Posts from Mark Gruenberg

UFCW, Public Citizen Sue to Stop Dangerous Slaughterhouse Rules

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The United Food and Commercial Workers and three of its Minnesota locals, who represent workers at slaughterhouses, and the pro-worker Public Citizen activist group filed suit against a GOP Trump administration rule that could in effect return the nation’s pork production to conditions found in The Jungle more than a century ago.

The case, filed by UFCW and its Locals 2, 410 and 663 on Oct. 7 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, says the new inspection regime – or lack of it – that Trump’s Agriculture Department wants to impose endangers both safety of workers on the job and the nation’s health, by leaving pork carcasses open to bacterial hazards.

Trump’s Agriculture Department promulgated the final rule in the last several weeks and officially published it on Oct. 1. Deep in its text, it says the rule will add $87 million to the profits of the nation’s agribusiness pork processors.

But it would do so, the suit and the unions retort, at the expense of worker health and safety – particularly repetitive motion injuries – and consumer health, by letting diseased pork carcasses go by on the production line with no oversight from federal inspectors. They’d only get to look at the hogs before the carcasses enter the line and after they come off.

In between, the suit says, untrained plant employees -- i.e. managers ordered to speed through as many hogs as possible to increase production and profits – would eye carcasses.

Trump’s pork processing rule is yet another instance of his pro-plutocratic GOP administration caving to the wishes of the corporate class. The pork processors have been agitating for years for no speed limits on pork processing lines. They also lobbied for fewer, or no, federal inspectors to yank off diseased hogs. They got their wish in Trump’s rule.

In both senses, those conditions harken back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1905. It exposed dangerous conditions – both to workers and consumers – in pork slaughterhouses of Chicago’s stockyards, the “Hog Butcher to the World.”

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Twin Cities home health care workers win unpaid overtime

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

It took almost five years to wend its way through state agencies and courts, but home health care workers who toil for the Twin Cities-based Baywood Home Care agency will share $350,000 from the firm for unpaid overtime.

The win came from the Minnesota Supreme Court on Sept. 18, in a case brought on the workers’ behalf by the state Department of Labor, the St. Paul Union Advocate reported.

The department investigated a complaint, filed in 2014, that the agency was violating the state Fair Labor Standards Act, which  mandates time-and-a-half pay for all hours worked over 48 per week.

The federal FLSA mandates overtime pay for all hours worked over 40 per week, but it doesn’t cover home health care workers. Minnesota’s does. Responding to evidence presented by the Service Employees, the Obama-era federal Labor Department brought home health care workers nationwide under the federal FLSA, for one year, until home health care interests got federal courts to toss that rule out.

Baywood broke the state law, the state agency told the state court, by working its employees for 24 hours at a time, but not every day. They were paid set daily rates regardless of how long they worked each week.

The state court said the daily rates are no substitute for overtime pay. When the home health care workers toiled more than 48 hours a week each, the workers were entitled to time-and-half pay “regardless of how the worker was compensated” before hitting that weekly limit.

Not paying the workers overtime is a form of wage theft, which costs Minnesota workers alone $22 million statewide every year, estimates show.

“All Minnesotans deserve to be paid every dollar they are owed for the work they perform,” state Labor Commissioner Nancy Leppink said in a statement after the court’s decision. The court also ordered the firm to pay the state agency $350,000 in damages.

“Too many workers are not being paid their full wages. With this decision, these employees are now one step closer to being correctly compensated for their work and for the harm they experienced,” she added.


Unions oppose discrimination against LGBTQ+ people

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The nation’s largest unions and the nation’s largest labor federation both back outlawing employer discrimination against lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender people – a ban bosses are challenging in top cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.

And the Oct. 8 argument over whether bosses can discriminate against LGBTQ people – including firing them – solely because of their sexual orientation or gender preference isn’t the only big-ticket civil rights case the justices will hear in the next six weeks.

The other will come up in early November, as Comcast challenges the wide-ranging ban on discrimination written into the Reconstruction Era’s 1866 Civil Rights Act and its famous Section 1981, which lets individuals and firms sue against business racism.

And in both instances, the GOP Donald Trump administration is arguing on the other side, for discrimination.

Both issues are important for the future of civil rights and human rights in the United States, which have been frequently under attack by Trump, right-wing Republicans and their ideological think tanks and, in the Section 1981 case, the corporate class.

