Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘unions’

We Rise: Building Immigrant Working People Power

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Richard TrumkaA year ago the president announced a series of executive actions on immigration. Today is a fitting time to honor those who compelled him to act.

Around the country, courageous working people demanded an end to the deportation regime that was tearing communities, families and workplaces apart. They shut down detention centers, turned around buses, and spoke truth to power?—?all at great personal risk. They banded together to prevent the deportation of community members and loved ones who were in removal proceedings, and they won many cases. These brave actions and the determined clamor for #Not1More deportation led to the announcement of the historic deferred action program that will allow millions of parents to live and work without fear.

Communities around the country also rejected the notion that their local law enforcement officials should serve as agents of the federal immigration enforcement machinery. They had important discussions about due process and constitutional protections. Over time, more than 300 jurisdictions enacted ordinances declaring that they would focus their resources on effective community policing and place reasonable limits on their cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This groundswell thoroughly discredited the Secure Communities program, a federally run program launched in 2008, and resulted in its termination in 2014.

These examples inspire us, and they also show us the playbook for how you make change in the nation’s capital— you force it from the ground up. Today as we confront legal and legislative obstruction and the rebranding of failed enforcement policies, the question we should all be asking is what do we push for next?

For the labor movement, the answer is simple. We know that every worker in our country has rights, and we want each worker to be able to exercise those rights, regardless of immigration status.

While this may sound like a simple idea, we are a long way from that reality now. The sad truth is that employers routinely hire undocumented workers with a wink and a nod and then fire them when they seek to organize a union or complain about unpaid wages or unsafe working conditions. And when new immigrants muster the courage to stand in a picket line, join a boycott, or negotiate for fair compensation, employers are still able to retaliate in ways that can set deportation proceedings in motion.

This is just not right; it’s an #Injury2All and the wages and standards for all working people in our country suffer as a result of these efforts to keep immigrant workers scared and silent. Here in Washington, we have been talking for years to Congress and the administration about the need to fix these problems, but we have yet to see the concrete changes that our nation’s workers so urgently need.

So we see this anniversary as an important opportunity to sound a new call to action. We intend to take our demands for basic worker protections to every community and every immigration office in the country. Our unions and allies will raise workers’ cases from many sectors of our economy and make clear that we cannot reasonably expect to end wage theft and exploitation without protecting those workers with the courage to take a stand.

From Chicago to Los Angeles to Austin and everywhere in between, our movement reaffirms what we have long understood, that an injury to one worker is an injury to all. Our federal agencies have the discretion to provide concrete protections to workers who exercise their most fundamental rights, but it is up to us to make them act.

Polite conversations in Washington aren’t working. These changes will only come if we demand them, from the ground up. Working people are ready for this fight, and it will be coming soon to a community near you.

We will keep pushing forward to demand what is just. Please join us.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka was elected AFL-CIO president in September 2009. He served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer since 1995.

Pass the Wage Act Now

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Shauna BarnaskasFor many American workers, union and non-union alike, work ethic and attendance will only get them so far in the workplace. They may still face many adverse working conditions including but not limited to lack of safety, pay, and benefits. Furthermore, bargaining power of America’s workers is far weaker than it used to be. Most employees lack the chance to have a real voice in the workplace and negotiate with their employer over issues that drive workplace morale. In fact, collective bargaining is at a critically low and is currently lower in the United States than every other industrialized nation.

In effect of decline in collective bargaining and unionization, income inequality is on the rise. Rebuilding our collective bargaining system and putting power back into the hands of the workers and not just the companies and managers is significant, and necessary, for reestablishing wage growth and bringing positive changes to the workplace.

Having no recourse at work, workers depend on current labor laws to protect their workplace rights. Although the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is in place to protect the right of private sector workers, union and non-union, to engage in collective bargaining to improve workplace conditions, the reality of the NLRA is that it was enacted 80 years ago in the midst of the Great Depression, and has failed to update to account for current workplace trends. Unlike other labor and employment laws, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the entity charged with enforcing the NLRA, has a toothless enforcement mechanism that does not adequately protect workers rights, or deter employers from breaking the laws; it does not impose any real penalties financial or otherwise. In result, employers view breaking the law as nothing less than a smart business decision where they may receive a small slap on the wrist, or they may even receive no punishment at all.

In line with the current trend towards collective action from fast-food workers to Wal-Mart employees, Congress has introduced legislation to properly aid and protect workers in collective bargaining. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, an act designed to strengthen protections for workers who collectively organize, and ensure that employers violating workers’ rights face actual consequences. The WAGE Act would amend the NLRA to provide it with a backbone for enforcement, and would essentially give a voice to union and non-union workers alike to provide them a path to action against those who illegally retaliate against the employees who are taking collective action.

The WAGE Act has many features, but its biggest aspects that will protect workers include adding a meaningful back pay remedy for workers illegally fired, including penalties for employers and a preliminary reinstatement; it implements triple back pay awards for workers who were illegally retaliated against regardless of that workers’ immigration status; and finally it would provide workers with a private right of action to bring suit to recover monetary damages and attorneys fees. Now, when employees complain about workplace conditions or benefits, its employer will think twice about the potential costs of illegally firing that employee under the WAGE Act penalties.

