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Michael Steele and the Demise of Working America

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Back in April 2009, GOP chairman Michael Steele appeared as a guest on a republican-oriented talk radio show. A caller to the program voiced his opinion and stated he did not believe the U.S. is in a state of economic crisis. Steele laughed in agreement and claimed that “[t]he malls are just as packed on Saturday.”

San Rafael, California is located 20 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge along U.S. Highway 101. With a population of approximately 50,000, it retains the flavor of a small town without sacrificing any of the amenities you’ll find in the most sophisticated of communities.

Nearly every week for the last six months, as I drive along “Mainstreet” on my way to work, I’ve noticed a new storefront that has gone vacant. These are not the vacant addresses that once housed “Old Navy” or “The House of Knives;” and 4th Avenue is not a strip mall. These were shops and boutiques that operated and prospered for the last 20 or more years by catering to the desires and whims of what had been one of the most prosperous communities in the nation. But ever since the mask was removed from Bush’s depression last summer, many of these privileged professionals are finding themselves squeezed financially in the same wringer as the rest of America’s middle class has been for quite some time. As a result, one by one, these shops are falling by the wayside.

The American economy we see today is the end-result of political policies that have been transforming American society for the past 30 years. Based on slogans such as privatization, de-regulation, free trade, out-sourcing, “conservatism,” tax reform, and right to work, legislators have been giving American business what it wants since the days of President Regan. They have turned this country into a place that no longer resembles the country it was when I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

San Rafael, CA is a long way from Flint, Michigan, the town where I grew up.

Flint was never a place that you would mistake as being a center of sophisticated culture. It had always been a blue-collar town. But in its own way, it had once been a pretty prosperous place. Flint was probably the first urban center in America to feel the crunch created by those economic and business policies that destroyed industrial America. You could say that Flint had been America’s canary in a cage, because that town began dying in the 1970’s.

Type the words “Flint Michigan” into your browser or into the search bar over at You Tube. Take a look at what conservatism has done to America. Flint residents living next door to an abandoned property are now able to purchase that property for $1.00. The city will come in, demolish and remove any existing building on that property and fill in the holes. Thereafter, the new owner only needs to keep the property looking presentable. Another strategy being used is to provide incentives for residents in out-lying areas of the city to move in closer to the city center, so that city services can be discontinued to the abandoned areas.

In the wake of the policies listed above, community after community across America have been pushed over the brink of the same slippery slope as Flint, Michigan was abandoned to years ago when business (General Motors) moved out. Michael Steele’s words prove he remains as ignorant of where America stands today as John McCain was during his failed presidential bid, and Steele’s words are just as irrelevant as is the Republican party. The trouble is, that leaves America with only one other political party. From the looks of it, the Democrats have been cowed for so long by their minority status that following their return to a leadership position, they immediately bowed the knee to the masters of corporate Amerika. That being the case, I can’t see how we’ll ever emerge from the wreckage that’s been left behind.


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For Dad: Healthy Families Act Is Perfect Gift

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Even the White House is calling extra-special attention to Father’s Day 2009.

President Barack Obama is kicking off a new initiative on fatherhood, by hosting a town hall meeting on personal responsibility and by inviting male students to the White House to hang-out with some famous Dads.

As on Mother’s Day, many of us will bestow all manner of gifts on Dad – but the last thing Dad needs is another necktie.

For Father’s Day, we need to ensure that Dads can stay home from work when they, their children, spouse, or parents are ill — without putting the family’s economic self-sufficiency at risk. That’s why, for Father’s Day, we need to pass the Healthy Families Act (HFA).

Co-sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Edward Kennedy, the HFA would make it possible for workers – Dads, Moms and others – to earn up to seven paid sick days per year. The HFA would also allow all workers access to paid sick days to recover from domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.

Almost 60 million Americans lack a single paid sick day in which to care for themselves when illness strikes. In addition, nearly 100 million workers don’t have a paid sick day they can use to care for an ill child.

Everyone occasionally gets sick – Dad included. And everyone needs the time to recover. But those without paid sick days risk their jobs to do so. If we listen to the President’s wisdom about personal responsibility, we also know that Dad needs time to share in the family care-giving responsibilities. Being able to use paid sick days to care for a sick child would make this more possible.

This year, to truly celebrate fathers, we need to give the gift of paid sick days by passing the HFA. Contact your members of Congress to let them know you support passage of the Healthy Families Act. Visit www.congress.org to find their contact information.

Give Dad a gift that –unlike all those ties – will never mysteriously disappear; a guaranteed basic labor standard of paid sick days.

About the Author: Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Women, which helps strengthen women’s ability to achieve economic justice. 9to5 has staffed offices in Wisconsin, Colorado, California and Georgia and activists in cities across the country.

