Daily News & Commentary — July 24

In art news, labor relations at the Metropolitan Opera continue to deteriorate, according to the New York Times.  On Wednesday, the Met informed its workers that they would be locked out if a contract wasn’t reached by the end of the next week.  Contracts with 15 of the 16 unions at the Met expire on July 31.  Management has been pushing for reduced pay and benefits, while representatives of the union argue that management has not negotiated in good faith.  We’ve covered the Met’s labor disputes before, including here and here.

Detroit moved forward with its bankruptcy plan this week, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The Journal reports that retirees who hold city pensions approved a cut to their benefits, contingent on funders making available $816 million to strengthen the pension accounts.  According to the Detroit News, some other classes of creditors rejected the bankruptcy plan, and will need to resolve their dispute in court.  Our explainer on Detroit’s bankruptcy plan is available here.

In California, the California Nurses Association is preparing for difficult contract negotiations with Kaiser Health, the largest hospital system in the state, according to NPRThe four-year contract expires soon, and the union expects the hospital system to request cuts in wages in benefits.

Today’s News and Commentary – July 23

On Tuesday President Obama signed into law the Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act, a bill that provides money to cities and states for job retraining programs. The New York Times notes that the legislation essentially reauthorizes a Clinton-era law, but adds a focus on reducing “the bureaucracy of the previous law by eliminating overlapping and duplicative programs.” In addition, “the new law seeks to impose more accountability on the federal-state training partnerships by requiring a “job-driven checklist” to ensure that federal money is used effectively and by providing “data-driven tools” to give workers better information about career prospects.”

The NLRB ruled yesterday that a group of cosmetics and fragrances workers at a Macy’s store in Massachusetts were a large enough group to unionize. In a 3-1 decision, the Board found that the employees shared a “community of interest,” and that Macy’s had failed to meet its burden of establishing that the smallest appropriate bargaining unit should include all store employees. According to the Wall Street Journal, some see the ruling as easing the path to unionizing subsets of workers in various industries, though the reach of the decision beyond this particular case remains unclear.

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House Subcommittee Examines Federal Wage and Hour Regulatory Structure

On Wednesday, July 23, the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing entitled “Improving the Federal Wage and Hour Regulatory Structure.”  The hearing provided the House Education and the Workforce committee members an opportunity to “examine the growth of FLSA-related litigation and current compliance assistance efforts.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act sets forth federal wage and hour protections for public- and private-sector workers.  The Department of Labor estimates more than 130 million workers are affected by FLSA.  In a Media Advisory, the Subcommittee stated that “a patchwork of conflicting interpretations and a complex regulatory structure have created an environment of legal uncertainty among employers and employees.  A recent report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) found a significant increase in FLSA-related litigation. The GAO recommended the department develop a systematic approach to identifying areas of confusion and improve administrative guidance for employers and employees.” Continue reading

Today’s News and Commentary – July 22

Monday, President Obama signed an executive order which bars federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. The executive order also expands federal workplace protections on the basis of gender identity. While some have applauded Obama’s bold move to address bias, The Salt Lake Tribune reports that some lawmakers, such as Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, have criticized the President for not carving out an exemption for contractors tied to religion. “In seeking to curtail unjust discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Hatch said to The Salt Lake Tribune, “we must ensure that legal protections do not trample upon basic religious liberties.” Commentators, including The New York Times Editorial Board, argue that an exemption would be inappropriate, and some activist groups, like the Human Rights Campaign, have backed off support of the federal nondiscrimination bill that cleared the Senate and has yet to be debated by the House because they fear it makes it too easy for companies to claim a moral exemption. University of Utah law professor and Chairman of Equality Utah Clifford Rosky gave his comments on the matter. “Religion cannot be used as an excuse to justify discrimination against gay and transgender individuals.”

Huffington Post reports that workers at a Subway location inside a Pilot Flying J travel center in Bloomsbury N.J. voted Friday to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The 13 workers are employed by Pilot Flying J, which is the Tennessee-based family business of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. Gov. Haslam’s actions and statements during the union drive at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, including threatening to condition financial incentives on VW’s union status, are being considered by the NLRB. We have covered the Chattanooga Volkswagen story extensively. In February, a group of cashiers, gas pump attendants, and maintenance workers at the same Pilot Flying J travel center voted in favor of joining RWDSU, a foothold that undoubtedly helped the Subway workers in the center organize, despite the professionally managed anti-union campaign staged by the company.

