Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Will 2020 Be the Year Presidential Candidates Actually Take Labor Issues Seriously?

March 6th, 2019 | David Goodner

Call it a sin of omission, but the historic decline of labor union power was on full display during recent CNN town hall meetings with 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nationally televised forums featured questions on a range of issues from students, nonprofit directors, community leaders and other traditional Democratic constituencies (including undisclosed lobbying firms), but not a single question was asked about national labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 presidential candidates have not spoken at length on the stump about their agenda for labor, at least not yet, instead sticking to broader themes such as economic inequality and policies like raising the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free college tuition and universal child care.

“The candidates are making a distinction between labor policy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a leading expert on presidential politics, told In These Times. “It’s politically safer to talk about health care, expanded Medicare, and a higher minimum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most voters don’t understand the latter, even though you’ve got to do things like the latter to get the former,” Yepsen added. “If you don’t find ways to strengthen the labor movement, there isn’t going to be the political support to do the things needed to rebuild the working class.”

The failure of the Obama administration and a filibuster-proof Democratic congress to pass the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act is a good example. The legislation would have made it easier for workers to form a union with a simple 50 percent majority. But there was little political will by the Democratic leadership at the time to get it done given other priorities such as an economic stimulus, Obamacare, reining in Wall Street and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The issue agenda of the Obama White House was perhaps justifiable at the time, but it also came with a steep opportunity cost. The Democrats’ failure to strengthen union bargaining and consolidate a working-class base of political support when they had the chance helped lead to an eventual Republican takeover of government between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing governors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 presidential candidates learned this lesson? All of the declared candidates who are considered front runners have strong ties to organized labor.

With the notable exception of Klobuchar, nearly all of the senators running for president— Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Booker—co-sponsored Sanders’ 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, which would overhaul existing labor law and make it easier for workers to form and fund their own unions.

“The Workplace Democracy Act is Sen. Sanders’ key labor union legislation,” a spokesperson for Sanders told In These Times.

According to Sanders’ congressional office, the Workplace Democracy Act would enable unions to organize through a majority sign up process; enact ‘first contract’ provisions to ensure companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract; eliminate “right to work” laws; end independent contractor and franchisee abuse; legalize secondary boycotts and picketing; and expand the ‘persuader rule’ to weaken union-busting efforts.

As Sanders explained when introducing the latest iteration of the bill last year, “Corporate America understands that when workers become organized, when workers are able to engage in collective bargaining, they end up with far better wages and benefits… and that is why, for decades now, there has been a concentrated well-organized attack on the ability of workers to organize.”

Sanders, Harris and Warren have all also taken symbolic actions since announcing their presidential runs in order to highlight their close relationship with unions and the working class.

Warren, for example, formally announced her candidacy for president in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the 1912 strike by textile workers known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”

“Supporting labor and making it easier for American workers to join a union is absolutely a priority for Sen. Warren,” Jason Noble, Warren’s communications director, told In These Times. “She is a co-sponsor of the 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, introduced a bill in 2017 to ban “right to work” laws, and has been very vocal about the need for stronger labor organization and wider access to unions.”

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Actwould also allow workers at corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue to choose up to 40 percent of the company’s board of directors, shifting the balance of power toward the rank-and-file.

California is one of the last remaining union strongholds in the country, and Harris has hired the former president of the state’s largest and most diverse labor union, SEIU’s Laphonza Butler, to be her senior campaign advisor.

“Sen. Harris is a strong and passionate supporter of organized labor and workers’ rights,” the Harris campaign’s national press secretary, Ian Sams, told In These Times.

“She’s sponsored multiple bills in the Senate, including Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, WAGE Act, Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, Workplace Democracy Act, and Protecting Workers and Improving Labor Standards Act.”

In February, Sanders publicly jumped in on the side of striking workers in Erie, Pennsylvania after announcing his own 2020 candidacy. Since 2016, he has also joined workers in fights against Amazonand McDonalds, helping them to win major wage increases.

“Many blue-collar workers supported Trump in the last election,” Yepsen, the Iowa-based national political analyst, said. “Both presidential candidates and labor leaders have to figure out ways and messages to move them back onto the progressive side if they hope to get 270 electoral votes for a presidential candidate. The phrases ‘labor policy,’ ‘labor movement’ and ‘organized labor’ aren’t well understood by voters. ‘Health care’ ‘minimum wage’ and ‘improved education’ are understood. So give the candidates some credit for talking about important issues in a way people can understand.”

As Yepsen previously noted, however, this kind of thinking may help win elections, but it can also lead to a paradox. Focusing on easily-understood, ‘bread and butter’ issues—talking about working families but not union power—and relying on congressional voting records and scorecards instead of stump speeches and bold new proclamations won’t build a popular mandate for labor law reform, or the long term working-class political power that comes with it.

“Most Americans take for granted the things the labor movement has done for them over the decades—child labor, minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, health care,” Yepsen said. “A lot of workers have forgotten that too. The good news for labor is that people seem to be waking up. The polls show support for unions increasing and look at the success teachers have been having.”

On another measure, worker militancy has been on the rise—a record number of workers engaged in strikes or work stoppages in 2018. This increased labor action will have to be harnessed by voters in order to push even the strongest candidates into elevating union rights as a priority issue on the campaign trail.

Workers in early voting states can help do so by attending campaign events and asking the candidates to publicly explain their support for the Workplace Democracy Act—or whether or not they back a national “right to strike” law for public sector unions.

