Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Stay on Top of the Good Bad and Ugly with Workplace Fairness

September 4th, 2006 | Paula Brantner

Labor Day is a prime opportunity for organizations like Workplace Fairness to reflect upon how the American worker has fared, asking the Reaganesque question, “are you better off now than you were last year?” We attempt to answer this question in our latest special report: The Good, The Bad, and Wal-Mart: the Year in Workplace Fairness. And as promised, there’s some good news, some bad news, and just plain ugly news for American workers.

Over the course of a year, certain stories stand out. There are stories that inspire, and stories that enrage; stories that reveal the sort of change we advocate for every day, and stories that represent our greatest frustrations. In The Good, The Bad, and Wal-Mart, written by our legal intern Timothy Jordan (UC-Hastings College of the Law Class of 2008), we highlight those stories.

It’s not all bad news—we lead with five developments that give us hope that working people will be able to reclaim some of the rights, status, and dignity they enjoyed in previous generations, and also be able to lead the way in solving some of our nation’s most pressing workplace challenges. The good news includes these developments:

  • Immigrant rights were brought to the forefront of the American social consciousness in the past year, as the country witnessed the mobilization of immigrant groups in an unprecedented show of solidarity, and issues relating to immigrant employees were finally being discussed openly.
  • Since Congress has refused to raise the federal minimum wage in nearly a decade, a growing number of states—with prodding from labor unions and community groups—took the initiative to raise their minimum wages in the past year.
  • America may be witnessing the beginning of a fundamental change in workplaces, thanks in part to the technology of telecommuting.
  • Corporate executives faced greater accountability, as courts dealt with the white collar criminals and their corporate fraud that made headlines earlier in the decade, and the SEC recently passed a new rule requiring companies to make more accurate disclosures regarding the compensation of top executives.
  • Workers had reason to be pleased with the Supreme Court’s decisions this past year, as three key decisions expanded protections for workers.

Of course, you wouldn’t need a group like Workplace Fairness if there wasn’t still plenty of bad news for the American worker, such as:

  • In addition to the enormous human loss of Hurricane Katrina, workers in the gulf region were particularly hard hit, as unemployment soared and working conditions deteriorated.
  • Although to many observers, the American economy has been in a constant upswing since the recession earlier this decade, the middle class has not seen the benefits of this robust American economy, as the income gap between the richest and poorest one-fifth of families is “significantly wider” than it was two decades ago.
  • Although the airline and automobile industries have long been considered the ones in which labor was strongest, they are now the fields in which labor seems most embattled, largely because of the companies’ staggering financial losses.
  • The Sago mining disaster was an unfortunate reminder of the dangers—dangers which are largely avoidable—that hard-working men and women face every day just doing their jobs.
  • While employees are often the beneficiaries of technological advances, technology has also given employers a new frontier in which to invade the privacy of their employees, as it becomes easier and easier for employers to pry into their employees’ personal lives.

Any examination of the past year in the workplace could not neglect the behemoth Wal-Mart, which deserved its own category. It’s not pretty, when you consider the following:

  • November’s release of the Robert Greenwald film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, presented a critical view of Wal-Mart’s policies, particularly with respect to treatment of Wal-Mart employees. The head of the advocacy group (Working Families for Wal-Mart) Wal-Mart formed in response, former Atlanta mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young, was eventually forced to resign after comments he made targeting various racial groups were released.
  • Wal-Mart’s combative tactics towards unions were found to be illegal in Québec, and Arkansas, while workers in central Florida formed a workers group, the Wal-Mart Workers Association, which has already had several successful non-unionized collective action campaigns. To comply with Chinese law, Wal-Mart agreed to establish unions for 30,000 store employees in China.
  • Widespread instances of worker exploitation in the U.S. and worldwide were brought to the forefront in the past year, as Wal-Mart was sued for violating workers’ rights in foreign countries; charged with failing to provide adequate safety equipment (gloves) for its fabric cutters and seamstresses overseas; fined for child labor violations; and busted for its executives’ knowledge that illegal immigrants were systematically hired by Wal-Mart’s cleaning contractors.
  • Multiple wage and hour lawsuits charged that Wal-Mart forced employees to work off the clock, failed to pay required overtime, and ignored meal and rest break laws.
  • An internal memo was revealed which documented the company’s efforts to reduce health care costs by pushing out “unhealthy people,” by requiring physical activity in each position and moving more associates to part-time employment.

In releasing this report, we drew upon the news stories and developments we have tracked over the last year in our e-publications Workplace Week and In the News. We hope this report will help you look back on your own year, and help you see that employees everywhere are going through the same problems, and making the same progress. You are part of a larger world—a world that needs every single person who works for a living to resist the forces that prevent all working people from living out the American dream.

We ask you to share this report with others, and let us know how you want to be part of what Workplace Fairness stands for. How can your workplace become a better place? What can you do to make that happen?

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