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Archive for May, 2016

New Verizon Strike Day Of Action Thursday

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Dave JohnsonThe Verizon strike is still going on, and has passed the one-month mark. This is about working people versus giant corporations that have vast power. The 40,000 striking workers want a few things, but the immensely profitable corporation and its wealthy executives want to crush the union and have been refusing to even negotiate. The workers have been without a contract since August.

This weekend the Secretary of Labor Verizon Thomas Perez met with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, Chris Shelton, Communications Workers of America (CWA) president and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington. The company agreed to return to the bargaining table but good luck with that. (Verizon just warned Wall Street shareholders that the strike is delaying “cost-cutting efforts.”)

One of the things the workers are asking for is for the company to stop sending workers to jobs sites that are hundreds of miles away from home for months at a time, and just hire a few more people in different locations instead. The company — with billions and billions and billions and billions in profits — and the executives — with millions and millions and millions in compensation — want to save on “costs” (regular working people are “costs”) and insists the employees be disposable cogs that can be maneuvered around the country (bye-bye families) to fit the profit needs of the corporation. They are trying to make workers pay even more for health insurance and accept lower retirement benefits.

Another thing the unions are asking for is for the company to cool off on the outsourcing of thousands and thousands and thousands of call-center jobs to low-wage countries like the Philippines and Mexico.

Meanwhile Verizon’s customers aren’t getting the promised service. But the company doesn’t care. They can just run more ads.

More Than Just Verizon’s Workers

If this sounds like it’s about more than just these workers and this company and its customers, you are starting to get the picture. Nationally the giant corporations have purchased enough of the Congress to block anything that diminishes their power and helps working people or consumers. Nationally the giant corporations have been able to weaken the unions which keeps wages down and working conditions miserable. So without strong government and strong unions regular people have nowhere to turn. THAT is why the Verizon strike is important.

National Day Of Action Thursday

CWA is holding a Verizon “Day of Action” march & rally set Thursday in Washington. They will picket from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the 13 & F street Verizon Wireless store. Then strikers and their supporters will march to Lafayette Park for a rally beginning at 6 p.m.

You can donate to the solidarity fund here. “Donations to the Verizon Striking Families Solidarity Fund will be used exclusively to assist striking families with special needs who are facing very difficult financial circumstances.”

Visit the Stand Up To Verizon website to find local Day of Action events near you.

This blog originally appeared at Ourfuture.org on May 17, 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.

This New Rule Will Make Information About On-the-Job Injuries at Dangerous Workplaces Public

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

elizabeth grossmanMore than 3 million U.S. workers suffer a workplace injury or illness every year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—numbers that are thought to be significantly underreported. But astonishingly, little or no information about at which workplaces these occur is made available to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency responsible for enforcing U.S. workplace safety. Neither is this information made public.

But under a new rule OSHA has just announced, employers in “high-hazard” industries will have to send this information directly to OSHA for posting on the agencies website. The rule also includes provisions to protect workers who report job-related injuries and illnesses from employer retaliation.

“Most people don’t realize that many employers don’t send this information to OSHA,” explained David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, on a call with reporters. “Just as public disclosure of their kitchens’ sanitary conditions encourages restaurant owners to improve food safety, OSHA expects that public disclosure of work injury data will encourage employers to increase their efforts to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses,” said Michaels. “High injury rates are a sign of poor management.”

The new rule will also “help workers choose safer workplaces,” Michaels explained. “If you are looking for a new job, would you want to work at an establishment where you have a high likelihood of being injured?”

“More attention to safety will save life and limbs,” he added.

The rule, which has been several years in the making, was greeted with enthusiasm by labor advocates. “The new OSHA recordkeeping rule,” said National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) acting executive Director Jessica Martinez in a statement, “is an important step towards transparency. By requiring electronic submissions every quarter and making the data public, this common-sense regulation will help us learn more about how workers are hurt and become sick on the job.”

In his statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said, “We are pleased that the new rules also include important protections to ensure that workers can report injuries without fear of retaliation. For far too long, in an effort to keep reported injury rates low, employers have retaliated against workers for reporting injuries, disciplining them for every injury or creating barriers to reporting.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, called the rule “misguided,” saying “the agency’s excessive reporting requirements will lead to employers being falsely branded as unsafe and will not reflect a company’s commitment to maintaining a safe workplace.” The new requirements, said the National Association of Manufacturers, “could lead to public shaming.” Both business groups said the rule would create burdens for employers and expressed concern that it would lead to the release of proprietary information.

What does the rule require?

In fact the new rule does not require employers to collect additional information. Rather, it requires employers—only in what OSHA considers the most dangerous industries – to send OSHA information they’re already required to collect. These industries include agriculture, construction, forestry, hospitals, manufacturing that includes oil, gas and chemical plants as well as and food processing, and trucking.

“It does not add to or change employers’ obligations,” said Michaels.

As for the concern about the release of confidential data, Michaels explained that “before OSHA posts any information, it will remove any personal information.”

The rule, which becomes effective on August 10, will be phased in over the next two years with its first reporting due to OSHA in July 2017. Reporting requirements vary slightly depending on workplace size, but the rule will apply to all employers, except for those with less than twenty employees.

