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Issa and NLRB Continue Duel, as Boeing CEO Threatens to Shift More Production

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mike elkWASHINGTON, D.C.—Earlier this month, House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) threatened National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Lafe Solomon with a subpoena if he did not hand over key internal deliberative documents relating to the Boeing case by 5 p.m. on Tuesday July 26.

Solomon hasn’t complied. On July 26, he wrote to Issa asking him to reconsider his document request, saying “I respectfully ask that you reconsider our request to apply your June 17 ruling at the South Carolina hearing to our production of documents, which would allow the Committee to have access to requested information as soon as it becomes available to the parties and the administrative law judge at the hearing. “

Solomon’s reason for not handing over the documents was that “disclosure of documents and information not available to both Boeing and the Machinists could result in an unfair advantage to one party over another and risk harm to the integrity of the Agency’s legal process.” He said Issa’s document request flies in the face of Issa’s previous ground rules for Solomon’s testimony at a June 17 hearing held in South Carolina.

You ruled that “[a]ny time which is not discoverable by the defendant, will be considered out of bounds for any question.” In other words, you concluded that it would be inappropriate for Committee members to ask me to provide information not yet available to Boeing.

In justifying his decision not to hand over documents, Solomon cited a legal ruling handed down in the case by the judge in the Boeing case, Administrative Law Judge Clifford Anderson, denying the requests made by Boeing for the identical documents.

If the NLRB General Counsel’s office refuses to hand over documents after they are subpoenaed, Issa could then move to charge Solomon with contempt of Congress. Solomon would become the first Obama administration official charged with contempt of Congress—creating a political headache for the Obama Administration. Issa’s office did not respond to requests for comment despite numerous requests.

In another interesting twist to the case, while Boeing has demanded a large amount of documents from both union and NLRB officials, the company is not willing to let the public know about documents related to the tax incentives it is receiving from South Carolina where union work from Washington state was moved. Likewise, Boeing is refusing to disclose some of the details related to “Project Olympus” – a 2003 deal with the State of Washington that was thought to ensure the 787 aircraft would be built there.

Among some of the documents that IAM Local 751 Spokeswoman Connie Kelliher says Boeing won’t release are studies comparing the cost of leaving 787 production in Washington State and studies showing what it would cost Boeing to shut down a third temporary assembly line in Washington.

Despite the fact that details of the tax deals from Washington state would help legally establish Boeing commitment’s to expand in Washington State, Boeing has asked that the NLRB clear the courtroom anytime these documents are discussed.

“We suspect the documents Boeing wants to keep secret prove that Boeing executives didn’t make a legitimate business decision to transfer work from Everett to Charleston, but instead broke the law by moving because of union activity here,” Kelliher said in a press release. “It doesn’t surprise us that Boeing would want to keep any incriminating documents secret, but our laws don’t permit secret tribunals.”

A hearing is scheduled on Boeing’s motion to keep documents from the public today in Seattle. The scene is expected to be tense, as yesterday Boeing CEO Jerry McNerney shocked the aerospace world when he announced on a conference call that 737 jet production intended for Renton, Wash., may go elsewhere.

“It just sounds like they are basically threatening to abandon Puget Sound,” said IAM Local 751 Spokesman Bryan Corliss. The production was widely expected to go to Washington state

Tensions are quickly rising, with Congress threatening to subpoena the NLRB and Boeing considering moving even more production away from the unionized workforce in Washington. The push by Boeing and its Republican allies in Congress against NLRB and the union could have a huge effect not just on labor law, but on the role of the NLRB in enforcing labor law for generations to come.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on July 28, 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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OSHA Fines Honeywell, Citing 17 ‘Serious Violations’ at Uranium Facility

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mike elkFederal action comes almost exactly one year after USW members were locked-out of Illinois plant by international company

When union workers were locked out over a year ago at the Honeywell uranium facility in Metropolis, Ill., they warned that the unskilled scabs being brought into the plant would cause accidents at the uranium enrichment facility due to their lack of experience. Despite these warnings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the workers as being qualified to operate the plant, and it has continued to operate.

Since then, a very loud explosion has been caused at the plant last August, a small amount of lethally toxic UF6 was released last September, and a very large release of the toxic HF gas occurred in late December that set off alarms and troubled local community members. Locked-out union workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 7-699, claimed that the scab replacement workers running the plant were unqualified and should not be allowed to run it.

