Today’s News & Commentary — January 25, 2017

When we talk about disappearing jobs, we often think of men.  But as the New York Times notes, women are also part of the trend.  In the United States, the “share of prime-age women bringing home a paycheck rose at the end of World War II” and continued increasing during the 1970s and 1980s before it peaked in 1999 at 77 percent.  In the early 2000s, however, women’s participation in the labor force began decreasing — making the United States one of the only major countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development not to have a rising rate of female workforce participation.  During the recession, that rate plunged further, and it has failed to bounce back.  In 2015, only 73.7 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 were in the work force.

Although Trump met with several union leaders on Monday, the gathering was limited to representatives of the construction and building trades unions.  Public sector and service industry unions — some of the most powerful supporters of Democrats in recent elections — were not invited.  As Newsweek explains, the meeting may be “a sign of how Trump may seek to split organized labor as president.”  Still, the excluded unions, such as the SEIU, aren’t backing down.  SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told Newsweek that although Trump poses challenges to her union, the threats are “not existential,” and the SEIU is preparing to fight for the same blue-collar workers Trump managed to win over.

Taxpayers get stuck with the cost of supporting workers in the fast food industry. That’s the thesis of a recent Los Angeles Times article articulating why Andy Puzder as Secretary of Labor gives major cause for concern.  The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that Puzder’s CKE Restaurants, which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s brands, collects a taxpayer-funded subsidy of about $247 million a year.  According to NELP, that’s what it takes to “offset poverty wages and keep [CKE’s] low-wage front-line workers and their families from economic disaster.”  The issue is particularly salient because Puzder opposes an increase in the minimum wage, but evidence exists that even modest minimum wage increases “help to cut the need of low-wage workers for assistance from Medicaid and other programs.”

Collective Bargaining Can Still Work

People have been writing the obituary of the labor movement at least since the 1980s.  These doomsayers fall into two camps.  One the one hand, there are those who are eager to squelch worker power.  A typical example is Virginia Foxx, the new Chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, who recently grabbed headlines when she asserted that organized labor had “sort of lost its reason for being.”  Representative Foxx has never shown any interest in improving the lives of workers, so her comments are like a rabid Yankees’ fan predicting a bad year for the Red Sox.  Of course, she’s not just a “fan,” she holds a position of power where she will undoubtedly try to make it harder for workers to bargain collectively.

But, at the moment, I’m more interested in the other critics – the labor partisans who argue that a new model is necessary to reverse labor’s long decline.  Academics and outside observers have long tried to garner attention by promoting a shiny new toy that would replace the existing labor law regime.  But it is more notable when a successful labor leader like David Rolf makes the same case.  Rolf, a savvy strategist, who heads a home care workers’ union in Washington State, was one of the driving forces behind a successful ballot measure that dramatically raised wages and won paid sick leave for thousands of workers in SeaTac, where Seattle’s airport is located.  Even though the Fight for Fifteen in Seattle could never have succeeded without support from unions that were the product of collective bargaining, Rolf is now going around the country arguing that collective bargaining is dead and unions need to find something new to replace it.  In a post on this blog, Rolf set up a straw man by criticizing the status quo as based on “enterprise bargaining.”  Elsewhere, Rolf suggested that we need a new model to promote geographic and/or sectoral bargaining.  While it’s true that under current law, multiemployer bargaining is voluntary, unions already have a long history of engaging in geographic and/or sectoral bargaining.  In some cases this has happened through formal multiemployer associations, while in other cases it happens informally on a de facto basis, but wherever unions have been successful, whether it is hospital workers in New York, supermarket workers in California, hotel workers in Las Vegas, or office cleaners in two dozen cities, this is what unions do now.  And it’s not just in “legacy” industries.  In fact, just this month, my union, SEIU Local 32BJ, reached a first contract with eleven employers covering over 7,000 workers at New York City’s three airports.  Furthermore, even bargaining with a single employer can make a huge impact if the employer is large enough.  For instance, the Teamsters represent over 250,000 workers who are employed by UPS.  And if there were a successful campaign to organize Wal-Mart, that would cover over one million workers.

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Today’s News & Commentary — December 29, 2016

One of the nation’s largest labor unions is preparing to respond to Trump with less.  Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Eidelson reports that an internal memo shows the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is planning a 30 percent budget cut over the next year.  The memo cites fear that a Republican-controlled federal government will enact policies that impede collective bargaining.  The SEIU represents 2 million workers nationally and has been spearheading the Fight for $15 movement.

Trump’s chosen Secretary of Labor similarly inspires concern that the federal government will be hostile to workers outside of the collective bargaining relationship.  Accoring to Mother Jones, a review of old interviews shows that Andy Puzder has previously complained on the record about overtime rules and protective regulations, calling workers “overprotected” and questioning the need for mandatory breaks.

Workers in New York State can at least have confidence in their state government.  The National Law Review reports that the New York State Department of Labor has amended minimum wage regulations to increase the salary basis threshold for executive and administrative employees, irrespective of the status of a similar planned increase of the federal threshold.  The new thresholds in New York depend on employer size and whether the employer is located in greater New York City .

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Today’s News & Commentary — November 30, 2016

On Tuesday, the SEIU-backed Fight for $15 movement staged a nationwide “day of disruption” to demand, according to the New York Times and Politico, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the right to form a union, and health benefits for low-wage workers.  The protests mark the four-year anniversary of Fight for $15, and thousands of workers across multiple cities took the streets.  The protests included retail workers, Uber drivers, fast food employees, and workers at hospitals and airports.