Having workplace injury and illness information reported directly to OSHA will help the agency “improve safety without additional inspections,” said Michaels. This data will help OSHA better “target” its limited enforcement resources, he explained.

Currently, OSHA has about 2,200 inspectors—some of these through state agencies—that are responsible for some 130 million workers at more than 8 million workplaces across the country. That means that there’s about one OSHA inspector for every 60,000 workers. The information OSHA gets about workplace injuries and illnesses under the new rule will help point OSHA toward where workers are most at risk.

For example, “We looked at the variation in injury rates in the same industry [but] in different establishments in the same city and found huge variations,” Michaels explained on a call with In These Times. In one North Carolina city, OSHA found that workers at one nursing home had a 1 in 45 chance of injury but a 1 in 9 chance of being injured at another, he explained. “We’re really trying to stress that workers have a right to know this. We think publication of this record will make employers work hard to improve,” said Michaels.

Protection against retaliation

While workers already have the right to report job-related injuries and illnesses, they are often discouraged from doing so—particularly at workplaces without union or other such representation. Under the new rule, retaliating against a worker for reporting a workplace injury or illness would be a violation of OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements, eliminating some potential complications for workers and for OSHA in responding to retaliation.

“We have workers who reported an injury and then were fired. This happens a lot,” explained Massachusetts Coalition for Safety and Health (MassCOSH) executive director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb. There’s also the issue of workers who fear for their immigration status if they take full advantage of their rights and speak out about injuries, she added.

Retaliation can also take the form of blaming the worker for the injury, United Steelworkers director of health, safety and environment Mike Wright explained. Michaels explained there were cases where injured workers were cited for “lack of situational awareness.”

Goldstein-Gelb and Wright both said the new rule would enable OSHA to take more protective action with fewer reporting complications for workers. Previously, retaliation cases could “only be handled as retaliation” cases, said Wright. “Now we can challenge this directly,” as a reporting violation, he said. In theory, the new rule should also make it easier for workers without union representation to report retaliation.

Retaliation against injury reporting “is widespread in the poultry industry,” says Oliver Gottfried, Oxfam America senior advocacy and collaborations advisor in a statement. “Poultry companies,” he explains, “use a variety of measures to deliberately avoid reporting injuries on their logs.” He welcomes the new rule but says it alone won’t “address the problem of widespread underreporting of injuries.”

Discouraging programs that discourage reporting

While the new rule doesn’t address such programs directly, OSHA says it should also help discourage are programs many employers have had that actively reward workers for not reporting job-related injuries and illnesses. According to examples provided by OSHA, these have included programs that put extra money in workers paychecks or given them gift cards and t-shirts for going certain number of days without reported injuries. One such program included drawings for flat-screen TVs. Another was described as “safety bingo” with monetary prizes.

Such programs have also been designed so that workers discourage each other from reporting injuries as the whole workplace loses out on rewards for injuries reported. Wright tells a story of a workplace where a worker was intimidated by co-workers who didn’t want to lose out on one of these programs so did not report slipping, falling and breaking his arm—only to have another co-worker later slip in the same place and suffer a head injury.

Eliminating fear of reporting and enabling OSHA to enforce non-reporting under this new rule could undercut such programs.

“The value of having this information is just enormous. Companies hate to have that dirty laundry aired,” says Wright. He explains that simply requiring companies to report adverse outcomes—as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did with polluters in the 1980s—has a big impact. “Just the fact that companies can’t hide this stuff,” could make an important different, he says. And Wright adds, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 17, 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.

Nannies And Housekeepers In Illinois Just Won A Major Victory

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Bryce CovertMagdalena Zylinska has been working in people’s homes for most of the last two decades since she came to the United States from Poland. She spent some time as a nanny and a caregiver, but since 1997, she’s been a full-time housekeeper.

But it wasn’t until she took classes with Arise Chicago, a worker organization, in 2013 that she realized how few protections she had on the job. Domestic workers across the country aren’t protected by basic workplace regulations like requirements that they be paid minimum wage, given days off, or be free from harassment.

She’d already had some brushes with these challenges. On one job cleaning up a house after a construction company came in and did work, she says the contractor refused to pay her $1,000 she was owed. “There were really no regulations,” she said, and it would have been too costly and complicated to go to court seeking her money. “It’s really not worth it for us to spend the time and money and taking days off to go after that.” On top of that, employers will regularly hire her for one set of duties at a particular rate and then pack on more and more responsibilities without more pay.

So three years ago, Zylinska decided to do something about it and get involved with the fight to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Illionis, similar to those on the books in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon. She traveled to the state capitol in Springfield and even as far as Washington, D.C. in pursuit of expanded rights.

And this week she and her fellow domestic workers tasted victory. The bill of rights they had been trying to move forward passed the state’s Senate and has already passed the House, so it will soon head to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s (R) desk.

The bill, if it gets signed into law, will guarantee domestic workers — including housekeepers like Zylinska as well as nannies and home care workers — the right to make minimum wage, be paid for all hours they work, get one day off a week, and be protected from sexual harassment at work. A 2012 survey of domestic workers across the country found that a quarter were paid less than minimum wage, leaving many in tough financial circumstances — 20 percent had to go without food because they couldn’t afford any. A third said they worked long hours without breaks while 85 percent said they didn’t get overtime pay. And 20 percent said they have faced threats, insults, or verbal abuse. But nearly all of those who experienced problems at work didn’t complain for fear of risking their jobs.