They cited an NRC report from last November, which showed that Honeywell cheated on initial safety qualification reports for its workers. The NRC claimed that after the cheating on the tests was discovered all workers were retested and passed after being retested.

USW Local 7-669 members put up mock tombstones around the Honeywell uranium enrichment facility in Illinois to demonstrate the damage done by the lockout.
USW Local 7-669 members put up mock tombstones around the Honeywell uranium enrichment facility in Illinois to demonstrate the damage done by the lockout.

But a new citation against Honeywell from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) bolsters their claim that the Honeywell uranium facility is being run unsafely. Last Wednesday, OSHA cited Honeywell with 17 separate “serious violations” that could have resulted in death or serious harm and fined Honeywell $119,000 for the accidental release of HF gas in December.

The federal agency defines a “serious violation” as occurring “when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.” According to OSHA the 17 serious violations they were cited for included:

Violations include allowing cylinders to be exposed to physical damage; having inaccurate field verifications on tanks and values; using equipment that was not in compliance with recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices; failing to have clear written operating instructions for processes such as unloading hydrogen fluoride into storage tanks and switching storage tanks; failing to address human factors in relation to remote operating valves on the hydrogen fluoride storage tanks; failing to document and resolve issues addressed by the process hazard analysis team; failing to establish written procedures to maintain the integrity of process equipment; failing to implement written emergency operating procedures for emptying hydrogen fluoride tanks; failing to perform appropriate checks and inspections to ensure equipment was properly installed; and failing to establish and implement written procedures to manage changes to process chemicals, equipment and procedures.

The company also was cited for a deficient incident report that did not include factors contributing to the vapor release and the recommendation resulting from the internal investigation.

The violations that OSHA cited Honeywell for at the uranium plant has troubled many in the local community, who worry that a release of toxic gas could kill nearby residents. Speaking at a rally marking the one-year anniversary of workers being locked-out from the Honeywell uranium facility, Metropolis, Ill., Mayor Billy McDaniel, said he was so worried about the safety conditions that “There are times when I have trouble sleeping at night.”

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request a meeting with OSHA, or contest the citation in front of an independent OSHA Review Commission. Honeywell Spokesman Peter Dapel did not return phone calls requesting comment from the company.

Union workers say the new safety violations cited by OSHA are even more evidence that Honeywell needs to settle the lockout. “The OSHA violations further validate what we’ve said all along. The members of this local union are the guardians of safety in the plant, and left to themselves, Honeywell will not ensure a true culture of safety first,” says union spokesman John Paul Smith.

This blog originally appeared in These Working Times on June 28, 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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Study: Increasing Wages at Wal-Mart Would Barely Affect Shoppers

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mike elkWal-Mart is the largest private-sector employer in the United States. It employs more than 1.4 million workers here, but pays them an estimated 12 percent less than average retail workers in the country. Many argue that, while unfortunate, such low wages help poor families since by allowing them to purchase goods cheaply.

That argument was most famously articulated by the current National Economic Council Deputy Director, who before she joined the White House published a paper in 2005 titled “Wal-Mart A Progressive Success Story.” It argued that Wal-Mart could not raise wages without raising prices, which would hurt poor and low income communities

However a study released on Monday by University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education found that increasing wages to $12 per hour would cost Wal-Mart $3.2 billion if applied to all workers across the United States. That amounts to about 1 percent of the company’s annual sales of $305 billion. Even if Wal-Mart were to pass on the total cost of the wage increase to consumers, researchers estimate that shoppers would pay about $12.50 more per year – or 46 cents per shopping trip – to cover the cost of the pay raise for Wal-Mart workers.

UC Berkley researcher Ken Jacobs doubts that all the costs of a wage increase would be passed on to consumers in the form of increased prices, because increasing prices would lower the amount of goods Wal-Mart would sell.

A worker collects shopping carts outside a Wal-Mart store in Mount Prospect, Ill.   (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
A worker collects shopping carts outside a Wal-Mart store in Mount Prospect, Ill. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

“Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in this country and it’s dragging down wage job standards for retail and grocery workers. It can clearly afford to pay workers a well wage” says Jennifer Stapleton, assistant director of Making Change at Wal-Mart, which is run by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

“Even if the company passes on that cost to customers, it would be the same cost as a pack of gum. Consumers would be open to that, instead of feeling guilty for shopping at Wal-Mart.”

