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Pathway to Progress: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

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History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978.

In the late 1970s, conditions in the United States were ripe for positive change for working families. Jimmy Carter and a pro-union majority in Congress were pushed by active and organized civil rights and women’s movements. Labor unions were ready to push for change.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in General Electric v. Gilbert that employers could refuse benefits to pregnant women. The case was brought by the International Union of Electrical Radio and Machine Workers and after the court ruled against them, unions were inspired to fight harder. At the 1977 convention of the UAW a resolution declaring that “women’s issues are also UAW issues” and pushing for stronger benefits related to affirmative action, child care and maternity. A special emphasis was placed on protecting the rights of pregnant workers. The UAW, AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Women’s Law Project joined with other unions, civil rights organizations and women’s right’s groups in order to secure passage of Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which passed in 1978. 

After passage, it was important to get employers to actually respect the law’s provisions. Unions had the built-in infrastructure to reach the on-the-ground worksites across the country. The first step was for unions to begin including the protections of the PDA into collective bargaining agreements. This included member and employer education, the remedying violations through grievance procedures and other measures. UAW negotiated with the Big Three automakers in order to secure these benefits and others. Once the Big Three were on board, the changes began to spread to other companies in the industry and beyond.

When the PDA passed, it essentially gave pregnant workers the same rights and benefits as workers with disabilities. Unions made sure that collective bargaining agreements reflected this. That meant that workers got access to paid sick leave and insurance and the option to lighter-duty work. These benefits were scarce at nonunion worksites, except that, no matter where one works, they could no longer be fired for pregnancy. Workers and nonunion workplaces attempted to get the measures of the PDA implemented, but often faced resistance from local management, who clung to stereotypes about women workers and pregnant women.

The UAW and other unions used internal communications, workshops and labor education programs to teach union leaders and shop stewards about the law and its ability to protect working women. Across the country, people were trained to take on the cause of their pregnant colleagues, stand up to management and pursue grievances or strikes to establish the rights included in the law.

The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), which formed in 1974, had included the PDA as one of its goals from inception. CLUW members came together to figure out how to convince male union leaders to support the law. This effort was instrumental in pushing back against challenges against the law both from within the labor movement and without.

In her summary of union efforts in support of the passage and implementation of the PDA, author Judith A. Scott said that the story of the passage of the PDA “is the story of how the empowerment of working women and collective action were crucial to improving workplace culture and practices for pregnant workers…and why those same factors are necessary today if we are to dramatically better the lives of working women. Through their unions, women workers can assert collective strength to win workplace improvements at the bargaining table and in the legislative arena through effective political campaigning.”

Source: “Why a Union Voice Makes a Real Difference for Women Workers: Then and Now,” by Judith A. Scott.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 15, 2021. 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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A Debate Over Carbon Capture in the Infrastructure Bill Could Test the Labor-Climate Alliance

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In late March, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, that his administration hopes to move forward this year. The plan would make major investments in improving physical infrastructure such as roads, schools and bridges while also creating good-paying jobs, expanding collective bargaining rights and funding long-term care services under Medicaid. 

The president’s plan also endorsed another proposal that a group of bipartisan lawmakers hope makes it into a final bill: expanding carbon-capture utilization and storage (CCUS) in the United States. The SCALE Act, introduced in mid-March by eleven senators and six House representatives, represents the country’s first comprehensive CO2 infrastructure and jobs bill. In describing the president’s infrastructure plan, the White House said it ?“will support large-scale sequestration efforts” that are ?“in line with the bipartisan SCALE Act.” 

The legislation, which would authorize $4.9 billion in spending over five years, would create programs to transport and store carbon underground. Its provisions include establishing low-interest loan programs modeled off of federal highway development programs, increasing EPA funding for permitting carbon storage wells, and providing grants to states to create their own permitting programs. Advocates point to countries such as Canada, Norway and Australia where elected officials have made similar investments in carbon storage infrastructure. 

The SCALE Act is notable both for the support it has, and hasn’t, received. Its early endorsers include a half-dozen industrial labor unions, centrist climate groups like the National Wildlife Federation, and energy companies like GE Gas Power and Calpine. Fossil fuel industry support for carbon-capture has historically been a top reason why progressive climate groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of the idea, wary of subsidizing anything that amounts to corporate giveaways to some of the world’s worst polluters. While carbon-capture has long been a flashpoint in Democratic climate politics, most critics of the policy have stayed quiet on the SCALE Act for now.

Modeling released in December by the Princeton Net-Zero America Project found that construction of nearly 12,000 miles of pipelines capable of storing 65 million tons of COper year would be needed by 2030 for the United States to reach net-zero emissions by 2050?—?a stated goal of the Biden administration. The Clean Air Task Force, a climate advocacy group, says the SCALE Act programs are ?“consistent” with the quantity and timeline of infrastructure deployment needed to meet those goals.

To date, nearly all U.S. carbon-capture projects are situated near existing CO2pipelines and Lee Beck, the CCUS policy innovation director at the Clean Air Task Force, says the SCALE Act’s goal would be to capture emissions from multiple sources and then transport the COfor storage elsewhere, as is currently being carried out through Canada’s Alberta Carbon Trunk Line System and Norway’s Northern Lights Project.

