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The Act 10 Saga Continues: Wiscosnin Judge Holds WERC Commissioners in Contempt for Enforcing Act’s Recertification Provisions

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secunda-paulThe Wisconsin Act 10 story took another unexpected turn this past Monday.  Those of you that have been following this saga know that Act 10 is the anti-public sector collective bargaining law enacted under the leadership of tea party Governor Scott Walker in 2011.  There have been all sorts of bizarre twists and turns in now almost three years of political and judicial fighting among the Walker administration and impacted unions.

Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments on November 11th on a trial judge’s ruling from September 2012 that Act 10 violates free speech, association, and equal protection rights of public sector union members under the federal and Wisconsin state constitution, there has been quite a side-show in the meantime.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) is tasked with applying Act 10’s onerous recertification provisions, which require public sector unions to annually certify through vote than 51% or more of all members (not just voting members) still wish to be represented by the union.  In its previous incarnation, WERC did meaningful public sector employment work in the areas of fact-finding, mediation and arbitration. That function is mostly gone under the Act 10 regime.

In any event, the dispute here is whether Judge Colas’s decision striking down Act 10 only applied to the unions represented in that case or to all public sector unions in Wisconsin. The initial ruling was less than clear in this regard.  Because of the ambiguity, WERC has continued to apply the recertification provisions by decertifying the Kensoha teachers union for not seeking recertification and by planning to hold recertification elections in November for other public sector unions.

Judge Colas ruled on Monday that the two WERC Commissioners were in contempt of court for seeking to still apply Act 10 because his ruling applied to all public state and local employees in Wisconsin.  WERC has responded by completely ceasing its efforts to apply these provisions of Act 10 in order to purge their contempt.

It is unclear what happens next.  On the one hand, I, and most others, suspect that the 4 to 3 conservative-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court will strike down Judge Colas’s decision invalidating Act 10, which makes all this contempt hoopla eventually moot. But when that decision comes down is anyone’s guess, although likely before next summer.  On the other hand, the government has indicated that it will seek immediate relief from Judge Colas’s conempt order by asking the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to stay or vacate Judge Colas’s order.

I am somewhat bummed by all this on a personal level. I published what I thought was a comprehensive law review article detailing the entire Act 10 story in the summer of 2012 (shortly before the unsuccessful recall election of Governor Walker), but now I see I might have to write a second part to this saga.  Sigh.

This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blog on October 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Secunda is an associate professor of  law at Marquette University Law School.  Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law.  Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media.  He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.

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Don’t Forget About Religious Discrimination When Throwing Your Office Halloween Party

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Donna photo redPersonally, I love Halloween. Adore it. I have zombies in my courtyard to scare the kiddies, and a graveyard in front of the house with various and sundry body parts poking out. Yes, Halloween is great fun for those who celebrate it. However, there are some religions that ban celebrating Halloween altogether, and some people who have sincerely held beliefs against it.

Halloween is now a pretty secular holiday, but its origins are in the Catholic religion. The Catholic holiday, All Hallow’s Eve, is the night before All Saint’s Day. I’m not an expert, but I believe the idea was that souls were liberated from Purgatory on that day, so celebrants would pray for the souls of the dead and hold a vigil during the night. The tradition of going door to door came from the UK, when beggars would ask for a “soul cake” in exchange for offering a prayer for the soul of the dead of the household. Earlier Pagans also had a fall holiday featuring bonfires and feasts, called Samhain, that probably influenced the Catholic celebrations, particularly in the UK.

Here are just some of the religions that don’t celebrate Halloween:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses: They don’t celebrate any holidays or even birthdays.
  • Some Christians: Some believe the holiday is associated with Satanism or Paganism, so are against celebrating it.
  • Orthodox Jews: They don’t celebrate Halloween due to its origins as a Christian holiday. Other Jews may or may not celebrate.
  • Muslims: Many Muslims don’t celebrate Halloween, again due to its origins in other religions.