Indeed, such a wage increase could really help workers. A $12 an hour wage would mean average annual pay increases of $3,250 to $6,500 for workers making less than $9 an hour, and $1,675 to $2,930 for workers making between $9 and $12 an hour. 41 percent of the pay increase would go to workers in families with total incomes of 200 percent of the poverty line—less than $21,660 a year for a single worker and $44,100 a year for a family of four.

And the cost for the wage increase would not come out of the pocket of poor workers, but 72 percent of the costs of this substantial benefit would be borne by people making above 200 percent of the poverty line.

Despite statistical evidence saying that raising labor prices has very little effect on consumer prices, advocates of low wages claim wages must be keep low to keep consumers good cheap. We hear this same argument applied to free trade: Goods are cheaper from China and other low-wage countries because these countries pay workers a lower wage.

“Even for most manufacturing, the labor cost is a very small percentage in all but some of the most rudimentary manufacturing, like textiles. For things like steel high tech or most manufacturing that is heavily capital intensive the labor impact is minimal,” says Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, an alliance of businesses and organized labor. “Labor costs in China amount to less than 10% of overall cost, labor cost differential washed away by productivity in the United States.”

Paul points to other countries where workers make higher wages than Americans but have no trade deficit with the U.S. “Average factory compensation for a worker in the United is $32 dollars an hour. In Germany, the average factory worker makes $48 dollars an hour. Despite this, the United State has a $275 billion trade deficit, while Germany has balanced trade with China. How is it that when our labor costs are $16 an hour cheaper than Germany?“ asks Paul. “It has everything to do with our trade policies, infrastructure policies, tax policies and investment in skills, and very little if anything to do with the cost of labor.”

The new attacks on public-sector workers’ salaries and benefits in Wisconsin and other states have triggered a debate about whether labor costs place too much of a burden on taxpayers. Hopefully this debate over paying workers good wages won’t spill into tired old debates about free trade.

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.

This blog originally appeared in These Times on April 19, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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Is the Labor Department Dragging Its Feet On Promising Anti-Wage Theft Measure?

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photo_86504Advocates estimate that tens of billions dollars are stolen from workers every year through wage theft. A national survey of workers in the United States’ three largest cities – New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – showed the startling finding that 26 percent of those surveyed in low-wage industries were paid less than the minimum wage in the last year and 75 percent were not paid overtime. The survey showed that 15 percent of the earnings of low-wage workers were stolen each year.

Part of the problem is that often workers don’t have the ability to prove that their wages were stolen. Pay stubs do not have uniform standards that clearly indicate overtime, wage per hour, exact days, and hours worked. Ten states do not even require employers to provide pay stubs for workers. The uneven standards and lack of uniformity and clarity in standards makes it very difficult for workers to prove that wages are stolen.

It would cost employers almost nothing to provide workers with such information. Already, employers are required to keep this information and give it to the IRS, state tax authorities, and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), just not to the workers. So it’s not as if companies do not already collect this information—they simply don’t want to give it to workers. Earlier this year, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a statement indicating it intended to make a rule making greater standards and transparency. The Department announced that

Wage and Hour Division [of the Department] intends to publish a proposed rule updating the recordkeeping regulation issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to assist employers in planning to protect workers’ entitlement to wages that they have earned and bring greater transparency and openness to the workplace.

The proposed rule would address notification of workers’ status as employees or some other status such as independent contractors, and whether that worker is entitled to the protections of the FLSA. The proposed rulemaking would also explore requiring employers to provide a wage statement each pay period to their employees.

But anti-wage theft activists are saying the rule is not taking effect quickly enough.

“We are encouraged that the DOL is proposing a regulation that would mandate pay stubs. But the devil is in the details,” says Ted Smukler, policy director at Interfaith Worker’s Justice Center, which has helped make the country’s wage theft crisis visible nationally. “The regulatory language has not been released, even while this has been on the DOL’s agenda since the fall of 2009. Meanwhile, tens of millions of workers are ripped off every week. Whether it’s through regulatory reform or passing national legislation mandating that businesses provide workers detailed pay records, something must be done.”

