Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for July, 2012

CHART: The Federal Reserve Is Failing Its Obligation To Fight Unemployment

Monday, July 16th, 2012

spross_jeffThe Federal Reserve has a dual mandate to maintain low inflation and high employment — a job description that requires a balancing act, as these two goals can be in tension. The Fed has put its inflation target at 2 percent, while 5 percent is generally viewed as the normal unemployment rate when the economy is operating at full strength.

But as economist Chad Stone shows in U.S. News & World Report this morning, the Fed has usually hit its inflation target ever since the Great Recession while utterly failing to meet its obligation to bring down unemployment:

So the Fed has spent the last three years treating 2 percent inflation as a ceiling rather than a happy median, refusing to allow it higher even to bring down America’s sky-high unemployment rate of 8 percent. But the good news is that in late June, the Federal Reserve finally decided to extend what monetary easing it has engaged in by another $267 billion, and the institution’s hesitation to do more to help the economy could be dissapating. Whether it will be sufficient to help the economy at this point remains to be seen.

This post originally appeared in Think Progress on July 13, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Spross is video editor and blogger for ThinkProgress.org. Jeff was raised in Texas and received his B.S. in film from the University of Texas, after which he worked for several years as an assistant editor in Austin and Los Angeles. During that time Jeff co-founded, wrote and produced The Regimen, a blog and podcast dealing with politics and culture. More recently, he has interned at The American Prospect and worked as a video producer for The Guardian.

Should a firefighter or police officer be paid more than minimum wage?

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Mark E. AndersonI do not live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, nor do I know the political leanings of the mayor or the city council; however, I do know that their actions, cutting the wages of city employees to minimum wage, are shameful. By the way, that wage cut applies to firefighters and police officers as well as a myriad of other city employees.

The employee’s unions are fighting back and are taking the city to court:

The trio of unions – International Association of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge 2 and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2305 – expect to soon file several new legal actions, said their attorney, Thomas Jennings. Those actions would include:

  • A motion in Lackawanna County Court to hold the mayor in contempt, due to paying 398 city employees minimum wages in their paychecks Friday, even though a judge on Thursday and Friday ordered full wages.
  • A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Scranton under the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging the city has failed to pay wages on time and failed to pay overtime.
  • Another federal complaint alleging violations of the Heart and Lung Act, because benefits of disabled police and firefighters also were cut to minimum wages without first having a required hearing.
  • A penalty petition with the state workers’ compensation commission over the minimum wages.

“Pick a law. They violated it,” Mr. Jennings said.

The city is claiming that it had no choice as it only has $133,000 in cash on hand as of Monday but owed $3.4 million dollars to vendors, not including employees:

A payroll every two weeks amounts to $1 million, officials said. To free up cash to pay overdue bills, particularly health coverage, the mayor on June 27 announced he was indefinitely cutting salaries of all non-federally funded employees to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. This way, the payroll every two weeks would amount to $300,000, though [the mayor] pledged to pay all back wages once the crisis is resolved.

Sure, he will pay the workers back once the crisis is resolved, and I bet while he is at it he will toss in some oceanfront property in Arizona and a bridge in Brooklyn.

Now, of course if you go through the comments sections on any news story about the goings on in Scranton you will find that they are, unfortunately, quite typical these days. Those fatcat public employees and their unions are all to blame for Scranton’s and the nation’s woes. Yep, that cop who at 3:00 am is chasing down a guy who just robbed someone’s house is the problem. The firefighter who pulled a sleeping child out of a burning home is the problem. That guy over there who tests the tap water to make sure it is clean and safe to drink; it is his fault that Scranton and the nation as a whole is broke.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on July 11, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Anderson, a Daily Kos Labor contributor, describes himself as a 44 year-old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. You can learn more about him on his Facebook, “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”

OSHA Declines to Issue Rule Protecting Workers From Heat

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

mike elkAs high temperature records are broken across the United States, health and public safety advocates are calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to finally issue a rule protecting workers from extreme heat. In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended a heat standard, but OSHA has still failed to implement it. With global warming likely to make heat related deaths more common, public safety advocates say OSAH must act immediately.

“Some farm workers and construction workers work for hours on end and there are no accommodations for rest breaks. This is what commonly leads to heat deaths” says Dr. Sammy Almashat, a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “We are asking for rest breaks in proportion to the temperature outside as well as employers being required to provide workers with a certain amount of water every hour. This does not require some sort of a technological breakthrough. It’s very easy and inexpensive.”