It’s still unclear whether Rauner will sign the bill, and his office did not respond to a request for comment. But those at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who were also involved in fighting for the bill, are optimistic given that it unanimously passed the Senate with bipartisan support. “As an organization, we feel confident that the Governor will see the value of singing the bill into a law,” said a spokesperson for the organization.

Zylinska is also feeling confident. “I think they realize that domestic workers make all the work possible and they’re very crucial to the economy,” she said. “I just hope the governor really will see that it’s really necessary for us to be protected.”

“We only want to be recognized as domestic workers, workers that have basic protection,” she added. “All we want is respect.”

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

“We’re Not Paid Enough”: Cafeteria Workers at Walt Disney World Say They Want a Union

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

RobertSchwartzThe cafeteria workers at “The Most Magical Place on Earth” are trying to organize a union. About three-quarters of the cafeteria workers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, have signed cards indicating that they want the union UNITE HERE to represent them.

Disney World, the largest single-site employer in the United States, has over 74,000 workers, the majority of them unionized. This makes Disney one of the biggest unionized labor presences in the entire state of Florida. UNITE HERE already represents 23,000 of the park’s employees, but Disney outsources its cafeteria work to the French company Sodexo, which means that the 350 people who make up the cafeteria staff lack the same union representation as the other park workers.

Sodexo is no stranger to labor disputes. They have been the target of at least nine university boycotts in recent years, with students protesting their low-pay and substandard working conditions. In 2009, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began a nationwide campaign against Sodexo to improve its employees’ wages and working conditions. Sodexo sued the SEIU in 2011, claiming that the union used illegal tactics in their effort. The SEIU ended their campaign and the charges were dropped, but concerns about Sodexo’s labor practices continue to follow the company. At Disney, the questionable conditions are highlighted by the fact that most of the surrounding park employees are unionized.

“Most workers at the park are unionized and they’re being served [food] by an outsourced company that isn’t,” Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362 and a former park employee, tells In These Times. “We don’t think it’s fair for an entire group of people to be without a voice at work.”

The Sodexo workers’ lack of representation regularly allows them to be taken advantage of, as workers point to erratic scheduling, short-notice relocation, and retaliatory action if they complain about their situation.

Sodexo could recognize the union through a “card check” process, which unions claim is a fairer method for workers than a traditional National Labor Relations Board election because of the opportunity for employer interference, but has yet to do so. Clinton made it clear to In These Times that the union wasn’t thinking about an NLRB election at the moment. Card check is regularly criticized by pro-business groups for depriving workers of their right to a secret ballot. Some believe that such a process allows the union to pressure employees into backing unionization against its own will. But UNITE HERE believes that an election would expose workers to pressure from Sodexo.

“I talk to people who deal with last-minute schedule changes, switched shifts. I know workers who are living in their cars,” Sammy Torres, a chef at Sodexo, tells In These Times. “We’re trying to get better benefits and show we’re not paid enough. “I’m 46. There’s no retirement plans. I’ve been fighting this for a while now. We’re going to keep fighting.”

Torres says the Sodexo staff has the support of Disney cast members, but believes the holdup actually stems from the park, not Sodexo.

“I think Disney doesn’t want it,” says Torres.

UNITE HERE has had success winning unions for other Sodexo workers throughout the country. Sodexo claims hundreds of collective bargaining agreements, but Disney insists they can’t force an outside company to change its policies.

William Lawson, a field representative at the Central Florida AFL-CIO, isn’t buying that. In a blog post titled “Of Mice and Management” Lawson writes:

Disney is already a hotbed for organized labor but you can’t get your one gold star and then stop there. There is absolutely no earthly reason why the largest employer in Central Florida, one of the most profitable entities on the face of this planet, and a household name in supposed moral virtuousness should have workers living in cars or on the street. It’s unconscionable and ”We can’t tell another company what to do” is not a valid excuse.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Michael Arria is a journalist living in NYC. He is the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria.

How A Giant Restaurant Conglomerate Teamed Up With Banks To Stiff Its Workers

Friday, May 13th, 2016

AlanPyke_108x108The struggling corporate giant behind The Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and other national restaurant chains is forcing tens of thousands of workers to effectively pay rent on their own money.

Workers at Darden Restaurants chains are routinely told they must accept prepaid debit cards instead of paychecks, according to a new report from the worker organization Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United. A quarter of workers surveyed said they asked to be paid some other way and were told the cards are their only option.

The practice helps the company, which came under intense pressure to cut costs from dissatisfied investors a couple years back. But it puts an expensive barrier between workers and their money.

The restaurant conglomerate has roughly 148,000 employees in the U.S. Half of those workers get payroll cards in lieu of standard paper checks. Each card shaves about $2.75 per pay period off of the company’s overhead, saving Darden as much as $5 million per year.

