Civil Rights

One step closer to the fairness finish line

Years ago, the federal government was the pioneer in adopting benefits and policies that set the bar for fairness. Over time, as more and more businesses began operating on a global scale, the private sector realized that it must compete for the best and brightest and gradually assumed the leading role.  Last week, however, at the Senate hearing on the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would provide benefits for same-sex domestic partners of federal civilian employees on the same basis as spousal benefits, it became very apparent that the federal government is ready and willing to get back in the game as a leader for equality in workplace.

This was the second time, in as many years, that Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has presided over a hearing to review whether the federal government’s policies for employment-related benefits are being applied in a fair manner.  The answer is, of course, no.  The difference between the hearing in September 2008 and the one held yesterday goes far beyond night and day.

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New bill would allow gun owners their rights on Amtrak (Rep. John Fleming)

This week, I introduced bipartisan legislation that would permit law-abiding gun owners to legally transport firearms on Amtrak trains.  The bill’s original cosponsors include Congressman Heath Shuler (D-NC), Trent Franks (R-AZ), Denny Rehberg (R-MT) and Spencer Bachus (R-AL).

The Amtrak Secure Transportation of Firearms Act of 2009, H.R. 3789, is the companion measure to Senator Roger Wicker’s S. 1638.

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Implications for U.S. policy from new evidence on global abortion trends

A new report from the Guttmacher Institute has major implications for U.S. policy, highlighting the urgency for boosting U.S. international family planning assistance and the need for the United States to be more engaged in mitigating the impact of unsafe abortion.

The report, published on October 13, shows positive global trends in increased contraceptive use, lower unintended pregnancy rates and declining abortion numbers, but also demonstrates that unsafe abortion remains a critical global health challenge. According to “Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress,” both the developed and the developing world saw overall improvements. However, developed regions saw the greatest progress, while improvement varied widely in the developing world, with Africa lagging behind all other regions.

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The right time to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell is now (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand)

Since 1994, almost 13,000 gay servicemen and women have been discharged from the military based not on their performance but on their sexual orientation. In 2009 alone, we've had more than 400 of our brave men and women leave the military under Don't Ask Don't Tell. This is simply unacceptable. It is time to repeal this outdated and immoral policy once and for all and end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly and honestly in our armed forces.

To that end, I've secured the commitment from Senator Carl Levin, Chair of the Armed Services Committee, to hold the first hearing on the policy since it began 16 years ago. Chairman Levin expects to hold the hearing soon and it's my hope that it will be instrumental in demonstrating the level of support that exists for repeal not only throughout the country -- where polls consistently indicate that solid majorities oppose the policy -- but within the military itself.

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It’s time for OFCCP to reflect the 21st century (Rep. Rosa DeLauro)

Earlier this week, I, Congressman Pete Stark, and 24 of our colleagues signed a letter urging Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to modernize the affirmative action goals set by the Office of Federal Contracts and Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in 1980 to reflect the current realities of female participation in the construction industry.

This issue is a no-brainer – OFCCP standards, which were designed to end the long-standing exclusion of women in construction, should reflect the world as it is today, not as it was decades ago.

For example, the OFCCP minimum standard for total number of work hours performed by women on a given federal contract progressed from 3.1% to 5% to 6.9% over a period of three years when the program was first established. But after this very positive start, this 6.9% participation rate – based on data from the 1970 census – has not been further expanded in over 30 years.

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Give Native American Veterans the benefits they deserve (Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick)

As the daughter and niece of soldiers, I have always believed that we have a sacred duty to respect and honor the service of our Veterans. Our fighting men and women sacrifice so much to keep this country safe, and we must do all we can to make sure they receive the treatment they have earned when they come home.

This is especially true for Native Americans Veterans, who too often face serious obstacles in using their benefits. I represent 11 different tribes in Greater Arizona, and I am determined to ensure that we keep our promises to those in Indian Country who have fought and died for our Nation.

On September 10, I introduced the Indian Veterans Housing Opportunity Act of 2009, H.R. 3553, to help achieve that goal.  The bill will correct an oversight in the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) that has caused disabled Veterans, their families and their survivors to be denied housing assistance because they are receiving Veterans’ disability and survivor benefits.