It goes without saying that struggling American workers need every dollar they earn in order to survive. But as the U.S. economy sputters back to life after the worst recession in 70 years, it’s worth pointing out that eliminating wage theft would not only be the just thing to do—it could prove an economic stimulus.

This blog originally appeared in www.inthesetimes.com on March 10, 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, Alternet, The Atlantic and The American Prospect. Mike Elk is a labor journalist and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, D.C. He has written for Harper’s Magazine, the American Prospect and In These Times.


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New Labor Split? Trumka Refuses to Denounce Obama Chamber of Commerce Speech

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Mike ElkWASHINGTON, D.C.—Many in the labor movement objected to President Barack Obama speaking at the Chamber of Commerce yesterday. Yet there was little protest from AFL-CIO leaders to the president’s speech.

For the first time, President Obama ventured over to the Chamber of Commerce to speak. While the speech was full of the usual platitudes of most Obama speeches, what mattered most was not what he said, but the speech’s symbolism. By speaking at the Chamber, President Obama was offering an olive branch to the very organization that has led attacks against him.

President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on February 7 in Washington, D.C. He talked about the importance of working together on job creation and growing the economy. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on February 7 in Washington, D.C. He talked about the importance of working together on job creation and growing the economy. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The president defended some of his regulatory agenda and tax policies. He also called on CEOs to create more jobs in America. But he made no mention of the Chamber’s tolerance of unionbusting policies that lead to nearly 30,000 reported cases of unfair labor practices against U.S. workers by companies every year.

The symbolism of the speech upset many in the labor community. Ralph Nader wrote an open letter to the President suggesting “What about walking next door and visiting your political friends at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, whose member unions represent millions of working Americans? You can discuss with Richard Trumka, a former coal miner and the new president of the AFL-CIO, your campaign promises in 2008. Repeatedly you said to the American people that you supported the “card check” and a “federal minimum wage of $9.50 in 2011.”

The AFL CIO neither organized a protest of the president’s speech nor extended an invitation for the president to cross the street and speak at the AFL CIO headquarters (where Obama has never given a speech).

Two unions—the National Nurses Union/California Nurse Association (CNA) and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), though, did organize a protest of the president’s speech at the Chamber. Both unions, it should be noted, have traditionally been more politically independent of the Democratic Party. Both unions endorsed Ralph Nader in his 2000 presidential run (At that time the CNA hadn’t merged with other unions).

The AFL CIO refused requests to endorse the protest. Still, 75 union members and allies picketed the president’s speech, chanting “Hey Hey, Hoo Hoo, Union Busting Got To Go”! One labor union member, who wished to remain anonymous, told me afterward that “I feel like by protesting today, we at least salvaged the dignity of the labor movement.”

Following his mantra “The President doesn’t communicate well with me in the press,” AFL-CIO President Trumka refused to denounce President Obama in remarks on MSNBC. In fact, Trumka disagreed with IAM (machinists union) President Thomas Buffenbarger‘s remark that “this isn’t a truce with business. I think he capitulated.” Instead, Trumka defended the president’s speech. He also praised the selection of former JPMorgan Chase Director William Daley as Chief of Staff, suggesting his selection might make things better for organized labor.

Why is organized labor’s top leader so unwilling to criticize the Chamber of Commerce appearance?

One CNA official told me that the AFL CIO was hesitant to protest the Chamber as a result of their rare joint statement last month in which they endorsed increased spending on infrastructure program. The AFL CIO, it seems, is hoping that by teaming up with the Chamber, it has a better chance of seeing Congress pass funding to keep its members employed and its unions financially solvent and vibrant.

But I can’t help worrying that by teaming up with the Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO is undermining energy the labor movement needs to win the war against the country’s business class.

*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on February 8, 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. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.


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Obama Admin Blocks Two Workplace Safety Regulations, Pleasing Big Business

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Mike ElkLast month, President Obama wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”

The announcement by Obama to eliminate burdensome regulation was seen as dramatic tilt to the right for the White House, which is increasingly pro-business. Others, though, dismissed the move as mere posturing that would not seriously affect workers. But since calling for the regulatory review, the Obama Administration has done away with  several proposed workplace safety regulations that have upset worker safety advocates.

