February 28, 2005

Immigration Reform: Sell Green Cards

With almost ten million undocumented immigrants in the US, working without most legal rights and exploited by the day, even as hundreds of thousands more stream across our borders because of desperation back home, there is a human rights crisis serving food at your local restaurant, taking care of children on our playgrounds, and cleaning our offices.

I am a radical on immigration and advocate open borders, but that's not going to happen any time soon. So the question is what reforms could potentially gain political support AND improve the lives of these immigrants. Counterintuitive as it might seem (and I can already hear some liberal friends screaming), I think Gary Becker's proposal to sell additional immigration slots for $50,000 a green card meets these criteria. Fees would not be collected up front, but could be paid back through loans over a number of years. Present undocumented immigrants could buy their way out of the shadows, while new immigrants could skip border dogs and starvation and instead drive freely to their new homes in the US. [Note: To avoid confusion, I am supporting Becker's general proposal with the details I'm presenting, not all his proposed details, many of which I find noxious.]

Why It Would Improve Lives: $50,000 might seem a daunting price, but most immigrants would be financially better off compared to living illegally.

Many undocumented workers are paid less than minimum wage and gaining legal status would allow them to earn far more per hour and demand the legal rights to make sure they were paid fairly.

As an example, loans paid back over twenty years at 7% interest would require payments of $388 per month, but just $3 more earned per hour due to a legal status would translate into an additional $480 per month in full-time wages, more than those loan payments. And legal status would translate into an even larger number of non-financial advantages, including the right to vote.

And for new immigrants, the gains could be even larger, since many are often so desperate that they already pay tens of thousands of dollars to smugglers and are often sold into virtual slavery in the US. So paying a fee for safe passage and a green card would look damn attractive as an alternative.

Why This Would Sell Politically: The loudest argument against immigration is that new immigrants use more public benefits than they pay in taxes. Most evidence disputes this view, but politically it's one of the arguments made most often and a lot of polls show people buy it. And it it often true that the specific communities where immigrants settle face immediate costs, such as building new schools or public health facilities, that the taxes immigrants pay don't cover. (Undocumented immigrants often pay payroll and income taxes under false papers, but that money doesn't necessarily flow back locally).

So letting the undocumented buy their way out from the underground would assure voters that new citizenship was not a free ride. If just half of the ten million undocumented took up the offer, this would bring in an immediate $250 billion and new immigrants each year could bring in an additional $10-20 billion annually. In a time of deficits, that price tag would look awfully tempting to most voters and elected leaders. And this money could be earmarked specifically to help out communities with disproportionate immigration, thereby making encouraging immigration a potentially popular political choice for those local voters as well.

As for the other fear of immigrants, that they drive down wages for local workers, the immigrant fees spent on jobs programs might ease that fear a bit, but the real change will be that undocumented immigrants won't be so easily exploited and bid down wages. The worst thing for native workers is to have ten million people in the economy who lack the legal right to fight on their own behalf for decent conditions. Changing that is one of the best programs to raise wages for all workers.

What About the Alternatives?: I am a strong supporter of the "earned legalization" proposals that would grant citizenship to undocumented workers who have worked for many years in the United States, but political opposition makes passage of those laws unlikely. And in any case, they do little to change the status quo of new immigrants continually replenishing the ranks of exploited work in our economy.

Most of the "guest worker" proposals out there, including Bush's still somewhat undefined one, either are too limited in who is covered to deal with the larger problem or would make things worse by tying workers to employment with specific employers, essentially a system of indentured servitude with no real prospect of eventual citizenship. Letting people buy their way to citenship is less distasteful than creating a system where they only enter the country as de facto rented property of the corporations who sponsor them.

A Hard-Headed Solution: I'm not necessarily happy with the solution of selling green cards, but it in many ways appeals as the least bad of any program likely to have a chance of enactment. There is something distasteful about auctioning off American citizenship, but there is something far more noxious about out half-ass de facto policy of instead auctioning off slots in our sweatshops to those who survive the brutal and sometimes deadly border crossings.

The compromise I would propose would preserve the present system of allocating free slots for immigration based on family unification and a lottery system, so there would be no elimination of a chance for immigration without financial burden. This proposed policy is only an alternative to our present non-policy in regard to the roughly 400,000 undocumented immigrants who arrive each year outside the official system. The goal is to to give those immigrants an opportunity to escape those shadows and use the fees generated to ease the political tensions that threaten to become a flash point for xenophobia and political reaction.

As I said, not a perfect solution, but the status quo is far worse. If we could politically achieve earned legalization, I'd push for it as a fairer, more equitable solution but it seems an unlikely sell right now. Maybe if the initial program of selling green cards on loan repayment plans was adopted, the next step would be for progressives to lobby for loan payment relief for lower-income immigrants. Once those immigrants were citizens, proposing easing that economic burden on our "fellow Americans" would be an easier sell than overcoming the present prejudice against helping "illegals."

This proposal is not the ideal, but it promises to be better than what we have now, which is a festering human rights violation every day. And no proposal is good unless it has a chance of being enacted and this one potentially does. So progressives should take a hard look at it as a possibility as we debate immigration reforms in coming years.

Posted by Nathan at 08:50 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

February 26, 2005

Addendum on How Companies Fight Union Votes

Following up on the post about the vote at the Denver Wal-Mart, this story has a quote by a Wal-Mart worker who hates her treatment by the company but still voted against the union:

Alicia Sylvia, a single mother of 10-year-old twins, was a big union booster at the outset.

"Compared to other stores, we don't even make what cashiers make," said Ms. Sylvia, who earns just under $9 an hour writing up service orders as cars arrive at the garage and says she cannot afford Wal-Mart's health insurance.

She acknowledged that the antiunion videos had helped turn her against unionizing.

"I really wish Wal-Mart would become better," she said. "But even if we get a union, it will be a long battle. Wal-Mart doesn't have to agree to anything. The message we got was, 'You're a small bunch of guys, and you can stand out there and strike, and we're going to replace you.' They'll never agree to a contract, out of pure stubbornness. I'm so confused."

That pretty much highlights the effectiveness of anti-union campaigns leading up to an NLRB election. Essentially, Wal-Mart says that since they'll continue to violate labor law after the vote and fire people who try to strike, resistance is futile. Wal-Mart uses its own reputation for intimidation and retaliation as an electioneering tool.
Posted by Nathan at 10:25 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Why Labor Rights Protect National Security

If we die in a terrorist attack, it will be because some political hack covered up his own ineptitude. And the best chance of uncovering that ineptitude before we all die is to let his subordinates blow the whistle of his incompetence.

But the Justice Department believes in protecting the political hacks:

The government has told a federal appeals court that a suit by an F.B.I. translator who was fired after accusing the bureau of ineptitude should not be allowed to proceed because it would cause "significant damage to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

"The effect of the government's posture in this case will be to discourage national security whistle-blowers," said Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who is helping Ms. Edmonds...The case has become a lightning rod for critics who contend that the bureau retaliated against Ms. Edmonds and other whistle-blowers who have sought to expose management problems related to the antiterrorism campaign.

One of the most pernicious ideas out there is that we are vulnerable to terrorism because we are a democracy and respect civil liberties. In fact, those liberties are our best protection against the incompetents who would sacrifice our safety for their venal interests. Authoritarians around the world are regularly assassinated and their regimes beset by violence, so repression as savior from terrorism is a delusion.

The advantage of a democracy is that we have hundreds of millions of brains freely operating to protect us. Using the courts to silence any of them is an act of sabotague against our safety by the Bush administration.

Posted by Nathan at 09:14 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 25, 2005

What Ezra Should Read

Ezra Klein has made a resolution to put more labor issues into his progressive vision, but wants to know which books might steer him in the right direction. Since he started with Thomas Geoghagen's Which Side Are You On?, one of my all-time favorites (and whose author I coincidentally met just this past week, much to my delight), he's off to a good start. So let me add a few more titles, not an exhaustive list but a few highlights:

Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor- a biography of Sidney Hillman, the organizer of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (a forerunner of today's UNITE) and co-founder of the CIO in the 1930s, a man who embodied some of the best qualities of labor leadership in the first half of this century.

Reds or Rackets: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront - a fascinating sociological analysis of why longshoremen on the East Coast ended up under the thumbs of the mob, while those on the West Coast created one of the most radical and democratic unions in the country.

The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor-- you can't understand the internal wars within labor during and after World War II without understanding Reuther, since the United Auto Workers were the pivot on which the politics of the CIO moved and Reuther ultimately controlled that pivot as he turned against his former Communist allies within the labor movement. And Reuther's and the UAW's role in supporting the civil rights movement should not be forgotten by any progressive.

Working Class New York- a detailed account of labor's role in New York City, a story that doesn't ignore the racism of some unions but also highlights the vital role of most union leaders in fighting for civil rights and the dignity of working people of all races in a wonderful urban history.

The Copper Crucible- the history of the 1983 Phelps Dodge strike in Arizona, the first major use of permanent replacements in the modern era, a strike that set the pattern for union-busting throughout the 1980s and 1990s. (BTW Anne Coulter's Dad was the union-busting lawyer for Phelps Dodge in this battle).

Folks have other suggestions for Ezra?

Posted by Nathan at 05:00 PM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Why People Like Wal-Mart

Kevin Drum and Max Sawicky got into a small debate on whether Wal-Mart's homogenization of products in favor of cheaper prices is worth the tradeoff. Brad Plumer thinks that Wal-Mart might not be so pernicious in that effect, since it might encourage other stores to INCREASE their variety of products in order to compete against Wal-Mart. Brad hastens to add that this issue isn't as important as whether Wal-Mart is violating labor rights, but I think it is a critical issue.

One reason I support a strong regulatory approach to raise wages and promote unionization at Wal-Mart, rather that just trying to keep them out, is that I think many people do find what Wal-Mart offers attractive-- and would find it attractive even if prices went up marginally to support decent wages.

For busy moms (and dads hopefully), the attraction of being able to visit one store, load up the cart quickly, and have all your week's shopping done is obvious. For many folks who can't afford to shop at all the chi-chi specialty stores, all the products available at Wal-Mart is not a narrowing of choices but a great expansion of variety. When people condemn Barnes & Noble for eliminating the local independent bookstore, my only reaction is to think how happy I would have been to have a B&N in my suburban town, rather than the crappy local independent store we had where I grew up.

We aren't going to convince people to improve Wal-Mart's working conditions by telling them they really don't want what Wal-Mart's selling, since they obviously do. What we can do is point out that many of the things they like about Wal-Mart -- especially the convenience and decent prices -- are compatible with the workers being treated with respect and dignity. The prices might go up a little bit, but most folks will treat that as a reasonable tradeoff. But if you tell them it's a choice between decent wages and having Wal-Mart altogether, I'm afraid we're fighting a losing battle.

Maybe it's because at heart I'm a Wal-Mart shopper and only avoid the place on principle that I have strong sympathy for those who support bringing them into towns across the country. I testified in Chicago in support of our bill to require living wages at large retail stores, and the aldermen from the poor parts of Chicago where Wal-Mart wanted to put their stores were rapturous at the prospect of bringing a few more shopping choices to areas ignored by most retail outfits. They were quite willing to regulate Wal-Mart but they were somewhat angry at the activists who wanted to block it from coming altogether. I'd rather choose a strategy -- fight to regulate and raise standards at Wal-Mart -- that accomodates both the desires by shoppers for what Wal-Mart sells and the desires by those same people as citizens that the workers at Wal-Mart get paid a decent wage.

Posted by Nathan at 04:19 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

How Companies Fight Union Votes

Here's the odd thing about union elections. Almost no union applies to the NLRB for an election without a majority of workers signing cards wanting the union brought it. Yet unions, by the time the election happens, often lose the vote. But the key words are "by the time the election happens", since between signing the cards and holding the vote, the company gets to change the electorate. Take the vote being held today in Denver on whether a Tire & Lube Express department at Wal-Mart will unionize. Last November, nine of the department's seventeen workers signed cards asking for a union. Between then and today's vote:

two have left to attend college and a third was fired. As many as six new workers were brought in...Those workers could skew the vote in favor of the retail giant.
With a third of the potential voters hand-picked by Wal-Mart since November with this vote in mind, it's a bit as if an incumbent politician could randomly import massive numbers of new voters of his choosing each election. No incumbent would ever lose office in such a system and it would be considered a democratic farce.

Yet that's our American union election system.

Update: BTW there's a lovely piece in Slate slamming the lies by Wal-Mart executives that their "average" wages are $10 per hour-- that is, if you factor in the pay of top executives who make as much as 900 times more than the clearks in the stores.

Update: The official election results show that the Colorado workers rejected unionization, 17-1. So somehow, that workforce went from nine workers signing cards asking for a union to only one voting for it. Given that Wal-Mart has just announced that it will shut down a store in Quebec after it voted to unionize, the result is unsurprising.

Posted by Nathan at 09:36 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Even DOL's Defense of Wal-Mart Deal is Anti-Worker

Bush officials are so anti-worker that even when they defend the Wal-Mart deal under fire, they expose their pro-corporate agenda. In comments, flygal found compelling this oped in the Miami Herald by Victoria Lipnic, who heads the Employment Standards Administration in the Bush DOL. But instead of giving an example of other companies with the same deal -- which she can't since the Wal-Mart details are far sweeter -- the Bush official instead "pivots" and uses the platform for a not-so-subtle attack on labor unions:

Most employers -- and unions -- are given advance notice of an inquiry so that they can assemble the necessary documents and personnel for review.

Even with complaint-driven audits of union finances, for example, it is not unusual for a large union to be given 30 days or more to prepare. This isn't for the benefit of the employer or union but to help our investigators do their work.

It's the nice rhetorical game of comparing investigations of Wal-Mart letting children play with chainsaws as morally equivalent to financial audits of unions. But of course, the Bush administration is more interested in auditing unions than investigating companies like Wal-Mart. As this anti-union organization celebrates, the Bush budget reflects this bias:
While the Dept. of Labor's overall budget is decreased by 4.4 pct. from FY 2005, the U.S. Office of Labor-Mgmt. Standards includes an increase of $7 million to fight fraud and corruption in labor unions. Money would be used to beef up audits, help hire 48 new auditors, and investigate and combat embezzlement of union funds.
The Bush DOL couldn't be clearer, in both their rhetoric and their budget, that they don't care about violations of the law by big corporations. They want to turn the Department of Labor into a police unit to break unions, even as they give companies like Wal-Mart a free pass. What's amazing is that even when caught at their game, as with the Wal-Mart deal, they can't play down their anti-worker rhetoric even for a second.
Posted by Nathan at 09:06 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 24, 2005

Hotel Chains Face Growing Labor Strife

As the union-led boycott of hotels drags on in San Francisco due to contract negotiations, hotels are getting a taste of a new focus by the unions in building a nationwide strategy to take on the chains.

