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Illegally fired for exercising your rights at work? You should be able to sue

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Laura ClawsonThe new bill to strengthen penalties against employers who illegally fire workers for collective action that Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott introduced in Congress on Wednesday would do more than just deter those illegal firings, argue the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit: it would reframe union rights as civil rights.

The WAGE Act would give workers the same remedies as employees whose civil rights are violated:  the ability not just to get their jobs and back pay, which is the rule now, but to win punitive damages, to engage in legal discovery that gives lawyers access to an employer’s internal files, and win attorneys’ fees when workers prevail. Employees also can get a preliminary injunction to get their jobs back right away.

By giving workers a fresh way to think about becoming part of a union – as a civil right, rather than just joining a special interest – the idea has a chance to re-awaken a conversation that has languished in American politics. The decimation of the American labor movement has been catastrophic for the middle class, keeping wages down and weakening the voice of middle-class citizens in the political process.

As Kahlenberg and Marvit suggest, “the time may be right” for this idea to come up in the presidential campaign:

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have attacked inequality and offered good proposals, such as increasing the minimum wage, which will help move the poor into the working class. But only a strong organized labor movement – and new, alternative forms of worker representation — can help move large numbers of people from the working class to the middle class.  The WAGE Act is a simple, concrete proposal for change that would help both traditional unions and new, emerging organizations that represent workers. The presidential candidates should make it a central plank in their campaigns.

What a good idea. Ball’s in your court, Secretary Clinton, Sen. Sanders …

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on September 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.


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Put Working People First

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Leo GerardThe jobs report Friday set off cheering: a quarter million positions added in December; unemployment declining to 5.6 percent. This good news arrived amid a booming stock market and a third-quarter GDP report showing the strongest growth in 11 years.

It’s all so very jolly, except for one looming factor: wages. They’re not rising. In fact, they fell in December by 5 cents an hour, nearly erasing the 6-cent increase in November.

Hard-working Americans need a raise. Their wages are stuck, rising only 10.2 percent over the past 35 years. Workers are producing more. Corporations are highly profitable. CEOs, claiming all the credit for that as if they did all of the work themselves, made sure their pay rose 937 percent over those 35 years. That’s right: 937 percent!

It doesn’t add up for workers who struggle more every year. Something’s gotta change. The AFL-CIO is working on that. It launched a campaign last week to wrench worker wages out of the muck and push them up.

At a summit called Raising Wages held in Washington, D.C., last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “We are tired of people talking about inequality as if nothing can be done. The answer is simple: raise the wages of the 90 percent of Americans whose wages are lower today than they were in 1997.”

“Families don’t need to hear more about income inequality,” he said; “They need more income.”

The meeting attended by 350 union representatives, community group officials, economic experts and religious leaders was the first of many that will be conducted across the country by the AFL-CIO to spotlight the pain and problems that wage stagnation causes. The AFL-CIO will begin these meetings in the first four presidential primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and North Carolina.

The idea is to ensure that candidates, Republican and Democrat, can’t squirm out of dealing with the issue. And Trumka said labor won’t tolerate sappy expressions of sympathy. The federation will demand concrete plans for resolution.

Also last week, the AFL-CIO launched Raising Wages campaigns with community partners in seven cities – Atlanta, Columbus, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. In addition to seeking wage increases for all who labor, these coalitions will pursue associated issues such as fighting for paid sick leave and equal pay for equal work.

At the same time, the AFL-CIO and allies will push for federal legislation to seriously punish employers who illegally retaliate against workers and to provide real remedies for workers unjustly treated.

At the summit, workers told their stories alongside experts. Among them was Colby Harris, who suffered illegal retaliation. A member of OUR Walmart, he was fired last year after participating in strikes for better conditions.

“They are trying to silence people for saying we need better wages and benefits. The average Walmart worker makes less than $23,000 a year. These companies have no respect for their workers,” Harris told the group.

Another speaker, Lakia Wilson, said that workers can do everything right, work hard, follow all the rules and still lose out in this economy. The Detroit native earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in counseling. While serving as a school counselor, she took a second job as an adjunct professor at a community college to make enough money to qualify for a home mortgage.

