Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘workers’

New Report: 90 Percent of the World’s Domestic Workers Lack Social Security Protection

Friday, April 15th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanNinety percent—or 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, some 80 percent of whom are women—labor without any basic social security protections, says a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report. Developing countries have the biggest gaps in coverage but wealthier nations are not immune to this problem.

According to the report, 60 percent of domestic workers in Italy are outside the country’s social security system, as are 30 percent of domestic workers in France and Spain. And here in the U.S., domestic workers—housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, child and elder care providers among others—are not covered by many of the basic workplace protections that most employees take for granted.

“I would like that we stop being invisible to society,” says Maria Esther Bolaños, who works as a housekeeper in Chicago. Domestic workers “want to be respected and valued,” says Magdelena Zylinska, a domestic worker, also in Chicago who’s been cleaning homes since 1997. “That’s so little really, just to be treated with respect,” says Zylinska. “Everybody who works wants that. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary.”

Historically, most U.S. domestic workers have been excluded from labor protections granted other workers, explains Zylinska. But “we are normal people with children and financial responsibilities,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s important that people recognize us as workers in general and give us more support and rights just as regular workers.”

Both Bolaños and Zylinska are working with groups that are part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance for passage of an Illinois state law that would extend basic employment protections to domestic workers. Among these provisions are written contracts, schedules that specify work hours, meal and other breaks and coverage by state laws that guarantee minimum wages, one day of rest in seven and those of the Illinois Human Rights Act.

If passed, the Illinois bill—known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (HB1288)— would be the seventh such U.S. state bill. So far only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have comparable laws.

Nationally, U.S. domestic workers are covered by Social Security but not by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Nor do they receive benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And until 1974, when Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover domestic workers, U.S. workers employed directly by households were without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2013, a new Department of Labor rule revised regulations to better cover domestic caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but leaves U.S. domestic workers without many basic employment protections.

“We have no basic benefits like sick leave,” explains Sally Richmond, who has worked for years providing child care and is a community organizer with the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).

Poor working conditions, long hours and low wages

As described by the ILO report, “Domestic work has traditionally been characterized by poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, forced labor and little or no social protection. In other words, domestic workers are exposed to conditions that are far from the concept of decent work promoted by the ILO. This situation largely reflects the low social and economic value societies usually place on this activity. This is often reflected by the absence of adequate laws and the lack of effective enforcement of those that do exist.”

While domestic work is some of the lowest paid and least protected in the world—in some places earning no more than half the average wage—so many people do this work that, according to the ILO, “if all domestic workers worked in one country, that country would be the world’s tenth largest employer.” Domestic workers also have some of the longest and most unpredictable work hours of any employees.

Add to this, the fact that most of the world’s domestic workers are women, makes this workforce socially and economically vulnerable to additional discrimination, says the ILO. Extending basic social protections to domestic workers is key to fighting poverty and promoting gender equality, said Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the ILO’s Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch in a statement. The ILO report also points out that many of the estimated 55 million women engaged in domestic work around the world—a number that is likely an undercount—are also migrants, which adds to their vulnerability to discrimination and unfair labor practices.

“Most of us are immigrants and come from really poor countries,” says Zylinska. There are many domestic workers that are supporting “not only their families here but also families in their [home] countries.” Language differences and concerns about immigration status add to the daily employment uncertainties for many domestic workers, say Bolaños and Zylinska.

ILO agreement on domestic workers rights—not ratified by the U.S.

As part of its efforts to improve working conditions and labor protections for domestic workers, in 2011 the ILO adopted what’s called the Domestic Workers Convention that requires countries that ratify the agreement to ensure that domestic workers labor rights are no “less favorable” than those of other workers—including with respect to social security protection and maternity protections. The Convention outlines basic labor rights to include working hours, wage, occupational health and safety, child and migrant workers protections. It also underlines the importance of organizations that represent both domestic workers and those who employ them. But so far, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. The United States is not among them.

Unlike those employed by more formal workplaces—those outside private homes—around the world, domestic workers typically lack comparable enforceable policies on working hours, occupational health and safety protections, maternity leave, workplace inspections and access to information on labor rights—including the right to organize and form unions.

Many domestic workers “are afraid to complain for fear of losing their job,” says Richmond. “My hope is for this work to be professionalized,” she says. Working with the Union Latina, helps “teach us how we can protect ourselves against abuse and wage theft and how we can take sick days,” says Bolaños. “We don’t have contracts, today I have a job, tomorrow I don’t have a job. It’s a very unregulated business,” explains Zylniska.

But all these basic workplace and labor protections are feasible and affordable, says the ILO report—even for middle and low-income countries. Yet while it documents increasing social security coverage for domestic workers worldwide, these policies often exclude migrant workers who make up at least one-sixth of this global workforce. While fixing these problems can’t be accomplished by one single policy model, said senior ILO economist Fabio Duran-Valverde in a statement, “mandatory coverage (instead of voluntary coverage) is a crucial element for achieving adequate and effective coverage under any system.”

While U.S. law provides protections for domestic worker not guaranteed in other countries, this household-based workforce still lacks coverage provided to other American employees. And given the nature of the domestic workplace ensuring change even when policies shift can be difficult.

“The laws on the books are one thing, but we’ve always been really aware that conditions for domestic workers don’t automatically change when a bill is signed into law,” says National Domestic Workers Alliance campaign director, Andrea Mercado. To make these changes, “It’s going to require a culture shift and a public conversation around domestic work and care work and why we should value it,” she says. “That’s kind of our struggle,” says Zylinska.