This article originally appeared in 9to5.org on June 21, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.


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Whaddya Gonna Do?

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Okay, I have a confession to make. I’m still a big Soprano’s fan. So this week’s blog is going to combine the number one question that everyone in business needs to ask themselves with a short homage to my favorite Jersey family. Capiche?

“Whaddya Gonna Do?”

This question is the closest thing to a mantra on the Sopranos. Business turns south, someone goes after an important customer or suddenly the feds are wreaking havoc. Inevitably one of the characters shrugs, grabs a drink and blurts out, whaddya gonna do?

Unlike a certain organized crime family on TV, most of us do have plenty that we can do. But we are so mired in the fog of our jobs that we fail to see it.

Take a lousy boss. Whaddya gonna do? Well you can go boss shopping. Start looking inside and outside your company for a boss that you can trust. Yep, trust. Get creative with using conference rooms for taking calls to potential employers, using fake doctor’s visits to go for interviews and using letters from clients for references. Serve on committees that will increase your visibility, find excuses to meet with potential new bosses (example, by serving on a United Way committee) or just hang out in the executive bathroom until your top executive prospect hears nature’s call.

Take a crummy paycheck. Whaddya gonna do? Ask to meet with your boss to discuss a raise. After they give you a ton of reasons why it won’t happen, smile and ask for specific performance targets you’d need to hit to get a raise. Specific is the key. Find out what it will take, document the conversation then put all of your creativity to work to hit the target. But don’t just play inside your company. Start shopping your resume outside of it. That is the quickest way to getting a bump in pay, because your company will never pay you what you’re worth until you have a firm outside offer from another company. Never.

Take not having enough hours in a day. Whaddya gonna do? For most of us, the key to getting more done isn’t about squeezing more stuff into your already full eight or nine hour day. The key is to ensure that you’re focusing your best efforts into the areas of greatest opportunity for both you and your company. I’m a big believe in the 80-20 rule. I try to always put 80% of my best effort into my most important projects. It’s tough to do because the urgent always has a way of trumping the important, but you’ve got to resist that temptation and keep your eyes on the prize.

Take being scared of being laid off. Whaddya gonna do? People write to me all the time describing a lay off that came out of nowhere. And yes, that can happen. But more often than not there were subtle clues about what was going to happen. The company suddenly started cutting the budget, sending important projects to other departments and transferring the starts to other departments at your company. We all have to be careful about getting too comfortable and keep our eyes on what is next for our industry, our company but most of all ourselves.

Whaddya gonna do? Plenty. Because you don’t have to be stuck with the mob, you can chart your own course of action.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist and popular speaker. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected] .


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COBRA’s High Cost Bites Into Jobless Safety Net

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As unemployment rises more women are turning to COBRA for health insurance coverage, but discovering it’s either too expensive or not available. Women who shop for individual insurance often face higher rates due to “gender rating,” a recent study found.

COBRA American Recovery and Investment Act

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Jane Schiffler loses her job on July 1, the college administrator will face tough choices.

“To help make ends meet for me and my 7-year-old son, I’ve decided to give up our land line and just use a cell phone; to cancel our cable TV and just get the basic channels; to go to the library instead of buying books; and to cook at home instead of eating out,” says Schiffler, a single mother in New York City. “But I haven’t figured out what to do about our health insurance coverage, which remains my biggest–and most frightening–challenge.”

Schiffler qualifies for COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.

The 1985 law allows laid-off workers and their dependents to remain on their former employer’s group health plans for 18 months as long as they pay the same amount for coverage as their employer did, and 150 percent of that amount if they extend COBRA coverage beyond 18 months.

“The problem is that COBRA is just too expensive for me to afford,” says Schiffler, who is using a pseudonym in this article because she doesn’t want her concerns about health coverage–and the fact that she may have to do without it at some point–to negatively impact her job search or her chances of getting health coverage in the future.

The average monthly unemployment payment in the United States is $1,278.

COBRA for an individual consumes 30 percent of that. Family coverage devours 84 percent.

Little Left Over

That leaves many laid-off workers with little left for rent, mortgage, utilities, groceries, and other necessities, found a January 2009 report from the Washington-based Families USA.

In February, the federal government moved to help such workers by passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which provides $25 billion in temporary subsidies so workers who were involuntarily terminated between Sept. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2009 pay 35 percent of the normal cost of COBRA.

“While this is a significant subsidy, for the average woman, it’s still more than the 16 percent of the cost of individual coverage or the 27 percent of the cost of family coverage that she would have paid as her contribution to health insurance while she was still working,” says Karyn Schwartz, a senior policy analyst for the Kaiser Family Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif.

