Today’s News & Commentary ––- July 28, 2015

Senator Mitch McConnell has asked President Obama to appoint G. Roger King to the National Labor Relations Board as a replacement for outgoing Republican Board Member Harry Johnson, according to Politico.  King served as a lead attorney in NLRB v. Noel Canning, in which the Supreme Court found several of President Obama’s recess appointments to the NLRB unconstitutional. Politico noted that although the White House may be reluctant to reward King, this appointment might be necessary in order to convince Republicans to fill a Democratic spot on the Board that becomes vacant next year.  Such support would be necessary to avoid a 2-2 deadlock on the Board.

Already deplorable labor conditions in international fishing have worsened as a result of growing demand for seafood and depleted fishing stocks, according to the New York Times.  The in-depth article interviewed numerous workers who had escaped horrific conditions on long-haul shipping expeditions, where boats sometimes remain at sea for years at a time, far from the reach of any minimal maritime labor laws that might exist.  “Life at sea is cheap,” said Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. “And conditions out there keep getting worse.”  Many, including the workers themselves, assert that the practices amount to one more form of modern slavery. “You belong to the captain,” said Pak, an individual who escaped from a fishing ship. “So he can sell you if he wants.”  The Times also published a list of proposals to help improve the fishers’ working conditions.

The decision by some unions to push for an exemption to Los Angeles’s new minimum wage ordinance came under scrutiny from the Los Angeles Times.  After discounting claims by a labor leader that the exemption would protect the ordinance from legal challenges and bring it in line with similar ordinances in other jurisdictions, the article explained that the exemption might help the survival of union-friendly businesses by putting them on a more even footing in bidding processes involving other companies that would ignore the new law.  In similar fashion, unions might see the exemption as a means of pitching themselves as a low-cost labor alternative, as Unite Here has done in the past with hotel companies.  Not all union leaders are on board, however.  Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW, noted his union’s opposition to the exemption, saying, “I don’t think we help ourselves by taking positions where we don’t hold ourselves to the same standards as everybody else.”

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Today’s News & Commentary –– July 27, 2015

Dana Milbank writing for the Washington Post argued that presidential candidate and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is deceiving working people in his article “Why Scott Walker is so dangerous.”  Walker has ignominiously – for others, heroically – defeated many of the Wisconsin’s public sector unions and is describing his victory as a triumph over “big government interests” on the campaign trial.  Milbank describes Walker as “dangerous” because of the appeal of his overly-simple rhetoric: save the nation by fighting labor unions.

Yet, as Milbank notes, “unions represent just 11 percent of the U.S. workforce and have been at a low ebb.”  Moreover, the state-wide effects of his anti-union strategy have been underwhelming.  “[Hi]s big, bold reforms produced only about half the number of jobs he promised and resulted in delayed debt payments and deep cuts to education to overcome a budget deficit.” Now, as a presidential candidate, Walker has marshaled his union-busting rhetoric in support of supply-side economics and a tough-on-ISIS attitude.  But ultimately, Milbank argues, “[by] scapegoating toothless trade unions as powerful and malign interests, he enlists working people in his cause of aiding the rich and the strong.”

Politics aside, organized labor has been active this week.  The Washington Post reports that 39,000 Verizon workers in nine states are prepared to strike if a new union contract is not agreed upon by the end of the week.  The contract covers employees who work for Verizon’s fixed-line phone service and Fios Internet service.  Eighty-six percent of the workers, who are represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, voted to back the strike in a recent poll.  The current contract is set to expire at midnight this Saturday, August 1.

Mental health workers in Western Massachusetts are in the midst of a strike to end dismal wages and working conditions, according to the Boston Globe.  The workers have been in negotiations with a mental health and family support agency after the employee’s contract expired several months ago.  The union rejected the company’s proposals last week, which included an increase in pay and benefits of $1,500 per worker.  The union is demanding a hike of $4,000.  The employee’s union, Service Employees International Union Local 509, reports that the workers earn “near-poverty wages” and experience “severe workplace stress.”  Currently the agency’s employees, all of whom hold bachelor’s degrees, earn just $26,000 per year.  After attending various protests last week, many of the workers plan to return to work this week for their clients, but intend to strike again.

