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Supreme Ct. News Not All Bad for Employees This Term

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Image: David WeisenfeldIt’s no secret that the nation’s employees did not fare well in the two most highly-publicized Supreme Court rulings affecting them this term, Wal-Mart v. Dukes and AT&T v. Concepcion.  In both cases, the ability of plaintiffs to get relief as a class in the courts was curtailed.

The Wal-Mart holding will make it especially difficult for employees in differing job classifications to team together to win a class action discrimination lawsuit.  Meanwhile, the AT&T case arose not from the employment realm at all, but rather from a seemingly mundane consumer dispute.

A California couple, Victor and Liza Concepcion, claimed they had unknowingly signed away their right to initiate a class action against AT&T as part of a form agreement.  They were upset after being charged $300 for a cell phone that had been touted as free.  The Concepions argued that the arbitration clause they signed should be struck down as unconscionable because its classwide ban would leave them and other similarly-situated consumers without representation.

But just as in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the AT&T case broke down along strict ideological lines with the five conservative justices voting to uphold the classwide ban in another 5-4 opinion.  Writing for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that courts must place arbitration agreements on equal footing with other contracts and enforce them according to their terms.  “Requiring the availability of classwide arbitration,” he said, “creates a scheme which is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act.”

While the underlying facts arose from some unhappy consumers, it does not take much of a leap to see how the holding’s language could affect employees confronted with similar arbitration agreements by their employers.  No less an authority than veteran San Francisco plaintiff’s employment attorney Cliff Palefsky has said of AT&T v. Concepcion, “There’s a potential for mischief.” He adds that the ruling is sure to extend to arbitration clauses in the employment realm.

When the Wal-Mart and AT&T opinions are coupled together, the picture at the Supreme Court from this past term may not be a pretty one for employees.  But for those willing to dig a little deeper, the term actually reveals gains for workers when it comes to workplace anti-retaliation protections.

In a trio of cases, the justices ruled decisively for employees who alleged they were the victims of retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).  In two of the disputes, the decisions were unanimous while the third resulted in a 6-2 victory for the plaintiff employee.

The civil rights case, Thompson v. North American Stainless, involved a Kentucky man who said he was fired from his job because his fiancé had filed an EEO complaint against their employer.  While the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had held there is no cause of action for third-party retaliation on behalf of friends and family members who have not engaged in protected activity themselves, the Supreme Court soundly rejected that ruling.

In an opinion that was authored by Justice Scalia, the Court called it “obvious” that retaliating against an employee by firing her fiancé could dissuade that person from filing an EEO complaint or engaging in other legally-protected acts.

In another unanimous pro-employee outcome, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the High Court held that employers may be liable for discrimination even when the decisionmaker herself harbored no discriminatory animus toward the plaintiff.  That marked yet another Justice Scalia opinion.

The case involved the claims of a military reservist who purportedly had been terminated from his job at an Illinois hospital for insubordination.  The plaintiff Vincent Staub said, however, that the real reason was because his immediate supervisor and another supervisor had an anti-military bias.  He claimed both were upset because of time he had missed while serving on active duty in Iraq.

The actual decisionmaker, though, was an HR vice president who had acted with no apparent bias.  Nonetheless, the Supreme Court found that lack of hostility to be irrelevant.  That’s because the supervisor who allegedly frowned on Staub’s military obligations was the same one who wrote up the report that the HR vice president relied upon in making her decision.

Meanwhile, another employee prevailed at the nation’s highest court in the Fair Labor Standards Act retaliation case of Kasten v. Saint-Gobain.  The justices ruled that the FLSA protected a Wisconsin factory worker’s complaints about the placement of time clocks even though he never made them in writing.

The Court found that oral complaints to company officials were enough.  In reaching their ruling, the justices reasoned that it was unlikely Congress would have wanted to limit the labor law’s effectiveness by excluding those who would find it hard to reduce their complaints to writing, namely illiterate, less educated or overworked employees.  It’s an opinion that is sure to aid the rights of blue-collar workers.