Supporters point to a number of recent scientific analyses that make the case for greater investment in carbon-capture. In February, the National Academies of Sciences released a report on decarbonizing the U.S. energy system which recommends that, over next decade, officials should focus on increasing deployment of carbon-capture technologies by a factor of ten while investing in permanent CO2 storage infrastructure. In 2020, the International Energy Agency warned that it would be ?“virtually impossible” to reach net-zero emissions without carbon capture technology, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said carbon capture is likely necessary to meet global climate targets. Supporters note that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not viable alternatives for reducing carbon emissions in the industrial sector, which account for 32 percent of the United States’ energy use and nearly a quarter of its direct greenhouse gas emissions. 

President Biden’s campaign climate plan called for accelerating development of carbon-capture and he included Brad Markell, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, on his Department of Energy transition team. Markell endorsed the SCALE Act in March and said it ?“will be crucial to meeting President Biden’s goals of reaching net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2035 and economywide by 2050.”

In addition to Biden’s support, the Congressional politics bode well for SCALE Act advocates. Introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D?Del.) and Bill Cassidy (R?LA) in the Senate, the bill would first go through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Joe Manchin (D?W.V.), a co-sponsor of the bill, serves as chair. The House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Marc Veasey (D?TX) and David McKinley (R?W.V.) and the chamber passed several carbon-capture bills last year. In March, Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Louisiana (Tom Wolf and John Bel Edwards) joined the Republican governors of Oklahoma and Wyoming (Kevin Stitt and Mark Gordon), in writing a letter to Congress urging the passage of the SCALE Act in any future infrastructure package.

In an email, Sen. Coons told In These Times that he ?“appreciates [Energy] Secretary Granholm’s public statements in support of CCUS, including CCUS transport infrastructure, and am encouraged by my conversations with the Biden administration over the last several months.” 

Perhaps the biggest asset working in the SCALE Act’s favor is the support of organized labor. Biden has faced heat in the media in recent weeks over whether he can truly deliver an ambitious climate agenda while supporting unions. The SCALE Act has endorsements from labor groups including the Utility Workers Union of America, IBEW and North America’s Building Trades Unions. And the BlueGreen Alliance?—?a coalition of labor and environmental groups?—?supports CCUS, though has not yet taken a position on the bill. One analysis commissioned through the Decarb America Research Initiative estimated that the SCALE Act would generate roughly 13,000 jobsannually over the 5?year period, though many unions are excited by the prospect of simply maintaining existing jobs.

“We see carbon-capture technology as a way to retain jobs in industries that are core sectors of our union,” said Anna Fendley, the director of Regulatory and State Policy for the United Steelworkers. ?“It feels like the conversation around reducing emissions in the U.S. has been so focused on the power sector for so long and now a lot of groups and advocates are learning more about the industrial sector.” 

A false solution?

Carbon-capture opponents have described the policy as one of several ?“false solutions” to the climate crisis. Though many of these activists typically say that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, on matters of CCUS, they argue the technologies are too expensive, too under-developed, and will detract from other important investments that government needs to make in order to transform the economy. At worst, critics fear investments in carbon-capture could prolong overall dependence on fossil fuels. 

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a clean energy package, but after a coalition of progressive climate groups?—?including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Climate Justice Alliance—protestedthe bill’s inclusion of pro-carbon capture provisions, 18 Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D?Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D?Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D?Mass.), voted against it. In These Times reached out to a number of climate groups that have opposed carbon-capture infrastructure in the past, including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Labor Network for Sustainability. Most have not spoken publicly on the SCALE Act to date and declined to comment for this story. 

Limited organizational capacity for rapid legislative analysis is one possible factor for the silence. Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said their group had not heard about the SCALE Act prior to In These Times’ inquiry. While noting they are ?“not in the CCUS camp,” Uehlein said the group hasn’t yet decided how it plans to respond to the bill. The Sierra Club declined the Charleston Gazette-Mail?’s request for comment on the SCALE Act. 

Some left-wing organizations, like Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action, have previously acknowledged that industrial carbon capture could be acceptable, and others have expressed more interest in direct air capture, a method that sucks COout of the atmosphere. 

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, told In These Times that rather than protesting individual pieces of carbon-capture legislation?—??“which would make it a game of whack-a-mole”?—?environmental justice groups in his coalition are focused on educating members of Congress and their staff on why they should avoid such ?“false solutions” altogether. He added that putting new demands on the electrical grid through CCUS, direct air capture, and even industrial production of steel and cement at current levels was misguided at this stage of the transition away from fossil fuel energy.

Sen also criticized carbon-capture advocates for citing the 2018 IPCC report as evidence that CCUS is needed, as opposed to reforestation which the IPCC also explored. Reforestation, or replanting an area with tress, is another way to remove COfrom the air. Research suggests this solution can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions, but a 2019 IPCC report also warned that planting large-scale forests for carbon-removal efforts could lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Beck, of the Clean Air Task Force, argued that it would be irresponsible to take any decarbonization options off the table in 2021, and emphasized that building out COinfrastructure would not help keep aging or non-economical facilities online. Shannon Heyck-Williams of the National Wildlife Federation agreed that ?“when it comes to coal power generation, there really is no future for coal power in America and carbon-capture doesn’t change that.”

But Beck and Heyck-Williams also maintained that, since there are so many existing natural gas facilities in the United States, it does makes sense to try and capture the carbon coming out of those plants?—?at least for now. ?“It would be faster to retrofit some of these facilities than expect they will be all phased out in the next decade in the current climate policy environment,” argued Beck.