The WAGE Act would discourage employer retaliation through and promote prompt remedies through:

  • Providing a temporary reinstatement for workers who are fired or retaliated against when exercising rights to join together and seek workplace improvements. This would direct the NLRB to go to court to seek a preliminary injunction that would immediately return fired workers to their jobs so long as there is no reasonable cause to believe the worker was wrongly fired.
  • Strengthening the remedies for workers who are fired or retaliated against, providing the workers with the ability to bring cases directly to court for monetary damages and attorneys fees. In addition, the WAGE Act would triple the back pay that employers must pay to workers who are fired or retaliated against by employers regardless of immigration status.
  • Establishing robust penalties against employers who violate workers’ rights and commit unfair labor practices by implementing a $50,000 fine for illegal retaliation and doubling that amount for repeat violations.
  • Streamlining the NLRB process and implementing a 30 day maximum time limit for employers wishing to challenge an NLRB decision. After that time is expired, the NLRB decision is final and binding.
  • Improving workers knowledge of their rights through requiring employers to inform workers of their rights by posting notice and informing employees at time of hire.

This legislation is designed to help all workers, but it will necessarily give power back to low-wage workers trying to make a good living, immigrants afraid of complaining due to lack of rights, and all workers trying to collectively engage. For years, employers have taken advantage of the weak workplace protection laws, and the WAGE Act seeks to put the power back in the hands of the employee, allowing them to seek remedies for unfair labor practices without making them jumping through so many hoops.

The purpose of the WAGE Act is to help employees through protections against employers. “Too often as workers are underpaid, overworked, and treated unfairly on the job, some companies are doing everything they can to prevent them from having a voice in the workplace. The WAGE Act would strengthen protections for all workers and it would finally crack down on employers who break the law when workers exercise their basic right to collective action,” said Senator Patty Murray. Currently, the WAGE Act has gained momentum and support from presidential-hopeful, Secretary Hillary Clinton, the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Teamsters) Union, and many other organizations and unions. With more organizations supporting this bill, and more attention to inform individuals about this legislation, the WAGE Act could potentially pass to get workers what they not just deserve, but need.

While some may argue this bill is just more pro-union propaganda, the simple fact driving this bill is that it is pro-worker. It helps all workers regardless of union affiliation and allows the employees to more easily get back-pay and reinstatement. Without workers, essential functions in society cannot happen; this bill is necessary to providing workers with the power they need to protect their own rights. Employers have notoriously taken advantage of weak worker protection laws to slow down or stop working people from joining together to improve their lives. The WAGE Act is a necessary first step toward overdue labor law reform to promote collective action and put power back in the hands of the employees. Pass the WAGE Act now.

To learn about unions, the WAGE Act, or your workplace rights generally, please visit Workplace Fairness today.

About the Author: Shauna Barnaskas is an associate with Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A., located in Baltimore, Maryland, where she concentrates her practice in the representation of ERISA plans. Shauna was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa to a union family, and has been actively involved in the labor movement her whole life. Mrs. Barnaskas earned her Juris Doctor degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2014, where she served as the Articles Editor for the Labor and Employment Law Forum. Prior to joining Abato, Rubenstein and Abato, P.A. Shauna served as a law clerk for the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee where she was a contributing author of the committee staff report, “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success.”  Additionally, Mrs. Barnaskas was selected for the Peggy Browning Fellowship program where she worked for the American Federation of Teachers.

Sanders’ Workplace Democracy Act And The White House Worker Summit

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

Dave JohnsonSetting the stage for The White House Summit on Worker Voice, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) today introduced The Workplace Democracy Act. According to Sanders’ office, this legislation “would make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.”

The Workplace Democracy Act allows the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a simple majority of eligible workers sign valid authorization cards, also called “card check.” Companies must begin negotiating within 10 days after certification. If no first contract is reached after 90 days, either party can request compulsory mediation. After 30 days of mediation, the parties will submit the remaining issues to binding arbitration.

From the Workplace Democracy Act summary:

According to data released in early 2015 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers’ wages are 27 percent higher than for nonunion workers. 79 percent of unionized workers receive health insurance from their employers, compared to only 49 percent of nonunion workers. 76 percent of union workers have guaranteed defined-benefit pension plans, compared to only 16 percent of nonunion workers, and 83 percent of union workers receive paid with sick leave compared to only 62 percent of nonunion workers.

The Workplace Democracy Act is similar to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that had majority support but was filibustered by Republicans in 2007. It was dropped in 2009 after “centrist” Democrats would not support it, thereby ensuring the success of another Republican filibuster, again despite majority support.

The White House Summit on Worker Voice

With labor under increased attack from the corporate right, the White House convened an all-day “summit” Wednesday, called “The White House Summit on Worker Voice.” (Note the choice of “voice,” not “power.”)

For the summit, the Council of Economic Advisors released an issue brief titled” Worker Voice in a Time of Rising Inequality,” that begins:

The rise of wage and income inequality in the United States over the last 40 years has been well-established. However, the factors that may have contributed to the fall of earnings at the bottom of the wage distribution relative to the top continue to be the subject of research and debate.

Research suggests that one important factor may be institutional changes in labor markets, perhaps the most notable being declining union density. … in the middle of the 20th century, as union membership rose and remained high, lower-wage workers earned a larger share of total income. However, in recent years this trend has reversed, with union membership falling and the share of income going to the top 10 percent increasing at the expense of lower- and middle-income groups. In the 21st century, the decline in the number of unionized workers has coincided with overall rising inequality.

The brief cites research showing that union members get higher pay, have better working conditions, job training and higher safety standards, are much more likely to get benefits like health insurance and that these gains spill over to nonunion workers in the same workplaces.

The summit continues through the day and can be viewed online here.

In honor of today’s White House summit, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka penned an op-ed, “No PR campaign will save Walmart from being ‘exhibit A’ of bad worker policies“:

Americans are increasingly fed up with an economy that rewards wealth over work, a message that’s made it all the way to the top. That’s why when the White House hosts a Summit on Worker Voice on Wednesday to highlight the power of working people standing together to demand better jobs and better lives, one notable corporation has been excluded – Walmart.

