Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Uber’

New Jersey hits Uber with $650 million bill for back taxes, this week in the war on workers

Monday, November 18th, 2019

New Jersey says Uber owes $650 million in back taxes and interest for misclassifying workers as independent contractors. This isn’t coming out of nowhere—in 2015, the state notified Uber it owed $54 million in unemployment and disability taxes. Four years later, the number has grown to $523 million in past-due taxes and $119 million in interest and penalties.

No surprise, Uber says it will fight to avoid paying its tab. And the decision that Uber drivers are employees could have major ramifications beyond taxes—refusing to treat its workers as employees is at the heart of Uber’s business model. New Jersey is dealing other blows against that misclassification, including determining former rideshare drivers to have been employees for the purposes of collecting unemployment (one of the taxes Uber hasn’t been paying), and the state Senate is considering legislation cracking down on misclassification. California recently passed such a law, which Uber and other affected companies have said they will spend tens of millions of dollars fighting. A class-action lawsuit against Uber in New Jersey also seeks to escape Uber’s forced arbitration requirement because the drivers in question are involved in interstate commerce.

Uber’s business model is reliant on violating labor law to exploit workers, and, as the New Jersey case shows, it also cheats states of massive amounts of revenue. Increasingly, that model is under challenge in the states. Following the New Jersey demand for back taxes, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s Bhairavi Desai said in a statement, “New Jersey is sending a message that the state’s labor laws aren’t dictated by corporations. It’s time for New York to follow.” It is time, and that would be another major challenge for Uber. At some point, you have to wonder how many big states even a rich company like Uber can afford to keep battling for the right to violate labor laws.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor

Uber CEO Forgives Saudi Arabia for a Brutal Murder, But Punishes Drivers for Small Errors

Thursday, November 14th, 2019

Image result for Audrey Winn"In an Axios interview that aired on HBO last Sunday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi made a troubling analogy. Discussing Uber’s ties to Saudi Arabia—whose sovereign fund is one of Uber’s largest shareholders—Khosrowshahi described the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi as a “mistake” comparable to the company’s own “mistakes” in reckless automation. This “mistake” was brushed off casually, with no mention of its place in the context of other Saudi “mistakes,” including an ongoing violent war against Yemen and a long history of brutally silencing domestic critics.

“It’s a serious mistake,” Khosrowshahi said, referring to the order from Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s to kill and dismember Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of 2018. “We’ve made mistakes too, right, with self-driving, and we stopped driving and we’re recovering from that mistake. I think that people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.”

The self-driving “mistake” Khosrowshahi alluded to was the death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg, who was killed by an Uber self-driving car in 2018. According to documents released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last week, there was “a cascade of poor design decisions that led to the car being unable to properly process and respond to Herzberg’s presence as she crossed the roadway with her bicycle.” She was thrown 75 feet in the air by the collision and died on site.

Though Khosrowshahi scrambled to backtrack his statement, his apology seems disingenuous given his previous record of emphasizing the importance of forgiving corporate wrongdoings. In a 2018 interview, Khosrowshahi defended Uber COO Barney Harford, who left the company after allegations of making racial slurs and sexist comments.

“I don’t think that a comment that might have been taken as insensitive and happened to report by large news organizations should mark a person,” Khosrowshahi said. “I don’t think that’s fair. And I’m sure I’ve said things that have been insensitive and you take that as a learning moment. And the question is, does a person want to change, does a person want to improve?”

This attitude reveals a larger issue at Uber—the jarring double standard for forgiving corporate “mistakes” while punishing driver errors, even though corporate leaders have far more power to perpetrate large-scale harm.

Since its inception, Uber has faced a steady stream of public controversies. In 2014, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick joked that the company’s nickname was “Boober” because of the way it boosted employees’ sex appeal. That same year, it was also revealed that Uber’s self-named “God View” could be used to track riders’ locations, including the locations of journalists the company sought to intimidate. From spying on Beyoncé and competitors, to systemically underpaying drivers, to firing over 20 employees who filed sexual harassment claims, the company is quick to seek leniency for itself and drop its “mistakes happen” attitude the moment it turns its attention toward drivers.

In contrast to its internal corporate policies, Uber’s attitude toward drivers is unforgiving. Uber has a militantly single-minded emphasis on high ratings. Given this mindset, it is not surprising that Uber drivers are at risk of getting fired if they maintain a rating below 4.6. This policy remains unchanged, despite the fact that studies have shown that Uber’s rating system allows riders to express biases and evaluate drivers in ways that violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

When drivers are deactivated for low ratings they are told they can rejoin the platform if they complete costly, time-consuming training courses run by Uber’s third-party partners. Many can’t afford these classes already, due to Uber’s dropping wages and vanishing bonuses. Instead of getting training course discounts from the tech giant, however, this requirement remains.

The lack of sympathy is unsurprising given Uber’s history of holding drivers’ poverty against them. Who can forget the now-viral six-minute exchange, where former-CEO Travis Kalanick responded to a driver’s complaints about plummeting rates by telling him that he wasn’t a hard worker—that “some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

Even when drivers have “worked hard” and excelled in their ratings, however, Uber still has ways to punish them. Any number of offenses can lead to deactivation, including, according to Uber, “certain actions [drivers] may take outside of the app, if we determine that those actions threaten the safety of the Uber community, or cause harm to Uber’s brand, reputation, or business.” Though some attempt has been made to clarify these guidelines, confusion remains. Drivers have been allegedly deactivated for a punishing range of issues, including allegedly reporting when passengers called them anti-Muslim slurs and making private Facebook posts.