So what can we draw from these results?  The Supreme Court has a well-earned a reputation as a pro-business court.  And these three opinions hardly represent a seismic shift.  But while none of them are on the scale of the Wal-Mart or AT&T rulings, they ARE significant.

In all three of those retaliation cases, the employees had lost at the federal appellate level.  The fact that the Supreme Court saw fit to hear all three of those disputes and to issue one-sided reversals each time is a sign that the justices are willing to take a strong stand against retaliation in the workplace, at least when individual employees are affected rather than a large class.

About the Author: David Weisenfeld served as U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for LAWCAST from 1998 through June 2011.  During that time, he covered every employment law case heard by the Court, and also wrote and co-anchored the company’s employment law newscasts.  In addition, his work has appeared in the American Bar Association’s Supreme Court Preview magazine.

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Jobs Crisis Forum: The Time for Excuses Is Over. Create Jobs Now

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Image: James ParksShonda Sneed of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was laid off in December 2009 and is about to run out of unemployment benefits. Because of state budget cuts, she also could soon lose the health care nurse who helps care for her mother who has dementia. At the last job she applied for, she was told 450 others had also applied for the same position.

Shonda Sneed talks with AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker at the AFL-CIO panel on the jobs crisis.
Shonda Sneed talks with AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker at the AFL-CIO panel on the jobs crisis.

Sneed and Bob Stein, a 60-year-old former salesman who has been out of work since May 2010, are two of the 14 million Americans who are unemployed—and their story is not being told in the midst of the debate over the deficit. Sneed and Stein, who are both members of Working America, spoke to a forum on “The Jobs Crisis—Moving to Action: A Dialogue Between Workers and Policymakers” at the AFL-CIO this morning.

As Sneed said:

All I want is a decent job. I want to work. I love to work. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my mother. I have a home to pay off.

The forum, moderated by Bob Herbert, distinguished fellow at D?mos and an award-winning journalist, drew a sharp contrast between the policies that got our country in this economic crisis and are currently being advocated to get it out, and what is needed in order to spark a real economic recovery.

Stein says it’s frustrating to try and find a job in an economy that generated only 18,000 jobs last month. “I was set to lose unemployment as of the second or third week of December, and [politicians] were fighting back and forth and it was predicated on the Bush tax cuts. I was caught right in the middle of that,” he said.

The thing that was so upsetting is when you heard about the number of people about to lose their unemployment check. I thought, “OK, I understand that you’re adamant about this Bush tax cut thing, but you’re holding us all hostage. You’re playing politics with people lives. People use their unemployment. This will stimulate and help the economy.”

The panel also included AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.

Panelists noted that many in Washington continue to push deregulation and tax cuts as the way out of the economic hole the country is in, without acknowledging the role that those policies played in creating the current economic conditions. The strategy to encourage corporations to spend their billions of dollars in profits is doomed when politicians don’t first acknowledge the truth that working people drive the economy as consumers. Without good jobs or shared prosperity, corporations won’t spend and our economy can’t prosper.

Trumka said working people are frustrated with both political parties.

The time for excuses is over. People don’t care about why it [creating jobs] isn’t getting done. They just want to get it done. We can create jobs if we want to. It’s a matter of political will.

More and more economists are coming around to the idea that the economy is faltering because of a lack of demand, said Boushey. The best ways to increase demand, she said, is to invest in things that generate demand, like infrastructure aid to the states, education and long-term unemployment benefits.

Levin said the nation’s trade policies must be a part of any jobs policy. It’s important, he said, for trade agreements to include enforceable labor standards to develop a strong middle class in the nations we trade with who can then buy U.S. products. It also is important to ensure that American workers don’t compete with workers who are oppressed, he said.

Noting that the middle class is the engine of our economy, Franken said retaining tax breaks and loopholes for the rich, as Republicans have proposed, won’t increase demand. Rich people can only buy so much stuff, Franken said, then they save their money.

The idea that those at the top who are richer than anyone has ever been in history—why they can’t pay a higher percentage in taxes is crazy.

This Blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on July 11, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

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Caught In a Fixed Game: The Struggle for Consumer and Employee Rights in the Forced Arbitration Process

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Andy PictureRecently, forced arbitration clauses have spread into a wide variety of contracts that regular citizens ordinarily enter into. These include both consumer contracts, such as those for cellular phone service plans, and employment contracts signed at the start of a new job. Obstacles to fair and impartial dispute resolution are manifold in this coerced dispute resolution process. The largest issue is that the arbitration forums rely on the repeat business brought in by the companies who use their services. As result, there is a systemic disincentive to rule in favor of consumers and employees if companies can choose another arbitrator if they deliver multiple rulings adverse to the corporation. Beyond this, there are frequently problems with the technical details of how disputes are resolved. High fees involved in the arbitration process often dissuade employees and consumers from bringing their cases at all. Arbitrators, unlike judges, are not bound to follow any legal precedent and discovery is much more limited in arbitration.

The usual solution to corporate malfeasance on a large scale is a class action lawsuit. However, most forced arbitration clauses contain language banning class actions. Public Justice recently litigated this issue to the Supreme Court in the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion case, arguing for the right of consumers and employees to join together in spite of arbitration agreements that forbid class action suits. The plaintiffs in the original case were supported by a California law that prohibited class action bans in contracts, but in a 5-4 vote the court ruled in favor of AT&T and held that the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 preempts state laws that prohibit contracts containing forced arbitration clauses. However, as Public Justice has pointed out, the ruling does not necessarily mean the end of all class action lawsuits when forced arbitration is involved.

In some factual situations, it is arguable that the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion decision is not applicable. In the context of the insurance industry for example, many courts have held that the Federal Arbitration Act does not affect state laws which ban arbitration of disputes in this area (which would prevent Concepcion from being considered relevant precedent). The National Arbitration Forum, previously listed in many forced arbitration clauses, has been banned from arbitrating consumer disputes. As a result, many courts have simply eliminated the requirement of arbitration where the National Arbitration Forum is specified in the clause. Additionally, the Concepcion decision does not apply in cases where there is no contract involved, since there is no clause to require forced arbitration.

The AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion decision is also limited in several general ways. Consumers and employees can still bring a class action lawsuit under a federal statute (like an antitrust law), even when confronted with a forced arbitration clause. Furthermore, it’s possible that the ruling will not be applicable in state courts since Justice Thomas has expressed a belief that the Federal Arbitration Act does not apply in these forums (and one vote on the divided court would change the ruling on this issue). Also, a key part of the reasoning of the court in the Concepcion decision was the idea that the law at issue would require AT&T, without its consent, to arbitrate disputes filed against the company on a class action basis. However, there are some situations in which both parties do consent to a class action, thus creating a precedential distinction away from Concepcion (see Public Justice’s brief on the issue in Schnuerle v. Insight Communications). Finally, the state law struck down in Concepcion was of a broad nature, and did not take into account whether individuals had a meaningful prospect to pursue their claims in spite of the contract ban on class action suits.

Although forced arbitration is a troubling issue, it is not an unsolvable problem. Legislation can be used to conclusively forbid the practice, something Congress has done on several occasions within certain areas. In the recent economic stimulus bill (Section 1553 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, H.R. 1), Congress forbade contractors or state and local governments who received stimulus funds from requiring pre-dispute forced arbitration for whistle-blowing employees (with the exception of cases that occur under a collective bargaining agreement). Within the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for 2010 (H.R. 3326), the Franken Amendment prohibited contractors or subcontractors receiving these funds from using forced arbitration to resolve Title VII or sexual assault tort claims.

Although there has been some success in Congress in reducing forced arbitration, legislation to eliminate the practice generally has not yet been enacted. The Arbitration Fairness Act was introduced in 2007 and 2009 to curtail the use of such clauses, but failed to pass. The Act was recently introduced again in Congress in response to the AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion decision by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), as well as Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to prevent the use of binding forced arbitration clauses in consumer and employment contracts. Entitled the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2011, it is an effort by Congress to try and curb the practice of pre-dispute forced arbitration by amending the Federal Arbitration Act directly to prohibit the practice. The Act adds a new chapter in Title 9 of the United States Code, with section 402(a) of the bill succinctly describing the purpose of the legislation: “In General – Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no predispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable if it requires arbitration of an employment dispute, consumer dispute, or civil rights dispute.”