The more explicit presidential politicians are about labor rights on the stump, the more likely union power will become a “day one” issue if a Democratic president takes power in 2020. In the long run, this may be one of the only effective ways to both win progressive social change and defend workers’ gains from the inevitable right-wing counterattack.

About the Author: David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City.
This blog was originally published at In These Times on March 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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‘Religious freedom’ arguments kill Nebraska’s LGBTQ employment protections bill

March 5th, 2019 | Zack Ford

Nebraska is one of more than two dozen states that have no LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections at the state level. That’s not changing anytime soon, as a bill to create employment protections came to an abrupt end this week.

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks (D) introduced LB 627 in January this year. The legislation would have updated all relevant state statutes to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Pansing Brooks, whose son is gay, pleaded with fellow lawmakers Tuesday to consider the bill.

Pansing Brooks nearly secured the 25-vote majority she needed for passage, but could not find the 33 votes she needed to overcome a filibuster-ending cloture motion. Opponents of the bill claimed that it would be used to target religious business owners in the state and punish them for their beliefs.

Sen. Robert Clements (R) suggested that LGBTQ people didn’t deserve protections because he wasn’t aware of any science suggesting they were “born at birth that way.” Moreover, he took umbrage that “what the Bible teaches, and Christians and Jews have affirmed for 2,000 years, is being called hateful,” claiming the bill constituted “reverse discrimination.”

After reading an email from a constituent claiming that the protections would punish people of faith for their religious beliefs, Sen. Dave Murman (R) also claimed the bill “would threaten small-business owners with liability for alleged discrimination based on perceived gender.”

Many of the lawmakers who supported LB 627 warned of a brain drain, with young people leaving the state to find a more welcoming community. Sen. Megan Hunt (D), who identifies as bisexual and Nebraska’s first-ever LGBTQ senator, is herself a business owner and employs 12 young women, and knows first-hand how challenging it is to keep young people in the state. “I think there’s a lot to learn about why Nebraska struggles to keep young people here,” she said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) similarly recalled the story of an attorney who lost a position at a Nebraska law firm after he inquired about same-sex partner benefits, and talked about a constituent in his district who was fired from a fast-food restaurant after it came out he had a boyfriend.

But opponents of the bill were not convinced. Murman instead insisted that young people were supposedly flocking to Nebraska because of the state’s conservative values.

Though LB 627 is essentially dead for the session, Pansing Brooks is still optimistic that the debate helped create some change that will allow it to pass in the future. Writing on Facebook after its defeat, she took hope that the politics of the state were changing and that “Nebraska will ultimately see the light.”

“I will continue to fight with every fiber of my being for the protection of LGBTQ people’s civil rights,” she wrote.

Democrats in Congress are expected to introduce the Equality Act soon, which would create nationwide LGBTQ protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit. Though the bill has previously been introduced in the past two sessions of Congress, Republicans never brought it up for a vote.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

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Walmart will 'make every effort' to keep disabled greeters, but it's not making any real promises

March 4th, 2019 | Laura Clawson

Faced with a widespread backlash over its elimination of greeter jobs that can be held by people with disabilities, Walmart is backtracking, maybe. The president and CEO of Walmart’s U.S. stores sent out a memo—and provided it to the press—saying that “If any associate in this unique situation wants to continue working at Walmart, we should make every effort to make that happen.” That’s nice, and it’s a clear indication of the pressure the company has come under, but it’s nowhere near a commitment to workers with disabilities.

Walmart’s greeter position has long been an opportunity for people who can’t stand for long periods or lift heavy weights, but recently the retail chain announced that it would be phasing out those jobs and replacing them with “customer hosts” who have to be able to lift 25 pounds, clean spills, and in some cases climb ladders. That was a major blow to many of the people for whom those greeter jobs have been a lifeline. “I don’t want to lose this job. This is a real job I have,” one man told National Public Radio, saying that his biggest concern was being able to feed his rescue dog.

Former greeters in multiple states have filed Equal Opportunity Employment Commission complaints or lawsuits against Walmart after their jobs were eliminated or changed to jobs that require standing, climbing, or lifting. After the recent outcry, Walmart announced that it would give greeters extra time to find replacement jobs they could do, and then, when that failed to quell the outrage, came the “make every effort” memo. “We are looking into each [case] on an individual basis with the goal of offering appropriate accommodations that will enable these associates to continue in other roles with their store,” CEO Greg Foran wrote. One man in North Carolina, for instance, is being transferred to self-checkout.

But don’t assume this issue is settled because Walmart said it would “make every effort” to keep the greeters employed in its stores. That’s not a promise of anything but doing enough to make the issue fade from the headlines.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on March 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

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Caring for Our Caregivers: Workplace Violence Hearing Highlights Job-Related Assaults for Health Care and Social Service Workers

March 1st, 2019 | Rebecca Reindel

Workplace violence is a serious and growing problem for working people in the United States: It causes more than 450 homicides and 28,000 serious injuries each year. Workplace homicide now is responsible for more workplace deaths than equipment, fires and explosions. Two of every three workplace violence injuries are suffered by women.

Health care and social service workers are at greatest risk of violence on the job because of their direct contact with patients and clients. They are five times as likely to suffer a workplace violence injury as workers in other occupations.