Uber has a new CEO, but it’s still business as usual. The company’s continued operation is premised on forgiveness for the rich and powerful, and punishment for workers. Khosrowshahi’s statement shows this injustice remains, without any evidence of corporate self-reflection.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Audrey Winn is a Skadden Fellowship Attorney working and writing in New York City. She is passionate about workers’ rights, algorithmic transparency, and the inclusion of gig workers in the future of the labor movement.

Hey, Uber and Lyft: Gig Work Is Work. California Just Said So.

Monday, September 16th, 2019

The rideshare industry seems to have been on an unstoppable tear, running roughshod over regulations, filling the streets with cars, and making astronomical sums of Wall Street capital. But California just tripped up Uber and Lyft’s business model with pioneering legislation to rein in the freewheeling “gig economy.”

The law, Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), passed overwhelmingly in the California Senate this week and is expected to be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom soon. It lays out a clear standard, the so-called “ABC test,” to ensure employers are properly categorizing workers as independent contractors, taking into account how much control the company exerts over their working conditions. Under the law, an independent contractor is defined as a worker with real autonomy: a person who (a) is not directly controlled by the company, (b) does work in the same trade or field independent of that company, and (c) is “independently established” as a proprietor of a separate business in the same sector. Under AB5, if you’re a rideshare driver whose entire livelihood depends on the rides your app funnels into our smartphone every hour, you’re likely an employee under California law.

The ABC test will codify the decision made in a landmark California Supreme Court case last year, Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. The Court ruled in favor of delivery service workers who argued they deserved to be classified as employees because they were forced to wear the company’s uniform and display its logo despite being legally deemed “independent.” A major goal of the AB5 legislation is to stop employers’ widespread abusive misclassification of workers as independent contractors, in order to deny them regular employment rights and protections, often by insisting that their workers are merely app users.

Once classified as employees under state law, gig workers—not just platform-based workers, but also nail technicians, home-repair workers and dog walkers—would have access to California’s minimum wage, overtime pay, paid rest break, parental leave and workers’ compensation.

Yet Uber and Lyft both continue to resist AB5, and Uber has even indicated that it does not plan to follow the law once it goes into effect at the start of 2020. The company argues that neither the companies, nor many of their drivers, want to be bound by state labor laws and prefer to drive Uber as a casual side hustle.

But thousands of drivers are already organizing in California for more power over their working conditions. According to Brian Dolber, an organizer with the California-based Rideshare Drivers United, a fledgling union of 5,000 drivers, AB5 paves the way to formal unionization. But Rideshare Drivers United has not yet decided on what form the union will take. For now, he said, “We’re really putting drivers’ voices first.” Dolber added, “We want to continue organizing drivers and have drivers decide how they want their union to be structured.’

Critics of AB5 point to the potential loss of “flexibility” once gig workers are regarded as  employees. However, labor advocates dismiss the flexibility question as concern trolling by the bill’s corporate foes. Nayantara Mehta of the National Employment Law Project argues that current labor laws do not automatically exclude jobs with irregular hours, such as union nurses and construction workers, from being employees. Besides, AB5 deals with the degree of control a company exerts over a worker, not how the schedule is set. “Courts have found that just because a worker has a flexible schedule doesn’t mean she is somehow transformed into the operator of her own business—the true benchmark of independent contractor status,” writes Mehta.

Moreover, the fixation on flexibility elides the reality of many gig jobs. Workers’ schedules may be unstable, but not by choice: Often workers are glued to their phones so they can scramble for whatever rides pop up on their phone, or get paid for each manicure they do or each burger they deliver. Their pay could be so dismal that workers “flex” themselves into exhaustion.

“We drive and we drive and we drive,” said Nicole Moore of Rideshare Drivers United, who helped coordinate a rideshare strike in May. “We don’t have dinner with our kids, we don’t do all the things that we’re supposed to be doing in life. Yet we’re expected to pay the rent, we’re expected to put food on the table, and try to make a better life for our kids.”

This is not the first time Uber’s independent contractor system has been challenged. Various lawsuits in recent months have sought to establish workers’ formal employment rights, with mixed results. Uber managed to wriggle out of two lawsuits in March, which together settled for $20 million with 13,600 drivers—but did not address their status as non-employees. Meanwhile, growing efforts to organize rideshare drivers, particularly the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, have helped win increased labor protections at the state and local level, including a minimum wage for drivers in New York City.

Facing the prospect of their payrolls becoming saddled with thousands of brand new workers, gig-company executives are panicking. Uber and Lyft spent a total of about $750,000 lobbying the California legislature, alongside other professional and industry associations that sought exemptions from the law. In the end, Uber and Lyft were not granted the carve-out they were hoping for in the bill, but other trades—including real estate and insurance agents, doctors, engineers, architects and lawyers—were exempted.

Now Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are reportedly joining forces to fight AB5 using a time-honored California political strategy: investing $90 million on a ballot initiative asking voters to overturn the law and erect a different legal regime for gig workers, which might include some weaker benefits and pay standards.

So the gig economy’s leading lights are bent on fighting the law until the bitter end. But in this next round of legal battles, California’s new law, which is based on a Supreme Court ruling and reflects growing public disillusionment with the gig economy titans, might finally put the brakes on the platform economy’s regulatory rollbacks.

