Today’s News and Commentary — October 20

The New York Times features a profile of Wisconsin governor and staunch labor opponent Scott Walker’s gubernatorial and presidential prospects. Gov. Walker was elected in 2010 and quickly passed a law eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees. That decision led to a long-term occupation of the state house in Madison, WI by unions and their allies and an ultimately unsuccessful recall campaign. Recently, Gov. Walker has faced scandal as allegations that his anti-recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative organizations. Gov. Walker now finds himself in a tight gubernatorial race with Democrat Mary Burke. The article argues that if Walker loses this campaign, his presidential hopes will quickly fade.

Salon also features the commentary of Roxanne Trigg, a home health worker in Wisconsin, who describes the difficulty of living on $9.15 an hour. She calls on Gov. Walker and all candidates for office to stand with her and other home health care workers, inspired by fast food protests, to ask for a $15 minimum wage.

In minimum wage-related news, the San Diego City Council is voting today on whether to revoke an already announced wage increase to $11.50 an hour. The UC San Diego Guardian states that this vote will determine whether the increase is withdrawn completely or put to public referendum in 2016.

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Weekend News & Commentary — October 18-19

This month marks the first anniversary of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in New York, signed into law on October 2, 2013. The law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, so long as these accommodations don’t cause undue hardship for the employer. The New York Times profiles efforts to raise awareness of these rights among low-income working women, who are often at high risk of being pushed out of their work – and into poverty – when they become pregnant.

Less than one-third of trains are running in Germany this weekend, following a countrywide strike by the German train drivers’ union. The standstill has remained locked over demands for higher wages and shorter working hours. Negotiations continue between the union – the Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer – and Deutsche Bahn. The Wall Street Journal reports.

Air Canada has reached a tentative 10-year deal with its 3,000 pilots. The Air Canada Pilots Association, which previously had only signed three year accords, will now present the terms to its members for a vote over the coming weeks. The Montreal Gazette reports.

Today’s News and Commentary — October 17

The Opinion section of The LA Times posits that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) should be allowed to actively enforce the “hot goods” provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, even if the DOL oversteps its authority in some cases. That provision allows DOL to prohibit an employer from selling or shipping goods out of state if those goods were made by workers in violation of minimum wage, overtime, or child labor provisions. The article argues that the “hot goods” provision has been prone to “misuse” by DOL but that it would be wrong for “Congress to try to strip that otherwise effective labor rights enforcement tool from [DOL] over this misuse.” Rather, the author points out that the provision is an important tool in bringing unscrupulous employers to justice, “especially in an era of weakened unions.”

The chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet L. Yellen, visited a nonprofit that helps people find work in the predominately Latino city of Chelsea, Massachusetts. The local program, CONNECT, provides employment services and advice to individuals who are actively looking for jobs in the formerly industrial city north of Boston. Since becoming the Federal Reserve’s first woman chair in February 2014, Yellen has made a point to prioritize employment issues and speak with workers and job training organizations across the country.

Unions in a wide variety of sectors have mobilized to address concerns regarding the threat of Ebola exposure. The move comes after National Nurses United, the union that represents nurses at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, criticized the hospital and the Center for Disease Control for not taking adequate precautions. Following in those footsteps, the American Federation of Teachers and the International Association of Firefighters have announced that they will take steps to discuss worker preparedness with their members. The SEIU has also said that some workers do not feel adequately prepared to screen for the Ebola virus at airports.

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Today’s News & Commentary — October 16

In fast food news, the Washington Post has a story on retail jobs’ perception problem (including fast food jobs) and what the National Retail Federation is doing to counteract this issue. According to the Post, the NRF will announce Retail Jobs Week, during which the organization will release research that it says will demonstrate the impact of the industry’s jobs on state and regional economies. Further, it released a study from the University of Georgia yesterday that found that retail wages are “highly competitive” with those in other sectors. The campaign is aimed at lawmakers as part of ongoing battles over the minimum wage. You can read Ben’s post on new leadership at the National Retail Federation here.

In health news, the nurses union at the Dallas hospital that treated a patient with Ebola has released a statement condemning inadequate training and procedures at the hospital, according to CBS. National Nurses United is the largest nurses union in the country and represents nurses at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. After treating a patient with Ebola last week, two nurses who provided care to that patient have since been diagnosed with the virus. The nurses union contends that poor training and procedures for handling infectious procedures led to these nurses—and potentially other patients and healthcare workers—being exposed to Ebola. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Health and Human Services is investigating their complaint. According to the Los Angeles Times, the union wrote a letter to the President requesting that he “mandate uniform standards” at all hospitals to ensure that health care workers don’t become infected.