Many unemployed women, meanwhile, don’t qualify for COBRA.

Ineligible are laid-off women with individual incomes of more than $125,000; family incomes of more than $250,000; employers who never offered health insurance in the first place, and employers who went out of business (and therefore had no health plan at the time of job termination).

10 States Lack ‘Mini Cobra’ Laws

“Company size is also barrier to coverage,” says Cheryl Fish-Parcham, deputy director of health policy for Families USA. “COBRA only applies to workers in companies with 20 or more full-time employees. Some states are working to help laid-off people from smaller firms. But in 10 states, there are still no ‘mini COBRA’ laws creating coverage for these laid-off workers, who now have to go without coverage, or pay high premiums for individual plans.”

The average private health insurance plan for an individual costs $4,704, while one for a family costs $12,680, according to a March study in the New England Journal of Medicine. And due to a practice known as “gender rating,” most private insurers charge women more than they charge men, according to a 2008 report by the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center.

“I can only afford COBRA for a few months, and I definitely can’t afford to buy private coverage,” says Schiffler. “If my savings run out, I may have to go without coverage, though my son may qualify for a state program for children. I need a safety net, but if I have to choose between eating and buying health insurance, I am going to eat.”

About the Author: Molly M. Ginty is a freelance reporter based in New York City. A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she has written for Ms., Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, pbs.org and On Earth as well as Women’s eNews.

This article originally appeared in Women’s eNews on June 18, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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Union Busting Ended My Love Affair with a Beer

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Over many years, I have developed an intimate relationship with the sweet, lager taste of Yuengling Black & Tan. After moving to the cutthroat world of Washington, D.C. politics, I found that Yuengling always comforted me with memories of my working class roots and the world of flannel hunting jackets, wedding receptions at union halls, 4th of July barbecues, and tailgate parties that represented my native Western Pennsylvania. I took pride in introducing my friends to this beauty of a beer—cheap, delicious, and made by union workers back home in Pennsylvania. Women had come and gone, dogs had died, but Yuengling had always been there for me – until now.

This past weekend when I discovered that Yuengling had illegally busted their union, I was emotionally devastated. I had just bought a case of Yuengling earlier that same day and had it sitting at home in the refrigerator waiting for me.  What would I do? I was broke and couldn’t possibly afford to buy another case of beer, but at the same time I couldn’t possibly  enjoy drinking a Yuengling knowing what they had done to their workers. So instead, I found myself  at home, watching a baseball game on a Saturday night, and enjoying a nice, cold glass of milk as I struggled to deal with how Yuengling had betrayed not only its workers, but me.

Quickly I found my outrage shifting from beyond Yuengling to the lack of U.S. labor law protecting workers from such abusive, unfair practices. It turns out that the company had petitioned for a decertification election to kick the union out of the brewery when the contract of the union expired. Dick Yuengling, the owner of Yuengling Brewery, gathered all the workers and told them that “the writing was on the wall”. He said that if they didn’t vote to kick the union out, he would close the plant, and ship the work to a non-union facility in the South. The workers, scared of losing their job in a region with  high unemployment, voted to ditch their union and save their jobs.
While threatening to close a plant if a union wins such an election is highly illegal, the Yuengling Company has been able to get away with due to the weakness of U.S. labor law. According to a study recently released by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, employers threaten to close facilities in 57% of union elections if workers choose a union, despite the fact that this threat is carried out only 2% of the time.  This is because under U.S. labor law the penalty  for threatening to close plants or firing workers during a union election is that the boss merely has to post a piece of paper saying they broke the law.

As one longtime union organizer once put it to me “If the penalty for robbing a bank was you had to post a piece of paper saying you robbed a bank, we’d all be bank robbers!”

Under current U.S. Labor Law, employers can freely violate the law without serious penalty. As a result, workers are fired from their job in 34% of union elections  and companies illegally threaten to close a facility in 57% of all union elections. In this economy, losing one’s job is tantamount not just to losing more than just a job, but also to losing home to foreclosure and more gravely – one’s health insurance. As a result of the ability of bosses to freely intimidate with such Gestapo-style tactics, 58% percent of workers indicate they would like to join a union, but only 8% of private sector employees are members of one out of the fear of what their bosses might do to them for trying to join  a union.

The Employee Free Choice Act would give U.S. labor law real teeth – leveling heavy fines against employees who unlawfully intimidate or threaten workers. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to join unions free of intimidation a process of majority sign where workers merely would have to get 50% of their co-workers to sign a card to be part of a union.