Earlier this week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  announced it was delaying (or stopping, as many advocates claimed) implementation of a set of proposed regulations on ergonomics. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders remain the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in this country,” stated OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels in a press release. “However, it is clear that the proposal has raised concern among small businesses, so OSHA is facilitating an active dialogue between the agency and the small business community.”

The proposed regulation would have forced firms to count ergonomic injuries—also known as musculoskeletal disorder injuries (MSDs)—in statistics provided to OSHA . The push to merely count ergonomic injuries as part of workplace injury statistics was considered to be the compromise over regulating ergonomic injuries more broadly. Advocates had tried to bring tougher Clinton-era workplace safety laws, but settled on counting the MSD injuries as the compromise.

Workplace advocates hoped that being able to point to companies where a high amount of workers were suffering from ergonomic injuries would allow them to hold companies accountable. Now they will lack even the ability to shame corporations using government-published statistics.

Ergonomic injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and strained backs are agrowing problem, as more Americans wind up working in offices. Federal data shows that MSDs injuries “accounted for 28 percent of all workplace injuries and illnesses” that forced workers to miss time from the job.

Previously, there had been regulations on the books during the Clinton Administration to at least monitor and to offer minor protections to workers from such injuries. However, in 2001, a Republican-led Congress eliminated most ergonomic regulations. This was followed by eliminating the counting of ergonomic injuries by the Bush-era OSHA in 2003.

Many labor observers say OSHA’s decision not to regulate MSD workplace injuries shows that the Obama administration is slowly shifting away from its focus on tougher regulation of workplace safety. The decision to delay implementation of rules to regulate MSD workplace injuries follows a decision in mid-January by OSHA to write a rule regulating extreme noise on the job, which affects the hearing of many who work in the construction and manufacturing industries.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the National Association of Manufacturers had advocated against the proposal and in a letter to the new chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), called for celebrating its demise. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Issa has threatened to investigate such regulations, which has scared many administration officials who do not want to get caught in bureaucratic wrangling.

Those in the business community saw the defeat of these two regulations as a sign of their growing influence with the Department of Labor and OSHA. “We hope that these first two steps are a signal to the business community, and employers in general, that OSHA will ‘stop, look and listen,’” Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers told the Hill newspaper.

People in organized labor are upset about the proposed regulation being withdrawn. “All of these actions are coming because of the November elections and the fierce business opposition to anything,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety. “Just because the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups scream doesn’t mean there is a legitimate reason to retreat. There are real negative impacts here that can harm workers.”

The ability of corporate forces to stop the implementation of these rules may signal the ability of big business to block or water down other rules protecting workers. One has to wonder: Will the elimination of such regulations actually save any jobs, as the president seems to believe? Or will their elimination hurt workers’ lives?

*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on Feb 3, 2010. 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. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.


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Do the New NLRB Rules Really Help Workers Organize?

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Mike ElkA series of rules have been proposed recently by the National Labor Relations Board that improve the rights of workers on the job. The rule changes by the NLRB have been hailed by organized labor as great triumphs that will promote the right to organize. But some question whether the regulations go far enough.

In December, the NLRB ruled that employers must start posting the rights of workers to join a union. This decision was met by many congratulatory press releases celebrating a great victory for unions. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hailed these rules saying:

Every working person in America deserves to know his or her rights. Just as employers are currently required to post information regarding the laws that protect workers’ health and safety, their rights to a minimum wage and to a workplace free from discrimination, this rule ensures that workers’ rights are effectively communicated in the workplace. It is necessary in the face of widespread misunderstanding about the law and many workers’ justified fear of exercising their rights under it.

In November, the NLRB ruled that expressing one’s negative opinion of a boss using social media such as Facebook or Twitter was free speech protected by the Constitution. This was hailed as a major victory for workers trying to organize because it gave broader protection to workers criticizing their companies. In October, the NLRB issued a decision saying that employers now must electronically inform workers through email of their union busting violations. Previously companies were forced to only post a notice on a bulletin board.

Each time these rulings are issued by the NLRB, they are lauded as signs of great progress by organized labor. However while the NLRB has expanded the rights of workers in theory, it still has not changed the penalties for illegal union busting. Requiring an employee to send out an e-mail as opposed to posting a paper notice or having to post the rights of a worker to join a union does not change an employer’s behavior of intimidation.