I’m sure there are others. In researching this article, I came upon this telling comment about people who can’t/won’t celebrate Halloween: “I hate debbie downers who don’t celebrate holidays, seriously they don’t have to stand for anything, they’re just fun.” When you’re dealing with Halloween at work, many celebrants treat those who have religious objections as “debbie downers,” party poopers who just don’t want to have fun. Even worse, I’ve seen situations where employees were ordered to decorate desks and come in costumes because the workplace had contests for best decorated departments. When they refused, they were criticized and threatened as not being “team players.”

So, I wanted to issue this reminder to all workplaces celebrating Halloween: don’t force anyone to celebrate, decorate, or dress for Halloween. Don’t harass them if they don’t want to participate. If someone has a sincerely-held belief, then it’s likely protected by Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you agree with them, think they’re mistaken, or even think their beliefs are stupid. What matters is respect for the beliefs of the person holding them.

HR folks might want to give themselves a refresher on religious discrimination and harassment before the company’s Halloween celebration, so they can be ready when things go awry.

This article was originally printed on Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home on October 25, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Donna Ballman‘s new book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards, was recently named the Winner of the Law Category of the 2012 USA Best Books Awards and is currently available for purchase. She is the award-winning author of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She’s been practicing employment law, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and employment law issues in Florida since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues, Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, was named one of the 2011 and 2012 ABA Blawg 100 best legal blogs and the 2011 Lexis/Nexis Top 25 Labor and Employment Law Blogs.

She has written for AOL Jobs and The Huffington Post on employment law issues, and has been an invited guest blogger for Monster.com and Ask A Manager. She has over 6000 followers on Twitter as @EmployeeAtty. She has taught continuing legal education classes for lawyers and accountants through organizations such as the National Employment Lawyers Association, Sterling Education Services, Lorman Education Services, Alison Seminars, the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, and community organizations.  Ms. Ballman has published articles on employment law topics such as severance, non-compete agreements, discrimination, sexual harassment, and avoiding litigation. She’s been interviewed by MSNBC, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Lifetime Television Network, the Daily Business Review, and many other media outlets on employment law issues. She was featured on the Forbes Channel’s “America’s Most Influential Women” program on the topic of severance negotiations and non-compete agreements.


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16-Hour Shifts, But Not a Real Worker?

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sarah jaffeResident physicians work long, grueling hours as they finish their medical training. Eighty hours a week or more is typical. During that time, under the supervision of an attending physician, they have major responsibilities—making medical decisions, treating patients and performing surgeries.

Much of their work is done independent of their supervisors, notes John Paul Graff, a second-year resident at the University of California, Irvine. “You’ve got one internal medicine attending and probably seven residents that are working. That one attending, they’re not seeing every single patient, doing every single chart dictation. There’s seven residents who are delegated to that.”

For that, the residents are typically paid $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

Hospitals get a great deal: Residents are required to do between three and six years of training depending on their speciality, and while they’re doing that training, they’re a lot cheaper than a hospitalist, who might make $200,000. And the promise of that future fat salary keeps residents hustling through these broke, overworked years.

It’s a recipe for exhaustion and exploitation that led Graff and his colleagues to think a union could help. He sees the union as an opportunity for residents to speak to each other, compare problems, and negotiate with the hospital over common issues rather than struggling alone.

The Committee of Interns and Residents at SEIU already represents more than 13,000 medical residents across the country. But two hospital systems—UC Irvine and, across the country, the Mount Sinai Health System in New York—are fighting the unionization effort, arguing that residents aren’t really workers. UC Irvine has specifically argued that interns (first year residents) are still students, despite the fact that they receive salaries and benefits, perform many procedures with “indirect supervision”–meaning the attending physician need only be somewhere in the same facility–and work up to 16-hour- long shifts. The university has also argued that doctors on rotation and on fellowships shouldn’t be allowed to join the union, submitting in a court brief (provided to In These Times by CIR) that fellows “do not share a community of interest” with other residents because they are in a different training program, and that rotation disqualifies a resident as an employee of UC Irvine because she does some of her residency at an affiliated hospital that is not directly part of the UC system. Similar arguments have been made by the administration at Elmhurst hospital—a city hospital whose residency program is run through the Mount Sinai School of Medicine—though official court briefs are not available yet.