Walmart is the embodiment of our broken economic system. The company pays poverty wages, has discriminated against women and minorities, harms our environment, wreaks havoc on the global supply chain and continues to lead a race to the bottom where workers are treated like numbers on a balance sheet instead of human beings with families to sustain. Walmart’s motto: “Save Money. Live Better” seems only to apply to its heirs, who haveamassed more wealth than 42 percent of the poorest American families combined.

Trumka listed some of the things Walmart is still doing to suppress worker rights, including closing stores for “plumbing issues” when workers in those stores begin organizing. Trumka called this just “the latest in a long line of incidents to silence the voices of workers.”

Time For Everyone To Get On Board For Labor

Labor is under attack by the corporations and the conservatives and Republican party they fund. It is important for all Democrats and progressives to get behind the Workplace Democracy Act, and not let it disappear without the public at least being fully informed of its benefits and who is blocking it.

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on October 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal comput

Want To Shrink The Wage Gap? Unions Are One Powerful Solution

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015
Laura ClawsonThere’s a stereotype of union members as, well, men. You know: The sweat-stained, blue-collar guy toiling at the construction site, or sweating in a factory. To be sure, it’s a stereotype that’s grounded in reality. Historically, unions have been a powerful conduit that enabled blue-collar men to enter and then build the American middle class. Labor unions succeeded in limiting their working hours, improving the safety of their workplaces, and raising their pay. But that’s only a small piece of the overall union movement.Take women, for example. In 2014, women made up 45.5 percent of all union members, up from 33.6 percent in 1984, according to a new report on women in unions from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

And being a union member can make a big difference for women, raising wages and shrinking the gender wage gap. Keep reading below to see just how stark these differences can be.

  • Among full-time workers ages 16 and older, women represented by labor unions earn an average of $212, or 30.9 percent, more per week than women in nonunion jobs (Figure 1). Men of the same age range who are represented by unions earn, on average, $173, or 20.6 percent, more per week than those without union representation (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015c). Earnings data in this section are not controlled for age, education, or industry; when controlled for these factors, the union advantage is smaller but still significant, especially for women and minorities (Jones, Schmitt, and Woo 2014).
  • Union women experience a smaller gender wage gap. Women who are represented by labor unions earn 88.7 cents on the dollar compared with their male counterparts, a considerably higher earnings ratio than the earnings ratio between all women and men in the United States (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015c).
  • Women of all major racial and ethnic groups experience a union wage advantage. The difference in earnings between those with and without union representation is largest for Hispanic workers. Hispanic women represented by labor unions have median weekly earnings that are 42.1 percent higher than those without union representation. Hispanic men with union representation have earnings that are 40.6 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts.

Women represented by a union are also more likely to get health insurance and a pension. The overall effect is that unions are helping to lift women into financial security and move workplaces toward equality, just as they helped create the middle class during the 20th century. It’s one more thing to think about as we continue to watch Republicans attack unions and everything they stand for.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on September 7th, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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

What the Boy Scouts Have to Do with Unions

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Jackie TortoraYou’d have to live under a rock to not be somewhat familiar with the Boy Scouts of America program. The Boy Scouts work to instill values in its young members and one of those values is workers’ rights on the job. Mainly, the ability to join and form unions.

Lanette Edwards of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1625 has stepped up to make sure that the next generation of young leaders to emerge from the Boy Scouts in Central Florida will be well-versed in the rights and challenges that America’s working families face. While the American Labor merit badge has been around since 1987, it isn’t one of the more well-known badges boys can earn. Edwards wanted to change that and started teaching classes in Tampa and Orlando. The response from Scouts, leaders and parents was overwhelming, with more than 150 attending the Tampa class (with 50 more being turned away because of space limitations) and another 75 in Orlando.

Edwards spoke to the importance of teaching labor to the Scouts:

“These boys are our next generation. We need to start early because there is already so much influence on them from big corporations and the news. These youth…need to know how it is with the middle-class workers. As we know, a lot of them will be in the workforce soon. Union jobs pay more. Or when they get their business degree and happen to be in management or own a business, they will be aware of unions and have more sympathy for their workers.”

Learn more about the curricula that Scouts must complete to earn the American Labor merit badge.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on August 28, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.




You Can Bet on These Racetrack Workers To Fight for a Raise From Their Billionaire Boss

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Bruce VailBALTIMORE—Boosters of the Maryland horse racing industry cheered earlier this year when Baltimore’s annual Preakness Stakes attracted a record-breaking crowd of more than 130,000. The huge crowd thrilled to the victory of the bay colt American Pharaoh, who would go on to win the Triple Crown, and a place in thoroughbred racing history. At the betting windows, a total of $85.161 million was wagered, another record breaker in the 140-year history of the race.

But there’s a dark side of Baltimore’s sports and entertainment complex: Local residents toil at low-wage jobs to support the huge venues and the extravagant incomes of out-of-town performers, whether those performers are football players, rock stars, or even horses (who, of course, don’t pocket their own pay).

That disparity was on full display on August 4 as union members and their supporters rallied at a gritty Baltimore street corner to protest union busting by Maryland Turf Caterers, a unit of the horse racing empire of Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach, which owns the Preakness track, as well as other tracks in Maryland, Florida, Oregon and California.

Union workers at the company are fighting off concession demands in contract bargaining that would make most workers ineligible for company healthcare coverage (and raise costs for the rest), end retirement benefits and cut back on overtime pay, says Margaret Ellis, an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 7.

Those workers are a group of about 40 cooks, servers, bartenders, porters and concession-stand attendants who alternate between assignments at the Preakness’ Pimlico Race Course and nearby Laurel Park, both owned by the Stronach Group.

