Monday, July 30, 2007

Arkansas Workers Have No Job Security

A Letter to the Editor in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today calls attention to a gross inequity concerning dedicated employees trying to do a good job and provide for their family. They can be fired on a whim without a moment's notice and find themselves facing unpaid bills for rent or scrambling to find health insurance for their family.

Spencer Honey of Arkadelphia makes a lot of sense when he writes, "You can be legally fired from your job for no reason in Arkansas. Why? Because without a good employment contract or union membership or an employee handbook requiring the employer to fire for good cause, you are an at-will employee and can be fired for no reason. Even if you do a perfect job and your employer promises that if you follow the rules, you will not get into trouble for anything, you can still be fired without the employer being wrong. Why? Because Arkansas legislators have never passed a law requiring employers to have a good reason to fire. And because Arkansas courts say at-will employees can be fired for no reason or even a poor reason.

America is the only industrial nation generally forcing workers to be at-will. Almost all Arkansas courts and employers say employees and employers are equal. They think equality is that employers can fire for no reason and employees can quit for no reason. Such thinking is wrong and like believing a car and roller skates are equal transportation. Employers can keep their job when unfairly firing an at-will employee. To solve this problem, our legislators can pass a good-cause discharge law that is fair to employees and employers."

AFSCME 965 members at the University of Arkansas have some due process protection against being fired without cause, but non-union workers in the private sector do not. We agree that the legislature could--and should--adopt a law providing for firing only for good cause, but we doubt that will happen anytime soon. Arkansas is a so-called Right-to-Work state that undermines union strength by allowing free riders and scabs to reap benefits without joining a union that protects their economic interests, and the state Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau will bring out the big guns to kill any legislation to protect worker rights.

As long as the Arkansas General Assembly is dominated by members recruited and financed by business interests, the average working family will remain at risk for unjust firing, low wages, and inadequate workers compensation for job-related injuries. Employees need to understand the benefits of union membership and begin organizing their workplaces. Unions need to more actively recruit and help elect public officials who care about working families. We can begin now in Northwest Arkansas.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Federal Minimum Wage to Rise on Tuesday

About 1.7 million people made $5.15 or less in 2006, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many workers, along with union advocates for low-wage workers, are celebrating the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade. Yet many acknowledge that raising it from $5.15 an hour to $5.85 will provide only meager help for some of the lowest paid workers. Arkansas and more than two dozen states already have minimum wages higher than the federal one.

"The reality for a minimum wage worker is that every penny makes a difference because low-wage workers make the choice between putting food on the table and paying for electricity or buying clothes for their children," said Beth Shulman, former vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "Saying that, it's clear going up to $5.85 is not enough to really make sure that people really can afford the things that all families need," said Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans.

Minimum wage workers will get an additional 70-cent boost each summer for the next two years, ending in 2009 at $7.25 an hour. Even then when the full increase is enacted, minimum wage workers will be just scraping by. That comes to just above $15,000 yearly before taxes for a 52-week work year. Now, someone in such a job and earning $5.85 an hour would bring home $12,168 a year before taxes. The federal poverty level for singles is $10,210, couples is $13,690 and $17,170 for families of three.

Poverty and the minimum wage are becoming major issues in the Democratic presidential race. John Edwards and Barack Obama are emphasizing raising the minimum wage. Edwards, who said he wants to eliminate poverty within a generation, favors raising the minimum wage to $9.50. Obama is advocating a "living wage" that would go up as inflation rises and he has promised to eliminate the phrase "working poor."

It is shameful that anyone who works full time still ends up in poverty. Everyone who puts in an honest day's work should receive a fair day's pay. The Arkansas Legislature should adopt a new minimum wage law to step increases above the current $6.25, and it should tie future increases automatically to meet inflation. AFSCME Local 965 will be asking area legislators and legislative candidates their positions on this and other issues affecting working families.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Obama Says He Would Walk Picket Line

At the annual convention of Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents more than 20,000 Iowa state workers, Democrat Barack Obama told union activists last night that he would walk a picket line as president if organized labor helps elect him in 2008. AFSCME plays an important role in Iowa Democratic politics. Besides campaign money, an endorsement brings into play a legion of talented organizers throughout the state.

"I stood on the picket line and marched with workers at the Congress Hotel in Chicago last week," Obama said. "I had marched with them four years earlier and I told them when I left that if they were still fighting four years from now, I'd be back on that picket line as president of the United States and we'll get the Congress Hotel organized."

"I won't just vote the right way with you, I will stand with you," Obama said. "We are facing a Washington that has thrown open its doors to the most anti-union, anti-worker forces we've seen in generations. What we need to make real today is the idea that in this country we value the labor of every American."

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson also addressed the convention.