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An AFL-CIO as diverse as workers

A. Philip Randolph spoke up for civil rights at an AFL-CIO convention during a different era. It was a time when women who got pregnant were fired the moment they showed; one in which America practiced apartheid at water fountains, on buses, and in schools; one that hid people with physical and mental disabilities away in institutions; one where no openly gay people lived.

It was 1959 when Randolph spoke at the AFL-CIO convention in San Francisco. As founder and leader of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph served on the AFL-CIO executive council.

Normally dignified and composed, Randolph let loose a fiery speech seeking from the gathering a commitment to greater inclusion. Collective bargaining had given the members of his union – railroad porters, maids and cooks – the power they needed to secure middle class wages from the Pullman Company. Randolph wanted the AFL-CIO to help end racial injustice and provide that access to more minorities.

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Rep. Blumenauer's DOMA shift

On July 12, 1996, I cast the worst vote of my political career. Having served in public office since 1973, that says something. While I've made other mistakes, this was different: it was a deliberate vote that I knew to be poor public policy and was against my values. I've been a strong champion of civil rights and protections based on sexual orientation since I chaired the first legislative hearing on anti-discrimination legislation in 1973. Even worse, this vote was cast after careful consideration.

Having given it much thought, I was convinced that by voting for this one federal statute against the recognition of same-sex marriage, it would somehow take the steam out of the Newt Gingrich-Tom Delay Congress, which was using the homophobic right-wing agenda to mobilize their base at the expense of millions of gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual Americans. My hope was to simply move on and get to more pressing business at hand, including smaller steps for equality based on sexual orientation, like legislation against employment discrimination.

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E-Verify Hurts the Workforce It’s Meant to Protect

This week, the administration enacted a policy which makes E-Verify mandatory for all government contractors and subcontractors, including those who receive stimulus funds.  The policy applies not just to new hires, but to current employees as well, even those who have put in years of service.  This policy along with other E-Verify agreements already in place in private industry puts American workers and legally authorized workers at risk of losing their jobs through no fault of their own.  In the bleakest economic climate in a generation, the administration’s E-Verify policy has given workers yet another hurdle to clear:  a flawed, bureaucratic system.

E-Verify has been plagued with problems, including a failure to identify legally authorized workers due to its reliance on the error-ridden databases of the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Discrepancies between workers' social security numbers and SSA records can result from many innocent factors, including simple human error.  The data error rates in both SSA and DHS files concerning work-eligible U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and visa holders are well-documented.

The SSA’s own Inspector General found that more than 70 percent of the discrepancies in the SSA database, upon which E-Verify relies, that could generate a “no match” letter belong to native-born U.S. citizens.   Up to this point this problem has been partially masked by the fact that workers who received an initial non-confirmation could find different employment with a non-E-Verify employer.

Although the E-Verify program is meant as an immigration enforcement tool, it does little to decrease undocumented immigration.  Instead, it will fuel the growth of off-the-books hiring by employers who may prefer to skip W-2 forms and instead pay employees with cash and as a result, sidestep basic workers’ protections. Sanctions will not eradicate a two-tier labor market that pushes undocumented immigrant workers into a shadowy world of low wages, employer harassment, and nonexistent labor protections. It will simply push undocumented workers further underground, continuing a race to the bottom in terms of wages for all workers, including the American middle class and those who hope to join it.

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America is not yet a post-racial society

The election of President Barack Obama is heralded by many as a triumphant leap into a new post-racial America, in which the scars of centuries-old racial wounds have healed and equal opportunity flourishes. But the truth is, we still have a long way to go.

It’s 2009 and race still matters. Race affects the type of education you receive, the type of neighborhood in which you live, the likelihood that you or someone you know will be incarcerated, and even the extent to which your community is being affected by the current economic crisis.

As ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Reginald Shuford notes in his law review article, "Why Affirmative Action Remains Essential in the Age of Obama" (.pdf), black men without criminal records are no more likely than white men with criminal records to get a job. Another study illustrates that job applicants with “black-sounding” names are less likely to get a favorable response to their resumes than those with “white-sounding” names.

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