“There’s no way I’m still a student under any circumstance,” a resident in pediatrics at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, N.Y. who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from administrators, tells In These Times. “The way they explain it to us, we are like a hybrid: not really a student but not a full doctor, because they say that everything we do has to be signed off by our attending. I feel like that’s the same at any other job—that’s why you have managers, to supervise the work. We have a lot of autonomy. Of course I have to report to my supervisor, but at the same time we work independently.”

Residents also note that in addition to the core duties they perform, a Supreme Court decision held that they are indeed employees responsible for paying Social Security taxes.

The struggle to unionize

The UC Irvine residents filed for union recognition as an independent union in 2011, and voted to affiliate with CIR in June of this year. Some 600 workers would be represented, including fellows, residents at multiple levels of pay and experience, and doctors on rotation who work at several different hospitals while they complete their program.

But the hospital has challenged it, and the case is now before California’s Public Employment Relations Board. The ruling could come sometime this month, and if it overturns previous decisions about the employment status of residents, could impact other public sector physicians in the state.

The union expects that UC Irvine will appeal if they lose. If the university can delay the process for long enough, several of the residents who’ve been leaders in the organizing campaign may graduate, taking the wind out of the campaign’s sails.

To Graff, the whole battle solidifies his feeling that the hospital administration doesn’t want to have to speak to residents at all, but would prefer to talk to attendings, who then “corral” the residents. “There’s a lack of communication between the resident level and the administrative level. It’s being buffered by the attendings, in that military-esque ‘you report to your senior officer and they report to their senior officer’ kind of thing.”

The residents note that they contribute to the hospital’s profit—they’re subsidized by the state and bring in about $100,000 per resident in funding.

In New York, meanwhile, residents have been organizing in the middle of a large merger of two major hospital chains: Continuum Health Partners and Mount Sinai Health Systems, which are combining to form one of the country’s largest not-for-profit health systems.

At Elmhurst Hospital Center, residents have filed for union recognition only to be told, too, by Mount Sinai that they aren’t really workers. Residents at Elmhurst believe they’re being made an example of in order to prevent other residents in the system from filing. Residents at Beth Israel hospital, another part of the megachain, may file soon as well, and campaigns are underway in other Mount Sinai hospitals.

The Elmhurst residents say that they are facing “captive audience” meetings where higher-ups argue against the union and that leaders have been pulled aside by administrators who alternately threaten and cajole them to stop organizing.

“I was not expecting the reaction of the administrative people from Mount Sinai,” says the Elmhurst resident who spoke with In These Times. “I was not expecting that there would be a court case where they claim that we’re legally not allowed to become part of a union. I feel like if everybody’s honest, it’s all about money. But the language that’s being used becomes more and more legal and threatening, and that’s kind of what I find intimidating.”

Mergers like the one at Mount Sinai are becoming more and more common these days, as the healthcare system has changed. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed, and hospitals tend to want the patients with good insurance who can pay for high-end services. Those same well-off patients tend to be the ones who can see primary care physicians for preventive care, while on the other end of the scale, Medicaid patients and the uninsured end up going without treatment for minor illnesses and wind up in the emergency room for expensive treatments when they’re unable to hold out any longer–expensive treatments for which the hospital makes less money. The Affordable Care Act should theoretically provide more people with insurance, but it also expands Medicaid, which pays hospitals less and so won’t really solve this problem. So on the one hand, we see big hospital chains buying up other hospital chains, creating larger bureaucracies that leave their employees with even less power to make decisions or make changes in their workplace. And on the other, as I’ve reported, staff at community hospitals like Brooklyn’s Long Island College Hospital struggle to keep their facilities open. On both sides, the people who provide frontline care and know patients’ needs are left out of decision-making.

Graff thinks that unionizing could help physicians continue to have a voice in a system of mega-mergers and shutdowns.  ”I think it’s going to become more common and more acceptable,” Graff says. “The physicians that work at these [megachain] hospitals, they’re no longer individuals, they become a number. When you become a number, you need other numbers with you if you’re going to speak up. Administrators don’t know who Dr. Tran is; they don’t know who Dr. Smith is. They just know he’s another guy who works in internal medicine or pathology or surgery. But if all the physicians come together and say. ‘Hey this is a big problem,’ they’re more apt to listen to you.”

