mykeystrokes.com

"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“Obama Moves On Paid Sick Leave”: What Exactly Do Republicans Want To Do For Workers?

It’s Labor Day, but some of us are still working, like yours truly and the president:

President Obama rallied union workers here Monday, announcing a new executive order that will require federal contractors to offer employees up to seven paid sick days a year, a move that the White House said could benefit more than 300,000 workers.

Obama made the announcement during a Labor Day speech as he continues a year-long effort to pressure Congress to approve legislation that would provide similar benefits for millions of private-sector workers. The president highlighted a Massachusetts law, approved by voters in November, that provides employees with up to 40 hours of sick leave per year. That law went into effect in July.

My guess is that Republicans will just ignore this latest action, not because they aren’t opposed to it but because there’s little they have to gain by making a fuss about it. Because it’s limited to federal contractors, most of whom do quite well suckling at government’s teat, they aren’t going to hear a whole lot of complaining from employers about it. And mandating paid sick leave is spectacularly popular: in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 85 percent of those surveyed said they supported it, including 77 percent of Republicans.

Like other actions Obama has taken on labor rules, this is a limited version of a policy he’d like to see adopted nationally. Obama has advocated a national law mandating that workers get paid sick leave, and there is such a bill in Congress that Democrats have introduced, called the Healthy Families Act. But Republicans have no intention of allowing it to come to a vote. While there’s nothing much Obama can do about that, he is allowed to set rules for federal contractors, a power he has employed before. Because these are executive orders, a future Republican president could undo them, though there’s no guarantee he or she would; on one hand, the GOP is opposed to pretty much any expansion of worker rights, while on the other hand, they might decide rolling these rules back isn’t worth the bad publicity.

There are two basic questions at play here, one more philosophical and one more practical. The first is whether government has any role at all to play in setting the terms of the relationship between employers and employees. While few conservatives would say outright that the answer to that question is no, in practice they oppose almost every regulation of that relationship that exists. For instance, many conservatives don’t just oppose raising the minimum wage; they also say there should be no minimum wage at all, because the free market should set wage levels. If there’s an employer who wants to pay somebody a dollar an hour to do some job, and there’s someone willing to do it for that little, why should government get in their way?

You might think I’m caricaturing conservative views, but there is an entire movement in conservative legal circles seeking to return to a turn-of-the-century conception of government’s ability to regulate the workplace, one that prevailed before we had laws on things such as overtime, workplace safety and child labor (Brian Beutler recently profiled this movement).

The second question is, if we accept that government can set some work rules, what should they be? Even the most liberal advocate wouldn’t argue that any expansion of worker rights is necessarily a good idea; nobody’s suggesting that we set the minimum wage at $100 an hour or force all employers to wash their employees’ cars. But the kind of thing that’s on the table now, like paid sick leave, would only bring us in line with the rest of the industrialized world, where basic worker protections aren’t so controversial. As Democrats always mention, the United States is the only developed country with no legally mandated paid sick leave.

And just like on the minimum wage, where there’s little or no action at the federal level, states and cities are stepping in. As of now there are four states that mandate some form of paid sick leave — California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut — in addition to a number of big and small cities, including New York, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and Seattle. As long as there’s no federal sick leave law, activists and liberal legislators will keep pushing for it in more and more places, and given its popularity, they’ll probably succeed more often than they’ll fail.

Most everything on the Democratic agenda for workplaces — a higher minimum wage, expanded overtime, paid sick leave — is extremely popular, which is one of the reasons Republicans would rather focus on something else. And they’re smart enough to know that if they don’t come out in thunderous opposition, the proposals will get a lot less media attention, which means they’re less likely to play a significant role in voters’ decision-making. But when the question “What exactly do you want to do for workers?” gets asked in the presidential campaign, as it surely will, at least the Democrats have an answer.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, September 7, 2015

September 7, 2015 Posted by | Labor Day, Paid Sick Leave, Workers | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Right Question To Ask About Government”: What Steps Does Government Take To Empower Citizens And Expand Their Rights?

Many conservatives and most libertarians argue that every new law or regulation means that government is adding to the sum total of oppression and reducing the freedom of individuals.

