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“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

“A Ferocious Corporate Overlord”: No Surprise; Trump Is A Union Buster At His Own Hotel

Their boss is famous for firing people with merciless gusto. So you can imagine it took just as much chutzpah for the workers at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas to rally today and demand the right to unionize and to gain respect on the job.

While the Donald seeks election to a new post, roughly 500 workers at the hotel are focusing on a very different vote: They’ve been pushing to form a union for months, and are trying to snatch a bit of Trump’s campaign spotlight this summer to call on him “Make America Great Again” right on his home turf. As a recent ad for the unionization campaign proclaims: “We think that working for Mr. Trump in Las Vegas is a chance to make our lives better…but only if he pays us the same wages and benefits as everyone else working on the Strip.”

Of course, what do they expect from the man who’s built a brand for himself as a ferocious corporate overlord? His attitude on the campaign trail is as ruthless as his management style, laced with racial invective and almost self-caricaturing jingoism. (Not to mention hypocrisy—just ask the many low-wage immigrant laborers he has exploited over the years). But amid the buffoonery, the local hospitality union, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, is pressing serious charges of labor violations and denouncing his operations as a bastion of union busting in an otherwise union town.

In fact, the nearby Las Vegas strip and downtown area have a roughly 95 percent union density. Local 226, a Nevada affiliate of UNITE HERE, recently sealed several multi-year contracts covering tens of thousands of local food-service workers, housekeepers, and other hospitality staff, featuring wages and benefits topping $20 an hour, full health and retirement benefits, and workplace-grievance procedures. Not surprisingly, Trump’s staff is heavily comprised of immigrants whose terms of work lag behind union hospitality workers in benefits, wages, and job security.

About 86 percent of workers in the planned bargaining unit have signed “Union Yes” cards. UNITE HERE is seeking neutrality from the employer and a straight card-check majority vote for unionization, rather than plodding through the NLRB ballot process. Nonetheless, according to the union, the management has run a stealth campaign to persuade hotel staff that organizing is not in their best interest.

According to NLRB charges filed by the union, five hotel workers were “unfairly suspended for exercising their legal right to wear a union button and organize their coworkers” last year (they were eventually reinstated with back pay, along with an agreement to post workers rights publicly and not interfere with future organizing). Last June, the union filed new charges alleging the management “violated the federally protected rights of workers to participate in union activities” including “incidents of alleged physical assault, verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats by management.” The workers charged the managers with blocking organizers from distributing pro-union literature in the workers’ dining room, while stealthily allowing anti-union activists to campaign during work hours.

Sebastian Corcordel, who came to the United States from Romania over a decade ago and has been working as a server at Trump International since it opened in 2008, hopes a union can provide the job security he feels his workplace has long lacked, along with long-overdue raises. The resistance facing the campaign, in his view, underscores how badly the staff needs basic protections and grievance procedures at work.

“I see [this] with myself, and with my coworkers. They try to [apply] pressure: Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t go with the union,” he says of the management, pointing to a flurry of anti-union propaganda flyers and posters. Some coworkers are wary of the organizing drive, he concedes: “Some of them are very very afraid to be a part of the union…[but] It’s their right, and nobody can retaliate against them.” And when others criticize his support for the campaign, the proud naturalized citizen replies, “This is my right. Like the right to vote.”

The Trump workers build on a legacy of social movements on the Strip. In the 1960s, Las Vegas was a battlefield for civil-rights struggles in the push to desegregate casinos. In later years racial conflicts would erupt and intersect periodically with labor strife, as militant black working-class communities formed the backbone of the gambling industry. Under the leadership of former hotel worker turned union chief Hattie Canty, UNITE HERE’s multiethnic coalition staged massive strikes and won contracts that set a remarkably high bar for labor rights in the post-industrial Sunbelt economy. Christopher Johnson on BlackPast.org notes: “By 1996, room maids could earn approximately $9.25 an hour; more than double the average wage for hotel maids in other cities. For Hattie Canty, as with most unionized workers, these wages had enabled a middle class lifestyle.”

But Vegas’s good fortunes are fleeting, The recession hit the low-wage workforce hard, and unemployment spiked among Nevada’s black and Latino populations.

As a core immigrant job sector, the hospitality industry has actually managed to rebound somewhat, compared to another major industry for low-wage immigrants, construction, making the Vegas hotels that much more vital to the Latino community’s long-term economic recovery. Still, both industries are rife with occupational hazards, abuse and discrimination. Embattled unions like Local 226 are holding the line in Vegas against the brand of neoliberal hegemony Trump champions.