The failure of OSHA to adopt a heat standard has left many workers unprotected. According to Public Citizen, 563 workers have died from heat-related injuries and 46,000 have suffered serious injuries in the last 20 years.

“These deaths are completely preventable with just a few, inexpensive interventions, some of which have already been implemented in several states,” says Dr. Thomas Bernard, who reviewed a proposed NIOSH heat standard back in 1986. “The time is long overdue for a federal heat stress standard that will protect workers from dangerous heat exposure.”

In a response to a petition launched by Public Citizen, United Electrical Workers, and Farmworker Justice calling on OSHA to implement an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for extreme heat, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels wrote that “OSHA agrees exposure to extreme heat can lead to death; however workers with adverse health effects from heat exposure experience dehydration, cramps, and exhaustion, and other affects and are able to recover fairly quickly when the appropriate measures are taken.” Michaels then continued:

As you mentioned in your petition, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) stated that the annual rate of heat-related deaths among crop workers from 1992 to 2006 was 0.39 per 100,000 workers. While OSHA acknowledges that these deaths are most likely underreported, and therefore the true mortality rate is likely higher, the mortality rate reported in the MMWR does not exceed those of other hazards OSHA has deemed to be “significant” (e.g. benzene) and therefore, would likely not meet the legal requirement of “grave.”

Michaels then noted that “if OSHA were to determine that a grave danger was present, OSHA must have adequate evidence that an ETS is necessary because no existing OSHA requirements can substantially reduce the grave danger. Additionally, OSHA must show that the ETS would be technologically and economically feasible.”

Almashat says it is fairly easy to implement to prevent heat deaths, noting that the Pentagon has a heat standard in place to prevent heat deaths among soldiers. Almashat also points to a 2008 study by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries, which showed a net economic benefit for companies in terms of eliminating lost productivity by implementing heat protection rules.

Michaels says that while OSHA is not issuing a rule to force employers to adopt a heat standard it has launched an education and outreach campaign to inform employers of the dangers of extreme heat. But Almashat argues that this isn’t nearly enough.

“Employers aren’t held for accountable for complying with the recommendations of this campaign. There needs to be a standard,” Almashat says. “The federal government isn’t dragging its feet because it’s not feasible or the science isn’t there. This is a case where they are deliberately dragging their feet on a standard in order to placate industry.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 11, 2012. 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. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

When Safety Becomes Voluntary: Workplace Self-Policing Program Under Scrutiny

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Michelle ChenWhat’s the value of a worker’s life? According to the calculus of corporate efficiency, it’s often still cheaper to put workers at risk than to spend money to protect them. And the federal government generously rewards those who have perfected this cost-containment strategy in industries where workplace hazards are just part of business as usual.

For years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has granted many companies a pass on government oversight with the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Touting big-name members like Coca Cola and ExxonMobil, the program works like a sort of gold star for employers with good safety records, which OSHA believes are capable of regulating themselves. As In These Times has reported previously, many companies granted this status can basically enjoy years of relief from regular federal evaluation.

To ordinary citizens this may seem like a fox guarding a hen house packed with dynamite, but many employers champion the VPP as a way of “partnering” with government to avoid onerous state oversight. Congress recently reviewed the program at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which examined the VPP in light of recent reports about horrid workplace accidents, along with criticisms that the initiative undermines both labor standards and the government’s role in protecting the public from industrial exploitation.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor with the think tank Center for Progressive Reform, told ITT, “What the voluntary program does, let’s make no mistake about it, is it allows people to self-regulate. Basically, if you have someone who can fill out the paperwork, you’re off the hook.”

Evidently, not even the death of a worker is enough to persuade the government to revoke a company’s privileged status. According to a 2011 report by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News:

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals. Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.

The Reagan-Era program has ballooned in recent years, tripling the number of worksites covered between 2000 and 2008. The ideological foundation of the program reflects a general hostility to safety and environmental regulation under the Bush administration.

Although we’re several generations removed from the workplace atrocities of the early industrial age, workers becoming ill or dying from their jobs remains a routine aspect of working life in the U.S. Even outside of special deals with OSHA like the VPP, a lack of resources for inspections and enforcement means that many companies escape oversight by default.

