Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

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.

President Obama Endorses Paycheck Fairness Act

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Ravi BakhruYesterday, President Obama released a statement endorsing the Paycheck Fairness Act and calling on the Senate to pass the legislation.

In America today, women make up half of the workforce, and two-thirds of American families with children rely on a woman’s wages as a significant portion of their families’ income.

Yet, even in 2010, women make only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. The gap is even more significant for working women of color, and it affects women across all education levels.  As Vice President Biden and the Middle Class Task Force will discuss today, this is not just a question of fairness for hard-working women.  Paycheck discrimination hurts families who lose out on badly needed income.  And with so many families depending on women’s wages, it hurts the American economy as a whole.  In difficult economic times like these, we simply cannot afford this discriminatory burden.

My Administration has already begun to address this problem. In my first week in office, I signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps women who face wage discrimination recover their lost wages, and in my State of the Union Address, I promised to crack down on violations of equal pay laws. Today the Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force will present its recommendations, which include ways to better coordinate among enforcement agencies and inform employees about their rights.  These steps support women, and they also support businesses that are doing the right thing and paying their employees what they deserve.

We cannot do this work alone. So today, I thank the House for its work on this issue and encourage the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a common-sense bill that will help ensure that men and women who do equal work receive the equal pay that they and their families deserve.  Passing this bill is one of the Task Force’s key recommendations, and I hope Congress will act swiftly so that I can sign it into law.

We encourage you to show your full support for the bill by going here, and contacting your Congressman.

American Wind Turbines Sound Like Freedom

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Leo GerardThe sound that American wind turbines produce as their giant, breeze-propelled blades whip around is a distinctive: Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh.

The anticipation is that those energy-generating, whirling arms would create a whooshing sound. And maybe they do in some countries. But here, in America, they echo the almost melodic taunt of a schoolyard victor — Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh: You can’t get me.

That’s because American wind turbines are the manifestation of freedom from foreign oil. The more American wind turbines, the fewer barrels of oil America must import to meet its energy needs. And American-built wind turbines help propel the nation out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression by generating good-paying American jobs.

President Obama talked about the ugly results of the nation’s refusal to solve its dependency problem – its guzzling of 20 percent of the world’s oil while controlling less than two percent of the world’s reserves. America’s combination of oil addiction and lack of adequate oil resources enslaves the nation to foreign sources, often foreign sources hostile to America. A generation ago, former President Jimmy Carter warned of the consequences of this abusive relationship as Iran held 52 Americans hostages and long lines formed at gasoline stations during a season of shortages.

Carter installed on the White House roof a symbol of the solution — solar panels. His successor there, Ronald Reagan, pulled them down. And the nation went on its merry way forgetting the once-empty gasoline stations and ignoring its ever-increasing foreign dependency – even as the Exxon Valdez mucked Prince William Sound two months after Reagan left office.

Here’s what Obama said about that wasted opportunity:

“And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked – not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

The explosion of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the deaths of 11 workers, the uncontrolled gushing of more than 50,000 barrels of oil a day into the sea, and the mucking of brown pelicans and four states’ coastlines have given Obama the ability to take up Carter’s righteous clean energy campaign. And Obama accepted the challenge:

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

The president noted that wind turbines are being built in retrofitted factories that were once abandoned right here in America. That happened in Pennsylvania. The wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa converted defunct mills into centers for wind turbine construction. And it cooperated with the United Steelworkers (USW) to provide good-paying union jobs.

That is the potential President Obama sees – independence from foreign sources and resurgence of America’s economy. It is the potential that the USW and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) pictured when they agreed earlier this month to work together to accelerate development and deployment of wind energy production in the U.S.

Like the Steelworkers, the national trade association of America’s wind industry believes the U.S. must move toward renewable energy sources and must construct them itself. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained it simply when the USW and AWEA announced their partnership:

“We can’t replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on Chinese-made wind turbines. It’s critical that American manufacturers have the resources to develop and deploy wind energy components. Clean energy will help America regain its leadership in manufacturing. We need to ensure American workers and manufacturers are building the clean energy components that will be used around the world.”

Obama called on Americans to “seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” But like any rehab program, success won’t come easily. Oil companies will continue to lobby against it. Swayed by their money, some politicians will oppose the legislation essential to encourage it.

But symbolic solar panels must remain on the White House roof this time. Renewable energy, as Obama said, enables America to shape its own destiny

The President urged the nation to free itself from its oil dependency now:

“As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment.”

This is the time for wind turbines. For solar. For hydro. This is the moment to hear increasing numbers of rotor blades whipping up the sound of independence.

Carpe diem.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

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