Violence against health care and social service workers is foreseeable and preventable but the Trump administration has refused to act. That is why Rep. Joe Courtney (Conn.) introduced legislation last week that would require the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a standard to protect these workers. The standard would reduce violence by requiring employers to develop workplace violence prevention programs that identify and control hazards, improve reporting and training, evaluate procedures and strengthen whistlebower protections for those who speak up, which lead to safer staffing levels, improved lighting and better surveillance systems.

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, held a hearing to highlight this severe and growing problem and the need for an OSHA standard to protect working people. Patt, an AFT member from Wisconsin, testified about her traumatic experience of assault as a registered nurse. She and her colleagues had tried to speak to management and press for improvements, but their voices were not heard. Then she was attacked by a teenage patient with a history of aggression at a county mental health facility. He kicked her in the throat, collapsing her trachea, requiring intubation and surgery. She suffers severe post-traumatic stress disorder and can no longer work in her dream job as a nurse. It was not a random event, but a predictable scenario that could have been prevented with a clear plan and better-trained staff.

Watch the hearing.

Here are other union members’ experiences of violence on the job that could have been prevented with an enforceable OSHA standard:

Helene: An AFT member and psychiatric nurse in Connecticut for 16 years in an acute care hospital who attempted to hand a patient his pain medication when he punched her in her jaw, knocking her to the floor and breaking her pelvis. Helene was unable to return to work for six and a half months, had to go through rehabilitation and physical therapy, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. This patient had a history of violence, including previously attacking a social worker, but there was no system in place to alert her.

Brandy: A National Nurses United (NNU) member and registered nurse in California for 18 years in general pediatrics who was assigned to a 14-year-old patient with a diagnosis of aggressive behavior. When Brandy entered the patient’s room, the patient had his mother pressed against the closet door with his hands around her neck. Brandy called for security and additional staff assistance. They were able to safely remove the patient’s mother, but the patient threw a chair at Brandy, who was trapped between a wall and a bed. Brandy suffers from tendonitis in her right elbow, which makes it difficult to do simple everyday tasks such as opening jars, typing and hanging bags of fluids at work. Appropriate violence-prevention controls include ensuring that large furniture and other items that can be used as weapons are affixed to the floor in rooms with aggressive patients.

Eric: An AFSCME member and security counselor at a Minnesota hospital who has administered treatment to the mentally ill for nearly a decade. Eric was assigned to monitor a highly assaultive patient who continually attacked his fellow patients. The patient then turned his assaultive behavior on Eric and punched him in the right eye, causing him to instantly lose sight in the impacted eye. Eric managed to restrain the patient until his co-workers arrived to assist. Eric was rushed to the emergency room via ambulance where they discovered he had a blow-out fracture of his orbital bone and a popped sinus. He received 17 stitches, and his eye socket has never fully recovered. The hospital did not have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program that would have prevented this.

John: A United Steelworkers (USW) member and certified nursing assistant in California for 18 years who tried to change a male veteran’s wet bed when the patient became agitated and attacked John, breaking his arm. He was out of work for four weeks. John didn’t know the patient was prone to violence. At his facility, workplace violence comes from patients, visitors and other employees. There is at least one incident every week, ranging from slapping to breaking arms or punching. After John’s incident, the employer began requiring a note on the patients’ charts when they are prone to agitation or violence. Sometime later, the employer also began using red blankets on the beds to denote a combative patient so all employees would know when they interacted with the patient.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on February 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Reindel is a senior health and safety specialist at the AFL-CIO.

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After Janus, Cities and Towns Are Poised to Become the New Battleground Over “Right to Work”

February 28th, 2019 | Nick Johnson

In December 2015, Lincolnshire, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with a population of a little over 7,000, passed a right-to-work (RTW) ordinance. While a slim majority of states have enacted RTW laws over the past several decades, RTW measures at the county or municipal level are rare in comparison. A group of unions quickly sued to strike down the ordinance, and after nearly three years of litigation, the next stop for the legal battle might be the Supreme Court.

The unions have been successful so far in their fight against the ordinance, winning first in the U.S. District Court and then again after Lincolnshire appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. But on February 14, Lincolnshire filed a petitionwith the Supreme Court, which will now decide whether it will hear the village’s appeal. Lincolnshire is being represented in the lawsuit by the Liberty Justice Center, one of the groups that represented plaintiff Mark Janus in Janus v. AFSCME, the case that abolished public-sector fair-share fees nationwide.

The legal arguments in the case, which is named Village of Lincolnshire v. IUOE Local 399, are not particularly complicated. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) clearly allows employers and unions to enter into union security agreements, which require workers to pay union dues (or reduced “fair-share fees” for non-members). However, a provision in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allows states to pass RTW laws, which permit workers to refuse to pay union dues while still enjoying all of the benefits of union representation. The unions argue that the Taft-Hartley provision means what it says—that states can pass RTW laws, not counties or cities. Lincolnshire argues that the law’s reference to “states” actually includes states and their subordinate political bodies.

Allowing local RTW ordinances could lead to what the unions described in their Seventh Circuit brief as a “crazy-quilt” of overlapping and inconsistent regulations. Illinois alone could be home to more than 300 different RTW ordinances among counties and municipalities with home rule authority. And numerous different laws could apply to the same collective bargaining agreement, as agreements commonly cover multiple facilities or job sites.

