Today’s News & Commentary — March 17, 2017

President Trump released his budget proposal yesterday and it includes deep cuts to almost every area of discretionary spending. Of seventeen spending categories only Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs have proposed increases. The budget proposal slashes funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by 31%, to the Department of Agriculture by 21%, and completely eliminates $3 billion dollars in grants for community programming that includes Meals on Wheels and other assistance to low-income communities.

President Trump’s budget proposal also includes a recommended 21%, or $2.5 billion, cut to the Department of Labor. The Washington Post reports that some of the programs proposed for elimination include the Senior Community Service Employment Program which helps people over the age of 55 living with low-incomes to find work, Job Corps which provides training to low-income youth, and technical assistance grants that help employers accommodate workers with disabilities. One program that the budget proposal recommends expanding is the Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment program that helps verify eligibility for unemployment benefits and helps “unemployed people find jobs more quickly.”

Sharon Block, Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, outlines more of the proposal’s potential impacts on workers in Democracy. She writes,For American workers who voted for President Trump because he ran on a promise to finally stand up for them, the outlines of the FY 2018 budget may come as a rather big shock.” 

The Department of Agriculture reported this week that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamps Program, is increasingly being used by “working poor” families. In 1989 19.6% of households using Food Stamps had one or more employed member. in 2015 nearly 31.8% of households on SNAP assistance had one or more members working. In other words, more families receiving SNAP benefits are working, but making incomes so low that their earnings fail to put them over the threshold for assistance.

And JD Supra has a helpful debrief of a recent 11th Circuit case that held that Title VII can be applied to workplace discrimination based on gender-stereotyping, but not to workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. While the EEOC extended Title VII protection to sexual orientation discrimination in their 2015 Baldwin v. Foxx ruling (stating that “sexual orientation is inherently a ‘sex-based consideration’ and an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII”), no federal appeals court has yet followed suit. Both the 7th and 2nd Circuits are expected to issue decisions on this question soon. 


Today’s News and Commentary — March 3, 2017

The Guardian reports that the Fight for $15 mid-south organizing committee is suing the Memphis police for engaging in a “campaign of harassment” against its members. According to the article, the lawsuit alleges that police officers “followed organizers home after meetings, ordered workers not to sign petitions and blacklisted organizers from city hall.” It also alleges that city permit laws have been disparately enforced against Fight for $15 demonstrations, which have mostly black participants, while other demonstrations with majority white participants have not faced the same sort of scrutiny and intervention. The organizing committee says that the police surveillance and interference began in 2014 , after fast-food workers in Memphis took park in a nationwide walkout. 

In other lawsuit news, a North Carolina Uber driver, Martin Dulberg, recently filed a class action claim against the company. Dulberg alleges that, due to a change in the way Uber calculates fares, drivers are consistently underpaid. Drivers are supposed to be paid 80% of each fare according to their agreement with Uber. This is a novel claim against Uber, which has faced other class actions on different grounds, including that it misclassifies drivers as independent contractors. Read more of OnLabor’s Uber coverage here.

Meanwhile, a Federal Judge in Colorado just granted a motion for class certification in a forced labor case against GEO Group, a private prison company. GEO Group runs a detention center in Colorado that imprisons people who are threatened with deportation. Former detainees allege that the company violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act when it forced them to work for low or no wages while they were detained. The class includes anyone who was held in the detention center since October 2004, and could include up to 60,000 people. 

And in related news, on Wednesday 22-year-old Daniela Vargas was arrested after she spoke publicly about her family’s recent arrest and detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agents. Vargas had been protected by President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program because she arrived in the United States before she was 16 years old. Though President Trump has not canceled DACA, and has expressed some support for its goals, his orders give ICE officials broad discretion that allow them to detain DACA recipients like Vargas.

Political Strikes: What Can Workers Do to Protect Themselves?

On January 28, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called an hour-long work stoppage as a way to express their opposition to President Trump’s Executive Order banning immigration from seven Muslim majority countries and suspending refugee intake.  A week later, Yemeni-American bodega owners in New York City protested the Order by closing their businesses and holding a thousands-strong protest in Brooklyn.  On February 16, as part of an action called A Day Without Immigrants, thousands went on strike to highlight the contributions of immigrant workers.  Each of these demonstrations employed the tactic of work stoppages to send a message.  Each was labeled a “strike” in the media. But unlike traditional workplace strikes, the protesters’ messages were not targeted exclusively or even primarily at their employers.