The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights now has 21 Senate and 33 House sponsors. A spokesperson for lead sponsor state Senator Ira Silverstein said the bill is expected to be reintroduced this month and could move swiftly toward a vote.

This blog was originally posted on inthesetimes.org on April 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Is Your Workplace Wellness Plan Worth the Risk?

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Tina Bio picAs healthcare costs continue to soar, many employers are using wellness programs as a way to help curb their costs. In addition, employees who enroll in wellness programs also enjoy the program’s great health incentives and rewards, however, unbeknownst to them, the personal information collected may also be used for other undisclosed financial or discriminatory purposes.

This is important as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally protects employees from discrimination based on health status or disability. The ADA specifically prohibits employers from generally requiring mandatory health examinations and also prohibits the disclosure of an employee’s protected health information. However, these exams are allowed if they are part of a voluntary employee health program or if classified as a “business necessity.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or the federal agency that enforces these federal laws also recently raised concern about wellness programs

and published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) explaining how ADA applies to employer wellness programs that are also apart of group health plans. The NPRM explicitly prohibits employers from requiring employees to participate in a wellness program and also prevents the employer from disciplining or denying health coverage based on refusal. Although other federal laws prevent discrimination, the existing laws only apply to certain wellness programs under certain circumstances and as a result, some employers allow wellness program companies to share and use an employee’s information. Therefore, the proposed rule would not only help align federal laws to cover most wellness plans but would also require confidentiality and provide employees notice on how information is used and collected.

In a recent example, Houston city employees who participated in a wellness program were required to disclose their disease history, blood pressure, weight, drug and seat belt use to a wellness company. However, unknown to the employees, the contracted wellness company was also permitted to share the data with “third party vendors acting on [their] behalf.” Although the employees were permitted to refuse or opt out of the screening, they were subject to a $300 a year penalty for medical coverage. Therefore, the employees who “voluntarily” participated in the program in order to avoid the penalty, also unknowingly waived their privacy rights as the information shared could lead to discrimination by employers, lending institutions or even life insurance companies.

In another example, an employer required an employee to submit to medical testing and assessment in connection with a wellness program or “face dire consequences.” When the employee refused to comply with the mandatory program, the employer shifted responsibility for the payment of her entire health insurance premium and ultimately fired the employee shortly thereafter. This initiative unfortunately has many unintended consequences and as the Regional Attorney for the EEOC in Chicago noted, “having to choose between responding to medical exams and inquiries — which are not job-related — in a wellness program, on the one hand, or being fired, on the other hand, is no choice at all.”

While wellness programs have positive effects on employees and the workplace in general, these programs should not provide barriers to healthcare benefits or force penalties on those who cannot participate. Instead, these programs should also provide alternatives for employees who have disabilities and should not be implemented as a new way to determine insurance premium rates.

Another closely connected issue relates to privacy and the disclosure of employee data. Data companies such as Castlight Health, praised for their ability to help inform smarter decisions, are being hired by employers or wellness program companies to handle and process employees’ data. Whether it is being used, correctly or incorrectly, to identify which employees are likely to get sick, have surgery or get pregnant, these companies are using personal data and third party healthcare apps to monitor an employee’s personal information. However, even more concerning is how unregulated access to big data is.

Although some may think that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) applies, the privacy rule in HIPAA only applies or protects an individual’s identifiable health information held by either a covered entity or business associate. Therefore, depending on how the wellness program is administratively structured and whether the wellness program is offered as part of a group health plan, the identifiable health information may or may not be protected under HIPAA rules.

While some employers have structured wellness program incentives to comply with some federal laws, the exceptions in others have made achieving privacy while protecting civil rights difficult. Despite the EEOC’s best efforts to strike a balance between encouraging workplace wellness plans and compliance with federal laws, the “results appear to please no one, as the EEOC’s efforts to ensure only voluntary disclosure of private health information…drew sharp criticism from agency stakeholders.” In addition, despite legislation such as the “Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act” introduced by Representative John Kline to offer clarity on incentives consistent with the ACA final rule not violating the ADA, the effect of these promulgated rules remains unknown as poorly designed wellness programs continue to have unintended consequences.

Although wellness programs offer attractive health and wellness benefits, until the various issues with discrimination, data privacy, and uniformity with all federal laws are addressed, employees may still be at risk of discrimination.

Tina Jadhav is an attorney barred in Maryland. Tina is actively involved in health law as a member of the American Health Lawyers Association as well as the American Bar Association-Health Law section. Tina recently earned her Law and Government LL.M. degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2014 and her Juris Doctor degree from Florida Coastal School of Law. Tina also served as a Health Policy Fellow for U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Legal Intern at Inova Health System Office of General Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General for Commonwealth of Virginia.

Interfaith Coalition Calls for Moral Action on the Economy

Monday, April 4th, 2016

The largest employer of low-wage workers in America is the federal government. U.S. government contractors employ over two million workers in jobs that pay too little – $12.00 an hour or less – to support a family. Contract workers – organizing under the banner of Good Jobs Nation – have walked off of their jobs repeatedly in protest, demanding a living wage and the right to a union.

This Monday, on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, this movement will gain a powerful ally. Led by Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders is issuing a call for “moral action on the economy.” They will seek to meet with presidential candidates, asking each to pledge that, if elected, he or she would issue an executive order to reward model employers “that pay a living wage of at least $15.00 an hour, provide decent benefits and allow workers to organize without retaliation.”

