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 — June 21, 2016

The Supreme Court has issued its ruling in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, and held the Department of Labor cannot change its interpretation of a rule absent an explanation.  The Hill reports that “in the 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Labor Department had to explain why it decided to change a longstanding policy on which employees at auto dealerships are exempt from overtime pay.”  SCOTUSblog has more on the ruling and its implications.

The SEIU is now not only criticizing the wage practices of McDonald’s, but also their planned international expansion despite not representing McDonald’s workers .  According to Reuters, the SEIU “warned potential buyers of roughly 3,000 McDonald’s Corp restaurants in Asia that such deals could saddle them with operational risks, including significant costs and liabilities.”  The letter comes as the SEIU continues the Fight for $15 campaign to improve pay and working conditions for American fast-food workers.

Verizon workers have spoken, and they overwhelmingly can hear and agree to new labor contracts.  Broadcasting & Cable notes that “Verizon workers represented by the Communications Workers of America and IBEW have ‘overwhelmingly’ voted to approve new contracts stemming from a 45-day strike by between 35,000 and 40,000 workers.”  The contracts are for four years.  A pact to end the strike was reached last month.

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Today’s News & Commentary — January 21, 2016

What does the seemingly inevitable 5-4 decision in favor of the Friedrichs petitioners mean for the Supreme Court itself? For Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, it could mean that Justice Scalia’s allegation of a “judicial putsch” — “a secretly plotted and suddenly executed attempt to overthrow a government” — is coming to bear. Justice Scalia levied that allegation in last year’s historic decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. But in likely overruling the Court’s decades-old precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, it is the Court’s conservative majority that is “strid[ing] recklessly into a danger zone.” After all, as Justice Breyer asked in the Friedrichs oral argument: “You start overruling things, what happens to the country thinking of us as a kind of stability in a world that is tough because it changes a lot?” Greenhouse notes that as recently as 2009, the Court relied on Abood in a unanimous opinion. What has changed since then? “It’s no secret,” says Greenhouse, “that in recent years, major segments of the Republican Party have declared open season on public employee unions — selectively, of course.” Whereas “[p]olice unions and correctional officers’ unions . . . have been exempt as targets,” it’s no surprise that “when [Friedrichs petitioners’ counsel Michael Carvin] . . . and the right-wing foundations supporting his lawsuit set out to recruit plaintiffs, they looked for teachers.” Thus, opines Greenhouse, “what we have here are the majority’s policy preferences conveniently clad in First Amendment armor.”

More on the DOL guidance regarding joint employers from the Washington Post‘s Lydia DePillis: describing the guidance as a “warning shot to clients of temp staffing agencies,” DePillis says that the DOL is making clear that it “thinks more companies should take responsibility for their contracted workforces, and it’s just told them exactly how and when.” The DOL’s action comes amidst the growing trend of companies “fracturing . . . the employment relationship, as [they] focus on their ‘core competencies’ and pay other business to do everything else.” And while “[s]ubcontracting, outsourcing, and the use of staffing agencies allows businesses to inexpensively scale up and scale down their labor needs, . . . it also adds another layer between workers and the bosses who call the shots, shielding managers from responsibility when the labor provider doesn’t follow the law.”

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Today’s News & Commentary — December 10, 2015

There is no question that gig firms like Uber are increasingly shaping the contours of “our rapidly changing labor market.” As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick would see it, his company is in the business of empowering workers to take “control over their time.” Yet the question, says Time‘s Rana Foroohar, is “how much control on-demand workers really have, and what they give up for it.” Foroohar holds the company up to a set of principles released yesterday by the AFL-CIO for the growing gig economy. On some principles, such as the promotion of “race and gender equality,” Foroohar questions whether Silicon Valley “really embrace[s] anyone aside from young male engineers willing to work 24/7.” On other principles, such as the provision of mobile benefits, Foroohar suggests that the company is generally supportive: she notes, for example, that Kalanick “is a fan of Obamacare” because he finds “[b]enefits that move, with people, regardless of where they work, [to be] a very empowering thing.” Who will pay for those benefits is a larger, more complicated discussion that David Plouffe, Uber’s public relations chief, says the company “want[s] to have, and will be having.” Nevertheless, Foroohar concludes by acknowledging that for all of its talk about empowerment, “the company also captures all the fear of the broken social compact in America. Uber drivers can turn on their app and work at will. But they also get no pensions, no health care, no worker rights protection, and are at the mercy of metrics, constantly graded by stars (as are riders), eating only what they kill each day.”