Align Right

Saturday, July 21, 2007

ARHealthNet for Low Income Workers

Giving up on the Bush Administration to do anything about health care costs, Arkansas has a new insurance plan for small businesses called ARHealthNet. The goal is to make health coverage affordable for more people who live on low incomes. It’s estimated that 17 percent of the state’s population have no health insurance coverage of any kind. There are more than 378, 000 people of working age — between 19 and 64 — who lack coverage. Workers in large companies except for Wal-Mart tend to be covered, while people who work for small firms are the most likely to lack coverage. ARHealthNet is for employees of companies with fewer than 500 workers.

The benefits are limited, to better hold down costs. They include six doctor visits a year, seven inpatient days in a hospital and two outpatient days for things like major surgeries and emergency room services. Benefits also include two prescriptions a month. If a low-income worker required catastrophic care beyond the major services covered under ARHealthNet, it is likely the state Medicaid program would help, according to the director of the state Human Services Department. Research has proven that people without health insurance tend to postpone going to the doctor when they are sick. As a result, when they finally do seek medical help their problems have become more severe and more expensive to treat. Also, people without insurance are much less likely to visit the doctor for routine preventative care such as an annual physical or a cancer screening.

People without insurance — whether they’re in good health and neglect routine prevention or whether they’re ill and put off going to the doctor — are much more likely to be hospitalized with avoidable illnesses. That drives up the cost of health care and results in higher costs for people who do have insurance. Therefore, a secondary benefit of ARHealthNet is to help hold down costs for people who have insurance.

When a company signs up for ARHealthNet, all full-time employees must participate; however, the government will help pay for coverage of workers who make low wages. The subsidies will be for workers who earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level, which depends on the number of people in the worker’s family. For an employee with a family of four, the threshold is $3,441 a month. So far, only 178 small businesses have signed up for ARHealthNet and only 665 workers have gained coverage under the new program. The Chamber of Commerce should be promoting participation in the new plan instead of trying to keep wages and workers compensation benefits so low.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Union Busting Is Big Business

As the percentage of American workers in unions continues its long and severe decline, the U. S. Senate just voted to kill the Employee Free Choice Act. What prompted the now-dormant bill, and what is causing the weakening of the labor movement, is not a decreased need for unions. According to polls, about half of non-supervisory workers want to join one, but employers are increasingly breaking the law to prevent their workplaces from being unionized.

Fifty years ago, more than 30 percent of private-sector workers were organized. That share today is 8 percent. Globalization and the new, technology-driven economy have contributed to this decline, but advanced economies in Europe survive these same developments with union coverage rates as high as 80 percent. Much of the falloff is actually the result of illegal, antiunion actions by employers. Our recent analysis of cases brought before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB ), which oversees union-management relations in most of the private sector, shows that employers illegally fire as many as 1 in 5 union organizers.

Actions by the world’s largest employer are a case in point. When butchers at Wal-Mart’s Jacksonville, Texas, store joined the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Wal-Mart permanently closed its meat-cutting departments, switched to pre-packaged meat, and fired four of the union supporters.

Just picking on Wal-Mart is unfair, as much of the business community also despises unions. Unions fight for increased wages and benefits and for redistributing earnings from employers to workers. Corporate managers, on the other hand try to maximize profits for shareholders and compensation packages for those at the top. Compelled by the threat of lower profits, many employers will do whatever it takes to avoid a union workplace.

Not infrequently, this means breaking the law. The National Labor Relations Act (NRLB ) makes it illegal to intimidate or fire workers for union activity. Yet, according to our study of data from the NLRB, there has been a steep rise in illegal firings of pro-union workers in the last few years. Currently, 1 in 53 is dumped during an election campaign. And employers generally fire the workers who are leading the union organizing drives. If 10 percent of union supporters are actually organizers in their workplace, NLRB data show that about 1 in 5 is fired illegally for their activism.

Interestingly, union membership has actually increased in the public sector. Whereas the private sector — the bulk of the U. S. economy — has seen unionization fall by three-quarters over the last 50 years, public-sector union membership has tripled over the same period to about 36 percent. Persistent, illegal activity by employers in the private sector explains this disparity. Illegal firings exist in the public sector too, of course, but they are less prevalent. Additional civil service protections ensure that firings are more onerous to the government than they are to a business. Besides, we should expect less union busting in the public sector: There is no profit motive there.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once lambasted union busters, proclaiming, “ Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. ” The fools today are actually quite rational, practicing the cool calculus of costs and benefits.

In a worst-case scenario, the cost of firing a union supporter isn’t that much. It includes legal proceedings and remuneration to the discharged employee. At a maximum, discharged employees will receive missed earnings minus any income they have earned in the meantime. The total award usually amounts to less than $ 4, 000, a small price to pay to avoid sharing profits with employees through a union-negotiated contract.