Similar “political strikes” might become more common in the era of President Trump.  The organizers of the Women’s March on Washington have joined in the call for “A Day Without a Woman” on March 8 – International Women’s Day – in solidarity with an International Women’s Strike.  If women respond in large numbers as they did to the march, the Day could mark the largest political strike in this country’s history.

Such actions are not without risks.  At least one hundred workers were fired for participating in the Day Without Immigrants.  Ten years ago, the first Day Without Immigrants strike was held to protest legislation that increased barriers to hiring immigrant workers.  Then, too, many strikers were fired or faced other forms of retaliation.

So, what can be learned from the Day(s) Without Immigrants to minimize risks for those who choose to take part in A Day Without a Woman?

A guidance letter issued by the National Labor Relations Board following the 2006 Day Without Immigrants provides some instruction.  The letter suggested that the Board will consider two factors when determining whether workers are shielded from retaliation for participating in political advocacy: the workers’ objectives and the means employed.

Continue reading

Today’s News & Commentary — February 17, 2017

President Trump has announced his new nominee for Labor Secretary and it is Alexander Acosta.  According to the Washington Post Acosta currently serves as Dean of Florida International University, and formerly served as Supreme Court Justice Alito’s law clerk, when Alito sat on the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  Acosta previously held the role of assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President George W. Bush and served for four years as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.  The Guardian reports that in his term at the Justice Department Acosta “defended the rights of Muslim Americans, once asking the ….department to intervene on behalf of an Oklahoma teen who had been told to remove her headscarf at school.”  While at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Acosta oversaw a number of high profile cases including the prosecution and controversial plea deal made with hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein who was accused of sexually abusing underage girls.

Acosta’s labor experience includes some years of private practice at Kirkland and Ellis and one year on the National Labor Relations Board, where he took part in over 125 cases.  According to Politico, a Democratic NLRB member –Wilma Liebman– who worked with Acosta said “I would say he’s very smart and he’s an independent thinker,” and that “while unions may not ‘be thrilled with every decision he’ll make…they’ll get a good hearing.’”  President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka tweeted a statement that read in part, “Working people changed the game on this nomination. Unlike Andy Puzder, Alexander Acosta’s nomination deserves serious consideration.”  Notably, if confirmed, Acosta would be the first Latinx member of Trump’s cabinet.

In other news, Business Insider reports that yesterday’s “A Day Without Immigrants” protest led to multiple McDonald’s around the country closing, or reducing services for the day. The Day was organized to protest President Trump’s hostility toward immigrant communities, and highlight the extent to which people in the United States rely on labor provided by people who are immigrants.  Some took part by staying home from school or refraining from making purchases, and the Davis Museum at Wellesley College used black cloth to cover all pieces of art that were created or donated by immigrants. “A Day Without Immigrants” demonstrations were held in big cities across the country including Chicago, Austin, New York City, Charlotte and Washington, D.C. On March 8, the organizers of the Women’s March are calling for a similar demonstration, “A Day Without a Woman.”

And a group of over 50 businesses and trade organizations, including the National Restaurant Association and the International Franchise Association, sent a letter to House Education and Workforce Committee this week asking Congress to pass legislation that would override the NLRB’s joint employer standard, which defines those who have even “indirect” and “potential” control over workers’ conditions as joint employers. The group is advocating for a return to the NLRB’s “direct control” standard.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 3, 2017

In New York City, Yemeni bodega owners went on strike yesterday, shuttering around 1000 stores from noon to 8 p.m. to protest President Donald Trump’s Executive Order banning entry to the United States for people from seven Muslim-majority countries, and suspending admission of refugees. One bodega owner taped a piece of paper to the glass door at the front of his store that read, “CLOSED. My family is detained at JFK.” Another posted a sign saying “My Family Is Stranded Overseas, We Are Closed.” Store owners of different backgrounds closed in solidarity with the strike and hundreds of supporters joined the bodega owners for a protest in Brooklyn.