Nontenured instructors at the University of Chicago have become the latest group of academics to join a union. Per the Chicago Tribune, the instructors — which includes those who teach both full-time and part-time — voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining SEIU Local 73. “Unionization is not just reasonable, but necessary,” said Professor Bruce Lincoln, a tenured faculty member of the Divinity School who supports the instructors’ efforts. “Either you’ve got a revolving door or you’ve got people with no real security and no promise of advancement and low pay, and they become demoralized in those positions.” The instructors’ vote comes, of course, against the backdrop of a growing shift in university hiring practices that favors “contingent” faculty over tenure-track professors.

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Today’s News & Commentary — November 18, 2015

The Service Employees International Union has voted to endorse Hillary Clinton, The Hill reports.  In an interview following the endorsement vote, SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry stated that the SEIU feels “very confident about Hillary Clinton’s capacity to fight, win and deliver for working people.”  Although Senator Bernie Sanders has won the support of a few smaller unions, the major unions have backed Clinton.  According to the Los Angeles TimesClinton now has the support of unions representing approximately two-thirds of the nation’s unionized workers.

IKEA workers in Stoughton, MA are attempting to unionize.  The Boston Globe has covered their efforts, noting that workers picketed the store on Monday “in an effort to get the company to recognize them as a union.”  The workers want to join the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, but IKEA has not yet responded to their request.  Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have made public statements supporting the workers’ unionization efforts.

A Papa Johns’ franchisee will serve two months in jail for failing to pay his workers overtime.  Although 60 days is not a particularly long sentence, the Huffington Post notes that “any jail time at all is notable in a wage theft case.”  In addition to the jail sentence, the franchisee has also agreed to pay $230,000 in compensation to the workers.  Because the workers “were technically employed by the franchisee,” Papa John’s International Inc. was not a party to the settlement.

In international news, Afghani President Ashraf Ghani has instituted a new job program, entitled Jobs for Peace, in an attempt to prevent the departure of young Afghans to Europe.  The program also aims to restore some confidence in the struggling government and economy.  The New York Times explains that economic hardship, increasing insecurity, and a lack of hope about the future have led to a huge wave of migration: just this year, about 146,000 Afghanis migrated to Europe.

Today’s News & Commentary — November 4, 2015

Amazon has announced that it will implement new benefits for workers, including 20 weeks of leave for birth mothers and up to six weeks of paternity leave.  The company will also institute a flexible return-to-work program and the possibility to share leave with a spouse who works elsewhere.  Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe note that this shift comes just two months after the Times issued a scathing critique of Amazon’s treatment of its workers.  A spokesman for the company, when asked if the change was a response to the article, stated, “We review our benefit programs annually and began considering our leave policies in early 2015.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that two branches of the Service Employees International Union, the SEIU State Council and the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, have introduced rival minimum wage initiatives.  Both proposals, which aim to be placed on California’s November 2016 ballot, would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.  The State Council’s measure, however, would also raise the number of required paid sick days from three to six and extend sick-leave rights to home healthcare workers.  The existence of two minimum-wage proposals on the ballot is risky — it may cause the kind of confusion that leads voters to simply vote “no” on both.