When a contract clause can be used to take away the power of non-union employees to protect something as basic as their civil rights in open court, it should give pause to both judges and Congress. Forced arbitration can eliminate perhaps the most essential tool an ordinary citizen has in seeking justice: a fair and impartial court system. Its spread must be halted through both legislative and judicial action, to protect the right of consumers and employees to have their day in court.

About the Author: Andrew Laine is a law student and intern at Workplace Fairness.

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Domestic Workers Rights Bill Moves Forward in California

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R.M. ArrietaA Domestic Workers Rights bill is winding through California’s Capitol.

This week the California Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee voted in favor (5-2) of a domestic rights bill, but some tough concessions have been made, including the removal of vacation and sick day provisions from the bill.

One former domestic worker told KPFA: “In this labor committee hearing we lost vacation days, but we understand not all workers have paid vacation days. But we also earlier lost sick days, so most of the workers were going to use vacation days for sick days.”

Even so, the historic bill would provide some basic labor protections for the state’s estimated 200,000 domestic workers, which include nannies, caregivers and housekeepers.

Domestic workers, who are primarily immigrant women, are isolated and vulnerable to the whims of their employers. Workers are reluctant to complain to anyone about unfair pay, working more hours than they are paid, lack of breaks or sexual harassment, for fear of losing their jobs.

Many of the workers provide the main income in their families. According to a report released in 2007 “Behind Closed Doors,” 54 percent of the women interviewed were the main providers. In addition, 72 percent supported families in their country of origin.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would give these workers leverage to be treated fairly by creating guidelines for employers of domestic workers.

The bill, sponsored by Asssembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for approval and after that, to the full senate.

“We are making progress. It was a six-year project in New York State. Hopefully our bill will get to the governor’s desk,” said Quintin Mecke, Ammiano’s spokesman.

Just last year, a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in New York.

Currently, domestic workers are excluded from all rights provided to all other California workers under Wage Order 15 — wage and hour protections.

“(The) committee vote was a historic step forward for the rights of domestic workers in California. For decades domestic work has been excluded from both state and federal labor laws and worker exploitation in this industry has remained invisible and unmonitored. AB 889 will end that by establishing the same basic protections under the law that many of us take for granted,” Ammiano said.

Historically, domestic workers have been exempted from laws that protect other workers and guarantee certain standards—such as fair wages, a safe and healthy workplaces, worker compensation, meal and rest breaks, overtime wages.

Said Jessica Lehman, employer of a personal attendant in her home and a member of Hand in Hand: Domestic Employer Association: “Employers have a vested self-interest in this campaign by working to support the (bill). We are investing in building communication and trust with workers who support some of the most intimate parts of our lives, providing home care to people with disabilities and elders, or caring for our children and our homes.”

The bill now goes to the fiscal committee, where it must also be approved before it goes to a final senate vote. It still needs to be signed into law by governor Jerry Brown, who recently vetoed a farm workers labor bill.

The domestic workers bill has received wide support from labor rights coalitions across the state.

There has been international attention to domestic workers rights as well. On June 16, the International Labor Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, passed a convention recognizing domestic work as “work.”

This blog originally appeared in These Times on July 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three daily newspapers and two television stations and is a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets. She can be reached at rmarrieta@inthesetimes.com.

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It’s Lucrative at the Top

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Image: Bob Rosner

According to a recent study commissioned by the New York Times, CEO pay is up 23%.

Okay so the suites are doing well. Damn well.

How are the rest of us faring? Non executive pay increased .5%. Yes, less than inflation. While CEOs race onward and upward, our pay shrinks.

I heard an interesting segment on the radio this weekend, the pay of the average worker hasn’t increased in 40 years.

Which leads me to a simple question. Is greed good?

Yes, that sounds familiar, it was the popular refrain from the movie Wall Street in the 1990s. Gordon Gekko, that Oliver Stone is a subtle guy isn’t he, made that a catch phrase for an entire generation.