There is reason to suspect that the Supreme Court will decide to hear Lincolnshire’s appeal. The Seventh Circuit’s decision in favor of the unions conflicted with a 2016 decision of the Sixth Circuit, UAW Local 3047 v. Hardin County, which held that counties and municipalities have the legal authority to enact RTW measures. The Supreme Court will often hear an appeal to resolve this kind of conflict, which is called a circuit split. Troublingly, the Supreme Court refused to hear the UAW’s appeal of the Sixth Circuit decision, leaving that decision as law of the land in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and potentially tipping the justices’ hands on the issue.

In Janus, the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court overturned more than 40 years of precedent to make the country’s entire public sector RTW. There is no reason to expect Justice Kavanaugh to be any more sympathetic to labor rights than now-retired Justice Kennedy. If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it may well be the next step in the steady erosion of labor rights that has occurred under the Roberts Court.

Meanwhile, local RTW laws have started to spread elsewhere. Lobbying efforts by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity have made quick progress in New Mexico, with 10 of the state’s 33 counties and one village passing RTW ordinances since January 2018. The group previously used the same county-by-county approach in Kentucky, where over a dozen counties passed RTW ordinances before statewide RTW legislation passed in 2017.

In Delaware, attacks on unions at the local level have been less successful. In late 2017 and early 2018, two local governments in the state were considering RTW measures. While a proposal in Sussex County eventually stalled following union protests and warnings from the Delaware Attorney General and the county’s own attorney that the county lacked the legal authority to enact the proposal, the town of Seaford quietly enacted a RTW ordinance without holding any public hearings. The Seaford ordinance was quickly quashed in June 2018 when Governor John Carney signed legislation permitting private union security agreements statewide.

Local RTW laws have been slow to spread in part because local governments like Sussex County fear that they violate the NLRA. But with union busters running out of states in which they could realistically seek to pass RTW laws, they have looked to local RTW laws as a way to make inroads into non-RTW states. If the Supreme Court gives local RTW laws their blessing, the significant legal risks will be removed and right-wing groups will begin pushing them on counties and towns throughout the country.

What can the labor movement do in the meantime? One strategy is legislative. In states where Democrats hold the governorship and the majority in both state legislatures, we can push politicians to follow the Delaware approach and enact laws guaranteeing the right to enter into union security agreements. But even after significant Democratic gains in the midterm elections, there are only 13 of these states other than Delaware.

Another strategy is for private-sector unions to conduct vigorous internal organizing campaigns as public sector unions did in preparation for Friedrichs v. CTA and then Janus. Unlike public-sector unions, private-sector unions do not have onerous restrictions on the subjects over which they can collectively bargain, which many public sector unions have been forced to deal with in recent years. These campaigns to increase worker participation in existing unions and to sign up fair-share-fee payers as full members will prepare unions to contend with local RTW laws in unexpected locations, while also building stronger unions if we are fortunate enough to avoid another attack from the Supreme Court.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Nick Johnson is a union lawyer in New York.

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Reports of Klobuchar’s treatment of staff highlight poor workplace standards on Capitol Hill

February 27th, 2019 | Casey Quinlan

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has come under intense scrutiny this month, as several media outlets have reported on her reputation as a bad boss, highlighting instances of alleged abuse against staffers. The media coverage points to a broader problem, however, as labor experts say workplace standards on Capitol Hill need to be reformed.  

Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential race, has reportedly thrown binders and telephones at staffers, engaged in office-wide shaming of employees, and called prospective employers to hurt staffers’ opportunities elsewhere. Sources told The New York Times thatworkers who took parental leave were then required to stay in the office three times as many weeks as they took leave or pay back the money they earned during their leave (though a spokesperson from Klobuchar’s office said that policy had never been enforced and would be officially changed in the staff handbook). Her office also has one of the highest rates of staff turnover in the Senate, according to the Huffington Post.

Klobuchar’s staff (present and former) have pushed back against some of the claims — notably on the office’s paid leave policies — and Klobuchar herself has said that she simply has high expectations for herself and her staff.

But a lot of Klobuchar’s behavior reportedly goes back a decade, and only received considerable media attention after she announced her presidential bid.

So the bigger question is this: Is the type of behavior that has recently been reported simply tolerated on Capitol Hill — and if so, why?

Experts on labor and staffing issues on Capitol Hill say that, on the Hill, the culture is centered on employer loyalty. There are few opportunities for accountability, regardless of whether the problem is centered on a member of Congress or a someone like a chief of staff, and workers are often left on their own in abusive work environments.

Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, a cross-political reform group, said that there is very little guidance on the human resources on Capitol Hill.

“Standards and operations on the pure human resources side vary tremendously, and things that in corporate America would either be considered inappropriate or just standard operating procedure don’t exist on Capitol Hill for the most part,” she said. “One of the things that has happened over several years is that some of those offices — the Library of Congress, the police, Architect of the Capitol, and those who aren’t in the representatives’ offices — have gone through a series of changes to address HR issues. The only people who were left out of that were the members and the staff and the committee offices themselves.”

Judith Conti, government affairs director at National Employment Law Project, said it’s particularly difficult to seek accountability when dealing with anyone in any kind of political office because a reference is required and elected officials are difficult to remove from their position.

“My first job out of law school was for a lifetime-tenure federal judge who was extremely abusive to staff in incredibly well-known ways, and people put up with it because there wasn’t anything you could say to anybody that was going to get him removed from the job,” she said. “It’s not like when you’re working for a private corporation and then your boss sexually harasses you and, if you complain to HR and it’s founded, that person will be fired.”