Employers still face no serious financial penalties or lose government contracts for illegally firing a worker. Nor has the NLRB shortened the election period to seven days—as many in labor hoped—in order to prevent the boss from running effective intimidation campaigns for months. So why do so many in organized labors celebrate these rulings with such great hope?

What these ruling represent is that the NLRB has shown the willingness to change the rules ever so slightly in order to protect the rights of workers. The NLRB has shown it has the power and willingness to do it. However, until the NLRB is willing to issue tough penalties and improve voting conditions for workers, these expanded workers’ rights will help workers little as they exercise their right to organize.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times.

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. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.


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Is the Federal Pay Freeze Obama’s PATCO?

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Mike ElkFor unionists, pay freeze reminiscent of Reagan’s attack on federal workers

The Obama Administration, looking to bolster its deficit-cutting credentials and show its desire to take on what some label a “special interest”—organized labor—yesterday announced a two-year freeze on the wages of all federal workers. Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect points out that the pay freeze will reduce the deficit by .1% over the next ten years. Obama’s pay freeze also reinforces the notion that public employees earn exuberant salaries despite a Bureau of Labor Statistic report showing that civil servants earn 24% less than their counterparts in the private sector.

“This proposal to freeze federal pay is a superficial, panicked reaction to the deficit commission report,” stated AFGE National President John Gage, a union that represents over 600,000 federal government employees. “This pay freeze amounts to nothing more than political public relations. This is no time for scapegoating. The American people didn’t vote to stick it to a VA nursing assistant making $28,000 a year or a border patrol agent earning $34,000 per year.”

AFGE for Obama? The union is not so enthusiastic after The White House froze the wages of federal employees on Monday.   (Photo courtesy of the AFL-CIO)
AFGE for Obama? The union is not so enthusiastic after The White House froze the wages of federal employees on Monday. (Photo courtesy of the AFL-CIO)

Attacking “greedy federal workers” allows Obama to claim he is taking on special interests when he is completely unwilling to take on the rich over the Employee Free Choice Act or the Bush tax cuts. But, as recent polling analysis released by the Center for American Progress indicates, labor is seen by many Americans as just another big institution too far removed from the public.

This pay freeze is in line with the president’s earlier attacks on teachers unions and lack of leadership on the EFCA. The important question we should ask is, will scoring cheap political points by scapegoating workers lead to unintended consequences that could impede economic recovery?

“Is this Obama’s PATCO?” says Campaign for America’s Future Co-Director Robert Borosage, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s mass-firing of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization members in 1981. “Will employers across the country use his language and his message to inflict another round of pay cuts?” A cut in wages by corporations across the board could decrease demand swinging us even further into a depression.

Regardless of the economic impact of President Obama’s pay freeze, the political impact is clear. Republicans smell blood in the water and will attempt to push The White House to make even more attacks on workers and workers will continue to wonder who is on their side. Indeed, the vote of union members appears to be at turning point. For the first time in a generation, less than 50% of union members voted Democratic. Obama’s attacks on federal workers will push them even further in the arms of right-wing, corporate-funded, populist demagogues.

“There will be no rejoicing in the homes of workers tonight,” said UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. “But the corporate CEO’s who frequently dine at the White House will enjoy this immensely as they realize what an opportunity this president has presented them.”

*This post originally appeared in Working in These Times on November 30, 2010.

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. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.


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Rescued Chilean Miners Greeted As Heroes — but They’re Also Victims

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mikeelkfotoThe 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days have been treated like heroes since their rescue this week. They were invited to the country’s presidential palace for a special soccer game. A Greek mining executive offered to pay for them to take an all-expense paid trip to Greece to just relax for a few weeks on Greek beaches. Many other companies have made huge donations to their families.

They are being viewed as heroes, but some disagree with this characterization.

“The miners are not ‘heroes,’ as they have been called around the world for surviving underground for over two months,” Néstor Jorquera, president of the Chilean mineworkers union, CONFEMIN, told the Inter Press Service. “They are victims.” Many in the international labor movement have complained that news accounts have ignored the poor treatment of workers by the mining company, which intially refused to pay their wages after the miners were trapped underground on Aug. 5.

San Esteban, the company that operates the mine, claimed they had no money to pay the workers who were trapped under the mine. In fact, the company was apparently so broke that it couldn’t even pay the costs of the recovery. The government of Chile was forced to pay for a rescue that some say could cost anywhere between $10- $20 million.

