Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘worker’s rights’

U.S. Rated Alarmingly High in Global Survey of Worst Places for Workers’ Rights

Monday, May 26th, 2014
U.S. Rated Alarmingly High in Global Survey of Worst Places for Workers’ Rights

The United States lags far behind other nations in protecting workers’ rights, according to a new survey from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The rankings are based on 97 internationally recognized indicators and standards to assess where workers’ rights are best protected, in law and in practice.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said:

Countries such as Denmark and Uruguay led the way through their strong labor laws, but perhaps surprisingly, the likes of Greece, the United States and Hong Kong, lagged behind. A country’s level of development proved to be a poor indicator of whether it respected basic rights to bargain collectively, strike for decent conditions or simply join a union at all.

The nations are ranked on a scale from 1 (the best with just irregular violations of workers’ rights) to 5 (with no guarantee of workers’ rights at all).  The United States received a mark of 4, which, according to the ITUC system, means:

Workers in countries with the rating of 4 have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.

Along with the United States, 29 other nations received a 4 rating, including Argentina, Botswana, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan and Thailand. Belgium, Finland and South Africa were among the 18 nations that received a 1 rating, while 24 countries were rated 5, including Belarus, Bangladesh, Egypt, Guatemala and Qatar. Eight countries where the rule of law has broken down received a special 5+ grade.

The report also found that in the past year, governments of at least 35 countries have arrested or imprisoned workers as a tactic to resist demands for democratic rights, decent wages and safer working conditions and secure jobs. In at least nine countries, murder and disappearance of workers were commonly used to intimidate workers.

Burrow also noted that the ITUC Global Poll 2014 found nearly two-thirds of people want governments to do more to tame corporate power.

The World Bank’s recent Doing Business report naively subscribed to the view that reducing labor standards is something governments should aspire to. This new Rights Index puts governments and employers on notice that unions around the world will stand together in solidarity to ensure basic rights at work.

In the map above, nations in red have the worst workers’ rights ratings while lighter-shaded nations are rated progressively better.

Read the full report, ITUC Global Rights Index: The World’s Worst Countries for Workers.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 22, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

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

Georgia-Pacific Employees Can Now Tweet Without Fear

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Mike ElkIn October 2012, In These Times revealed that the Koch brothers had instructed 45,000 employees of Georgia-Pacific, a paper company owned by Koch Industries, to vote for Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential election. But even as the Kochs took advantage of expanded free speech rights for corporations under the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, Georgia-Pacific was busy circulating a strict policy that prohibited workers from speaking poorly of the company or its officers on social media. Thanks to a new decree by the National Labor Relations Board, however, employees can now feel free to post about their jobs to Facebook or Instagram without fear of retribution.

Georgia-Pacific’s now-defunct social media policy, which it implemented in 2011, warned, “Even if your social media conduct is outside of the workplace and/or non-work related, it must not reflect negatively on GP’s reputation, its products, or its brands.”

Many employees took this to mean that they could not post anything criticizing the company on social media.

Greg Pallesen, vice president of the Association of Western Pulp and Papers Workers (AWPPW), which represents workers at Georgia-Pacific paper plants in the Pacific Northwest, says that the policy was emblematic of the Koch brothers’ hypocrisy when it comes to workers’ rights.

“It all ties back into the last round of politics,” he says. “On one hand [the Kochs] say they believe and want free speech [for themselves], but on the other hand, they don’t allow their employees to have free speech.”

Though labor law does not unequivocally protect workers’ free speech on the job, it does give employees the right to advocate on behalf of their co-workers. With this in mind, in July 2012, AWPPW filed charges with the NLRB arguing that Georgia-Pacific’s overly broad social media policy interfered with employees’ ability to speak out about working conditions there. AWPPW also alleged that the company should have included the policy, as well as parts of the Employee Code of Conduct, in the union’s contract negotiations as a mandatory subject of bargaining.

In December 2013, after a year and a half of investigation, the NLRB reached a settlement with Georgia-Pacific requiring the company to rescind the policy and to post a statement in all its facilities assuring workers of their rights under federal labor law. The statement will read, “WE WILL repeal our social media policy and WE WILL NOT issue policies that interfere with your right to share information relating to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, including on social media.”