Louis Jones, who works as a porter for Maryland Turf Caterers for over 20 years, says his job quality has declined, with his hourly wage stuck at $9.35 for seven years and Maryland Turf Caterers doing away with the periodic bonuses that once made the job more livable. The workers typically earn $9 to $11 an hour and have not seen any negotiated pay raises since the old contract expired in 2008, Ellis says.

“In some ways, it’s the same old story,” remarks Roxie Herbekian, President of Local 7. Local governments shower benefits on businesses like Stronach with the promise of creating jobs and economic prosperity, yet many of the jobs pay so poorly that they trap workers in a cycle of near-poverty, or worse. In Stronach’s case, the company benefits from elaborate state-sponsored schemes to subsidize the Maryland horse racing industry, with little or no benefit trickling down to the low-income workers who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the racecourses, Herbekian says. The Maryland Racing Commission, for example, collected about $48 million last year in a special gambling tax to distribute to the state’s racetracks, with the money dedicated to plumping up purses, or for improvements to track properties.

The site of this week’s demonstration provides a case in point. The sprawling Pimlico complex borders several of Baltimore’s segregated residential neighborhoods. At one end is the affluent Mt. Washington neighborhood, a leafy, mostly-white enclave where few track workers can afford to live. At another end is Park Heights, a dreary and economically depressed area populated by low-income African Americans, including some of the track workers. Tuesday’s demonstration took place at the corner of Park Heights Ave. and Belvedere, with the gigantic Pimlico grandstand dominating the view to the east, and boarded-up storefronts, run-down residences and dirty streets spreading out to the west.

“They think this is a hoodlum neighborhood, a ghetto neighborhood,” says Jones, who tells In These Times that the quality of life in Park Heights has declined steadily even as billions of dollars in horseracing money has passed though the race track. The neighborhood is desperate for an infusion of decent jobs, Jones says, but has been continually disappointed at lack of action on job creation from elected officials. A plan floated several years back to open a slot machine gambling parlor at Pimlico seemed to offer the promise of local jobs, he says, but the plan was abandoned in favor of a new Caesars Entertainment Corp. casino in the downtown tourist district

For Maryland Turf Caterers, the plan seems to be not to promote good jobs, but to turn them into bad ones by bullying the union workers, Ellis says. “They put me off the property” at the Laurel Race Course earlier this year, she says, which she believes was retaliation for her role as a union organizer. The union is seeking the intervention of the National Labor Relations Board in that incident, and is weighing other actions at the labor board.

Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo defended the company’s labor policies, insisting that the Maryland race tracks were losing money and cuts in labor costs were necessary if the tracks are to remain open at all. “Listen, it’s true the Preakness makes a ton of money. The problem is that we lose money the other 355 days of the year. We lost $5 million last year [in Maryland],” he tells In These Times.

“I’m originally a Democrat from Boston, so I don’t have a beef with unions,” he says. “We have a race track in Hallandale [Florida] where we have UNITE HERE and we don’t have any problems. That’s because it is profitable so we have the money to pay people. We have a hell of a lot more union members in Florida than we do here [in Maryland].”

“We take responsibility—we are not going to take our financial problems out on the workers,” he says. “We only want [the union members] to have the same medical and pension that all of our other workers have. We treat our workers as well as any other company in the same [catering] businesses around here, and a hell a lot of better than most restaurants,” in the area, Rivko says.

“They get a tremendous amount of money from the state,” retorts Local 7’s Herbekian. “So I don’t think the Stronach Group is going to miss a beat if they just pay those workers for healthcare, and a decent raise. These workers are not making some huge salaries that are going to break the bank.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on August 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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.

Lacie Little: You’re Un-Fired

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Leo Gerard  Lacie Little won back last week everything Indiana University Health Inc. took from her –  except her job. Her beloved nursing job.

She got back wages and a formal public statement by the hospital corporation saying that it  removed the firing from her work record. So she’s un-fired.

But she’s not rehired. The hospital behemoth refused to consider restoring Lacie to her  nursing job for seven years, long enough, it hopes, to prevent her from helping form a union  there. Despite everything that has happened to her, Lacie hasn’t given up that goal. Now, she’s  working for my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), trying to organize nurses.

Indiana University (IU) Health fired Lacie on March 30, three days after she began trying to persuade her fellow nurses to unionize. Lacie wanted her co-workers to join together to collectively bargain with IU Health for the same reason many nurses want to negotiate with their hospitals. They love their profession; they’re devoted to their patients, and they want to help their hospitals be the best that they can be.

IU Health Inc. believed it knew what was best for the bottom line of the hospital system – and that wasn’t a nurses union. So like many employers, it took action to squash the nascent effort by employees to gain a voice at work by organizing. Firing workers for trying to form a union is illegal. But institutions – even ones supposedly dedicated to restoring health or to Catholic theology – do it all the time anyway because the penalties are so very paltry and the fear instilled is so very profound.

Corporations know they can stall an organizing campaign with just the threat of firing. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh recently used this tactic in a startling way. It included in a pleading to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) a threat to refuse to rehire for future semesters two adjunct professors who had testified at an NLRB hearing about efforts to organize at Duquesne, which holds itself out as a religious institution. One of the adjuncts described Duquesne’s written threat as bone chilling.

Lacie felt both unnerved and betrayed when the hospital corporation fired her. Her partner was five months pregnant with their second child. She had responsibilities, and the termination left her unsure how she would fulfill them. She could not believe the hospital system she so loved had done this to her.