SCALE Act supporters know they’ll have to tread carefully with language around COpipelines, given the years of dedicated activism in the climate movement against new oil and gas pipelines. Advocates of CCUS prefer to focus on phrases like ?“COinfrastructure” and ?“carbon management,” which they hope will steer the conversation away from flashpoints like Keystone XL. Beck notes that carbon infrastructure includes not just pipelines but also shipping, rail and barge. ?“COpipelines are very different in terms of size and safety,” added Jessie Stolark, the public policy and members relations manager for the Carbon Capture Coalition. ?“But to be completely honest, I do think we have an uphill battle in terms of reassuring people and conveying that kind of information.”

Whether progressive climate groups will choose to rally opposition to a congressional infrastructure bill that includes the SCALE Act?—?like they did for the clean energy package in 2020?—?remains unclear. It will undoubtedly be tougher to pressure lawmakers to vote against a package that includes so many other key priorities. For now, rather than take aim at Biden’s new infrastructure plan for its support for carbon-capture, progressive climate groups have stuck to criticizing the package for committing too little spending on climate change mitigation efforts overall, with some advocates calling for a minimum of $10 trillion in spending over the next decade.

“It’s up to us to ensure that this proposal is strengthened, becomes law and that it is the first of many pieces of legislation that will address the many crises facing our generation,” said Deirdre Shelly of the Sunrise Movement. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. 


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Pennsylvania Nurses Near Their Breaking Point

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On top of the typical stresses, intense work, and long hours common to the profession, nurses working at smaller hospitals in more remote parts of the country face many unique challenges. With fewer staff and 24?–?7 services, facilities like the two Lehigh Valley Health Network hospitals in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, rely on nurses, nursing assistants, and other staff to perform many jobs simultaneously with little rest. But when nurses begin to leave for better working conditions and the hospital does not replace them, those who remain are put under even more strain, which endangers them and their patients. 

For workers with Schuylkill Hospital Nurses United, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In this episode, we talk with two Schuylkill County nurses, Brandee Brown and Chrissy Newton, and Seth Goldstein from the Office and Professional Employees International Union, about the day-to-day grind of working at small-town hospitals while also combatting union-busting and bad-faith bargaining from management at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Northern Valley Labor Council Distributes Food to Families in North Dakota and Minnesota

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The Northern Valley Labor Council in North Dakota, led by President Mark Froemke (BCTGM), plans to distribute more than 1,300 boxes of food and gallons of milk later this month for community members in need. The North Dakota AFL-CIO, the St. Paul (Minnesota) Regional Labor Federation and the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program are also sponsoring the events. Distribution will take place in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Belcourt, North Dakota, as well as in Mahnomen, Minnesota. The union is working with Native American tribes to make sure the distribution announcement reaches those communities as well.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIOon April 14, 2021. 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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The Long Struggle Against Giving Up

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Watching on Zoom late last week as an NLRB official spent hour after hour pulling paper ballots out of a cardboard box and hollering ?“NO” at high volume was excruciating. But it was not the most excruciating part of losing a big campaign like the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. That would be right now, when the pundits descend to offer instant critiques of everything that went wrong, like fashion critics insulting what people are wearing to a funeral. Even as a pundit myself, the process is hard to watch. 

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union organizing the Amazon warehouse, lost the vote by more than a 2?–?1 margin. After the extreme publicity of the campaign over the past couple of months, such a definitive loss was crushing. More importantly, the workers in Bessemer still do not have a union, and Amazon and the rest of the anti-union world gains the talking point that those workers do not want or need a union. The reality on the ground after the loss is bad, and the narrative it produces going forward is also bad. When any union undertakes an organizing drive, it is good to win, and bad not to. Of these things there can be no doubt. 

But the Amazon campaign was extraordinary in so many ways that it needs to be seen in context, to avoid drawing all the wrong conclusions. The RWDSU’s attempt to organize more than 5,000 warehouse workers in the South?—?going up against the most deep-pocketed company imaginable?—?gained attention in the first place because it seemed so crazy. Everyone in the union world knew that every aspect of the situation?—?the size of the unit, the high turnover of the work, the fact that the job was considered a good one by local standards, the fact that it took place in a ?“right to work” state, the resources that Amazon could deploy against it, the fact that it was an attempt to crack an extremely tough union-free company?—?made success harder. From the beginning, every union veteran I spoke to about the campaign was hopeful, but skeptical it could succeed. 

That conventional wisdom turned out to be true. Reality bites. Looking back on the organizing drive and saying the union should have used different tactics obscures the fact that this campaign, with a unit of that size, in Alabama, under the awful labor law régime that we have in America, probably was not winnable, at least not in the short time frame in which it happened. But that, in turn, obscures a more important fact: It’s good that this campaign happened. 

Why would the RWDSU take up such a difficult effort in the first place? Because workers at the Amazon warehouse asked them to. There are many unions in this country that would have politely told those workers to fuck off. The RWDSU, though, tried. They spent many months and many millions of dollars and got the world to turn its attention to Bessemer. If they learned lessons about organizing tactics that could have been done differently, those lessons should be applied to the next campaign. Their effort should still be applauded. There are plenty of lazy people in the union establishment who would prefer to say that they should not be expected to do hard, audacious organizing, because it is a waste of time. They are wrong. 