This way of looking at things greatly simplifies the political debate. Domestic issues are boiled down to the question of whether someone is “pro-government” or “anti-government.”

Alas for the over-simplifiers, it’s an approach that misreads the nature of the choices that regulators, politicians and citizens regularly face. It ignores that the market system itself could not exist without the rules that government establishes, beginning with statutes protecting private property and also the various measures against the use of force and fraud in business and individual transactions.

More important, it overlooks the ways in which the steps government takes often empower citizens and expand their rights. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of work.

The run-up to Labor Day this year brought a spate of news articles and commentaries on the actions of the National Labor Relations Board and other government agencies to strengthen the rights of workers and enhance their bargaining power relative to employers.

Last week, Noam Scheiber offered an important account in the New York Times of how the Obama administration has been “pursuing an aggressive campaign to restore protections for workers that have been eroded by business activism, conservative governance and the evolution of the economy in recent decades.”

Among the milestones Scheiber cited was a recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision upholding an Obama-era rule providing minimum-wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health-care workers. They certainly felt empowered by government, not oppressed. So did the employees of contractors and franchises who were granted collective bargaining rights by the National Labor Relations Board.

Fast-food chains provide the obvious example of how loopholes related to new work arrangements and franchise agreements can let employers out of their traditional obligations. In the case of purveyors of hamburgers and chicken tenders, the parent companies set all sorts of detailed requirements for how these businesses should operate — and then turn around and claim that when it comes to workers’ rights, their franchises are utterly independent.

One of the most fascinating struggles, still ongoing, is over new regulations that the Labor Department is trying to establish to ensure that those who give investment advice to people with 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts base their judgments on the best interests of their clients. Along with defined-contribution retirement plans, they involve some $13 trillion in investments.

The Labor Department proposal would require investment advisers to abide by a “fiduciary” standard — meaning that the best-interest-of-the-client yardstick should be their sole criterion in offering counsel to clients. If this seems obvious, that’s not what the current law requires. As Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview, the standard now is only that an investment be suitable. “What the hell is ‘suitable’?” Perez asked, noting that he would hope for more than just “suitable” advice from his doctor.

The issue is whether some investment advisers might offer conflicted guidance influenced by “backdoor payments and hidden fees often buried in fine print,” as the Labor Department put it in a document explaining why change is needed.

“I don’t believe that folks who provide advice wake up with malice in their hearts,” Perez said. But he added that it is only natural that advisers might lean toward investments from which they can also benefit. “Surprise, surprise, if you have four or five products that are suitable and one gives you a commission, guess where you will go?” The new rules, which are being heavily contested by parts of the financial industry, are an attempt to realign the incentives, Perez argued.

The investment-rule battle is a near-perfect example of how the government is plainly promoting free markets — what’s more market-oriented than building an investment portfolio? — but is also trying to make sure that the rules regulating the investments tilt toward the interests of the individual putting money at risk.

As long as there are markets, government will have to establish rules determining how they operate. These necessarily affect the interests of market participants. Many of the choices are not between more or less government. They are about whether what government does provides greater benefit to workers or employers, management or unions, individual investors or investment firms.

“Which side are you on?” This question from the old union song is the right question to ask about government.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 6, 2015

September 7, 2015 Posted by | Government, Labor Day, Workers Rights | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Workers Are At The Mercy Of Markets”: The Great Recession Shifted Bargaining Power To Employers

The questions hanging over Labor Day 2014 are whether and when the United States gets a pay raise. Ever since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the job market has been in a state of heartbreaking weakness. But the worst seems to be over. As Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve Board, recently noted, monthly increases in payroll jobs have averaged 230,000 this year, up from 190,000 in 2012 and 2013. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.2 percent in July from 7.3 percent a year earlier and a peak of 10 percent in October 2009.

Gains are also reflected in cheerier (or less gloomy) popular attitudes, says public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. A year ago, Gallup found that 29 percent of workers feared being laid off; that’s now 19 percent. (Millennials are exceptions; their unemployment fears rose slightly.) In March 2010, 85 percent of Americans judged jobs “difficult to find,” a Pew survey reported. In July this year, the figure was 62 percent. Although confidence hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels, there’s been a genuine improvement in mood, says Bowman.