The doctors and nurses and staff at Indiana University Health endeared themselves to Lacie when her grandfather, Robert Little, was hospitalized at Methodist, an IU institution, just after she graduated from high school. He was admitted to the cardiovascular critical care unit, where Lacie would later work.

Robert Little was having trouble breathing. To distract him, the nurses joked with him. They held his gargantuan hands. The doctor took the time to find out about Robert Little as a person. The physician learned that Robert Little was a union bricklayer who had worked hard all his life and who continued chopping wood as he fell increasingly ill in his 70s. Robert Little would not be happy bedridden, tube invaded, machine dependent.

At that time, Lacie’s mother was a nurse at IU Health. She had worked in its bone marrow transplant unit in the very early days when many patients did not survive. Lacie says her mother taught her an important lesson about that:

“She told me that taking care of someone in their last days and hours of life is an honor. You usher them out. And you can make it a great experience or an awful experience. You can truly take care of the patient and the family. I feel Methodist really did that for my family, took the time to get to know my grandfather and explain things to us. They were able to let him die with dignity. He was clean and warm and not in pain and had his family around him. Everyone has to die. It might as well be in a good way.”

Lacie started work at IU Health when she was just 19 years old. She earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biology. Then, while working as a secretary for the hospital system, she returned to college to get her nursing degree. She says she learned: “Nursing is caring for people. Great nurses care for their patients. They don’t just take care of them.”

In 2009, she launched her nursing career in the cardiovascular critical care unit where her grandfather had died. Every day, she challenged herself to care for her patients like they were her grandfather.

The stories she tells show that she reveled in accomplishing that. She talks about caring for an older farmer who had been injured in a tractor accident. At one point as he began to get better, he kept motioning toward his face. Still connected to a breathing tube, he could not talk. She knew he was trying to ask for a shave. Lacie recounts:

“I got some hot water and put some wash cloths in there. I sat him in a reclining chair and leaned him back and said, ‘Here we are at the barber shop’ and gave him a really good shave. He kept touching his face and giving me thumbs up. The shave wasn’t necessary to get him better, but we had fixed all of the acute things, and this was important for helping him feel better. We have to do some things to help them feel good mentally.”

When Lacie began in nursing, the hospital system enabled nurses to help patients feel better. But that changed.

In the fall of 2013, the hospital corporation laid off 800 workers, including Lacie’s mother, who had worked there 25 years. At about the same time, IU Health instituted a management method described as “going lean.” What that meant to Lacie was that the hospital system had the best doctors and nurses and staff but was setting them up to fail at meeting goals like treating their patients like their grandfathers.

“They wanted us to do more with less. And they would say that. Everything was about cost, cost, cost. But we care about patients over profits,” she said. It meant there was rarely time to give a farmer a shave.

Lacie says nurses began talking about being in moral distress, “People were leaving the hospital and going home and crying because they felt they did not take good care of their patients.” They did all the basics. They gave patients all of the medications but had no time to talk to them like they were human beings. “If you are not spoken to, you feel like a specimen, not a person,” Lacie explains. Feeling like a specimen does not help heal.

That’s when the union talk started. Because her father and grandfather were union men, Lacie said family experience had taught her that unions could put workers in a position to get CEOs to listen. “I knew unions were a way to stack up enough people so they were on a level playing field with the CEO,” she said.

Earlier this year, the IU nurses chose the USW to help them organize and began holding informational meetings, three a day, twice a week. Lots of nurses attended. They discussed problems at work and how organizing could be a solution. “People were encouraged because they wanted to do something, not just talk about it,” Lacie says.

In March, Lacie and several other nurses began asking co-workers if they were willing to sign a card petitioning for an election that would determine whether they could form a union.

Lacie was careful to do this only while she was on lunch and other breaks. She cautioned co-workers not to sign unless they too were on a break. She chatted with on-duty nurses but did not take their signatures. Even so, on her third day of doing this, IU Health Inc. officials accused her of accepting signatures from nurses who were on duty.

The hospital corporation suspended her, then fired her just days later. “I was dumbfounded,” she says, “I felt betrayed because I had given my loyalty to IU Health.” She had worked there a decade.

Not long after the hospital system terminated Lacie, the state Health Department issued a report saying the hospital was short staffed and that it adversely affected patient care.

The USW hired Lacie immediately after the firing, but the termination imperiled renewal of her nursing license. She knew if she fought the hospital corporation through the NLRB process and the courts, she would win. But that could take years. And she’d be unable to work as a nurse in the meantime.

So she took the settlement deal. It requires IU Health Inc. to post notices at its hospitals saying that it had rescinded Lacie’s firing and discipline against her and that federal law forbids the hospital corporation from threatening, interrogating, surveilling, disciplining, suspending or firing anyone for attempting to form a union.

Lacie’s firing steeled the commitment of some, who started a Facebook meme saying, “I’ve got a Little fight in me.” But for many others, the firing had the effect the hospital corporation intended. Nurses were fearful, and turnout at union meetings declined.

Studies show the number of illegal firings of union activists increasing and the number of union members in the United States dwindling. Workers like Lacie need legislation to stop it. This time last year U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced the Employee Empowerment Act, which would do just that. It could be called Lacie’s Law. But that wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of other workers who suffered as a result of the same illegal corporate union-busting practice.

Lacie insisted on a provision in the agreement allowing her to apply to return to IU Health in seven years because, she said, “I still love the IU Health nurses and doctors and staff.”

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Why Unions Supported a Single-Payer Bill That Passed New York’s State Assembly

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

mark-dudzicNew York’s State Assembly in May overwhelmingly passed a bill to establish a single-payer-style health care system.

