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.

Today’s News & Commentary — December 23, 2016

Buzzfeed reports that a vineyard owned by President-elect Donald Trump’s son recently submitted requests for six H-2 foreign worker visas, creating yet another potential conflict of interest for the incoming administration. The Labor Department, which will be overseen by Trump’s appointees, is responsible for approving or denying the request. Businesses affiliated with Trump have applied for over 200 H-2 visas since the launch of his presidential campaign.

In related news, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children raised concern about the H-2 program in a recent report, writing “Workers holding these temporary visas are tied to a specific employer who can exercise extensive control over them. Employers often confiscate passports, withhold  wages, terminate contracts arbitrarily and threaten employees with job loss and deportation. Some live in deplorable housing conditions, commute long distance and enjoy low benefits…[C]oncerned workers may fear that if they report abuses, they will be deported or denied future visa applications.”  There have not been complaints of abuses of H-2 workers at Trump’s companies.

A Google employee is taking the company to court, claiming that the confidentiality contracts employees are required to sign are overly broad. The NLRB recently struck down similar contracts at T-Mobile USA and other companies, and different Google employee has an NLRB case pending on the issue. The plaintiff in this case claims that Google contracts extend so far as to forbid employees from discussing concerns or wages with one another. He also claims that Google has a program called “Stopleaks”, requiring employees to report one another if they hear someone reveal confidential information. Failing to report leaks, or participating in conversations that violate the agreement can lead to punitive action including being fired or sued.

The move to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour just hit a roadblock in Ohio. Governor Kasich signed a bill that blocks municipalities from raising their minimum wage above the state minimum wage -currently $8.15/hr in Ohio- or implementing other worker benefit programs, such as paid leave. The Huffington Post reports that Ohio is now the twentieth state in the country to pass a law forbidding municipalities from enforcing a local minimum wage. Shockwaves will be felt in Cleveland, where voters are supposed to vote on the $15 hourly wage in a special election in May.

Today’s News and Commentary — December 9, 2016

In a policy move that might be unprecedented, Portland city council voted on Wednesday to tax public companies whose CEOs make more than 100 times the median salary of their workers.  In other innovation news, legislators in Canada’s smallest province – Prince Edward Island – just voted unanimously to pilot a Universal Basic Income.

On a related note – can policy change at the federal level change corporate norms? Steven Greenhouse rounds up some of the policy proposals circulated after President-Elect Trump’s Carrier deal, and suggests a few new ideas to reduce outsourcing and keep jobs in the United States.

Chuck Jones, president of the local union representing Carrier workers, spoke out about the deal this week saying that President-Elect Trump misled hundreds of workers into thinking their jobs will stay in the United States. In response, Trump tweeted a personal attack against him. Following the tweets, Jones received phone calls and death threats from strangers. In an op-ed in the Washington Post Jones writes, “To be honest, the attention isn’t a big deal. I’ve been doing this job for 30 years. In that time, people have threatened to shoot me, to burn my house down. I’m not a macho man, but I’m just used to it. What I can’t abide, however, is a president who misleads workers, who gives them false hope.”

And Trump’s pick of fast-food CEO Andy Puzder as nominee for Secretary of Labor is causing some to question what direction the incoming administration will actually take on immigration. Puzder has  expressed support for bringing in more new Americans who will work low-wage jobs, while providing legal documents to those who are already here doing so. If that is his stance, it is in stark contrast to Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the policies supported by his other appointees. The Intercept reports that Puzder would not be the only person in Trump’s labor department with this policy stance – a recent appointee to the DOL transition team owns a company that specializes in recruiting “cheap, foreign labor” for American businesses.

Today’s News & Commentary — November 25, 2016

A heartfelt, quick reminder that the Thanksgiving mythology is an immigrant mythology.

While many of us probably enjoyed produce from the California Valley as part of Thanksgiving dinner, The New York Times reports that a health and poverty crisis continues to harm California farmworkers and their families. Though farms in the California Valley are producing crops at record numbers, the low salaries paid to farmworkers means they often cannot afford to eat the nutritious food they grow.

Making its rounds on the internet today is this blog article, “Work is a Gift Our Kids Can Handle,” hosted by the Acton Institute.The article argues for rolling back child labor laws and reconsidering mandatory education for all children. Betsy DeVos, President-Elect Trump’s recently announced Secretary of Education, sat on the Institute’s board for ten years and reports say she has donated over one million dollars to the group.

The fourth anniversary of the Fight for $15 is coming up and organizers are preparing for the biggest wave of strikes yet, in a demonstration that the movement has no plans to slow down in the coming years. Five statewide ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage were voted in alongside a new President on November 8th. Though the President-elect has not been clear on his minimum wage stance, organizers are confident that raising the minimum wage is a “winning issue,” even in the new political climate. Workers in a range of industries are planning to strike including baggage handlers, fast-food workers, teachers, janitors and homecare workers.