Today’s News and Commentary — January 26

The Washington Post reports that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has released union density numbers for 2014. The data shows that union membership has increased both in the public and private sectors. However, since the overall number of people in the work force has increased at an even greater rate, union density is down.

According to Bloomberg, Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul were each asked for their perspective on the minimum wage last night at a private donor event for the Koch political network. Citing concerns for working Americans, Rubio stated, “All this focus that the president has on the minimum wage as a cure-all for the problems being faced by working Americans is not only a waste of time, I think it shows how unserious he really is about dealing with the challenges of our time.” The Koch network fundraised $400 million in 2012 attempting to defeat President Obama.

Continue reading

Weekend News & Commentary — January 24 – 25

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the Department of Labor would appeal the recent federal district court ruling that struck down the agency’s extension of minimum wage and overtime pay to most home-health workers. The U.S. District Court of D.C.’s Judge Richard Leon struck down portions of the rule in a decision in late December and again last week, concluding that the department had overreached its authority superseded Congress’ role in implementing the regulations.

Because of the trial court’s ruling, employers will remain exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act from paying overtime if a domestic service employee is hired to provide companionship services to elderly and disabled individuals unable to care for themselves. Caring Across Generations, a long-term-care advocacy group, has commented critically on the decision, arguing that the ruling means home care workers, who are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, will remain unprotected by basic labor protections that could help lift them out of poverty.

The Seattle Times reported earlier this month that a group of workers employed by a Microsoft Contractor, Lionbridge Technologies, which provides technology translation services to Microsoft, successfully organized a union and, as of earlier this month, is bargaining with its company over a contract. Lionbridge’s employees were spurred to action in the summer of 2013 by the company’s failure to offer paid time off or sick days. As the company’s employees began to meet and discuss the possibility of unionization, one of the lead organizers, Philippe Boucher, a French-born employee of the Lionbridge group, was terminated for his participation in organizing activities and subsequently filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations board. This past summer, he researched employment law and history at the Seattle Public Library’s main branch before helping the group to unionize and found the Temporary Workers of America (TWA) this past September. TWA’s achievement is underscored by the fact that only 4.3 percent of employees classified as computer and mathematical workers participate in unions in the U.S., in comparison to 11 percent across all occupations.

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local I-60, the union representing employees of Southwest Ambulance, Arizona’s largest emergency ambulance transportation provider, have authorized a strike if the ongoing labor dispute with its parent company, Rural/Metro, is not resolved in the near future. In negotiations involving federal mediators, the union has requested stronger benefits, including pensions, but not pay raises; however, Rural/Metro has claimed that the union is not bargaining in good faith. Rural Metro has also reported that they are able to implement a contingency plan in the event that the union moves forward with its strike.

In international news, Reuters reported earlier this week that Thai agricultural workers in Israel are facing serious labor rights abuses, including low pay, excessive hours, and hazardous conditions, which may be contributing to a higher rate of deaths among the workers. The conditions have persisted despite improvements in the last few years to the recruitment process for Thai workers in Israel and new Israeli laws setting a minimum wage, limits to working hours, and offering more expansive rights to organize. Roughly 25,000 Thai nationals work in Israel and an estimated 122 migrant farm workers have died in the country since 2008, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch earlier this week. The Middle East and North Africa Director at HRW, Sarah Leah Whitson, argued, “The success of Israel’s agricultural industry depends to a large extent on the labor of Thai migrant workers, but Israel is doing far too little to uphold their rights and protect them from exploitation.”

Today’s News & Commentary – January 23

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, New York City’s largest police union, will face challenges in the union election later this year. Lynch assumed a high profile when he “openly clashed” with Mayor Bill de Blasio over the killing of two patrol officers in Brooklyn last month. Among the challengers are veteran union trustees and Brian Fusco, a 27-year-veteran officer. Some union officials have criticized Lynch for his attention to politics which they see as a distraction to the “more pressing safety needs of officers in the street.”

The LA Times reports that President Obama must work closely with states to achieve workplace initiative goals. The president hopes to require companies with 15 or more employees to provide full-time employees with seven days of sick leave per year and to encourage states to create paid family leave programs. The article describes California’s success in implementing existing state initiatives under the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 and the State Disability Insurance program’s Paid Family Leave. President Obama has asked the Department of Labor for up to $1 million from the current budget to be allocated to competitive grants to “help states conduct feasibility studies on family leave programs.” He is also expected to request $2.2 billion in the new budget to help five unspecified states implement family leave programs.

Days after President Obama’s State of Union speech The Wall Street Journal‘s graphical depictions of the “state of the economy” remain relevant. Notably, the unemployment rate is now the lowest it has been since President Obama first took office. During his first two years in office, the president had “the worst two initial years of any president since John F. Kennedy” in terms of job growth. Despite signs of economic recovery, however, the median household income has been on the decline since 2000. Currently, the median household income is lower than it was during President Obama’s first year in office.

According to Politico, a group of minority fast food workers at McDonald’s filed suit yesterday against the corporation for violating their civil rights. The ten workers (nine of whom are African American) are supported by the SEIU and the NAACP. They allege employment discrimination and sexual harassment by Soweva, one of the corporation’s franchisees, arguing that the McDonald’s Corporation failed to correct such conduct. By naming the corporation in the complaint, the suit challenges “the legitimacy of McDonald’s’ contractual agreement with franchisees, which stipulates that McDonald’s Corp. can’t be held liable for any labor law violations committed in their restaurants.” McDonald’s faced legal hurdles last year when the NLRB announced that the corporation was a “joint employer” with its franchisees. We previously covered this development here.