The bill isn’t expected to pass the Senate or be signed into law anytime soon. But getting it through, with unprecedented support from big unions, shows that state-level campaigns are still a fertile ground for health care justice organizing, despite the recent setback in Vermont.

The New York Health Act would eliminate private health insurance and cover all New Yorkers in a publicly financed, universal plan with no patient premiums, deductibles, or co-payments.

“We should be able to go to the doctor when we need to, without worrying whether we can afford it,” said its sponsor, Assembly Member Richard Gottfried. “We should choose our doctors and hospitals without worrying about network restrictions.”

Gottfried has led a decades-long effort in the Assembly for universal care. But the difference this time was the number of major unions actively supporting it. They gave the bill a big boost.

More unions onboard

Traditional single-payer advocates like the New York State Nurses (NYSNA) and the New York City stagehands’ union, IATSE Local 1, have backed Gottfried’s bills before.

This year marked the first time they were joined by such influential statewide unions as Service Employees (SEIU) 1199 and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT/AFT).

Those unions’ lobbying efforts helped convince legislators the bill was politically viable. And their financial support was crucial to hiring community organizers in key regions.

The unions also participated in statewide hearings in January and mobilized members for Albany lobby days in May.

“The employer-based system of providing health care is eroding, covering a smaller percentage of New Yorkers each year,” said 1199 SEIU member Malcolm Olaker, a Poughkeepsie nursing home worker, at a lobby day.

“In a just society, all people are entitled to basic health care. That’s why we are all here today from different walks of life: patients, health care providers, caregivers and community members, supporting single payer health care.”

Advocacy groups Healthcare NOW, Single Payer NY, and Physicians for a National Health Program were able to capitalize on the momentum to play much larger roles than in previous years.

Obamacare didn’t fix it

Labor support for the initiative grew so strong because of how the Affordable Act has panned out. The much-heralded federal law has done little to ease bargaining-table pressures for health care concessions.

“Our members working in schools and college campuses want our state’s poorest students and their families to have access to quality health care services, so they arrive at school each day healthy and equipped to learn,” said Anthony Pallota, NYSUT executive vice president, at the January hearing.

“Our retirees, who tend to be our most medically vulnerable and fragile members, want affordable prescription medication and access to immediate health care.”

Despite the federal mandates, employers are still trying to offer less coverage and shift costs onto the backs of workers and retirees.

Public sector health benefits are a particularly tempting target, as states and municipalities wrestle with budget shortfalls. Politicians exploit a “politics of resentment” among private sector workers who’ve already seen their own benefits cut.

Another factor spurring unions to action is the looming 2018 implementation of the ACA’s “Cadillac tax.” This 40 percent excise tax will apply to all health insurance plan charges over $10,200 per year for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage.

These caps are set to rise at a much slower rate than the costs of health insurance, which means nearly all union-negotiated plans will eventually face the choice between radical cuts to coverage or paying the hefty tax.

Already, the tax has been a major issue in recent union negotiations with Boeing, oil refiners, and port operators.

State by state

While most health care justice activists would prefer a national, Medicare-for-All reform along the lines of Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 676, in recent years the momentum has been growing for single-payer-style reforms at the state level.

At a time when any path to sweeping federal action appears closed, groups like the Labor Campaign for Single Payer and Healthcare NOW have supported state campaigns as a way forward.

The ACA may help facilitate these efforts—because, beginning in 2017, the federal government is authorized to grant states “innovation waivers.”

Such a waiver frees the state from the requirement to establish a private insurance exchange. Instead, it can reallocate federal subsidies for private insurance and Medicaid into funding its own plan.

To be approved, the state’s plan must meet the law’s minimum requirements for coverage and cost-sharing, and cover at least as many residents at a cost no higher than what the federal government would have assumed.

“We believe that a victory for a publicly financed, universal plan in one or more states can provide a powerful impetus to the movement for national health care,” said Ben Day, executive director of Healthcare NOW.

State efforts suffered a setback when Vermont’s governor announced in December that he was suspending plans to implement Green Mountain Care, the single-payer-style program to realize the 2011 law that made health care a right.

Shumlin was scheduled to submit a financing proposal to the legislature in advance of the plan going into effect in 2017. Instead, he announced the health care for all was “just not affordable”—despite the fact that even his own economic estimates showed Vermonters would spend less for health care than they currently do.

Gerald Friedman, a University of Massachusetts economist, called Shumlin’s decision “political, not economic.” Nonetheless, single-payer opponents seized on the Vermont debacle as proof that universal health care at the state level is unworkable.

But the book isn’t closed. The law is still in effect, and hundreds have taken to the streets to demand its implementation.

The Vermont Workers’ Center—which maintains that the state still has an obligation to implement the law—issued its own financing plan, which it submitted to the legislature for consideration.

Strategy conference

All health care justice campaigns, if they get far enough, will be forced to wrestle with the same conundrum Vermonters are facing. The closer they come to victory, the greater the resistance from the medical-industrial complex and free-market fundamentalists who viscerally oppose any form of social insurance.

In California, the legislature twice passed single-payer bills in the 2000s, only to have them vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once Democrat Jerry Brown was elected governor, the movement couldn’t even find a bill sponsor.

California activists are gearing up for a multi-year project to muster the substantial funds and organizers it will take to win (and then defend) a single-payer-style system through the state’s initiative process.

Organizers in the strong, labor-backed campaigns in Oregon and Washington are also looking to use the initiative process if pending legislation founders. Oregon passed a bill to fund a study of alternative plans to ensure universal coverage.

New York will surely experience the same political challenges as Vermont and California. Nonetheless, the bill’s passage with such a big majority and the outpouring of labor and community support have given the national movement a welcome shot in the arm.