Donald Trump has chosen Elaine Chao, former secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, to serve as secretary of transportation.  The New York Times observes that she is “likely to be one of the more essential players” in the new administration, given that Mr. Trump has stated that infrastructure redevelopment will be a top priority of his first 100 days in office.

In October, the NLRB resolved an action against Bridgewater Associates, and the New York Times has now obtained a document about the agreement.  It is so heavily redacted, however, that it is “unclear what, if any, changes were made to Bridgewater’s employee rules and practices.”  This past summer, the NLRB challenged certain confidentiality provisions in the contracts that Bridgewater requires each of its full-time employees to sign.  The NLRB action was initiated after a former Bridgewater employee filed a sexual harassment complaint.  However, after Bridgewater and representatives of the former employee came to a private nonboard agreement, the NLRB withdrew its complaint.

In international news, BBC News reports that the introduction of a National Living Wage in the UK has not affected employment.  The Low Pay Commission, the body that monitors low pay for the government, stated that it has found “no clear evidence” of changes in employment or hours since the the introduction of a higher minimum wage in April.  In addition, it found that employment has continued to rise even in sectors “most obviously affected, such as cleaning, hotels, horticulture and retail.”  BBC News notes that although various economists and think tanks had warned that raising the minimum wage would hurt employment, the Low Pay Commision’s findings “contradict” those warnings.


Labor in the Trump Years: A Series

The election of Donald Trump along with a Republican Congress presents a set of profound challenges and questions for the labor movement and for workers.  As the readers of OnLabor know, the election of 2016 may mean (among other things): a national right to work law for the private sector; national right to work rules for the public sector (through the return of Friedrichs-type cases); the possibility that exclusive representation itself could eventually be ruled unconstitutional; a reshaped NLRB willing to undo much of what the Obama board has done, including on questions of joint employment, arbitration, graduate student organizing, and rules for non-union workplaces; a Department of Labor, potentially led by Scott Walker, and willing to undo what the historic Obama Department has achieved; workplace raids aimed at undocumented immigrant workers; a different approach to Title VII and the EEOC.  The list, of course, continues. Continue reading

Weekend News & Commentary — September 24-25, 2016

A pioneer in developing co-working spaces, WeWork has been impacted for more than a year by labor and employment disputes.  On Friday, it took a step toward resolving at least one of those outstanding issues by signing a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board regarding policies on employee communications.  The Board had alleged that portions of the company’s policies and handbook could be read to forbid the discussion of wages and unionization in violation of federal law.  Remedial steps agreed to include emailing employees about their right to work together on employment issues, and to form unions.  The handbook will also be changed.

The New York Times reports on troubling news from a recent study by the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute about the wages of home care workers: such aides now actually earn less than they did a decade ago.  That decrease in wages—from an inflation-adjusted median of $10.21 an hour in 2005 to $10.11 an hour today—comes despite Labor Department action in 2013 to extend minimum wage and overtime rights to the industry.  The Times notes two bright spots within the study: the Affordable Care Act has boosted the number of home care workers with health insurance, and the more than 600,000 aides who have joined the Service Employees International Union in recent years have secured raises.

In the aftermath of Senate hearings this week on fraudulent sales practices at Wells Fargo, two former employees have filed a class action lawsuit in California alleging that the company punished employees who failed to meet aggressive sales quotas.  The former employees argue that those workers who refused to engage in fraud and then missed their targets were often pressured to work off the clock or fired.  The suit alleges wrongful termination, wage theft, and overtime violations under California labor statutes.

Also in California, the state labor commissioner announced this week that eighteen garment companies based in Los Angeles were fined more than $682,000 for violations of state labor laws.  Investigators seized more than $150,000 in illegally manufactured garments, which state officials said would be distributed to local homeless and domestic violence shelters.

French Lessons: Why Labor and Laborism Need One Another

The 2008 election produced the only institutional arrangement seemingly able to break legislative logjams in our age of polarization: consolidated party control over the entire federal government, alongside a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  Union leaders and their allies saw an opening for significant labor law reform, a goal that had proved elusive for over half a century.  Combined with the hard-earned lessons learned by an increasingly diverse and creative leadership rank, organized labor looked to a new legal framework as a way to catalyze organizing drives and finally, at long last, staunch the steady loss of membership.

The excitement proved short-lived.  Labor’s signature piece of legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) stalled in the Senate in the summer of 2009, meeting the same fate as prior efforts to rebalance the legal playing field governing labor and management.  The 2010 midterm wipeout of Democratic officeholders in the House and Senate ensured another presidency would pass without reform.  Many analysts – myself included – believed that absent a fundamental change in the legal framework governing collective bargaining in this country, the labor movement would continue to recede into the background of the nation’s political economy.

By certain indicators, we were right.  Roughly 1 in 20 private sector workers belongs to a labor union today, 1/7th the rate during labor’s heyday, and the recent past has revealed the fragility of labor’s public sector power, spared a further legal setback only by the death of Justice Scalia.

Yet as we enter President Obama’s final months in office, it’s clear the prediction missed something important.  Yes membership remains at historic lows.  But, to borrow from Richard Yeselson, “laborism” is ascendant, in spite of the little actual labor to keep it afloat.   The Fight for 15 – begun as a small organizing battle in the town of Seatac, Washington – is transforming the lives of millions of low-wage workers.  Fast food protests and OUR Walmart’s spotlight on the retail behemoth pressured employers to improve working conditions.  President Obama’s recent executive orders and a newly-emboldened NLRB demonstrate what can be accomplished in the face of Congressional gridlock.  And the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is pushing a worker-friendly agenda into the Democratic Party platform – and into Hillary Clinton’s policy program.

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