Negotiations are now being complicated by unions' attempts to organize nationally as international hotels grow.

Unionized workers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., for example, had sought contracts that would all expire in 2006, putting them on the same timetable as other major markets to boost their bargaining power.

Whether the unions can pull off the simultaneous expiration of contracts remains to be seen, but the resistance by employers just illustrates how much employers depend on divide-and-conquer tactics, whether dividing workers by city, by job, or into separate companies through subcontractors. The ongoing challenge for unions is to unify their memberships across these divisions, something hotels workers are taking the first steps to do.
Posted by Nathan at 07:57 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wal-Mart Fails in Bid to Enter NYC

Wal-Mart has become so radioactive that even other capitalists don't want to associate with them:

Facing intense opposition, a large real estate developer has dropped its plans to include a Wal-Mart store in a Queens shopping complex, thwarting Wal-Mart's plan to open its first store in New York City.
The decision of Wal-Mart to pull out in the face of labor and community opposition is part of a broader trend in New York City of scrutinizing the labor policies of other big box stores in the city. Just two weeks ago, the City Council's Land Use Committee unanimously voted to block a Bronx site for a proposed B.J.'s Wholesale Club, a notoriously anti-labor company.

Still, I'm ultimately skeptical that these strategies to just block Wal-Mart from major cities is enough. There are thousands of Wal-Marts already built across the country, so we need a strategy, town by town, city by city, to force them to raise labor standards and grant public access to their property to allow labor and community groups to educate the public and employees about problems at Wal-Mart, as well as at similar retail outfits. As previously discussed, the City of Hartford already has enacted a public access law, Montana is proposing to require that large retailers pay a living wage or face additional taxation, and the City of Chicago is debating a bill to require both access and living wages by large retailers.

Wal-Mart is no doubt here to stay as part of the fabric of our economy. But just as the anti-union auto corporations of the 1920s were forced to improve job conditions for their workers in the 1930s and 1940s by a combination of legislation and union organizing, so too must we work to force Wal-Mart to become a responsible employer that is a net contributor to labor standards, and not a drain on our public resources.

Posted by Nathan at 07:27 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 23, 2005

Despite NLRB, Graduate Teachers Threaten Strike

The NLRB ruled last year that graduate teaching assistants at private universiites have no legal rights under our national labor law. But unions were organized long before 1935, when the Wagner Act was first enacted, so there is no reason that those grad student workers can't demand their universities recognize their unions upon threat of a strike. And that's what TAs at universities like Yale are still doing. Rights under the NLRA have been so violated by employers and the anti-union burdens so large that grad students may find some advantages from escaping its regulations.

Posted by Nathan at 08:02 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

More Murders & Kidnappings of Iraqi Labor Leaders

See here and here.

More at the website of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.

Posted by Nathan at 07:58 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 22, 2005

Changing the Legal Rules to Allow Organizing

Sometimes the hardest part of forming a union is creating an employer with whom to bargain. Here's an example of the more innovative approaches to organizing new workers previously nearly impossible to bring into unions, in this case child care workers

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has signed an executive order to allow 47,000 day care workers to organize themselves into unions and collectively bargain with the state on behalf of those workers. Read the order and it may seem a little odd, since it talks about a "representative designated by a majority of day care...providers" and using the "state action exemption" to protect them from liability under antitrust laws. And despite the fact that the workers will organize under state employee labor laws, they won't be state employees.

So what's this all about?

Many social service workers, such as home health care aides who take care of the elderly or child care workers taking care of children, are hired directly by their clients, even though their funding may ultimately come from the state government. So the providers are not employees but small independent businesses or self-employed independent contractors.

So what this executive order states is that these mini-businesses may band together and designate bargaining agents to negotiate with the state over wages and conditions. Now, normally such businesses banding together would violate federal antitrust law, but states have the legal right to "exempt" certain combinations from antitrust laws if they combine together under the auspices of a system of state regulations.

So voila, 47,000 day care workers move from a legal status barring them from collectively organizing into one where they can.

This model is also being promoted in other states, including Rhode Island as detailed by matthewRI at Rhode Island's Future.

The reality is that nothing good will be coming from changes in federal law for labor in the next four years, but this is a good example of changes we can fight for at the state level to improve workers lives.

Posted by Nathan at 11:21 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Privatization and the New Spoils System

Even as progressives have been lambasting social security privatization, there has been relatively little discussion of the expanded privatization of federal jobs -- replacing government employees with private businesses and employees unprotected by civil service rules against political retaliation if they don't follow the administration's partisan line.

Against most rhetoric, the number of government jobs has been rapidly expanding over the last four decades, they've just been doing so as employees of private contractors. As a Brookings institute study found, the true size of the federal workforce is 17 million people, including 5.6 million jobs created under federal contracts, 2.4 million jobs generated under grants, 4.6 million jobs covered under mandates to state and local governments, on top of the formal civil service workers and uniformed military.

And those privatized jobs are increasingly manipulated to shake down contractors for political donations. Take the recent inaugural; five of the bigggest donors to the inaugural received $286 million or more in federal contracts last year, including United Technologies Corp. (contracts worth $1.2 billion), Exxon-Mobil Corp. (120 contracts totaling at least $649 million), AT&T ($366 million in contracts), Michael Dell of Dell Computer (federal sales of $362 million), Ford Motor (government sales of $286 million). This is just on top of the more obvious partisan deals running through defense contracts-- from Halliburton to security deals handed out to previously small businesses run by GOP partisans-- who have in some cases ripped off the government for millions of dollars.

All of this is bad enough, but it's likely to get worse.

However much abuse an administration might want to engage in, many decisions on such contracts are decided by government employees protected by civil service protections. But now, the Bush administrations wants to allow supervisors to withhold raises from any employee based on subjective evaluation of their performance. This will open up a whole new realm of coercion to direct contracts to political allies of the administration. A New York Times oped this week noted this transformation of federal employees from direct service providers into contractor managers:

The federal government now spends about $100 billion more annually for outside contracts than it does on employee salaries. Many federal departments and offices - NASA and Energy, to name just two - have become de facto contract management agencies, devoting upward of 80 percent of their budgets to contractors....

It must be recognized that involving partners to produce government services places more - not less - responsibility on public officials. It requires them, often with declining resources, to provide more public service than before, but produce less of it themselves.

With those government employees now subject to retaliation if they don't hand contracts to allies of the administration, we have seen the de facto return of the spoils system to our government, as contractos can anticipate massive returns on their contributions in elections and, most ominously, their employees can be told that they either support the electoral choice of their company or they may face retaliation themselves.
Posted by Nathan at 08:34 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 21, 2005

DOL Inspector General to Investigate Wal-Mart Deal

According to this story and author Stephen Greenhouse says "several career department officials said that Wal-Mart had improper control over what the department could say because the settlement stated that Wal-Mart and the department would 'develop the terms of any joint or separate statement' about the agreement." The seeming creative control by Wal-Mart over the press release is one of the more obvious slimy aspects of the deal, and while the Labor Department denies that Wal-Mart exercised such control, they have yet to explain the mystery of the two press releases. [Note that the DOL due to the public scrutiny has restored the original press release to the DOL web site since my blog post.]

Posted by Nathan at 09:45 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

February 19, 2005

What's It All About, Vicky? Child Labor, Wal-Mart and the Bush Administration

Reprinted from Confined Space.

"Why would we want to change it?"

--Assistant Secretary of Labor Victoria Lipnic, when asked whether the Department of Labor is considering modifying an agreement reached with Wal-Mart in January that requires DOL inspectors to provide 15-day advance notice of any child labor inspections.

Why change it? Take a look at some of the youth fatality investigation reports from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Like this one:

A 16-year-old male produce-market worker (the victim) died from crushing injuries after being caught in the vertical downstroke baling machine that he was operating. The victim, working alone in the basement of a small produce market, was crushing cardboard boxes when at some point in the compacting process he was caught by the machine's hydraulic ram. The victim was discovered by an exterminator spraying the basement, who notified the store manager to call police and emergency medical services (EMS).
Or this:
October 21, 2001, a 15-year-old male pizzeria worker was killed when he became entangled in a machine used to mix pizza dough. The victim had arrived in the United States from Guatemala one month before the incident and had been working at the family-owned pizza restaurant for two weeks. He was paid to do odd jobs at the restaurant, mostly sweeping and cleaning. On the night of the incident, he was cleaning the pizza dough mixer as the restaurant was closing for the evening. He was working alone in the kitchen as the remaining staff cleaned the adjoining dining room. He apparently lifted the cover of the mixer, uncovering the 32-inch-diameter mixing bowl, and started the machine. As he reached in to the bowl to clean it, he became entangled on a large mixing fork (beater) that rotated inside the mixing bowl. His co-workers heard him scream, but were unable to reach him in time.
Or this:
On July 2, 2001, a 17-year-old male warehouse laborer (the victim) was fatally injured when the sit-down-type forklift he was operating tipped over and crushed him. The victim apparently lost control of the forklift, which had a load on its forks and the mast fully extended, as he was making a right turn, causing the forklift to tip over 90 degrees onto its left side. The unrestrained victim was crushed under the extended boom/mast of the forklift.
Responding to pressure from congressional Democrats like George Miler (CA) and Ted Kennedy (MA) as well as labor unions, the Labor Department's Inspector General announced yesterday that it would conduct an investigation "to review the circumstances surrounding" an agreement between DOL and Wal-Mart that required Labor Department inspectors to warn Wal-Mart stores before inspecting them for child labor and other labor standards violations.

Wal-Mart thinks it's just about them. According to Wal-Mart spokesperson Gus Whitcomb,

What is truly unfortunate is that the attention focused on this agreement has now moved from being about compliance, which is where our attention is focused, to being a new forum for people who simply don't like us.
No Gus, "truly unfortunate" is the fact that over 200,000 teens are injured on the job each year in this country. Of those injured on the job, about 100,000 are injured seriously enough to require emergency room treatment. The controversy about this issue goes far beyond the big bad Congressmen and unions beating up on itty bitty Wal-Mart. It's about how serious this administration is going to be about enforcing violations of child labor laws, as well as general labor standards and workplace health and safety protections -- especially when those violators happen to also be their major corporate contributors.

Other Developments

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, where most of the violations took place, the Governor M. Jodi Rell ordered a state investigation of the Wal-Mart's Connecticut stores and "several state representatives called for increases in state fines for labor-law violations and for a budget increase to support the probe with more inspectors."

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was pleased:

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who said that findings of "errors or improprieties of substantive magnitude would warrant overturning the agreement," including any false statements or improper political intervention. Blumenthal filed his second Freedom of Information Act request Friday, this time for documents on all closed investigations of possible child labor law violations by Wal-Mart across the country. He said his request was a result of discussions with attorneys general in other states who have heard that previous investigations of Wal-Mart's compliance with child labor provisions had been closed before being fully aired.

Gary Pechie, who heads Connecticut's wage and workplace standards division, reported that the state would be reviewing that Wal-Mart violations and they would not be giving the stores advance notice.

Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Child Labor Coalition called on Wal-Mart to stop illegal child labor in its stores by making underage workers wear distinctive badges that could readily identify them as being prohibited from hazardous assignments.

For more information on safe employment for young workers, check out these websites:

NIOSH Young Worker Safety and Health: Lot's of publications, fatality reports, fact sheets and other resources.

Young Worker Health and Safety: The website is a project of California's statewide Resource Network for Young Worker Health and Safety.

The Child Labor Coalition: Information for teen workers as well as advocacy information about U.S. and international child/youth labor.

Interstate Labor Standards Association (ILSA): Includes information on state agencies that administer and enforce child labor laws.

Posted by Jordan Barab at 05:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

6000 Union Organizers in the Field?

It looks like the proposal to cut contributions to the AFL-CIO in exchange for international unions promising to devote more resources to organizing will become a reality. Major unions representing 40% of the AFL-CIO membership met and pledged to support a Teamster proposal to cut dues to the AFL-CIO in half -- a potential $35 million cut in AFL-CIO resources -- if any union promises to devote 10% of their resources to organizing.

While a lower commitment than the ideal, if implemented across the union movement, it would still amount to a major expansion of organizing, roughly equivalent to having 6000 full-time union organizers knocking on doors across the country.

Posted by Nathan at 06:51 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 18, 2005

A Hot Time at the AFL-CIO Exec Meeting?

Andy Stern at the Unite to Win blog is making some tough noises about the need for the AFL-CIO to abandon "lowest common denominator" decision-making, and instead moving to some kind of majority vote approach, where the labor movement can follow "the bold vision of the majority, not the blocking and obstruction of a minority."

The upcoming AFL-CIO exec meeting promises to have fireworks galore, if this is a taste of what's coming.

Posted by Nathan at 02:54 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Inspector General Investigating Wal-Mart Deal

Under pressure from Congressman George Miller, the Inspector General of the Department of Labor has agreed to investigate "the circumstances surrounding" the signing of the sweetheart deal with Wal-Mart. We'll see if we get more than a whitewash, but a small victory nonetheless!

Posted by Nathan at 11:01 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Newsletter Criticizing Bush Plan Censored

A federal government union newsletter denounces Bush's plan to privatize social security.

Under a union contract since 1978, the federal government is obligated to distribute the newsletter to the union's 7500 members.

The Bush administration ignores the contract and refuses to distribute the newsletter criticizing Bush.

So far par for the course censorship and illegal behavior by the administration.

But get this for hypocrisy of the nth order: the Bush administration is referring the matter to the Labor Department's inspector general for possible criminal prosecution for violating federal anti-lobbying laws. Yep, the Bush administration is horrified, yes horrified that public money might in any way be used to influence public policy.

This is of course the same administration that puts newspaper and radio columnists on payroll to push its agenda and announced plans last month to use Social Security Administration employees to convince the public that Social Security is in a crisis and needs private accounts to fix things.