“An elected official or a lifetime-tenured judge, these aren’t people who are getting fired through conventional means and they are people who, when they give you a good recommendation it’s very prestigious.”

The complicated process of reporting violations

Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training for congressional staff and conducts research, said it’s interesting that Congress does not have an HR department and instead has various structures to deal with things like workplace abuse and sexual harassment.

Congress recently overhauled its policies on sexual harassment, reforming the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to mandate climate surveys and annual public reports on data on awards and settlements. 

Still, the process right now is complicated. For certain violation claims, including bad behavior that is allegedly targeted by race, sex, or age, there’s a multi-step dispute resolution. This process will change on June 19 under the CAA Reform Act and more information on that process will be rolled out soon. Until then, the worker has to file a request for counseling with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) within 180 days of the violation. After the counseling — which involves informing workers about their rights — if the worker wants to continue with the claim, they must request mediation within 15 days. If the other party doesn’t agree to mediation or if mediation doesn’t resolve the claim, they can move forward with an administrative hearing or file a lawsuit in federal district court. The worker must do this within 90 days after the mediation.

“It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

Under the new changes, mediation will be optional and and mandatory counseling will be eliminated. A worker can confidentially seek consultation and assistance from the office and a confidential adviser may help assist in drafting a claim.

Laura Cech, spokesperson for OCWR, said that depending on the situation, workers can seek resources with ethics committees, employee assistance programs, and legal assistance from the Office of Employee Advocacy. OCWR has provided a list of legal organizations and attorneys for employees and employers looking for legal representation.

Cech said that not all workplace disputes and situations allege a violation of the CAA and workers can try to resolve issues through an internal grievance process or talk with their employee assistance program. An example of something that would go through that process is bad behavior because of race, sex, or age.

And regardless, a broader culture change is just as key as the HR resources being in place.

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure,” Fitch said. “… You have 535 small businesses on Capitol Hill and each one of these offices is a culture unto itself. It’s not House Republicans or Senate Republicans… It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

A culture of high turnover

The high turnover that results in a bad boss reputation isn’t good for the public interest either, McGehee said. When staff with expertise leave, one result is that members of Congress don’t ask good questions. McGehee cites last year’s Facebook hearings, where members of Congress often embarrassed themselves when they asked questions that showed they didn’t understand the most basic facts about how social media operates.

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure.”

“The members looked terrible in those hearings — and a member’s capacity to represent their constituents and really grasp and handle a policy on this wide range of issues, it is largely dependent on staff,” she said. “Two things happen when you don’t retain staff. First of all, you don’t have that expertise and gravitas, people who know what they’re doing. And the other part of that is when you have a lot of staff turnover, whether you’re in a personal office or in a committee, K Street-types can run circles around these folks.”

She added, “I’ve seen a number of occasions where, where you put this comma, how you describe this thing, can totally change the impact of the bill. And if you’re inexperienced, you don’t know that. You have no clue and it’s a real problem … if you don’t have deep knowledge of an issue it can be very difficult to understand the impact of what it is you’re trying to put together.”

McGehee said that since a chief of staff is usually hired not for their managerial skills, but for, say, their knowledge of the district, it is particularly important for them to have standards to follow. Fitch also agreed that there are huge barriers to getting staff to attend trainings on the proper management of offices.

“The challenge is both the structure and the culture does not lend itself to professional development on Capitol Hill,” he said. “An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

In February, his organization hosted a training for about 50 managers on helping workers with managing expectations, being self-aware, and avoiding inappropriate behavior that offends people.

Part of the problem, Fitch said, is that staffers tend to ignore office processes until there is a huge problem that forces their attention to it.

“An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

“These people didn’t come to Capitol Hill to be better managers. They came here to pass health care legislation or tax cuts and the end result drives everything,” he said. “I have to constantly remind my staff we are not the most important thing to Congress — until we are. Then you get that office that is running into problems because of sniping between the district office and D.C., or a chief of staff is killing morale, or a member is killing morale. It’s a challenge and usually when it gets to that kind of state is when we are pulled in.”

Fitch said he does believe that things on the Hill are improving. There have been recent changes following major harassment scandals in Congress, such as a mandated sexual harassment training. Fitch said House is also offering a new program that will help staffers learn about management and legislative research and communications.

What’s the solution?

For the sake of retention, as much as workers’ rights, Congress needs to create a healthy workplace environment beyond just the guarantee that bosses won’t shame you or throw things in the office, Fitch said. He added that retention could be improved by giving workers more incentives, such as tuition assistance or more frequent pay periods. (Currently, House staffers are only paid once a month.) A LegiStorm analysis found that the number of staffers in their 40s has declined from more than 14 percent of all staff in 2001, to just over 9 percent today.

Congressional staff are also not allowed to unionize, which would help introduce more protections for workers and possibly curb abusive behavior. McGehee said unionization in members’ offices is “considered kind of a radioactive topic” on the Hill on both sides of the aisle.

Unionization can make a difference, however. Conti said that, currently, in any sector, unless the workforce is unionized and tries to enforce certain standards of conduct, it’s tough to hold people accountable for workplace abuse that isn’t targeting someone by gender or race or another protected class. A reputation for being an abusive boss, even in severe circumstances, isn’t usually enough to push someone out of office or prevent them from consideration for government office.

