Good news for workers in 2010

Since few media outlets have a reporter assigned to the labor beat anymore, we've heard little this year about one of President Obama's best cabinet appointments: Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Tracy Kurowski wrote a good post at Blog for Iowa about the Department of Labor's annual Statement of Regulatory and Deregulatory Priorities, released three weeks ago (full report here). The gist is that Solis is getting her department "back to the business of looking out for labor rather than commerce." Here are some highlights, but you should go read Kurowski's whole post for more details and background:

   * Companies would be required to file financial disclosures on their union-busting activity. [...]

   * A rule change to allow third parties to report Wage and Hour violations. This is huge. As the DOL themselves put it, "because workers are fearful of losing their jobs in this economy and therefore less likely to file complaints when they are cheated," a third party which has sufficient information to indicate a probable violation may report the abuse. It's as easy as calling 866-4US-WAGE.

   * Companies would be required to document a separate ergonomic job injury log in their Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports. No more dismissing carpel-tunnel and other repetitive motion injuries.

   * [...]the Wage and Hour Division will hire 250 new investigators - not nearly enough, but a major departure from a decade of attrition and a fox-watching-the-henhouse regulatory culture. The division will focus on industries with high violation rates including agriculture, restaurants, janitorial, construction and car washes.

   * Advancing safety standards to protect workers from combustible dust - diacetyl, the artificial butter flavoring used in microwave popcorn and the source of  the potentially deadly disease [bronchiolitis obliterans] [...].

   * Also better regulation of exposure to crystalline silica dust which causes debilitating respiratory disease which ultimately may be fatal.

   * Requiring pay stubs to break down how pay is computed to guard against wage theft.

   * [...]Now all government contractors are required to post notices of their workers' rights under federal labor laws -- a move that will better inform a fifth of the private sector workforce of their rights. [...]

   * Strengthening the restrictions of how much coal dust workers are allowed to inhale.

I've been critical of the corporate-friendly Obama administration, but at least the Department of Labor is taking steps to protect workers' rights. Now if only we could get Congress to move on the Employee Free Choice Act...

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Opinion: The Progressive Curse is Running Around in Circles

Crossposted from Hillbilly Report. It is no secret to many of us that this country has needed a Progressive direction to correct many of the problems it faces for some time now. I was born in 1970 and have seen exactly three Democratic Presidents in my life. The damage done by Conservative Presidents has been disasterous, and the Democrats elected have seemed to only keep us running around in circles while no real change is imminent to repair the damage.

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Getting It Wrong As Usual

Once again Ross Douhat is wrong as usual. In a column entitled Inequality As Usual in the New York Times, Mr. Douhat seeks to divert attention from the causes of social inequality and reassign culpability from its conservative progenitors to liberalism for failing in nine short months to reverse a three decade assault on the middle class and the poor.

According to Mr. Douhat should the Obama Administration fail to reverse our still-widening social inequality, it "will represent a significant policy failure." Perhaps but I take issue with a number of Mr. Douhat's assertions. Only a deluded conservative could claim that the federal income tax is already quite progressive. Quite the opposite. In 1948, still at the start of our "Great Compression", the effective Federal Tax Rate (Income Tax + FICA) for median families stood at 5.30 percent while the effective Federal Tax Rate on the richest one percent was 76.9 percent. Even as late as 1980, the effective Federal Tax Rate for median families was 23.68 percent versus 31.7 percent for the top percent. By 1985, Reagan's tax cuts narrowed that margin to just 46 basis points, 24.44 percent on median families versus 24.9 percent on the richest one percent. While real income for the bottom 90 percent of the population fell by 11 percent between 1973 and 2005, those in the top .01 percent bracket, comprising some 14,000 households with annual incomes averaging nearly $13 million, saw their take increase by 250 percent over the same period and yet they were gifted by the Bush Administration with unparalled tax cuts.

I'm also struck by the problem is too vexing so let's not fix it mentality of Mr. Douhat.