What’s missing are wage increases. Since late 2009, hourly earnings have risen at an annual rate of about 2 percent, but when corrected for inflation, “real” wage increases vanish, reports the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. The EPI says that median hourly wages were actually 0.4 percent lower in the first half of 2014 than in 2007. Using a different inflation adjustment (the “deflator” for personal consumption expenditures instead of the consumer price index) produces a 1.7 percent gain over the same period, says Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute. Either way, wages are basically flat.

We should do better.

The Great Recession shifted bargaining power to employers. With jobs scarce, “workers just take what they can get,” says economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. Companies have controlled costs through layoffs, skimpy wage increases and greater reliance on independent contractors, jobs which often pay less and provide fewer fringe benefits. The unwritten post-World War II labor contract — in retreat since the late 1970s — finally expired. That contract presumed that large companies would provide workers with stable jobs and “real” annual increases in wages and fringe benefits.

Forget it. Wage increases aren’t guaranteed, and longtime workers are regularly dismissed. “There really is no security in the labor market,” says former Fed economist Stephen Oliner, now at AEI. On the labor market’s edges, firms like Uber (an on-call transportation company) and TaskRabbit (an online service that allows customers to solicit bids for specific jobs) have created digital markets for freelance workers. The temporary jobs provide cash and flexibility — but not much certainty or security.

Too many workers have chased too few jobs, weakening wages. But now the pendulum may be swinging in workers’ direction. Some economists contend that it already has. Two bits of information are routinely cited: the unexpectedly fast fall in unemployment; and the rise in reported job openings to 4.7 million in June, more than double the recession low and slightly higher than the pre-recession peak.

The worry is that the growing supply of openings and the shrinking pool of available workers might trigger an inflationary wage-price spiral. This concern seems premature. Other economists, including Yellen, have argued that there’s still substantial labor market “slack” (surplus workers wanting jobs), keeping a lid on wage gains. Their evidence seems stronger. Consider the U-6 jobless rate (U-6 includes the officially unemployed, discouraged workers and part-timers who want full-time jobs). In July, it was 12.2 percent, down from a monthly peak of 17.2 percent, though still higher than 2007’s 8.3 percent, before the recession.

But suppose we are nearing an inflection point, where worker supply and demand are in closer balance. That certainly wouldn’t be bad. Workers’ bargaining power would improve with tighter markets: markets where businesses have to pay a bit more to keep employees; where younger workers might have competing job offers; and where someone could quit with a reasonable expectation of finding another job. (Note that unions aren’t a plausible alternative to markets because they represent only 7 percent of private workers. The minimum wage suffers from a similar scale problem.)

A wage explosion seems unlikely; companies were too traumatized by the Great Recession to let costs get out of hand. Even in 2007, wage increases — unadjusted for inflation — were running only at about a 3.5 percent annual rate.

What’s ultimately at stake is the Great Recession’s lasting effect on labor markets. Are they in the process of reverting to their modern role, promoting steadier employment and higher living standards? Or has there been a major break from the past, ushering in a harsher, more arbitrary system whose outlines are still faint? On this Labor Day, the verdict is unclear.

 

By: Robert Samuelson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 31, 2014

September 1, 2014 Posted by | Great Recession, Labor Day, Wages | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Happy Labor Day, Mom”: A Harsh Labor Market Where Women Were Regularly Punished For Not Being Men

I know this sounds absurd—it is absurd—but for some odd reason Labor Day reminds me of my mother. She was a school teacher, and I think she would have a good laugh to learn that so-called “education reformers” are accusing school teachers of being too powerful and protected. My father, who was himself a long-time member of our local school board, would probably snort at the ignorance of highly educated experts.

Together, they could set the record straight on education from the facts of their own lives. They fell in love when they were young and optimistic and talented. This was the 1920s when women had just won the right to vote, and both were newly graduated from four-year colleges—the very first in my mother’s family. My father completed graduate work in chemistry and was hired as a researcher by a Philadelphia manufacturer where he later invented useful products.