The tangle over LGBTQ job discrimination will hit the High Court the day after it starts its 2019-20 term. Four separate lawsuits, consolidated into one long hearing, will force the justices to consider whether employers can discriminate against LGBTQ people.

That’s illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban, in its famous Title VII, on employment discrimination based on sex, according to the AFL-CIO, both big teachers’ unions, and a combined brief from the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and Jobs With Justice – along with other allies of LGBTQ people.

Title VII also bans discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.

The Section 1981 case will come up in November. It outlaws racial discrimination by businesses in making contracts.

Until now, courts inserted one big caveat into Section 1981 cases: What’s called a “but for” clause, meaning that “but for” specific circumstances – namely that but for the fact that the person hurt was African-American – the discrimination would not have occurred.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco took away even that caveat and ruled the 1866 law means what it says and that victims only need to show race was “a factor” – not the factor – to get their day in court after firms didn’t do business with them.

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Federal workers protest Trump anti-union edicts

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Culminating several days of in-person lobbying, but continuing a defense that’s been going since Donald Trump’s first day in office, federal worker unions, their congressional allies and other union leaders took their campaign against the GOP president’s edicts to Congress.

The mass rally of several thousand people on Capitol Hill on Sept. 24 drew attention to Trump’s anti-worker actions, from curbs on union representation for all two million federal workers down to sudden declarations that 900 of the lowest-paid disabled workers in the Portland, Ore., Veterans Administration hospital would be laid off – with two weeks’ notice.

Led by the Government Employees (AFGE) and the Treasury Employees (NTEU), unions and workers lobbied for legislation to stop Trump‘s edicts in their tracks in the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

The Democratic-run House has agreed. The GOP-run Senate is another matter, though one speaker, Sen. Chris Von Hollen, D-Md., promised the crowd he would push the ban on Trump’s edicts through. Whether and when he, and other Senate Democrats, can succeed is up in the air.

The point of the rally was to get them to do so. “Talk is cheap. Let’s get to work,” AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre said. “Something is happening in America,” federation President Richard Trumka declared before challenging Trump: “Bring it on!”

Typical support came from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio: “You can’t say you love your country and you love workers and then attack unions.”

Trump’s edicts throw federal worker unions out of their small offices in federal buildings; yank away their computers, phones and fax machines; curb due process rights for federal workers; make it easier for bosses to fire workers for no reason at all, and even tell union stewards that when they defend federal workers, they must do so on their own time and on their own dime.

The unions took Trump to court, won in district court – and lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. on Sept. 25. In an unsigned order, the judges declined to hear the case.

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Senate Republicans approve corporatist Scalia as Labor Secretary

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Talk about greasing the skids for a Trumpite: The GOP-run Senate committee that deals with workers’ issues OKd Donald Trump’s nomination of right-wing corporate lawyer Eugene Scalia as by a 12-11 party-line vote on Sept. 24. The full Senate followed, also totally on party lines, 53-44 on Sept. 26.

The lickety-split confirmation process for Scalia, son of the late right-wing U.S. Supreme Court justice, came over strenuous objections from both the panel’s Democrats and workers and their allies. Nevertheless, he will be in the Secretary’s chair.

“We’ve seen this awful nominee for the Secretary of Labor’s job who spent his career busting unions,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told a nearby outdoor rally of workers protesting Trump’s edicts against federal workers and their unions.

But corporate interests from A to Z supported Scalia, who previously made a name by leading business lobbying to kill the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s ergonomic rules and for defending Seaworld, whose killer whale drowned its female trainer.

And Scalia was also Walmart’s lawyer when the monster vicious anti-worker retailer sued to overturn a Maryland law a decade ago saying that any firm with more than 10,000 workers in the state had to devote at least 8% of payroll to health insurance for its workers. Two of the only three – including unionized Safeway stores – did so. Walmart didn’t. Scalia and Walmart won in court.

“Last week’s hearing confirmed my worst fears,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel’s top Democrat. “Scalia will be a yes-man for President Trump’s anti-worker agenda, not a champion for working families, that he will let companies off the hook, not hold them account-able, that . . . he will be a Secretary of Corporate Interests, not a Secretary of Labor.”

Scalia “dodged seemingly every opportunity to take a strong stand as a champion for the workers and families the Department of Labor serves,” she added. But “he didn’t shy away from defending his record helping corporate clients hack away at the rules meant to protect workers and families or hesitate to praise President Trump and the so-called ‘virtually unprecedented benefits’ workers are seeing under this administration’s anti-worker agenda.”