We have a major problem in terms of unemployment in our country. At the same time we have CEO’s lavishing on themselves such extreme pay packages that they alone could cut the country’s unemployment rate in half just by making their pay packages more reasonable.

Marie Antoinette when told that her people were starving famously said “Let them eat cake.” It gave some small indication of how out of touch she’d become.

But if we were to try to come up with a similar phrase for today’s gilded class of CEOs I feel like the phrase would have to be let them eat dirt.

Okay, that was harsh, but I’m still flummoxed by the fact that no one has gone to jail after the financial shenanigans of the banks that caused our most recent recession.

But we’ve got to stop coddling these executives. Its not like Hollywood stars who had huge paychecks, CEOs only profit by taking the money that we’ve earned through our hard work.

Yes, I’m frustrated. You could say that I’m mad as hell.

I’m tired of seeing people suffering. We need to hold executives accountable. Now.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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WTO Finds China Broke Trade Laws, But Steelworkers President Says Action Not Enough

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mike elkYesterday, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that China had illegally blocked the export of Chinese raw materials. Chinese tightening of raw material exports had the effect of artificially reducing prices for Chinese goods, because non-Chinese manufacturers couldn’t obtain materials as cheaply as Chinese firms could.

“The panel found that China’s export duties were inconsistent with the commitments that China had agreed to in its Protocol of Accession,” WTO judges said in a summary of its ruling. “Export quotas imposed by China on some of the raw materials were inconsistent with WTO rules.”

U.S. trade officials were quick to praise the ruling. The finding is “a significant victory for manufacturers and workers in the U.S. and the rest of the world,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Bloomberg News.

While some praised the ruling, however, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said  the WTO ruling showed that much more needed to be done to stop China from distorting markets.

“Kirk flagged the distortions caused by the export restraints on key raw materials. These restraints are not just used on the products subject to today’s decision but to rare earth elements, antimony, tungsten and many other products critical to green technology and other industries where China is succeeding by rigging the competition,” Gerard said in a statement.

Union officials officials including Gerard and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka have long argued that in order to protect U.S. manufacturing, the United States must more aggressively enforce existing trade laws with the WTO and other organizations that regulate trade.

In order to file a complaint with the WTO accusing a country of illegal trade practice, the U.S. Trade Representative Office must do months, sometimes years, of investigation to prove damages being done in the United States and show that the Chinese are intentionally breaking the law. The process is slow and would require a dramatic expansion of resources dedicated to pursuing such complaints with the WTO in order to make trade law enforcement effective.

Many point to the issue of Chinese currency manipulation, which labor leaders like Gerard and Trumka say dramatically cheapens Chinese goods, as an issue that the United States has not moved aggressively enough on.

“The Obama administration deserves to be commended for its pursuit of this case and its focus on enforcement. Trade enforcement isn’t an esoteric issue, it’s about jobs. Unfortunately, China’s illegal, predatory and protectionist policies cover a substantial portion of its economy and that has allowed it great success at the expense of the U.S. manufacturing base and American jobs” Gerard said. “Still, a case-by-case approach takes time and allows China to get away with far too much. We need to accelerate action and also deal with issues like China’s currency manipulation to help level the playing field.”

While the United States Congress is now considering expanding free trade toKorea, Columbia and Panama, it’s a good time to note the difficulty of enforcing existing trade laws. If we can’t consistently enforce them, how will the U.S. government be able to ensure that Korea, Columbia and Panama play by the new rules?

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on July 7, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times as well as Alternet, The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.

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Global Labor Ramps Up Campaign to End T-Mobile’s Anti-Union Tactics

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Image: Mike HallDeutsche Telekom, the parent company of T-Mobile USA, boasts in its annual report on corporate responsibility that it is committed to the global labor standards established by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a branch of the United Nations.  Except, it appears, when it comes to T-Mobile workers in the United States.

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) President Sharan Burrow says Deutsche Telekom—of which the German government is the dominant shareholder—is

actively and deliberately violating these very rights in its overseas operations.