Under the terms of the agreement, Georgia-Pacific must also now allow employees to use the company email system to share information about working conditions. In addition, the corporation revoked the portions of its Code of Conduct that forbade employees from “sharing personal employee or compensation information with others”—a ban expressly prohibited by federal labor law.

Greg Guest, spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific, said in a statement, “Georgia-Pacific worked cooperatively with the National Labor Relations Board to better understand its position on employees’ rights, including employee rights in the social media space, and we are pleased that we were able to find a compromise that worked for both parties.”

Despite Guest’s talk of compromise, however, Pallesen feels the settlement is a clear victory for AWPPW and Georgia-Pacific’s workers.

“It was a good win for us. It slows the company down on just implementing things, which they tend to do. This forces them to come to us to negotiate policy,” says Pallesen. “Instead of the employer having 100 percent of the control of speech in the workplace, this gives employees some protection when it comes to ‘protected and concerted efforts’ [to organize at work].”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on January 7, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

What Workers Apparently Don't Have a Right to Know

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

seiu-org-logoIn most workplaces, it’s common to see a poster somewhere public – like a shared lunchroom – notifying employees of their workplace rights on issues such as equal opportunity and health and safety. Most workplaces don’t, however, have posters notifying employees of their rights (e.g. to form a union) under the National Labor Relations Act. And after a D.C. Circuit Court ruling this week, this seems depressingly unlikely to change anytime soon.

The NLRB tried to fix this in 2011 with a rule requiring employers to post an informational notice in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of other corporate-backed groups challenged the rule and delayed its implementation.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit Court (known for its pro-business bias) put the final nail in the coffin and struck down the rule.

This decision is undoubtedly bad for workers.

For a sliver of optimism about the future of the labor movement, check out Harold Myerson’s May 8th op-ed in the Washington Post.

This article was originally posted on SEIU on May 10, 2013.  Reprinted with Permission.

Author: SEIU Communications

Philadelphia Falls One Vote Short of Sick Days for Over 180,000 Workers

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

 

dougfoote

With 12 votes needed, only 11 members of the Philadelphia City Council were willing to override Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto of the sick leave bill. For the second time in three years, corporate interests defeated a measure that would allow more than 180,000 Philadelphians to finally earn sick days.

“I’m very disappointed,” said city councilman Bill Greenlee, who tried but failed to get the 12 votes needed to override Mayor Nutter’s veto.  “I’m particularly disappointed for the 180,000 workers who could have had a benefit that other cities are providing.”

Instead of listening to the people of Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter sided with business interests: specifically the Philadelphia-based ALEC corporation Comcast, who spend more than $100,000 opposing sick leave in 2011 and is a big contributor to Mayor Nutter’s campaign.

“We’re not surprised the mayor vetoed this….he hasn’t exactly been a champion of workers,” said Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth McElroy. “The majority of the City Council and the majority of Philadelphians wanted this—it’s the right thing to do, and we’ll keep working on it.”

Comcast also contributed $3,000 to Councilman Brian O’Neill and $1,500 to Councilman Denny O’Brien, both who voted against the sick leave bill and refused to override Mayor Nutter’s veto. All of this despite the fact that 77% of Philadelphians favor the sick leave policy.

Not all hope is lost, however. Working America worked with a broad coalition to drive thousands of messages and phone calls to Mayor Nutter and members of the Philadelphia City Council. And while sick leave proposals move forward in Portland, Oregon, New York City and elsewhere, there will be more pressure on city officials as time goes on.

The fight isn’t over for bill sponsor Councilman Greenlee either:

“I still believe in and want to have earned paid sick leave in Philadelphia.  So we’ll see what the future holds on that,” he said.

This article was posted on the AFL-CIO on April 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the AuthorDoug Foote is the Social Media and Campaign Specialist at Working America. He joined Working America in 2011 after serving as New Media Director for the successful 2010 reelection campaign of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

Student guest workers walk off the job at McDonald's to protest abuses

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

avatar_2563Student guest workers on the J-1 cultural exchange visa program walked out of their jobs at Pennsylvania McDonald’s restaurants Wednesday morning, citing abuses of the same kinds that caused a walkout from a Hershey’s supplier in summer 2011. As a result of that strike, the State Department investigated the program and strengthened protections somewhat, but not enough, according to analysts at the time and as demonstrated by the fact that once again student guest workers are coming forward with allegations of wage and hour abuses and having unreasonable rents deducted from their paychecks for basement rooms shared by several people.