The movement for living wages is taking off. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for nearly seven years. Unable to provide for their families, fast food and other low-wage workers began to demonstrate, even at risk of losing their jobs. “Fight for 15” – the demand for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage and the right to a union – swept across the country. And is beginning to win.

In Seattle, a coalition of union, community and business leaders helped pass legislation putting the city minimum wage on a path to $15. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, other cities joined. In the last few days, California legislators reached a deal to move the state minimum wage to $15 by 2022. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through reforms that will move that state’s minimum wage to $15, starting in December 2018 in New York City.

The pressure of the government low-wage workers moved President Obama to act. He issued three executive orders, raising the minimum wage to $10.10, cracking down on wage theft and other workplace violations, and providing paid leave. The workers continued to demonstrate, calling for “more than the minimum,” seeking $15 and a union.

Senate cafeteria workers – the people who prepare the senators’ food and clean up after them – joined the protests. Their plight – one was homeless, others on food stamps, one moonlighting as a stripper to feed her children – was embarrassing. Democratic Senate staffers organized to support them. Democratic senators like Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) demanded action. When the cafeteria contract was up for renewal in December, workers were granted pay increases of $5 an hour or more. It took more pressure and Labor Department investigation to make the raises stick, but today workers are finally receiving their pay.

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who has documented the struggle highlighted one beneficiary, Bertrand Olotara, a cook in the Senate cafeteria. His wage went from $12.30 to $17.45 an hour. He was able to quit his second job at Whole Foods and stop working seven days a week. That gave him more time with his five children. He’s even thinking of using the extra time to write a book. A living wage makes real differences in people’s lives.

Now the interfaith coalition joining with these workers and calling on those contending for the presidency to promise to do more. Republican contenders are still opposed to raising the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders has made a $15 an hour minimum wage a central plank in his platform. Hillary Clinton has supported lifting the national minimum wage to $12.50, accepting that some states and cities might go higher.

The interfaith alliance is calling on the presidential candidates to pledge moral action on the economy. When Ronald Reagan came to office, one of his first acts was to fire and replace the striking PATCO air controllers. He sent a message to employers across the country that it was open season on workers and their unions. Imagine the next president taking office and issuing an executive order lifting the wages of millions of contract workers and guaranteeing a right to organize without retaliation. Again a signal would be sent across the country.

“This election is fundamentally about whether the next president is willing to take transformative executive action to close the gap between the wealthy and workers – many of whom are women and people of color,” argues Jim Winkler, secretary general of the National Council of Churches. It’s time to take the pledge.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on April 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

Important Study Looks At Silicon Valley’s “Invisible” Low Wage Workers

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Dave Johnson“We knew the tech industry was booming, but we weren’t seeing that translate into an abundance of jobs for our communities – until we looked at the low-wage jobs in contracting industries. Those are growing fast, just like tech profits are. It’s no wonder that one in three working households in Silicon Valley can’t make ends meet when these growing industries pay wages that barely cover rent.”
– Derecka Mehrens, Executive Director of Working Partnerships, USA.

Working Partnerships USA and Silicon Valley Rising released a report Wednesday, Tech’s Invisible Workforce, that looks at the contract industry workers at Silicon Valley’s “booming” tech companies.

In the last two-and-a-half decades, the number of Silicon Valley “second-class” jobs in potential contract industries has grown three times faster than overall Silicon Valley employment. These contractors and subcontractors jobs are disproportionately filled by Black and Latino workers compared to direct tech employees, and these workers receive much lower wages. As a result, Silicon Valley’s inequality and occupation segregation is amplified, especially among people of color.

The report finds that direct tech employees earn $113,300. Contractor and subcontractor tech industry workers – workers employed indirectly rather than treated as legitimate employees – are paid much less. White-collar workers in contract industries average $53,200 and blue-collar workers in contract industries average $19,900.

Along with this wage differential, as income drops the proportion of the workforce that is comprised of Black and Latino workers goes up. According to the report, Black or Latino workers make up, on average:

? 10 percent of Silicon Valley’s direct tech workforce.
? An estimated 26 percent of the white-collar contract industry workforce.
? An estimated 58 percent of the blue-collar contract industry workforce.

Lydia DePillis writes about this report at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, in “What we know about the people who clean the floors in Silicon Valley,”

Silicon Valley companies have gotten a lot of heat in recent years for failing to recruit people black and Hispanic people into their ranks. But if you factor in contractors and others whose jobs bring them inside those companies, the industry appears bit more inclusive — just perhaps not in the way one might hope.

At one time in history, the janitors, bus drivers, food service workers, and security guards who staff corporate campuses might have been employed directly by the businesses where they cooked lunches and cleaned floors. That’s become less and less true in recent decades, according to a new analysis of labor data by researchers at the University of California – Santa Cruz — especially in Silicon Valley.

The Road to Responsible Contracting

The report concludes with a section on how companies could contract out jobs responsibly.

Silicon Valley Rising calls on our region’s leading businesses to commit to the following principles:

Responsibility: Ensure that their subcontracted workers are paid a livable wage, receive equitable benefits, have the right to a voice at work without fear of discrimination or retaliation, do not suffer mass layoffs when contracts change hands, and are protected from misclassification and other forms of wage theft.

Transparency: Release public data on their subcontracted workforces, including diversity, pay, and benefit data for each subcontractor.

Inclusion: Invest in building a community where janitors, security officers, cafeteria workers, teachers, nurses, firefighters and other non-tech workers can afford to live. Support access to full-time work, affordable housing, an accessible, world-class public transit system, and high-quality education for low-wage workers and their children.