Keith Wrightson, a Worker Safety and Health Advocate with Public Citizen, told ITT, “VPP takes the OSHA inspector out of the picture.” When protection is “voluntary” on the part of bosses, employees have little reason to volunteer to report a workplace violation if it might get them fired. In general, he said, “OSHA inspections are nil. Why do we want to further dissolve what authority it does have over the workplace?”

From the employer’s standpoint, Wrightson noted, “If there’s fewer injuries on the job then the workers’ comp rates don’t rise. Your health insurance costs do not rise and your liability insurance does not rise.” But in the political debate, he said, “we don’t see those facts at the forefront. … The idea of VPP is a free market, where nobody should regulate, nobody should look, it’s laissez faire, and it’s not good.”

But EHS Today reported that the House committee hearing did at least review new research showing that state workplace monitoring can protect workers and save companies money at the same time:

The study found that within high-hazard industries in California, inspected workplaces reduced their injury claims by 9.4 percent and saved 26 percent on workers’ compensation costs in the 4 years following the inspection, compared to a similar set of uninspected workplaces. On average, inspected firms saved an estimated $355,000 in injury claims and compensation for paid lost work over that period. What’s more, there was no discernible impact on the companies’ profits.

So if profits aren’t hurt by inspections, corporations appear to reject government oversight simply on principle.

Steinzor sees a blatant imbalance in the way the government weighs health and safety needs against the profits of its corporate partners. “I think this is a class issue,” she said. “And it’s shameful that the content and implementation of the nation’s laws on occupational safety and the environment show systematic neglect of working-class people’s lives in heavy industrial jobs, and far more concern for the well-being of yuppies in the exurbs.”

In a system that tends to make the law comply with corporations rather than the other way around, “voluntary protection” seems to do exactly what the phrase implies: to make workers’ rights optional.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Public education is a labor issue, even if you don't care about teachers

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Laura ClawsonThis year’s students are the workers of five or 10 or 15 years from now. There’s an obvious statement for you, but it’s one that is too rarely considered in discussions of education policy as hedge funders and corporate billionaires try to claim the mantle of doing what’s right for kids, implying or saying straight out that teachers are too self-interested to represent kids and should be left out of the discussion altogether. The fundamental question is this: If you don’t trust Wall Street or the Walton family to do what’s in your best interest as an adult in the American workforce, why would you trust them to do what’s in the best interest of the next generation of workers?

School, from the first day we set foot in a classroom to graduation from the highest level of education we achieve, trains us to be workers not only by teaching us math and grammar but by teaching us how to respond to instructions, orders, or discipline. It teaches us how to sit still, how to show that we’re making the kind of effort our superiors want to see from us, how to work toward socially approved goals. For many jobs and careers, school gives us training or credentials we need. The level and quality of education we get to a great extent determines what jobs we’ll be considered for, how likely we are to be unemployed, how much money we’ll earn.

So the structure of education in our country trains kids for what to expect as adults and says a lot about how we envision work and people’s access to good jobs. Deprive schools of funding and you’re creating a generation that doesn’t have the education needed to succeed. Or, you’re creating a big chunk of a generation that doesn’t have the education needed to succeed—some kids’ families will be able to buy them a better education directly, some kids will live in well-to-do areas where the schools remain well-funded or where wealthy parents can subsidize public schools heavily.

This then sets up the conditions to justify not hiring people. Already we hear about how there just aren’t enough skilled workers and that companies want to hire, honest they do, they just can’t find trained workers to do the skilled jobs for which they’re offering to pay a pittance. Or we hear how companies have to move jobs overseas, because, again, American workers just can’t hack it in the information economy. It’s mostly an excuse anyway, but you think that’s going to get any better in 20 years if our public education system is gutted now?

If you create a class of schools that, while theoretically public, can effectively exclude homeless kids or disabled kids or kids whose first language isn’t English, and leave all those excluded kids in the public schools you’re telling everyone are second best, you send a message about who’s desirable as students and who will remain desirable as workers. If a state happens to funnel its entire school maintenance budget to that separate class of schools, the message is reinforced again. If you tell everyone that the new class of schools is better (even if in fact the evidence suggests otherwise), but there aren’t enough spaces for everyone, you send the message starting ever earlier in kids’ lives that they are disposable, that some of them will be left behind no matter what. Public schooling should send the opposite message—that all kids deserve a good education, an equal education, that the government is invested in all of them and that they can all succeed.

