Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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When the Parades Are Over, Who Stands With Unions?

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

The Labor Day parades are over. The bands have packed up. The muscular speeches celebrating workers are finished. The trash is getting collected from parks across the country.  And now conservative politicians from Trump on down will revive their systematic efforts to weaken unions and undermine workers.

Trump – despite all the populist bunting that decorates his speeches – sustains the deeply entrenched Republican antipathy to organized workers. Their attack is relentless.

Trump’s budget calls for deep cuts in the Labor Department, eviscerating job training programs and cutting – by 40 percent – the agency that does research on workplace safety. It would eliminate the program that funds education of workers on how to avoid workplace hazards. It even savages money for mine safety enforcement for the miners Trump claims to love.

Trump is systematically reversing any Obama rule that aided workers. He signed legislation scrapping the rule that required federal contractors to disclose violations of workplace safety and employment and anti-discrimination laws. His Labor Secretary has announced his intention to strip millions of workers of the overtime pay they would have received under Obama DOL regulations.

Trump is creating a pro-business majority at the National Labor Relations Board, which will roll back Obama’s efforts to make it easier for workers to organize, and make it possible to hold home companies responsible for the employment practices of their franchisees.

The GOP’s Anti-Union Strategy

This is simply standard operating procedure for today’s Republican party. Long ago, Republicans realized that organized labor was a central “pillar,” as Grover Norquist described it, of Democratic Party strength. Now Republican office holders at every level – from county officials to statehouses to judges – know that their job is to weaken labor unions. From right to work laws to administrative regulations to court challenges, Republicans sustain an unrelenting attack.

And aided by our perverse globalization strategies, they’ve been remarkably successful. Unions are down to about 7 percent of the private workforce. Public employee unions, a relative stronghold, are facing court challenges – essentially allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of union negotiations without paying dues — that will decimate their membership.

True conservatives would embrace unions. They are a classic “mediating institution,” a voluntary civic organization between government and the individual. Unions increase the voice and power of workers in the workplace, helping to keep executive accountable, and to protect workers from abuse. They also educate their members, teach democracy, and are central to community volunteer and service efforts. They teach and practice democratic citizenship.

The modern Republican Party, of course, is the party of big business and big money. It isn’t conservative; it is partisan. And weakening unions is a constant target.

While Republicans understand how important unions are to Democrats and to workers, Democrats don’t seem to get it. Sure, they line up to get union donations; most will vote to defend unions and worker programs. But as the money in politics has gotten bigger and the unions have gotten weaker, the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party has become more powerful.

The result is clear. When Republicans get control, they attack unions relentlessly. When Democrats gain control, as they did in 2012 with the election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses, labor law reform, empowering workers to organize is not a priority. Obama essentially told unions that if they could get the votes, he’d sign the law, but he wasn’t leading the charge. And so as under Carter and Clinton, changing the law to make it easier for workers to organize and bargain collectively didn’t happen.

Unions Under Siege

Now unions are under siege. Yet it is hard to imagine how a small “d” democracy can be robust, or a large D Democratic Party can regain its mojo without a revived movement of workers. It’s time for Democrats at every level to realize: strengthening workers and their unions isn’t an elective; it’s a requirement and a first priority.

The loop works like this: Unions are in decline. As a result, unions lose influence inside the Democratic Party. The Democrats then feel no pressure to stem unions’ decline, and the economically disadvantaged lose what was once their most powerful advocate. Then the cycle continues. We cannot revive unions, and we have no template for egalitarian politics without them.

Unions aren’t simply economic actors. They’re political actors. Labor still needs the Democrats. The Democrats, more than they realize, still need labor. But most of all, all those who want to build a fairer society need their partnership.

Republican elites understand the doom loop. Big business, small business, and Tea Party alike have pushed hard against unions. As the parties have polarized, Republicans have taken the gloves off, risking the votes of the 40 percent of union members who back Republicans in order to crush a pillar of the Democratic coalition. Even President Bernie Sanders would have real trouble rebuilding unions in the face of a Republican Congress and a federal judiciary eager to swat down pro-labor executive action.