Moore is hopeful that the law can help narrow the gulf between Uber executives and drivers. “There’s no difference between my humanity and their humanity, sha says, adding: “The basic American agreement is that yes, be innovative, become a millionaire, build your own business, but the American compromise is that you will need to share some of those millions with the people who do the work in your company, so that they can also afford to take a Lyft.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

What Uber and the Koch Brothers Have in Common: A Plan to Destroy Public Transit

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

Image result for Jeremy MohlerAt first glance, the rideshare corporation Uber couldn’t appear more different than conservative oil-mogul billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Uber has hired numerous former Democratic Party campaign managers and lobbyists and the company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has publicly criticized the Trump administration, including over the travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. The Kochs, meanwhile, have gained a reputation for bankrolling the Republican Party.

Yet Uber—the Silicon Valley startup-gone-public—shares at least one goal with the most prominent funders of modern conservatism: the destruction of America’s public transit.

While polarization in the United States is on the rise when it comes to metrics like party affiliation and media consumption, there’s a frightening level of agreement in corporate America, regardless of party loyalty. Examining where both Uber and the Koch brothers agree exposes the consensus hiding beneath the surface of our current political gridlock. Yes, rideshare corporations and oil tycoons share a financial interest in a car-centric future. But both also lobby for corporate tax cuts, deregulation and fewer rights and protections for workers. Both also envision a society with weakened or nonexistent public goods, part of a 40-year privatization trend that’s touched everything from public education to water access. From this vantage point, government is, in fact, getting things done and solving problems—just for corporate America rather than poor and working people.

A close look at the growing war on public transit reveals the planks of this corporate consensus.

In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Uber’s executives claim to see a “massive market opportunity” in the estimated 4.4 trillion miles traveled each year by people using public transit across 175 countries. The company continues to heavily subsidize per-ride costs to inflate its value to investors and undercut existing options, despite bleeding billions of dollars. “Uber is effectively a middleman for a money transfer from venture-capital (VC) firms to consumers,” writes James P. Sutton in National Review. Simply put, effectively supplanting the taxi industry wasn’t enough: Uber plans on undercutting public transit to finally turn a profit.

For their part, the Koch brothers are funneling money to their political action committee (PAC), Americans for Prosperity, to kill proposed public transit projects nationwide. Last year, they led the charge in stopping a popular $5.4 billion transit plan in Nashville, Tennessee, that had even been backed by a coalition of the city’s business community. The Kochs have funded similar anti-public transit efforts in Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, Utah and other states.

Their stated rationale, of course, is lower taxes. Americans for Prosperity tried to kill a 2017 gas-tax plan in Indiana meant to raise a billion dollars to invest in buses and infrastructure, even though it was introduced by the state’s GOP-led House of Representatives. Cutting taxes is the Koch brothers’ bread and butter. They contributed $20 million to help pass the Trump tax plan, which slashed taxes for their primary business, Koch Industries, by as much as $1.4 billion a year.

Uber has joined the Koch brothers on this libertarian crusade, using a corporate shell game to avoid paying billions in taxes and lobbying against taxes and fees on rides across the globe.

The corporate behemoths also share a stated goal of “cutting red tape.” The Koch brothers bankrolled the founding of the nation’s first libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, which sees “limited government,” i.e., deregulation, as a key ingredient of freedom. They also funded the now-defunct Freedom Partners, which developed a road map that shaped the early days of the Trump administration’s deregulatory policy agenda. Uber, together with its main competitor Lyft, boasted more lobbyists in 2016 than Amazon, Microsoft and Walmart combined. As of June 2018, the two corporations had convinced 41 state legislatures and many local governments to pass legislation protecting them from regulation.

Most importantly, both the Koch brothers and Uber understand that their freedom depends on taking freedom away from working people. Uber has spent generously on fighting to ensure its drivers maintain their precarious status as independent contractors. The company has also invested heavily in technology that would get rid of drivers altogether, including driverless cars. The Koch brothers’ anti-worker views date back much further, all the way to the counterrevolutionary days at the end of the New Deal era. Fred Koch, Charles and David’s father, owned an oil refinery corporation and was active in the archconservative John Birch Society. Through groups like the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the Kochs have long led the attack against collective bargaining rights for public employees, including train and bus drivers.

At the end of the day, the Koch Brothers and Uber are much like Coke and Pepsi. They may have clashing styles, but their product is largely the same: lower corporate taxes, deregulation, lower wages, and private control over public goods like mass transit.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeremy Mohler is a Washington D.C.-based political writer with In the Public Interest and a meditation teacher.

Federal court deals a blow to Uber, Lyft drivers trying to unionize in Seattle

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

A two-year legal battle over a Seattle, Washington law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize was prolonged again this week, after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that it can be challenged under federal antitrust law.

The first-in-the-nation law was unanimously passed by the Seattle City Council in 2015 and sought to give ride-share drivers the opportunity to unionize and bargain for better pay and benefits.

But it was swiftly challenged by business and conservative groups, namely the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing Uber and Lyft, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and the Freedom Foundation. In a 2016 lawsuit against the city of Seattle, the Chamber of Commerce claimed “the ordinance will burden innovation, increase prices, and reduce quality and services for consumers.”

One legal challenge was dismissed last year, but the law remained on hold until other legal challenges were resolved. On Friday, three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Seattle’s law is not exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act, sending it back to U.S. District Court.

Uber spokesman Caleb Weaver called the decision “a win for rideshare drivers, riders and the entire Seattle community.”