Some have said that this campaign, which received more press than any other union drive in many decades, was too media-focused. Though I fully endorse the idea that the media is annoying, this critique fails to understand the press did not cover this campaign because the union asked it to?—?we covered it because it had all of the ingredients of a great story. Readers, I can tell you from experience, want to read about labor battles at identifiable companies like Amazon much more than they want to read about labor battles anywhere else. An enormous union drive in an unlikely place full of scrappy, charismatic characters fighting the richest man in the country was going to get news coverage whether the union wanted it or not. It is more accurate to think of the press as an uncontrollable outside force to be managed rather than as an element of an organizing drive that a union can summon or shut down at will. The truth is that in almost every other case, the problem is that tough union drives get too little, not too much, coverage. 

Amazon warehouse workers are the single most important segment of the American work force for unions to organize, because they are what the future of work looks like. The effort to unionize Amazon will take decades. We are at the beginning. The attention created by the drive in Bessemer caused hundreds of other Amazon workers across the country to reach out to the union. With luck, it will spawn ten or fifty or a hundred more organizing committees inside other Amazon warehouses. Some of those will die out, and some will build towards a real union campaign. That’s how the work goes. One of the warehouses that continues to organize should be the warehouse in Bessemer. They are probably closer to winning than any other warehouse in America. The loss that just happened was the first round of what will be a long fight. 

Leaders of the civil rights movement would often show up in a Southern town, and spend months organizing. The press would show up too. The activists and the people would march, and get beaten up, and get arrested, and the local political establishment would denounce them, and after all that, no laws would change. Did that indicate that their movement had failed? No. They were engaged in individual battles in a war for justice that lasted many years. They, the activists of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, succeeded in their part of that war. Today we have our part. The labor movement, ground down for decades, must be at the center of this part of the war, which is a class war taking place after 40 years of widening inequality. The struggle of the labor movement today is not just against the bosses on the other side?—?it is also against the deadening forces of inertia inside unions, which makes many prefer to not even try. 

I’m sorry that the Amazon workers did not win their union. I’m glad they tried. I’m glad for every single news story that came out of it. I’m glad for every single working person at every other shitty job who saw it and wondered if they might do something similar at their own workplace. I’m glad that millions of people watched all this happen. The only thing left to do now is to keep on going. 

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Unions eye Brookings, Urban Institute as push to organize think tanks grows

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Workers at two of the largest, most influential think tanks in Washington, D.C. are forming a union, adding to a growing trend in white-collar collective bargaining. 

Staff at the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute on Tuesday asked their employers to grant them voluntary recognition — which doesn’t require a secret ballot election — of their unions, which are affiliated with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70.

The labor movement’s efforts to organize think tanks — major players in influencing and informing the policy debate on Capitol Hill — is the latest white-collar sector to see a burst in collective bargaining. Labor efforts have poured into Silicon Valley and have expanded to groups of workers not typically protected under federal labor law, like independent contractors. 

“We believe Urban needs a nurturing workplace for all employees in order to bring rigorous research to advance equitable policy solutions,” the Organizing Committee of Urban Institute Employees Union said in a statement. “We believe that nobody can represent workers’ interests better than workers themselves and that our perspectives are vital to Urban’s longevity and its institutional ethics.”

The Brookings United Organizing Committee said in a statement that “Brookings is an intellectual home for policy ideas that empower working people. And Brookings United is excited for this new partnership so that together, we can create a more inclusive and sustainable environment in the post-COVID-19 world.” 

Brookings management said that it “will carefully review” and follow up on the staffers’ request that it remain neutral in the union drive

“We respect our employees’ right to organize, and we are committed to making certain Brookings continues to be a great place to work,” the organization said in a statement to POLITICO. 

A spokesperson for the Urban Institute was not immediately available for comment. 

The NPEU has successfully organized several other prominent think tanks in the D.C. area, including The Center for American Progress, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, National Immigration Law Center, and the National Women’s Law Center, among others. 

While many of those institutions are considered left-leaning or progressive, Brookings tends to fall more politically in the center, and the union says it’s prepared to file for a ballot election with the National Labor Relations Board if not granted voluntary recognition. 

“It can sometimes really surprise us which organizations crack down most aggressively on their staff,” said Daniel Essrow, an organizer with the NPEU. “Ideology definitely comes into play, but organizational culture is often a bigger factor.” 

“In the case of Brookings and Urban, they are certainly slightly more centrist than some of the nonprofits where we have received voluntary recognition,” he added. “But the breadth of research they have produced on the benefits of collective bargaining is unmatched — we are hopeful they will follow their own research and recognize their staffs’ unions.”

The nearly 200 employees forming a union at Brookings say they want to improve diversity, retention, and paid family and parental leave, among other issues, NPEU says. 

Similarly, The Urban Institute Employees’ Union, which would represent nearly 250 workers, says it’s looking to ensure that the think tank supports its diverse staff through “equitable pay, treatment, promotion processes, access to leadership positions, and mental health resources.” 

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank, said that the growth in nonprofit unions “will be an interesting story to follow,” given the nature of the work and nonprofit employees’ relationship to their organization’s message. 

“Traditional unions are not well-suited for industries like non-profits and think tanks where job duties often vary significantly within the same job title, and where organizations’ missions rely on both flexibility and accountability,” she wrote via email. “Most people who work at non-profits and think tanks do it because they are passionate about their organization’s mission and they want to help build their organization up.”

Greszler argues that unions “typically rely on strong-armed tactics and adversarial relationships.” She says that often leaves “workers feeling like their employer is their adversary instead of their ally.” 

The growth in organizing inside some of the most influential institutions in Washington follows efforts by the labor movement to organize in new sectors beyond the traditional trades.

The Communications Workers of America launched an initiative early last yearto support union organizing efforts in the tech and video game industries.