Opportunity: Work with advocates to explore new approaches to create education and career pathways for contract workers and their families to move into core tech jobs.

The technology industry faces a clear choice. It can continue the status quo of exclusive jobs and exclusionary growth, widening the existing racial, gender and income gaps and accelerating the race to the bottom. Or it can wield its enormous economic influence combined with its capacity for innovative solutions to become a true global pioneer – to not just disrupt markets and technology, but to disrupt inequality.

Click to read the report, Tech’s Invisible Workforce.

See Also

Campaign for America’s Future has been covering Silicon Valley Rising’s fight to improve conditions for this “invisible” workforce.

The Silicon Valley Rising launch: “Silicon Valley Rising Fights for Worker Justice

The fight: “Silicon Valley Rising Fights To Give Part-Timers “Opportunity to Work”

Related: “Tax Scams, Google Buses Mean Silicon Valley Is #StuckInTraffic

This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on March 30, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

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 computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

What’s The Problem With “Free Trade”

Monday, March 14th, 2016
Dave Johnson

Our country’s “free trade” agreements have followed a framework of trading away our democracy and middle-class prosperity in exchange for letting the biggest corporations dominate.

There are those who say any increase in trade is good. But if you close a factory here and lay off the workers, open the factory “there” to make the same things the factory here used to make, bring those things into the country to sell in the same outlets, you have just “increased trade” because now those goods cross a border. Supporters of free trade are having a harder and harder time convincing American workers this is good for them.

“Free Trade”

Free trade is when goods and services are bought and sold between countries without tariffs, duties and quotas. The idea is that some countries “do things better” than other countries, which these days basically means they offer lower labor and environmental-protection costs. Allowing other countries to do things in ways that cost less “frees up resources” which can theoretically be used for investment at home.

Opponents of free trade ask for tariffs to “protect” local businesses, jobs, wages and the environment from being undermined by low-cost goods from countries where people and/or the environment are exploited.

Free trade is generally sold as offering lower prices to consumers. It is also sold with claims that it “opens up foreign markets” to U.S. exporters. But it also opens up U.S. markets to imports.

Does Trade Really “Open New Markets?”

“When more than 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.”
– President Barack Obama

“[W]hen 95 percent of the people we want to sell something to live outside of the United States, we must open foreign markets to American goods and services so we can create jobs at home.”
U.S. Chamber of Commerce

“Ninety-five percent of America’s potential customers live overseas, so closing ourselves off to trade is not a solution.”
Hillary Clinton

It is a fact that only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States. The problem is that the line of argument that opening up trade “opens markets” brings with it certain misleading assumptions. It assumes first that non-U.S. markets are not already being served by local companies. Second, it ignores that free trade also opens our own markets to others. Third, it ignores that U.S. companies already can and do sell to most of the world’s markets and vice versa. (For example, U.S. companies were already moving production to Mexico before NAFTA, the North American Free-Trade Agreement.) Suggesting that alternative approaches to trade would “close us off from trading” or “wall our economy off from the world” are ridiculous, misleading arguments.

If local companies are already meeting the needs in U.S. and non-U.S. markets, what does a trade deal really enable? Trade deals indeed “open up new markets” – for giant, predatory multinational corporations. They enable large, predatory companies that have enormous economies of scale to come in and dominate those markets, putting smaller, local companies out of business. So trade deals mean the biggest multinational companies get bigger and more multinational – at the expense of all the other companies. This includes enabling non-U.S. corporations to come to the U.S. and take over markets already served by smaller companies here.

The net result of allowing goods to cross borders without protecting local businesses is a “more efficient” manufacturing/distribution system powered by the biggest and best capitalized operations. The rest go away. Economists will tell you that these increased efficiencies allow an economy to best utilize its resources. But obviously one effect of this “increased efficiency” is fewer jobs, resulting in lowered wages on all sides of trade borders.

After NAFTA, for example, smaller, more local Mexican farms were wiped out by large, efficient American agricultural corporations that were able to sell corn and other crops into Mexico for low prices. The result was a mass migration northward as desperate people could no longer find work in Mexico.

Economists say even this is good because when costs are lower the economy can apply its resources more efficiently and increased investment can put the displaced people to work in better jobs. But we can all see that in our modern economy that’s not what is going on. Investment in our economy is not increasing, partly because the resulting downward wage pressure has resulted in an economy with decreased demand. Fewer customers with money to spend is not a good environment for investment. Instead of these “freed up” resources (money) being used to provide better jobs with higher wages for everyone, they are instead being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

As for opening new markets for American exporters, note that the record since the ascendance of free-trade ideology in the 1970s we have seen continuing and increasing U.S. trade deficits, with imports exceeding exports, resulting in flat wage growth.

Freeing up trade does not “open new markets” as much as it enables giant, multinational corporations to become even more giant and more multinational – at the expense of smaller companies and the rest of us.

Comparative Advantage

Economists say that free trade allows us to take advantage of the “comparative advantages” offered by other countries. A comparative advantage exists when one country can do something better than another country. For example, Central and South America can grow bananas better than the U.S., and we can grow wheat better than they can. So trading wheat for bananas makes sense.

Unfortunately, economists also say that low labor and environmental-protection costs are a comparative advantage. They say it is good for U.S. companies to take advantage of countries with governments that exploit labor and the environment, because they offer lower costs for manufacturing. (Of course, the ultimate form of such a comparative advantage would be slavery.)