But in America today, our public schools are not just underfunded. We’re not just losing schoolteachers at an astonishing rate. We’re not just setting up new classes of education rife with abuses and with profit put before educational outcomes. We’re not just turning education over to profit-driven, ill-supervised testing companies despite a host of weaknesses from measurement error to cheating. No, we’re doing all of this thanks in large part to a massively funded campaign by a bunch of really rich people who think they know better because they’re rich. We’re letting phone tappers and people whose money comes from a company that leads the field in undermining local economies and driving down wages and benefits fund the remaking of our system of public education.

Then there’s higher education, where at the same time as a college degree becomes a near-requirement for entry into the middle class, per-student government spending is at a 25-year low and the number of administrators, and their pay, has shot up, while the number of faculty who actually teach students, and their pay, has lagged behind the administrators. As public higher education becomes a more difficult option, for-profit colleges step in to fill the void, not by being cheaper or better but by marketing themselves more aggressively despite abysmal results. Students, meanwhile, are forced to take on more and more loan debt to get that college degree, meaning they enter the workforce already desperate, to the benefit of employers who can capitalize on that desperation to keep workers who might otherwise move on or fight back.

So while I believe that teachers are important—important because they are the ones in the classrooms every day, doing an incredibly difficult job for not very much money and because they are an important part of a middle class that Republicans are trying to wipe out of existence—I understand and write about education as a labor issue not just because Mitt Romney’s top education priority is to break teachers unions, but because Mitt Romney’s next education priority, one he can only get to after breaking the unions, is to privatize public education, weakening it as a public good that serves everyone close to equally and instead bringing profit in, creating more and more unequal outcomes. I write about education as a labor issue because when Romney tells teachers class size doesn’t matter, even though he sent his own sons to a school with an average class size of 12, that’s class warfare from above in a nutshell. Class size only matters if you can pay for it to be small. If you can’t, screw you, your kids will be in the swollen classes that result from firing their teachers.

Similarly, Romney slashed higher education funding while governor of Massachusetts, pushing more students into debt—not something his own trust fund babies ever had to worry about. I use Romney as an example, but of course it’s not just him, it’s his party. Rep. Todd Akin, running for Senate from Missouri, referred to federal involvement in student loans as “the stage three cancer of socialism.” Rep. Paul Ryan, who paid for college with Social Security benefits, wants to cut Pell Grants for a million students. Rep. Virginia Foxx has “little tolerance” for people with student loans, but champions the for-profit college industry that owes its existence to, and relentlessly seeks to maximize, those loans. And so on.

Education is a labor issue because it’s how we train children to someday be workers, determining many of the conditions under which young adults enter the workforce. It’s a labor issue because school funding represents an investment, or a failure to invest, in the mass of people. Abandoning them as children, whether by underfunding the schools they attend or putting corporate profits first, is basically a guarantee they’ll face worse as adults.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on July 8, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Transit Union Head: Future Depends on Organizing Riders

Monday, July 9th, 2012

eidelson-headshotFollowing labor’s loss in Wisconsin’s recall, the leader of the nation’s largest transit union says building coalitions with riders, not organizing more drivers, is the top priority for his union’s future. Interviewed at last month’s Netroots Nation conference, Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley said that Wisconsinites’ willingness to keep their union-busting governor in office demonstrates the urgent need to change the relationship between public workers and the American public. “No matter how much money we put into electoral politics,” said Hanley, “if we can’t change the attitudes of people…we’ll lose. It’s just a matter of when and how hard.”

“I think Wisconsin shows,” says Hanley, “that at this moment in time, the right wing and the billionaires who support them have been successful in convincing a significant minority of working people that their interests are tied to falling wages in the public sector.” Hanley adds that Walker’s re-election demonstrates politicians’ success in framing unions as a “special interest,” and “saying there are working people, and then there’s organized labor.” Hanley noted he was particularly surprised by polls showing a substantial minority of union households backing Walker. “We have to – starting with our own members – make sure that people understand that we’re all in this together, we’re not all in this alone…it’s going to be a long process.”