In January, more than 400 Google employees formed the Alphabet Workers Union, a non-traditional union in the sense that the group didn’t seek certification with the federal labor board, meaning that the company won’t be required by law to bargain “in good faith” with the group.

However, efforts made by the union, which is affiliated with the CWA, to advance working conditions at the company will still be protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

Drivers for app-based taxi services like Uber and Lyft have also formed worker organizations, despite being classified by their companies as “independent contractors.” Such workers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act, and thus don’t have collective bargaining rights that can be policed by the federal labor board. 

Despite the labor movement’s efforts to expand into new sectors like nonprofits, at least one labor expert is skeptical those unions will have staying power. 

“I will be curious to see how many high-powered professional workers, who are researchers at think tanks are going to want a union to represent them,” said Douglas McCabe, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. 

McCabe, who said he is pro-union, added, “Whether they’re at Brookings Institution on Mass Ave., or the Cato Institute, I’d be very hesitant to see whether they’re going to be willing to join a union.” 

But workers who are part of the union drive say that they hope their efforts will galvanize more think tanks to organize. 

“When we’re working towards this union effort I think a lot of us are thinking about solidarity,” said Kate Hannick, a member of the Brookings Union Organizing Committee, “and knowing that a place as influential and prestigious as Brookings forming a union, it could really become industry standard in the think tank world and beyond.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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The Message from the Amazon Union Defeat in Alabama Is Clear: Keep Organizing

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On April 9, the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of a mail ballot certification election that concluded on March 29 for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. With 3,215 votes cast, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was defeated with at least 1,608 votes against the union, enough to crush the drive. The result was not shocking given the millions of dollars that Amazon spent and its power inside the facility to pressure workers to vote against forming a union. 

No matter how you spin it, the defeat is a significant blow to the multitude of organizing efforts occurring at Amazon. The election showed the clear limitations of pursuing union certification through a broken NLRB election process. However, due to the national attention and support that the campaign received, now more Amazon workers than ever are thinking about the possibility and potential of organizing. Hopefully, the campaign in Bessemer will encourage unions and workers throughout the company to consider alternative organizing strategies. 

Despite the valiant efforts of the workers, Amazon?—?which has more resources than nearly any company in the world?—?was able to blunt their momentum through its anti-union campaign. As expected, management engaged in the usual one-on-one and captive audience meetings to persuade workers to vote ?“no.” But management went further, using a barrage of email, texting and social media posts and even luring unhappy workers to quit with cash buyouts, messages posted in bathroom stalls, and changing the timing of traffic signals to gain advantage. The loss confirms what many of us in the labor movement already know?—?the balance of power is completely out of whack in this country, with big corporations twisting the rules to stay in charge and keep workers’ voices silent.

But this is hardly the last word on organizing Amazon. Management’s aggressive campaign illustrated to the whole country the need to fundamentally change the rules of the game so that workers everywhere can more easily form unions. The pressure on elected officials to enact long overdue labor law reform should increase.

The ?“BAmazon union” drive received more press and attention from the public than any other union election in recent memory. The focus on the campaign helped bring increased scrutiny to the reality of working conditions at Amazon?—?in Bessemer, across the country and around the world. Critical, in-depth reporting on the inner workings of Amazon increased as the drive gained national interest. For example, in February, The New York Times Magazine covered the community and labor organizing taking place in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, an important area to Amazon because of its proximity to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), has run several excellent exposes of Amazon’s anti-union conduct, including a March 9 storythat reported: ?“Many of the 5,805 employees in Bessemer …receive four or five emails a day from the company to discourage unionization. …The company has pressed its anti-union case with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls.” Labor Notes has already published more than 20 articles about working conditions and labor organizing at Amazon, and there were dozens of reports in all major news outlets leading up to the vote count.

Public support from other labor unions, community groups and elected officials has also been impressive. On February 20, and again on March 20, dozens of actions took place nationwide in support of the Bessemer workers. The call for those actions went out from the Southern Workers Assembly, an organization founded in 2012 by veteran labor and Black Workers for Justice organizers. On March 2, the organization issued a statement summarizing its view of the importance of the organizing in Bessemer:

“The Bessemer workers launched their campaign at a time of increasing repressive government and the rise of a racist and divisive social movement that threatened to turn back the clock on basic democratic rights. Like the 1955, Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott during a similar repressive and divisive period, the Bessemer Amazon workers led by the 80-percent Black and women majority and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), stepped forward.”

Why is it so hard to form a union? 

The attention to Bessemer, and the extent that Amazon has interfered in the workers’ decision, has illustrated our broken labor relations system. Free choice by workers to form a union has turned into a corporate obstacle course where workers are subjected to both one-on-one and captive audience meetings, along with constant pressure via email, texts, social media, and physical postings?—?even in company bathrooms. 

A far simpler way for workers to gain union certification and their collective bargaining rights is through a procedure called ?“card check.” If a simple majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union to be their representative, then their employer would be compelled to recognize and negotiate with the union that workers chose. This provision was part of the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, died during President Obama’s first term. Unfortunately, card check isn’t part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) now pending in Congress. Although the PRO Act passed the House with bipartisan support, unless the Senate changes the rules around the filibuster, the bill faces an uphill battle.