Sean Kitchen reports that, at a recent meeting in Harrisburg, some of the student workers described their living and working conditions:

While at work, these “students” were often forced to work from 6 or 7 in the morning to as late as 11 at night with only one 30 minute to hour break. And to top it off, these students are paid minimum wage for all the hours they worked, despite working well over 40 hours per week, qualifying them for overtime pay. [...] Fernando told us about a story of retaliation from his employer.  When he spoke out against the company’s tactics, the manager gave Fernando a 4 hour work week.  When Fernando was explaining that this story to the room, he asked, “how am I suppose to pay a $300 rent when only working 4 hours in 1 week?”

One of the striking workers contacted the State Department, only to face intimidation in response:

Rios said that the US government responded by contacting GeoVisions, the organization that sponsored the trip; that triggered an unannounced visit to Rios’ shared basement room by a GeoVisions representative and Rios’ boss, McDonalds franchisee Andy Cheung. (GeoVisions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)Rios said that Cheung yelled at him, while the GeoVisions staffer stood by, hands shaking, acting like Cheung was his boss as well. “You could see he was scared,” said Rios. “He would say things like, ‘This doesn’t look so bad to me.’”

Participants pay $3,000 or more for the chance to join the program, which is billed as cultural exchange, an opportunity to experience the United States. Arguably, being mistreated at a low-wage job is an important part of the American experience these days, but should the State Department really be running that?

This article was originally posted on the Daily Kos on March 6, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

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

We Remember the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living!

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Image: Richard Negri

Workers around the world commemorate April 28th as a day of remembrance honoring those who’ve died or been seriously injured on the job. The date for Workers Memorial Day coincides with Congress passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act forty-one years ago. Though the Act remains a promise that every worker deserves the right to a safe job, we all know that we have a lot of work ahead us.

The SEIU Nurse Alliance has taken the lead in focusing on workplace violence prevention with the union, as there have been a number of our healthcare members who were killed or severely injured due to violence from patients.

Donna Gross, Cynthia Palomata, Elenita Congco, and Stephanie Moulton, all healthcare providers, were killed on the job in the last twelve months. Countless others have been physically assaulted or verbally abused and bullied at work.

Unsafe and harmful working conditions are obviously not limited to healthcare providers. The insidiousness of unsafe and violent conditions crosses over into every trade and every sector. Thus, “an injury to one is an injury to all!”

A recent study estimates that the loss of workers’ lives and livelihoods costs the U.S. economy at least $250 billion a year. But how do you put a price tag on a worker’s life, their arm, leg, finger? How do you put a price on coming home from work with an infectious disease you didn’t wake up with?

While the official statistics on workplace safety shows some improvement, one unjust death of one worker in any trade or sector is simply too much. In addition, we only know the “how” about unsafe workplace environments from what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us. The problem there is that it is widely known that the BLS wildly underestimates the problem. In fact, the true toll of job injuries is known to be two to three times greater — about 8 million to 12 million job injuries and illnesses each year. That’s just too much.

How is it possible that the BLS reporting is so far off the mark? The BLS arrives at the specifics around workers’ injuries and deaths by way of logs OSHA receives from EMPLOYERS.

The reporting process is never accurate because so many workers, especially nurses, fail to file reports with their facilities. Many healthcare workers accept that injury and untimely death on the job comes with the territory — many healthcare providers would rather lift the weight of an American-made sedan each shift than file reports — or is that really the case?

It is a difficult question because our employers frequently persuade us to think that our injuries are not as bad as we think, or, in many cases, just not worth reporting. The culture of each facility may vary from house to house, but at the end of the day, if accurate reporting isn’t being done, accurate changes won’t come.

Still, there’s more we need to wrap our heads around. Some employers discourage reporting through the use of incentive programs, like Safety Bingo, that reward workers for not reporting injuries or threaten to fire workers for reporting injuries or illnesses. That’s not good. What do we do about that?