ATU represents over 190,000 workers in the US and Canada. The majority are public workers, although the majority of ATU’s contracts are with private companies like Greyhound. A year and a half ago, ATU began shifting resources into organizing coalitions with transit riders to support public transit. With the policy resource center Good Jobs First, ATU has held two rider organizing “boot camps” for activists and union leaders from 95 cities. Last month, those efforts entered a new phase with the launch of Americans for Transit, a new national organization backed by ATU and GJF. Hanley chairs Americans for Transit’s Board; GJF Executive Director Greg LeRoy is its secretary-treasurer. They tapped Andrew Austin, the former field director of Washington State’s Transportation Choices Coalition, as the organization’s founding executive director.

Austin highlights his group’s success in getting a King County, WA Republican councilmember to back a tax increase in order to stave off a 20% service cut. He says aggressive turnout efforts, including leafleting on buses, paid off when riders formed a line “almost a mile out the door” to attend the first hearing on the issue. “The story in all the major media switched from about King County Council wants to raise your $20 car tabs to pissed-off bus riders angry about losing service…the story never went back.”

While some major cities have well-established permanent riders’ organizations, Austin says in “a lot of places there’s just no sustained effort.” Unlike bike riders, Austin says that for most bus riders, “it’s just what they do…they don’t identify themselves as that, so that’s one of the challenges.” Austin adds that, “The transit union can’t succeed if there’s not a grassroots movement for transit and transit riders and transit advocates across the country…Most drivers are working class or poor people, so I think there’s a natural solidarity there.” But he says absent organizing, anecdotes about outrageous union benefits can still get traction.

The context is austerity. ATU and GJF note that in the recession, ridership has reached its highest level in decades, just as 85% of transit agencies have raised fares, cut service, or borrowed money. Hanley sees a dual threat: proposals to balance budgets by slashing service, and calls to cut workers’ benefits so service can be saved. Hanley says local politicians “create a fiction in which only the people who depend upon the service and the people who depend upon the service for jobs are the players, and they take out all the other taxpayers from the discussion.” As Mike Elk reported, among the budget alternatives pushed by ATU and its allies is a call for banks to renegotiate interest rate swaps deals signed with cities early in the financial crisis.

Hanley charges that in order to “cleave the working class,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel “lied” about the drivers’ union contract, portraying the ten minutes provided for drivers to inspect their vehicles at the beginning of their shifts as an indulgent paid “coffee break.” He says Emanuel’s willingness to mislead the public shows that the “very powerful” see the importance of allying themselves with transit riders, and his union has to do the same.

Hanley says that with “about 100 riders for every member” of ATU, the union needs “to get, first of all, our members talking to the riders in a more political sense than they have been. I mean everyone says good morning and good night, but there’s not much more going on in most places.”

If the coalition effort is successful, says Hanley, raising transit fares will eventually become politically dangerous in the same way that raising taxes is today. Attempts to cut service will be met by “an organized lobby screaming and saying we need better transit. Don’t build the bridge to nowhere—build the bus to someplace.” He adds, “we want our pastors to see us as allies, and we know when that happens, then people like Rahm can’t come in and say, ‘Oh, they make too much money.’”

ATU’s new focus comes with a cost: a shift of resources away from organizing more drivers—public sector or private—into the union. While ATU has continued to do some new worker organizing, Hanley says, “I could go out and organize 100,000 people and spend a fortune trying to get them contracts, but what am I doing to change the overall picture by doing that? Not enough…we’re on a trajectory that has to be turned around too quickly.”

Hanley argues that the US labor movement has been too slow in responding to intensifying threats, and too quick to offer concessions: “My view is you’re feeding jelly beans to the bear, because at some point, you’re going to say no, I’m not going to feed the bear anymore—I ran out of jelly beans. And then you’re going to have a fight. So the question is when do you have the fight?” That said, notes Hanley, “sometimes you do make concessions, you have to.”

Hanley says conservatives have been successful at isolating public workers by “promoting jealousy over unity” and exploiting “racial messages…just like Ronald Reagan, ‘welfare queens.’” The subtext, says Hanley, is “those are benefits for other people, not for us.” But he draws hope from recent local referenda in which voters have chosen to raise their taxes in order to fund transit—including in Wisconsin.

Hanley contrasts the current atmosphere of resentment with the attitudes he saw on September 11, 2011: “It was like the first time in my whole career where I thought that average people really understood the value of government services, and the fact that when the bell rings, our guys are the ones that go in. And the idea that a few years later, there’s this sweeping attack, saying the people who did that aren’t entitled to pensions, aren’t entitled to healthcare, make too much money, it’s just amazing to me. It’s [an] amazing turnaround in the public framing of how our society works.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 9, 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.