Even without Republican politicians digging their graves, labor unions face deep challenges. In the private sector, unions must sign contracts workplace by workplace. Gawker writers here and home-care workers there will continue to organize their workplaces, but the barriers remain dauntingly high. In the public sector, unions have stood steady. But cops and teachers alike face blowback for putting their own prerogatives above the public interest. And if the Supreme Court bans the collection of agency fees in the public sector (thus imposing “right to work”), public-sector union membership could halve in a decade.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on September 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Robert Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. The organizations were launched by 100 prominent Americans to develop the policies, message and issue campaigns to help forge an enduring majority for progressive change in America. Mr. Borosage writes widely on political, economic and national security issues. He is a Contributing Editor at The Nation magazine, and a regular blogger at The Huffington Post. His articles have appeared in The American Prospect, The Washington Post,Tthe New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He edits the Campaign’s Making Sense issues guides, and is co-editor of Taking Back America (with Katrina Vanden Heuvel) and The Next Agenda (with Roger Hickey).

When three days sick means losing a month's grocery budget

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Nearly two-thirds of private-sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid sick leave, but as with so many labor and economic statistics, that masks serious inequality: 87 percent of the top 10 percent of earners have paid sick leave, while just 27 percent of the bottom 10 percent do. And what that means is that the people who can least afford to take a day off without pay are the ones who are forced to do so if they’re too sick to go to work. A new Economic Policy Institute analysis shows how devastating that choice can be:

Without the ability to earn paid sick days, workers must choose between going to work sick (or sending a child to school sick) and losing much-needed pay. For the average worker who does not have access to paid sick days, the costs of taking unpaid sick time can make a painful dent in the monthly budget for the worker’s household:

  • If the worker needs to take off even a half day due to illness, the lost wages are equivalent to the household’s monthly spending for fruits and vegetables; lost wages from taking off nearly three days equal their entire grocery budget for the month.
  • Two days of unpaid sick time are roughly the equivalent of a month’s worth of gas, making it difficult to get to work.
  • Three days of unpaid sick time translate into a household’s monthly utilities budget, preventing the worker from paying for electricity and heat.
  • In the event of a lengthier illness—say, seven and a half days of unpaid sick time—the worker would lose income equivalent to a monthly rent or mortgage payment.

State-level paid sick leave laws are starting to make a difference—in 2012, when the first such law was passed, in Connecticut, just 18 percent of low-wage private-sector workers had paid sick days. But workers outside of the five states with such laws need the federal government to act, and that’s not going to happen under Republican control.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on July 1, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Los Angeles bans criminal history checkboxes on job applications

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Companies in the nation’s second-largest city must stop requiring job applicants to disclose criminal convictions on hiring forms next year after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a “Ban the Box” law there on Friday.

The law does not prevent companies from conducting background checks once they have made a conditional job offer to a finalist. But it eliminates a standardized checkbox question about previous run-ins with the law, a common feature of job paperwork that makes it much harder for people to get back on their feet after serving their time. Firms with fewer than 10 employees are exempt from the law.

Sometimes called fair-chance hiring laws, such restrictions on how hiring managers solicit information about applicants’ criminal histories have grown in popularity over the past few years.

But the laws have typically applied only to hiring that involves taxpayer money, at government agencies and vendors who do business with the government. When President Obama moved to ban the checkbox last year, the executive action he took was limited to federal government hiring.

Inmates at a crowded California prison. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

Out of 24 states with fair-chance hiring laws, just nine extend to the private sector. Los Angeles is the 15th local jurisdiction to extend ban-the-box thinking to private firms. Among the five largest American cities, only Houston has yet to ban the checkbox.