Conti said, “There’s nothing illegal in most circumstances. If you’re working in a unionized workforce, that’s one thing. But there’s nothing illegal in being, as people in my field colloquially refer to as, an equal opportunity offender. You’re awful to everybody so it’s not like you’re discriminating against anybody. It’s inhumane. It’s immoral. It’s unethical. But it’s not illegal.”

“We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

There are often gender differences in who is targeted, however. A 2017 survey of 1,008 adults found that almost 60 percent of U.S. workers are affected by workplace bullying. Seventy percent of those bullies were men and 60 percent of their targets were women. Additionally, the survey found that women bullied other women more often than men.

Conti said a worker could use a civil tort called intentional infliction of emotional distress. A worker could also pursue a workers compensation claim if there are severe mental health consequences. But these are often hard cases to make.

“That’s where if somebody treats an employee in such a way that it is just outside the bounds of reasonableness and the person suffers severe mental anguish as a result of it, then that is illegal, but it’s damn near impossible to prove,” Conti said.

She referred to a case in which someone knowingly falsely accused a worker of stealing things from their employer in order to get them fired — but the case still wasn’t severe enough to rise to the occasion of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“It really has to be above and beyond, like shrieking and humiliating people and being mercurial and changing the rules all the time, so you really have to think through, is there some sort of harassment?” she said. “We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

McGehee said that without ensuring accountability, implementing better office practices and standards, and addressing what she calls the “blood oath” of loyalty on the Hill, staffers are left to deal with toxic workplaces on their own.

“You’re pretty much in the world saying, ‘I guess my career on the Hill is gone. My career on K Street is not good, since they will probably say no one wants to talk to me.’ So you may as well leave Washington …There’s nobody to go to.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering education and labor issues. Their work has also been published in The Establishment, Bustle, Glamour, The Guardian, and In These Times.

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Missouri Supreme Court opens the door to LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

February 26th, 2019 | Zack Ford

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a gay employee’s case alleging sex discrimination in the workplace could proceed, reversing a lower court ruling and establishing a new precedent that could help protect embattled non-heterosexual workers in the future.

The court also ruled on a separate but similar case involving a transgender student who claimed his school discriminated against him by blocking him from bathrooms and other facilities, saying the student deserved a fair hearing.

At stake in the first case is the extent to which gay, lesbian, and bi people in Missouri are protected on the basis of their sex. State law does not extend employment nondiscrimination protections on the basis of “sexual orientation,” meaning it’s fully legal to fire someone based on their sexuality. But in this case, while the plaintiff acknowledged that he is gay, he claimed that he faced discrimination because of sex stereotyping, not because of his sexual orientation.

Harold Lampley, an employee in the state’s Department of Social Services Child Support Enforcement Division, filed a complaint arguing that he was harassed at work for his non-stereotypical behaviors, noting that employees with stereotypical behaviors were not similarly treated. He claimed to have experienced regular verbal abuse and forced closed-door meetings about his performance. After he complained, he also alleged that he experienced retaliation in the form of poor performance evaluations not consistent with his work.

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Lampley’s friend and coworker Rene Frost likewise claimed that she suffered discrimination merely for her affiliation with Lampley. The employer allegedly violated her privacy by publicly announcing her performance review. After she complained, she said she faced retaliation, such as having her desk moved away from Lampley’s and other coworkers with whom she collaborated. Frost claimed she was also banned from eating lunch with Lampley and allegedly faced similar verbal abuse and harassment.

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights concluded this discrimination wasn’t actionable because Lampley’s sexual orientation isn’t protected, and a lower court agreed. It relied on a similar ruling against a recycling company employee named James Pittman, who claimed he had been called a “cocksucker,” asked if he had AIDS, and harassed for having a same-sex partner. The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that Pittman could find no relief under state law, and a circuit court concluded the same must be true for Lampley and Frost.

But in Tuesday’s ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that being gay does not preclude an employee from protection on the basis of “sex,”which includes sex stereotyping. “[A]n employee who suffers an adverse employment decision based on sex-based stereotypical attitudes of how a member of the employee’s sex should act can support an inference of unlawful sex discrimination,” the majority wrote.

“Sexual orientation is incidental and irrelevant to sex stereotyping. Sex discrimination is discrimination, it is prohibited by the Act, and an employee may demonstrate this discrimination through evidence of sexual stereotyping,” they explained. The Commission was wrong not to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their sex-stereotyping claim, and the Court ordered it to issue Lampley and Frost right-to-sue letters.

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The second case on which the Court ruled this week similarly focused on the debate over protections on the basis of sex.

Student “R.M.A.” filed a complaint against Blue Springs School District for denying him access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms. The school initially countered both that “gender identity” was not protected under the state’s “sex” protections and also that it should not be considered a “public accommodation” and thus the nondiscrimination law should not apply to it at all. Without specifying which reasoning informed its opinion, a lower court dismissed R.M.A.’s complaint outright.

In a 5-2 ruling this week, the state Supreme Court reached a different conclusion. Rather than considering sex stereotyping, the majority recognized that once a transgender individual has legal changed their sex, as R.M.A. has, they are protected on the basis of that sex. In a footnote, the majority called out the dissenting justices for relying on a distinction between “legal sex” and “biological sex” that is not actually found anywhere in the law. R.M.A. is a boy, and if he’s not being allowed to use boys’ facilities, then he deserves his day in court.

This pair of rulings opens the door to far greater protection for LGBTQ people under Missouri state law — but with some limitations.