The Teamsters Local 117 and members of the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) expressed their frustration and disappointment in the wake of Friday’s ruling.

“Anti-trust laws were put in place to protect the little guy from monopolistic practices from large corporations, not to shield a company like Uber — valued at over $70 billion — from negotiating with its workers over fair pay and working conditions,” said Don Creery, Uber and Lyft driver and member of the ABDA leadership council.

One bright spot for proponents of Seattle’s law: the Ninth Circuit judges agreed in their ruling that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) can cover independent contractors, like Uber and Lyft drivers.

This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), along with other Senate Democrats, introduced legislation that would make it easier for people working in the gig economy to prove they are employees and thus be able to organize and collectively bargain. While the legislation doesn’t stand a chance in the current Republican-controlled Congress, Bloomberg notes that it has the backing of potential Democratic presidential candidates and could be a sign of things to come if Democrats are able to regain control of either chamber this fall.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kiley Kroh is a senior editor at ThinkProgress.

California court decision poses a major threat to Uber and Lyft: minimum wage laws

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

The business model at Uber and other “gig economy” companies could take a big hit in California, thanks to a new state Supreme Court ruling—the companies might be forced to follow labor laws like paying the minimum wage. Currently, many companies classify their workers as independent contractors who aren’t eligible for a raft of legal protections, protections that cost employers money. But the California Supreme Court ruled that delivery drivers for Dynamex Operations West are eligible for minimum wage and overtime protections:

The ruling applies to disputes under state Industrial Welfare Commission orders that set standards for minimum wages and overtime payments required for all workers who are classified as employees, but not for independent contractors. Companies like Dynamex, as well as Uber and Lyft, have classified their drivers as contractors and argued that they have enough control over their working lives — setting their own hours, with the freedom to drive for other companies — to be called independent.

But the court said the company, to justify contractor status, must prove, first, that the worker is free, in everyday tasks, from the company’s “control and direction”; second, that the work is “outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business”; and third, that the worker is regularly engaged in an independent occupation or business of the same type he or she is performing for the company.

For example, [Chief Justice Tani] Cantil-Sakauye said, a store that hires an outside plumber to fix a leak, or an electrician to install a new line, could consider them contractors. But a clothing manufacturer that hires seamstresses who work at home to make dresses that the company will sell has hired them to perform work in its usual line of business and must pay them as employees.

The ruling did not address other issues, such as payment of work expenses, workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits, which are covered by separate laws. But Kevin Ruf, a lawyer for about 300 Dynamex drivers who will now be allowed to pursue their case as a class action, said the court’s rationale should help workers seeking employee status overall.

This isn’t over—companies will fight this out case by case, spending huge amounts of money on lawyers to avoid having to pay their workers minimum wage and overtime (and other benefits and protections that might follow). But it’s a step in the right direction.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on May 1, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

HR Has Never Been on the Side of Workers. #MeToo Is More Proof.

Monday, January 8th, 2018

After human resources was informed in 2014 that Emily Nestor, former front desk assistant for the Weinstein Company, was allegedly sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein, company officials reportedly informed Nestor that any complaints would be directly reported to Weinstein himself. 

And when Helen Donahue, a former Vice employee, complained to human resources in 2015 that Jason Mojica, the head of Vice News at the time, had non-consensually groped her, she says she was told by then-human resources director Nancy Ashbrooke to “forget about it and laugh it off.”

Engineer Susan Fowler says that when she complained to Uber’s human resources department that a manager had propositioned her for sex, she was instructed to either move to a different job at Uber or continue working for her alleged harasser. A manager later threatened to fire Fowler for registering the complaint with human resources, she claims.

As #MeToo testimony shines new light on these industries’ cultures of rampant sexual violence, the complicity of human resources is a thread running throughout several stories of predation and retaliation. While some have presented HR departments as a solution, the above experiences make clear that HR is at best a distraction from the real solution to workplace abuse: collective organizing led by, and accountable to, workers themselves. As unions and worker organizations have long recognized, workplace abuse will not be corrected by benevolent management—it must be defeated by worker power.

Presented as neutral arbiters, human resources departments in fact report to management and function to shield bosses from repercussions. They emerged from early anti-union efforts and social-control initiatives implemented by notorious industry titans like the Ford Motor Company—and today often house top-down efforts to undermine worker solidarity and protect companies from lawsuits. Some labor historians and organizers tell In These Times that the present climate offers an opportunity to dispense of the falsehood that human resources departments exist to protect workers.

“Human resources departments exist primarily to keep the employer from being sued,” author and longtime labor organizer Jane McAlevey tells In These Times. “While they may play functional bureaucratic roles, the chief purpose of HR departments in my experience—after a lifetime in the labor movement—is to protect the company, not workers. Obviously they will be totally ineffective to address the sexual harassment crisis in this country.”

As Weinstein and others of his ilk now fall from grace, any effective postmortem must examine human resources among the structural foundations that uphold powerful men as they perpetrate large-scale harm.

“Treating labor as a commodity”

According to the anti-harassment policy of the Society for Human Resource Management, human resources departments are in place to help employers “prevent, correct and discipline behavior” that qualifies as “unlawful discrimination or harassment of any kind.”

Yet, the history of human resources departments tells a different story.