T-Mobile workers throughout the U.S. are fighting to join a union—the Communications Workers of America (CWA)— but the company has hired union-busting attorneys and is conducting a classic anti-union campaign with mandatory captive audience meetings, delaying tactics and other intimidation measures, says UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings. UNI represents workers in telecoms unions around the world.

If these workers were in Germany, they would have become members of the union automatically but T-Mobile USA management has launched a brutal intimidation campaign to keep the union out of the workplace and to scare the workers out of fighting for their rights.

UNI, the ITUC and other global labor groups are mobilizing their support for T-Mobile workers by urging Deutsche Telekom to rein-in T-Mobile’s anti-worker tactics and pressing the German government to exert its influence.

In a video released last week (see above), Jennings makes a direct appeal to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He notes that just recently, Merkel was the main speaker at the 100th Convention of ILO where she spoke out strongly for workers’ rights, collective bargaining and the right to organize. Says Jennings:

I’m simply addressing this appeal to you to recognize the rights of these ordinary Americans to have a union.

According to Burrow:

Deutsche Telekom has chosen to support outright violation of international freedom of association standards by its US subsidiary.  We expect better from such a significant global player.

If the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile is approved, the T-Mobile’s 20,000 workers will have the right to join a union without intimidation because of a neutrality agreement between with AT&T and CWA.

This article originally appeared on the AFL-CIO blog on July 7, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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. When his collar was still blue, 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 has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.

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2011’s Hero

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Image: Bob RosnerWith an economy going sideways, CEOs ladling on lavish pay packages and far too many still unemployed, it’s rare that a smile just explodes across my face these days from something I hear in the news.

That is until I heard of Warren Nyerges. He’s a former sheriff’s deputy who had tussled when Bank of America had tried for foreclose on his Florida home. There was only one small problem, Nyerges had paid cash for the home and owned it outright.

After two months of harassment, Nyerges was dragged into court by BoA. When the judged heard about his ordeal, he ordered BoA to pay him $2,500.

After five months the bank hadn’t paid, so Nyerges turned the tables on the bank. One morning deputies entered the building and gave a familiar spiel, pay the money you owe or prepare to lose your possessions, according to the Naples Daily News. There was a delicious irony, the person who was being ordered to pay up or lose the furniture was the bank’s branch manager.

I told you this was good stuff.

This was all witnessed by local media, Nyerges attorney, deputies, a moving company and the court’s permission to seize bank assets. Todd Allen, Nyerges’ attorney summed it all up, “I’m either leaving the building with a whole bunch of furniture or a check.”

Don’t get me wrong, this shouldn’t have been a surprise to BoA. Nyerges had talked to company officials and had even sent a certified letter to the President of the Bank. All to no avail.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Florida State Attorney General’s Office opened an inquiry into the bank’s foreclosure practices. But here is the icing on the cake, the bank blamed its local counsel that it had hired.

For his panache and cojones, I salute Warren Nyerges. Not only did he get BoA off his back, but he let them feel what it was like to be on the other side of such reprehensible behavior. If only they’d been able to realize it, something good could have actually come out of this for the community at large.

But Nyerges isn’t done yet. He wants the bank to pay his attorney’s fees. He said he’d be back with the moving truck. Stay tuned…

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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Rite Aid Workers Continue Calls for Affordable Healthcare at Shareholders Meeting

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randwilsonRite Aid workers from seven states last week rallied against management’s plan to make employees pay more for their healthcare and to show support for a 15-week “unfair labor practice” strike by Rite Aid employees at seven stores in Cleveland, Ohio. With strong support by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, United Students Against Sweatshops and the Harrisburg-area labor movement, the spirited rally took place immediately before the company’s annual shareholder meeting on June 23, 2011.

After the rally (video below), about 15 Rite Aid workers and union reps attended the shareholder meeting to voice their concerns directly to Rite Aid’s Board of Directors and top executives. Inside the meeting, I presented a shareholder proposal opposing management’s policy of paying the tax liabilities on its golden parachute deals with senior executives.