Here’s the thing. Buying goods from low-wage and low-environmental protection countries means not making them here anymore. “Trade” increases, but so does our country’s trade deficit as imports rise and exports fall. Factories here close, people here get laid off, wage pressures here increase and overall demand in our economy decreases.

When “thugocracies” that exploit workers and do not protect the environment are able to offer a comparative advantage over our democracy, then free trade makes democracy with its good wages and environmental protections into a comparative disadvantage.

Free Trade Undermines Democracy And Wages

“Give us a protective tariff, and we will have the greatest nation on earth.” – Abraham Lincoln.

Democracy has a short-term “cost” with a longer-term gain. In countries where people have a say, the people say they want higher wages and benefits, good infrastructure, good education, a clean environment, safety on the job, and other services. These things all lead to a prosperous economy later, as long as benefits from this system are fed back into maintaining that infrastructure, education and services. This prosperous economy made America a desirable market to sell things to.

When the country and the idea of democracy were young we “protected” this concept with tariffs, so that goods from places where labor was cheap (or free) did not undermine our democracy. Those tariffs in turn funded investment in infrastructure and other common needs that enabled productivity gains that made our goods competitive elsewhere. But generally companies here served the population here and grew and prospered along with the rest of us.

At some point elites and free-market “economists” began an effort to convince us that “free trade” is a good thing and “protectionism” is not. We used to “protect” our country’s manufacturing base from being undermined by goods from low-wage countries that don’t protect workers or the environment. Then we didn’t.

“Free trade” broke down those borders of democracy. It enabled goods from low-wage countries into the U.S. with no protective tariffs. This made the low wages and lack of environmental and worker protections in some countries into a “comparative advantage” – which meant democracy because a comparative disadvantage. We stopped “protecting” American jobs, and allowed companies to freely lay off workers and close factories here and we have seen what has happened since.

The fact is, a democracy cannot “play by the same rules” as a country that can make people live in barracks at the factory and call them out to work at midnight if an order comes it, make them stand all day, pay them very little, pollute the environment, etc. The rules should instead be that we impose a tariff on goods from such countries unless they “level the playing field” and “play by the same rules” as democracies by giving people a say, paying more and protecting the environment.

Free trade became a scam intended to get around those costs of democracy – good wages, environmental protection and other common goods – but also to use cheap foreign labor and low regulation as a wedge to drive down those costs here as well, and ultimately weakening democracy itself. Every time you hear that regulations make “us” “less competitive” etc. you are hearing an appeal for our country to become more of a low-wage, low-cost “thugocracy.”

Does Protecting Democracy Cause Trade Wars And Depressions?

Free-trade advocates claim that restoring tariffs to protect wages and democracy would start trade wars and even cause recessions and depressions. One claim they make is that tariffs helped cause the Great Depression of the 1930s. Economist Paul Krugman took on that argument in 2009’s “Protectionism and the Great Depression,” writing,

I’ve always seen this as an attempt at a Noble Lie; there’s no good reason to believe that it’s true, but it has been used to scare governments into maintaining relatively free trade.

But the truth is quite different, as a new paper by Barry Eichengreen and Doug Irwin shows. Protectionism was a result of the Depression, not a cause. Rising tariffs didn’t even play a large role in the initial trade contraction; like the spectacular trade contraction in the current crisis, the decline in trade in the early 30s was overwhelmingly the result of the overall economic implosion. Where protectionism really mattered was in preventing a recovery in trade when production recovered.

As for trade wars, economist Ian Fletcher points out in “Free Traders Can’t Name a Single Trade War“:

Trade wars are mythical. They simply do not happen.

If you google “the trade war of,” you won’t find any historical examples. There was no Austro-Korean Trade War of 1638, Panamanian-Brazilian Trade War of 1953 or any others. History is devoid of them.

[. . .] Trade wars are an invented concept, a bogeyman invented to push free trade.

The giveaway, of course, is that free traders claim both that a) trade wars are a terrible threat we must constantly worry about, and b) it’s obvious no nation can ever gain anything from having one. Think about that for minute.

Voters Finally Pushing Back

These are the reasons that voters across the country are finally pushing back against politicians selling “free trade.” Friday’s post, “‘Free Trade’: The Elites Are Selling It But The Public Is No Longer Buying” explained how Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are gaining from their opposition to free trade deals like NAFTA and the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership. From the post: “Voters have figured out that our country’s current ‘free trade’ policies are killing their jobs, wages, cities, regions and the country’s middle class. Giant multinational corporations and billionaires do great under free trade, the rest of us not so much.”

Free trade encourages further exploitation of workers and the environment in other countriesand here. It helps fuel calls inside of our own country for “less regulation” (fewer environmental protections), “right-to-work” laws (that break unions and lower wages) and “more competitive” tax policies (that defund democracy and our ability to provide public services) to “attract” companies back to the U.S.

It is time for Washington elites to scrap our current “free trade” negotiating model that allowed giant, multinational corporations to dictate our trade policies, and open up the process to all of the stakeholders, including labor, environmental, consumer, human rights and other groups. Then we can begin to negotiate trade policies that lift American workers along with workers across the world, while protecting the environment.

This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on March 13, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

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 computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Joy to the Workers

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Leo GerardThe spirit of the season is generosity. Eight toys for Hanukkah. A partridge in a pear tree and 11 other quirky presents. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday.

It’s the thought that counts. And the thought is good-hearted. That’s why the season works so well.

To keep it all rolling happily along, however, workers need to earn enough money so that they can afford gifts and charitable donations. With wages stagnant for decades, that’s increasingly difficult.