Elizabeth Anderson is a professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It). She tells In These Times that the roots of modern-day human resources can be traced to initiatives like the Ford Motor Company’s “Sociological Department,” established in 1914. With its introduction of a $5-per-day pay rate, deemed a boost at the time, the company established codes of conduct to ensure that workers were sufficiently orderly and worthy of this sum. The Henry Ford, an organization that oversees a museum in Dearborn, Mich., describes this program:

The Sociological Department monitored employees at home, as well as on the job. Investigators made unannounced visits to employees’ homes and evaluated the cleanliness of the home, noted if the family had renters, checked with school attendance offices to determine if children were attending school and monitored bank records to verify that employees made regular deposits. Sociological Department investigators also assisted workers’ families by teaching wives about home care, cooking and hygiene.

“They really said they were going to govern workers’ lives,” says Anderson, explaining that such efforts were often aimed at “Americanizing European immigrants.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Australian sociologist Elton Mayo oversaw a series of experiments at Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory in Cicero, Ill. Researchers examined the impact that changes in conditions—for example, brightening and dimming lights—had on workers’ productivity. He concluded that workers perform better when researchers show interest in them—that the perception of attention and interest can itself boost output. The principle that attention is a key workplace motivator became the bedrock of the field of “human relations.” This field influenced companies to create human resources departments to give the appearance that workers are cared for and tended to.

But Peter Rachleff, a labor historian and executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minn., tells In These Times that there is a significant gap between appearance and reality.How can you get more of this commodity for less? How can you get more labor produced by that commodity? That’s the grounding of human resources,” he says.

“Where union busters set up camp”

Early human resources departments also had other aims. Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, tells In These Times that human resources departments emerged as “a more serious development with the rise of unions. Companies started to see them as a way of keeping unions out. They put in place practices that would buy out discontent.”

“These departments are not set up by the government, and their job is not to protect employees,” emphasizes Cappelli. “These are private organizations.”

With a spate of anti-workplace-discrimination laws and orders passed in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act, the focus of human resources shifted to protecting companies from lawsuits. “The idea was [companies] could shield themselves, and workers could be obliged to report their complaints to the internal process,” explains Anderson. “You get a huge incentive for larger corporations to set up human resources departments to shield themselves from liability.”

Today, human resources departments often operate in concert with efforts to undermine unions and other forms of worker organizing. In just one example, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Tesla in August 2017 charging that the company’s security guards and human resources personnel directly intimidated workers at a Fremont, Calif., factory for distributing pro-union materials—and ultimately forced them to leave the premises. The complaint states that a human-resources official “interrogated” an employee about “the employee’s Union and/or protected, concerted activities and/or the Union and/or protected, concerted activities of other employees.”

As McAlevey puts it, “The human resources department is the traditional place where union busters set up camp—the office out of which union-busting firms will run union-busting campaigns.”

Of course, the absence of a human resources department is not a good in itself, and abolishing HR wouldn’t fix the problem. As Aída Chávez reported January 5 for The Intercept, The New Republic, AlterNet and The Nation Institute “had no real HR when abuses occurred” (Full disclosure: This author is a prior employee of AlterNet and formerly received reporting funding from The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.)

While noting that “such departments are no panacea,” Chávez argues that “the absence of any HR department at many small news outlets creates a unique vulnerability for employees, whose fates may rest entirely in the hands of their often charismatic leaders or founders.”

And indeed, the problem of retaliation and intimidation encompasses the vast majority of industries, with or without HR. A 2003 study referenced by the federal U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “found that 75 percent of U.S. workers who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.”

Organizers have long argued that the solution to workplace harassment lies in building collective solidarity among workers—and tilting the balance of power away from institutions that are under the control of management, including but not limited to human resources.

There is no shortage of organizing efforts lighting the way. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) highlights its worker-led Fair Food Program as a bottom-up strategy to protect some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States from a plethora of workplace atrocities, including sexual violence and slavery. The program includes a 24-hour, independent worker-complaint hotline, and worker-led political education and organizing programs. Through broad-based campaigning, CIW has forced 14 food industry giants to join their labor agreement.

From the fields to the factories, union and worker center members engage in day-to-day efforts to protect each other, by staging direct actions, organizing and enforcing contracts, and extending support and solidarity, in the many forms that takes. As McAlevey puts it, “What changes is if you have a union.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

How Bosses Use “Open Shop” Campaigns to Crush Unions

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

U.S. employers have never been particularly accepting of unions. Yes, there were a few decades after World War II when most employers engaged in a largely stable pattern of collective bargaining that recognized unions as junior partners in industry. Wage increases kept pace with gains in productivity, and union endorsements were courted by both parties. But, as heavily as that postwar labor relations compact features in the rosy rhetoric of union boosters who decry global capitalism and the modern GOP, the truth is that corporations have been periodically going to war against their workers far more often they’ve occasionally conceded their basic humanity.

Two new books shed light on the sustained union-busting campaigns that bookended that all-too brief period of labor-management détente. One focuses on the innocuously named “open shop” drive, which was a vicious nationwide union-busting campaign that began at the dawn of the 20th century and lasted well into the New Deal era. The other documents how the last great wave of worker militancy was smashed by a coordinated union-busting drive that anticipated Ronald Reagan’s presidency by more than a decade.

Reform or repression?

The unions that managed to survive the turbulent boom-and-bust cycle of the 19th century were largely organized on a craft union model that bears only a slight resemblance to today’s trades. Unions not only trained their members in their craft skills, but also determined the process, materials and speed of production. Employers had to contract with strong unions for a certain number of orders at prices that the unions determined.