This censorship of union newsletters is nothing new; in December 2002, the Bush folks blocked distribution of a newsletter with a cartoon mocking Bush's tax policies as favoring the wealthy. The union forced the department to distribute the newsletter after the union won a ruling that the government had illegally broken the union contract. So the plea that distributing the newsletter is illegal policy lobbying is the newest ploy to justify its censorship of public employees unions.

Read the whole piece at the link above. Nothing highlights the complete censorship engulfing the federal government than this suppression of even the smallest dissident voice by federal employees.

Posted by Nathan at 08:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Steakhouse Loses Money Fighting Minimum Wage

The business lobby always says the minimum wage hurts its bottom-line, and Outback Steakhouse set out to prove this maxim by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against benefits for low-income workers.

And now it's had to admit to Wall Street that 2004 annual earnings were lower than comparable periods a year earlier, at least partly because the corporation spent $870,000 fighting a minimum wage increase in Florida and health care benefits for low-wage workers in California. Lawsuits also cost the company $1 million in legal fees.

Outback is one of the most aggressive companies spending its profits to attack any law to help low income workers. The company and its executives are also big-time donors to rightwing politicians across the country. Maybe we all can add to its profit woes by avoiding any of the restaurants owned by the company, including Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Cheeseburger in Paradise, Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen, and Lee Roy Selmon's.

Update: I came across this fascinating article about Outback's political operations: "what sets Outback apart from the typical corporate player is its battle-ready militia at the local level" and their focus on mobilizing local managers, who are paid a percentage of profits rather than a straight salary. This is the new frontier of business intervention in politics-- the chain restaurant as ward heeler among its 1100 restaurants spread across the country.

Posted by Nathan at 07:16 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 17, 2005

Organizing Blind under NLRB Elections

Imagine an election where one side knows the names, address and phone numbers of all voters, and can talk to them every day about the upcoming vote. The other side, however, gets a list of voters only a month or so before the election, supplied by the opposition, and the opposition is allowed to supply incorrect information on the voter addresses, thereby frustrating campaigning by the other side.

No, this isn't elections in some bizarre dictatorship, but union elections in Bush's America.

In a recent NLRB decision, the court upheld a union election loss, despite the fact that 87 our of 300 names supplied by the company to the union had incorrect addresses. This list of voters is known as the Excelsior list and was traditionally one of the only parts of US union election rules that prevented them from being a complete democratic farce.

But now that employers don't even have to supply accurate information on what workers will be voting in a union election, unions essentially have to organize blind.

Posted by Nathan at 01:10 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Florida to Offer Wal-Mart Deal to All Wage Violators

The Wal-Mart deal with the DOL is not the only example of the GOP wanting to let minimum wage violators escape any punishment -- essentially letting them rob their employees if they give the money back in the few instances when they get caught.

Last fall, Florida voters overwhelmingly (72%) approved a constitutional amendment increasing the minimum wage by a buck and mandating that any employers breaking the law pay double damages plus legal fees when they violate the law.

Now the Florida GOP state House leaders want to let violators of the law escape those double damages if they give the money back within 15 days of being notified by employees of the intent to sue.

The Florida Republican leaders claim this provision fits within the intent of the Amendment. Since I drafted the damn thing, I think I can say with some authority that their bill completely violates the constitutional amendment. Read the amendment for yourself, but the basic problem with this 15-day notice is the same as the Wal-Mart deal: Employers will have every incentive to violate the law recklessly. Even if they are caught underpaying a few employees, they can simply pay back the wages owed with no fine, while pocketing the profit from underpaying the many workers who will inevitably never challenge the employer’s illegal activity.

But then that's the point of these "notice" provisions-- to gut minimum wage laws and discourage enforcement. These rightwing politicians hate working class people and support corporate criminality. They are soft on crime when the criminals wear a nice three-piece suit.

Posted by Nathan at 02:40 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 16, 2005

Yes, Wal-Mart's Deal was Unique

Some folks have wondered whether Wal-Mart's deal was par for the course with the Bush administration's pro-corporate policies, or a really special treat for one of its top corporate donors.

According to Hill Democrats who have now analyzed other corporate compliance deals, the answer is that Wal-Mart was given a real sweetheart deal. The DOL tried to argue the Wal-Mart deal was just like compliance agreements signed with Sears and Foot Locker, but that's not what close analysis of the Wal-Mart deal shows:

  • Wal-Mart is given 15 days advance notice for ANY wage and hour investigation (not just child labor violations). Sears and Foot Locker were given 10 days notice for child labor investigations only.
  • the advance notice to Wal-Mart applies to ANY store. The advance notice to Sears and Foot Locker was limited to a small number of stores that fit into a particular set of circumstances.
  • The Sears and Foot Locker agreements required the companies to implement a comprehensive self-auditing system, the results of which must be provided to the DOL upon request. The Wal-Mart agreement does not require such comprehensive self-auditing.
  • the Wal-Mart agreement gives the company a 10-day abatement period to bring the store into compliance following a DOL finding of a violation. There is no abatement period in the Sears and Foot Locker agreements. Those companies were expected to fix the problem immediately or face penalties.
  • the Wal-Mart agreement contains a provision restricting how the DOL may communicate with the public or media about the agreement. There is no such provision in the Sears or Foot Locker agreements.
  • Read the whole analysis at the link. The bottom line is that no corporation has ever been given this kind of "get out of jail free card" by the Department of Labor. Essentially, Wal-Mart was free to violate the law at will and, if it got caught at any time, all it had to do was give the money stolen from its employees back within fifteen days. And anywhere the company wasn't caught, it could just pocket the money. And in no case would the company ever have to pay another fine.
    Posted by Nathan at 06:11 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

    Lou Dobbs Goes Off on Wal-Mart Deal

    I'm not sure what's happened to Lou Dobbs, who was once an impeccably pro-business reporter but has converted in recented years into a voice of periodic economic populism (although often with an anti-immigrant Buchanesque feel).

    Check out this interview with Congressman George Miller (transcript of the interview below). Dobbs asks the real question:

    DOBBS: Well, let me ask you this. Because we are in a situation in this country, in our economy, in our society in which corporate America -- and U.S. multinationals, in particular -- have unprecedented political power, influence in your party, influence in the Republican Party, domination on Capitol Hill and certainly the White House, organized labor is an impotent force by all measures here today. What countervailing influence is there for the middle class, for working men and women in this country period?
    Good question by Dobbs, and Miller gives a good answer about the danger:
    MILLER; Well, there's -- you know, there's public officials like myself who are concerned about the middle class, about their standard of living and their ability to have wages and hours and working conditions that allow them to support their familiar and provide health care and education.

    There's labor organizations that watch out for these people. But, every time one of these labor organizations approaches a Wal- Mart, they fire the workers who are involved it. They make their life very difficult. We just saw, I believe it is in Canada, where they got a right to organize and Wal-Mart closed the whole store. So what chance do these people have? Now they have the inside track in the Department of Labor, the last independent party between Wal-Mart's employment practices and their employees, and that's now been taken away because the home office gets the first cut at your grievance. These are -- these people have no real protections in these jobs.

    What does that tell them about filing a grievance, that people in the home office are going to look for this, they're going to tell your supervisor, your store manager, and they're going to come looking for you.

    This Wal-Mart deal is a symbol of the corruption of government-corporate collaboration, where workers aren't even involved in the supposed solution to corporate crime. A real punishment for Wal-Mart would be for every DOL investigation to be turned over to labor unions, so that the workers could be offered real legal support to pursue their claims against Wal-Mart.

    One less discussed aspect of the secret deal with Wal-Mart is that workers are actually able to collect double damages if they had a chance to take Wal-Mart to court for violating minimum wage and other FLSA violations, but since Wal-Mart gets to "fix" the problem, workers are unlikely to receive the damage payments they're owed. It's a bit like if, when the police catch a bank robber, the full punishment was just giving the money back with no other penalty.


    Full transcript of Wal-Mart segment

    DOBBS: Casey, thank you very much. Casey Wian from Los Angeles.

    The Labor Department has fined Wal-Mart for child labor violations, but some are calling the settlement a sweetheart deal for Wal-Mart. Under that agreement, the federal government must give Wal- Mart 15 days' notice before it begins any investigation into whether Wal-Mart has violated child labor laws.

    Kitty Pilgrim reports.


    KITTY PILGRIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Federal laws don't allow teenagers to operate hazardous loading equipment. The U.S. Labor Department fined Wal-Mart $135,000 for having teenagers doing just that.

    Wal-Mart had to promise not to do it again in its 3,000 stores, and post the equipment with warning signs. But they also got what some say is a sweetheart deal. The government will give Wal-Mart 15 days' prior notice of any Labor Department investigation into such matters.

    ROBERT REICH, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY: It effectively says to a company, well, if you are big enough and powerful enough, we will give you ample notice to hide any evidence of wrongdoing so that you're not going to get in trouble.

    PILGRIM: But Labor Department officials cite similar arrangements made with Sears and Footlocker and defend the practice.

    HOWARD RADZELY, SOLICITOR, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR: This is a typical agreement where we do give companies a period in which they can immediately correct the violation to get children out of harm's way. And then we follow that up with a thorough investigation, during which anything we find can be enforced and the company can be fined.

    PILGRIM: Wal-Mart strenuously denies they have special treatment, saying, "Wal-Mart's agreement with the Department of Labor is similar to those reached with many other companies. There was nothing secret or special about it."

    But political watchdog groups are harshly critical of the arrangement, saying it smacks of influence peddling in Washington.

    LARRY NOBLE, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: In 2004, they gave over $2 million in political contributions, making them the No. 1 giver in the retail industry. They're not going to make political contributions unless they think they're going to get something in return.


    PILGRIM: Labor experts say what is critical is that Wal-Mart communicates to its managers how strictly they should enforce the laws. Managers are evaluated by their productivity and their profitability. And if the managers in a large retailer are tacitly allowed to bend the rules on youth employment, smaller retailers will be tempted to follow suit -- Lou.

    DOBBS: Thank you very much, Kitty.

    Congressman George Miller of California is calling upon the Labor Department's inspector general to investigate whether that settlement is a sweetheart deal for Wal-mart. The congressman joins us in just a moment to talk about why he says the deal puts American workers at risk.

    A judge in Tennessee is demanding that foreign-born women learn English. Judge Barry Tatum in Lebanon, Tennessee, made the declaration during a hearing about a Mexican immigrant who failed to immunize her child.

    It's not the first time that Judge Tatum has made such as order. His declarations have won the support of many in his community who say immigrants should make a larger, better effort to assimilate into American life.

    Still ahead here, one of the country's biggest companies is hiring thousands of new workers and, incredibly, the company is doing so with the help of organizations that support amnesty for illegal aliens.


    DOBBS: My guest tonight is calling for an investigation into whether or Wal-Mart's secret settlement with the Labor Department is what he calls a sweetheart deal.

    Congressman George Miller, Democrat of California, joins me now from Capitol Hill. We also invited the CEO and other representatives of Wal-Mart to join us here tonight, but the company declined.

    Congressman, good to have you with us.

    REP. GEORGE MILLER (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you. DOBBS: You've called for an investigation. What is the likely outcome? How soon, if there is to be one, would you expect it to occur?

    MILLER: Well, we would hope that the inspector general would heed our letter for an investigation and do it right away.

    Obviously, they have set up a situation where Wal-Mart employees who may file a labor grievance now and in the future are in the situation where that labor grievance will be passed right on to Wal- Mart, bypassing essentially the Department of Labor as an independent arbiter.

    So people's rights are being compromised on a daily basis. So we would hope the inspector general would give some real urgency to our request for an inspection of this deal.

    DOBBS: You've singled out Wal-Mart, but, as we have reported here tonight, Foot Locker, other companies are also being provided the very same privilege, if you will. Does that also concern you?

    MILLER: What concerns me here is the character of the employer, not the size, not the industry, but the character of the employer. You have -- with Wal-Mart, you have a repeat offender, a habitual repeat offender on labor violations, on overtime, on job discrimination, on illegal aliens, on discrimination, on advancement that have impacted tens of thousands of workers, the Wal-Mart employees.

    To then now take this labor settlement and draft that into a nationwide agreement where Wal-Mart will get to attend to the labor grievances against it by its employees -- I think there's nothing in Wal-Mart's record to suggest that they have earned that kind of right.

    I don't know the labor records of Foot Locker and Sears and others that have been involved in this, but, in this particular case, we have an egregious record against working men and women in this country.

    DOBBS: Congressman Miller, let's step back just for a second and say that Wal-Mart has committed a violation. They are given notice by the Department of Labor. They correct it in that two-week period. That's a good thing, is it not?

    MILLER: Well, that could be a good thing. We have compliance agreements throughout all different kinds of the agencies in the government, but in this case...

    First of all, when were they going to tell the employees of Wal- Mart that this agreement had been arrived at, and when were they going to tell the employees what kind of labor agreements are covered? It appears from the e-mail in the Labor Department and the agreement that it covers all labor violations.

    And it also -- the question is -- you send a complaint to the Department of Labor, and you forward them this complaint, and, the next thing you know, they're sending it to the home office. There's a real chilling effect here on these workers. These workers don't have a union, they don't have an organization to protect them, many of them are low-income, and this is...

    DOBBS: Or are below legal age, in some cases.

    MILLER: In this case, they're below legal age...

    DOBBS: Congressman...

    MILLER: ... or they're not in this country legally.

    DOBBS: Congressman, in that regard, let's take a look at a statement from Wal-Mart today reacting to your call for an investigation and criticism of Wal-Mart.

    "Congressman Miller has very strong ties to organized labor, and this is just another example of him trying to discredit us on their behalf, thinking people will see it for what it is."

    Your reaction?

    MILLER: Well, first of all, there's no organized labor in Wal- Mart. They can -- they don't have any unions in Wal-Mart. Organized labor gets nothing out of this.

    This was brought to me by people in the Department of Labor that said there's something very wrong here when you look at the record of this employer, you look at the record of grievances against it.

    And now they take this settlement where the -- you know, they don't admit or deny anything, but they settle for $135,000 and they bootstrap that into a nationwide agreement where they get first cut at the complaints of their employees.

    DOBBS: Well, let me ask you this. Because we are in a situation in this country, in our economy, in our society in which corporate America -- and U.S. multinationals, in particular -- have unprecedented political power, influence in your party, influence in the Republican Party, domination on Capitol Hill and certainly the White House, organized labor is an impotent force by all measures here today. What countervailing influence is there for the middle class, for working men and women in this country period?