In keeping with the figgy-pudding and potato latke traditions of the holidays, here’s a recipe for delivering joy to workers so that they can spread holiday merriment:

Ingredients

1 measure outlawing scabs
1 measure banning lockouts
1 measure raising minimum wage to $15 an hour
Knead in trade law enforcement
Filter out currency manipulation
Top it all with campaign finance reform

Directions

Start by combining legislation forbidding both scabs and lockouts. These are two weapons corporations use to ratchet down wages, ruining workers’ holidays.

Right now, for example, Sherwin Alumina and ATI have locked out their loyal workers and replaced them with scabs. That’s thousands of workers forced to walk picket lines and depend on USW lockout assistance and food pantries for holiday meals rather than donating to them.

Prohibiting lockouts and scabs would slightly shift the balance of power toward workers. That’s completely justified considering corporate profits are at record levels while wages are walking backward, lower now than in 2007.

Next, add to the mix a raise to the minimum wage. No one who works full-time should live in poverty. The current $7.25 minimum, moribund for six years, is a Dickensian disgrace, a Bob Cratchit-level degradation.

Increasing the wages of workers at the bottom to $15 an hour will force up the pay of everyone else as well. All workers benefit. Happier holidays for all.

Trade law enforcement must be blended in next. Failure to immediately punish trade law violators has pummeled commodity producers – like aluminum and steel.  Mills are closed. Thousands of workers are laid off. No merry holiday for them. Or their communities.

Several foreign countries, but particularly China, illegally prop up their exporting manufacturers. Not only that, they’re also overproducing, flooding the world market and crashing prices.

Workers need laws enabling the government to impose punitive tariffs before American mills close and families suffer. In addition, the government must file and prosecute trade cases to defend American industry, not force labor unions and manufacturers to do it.

The next step in this recipe is pulling currency manipulation out of the international market. Ending this underhanded trade cheat is crucial

Countries including Japan and China deliberately devalue their currency in order to automatically discount the price of their exports, so every day is Black Friday for their international customers. Making matters worse, this scheme simultaneously marks up the cost of products that U.S. manufacturers try to sell in currency-manipulating countries.

This makes for very bad holidays in places like Ashland, Ky., where AK Steel shut down its blast furnace earlier this month and laid off hundreds of workers. They join about 4,000 Steelworkers at plants in Illinois and Alabama threatened with holiday layoffs.

The last ingredient, campaign finance reform, makes the whole recipe possible. Nothing will happen without it.

In a democracy, each citizen should have equal influence over lawmakers. The wealthy and fat-cat corporations shouldn’t get special access and treatment because they’ve given millions to candidates. The only way to stop that is to outlaw massive political bribes.

Gifts should be to loved ones and charities, not to politicians. If gargantuan campaign “presents” aren’t stopped, workers won’t be able to afford Christmas gifts because politicians will continue to ignore their needs and, as a result, their wages will continue to atrophy. Then the holiday season will not work well for anyone.

Workers need to make this holiday recipe happen. It would bring joy to their world.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leo Gerard. Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on December 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Spare a thought for workers who don't get a Thanksgiving holiday

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

LauraClawsonThere are jobs that have to be done on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other day of the year. We need doctors and nurses and firefighters and police. Then there are jobs that don’t have to be done … but workers are forced to do them anyway, because profit. Because the workers aren’t given a choice, other than the choice between working on Thanksgiving or losing their jobs.

So if you’re lucky enough to be sitting down to a big Thanksgiving meal with your loved ones today (or for that matter if you’re Netflix binging or spending the day in silent meditation), spare a thought for those who are forced to skip the holiday to work. Spare a thought also for people who can’t afford the big meal with turkey and all the trimmings—and remember that many of the very same people working at Walmart and Target fall into that category, or barely escape it.

If you’re thinking about heading out for a little shopping after dinner, remember that workers had to be there hours earlier. Remember that many of them don’t want to be there, even if they don’t feel able to speak out publicly or put their names to petitions saying so. And remember that common reasons to be glad to work the holiday include not getting paid holidays off of work, and being so underpaid that extra pay for working a holiday could mean the difference between paying the bills and not paying the bills.

Whatever Thanksgiving means to you, it shouldn’t be a symbol of the race to the bottom.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on November 26, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

Bottom Line: Does the TPP Trade Deal "Put American Workers First"?

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

Dave Johnson

The full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has finally been released and We the People can see what has been negotiated in our name. President Obama laid out the bottom line, saying the deal “puts American workers first.” Does it?

TPP Text

The full text of TPP can be seen here. The text consists of more than a thousand pages of incomprehensible legalese like this:

… the rate of customs duty applicable to the originating good from the Party where the good acquired the originating status in accordance with the process requirement or change in tariff classification requirement set out in Annex (PSR); or (ii) the rate of customs duty applicable to the originating good from the Party where the largest value was added among claimed production process, or the highest rate among the rates applicable to the originating good from those Parties involved in claimed production process, when the good acquired the originating status through a production process in accordance with the requirement set out in Article DD. 2(a), (b) or the regional value content requirement set out in Annex (PSR).

and this:

Pursuant to paragraph 1(b), the Commission shall review the operation of this Agreement with a view to updating and enhancing this Agreement, through negotiations, as appropriate, to ensure that the disciplines contained in the Agreement remain relevant to the trade and investment issues and challenges confronting the Parties.

You get the picture. This is going to take time and experts to figure out. Worse, it was negotiated in a corporate-dominated process, so if TPP is approved we have to assume that anything that is hard to understand or ambiguous will later be used to justify taking from We the People and giving to A Few People.