Finally, over 650 clerical, administrative, and paraprofessional workers at Northern Illinois University have petitioned the State of Illinois to organize under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, reports the Chicago Tribune.  The employees have complained that they have not received pay raises despite increasing work loads.  The Tribune reports that the union will likely become official in the coming weeks absent opposition from the University.

Weekend News & Commentary — July 25-26, 2015

According to The New York Times, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that contract attorneys retained by the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom may be owed overtime for performing nonlegal work.  The court suggested that “contract lawyers could be eligible under federal labor law for overtime after working 40 hours per week if their work is so basic that it does not constitute the practice of law.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the chief of the pilots union at Delta Air Lines will resign.  His resignation comes after a majority of voters rejected a new three-year contract.  The union represents over 12,000 Delta pilots.

Reuters notes that “in a possible setback for Hillary Clinton, the AFL-CIO’s political committee has recommended the nation’s largest labor union federation delay endorsing a candidate for the 2016 presidential race as it seeks to push her to be more supportive of its policies on issues such as trade and wages.”  The article goes on to discuss the politics surrounding the AFL-CIO and its relationship with Hillary Clinton.

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Today’s News & Commentary – July 24, 2015

In the wake of yesterday’s major victor for Fight for $15, retail labor activists are making new plans to demand their own wage hike. Forbes reports that Stuart Appelbaum, head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union remarked, “In our negotiations going forward, we are going to argue that $15 is the standard.” Although a number of large retailers have recently raised the minimum hourly wage in their stores, including Gap, Ikea, and Walmart, even with these wage hikes, workers are making just $9 or $10 per hour at these stores.

In other minimum wage news, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Keith Ellison, and Rep. Raul Grijalva introduced a $15 minimum wage bill on Wednesday, as hundreds of federal contract workers went on strike to protest job conditions, the Huffington Post reports. In introducing the bill, Sanders argued that the U.S. government is the nation’s largest low-wage employer. Supporting Sanders’ position, one federally contracted cashier at the U.S. Capitol pointed out at a recent rally, “KFC actually pays me more than Uncle Sam,” who pays her just $10.59 per hour, forcing her to work longer hours just to stay afloat. Likewise, Charles Gladden, a Senate contract worker, was until recently homeless, until a crowdfunding campaign raised enough money for him to live in an apartment. According to Gladden, “Workers shouldn’t have to rely on charities in order to survive.”

Democratic lawmakers unveiled a bill on Thursday that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. According to Vox News, the bill is the “most expansive LGBTQ civil rights bill ever,” protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, housing, public accommodations, education, and various other settings. For instance, the law would prevent protected individuals from being fired, evicted, or denied service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the bill will likely face fierce opposition, if passed, it would radically affect the experiences of its protected classes, as protections of the kind afforded by the bill are offered in less than half of the states in the U.S.

Legislation that would strip the federal government of jurisdiction of labor issues on tribal reservations was approved by the House Education and Workforce Committee on Wednesday. The Committee, chaired by Rep. John Kline, wrote in a press release that the legislation allows Tribal leaders to set labor policies they determine are best for their workplaces. While leaders of Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation and a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund have all expressed support for the proposed legislation, House Democrats have called the legislation a Republican effort to curtail the authority of the National Labor Relations Board. As Rep Mark Pocan (D-Wis) remarked, “It appears to me that this has a lot more to do [with] the NLRB than it does about sovereignty.”

More than 1,000 workers employed at John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia Airports in New York called off a planned job action, that was intended to demand, among other things, wage increases to $15 per hour and the right to organize, union officials reported on Wednesday. According to the Wall Street Journal, the SEIU-backed walk out of employees of Aviation Safeguards, a subcontractor to Delta Airlines and other major airlines, was supposed to last 24 hours, starting Wednesday at 10:00 pm. Union officials commented that that workers had reached an agreement with the parent company—Command Security Corporation—which had agreed to recognize Local 32BJ as its employees’ union.

On Tuesday, Dane Atkinson, a CEO of a small tech start up, SumAll, wrote a column on TechCrunch entitled, “Executives and Managers Should All be Elected,” noting that since SumAll’s founding, individual groups of employees vote each quarter on who should lead their team. According to Atkinson, when he founded his company, he wanted to design it so it was not “an evil, miserable environment.” The results, at least according to Atkinson, have been positive, allowing employees and managers to switch roles regularly and eliminating “petty politics.”