But then, in a cutback at the college, she was laid off. She lost the extra income, and the bank began foreclosure. It was, she said, a horrible, humiliating experience. She cashed out her retirement to save her home. Now her credit and retirement are shot. This happened to her, and to so many others, she said, even though they “did everything necessary to get a good job and get the American dream.”

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren talked to summit attendees about why the economy does not work for people like Wilson and Harris. Though this economy is splendid for those who own lots of stock, it’s not for the vast majority of workers who get their income from wages.

Sen. Warren pointed out that the economy didn’t always work this way. From the 1930s to the 1970s, she said, workers got raises. Ninety percent of workers received 70 percent of the income growth resulting from rising productivity. The 10 percent at the top took 30 percent.

Since 1980, however, that stopped. Ninety percent of workers got none of the gains from income growth. The top 10 percent took 100 percent. The average family is working harder but still struggling to survive with stagnant wages and growing costs.

“Many feel the game is rigged against them, and they are right. The game is rigged against them,” Sen. Warren said.

The rigging was adoption of Ronald Reagan’s voodoo trickle-down strategy.  That economic plot puts massive corporations, Wall Street and the 1 percent first. Politicians bowed down to them, legislated for them, deregulated for them. In return, the wealthy were supposed to chuck a few measly crumbs down to workers.

They did not. Workers got nothing.

Despite that, workers still get last consideration. That, Sen. Warren said, must be reversed.

Accomplishing that, clearly, is a David vs. Goliath challenge. David won that contest, and workers can as well – with concerted action. Papa John’s worker Shantel Walker told the summit such a story – one of victory against a giant with collective action.

She discovered that a teenager at the New York franchise where she worked was putting in time that was not clocked. The restaurant was stealing wages.

Walker helped organize a protest at the restaurant. Between 80 and 100 people rallied for justice for the young worker. And they won. The restaurant paid the teen. “Now is the time to stop the poverty wages in America,” Walker said; “Raise the wage!”

Trumka said the AFL-CIO and its allies will demand that of lawmakers. He said they would insist that legislators “build an America where we, the people, share in the wealth we create.”

For that to occur, lawmakers must serve the vast majority first. They must stop functioning as handmaidens to the rich in an economic scheme that has failed the 99 percent from the very day the 1 percent got Ronald Reagan to buy it.

The AFL-CIO and its allies intend to help lawmakers see that they must prioritize the needs of America’s workers.

This article originally appeared in ourfuture.org on January 13, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.


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What’s Behind The Gender Inequality In American Boardrooms

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Bryce CovertWhen Ellen Costello started out in the financial industry, she was often the only woman in the room. “Especially the times I was in the capital markets business, there were very few women,” she told ThinkProgress. When she served on BMO’s board for seven years, she was one of three women out of 15 seats.

That could be uncomfortable when she was in the early stages of her career. “Sure there were times… I have to think back to the early days, especially when I was really young in my career, when it was uncomfortable,” she said. “But you adapt to it, and people are good at…looking beyond your gender, at what you can contribute.”

She eventually became president and CEO of BMO Financial Corp. and was recently appointed to the board of DH Corporation. And she says times have changes. “I’m happy to say that over the years, that group of women [in finance] has grown.”

The latest numbers released today by the research group Catalyst show that women make up 19.2 percent of board positions on U.S. companies in the S&P 500. Perhaps more impressive is that 131 companies, or 26.2 percent of the S&P 500, have boards that are a quarter or more female. Just 18 companies, or 3.6 percent, have failed to appoint any women to their boards at all.

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While Catalyst can’t judge progress because it has shifted this year from tracking numbers in the Fortune 500 to the S&P 500, so the previous eight years of stalled progress in raising women’s share of board seats aren’t comparable to current figures, Brande Stellings, vice president of Catalyst Corporate Board Services, thinks there’s reason to be optimistic. The number of companies without any women on their boards “is very low and indicative at least of a shift toward companies realizing it is no longer acceptable to have no women board directors in this day and age,” she said. And some companies are actually at or close to parity. Avon’s board is nearly two-thirds female, while Xerox is at exactly 50/50 and 10 companies are in the 40-plus percent range.

The challenge is getting all companies to gender equality. “The critical question is how we get past 19 percent for the S&P 500…to something more approaching critical mass,” Stellings said. “The thing we have to next pay attention to is to make sure companies don’t stop at one and see having one on their board as a safe harbor.”