For one, we should make it our business to learn what our rights are in the workplace — which a great many of us already do. Second, we need to consider taking the time and effort to report injuries and illnesses whenever there is one. Let’s not forget that our employers are usually just fine handing in near-blank OSHA reports.

Can we pledge to do our best to eliminate all violence and other hazards on the job so that every SEIU member and all workers can go home safely to their families at the end of the day?

President Mary Kay Henry said it very succinctly, “The right to a safe, secure workplace should be as fundamental as the right to have a voice on the job. When nurses, home care workers, and other working people go to work every day, we should never have to worry about getting hurt or losing our lives. On this Workers Memorial Day, we honor all workers, including SEIU members, who were injured or killed while trying to support their families by simply doing their job. It is our duty to these workers and their families to fight to ensure that no one will have to endure that pain again.”

To ensure that our families will not have to endure the pain of losing us on the job, and to ensure that we continue to work safe and exercise our rights, we will need to remember the dead and fight like hell for the living.

About the author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Good News for Transgender and Ex-Offender Workers

Monday, April 30th, 2012

eidelson-headshotEqual Employment Opportunity Commission issues major rulings.

Last week the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released major decisions regarding the rights of two groups of workers that face frequent discrimination. On Monday, the EEOC delivered an opinion finding that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans “sex discrimination” in employment, applies to discrimination against transgender workers. On Wednesday, the EEOC approved a new set of guidelines restricting employers’ use of past criminal convictions to disqualify job applicants. Both decisions parallel, and could impact, legislative efforts already underway.

The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act and enforces that landmark legislation’s workplace discrimination protections. Its five commissioners are appointed by the president for five-year terms.

Transgender protections.

The EEOC’s new transgender precedent came in the case of Mia Macy, a transgender woman who says she had, as a man, applied for and been promised a job with the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. When she attempted to take the job after her transition, she was told it had been given to someone else. After ATF’s Office of Equal Opportunity responded to Macy’s discrimination claim by asserting that anti-transgender discrimination was not covered by federal law, she appealed to the EEOC.

Macy’s lawyer argued that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination applied to discrimination for being transgender. The EEOC agreed, and sent the case back to ATF with the instruction that it evaluate the case in that light. That’s in line with the steady—but by no means unanimous—trend of lower court rulings, notes Jennifer Pizer, the Legal Director of the Williams Institute at University of California Los Angeles. Pizer, a former Lambda Legal Senior Counsel, says the decision is “very significant,” because it “establishes a national understanding that discrimination in a workplace because of a person’s gender identity or expression is a form of gender discrimination.”

In an interview with Metro Weekly, Macy described the EEOC opinion as “one more piece in the puzzle of equality.”

“This isn’t discrimination because a person is male or because a person is female,” says Pizer. “It’s a subset of that discrimination against a person based on how they are male or how they are female, or whether their gender seems to be ambiguous, or whether the way they are and the way they live is consistent with what other people they should do based on what their gender appears to be.”

Pizer notes that courts used to often rule against sex discrimination claims by transgender workers on the grounds that “Congress did not have this in mind” in 1964.  But more recently, judges have increasingly recognized that the protection covers “the range of ways a person might be treated differently because of their sex…If a person was qualified to the job as a man, and isn’t qualified to do it as a woman, or vice versa, that’s sex discrimination.”

Williams say there’s no good estimate of what proportion of transgender workers are known to be transgender by their employers. Some employers find out for the first time when a employee undergoes a gender transition, or when management reviews a worker’s health insurance information for an unrelated reason. When that happens, says Pizer, “a hostile reaction” is “sadly common.”

“Everybody is protected against sex discrimination,” says Pizer, “and sex discrimination includes protection against discrimination based on one’s perceived failure to confirm to sex stereotypes.”

Pizer says the EEOC’s logic would also apply to some, but not all, cases of discrimination against non-heterosexual workers: it would apply to a non-transgender lesbian woman, for example, who was treated differently because of a perceived failure to conform to “feminine” norms.

But it would not protect the same woman if she was being treated differently specifically for having, or wanting, same-sex relationships. Pizer acknowledges that’s an “odd line,” and one that could be exploited by employers. A minority of states have their own laws banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, has been repeatedly introduced in Congress, though it’s drawn less attention than fights over marriage equality. In a November press conference following the announcement of his retirement, Congressman and ENDA sponsor Barney Frank named resistance to transgender protections as one of the reasons the bill has not yet passed.

