You are browsing the archive for civil rights.

The Supervisor From Hell Gets a Pass From SCOTUS

10:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Wikimedia Commons

The petty tyranny of middle management is practically a modern workplace institution. We’ve all experienced—or heard stories of—the despised supervisor who makes every workday miserable with verbal jabs and insults, sexual harassment, racial epithets or outright discrimination. And if that describes your workplace, your life may get just a little more nightmarish, since the Supreme Court has made it harder to wage a civil rights challenge against the supervisor from hell.

While the media has focused on the court’s big decisions this week on voting rights and marriage equality, the court also issued a major 5-4 decision on Monday limiting the scope of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The court ruled that when a supervisor engages in discriminatory harassment, the employer can be held strictly legally liable only if the supervisor working under the employer has authority over “tangible” employment decisions, namely the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline.” The decision could sharply limit employer liability for supervisor harassment in many cases.

The theoretical distinction between employer and supervisor didn’t mean much to Maetta Vance, a black catering worker at Ball State University who complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about her white supervisor’s alleged harassment and threats against her. According to the allegations, Vance’s co-worker “gave her a hard time at work by glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and intimidating her.” The day-to-day experience of bias was what drove Vance’s civil rights claim. The case illustrates how, even without hiring or firing power, a higher-up’s power to shape the social environment of a workplace can be abused, especially when abetted by institutionalized racism and socially ingrained inequality.

A direct supervisor has other means of control that fall short of hiring-or-firing-power—for instance, the ability to monitor employees, assess them or assign daily duties. The potential to abuse such powers was made evident in one of the cases cited in the decisionRhodes v. Illinois Department of Transportation.

Donna Rhodes, a highway maintenance worker, complained that two of her more senior male coworkers subjected her to a discriminatory work environment through various forms of harassment. In addition to complaints of being barraged with “sex-based invectives” and finding a pornographic image taped to her locker, Rhodes alleged that her harasser “forced her to wash her truck in sub-zero temperatures, assigned her undesirable yard work instead of road crew work, and prohibited another employee from fixing the malfunctioning heating system in her truck.” Though her employer, the Department of Transportation, admitted “Rhodes had been subjected to a sex-based hostile work environment,” the department avoided liability under Title VII by arguing that technically, the harassers “were not Rhodes’s supervisors because they lacked authority to take tangible employment actions against her.”

In Vance, the Supreme Court majority similarly ruled that Title VII did not allow direct liability for the employer, Ball State, but reasoned that victims like Vance could still “prevail [in court] simply by showing that the employer was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur.” But this would still stymie efforts to hold a corporation directly accountable for the actions of lower-level direct supervisors.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in the dissenting opinion that that in limiting Title VII recourse, the majority “embraces a position that relieves scores of employers of responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ.” She notes that:

Read the rest of this entry →

A Bill to Make Employers Less Mean to Pregnant Women

7:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Pregnant women are often victimized by employers. (spaceodissey / Flickr)

Originally posted at In These Times

Whatever our political conflicts, we can generally agree that we should treat pregnant women nicely. We don’t hesitate to help them carry their groceries or give them a seat on the bus. Yet when pregnancy comes up as a political issue, lawmakers are far more fixated on what an expecting mom’s womb is doing, rather than her hands–as she slips the check under your plate and hopes for a decent tip–or her mind–as she loses sleep wondering whether she’ll lose her job as her due date nears.

Under current law, it’s easy for bosses to mistreat pregnant women or force them off the jobYet the men who run Congress are too busy sponsoring anti-abortion bills and slashing social programs, it seems, to protect pregnant women in the workplace. One of the many labor bills left off the congressional radar is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (PWFA) which would help prevent pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired and make employers better accommodate them.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the PWFA builds on existing anti-discrimination laws by extending specific protections to pregnant employees. The legislation directs employers to “make reasonable accommodations” for an employee or job applicant’s  limitations stemming from “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” unless this would pose “undue hardship” on the business. In addition, as theNew York Times’ Motherlode explains, the law would bar employers from “using a worker’s pregnancy to deny her opportunities on the job [or] force her to take an accommodation that she does not want or need.” The bill also directs the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set regulations for implementing these laws, including “a list of exemplary reasonable accommodations.”

It was introduced earlier this year in the House and this month in the Senate–and not surprisingly, faces pretty bleak odds for being enacted. Read the rest of this entry →

A Dream of Independence Day

8:08 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from CultureStrike

It’s July 4, and wherever you are in the country right now, you’re probably not too far from a burst of fireworks, a parade replete with waving flags and confetti, or a solemn recitation of the pledge of allegiance. You’re also probably not far from the home of someone who is deprived of that sense of belonging, cut off from the privileges of citizenship that others take for granted, and perhaps even reluctant to show themselves in public, for fear of being rounded up and expelled from the country.  In the face of the enormous injustices facing so many who are Americans in all but legal status, the trappings of our 4th of July celebrations may be difficult to appreciate: the commercialized displays of blatant nationalism, the valorization of our wars abroad and unbridled drive for capitalist prosperity at home.  You might wonder why people whose very presence in this country has been criminalized and shamed would feel a sense of cultural allegiance and even national solidarity, particularly when they’re barraged with jingoistic vitriol from “fellow Americans” hell-bent on making them feel as unwelcome as possible. Why would people embrace a country that paints them as “aliens” or dismisses their very being as unlawful?