The “open shop” drive was a coordinated effort by industry associations like the National Association of Manufacturers for bosses to gain complete control over production decision-making. This is the subject of Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement.

As Pearson compellingly documents, open shop campaigners sought to place their movement within the mainstream of the vaguely-defined “progressive movement” that preceded the Great Depression.  Corporate executives railed against “union dictation,” and claimed their aim was to wrest control from union contracts in order to promote harder-working men. The breakfast cereal magnate C.W. Post claimed his union-busting work was necessary to protect children from picket-line violence. Some of the earliest appearances of the noxious slogan “right to work” come from this era.

That phrase was disingenuously employed to convey a sense of freedom for workers to not have to pay fealty to a union in order to get hired for a job. In practice, the “freedom” to not join a union was paired with a blacklist for those who chose to do so. Promoting “harder-working men” was a way of speeding up Taylorist production lines to sweatshop standards. And violence on picket lines was almost always instigated by privately hired armies of Pinkertons and other assorted spies and mercenaries.

Open shop campaigners did find allies within the broad political class of self-styled “progressives” who—then as now—did not root their efforts in the centrality of class politics. For example, it is somewhat shocking to read in Reform or Repression about “open shop” endorsements from Louis Brandeis—the attorney who negotiated the vaunted “Protocols of Peace” in the New York City garment industry. Without a base of actual workers, these earlier progressive men supported unions in the abstract, but were uncomfortable with the grisly details of strikes, boycotts and enforcing the union shop that were necessary to maintain unions as a permanent presence in the economy.

In this hair-splitting, open shop advocates probably found their biggest hero in Theodore Roosevelt. The trust-busting “progressive” was the first sitting president to weigh in on industrial disputes and mediate settlements that involved pay increases and other concessions to striking workers. He also steadfastly refused to endorse any deal that forced any employer to recognize any union as the exclusive representative of its workers.

Open shop organizations also recruited “free men” to be face of their drives. We can call them scabs, but forcing workers to join a union before they could get the job rubbed some the wrong way, and bosses exploited this.

Pearson has a good eye for vivid character studies. A particularly engrossing chapter contrasts the stories of two very different class traitors in the Cleveland open shop movement: John A. Penton and Jay P. Dawley. In the 1880s, Penton was president of a craft union of ironworkers that competed for worker loyalty with a more established union called the Iron Molders Union (IMU). In those days, unions competed to see who could organize the most militant protests. A campaign that ended in a union contract could mean terms that forced workers to join the victorious union—or face termination—If they wanted work. By 1893, Penton’s union had been forced to merge with the larger IMU.

The bitterness of that defeat curdled and warped Penton’s principles. He became an “open shop” advocate, ostensibly because men should be free to choose which organization to join—or not join. In practical effect, he served as a propagandist and recruiter of scabs for the industry’s campaign to break the Cleveland IMU in 1900, where he was regarded as “The Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde of the Labor Movement.”

Dawley was a compatriot of Penton’s, a lawyer who secured injunctions against union picket lines and defended Penton’s efforts to arm his scabs with .38 caliber revolvers. The former president of the Cleveland Employers Association shocked his white shoe comrades by coming to the aid of the city’s striking garment workers in 1911. It was no small coincidence that Dawley’s conversion-by-fire came just two months after the actual fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That the picket lines were mostly full of women helped him finally see that the violence and law-breaking that he so abhorred in industrial conflict was a mostly one-sided affair—and that it was his (former) side that was perpetuating most of it.

Dawley spent the rest of his life as an advocate of union causes—albeit one who counseled peaceful bargaining and arbitration over strikes and boycotts. There’s a lesson about the power of narrative and visible leaders here. The average union member today is more likely to be a black or brown woman than some Archie Bunker cliché. Labor can pick up unexpected allies by putting the actual workers whose livelihoods are on the line front and center in our campaigns.

Knocking on labor’s door

How women and people of color began to organize themselves into the mainstream of the labor movement is the subject of Lane Windham’s new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970’s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. It is also a tale of how the open shop drive came roaring back to life.

This is an essential read for anyone grappling with the question of why modern union organizing isn’t more successful. It is also a much-welcome corrective to the false narrative that unions simply stopped trying to gain new members sometime after the merger of the AFL and CIO.

In fact, the early 1970s brought a major wave of worker militancy, the kind that periodically roils the United States. The massive teacher rebellion of unionization that began in New York City in the early 1960s was still in full-swing. Unprotected by the National Labor Relations Act and still with few public-sector labor laws to fill the gaps, teachers continued to stage illegal strikes for union recognition throughout the decade. Other public sector workers fought for union recognition, too. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which Martin Luther King was in town supporting when he was assassinated, was a notable flashpoint in that struggle.

The unionized private sector was also in the midst of a historic strike wave. Many of the strikes were formally sanctioned by union leadership seeking wage increases that kept up with record-high inflation. A large number of workers rocked the postwar labor relations framework by waging wildcat strikes in defiance of contracts that traded impressive-sounding wage increases for brutal speed-ups in productivity. There’s a whole bookshelf of material written about how one General Motors factory in particular—its Lordstown, Oh. plant—simply could not maintain smooth production between its periodic wildcats and the thousands of workers who quit every year. 

During this same period, unions sought to organize roughly half a million private sector workers a year in NLRB elections. Much of this organizing was led by women and workers of color. It represented, Windham argues, a second wave of the civil rights era, as regulations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened up new industries and jobs to workers who had previously been excluded. Once in the job, women and minorities soon concluded that actual fair treatment would only come with unionization.

