December 13, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 18
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FedEx’s holiday hustle

Wade Henderson

This Monday, FedEx Ground expects to shatter their holiday shipping and sales records when they move more than 7 million packages — their highest volume ever.

But at what cost to their drivers?

For years, FedEx has been systematically misclassifying its ground delivery employees as “independent contractors,” to keep them outside the bounds of civil rights and labor law protections.

Consider the following:

• Earlier this year, FedEx agreed to pay almost $55 million and overhaul its pay, discipline and promotion practices in a suit that claimed the company harbored a culture of hostility toward people of color, allowing racial bias to impact its human resources decisions;

• In November, FedEx Ground agreed to pay $235,000 to five former and present Massachusetts drivers to settle a series of unfair labor charges brought by the National Labor Relations Board;

• Four Massachusetts drivers are suing in local court, charging they were discriminated against because they are Arab Americans, in a suit that alleges that managers called them terrorists, asked them if they were sending money to Osama bin Laden, gave them heavier delivery routes than their white counterparts and made a call to the FBI that promoted one to be questioned;

• FedEx Ground workers, as a class, are challenging their status in a class action suit against the firm in federal court in northern Indiana;

• The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether an age discrimination lawsuit against FedEx Corporation by 14 FedEx employees can proceed. FedEx is not challenging the discrimination issue — rather, the company is questioning whether the employees filed the right kind of document to initiate a charge of job-related age discrimination.

These examples and others are documented in a report, “Fed Up with FedEx: How FedEx Ground Tramples Workers’ Rights and Civil Rights,” recently released by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and American Rights at Work.

Many of us take for granted the protections that civil rights, labor laws and unions provide us in the corporate suite, on the shop floor or on the assembly line.

We think that we can leave our well-being to a corporation and its managers.

Yet in the wake of a perfect storm of bad court decisions, lack of enforcement of existing labor laws and aggressive anti-worker tactics by employers, we should think again.

The right of workers to organize and to be protected by labor laws is fast emerging as one of the major civil rights goals of the 21st century. It is the reason that civil, human and workers rights groups support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act — a bill that would reform a broken system in which employers frequently intimidate, harass, reassign or even fire workers who support the formation of a union.

And workers are not the only ones who benefit when labor and civil rights laws are enforced. State and local government does as well.

That is the reason that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced this summer a plan to step up enforcement against thousands of companies that illegally misclassify workers as independent contractors so they can cheat on taxes and skimp on employee benefits. Misclassification, the state said, costs New York a significant amount in unemployment insurance taxes and workers’ compensation premiums while denying many workers overtime pay.

FedEx is certainly not the only or the most egregious perpetrator of anti-labor practices.

But FedEx is to delivery services what Kleenex is to tissue and Xerox is to copying — a globally recognized brand name and a striking example of a company widely considered to be a pillar of American success and corporate and philanthropic responsibility.

Yet FedEx’s anti-union, anti-worker conduct and its efforts to subvert labor and discrimination law belie that reputation. FedEx and other companies have a public responsibility to live up to the good image they promote.

But customers also have a responsibility to encourage good behavior. This means that we should spend our money wisely and support those corporations that treat their workers fairly.

Wade Henderson is the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which consists of more than 192 national organizations, representing persons of color, women, children, labor unions, individuals with disabilities, older Americans, major religious groups, gays and lesbians and civil liberties and human rights groups.

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