastic cut in the estate tax.’ Central to the message is that inequalities in the system are “jeopardizing our tradition of equality of opportunity,” as Krueger put it.

“If we had a high degree of income mobility we would be less concerned about the degree of inequality in any given year. But we do not,” he argued. “Moreover, as inequality has increased, evidence suggests that year-to-year or generation-to-generation economic mobility has decreased.”

Applauding the White House Insourcing Forum, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka makes clear the connection between job outsourcing and the nation’s escalating inequality–according to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 1 percent saw their incomes skyrocket by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, compared with 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. Says Trumka:

For too long, the 1 percent have sought and received tax breaks that actually created subsidies for corporations exporting good American jobs overseas.

America’s workers are not looking for handouts, they are looking for a chance to work hard and apply their best in the world skills in order to provide their families a middle class life.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on January 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell– “I got my first union card while I worked my way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (we were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—I started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), I now blog under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.”

New Labor Split? Trumka Refuses to Denounce Obama Chamber of Commerce Speech

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Mike ElkWASHINGTON, D.C.—Many in the labor movement objected to President Barack Obama speaking at the Chamber of Commerce yesterday. Yet there was little protest from AFL-CIO leaders to the president’s speech.

For the first time, President Obama ventured over to the Chamber of Commerce to speak. While the speech was full of the usual platitudes of most Obama speeches, what mattered most was not what he said, but the speech’s symbolism. By speaking at the Chamber, President Obama was offering an olive branch to the very organization that has led attacks against him.

President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on February 7 in Washington, D.C. He talked about the importance of working together on job creation and growing the economy. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on February 7 in Washington, D.C. He talked about the importance of working together on job creation and growing the economy. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The president defended some of his regulatory agenda and tax policies. He also called on CEOs to create more jobs in America. But he made no mention of the Chamber’s tolerance of unionbusting policies that lead to nearly 30,000 reported cases of unfair labor practices against U.S. workers by companies every year.

The symbolism of the speech upset many in the labor community. Ralph Nader wrote an open letter to the President suggesting “What about walking next door and visiting your political friends at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, whose member unions represent millions of working Americans? You can discuss with Richard Trumka, a former coal miner and the new president of the AFL-CIO, your campaign promises in 2008. Repeatedly you said to the American people that you supported the “card check” and a “federal minimum wage of $9.50 in 2011.”

The AFL CIO neither organized a protest of the president’s speech nor extended an invitation for the president to cross the street and speak at the AFL CIO headquarters (where Obama has never given a speech).

Two unions—the National Nurses Union/California Nurse Association (CNA) and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), though, did organize a protest of the president’s speech at the Chamber. Both unions, it should be noted, have traditionally been more politically independent of the Democratic Party. Both unions endorsed Ralph Nader in his 2000 presidential run (At that time the CNA hadn’t merged with other unions).

The AFL CIO refused requests to endorse the protest. Still, 75 union members and allies picketed the president’s speech, chanting “Hey Hey, Hoo Hoo, Union Busting Got To Go”! One labor union member, who wished to remain anonymous, told me afterward that “I feel like by protesting today, we at least salvaged the dignity of the labor movement.”

Following his mantra “The President doesn’t communicate well with me in the press,” AFL-CIO President Trumka refused to denounce President Obama in remarks on MSNBC. In fact, Trumka disagreed with IAM (machinists union) President Thomas Buffenbarger‘s remark that “this isn’t a truce with business. I think he capitulated.” Instead, Trumka defended the president’s speech. He also praised the selection of former JPMorgan Chase Director William Daley as Chief of Staff, suggesting his selection might make things better for organized labor.

Why is organized labor’s top leader so unwilling to criticize the Chamber of Commerce appearance?

One CNA official told me that the AFL CIO was hesitant to protest the Chamber as a result of their rare joint statement last month in which they endorsed increased spending on infrastructure program. The AFL CIO, it seems, is hoping that by teaming up with the Chamber, it has a better chance of seeing Congress pass funding to keep its members employed and its unions financially solvent and vibrant.

But I can’t help worrying that by teaming up with the Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO is undermining energy the labor movement needs to win the war against the country’s business class.

*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on February 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.

Obama Admin Blocks Two Workplace Safety Regulations, Pleasing Big Business

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Mike ElkLast month, President Obama wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”

The announcement by Obama to eliminate burdensome regulation was seen as dramatic tilt to the right for the White House, which is increasingly pro-business. Others, though, dismissed the move as mere posturing that would not seriously affect workers. But since calling for the regulatory review, the Obama Administration has done away with  several proposed workplace safety regulations that have upset worker safety advocates.

Earlier this week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  announced it was delaying (or stopping, as many advocates claimed) implementation of a set of proposed regulations on ergonomics. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders remain the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in this country,” stated OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels in a press release. “However, it is clear that the proposal has raised concern among small businesses, so OSHA is facilitating an active dialogue between the agency and the small business community.”

The proposed regulation would have forced firms to count ergonomic injuries—also known as musculoskeletal disorder injuries (MSDs)—in statistics provided to OSHA . The push to merely count ergonomic injuries as part of workplace injury statistics was considered to be the compromise over regulating ergonomic injuries more broadly. Advocates had tried to bring tougher Clinton-era workplace safety laws, but settled on counting the MSD injuries as the compromise.

Workplace advocates hoped that being able to point to companies where a high amount of workers were suffering from ergonomic injuries would allow them to hold companies accountable. Now they will lack even the ability to shame corporations using government-published statistics.