The first ruling, for example, accepts the premise that sexual orientation is not itself connected to sex stereotyping, even though expectations about the gender of a person’s romantic partners are obvious stereotypes themselves. This means that while Lampley and other gay, lesbian, and bi workers will now have an opportunity to pursue discrimination claims moving forward, it will require them to prove that they were targeted because of sex stereotypes not directly connected to their sexual orientation.

Likewise, the ruling in favor of R.M.A. seems to rely on transgender people legally changing their sex designation before they are eligible for protection. State law requires transgender people provide proof of surgery to update their birth certificates, although some judges have granted the new gender markers without that requirement. This means that there may still be inconsistent financial and medical obstacles to qualifying for legal protection.

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Neither ruling weighs the merits of the discrimination claims, so it also remains to be seen whether Lampley or R.M.A. will prevail once their complaints are given due consideration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news.

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When a Company Tries to Decertify Its Union

February 25th, 2019 | Michael Sainato

Cable provider and mass media company Charter Communications, which offers its services under the Spectrum brand, is pushing to decertify the IBEW Local 3 union in New York City, whose workers have been on strike since March 28, 2017. Decertification votes are used by workers to get rid of a union or replace it with a different one, with the vote to get rid of IBEW Local 3 being pushed by replacement workers.

Roughly 1,800 workers represented by IBEW Local 3 went on strike over a contract dispute with Charter Communications, which bought out Time Warner Cable in May 2016. A majority of workers voted to authorize a strike in response to cuts to healthcare and pension benefits in the wake of the buy-out.

As the strike approaches two years, Charter Communications is advocating workers to vote to decertify the union with the National Labor Relations Board.

In an internal email from January 31, obtained by In These Times, Charter Communications Regional Vice President of New York City Operations, John Quigley, told workers, “In my opinion, Local 3 has not earned the right to represent you. Over the past several years they have mislead (sic.) their members, led them out on a strike without a clear plan, mishandled almost every aspect of the strike, made it very clear what they think of employees who are working with us today, and continue to make empty threats about harming our business.”

Quigley added, “we hope that you vote ‘no’ and give us a chance to continue to make Charter a great place to work-together.”

The email reveals that Spectrum encouraged its workers to get rid of the union. A Spectrum spokesperson told In These Times via email, “the vote is between our employees and IBEW Local 3. We have no further comment.”

“A standard tactic in a union-busting campaign is to be intransigent in bargaining and thereby provoke a strike, hire replacement workers who are eligible to vote, schedule a decertification election and hope the replacement workers vote in greater numbers than the strikers,” Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, told In These Times via email. “It illustrates the need for labor law reform that would permit workers to bargain and, if necessary, strike without losing their jobs and their rights to bargain collectively.”

The petition to decertify the union was filed with the National Labor Relations Board by Bruce Carberry, who the union alleges is a supervisor who transitioned to a survey technician role in order to file the petition and become a part of the bargaining unit represented by the union. Union members allege this individual was demoted for the purpose of undermining the union. Once a decertify petition is filed and approved with at least 30 percent of workers signing in favor, a vote is held where a majority determines the outcome. The vote went forward after negotiations to end the strike broke down in December 2018.

On his LinkedIn profile, Carberry lists his role as a supervisor until January 2018; the petition was initially filed in May 2018. Carberry began working for Charter Communications in May 2017, shortly after the union went on strike. Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director John Walsh approved Carberry’s petition to allow a decertification vote in June 2018 despite these allegations from the union that Carberry was ineligible to file the petition due to his supervisory position. The ruling explainedthe union did not prove Carberry was not in a supervisory role at the time of filing the petition, despite proving he served in a supervisory role prior to its filing.

If the vote passes to decertify the union, the outcome would essentially end the strike in Spectrum’s favor rather than continue to pressure Spectrum to make concessions in bargaining a new union contract. It’s unclear how many replacement workers, permanent and contracted employees have been hired by Spectrum during the strike. When the strike first began, Spectrum’s contingency plan included hiring contractors from out of state and the company has recently been scrutinized by city officials for not hiring enough local labor.

The attorney representing Carberry and his petition, Matthew Antonek, has previously represented union busting efforts at Verizon as the company’s Executive Director of Labor Relations.

“He’s a union buster,” said Tim Dubnau, an organizing coordinator for the Communications Workers of America which has led efforts to unionize Verizon employees, of the petitioner’s attorney. “The labor law is completely broken in this country. It’s amazing how coercive employers can be and are.”

Since the petition went through, a campaign that includes an anti-union blog surfaced to try to sway workers to vote in favor of decertifying the union. One blog post includes ten reasons to vote “No,” including claims the union hates current Spectrum employees, the union lies, and that workers would be better off without the union representing the workplace.

“Around the new year starting when the NLRB said the vote was going to go through, a charter tech blog showed up saying things like you can’t get anymore raises,” Chris Fasulo, a Spectrum worker on strike, told In These Times. “There are also a couple of Twitter accounts out there, all of a sudden they started trolling a lot of guys on strike like myself who are very outspoken on Twitter.” A Spectrum spokesperson denied the blog or accounts are affiliated with the company.

The NLRB sent out ballots to all eligible workers this month for the decertification election, which includes workers on strike and any hired before January 2019. Ballots were due February 22, and the outcome of the vote is not yet known.

“Even though none of these people are part of the union, the law seems to give them the ability to vote on whether or not a union should represent the workplace,” said Troy Walcott, a Spectrum worker on strike. “So while we’re out on strike all the people who are working in place of us who don’t have a union are now allowed to vote on whether a union gets to represent the workplace.”