Currently, The biggest obstacle to the passing the Employee Free Choice Act is quite ironically the very Senator who represents the workers at Yuengling Brewing  – “Democrat” Arlen Specter.  Quite ironically, Arlen Specter, who had in previous years voted for the Employee Free Choice Act, has fallen victim to the same type of corporate intimidation and flipped his position to being against the Employee Free Choice Act. Its time that Arlen Specter show solidarity with the 20,000 workers that are fired every year for attempting to join a union. Arlen Specter needs to vote for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would protect the rights of workers to freely join unions that the overwhelming majority of his constituents favor especially the once unionized workers of a once dear friend – Yuengling.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). He works currently as an editor at AlterNet.

This article originally appeared in AlterNet on June 17, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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Now Labeled a Pandemic, Swine Flu Poses Threat to Health Care Workers

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The H1N1 (swine flu) virus is now the first global flu pandemic in 41 years. The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday declared the virus a Phase-6 pandemic, its highest level of warning.

The declaration means the virus has circled the globe and poses a threat to spread more rapidly among populations. So far, there have been 27,737 cases of swine flu and 141 deaths in 74 countries. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there have been 13,000 cases of the flu and at least 27 deaths.

WHO classifies the reported cases as mild to moderate. But two other factors are causes for concern. About half of those who have died from the H1N1 virus were young and healthy people not normally susceptible to flu. Second, the virus continues to spread in the warm summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when flu viruses normally disappear.

When the virus was found to have spread to the United States earlier this year, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommended that employers follow recently issued guidelines for protecting workers from pandemic flu, and CDC issued new interim guidelines to protect health care workers from the H1N1 infection

But studies showed that numerous states and health care facilities were not following the guidelines. Last month, the AFL-CIO and several unions urged OSHA to protect health care workers and other front-line employees by issuing a hazard alert and/or compliance directive that makes clear that exposure to the H1N1 virus poses a recognized hazard to workers and requires protective measures.  OSHA is currently evaluating the unions’ request.

In April, a report by the AFL-CIO and several unions revealed that health care workers are at risk because many of the nation’s health care facilities are not prepared to deal with a pandemic.

Don’t forget to check out the AFL-CIO’s pandemic flu site, which includes vital resources for health care workers, firefighters, educators and more. Recently added to the site are five updated fact sheets:

  • Basic Facts About Pandemic Flu and the H1N1 (Swine) Flu
  • Protecting Workers During Pandemic Flu
  • Protecting Health Care Workers During Pandemic Flu
  • Respirators: One Way to Protect Workers Against Pandemic Flu
  • What the Union Can Do: Preparing the Workplace for Pandemic Flu

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. He carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He’s also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold blood plasma, and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

This article originally appeared in the AFL-CIO Now Blog on June 12, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

 


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Minimum Wage Raises Us All

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve explored a variety of proposals for additional federal stimulus measures. The federal government could make greater investments in repairing public infrastructure; fund the construction of affordable housing; extend tax credits to employers who increase employee health coverage; provide incentives for states to expand access to food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid; or even create a mass public jobs program. So far, none of those proposals is in the cards. But one overlooked recovery measure is already underway: the minimum wage increase scheduled for July 2009.

A new research brief from Kai Filion at the Economic Policy Institute highlights the stimulative impact of raising the minimum wage.

Remember that back in 2007, Congress obliged President Bush to sign a long-delayed minimum wage increase into law by attaching it to a must-pass war appropriations measure. After ten years in which the value of the minimum wage was continuously eroded by inflation, Congress raised the minimum from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour in 2007. In 2008, it went up to $6.55. Next month, it’s headed up to $7.25. And the economy is benefiting. So far, minimum wage increases have generated $4.9 billion in spending according to Filion, while the next increase will produce $5.5 billion in additional spending. As Filion succinctly explains “by increasing workers’ take-home pay, families gain both financial security and an increased ability to purchase goods and services, thus creating jobs for other Americans.”

The issue brief also takes on the most familiar minimum wage misconception – that raising pay inherently means increasing unemployment. Surveying a bevy of recent studies that have failed to detect significant increases in unemployment when the minimum wage rises, the issue brief considers factors like improved productivity, better employee retention and the stimulative effect of increased spending which may help explain why, in practice, jobs don’t disappear when low pay gets a mandatory boost.

The minimum wage increase all queued up and ready for July is good news, but of course there’s more policy work to be done. During the campaign President Obama pledged to seek an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, a measure that would provide great additional stimulus if the first steps began soon. Add that to the stimulus policy wish list.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This article originally appeared in the DMI Blog on June 11, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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Why Does Chamber of Commerce Favor Arbitration for Workplace Rape Victims, But Oppose It for Union Workers?