They faced one obstacle in their promising lives. My mother had to sign a teaching contract with a local school district in western Pennsylvania that would prohibit her from getting married. This crude violation of a young woman’s civil rights was commonly enforced around the country. Years later, I learned that my wife’s mother had to do the same thing to get a teaching job in Iowa. Recently, I reread the steamy love letters my parents wrote to one another during that school year of frustrated desire. I blushed for them.

At the Thanksgiving break, they abandoned abstinence and broke the school contract. But secretly. On the long holiday, they eloped to West Virginia and got married there. They told no one. My parents, I should add, were no-nonsense conservative Republicans, not given to reckless adventure or inflammatory political statements. I did think of my mother as an assertive proto-feminist. In retirement, both became Democrats because they thought Goldwater was a dangerous crackpot. In 1972, my dad declared early for George McGovern, while Mom held out for Shirley Chisholm.

Keeping the secret of their marriage may have been done to protect her eligibility for many more years as a teacher. It worked. Toward the end of her long life (she died three days short of 100) my mother got a letter each year from Ohio governors, congratulating her on being the oldest living recipient in Ohio’s teacher retirement system.

I tell this intimate story to make a point that the latter-day reformers do not seem to grasp. They have left out the human dimensions of a harsh labor market where women were regularly punished for not being men. School teachers from the beginnings of America’s public schools have been vulnerable to blatant exploitation—lower wages and harsher terms—and they have been exploited. The jobs could be filled by an abundance of educated single young women in need of incomes. Married women might have babies in the middle of the school year—an inconvenience to school administrators—so married women were banned. Similar gender biases affected nursing and other caring occupations, and to some degree still do.

The fundamental power shift for school teachers did not occur until the 1960s, when frustrated teachers rebelled against traditional school systems run top-down by superintendents and principals. As a young reporter in Louisville, Kentucky, I witnessed one of the early skirmishes in 1962.

One day I got a phone call from an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers who blithely announced that AFT intended to shut down the Louisville schools the following week with a citywide strike. I thought he was joking. AFT was based in East Coast big cities and had no more than fifty members among Louisville’s 2,000 teachers. The National Education Association (NEA) dominated most states those days, and it was run by and for the administrators, not rank-and-file teachers.

The AFT’s strike in Louisville was like a thunderclap—teachers did walk off and virtually shut down the system. Teachers were fed up. They were demanding a stronger voice and power in school affairs and school politics. In rural states like Kentucky, the poorest counties were frequently dominated by matriarchal political machines—women superintendents who controlled more jobs in their county than the men in county offices. The NEA got the message and swiftly adjusted. It became a full-fledged labor union like AFT. Instead of fronting for old-style political bosses, both organizations now try to speak for the interests of teachers and to defend them against political intrusions and other abuses.

These are the relevant facts that self-appointed billionaire reformers skip past. By demonizing the teachers unions and denouncing the tenure laws that protect teachers from arbitrary political reprisals, the do-good foundations have unwittingly cast themselves as a malevolent Daddy Warbucks ready to bury their opposition with tons of money.The Gates Foundation and some others do seem to be belatedly backing away from obvious mistakes, but the reform engine still threatens to undermine the common public school in favor of a deeply fractured system of sectarian and secular private sponsors claiming public money.

Impatient hedge-fund billionaires do not attempt to conceal their contempt for the rest of us. They are used to making money—fast—with no excuses for dawdlers. Witness what they have done to large segments of the overall economy. Education does not thrive in those conditions, because there is no standard of perfection in any schoolhouse that can survive brutal suppression of uniformity imposed by clumsy testing. A successful school not only makes room for dissent. It constantly nourishes it.

Of course, I am biased. But I think that was my mother’s teaching style. She taught first grade in an “inner city” neighborhood of Cincinnati where the students were not poor black kids but white kids from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. They shared many of the same handicaps. Mom developed her own theories on how to teach reading to such children. It involved hand-eye coordination and other elements I could not follow. I have no proof that she succeeded, but I have a hunch she drove the principal nuts.

 

By: Wiliam Greider, The Nation, August 30, 2014

September 1, 2014 Posted by | Labor Day, Teachers, Women | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

%d bloggers like this: