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Trump NLRB Appointee Behind Major Anti-Union Ruling Accused of Corruption

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

An anti-union policy decision from President Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) appointees appears to be tainted by a violation of ethics standards, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is joining unions in demanding answers.

The Trump policy decision came on December 14 when the NLRB reversed an Obama-era ruling in the Browning-Ferris case—a pro-worker decision from 2015 that has been loudly decried by business lobbyists and conservative Republicans. The case turned on the issue of how the NLRB would define the term “joint employer” in union organizing cases—and was broadly viewed as a blow to McDonald’s and other fast food companies that exploit the franchise business model as a tool to help defeat unions. Last month, the five-member NLRB voted 3-2 in the Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors case to reverse Browning-Ferris, with recent Trump appointee William J. Emanuel providing the margin of victory for the anti-union forces.

Emanuel now stands accused by Warren and others of violating ethical standards by voting on the case even though he appears to have a conflict of interest. The conflict is said to arise from Emanuel’s former status as part owner (or “shareholder”) of the labor law firm Littler Mendelson, a business that specializes in representing employers against their own workers. The firm represented a party in Browning-Ferris, so standard government ethics rules indicate Emanuel should have recused himself from voting, according to critics.

“It looks really bad,” says Susan Garea, a California attorney representing Teamsters Local 350. Emanuel’s violation of ethics rules taints the NLRB vote, she tells In These Times, so the decision in Hy-Brand Industrial should be voided, and the validity of Browning-Ferris evaluated in an atmosphere free of conflicts of interest. Garea detailed her charges in a Jan. 4 court filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “It’s clear Emanuel should not participate,” in any vote on Browning-Ferris, she says

The Teamsters have been fighting the case for years. In 2013, Local 350 tried to organize workers at a recycling center in Milpitas, Calif., that was owned and operated by Browning-Ferris. But the union found itself blocked by a legal strategy that asserted the workers were actually employees of an outside staffing agency, Garea explains. The union fought the case before the NLRB, prevailed with the Board’s 2015 pro-union decision, and has been working ever since to fend off legal attempts to overturn the ruling. Garea, of the law firm Beeson, Tayer & Bodine, proclaims the case is far from over and the union is intent on blocking Emanuel’s improper action.

Warren entered the picture when Trump nominated Emanuel for the NLRB in mid 2017. She opposed him from the start, arguing that a lawyer who has represented only bosses in a 40-year-plus legal career was a bad choice for the NLRB, which is supposed to be a fair arbiter of labor disputes. She demanded a commitment from Emanuel to recuse himself from NLRB cases involving a long list of former clients (which he agreed to do) and voted against him in the final confirmation on the Senate floor.

“Emanuel is the opposite of what Senator Warren would like to see in an NLRB member. His conflicts of interest are a mile long, and he spent decades fighting against workers’ efforts to join together and stand up for themselves,” Warren’s Deputy Press Secretary Saloni Sharma tells In These Times.

The Senate floor vote on Emanuel reflected the deep party-line divide over Trump’s nominations to the NLRB. All the Democratic Party senators present voted against Emanuel, and all the Republicans voted for him. AFL-CIO chief lobbyist Bill Samuel tells In These Times that Trump’s appointments to government labor posts have been strongly anti-union, but Emanuel is one of the most extreme. “We didn’t make a fight about Emanuel. We just didn’t have the votes,” he says. “But we are very much behind Sen. Warren in her efforts to hold them [the NLRB members] accountable.”

In a letter dated Dec. 21, Warren posed questions to Emanuel raising concerns about potential misconduct in the Hy-Brand vote. “Given that your former partners at Littler Mendelson P.C. represented a party in [Browning-Ferris] before the board, did you recuse yourself from the board’s decision to move to remand the [Browning-Ferris] case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit back to the board? If not, why not?” she writes. The letter, also signed by several other top Congressional Democrats, requests that Emanuel commit to additional recusals from pending NLRB cases in the future.

An unsigned email message stated that Emanuel “respectfully declines” a telephone interview to discuss the Warren allegations. Messages left directly with Emanuel were not returned.