Today’s News & Commentary — January 22

Continuing with our State of the Union coverage, Dave Jamieson at the Huffington Post writes about one of President Obama’s most important labor initiatives: defining which workers are entitled to overtime pay. The Department of Labor is likely to release revised rules on overtime next month, the result of a year-long revision process, according to the Post.

Air France has announced that it will cut 800 jobs over the next three years, according to the New York Times. The airline will also reduce salaries over the same timeframe. Air France will explain the details of its plan to its works council at a special meeting on February 5th.

Politico reports that mental health workers represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers are asking Kaiser Permanente to return to the bargaining table. According to NPR, 2,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente have been on strike for the past week. The workers ended this strike this past Monday, before requesting more bargaining.

Continue reading

Today’s News & Commentary — January 21, 2015

The President delivered the State of the Union last night. Among the President’s economic proposals: a renewed call for a higher minimum wage, an initiative to expand paid sick leave and overtime rules, a focus on maternity leave, and a plan to extend two free years of community college to millions of students. The New York Times and LA Times have coverage of the speech; some have already raised questions about the President’s ability to carry out these ambitious plans in the current political climate.

The New York Times Upshot Blog offers its own in-depth analysis of the state of the union. Its conclusion: “while far stronger than when Mr. Obama took office, [it] remains troubled.” In economic news, it notes that while the joblessness rate is the lowest since President Obama took office, the proportion of working Americans remains low (at 59.2%). Furthermore, the increase in job creation has not been matched by a proportional increase in wage growth. Hourly earnings have been rising around 2% a year since 2011, barely exceeding the rate of inflation. It concludes: “This will feel like a full-throated recovery not merely when most Americans who want a job have one; we’re nearly there already. It will be when people feel like hard work will lead to higher pay, and that day has not yet arrived.

The Upshot Blog also covered Obama’s focus on paid family leave. It notes that the percentage of women in the US labor force is declining, in part becausepolicies that make it possible for parents to work have not kept pace with changing family structures in the United States, while other countries provide working families with more support.” The President proposed six weeks of paid leave (for federal employees) following the birth of a child. While this wouldn’t come close to the support offered by other developed nations (e.g., Britain: 52 weeks, Italy: 22 weeks, Japan: 14 weeks), it would mark a significant change in policy. Continue reading

Today’s News & Commentary — January 20, 2015

In tonight’s State of the Union address, the President is expected to give significant airtime to his administration’s labor policy proposals, such as the major initiative to expand paid sick leave (in which the United States trails most developed nations) and overtime pay for federal and private sector workers, Politico reports. Other labor policies expected to get play are the President’s recent plan to extend access to a community college education to millions, worker scheduling reforms, changes to the overtime rule (by raising the minimum salary threshold under which all employees working over 40 hours a week must be paid time and a half), and apprenticeship programs.

Today, The Upshot in The New York Times gave a great review on the topics President Obama is likely to cover—and those he will likely gloss over—in his State of the Union address. As The Upshot put it: “In short: The state of union, while far stronger than when Mr. Obama took office, remains troubled.” Amidst its wide ranging overview of the “state” of things, The Upshot staff contended that two major “dark clouds” continue to hang over American workers. First, despite steadily declining unemployment rates, many of the millions of Americans who dropped out of the labor force during the recession have still not been pulled back in. Second, though job creation has continued to accelerate, wages have not kept pace, the situation called “the great wage slowdown of the 21st century.”

Yesterday, the 2015 Adverse Effect Wage Rates for the employment of temporary or seasonal nonimmigrant foreign farm workers (H-2A workers) went into effect. The rates vary by state but are at least $10 per hour across the country, exceeding state minimum wages, the intended effect being that the mandated higher wages for foreign workers will serve as a deterrent for employers. For example, in Washington, where the state’s new minimum wage is set at $9.47, the adverse-effect wages are $12.42, The Seattle Times reports. The mandated wage floor for these workers is intended to protect U.S. citizens and legal residents from “being undercut” by employers who hire “cheaper imported labor.”

Former Philadelphia union leader Joseph Dougherty was convicted today of extortion, racketeering, and conspiracy after four days of jury deliberations, The New York Times reports. Prosecutors say that Dougherty “led a union that committed 25 acts such as arson, destruction of property and attacks on workers for nonunion contractors at construction sites in the Philadelphia area from 2008 to 2013.” Dougherty, age 73, will face at least 15 years in prison.

Today’s News & Commentary – January 19

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez penned an editorial about the role of labor unions in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Calling the holiday “the other Labor Day,” Perez detailed the strong ties between Dr. King’s actions and the labor movement, highlighting that “[m]any people are aware that King was assassinated in Memphis in the spring of 1968. Less well-known is what drew him there: solidarity with city sanitation workers, who, without the benefit of union representation, were rising up to protest humiliating pay and deplorable working conditions.”

The Washington Post‘s Lydia DePillis writes about cab drivers’ collective action in the age of Uber and Lyft ridesharing.  DePillis reported that last Friday, in the Taxi Workers Alliance’s Queens offices, union cab driver activists from across American and Europe “convened for a council of war” against the popular apps.  “We will send this message to every country, every government, that Uber is not welcome,” said Mac Urata, the London-based head of surface transportation for the International Transport Workers Federation. “They have no place to hide. Everywhere they go, we will fight them, shame them, and get them out of business.”  Taxi driver unions have been successful in banning Uber in many European cities, as well as raising awareness through campaigns in many American metro areas.

President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, and many media outlets have predicted that the President’s speech will touch on labor-related issues.  The Los Angeles Times reports that President Obama will focus on “middle-class economics,” including raising taxes on top earners and impose a new fee on large financial firms to pay for tax credits aimed at low- and middle-class families.  The Wall Street Journal published graphs entitled “The State of the Economy” that include visual representations of unemployment statistics, income, industry strength, and manufacturing numbers.   Continue reading