    MILLER; Well, there's -- you know, there's public officials like myself who are concerned about the middle class, about their standard of living and their ability to have wages and hours and working conditions that allow them to support their familiar and provide health care and education.

    There's labor organizations that watch out for these people. But, every time one of these labor organizations approaches a Wal- Mart, they fire the workers who are involved it. They make their life very difficult. We just saw, I believe it is in Canada, where they got a right to organize and Wal-Mart closed the whole store. So what chance do these people have? Now they have the inside track in the Department of Labor, the last independent party between Wal-Mart's employment practices and their employees, and that's now been taken away because the home office gets the first cut at your grievance. These are -- these people have no real protections in these jobs.

    What does that tell them about filing a grievance, that people in the home office are going to look for this, they're going to tell your supervisor, your store manager, and they're going to come looking for you.

    DOBBS: Congressman George Miller, we thank you for being here.

    MILLER: It's not fair.

    DOBBS: We'll follow, of course, the response from the inspector general, the Department of Labor to your call for an investigation. Thank you.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:23 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    February 15, 2005

    Using Pension Funds to Save the World

    Here's a good example of why the rightwing wants to kill social investing by public pension funds

    CalPERS targets emissions: Automakers, utilities and others face questions on global-warming actions.

    The trustees of California's state pension system have launched a campaign to force companies they invest with to reveal what they are doing to curb the emissions that cause global warming. Conservatives of course think ignorance is bliss, so the less we pay attention to such matters, the safer we are. Kind of like Bush's approach to terrorism before 911.

    Posted by Nathan at 02:26 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Defense Department to Abolish Seniority

    With plans to destroy civil service protections in the Homeland Security Department, it's hardly surprising that the Defense Department is following suit. The new rules would initially effect 750,000 workers at the Defense Department, but could soon expand to far more workers. Managers would have a free hand to award raises, promote and demote workers based on their subjective evaluations of employees, opening the door to manager favoritism and retaliation against any employee who doesn't tow the administration's partisan line.

    And the new rules mean that, with limited funds in each department, co-workers will have ever incentive to sabotague fellow workers. As one Social Security employee interviewed by the Baltimore Sun explained:

    "Why would I help out a co-worker when I know that if I don't, he'll be rated lower and that will potentially mean more money for me," Ed Casswell said during a lunch-break telephone conversation.
    As politicos often say, personnel are policy. Up to now, that statement meant the political appointees to the federal government. With these new changes, we are returning to the days of the spoils system, where civil servants will have to serve not the public interest but the partisan interest of their political bosses.

    Forget repealing the New Deal; the Bush administration is seeking to repeal the Progressive Era's reforms of government corruption.

    Posted by Nathan at 02:01 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    DOL Finally Admits Wal-Mart Deal Exists

    But censors the gory details

    Here's the press release issued by the Department of Labor. It highlights the fine paid by Wal-Mart and it's agreement to comply with the law, but fails to even mention the deal to prohibit DOL investigations until Wal-Mart corporate headquarters is given a heads up to whitewash their operations.

    And this was actually the second press release issued. The first was quickly recalled, because its first paragraph read:

    The U.S. Department of Labor has fined Wal-Mart $135,540 in civil money penalties for violating the youth employment provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The department's Wage and Hour Division found that Wal-Mart allowed teenage workers to operate hazardous equipment resulting in one teenager being injured while operating a chain saw.
    Watch that last phrase, since in the replacement press release, all that is said is:
    The U.S. Department of Labor has fined Wal-Mart $135,540 in
    civil money penalties for violating the youth employment provisions of the
    Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for allowing teenage workers to operate
    hazardous equipment.
    No mention of teenagers being injured by chainsaws. You might wonder about the change, but apparently there is a provision in the agreement with Wal-Mart that they had joint control over how the agreement would be described to the public.

    So not only did Wal-Mart get a slap on the wrist and a secret deal to help them avoid prosecution for future violations, Wal-Mart got creative control of the DOL press operations. Unbelievable!

    Whole original press release after the jump


    U.S. Department of Labor For Immediate Release
    Office of Public Affairs Date: February 14, 2005
    Washington, D.C. Contact: Dolline Hatchett & Pamela Groover
    Release Number 05-272-NAT Phone: 202-693-4650 or 202-693-4676
    Wal-Mart Agrees to Pay Fine for Violating Child Labor Laws

    Company Also Signs Compliance Agreement with Labor Department

    WASHINGTON-The U.S. Department of Labor has fined Wal-Mart $135,540 in civil money penalties for violating the youth employment provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The department's Wage and Hour Division found that Wal-Mart allowed teenage workers to operate hazardous equipment resulting in one teenager being injured while operating a chain saw.

    Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer with approximately 3,000 stores, is headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Wage and Hour Division Southwest Region has jurisdiction over Wal-Mart headquarters and coordinated the resolution of several investigations of stores in Connecticut, Arkansas, and New Hampshire.

    The department's investigation revealed that Wal-Mart employed 85 minors aged 16 and 17 who performed prohibited activities, including loading and occasionally operating or unloading scrap paper balers, and operating fork lifts.

    The FLSA prohibits the employment of minors under age 18 in any occupation determined hazardous by the Department of Labor. The department has issued 17 specific hazardous occupation orders identifying these prohibited occupations.

    While not admitting the violations, Wal-Mart cooperated with the department and guaranteed full compliance with the youth employment provisions of the FLSA in the future.

    "A young person's early work experience should be positive and educational and should never jeopardize their health and well-being," said Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary for the department's Employment Standards Administration. "Wal-Mart has signed an agreement with the department and committed to take specific measures to ensure that all its stores are in compliance with youth employment laws in the future."

    As part of the compliance agreement, Wal-Mart will:

    * designate a corporate official to supervise compliance with the agreement;
    * provide new and current store managers with training on child labor law compliance;
    * include child labor compliance reviews in its regular internal audits, and
    * post warning signs, supplied by the Labor Department, on all company-owned hazardous equipment indicating the age restriction on their use.

    This compliance agreement is significant because Wal-Mart has agreed to implement these practices in all of its Wal-Mart Stores and Supercenters.

    For more information on the youth employment provisions of the FLSA, visit the department's YouthRules! Web site at www.youthrules.dol.gov. Additional information can also be obtained by calling the Department of Labor's toll-free help line at 1-866-4USWAGE.

    Posted by Nathan at 10:57 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    CT Attorney General Opens Fire on Wal-Mart Deal

    It emerged yesterday that most of the child labor violations in the Wal-Mart settlement with the DOL happened in Connecticut. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is denouncing the deal and has announced that the state will have to take up the slack:

    "In effect it gives the company an unusual, if not unique, amount of time to avoid or even cover up evidence in the future," Blumenthal said. "And it certainly diminishes the usefulness of any future federal investigation, which is why the state has an obligation to undertake a more proactive and aggressive role."
    The message is clear. Employees can't trust the federal government now, since the feds are committed to handing their names over to management, rather than punishing the employer for abuses. So state governments have to take up the slack on enforcing labor rights, just as they've had to take up the slack on consumer protection, financial regulation and a host of other areas in the last four years.
    Posted by Nathan at 07:55 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    February 14, 2005

    Dem Disunity on Trade Policy

    Matthew Yglesias rightly argues that beneath the veneer of Democratic unity are serious divisions over trade policy. But my frustration with "liberal free trading" Democrats like Matt is that they are falling down on the job of the "liberal" part of their advocacy of free trade.

    While Matt wants to reduce the debate to that between "free traders" and "protectionists", it's more complicated than that. The Clinton Democrat position is that, yes, trade will dislocate some workers, but it will make our society richer, so we can then afford to train any workers for even better jobs.

    Sounds nice in the abstract, but those displaced workers have a sneaking suspicion that their vested ownership of a job is more valuable politically than a government promise to retrain them. And you can see Bush's actions in office sustaining that belief, since while he imposed steel quotas to protect some steel jobs, he's gone out of his way to deny Trade Adjustment Assistance to workers who actually lose their jobs to trade. And now he wants to kill the whole training program under the TAA.

    But here's my problem with Matt and other "liberal" free traders. Retraining workers is "their" trade program, yet it's leftwing labor bloggers like myself who have to scream about Bush's assault on the program. The silence from the liberal free trade side of the blogosphere has been deafening.

    If liberals won't defend retraining funds, they really can't convince us labor types that they are seriously committed to helping the losers from their pro-trade policies.

    The whole "protectionist" label misses the point, since labor folks are often in favor of trade, since it breeds jobs. They just don't trust the policy liberal free traders talk about, since there is such a clear record of them not following through on programs for those who lose out under their policies.

    While some labor-types are straight up protectionists, the official labor position is that trade is fine as long as all countries are required to respect basic labor rights, such as the right to free speech in the workplace and the right to bargain collectively. That way, it's the workers in each country deciding the appropriate trade-off between wages and jobs-- not each government imposing it as authoritarian policy. And the advantage of that is if jobs go overseas, it's far more likely to lead to better paying jobs there, which in turn increases the demand for US goods. So us "fair traders" are all in favor of lots of trade-- we just want the benefits to go first, last and foremost to workers both in the US and in the developing world. I know the liberal free traders think that's the goal of their policies, but the evidence just isn't there. As I said, the silence over Bush's plan to kill Trade Adjustment Training funds is deafening.

    Posted by Nathan at 05:18 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

    Update: Dems on Hill Demand Investigation into Wal-Mart Deal

    From a press release by the Democratic Staff of the Committee on Education and the Workforce:

    After disclosure of a secret agreement between the U.S. Department of Labor and Wal-Mart giving the giant retailer the authority to conduct its own investigations of employee wage and hour complaints, Representative George Miller (D-California) today requested an investigation by the DOL's Inspector General to determine whether the arrangement represents a sweetheart deal between the Bush Administration and one of the nation’s most frequent violators of labor laws...

    Miller said that such an arrangement could allow the giant employer to cover up evidence of a violation and would discourage aggrieved employees who might fear retribution from the company. Miller also sent a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao today asking for more information about the arrangement.

    "I am very concerned about this secret arrangement between Wal-Mart and the Bush Administration," said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "This is a company that has been accused of a lengthy list of labor violations. Wal-Mart does not have the credibility to serve as an impartial investigator of accusations of labor violations against itself. I intend to find out how this arrangement was reached and, if appropriate, I will consider asking Congress to rescind the agreement if it cannot be justified."

    "Once again, it looks like the Bush Administration is doing a favor for a powerful friend and contributor at the expense of workers who do their jobs and still cannot get fair treatment in the workplace."

    Folks need to call their legislators and demand that they support Miller's investigation into this DOL deal with Wal-Mart.
    Posted by Nathan at 03:22 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    MCI Bites the Dust

    Verizon to takeover MCI

    Okay, this is sweet. In my book on the rise of the Internet, I spend parts of multiple chapters on the evils of MCI: its gaming of regulations, its corporate subsides at the expense of the public, its gobbling up of independent Internet providers in its attempt to strangle them. And MCI-WorldCom was one of the nastiest, union-busting companies out there.

    So to watch MCI fall to a unionized Baby Bell is just lovely.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    More on Wal-Mart's Sweetheart Deal with the DOL

    Following up on Jordan's post, here is a copy of the sweetheart deal negotiated by Wal-Mart with the DOL as sent out in email to district DOL offices (click for more readable version):

    Here's why the deal smells like rotting corporate sludge:

    1) The deal to let the Wal-Mart corporate office look at all minimum wage and overtime complaints was kept secret until the New York Times confronted DOL about it. There was no public announcement prior to this date, despite the fact that the DOL usually announces such compliance deals with great fanfare.

    2) As far as anyone can tell, no Wal-Mart employees were informed of the compliance agreement, even though it had been implemented as early as January 10 (see the email).

    3) While the headlines talk about child labor violations, the email is much broader and says any information on any fair labor standards violation investigation should be turned over to Wal-Mart.

    4) Were Wal-Mart employees ever informed that their complaints about their employer to the DOL were just being passed off to Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Arkansas? Giving Wal-Mart this information secretly is a recipe for employees to face retaliation. Notably, there is no instruction in the email to assure the confidentiality of the employees who might make a complaint.

    5) If the DOL receives a complaint, do they just ask Wal-Mart to fix the problem for the individual worker? There is nothing in the directive that requires the DOL to investigate to make sure workers in similar jobs aren't suffering the same violations. And since the complaints are never made public, they may never hear they have the right to seek legal relief.

    6) Wal-Mart agreed to pay $135,000 for nationwide violations, yet the state of Maine alone fined Wal-Mart $205,650 for child labor violations. The DOL fine was obviously chump change-- a lick, not even a slap on the wrist.

    And there are just weird things about the timeline. The NY Times reports the deal was signed on January 6, but the AP reports it was signed on January 11. The email above was sent out on January 10. The DOL claims they were waiting 30 days to let Wal-Mart pay the fine, yet they didn't announce it until forced to by the NY Times investigation more than 30 days later.

    This is one of the slimiest insider deals possible by one of the largest corporate donors to the GOP.

    Update: Hill Democrats demand investigation into the Bush administation's sweetheart deal with Wal-Mart.

    Posted by Nathan at 12:56 AM | Comments (22) | TrackBack

    February 12, 2005

    Bush Labor Department Puts Wal-Mart in "Privileged Position"

    True to form, the Bush administration is making sure that its corporate friends are not too inconvenienced on those rare occasions when they are found to be breaking federal laws, especially if it only involves child labor issues.

    Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer agreed to pay $135,540 to settle federal charges that it violated child labor laws in Connecticut, Arkansas and New Hampshire. As part of the agreement, revealed yesterday after it was secretly signed in January, the Labor Department agreed "to give Wal-Mart 15 days' notice before the Labor Department investigates any other 'wage and hour' accusations, like failure to pay minimum wage or overtime."

    The violations involved workers under age 18 operating dangerous machinery, including cardboard balers and chain saws. Consistent with its new P.R. role models -- the industries that brought us lung cancer, underage drinking and Bhopal -- Wal-Mart reached and agreements to pay the fine, although the company denied any wrongdoing.

    The agreement left Congressman George Miller (D-CA) rather angry:

    "I don't know if the Department of Labor threw in the towel or whether Wal-Mart put enough political pressure on them that they ended up with a sweetheart deal," Miller said, adding that he will ask the department's inspector general this week to review the agreement.