Sen. Warren and other congressional Democrats are awaiting a formal response to the questions before deciding on the next step against Emanuel. Meanwhile, the White House is expected to announce it is nominating Washington, D.C., management-side attorney John Ring to fill an open seat on the five-member NLRB, as former Chairman Philip Miscimarra’s term on the Board expired just days after the Hy-Brand decision.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Workers’ rights dealt major blow as GOP-led labor board sides with McDonald’s

Friday, January 19th, 2018

In September, the National Labor Relations Board tilted to a 3-2 GOP majority for the first time in ten years. Thus began a series of Obama-era policy reversals that previously strengthened worker protections.

By December, the NLRB overturned the Obama-era “Browning-Ferris” rule. The landmark rule had made it easier for employees to hold companies liable for labor violations committed by franchise owners or contractors. Before Browning-Ferris, a company needed to have direct and immediate control over their employees. Overturning the rule had implications for a 2014 case brought against McDonald’s, one of the biggest franchises in the country.

2017 was a year of eroding workers’ rights

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

There have been a series of victories for labor rights in recent years. Graduate student workers at private colleges and universities now have the right to unionize. In New York, employers are no longer allowed to ask for an employee’s salary history — a question that often hurts women and people of color. And the Fight for 15 has scored wins in cities across the country.

But the Trump administration stands in the way of much of the progress labor activists are demanding. It may not be as noisy or ripe for attention-grabbing headlines as Betsy DeVos’ education department or Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, but Alexander Acosta’s labor department has rolled back a number of key Obama-era labor advances.

“Acosta is not a bomb-thrower,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, law professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike some of Trump’s other less traditional choices for agency heads, Acosta had already been confirmed by the Senate for three previous positions and was considered a safe choice for labor department secretary.

Still, it’s clear the department is now under a Republican administration.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces fair labor practices, has an employer-friendly majority. The General Counsel of the NLRB is Peter Robb, a lawyer who management-focused firm Jackson Lewis wrote would “set the stage for the board to reverse many of the pro-labor rulings issued by the Obama board”. The Senate also confirmed to the NLRB William Emanuel, whose nomination was supported by corporate donors and industry groups like the National Retail Federation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Restaurant Association. Emanuel’s work previous focused on union avoidance tactics and among his former clients were Amazon, Target, Uber, and FedEx.

With these new additions, the Department of Labor has been busy dismantling protections for workers. Here are some of the biggest ways the Trump administration rolled back workers’ rights in 2017:

Less accountability for corporations like McDonald’s

One of the labor rollbacks that gained the most attention this year was the board’s decision to overturn the new joint employer standard that was supposed to make it easier for corporations to be held accountable for unfair labor practices at their franchises. Labor advocates expected the decision for some time after the department rescinded guidance that defines who a joint-employer is.

The Obama administration’s standard on joint employers went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business. McDonald’s has tried to avoid responsibility for violations like wage-theft for years. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action and released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

“Under the previous rule, you only needed to show [McDonald’s] had a theoretical amount of control. They reserve the right to control terms and conditions of work and controlled those conditions in an indirect manner like setting policies that other companies have to follow,” Hirsch explained. “The new case has said that no, you need actual direct control. When push comes to shove, it’s a matter of evidence and how much proof you have, so you may well still have a case against McDonald’s but you’re going to have to show that there is more actual control.”

Reduced protections for quality investment advice

In August, the Labor Department said it would like to delay a rule that would require financial advisors to act in the best interest of their customers and their retirement accounts. According to a federal court filing, the department wanted to delay implementation of the rule to July 2019. The full implementation of the rule is currently set for January 2018.

There are two standards investors have to be aware of right now: the fiduciary standard and suitability standard. A financial adviser operating under what is called the “suitability standard” is only required to make sure a client’s investment is suitable for the client’s finances, age, and risk tolerance at that point in time, but they don’t have a huge legal obligation to monitor the investment for the client. Under the fiduciary standard, an adviser must keep monitoring the investment and keep the customer’s overall financial picture in mind. In addition, advisers must disclose all of their conflicts of interest, fees, and commissions under the fiduciary standard. Right now, it’s easier for advisers to push investments that will make them money but are not necessarily in clients’ best interest, said Paul Secunda, professor of law and director of the labor and employment law program at Marquette University Law School.