That’s where the U.S. falls behind international peers. Catalyst found that Norway’s boards are 35.5 percent female, on average; Finland and France are just under 30 percent while Sweden clocks in at 28.8 percent; and the United Kingdom’s boards are 22.8 percent female. Even our northern neighbors beat us: Canada’s boards are 20.8 percent female.

What’s the difference? “When you look at the Europe numbers, you do see many of those tracking higher than the U.S. do have regulatory frameworks in place,” Stellings said. Norway instituted the world’s first gender quota in 2008, requiring boards to be at least 40 percent female, and a number of other European countries have since done the same. The United Kingdom hasn’t put a quota in place, but in 2011 it released the Davies Report that set a target of FTSE 100 boards being 25 percent female by the end of this year, and women’s representation has been at record-breaking levels ever since.

The chances of a quota in the U.S. are slim. But there are ways to prod progress along. Currently, the only requirement in regards to corporate diversity in this country is a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule that companies disclose whether they consider diversity when picking board members in their proxy statements and, if they do, how the policy is implemented. But the SEC doesn’t define diversity, so just half take it to mean gender or race. Most often, they define it as experience or viewpoint. And complying with the disclosure rule can simply mean a company saying it has no diversity policy on its books. Changing that rule to define diversity and to make it a “comply or explain” rule in which companies either report they have a policy or have to explain why they don’t could have more of an impact.

In the meantime, Costello has some ideas about how companies can increase board diversity on their own. They can “make sure the slates that come forward are representative of a diverse slate, women and people of color, so they can consider others rather than maybe the traditional, those who they know in their network,” she said. Part of that comes down to mentoring and sponsorship. Mentorship “has certainly helped me,” she noted. “The board I recently joined in October came about as a result of a network contact of mine who knew me pretty well and made an intro.” The appointment may not have happened without that connection.

It’s in companies’ best interest to move the numbers along. A huge number of studies have found that those with more women on their boards outperform companies without any women.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on January 13, 2015. 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. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media

 

 


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Bold Policies Will Solve Retirement Inequality

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seiu-org-logoRondell Johnson is a 23-year-old baggage handler at the Philadelphia International Airport. He aspires to one day attend business school and prepare for a career as a real estate entrepreneur. But he, like many other low-wage workers who work full time for minimum wages, brings in “just over $15,000 a year before taxes.”

The poverty line for one person who lives alone is $11,490.

The latest Census Bureau data on poverty is a sobering reminder of America’s need to address income inequality. It’s also a wake-up call for lawmakers to create bold policies to strengthen our nation’s retirement system.

Under our current policies, retirement has become one of the greatest examples of income inequality in America. The availability of retirement savings is often tied to income for today’s workers who have fewer savings options than previous generations.

For low-wage workers such as Johnson, obtaining a secure job with decent wages feels difficult, and achieving a secure retirement is virtually impossible.

“I don’t want to retire where I started,” he says. “I started broke. I started in poverty. I’m going to retire into poverty, too? Then what has my life been about at that point?”

A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute shows Rondell’s story is more common today than it was 20 years ago. Our shift from traditional pensions to more individualized savings plans such as the 401(k) has helped spur retirement income inequality in America.

The majority of our most affluent workers have savings sitting in a 401(k) or similar retirement savings account which averaged $308,674 in 2010.

In contrast, only 52 percent of middle-class Americans have savings in retirement accounts where the average balance was only $34,981.

Retirement savings options and balances are severely low for America’s poorest workers who are less likely to have access to a retirement plan at work or cannot afford to contribute enough out of their own stagnant wages. Only 11 percent of workers, representing the lowest quartile, have any 401(k) savings. Their average savings balance is just $7,543.

The rise of the 401(k) has also helped lead to a greater reliance on Social Security. Although Social Security benefits were never intended to be a stand-alone retirement plan, it is the primary source of income for 65.3 percent of retirees.

Perhaps one of the boldest, income gap closing policies lawmakers can implement is strengthening Social Security by making everyone pay their fair share.

If wealthy bankers, CEOs, athletes and celebrities contributed the same percentage of their income to fund Social Security as the 99%, we would also be able to significantly improve benefits for current low-income retirees receiving $1,200 or less a month, deliver retirement security to more workers, and help close the wealth gap.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on September 27, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: KEIANA GREENE-PAGE.

 


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