Ergonomic injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and strained backs are agrowing problem, as more Americans wind up working in offices. Federal data shows that MSDs injuries “accounted for 28 percent of all workplace injuries and illnesses” that forced workers to miss time from the job.

Previously, there had been regulations on the books during the Clinton Administration to at least monitor and to offer minor protections to workers from such injuries. However, in 2001, a Republican-led Congress eliminated most ergonomic regulations. This was followed by eliminating the counting of ergonomic injuries by the Bush-era OSHA in 2003.

Many labor observers say OSHA’s decision not to regulate MSD workplace injuries shows that the Obama administration is slowly shifting away from its focus on tougher regulation of workplace safety. The decision to delay implementation of rules to regulate MSD workplace injuries follows a decision in mid-January by OSHA to write a rule regulating extreme noise on the job, which affects the hearing of many who work in the construction and manufacturing industries.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the National Association of Manufacturers had advocated against the proposal and in a letter to the new chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), called for celebrating its demise. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Issa has threatened to investigate such regulations, which has scared many administration officials who do not want to get caught in bureaucratic wrangling.

Those in the business community saw the defeat of these two regulations as a sign of their growing influence with the Department of Labor and OSHA. “We hope that these first two steps are a signal to the business community, and employers in general, that OSHA will ‘stop, look and listen,’” Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers told the Hill newspaper.

People in organized labor are upset about the proposed regulation being withdrawn. “All of these actions are coming because of the November elections and the fierce business opposition to anything,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety. “Just because the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups scream doesn’t mean there is a legitimate reason to retreat. There are real negative impacts here that can harm workers.”

The ability of corporate forces to stop the implementation of these rules may signal the ability of big business to block or water down other rules protecting workers. One has to wonder: Will the elimination of such regulations actually save any jobs, as the president seems to believe? Or will their elimination hurt workers’ lives?

*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on Feb 3, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.

Making America the Best Place on Earth to Work

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Leo GerardNot the wars. Not greenhouse gasses. Not even the deficit. The issue most important to Americans is jobs.

Despite that, jobs failed to make an appearance in the State of the Union address.

The talk was all about business. Business was doing better. Business needed taxpayers to help pay for research and innovation. Business will get government help to eliminate pesky regulations. Business must have lower taxes.

The most telling statement was this:

“We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

Especially because it wasn’t matched by a companion:

“We have to make America the best place on Earth to work.”

The speech expressed a policy in which business is the focus of government, taking precedence over workers.  The American colonists created a government for their own benefit; they did not constitute an agent to serve business. A policy giving corporations primacy is risky for American workers.

The state of the union noted that happy days are here again for corporations and banks:

“Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”

Never mentioned, however, were the 14.5 million unemployed Americans, the sustained record rate of foreclosure, and the increasing poverty and food bank reliance among citizens of the richest nation in the world.

The state of the union outlined a plan under which the government will coddle corporations, essentially proving companies government welfare using American workers’ tax dollars. If businesses create jobs for workers as a result, fine. If they don’t, there’s no plan to exact a penalty.

For example, under the policy described in the speech, American workers will fork over tax dollars to pay for research and development for businesses that are sitting on a record $1.8 trillion in cash reserves — hoarding it rather than creating jobs.

The president said:

“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Maybe it will create new jobs. Hopefully. But no guarantees were offered. Mentioned as a business success story in the speech was a Michigan company, Luma Resources, which began manufacturing solar shingles with the help of a $500,000 government grant. It created 20 jobs, $25,000 a job.  American taxpayers might think that’s a little pricey, but what’s worse is the potential for Luma Resources to go the way of Evergreen Solar, squandering the corporate welfare.

Evergreen, the third largest maker of solar panels in the U.S. and recipient of at least $43 million in corporate welfare, announced earlier this month it would close its main American factory in Massachusetts and move manufacturing to China. Eight hundred Americans will lose their Evergreen jobs by April.

Evergreen officials said China will give the company even higher amounts of corporate welfare, which, of course, makes sense since China is not a capitalist country. Its economy is government controlled. And that government routinely violates international trade regulations – by providing banned subsidies to industries and by deliberately devaluing its currency.

No matter how better educated American workers get. No matter how much more innovative. No matter how much more productive. No matter how many tax dollars the government spends on research and development, if the corporations that benefit move manufacturing overseas, the American workers who paid for it will suffer.

In fact, it’s more than suffering; it’s betrayal by their government that provided tax benefits to companies for off-shoring jobs. It is betrayal by their government that fails to stop violations of trade laws by countries like China that lure away firms like Evergreen.

At the end of the State of the Union speech, the president said:

“From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream.”

An ordinary American dreams of a family-supporting job, owning a home, saving enough to pay for a child’s college education, helping to build a safe community. Corporations aren’t Americans, no matter how often the U.S. Supreme Court grants them rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees to human beings. Businesses aren’t citizens. Their allegiance isn’t to America. It’s to profits. They dream only of dollars. They concede no responsibility to family, community or country.

They were not included when the president said:

“Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference.  We are part of the American family.”

The top priority of the American government must be making America the best place on Earth for Americans.  If that’s good for corporations, great. The government must never place American citizens second.

*This post originally appeared in United Steelworker’s Blog on January 31, 2010.

About the Author: Leo W. Gerard is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama recently appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of the Apollo Alliance, Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union.

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