Darden’s bottom-line bliss means pain and chaos for those 70,000-plus workers. The cards come with a litany of fees: 99 cents for using it to pay utility bills, 50 cents if the card is declined at a cash register, $1.75 to withdraw money from an out-of-network ATM and 75 cents just to check the card’s balance. If a worker loses her card, she’ll pay $10 to have it replaced.

As Darden cuts its administrative costs, the banks that provide the cards rack up significant income on the back end. Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia researchers put median bank earnings at $1.75 per card per month back in 2012. That suggests Darden’s financial partners are pulling down about $1.5 million a year

Three in four Darden workers get hit with the out-of-network withdrawal fees, according to ROC United’s survey of 200 workers who are paid with cards. Half of them have no access to an in-network ATM near where they live or work, effectively guaranteeing they will be paying fees to access their own money.

And the $1.75 withdrawal fee is only on the card-maker’s side of the transaction. The out-of-network ATM itself will tack on another surcharge, averaging $2.88 per withdrawal — and pushing the worker’s cost to access their pay up to nearly $5 each time they convert the payroll card to actual cash.

More than half of the workers report having a balance hold placed on their cards after using them at a gas pump, a practice gas stations adopted to combat theft when pump prices were up near $4 a gallon. For a restaurant worker whose payroll card is based on the tipped minimum wage — as little as $2.13 an hour — there is hardly any slack to the card’s balance to begin with. Gas station holds can freeze as much as $100 at a time, but even the standard $50 hold can easily mean that the next time that worker swipes her card to pay for something, the machine will see an insufficient balance — and the payroll card company will hit the worker with another 50-cent fee for having her card declined.

Payroll cards like Darden’s have proven popular with low-wage employers in recent years. More than 7 million workers nationwide are now paid using the cards, the report notes — mostly at companies like Darden and McDonald’s that pay workers so poorly that they remain eligible for public assistance programs despite working full time.

The cards proliferated over the past decade, with advocates arguing they would benefit employees as well as generate savings for employers and revenue for banks. Employees without a bank account would avoid check-cashing fees, card proponents noted. But the cards’ own fees aren’t necessarily much cheaper — if at all — and many Darden workers who do have bank accounts report being denied access to standard payroll practices that would avoid fees altogether. One overall evaluation of the pros and cons of the cards from the National Consumer Law Center in 2013 hinged on this question of worker choice, and found the cards could be net beneficial so long as everyone has the chance to opt for a different mode of payment.

In at least one case, card fees ended up pushing workers’ take-home pay below the minimum wage. The workers sued the McDonald’s franchisee who they say forced them to accept the cards as payment, and Chase Bank did something out of character for a high finance powerplayer: It voluntarily gave money back to the workers, refunding all of the fees their payroll cards had incurred.

That case prompted a spate of state legislative actions to police the use of payroll cards more tightly, the ROC United report notes, but roughly half of the states still have no law governing the practice. And even the states that do regulate it in some fashion do not necessarily guarantee workers can access their pay fee-free.

UPDATE MAY 12, 2016 4:07 PM

A Darden representative told ThinkProgress the ROC United report is “completely false,” save for the out-of-network ATM fees and the 50-cent fee for point-of-sale denials, and accused the group of “wag[ing] a campaign of harassment and disparagement against our company for five years.” Starting June 1, those 50-cent fees will disappear, and employees will be able to use an additional 29,000 ATMs nationwide without paying fees, up from 50,000 currently. It is impossible that some managers tell workers the cards are required despite company policy to the contrary, spokesman Rich Jeffers said. “That’s just not the nature of our people, of our leaders in our restaurants,” he said.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites. Follow @PykeA on Twitter.

Poor People Don’t Stand A Chance In Court

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Bryce CovertYour landlord has decided to evict you and your family has nowhere to go. Or you’re in an abusive relationship and need a restraining order and probably a divorce and custody order for your children. Or you’re a homeless veteran trying to get VA benefits and navigate the complicated claims process. Or you’re being hounded by a collector for a debt you can’t pay who’s threatening to take away all of your income.

In each of these cases, you’ll wind up taking the issue to the civil courts, not the criminal ones. If it were a criminal case, where you were at risk of being jailed or incarcerated, you would at least have a constitutional right to representation. But there is virtually no promise in the civil system. You will almost certainly be left on your own, with little guidance or assistance, to navigate a labyrinthine system.

In theory, low-income Americans who need help with a civil case can turn to civil legal aid organizations. But there are so few of them that getting their help is a bit like winning the lottery.

There is less than one civil legal attorney — 0.64, to be exact — for every 10,000 people living in poverty, according to the newly released Justice Index from the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ). Even though nearly 110 million people are poor enough to qualify for free legal assistance because they can’t afford a private attorney, there are less than 7,000 legal aid attorneys throughout the country to help them.

Things are even worse in some states. In South Carolina, which ranks at the very bottom, there are 0.24 legal aid attorneys serving 10,000 poor people. There are only six states where there is more than one attorney. And research has shown that low-income people are more likely to find themselves dealing with the civil court system.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 4.09.31 PM

CREDIT: NATIONAL CENTER FOR ACCESS TO JUSTICE

“Individuals face really high stakes in the civil justice system,” noted Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice. “You can lose your children, you can lose your home, you can lose your livelihood without having legal help to get you through complicated legal proceedings.”