So Does TPP “Put American Workers First”?

President Obama set down the bottom line of TPP by releasing a statement calling TPP, “a new type of trade deal that puts American workers first.” In the statement he wrote, “If you’re an autoworker in Michigan, the cars you build face taxes as high as 70 percent in Vietnam.”

It is interesting that he would use the example of auto workers here. The September post “TPP Terms Are Even Worse For U.S. Than NAFTA?” looked at how TPP will affect the American auto industry and found:

Under NAFTA 62.5 percent of the value of cars and 60 percent of auto parts must be made in NAFTA countries, or a tariff will apply. But for TPP the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman appears to have made a deal saying only 45 percent for cars and 30 percent for parts need to be made in TPP countries – the rest of that business goes to China and other non-TPP, low-wage, low-labor-standards and low-environmental-protection countries. The result will be a huge shift of jobs and business away from American, Mexican and Canadian auto and parts makers.

Now we know the actual terms. Canada’s Globe and Mail reports, in “Canadian auto sector alarmed by concessions revealed in full TPP text ,” that

Canada’s auto parts makers, who employ 81,000, say the text of the agreement shows the local-content protections for vehicle components are significantly skimpier than the former Conservative government had advertised. Former prime minister Stephen Harper had said local-content requirements for important vehicle components would be between 40 per cent and 45 per cent.

… Engine parts and such body stampings as truck frames and metal roof panels will only be required to have TPP content of 35 per cent.

Basically when we are talking about “non-TPP countries” getting some percent of the business, we are really just talking about China. So says tariffs do not apply if 35 percent to 45 percent of the car and parts are made in TPP countries. This means that 55 percent to 65 percent of the car and parts can be made in China and still be tariff-free. This is much worse than even NAFTA, which, as we know, destroyed American auto and parts manufacturing jobs and entire regions of our country.

Kevin L. Kearns, President of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, in the post “Domestic Manufacturers Call Full Text of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement a ‘Very Bad Deal for America.’” says of this,

“Apparently, one of America’s biggest economic problems is that Toyota does not sell enough cars and trucks here, and thus does not displace enough American jobs. The TPP deal allows Toyota and other Japanese automakers a special concession to keep their global supply chains intact.”

So the president’s singling out of auto workers as benefiting from TPP was unfortunate. They do not, and American auto workers will be hit hard as production moves to China.

In the release statement Obama also wrote, “If you’re a worker in Oregon, you’re forced to compete against workers in other countries that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs.”

Does TPP stop the competition of Oregon’s workers “against workers in other countries that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs” as the president promises here?

The athletic apparel maker Nike is based in Oregon. The workers who actually make Nike’s shoes are already all outsourced, already located in countries “that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs,” including TPP signatories Vietnam (where it employs 345,000 workers), Mexico and Malaysia. TPP will remove tariffs already charged on those shoes and garments as they come into the U.S., making it even more attractive to outsource production to countries “that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs.” Nike will be rewarded by that tariff cut with greater profits from their choice to outsource.

Meanwhile Nike competitor New Balance has been trying to continue to make shoes in the U.S., and this removal of tariffs is likely to force them to give up. TPP lowers the cost of moving production to countries “that set lower standards and pay lower wages just to cut their costs.”

So the president cited autos and Oregon, but a close look reveals these to be unfortunate choices. In both cases American workers are put first – first in line to be laid off as even more production shifts out of the country.

Does TPP Put American Steelworkers First

If TPP truly puts “American workers first” you’d think that American workers would be happy about TPP. They aren’t. The United Steelworkers said of the TPP text:

“It’s a dagger twisting in the heart of American manufacturing,” the USW said in a Nov. 5 statement. “Even the Wall Street Journal predicted the deal would cause a massive trade deficit in manufacturing, which would result in hundreds of thousands of job losses.”

The TPP, the union said, provides incentives for U.S. companies to outsource production and send jobs overseas. It would cause dramatic job losses in the U.S. manufacturing sector, and its rules of origin for automobiles and auto parts would allow China to provide the majority of a vehicle’s content, it said.

The TPP also would allow currency manipulation to continue, do nothing to prevent state-owned enterprises from receiving state support and protection, and allow foreign workers to continue to suffer violations of their rights, the USW said.

So it looks like TPP does anything but “putting American workers first.” It puts them first in line to be laid off.

Economic Theory

So why the big push for TPP?

Here’s the thing. By moving production to low-wage countries with poor environmental and safety (and other) regulations that protect people, American companies can lower the cost of production. Economic theory says this “frees up resources” in our own economy to be put to “more productive uses.” Economists say the workers can thereby move into higher-paying jobs, doing things that can’t be done in Vietnam.

But of course this is not what has been happening since the country’s elites were sold on the “free trade” agenda decades ago. We have seen the financial sector (and its associated value system) increase as the manufacturing sector (and its associated value system) declines. We have seen a dramatic increase in inequality as the “investor class” pockets the wage and other cost differential from moving production out of the country. We have seen entire regions of the country literally devastated (see Detroit and the “Rust Belt”) because the resources released by outsourcing America’s production have not been reinvested in the U.S. They have instead found their way to foreign tax shelters. We have seen the country lose entire industries, and the supply chains, “know-how” and other elements of a manufacturing ecosystem that might enable us to rebuild someday.