As a result, the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, vowed to make major changes to the way workers are treated in Chile. “Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose Mine, and in many other places in our country,” he said.

It’s important to note that working conditions in Chile are notoriously unsafe. There were more than 191,000 workplace accidents, including 443 deaths, in a country with only a population of 17 million people in 2009, an astronomical rate for such a small country.

President Pinera set up a commission in August to write a report on workplace safety, which is due to be delivered on Nov. 22. The president also announced the creation of a new mining agency to more strictly enforce mining safety laws and increase funding for safety programs.

But Jorquera, president of CONFEMIN, says this is not enough. He called for Chile to agree to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines, like most industrialized countries around the world have done.

Whether or not Chile signs on to that convention will make clear how serious the country’s leaders are about reforming mine safety laws. It won’t be much of a surprise if the media, which often neglects workplace safety issues, quickly moves on after the rescue and ignores mining safety issues in Chile and elsewhere. But let’s hope Pinera, and the rest of Chile’s leaders in government, act now to ensure we never have to watch another harrowing subterranean story like this unfold.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). Currently, he works at the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he has worked as a staffer on the Obama-Biden Campaign and conducted research on worker owned cooperatives at the Instituto Marques de Salamanca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When Mike is not reading twenty blogs at a time, he enjoys jazz, golden retrievers, and playing horseshoes.


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On the Death of My Older Brother, Jeremy, and Ted Kennedy

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In the coming days, many great eulogies of Ted Kennedy will be written. Many will offer personal anecdotes about what a great man he was. I do not intend to write one here.

I have no great anecdotes or personal stories to tell about how Ted Kennedy directly touched my life. I meet the man once briefly in passing while walking in the U.S. Capitol.

I did however lose an older brother, far too young, much as Senator Kennedy did. Anyone who has ever lost an older brother understands the intense pressure that the surviving younger brothers to live up to the legacies of their older brothers. Its an inescapable burden.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my brother. I find myself wondering often what my brother would do if he were still alive. He died at the young age of twenty one of leukemia far before he could develop into the type of activist that I am today. He never got the chance to fight for working people the way that I so luckily have.

Ever since I turned twenty-one, I have treated every day like it was one extra day and cherished it. It has made me want to get up in the morning and worker harder and be smarter because I feel so lucky to be alive. I feel that to not work as hard and diligently as I possibly could would be a disservice to my brother’s legacy. My brother’s legacy serves as a constant source of inspiration for some of the darkest hours and toughest fights.

Senator Kennedy cited his brother’s legacy too in passing health care reform with a public option out of his committee earlier this year. In his statement he said:

“This room is a special place. In this room, my two brothers declared their candidacy for the presidency. Today, the nation takes another major step toward reaching the goals to which they dedicated their careers, and for which they gave their lives. They strived, as I have tried to do, for a fairer and more just America — a nation where every American could share fully in the promise of quality health care.”

America has lost an older brother in the death of Ted Kennedy. We must all be fortunate that we are still alive and around to fight to make a public health insurance plan available for all Americans that Ted would have loved to fight for. We must work harder for the things that we believe in. If Ted were still alive today, he would be fighting like hell for the public health insurance option that he considered a fundamental human right.

Lets fight for my brother too. He died tragically and far too young. His death shocked my family. Fortunately, my father was a member of a union and the union provided us with excellent health care. In the closing days of my brother’s lives, we did not have to worry about medical bills. We spent them enjoying the company of my brother, Jeremy.

Every American deserves the same type of high quality health care that my brother, Jeremy, had in the closing days of his life. There is no reason why people in the richest country on the planet should have to suffer because their only crime was being too poor to afford quality health care.

Let’s fight like hell for the public health insurance plan that Senator Kennedy so dearly fought for in the closing days of his life.

My deepest condolences to the friends and family of Senator Kennedy.

I hope that Ted is in heaven now finally reunited with his brothers as I hope to someday be reunited with mine.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). Currently, he works at the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he has worked as a staffer on the Obama-Biden Campaign and conducted research on worker owned cooperatives at the Instituto Marques de Salamanca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When Mike is not reading twenty blogs at a time, he enjoys jazz, golden retrievers, and playing horseshoes.

This article originally appeared in Campaign for America’s Future on August 26, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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