“This is a great victory, but now the hard work begins,” warned Joel Shufro, a longtime occupational health and safety advocate who worked to recruit unions to support the bill.

“Getting the bill through the Senate and getting the governor to sign it will be a long and difficult struggle. We must keep on building the grassroots movement if we ever hope to win the right to health care for everyone in New York.”

Activists will discuss and debate how to build this movement when they meet in Chicago, October 30-November 1, for thelargest-ever single-payer national strategy conference.

“Our movement continues to grow, as people realize that the Affordable Care Act does not do enough to solve the health care crisis afflicting almost everyone in America,” said NYSNA Vice President Marva Wade. “We need to come together to finish the job and make health care a right for everyone.”

This blog originally appeared in InTheseTimes.com on August 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Mark Dudzic is the national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. He can be reached at [email protected]

Duquesne’s NLRB Filing Reads as a Brazen Threat To Adjunct Union Organizers

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

photo_321703[1]Union busting has become big business in America. It’s so common that the run-of-the-mill variety hardly raises an eyebrow. Employers regularly hire anti-union consultants and hold captive audience meetings laced with subtle and not-so-subtle threats of disciplinary action or firings.

But every once in a while, employers try a novel union-busting tactic. In Pittsburgh, in a case that some have suspected is destined for the Supreme Court, Duquesne University has pushed the boundaries of employer intimidation.

On April 29, adjunct professors Clint Benjamin and Adam Davis testified under oath at a hearing at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The topic was Duquesne University’s unwillingness to recognize the union that their colleagues overwhelmingly voted for three years ago. After the hearing, the regional director of the NLRB held that Duquesne had to negotiate with the union the adjuncts voted to represent them, United Steelworkers (USW). (Full disclosure: I teach a course at Duquesne Law School, which is a part of Duquesne University, but was not part of this bargaining unit.)

As expected, Duquesne appealed the decision, prolonging the NLRB process and delaying bargaining. However, deep in Duquesne’s appeal—footnote 16 on page 42, to be exact—Duquesne did something radical: It used the brief as a means to openly union-bust by sending out a clear message that anyone who opposes the University in this organizing campaign risks losing their jobs.

The brief read, “Today, Duquesne reserves the right not to rehire both professors and replace them with professors willing and/or better able to incorporate Duquesne’s Catholic, Spiritan mission into their courses.”

As the bottom rung of the faculty, adjuncts have virtually no job protections, so Duquesne would be free to terminate any adjunct for any legitimate reason. It appears, then, that this threat of firing was meant to serve a different purpose than merely preserving some abstract right to fire them: It seems clear the comment was meant to threaten them and all other adjuncts that dare to stand against Duquesne in its anti-union efforts.

Such comments, made informally by a supervisor or anti-union consultant, are fairly common in the workplace during a union drive, though they may be illegal. The fact that Duquesne would feel brazen enough to submit them in a legal document to the NLRB is a slap in the face to the workers and a dare to the federal agency tasked with protecting labor rights.

When asked how he read the Duquesne’s footnote, Benjamin responded, “The threat was pretty bone-chilling.”

I reached out to Duquesne’s attorneys to inquire as to what legitimate explanation they could have had for the threatening footnote, and they did not respond to the request for comment.

There’s a reason the brief specifically cited the university’s religious mission. The NLRB hearing was to determine whether Duquesne, as an institution affiliated with the Catholic Church, was under NLRB jurisdiction. After initially agreeing to the union election in 2012, Duquesne changed course and argued that the NLRB had no jurisdiction over the university. The case has been going up and down the NLRB for three years now, raising significant issues about the Board’s jurisdiction.

The specific question at the hearing was whether the university “holds out the petitioned-for faculty as performing a specific role in creating or maintaining the university’s religious educational environment.” Benjamin and Davis’s testimony was critical. Benjamin testified that he teaches two core English composition courses at Duquesne, and Davis testified that he teaches a history of science course in the History Department. Both testified that they have never been asked about their faith, never been told how to promote Duquesne’s religious mission and never been disciplined for failing to live up to Catholic teachings. Benjamin, who also teaches a composition course at a community college, testified that the way he teaches his course at both institutions is identical.

Benjamin’s and Davis’s testimony that as adjuncts they had no role in Duquesne’s religious mission, and that they were never expected to help promote that mission, was damning to Duquesne’s case at the NLRB. Their testimony revealed that they answered advertisements for the adjunct positions, were hired without any questions about religion, and have never been given any religious directions. Benjamin explained that aside from the various crucifixes adorning the campus, religion is not a concern in his class.

Therefore, they were taken aback by Duquesne’s assertion in the brief professors mustincorporate Duquesne’s Catholic, Spiritan mission into their courses.”

In an interview with In These Times, Benjamin said that he is not even sure how he would incorporate religion into a basic composition course. “I guess we’d involve more reading of scripture?” he says. “The mission itself is to serve God by serving students. It’s pretty open-ended as to what that means.”

University of Wyoming College of Law Professor Michael Duff explained that Duquesne would have trouble arguing that it was simply reaffirming its rights to fire adjuncts who did not adhere to its religious mission. “The problem with the footnote, however, is its superfluity: there was simply no reason to make the declaration,” Duff explained, “and in the context of the footnote you could make a pretty strong argument that it was targeted specifically to the employee witnesses.” The footnote’s only purpose, in other words, was to intimidate the two professors and any other professors who may consider taking a stand in the future.

Duff, who worked at the Board for nine years, further explained that such statements in a legal filing are extremely rare.

“Typically this would occur before an employer had retained a lawyer and had gone off kind of “half-cocked” in anger,” Duff explained. “In my experience, it would be very unusual for a sophisticated law firm to make statements in a formal legal document that even arguably violated the law.”