“He has fought against workers seeking the wages they were cheated out of, people with disabilities seeking a job opportunity, employees seeking a safer work environment, families seeking reliable advice as they plan for retirement, and even survivors seeking justice for workplace harassment and assault. In other words, the very people we need the Secretary of Labor to fight for,” Murray said.                             

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House panel approves pro-worker labor law rewrite

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

By a party-line 26-21 vote after an all-day work session, the Democratic-run House Education and Labor Committee passed the Protect the Right to Organize (Pro) Act, the most-comprehensive pro-worker rewrite of U.S. labor law in decades. All the Democrats voted for it and all the Republicans voted against it.

The measure, co-written by top lawmakers and union legislative representatives, would restore many of the freedoms and protections workers gained under the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

The Pro Act, formally titled HR2474, is also expected to pass the Democratic-run House, though the exact date for debate has not been set. The Republican-run Senate is another matter. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., lumps it with other House-approved measures – including federal elections reform – as “socialism.”

And corporate contributors to congressional Republicans can be expected to mount a large and expensive lobbying campaign against it, just as they spent millions of dollars a decade ago to destroy an attempt to rewrite labor law with legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Pro Act would undo much of the damage done to worker rights by the GOP-passed Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, court decisions, NLRB rulings and other Republican-crafted legislation.

It would also counter a key assumption of the NLRA: That bosses break labor law unintentionally, so penalties should be light.

Eighty-four years of experience shows that’s wrong. The Pro Act recognizes that with high fines for labor law breaking – including fines directed at CEOs and boards of directors, immediate restoration of illegally fired workers to their jobs, and swift court injunctions.

And the Pro Act would remedy two big problems in labor law. The GOP created one in the Taft-Hartley law. It legalized the process under which workers may enjoy the benefits of union membership without joining or paying dues.

The Pro Act would stop employers from constant anti-union harangues in mandatory captive audience meetings and “would ban what I would call ‘right to freeload’ laws,” Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., a former AFL-CIO deputy organizing director, said.

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DOL Nominee Scalia Promises to Enforce Labor Law, But Ducks Policy Commitments

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

When it comes to enforcing the nation’s labor laws, Eugene Scalia promises to do so. But when it comes to policy recommendations, or to increasing the troops – federal job safety and health inspectors, for example -- needed for such enforcement, GOP President Donald Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary sang quite a different tune.

It was, frequently, answering questions from Democratic senators on Sept. 19, a variation of “let me look at that” or “I’ll get back to you” or “I need to consult” stakeholders or “I want to look at the case” or “it needs to be a top priority for policymakers” in the future.

He even used that last phrase when tackling one of the most-urgent current issues: The fate of approximately 100 financially imperiled multi-employer pension plans, whose assets and payouts were sunk by the financier-caused Great Recession a decade ago. A million workers and retirees are in peril.

On that issue and others, Scalia pledged to enforce the law. He never pledged to change it, or to lobby Trump for policies, people and money needed to enforce it.

Despite the ducking, bobbing and weaving, Scalia is on a fast track to sit in the Labor Secretary’s corner office. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, scene of his confirmation hearing that day, will vote on the nomination on Sept. 24. None of its GOP members voiced any qualms about the management-side labor lawyer.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., has abolished the filibuster for Cabinet nominees, meaning unless all 45 Senate Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents can coax four Republicans to join them, 55-year-old lawyer-lobbyist Scalia will head DOL.

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GM intransigence forces 49,000 UAW members to strike

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

General Motors intransigence on reversing financial hits workers took during and after 2008 Great Recession forced 49,200 Auto Workers toiling for the largest Detroit-based car company to strike at midnight Sept. 15. The firm retaliated by yanking their health insurance, dumping the cost on UAW.

The old pacts between the Detroit 3 – GM, Ford and FiatChrysler – expired the day before, but the union kept talking, and workers kept toiling, at the other two car companies.

At GM plants nationwide, they walked off at the end of the four-to-midnight shift. GM “refuses to give even an inch” in last-minute weekend bargaining, union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.

GM disputed that, saying it offered raises, a signing bonus and proposed to reopen – at some unspecified future time – two of the six U.S. auto plants it closed this year, one in Detroit and a partial reopening of another in Lordstown, Ohio. GM shifted their machines and jobs to Mexico.