And while people can turn to private lawyers — there are about 40 of those for every 10,000 Americans — they are often prohibitively expensive, even for middle-class families. They often bill around $300 an hour.

So many instead represent themselves and rely on their own abilities to get through the maze of the legal system. In three-quarters of cases, at least one party — more likely to be someone like a tenant or a debtor — is self-represented.

States can take steps to make their civil court systems easier for regular people to navigate. And some are doing that, but the overall picture is mixed. Based on 33 different steps a state could take — which include a variety of things from requiring communication to be in plain English to letting court employees and judges help people without lawyers to putting materials online to waiving filing fees — no state gets a perfect score; the median score given by NCAJ is 51, ranging from 86.25 in California to 13.75 in Rhode Island.

There are some areas of promise. For one, NCAJ has had to broaden the measures it looks at because so much is changing. “So much innovation is occurring in states across the country,” explained David Udell, executive director of the organization.

One big focus has been to try to use technology more efficiently. “Technology doesn’t replace an attorney,” Udell noted, “but it can help.” Eighty percent of states list the required forms needed in family law matters such as divorce or child support on their websites, while 60 percent list the required supporting materials. The efforts are scarcer, however, for eviction and debt collection — about 40 percent of states put things online — and foreclosure — 20 percent.

A good number — 44 states — have allowed lawyers to perform discrete legal tasks for people who don’t retain them for full representation. And 32 have allowed court clerks to help out people who don’t have lawyers, but just 23 have allowed judges to do the same.

Plain English has been slower to catch on. Just 20 states encourage judges not to use “legalese” in the courtroom when talking to people who don’t have a lawyer, while 17 train judges and 12 train court staff in doing so.

Meanwhile, the most common step taken in all states is to waive civil filing fees for those who meet a financial eligibility standard. Yet just 34 describe the fee waiver on their websites, 26 have provided a simple process for determining eligibility, and just 12 encourage or require court staff to explain to people that fees can be waived — so many litigants may simply not know that it’s an option.

“The court system remains a system that was designed by lawyers with the expectation that there would be lawyers,” Bergmark said. “Most people don’t have representation and yet it’s still a system that very much contemplates that they will.”

And the outcomes are dramatically different when they do have representation. A study in Boston found that two-thirds of tenants who had full representation against their landlords were able to avoid eviction and received nearly five times the financial payout than those who weren’t represented. Other research has found that making legal services available to domestic violence victims significantly lowers the rate of abuse.

More civil legal aid lawyers could also spur larger change. “What civil legal aid lawyers see in their day-to-day practice is problems that need to be solved systemically, and they are capable of doing that,” Bergmark said. For example, a group in Baltimore noticed how many of the tenants they were assisting were being evicted through rent court and issued a call for reform. Another group in Chicago is fighting for changes at the Department of Housing and Urban Development that would bring greater protections against lead paint poisoning for people living in publicly funded housing. “There’s a real value add for society as well as the individuals involved.”

“We’re not served by having a broken civil justice system that’s not adequately supported,” she added.

This blog was originally published at Thinkprogress.org on May 11, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

Detroit Teachers Are Determined To Stop This Legislation. Here’s Why.

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

casey quinlanDetroit teachers are organizing to prevent a bill from passing the state legislature that they say would underfund schools and limit teachers’ rights.

There are two competing bills in the legislature aimed at resolving Detroit Public Schools’ current financial mess. The school system was at risk of going bankrupt because school officials said the district was “running out of money” in April, but the state provided $48.7 million in emergency funding to keep the district running. Now, as the end of the school year approaches, there are questions about long-term solutions.

Teachers were told that unless the legislature agrees on a restructuring plan to deal with the school district’s enormous debt, they won’t be paid after June, and summer school may not run. In response, hundreds of teachers called in sick at once, closing more than 90 schools. On Tuesday of last week, the teachers union, Detroit Federation of Teachers, said they would goback to work after assurance from Judge Steven Rhodes, the district’s emergency manager, that they would be paid.

Last week, the state house passed a a package of bills early in the morning — 4:30 a.m., to be exact — to split the district in half and allocate $500 million to pay off its operating deficit. But teachers are concerned about aspects of the House legislation. The legislation doesn’t recognize bargaining units, would impose penalties for going on strike or staging walkouts, would give the district power to hire noncertified teachers, and would tie teacher pay to test scores. The House also did not propose returning local control to the district, meaning there would be an appointed school board. The Detroit Financial Review Commission would choose the superintendent of the district.

The state senate’s proposal, on the other hand, would provide $715 million in funding and would introduce a commission to regulate public schools, which would oversee where traditional public schools and charter schools are located. State senators are pushing for $200 million loan instead of $33 million for transition costs, which is the same amount suggested by Gov. Rick Snyder (R). Mayor Mike Duggan (D) also supports the commission and says the $500 million isn’t enough.

Some Democratic lawmakers argue that allocating as little as $33 million means the legislature would be passing legislation to provide more money in a few months anyway.

“I don’t think we want to be in a situation where we pass a sum of money and then two or three months later we’re right back in front of the Legislature asking for more,” Sen. David Knezek (D)told the Associated Press.