Although the number of eligible workers voting in union representation elections did not decline in the 1970s, the percentage of successful union yes votes did. For the first time since the NLRB was established in 1935, unions began to lose a majority of all representation elections—a decline that has continued to the present day.

Egged on by a then-new cottage industry of “union avoidance” consultants and anti-union law firms, employers aggressively pressed against the limits of labor law when campaigning against union organizing drives. They skirted the prohibition against threatening the jobs of union supporters by phrasing those threats as predictions of the negative impact that a union would have on the company’s bottom line. They threw out fantastical scenarios about how unions might trade away benefits. They swore the unions would make no gains unless the workers went on strike—and that the company would permanently replace them if they did so. They froze planned pay increases and told the workers that the unions and the law forced them to do so.

And when they got caught actually breaking the law—by being too obvious in their espionage of organizing activity or materially punishing a union leader—the paltry punishments that were meted out sparked a new union-busting revolution. Why obey the law at all? Paying an illegally fired union activist just the wages she was owed—minus whatever unemployment insurance or moonlighting money she earned in the years it took for the case to get adjudicated—was far less money that a successfully negotiated union contract would ever cost.

At the heart of American corporations’ renewed resistance to union organizing was the increase in domestic competition from foreign competitors. This was not strictly the dumping of products made cheaper in overseas sweatshops that we tend to think of as the driver of inequality in the global economy. The first pangs of competitive anxiety were triggered by German and Japanese manufacturers who had finally recovered from the world war and could export quality products at affordable prices. Their competitive edge was that the cost of their workers’ health and retirement benefits were not loaded onto their payroll and then passed on to consumers as a higher retail price: Those social welfare benefits were the responsibility of the state.

Since most U.S. corporations—to this day—are unlikely to embrace social democracy, those in the 1970s resolved to fight the global pressure by fighting their own workers. But union supporters must grapple with an uncomfortable fact about our system of labor relations, which bases the very existence of a union, as well as the additional expenses of pensions, health insurance and other “fringe” benefits, on the individual firm level. In any industry that is not 100% unionized, the decision by workers to form a union really can make a company less competitive. And high-union-density industries are just juicier targets for capitalist vampires like Airbnb and Uber to compete by undercutting those standards.

In her conclusion, Windham writes “As the twentieth-century version of industrial capitalism gives way to new forms, working people find themselves in need of a wholesale redefinition of collective bargaining.” She finds some hope in the “alt-labor” organizations that are “struggling to shore up workers’ economic security in new ways, such as through workers’ centers, new occupational alliances, and public campaigns to raise wages.”

Both Pearson’s and Windham’s books, by highlighting the controversies in two of labor’s roughest periods, help us sharpen the question of how we regroup and reform to fight back in the 21st century. I would encourage more creative thinking about “all-in” labor rights models. What if we pushed for laws to end the “at-will” legal doctrine and grant a “Right to Your Job” to all workers? And what if we looked to countries that we compare ourselves to that have labor laws that apply wage increases and work rules to entire sectors all at once?

What these books make clear is that bosses rarely stop trying to blow up whatever system workers have won to enforce basic standards of decency—and that their strategies evolve with the times. How much longer will we spend trying to patch-up a badly battered 70-year-old labor relations system?

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

Jimmy John’s Fired Workers for Making a ‘Disloyal’ Meme. A Court Just Ruled That’s Okay.

Friday, July 14th, 2017

In a decision emblematic of the new climate of Trumpian governance, a federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled on July 3 that it is acceptable for the boss of a fast-food chain to fire workers for the sin of being “disloyal.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed a ruling issued by the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a case spawned by a labor organizing drive at the Jimmy John’s fast-food chain. The court held that Miklin Enterprises, the owner of Jimmy John’s franchises in Minneapolis, had the right to fire six pro-union advocates because they demonstrated “disloyalty” by distributing flyers in 2011 that implied the company was selling unsafe food contaminated by employees obliged to work while sick with the flu.

The organizers designed and distributed memes that showed images of identical Jimmy John’s sandwiches. One was “made by a healthy Jimmy John’s worker,” the other by a “sick” worker. “Can’t tell the different?” the poster continued. “That’s too bad because Jimmy John’s workers don’t get paid sick days. Shoot, we can’t even call in sick. We hope your immune system is ready because you’re about to take the sandwich test.”

The Minneapolis union campaign, launched by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or ‘Wobblies’), has been high-profile from the start. First erupting in 2010, the effort quickly developed into an intense legal fight at the NLRB before advancing to the federal courts. It even spilled over into the U.S. Congress in 2014 with the revelation that Jimmy John’s routinely required its low-paid sandwich makers to sign questionable “non-compete agreements.”

Threatened with punitive action by the attorneys general in several states, Jimmy John’s rescinded its non-compete policies in 2016, but not before the company’s reputation had been tarnished.

Like the non-compete agreements, the July 3 court decision is an unwarranted attack on labor rights, says William B. Gould IV, a labor law professor at Stanford University and former chairman of the federal labor board.

“The first thing that strikes you is how archaic this feels,” Gould tells In These Times. “The legal basis is from a case in the 1950s when people had a whole different concept of loyalty owed to their employer.

“In those days,” Gould continues, “the assumption was that loyalty was a two-way street: You were loyal to the company and the company was loyal to you. Now, with Uber and Lyft and the others, companies are even refusing to admit that you are one of their employees, so there isn’t much talk about loyalty owed to the employer anymore.”