    "I don't know if there's anything in Wal-Mart's background with regards to allegations of violations of labor laws that would make any suggestion Wal-Mart has earned the right for this kind of treatment," Miller said.

    A veteran DOL inspector was also rather perplexed.

    "With child labor cases involving the use of hazardous machinery, why give 15 days' notice before we can do an investigation?" asked a district office supervisor who has worked in the wage and hour division for nearly 20 years.

    "What's the rationale?"

    Good question. Something to do with loyalty, perhaps.

    Labor Department officials claim there's nothing unusal about this arrangement, but officials from previous administrations think it stinks.

    Victoria Lipnic, assistant labor secretary for employment standards, called the settlement typical, saying that giving Wal-Mart notice before conducting investigations would encourage the company to correct the problems sooner.


    Several department officials suggested that the provision for 15 days' notice might give Wal-Mart an opportunity to hide violations.

    John R. Fraser, the government's top wage official under the first President Bush and President Bill Clinton, said the advance-notice provision was unusually expansive.

    "Giving the company 15 days' notice of any investigation is very unusual," Mr. Fraser said. "The language appears to go beyond child labor allegations and cover all wage and hour allegations. It appears to put Wal-Mart in a privileged position that to my knowledge no other employer has."

    Ms. Lipnic countered,"We usually call employers before we go to investigate," and said there was "nothing uncommon or unprecedented about that."

    No, well, maybe not in this administration.
    Several federal employees voiced concern about a Jan. 10 e-mail message sent by the director of the Little Rock, Ark., office for the Labor Department's wage and hour division after the settlement was reached, that said, "Wage & Hour will not open an investigation of Wal-Mart without first notifying Wal-Mart's main office and allowing them an opportunity to look at the alleged violations and, if valid, correct the problem."

    The Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits inspectors from warning employers about planned inspections, but no such provisions exist in many other labor laws.

    A Wal-Mart spokesman claimed that "our focus is to be 100 percent compliant with all applicable laws."

    Yeah, right:

    Wal-Mart has faced previous child labor charges. In March 2000, Maine fined the company $205,650 for violations of child labor laws in every one of the 20 stores in the state. In January 2004, a weeklong internal audit of 128 stores found 1,371 instances in which minors apparently worked too late at night, worked during school hours or worked too many hours in a day. Company officials said the audit was faulty and had incorrectly found that some youths had worked on school days when, in fact, those days were holidays.
    Oh, and then there's the little matter of locking their workers in the stores all night and not paying them for the time they were imprisoned.

    Is this an example of those Republican values we hear so much about?

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 05:49 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

    Wal-Mart: Following In The Proud Footsteps of the Tobacco, Beer and Petroleum Industries

    The headlines are somewhat amusing. The real story is anything but...

    Headline on Page B1 of the print edition of the Washington Post today:

    Wal-Mart Chief Defends Closing Unionized Store

    Continuing headline on Page B3:

    Wal-Mart Continues Campaign to Improve Image


    This is the story that you may already have heard of. Instead of reaching an agreement with employees who voted to unionze a Canadian Wal-Mart, the company has decided to close the store.
    The chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. yesterday defended the retailer's decision to close a Canadian store after its employees voted to form a union, saying demands from negotiators would have forced an already unprofitable store to hire 30 more people and abide by inefficient work rules.
    "You can't take a store that is a struggling store anyway and add a bunch of people and a bunch of work rules that cause you to even be in worse shape," H. Lee Scott Jr. said.

    In his first interview since Wal-Mart announced it would close the store in Jonquiere, Quebec, Scott said Wal-Mart saw no upside to the higher labor costs and refused to cede ground to the union for the sake of being "altruistic."

    "It doesn't work that way," he said.

    The Quebec store would have been the first Wal-Mart store to unionize. The giant company has vigorously fought unionizing attempts. After workers in the fresh meat section of a Texas Wal-Mart voted to unionize in 2000, Wal-Mart eliminated meatcutter jobs companywide, and started selling pre-wrapped meat.

    Scott announced that Wal-Mart has begun "a campaign to tell community and elected leders about its operations and policies." And where are they looking for examples of how to run the P.R. campaign?

    Scott, who has worked at Wal-Mart since 1979 and became chief executive of the 3,000-store chain in 2000, said he has studied how major companies in the tobacco, beer and petroleum industries have weathered intense criticism.


    They're trying to improve their image, so they've chosen the lung cancer, alcoholism and Bhopal industries as their role models?


    More information here about an AFL-CIO petition campaign.

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 11, 2005

    More on Why Organizing is Enough

    Prof Stone has responded to my critique of her argument that organizing is not enough to revive the union movement. [A quick disclaimer; I learned labor law from Prof. Stone as a law student and everything I know about the evils of individual arbitration I learned from her.]

    She first argues that the revival of unions in the 1930s was based on recognizing that organizing unions around craft skils was insufficient and that unions needed to organize around an employer-centered model of industrial unions. This flows into her argument that as craft unions were appropriate to one era and industrial unions were appropriate to another so a new kind of "boundaryless" union is appropriate to a boundaryless workplace.

    The problem with this progressive view of economic history is that craft unions were NEVER appropriate for most workers, and other union leaders from the Knights of Labor in the 19th century to the Mineworkers and IWW in the 20th condemned the model as too limiting.

    The reason industrial unionism had problems before the 1930s -- although it had great success in the mining and garment industries -- is that the AFL leadership refused to put enough resources into organizing the unorganized. They disdained unskilled workers and didn't think it worth the energy or money.

    So the change in the 1930s was not in the economy itself but in the rise of a CIO organization -- created by the two main industrial-based unions, the United Mine Workers and Amalgamated Garment Workers -- which demonstrated in a few years that the devotion of mass resources to organizing could yield rapid organizing results.

    There is nothing so new in the economy that the industrial unionism that was appropriate in the 19th century and in the 1930s shouldn't be needed and possible today.

    Employer versus Multi-Employer Unionism: Yes, legal changes in the 1930s helped organizing then, but it was actually those legal changes that encouraged "employer-centered" unions tied to individual workplaces rather than industry-wide employment and security mechanisms as Stone emphasizes would be useful. The National Labor Relations Act only requires bargaining between an employer and its own employees. Unlike in other countries, there is no requirement that employers negotiate as a group with employees across an industry-- exactly the kinds of negotiations that could dispense with security in a single employer in favor of broader forms of benefit portability.

    If most unions had their choice, they would demand multi-employer pension and health care systems. Some unions sucessfully do so and those pension and health care benefits are the stronger for it, but there are many elements in the legal landscape that make such multi-employer deals hard to negotiate and enforce today. That "younger workers have no intention of staying with their firms for life" is nothing new either." Younger workers have always been mobile in the United States, with ambitions to move on common throughout our history. But just cause and seniority provisions assure an employee that they leave when THEY want to leave, not when the employer wants to clear them out to hand their job to more docile and lower-paid alternatives.

    What to Organize: As to the point that the most successful organizing has happened in the service sectors less affected by foreign competition, that's true. Which is a good argument for focusing lots of initial organizing dollars in those sectors. With tens of millions of construction, retail, health care, education, and other services unorganized, that is enough union organizing work to keep everyone busy for years with the proper investment of resources.

    For manufactuirng and other service sectors subject to foreign competition, the need is for global organizing, so that wherever employers relocate work, they will face demands for worker empowerment and democratic negotiations over the work conditions. No doubt some work will continue to go overseas, but it should only be because of true economic efficiencies, not because an employer faces weaker unions in one country rather than another.

    Yes, unions should encourage maximum participation, including by workers in between employment and in sectors not yet organized. And yes, they should combine organizing with a social vision of public services that makes transition between jobs easier. But the need for that social unionist vision is not tied to changes in the economy; it existed in the Knights of Labor and other groups in the 19th century and in progressive industrial unions throughout the 20th century.

    But it can only be attained with greater organizational strength and more union members. And that will take more organizing as a precondition. Organizing, organizing, organizing is the first step to achieving anything else.

    Posted by Nathan at 03:27 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

    Wouldn't Raising the Minimum Wage Solve the Wal-Mart Problem?

    Discussing the recent Montana proposal to tax large retailers that don't pay a living wage of at least $10 per hour, Ian asks in comments:

    Wouldn't increasing the minimum wage enough simply solve the problem? I mean, fundamentally, the problem is that Wal-Mart pays their people so poorly that they require public assistance even though they're working. If they were required to pay a fair wage through the minimum wage law, wouldn't that solve the problem without the need for additional legislation that targets box stores specifically?
    The goal with Wal-Mart is not that they just pay the minimum wage but that they not undermine the decent wages paid to many workers in the grocery retail industry, which is higher than the regular minimum wage. Yes, raising the minimum wage is needed across the board, but it's supposed to be a "minimum" for what every company, no matter how small or in whatever industry, should pay their employees. But where companies can pay more -- and competing large retailers show it is quite possible to pay more than Wal-Mart and be profitable, then a higher minimum wage is appropriate in that industry segment.

    Many state minimum wage laws actually empower state labor departments to create different minimum wage rates for different industries and industry segments. This power is almost never used today, but it has a long history in the theory of minimum wage law strategies. In fact, the federal minimum wage was once only applied to large retailers, so applying a higher minimum wage to large retailers in Montana has a clear precedent.

    Conservatives often complain that liberals impose "one size fits all" regulation, so they should applaud legislation like that proposed in Montana where the regulation is specifically targetted to a market where there is clear empirical evidence that complying with the law is financially reasonable.

    Posted by Nathan at 11:05 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    Greider on State Pension Fund Power

    The always insightful Bill Greider has a great piece in The Nation looking at the new power used by state pension funds to discipline corporate wrong-doing. Their effectiveness can be measured by the rightwing assault to dismantle them. Arnold's proposal to dismantle the California state employees pension system, CALPERS, is just part of a nationwide campaign to take on the state pension leaders. And for good reason, since public pension funds control $2.7 trillion dollars (yes, trillion with a "t"), with union-managed pension funds bringing in another $400 billion for potential corporate accountability campaigns.

    Ignored by many activists, progressives linked to labor have made gains in this area, electing new representatives to the boards of these pension funds around the country. In Ohio, unions helped elect a librarian to the state pension board, gaining a 5-4 majority on the $65 billion fund.

    But conservatives don't want pension activists to be able to translate that power into corporations actually having to be accountable. Echoing a theme I made a few days ago, Greider argues that this highlights that Bush's ode to an "ownership society" is bunk:

    While Bush calls for democracy worldwide, he is smothering the ownership rights of corporate shareowners at home. In behalf of business-financial elites, the White House has bullied Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chairman William Donaldson (a GOP financier himself) for favoring the proposal to allow major institutional investors like public pension funds to nominate independent directors to corporate boards.
    The only weakness of the article is that Greider fails to tie his discussion of the power of collectively invested pensions to the debate on where the social security trust fund should be invested. Conservatives are horrified that social security could come to resemble these state pension funds, where public values actually matter for how public capital is deployed.

    State pension funds should be a model for how social security could be used to build a new politics for democratic values in our financial markets.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:20 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    February 10, 2005

    Is Organizing Enough?

    Over at the the American Constitution Society blog, Prof. Katherine Stone has a guest post that argues that, after ten years of John Sweeney promising that new organizing would save the labor movement, continuing falling labor membership proves the "organize-or-bust strategy has failed."

    Instead, Stone argues that labor is failing because it ignores the needs of workers in the new economy where long-term tenure is uncommon. Unions' commitment to seniority systems and other traditional union rules therefore make unions less appealing. "Because union practices are out of step with the new workplace, employers resist unions more fiercely than ever."

    I think this has the problem backwards. It's precisely because unions are weaker that long-term employment is disappearing.

    There was nothing inherent in the "old economy" that called for long-term employment. In fact, as scholar Sanford Jacoby documented in his book, Employing Bureaucracy, turnover in the old industrial workplace was far higher than today before unions made managers change their practices. In fact, the "old economy" of the first decades of the 20th century was incredibly unstable, with frequent layoffs and arbitrary dismissals a staple of daily life for workers. Before World War I, it was not uncommon for firms to have turnover rates in excess of 300%, meaning that the workforce could turnover three times in a year. Some stability in industries was created as unions boomed in strength during World War I, but with the decline in unions during the 1920s, turnover and instability in the workplace increased.

    It was the strength of unions in the 1930s and 1940s that created the model of long-term employment, a reality that was not the product of industrial work itself but of the strength of unions. Even non-union companies committed themselves to long-term employment as a strategy to keep union organizers out; as long as the threat of unionization was strong, they had to try to match conditions in the union sectors.

    Yes, there are no doubt important differences in the economy today compared to industrial workplaces, but there is actually little reason for greater job turnover. Someone can make a career at Microsoft as easily as at General Motors. No, the difference is the weakness of unions.

    The Need for More Organizing: So if it is not changes per se in the economy that is the problem, what is it? The fact that companies are operating on a global basis, while unions are largely national is at least one problem, but that returns us to the need for better organizing strategies. And while Prof. Stone argues that "organizing or bust" has failed, the hard reality is that it hasn't been tried. A few unions like SEIU are devoting a significant percentage of their dues to new organizing, but most unions just plain don't do it.

    I can't tell you the numbers spent on organizing-- which is part of the problem since those numbers would be easy to find in a union movement committed to organizing, but here are the numbers of what would be happening if unions were spending 30% of their income on organizing. To do a back of the envelope calculation, there are 15.7 million union members with average union dues of about $400 per year or a total of $6.3 billion in income by unions each year. If 30% were spent on organizing, that would $1.89 billion. Assuming it takes $100,000 to keep an organizer out in the field with wages and equipment, that would yield 18,900 organizers in workplaces across the country. But they aren't out there, because unions aren't spending the money they need to. If unions had 20,000 organizers on the ground, they might be making headway on union density. But they don't so they aren't.

    A union like SEIU has successfully organized janitors in an industry with little job security and lots of turnover -- exactly the conditions Prof. Stone argues has doomed unions -- because they have devoted the resources needed to make the organizing successful. Yes, SEIU has been creative, but it also comes down to spending the resources needed to win.

    I wish the union movement had really adopted an "organize or bust" strategy. They desperately need to do so. But the last thing unions should do is abandon their commitment to job security, one of the things that make unions so attractive that workers are still willing to risk being fired to get them in their workplace. Yes, unions need to appeal to part-time workers and, yes, they need to creatively adapt to industries where workers now are floating between multiple employers. But workers are not just looking for unemployment and training money between jobs, they are looking for job protection and the chance to be promoted in their own firm.

