Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘worker’s rights’

Workers at Trump Taj Mahal Begin Preparations for Strike

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015
Mario VasquezUNITE HERE Local 54 members speak to the press outside of their “strike pod.”

While Donald Trump’s push for the Republican nomination for president is showing no signs of slowing, worker unrest at a hotel and casino that bear his name appears near the boiling point. Strike preparations have begun for over 1,100 non-gaming casino employees at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 54, gathered near their local headquarters last Tuesday to load strike materials like bullhorns, signs and drums into a storage container in a public attempt to prove to management that they are ready and willing to strike over large compensation package cuts that occurred last year.

The Trump Taj Mahal has been at the mercy of billionaire investor Carl Icahn since 2009, when bankruptcy led Donald Trump to cut ties with the casino and resort’s operator, Trump Entertainment Resorts. After months of courtroom drama, Trump exchanged the rights to his name and likeness over to Icahn (who Trump has mentioned in recent months as a possible cabinet member if he were elected president) in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the restructured company.

While Trump has run into his own problems in Las Vegas, where workers at his current gaming jewel, the Trump Casino, have started a union drive (though Trump is adamant that his workers love him), conditions at his namesake in Atlantic City have deteriorated into escalated conflict between new management and the organized hotel housekeepers, bartenders, servers, cooks, and sanitation workers at the Trump Taj Mahal.

Since Icahn began his attempt to gain control of Trump’s Atlantic City gaming empire, the unionized workers at the Trump Taj Mahal have consistently derided Icahn’s alleged role in driving the casino-hotel toward bankruptcy, with workers and UNITE HERE arguing that Icahn, as Trump’s main debt holder, pushed higher interest rates onto the company as a way to reach personal profit of hundreds of millions of dollars and ultimately maneuver into ownership position.

In October 2014, Icahn successfully gained permission from a bankruptcy judge to end company contributions to health care and pension benefits as a way of cost-cutting, saying it would help keep the casino-resort open. “Workers were stripped of their health and retirement benefits; they even cut paid lunch breaks. Our calculation was that the average full-time worker would lose approximately $12,000 over the course of the year as a result of these cuts,” says UNITE HERE spokesperson Ben Begleiter.

UNITE HERE Local 54 contends that the bankruptcy court was out of its jurisdiction with the decision, and because Icahn has declined to renew the union’s contract since its expiration in September, the matter is a labor dispute fit for the NLRB, who has since agreed in a January statement. The union’s case against the cuts is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

A survey of workers conducted by UNITE HERE in March found that 44 percent of responding workers, who had previously been covered under a health care plan since their first day of employment, no longer had health insurance. This was a much-valued health care package that had led workers over the past decade to accept near-stagnant wages in order to maintain their health benefits.

“I’ve been part of the negotiating committee for the past 11 years, and I voted to have my pay frozen numerous times in order to preserve our health insurance. I got one 25-cents-an-hour raise in the past decade,” says Paul Smith, a surveyed cook, who has been at the site for 21 years. “In 2005, I had a massive heart attack. The bill was over $1 million. If I hadn’t had the union health insurance, I would have been destroyed financially. Right now, my health is out of whack. I need three surgeries, which is difficult because I have no insurance since Icahn took it away.”

The survey also claimed to shed light on the mental toll of out-of-reach health care, finding that at least 70 percent of participating workers suffered from symptoms of depression at least every other day.

Dr. Alan Glaseroff, Co-Director of Stanford Coordinated Care and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, reviewed the results and commented: “Strictly from a financial perspective, depression as an ‘add-on’ condition combined with diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions more than doubles the cost of treating those illnesses, making the lack of coverage an even greater problem for patients and those paying for and providing their care.”

When the October cuts were announced, 24 people were arrested staging a sit-in and shutting down traffic in front of the Trump Taj Mahal. In June, 68 more were arrested for participating in a similar action. Workers authorized the union’s contract negotiating committee to a call a strike if necessary on July 16, a decision that was followed up by reports that the Trump Taj Mahal was preparing to take on several hundred replacement workers.