Meanwhile, the ACA places more requirements on non-profit hospitals, which need to meet certain benchmarks for care. Residents, who provide much of that care, will be an important part of meeting those benchmarks, and if they’re squeezed for more work while being shut out of the decision-making process, it’s unlikely their work will improve.

Pressure to care

Healthcare workers, who are held to a standard of selfless care, face a particular form of pushback when they make demands for themselves. Administrators often say that asking for shorter hours or better pay shortchanges patients, who are the reason healthcare workers went into the field in the first place. Yet overworked, stressed doctors can’t be good for patient care either. Several studies published since 2004 have found that “schedules built on a foundation of 24-hour shifts have been found to increase the risk of provider occupational injuries as well as serious medical errors and patient injuries.” In the New York Times in April, physician Pauline Chen argued that even with shortened working hours, residents are overworked, expected to cover more work in those fewer hours.

In the case of residents, there’s also a hierarchical physician culture to confront, as Graff points out. Their careers are tied to completing their residencies. Being able to switch jobs isn’t really an option after they’re accepted into a competitive program–they can’t just pick up and leave before they finish. Many fear that complaints will make them seem lazy or clueless to the supervisors, both attending physicians and administrators, who can make or break their careers.

“People at the administrative level might not have ever worked on the floor in a hospital, they might just be MBAs and lawyers and finance people,” Graff says. “They don’t understand what that 12-hour shift looks like, or even that sixteenth or twenty-fourth hours of shift work is like, where you’re meeting the twentieth patient of that 24-hour time period and god you’re tired, you are exhausted, and you know if you need something, if you wanted to get a Coke or a coffee or some breakfast or something like that, it’d be really nice if that was made accessible to you in an easier way. That’s the simple little granular stuff that just doesn’t get carried up to the top administrative level.”

It’s the little things like that, rather than more salary increases or fewer hours, that could mean the most, the residents say, yet are hardest to negotiate on an individual level—especially with the amount of hours they are putting in.

Yet money is a concern for residents as well. Graff notes that the biggest difference between residents today and those of past generations is the massive student debt they incur on the way to being able to practice. For his father, also a physician, residency was simply “an initiation ceremony”–you work really hard for a couple of years and then you come out and make good money for the rest of your career.

But now, he says, residents face financial pressure from both sides. First, hospitals rely more on smaller payments from Medicare and Medicaid and face huge pressure to cut costs, which leaves them relying on the cheaper residents to provide more care–and those residents face the pressures workers do everywhere, to “do more with less.” Also, as the cost of college has increased, many of the residents coming in are saddled with some $200,000 in debt.

“Your goal as a resident is trying to keep that under control so that when you graduate from residency, that $200,000 hasn’t morphed into $400,000,” says Graff. “Everybody has this mentality that as soon as they get out of residency it’s going to take them at least a decade to pay back their loans. That imparts a huge level of fear and stress onto all residents. Just like anybody else who goes to work every day, there’s always a risk: What if I get fired and I can’t support my family, can’t pay my car bill, can’t afford my apartment? We have all these things, and then plus we have this enormous debt, and it’s not for a house, it’s not for a boat, it’s not for a car, it’s for our own education and the only way to pay [it] back is to get a job that utilizes in some way the education that you [paid for].”

A little bit of extra money here or there—help with parking fees, gas stipends for residents on rotation at other hospitals, a bit of help with housing or moving funds—would do a lot not only to ease the financial burden for the rough years, but also make residents feel cared for and make it easier for them to do their jobs, he says.

Being part of CIR/SEIU has helped residents at other hospitals deal with scheduling conflicts and family leave policies, and the union has also pushed for laws that limit the amount of hours a resident can work (one exists in New York).

As they wait for decisions to come down on their right to be recognized as workers in the hospital, the Elmhurst resident notes that what a union could really do is create a stable system of communication for residents whose time is necessarily limited—both while they’re on the job working arduous schedules, and in the amount of time they spend in their program. Creating a system by which residents can communicate with administrators over their problems and ideas seems like a win-win for everyone, he notes, even the hospital. To him, professionalism isn’t a reason not to join a union—it’s the reason he wants one.