Now that we can actually read it we can see that TPP is just one more “NAFTA-style” power-grab elevating the “investor class” above the rest of us and our ability to run our own government in ways that make our lives better. TPP is about taking from We the People and giving to A Few People. It is a bad deal and it must be stopped.

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on November 6, 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 computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

D.C. Councilmembers To Introduce Bill Guaranteeing 16 Weeks Of Paid Family Leave

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Bryce CovertOn Tuesday, seven city councilmembers in the District of Columbia will introduce a paid family leave bill that would create the most progressive system in the country and serve as a model for other cities that might be interested in paid leave. If it eventually gets passed and signed into law, it would be the first city-level program in the country.

The bill, spearheaded by Councilmembers David Grosso (I) and Elissa Silverman (I), would pay out 16 weeks of wages during a leave for a new baby or to care for a sick family member for those who both live in the District as well as those who live elsewhere but work there. That’s in line with the district’s current 16 weeks of unpaid but job guaranteed leave, but more generous than the 12 weeks in Congressional Democrats’ paid family leave bill and what’s offered in the three states that have implemented paid leave programs, which range from six to eight weeks.

Workers would also be able to avail themselves of a generous benefit. They would get fully reimbursed for the first $1,000 of their weekly pay, and then if they make more than that would get 50 percent of the next $1,000. The federal leave bill that’s been introduced by Democratic lawmakers, for instance, only replaces two-thirds of workers’ income, capped at $1,000 a week, and the three states that have implemented paid family leave have similar policies. “For the lowest-wage workers and even those in the middle class, especially in jurisdictions with a very high cost of living like Washington, D.C., it’s very difficult to make ends meet on a salary, and it’s impossible to make ends meet on half of a salary,” explained Kitty Richards, who works on Councilmember Silverman’s staff and was involved with the paid family leave bill. “We’ve seen that low-wage workers really struggle to take leave that’s paid out at a low rate.”

The funding structure for the program would also look slightly different given some of the unique circumstances in D.C. The district can’t mandate what the federal government offers its employees, so workers who either reside outside of the District or those who work for the federal government will have to pay into the fund through a payroll tax. But all other employers within the district will also pay a small tax — probably around 1 percent — into the fund.

D.C. has already passed some policies near and dear to progressives’ hearts: it raised its minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016, passed paid sick leave in 2008 and then strengthened it in 2014, and guaranteed eight weeks of paid family leave for city government employees late last year. (Tuesday’s paid family leave bill will also propose extending city employees’ paid family leave to 16 weeks to match all other employees’.)

Those efforts, particularly paid leave for city employees, inspired Grosso to find a way to implement paid family leave for all workers in the area. “Always in the back of my mind was, ‘How can we extend this to the private sector as well?’” he said.

His quest got a boost last year when the Department of Labor awarded the district with a $96,000 grant to study implementing paid family leave. That money allowed D.C. to get an accurate read of the costs and benefits of implementing a program. It also helped propel the effort forward. “Grants from the federal government are creating momentum and excitement and policy expertise around the issue,” noted Richards.

They’ll need that momentum moving forward to make sure the bill becomes reality. After its introduction Tuesday morning, it will get referred to committee and then will come hearings and input before it actually gets a vote. At least four councilmembers have already signed onto the bill with Grosso and Silverman, but they’ll have to work to get everyone on board. “It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint,” Silverman noted. “Getting to the introduction is kind of like getting to the half marathon mark.”

“The main issue is to make sure that what moves forward is a really strong bill, that we don’t just pass something but pass something that’s really strong,” said Rebecca Ennen, development and communications director at Jews United for Justice, a group that has been deeply involved in pushing the bill forward.

Then Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) would have to sign it — she’s believed to be supportive — and the fund would have to be set up and fully funded before any District residents can actually take paid leave. If things go quickly and smoothly, Grosso estimates that the bill could be on the mayor’s desk within six months and, if it were signed, residents could start taking leave a year later.

Success won’t just mean guaranteeing benefits for D.C. residents. Those involved hope that the bill and the program design can be replicated elsewhere. While three states have paid family leave, the U.S. is an outlier among nearly the entire world for not guaranteeing paid maternity leave and among developed countries for not guaranteeing paid paternity leave. “I think we have the opportunity to set a standard here in the District and be a model,” Silverman said.

Grosso agrees. “We’re hoping to bring national attention to this so we can be a model for other jurisdictions getting this done at the local level,” he noted. While the vast majority of paid sick leave bills have passed at the city level, all paid family leave programs have been statewide. But D.C.’s effort might inspire other cities to take it up.

 

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on October 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

 

This week in the war on workers: UAW workers reject contract with Chrysler

Sunday, October 4th, 2015
Laura ClawsonAfter years of concessions, auto workers at Fiat Chrysler have had enough. They’ve voted to reject a contract recommended by UAW leadership that would have offered raises, but left in place the tier system in which some workers make significantly more than others. The Detroit Free Press reports that this is the first time since 1982 that UAW workers have voted down a national agreement. It wasn’t close either: 65 percent of workers voted against the contract. Alexandra Bradbury writes at Labor Notes that:

Probably the top reason workers voted no was indignation that the agreement broke the union’s longstanding promise to cap the lower-paid tier at 25 percent of the workforce this fall. Since 45 percent of Chrysler workers are in Tier 2, many expected a raise to $28 an hour. With no cap, it’s only a matter of time before there’s no first tier left.

Amplifying the anger were Chrysler’s high profits and the revelation that the company plans to move car production to Mexico.

UAW president Dennis Williams said the union would seek further discussion with Chrysler.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on October 3, 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.

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