Yesterday was election day, and as Politico explains, a lot is at stake for labor and employment policies.  Among the issues: a partisan showdown for governor of Kentucky, which happens to be the only southern state with no right-to-work law.  Although the result of the gubernatorial race won’t decide right-to-work issues immediately, it will have implications for the future.  The AFL-CIO and its affiliate, Working America, have invested significant resources into the race to try to ensure the victory of Democrat Jack Conway.  Other issues to watch include $15 minimum wage initiatives in Tacoma, Washington and Portland, Maine and a paid-leave measure in San Francisco.

On Monday, President Obama announced a new Executive Order to move questions about a federal job applicant’s criminal history until later in the hiring process.  As MSNBC reports, it marks a step towards “banning the box,” the effort to eliminate the “infamous box that ex-offenders have to check on job applications.”  At the Washington Post, Lydia DePillis points out that the order signals a victory for civil rights groups, but stops short of their request that Obama ban the box for federal contractors, too.  DePillis explains that President Obama probably prefers to leave it to Congress to pass legislation to “ban the box” for federal contractors, since legislation has a more lasting effect than does an Executive Order.

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Today’s News & Commentary — October 19, 2015

As Walmart’s stock nosedives deeper than ever in its 17-year history, many point to the company’s recent liberalization of labor practices as the culprit, the New York Times reports.  In June of this year the retail giant spent over a billion dollars to raise the minimum wage for over 100,000 of its U.S. workers to $9 an hour.  While labor groups and progressives have praised the decision, investors are taking aim.  “Investors fear that Walmart’s heavy investments in labor, in the Internet and in discounts will weigh on the retailer’s short-term earnings – and many are running the other way.”  Of course, the one billion dollars spent on the increased wages is but a small portion of Walmart’s earnings.  A spokesperson for the Making Change at Walmart campaign pushed back by noting that decriers are unfairly pinning a year of poor earnings on labor practices. “If you look at what $1 billion means to Walmart, it’s a very small fraction of their annual U.S. sales.  If they have moved the needle at all on sales, this is a conversation we wouldn’t be having in the first place.”

Also from the Times, a Coca-Cola bottler looking to downsize its Spanish operations has been given the green light by a Spanish court.  In January 2014 Coca-Cola Iberia announced it would lay-off a quarter of its 4,600 workers in Spain, a country already fraught with an alarming level of unemployment.  In response, labor unions took to the streets — with protests, strikes, and an attempted boycott of Coke products — and to court, where they claimed that they were improperly informed of the downscaling and that their right to strike had been infringed.  Ultimately, the court found that the company had acted in “good faith” in its dealing with workers and that it may proceed with its plan to scale down.

The Hill reports that a conversation Vice President Joe Biden had with the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) “strongly hinted that he was planning to run for president.”  In his conversation with Harold A. Schaitberger, the president of IAFF, Biden reportedly talked campaign strategy and told Schaitberger that his ever-elusive decision to run would be forthcoming.  Earlier this week Schaitberger had announced that his constituency would “certainly be very inclined to support his candidacy” if Vice President Biden chose to run.  The hypothetical endorsement is all the more interesting given recent reports that the IAFF has backtracked on plans to support the Clinton campaign.  While Clinton has gained the endorsement of many key union players, including two prominent teacher’s unions, neither the Services Employees International Union nor the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has committed to a candidate yet.  Perhaps they, too, hope that Biden will be their crusader?

A recent editorial by The Washington Post criticized the District of Columbia’s pending plan to implement a tax that would allow employees to take up to 16 weeks of paid family leave per year.  Panning the proposal as “not grounded in reality” the editorial argues that it “would end up hurting the District and its workers by driving up costs and driving away jobs.”  In particular, the piece finds fault with the plan for more-than-doubling the amount of paid leave guaranteed by States with similar policies and for making it possible for some employees to recover 100% of their pay.  Another grievance lodged by the editorial board spoke for the District employers who already provide paid leave.  “Why should a company that already offers a range of leave options (vacation, sick time, short- or long-term disability insurance) be required to pay into this fund? Won’t that induce companies to cut back on pay and other benefits or just move to Virginia or Maryland?”