Pizer says the EEOC’s ruling, which leaves transgender workers with stronger federal protections than other LGBT workers, doesn’t lessen the urgency of passing a broad ENDA, but has the potential to dull some of the opposition.

“What we’ve seen in some states,” says Pizer, “is that when courts and administrative bodies recognize that a kind of discrimination is covered by existing law, then sometimes legislators find it that much more straightforward, if you will, to codify that understanding into a statute.”

Ex-offender protections.

In a Wednesday vote, the EEOC approved a revised set of guidelines for employers regarding the use of criminal background checks in hiring. Advocates hailed the move in a Thursday conference call with reporters.

National Employment Law Project Executive Director Christine Owens said it “was really well past time” for new guidelines, given that the “terrain…had shifted so dramatically” since 1987, when the EEOC first formally recognized the “disparate impact” of such restrictions on African-Americans and Latinos.

In the 25 years since, notes Owens, the pre-employment background check industry has exploded, and the use of such checks has spread from a bare majority of the economy in 1996 to over 90 percent today. NELP has estimated that up to 65 million U.S. adults face potential job restrictions due to past offenses, including 1 in 17 white men, 1 in 7 hispanic men, and 1 in 3 black men.

Compared to its ruling recognizing anti-transgender discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, EEOC law on pre-employment background checks remains less clear: The EEOC warns that such practices can have a potentially illegal—discriminatory effect, but doesn’t consider them inherently to be a form of racial discrimination under Title VII.

Sharon Dietrich, a managing attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, says the EEOC’s move Wednesday “is not groundbreaking, but it is extremely important.” Dietrich highlighted the change in three areas. First, the EEOC is providing illustrative examples for employers of practices now likely to run afoul of the law, including firing already-hired employees purely on the basis of background checks, or automatically disqualifying all employees with criminal records in an online application. Second, it offers guidelines for how to stay within the law. Third, it advises employers to inform potential employees when ex-offender status is being weighed against them, and provides guidelines for consideration of extenuating circumstances.

Dietrich notes that private-sector employers aren’t the only ones that have been found to use background checks in a manner inconsistent with the Civil Rights Act. She says the EEOC’s new guidance means that “legislators at the state and local level cannot enact over-broad state and local laws that restrict the employment of former offenders.”

In Pennsylvania, Dietrich’s organization successfully brought suit against a state law that imposed imposed a lifetime ban on the hiring of people with a wide range of former offenses by facilities assisting senior citizens.  “Anything that is a lifetime ban,” she says, “pretty clearly is in violation of EEOC’s policies, and is of really questionable legal merit.” Meanwhile, some cities have gone farther than the EEOC, passing “Ban the Box” legislation that forbids some employers from asking about criminal background on initial employment applications.

Owens and Dietrich were joined on the call by Elsie Sacarello Quiles, who says she was fired after three days working for a new school district.

“At the time,” says Sacarello, “I didn’t even remember what the charges were.” She later realized she had lost her job over a nearly four-decade-old “disorderly conduct” arrest. “I was very humiliated. I was very much ashamed, for something occurred 38 years ago, out of my ignorance as an 18-year-old…I’m pretty much at a standstill right now.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com.

Hotel Workers Challenge Morality of Hyatt Owners: The Billionaire Pritzkers

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

David MobergUNITE HERE gets personal with Penny Pritzker, chief Obama campaign fundraiser

CHICAGO—Thursday, March 2, was the deadline for homeowners in Chicago and the rest of the surrounding county to pay the first installment of their property taxes. It is rarely a cause for celebration, even for those, like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who see taxes as the price of civilization. But on top of that, several dozen people stood outside the Cook County government building, shouting, “Pay your taxes!”

They weren’t hectoring the average bungalow owner but rather one of the most prominent members of probably the city’s wealthiest family–Penny Pritzker. She’s the confidant and fundraising chief for Barack Obama and the heir to part of the multi-billion empire of Hyatt hotels, a manufacturing conglomerate and a now-defunct pioneer in subprime, predatory lending, among many other businesses.