He says, “It’s possible to sit at a table and negotiate without it being a conflict because we’re all professionals and we should act like professionals.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on October 23, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belaboredpodcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.

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Small Business Owner Gives Employees Paid Sick Days. World Doesn’t End. New Jersey Doesn’t Go Bankrupt

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Kenneth-Quinnell_smallJersey City business owner Steven Kalcanides, who runs Helen’s Pizza, invited Mayor Steven Fulop to officially sign the city’s new paid sick days ordinance at his restaurant. Kalcanides already has been offering his employees paid sick days and not only has he been able to continue making a profit, his turnover has been very low, with many of his workers staying with him for more than five years.

“As far as I know, it’s been working for me,” he says. “I don’t see it as being the straw that breaks the camel’s back on a business.” Kalcanides says that the new law is how things should be done. “My business is like my family. Everybody that works for me is like family.”

The new ordinance would allow employees at businesses with 10 or more employees to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work, up to a maximum of 40 hours per year. The second largest city in New Jersey will join San Francisco; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C.; and New York City in requiring paid sick days. The state of Connecticut also has a similar requirement.

Fulop says the new measure would help bridge the gap between the city’s various communities. “I really view this legislation as an important step in that direction.” A similar measure was introduced into the state Assembly last spring.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on October 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

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“Bow at the Altar . . . of Political Correctness”

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philip_miles_smallGender stereotyping claims, meet the super-manly world of ironworkers – men’s men. Macho men. Masculine men. What “real men” should be (you get the idea). In EEOC v. Boh Brothers Construction Co. (opinion here), the Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc, provided us with 68 pages of analysis on same-sex gender stereotyping harassment.

Let’s start with the harassing conduct. The crew superintendent called the plaintiff “pu–y,” “princess,” and “fa–ot”; often approached him from behind and simulated intercourse; exposed his penis while urinating in front of him; and teased him for using Wet Ones instead of toilet paper because (and I quote) that’s “kind of gay.”

The majority concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support a jury verdict that the defendant was liable for the harassment under Title VII. The divergent opinions in this case highlight a rift among judges when analyzing “shop talk” types of cases. One particular dissent pulled no punches in its condemnation of the majority (pardon the lengthy cut-and-paste, but this really highlights the differences among the judges):

By deftly extending the applicable law, Judge Elrod and the en banc majority—with the best of intentions—take a deep bow at the altar of the twin idols of political correctness and social engineering. Because that is a demonstrable departure from reason and experience and imposes an unsustainable burden on private employers in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, I respectfully dissent . . . .

In a world in which comments on Wet Wipes or pink shirts can be considered discrimination on account of sex, the American workplace becomes more like a prison than a place for personal achievement, individual initiative, and positive human interaction; one’s speech is chilled as a condition of keeping one’s job. As Judge Jones accurately observes, the majority opinion “portends a government-compelled workplace speech code”—“a ‘code of civility’ [imposed] on the American workplace.” Instead of resisting such an Orwellian regime, in which Big Brother (in the form of the EEOC or otherwise) constantly monitors the worksite to detect “improper” words and thoughts, the en banc majority fosters it without Congressional mandate.

The hypersensitivity that is blessed unintentionally by the majority nudges the law in a direction that hastens cultural decay and undermines—if even just a little bit—an important part of what is good about private employment in the United States. Societies, and the legal systems of which they are mutually supportive, decline slowly, but ultimately with tragic consequence: “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Wow, tell us how you really feel! So, what’s the takeaway for employers? Crackdown on same-sex harassment and gender stereotyping. The dissent demonstrates that employers might have a receptive ear in litigation – but trust me, if you’re counting votes at a circuit court in an en banc review of a jury verdict then you’ve already lost even if you win. That type of legal battle doesn’t come cheap.

This article was originally printed on Lawffice Space on October 11, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Philip K. Miles III, Esq. is the creator of Lawffice Space.  He is an attorney with McQuaide Blasko, a full-service law firm headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania.  He belongs to the Labor and Employment, and Civil Litigation Practice groups.  Lawffice Space is an independent law blog focusing on labor and employment law.

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The Shutdown: How It Hurt, What We Learned, Where We Go from Here

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seiu-org-logoFor working people across the country, the week ends with a mix of relief and frustration.