Christina Frymier, a striking Rite Aid worker from Cleveland, was the first to address CEO John Standley and the board of directors during the question and answer period. “I’m on strike because Rite Aid is trying to make our healthcare so expensive that nobody will be able to afford it. Rite Aid does most of its business with customers who are very much like me.” She continued:

When I talk to customers and tell them what Rite Aid is doing, they are angry, upset. They take their prescriptions and their business to CVS and other pharmacies. If the people who shop at Rite Aid’s 4,700 stores learn that management is trying to deny health care to its employees, Rite Aid’s reputation will be harmed. Do you really want to allow your management to continue on a path that will hurt Rite Aid’s business nationwide?

Frymier was followed by UFCW Local 1776 member Donna Weber, a 16-year veteran at Rite Aid’s Tobyhanna, Pa., store. Weber, a pharmacy technician, described how the company has cut staffing to dangerously low levels.

Weber compared the executive’s huge salaries and benefits – including free use of the corporation’s jet for their personal use – to the reality she faces in the store. “Many days I’m working on the phone with insurance companies to resolve a customer’s prescription problem while other customers are waiting to be checked out,” Weber said. “These jobs take a lot of concentration.  It seems that if we can afford these high executive salaries and a free jet plane we should be able to adequately staff our stores.”

Referring to ongoing negotiations for a new contract, Weber said, “We shouldn’t have to choose between health care or food for our families.”

Weber was followed by Local 1776 President Wendell W. Young, IV, who described how 3,000 Local 1776 Rite Aid members in Pennsylvania have worked for nearly three years under the terms of an extended contract because the company is insisting that workers assume an impossibly high portion of the cost of their health care benefits.

“We are calling on Rite Aid to bargain in good faith to reach agreements on new contracts,” said Young, who called the company’s behavior, “wrong at a time when the loyal men and women of Rite Aid have worked so hard to help the company weather this economic down turn and contributed to its growth throughout the past four decades.”

“The solidarity rally and action at the shareholders meeting in Harrisburg sent a message to the Board of Directors and top managers that shifting the burden of healthcare benefits to Rite Aid workers—and taxpayers—won’t solve their financial problems or make the company profitable,” said UFCW Local 880’s director of collective bargaining Carl Ivka, who is leading the strike at seven Rite Aid stores in Ohio.

Rite Aid workers from the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, SEIU 1199, Teamsters and UFCW have attended three previous shareholder meetings.

Rite Aid workers’ union summit

The day before the annual meeting, Rite Aid union leaders met for a national summit to share information and develop common strategies for dealing with the company’s plan to shift health insurance costs to workers and taxpayers.

The meeting was attended by Rite Aid leaders from the 1199 SEIU, International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), RWDSU, UFCW Local 21, UFCW Local 880, UFCW Local 1360, UFCW Local 1776, and the UFCW International. Also on hand were supporters from United Students Against Sweatshops, Jobs with Justice, Change to Win and the AFL-CIO’s Center for Strategic Research.

In conjunction with the summit meeting, two leading workers’ rights groups released an “Investor Alert” on the mismanagement and corporate greed that has led to Rite Aid’s poor performance. The report is available from Jobs with Justice at  and United Students Against Sweatshops.

Summit participants also celebrated the first contract victory by Rite Aid workers, who formed their union with ILWU Local 26 at the Lancaster, California Distribution Center more than five years ago. ILWU Organizing Director Peter Olney reported on the struggle by the workers to win their collective bargaining rights and a first contract.

“Winning our first union contract required a comprehensive campaign with customers and the community on the outside and strong leadership and rank and file action on the inside. Working together, we overcame vicious anti-union attacks and more than a year of surface bargaining by Rite Aid management.  It took an incredible amount of perseverance, determination and creativity to win, but thanks to the support from everyone in this room and many more locals that couldn’t be here, we did it.”

Pictures from the summit meeting and the march and rally at the shareholders meeting are viewable on Flickr here.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on June 30, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is communications coordinator at the AFL-CIO Organizing Dept.’s Center for Strategic Research. He has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator in the United States since the 1980s. For more information about Wilson, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rand_Wilson

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Illinoisans Call for Minimum Wage Increase

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kari-lydersenCHICAGO—Among various policies that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has touted as proving he fought for the common man was a 2006 bill that raised the state minimum wage automatically each year through 2010. Several days after Blagojevich was convicted on 17 federal corruption charges, minimum wage workers in Illinois began July 1 without any increase in minimum wages for the first time in five years.