In its vote, the Senate eliminated the opportunity to increase fines and make other changes to labor law that reduce the incentives for illegal employer aggression. But without those reforms, crime really does pay.

Ben Zipperer is a researcher and John Schmitt is senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D. C.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Unions and the Environment

A glistening wind turbine stands outside the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland -- the city where the world's first electricity-generating windmill was built in 1888. The new machine weighs 26 tons and has kept 40,000 pounds of climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere.

Gazing skyward, United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard was impressed. "Twenty-six tons!" he marveled, mentally calculating how many manufacturing jobs that equaled -- before he learned that this particular machine was built in Denmark. "That seems pretty dumb," Gerard said. "We figure out how to make it work. And then someone in another country makes something of it and ships it back to us."

The scene occurred last fall, when Gerard was on a three-day, three-state barnstorming tour with Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. They encouraged elected officials to support wind and solar power and energy efficiency as ways of creating jobs, pumping up the U.S. economy, and fighting global warming.

Gerard's United Steelworkers union has been fighting for clean workplaces and communities since the 1960s. It helped pass landmark U.S. legislation regulating air and water pollution and toxic waste, as well as "right-to-know" laws, which require companies to tell the public how much pollution they are releasing. "We need to put an end to the lies, the myths, the hysteria, that say you can have either a clean environment or good jobs," Gerard says. "You can have both, or you have neither."

Gerard's father belonged to a miners' union and held shop-steward meetings in the family basement. He describes himself as an "irreverent" youngster, impatient with high school. "The stuff they were teaching me was how to have a good memory. I resented the system because I thought it marginalized people," he says.

Gerard was elected as United Steelworkers president in 2001, and the irreverent kid who had yearned to become an economics professor was in a position to change the economic future of North America. The union is deeply engaged in the key issues facing workers: healthcare, pensions, and "offshoring," the trend toward moving North American industries and jobs overseas. It is also working for broader, longer-term goals such as worldwide standards to protect industrial workers, worker-friendly pension-fund investments, and the union's ground-floor membership in what the Steelworkers see as North America's emerging clean-energy economy.

While promoting the union's causes, Gerard can be intimidating. Once when it was his turn to speak at a steel company's shareholder meeting, the lights suddenly went out. "This is no time to be f -- -ing with the lights," he barked. "Get them back on or somebody's going to beat the sh -- out of you." Suddenly the room brightened, and Gerard was able to say his piece.

On the first day of their clean-energy tour, Gerard and Pope met with media, workers, environmentalists, and the Twin Cities mayors at the United Auto Workers Hall in St. Paul. Across the street is the sprawling plant that once provided 2,000 high-paying jobs making Ford Ranger pickups. Ford turned down workers' entreaties to convert it to building high-mileage hybrid vehicles and announced the plant's closure in 2008. Gerard was not pleased. "Don't tell me that a car made in America can't get 30 or 40 or 50 miles per gallon," he said. Gerard and Pope's appearance made the local papers that day, as did the alternative they support: converting the old Ford plant into a wind tower and turbine factory.

Although the barnstorming tour focused on clean-energy jobs of the future, the union is still working hard to clean up existing workplaces. "Roughly 60,000 workers die each year in this country from workplace accidents or from diseases caused by workplace chemicals," says union environmental specialist Diane Heminway.

In 1990, the Steelworkers published a 34-page manifesto called "Our Children's World." Its message was simple: "We cannot protect Steelworker jobs by ignoring environmental problems." Ahead of its time, the report also warned of the "catastrophic consequences" of global warming. When the document was presented at the Steelworkers' annual meeting, it was not an easy sell.

"We don't say there is never a jobs-versus-environment conflict," says Michael Wright, the Steelworkers' director of health, safety, and environment. "Conflicts may exist, but fighting cleanups is not the way to solve them. Our job is to find solutions that protect both jobs and the environment."

More recently, the union's environmental policies have been questioned by some members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), which merged with the Steelworkers in 2005. Paper workers, including loggers and mill workers, are still smarting over environmentalists' efforts to protect the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. They don't think much of the Sierra Club's stand against commercial logging in national forests either.

Gerard is undaunted by such squabbles. "We aren't going to be united with the environmental movement on every issue," he says. "But we are going to be united 80 or 90 percent of the time. Let's work on that unity rather than let our enemies exploit the divisions."

Gerard's dream of a thriving U.S. clean-energy industry has moved a few steps closer to reality. He is not surprised. "We are not promoting some kind of fuzzy, left-wing, feel-good stuff that Rush Limbaugh will love to attack," he says. "This is sound social and economic policy. This gives my grandkids a shot."

Excerpted from "Union Heavy Embraces Green Energy as Crucial Vision for the Future," by Joan Hamilton, Sierra Magazine