It also announced on Sept. 17 that it would not pay health insurance any more for the workers. UAW stepped in and said it would, using its strike fund.

“Taking our health care is sickening,” the union said in introducing a video about Laura Prater, a hospitalized GM worker in Springhill, Tenn., who woke up the morning of Sept. 17 worrying about how she would pay the bill, rather than how she would get well after surgery.

“The company’s decision was made without any warning to the UAW, leaving more than 48,000 members and their families at risk of being suddenly uninsured,” the union said.

Prater’s Local 2164 union president, Jack Bowers, called GM’s decision pretty bad.  I mean, traditionally, they’ve not done that (paid the insurance costs),” Bowers told WKU, a public radio station. “We’ve got people out there that need insulin. That’s a lot of money for anybody. I think it’s kind of wrong. That’s the nicest word I can think of right now.”

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Trump Labor Board Appointees Rule Against Workers Unfairly Labeled Independent Contractors

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The Trump-named GOP majority on the National Labor Relations Board “celebrated” Labor Day a few days before the actual date – by giving bosses, not workers, another gift-wrapped ruling.

By a 3-1 vote on Aug. 29, over the strong dissent of sole Democrat Lauren McFerran, the majority declared that just because the boss arbitrarily declares workers are “independent contractors” does not mean the boss automatically breaks labor law.

The ruling is important for the nation’s workers, especially when the so-called “gig economy” is growing. Firms in that sector, such as AirBnB and the ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft, arbitrarily declare their workers “independent contractors.”

When workers are “independent contractors” under labor law, unions can’t organize them. The boss also doesn’t have to pay workers comp, Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes or money to cover unemployment benefits.

If a worker is an “employee” under labor law, the law covers the worker. And that includes the right to organize, as well as Social Security, Medicare, workers’ comp and jobless benefits payments by the firm for all the covered workers.

The board majority used a case involving Jeannie Edge, a driver for Velox Express, Inc., a transporter of medical specimens from Arkansas and western Tennessee to a lab. Velox arbitrarily called all its drivers “independent contractors.”

The drivers complained they were really employees, since Velox controlled everything about the job, except for ordering them to buy their own vehicles. Edge spoke for the group and Velox fired her in retaliation three years ago.

The board used the case to discuss the whole independent contractor dodge. The AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, the Plumbers and Pipefitters and the Carpenters all filed briefs backing Edge. So did the National Employment Law Project. The Chamber of Commerce, other corporate lobbies and one right-wing ideological group sided with Velox.

The NLRB’s administrative law judge found Velox broke the law by arbitrarily classifying all the drivers as contractors and by firing Edge. The judge ordered her reinstated with back pay and ordered Velox to post a we-won’t-do-it-again notice. The board majority agreed with the judge. It said the drivers are really employees – but that the arbitrary decision to call them contractors does not, by itself, automatically break labor law. 

“The board has never previously found an employer’s misclassification of its employees as independent contractors standing alone, is a per se violation of the (National Labor Relations) Act.” the board’s GOP majority, led by Chairman John Ring, said. “An employer does not violate the act by misclassifying its employees as independent contractors.”

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UMW President Talks Climate Change and Politics

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Never let it be said that Cecil Roberts met a written speech he really likes.

Instead, the veteran United Mine Workers president produced a detailed, free-form and interesting discourse on climate change, politics and coal’s future at a talk to a crowd of reporters, plus UMWA members and retirees at Washington’s National Press Club. His 13-page prepared speech? Uh…he used a few phrases.

Roberts is really a preacher, not a button-down president. He likes to rev up crowds, and he got applause during his remarks. But also got his points in during the September 4 NPC Newsmaker session. Among them, few of which were laughing matters:

  • The Mine Workers aren’t against coping with climate change. They know it’s occurring, and they know the U.S. must do something about it.

But miners have two big domestic problems with the Green New Deal. One is its utopian goal of no U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas, by 2050. That’s not doable without developing clean coal technology to scrub carbon out of power plant emissions, Roberts says.

Otherwise “you’ll never – write that down – solve climate change,” he ordered.

UMWA advocated carbon scrubbing for years, but the last legislative effort, in 2009, was filibustered. And abolition puts former coal miners who became natural gas pipeline builders out of jobs.

“We never denied climate change. But how we deal with it is the question…and we want to be part of the discussion.”

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