Casino-hotel employees in Atlantic City last went on strike in 2004 when 10,000 UNITE HERE Local 54 members walked out for over a month at seven different locations; Trump’s casino-hotels workers did not participate in this strike. The Trump Taj Mahal and the Tropicana Entertainment, Icahn’s other bankruptcy capture in Atlantic City, are currently the only casino-hotels in the city working with an expired contract. The possibility remains open for Local 54 members at Tropicana to go on strike as well.

Workers like Hannah Taleb, a casino-hotel employee in Pittsburgh, allege that Icahn’s hardball tactics are an effort to lower workers’ standards throughout the industry. “If the standards are lowered in Atlantic City, how can I expect to fight for high standards in my city? All casino workers are linked in that way,” Taleb told the Press of Atlantic City before being arrested in June’s intersection-shut-down.

Icahn has a history of eliminating worker benefits at various companies he’s acquired over his years, building a reputation of as a corporate raider. “Mr. Icahn is worth more than $20 billion, but two months before the contract for PSC’s union workers was scheduled to expire in late 2013, management told them that it was dropping their health insurance benefits and that they would have to buy their own insurance through the new exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act,” the New York Times reported last December. Unsurprisingly, Icahn was the one of the inspirations for the Gordon Gecko character made famous by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

“Jobs that provided benefits, that were middle-class jobs where a worker could support a family on [are] part of the promise of casino gaming,” Begleiter says. “Casino gaming in Atlantic City is unlike any other industry in the state, because it’s an industry that came into existence by a vote of the people of New Jersey to change the constitution—specifically to rebuild Atlantic City. That means in part, making sure that it provided for workers,” Begleiter says.

As the protests expand and the so-called “strike pod” storage container is filled up with the essentials, the workers at Trump Taj Mahal say they are ready to defend their share of that promise.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on August 31, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at [email protected]

TPP: Four Potential Partners Don’t Comply with International Labor Rights

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

charlie fanningA new AFL-CIO report released today finds that four nations that would be major players under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are out of compliance with international labor standards and, therefore, with the commitments they would undertake under the TPP. The report—The Trans-Pacific Partnership: Four Countries That Don’t Comply with U.S. Trade Laws—finds that workers in Mexico, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei face ongoing and systematic abuse and violations of workers’ rights with the complicity or direct involvement of the governments.

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to grant it Fast Track trade authority for the TPP, the largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in history. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO is pressuring lawmakers to hold potential trading partners to comply with U.S. trade laws and international labor standards.

Under Fast Track, the public, lawmakers and others would have no input in a trade deal that would grant countries with troubling human and labor rights records greater trading privileges without having to first undertake fundamental reforms.

The highest labor standards the United States has embedded in FTAs require parties at a minimum to adopt and implement laws that protect the rights enshrined in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

The report points out that previous FTAs have forced countries to compete on the basis of lowering labor costs and attracting business by ignoring, or in some cases actively interfering with, the fundamental labor rights.

By not requiring fundamental changes of these countries first, the TPP gives away leverage that could be used to protect workers and raise standards. If workers do not have the legal freedoms to act collectively, they will not be able to exert the power needed to raise wages, increase worker protections or gain the social policies necessary for the creation of a middle class and broadly shared prosperity.

Tell Congress to stop Fast Track on the TPP because we should not turn a blind eye to countries that abuse workers.

Here are just some of the ways the four nations violate these core labor standards:

 Mexico is currently facing a human and labor rights crisis. The recent disappearance of 43 students, now declared dead, from the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, by local police and criminal gangs is a horrific example of violence, corruption and dissolution of the rule of law. Corruption, abuse and impunity are also root causes of the near absence of genuine industrial relations in Mexico, which artificially depresses wages and limits economic growth. Many workers are covered by collective agreements (“protection contracts”) they have never seen or ratified through a vote. When workers attempt to organize independent unions, employer-dominated unions respond with threats and intimidation. Further, child labor, forced labor and inhumane working conditions exist on farms that export fresh produce into the United States, which is then sold at major retailers, including Walmart and Safeway.