There's only so much that politicians can do about broad socioeconomic trends. The rise of a more unequal America is a vexingly complicated issue, whose roots may wind too deep for public policy to reach.

The zenith of fairness in America was the mid-1960s. That achievement was the fruit of the public policies that were enacted during the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt. The great reduction of inequality that undid the gross divide of the 1920s and created middle-class America between 1935 and 1945 was driven by political change that included the adoption of a progressive tax structure that enabled a larger government role in the economy and provided the basis for a broad range of redistributive programs. Mr. Douhat is simply wrong to suggest that there's only so much that politicians can do about social inequality. History proves otherwise.

On the other hand, we face problems that FDR did not have. One critical difference between then and now is that the Federal Government, thanks largely to 'limited government' GOP Administrations, is encumbered by over $11 trillion in debt. Much of that debt was accrued to pay for a defense build-up that ultimately was little more than a redistributive transfer of wealth to the arms industry. Or take the Bush-Cheney Energy Bill which provided $6 billion in direct subsidies to the oil & gas sector plus another $20 billion to $32 billion in indirect subsidies over 20 years. Our five-year $300 billion Farm Bill includes $15 billion in annual subsidies mostly to large agri-businesses such as Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill. Note that 75 percent of these subsidies go to a handful of commodities (mostly wheat, corn, and oilseeds) used as food additives, making highly processed junk food cheap – while fruits and vegetables and whole foods currently get almost no aid. Nearly 70 percent of farm subsidies go to the top 10 percent of the country's biggest growers – while America loses one family farm every half an hour. There's socialism for the wealthy in this country. Conservatives just seem to want to gloss over that fact, perhaps because they are the beneficiaries.

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Harkin had the votes to pass Employee Free Choice Act

I mentioned on Labor Day that I haven't heard much lately about Senator Tom Harkin's efforts to reach a compromise on the Employee Free Choice Act. The EFCA is one of the top legislative priorities for organized labor and needs 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster. Several Democrats who supported the bill in 2007, knowing that President Bush would veto it, either oppose the bill or have dodged the question this year.

Harkin has been the lead Senate negotiator on EFCA and is replacing the late Senator Ted Kennedy as chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Speaking to the American Rights at Work group yesterday, Harkin said he had 60 votes lined up behind a compromise this summer:

"As of July, I can tell you this openly and I know the press is all here but we had worked out a pretty good agreement. [...]"

Harkin said prominent labor leaders were on board with the deal, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

"That's when we needed 60 votes and that's when I called to get Sen. Kennedy down because we needed him for three days. That's when Dr. [Lawrence] Horowitz told me that he couldn't make it," Harkin said.

The Hill's Kevin Bogardus reported that Harkin refused to specify the terms of the compromise deal:

"I will not say because it was closely held, it never leaked out and it still hasn't," Harkin said. "I took it off the front-burner and put it on the back-burner so it is still on warm, OK?"

In May Harkin suggested that the "card check" provision might be dropped from the bill in favor of other changes to labor election procedures. He did not say anything about binding arbitration, which is also an important part of the EFCA.

If Massachusetts law is changed to allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint a temporary replacement for Kennedy, then Harkin may be able to revive this compromise and pass the EFCA this fall. Democratic leaders in the House agreed earlier this year not to bring the EFCA up for a vote until the measure had passed the Senate. Getting the bill through the House should not be difficult, even if a substantial number of Blue Dog Democrats vote no.

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Women's Groups Send Letter to Capitol Hill Supporting Employee Free Choice

Want to share with you this post by Mike Hall, one of our AFL-CIO bloggers.

A dozen of the nation's leading women's organizations has called on Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. In a letter this week to every member of Congress, the groups say that restoring the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain for a better life would benefit women and all workers.

The letter notes that unionized women workers earn almost one-third more than nonunion workers--32 percent.

In addition, women in unions are 19 percent more likely to have health insurance benefits and 25 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension. (Click here to learn more about the union difference.)

The letter was organized by the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF).

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