Duquesne’s attorney, Memphis-based Arnold Perl, is indeed sophisticated in his labor practice. He has been involved in a variety of “union avoidance” (often code for union busting) for decades, and until shortly after he became Duquesne’s counsel in May 2012, he bragged in his bio that he had “extensive experience counseling organizations on remaining union free.” (In late 2012, he changed his bio to read that he has “extensive experience counseling organizations on positive employee relations.”)

Dan Kovalik, the USW attorney who has been representing the Duquesne adjuncts, explained that the purpose of the footnote was immediately apparent.

“It really is tantamount to them threatening to fire them for testifying,” he says. “Because as we showed at the hearing, adjuncts aren’t told they have to incorporate the mission in their teaching, and these guys certainly weren’t told to do that. And now because they testified truthfully about that, they’re being threatened to be fired.”

Reflecting on the irony of including this threat in a brief that is filled with so much religious doctrine and sanctimony, Kovalik said, “They’ve carved out the moral low ground in the name of carving out the moral high ground.”

Duquesne’s case is filled with such ironies. It is arguing that Catholic doctrine—which has traditionally been supportive of labor rights—provides the university an excuse not to recognize the employees’ duly elected union. And, in case that argument stalls, it has decided to use, as a vehicle for union busting, a legal filing to the federal agency tasked with protecting employees’ labor rights.

The techniques that everyone has come to expect in anti-union campaigns did not appear all at once, fully formed. Rather, some employer, management-side attorney, or anti-union consultant decided to test the waters with a new approach If the NLRB does nothing in response to Duquesne’s use of the Board’s proceedings to intimidate workers, then the message to other employers will be clear—and it won’t be long until this approach becomes the norm.

This blog originally appeared in InTheseTimes.com on August 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Grocery Chain’s Financial Meltdown Could Leave Thousands of Union Workers Jobless

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Bruce VailPlans to dismember the A&P supermarket chain were revealed in a federal bankruptcy court in New York this week, with dire results predicted for more than 15,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.

The historic grocery retailer—the original Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. was formed back in 1859—intends to sell or close all of its 300 stores spread across six Mid-Atlantic states, according to documents filed Monday in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. The plan will affect every one of an estimated 30,000 UFCW members currently employed with the company, with more than half of those in real danger of losing their jobs soon, union officials say.

The bad news for the union was partially tempered with the announcement that A&P had already lined up the sale of 120 of its stores to other regional grocery chains that also have UFCW contracts. If those sales go forward as planned, most of the 12,500 union members at those 120 stores would be expected to retain their jobs under the new owners. The prospective buyers—ACME Markets, Ahold USA (operator of Stop & Shop) and Key Food—already have UFCW collective bargaining agreements covering the 120 stores in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey (A&P stores are also located in Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland).

But those plans don’t include any future employment for workers at the other 180 stores, including 25 that A&P says it will seek to close immediately. All sales or closures are subject to approval by Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Drain, and the process of selling off or closing stores is expected to begin soon but drag out for months. ACME Markets, for example, issued a statement saying that it didn’t expect to finalize purchase of any A&P stores until mid-October.

Very few union members were taken by surprise by these developments, says Wendell Young IV, President of UFCW Local 1776 in Philadelphia. A&P, which also operates under the trade names of Pathmark, Waldbaums and Superfresh, has been ailing financially for years, he says, and underwent a painful bankruptcy reorganization in 2010-2012.

“I’ve been telling my members for two years that I didn’t think A&P was going to make it. We’ve been doing everything we can as a union to be prepared for this,” he tells In These Times.

The final demise of A&P was signaled last September, Young comtinues, when company executives announced a debt refinancing package that failed to include any new investment in the company. Rumors swept the supermarket industry soon afterwards that executives were intent on dismembering the company by selling off its valuable pieces, and discarding the rest, he says.

Young adds that part of the union preparation has been to revive a coalition of 12 separate UFCW locals with A&P contracts. Supported by legal experts and financial resources from the UFCW International headquarters in Washington, D.C., the coalition was first formed in 2010 to present a united labor front in dealing with bankruptcy issues at that time. The coalition ceased active operation when A&P emerged from the first bankruptcy proceeding in 2012, but was revived in June as a crisis at A&P appeared imminent, Young says. UFCW Local 1500 in New York, with about 5,000 members employed with A&P, is one of the coalition members most affected by the bankruptcy.

UFCW Region 1 Director Tom Clarke, who heads the coalition, did not respond to In These Times calls seeking additional information and comment. Christopher McGarry, A&P’s Chief Administrative Officer, began the bankruptcy process by threatening the unions. In a declaration dated July 19 and filed with the court July 20. McGarry warned:

It is imperative that the parties cooperate with one another and that negotiations be conducted as expeditiously as possible. While the Debtors are committed to pursuing consensual resolutions with their unions where possible, if consensual resolutions cannot be quickly achieved within the required deadlines imposed…the Debtors will be required to commence proceedings under sections 1113 and 1114 of the Bankruptcy Code to seek authority to implement both temporary and permanent modifications to the CBAs on a unilateral basis.

Section 1113 is the section of the bankruptcy code commonly used to cancel or revise labor contracts, even without any agreement from unions or union members. The coalition will resist any attempts by A&P to use bankruptcy law to cancel existing UFCW collective bargaining agreements. “If the process is to be the orderly sale or closure of all the stores, then there is no need to cancel any contracts. The union is fully prepared to negotiate decent contracts with any of the new owners, and in the case of store closings, the existing contracts should be honored by all the parties,” Young says.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Bruce Vail. 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.

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