The state minimum wage currently stands at $8.25 ($7.75 for minors and people in the first 90 days with an employer) and $4.95 an hour for tipped employees. (Restaurant workers are calling for a higher federal minimum wage for tipped employees, as I blogged about last week.)

In Chicago, the state minimum wage is still several dollars below what is considered a living wage. At a press conference in Chicago Thursday, labor leaders, workers, pastors and business owners who are part of a coalition called Raise Illinois called to increase the state minimum wage to make up for de facto decreases in the minimum wage since it has failed to keep pace with the cost of living.

Though Illinois has one of the country’s highest state minimum wages, it is still significantly lower than what the minimum wage would be if the first Illinois minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1969 had been increased proportionate to the cost of living. Had the minimum kept pace with inflation, it would be above $10 an hour by now, according to the coalition. Increasing the state minimum wage to at least that level is the goal of a Senate bill the coalition is supporting.

In recent months, California, Massachusetts, Maine and Marylandlegislatures introduced bills to increase their state minimum wages.

Adam  Kader, director of the workers center for the group ARISE Chicago(and an occasional contributor to this website), noted that much projected job growth in this economy is in minimum wage jobs or jobs that pay just slightly above minimum wage, including in fast food restaurants, big box retail stores, warehouses, cleaning and maintenance and other low-skill service sectors.

“It’s not just young people, people working over the summer or part-time workers who earn minimum wage,” he said. “More and more new jobs are in the minimum wage bracket.”

An increase in the minimum wage also affects a significant tier of workers who earn one step above minimum wage, Kader notes, since many employers peg their wages to the minimum wage, promising to pay 25 cents or 50 cents above it. That is the case, for example, with a new Walmartplanned for Chicago’s South Side Pullman neighborhood.

The Chicago event also featured the groups Action Now and Women Employed, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, homecare and other workers and interfaith leaders. The coalition’s website says:

At $8.25 an hour, or $16,500 a year, minimum wage workers cannot afford to provide for their families’ basic needs. In this recession, corporate profits and CEO pay are increasing dramatically, while ordinary working Americans are struggling to survive.

The Illinois legislature has been helpful to big businesses by providing workers compensation reform, which reduced costs for businesses, and the Governor offered tax subsidies to huge corporations like Motorola and Sears.

Unfortunately, Illinois elected officials have forgotten about working Americans, especially minimum wage workers who received a reduction in real wages this year.

A fact sheet from the Raise Illinois coalition says:

A raise in the minimum wage helps low-income households who immediately put the money back into the economy at the local grocery store, barber shop or gas station. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that the 2009 federal minimum wage increase from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour would generate $5.5 billion in new consumer spending. A robust minimum wage can help build a sustainable economic recovery– without increasing costs to taxpayers.

On June 7, the Center for American Progress hosted a panel of experts describing how a higher minimum wage should be expected to stimulate the economy, even during an economic crisis.

When Illinois’ 2006 minimum wage bill was passed, a press release from Blagojevich’s office touted the achievement.

Despite predictions from opponents of the minimum wage that its increase would harm the economy, since the Governor’s first minimum wage hike went into effect in January 2004, Illinois has added more than 152,000 new jobs, which is more than any state in the Midwest according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Illinois has led the nation in job growth twice this year (April and July), which has never happened before in recorded history, and has been named the third best state in the nation for attracting new and expanded corporate facilities by Site Selection Magazine.

Inc. Magazine recently named Gov. Blagojevich as the second best Governor in the nation for fiscal policy (Blagojevich was also named the top governor for health care policy). In addition, the unemployment rate has fallen from 6.7 percent in January 2003, when the fight for the higher minimum wage began, to 4.1 percent today, which is the state’s lowest level on record.

While the praise for the former governor now seems humorous, the economic impact of his actions on the state minimum wage are no less relevant today.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on July 1, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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