“That rule has been substantially cut back, though how far back we’re still waiting to see. The current admin is in a holding pattern right now and my sense is that it could be cut back fairly dramatically even further,” Secunda said.

None of these labor department actions have been good enough for the financial industry, however. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that included the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Financial Services Institute, the Financial Services Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a Dec. 8 letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The plaintiffs said the delay of regulation shouldn’t hold up their appeal, where they argue the department does not have the authority to promulgate the rule, according to InvestmentNews.

Reduced worker safety

Experts on labor violations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told ThinkProgress they were concerned about how OSHA would respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, especially since the Trump administration has slashed worker safety rules from the Obama administration. 

Trump’s OSHA has left behind regulations on worker exposure to construction noise, combustible dust, and vehicles backing up in factories and construction sites, according to Bloomberg BNA. It also abandoned a rule that would change the way the agency decides on permissible exposure limits for chemicals. The July regulatory agenda did not list any new rule-making. The president’s 2018 budget would have killed OSHA’s Chemical Safety Board, which looks into chemical plant accidents, as well as the Susan Harwood grant program, which benefits nonprofits and unions that provide worker safety training.

“OSHA is taking a turn we usually see during Republican administrations, which means a lot less inspections and enforcement and a lot more trying to get employers to self-regulate or voluntarily comply which has not really worked that well historically,” Secunda said. “People who participate in these voluntary participation programs are usually employers who are already in compliance and those who continue to be bad actors are not really impacted by these voluntary programs. OSHA is about to be run by corporate America, which is obviously not good for employees.”

Deciding to let go of Obama-era overtime rule

In July, the labor department moved to roll back an Obama administration rule that would have expanded the number of workers eligible for overtime pay by 4.2 million. The department has not appealed a U.S. District Court in Texas that gave business groups the temporary injunction they wanted.

The current threshold for overtime pay is at just $23,660 a year, and the Obama-era rule would have nearly doubled that. In 1974, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers had a salary that allowed them to be eligible for overtime, but today, only 7 percent of full-time salaried workers earn a salary below this level, according toDavid Weill, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University who headed the Wage and Hour Division of the department during the Obama administration.

Referring to Acosta, Weill wrote in U.S. News, “Failure to appeal this flawed decision will leave millions working long hours with low pay and abrogate his responsibility to protect the hardworking people he and the Trump administration profess to care so much about.”

Labor department focus on ‘harmonious workplaces’

In one of the NLRB’s less discussed decisions this month, it overruled the Bush-era standard Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia. This standard went into further detail on whether facially neutral workplace rules, policies, and handbook provisions could unlawfully interfere with Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. (Under Section 7, it’s unlawful for employers to interfere with employees’ organizing rights.) The NLRB provides the example of employers threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees or promising employees benefits if they stay away from organizing as unlawful activity under Section 7.

Under the 2004 standard, employers could have the violated the National Labor Relations Act by instituting workplace rules that could be “reasonably construed” to prohibit workers from accessing these rights even if the employers don’t explicitly prohibit the activities.

Hirsch said he was surprised by the decision to reverse a Bush-era decision. “To me, it seems like they’re doing more than they needed to, which makes me wonder if they’re trying to make a point.”

Hirsch added that the decision appeared to carve out certain types of rules, such as a civility code in the workplace, and say they were permissible. The decision referred to employers who wanted “harmonious workplaces” and cast any opposition to such a requirement to be impractical, but Hirsch said there needs to be a balance in NLRB decisions between clarity and flexibility.

“That can be problematic bevause they’re rules that depending on the history of what has happened in that particular workplace and it could actually be viewed as fairly chilling for those employees,” Hirsch said. “… Labor and management relations aren’t always harmonious. In fact, they are designed not to be in a  lot of ways. Sometimes harsh language is used by both sides and sometimes that is OK, or we’re willing to tolerate that as part of the collective bargaining process rather than having violent strikes, like we did before the NRLA.”