GOP Rep. Tells Constituent Who Asks About Raising The Minimum Wage To ‘Get A Job’

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

waldron_travis_bioHouse Democrats earlier this month proposed increasing the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour, which would catch the minimum wage up to the buying power it had in 1968. The proposal hasn’t gone anywhere, though, since Republicans who control the House of Representatives oppose any increase.

Asked by a constituent at a Fourth of July parade yesterday, Florida Rep. Bill Young (R) revealed that he is, predictably, opposed to the Democratic proposal. When a constituent asked him why he opposed boosting worker wages, Young replied simply, “Get a job“:

CONSTITUENT: Hi, I’m (inaudible) how are you? Happy Fourth of July. Jesse Jackson, Jr. is passing a bill around to increase the minimum wage to 10 bucks and hour. Do you support that?
YOUNG: Probably not.
CONSTITUENT: 10 bucks, that would give us a living wage.
YOUNG: How about getting a job?
CONSTITUENT: I do have one.
YOUNG: Well, then why do you want that benefit? Get a job.

Watch it, via FLDemocracy.com:

Young seems to miss the point that the millions of minimum wage workers in this country already have jobs. What they want is a job that will pay them enough to actually live on, and Congress could afford them that “benefit” by making the minimum wage as strong as it was four decades ago.

This blog originally appeared in Think Progress on July 5, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

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

Shafted: Reflecting on Miners, Media and Margaret Thatcher

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

kari-lydersenMany coal-fired power plants in the United States are closing because of cheap natural gas prices, and while the closings are cheered for environmental and health reasons, some unions lament the loss of jobs. Many who are happy to see coal plants close are also frustrated that the change is driven by a rush for gas that could curb investment in clean wind power and the “green jobs” mass wind farm construction could create. Others mourn waning interest in the development of “clean coal” technology that arguably could let the United States tap its vast domestic coal reserves more responsibly.

Three decades ago, Great Britain had its own “Dash for Gas,” during which coal power plants and coal mines were closed as the country turned to natural gas to generate electricity. But the primary motive then was neither cheap and abundant natural gas nor environmental concern. Rather, it was then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s determined campaign to smash the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the labor movement in general, and to privatize public industries.

Given current conversations about our energy futures in the United States and worldwide —not to mention scandals in British media and U.S. battles over public union rights—I think it is worth revisiting the 2009 book, Shafted: The Media, The Miners Strike and the Aftermath.

Edited by Granville Williams, this compilation explores the role of spin, solidarity and strategy in the bitter 1984-1985 strike by miners and sympathetic union members as the Thatcher government and police acting on its behalf moved to gut the miners union and close many coal mines. Chapters written by prominent journalists and others detail the seedy ethics of many mainstream media outlets; the role of alternative media; early examples of community and “citizen journalism;” and the power of propaganda and popular organizing wielded by various parties to the conflict.

There are juicy and shameful examples of media outlets’ questionable ethics and bald partisanship, juxtaposed with the solidarity stands of union journalists and printers who refused to publish slanderous propaganda or who invoked equal-time policies to demand the miners be given a chance to tell their side.

The book notes The Sun’s plans to publish a photo of union leader Arthur Scargill cropped to make it appear he was doing a Nazi salute, The Daily Mirror’s claims that union leaders paid their mortgages with Libyan cash when they didn’t even have mortgages, and the BBC’s manipulation of camera footage to make it appear miners rather than police were the first to become violent in the seminal clash at Orgreaves.
Regarding the Libyan story, which was supplied by a union staffer who approached the tabloid, author Robin Ramsay notes wryly, “Ah, the logic of the tabloid journalist: he didn’t ask for money, so he must be telling the truth.”

Shafted, published with a grant from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, criticizes journalistic laziness and the lack of context that plagued even the less-abhorrent coverage. For example, the Tory government’s statements about the “uneconomic” nature of certain union mines and the wisdom of burning up limited North Sea gas reserves in lieu of coal went unquestioned, according to Shafted, and the conflict was too often portrayed as a battle between colorful adversaries (namely Thatcher and Scargill) than a showdown that would determine the well-being of working people for many years to come.