To raise awareness and pressure lawmakers to pass the Senate bill instead of the one advancing in the House, teachers are going door-to-door all over the state in the hope that more widespread opposition to the legislation will help to stop it in its tracks. Detroit teachers and the American Federation of Teachers are also meeting with state lawmakers who may be on the fence about how to approach the school district’s finances, according to WXYZ, a local television station in Detroit.

 

Detroit teachers and students are also running lemonade stands to raise $500 for a federal audit of Detroit Public Schools because DPS emergency manager Steven Rhodes said the state and district don’t have the money for it.
Questions have been raised around DPS’ financial management recently, especially after 12 current and former Detroit principals, a Detroit Public Schools vendor of school supplies, and an assistant superintendent were brought up on federal corruption charges for a school supplies scheme involving kickbacks and bribes.

The legislation opposed by teachers unions could come to the Senate floor as soon as Thursday.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was an editor for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered investing, education crime, LGBT issues, and politics for publications such as the NY Daily News, The Crime Report, The Legislative Gazette, Autostraddle, City Limits, The Atlantic and The Toast.

A Tale of Two Teamsters: Building a Community-Minded Union in Mid-Century St. Louis

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

SteveEarlyLong before the birth of Teamsters for a Democratic Union in the mid-1970s, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) was hostile terrain for creating model local unions. In the 1930s, warehouse workers and drivers in Minneapolis revitalized Teamsters Local 574, under the leadership of Farrell Dobbs and other labor radicals. They organized widespread community support for a citywide general strike—now much celebrated by labor historians. After its success, Dobbs and other Teamster militants helped organize over-the-road trucking throughout the mid-west.

What was Local 574’s reward from the IBT? It wasn’t a lot of favorable publicity in the Teamster magazine. Instead, General President Dan Tobin expelled the Minneapolis strikers from the union in 1935. A year later, the membership of 574 was readmitted but under a new local charter. When the politics of Local 544 (its successor) continued to offend Teamster headquarters, the local was put under trusteeship and its elected officers ousted in 1941. Among the Teamster goon squad members dispatched to Minneapolis for that dirty work was Jimmy Hoffa, father of the current IBT president and an admirer of Dobbs’ organizing methods (if not his Trotskyist views).

Labor educator Bob Bussel’s new book, Fighting For Total Person Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working Class Citizenship (University of Illinois Press, 2016) describes a lesser-known effort to remake another Midwestern IBT local–without drawing the same kind of fire from Tobin’s successors, including Hoffa himself.

The positive, but less threatening, changes made in St. Louis Local 688 occurred under the leadership of Harold Gibbons. Gibbons developed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Hoffa, during the latter’s rise to power in the 1950s and ‘60s. His closest local collaborator was Ernest Calloway, a leading African-American trade unionist, labor editor, and civil rights activist, who met Gibbons when they were both Depression-era organizers in Chicago.

Like Harvard-educated Powers Hapgood, the industrial union activist profiled in Bussel’s previous biography, Gibbons and Calloway were sympathetic to democratic socialism. (For more on Bussel’s earlier book, see my review for The Nation.) Neither had positive experiences with the Communist Party or the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) affiliates most influenced by CP members. They came from coal mining families in Pennsylvania and Kentucky respectively; Calloway actually worked in the mines and once described himself as a “black hillbilly.”

Their shared union vision was shaped, in part, by youthful “exposure to the UMWA, which had an admirable if imperfect record of attempting to organize across racial and ethnic lines.” Their personal development as working class leaders owed much to labor education—in Gibbons’ case, a summer school stint at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers and in Calloway’s case, attending Brookwood Labor College and, later, Ruskin College in Oxford.

From CIO to IBT

Gibbons aided organizing or strikes among adult educators employed by the Works Progress Administration, Chicago taxi drivers, and, later, textile workers throughout Illinois and Indiana. Calloway became a member of Gibbons’ AFT-affiliated teachers union and then plunged into CIO organizing of African-American “red caps” who assisted railway passengers with their baggage. In 1940, he bravely risked imprisonment as “one of the first African-Americans to seek conscientious objector status solely on the basis of racial discrimination”—a stance not popular with red cap union officials, particularly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

During the war, Gibbons moved to St. Louis. There, he took over a warehouse workers local affiliated with the CIO, engineered its rebranding as an independent union and, then in 1949, “stirred disbelief and anger in both local and national labor circles” by merging with the IBT. Calloway was among those he recruited to help implement “his vision of socially engaged unionism,” amid the larger “unabashed pragmatism” of the Teamsters.

In the heyday of Local 688 during the 1950s, “total person unionism” is not a term that either Gibbons or Calloway would have employed. But their conception of how a good local should function—with members strongly connected to the union and the union playing an influential role in the community—remains quite relevant today. One of organized labor’s under-utilized resources is rank-and-file connections to community institutions, whether churches, neighborhood associations, ethnic and fraternal organizations, political clubs, or other civic groups.