It turns out, according to research released yesterday by UNITE HERE Local 1, the hotel, gaming and food service union, that she also has appealed the property tax assessment on her Chicago mansion ten times since the building was completed (covering four normal lots) in 2007 at a cost of at least $10.4 million.

Using a politically connected former county assessor for the appeals, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, she successfully reduced the market value for tax purposes by 42 percent, from the assessor’s original $9.6 million to $5.6 million. Two more pending appeals could reduce the assessment even further.

Already the reductions have saved her about $176,000 from 2006 to 2010, chicken feed for a billionaire but for hard-strapped schools and parks, it’s a significant sum (and a bad civic example). Penny Pritzker should know something about those budget problems: She sits on the Chicago Public Schools board, and her husband is president of the park district board of commissioners. That’s why the protestors outside the County Treasurer’s office chanted, “Penny Pritzker/Fund our schools.”

Other Pritzker family members (except J.B.) and Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian have successfully pursued similar appeals—a total of 70 since 2003—that cost local government and public services more than $300,000, according to UNITE HERE.

But why was a hotel workers’ union making this point?  Despite selling much of their holdings, the Pritzkers still have majority control over Hyatt, which has resisted agreeing to key parts of a 2009 contract signed by other major hotels in Chicago (and is fighting similar settlements in other cities).

“This [tax avoidance] is another example of where we think the family that owns the Hyatt hotels has gone off the reservation of what’s fair and just,” says Local 1 president Henry Tamarin. “We’re in a dispute with Hyatt Hotels corporation over treatment of both union and non-union workers, and we think this is another example of the family setting the wrong example….The problem is they’re gaming the system, and they’ve been able to do that successfully because as the 1 percent of the 1 percent they can hire the lawyers that permit them to win and take it as far as they can go.” It’s not an issue of the legality of their actions, he says, but of the morality.

Hyatt “has been most aggressive in one of the key problems in the industry, increased subcontracting,” says Local 1 president Henry Tamarin. Hyatt alsorefuses to accept the contractual regulation of subcontracting to which other hotels agreed. It has rejected overtime pay for more than seven days of work without a break, a rule that prohibits mandatory overtime when workers in a particular job category are laid off, and other practices accepted by other hotels, including agreements to remain neutral in some hotels where workers have shown interest in forming a union.

Many of the same workers who are squeezed at work by Hyatts and their counterparts in other businesses are hurt outside work by underfunding of skimpy public services and disproportionately burdened by taxes they can less afford to pay than the Pritzkers.

A new report from the Center on Tax and Budget Accountability says that “far from being progressive, Illinois’ tax policy is regressive, assessing much higher overall tax burdens as a percentage of income on low and middle-income families than on affluent families. Indeed, Illinois has the third highest tax burden on low income families in the nation.”

The Pritzkers have a reputation for their charitable giving, but that is part as well of their gaming the system–whatever the good intentions or even results. The family empire relied repeatedly on favorable governmental deals, from tax breaks to subsidies, and exploited every loophole. But its charitable giving helps innoculate it from attack when ventures go over the line, and they are projects that glorify the Pritzkers doing things they want to do (even if there are often public benefits).

Meanwhile, they shirk their share of public responsibility and try to shortchange the people who create their wealth. “When billionaires pay less taxes, we all pay the price,” says Linda O’Neal, a hotel server, homeowner, and parent of public school students. “I don’t make the kind of money the Pritzkers make, but I pay my fair share of taxes. It’s time for Chicago’s wealthiest family to stand up and stop hurting our communities.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

Not So Sweet: The Intricacies of Big and Little Sugar

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

kari-lydersenThe lede on a story by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) attacking import limits and other government protections for the U.S. sugar industry was an attention-grabber: “That Valentine’s Day hand on your back pocket billfold is not your sweetheart’s, it’s the sugar lobby’s.”

There are plenty of reasons for less-than-sweet feelings about the sugar industry, from the big sugar cane producers that have decimated large swaths of the Everglades to American Crystal Sugar Company, the sugar beet producer which has locked out 1,300 workers at its North Dakota plant this winter. On February 22, thos workers are joining other locked out workers for a 1,000-mile-plus “Journey for Justice” from Fargo, N.D. to the site of a tire factory that’s locked out workers in Findlay, Ohio. (In These Times staff writer Mike Elk will be along for the ride.)