But again and again, youth who have rallied in support of the DREAM Act and immigration reform voice their desire to be full citizens, to finally be affirmed as true Americans. Which America are we talking about, here? Read the rest of this entry →

Ethnic Studies Ruling Escalates Arizona Schools Struggle

11:55 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tucson students occupy a school board meeting (Image:

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a new project that fuses art and activism in the struggle for immigrants’ rights.

While students were on their holiday break, Arizona issued a disturbing wake-up call to anyone who thought the education system had evolved to reflect America’s diversity. In a legal challenge to a controversial law passed in 2010, an administrative law judge pummeled a flagship educational initiative by supporting restrictions on programs based on Latino history and culture.

The judge decided that the curriculum used in Tucson’s Mexican American studies programs was biased against white people, apparently because it advocates critical historical perspectives and emphasizes struggles of indigenous and Latino communities, as well as the links between that legacy and contemporary politics. The ruling comes as no surprise, as the struggle between the school district and school superintendent John Huppenthal has been dragging on for months. The focus now is on a pending federal lawsuit aimed at halting the law.

CNN quotes from ruling:

In Tuesday’s ruling, administrative law judge Lewis Kowal said the auditors observed only a limited number of classes. He added, “Teaching oppression objectively is quite different than actively presenting material in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.”

“Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating pupils as individuals,” Kowal wrote. He cited a lesson that taught students that the historic treatment of Mexican-Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation,” and a parent’s complaint that one of her daughters, who was white, was shunned by Latino classmates after a government course was taught “in an extremely biased manner.”

So to sum up, it is “extremely biased” to teach critical viewpoints of the oppression, displacement and systematic discrimination that Mexicans and other groups have encountered throughout U.S. history. Read the rest of this entry →

With Anti-Immigrant Law, Alabama Is Again Ground Zero for Civil Rights

5:08 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Arizona immigration protest (Creative Commons/SEIU International)

Cross-posted from In These Times

It’s not often that human rights and business profits line up on the same side of a political debate, but Alabama is a special place. The Cotton State was not only ground zero for some of the worst abuses under Jim Crow; it was also the flashpoint for early struggles that fused economic empowerment with civil rights, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Today, Alabama is once again a focal point for racial and class struggles, ignited by an anti-immigrant law that tests our definitions of economic citizenship in a world of fluid borders.

The law, HB 56, mirrors many of the “copycat” anti-immigrant bills that have gone viral in state legislatures from Arizona to Indiana. It would impose onerous identification requirements that encourage police to arrest and detain anyone who couldn’t present the right papers. Although some of the harsher provisions were blocked by a federal court earlier this year, the legislation (signed into law in June) still threatens to further demonize immigrants and to crystallize the racist ideology driving a two-tier economy, where the privileges of the elite are subsidized by the vicious exploitation of the 99 percent.

Sadly, if the law were only a matter of shamelessly scapegoating a group of vulnerable newcomers, the law might face considerably less opposition. But the debate reveals a convoluted class-based political calculus: employers contend that draconian anti-immigrant policies could cripple the economy.

They do have a point: Getting rid of the state’s undocumented population—2.5 percent of the state, according to the Center for American Progress–wouldn’t translate into more jobs for native-born workers or immigrants with green cards. It would likely shred the already-impoverished state’s balance sheet: Read the rest of this entry →

Activists Enter Detention and Emerge Inspired

1:59 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Irene Vasquez, Andrea Ortega, Jonathan Perez, and Isaac Barrera in Albuquerque. (Image: Chicano Hispano Mexicano Studies at UNM)

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a new project that fuses immigrant struggles and the arts.

The Occupy movements mushrooming around the country have displayed the power of collective action when people organize and take to the streets. But alongside street protests, other more subtle uprisings are also exposing the hypocrisy of the political establishment from within. In Louisiana, undocumented youth have subjected themselves to the immigration gauntlet to expose struggles that countless immigrants face every day, trapped in a detention system that deprives them of basic due process rights. Their direct action coincided with the legal battle against draconian state laws that have emerged in recent months aiming to expand the profiling and detention of immigrants.

Their journey is documented on video by Arts of Aztlan.

On the xicana-ostudies blog of the Chicano Hispano Mexicano Studies program at the University of New Mexico, program director Irene Vásquez  and Levi Romero, New Mexico State Centennial Poet and Research Scholar, report on the youth’s experiences and their reflections on their ordeal:

Two undocumented student activists from California, Isaac Barrera, 20, and Jonathan Pérez, 24, took the journey of their lives and landed in a Louisiana detention facility to draw attention to the disparate treatment immigrants face in the United States.  The two undocumented human rights activists visited Albuquerque, New Mexico on their way back to California.  They attended the December 3, 2011, New Mexico Dreamers in Action State Congress.  Isaac and Jonathan shared with undocumented youth at the Congress the reasons why they took the risk of being placed in a Louisiana ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facility.  On that same day, Isaac and Jonathan participated in interviews with Daniel Sonnis of Arts of Aztlan from Albuquerque, and Levi Romero and Irene Vásquez, faculty members in the Chicano Hispano Mexicano Studies at the University of New Mexico. Read the rest of this entry →