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Yesterday, the union movement ramped up its attacks on the Chamber of Commerce over its “two-faced” approach to the Employee Free Choice Act’s provision requiring arbitration if a business won’t bargain in good faith after a union’s been chosen by workers. As the AFL-CIO Now blog observed:

The latest Big Business tactic is to attack the provision of the Employee Free Choice Act that guarantees workers who form a union a fair first contract — a vital provision, because more than 50 percent of workers who form a union don’t have a contract after one year and more than a third still don’t have a contract after two years.

Corporations are crying about the possibility they might have to take part in arbitration with employees if they don’t reach a first contract after three months of talks — even though they’re enthusiastic about arbitration in a wide variety of circumstances where they have the advantage.

In a new ad running in key newspapers, American Rights at Work again challenges corporate hypocrisy on arbitration. When it’s a big corporate entity against an individual, as in credit card disputes or personal injury claims, corporate spokesgroups like the Chamber of Commerce say arbitration is a way to settle any sort of dispute “fairly, quickly and inexpensively.” But when it’s time to bargain over better wages and benefits for their workers, these same groups are viciously opposed to even the possibility of requesting arbitration.

To union activists, what’s especially galling is how fervently businesses embrace arbitration when it allows them to avoid being held accountable for negligence towards employees or the defrauding of consumers. As Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO, observes, “It’s pretty simple: arbitration is fine for them when it keeps them out court and limits damages to business. They use it to settle credit card disputes, mortgage payment disputes, and whenever it limits businesses liability and negligence. But when they look at arbitration for workers, then all of it sudden they hate it when it’s simply used as an incentive to force good-faith bargaining, a last resort to allow workers to get a collective bargaining agreement.”

In contrast, business interests have so championed and abused little-known arbitration provisions to keep themselves from being sued that they’ve spurred new legislation pushed by the Fair Arbitration Now coalition designed to rein in their excesses. A few days ago, NPR featured the story of Jamie Lee Jones who was repeatedly raped by co-workers of Halliburton in Iraq but has been barred from suing the company because of an employer’s contract she signed preventing a lawsuit. As the NPR story noted:

Jones was escorted by security to the company clinic for a rape examination. When the rape kit examination was done, the evidence was turned over to Halliburton security. The young woman’s breasts were so badly mauled that she is permanently disfigured. It has been four years since the attack, and despite the physical and circumstantial evidence, the Department of Justice has declined to investigate.

Seeking Justice Through a Suit

Justice Department officials refused to explain or comment in any way to NPR about the case. Jones has decided that if she can’t have her day in criminal court, she’ll sue Halliburton and its former subsidiary, KBR, in civil court.

“I want corporate accountability,” she says. “I was so brutalized that I’m going to have to remember this the rest of my life. And Halliburton was so uncompassionate that they even let the men work there, still, after I went home.”

Heather Browne, director of communications at KBR, says that while the company can’t speak to the facts since the case is ongoing, it denies any liability in the attack. And she argues that any dispute with Jones, even one involving charges of rape, must go to arbitration.

So Jones is now going to court seeking the right to sue. She has become one of the nation’s leading arbitration reform advocates.

An Arbitration Culture

If Jones’ case is remarkable, the fact that arbitration is involved is not. In the past 20 years it has become a dominant feature in the legal relationship between American corporations, their employees and their customers.

If you use credit cards, have a cell phone contract, bought a house from a builder or put your mother or father in a nursing home, you have very likely signed away your right to be heard in court if there’s a problem. It’s called pre-dispute mandatory binding arbitration.

Public Citizen’s David Arkush, one of the country’s leading researchers on arbitration, says many consumers have no clue as to the rights they’re signing away.

“In the fine print of those contracts is a provision that says that they can never sue the company if they have a dispute,” Arkush says.” Instead they have to go a private, secret tribunal chosen by the company.”

To top it all off, businesses rig the arbitration process against consumers and employees by barring them from going to court if there’s any fraud or negligence before a dispute occurs, and only the company can choose the arbitrator.

The arbitration provision in the Employee Free Choice Act, on the other hand, only uses arbitration if negotiations between business and labor have broken down for 120 days after negotiations begin, and both businesses and the union must agree on their arbitrator from a vetted list of private arbitrators approved by a federal agency, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

All that makes the two different types of arbitration strikingly different: one is a business ruse used by businesses to deprive customers and workers of their rights, and the other is a bulwark designed to protect workers’ rights against bad-faith bargaining.

The new pro-labor ad attacking such hypocrisy, running in Capitol Hill political newspapers as negotiations in the Senate are heating up, puts the issue starkly:

Big Business is happy to support arbitration when it’s in their best interest. But when it comes to negotiating contracts with their workers, Big Business would rather use delay tactics to avoid paying better wages and benefits. It’s only fair that corporations agree to arbitration for workers who are trying to negotiate a first contract after forming a union. Arbitration is a key part of the Employee Free Choice Act that will let both sides reach a fair agreement.