The July 3 decision turns on the interpretation of ‘loyalty’ articulated in the 1953 Supreme Court case National Labor Relations Board v. Local Union 1229 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, known as “Jefferson Standard” for short. Earlier in the process of the more recent NLRB case, the labor agency’s Obama appointees had ruled that the firing of the workers was an illegal violation of their rights to form a union. But the appeals court decision reversed that decision, asserting that the disloyalty displayed by the pamphlets gave the employer the right to fire the workers, Gould explains.

The court stated, “(W)hile an employee’s subjective intent is of course relevant to the disloyalty inquiry—”sharp, public, disparaging attack” suggests an intent to harm the Jefferson Standard principle includes an objective component that focuses, not on the employee’s purpose, but on the means used—whether the disparaging attack was ‘reasonably calculated to harm the company’s reputation and reduce its income,’ to such an extent that it was harmful, indefensible disparagement of the employer or its product.”

Erik Forman was fired six years ago for organizing a union at a Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis. He told In These Times, “The big takeaway for me is that this ruling means workers do not have the right to tell the truth about their employer,” he said, adding: “The ruling is incredibly slanted towards the employer. They frame our campaign for sick days as an attack on the employer and turn logic on its head. We told the truth about the risk to the public.”

“Employers’ motivation wasn’t just to stop the sick-day campaign,” Forman continued. “It was to stop our unionization effort.”

According to Gould, “This case comes from the 8th Circuit which is the most conservative in the country. It’s the worst circuit in the country for a labor union, or for labor rights.”

The ultra-conservative nature of the ruling may have the unintended benefit of limiting its applicability to workers other than the Minneapolis Jimmy John’s employees, the former NLRB chairman adds. Other judicial districts may not be eager to follow its lead because many traditionally defer to the NLRB in matters of this kind, he says, and few employers will want to take the legal risk of relying on a circuit court ruling that has not been confirmed by the Supreme Court.

The reversal of the Obama-era NLRB decision mirrors action in Congress, where several measures are under consideration to roll back pro-worker measures adopted by the labor board during Obama’s tenure. This week, the U.S. Senate is considering thenomination of two Trump NLRB appointees, both of whom have been criticized as anti-worker by the AFL-CIO.

Carmen Spell, an NLRB representative at the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, would only comment that “(w)e are considering options at this time” on how the agency will respond to the court ruling.

Jane Hardey, a spokeswoman for Jimmy John’s, declined any comment, asserting that the legal case involved only the Minneapolis franchise owner, and did not involve the sandwich chain company itself. Hardey did not respond to a request from In These Times for a telephone interview with Jimmy John Liautard, the controversial founder of the franchise.

According to the Jimmy John’s web site, the rapidly growing chain currently has 2,701 locations in 48 states. The number of employees is estimated at over 100,000.

“The fact that we were fired over six years ago in retaliation for union organizing should tell everyone that you cannot rely on labor law in this country,” says Forman. “Every single decision can now be appealed up to a Trump Supreme Court. We need to find new ways of building and exercising power on our own.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 13, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Uber has started firing employees following harassment probe

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

Heads are starting to roll at Uber following thecompany’s internal investigation into hundreds of claims regarding sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and other workplace transgressions. The ride-sharing company has fired at least 20 people, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

Perkins Coie LLP, the legal firm hired to conduct the investigation, handed out recommendations to Uber executives regarding the 215 human resource claims submitted for review.

No action was taken on 100 of those claims, while 57 are still being investigated. In addition to the firings, 31 Uber employees are in counseling or training, and seven have gotten written warnings.

The dismissals follow revelations from former engineer Susan Fowler, who published a story in February detailing her experiences with unchecked harassment at the company. CEO Travis Kalanick then fired engineering VP Amit Singhal for his history of sexual harassment allegations. Following Fowler’s blog post, Kalanick pushed forward with an investigation and vowed to root out injustice.

“It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice,” he said in a memo to employees in February.

The company has since suffered several public relations disasters, including a messy lawsuit with Google over their rivaling self-driving car programs, video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver, his former girlfriend seemingly confirming the company’s sexist culture, losing its communications and policy head, the suicide of one its black engineers after just months on the job, and activating (and then removing) surge pricing following the London attacks in June. Uber also kicked off the year with driver protests and the loss of more than 200,000 customers in response to the company’s initial tepid stance on the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim countries.

More recently though, Uber has made some dynamic hires that could help the company’s persistent diversity problem. In January, Uber hired Bernard Coleman as the company’s global diversity and inclusion head.

Coleman, who oversaw the company’s release of its first diversity report in March, said the report was “the first step of many” to help improve workplace culture. “I’m kind of excited to see some progress,” he said at TechCrunch’s diversity and inclusion event in San Francisco Tuesday. “I want to make Uber a better and better place to work.”

As of this week, Uber also hired Harvard Business School’s Frances Frei will join the company as its first senior vice president of leadership and strategy, Recode reported. The academic and prominent business management expert will occupy a broad role that covers training managers, executives, recruiting, and overall coordination with Uber’s human resources department leads. Uber has also reportedly hired Bozoma Saint John, Apple Music’s head of global marketing.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lauren Williams is the tech reporter for ThinkProgress. She writes about the intersection of technology, culture, civil liberties, and policy. In her past lives, Lauren wrote about health care, crime, and dabbled in politics. She is a native Washingtonian with a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s of science in dietetics from the University of Delaware.

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