Trump’s election platform promises the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants and sealing the borders, supposedly to protect American workers. But Corcordel scoffs at the notion of immigrant workers’ somehow taking more than they give to the economy—particularly the chunk of it controlled by Trump himself:

The entire hotel is immigrants.… So I don’t know why he’s against immigrants, because we do our job very fairly and we help him too to grow [the business].… how you gonna have the hotel without workers to work?

While Trump trumpets his plan to make the country “great again” and “improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans,” the new Americans who make his businesses run each day hope their boss comes around to letting them finally improve their own jobs, wages, and security—by forming their own more perfect union.

 

By: Michelle Chen, The Nation, August 21, 2015

 

August 24, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Immigrant Laborers, Unions | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Nickel And Dimed”: The Very Real Scourge Of Wage Theft

Last week, the owner of a chain of Papa John’s was ordered to pay $800,000 in back pay to workers he’d shortchanged by rounding down to the nearest hour on their time cards and failing to pay overtime properly. “I didn’t realize if you work 10 hours per day, you are supposed to pay overtime for two hours,” the owner, Emmanuel Onuaguluchi, told the New York Post.

A couple hours of overtime there may not seem like a lot of money, but those amounts could mean everything to workers struggling to get by on minimum wage and, as the judgment shows, it all adds up over the years. This latest judgment is part of a big push by New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who has also sued local McDonald’s and Domino’s franchises.

Cases of wage theft—or, at least, the cases officials are pursuing—have been up in California and across the country, too, according to The New York Times. Business interests told the Times that politicians like Schneider are just pursuing these cases to curry favor with unions, but the unions aren’t really behind the legal actions.

If restaurants and other companies in the service industry—where workers are paid by the hour, have hours that change from week-to-week, and are especially vulnerable to wage theft—are complaining that the wage theft cases are coming from people who, in general, want to be paid more, they’re right. The fight for higher minimum wages across the country has highlighted the problems low-wage workers face in their workplaces, and wage theft is one of the most common ways they’re denied even the measly current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Wage theft is old, but before now workers might have been too scared to complain or go to an attorney on their own. “I think one reason why it’s coming up more now is that it’s tied to a real organizing campaign where fast food workers are demanding and protesting,” says Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which is not directly involved in any of these cases.

By law, companies have to pay their employees minimum wage, and overtime pay should kick in once an employee works past an eight-hour shift in a day. Five years ago, in a survey funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and conducted by researchers from the National Employment Law Project, UCLA, Cornell University, and the University of Illinois, Chicago, a quarter of low-wage employees reported they hadn’t been paid the minimum wage in the prior week, and three-quarters said they were denied overtime.

As someone who has spent the past three years reporting from low-income communities across the country and grew up in working-class family in a poor part of Arkansas, I hear stories of wage theft all the time. Onuaguluchi’s view about overtime is common—I’ve known people who have worked in fast-food restaurants and routinely pulled several double shifts in a week, but as long as their hours did not total more than 80 in a two-week pay period their bosses did not pay overtime.

I’ve also heard of bosses who don’t pay correctly, and paychecks come with hours missing. Those mistakes are harder for workers to figure out than you would think because they need to keep records on exactly when they worked and how many hours it was, and compare it to what their paychecks say when they arrive a week or two later. But at the end of the day, these cases are relatively easy to prove because records of time sheets will show how many hours each employee worked and whether they were paid properly. Rounding down, as Onuaguluchi did, would be evident.

Many stories about wage theft, though, offer more insidious examples that are harder to fight. I know of people who’ve had to run errands on behalf of their workplaces before they even show up for work, and are expected to arrive every morning with said errand completed. I know people who’ve had to clock out for breaks they can’t take. Sometimes, workers are expected to have a certain amount of work done before they clock in at the official start of their shifts, or are asked to or expected to finish a task once they’re already gone, according to their time sheets. It would be harder to tackle cases like that in court because these practices might not be codified or routine, but the basic idea is that bosses at companies like this don’t rank their employees’ time as valuable.

In fairness, the direct bosses like Onuaguluchi are often squeezed themselves. While three-quarters of these kinds of stores are owned by franchisees who own multiple units and are often making quite a profit, their profits rely on running their operations as cheaply as possible. The small-business man or woman who owns one or two might struggle to pay their employees properly, although I have little sympathy for those who break the law. That’s because franchise fees are expensive: even a franchise fee considered relatively affordable, like 7/11, takes $31,000 to start up. McDonald’s requires $45,000 and that the owners have $300,000 in cash or other funds available to them.

Companies like these also require other licensing fees to be paid, and sometimes franchisees even pay rent because the parent company owns the physical location of the store.