Today’s News & Commentary — July 23, 2015

Chalk up another victory for the Fight for $15 movement. As reported by the New York Times, a New York state panel recommended on Wednesday that the minimum wage for fast-food workers be raised to $15 by 2018. The move affects the fast-food industry’s roughly 180,000 workers in the Empire State, although the changes will affect New York City before the rest of the state. Irene Tung, policy researcher for the National Employment Law Project, suggested that the raise “will likely put pressure on employers in other industries to raise wages in order to compete for workers.” Indeed, the Times interviewed several retail workers who contended that they “also work hard for [their] checks” and hoped to receive a similar wage bump.

Not to be outdone, the University of California made its own minimum wage announcement yesterday, declaring that it would elevate the wages of some of its workers to $15 as well. The Los Angeles Times notes that approximately 3,200 employees who work more than 20 hours a week, as well as several thousand subcontractors doung work for the university, will benefit from the raise. Although the plan calls for any additional revenue to be drawn from “parking fees, hospital revenues and bookstore sales” rather than tuition increases, critics of the move, such as Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, suggested that students would ultimately bear the costs of the raises. Nevertheless, U.C. President Janet Napolitano called the decision “the right thing to do for . . . workers and their families.”

While New York might be willing to go toe to toe with McDonald’s and Burger King, it appears less inclined to pick a fight with the dominant player of the gig economy: Uber. The New York Times reports that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has backed down from his earlier proposal to cap the number of for-hire vehicle licenses issued by the city, which his administration had argued was necessary to limit traffic congestion. Uber spared little expense in mounting a vigorous response to the city’s proposal, enlisting the support of celebrities such as Neil Patrick Harris and Kate Upton, and even going so far as to add a “de Blasio view” to its app that showed users the wait times that they would purportedly face should the proposal go into effect. Governor Andrew Cuomo — frequent de Blasio foil — also opted to enter the fray, publicly characterizing Uber as “one of the great inventions of this new economy” and proclaiming that “government should [not] be in the business of trying to restrict job growth.” The public relations campaign appears to have worked, as the city has agreed to shelve the proposal while it conducts a four-month long traffic study.

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Gig News: LA Times Declares 2016 Presidential Race “First Uber Election”

Today The Los Angeles Times published a story on the gig economy and the 2016 presidential election, noting attempts by Republican candidates to rally behind gig economy firms “as prime examples of free-market entrepreneurship and workplace deregulation” while Democrats struggle to “avoid appearing resistant to the popular new ventures while highlighting their potential negative effect on workers’ pay and benefits.”  OnLabor Co-Founder Professor Benjamin Sachs was quoted about the implications of the debate for labor policy:

“Layered on top of all of this is the important question: What’s at stake here?” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School.  “Are the forms of protection and social welfare that we’ve provided since 1935 — are people going to just lose all of that because we have technological change? … How do we make sure that workers share in the sharing economy?”

OnLabor continues to follow developments in the gig economy and the status of gig economy workers.

Today’s News & Commentary — July 22, 2015

Following its largest city, Los Angeles County voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2020. Between the county law—which applies to all unincorporated areas of the county—and the Los Angeles city legislation, more than half of the county workforce will be guaranteed more than state minimum wage. According to the Los Angeles Times, organized labor’s next challenge is to convince other local governments within the county to adopt the same increases.

The AFL-CIO leadership convenes next week, when they will meet with four presidential contenders: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Mike Huckabee. According to Politico, the federation plans to push candidates on trade, wages and strengthening collective bargaining. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka tells Politico that the federation is seeking to pass a series of smaller bills, including an expansion of the NLRA’s coverage, new remedies for workers who win unfair labor practice cases, and possibly a proposal to make labor organizing a civil right.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the state of Illinois waived 99% of pension penalties for school districts that had given steep raises to outgoing educators. Since 2005, when the state created penalties for hefty raises for retiring teachers, school districts have amassed more than $150 million in penalties. But after finding loopholes in state law, more than half the districts have avoided paying the majority of their penalty bills.

In Kenya, teachers unions are appearing before the Court of Appeal today to defend a judgment that requires the government to increase their salaries, reports the Daily Nation. A lower court called on the government to increase teacher pay by 50-60% over the next four years. The government claims it cannot afford the salary increases, which go into effect immediately, and that the order takes away the parties’ freedom to negotiate voluntarily through the collective bargaining process.