But the AEI doesn’t usually ally itself with labor or environmental causes, so I was surprised to see the conservative, pro-business think tank attacking the powerful sugar industry with a recent study saying import limits and other federal protections for sugar beet and sugar cane farmers are costing jobs and hurting consumers. AEI’s position does fit with its larger politics, once one considers that artificially high domestic sugar prices increase costs significantly (or so they say) for other parts of the food industry. AEI authors Michael Wohlgenant and Vincent H. Smith explain in their article:

The “no-romance” sugar program has largely been ignored by legislators and groups concerned with tax burdens because there are no direct federal subsidies for the sugar industry. Instead, U.S. sugar policy raises prices indirectly by taxing consumers through the marketplace. A system of import quotas and domestic supply controls works to raise sugar prices for households and food processors to a target level of 23.3 cents per pound of raw sugar when world prices fall below that amount. This system drives up consumer food prices and destroys jobs in the food processing sector because of reduced competitiveness in the global marketplace… In most years, the program also hurts many of the poorest farmers in developing countries by lowering the world price of sugar and reducing their already meager incomes…

In 2006 I wrote in The Washington Post about Chicago-area candy companies closing or moving out of the country; they blamed sugar price supports.

But it’s possible attacking the government sugar program is partly an excuse to justify outsourcing that would have happened anyway. That’s the view expressed by U.S. Sugar spokesperson Judy C. Sanchez, who spoke to a group of reporters I was part of touring sugar cane fields and refineries in Florida in October.

She said U.S. producers make about 1.5 million to two million tons of sugar a year, compared to about 32 million tons in Brazil, which it could “dump on the world market” and in the U.S. if it was allowed to.

“We’re all for global free trade, but other countries have subsidies,” including the European Union and Brazil, Sanchez told the group, part of the Society of Environmental Journalists conference. In contrast to the American Enterprise Institute’s report, she said sugar costs make up such a small part of total food prices that the sugar program doesn’t have a significant impact. She said it might mean a 5 cent price difference in a box of cornflakes or 2 cents on a Hershey bar. She said the price of a bag of sugar in a grocery store “hasn’t gone up in 30 years.”

About half of the sugar we use in the U.S. is produced from sugar cane and half from sugar beets. The cane sugar industry is dominated by a few large powerful companies, including U.S. Sugar and the Fanjul Corp. Opponents often highlight the sugar lobby’s power by pointing out that then-President Bill Clinton reportedly interrupted an infamous encounter with Monica Lewinsky to take a phone call from sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul.

Based on my October tour and another one in 2008 (thanks to the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment), it was hard to feel the Florida cane sugar industry was deserving of government protection.

The refineries and growing operations are highly automated, employing fewer workers than in the past, and even when they did have more workers the industry was infamous for hiring low-paid immigrant guest workers who lived in rural slums like Belle Glade, once home to the country’s highest HIV rate. The industry has also been notorious for displacing and polluting huge swaths of the Everglades, leaving the future of the “River of Grass” in doubt and costing millions in restoration funds.

Much Florida state money has been lost in an ill-fated attempt to buy back sugar plantation land. Since the economic crisis hit and the state was unable to complete the deal, the land in question has largely remained sugar plantations.

However Sanchez noted that U.S. Sugar has improved its environmental practices, including using bagasse – the detritus of the cane – as a clean-burning biofuel to power its refinery. And she described the company as an important job-creator, adding that U.S. Sugar has recently invested $600 million in its Florida operations, which employ about 300 people, “so we can compete with foreign producers paying their workers 20 cents a day.”

The AEI study notes that 60 percent of the sugar cane industry is in the hands of a few major producers; while sugar beet farms are much smaller and there are about 4,000 of them nationwide.

American Crystal Sugar, a cooperative of sugar beet growers that also owns sugar beet refineries around the country, is not necessarily representative of the entire sugar beet industry. In many cases sugar beets are grown by true family farmers who struggle to make a living amidst the general hardships of farming and controversies over the use of GMO sugar beets.