The hundreds of thousands of federal workers who had been furloughed during the 16-day government shutdown were glad to return to their jobs, freed from the anxiety of not knowing when they’d get another paycheck.

SEIU appreciates the strong stand President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others took to defend the Affordable Care Act. And now, a window is open for negotiations on reversing the devastating sequester before the next round of cuts, scheduled for January.

At the same time, we can’t ignore that the shutdown hit working families hard. It did real damage–costing the economy $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor’s. That’s a staggering impact from what SEIU President Mary Kay Henry called a “crisis manufactured by the far-right wing of the Republican Party.”

That number–$24 billion–is unimaginably big, so consider one person’s story: LaShante Austin, a member of SEIU 32BJ, told MSNBC if the shutdown had not ended, she was not going to be able to pay rent. “I have got to put food on the table. I can’t tell the bill collectors, ‘Sorry, the government’s shut down,'” she said. Austin is a security officer at the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of American greatness.

Don’t working people like LaShante Austin deserve better from America’s leaders?

Congress must now debate and pass a budget to fund the federal government in the new year. A bipartisan committee with members from both the House and the Senate has until mid-December to issue recommendations. If the committee fails, the government could shut down again Jan. 15 and the debt ceiling could be reached Feb. 7.

This committee must meet its deadline, but it must also resist making decisions that would continue to fund vital services at austerity levels. Nor should members of Congress try to undermine retirement security in pursuit of a bogus “grand bargain.” We must work to change the economic narrative and reverse the politics of austerity. The shutdown is over, but the fight continues to improve the lives of working people. Sign up to receive updates as the budget committee gets to work.

Averting the crisis has also given Washington, D.C., the chance to focus again on immigration reform–something President Obama pledged this week to do.

The time is now for commonsense immigration reform, and you can add your voice!

SEIU, Reform Immigration For America (RI4A) and the Campaign for Community Change are taking the fight to social networks in a big way. Join us in calling on Home Depot, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Dominos to use their influence to build support for immigration reform.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on October 18, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications.

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Dozens Of Walmart Workers Walk Out On Strike In Miami

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Bryce Covert

In the latest labor action against Walmart, dozens of workers reportedly walked out on the job on Friday to go on strike. Workers demanded higher wages and better hours, and one worker told Salon that he estimated 80 people took part in the action.

The strike came after protests in 15 different cities in September against the country’s largest private employer. But while those included rallies and pickets in protest of alleged firings of striking workers, they did not include workers who were on strike. Friday’s action was the first work stoppage since June. While past actions were organized by OUR Walmart and supported by unions, this appeared to be independently organized.

Workers have alleged that they are routinely disciplined and fired for trying to organize for better hours and wages. In August, 10 current and former workers were arrested at a rally outside the company’s headquarters. Labor groups allege that five workers were fired after strikes in June while others were suspended or disciplined. The company has admitted that it threatens thatvacation time or other benefits could disappear when workers ask about the right to unionize.

Walmart, for its part, told the Huffington Post that employees don’t get full schedules because they aren’t available all the time and has denied that it is a minimum wage employer. It has previously said of the protests that “the opinions being expressed aren’t representative of the vast majority of the people who work for us.”

A recent survey found that over half of Walmart locations are only hiring temporary workers, not full-time positions. Meanwhile, while the company claims full-time workers make $12.78 an hour on average, another report saysthe average worker makes $8.81, 28 percent of the pay at other large retailers. Its workers make so little that they have to rely on public benefits to get by, with workers at a single location consuming around $1 million worth in food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs. The company has also stood staunchly against living wage bills in multiple cities, with the latest victory in Washington, DC, where after it threatened to pull plans to open stores Mayor Vince Gray (D)vetoed a bill.

Yet the store’s sales have recently suffered, in part from widespread customer dissatisfaction with its inability to keep shelves stocked, likely thanks to not hiring enough full-time workers. Other stores follow a different model, with Costco paying workers $21.96 an hour and seeing profits rise 19 percent in the first quarter of the year. WinCo, a small Idaho-based grocery store chain, beats Walmart’s prices while paying more than $11 an hour and offering generous benefits.