    Unions need to change their strategies, but that change requires more money spent on organizing and a more global reach to match the global reach of their corporate opponents. I'm awfully old-fashioned, but it all comes down to the old union motto: "Organize, Organize, Organize!"

    Posted by Nathan at 03:37 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

    More on Killing TAA Training Funds

    When Bush was asked in the Arizona debates what he was going to do about job losses, here was his answer:

    BOB SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, what do you say to someone in this country who has lost his job to someone overseas who's being paid a fraction of what that job paid here in the United States?

    BUSH: I'd say, Bob, I've got policies to continue to grow our economy and create the jobs of the 21st century. And here's some help for you to go get an education. Here's some help for you to go to a community college.

    We've expanded trade adjustment assistance. We want to help pay for you to gain the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century.

    This was essentially the sum-total of Bush's plan for dealing with job losses. And having run for reelection on funding TAA, he turns around a couple of months later and advocates killing the program? The man has no shame.
    Posted by Nathan at 07:39 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 09, 2005

    Doing Something About Wal-Mart

    The Montana state Senate is debating a bill to fight Wal-Mart's low wages. If passed, the law would impose a tax on gross retail receipts of any retailer doing more than $10 million per year in business. No tax would be owed, however, if they certified that all full-time workers were making at least $22,000 per year. (You can listen to this NPR segment on the issue).

    A version of the bill was only narrowly defeated in 1993 and with the new Democratic majority in the Montana Senate, hopes for passage this year are stronger. State Senator Ken Toole, chief sponsor of the bill, laid out his argument for taxing the Wal-Marts of the world in this oped:

    It’s bad enough that workers in these stores are struggling to make ends meet but that’s only part of the story. You and I pick up the tab when a box store doesn’t pay its workers a living wage. Congressman George Miller recently released a detailed study of the cost of Wal-Mart to communities in California. That study estimated that a Wal-Mart store with 200 employees cost federal taxpayers $420,000 per year or about $2,000 per employee in public services ranging from healthcare to housing. Box stores shift their labor costs onto the rest of us. So, why not ask these big box stores to put money into the community and help out local small business at the same time?

    The “big box tax” being proposed in the Legislature will exempt any big box store that pays a living wage. If Wal-Mart and other big box stores don’t want to pay the tax, all they have to do is pay their workers a little more. They can afford it and we should demand it.

    This is the new Montana populism in action, increasing the minimum wage and taking on goliaths like Wal-Mart in the name of the little guy.
    Posted by Nathan at 05:06 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

    Why People HATE Wal-Mart

    Wal-Mart to Close Recently Unionized Stores in Canada

    Following up on Sam's note: Some people wonder why labor folks hate Wal-Mart with such a passion, since there are so many other bad employers out there. But few are as systematic in their anti-labor policies as Wal-Mart.

    When meat-cutters in Jacksonville, Texas voted to join a union in 2000, Wal-Mart shut down its whole meatpacking department rather than allow a union in its stores.

    And today the company announced that it was shutting the Quebec Wal-Mart where workers decided to unionize a few months ago.

    Even without a contract signed with the union, the company is claiming no deal is possible so they'd rather shut the store, pleading the impossibility of making a profit with any potential union contract. Since many retailers operate profitably in Canada with a union contract, it's a ridiculous argument by Wal-Mart. Their real fear is that the union might spread if workers in Quebec made more money, so they are punishing them as an example to other workers.

    This is an evil company, a cancer on our economy.

    Posted by Nathan at 05:01 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack


    Wal-Mart has announced that it will close a Quebec store instead of reaching its first-ever collective bargaining agreement. Unsurprising, I suppose.

    Posted by Sam Heldman at 04:24 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    The End of Labor Rights

    Just read this. Extend it a bit farther and no one will have any rights at work at all.

    Posted by Nathan at 03:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Bush Budget Ends Aid for Workers Who Lose Jobs to Trade

    In enacting various trade agreements in the last decade, the one promise on jobs extracted from the federal government was that workers displaced by foreign trade would be helped with retraining funds.

    Bush now proposes to kill that program, Trade Adjustment Assistance, and lump it in with block grants to states -- who would be under no obligation to use it to help those workers.

    It's hardly surprising that Bush wants to kill the program, since his administration has repeatedly violated the law and refused benefits to workers who qualified, a fact that led the special federal trade court which hears those claims to condemn the Bush administration:

    While this case is troubling enough when viewed in isolation, it is even more troubling if it is viewed in the context of other TAA and NAFTA-TAA cases appealed to this Court...There is something fundamentally wrong with the administration of the nation?s trade adjustment assistance programs if, as a practical matter, workers often must appeal their cases to the courts to secure the thorough investigation that the Labor Department is obligated to conduct by law.
    Like many areas, the Bush has violated the law with impunity and now seeks to solve the legal problem by eliminating the law that obliges it to assist these workers. Which is the beauty of a block grant: no legal rights for the workers who lose their jobs.

    Update: This Bush proposal, it appears, only kills the funds for retraining the workers, so they'd still have the legal right to expanded unemployment benefits under the TAA system. It's still a betrayal of the promise that workers losing their jobs to trade would have specific help in moving on to new jobs with new skills.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:17 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    W.R. Grace Execs Indicted For Asbestos Coverup

    George Bush's Frivolous Asbestos Claims?

    In yet another case of deadly corporate coverups, the W.R. Grace & Co. and seven of its current or former executives and department heads were indicted yesterday in federal court in Missoula, Montana.

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency,

    W.R. Grace and its executives, as far back as the 1970’s, attempted to hide the fact that toxic asbestos was present in vermiculite products at the company’s Libby, Montana plant. The grand jury charged the defendants with conspiring to conceal information about the hazardous nature of the company’s asbestos contaminated vermiculite products, obstructing the government’s clean-up efforts, and wire fraud. To date, according to the indictment, approximately 1,200 residents of Libby have been identified as suffering from some kind of asbestos-related abnormality.


    The indictment alleges that the defendants, beginning in the late 1970's, obtained knowledge of the toxic nature of tremolite asbestos in its vermiculite through internal epidemiological, medical and toxicological studies, as well as through product testing. The indictment further alleges that, despite legal requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act to turn over to EPA the information they possessed, W.R. Grace and its officials failed to do so on numerous occasions. In addition to concealing information from EPA, the indictment alleges that W.R. Grace and its officials also obstructed the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) when it attempted to study the health conditions at the Libby mine in the 1980's.

    The indictment further alleges that, despite their knowledge gained from internal studies, W.R. Grace and its officials distributed asbestos-contaminated vermiculite and permitted it to be distributed throughout the Libby community. This occurred in numerous ways, including, allowing workers to leave the mine site covered in asbestos dust, allowing residents to take waste vermiculite for use in their gardens and distributing vermiculite "tailings" to the Libby schools for use as foundations for running tracks and an outdoor ice skating rink. After W.R. Grace closed the Libby mine in 1990, it sold asbestos contaminated properties to local buyers without disclosing the nature or extent of the contamination. One of the contaminated properties was used as a residence and commercial nursery.

    St. Louis Post Dispatch investigative reporter Andrew Schneider, broke the original story in 1999. In an interview yesterday on National Public Radio Schneider recalled that over 1000 people in libby have signs of the asbestos disease and the EPA has found that more than 250 already died so far.

    According to Schneider, documents from Grace revealed that the mills released over 5,000 lbs of asbestos fibers into the air over Libby every day the plant operated. Although the mine closed in 1993, asbestos-tainted vermiculte remains in the houses, gardens and driveways of Libby.

    The worst part is that the documents also show that Libby knew when they took over the mine in 1960 that the vermiculite ore was tainted with asbestos and that asbestos exposure was deadly. Grace concealed this knowledge from the town and from the workers in Grace's 200 plants across the country. The biggest problem, however -- which EPA hasn't even begun to deal with -- is that asbestos-tainted vermiculite insulation remains in the attics of 35 million homes around the country.

    Unlike OSHA penalties, violations of EPA's laws carry stiff penalties:

    In addition to the company and [Alan] Stringer [manager of the now-closed mine], those named in the indictment are Henry Eschenbach, former health official for a Grace subsidiary; Jack Wolter, a former executive for Grace's construction products division; William McCaig, former general manager of the Libby mine; Robert Bettacchi, a senior vice president of Grace; O. Mario Favorito, chief legal counsel for Grace; and Robert Walsh, former Grace vice president.

    The company could face a fine of up to $280 million, twice the amount of after-tax profits the government alleges W.R. Grace realized from the Libby mine, according to the Justice Department

    Stringer could be sentenced to as many as 70 years in prison, while Wolter and Bettacchi face maximum prison terms of 55 years. The other defendants could get 5 years in prison.

    This isn't the first time that W.R. Grace poisoned a community. In a case made famous in the book, A Civil Action, Grace paid $8 million to eight Woburn, Massachusetts families to settle their civil suits after children died of leukemia from drinking well water contaminated by a WR Grace factory.

    The sad case of Libby, Montana marks only the latest low-point for corporate deception in this country. After the previous asbestos scandals and huge lawsuits (or frivolous cases, according to our President), after the tragic cover-ups by the lead and vinyl chloride industries (See Markowitz and Rosner's Deceit and Denial for the lead and Vinyl Chloride stories), one can only wonder what other hazards American companies have hidden -- and continue to hide -- from workers and communities.

    And despite these crimes, the President of the United States and corporate America continue their attack on the regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect workers and communities, while at the same time mounting a campaign to weaken citizens' right to sue corporate criminals like Grace.

    One hopes that corporate America will finally learn alesson from these indictments, although nothing can make up for the human damage that Grace has caused:

    Les Skramstad, a Libby resident and former mine worker who was diagnosed with asbestosis nine years ago, said he was pleased criminal charges had finally been filed.

    "This wasn't something that happened to us. This was something that was done to us," said Skramstad, who attended Monday's news conference.

    Skramstad, 68, said he worked in the mine for 2 1/2 years and believes he not only contracted asbestosis there, but brought home asbestos fibers that also sickened his wife and two children.

    All of them now have asbestosis, Skramstad said.

    "They should have to pay," Skramstad said of the defendants. "They will never have to pay like we did, because it won't cost them their lives."

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 01:06 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    February 08, 2005

    A Compromise on Card Check?

    Here's a fascinating report at the new Labor Law Blog on the card check/neutrality agreement debate and a potential compromise discussed. (Suddenly labor blogs are popping up all over).

    A recent D.C. Bar Association meeting had representatives from both the Bush NLRB and from the AFL-CIO discussing the upcoming Dana/Metaldyne cases, where the specific issue is whether a new election can be demanded right after a union is recognized under a card check agreement.

    Normally, there are no elections allowed for a year after a union is recognized to give time for the bargaining relation to stabilize. The worry is that if that rule is dropped after card check recognition, unions will be faced by employer-supported campaigns that will make negotiations for a contract nearly impossible.

    In response to those criticisms, the NLRB General Counsel is urging the following rule:

    [The NLRB should] process an election petition shortly after voluntary recognition if the following conditions are met: the petition must be filed with 30 days from the date that the employer notifies the employees that it has voluntarily recognized the union and the petition must have the support of 50% of employees. If a petitioner can obtain support from at least 50% of the employees, then the Board is justified in questioning the card check's validity.
    First, this would limit challenges to immediately after recognition, so the employer couldn't hold back, then play games months after agreeing to recognition. Secondly, since it usually only take 30% of employees to force a decertification election, a rule requiring 50% to support a new election is a far more significant barrier.

    We'll see how ambitious the Bush NLRB gets with this decision; they may just be going for step-by-step gutting of the law, so this compromise approach may appeal to them. But it's an interesting proposal that indicates the debate on card check agreements will likely have multiple rounds.

    Posted by Nathan at 02:54 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    Bush Budget Eliminates Worker Training Grants

    President Bush's Fiscal Year 2006 budget proposal, issued today, calls for the complete elimination of OSHA's worker training program. The program, known as the Susan Harwood Worker Training Grants, was created under the administration of Assistant Secretary for Labor Eula Bingham during the Carter administration to provide hands-on training to workers about their rights and the hazards they face. Although the Reagan administration cut the grants back significantly, no administration has ever attempted to completely eliminate the program, until now.

    In a rather mmisleading statement, Acting Assistant Secretary Jonathan Snare said:

    OSHA's FY 2006 budget also calls for the reduction of $10.2 million by eliminating the agency's Susan Harwood training grants program. Snare explained that OSHA has a variety of outreach, compliance assistance and training programs. Many of OSHA's Alliances address training components, while the agency's web-based training materials continues to expand. The agency also offers training through the OSHA Training Institute, 19 Education Centers and train-the-trainer Outreach Training Program that reaches more than 360,000 workers annually. "The availability and success of these programs and capabilities within a constrained budget environment," he said, "will ensure that training and outreach to thousands of workers and employers is not compromised by the elimination of the training grants program."
    So the worker training program that currently provides thousands of dollars to unions and other public interest groups to train workers will be replaced by programs run by rather pathetic industry alliances and various classes run by OSHA and universities around the country?

    The worker training grant program grew to over $11 million per year during the Clinton administration, after being cut to the bone during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. The current Bush administration has tried every year to cut the program back to $4 million, and replace direct training with websites and CDs, but the Congress has restored full funding every year -- largely thanks to Republican Senator Arlen Specter who chairs the Senate Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Appropriations Sub-committee.

    Meanwhile, while programs that provide outreach to workers are zeroed out, a total of $127 million is being proposed for programs to provide compliance assistance to employers. The Voluntary Protection Program, one of OSHA's various voluntary programs, will increase by over 25%, even though the Government Accountability Office recommended that OSHA not exand these programs until it had determined whether or not they were effective.