During years of controversy raging over the possibility of genetically modified sugar beets being grown on public land in Boulder, Colorado, social justice and sustainability advocates not normally known for allying with big agriculture have spoken out in support of the generations-long, family sugar beet operations.

Sugar has long been intricately linked to tense international relations and geopolitics. Cuba provided a third of the U.S.’s sugar before the revolution and embargo, and Mexican sugar has been prominent in controversy over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While sugar protections have bolstered mainland U.S. sugar producers, the policies actually wreaked havoc on Hawaii’s economy and environment in the first half of the 1900s, before statehood, when Hawaii was home to many sugar plantations who sold sugar to the U.S. as foreign producers. The industry ultimately meant an influx of immigrant workers,  declines in Native Hawaiian well-being, and the clearing and pollution of delicate natural areas – many now standing desolate as the sugar operations have closed.

The American Enterprise Institute used Valentine’s Day as a light-hearted peg to point out how consumers are paying for the price supports enjoyed by the sugar industry. But the fact that sugar is best-known as a largely non-essential, often unhealthy though also highly enjoyable component of food, it is ironic to think of all the labor and social strife and environmental harm the industry has wrought.

If the government ends the current sugar support program, as the AEI is demanding, production may be shifted increasingly to other countries. That might be a good thing for consumers and the environment in the United States. But such a shift would do little or nothing to change the historical legacy of big sugar; or to improve the environmental and labor practices of major sugar companies, wherever they end up.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book isRevolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached atkari.lydersen@gmail.com.

Super Bowl Players Should Stand Up For Indiana Workers

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

waldron_travis_bioLast July, Major League Baseball blew an opportunity to make a difference. With 28 players who were either Hispanic or of Hispanic descent participating in the league’s annual All-Star Game in Phoenix, Arizona, and the eyes of the sports world watching, nary a one spoke out against the radical anti-immigration law Arizona had passed a year before, even though it could have directly affected the players and will directly affect many of their fans. “I ain’t Jackie Robinson,” David Ortiz, one of baseball’s biggest characters, said.

Over the next 10 days, the National Football League will have a similar chance to make a difference.

Just two weeks before Super Bowl XLVI kicks off at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis, more than10,000 people marched through the city to protest right-to-work legislation that is being pushed through the state’s legislature. The legislation passed the state Senate this week and the state House today, and is backed by Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Considering the NFL nearly lost its 2011 season, and Super Bowl XLVI with it, to a labor dispute, Indiana Republicans’ assault on workers is a cause the players should be familiar with.

Fortunately, there are signs that the NFL players aren’t going to repeat Major League Baseball’s mistake. Several players have spoken out against the legislation, and NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith said his organization is already taking action. “We’ve been on picket lines in Indianapolis already with hotel workers who were basically pushed to the point of breaking on the hotel rooms that they had to clean because they were not union workers,” Smith told the Nation. “We’ve been on picket lines in Boston and San Antonio. So, the idea of participating in a legal protest is something that we’ve done before.”

That’s a good first step. But it’s not enough. Indiana union officials are contemplating disrupting Super Bowl-related events to draw attention to their cause, clogging city streets and slowing down events around Lucas Oil Stadium (which was built and is maintained by union workers). Labor leaders are hesitant, though, fearing that such actions could give the city and their cause “a black eye” with people who think sports and politics don’t mix. If some of the league’s top players, particularly those participating in the Super Bowl, spoke in support of those efforts, however, that perception could change.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of the NFL’s most recognizable players, felt strongly enough about his own rights that he signed on as a plaintiff in the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the league last year. So did Logan Mankins, Brady’s teammate, and Osi Umenyiora, a prominent defensive end for the New York Giants. Those players were willing to risk backlash from the league, public scrutiny, and their own images to fight league owners for better benefits and wages. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, they should do the same for workers who don’t have the luxury of multimillion-dollar contracts, rich endorsement deals, and the good fortune of playing a game for a living.

Sure, with Super Bowl week ahead of them, political causes may be the furthest thing from the minds of most players. But with thousands of reporters conducting hundreds of interviews before, during, and after the big game, the players will have the chance to stand up for the rights of people they should be fighting for. Unlike their counterparts in baseball, they shouldn’t blow it.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on January 25, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

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