On February 28, President Biden gave a powerful endorsement of the union effort in Bessemer. While not mentioning Amazon by name, his support for the union drive couldn’t have been clearer. This was an unprecedented move. Labor activists have long dreamed of a contemporary president mimicking what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reputed to have said in the 1930s: ?“The President wants you to join a union.” But it turns out that this history is actually a myth. Roosevelt never said such words in a fireside chat or in writing. John L. Lewis, the Mineworker leader and other CIO organizers just repeated it over and over until it became part of labor folklore. Biden’s speech was a reflection of the debt he owes to the labor movement for his narrow win in November 2020, and of the growing favorability towards unions?—?48% of workers now say they would join a union if given the opportunity. 

RWDSU’s effort at Bessemer was unexpected. It appears that not even its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was aware of the drive until the NLRB made the election filing public on November 20, 2020. However, successfully organizing workers at a company like Amazon with 1.3million employees and hundreds of fulfillment centers, sortation centers and delivery stations in the United States will require the massive resources of far more than one union. It also will necessitate the internal organizing efforts of tens of thousands of workers in networks like Amazonians United, which describes itself as: ?“A movement of workers fighting to end management’s domination in our workplaces. We organize with our coworkers to fight together for the dignified lives we all deserve.”

Internal organizing alone will still be insufficient. Community support is essential to create a supportive context for workers to take on their employer. Amazon workers received strong support from worker and community coalitions like the Southern Workers Assembly, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the political support of elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and many more. While the national support from celebrities and political leaders is welcome, it’s even more important to have the community’s civic and religious leaders and local elected officials in your corner.

Amazon’s business model is particularly challenging for organizers. With its inventory system and use of state of the art robots, a job that took 60 to 75 minutes can now be done in 15 minutes, and its warehouses can now hold 40 percent more inventory. The ?“random chaos” that Amazon uses to fulfill consumer orders creates built-in redundancy in its distribution network. Worker organization and actions at one isolated facility can be countered by shifting logistics to run work around that facility or simply closing it altogether. There’s nothing new about companies avoiding a problem union or an upstart workforce?—?UPS and other shippers have been doing it for decades. It will take many more drives like that in Bessemer?—?at points all along the Amazon delivery chain?—?to give workers the confidence and means to fight for their rights and win good wages and working conditions. 

None of these caveats should detract from the significance of this drive. Bessemer takes its name from the steel production process pioneered in Birmingham, England?—?the home of the modern steel industry and the name of the Alabama city next door which has historically been a mining and steel production center with considerable union density. While RWDSU was guarded about the degree of internal organization, there is a considerable organic connection between its sizable poultry processing membership in Alabama (about 6,000 members) and the largely African-American Amazon Bessemer workforce. To RWDSU’s credit, the organizing drive ranks among the largest single organizing efforts in the history of the American South.

Going forward, we are likely to see more unions joining in the effort to organize Amazon. The Teamsters have already begun building rank and file awareness with its UPS membership about the threat that Amazon poses to its contract standards with the hope that members will assist a broad campaign. It’s already resulted in local unions hearing from Amazon workers interested in joining. For many years now, the Service Employee International Union has supported the Awood Center which assists immigrants organizing at Amazon in the Twin Cities region. Now, RWDSU has entered the field in Alabama and gained many organizing leads at other facilities to follow up on. Aside from unions, Athena?—?a network of over 50 non-profits, worker centers and labor unions?—?is playing a high-profile role in the policy and legislative arenas advocating for Amazon workers and the communities impacted by its business. And Amazonians United has emerged as a burgeoning network of in-plant organizers dedicated to building strong workplace committees. A confluence of all of these forces, and much more, will be required to seriously take on Amazon.

The workplace focus is key. And the newfound focus on organizing in the South will remain crucial. Saladin Muhammad, a retired UE organizer and leader of the Southern Workers Assembly, commented on this dynamic on March 11: 

“There is a recognition that the South needs to be organized as a part of building a stronger labor movement throughout the US. For a long time, the confidence of the working class in the South and the effort to organize has been very weak. Attempts to unionize the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi, are indications of organized labor’s recognition of the importance of organizing core industries in the South. This is a recognition that has not really existed probably since Operation Dixie in the late 1940s. …I think it is drawing even more attention than the Volkswagen and the Nissan campaigns. It has the opportunity to deepen the struggle around race as a part of the working-class struggle. I think there are some real possibilities with this campaign.” 

Despite losing the election, there needs to be continued focus on building solidarity with the workers in Bessemer. Management should be held accountable to the promises it made to deter support for collective bargaining and the key union leaders need to be protected from any retaliation for their efforts to support the union. RWDSU will hopefully stick with the workers in Bessemer and create a durable organization inside the facility. Then, building on its first effort, it could seek a second certification election which history shows have a much better success rate. 

Solidarity on a national level was impressive. Organizations like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution that stepped up during the campaign will be needed to help connect the Amazon workers’ struggles to other movements for justice. 

And groups like DSA will be crucial to supporting young cadres who take jobs at Amazon and want to help organize from within, either through Amazonians United or a specific union. The setback in Bessemer shows that without deep internal organizing and base-building, no amount of external agitation and support can overcome the power of a corporate behemoth like Amazon. Workers need to be steeled in the experience of confronting their supervisors on the warehouse floor, marching on the boss in the front office?—?and walking out when necessary?—?in order to prepare themselves to win a battle for union recognition. It is poetic that on the day before votes began to be counted in Bessemer, workers at an Amazon Chicago-area delivery station, ?“DIL 3” in Gage Park, staged a one day walk-out against the new ?“megacycle” schedules being imposed on delivery station employees.