One reason the Chamber and other Big Business interests are turning to attacking arbitration is that their previous bogus claims that the legislation takes away the right to a secret ballot have been exposed as a fraud on Capitol Hill. (The bill actually gives workers the choice — now determined by employers — of whether to form a union by majority sign-up or secret-ballot election.)

Of course, you don’t hear Newt Gingrich or the Chamber of Commerce championing the rights of on-the-job rape victims like Jamie Lee Jones to sue and avoid arbitration, indeed when it comes to abused employees or defrauded consumers they hail arbitration as the best way to handle any disputes. In fact, in May 2008, more than a dozen business trade groups wrote a letter to Congress stating, “Arbitration is an efficient, effective, and less expensive means of resolving disputes for consumers, employers, investors, employees and franchisees, in addition to the many businesses that use the same system to resolve business disputes.”

As the SEIU Blog sums up their attitude, “Corporate Lobbyists: We Were for Arbitration Before We Were Against It.” Among the paeans to the glories of arbitration offered by business leaders before they attacked its use in the Employee Free Choice Act:

“For more than 80 years, arbitration has helped Americans settle disputes fairly, quickly and inexpensively, without having to file a lawsuit or navigate the court system.” – Lisa Rickard, president of the US Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (4/2/08)
“Arbitration is mutually beneficial, which is what we have always thought.” – Arne Wagner, assistant general counsel for Bank of America [ABA Journal, December 1994]

“[F]ederal policy… favors the use of arbitration as an efficient, effective, and less expensive means of resolving disputes…Arbitration, has served as an essential valve for the nation’s overburdened civil justice system.” – Letter to Senate Judiciary Committee signed by US Chamber of Commerce, Retail Industry Leaders Association, National Retail Federation, National Association of Manufacturers, Jackson Lewis, et al (2/7/08)

Just a little bit of a double standard, no? Arbitration is the best thing ever when it comes to protecting their wallets, but when it comes to adding the safety net of first contract arbitration during collective bargaining, it’s the devil incarnate that must be stopped at all costs.

Despite such hosannas to arbitration, they’re not-so-surprisingly eager to denounce arbitration as a “mortal threat to American freedom” when workers want it after months of stalled labor negotiations.
And the research is now irrefutable that a majority of workers who select a union don’t get a contract in their first year as a result of business stalling tactics; if businesses can’t bust a union through illegal intimidation before an election, then they’ve got a second shot at union-busting by foot-dragging tactics and lowball proposals to slash wages and benefits by the company. As American Rights at Work reports:

One year after a successful union election, 52 percent of employers deny their workers a contract. According to Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner, 52 percent of workplaces had no collective bargaining agreement one year after a successful union election. Two years after an election, 37 percent of workers’ unions still had no labor agreement.

It’s easy to determine when businesses will back or oppose arbitration: if it seems likely to screw workers and consumers out of their day in court, then they see it as good, and it if might possibly help workers achieve decent wages and benefits through labor negotiations, then it’s bad. As Paula Brantner, the attorney who heads the pro-worker Workplace Fairness advocacy organization, observed recently:

So if employers truly think that arbitration is a better system than resolving disputes in court, then why are they fighting the Employee Free Choice Act [EFCA] provision? You don’t have to be a cynic to realize that they’re inclined to fight any effort to level the playing field for workers, which the Employee Free Choice Act would do. Just as they’re spreading the myth that EFCA would eliminate the secret ballot, it just comes naturally for them to confuse the public about the other EFCA provisions that would empower workers.

But if corporate America doesn’t want “a bureaucrat from Washington” to tell people how to run their businesses, then we have to wonder why they want arbitrators who are not even required to know the law or follow it passing judgment on their employment practices. Essentially, companies are talking out of both sides of their mouth: they want to impose an unfair arbitration process on their employees, but cannot bear to have even a fair arbitration process applied to them.

But workers don’t have to accept this hypocrisy: we can work to support both the Arbitration Fairness Act and the Employee Free Choice Act. If both were to pass, workers would be able to go to court for their employment and civil rights claims (under the Arbitration Fairness Act), and leave arbitration to the unions and employers who know how to use it best (under EFCA). But that might simply be too much fairness for employers to handle.

And while the Chamber of Commerce and its GOP allies like Newt Gingrich have been painting a nightmarish scenario of jackbooted bureaucrats imposing job-killing arbitration concessions, the real truth of how arbitration works in labor negotiations has been ignored. As a new Roll Call column by two Harvard and MIT labor scholars, including Arnold Zack, the former past president of the National Academy of Arbitrators, points out:

Something is drastically wrong with a labor law when an employer can ignore and thwart the will of the majority of its employees.