    While the budget shows a small dollar increase in the budgets of OSHA, MSHA and NIOSH, adjusting for inflation, the Bush budget proposal means a real dollar cut of $6.7 million for OSHA, $4.9 million for MSHA and a $5.1 million cut for NIOSH. Taking into account all three budget, according to an AFL-CIO analysis, the Bush Administration proposes to spend less than $8 per worker to protect American workers from job injuries, illnesses and death. Since the beginning of the Bush administration, 162 full-time positions have been cut from OSHA's staff, mostly from employees working on standards and federal enforcement programs

    Taking inflation into account, this year’s proposed budget freezes OSHA’s and MSHA’s enforcement programs. The standards budget is seeing an increase, but that will go toward reviewing existing standards. According to the AFL-CIO:

    The proposed budget requests $17 million in funding for safety and health standards, compared to $16.1 million appropriated in FY 2005. Instead of developing new protections, the Bush Administration has set as its priority the review of existing rules. According to the Administration’s latest Regulatory Agenda issued in December 2004, no new significant final standards are planned, making this the first Administration in OSHA’s history to issue no major safety and health standards during its tenure. Instead, the Administration overturned OSHA’s ergonomics standard, killed pending final rules on indoor air quality and tuberculosis and withdrew or delayed dozens of other important safety and health rules.
    Meanwhile, there is no mention in the budget of program to address immigrant or Hispanic worker injuries and deaths, or to address ergonomic hazards. Since the Bush administration repealed the ergonomics standard in 2001, federal OSHA has issued only three voluntary guidelines – for nursing homes, retail groceries and poultry processing plants - and issued only 15 general duty citations for ergonomic hazards.

    Bush's FY 2006 budget proposes $280 million in funding for MSHA compared to $279.2 appropriated in FY 2005, but the budget cuts MSHA’s program for standards development (from $2.3 million in FY 2005 to $2.0 million in FY 2006) and cuts in program evaluation and program administration. Since the Bush Administration took office in 2001, they have reduced MSHA staff by 170 positions.

    The NIOSH budget would be $286 million compared with $285.4 million last year.

    Oh, and one more thing. In the interests of a balanced budget, the administration may not have been able to find enough money for worker training or more safety & health inspecters, but

    The 2006 budget also includes $7 million to fight fraud and corruption in labor unions. Money would be used to beef up audits, help hire 48 new auditors, and investigate and combat embezzlement of union funds.
    Posted by Jordan Barab at 01:12 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Public Employee Bargaining Rights Under Attack

    You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we over look the worth and significance of those who are not in the professional jobs, in the so called big jobs, but let me say to you tonight, that when ever you are engaged in work, that serves humanity, for the building of humanity it has dignity and it has worth." Dr. Martin Luther King, March 18, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee

    With the repeal of public employee bargaining rights and contracts in the states of Missouri and Indiana last month, the American labor movement has taken a serious, but almost unnoticed body blow.

    Public employee unionism has a comparatively short, but tragic history in the United States of America - even through the early years of the 21st century. Martin Luther King was gunned down in 1968 supporting the rights of a small garbage workers local in Memphis, Tennessee, and Ronald Reagan's defeat of PATCO in 1981 ushered in an era of anti-unionism that has continued unabated to the present day. And despite the heroism of public employees on 9/11, President Bush has successfully used national security arguments to abolish the organizing rights of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal employees. Bush is now even taking away basic civil service protections from DHS employees, with other agencies to follow.

    As the director of AFSCME's health and safety program though the 1980's and 1990's I was often confronted with quips about how public employees' greatest safety threats must be paper cuts and falling off of office chairs. My revenge against those know-nothings was a long and detailed response, intimately describing the difficult, dangerous and low-paid work that the public employees of this country did to sustain its comfortable, but ignorant citizenry - highway workers laboring on the roads in the dead of night, mere inches away from speeding, hostile drivers; social service workers dealing with the "dregs" of society, doing their unpleasant work of protecting abused children and dysfunctional families alone in neighborhoods that the police were hesitant to enter armed and in pairs; dealing with undermedicated, neglected and often violent clients in social service offices that didn't have the resources to provide the assistance they needed; wading knee deep through asphyxiating raw sewage and rat-infested sewers; teaching in underfunded, crumbling inner-city schools; guarding the imprisoned refuse of society that most people didn't even want to think about except in stomach-churning movies; taking care of the mentally ill in understaffed, overcrowded mental health institutions - in other words, doing the jobs that this society demands to maintain the high standards that we take for granted.

    In return for that work, public "servants" didn't even have the same right to organize unions or bargain collectively that private sector employees had enjoyed since the 1930's, nor the right to a safe workplace that private sector employees had enjoyed since 1971. And for all that, they were some of the lowest paid employees in the country, often eligible for welfare despite their full time jobs.

    It was only relatively recently - in the 1960's -- that significant numbers of public employees in some states first earned the right to organize and form unions - "earned," meaning that this right was not bestowed upon them, but rather fought for and won - state by state, and sometimes city by city and county by county -- initially through illegal strikes, pickets and job actions, and later through political action. Public employees only received a 40 hour work week, pension and health care benefits and workers compensation years and sometimes decades after private sector employees - and not until they had organized into unions.

    To this day, fewer than a dozen states have laws on the books that provide public employees with full collective bargaining rights. Other public employees only have rights through executive orders provided by sympathetic governors -- orders subject to repeal when a new governor is elected. Local employees often have to pass legislation city by city - legislation that can be rescinded if they aren't behaving properly. And even the rights they have are often not equivalent to private sector rights. Most don't have the right to strike, and others are limited in the areas they can bargain over. Federal employees, for example, cannot bargain over wages or benefits.

    So it was particularly painful when the newly elected Republican governors of Indiana and Missouri recently rescinded public employee bargaining rights that had been provided by the executive orders of previous governors.

    Jan 26 - In one of his first moves in office, newly elected Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana rescinded the rights of highway police, hospital attendants, mechanics and other state workers to collectively bargain for wage and hour increases, working conditions and other benefits.

    On January 11, Daniels, a Republican and former Bush administration official, unilaterally eliminated the unionization rights and contracts of approximately 25,000 state employees, effectively shredding agreements that were set to last as late as 2007. Although Daniels' election campaign platform had addressed issues affecting state employees in detail, it made no note of any intention to drastically alter labor arrangements for some two-thirds of the state's government workforce.

    I had worked in Indiana before the before Governor Evan Bayh issued the executive order giving Indiana public employees collective bargaining rights. I missed most of the 1990 Indiana organizing campaign (my wife was in the late stages of pregnancy with our third), but I was present during the opening stages of the campaign when Indiana public employees testified about their difficult working conditions, pitifully low pay and - most important - lack of respect from their supervisors.

    Following the campaign (which had degenerated into an expensive, fratricidal shootout between AFSCME, the UAW and AFT), I returned to Indiana many times, working with the social service workers that we represented to organize programs protecting them against workplace violence and communicable diseases, and with city public works employees to force their employers to comply with confined space and trenching hazards. Things had improved noticeably. As Indiana AFSCME Executive Director David Warrick says:

    Union contracts have greatly changed the workplace for state employees. Since 1990, when then Indiana Governor Evan Bayh issued an Executive Order to create collective bargaining rights for state employees, the International Union of Police Associations and AFSCME, along with an alliance between the American Federation of Teachers and the United Auto Workers called the Unity Team, helped employees access their vacation time, establish seniority rights, gain access to job training and additional education, and achieve some of the highest wage increases in the nation. Some workers saw as much as a 20 percent pay increase in one year.

    "Before [Bayh's Executive Order], management and labor were always bumping heads. The atmosphere was just horrible," says Warrick. "The biggest notable change has been that the us versus them attitudes had just eroded away, and we had gotten to a place where we worked together for common goals."

    But beyond the pay raises, the due-process guarantees and the improved safety conditions, the most vivid memory I have is the almost palpable sense of dignity that Indiana public employees had gained -- that management had to address them as equals, had to provide due process -- along with the assurance that they they had the union to fight for them.

    Daniels clearly doesn't see the point of unions. Or perhaps he sees their value too well:

    "The Governor is committed to improving state service and to providing due process to employees," Jane Jankowski, a spokesperson for Gov. Daniels, told TNS. "He thinks he can do both at the same time."

    Critics say that is unlikely: without bargaining power, workers will have little leverage. Although the governor has given workers the right to appeal firings, demotions and unpaid suspensions to the State Employees' Appeals Commission, workers' advocates consider the appeals process an insignificant source of hope. The Commission is a five-member board appointed by the governor, and in the past it has only overturned two percent of management decisions in favor of employees.

    The bottom line is that public employees remain second class citizens in this country. As bad as things are in the labor movement, the most anti-labor Republican would not consider repealing the legal right of private sector workers to organize and bargain -- yet. But somehow it's OK to take away public employees' rights - in the name of government efficiency or flexibility or in the name of national security.

    But make no mistake. If they can continue to get away with taking away some employees rights, the rest of our rights may not be far behind.


    They were tired, beaten men, making a struggle that before they died they would stand up and be men.

    -- Jerry Wurf (AFSCME President, 1964 - 1991), Memphis, 1968

    More here.

    Posted by Jordan Barab at 12:47 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

    February 07, 2005

    Montana Senate Votes to Raise Minimum Wage

    Montana definitely went through a sea change in the last election, with Dems taking over the Senate. The result: a Senate vote to raise the state minimum wage to $6.25 per hour. Next, we'll be seeing Mississippi joining the bandwagon. Actually, as Josh Marshall noted today in regards to resistance to social security cuts in "red states," there's no reason those states shouldn't be supporting progressive economic legislation. They've got a lot of poor folks who would be helped.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:50 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Love that DOL

    Here's a fun little find that says a lot about Chao's Department of Labor and its approach to labor unions. The DOL maintains a "Public Disclosure Room" on the Internet that allows the public to review information contained in unions' annual financial reports filed with the Department. These reports contain, among other things, salary and expense information for every officer and employee of every union in the US.

    Until recently, the results of a search for reported data concerning officers or employees would include information on both salary and "total payments" -- that is, all remittances to the officer/employee. An officer/employee's "total payments" generally are the officer/employee's salary plus reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses while on official union business. So when a union's financial report shows that employee receives $50,000 in salary, but has $65,000 in total payments, it's clear that the employee is only receiving $50,000 in compensation.

    The DOL recently redesigned its web query engine, though, and now the results of an officer/employee search only show total payments made to officers and employees. This creates a grossly misleading situation whereby members of the public attempting to find information on union employee salaries will see only one figure -- total payments. The result is to sow in the public mind a mistakenly inflated notion of the size of union salaries. Which, I suppose, was the idea.

    Posted by Trapper John at 12:29 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    February 06, 2005

    Organizing Janitors in Florida

    This is the proof of the pudding for Andy Stern, whether SEIU can attain the holy grail of US unionism: organizing the South.

    The union is now organizing to represent 7,000 condominium workers in the Miami area: janitors, concierges, parking valets, security guards and building engineers. Part of the hope is that retirees from the North may be more sympathetic in support of unionization than in other parts of the South.

    But the union is facing the typical retaliation against workers who stand up for the union:

    Frustrated by her $7-an-hour wage, Norma Huamali, a cleaner at the Grand Venetian condominiums here, became so enthusiastic about unionizing that she began proselytizing to workers.

    "One colleague warned me, 'You better not talk about the union because the manager is going to fire you,' " she said. "He found out and fired me, finding some excuse."

    Along with its traditional organizing tactics, the union has also been working to organize the condo residents themselves, using the issue of condo board accountability to mobilize condo residents and target the management companies -- like the giant Continental Group -- hired by condo boards and who are the condo workers' actual employer. Check out this web site. For more about the campaign in general, see SEIU Local 11's web site.
    Posted by Nathan at 08:20 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

    February 05, 2005

    Another New Labor Blog

    The new Wage Law blog has a specialist focus on California's minimum wage and overtime law, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have relevance to other states. Take their post on the pending federal bill to force class actions into federal court and supposedly discourage frivolous lawsuits:

    this bill is not about correcting injustice. It is about limiting the exposure of the largest companies who commit the most egregious violations of law. Because the bill only affects claims worth more than $5 million, the smallest, least meritorious cases are unaffected. In other words, this bill does not come close to doing what it purports to be enacted to do.

    The best hope for wage and hour practitioners and their thousands of clients is the proposed civil rights/labor amendment to carve out state law civil rights and wage-and-hour cases from the bill. Without this amendment, the removal process in the bill would delay and, in some instances, cause the dismissal of meritorious class action cases.

    Lots of other good posts there as well. And while we're on the California theme, check out the California Labor & Employment Law blawg.
    Posted by Nathan at 01:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    the role of lawyers

    There has been, lately, much discussion about the future of the labor movement, in terms of the direction of the AFL-CIO, possible mergers among Internationals, and so forth. I have been trying to figure out why I don't express, and really don't even have, more definite opinions about these issues. I think I've put my finger on it, and am interested in whether other labor lawyers have the same sort of feelings.

    From the beginning of my work as a union lawyer, I was always indoctrinated by our senior partner Buddy Cooper -- the first CIO lawyer in the Southeast, and one of that great generation of fearless labor law pioneers -- that internal union politics were none of the lawyers' business. Some of the reason for this principle, I suppose, was business self-interest: he didn't want to lose the opportunity to continue to represent one of his clients, on account of having backed the losing side in an internal election. But there was also more principle to the principle, I think -- it was based in part on his belief that the setting of union policy is up to the membership and to the people they elect to represent them. Now this doesn't mean that Buddy was a complete agnostic when it came to matters of union politics; he refused to represent some unions, when their leadership stood for things that he didn't like. And on some matters of policy, such as race discrimination, he used his influence to help nudge his clients in what he thought was the right direction. But by and large, his motto was to stay out of internal union stuff, and to do your lawyering to help your clients achieve their own goals.

    This still feels right to me, as a description of the proper role of outside counsel for unions. It does have a little bit of that same moral ambiguity that is an aspect of just about all lawyering -- the somewhat odd notion of making it your life's work to pursue your client's goals even when they're not your own. But I think it's right.

    And so, I end this entirely link-less blog post by wondering whether other people feel the same way, or whether I ought to rethink it.

    Posted by Sam Heldman at 01:01 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

    February 04, 2005

    I Want My Vacation

    Play "Bash the Boss." It's funny how class conflict is okay when it's sponsored by big corporations.

    Posted by Nathan at 09:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Arnie's Own Pension Privatization

    While the national focus is on Bush's attack on the social security pension system, Arnie out in California is attempting a similar stunt with his attack on state employee pensions, wanting to eliminate defined benefits for future retirees and replace them with private accounts.

    But the twist with CALPERS, the state pension system, is that its trust fund is invested broadly in companies in ways that enhance California's economy and promote better corporate governance.

    Which the rightwing hates.