As a counter to most of the mainstream media’s performance, Shafted celebrates the role of the grassroots alternative media, the NUM’s own journal, and documentaries and articles by miners and community members, produced with the help of grassroots media organizations and the public Channel 4.

The book notes that journalists at alternative outlets with names like Leeds Other Paper, Islington Gutter Press and Sheep Worrying could personally relate to the DIY mentality and sense of mission and passion of the union miners and their supporters. Along with print media, the book also examines music, poetry and major movies like Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. It catalogues the use of music to raise funds and awareness, from local punk shows to benefits by the likes of Chumbawumba and Billy Bragg.

One chapter about movies and plays in decades after the strike describes how popular pieces like Billy Elliott furthered the Thatcherite idea of individualism triumphing over collectivism, and the glossing over of the impacts on depressed “pit villages” where to paraphrase sources, now heroin instead of coal runs in the veins of youth.

Perhaps the most insightful chapter is a soul-searching essay by former BBC journalist Nicholas Jones, who looks back with dismay at how he and other journalists unquestioningly bought into the Thatcher narrative of militant trade unions as the “enemy within.” He takes a more nuanced view than other contributors of mainstream media’s performance, and notes that union leader Scargill’s portrayal of the media as the enemy was counter-productive since it meant journalists were often received with scorn or violence in pit villages, and thus understandably less likely to tell the people’s stories. (Other chapters also describe how police brutally attacked and arrested journalists trying to report objectively on the conflict.)

Jones also describes how the birth of the 24-hour highly competitive news cycle contributed to flawed coverage of the strike, and dissects why media coverage of mass protests against more pit closures in the early 1990s was by contrast highly sympathetic to the miners. Jones writes:

With the benefit of hindsight, and subsequent evidence of a vindictive pit closure programme which continued during the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgment comparative to that during the buildup to the Iraq war.

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

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Department of Energy Drops Language to Protect Collective Bargaining Agreements

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

mike elkLast year, In These Times detailed how the Obama’s Administration Department of Energy was helping one of its contractors, Honeywell, force concessions on unionized nuclear weapons workers in Kansas City. Now it appears that the Department of Energy for the first time is removing successor contract language that protects unionized workers as a contract shifts from one contractor to another.

Currently, more than 2,400 nuclear weapons workers employed as contractors in both Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Amarillo, Texas, are represented by the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department. “These two plants have been in existence since the 1940s. Many of the employees are second- and third-generation people who have worked there over the years for different contractors,” says IBEW Government Employees Director Chico McGill.

However, for the first time in their over 60 year history, the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration plans to consolidate the contracts for the two facilities into one contract which will begin at the end of 2012. And for the first time, the bid language given out to contractors does not include guarantees that require the contractors to rehire the same unionized workers at similar rates.

According to a letter sent by AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department to the Department of Energy, “The NNSA has drafted a final Request for Proposal that does not contain the provisions that would require the successor contractor to employ the existing workforce. The final Request for Proposal also does not contain the provisions that require the successor contractor to maintain the wage rates and fringe benefits that have been provided to all employees in their collective bargaining agreements.”

The Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) did not respond to In These Times’ request for comment about why it would not include these provisions in writing. However, union leaders are worried that not the absence of these provisions could open the door to contractors seeking to union bust at these facilities. AFL-CIO Metal Trade Department President Ron Ault says that he and other union leaders have met with Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to discuss their concerns, but that the Department has failed to listen to them and address their concerns.

“They have [completely changed] 63 years of procurement history. They just threw everything in the trash,” says Ault. “They are claiming to us that they are telling the contractors that they have to offer protections, but they won’t put it in any kind of writing. They are telling us they will chop the hell out of management, but will leave most of our employees alone. It is insane. They are telling us none of our fears will come to realization, but they will give us no protection in writing.”

Ault is baffled as to why a Democratic Department of Energy would fail to give assurances to protect the livelihood of workers at this nuclear weapons plant.

“Our question is why, after 60-some years of practices—why now? Why are we doing something that gives no written protection? These people … what they do is not making McDonald’s Chicken. They are building, remodeling, and refurbishing nuclear weapons.”

Ault feels that this move is yet another sign that the Obama administration’s Department of Energy is not protecting union workers employed by its contractors. As Ault told me in an interview last November, “Nobody can screw you like your friends. We had better labor relations under [Bush appointed-DOE Secretary] Sam Bodman than Chu.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 2, 2012. 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. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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