The Employee Free Choice Act currently before Congress addresses this problem by assuring time for negotiations and mediation as the first step in the process and arbitration when agreement is blocked.

The bill has led to a misguided debate and mistaken information about the role played by arbitration in a well-designed and professionally administered dispute resolution system. This has made the current bill an easy target for opponents to argue that everyone will end up having a contract imposed by “government arbitrators” who know nothing about business or labor issues…

If passed, the Employee Free Choice Act would assign a mediator by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service as soon as a new unit is certified to support the negotiations by offering the full range of mediation, education, and facilitation services helping the parties reach a voluntary agreement. The vast majority of cases are likely to be resolved through negotiations and mediation.

In fact, settlements are reached more than 90 percent of the time in public sector jurisdictions that provide mediation prior to arbitration. So, contrary to those who argue every case will go to arbitration, the presence of arbitration encourages and enhances the ability of the parties to reach voluntary agreements in negotiation and mediation — and incidentally does so without imposing on employees or employers the risks and costs of a strike to get a contract.

After being smeared by hyperbolic distortions about the bill’s arbitration provision and research by the Chamber’s extremist libertarian scholar-for hire, Richard Epstein, the union movement is finally hitting back on this issue. The latest inside-the-Beltway barrage follows up on last week’s first round of attack ads against the Chamber’s “hypocrisy.” As a spokesman for American Rights at Work (ARAW) told The Hill newspaper this week:

“Labor law reform must ensure that workers who want to join a union are able to do so without facing endless delays from corporations seeking to deny them a voice in the workplace,” ARAW spokesman Josh Goldstein said. “Big Business’ position is hypocritical and motivated by their desire to maintain a status quo in which corporations make millions while middle class families struggle to get ahead.”

About the Author: Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly who has also written for The American Prospect, Alternet, In These Times, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. He’s written investigative articles on unionbusting and other corporate abuses, and recently completed Cornell University’s Strategic Corporate Research summer program. He blogs regularly for Huffington Post, and co-hosts a weekly Blog Talk Radio show, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on June 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the Author.


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Washington Post Makes Up Competition In the Insurance Market

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It’s amazing how far the conservative Washington Post editorial board will go to deny the fact. Here is the blatant falsehood from their editorial today (emphasis mine):

More disappointing was Mr. Obama’s restated commitment to a public health insurance option as part of the array of available plans. A public plan is not necessary to maintain a competitive market in health insurance, but including a public plan is almost certain to doom what Mr. Obama says are his hopes for a bipartisan agreement. Given the high stakes involved in an overhaul of this magnitude, it would be unfortunate indeed if health reform were to be a one-party endeavor.

Here you’ve got a conservative lie and a inside-the-Beltway platitude all rolled into one. Let’s take them piece by piece.

First, the Washington Post editorial board actually believes there is a competitive insurance market right now to maintain, and that a public plan isn’t necessary to keep that competition up?

Do the Washington Post editors read their own paper? Because they published a story via the Associated Press (now offline) on Health Care for America Now’s report showing there is no competition between health insurers. In most states, insurance markets are dominated by one or two insurers, and the Justice Department feels they are at risk for monopolies. That is not a “competitive market in health insurance.” Clearly, the Washington Post editorial board wants to deny the facts.

Or maybe they just want to keep the status quo. They imply by their word “maintain” that we have a market they like right now. Maybe the Washington Post editorial board wants to see the insurance industry continue raking in money hand-over-fist using their near-monopoly powers. Maybe that constitutes a competitive market in their minds.

Next, the Washington Post editorial board goes on to say they’d rather have a bipartisan health care plan than one with a public health insurance option to do important things like control costs and provide better health care. In other words, they’d rather see health reform in name only than health reform that actually means anything, another vote in favor of the status quo, where one American every 30 seconds files for bankruptcy due to high health care costs.

Robert Creamer has a bit of a history lesson on the fallacy of bipartisanship:

Of course you never heard a word about “bi-partisanship” from the insurance industry or Republicans when they passed the notorious “Medicare Part D” prescription drug plan in 2003. Back then, they froze Democrats out of all negotiations, and passed the bill on a 220 to 215 vote in the House (with only 16 Democrats voting yes). In fact, Medicare Part D would be their idea of a “good” health care “reform”: taxpayer subsidies for private insurers with no competition from a public plan. And if we went that route, the results of health care reform would look pretty much like the results of Part D as well – no cost control, giant gaps in coverage, and confusing options for consumers.

Now that the political tide has turned, and last year’s economic collapse has given voters a fresh lesson in the consequences of turning public policy over to corporate CEOs and insurance giants like AIG, the Republicans and insurance companies have had an eleventh-hour conversion to the benefits of “bipartisanship” when it comes to health care reform.