If we are serious about organizing at Amazon, we have to redefine what ?“winning” means. If it’s about one election or even one contract, we are in for some serious disappointment. Instead, it must be about the uprising of tens of thousands of workers supported by unions and community groups and backed up by elected officials willing to use the levers of government to the workers’ advantage. 

One concrete step towards building that movement would be better coordination and unity among the logistics and transportation unions, especially the Teamsters, the longshore unions, and the railroad craft unions. Better results can also be achieved by strengthening the cooperation between in-plant worker organizing by groups like Amazonians United, formations like the Southern Workers Assembly, and the multiple labor unions that are prepared to assist. As the political and regulatory context for Amazon evolves, the workers’ movement should also anticipate?—?and where possible lead?—?major structural reforms to Amazon’s business model. 

The lopsided defeat of the Bessemer workers’ organizing effort is not the first setback for labor at Amazon, and it won’t be the last. The lessons from Amazon organizing initiatives?—?including the Bessemer drive and workplace actions?—?should be carefully analyzed and catalogued in a searchable format for future reference. As Amazon workers’ level of militancy and organization grows, our challenge is to make sure that each action strengthens the movement and builds workers’ confidence in the power of collective action. That’s what inspires workers to ?“ditch the fear” and expand their on-the-job support for unions.

Despite the outcome at Bessemer, the organizing campaign has already made a major contribution to public perceptions about Amazon and the urgent need for labor law reform. Amazon workers’ struggle for dignity and justice is only getting started. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike. 

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 


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Union defeat at Amazon warehouse turns spotlight to the Hill

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The battle over organized labor’s clout will be focused more squarely on Capitol Hill now that workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama have soundly defeated an effort to form a union there.

Supporters and opponents of legislation that would significantly bolster unions were refining their arguments on Friday in light of the outcome in the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, which was a bitter defeat for the nationally watched drive to establish the first union at the e-commerce giant.

Leaders of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, along with their supporters, accused Amazon of unfairly interfering with the vote and touted the legislation as a way to level the playing field between business and labor.

“Without knowing it, [Amazon is] igniting a movement to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and return workers in Alabama, Michigan and all corners of this land to their rightful place as drivers of broadly shared prosperity that represents America at its best,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said.

Opponents of the legislation, also called the PRO Act, were just as quick to find justification for their position in the Bessemer outcome.

“Labor bosses should understand that when workers vote against forming a union, it signifies that the arguments made by organizers were not compelling or persuasive,” said Kristen Swearingen, chair of the business-backed Coalition for a Democratic Workplace said. 

“The PRO Act, which is also supported by the same union bosses seeking to organize businesses across the country, would hurt small businesses as they struggle to survive during the pandemic and strip employees of their privacy and vital rights to make a choice on their own if they want to join a union,” Swearingen said.

The fact that President Joe Biden included the PRO Act in the $2 trillion infrastructure plan he proposed last week will keep a spotlight on the issue. 

Labor leaders had hoped the time was ripe for a major victory in Alabama, amid an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, concerns about the growing economic clout of Amazon and with pro-union Democrats in charge of the White House and Congress, who lent their support.

But workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer voted 1,798-738 against joining the union. Nearly 6,000 workers were eligible and roughly more than half cast ballots.

The union says it plans to challenge the results and ask the National Labor Relations Board to consider setting the vote aside, alleging Amazon “created an atmosphere” that interfered “with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

“We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election,” the union said in a statement.

Amazon battled the organizing effort but denied any interference or wrongdoing in the election.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company wrote in a blog post following the vote tally. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us.”

Despite what looked like propitious timing for organizing the Amazon facility, the union faced an uphill battle in a traditionally union-averse state like Alabama. And the broader headwinds that labor has fought for decades, with a sharp drop in private-sector membership, apparently didn’t dissipate.

Among other things, the company touted its health care benefits and $15 hourly minimum wage to argue a union wasn’t needed.

The vote spanned seven weeks, beginning in February, and the NLRB spent nearly two weeks tallying the ballots, after disputes over ineligible voters slowed the process. Around 500 of the 3,215 ballots cast in the election were challenged and nearly 400 of the objections were raised by Amazon, according to a union spokesperson.

The union drive caught the attention of Washington, D.C., and put significant pressure on Biden to voice his support for workers exercising their collective bargaining rights. 

Biden eventually released a 2 1/2-minute video in early March backing the workers’ right to organize — which was billed by union leaders as “the most pro-union statement from a president” in history — although he omitted Amazon’s name from his remarks.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Biden would wait “for the NLRB to finish its process and declare a result to make a further comment.”

“But I will say broadly … we know it’s very difficult for workers to make the choice to form a union,” Psaki said, plugging the PRO Act.

The legislation “would give more workers the ability to organize and bargain collectively with their employees,” Psaki said. “That’s a fundamental priority for him, something he’s fought for throughout his career.”

As the vote in Bessemer was under way, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union brought workers to Capitol Hill to testify at a Senate Budget Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who later went to the town to rally support for the union.

Jennifer Bates, a worker at the Bessemer fulfillment center, told lawmakers during the hearing in March that she was required to go to “union education meetings” hosted by the company, sometimes “several times a week,” that pushed anti-union messages. She said management put “anti-union signs and messages” all around the facility and even sent messages to workers’ phones.

Some of that activity would be prohibited under the PRO Act. 