Guest Post: Public Sector Unions and the Poor

Jake Rosenfeld is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington and Co-Director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest.  His book on the consequences of labor union decline, What Unions No Longer Do, is available from Harvard University Press.  This post is the next in a series on progressives and public sector unions—the entire series is available here.

Dmitri Mehlhorn has eloquently presented the case against public sector unionism, raising important questions about its costs and implications for the future of the labor movement.  In his most recent post, for example, Mr. Mehlhorn takes issue with the argument that public sector unions have contributed to “social justice” and “prosperity” in the U.S. Instead, he contends that the demands public sector unions place on government coffers “increase the cost and reduce the availability of public services,” thereby hurting the disadvantaged more than others given poor Americans’ disproportionate reliance on public services.  But this notion that public sector unions hurt the poor gets the true relationships between poverty, the public sector, and organized labor all wrong.

If mid-1970s New York City—one of Mr. Mehlhorn’s examples—was a representative case of what public sector unions do to jurisdictions in which they are powerful, then we’d expect to find similar patterns today.  Of the ten states with the highest public sector unionization rates, seven have poverty rates below or at the national average.  Of the ten states with the lowest public sector unionization rates, meanwhile, seven have above-average poverty levels.  Is this decisive evidence that strong public sector unions cause lower poverty?  Of course not.  But it’s certainly not the pattern one would expect to see if public sector unions increased the cost and reduced the availability of services to the poor.

Other research is more dispositive: in a comprehensive statistical examination of what causes household poverty in the U.S., sociologist David Brady and his colleagues find that two key predictors of lower poverty is state-level unionization and working in the public sector.  That is, households with a member in the public sector are less likely to be poor, and households in highly-unionized states are less likely to be poor, net of a range of other important factors influencing poverty.  Reflecting on rising attacks on public sector unions, the authors conclude that, “Even if deunionization reduces public sector costs, the resulting increase in working poverty may lower tax revenue as well.”

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Ben Sachs on Whether Strikes Are Effective

This morning, Ben Sachs discussed whether strikes are effective with HuffPost Live.  Following the narrowly-averted LIRR strike, Marc Lamont Hill  interviewed Sachs, Dave Jamieson from HuffingtonPost, Michael Wasser from Jobs with Justice, and Bene’t Holmes, a Walmart employee and activist, regarding when worker strikes are effective, and when they aren’t.

The entire interview is available here.

Today’s News & Commentary – July 21

In an opinion column for the Wall Street Journal, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa discusses why teachers’ unions are so opposed to change.  As a former union leader and a lifelong Democrat who supports collective bargaining, the author admits to being “deeply troubled by the rhetoric and strategy” at recent national teachers’ union conventions. Villaraigosa writes: “Teachers should be better paid and the best should be recognized for their excellence. Schools should be well-funded. But none of these issues is an excuse to delay accountability. Children have only one chance for an education and every year in which that education falls short is another impediment to their success.”

The New York Times Editorial Board writes that “crisis of young migrants at the Texas border is a test of American values.”  Citing to measures to halt the housing and education of the 57,000 children that have recently crossed the border, the New York Times believes that as “the crisis emboldens demagogues in Washington, Mr. Obama has the obligation to act the grown-up . . . It would be good to see Mr. Obama join other Democrats and Republicans in making the moral and legal case for compassionate action, to lead a backlash against the nativist backlash.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire column asks “can policy levers raise the share of Americans who work?”  The article reports that the White House Council of Economic Advisers discussed one of the “abiding mysteries of this grinding post-recession recovery” in a report last week: With the unemployment rate going down and more Americans finding jobs, why does the overall rate of Americans who are working continue to fall?  The report found that “Around half the fall in labor participation since the end of 2007, when the recession hit, came from the upswing in retirements as baby boomers slip out of the workforce.”  Meanwhile, “White House and other economists agree that a wholesale immigration overhaul would deliver the biggest single boost to the workforce: adding as many as six million people over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.”

In international news, the New York Times reports that “across sub-Saharan Africa, consumer demand is fueling the continent’s economies in new ways.”  The article cites economic successes in international capital markets, such as “in spite of recent terrorist attacks, Kenya sold $2 billion worth of bonds to international investors last month, which will be used in part to pay for infrastructure projects; two months earlier, it was Zambia with a $1 billion offer.”  John Simpson, director of the Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing at the University of Cape Town, said ““There’s just this amazing determination to get places.  It’s a relentless desire to make more, to get better, to have a better lifestyle.”