Between 60 and 75 percent of people coming out of prison are unable to find work in their first year back on the street. Research indicates that an applicant’s chances of a callback drop by half if they indicate a criminal record—though white applicants who check the box fare significant better than black ones. There is also evidence that people who get far enough into the process to actually meet with a company representative are much more likely to get an offer despite their record—a key argument for eliminating the check-box filtering mechanism.

The idea’s spread during the latter years of Obama’s tenure seemed emblematic of the broader re-evaluation of a criminal justice system that is more punitive than rehabilitative. Formerly incarcerated people and their supporters rallied in front of the White House in 2015 to call for action, sharing stories of the hardships they faced in finding legitimate work after re-entering society.

The administration’s eventual move on hiring paperwork was just one in a flurry of progressive reforms to the incarceration system, all of which may be in jeopardy once president-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.

Americans leaving prison face high hurdles to regaining their economic and social footing without returning to crime. These obstacles are complicated to dismantle, rooted as they are in societal and individual prejudices about people with criminal pasts.

Policy changes can’t will charity into people’s hearts, of course, and there’s even some evidence to suggest that personal prejudices around the formerly incarcerated are so entrenched that fair-chance laws trigger ugly unintended consequences.

Two groups of researchers have published analyses suggesting that hiring managers simply begin ruling out young black men by default when they know they can’t ask about criminal history in the initial stages of their search. One of those studies outright argues that banning the checkbox does more harm than good.

But as the National Employment Law Project notes, that analytic conclusion gets things backward.

“Rather than identifying the root of the problem—which is both coupling criminality with being African American and the dehumanizing of individuals with records—the argument blames the reform,” NELP researchers wrote in response. “This distinctly economic framework, which views employers as entirely rational actors, fails to appreciate the extent to which negative racial stereotypes continue to plague the hiring process.”

Women Account for 72 Percent of the Decline In Union Membership from 2011 to 2012

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Katherine GallagherToday the Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data on union membership for 2012. We did some number-crunching which shows that while unions are really important to women, their membership is dropping.

What’s going on with women and unions?

  • Between 2011 and 2012 the number of union members dropped by 398,000. Women were less than half (46 percent) of union members in 2011 – but they accounted for 72 percent of the decline.
  • Men are more likely than women to be members of unions. The gap between men’s and women’s union membership has narrowed over time. Last year it grew, for the first time since 2008, by 25 percent. Women’s rate of union membership (11.2 percent) was 1.2 percentage points lower than men’s (12.4 percent) in 2011. In 2012, women’s rate (10.5 percent) was 1.5 percentage points lower than men’s (12.0 percent).

Why does this matter?

  • Union membership is critical for women’s wage equality. Among union members, the typical full-time woman worker has weekly earnings that are 88 percent of the typical man’s. Among workers not represented by unions, this figure is 81 percent.

Why is it happening?

  • It’s likely that women’s concentration in public sector jobs (women comprised 57 percent of the public sector workforce in 2012) was a key factor in this union membership decline.
  • The rate of union membership in the public sector workforce in 2012 was more than five times higher than in the private sector (35.9 percent as compared to 6.6 percent). Public sector workers comprise just over half (51 percent) of union members in 2011, but they accounted for 59 percent of the declines in union membership between 2011 and 2012.

A few wonky data details: BLS data on union membership include all employed wage and salary workers 16 and older. Figures are 2011 and 2012 annual averages. Data are not available broken down by gender and sector. Data on the wage gap for union members differ slightly from the often-used measure of median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers. Using this figure, the typical woman makes 77 percent of what the typical man makes.

This post was originally posted at NWLC. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Katherine Gallagher Robbins is a Senior Policy Analyst for Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center where she examines how tax and budget policies influence the financial stability and security of low-income women and families.  Before joining the Center in 2010, Ms. Gallagher Robbins worked as an organizer for the California Public Interest Research Group at the University of California, San Diego. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a graduate of the College of William and Mary.

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