 Malaysia has grave problems with forced labor and human trafficking, especially in the electronics, garment and palm oil sector, which also contains child labor. Malaysia currently has the lowest possible ranking—tier 3—in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, meaning the government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.” Because of this pervasive exploitation, virtually everyone who regularly uses electronics in the United States has come in contact with forced labor. Some of the most recognizable electronics brands source components from Malaysia, where about 28% of electronics workers toil in conditions of forced labor.

Vietnam has an authoritarian government that tightly controls political rights, freedom of speech and other civil liberties. The government maintains a prohibition on independent human rights organizations and other civil society groups and restricts union activity outside the official unions affiliated with the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL), which actually controls the union registration process. Vietnam also has significant problems with forced labor and child labor in the production of bricks and garments,  Many of the clothes produced in Vietnam contain textiles from small workshops subcontracted to larger factories. These workshops frequently use child labor, including forced labor involving the trafficking of children from rural areas into cities.

Brunei is ruled by a repressive regime and offers few human rights protections. Last year, the sultan of Brunei, whose family has ruled Brunei for more than six centuries, imposed a strict penal code based on Sharia law. The Islamic criminal law includes punishments such as flogging, dismemberment and death by stoning for crimes such as adultery, alcohol consumption and homosexuality. Under emergency measures in place for 65 years, freedom of speech is severely limited and the country’s legislature has a limited role. Further, the government prohibits strikes, and the law makes no explicit provision for the right to collective bargaining.

This article originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 23, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Charlie Fanning is the Global Advocacy and Research Coordinator at AFL CIO

Striking Walmart Workers Stage L.A. Sit-Downs at Stores and in the Street

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Image: Mike HallIn Los Angeles yesterday, Walmart workers participated in their boldest action to date: the first-ever sit-down strike at a Walmart store. They were protesting an end to retaliation when they speak out for $15 an hour, full-time hours and respect at work.

The striking workers entered the Crenshaw Walmart shortly before 10 a.m. PST and refused to move, holding a sit-in near cash registers and racks at the store. The workers chanted, “Stand Up, Live Better! Sit Down, Live Better!” before placing tape over their mouths signifying the company’s attempts to silence workers who are calling for better jobs.

After several hours, they left peacefully and headed to another Los Angeles-area store, where they held a rally. Then workers and their supporters took over the intersection near the Pico Rivera Walmart, refusing to leave until they were arrested and removed from the intersection. A total of 28 people were arrested, including clergy, community members and strikers.

Paramount Walmart worker Martha Sellers said:

“I’m striking today for workers like Evelin, Victoria, Rosa, Maria Elena and Graciela who Walmart retaliated against for standing up for change. Walmart and the Waltons need to know that they can’t silence us all.”

Sellers was referring to the owners of Walmart, the Walton family, the richest family in America who own nearly $150 billion in wealth while most Walmart workers make less than $25,000 a year. Kiana Howard, a mother and Walmart striker, said she took part in the sit-down “to protest Walmart’s illegal fear tactics and to send a message to management and the Waltons that they can’t continue to silence us and dismiss the growing calls for $15 an hour and full-time work.”  She added:

“Walmart and the Waltons are making billions of dollars from our work while paying most of us less than $25,000 a year. We know that Walmart and the Waltons can afford fair pay, and we know that we have the right to speak out about it without the company threatening the little that we do have.”

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO.org on November 14, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Corporate-Greed/Striking-Walmart-Workers-Stage-L.A.-Sit-Downs-at-Stores-and-in-the-Street.

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.

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.

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