He added a grassroots movement has started in the wake of the strike to create apublicly owned cable service in New York City. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and union leaders in New York have recently renewed calls to boycott Spectrum and its services over the company’s union busting. The company is currently in negotiations with the New York Public Service Commission to be able to continue providing cable services in New York State after the commission voted in July 2018 to revoke approval of Spectrum’s merger with Time Warner.

“The company is basically union busting in New York City, and they’ve come in, raised rates on people and set their own terms because they hold a monopoly right now and there’s really no one to stop them from doing what they’re doing,” added Walcott.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Sainato is a journalist based in Albany, NY. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1

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Calls Increase for Trump Labor Sec. Alexander Acosta To Resign

February 22nd, 2019 | Julia Conley

A U.S. District judge ruled Thursday that U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta committed a crime in 2007 when, as a U.S. prosecutor at the time, he secretly gave a lenient plea deal to a politically-connected billionaire accused of sex trafficking underage girls.

In a case brought by victims of billionaire and Trump associate Jeffrey Epstein, Judge Kenneth Marra found that Acosta and other federal prosecutors violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by brokering a plea deal with Epstein, allowing him to serve only 13 months in a county jail for his crimes, and then sealing the agreement.

The ruling came nearly three months after the Miami Herald‘s explosive report on the plea deal, which prompted the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the prosecutors’ conduct.

Marra’s decision led to renewed calls for Acosta—who was appointed by President Donald Trump and who as head of the Labor Department is responsible for combating sex trafficking—to resign.

By sealing Epstein’s plea agreement, Acosta stole from more than 30 of Epstein’s victims—some of whom were as young as 13 when they were recruited by his paid employees and then coerced into sex acts by him—the chance to attend Epstein’s sentencing and demand a harsher punishment.

“While the government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the [agreement] with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims,” Marra found.

“The government-aligned themselves with Epstein, working against his victims, for 11 years,” Brad Edwards, the attorney representing the women who survived Epstein’s abuse, told the Herald. “Yes, this is a huge victory, but to make his victims suffer for 11 years, this should not have happened. Instead of admitting what they did, and doing the right thing, they spent 11 years fighting these girls.”

Epstein’s victims and the U.S. government now have 15 days to come to a resolution following Marra’s ruling.

This article was published in In These Times on February 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julia Conley is a Maine-based staff writer for Common Dreams.

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Now That Government Is Funded, Here Is What Workers Want to See

February 21st, 2019 | Richard Trumka

Last year, in communities all across the country, millions of Americans mobilized and called for an economy that works for all of us. From state houses and governors mansions to Capitol Hill, we elected advocates who committed themselves to advancing that cause. That election was defined by a movement of hard working people who stood together to reject the meager crumbs we are being handed and reclaim what is rightfully ours.

In electing more than 900 union members to office, we secured a great opportunity to right the structural wrongs of our economy. Our mission was not simply to rack up victories on election night last November. We changed the rulemakers. Now it is time for them to change the rules. As legislators move past the manufactured crisis that defined the first weeks of the 116th Congress, working people are ready to fight for that change.

Above all, that means affirming our ability to have a real voice on the job. A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that half of all nonunion workers, or more than 60 million Americans, would choose to join a union if they were given the chance, yet aspiring union members continue to face countless obstacles. The power of working people must be unleashed. Whether we work for private companies or public employers, in an office or a mine or a factory, all of us have the right to freely negotiate higher wages and better working conditions.

Congress should modernize the badly outdated National Labor Relations Act to truly protect our freedom to organize and mobilize together. Top lawmakers have put forth promising proposals that would ensure workers can organize a union without facing scorched earth tactics and hostile campaigns from corporations. If workers sign up for a union, they deserve to know their decision is protected by law. It is not the job of executives, governors or right wing operatives to make those decisions for them.

However, our fight will not end with one piece of legislation. An agenda for working families means building a fairer economy and a more just society for everyone in our country, whether you are in a union or not. That means achieving full employment where every American is able to access a good job, passing a $15 federal minimum wage, and refusing to approve any trade agreement that lacks enforceable labor protections.

It means providing a secure and prosperous future for all our families by expanding Social Security, strengthening our pensions, and making a serious federal investment in our infrastructure. It means defending the health and lives of working people by shoring up the Affordable Care Act, removing onerous taxes on health insurance plans negotiated by workers, expanding Medicare coverage to more people, and lowering prescription drug costs. It means passing laws that ensure paid sick and family leave.

All of these guarantees are long overdue for working people, but there is arguably no task so vital as defending our right to safety and dignity on the job. Congress should also extend comprehensive federal protections, including the Equality Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, to LGBTQ and immigrant workers, whose livelihoods and families too often rest on the whims of their employers.

As one of a handful of men in my family to survive the scourge of black lung in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, I cannot overstate the dire need for broadly strengthened safety regulations, including the expansion of Occupational Safety and Health Administration coverage to all workers, toughened federal enforcement, and ironclad whistleblower protections.

Corporations and right wing interests continue to try their best to deny working people our fair share of the enormous wealth that we produce every day. In November, we stood up to change that twisted status quo. We made our voices heard at the ballot box, and we intend to hold the people we elected accountable to an economic agenda that will raise wages, move our country forward, and lead to better lives for all of us.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on February 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO.

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