‘Micro-unions’ are out of luck

The NLRB made another business-friendly decision this month when it decided that a unionized group of 100 welders and “rework specialists” at a manufacturing company with thousands of workers was improper. This means it will be easier for employers to oppose what are referred to as “micro unions” even though it can be advantageous for workers to organize this way. The decision went against eight federal appeals court rulings, according to Reuters.

LGBTQ workers’ not protected by Title VII

There is ongoing debate over whether LGBTQ workers have rights to ensure that they are treated fairly in the workplace under Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. In July, the Department of Justice undermined rights for LGBTQ people when it filed a brief arguing that prohibition of sex discrimination under federal law does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Trump Labor Board Just Made It Harder for Fast-Food Workers to Hold Corporate Bosses Accountable

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

On December 14, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned a 2015 policy that had made it easier for workers—particularly fast-food workers—to unionize and challenge their employers over unfair labor practices.

The Obama-era standard sprung from a 2013 case involving workers attempting to unionize at a recycling plant in Milpitas, Calif. The recycling company, Browning-Ferris Industries, owned the building but used a small staffing agency called Leadpoint to provide and manage workers. The local Teamsters union was trying to organize the employees, but it didn’t want to merely negotiate with Leadpoint: It wanted Browning-Ferris to be considered a joint employer and party to any labor contract. A regional director determined that Leadpoint was the sole employer, but the Teamsters requested a review, and the NLRB’s general counsel sided with union in a 3-2 vote.

The vote was hailed by unions and labor advocates for making it more difficult for corporations to distance themselves from certain legal violations—and for strengthening the bargaining power of subcontracted gig-economy workers.

The Browning-Ferris decision was also good news for fast-food workers and organizations like Fight for $15. Most fast-food companies use a franchising model, and Browning-Ferris made it easier for workers to hold corporations responsible for wage theft and union busting at individual locations. In 2014, the NLRB’s general counsel had already ruled that the McDonald’s Corporation could be considered a joint employer in various labor cases brought against the company’s franchises. But Browning-Ferris provided an entirely new legal dimension to the proceedings.

The Browning-Ferris decision was predictably criticized by industry groups, which immediately launched an all-out assault on the new rule. International Franchise Association lobbyist Matt Haller declared that the decision was “a knife-to-the throat issue,” pro-business organizations pressured Congress to block its implementation in their subsequent spending bill, and Browning-Ferris Industries challenged the decision in a federal appeals court.

Industry nervousness ended up being alleviated by the surprising election of Donald Trump, who successfully tipped the NLRB back to a Republican majority in September—and has sought to overturn the labor victories which occurred under his predecessor. The Trump administration recently ended Obama’s extension of federal overtime pay, and it’s preparing to eradicate a 2011 rule which protects the tips of wait staff. All of Trump’s NLRB appointees were connected to anti-union policies at their previous positions, but the confirmation process was fast-tracked, and they easily made it through GOP-controlled Senate. In overturning the Browning-Ferris precedent, the board claimed that the 2015 decision was responsible for “upending decades of labor law precedent and probably centuries of precedent in corporate law.”

In a statement, National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens called the reversal “just one more example of the Trump Administration favoring corporations over working people.”

“In this economy, employers are increasingly subcontracting out vital parts of their business to other contractors and/or using temporary employment agencies to fill vital positions,” said Owens. “The Browning-Ferris decision recognized that in these arrangements, companies that contract out work may still retain control over the conditions and standards that govern the work and how the workers doing the jobs are treated … the Trump NLRB has decided to let them off the hook.”

While there is no evidence that Trump was directly involved in the case, we do know that one his companies was impacted by the 2015 decision. In May 2016, catering workers at the Trump National Doral golf resort in Florida won a $125,000 settlement after suing for unpaid wages. As a result of the joint-employer liability, the workers were able to hold Trump Miami Resort Management responsible, even though an outside staffing agency had hired them.

It is likely that the Trump administration will soon work to overturn a number of additional Obama-era NLRB decisions. To the surprise of many, the board ended up adapting to the complexities of a changing economy under Obama and forcefully asserted the rights of workers in a number of important votes. Recent NLRB decisions have given graduate students the right to unionize at private universities, increased the bargaining power of workers at charter schools and made it easier for smaller groups of workers to unionize at companies. However, the term of the NLRB’s Republican chairman, Philip A. Miscimarra, ended just days after the board’s vote. Trump will at least have to wait until the Senate confirms his next nominee and reestablishes the Republican majority before he’s able to undo any of these changes.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Trump reversal of Obama-era labor rule is great news for corporations

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

A transgender woman is suing McDonald’s and the owner of the franchised restaurant she worked for after allegedly experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination.