Yesterday also brought an unexpected result from another recent strike – Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick resigned from President Trump’s business advisory group following a widespread campaign to boycott the company for their actions during the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance strike last Saturday. The Taxi Workers refused to pick up or drop off passengers at JFK airport from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m on Saturday, in support of protests at the airport against the Executive Order on immigration and refugees. Shortly after the strike ended, Uber dropped its prices, which was interpreted by some as  an attempt to capitalize on the strike. Uber users also expressed anger at Kalanick’s position on the advisory group. Uber denies that they intended to break the strike, saying instead that their intention was to avoid profiting from higher demand during the protest. Over 200,000 people have deleted their Uber accounts since Saturday, prompting Kalanick’s resignation from the advisory group. Meanwhile, President Trump will be meeting with a different advisory group today – a task force on “women in the workforce” that is led by two men. 

Bloomberg reported yesterday about the very different ways that different unions have responded to President Trump so far, noting some union leaders have expressed concern that the administration’s strategy is to “divide and conquer” the labor movement. On a related note, the American Prospect delves into the specific challenges facing building trades unions, whose leaders met with President Trump on his fourth day in office. Though the leaders have expressed hopefulness about Trump’s promised infrastructure projects, they have to balance that optimism with concerns about protecting the rights of their members – many of whom are immigrants, undocumented, or have family members who are undocumented and  could face persecution under the new administration.

Today’s News & Commentary — January 20, 2017

Buzzfeed reported yesterday that Andy Puzder, President-Elect Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary, has been blocking workers’ rights advocates on Twitter. In recent weeks Puzder has blocked the Twitter accounts of the National Employment Law Project, the Fight for $15, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and others. Those blocked are prevented from responding directly to anything that Pudzer tweets.

In the New York Times Peter Goodman has a scathing critique of the Davos approach to addressing inequality and the negative impacts of globalization on working people. Goodman writes, “They [attendees at the World Economic Forum] are eager to talk about how to set things right, soothing the populist fury by making globalization a more lucrative proposition for the masses…What is striking is what generally is not discussed: bolstering the power of workers to bargain for better wages and redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom.”

In a new book The Unbanking of America, author Lisa Servon argues that the best way to reduce use of alternative financial services such as payday lenders and check-cashing, which charge high fees and interest rates and are regularly used by people with low incomes, is not to make them illegal but to increase wages so that working people do not need them.

And The Equality of Opportunity Project just released a comprehensive study on education and its impact on social mobility. The study, which used anonymized data on 30 million college graduates, found that state universities are doing the best job at helping students from low-income households move into the middle class. According to a recent New York Times article, Ivy league schools fare worse. While students from low income backgrounds do experience upward mobility from attending top-tier, private schools, these schools take on relatively few students from low-income communities. At some private universities, there are more students from families whose incomes put them in the top 1% of Americans, than students from the bottom 60%. Though state colleges provide great economic opportunities for students from poorer families, the share of low-income students even at public universities is decreasing as states cut back on funding.

Today’s News and Commentary — January 6, 2017

In The American Prospect Professor Alan Draper writes about the correlation between the decline of union membership and the rise of right-wing populism. Draper notes that Michigan and Wisconsin, traditionally Democratic states which flipped in the Presidential election, are two of the three states that have experienced the sharpest decline in union density in the last ten years. In related news,  Kentucky’s Republican-dominated state legislature is poised to pass a law that will make them the  27th “right-to-work” state.

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is also prioritizing legislation that affects working people.  In one of their first moves since being sworn in, House Republicans brought back a century-old rule called the Holman Rule, which allows legislators to single out individual federal employees for salary reductions. Under the revived law, a majority vote from both houses can set a federal worker’s salary as low as $1 per year.

In The Wall Street Journal this week designers and early champions of the 401(k) expressed regret about the program, stating that they oversold its ability to prepare workers for retirement, especially without complementary workplace pension programs in place. According to some interviews, the 401(k) program was never intended to replace workplace pensions, and it was a “great lie” to suggest that it could adequately do so. Today almost half of American households have no retirement savings at all.

The New York Times reports that when it comes to NAFTA, the beneficiaries might be in the eyes of the beholder. While Donald Trump campaigned on a message that “where the American worker lost, the Mexican economy gained,” respondents to a Mexican poll expressed a very different view. A Mexican pollster found that more than 65% of those polled believed NAFTA had benefited American consumers and business, while only 20% believed it had similarly benefited them in Mexico. According to the the Times the proportion of Mexicans living under the poverty line, over half the population, has not changed since the implementation of NAFTA and wages in Mexico have been stagnant for nearly twenty years.