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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 26, 2012, 6:00 pm

More Political Intimidation at Work; NYT Byline Strike Looms; Half of Unemployment Dollars Unclaimed

BY Mike Elk

Every week, Working In These Times rounds up the labor news we missed from the week before. Email story ideas to mike@inthesetimes.com. 

Since In These Times broke the news that Koch Industries was telling its workers how to vote--and then that Mitt Romney was encouraging business owners to do the same--the media has produced a flood of stories of corporations pressuring employees politically. One CEO, who hired 250 workers using stimulus money, recently told his workers they should vote for Romney because Obama's "overspending" presented a threat to their jobs. From the Huffington Post’s Jason Cherkis and Zach Carter:

In this month's employee newsletter, the head of a Michigan processed-food company endorsed Republican nominee Mitt Romney and criticized President Barack Obama for spending too much government money. Jack DeWitt, the president of Request Foods, called Obama "a complete failure," slamming him on social and economic issues. He did not mention that his company received millions in federal money under Obama.

Request Foods obtained $5.5 million under a federal grant program that Obama's stimulus bill increased by $1 billion. Last year, the company greatly expanded its footprint in Holland, Mich., where it used the money for a water treatment plant to serve a new facility.

The company has also seen a strong increase in sales during the Obama administration.

The epidemic of employers touting the Republic Party to their employees is ironic, considering the Bush Administration once denounced an overseas election in which something similar happened. From Gordon Lafer, writing in The Hill:

Newly surfaced tape records Mitt Romney himself urging employers to “make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming election.”

These are the kind of banana-republic tactics that our government regularly condemns when they occur abroad. The Bush Administration, for instance, rejected Ukrainian elections as illegitimate, in part because international observers found that managers of state-owned enterprises had “instructed their subordinates to vote for [the ruling party].” ... The Bush Administration criticized Armenia’s elections, for instance, after observers reported that “factory workers … were instructed to attend the incumbent’s rallies.”  But what we reject for Armenians and Ukrainians, the business lobbies now want to institute at home.

Likewise, Mark Ames--who co-authored with me the 2011 Nation article that originally revealed Koch Industries' in-house politicking--points out that Romney’s own top Russian advisor had criticized Russian elections because employers were telling workers how to vote. Via NSFW Corp:

Note that, unlike in America, in Russia it is at least technically illegal for employers to pressure employees on how to vote. So in that sense, we’ve already regressed further from democracy than Putin’s Russia. America’s elections, by the standards of the same elections monitors we fund over in Russia, are looking increasingly as rigged and undemocratic as Russia’s.

Golos was shut down briefly by Russian courts for doing its job—which largely consisted of collecting and exposing incidents in which bosses applied pressure on their workers to vote for Putin's Party in the Duma elections. This year, the Kremlin moved to cut off western funding for Golos, after they exposed similar antidemocratic tactics in the vote that reinstalled Putin as Russia's president.

In other words, for authoritarian oligarchy to survive, it needs to be able to work with CEOs to pressure their employees—what Romney is doing today, thanks to Citizens United.

And yet, even Romney’s top Russia policy advisor to his campaign, Leon Aron, in denouncing Putin’s sham elections, singled out "forcing state employees to vote" among the list of sins.

Reporters and photographers at the New York Times, who have worked without a contract for nearly a year and half, are now preparing for a potential byline strike. From JimRomensko.com:

A Sunday dispatch from the Newspaper Guild of New York says hundreds of New York Times staffers have in recent days “quietly signed pledges to withhold their bylines, photo credits, and producing credits” and “have also pledged to work strictly to the terms of the contract.”

It adds: “We don’t know yet if we will have to go down this road, but it is vital that we be prepared.”

A new ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will make it more difficult for federal contractors to avoid paying back illegally denied wages. As Steve Cooper of We Party Patriots explains, “While the Davis-Bacon act ensures prevailing wages are paid on federally funded projects, it does not give workers recourse for collecting them in the event they are unfairly cheated out of them. Now, workers can use the FCA to go after all-too-commonplace underpayments.” More from PRNewswire:

This ruling underscores the need for government contractors everywhere to do all they can to ensure that they—and their subcontractors—are in full compliance with all guidelines on prevailing wages for federal construction projects, as required by the Davis-Bacon Act,” advised Barnsback, an Alexandria, Va.-based partner in the national law firm, who was not involved with this particular case.

“Fortunately, the court in this case gave some clear guidance on what contractors need to do to steer clear of FCA violations.” Under the Davis-Bacon Act, federal contractors are required to pay set wages for various job classifications established by the U.S. Department of Labor. “The prime contractor has to submit payroll certifications each week, stating that all of the laborers were paid the proper wages and hours,” Barnsback explained.

“Prior to this ruling, failure to pay the amount established by the wage determination had widely been considered the exclusive jurisdiction of the Department of Labor. The argument made was that only DOL could sort out details such as whether a worker should be classified as, say, a ‘general laborer’ or a ‘concrete/cement laborer’ and determine the amount each should be paid. But as the court saw it, submitting false payroll certifications falls outside of classification issues and is properly considered by the courts under the FCA.”

Despite controversy over supposed unemployment benefit overpayment, a new study find that unemployment benefits go unclaimed more often than not. From the Huffington Post:

Only half of eligible unemployed Americans during the most recent recession actually collected unemployment benefits, according to a new analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And over the past 22 years, only one-third of those eligible for jobless benefits collected them on average.

If everyone that qualified for unemployment benefits in 2009 collected them, then the government would have spent $108 billion more on jobless benefits that year: That's roughly 10 times more than the $11 billion that the government overpaid in jobless benefits that year, according to the analysis.

The difference is striking, considering the recent controversy surrounding overpayment of unemployment benefits. The government overpaid about $14 billion in unemployment benefits last year, according to Labor Department data cited by CNNMoney. Some recipients have included prisoners, dead people, retired public workers, and the employed.

In addition, 2,362 millionaires received unemployment benefits in 2009. Though the figure may seem outrageous, it amounted to only 0.02 percent of all unemployment benefit income, according to the Congressional Research Service. Still, Congressional Republicans have seized on the findings to advocate for ending unemployment benefits for millionaires. But unemployment benefits are a form of insurance, and more than nine in ten unemployment benefit recipients in 2009 lived in households with annual incomes of less than $100,000 per year, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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