Republicans and employers staunchly oppose the legislation, saying it would make businesses less competitive, and it’s unlikely to ever garner the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. The fact that the bill would preempt state right-to-work laws like the one in Alabama, rendering them invalid, is particularly controversial.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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On the Picket Line With Striking Miners

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Last Thursday, around 1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, went on strike. According to the union, the United Mine Workers of America, a tentative bargaining agreement has now been reached with the company, but workers must still vote on whether or not to ratify it. 

In order to cover this important strike and spread these workers’ stories, we’ve teamed up with our brothers-in-arms Jacob Morrison, a union organizer and cohost of the outstanding Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only weekly labor radio talk show, and the incredible musician Lee Bains III of The Glory Fires. Jacob and Lee went down to the Warrior Met Coal picket line this weekend to talk with striking miners, play some music, and show solidarity. In this special episode, we’ve compiled clips from Lee’s live performance as well as Jacob’s interviews on the picket line and at the local UMWA union hall.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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McGraw Hill Rejects Calls to Stop Charging Its Freelancers a Fee in Order to Get Paid

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The revelation that McGraw Hill (MH), a multibillion-dollar educational publishing company, has begun charging its freelancers and independent contractors a fee in order to get paid has prompted a wave of public outrage, along with a letter from advocacy groups demanding that the company end the practice. The company’s response: No. 

Two weeks ago, In These Times reported on the existence of the 2.2% fee that the company began charging last October. The fee applies to freelancers and independent contractors who submit invoices through the company’s invoicing system, called Fieldglass?—?but because that is the only way to invoice the company, it amounts to a mandatory fee that workers must pay in order to get what the company owes. The company calls it an ?“administrative fee” levied in order to ?“cover the cost of third-party vendors that help us ensure that each contractor meets the requirements needed to be classified as an Independent Contractor under various state laws and IRS regulations.” But it is, in effect, an across-the-board mandatory pay cut for all of the workers, a brazen and unusual move by the company to shift its normal administrative costs onto the backs of its freelancers. 

The story caused an uproar among the wider community of people who do freelance editorial work for a living. On social media, the fee was referred to as ?“incredible,” ?“utter crap,” and ?“bullshit.” The existence of the fee, which was not widely known, even caused mortification inside McGraw Hill itself. ?“The fee is an embarrassment. We’ve always been good to our freelancers so I was very surprised to learn we’d be charging a fee to process their invoices. Taking a cut from their pay is petty and makes us look bad,” said one MH employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear over professional repercussions. ?“I really hope the company reconsiders and rolls back this policy. The invoicing system is already a pain to use.”

On March 30, representatives of more than a dozen groups representing editorial and freelance workers, including the National Writers Union, Freelancers Union and the Authors Guild, sent a letter to the company demanding ?“that you immediately cease this inequitable practice that amounts to a wage cut at an unprecedented time… and reimburse all freelancers who have already been charged this outrageous fee.” The letter called the practice ?“shocking,” and noted that MH’s digital revenue has been growing even as the company shifted costs onto its freelance work force. 

The company was unmoved. David Stafford, the SVP and general counsel of MH, sent a reply letter on April 1 saying that ?“The 2.2% fee offsets the incremental costs we now incur to ensure proper labor force classification. We communicated the fee in advance to our independent contractors and they agreed to pay it.” 

The letter also includes a common rationalization used by ?“gig economy” companies that seek to lower labor costs by using more freelancers and fewer full time employees: ?“Many of the independent contractors we engage already have full-time jobs and the work they do for us provides them with additional income. The rate of independent contractors returning to do work with us is very high and during the pandemic, the percentage of independent contractors who had more than one project with us increased. The high return rate implies satisfaction among the independent contractors who work with us.” This is an example of the gig economy’s underlying sleight of hand?—?to force workers to take up more and more freelance work out of economic necessity, and then use the fact that they are doing that work as proof that they’re satisfied with the arrangement. 

The groups that sent the complaint letter are unsatisfied. Mary Rasenberger, the CEO of the Authors Guild, said that the fee itself is ?“exploitative, and an outrage,” and that it sets a ?“dangerous precedent.” Rafael Espinal, the head of the Freelancers Union, called the company’s response ?“tone-deaf.”

“The simple fact that freelancers have agreed to these terms is not evidence that they are happy with the system, it’s proof that they feel they have no recourse when presented with usurious terms such as this,” Espinal said. ?“It is a matter of course that corporations bear the administrative and payroll costs associated with their employees. There is absolutely no reason they should not bear the same responsibility when hiring freelancers.”

Advocates are unanimous in rejecting the company’s assertion that charging a fee in order to get paid is either standard or defensible. ?“In no way is this a common or justified business practice,” said Larry Bleiberg, the president of the Society of American Travel Writers and a signatory of the letter. ?“It’s a scheme dreamed up by his company to squeeze out extra revenue. I’m just disappointed that a publisher that claims to support writers, photographers and graphic artists?—?and profits from their work?—?would so shamelessly try to take advantage of them.”

The company appears to have made the calculation that the revenue it takes in by charging freelancers in order to get paid is worth the bad publicity it has received thus far. There is serious money at stake for both sides. Were it to become common, the practice of shifting administrative costs away from employers and onto freelancers would constitute a permanent decline in wages for independent contractors?—?another incremental step downward for workers in an era when full-time employment is becoming harder and harder to find. The National Writers Union, which represents freelance writers, is actively seeking MH freelancers who have been charged the fee, in order to organize them to fight the practice. 

“I understand being hesitant to reach out,” said NWU president Larry Goldbetter, ?“but they can make all the difference here.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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