So, people like Schneiderman have promised to go after Papa John’s, and other big companies that franchise stores as well. What Papa John’s and their ilk say is that they’re not responsible for the ways their franchisees pay people. Yet they intensely manage their brands, which often includes monitoring time sheets that franchisees send in, quality control tests that could influence hiring and firing decisions, and other fine-grained aspects of their operations. Even more directly, attorneys could argue that these companies charge their franchisees so much in fees that they know, or should know, that the only way for them to make a profit is to shortchange their employees.

In July, the National Labor Relations Board ruled McDonald’s was a joint employer in a similar case, and that pay complaints could be made against them. If suits against the parent companies succeed, it might actually start to end the practice of robbing low-income workers of the little money they have. “At the end of the day, you want to recover the unpaid wages, but you also want to correct the behavior,” Gebreselassie says. “One of the best ways to do that is to reach to the corporate parent.”

 

By: Monica Potts, The Daily Beast, February 15, 2015

February 16, 2015 Posted by | Corporations, Economic Inequality, Wage Theft | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Senate Comity Brigade Was Wrong”: Democratic Activists Urging Filibuster Reform For Presidential Appointments Were Right

I wrote a few days ago about how the Supreme Court’s decision to bar recess appointments made with less than a 10-day break in Senate proceedings increases the importance of controlling Congress.

But it also proves again that Democratic activists urging filibuster reform for Presidential appointments were right, and the status-quo-ante comity-obsessed Senators were wrong.

Now the Democrats who supported changing the rules are rightly taking plaudits for their success:

Democrats say the decision Thursday to rebuke Obama’s 2012 appointments to the National Labor Relations Board has made their change to Senate rules seem remarkably prescient. That change made it easier for the Senate to confirm Obama’s nominees, transforming recess appointments — a tactic to get around the chamber’s hurdles — into something of a relic.

That shift has already allowed Senate Democrats to squeeze through several nominees who might have been defeated under the old framework.

“Clearly this president has faced more opposition for even routine appointments, let alone important lifetime appointments like the judiciary. I’m sorry we had to change the rules and it’s created some pain in our Senate that’s still there,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “But there had to be a way for this president to lead.”

The language used by Durbin here is still odd. It has “created some pain” in “our” Senate? Too often, the language used by Senators to describe the upper chamber is reminiscent of a private drinking club or children’s clubhouse. It isn’t. Whatever advantage there might have been in the past to friendly interactions between Senators across party lines to accomplish national goals has long been erased by hardline partisanship.

That’s largely because movement conservatives largely purged northern Rockefeller Republicans from their ranks, and because the old Dixiecrats who liked New Deal policies as long as they didn’t benefit minorities too much are gratefully a relic of the past. So on most issues not related to national security, there’s frankly very little reason for Senators to “reach across the aisle” anymore.

The clubby comity so prized by Senators now serves little purpose beyond the worst kind of bipartisanship on behalf of wealthy corporate interests and military contractors. It would be far better for Senators to worry more about how well their own views match those of their constituents, than how well they get along with one another.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, June 28, 2014

June 30, 2014 Posted by | Filibuster, Senate | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Endless Crusades”: Tea Party Delays Spending, Beats Dead Horse

It will only cover three days, but once again next week Congress will have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government open. The current resolution expires on Wednesday, and even though a budget agreement was reached last month, appropriators in both chambers still haven’t nailed down a plan to tell various agencies what they can spend.

There are many reasons for that delay — the appropriations committees only had a few weeks after the budget deal to cobble together a massive $1 trillion bill, known as an omnibus. But one of the biggest is that House Republicans from the Tea Party wing have demanded that the bill reflect their ideological goals.

They have insisted, for example, that no money be spent to implement the health care reform law, or that various aspects of the law be cut back so sharply that it would not be workable. They don’t want money spent to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. They want sharp reductions in the National Labor Relations Board.

More than 130 of these so-called riders have been filed by lawmakers, many of whom wouldn’t vote for the omnibus even if their provisions were adopted. Some are particularly ridiculous, including:

* Forbidding the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its rule on the safe removal of lead paint.

* Prohibiting the Fish and Wildlife Service from including the sage grouse on the endangered species list.

* Prohibiting subsidies for any health care plan that includes abortion. (Many states already forbid this, but this rider would make the ban nationwide.)

* Banning the government from requiring federal contractors to disclose their political contributions — one of the Obama administration’s better transparency proposals, which it eventually dropped in the face of business opposition.

Many of these riders have been dropped by the negotiators, but some, including those involving the health care law, have yet to be resolved. (Appropriators think the omnibus bill will be ready by next week.) Republican leaders can’t afford another government shutdown, but apparently they haven’t yet convinced their most radical members to stop their endless crusades.

 

By: David Firestone, Editor’s Blog, The New York Times, January 10, 2014

January 12, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Tea Party | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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