Gibbons and Calloway built their local into a social and political force in St. Louis by encouraging what Bussel calls “working class citizenship”–rank-and-file activism in the community and local politics, as well as on the job. Local 688 formalized this approach with an actual “community stewards” program, training hundreds of members and then deploying them in electoral campaigns and local political struggles for racial justice, better public services, and a healthy urban environment. Bussel lauds these efforts to turn an “occupationally and racially diverse union of 10,000 members” into “a model of labor progressivism that gained national and even international attention.”

In a 1946 speech—that could serve as a rebuke to certain “organizing unions” and workers centers today—Gibbons “articulated the profound psychological dimension that lay at the core of his philosophy of unionism.” In his view, union building was not the job of “college professors, smart lawyers, or high salaried executives.” But rather, it was a task for “the men and women of the shops,” where “far too many of us fail to realize our powers, our abilities, our potentialities.”

Left cover for Hoffa?

Local 688 was, in short, not the kind of mobbed-up, big city Teamster local more typical of Jimmy Hoffa’s emerging power base in the 1950s. But, as Bussel notes, “an ally of Gibbons’ caliber and reputation” was useful to Hoffa’s plan to succeed Dave Beck as Teamsters president during a period when Teamster racketeering and corruption tainted all of organized labor and led to the IBT’s 1957 expulsion from the AFL-CIO.

According to Bussel, Gibbons hitched his wagon to Hoffa in the hopes that the latter’s  “mastery of power relations might be harnessed in the support of a more ambitious social agenda.” In the early 1960s, Gibbons even left St. Louis to serve as Hoffa’s executive assistant at Teamster headquarters. In that capacity, he persuaded his boss to make a $25,000 donation to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But then “Hoffa rejected Gibbons’ suggestion that he speak at King’s 1963 March on Washington and also refused to seek strong anti-discrimination language in trucking contracts.”

Bussel reports that Gibbons “experienced continual frustration in his efforts to enlarge Hoffa’s perspective on racial justice” and “remained an isolated voice on the issue that he regarded as essential to restoring the trade union movement’s moral legitimacy.” Hoffa, for his part, kept his sidekick from St. Louis on “a short leash.” Hoff was “fiercely ascetic in his personal life” and, thus, disapproved of Gibbon’s “womanizing” and “hanging out in nightspots and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities,” a bon vivant lifestyle supported by his IBT expense account. (As longtime Chicago labor activist Sid Lens once noted, Harold was “a man of many contradictions.”)

After Hoffa was jailed in 1967 for jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud, he left Frank Fitzsimmons in charge of the IBT. Gibbons did not fare well under Fitz, as he was known. To Gibbons’ credit, he was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and played a key role in Labor for Peace, hosting its founding conference in St. Louis. He even joined a trade union delegation to Hanoi during the war, met with top North Vietnamese officials, and conducted Washington briefings on his trip when he returned.

Enemy of Tricky Dick and Fitz

Such activities landed him on the famous “enemies list” maintained by Republican President Richard Nixon. Closer to home, Gibbons bucked Fitzsimmons by casting the only Teamster executive board vote against endorsing Nixon for re-election over Democrat George McGovern in 1972. Fitzsimmons remained Nixon’s leading labor ally until the latter’s forced resignation, in disgrace, during the Watergate scandal two years later.

In the meantime, Fitzsimmons retaliated against Gibbons by replacing him as Teamsters Central Conference chairman and warehouse division director. A few months afterwards, Gibbons was even forced to resign from his elected positions at Teamsters Joint Council 13 and Local 688. In Bussel’s description, that purge signaled the end of a “twenty year quest for total person unionism that Gibbons and Calloway had pursued in St. Louis.” Gibbons retreated to a life of retirement luxury in Palm Springs, CA. “closer to the celebrity culture that had long captivated him.” Shortly before he died in 1982, the one-time syndicalist firebrand was reduced to begging the Reagan Administration (unsuccessfully) for a job as director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Unlike Gibbons, Calloway remained politically engaged at the grassroots level in St. Louis. When their joint vision of an activist, community-minded union was no longer achievable in Local 688, Calloway became a neighborhood organization leader. He was also a locally influential writer and teacher of urban studies, civil rights leader, and mentor to community activists. When he died in 1989, The St. Louis Post Dispatch hailed him as a man who “labored for the underdog,” declaring that “St. Louis is a better place for his efforts.” Calloway’s union career may have been overshadowed, in his lifetime, by that of his high-flying Teamster co-worker. But, now thanks to Bussel’s dual biography treatment, this “rugged fighter for social justice” will get the broader recognition he deserves.

Fighting for Total Person Unionism should not be relegated to the labor history bookshelf; too much of its content will seem eerily familiar to anyone active in U.S. unions over the last 35 years. The management resistance and labor movement dysfunction that Gibbons and Calloway struggled to overcome, while building worker organizations of a better sort, have definitely not disappeared. And within the union officialdom, there is still no shortage of the same personal and political contradictions that Harold Gibbons displayed, during his rise and fall as a singular Teamster.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of a new book from Monthly Review Press titled, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. He is working on a book about political change and public policy innovation in Richmond, California. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

Scott Walker Implements Backdoor Way To Drug Test People For Unemployment Benefits

Monday, May 9th, 2016

Bryce CovertUnder current law, states aren’t allowed to institute drug tests for unemployment benefits. But that hasn’t kept Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) from trying.

In July, Walker approved legislation that would implement drug tests for both unemployment benefits and food stamps, neither of which are currently permissible. To get his way, he’s suing the government to allow him to move forward with implementation, arguing that these programs are “welfare” just the same as the welfare cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, that does in fact allow states to implement drug tests.

But in the meantime, he took steps this week to do as much as he can under his limited authority. On Wednesday he authorized new rules that allow employers to voluntarily submit information about drug tests they made people take as a condition of employment. If any of those employees end up seeking unemployment benefits but failed the employers’ drug tests or declined to take one, they can be denied benefits unless they agree to get taxpayer-funded drug treatment.

“This new rule brings us one step closer to moving Wisconsinites from government dependence to true independence,” Walker said. “We frequently hear from employers that they have good paying jobs, but they need their workers to be drug-free. This rule is a common-sense reform which strengthens our workforce by helping people find and keep a family supporting job.”

But past experience from states that drug test welfare recipients shows they are anything but common sense. The positive test result rates are far lower than the drug use rate for the American population as a whole — last year, some states didn’t turn up any positive tests at all. Meanwhile, they are quite costly: states collectively spent nearly $2 million administering the programs over the last two years.

Walker’s plans to spread drug tests to other programs are mostly on hold. In the meantime, beyond suing the government, he’s asking Congress to give him permission. He’s reached at least one sympathetic ear in Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that administers food stamps. He’s put forward a measure that would allowing testing for that program.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

 

The CFPB Just Took a Huge Bite Out of Predatory Lending

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

paulblandBanks and payday lenders have had a good deal going for a while: They could break the law, trick their customers in illegal ways, and not have to face any consumer lawsuits. Armed by some pretty bad 5-4 Supreme Court decisions, they could hide behind Forced Arbitration clauses (fine print contracts that say consumers can’t go to court even when a bank acts illegally), even when it was clear that the arbitration clauses made it impossible for a consumer to protect their rights.

But the free ride is coming to an end. After an extensive study, that proved beyond any doubt how unfair these fine print clauses have been for consumers, the CFPB is taking a strong step to reign in these abusive practices. In a new rule, the CFPB says banks can no longer use forced arbitration clauses to ban consumers from joining together in class action lawsuits. That means banks can no longer just wipe away the most effective means consumers often have for fighting illegal behavior.

This is a common sense rule that will go a long way in combating some of the financial industry’s worst practices.

In recent years, for example, if a bank systematically cheated 10,000 consumers in the same way, the bank could use its arbitration clause to stop those customers from going to court together. Each individual had to figure out the scam, figure out what their rights were and then spend time and money fighting the bank and its expensive lawyers. Everyone was essentially on their own. Under most arbitration clauses, one or two customers (at most) would have the means and ability to fight all the way through the arbitration system to get their money back.

In contrast, a class action could offer all 10,000 people a fair shot at justice.

Exempting the financial industry from the normal legal system has had far-reaching – and terrible – consequences. Predatory lending and dishonest practices have pushed millions of people right into desperation. Far too many Americans have been tricked into taking out loans that were far more expensive than they realized.

But help is finally on the way. The free ride is ending.

When it passed the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress required the CFPB to study the use of forced arbitration clauses and take action if those clauses undermined the public interest. So the CFPB undertook a huge, data driven empirical study, which itreleased in March of 2015. The study found that, when consumers could go to court as part of a class action, they recovered billions of dollars in relief. Banks had to refund over charges, erase illegal or inflated debts, and correct inaccurate credit reports.

When consumers were subject to forced arbitration, though, nearly all of those wins disappeared. Almost no consumers actually fought their way through the complex and biased corporate arbitration system. They just gave up. Predatory lenders generally kept whatever money they’d taken, and could operate in a Wild West manner, unless a government agency intervened on behalf of the helpless consumer.

How did arbitration get to be so unfair? In the past, many state laws were clear that if an arbitration clause that banned class actions would undermine a consumer protection law, then a court should strike it down. But in a pair of 5-4 decisions, Justice Scalia wrote opinions that swept all that law away. As a result, corporations could write fine print contracts that would override actual laws. These decisions – one in 2011 and one in 2013 – were unmitigated disasters for consumers and they transformed the Federal Arbitration Act – in place since 1925 – into a Federal Predatory Lender Immunity Act.

But today, things are changing. The CFPB is living up to its name — the Bureau really is protecting consumers. CFPB Director Rich Cordray is probably the most effective agency head in the federal government. He is not afraid to stand up to huge and politically powerful corporations on behalf of the American people. He’s worked hard to ensure the agency lives up to the vision that Elizabeth Warren had when she was advocating for its creation. It’s no wonder why politicians who get huge campaign contributions from large banks hate the agency so much. Many House Republicans attack the CFPB almost as often as they try to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Today’s action is probably the biggest step forward for consumers since Dodd-Frank itself. It’s a huge step forward in the fight for common-sense protections. It’s a new rule that says the financial sector doesn’t get to re-write – or break – the rules anymore.

This blog originally appeared in Huffington Post on May 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Bland, Jr., Executive Director, has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy. Follow him on Twitter: .

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