It’s no surprise then that in the current debate, the advocates of this position have made it clear that, to them, “bi-partisanship” means one thing: Americans should be denied the choice of a public health insurance option like Medicare. Their problem is that while a public health insurance option may not have bi-partisan support in Congress, it has big time bi-partisan support among the voters.

He also points out, a public health insurance plan has bipartisan support among the people, whether it has it in Congress or not:

A poll conducted earlier this year by the highly respected Lake Research Partners found that voters overwhelmingly want everyone to have a choice of private health insurance or a public health insurance plan (73%), while just 15% prefer everyone having private health insurance.

And the preference for a choice between public and private health insurance plans extends across all demographic and partisan groups, including Democrats (77%), Independents (79%) and Republicans (63%). So in fact, President Obama’s proposal that creates a choice of a public health insurance option is a bi-partisan plan – whether is has “bi-partisan” support in Congress or not.

The Obama plan for health care reform has massive bi-partisan support throughout the United States. Let’s get busy making sure that it becomes the law of the land whether the insurance companies and the Republicans in Congress support it or not.

It doesn’t matter if this thing is bipartisan, because just being bipartisan doesn’t mean it helps the American people. That’s the bottom line. It needs to be good for you and me. If Republicans want to play ball and pass something real, great. If they don’t, it’s more important to get health reform than to get a bipartisan bill. But of course, the beltway insiders at the Washington Post disagree.

Why don’t you take a moment and write them a letter to the editor. Explain how their facts are wrong and how their inside-the-beltway attitude is hurting this country in the fight for real health care reform. Email your letter to [email protected].

About the Author: Jason Rosenbaum is a writer and musician currently residing in Washington D.C. He is interested in the intersection of politics and culture, media consolidation issues, and making sense out of our foreign policy disasters. He currently works for Health Care for America Now and he is also the webmaster for The Seminal.

This article originally appeared in Health Care for America Now! on June 8, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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Newsworthy But Not Sexy

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If you are a reporter and reading this, try this exercise: you’re a single parent; you have two children, ages two and seven; you have a high school diploma. Write yourself a budget: give yourself a job in line with your qualifications (with a typical salary), then figure out how much a typical apartment in the L.A. basin area costs, how much to budget for food, health care, child care, transportation. The assignment serves a purpose: to bring home the fact that it is impossible to support a family on minimum wage. The numbers simply cannot work. You can make up relatives to take care of the children while you’re working, you can make up a second or even a third job, you can pretend that L.A.’s public transportation works well enough that you won’t spend hours commuting, you can discover the holy grail–a minimum wage job with health insurance!–but no matter how many miracles you make up, you’re going to be relying on credit cards and getting deeper and deeper in debt.

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Since the ’90s, real wages have dropped. While this economy means that everybody is feeling the pinch, a press that already underreported the “working poor” has stopped talking about them altogether. Every story is about how the formerly-rich and -middle class are dealing with cuts in income. This makes sense in one sense; reporters are, in essence, reporting about the trends as they themselves are experiencing them. As reporters are being laid off right and left, those who are left are seeing budgets drying up for local news coverage, and advertisers don’t target the working poor because the working poor have no money. So reporting is going for the most accessible story, the cheapest to produce, the one that will resonate with advertisers’ target demographics: how their own class is dealing with this economy.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent article, Too Poor to Make the News this weekend, pointing out that while the press will pay lip service to unemployment, stories about the working poor who are losing the minimum-wage jobs that barely got them by are not “sexy” enough. People losing their houses are more likely to get press sympathy than those who simply can’t make their rent. And at the same time, nonprofits that service low-wage populations have seen their endowments drop and donations decline, leading to layoffs and service cuts.

Economic stimulus money isn’t likely to get to the people at the bottom. Measures enacted to get it to the people who need it most, like reforming unemployment insurance, have been stymied by several state governors more interested in political rhetoric than their constituents. Affordable universal health care is gearing up for a fight against an apathetic or even hostile Congress. When the press doesn’t cover the people who are hurting the most, it’s easy to say that modernizations to unemployment and health care aren’t necessary. If the press were to show the true state of poverty in America today, the public would demand that something be done.

Unfortunately, as I see it, the press is too afraid of losing what’s left of its own industry to use their platform to leverage change.

About the Author: Janaki Spickard-Keeler works as a Media Outreach Specialist at Massey Media, a progressive communications strategy firm in DC. As a writer and researcher, Janaki crafts prose that speaks to journalists and editors and places her clients’ stories in the press. Janaki’s weekly writing on the world of press relations and what the media covers appears on the Massey Media blog, Own the Press.

This article originally appeared in Own the Press on June 15th, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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