Perpetually low wages aren’t unique to the retail sector, and they have also sparked widespread protests and strikes in the fast food industry, which have spread to nearly 60 cities.

This article was originally printed in ThinkProgress on October 21, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman.

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Yes, 87,500 Macy’s Workers Won’t Get Thanksgiving Holiday, But That’s Not Their Biggest Concern

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Bruce VailDepartment store chain Macy’s, known for its lavish Thanksgiving Day parade, is taking heat for canceling the holiday for many of its 175,000 employees. On Oct. 13, the Chicago Sun-Times reported the news that Macy plans to break with its 155-year practice of closing its stores on Thanksgiving Day.

Macy’s spokesperson Holly Thomas confirmed to Working In These Times that about 750 of the company’s 850 stores nationwide will be opened at 8 pm, requiring some 87,500 workers to give up a part of their traditional family holiday. But she stressed that no employees would be required to report to work against their will and that a sufficient number of volunteers had already been recruited. Further, those workers will all receive time-and-a-half holiday pay for their full shifts, Thomas says.

And surprisingly, the largest union local representing Macy’s workers had a similar take. Gail Rogers, Secretary-Treasurer of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Local 1-S, which has over 3,500 members in New York City and nearby Westchester County, says she sees no reason to criticize Macy’s as long as the company honors its union contracts. “We received notice a couple of months ago, and Macy’s will be honoring our contract. Nobody is going to be forced to work if they prefer to celebrate the holiday, and the volunteers will all be getting time-and-a-half. Plenty of our members are willing… so there aren’t a lot of complaints,” she says.

So is this a tempest in a teapot? Rogers says that there is still one concern: While union workers are protected, non-union workers have no one to ensure Macy’s keeps its word.

“My concern would be for the non-union workers” at Macy’s and its subsidiary Bloomingdales, Rogers says. “Without a good union contract, it’s easy to see how the voluntary nature of the work, and the premium pay, might fall by the wayside as time goes by.”

Only about 10 percent of Macy’s workers are unionized, according to the company’s most recentSecurities & Exchange Commission disclosure statement, with pockets of union strength in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Aside from RWDSU, workers are unionized through the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Unite Here.

Both RWDSU and UFCW have organizing efforts underway to increase union membership at Macy’s stores, but the company is offering stiff resistance.

For example, Seattle-based UFCW Local 21 is currently trying to organize a Macy’s store in Silverado, Wash., in hopes of adding to the four stores it already represents in the area. A June 28 report in the Kitsap Sun indicated the union had filed unfair labor practice charges against the store in the bitter dispute. UFCW Local 21 Communications Director Tom Geiger did not respond to several requests for comment from Working In These Times.

A similar situation in the San Francisco Bay area culminated in July 2011 with a union election victory by UFCW Local 5 at a Macy’s store in Pleasanton, Calif. In a press statement at the time, Local 5 spokesperson Mike Henneberry said the union had overcome “aggressive employer resistance” to win the National Labor Relations Board-supervised election. The victory increased the number of Macy’s stores under Local 5 contract from two to three. Like Geiger, Henneberrry did not respond to requests for comment this week from Working In These Times.

Yet another organizing effort by Dedham, Mass.-based UFCW Local 1445 is even receiving special attention by federal regulators. Local 1445 is currently seeking a union election among a small group of cosmetics and perfume salespersons at the Macy’s store in Saugus, Mass., but the company is fighting the election as an improper interpretation of federal labor law. The case is now before the NLRB, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has dubbed the cosmetics and perfume sales staff an improper “micro-union” and is encouraging federal lawmakers to support a new labor law to restrict such organizing efforts. Local 1445 President Rick Charette did not respond to a request for comment.

RWDSU’s Rogers tells Working In These Times that efforts to expand the jurisdiction of Local 1-S have been met with similar determined resistance over the years. The organizing efforts contributed to an especially difficult contract negotiation in 2011. That was the same year that Local 1-S has a successful campaign to organize new Macy’s workers in the Elmhurst neighborhood in city’s borough of Queens.