    Attacking CALPERS is a way to silence voices challenging corporate malfeasance. The first step for Arnie was removing the previous president of CALPERS board, former union leader Sean Harrigan, and replacing him with an insurance exectutive. Now, the goal is to drain CALPERS of money and endanger the retirement of public employees.

    But California's state treasurer, Phil Angelides, is fighting back and denouncing Arnie's plan. And he's enlisted help from other public pension fund officials around the country, who see Arnie's attack as part of a national rightwing assault on public pensions.

    Angelides was joined Wednesday by North Carolina Treasurer Richard Moore, New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and Nell Minow, editor of the Maine-based Corporate Library, who studies corporate governance issues...Hevesi, a Democrat who oversees the $121 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, said the new campaign was about stopping a "right-wing cabal from protecting the evil people who have done so much to damage the economy."

    "Parts of corporate America were stealing," said Moore, a Democrat who oversees a North Carolina pension system valued at $63 billion. "We helped shine a light on that."

    Led by the $182 billion California Public Employees Retirement System - the nation's largest - public pension funds have campaigned for curbs on executive salaries, boundaries between the research and sales departments of investment banks and new rules that allow shareholders to nominate their own company directors. That activism has triggered a growing backlash from corporate interests who say the funds have pushed too far into their operations.

    I think many progressives miss a large part of what the fight over social security privatization is about.

    Kevin Drum asks "if private accounts don't solve anything, if indeed they actually make Social Security's problems worse, then why is Bush pushing them? Cui bono?"

    The answer is that conservatives fear that as the social security trust funds grows into trillions of dollars, pressure will increase to invest those funds in the same way as state pension funds do. As I've argued, there is a strong logic to using social security funds to strengthen job creation in the US and expand payroll taxes in the future. Conservatives want to kill that debate before we ever get to that point, so social security privatization is their preemptive strike.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:55 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 03, 2005

    New Labor Blogs

    Given their scarcity, it's always nice to see a new labor blog, in this case from the DC firm of Peer & Gan. Welcome!

    And another: Unions-Firms-Markets, a more analytic blog on the relationship between exactly what's its title says.

    Posted by Nathan at 02:41 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    Restaurants: A Criminal Industry

    There are 165,000 workers in the restaurant industry in New York City. The majority of them work in businesses engaged in criminal activity-- much of that criminal activity directed as theft against the employees themselves.

    That's the import of a new study created by a wide-ranging coalition of researchers, called Behind the Kitchen Door: Pervasive Inequality in New York City's Thriving Restaurant Industry.

    In a combination of surveys and in-depth interviews with both workers and employers, the study found that 13% of restaurant workers - or an estimated 21,000 workers - are not paid the minimum wage, and 59% of workers - 97,350 workers - have overtime pay owed them stolen by their employers.

    If surveys showed that almost 100,000 middle class people in one city were routinely being robbed of thousands of dollars each year, the tough-on-crime advocates would be calling for "zero tolerance" incarceration of the criminals.

    But since it's businessmen stealing from their employees, most people just look the other way.

    Even progressives mostly don't really see this as "real crime." But for the workers who are victim of these crimes, the result is suffering for their them and their families, as the report documents:

    I earn about $550 for a 72-hour week. I do not have health insurance but I have injured myself a number of times – mostly cuts and burns which are common in my work. When I cut or burn myself, I usually treat it myself...The restaurant where I work now does not give sick days to any workers and the boss usually doesn’t like for people to take a day off – in fact, he fires people who take time off...My boss often bullies and threatens me but I can’t do or say anything about it because he says he can report me to the police or to the immigration authorities. This happens to all of us immigrant workers.- Dan

    I don’t have health insurance and I don’t get sick days. If I get sick, I take painkillers and continue working. I can’t afford medical bills nor can I afford to miss work so I never go to the doctor. I’ve been injured at work before but I had to just keep working. Once, I was washing dishes when I cut myself on a piece of broken glass. Because the water was hot, the bleeding just wouldn’t stop. It was so busy that day and I didn’t want to be sent home without pay so I kept on working. - George

    Vulnerable workers are threatened and bullied, so that their paychecks can be looted and they can be paid less than legally required.

    This should be considered criminal activity and theft, like any other crime in our society.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    February 02, 2005

    Organizing the so-called "unorganizeable"

    Unions always need to do more outreach to immigrants and communities of color. That's a given. But it drives me a bit nuts when I see a flat statement from writers like Laura Wildman at TAPPED who states that the problem is unions are ignoring immigrants: "undocumented workers, for example, who are viewed suspiciously at best by unions, and those who work below the radar in industries and areas that unions either are too inflexible to reach or haven't considered."

    "Suspiciously"? Unions are organizing immigrants in large numbers and the AFL-CIO has come out strongly for legalization of undocumented immigrants in the US. Read the main AFL-CIO page on immigration for a taste of unions' pro-immigrant views. (Which is notably more pro-immigrant that TAPPED itself was a couple of years ago when it had posts condemning Richard's Gephardt's legalization legislation and saying Democrats shouldn't "pander to special interest groups like La Raza.")

    Sarah cites Jennifer Gordon's work on organizing undocumented workers outside unions. Jennifer (who is a friend) has done outstanding work, but she would be the first to acknowledge the limits of what can be done using the methods she documented, if nothing else because the funding from foundations for such work is uncertain. The worker centers that Laura mentions do good work, but they are not a substitute for the work that unions are fighting to do every day.

    Unions organize undocumented workers continually. They have to, because they are in so many of the workplaces they are now organizing, from restaurants to construction sites to janitorial companies. And they are delivering higher wages and better health care to tens of thousands of undocumented workers every day-- often getting them benefits from the union that they don't qualify for from the public sector. Back in 1994, for example, when California progressives promoted a single payer health care initiative, many of the unions like SEIU attacked it because it didn't offer health care for undocumented immigrants and actually would have cut-off the benefits those immigrants were receiving under union health care plans.

    There is plenty to criticize about the union leaderships, but that criticism has to start with the recognition that on a host of issues, including outreach to immigrants, they are far ahead of the rest of the progressive movement nine times out of ten. As I mentioned just yesterday, 5000 janitors in northern New Jersey just got a 24% raise plus free health care benefits -- and you'd better believe that a large number are undocumented.

    It's just frustrating to hear progressives at places like TAPPED engaging in the cliche that unions are "suspicious" of immigrant workers or are ignoring their concerns. In the more than fifteen years I've been around the labor movement, I can't think of an issue that people I know have obsessed about more than how to organize such workers. Again, there are some union leaders that aren't perfect on the issue, but the top leadership of the AFL and most of its individual union leaders are incredibly committed to doing this organizing. They face structural and legal barriers beyond belief in doing so, but they are still out fighting every day.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:53 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    MA: Low wage employers suck $52 million in public funds

    Following a string of new reports on health care subsidies to low wage employers like Wal-Mart, the Massachusetts Health and Human Services Division has released this report detailing that thousands of Wal-Mart, Dunkin Donuts and McDonald's employees are dependent on public health spending, since their employers won't pick up the tab.

    The bottom-line is that employers who dump their health care costs on the taxpayers are undercutting employers who provide health care for their workers.

    Posted by Nathan at 01:31 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    The Legal Fight over Neutrality Agreements

    This article is a good in-depth discussion of the legal fight over the "card check" neutrality agreements increasingly used by labor unions to bypass the anti-union procedures of the National Labor Relations Board. Of nearly 3 million workers organized into unions from 1998 to 2003, only a fifth joined as a result of an NLRB-supervised election, most of the rest organized through various forms of neutrality and card check agreements where employers voluntarily recognized the union after workers demonstrated their support.

    The core legality of these voluntary agreements is under attack in a case involving an agreement between Steelworkers and Heartland Investment Partners LLP, an investment firm which agreed that companies it owned or acquired would be subject to a neutrality agreement. For those with a sense of history, a fun fact is that the head of Heartland is David Stockman, Reagan's old director of the OMB budget office. Management supported the neutrality deal as good business:

    James Stone, an attorney representing Heartland, said the company believes neutrality agreements avoid the unnecessary rancor of NLRB-supervised elections. And according to Steelworkers' organizing director Michael Yoffee, Stockman "has said -- and the USWA agrees -- that the warlike atmosphere that usually occurs between workers and their employers when workers try to form a union and negotiate a contract is old-fashioned and counterproductive."
    The anti-union National Right to Work Committee wants to have the neutrality agreement with Heartland declared an illegal "hot cargo" pact, analogous to older deals where employers agreed not to handle non-union goods, which were declared illegal by Congress in 1959.

    The irony here is that the rightwing likes to prattle on about "union privileges" and valorizing contracts in the free market. Yet here the rightwing is trying to shut down voluntary negotiations between union workers and employers in favor of rigidly defined rules controlled completely by Washington bureaucrats.

    Which of course reflects that conservatives don't really believe their rhetoric; when it comes to union busting, they love using government coercion to restrict the rights of workers.

    Posted by Nathan at 08:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Welfare Reform on Steroids

    This is the logical extreme of welfare reform, as implemented in Germany:

    A 25-year-old waitress who turned down a job providing "sexual services'' at a brothel in Berlin faces possible cuts to her unemployment benefit under laws introduced this year...

    Under Germany's welfare reforms, any woman under 55 who has been out of work for more than a year can be forced to take an available job – including in the sex industry – or lose her unemployment benefit.

    Germany has implemented a more formal policy with basic labor protections due to the legalization of prostitution, but with welfare recipients in the US forced to do sub-minimum wage make-work or turn to illegal sweatshops as their benefits are cut off, this is de facto the US system as many desperate women are forced into prostitution.

    Most of those who have left welfare still live below the poverty line, so such desperation is systematically part of the system. Germany may make the headlines on this issue, but it's the reality of our communities under our new welfare system.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 01, 2005

    CAFTA Trade Deal Show Down

    Some are comparing Bush's social security reform campaign to Clinton's health care fight, the implication being his administration could founder on the issue. But to make the analogy complete, he'd have to alienate his own party over a trade deal.

    Enter CAFTA.

    The GOP is hemmoraging votes on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) from states with textile and sugar jobs. Unless they can corral enough Democrats, the bill looks to go down in flames:

    Former U.S. Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., a strong advocate of free trade and now president of the National Food Processors Association...said the House leadership cannot expect to pass CAFTA with Republican votes alone, although the GOP now holds a 232-203 advantage.

    "I don't think the Republicans are going be able to put together 218 votes that would assure the passage of CAFTA with the erosion of support they will see because of textile support and sugar," he said.

    And if CAFTA goes down, that probably puts a nail in the coffin of the broader FTAA.

    Just as Clinton left office, he had negotiated trade deals with Jordan, including labor provisions, that enlisted broad labor and industry support. Bush chose to jettison real labor provisions in CAFTA and so he's now almost completely dependent on GOP votes for support of his trade agenda. It would be sweet justice to see Bush's trade agenda savaged by rebellion in his own party.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    How to Get a 24% Raise? Build a Union

    While the Sunday NY Times piece was mostly celebrity piffle, it did mention a couple of important union campaigns. One of the more interesting ones has been a quiet one-- the success of janitors in building a strong union in Northern New Jersey.

    The industry was largely non-union just a few years ago, but just a couple of weeks ago, 5,000 janitors and other building service workers in New Jersey ratified a contract with a 24% increase in wages and free health care.

    This is one result of a three-year organizing campaign that has remade the industry by targetting the big corporations that hire the cleaning companies. Part of the incentive for companies to agree to the union is a promise that they won't have to pay the union wage until a majority of companies in an area have also signed up, thereby preventing a few union companies being destroyed in a sea of low-wage non-union competition.

    Posted by Nathan at 07:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    AT&T Disappears into Pro-Labor SBC

    I find a bit of irony in the takeover of AT&T by the Baby Bell SBC-- which also absorbed AT&T Wireless last year through its Cingular Wireless subsidiary. SBC is one of the best union employers in the telecom industry, while AT&T fought its unions tooth-and-nail in its final years.

    I worked at the Communication Workers of America a few years ago when AT&T was doing everything possible to frustrate union organizing in its cable and wireless units, despite agreements to allow expedited union elections. In fact, there is some evidence that the breakup of AT&T into its different parts -- long distance, cable, wireless -- was done partly to frustrate the unions.

    The cable branch did disappear off to Comcast, but the fact that the long distance and wireless parts of the old AT&T are going to be part of SBC is a nice parable that extreme anti-union attitudes doesn't save a company, while decent union relations by SBC didn't prevent it from coming out on top.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Corporate Tax Breaks Don't Lead to New Jobs

    Shocking- Not.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    The Real Pension Crisis

    Social Security will pay full benefits until 2052, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That is no crisis.

    But across the United States, existing private pension plans are collapsing and taxpayers are picking up the bill through the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation. Those private pension funds are already underfunded to the tune of $450 billion. Now, there are a few reforms proposed for dealing with the potential costs to taxpayers, but very little debate about shoring up the overall private pension system.

    A lot of folks think "private accounts" or expanded 401(k)s will do the trick. But in fact, the era of 401(k)s in the last twenty years has seen a decline in the net assets of the average retiree, when you factor in the disappearance of traditional pensions.

    Here are the hard numbers. Despite two decades of a bull market on Wall Street:

    the net worth of the median older household - the one at the midpoint of the economic ladder...declined by 2.2 percent, or $4,000, during the period, to $199,900.
    This is largely due to the decline of the traditional pension, which has been astonishingly steep: where more than two-thirds of older households - those headed by people 47 to 64 - had someone earning a pension in 1983, by 2001, fewer than half did.

    And for those who think cash in a 401(k) is a substitute for steady pension income year after year, read this study from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which has been tracking what actually happened to retirees' wealth over the last decade in this new era. The results are pretty depressing:

  • about 15 percent of the 64–74-yearold cohort had lost 50 percent or more of their total wealth from 1992–2002
  • about 30 percent had lost 50 percent or more of their financial wealth
  • Catastropic health care costs played a role in these losses, but the bottom-line is that it's hard for individuals to manage the risks of short-term financial management during retirement. Yes, that wealth could be converted into lifetime annuities upon retirement, but if that's the goal, why not just reinforce the private defined-benefit system to begin with?

    Democrats and progressives are fighting valiantly to defend social security, but they are ignoring the crisis in private pensions which is destroying the retirement dreams of many workers. The reality is that the failure of the 401(k) pension system is the best argument for leaving social security alone, so highlighting those problems would not detract from the social security fight but reinforce the message.

    Posted by Nathan at 06:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack