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Winsotn-Salem teach-inThe demonstration against the North Carolina legislature’s voter suppression law, organized by the NAACP and Moral Monday movement last Monday in Winston-Salem, was a stirring reminder that, fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, civil rights cannot be taken for granted in this country. But the organizers of the day’s event also called attention to another disturbing trend, one that is closely connected to civil rights: the war on poor people, particularly those who find themselves in the most precarious jobs of our economy’s service sector.

A teach-in on economic justice, facilitated by the NAACP, was held on Monday afternoon at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church. Ben Wilkins of Raise Up for 15 launched the discussion by emphasizing that voter suppression laws are aimed not only at minorities, but at poor people.

To emphasize this point, Wilkins quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech of March 25, 1965, in which Dr. King observed that “segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land…[T]he southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. … And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.” Read More

Commentary

There’s been a great deal of justifiable  attention given over the last several months to the issue of “misclassification” — the wrongful treatment of employees by employers as “independent contractors.” As Raleigh’s News & Observer demonstrated in a damning series last year entitled “Contract to Cheat”:

“It’s a tactic that costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Yet when it comes to public projects, government regulators have done nearly nothing about it, even when the proof is easy to get.

The workers don’t have protections. The companies don’t withhold taxes. The regulators don’t seem to care.”

This year, North Carolina legislators introduced legislation to attack the problem, but as Raleigh attorney Leonard Jernigan explained in a Progressive Voices essay for N.C. Policy Watch recently, the legislation has been watered down to the point at which it will have little real impact.

“The bills, for instance, do not provide for ‘stop work’ orders that would force companies to halt work on projects until they obtain insurance for their workers.

What’s more, cheating employers are not punished at all until they are caught the second time. And even then, the penalty is a paltry $1,000 fine per employee regardless of how big the business is, how long the cheating has gone on and how much harm may have been caused or the competitive advantage gained over honest employers.

Last and perhaps even more importantly, there is no criminal penalty attached to misclassification fraud. These companies are not confused about the status of their employees. The cheating is blatant and intentional. It’s simply outrageous that an out-of-state company can come in and cheat honest businesses and North Carolina taxpayers out of millions of dollars and no one is even threatened with jail.”

Today at 1:00 p.m., the House Judiciary II Committee will take up the misclassification legislation and, if things go well, consider some toughening amendments to put some actual teeth in it. Let’s hope that, at a minimum, committee members add the “stop work” provision and some real penalties — which at this point — are laughably inadequate.

Commentary
Stan Kimer[Editor’s note: Stan C. Kimer is a retired IBM executive and former President of the North Carolina Council of Churches. He now runs a firm which offers consulting services around diversity management and training, and talent/career development. This is the third installment in a series of posts he is authoring for The Progressive Pulse. You can read the previous installments by clicking here and here.] 

I started this series in April on the importance of engaging both the business community and the faith/religious community in promoting workers’ rights. I will alternate each month between the business community and faith community connection, and since I wrote my first business community piece last month, this month I introduce the faith perspective.

I write the faith perspective with a long history of leadership within the North Carolina Council of Churches, including serving as their President in 2011 and 2012. This strong and active organization within North Carolina includes 17 denominations and eight individual congregations that have over 6,200 congregations and about 1.5 million congregants.

The overall mission statement reads, “the Council enables denominations, congregations, and people of faith to individually and collectively impact our state on issues such as economic justice and development, human well-being, equality, compassion and peace, following the example and mission of Jesus Christ.

Wow!! Engaging people of faith to support fair treatment, compensation and benefits for all workers falls squarely in most of these individual elements. Let’s explore several of them one by one:

  • Economic Justice and Development. Even as we live in one of the richest nations of the world, the gap between the poor and wealthy continues to grow, and many people even with full time jobs struggle with living in poverty.
  • Human well-being. Typically those in the lower paying jobs struggle to barely survive, and often do not receive benefits higher wage earners commonly receive critical to human health and well-being. Lower wage earners often go without healthcare benefits, family leave to deal with illness, fair treatment during pregnancy and more.
  • Equality. It is only fair that all hard working people are compensated well enough to live and afford basic necessities.
  • Compassion. People of faith should always have a strong commitment to bettering the lives of all people, and true compassion means speaking out and advocating for those who are struggling to survive and may not have the time and energy to engage in this advocacy.

While the North Carolina Council of Churches is itself overtly Christian, many of the committees and task groups working on issues such as this (see for example the N.C. Families Care Coalition) are interfaith and include members from non-Christian faith communities as well as additional Christian denomination not a part of the Council. This underlines that promoting justice in our world is a strong common commitment across the universal faith and human community.

I now look forward to continuing this faith discussion in alternating months.

Commentary

Wake County businessman Doug Burton had had enough of the unfair competition that North Carolina continues to sanction with its failure to pass meaningful laws to crack down on the wrongful treatment on employees as “independent contractors.”

In an excellent op-ed in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer, he lays out the increasing dire problem:

“Treating employees as independent contractors when in fact they are regular employees is a fraudulent business practice that has become an epidemic. Some call this “misclassification,” but it is in fact fraud that lets these cheating businesses – many from out of state – off the hook for basic protections, including minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, health and safety protections, unemployment insurance, federal and state tax withholding, social security withholdings and matching and more.

This fraud is a growing problem that harms workers, puts a strain on government resources and provides an unfair advantage when these unscrupulous employers compete with law-abiding businesses. I see it every day. Other legitimate business owners see it, too, when they are regularly underpriced for jobs and there is no other explanation for such bids other than cheating. When cheating businesses classify employees as independent contractors to reduce labor costs, legitimate business and workers alike lose out.”

He goes on to explain why current proposals in the General Assembly are a start but fail to go anywhere close to far enough: Read More

Commentary
Image: Citizens Against Ag-Gag Legislation Facebook page

Image: Citizens Against Ag-Gag Legislation Facebook page

[Update: The veto override motion on House Bill 405 passed the House today by a vote of 79-36 and the Senate by a vote of 32-15]. One of the most unfortunate developments at the North Carolina General Assembly in recent years has been the GOP majority’s affinity for shutting down debate. Though things have improved in the House somewhat since the departure of Thom Tillis, Republican leaders (many of whom complained mightily about the same practices while they were in the minority) have all too often turned to the cheap and lazy solution of limiting debate and public comment, pushing things through on voice votes (e.g. Senator Bob Rucho’s recently shameful performance) and/or using procedural bureaucracy to “table” amendments, rule them  “out of order” or to prevent them from even being offered in the first place.

Of course, the excuse that’s often advanced for the use of such tactics is that “everyone already knows how they’re going to vote” on XYZ bill and therefore, additional debate is just a “waste of time.”

If ever there was a bill that demonstrates the emptiness of such an excuse, however, it has to be the controversial “Ag gag” bill that Governor McCrory recently vetoed. When the measure first passed the House by a huge margin a few weeks ago during a rush of legislation, it received relatively little attention and was perceived as simply being about the issue of animal abuse. Since that time, however, things have changed — most notably that more and more people have actually read the proposal and begun to envision scenarios in which it would have a negative or even dangerous potential impact.

Now, today, as the House prepares to consider overriding the Governor’s veto, there is vastly more public attention and all sorts of problems that had not previously been considered are “on the table.” Moreover, numerous important groups that had simply missed the bill — from the AARP to disabled vets — are against it.

The veto may still be overridden and the proposal may well become law, but there can be little doubt that the state will be better off going forward for having had a much more thorough debate and for having a great deal more scrutiny on the issue.  Let’s hope fervently that the experieince teaches some important people a lesson about how democracy works best.