La’Ray Reed said a coworker asked if she were a “boy or girl,” “top or bottom,” or what her “role” was “in the bedroom.” She said she was groped and spied on while using the public toilet.

But for Reed to hold McDonald’s responsible for her alleged mistreatment, her lawyers have to prove that McDonald’s should be held responsible as a joint employer—not just the owners of the franchised restaurant. There is a question of whether the Labor Department’s recent decision to rescind the standard for determining who is a joint employer will hinder her ability to seek justice. The Obama administration’s standard went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business.

McDonald’s has resisted this legal responsibility for many years, and says it does not have control over things like pay and working conditions at franchised restaurants. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action through a $3.75 million payment that allowed it to dodge responsibility. McDonald’s released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

Industry groups have been pushing against efforts to call businesses like McDonald’s joint employers for many years now. In 2015, Matt Haller, a lobbyist at the International Franchise Association called a 2015 National Labor Relations Board ruling on whether a recycling company could be called a joint employer, “a knife-to-the throat issue for the franchise model.” He told the Washington Post, “You’d be hard pressed to find a business that shouldn’t be concerned about the impact of this joint employer standard.” Haller said IFA was “pleased” at the department’s decision to rescind guidance this month.

But there is certainly hope for La’Ray Reed, and other workers like her who are experiencing discrimination or issues such as wage theft at work. Since the joint employer guidance does not have the full force of law, it is not as important to these cases as existing tests for determining if an employer relationship exists. Under the economic realities test, applied under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Labor Standards Act, among other laws, a relationship exists if someone is economically dependent on that business. Paul Secunda, professor of law at Marquette University, who teaches on employment discrimination law, said this test will play a much bigger role in determining whether an employee can hold McDonald’s responsible for discrimination.

“Just the Trump administration withdrawing this guidance does not mean in any way that these claims are doomed to failure or are otherwise are not plausible,” Secunda said. “Because what matters the most with employment law is focusing on employment discrimination under Title VII and what other state laws apply there.”

‘This control standard is the standard that has been in place since the 1950s and ‘60s, and so it doesn’t make sense to have different standards under different laws. It only makes sense to hold liable those who control what happens in the workplace,” Secunda added.

Representatives of Fight for $15, a group of fast food workers, teachers, and adjunct professors advocating for better pay backed by the Service Employees International Union, said McDonald’s has failed to enforce its own policies.

“The growing number of allegations suggests a failure by McDonald’s to enforce the zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment outlined in its Operations and Training and Policies for Franchisees manuals,” the labor group told BuzzFeed.

“There are terms and conditions that are set by the national parent McDonald’s,” Secunda said. “It has a policy on sexual harassment and equal opportunity that all its franchisees have to meet: that it will not tolerate sexual harassment whether based on transgender status or otherwise in the workplace. [The argument is] that McDonald’s parent company exercises meaningful control—that is being free from sexual harassment and demeaning conduct in the workplace.”

None of this means that any parent corporation is responsible for any franchisees’ lability, Secunda said, since every case must be decided on its facts, but where employers do exercise meaningful control over employees, there should be a possibility that they will be held responsible.

The decision to rescind this joint-employer guidance will by no means kill any possibility of holding a corporation, such as McDonald’s, responsible, and a judge would be more likely to consider the rule of law first, Secunda said, but the joint employer guidance would still be a helpful resource for the defendant to have in its arsenal.

“If I were a conservative jurist who wanted it to come out on the corporate conservative side of the world, I see that they could use this. ‘You know they’re the expert agency, so they can’t be wrong,’” Secunda said. “But I just think that would be disingenuous, because the agency has obviously changed its position based on the politics on the administration. And this should be an answer that has nothing to do with politics. It should be based on rule of law.”

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 22, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a journalist covering education, investments, politics, crime, and LGBT issues.

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