Rants &amp; Raves for the Week of April 11th

Rants & Raves for the Week of April 11th, 2011


It was a match made in union-busting heaven this week when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker testified on public employee “overcompensation” before the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—a notoriously anti-worker committee run none other than California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. In a hearing entitled “State and Municipal Debt: Tough Choices Ahead,” Walker took his usual wildly inaccurate drivel to the next level and completely contradicted himself when Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) forced him to admit that the “budget repair” bill was officially declared “nonfiscal,” i.e., it will have zero effect on Wisconsin’s budget. In other words, Issa’s hearing ended up exposing what we in the labor movement have known all along — Walker gutted public employee union rights for no reason other than a Darrell Issa-like disdain for workers.


Ikea is recognized worldwide for its affordable furniture and corporate responsibility. But whatever goodwill the company has built up is quickly being squandered, as its plant in Virginia develops a reputation for being anti-worker. An LA Times report says workers are routinely denied basic rights like overtime pay, and in response to an effort workers to join the Machinists union, Ikea hired notorious anti-union firm Jackson Lewis to fight the organizing effort. A spokeswoman for the Sweden-based Ikea headquarters says they don’t approve of union-busting. Let’s hope that’s true, and that Ikea can clean things up in Virginia. Otherwise, we have a feeling a lot of people are going to start buying their dressers elsewhere.


Ohio Governor John Kasich has once again made the Rant list this week for his outrageous budget proposals. This time, the Republican governor has proposed giving unchecked authority to his appointees to contract out any state service for 75 years to a private contractor. If that wasn’t bad enough, Kasich proposes to not require that private company to pay any income, business or other taxes to the state. Nor do they have to meet any kind of basic wage, health and safety or good business standards. So let’s review. The state of Ohio could contract out their firefighters, fire all the public sector workers and hire some company that hires fewer, untrained, unprepared workers to do the same job. Not only do workers lose their jobs, but the outside contractor doesn’t have to pay any taxes on the money they get from the state. It’s basically free money for corporations, loss of jobs for Ohioans and a recipe for less safe and secure communities.


Let them eat cake! Well, the rich have certainly had a very good couple of decades. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that since 1979, the proportion of taxes paid the wealthiest Americans has fallen dramatically. At the same time they’ve enjoyed tax reductions, the wealthy have seen massive gains in income—in fact, the wealthiest 400 households saw a gain in income of 399%. Let’s see—make more money, pay less taxes. That means that a huge amount of wealth is concentrated at the top of the income scale, with very little, if any, being paid to the government to support things like, oh, education, roads, public safety, parks, hospitals, etc. The result? Well, income inequality is on the rise, compounded the recession. So what accounts for the massive shift of the tax burden onto working people? The tax code is a surprisingly powerful public policy tool, and corporations and the wealthy have used it to their advantage to write in loophole after loophole, bleeding out billions of dollars from federal and state budgets. Guess they really can have their cake and eat it too….


State Senators in Missouri, the “show me” state, showed workers their true colors with passage of SB 202, corporate-backed legislation to defund unions and union political efforts just in time for the 2012 elections. SB 202 would, among other things, severely weaken unions’ capacity to collect dues and support pro-worker candidates for public office, and is just the latest right-wing effort to silence our voice in the political process. The bill also places a similar measure on the ballot in 2012, reflecting the authors’ cynical calculation that this attack will drive Republican voters to the polls in a key bellweather state during the upcoming presidential race. We think they’re wrong, very wrong, and this affront to our political voice will backfire and show the country just how pro-worker and pro-labor Missouri voters truly are.


Being your own boss sounds pretty good. But what if you still had someone telling you how to do your job, what hours to work, what kind of vehicle or tools to buy, how to dress, and whether or not there was work for you to do? Hmmm, that sounds a little more like you are a regular employee, right? That's the contradiction faced thousands of California workers who have been misclassified as “independent contractors.” They have no control over the work they do, but they have no employer of record, meaning no right to minimum wage, overtime, unemployment benefits, or workers compensation coverage. This week, the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee sent a strong message to employers who use misclassification to cheat their workers and deprive the state of billions in unpaid payroll taxes passing SB 459 (Corbett). This bill increases penalties for intentional violations and requires employers to inform workers when they have been classified as independent contractors. Props to the committee for taking action to hold employers accountable!


Hotel housekeepers have the highest injury rate of all service workers, and it’s no accident. Hotels routinely deny workers the use of mops, forcing them to clean on their hands and knees or stooped over. They are also required to lift 100-pound mattresses to tuck in flat sheets. More than 90% of housekeepers report suffering from work-related pain, but the staggering injury rate is foreseeable and preventable, and hotel housekeepers are no longer willing to stay on their knees. This week, dozens of housekeepers travelled to Sacramento to testify about the pain they endure from having to clean on their knees, and they even got down on the floor and demonstrated before the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. The compelling testimony resulted in the committee voting in favor of SB 432 (DeLeon), which would require Cal-OSHA to put forth a standard to protect hotel housekeepers requiring that they have access to long-handled tools and fitted sheets.  Score another one for the Senate Labor Committee!


Assemblymember Diane Harkey’s bill to de-fund California’s high-speed rail project was de-railed (so to speak) in the Assembly Transportation Committee this week. Harkey’s bill would have taken away state funding for high-speed rail right before construction on the project began, essentially killing 160,000 new construction jobs and forfeiting $5.5 billion in federal funds. Why on earth would any elected official run a bill to kill 160,000 jobs when 2.3 million Californians are jobless? Maybe because Harkey believes high-speed rail is “cultural genocide” despite the fact that Californians have overwhelmingly approved the rail project and the hundreds of thousands of jobs it will create. I wonder what culture she’s referring to?


California’s Assembly Elections Committee, led Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), took a strong stand to defend democracy this week knocking out two bills designed to intimidate voters and depress turnout: AB 945 (Donnelly) and AB 663 (Morrell). Both bills would have mandated that poll voters produce valid photo ID or risk losing their right to vote, and AB 945 would also have required voters to write part of either their driver’s license or social security number on mail ballots. These despicable bills at best ignored—and at worst reflected—the fact that such measures have repeatedly been shown to discourage people from voting. Not to mention that those turned away are disproportionately likely to be low-income, students or people of color – all of whom are highly likely to support Democrats (no wonder Republicans want to keep them away from the polls!). Committee members summarily struck down both, with Assemblymember Isadore Hall (D-Los Angeles) visibly angered and openly calling Donnelly’s bill “hideous.” We couldn’t agree more.


Most workers have to wait for federal labor law reform to gain a real right to organize. California really only has power to grant rights to workers not covered the National Labor Relations Act, which just leaves public employees, farmworkers, and domestic workers. Over the past two decades, state, city, county, school, and court workers have won meaningful organizing rights. Now farmworkers are one step closer to joining them. Last week, the California Senate passed SB 104 (Steinberg), which would allow agricultural workers to join unions as freely as public sector workers do, and the bill now heads for the Assembly floor. This would mean that farm laborers who do some of the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the state would have the opportunity to come together and work collectively to gain better wages, rights, and respect. Under existing law, farmworkers who try to organize face extreme threats and intimidation from employers. All workers deserve the right to decide whether or not to join a union free from fear, but few workers need it more than those who labor in the fields.


We all remember Nicky Diaz, Meg Whitman’s former housekeeper, who bravely spoke out last year about Whitman’s treatment of her. Now, many other domestic workers are also coming out of the shadows of the private homes they work in and calling for equal rights. This week, the Assembly Labor Committee passed AB 889 (Ammiano), the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Domestic workers are excluded from many basic protections such as overtime rights and a safe workplace. This bill was written a coalition of domestic workers trying to raise standards in their industry. It would recognize that their work caring for children or the elderly, cleaning homes, or providing services to the disabled is valued and important and they deserve respect, fairness, and security just as all workers do.


The big banks that pillaged and tanked our economy are finally getting their comeuppance for their greedy, self-serving behavior that sent our economy into a tailspin and devastated the middle class.  This week, a two-year probe the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations affirmed what we’ve always known: Goldman Sachs directly profited from the financial crisis betting billions against the subprime mortgage market, then deceived investors and Congress about the firm's conduct. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the investigative panel, led the charge against Goldman Sachs, pushing for criminal or civil punishment for the banksters that robbed our economy. When asked if he was disappointed that no Wall Street figures had gone to jail in connection with the crisis yet, Levin responded, “There's still time.” We hope that time comes very, very soon.