In Philadelphia, battles continue over deep cuts in the education budget, according to the New York Times. Last week, the School Reform Commission “unilaterally and abruptly” cancelled the union contract with teachers, and increased the teacher’s monthly health care premiums. This is part of the school system’s ongoing struggle to raise money and cut budgets. Earlier this year, schools almost didn’t open on time due to budget cuts.

In other education news, the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations released a preliminary finding that a teacher in Holyoke, Massachusetts, was fired for raising a concern that a school policy violated the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, according to Salon. Author Sarah Jaffe argues that this shows the value of teacher of tenure—it lets teachers advocate on behalf of students without fear of reprisal. This teacher, Agustin Morales, protested his school’s new policy of posting students’ test scores on the classroom walls. Shortly after he voiced his objections, his normally stellar performance reviews turned quite negative, and he was fired.

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The Impact of California’s New Anti-Retaliation Protections for Immigrant Workers

Last year California passed several new bills that extend anti-retaliation protections for all workers, including some measures that are specific to immigrant workers. The expanded legal rights and remedies these laws offer could be strong enough to limit retaliatory incidents in many workplaces where intimidation, threats, or pressure chill employees’ willingness to enforce their rights. Though the exact impact of these measures is difficult to gauge at this early stage, this post offers some predictions about the practical implications of the new bills.

Overview of the Legislation

California, long a leader in establishing worker-friendly policies, passed a trio of bills (AB 263, AB524, and SB 666) in late 2013 to extend workers’ anti-retaliation protections.[1] The new laws, which took effect on January 1, 2014, have multiple components. First, the legislation broadened the grounds for a finding of employer retaliation by prohibiting adverse action against an employee for exercising a California labor right, whistleblowing, participating in political activity or a civil suit against the employer, or even making an oral or written complaint about unpaid wages. The laws also increased the penalties for retaliation to include fines up to $10,000 per employee for each instance, which will be awarded to the employees who suffered the violation. They also limited the “administrative exhaustion” requirements in some categories of cases. Continue reading

Today’s News and Commentary — October 15

The Department of Labor is offering nearly $1.4 million in funding to support enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in Mexico. According to the agency, “the goal is to increase compliance with the expanded protections against labor discrimination under Mexican labor law, with a specific focus on combating gender discrimination, forced pregnancy testing, sexual harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation. The [winning] project will focus on improving enforcement of these protections by labor inspectors, increasing employer participation in government social compliance programs that incorporate best practices to combat labor discrimination, and raising public awareness of the recent legal reforms on labor discrimination.” Applications are due November 7th.

According to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, two independent groups formed by labor unions and Western retailers have found safety hazards in all of the 1,100 Bangladeshi garment plants they have inspected, and have recommended that several plants be entirely shut down. Labor unions and consumer groups pushed the apparel retailers to conduct the investigations after an eight-story factory building collapsed in Bangladesh in April 2013, killing 1,129 workers. While identifying the safety problems is the first step towards addressing them, it remains unclear who will pay for the upgrades, which could cost up to $250,000 at each factory. Continue reading

Could Fast Food Be The Next Market Basket?

On Friday, I wrote about Kip Tindell, the incoming chair of the National Retail Federation and his plan to “encourage members of the association to boost wages and rethink their opposition to legislation.” It seems that NRF’s change of direction on wages will have to await Tindell’s arrival. In an op-ed published in The Hill today, current NRF president Matthew Shay attacked minimum wage increases. Shay charged that “many legislators and regulators seem bent on adopting policies that threaten to derail one of the few bright spots in the U.S. economy,” explaining that “[p]olicies like raising the minimum wage may sound good in the context of a political campaign, but they will only result in fewer entry-level jobs in industries like retail.” Shay also attacked the NLRB general counsel’s decision to hold McDonald’s accountable as a joint employer, calling the decision “misguided” and contrary to “decades of established labor law.”

As an initial matter, it’s interesting that a major trade association would air an internal disagreement as fundamental as this one on a policy matter as critical as wages. But, more importantly, the divide between Tindell and Shay illustrates two starkly different approaches to wage policy: what we might think of as high-road and a low-road strategies. The high road, which Tindell has made some strides implementing at The Container Store (and which he writes about in his new book, Uncontainable), involves paying workers a bit more than the minimum permitted by market forces in order to encourage commitment and hard work. This approach takes advantage of what economists call efficiency wages: the basic idea is that the increased amount employers pay in wages comes back through decreased turnover and increased productivity. The low road, captured well by Shay’s attacks, involves paying workers as little as the market will bear.

From a labor perspective, what’s particularly interesting about this divide within the NRF is the possibility that Tindell and the fast-food workers could become allies in the effort to move fast-food (and retail more generally) in the high-road, efficiency-wage direction. Continue reading