For the unions then, the end of the Thanksgiving holiday at Macy’s is not so much an occason for outrage as the latest step in a long national trend that reinforces the need for union representation. As Macy’s noted in its own defense, Thanksgiving openings are increasingly common among large retailers anxious to begin the Christmas shopping season. Wal-Mart, for example opened its doors at 10pm on Thanksgiving in 2011, and pushed the time back to 8pm in 2012. Employers asking for more from workers is a tale as old as business; and historically, it’s been the job of unions to make sure workers’ rights aren’t trampled.

One non-union Macy’s employee, Lorraine Riley-James of Chicago, is peeved by the Thanksgiving openings. “It’s just unfair. It’s selfish. I hate it,” she says. An activist in the Chicago-area Fight for 15 campaign for higher wages in the retail and fast food industries, Riley-James regards the Macy’s decision as a unilateral move to take away one of the few paid holidays enjoyed by retail workers. “They really took it away from us last year when they started the midnight openings [on Black Friday]. … You have to come in earlier to get ready, [so it] ruins the holiday.”

Riley-Jones says she plans to contInue her activism for higher wages and better benefits for workers at Macy’s and elsewhere.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on October 18, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

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

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Transit Strike Could Once Again Gridlock Bay Area

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Laura ClawsonAfter a brief but disruptive strike in July, a 30-day contract extension, and a 60-day cooling-off period, transit workers in the San Francisco area may once again strike as early as Tuesday. Bay Area Rapid Transit authority management has made what it’s characterizing as “last, best, and final” offer, meaning it plans to stop negotiating and ultimately just impose its offer on workers. Union officials are saying that if management doesn’t return to the bargaining table, they’ll have no choice but to strike:

Union leaders dismissed the offer Sunday as “regressive,” saying it was lower than previous offers. They extended their previous strike deadline by one day, to midnight Tuesday, but warned that members would strike if BART did not return to the table ready to negotiate.”We regret that this action needs to be taken but we have done everything we can do to bargain fairly,” said Antonette Bryant, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555. “Our members don’t want to go on strike, but we are being backed into a corner.”

Management has returned to bargaining after claiming a last, best, and final offer before—but also hasn’t shown much commitment to bargaining at all, let alone in good faith. When the cooling-off period began:

Instead of bargaining around the clock, management steadfastly refused to meet, and repeatedly stymied efforts by state-appointed mediators to schedule bargaining sessions. BART management informed its unions that it had already made its “best, last, and final offer.” There was therefore no reason to negotiate, explained BART’s expensive Ohio-based negotiator Tom Hock, as further sessions would “not be fruitful.”Hock, who is being paid almost $400,000 or about $3,400 per day, was unavailable for almost a third of the 30-day contract extension period in July, and he refused to meet the unions during the first month or so of the 60-day cooling off period. Hock found nothing in the injunction that “specifies any required meeting schedule.” Instead, it required “only that the parties maintain the status quo” — i.e., avoid a strike or lockout. When the 60-day cooling off period started, his position appeared to be, “See you on day 40”!

BART workers haven’t had a raise in five years, and have made significant concessions in recent years to help bolster the system’s financial stability. Now they’re faced with management exaggerating how much they’re paid to make them look greedy, when—as the July strike made clear—they’re essential to the economy and quality of life in the Bay Area.

This article was originally printed on Daily Kos on October 14, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Minimum Wage Bottom Line

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jonathan-tasiniYou don’t have to remember much about the minimum wage debate. Except for this.

Tattoo this: If even the federal minimum wage had increased with productivity and inflation since 1968 – as it had done in prior decades — it would be $17 per hour today instead of a meager $7.25.

This happens to be a sentence from an article by my pal Mark Weisbrot. But, it’s not new.

Back in 2009, I wrote that the minimum wage was a national scandal, one the current president was perpetuating with a meek proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.

So, just remember that one sentence when some idiot says the minimum wage is just fine, or that the country is doing some favor to people by hiking it to $9 an hour. That just reflects one thing: a four decade robbery, using the hard work of people to make a profit and refusing to pay they a fair share.

This article was originally printed on Working Life on October 5, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, primarily focusing his energies on the topics of work, labor and the economy. On June 11, 2009, he announced that he would challenge New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary for the 2010 U.S. Senate special election in New York. However, Tasini later decided to run instead for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2010.

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