News & Commentary

December 1, 2023

Julio Colby

Julio Colby is a student at Harvard Law School.

In Today’s News & Commentary: Emory University Ph.D. student workers overwhelmingly vote to unionize; the Senate fails to advance Biden’s ETA pick; and Starbucks violated labor law by firing two workers and engaging in anti-union practices at a Portland café.

On Wednesday, Emory University’s Ph.D. student workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize with Workers United. EmoryUnite!, as the union calls itself, began as a voluntary-join union more than five years ago. Now, graduate student workers voted 909 to 73 to select the union as their official bargaining representative. The union’s objectives include securing raises aligned with the cost of living in Atlanta, improved health insurance coverage, addressing graduate housing costs, obtaining vision insurance, and addressing advisor-related concerns. The win makes Emory the second recognized graduate student-worker union at a private university in the South, following the Duke Graduate Students Union’s earlier success, and could set a precedent for further unionization efforts in a low-union-density region. The development is part of a broader trend of increased graduate student organizing nationwide, with recent unionization victories at universities like Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Yale, Boston University, Stanford, the University of Southern California, and Dartmouth College.

On Wednesday, the Senate failed to advance the nomination of José Javier Rodríguez to lead the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), the Department of Labor’s largest subagency. Rodríguez’s nomination, pending since July 2021, faced a 44-51 vote in a procedural cloture, preventing a final confirmation vote. President Biden selected Rodríguez to oversee the ETA, which controls three-quarters of the DOL’s total appropriations. Democrat Senators Joe Manchin and Bob Menendez voted against Rodriguez, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer switched his vote to no to bring Rodríguez up for another vote in the future. Senator Manchin expressed concerns about Rodríguez’s “political activism and lack of experience.” As a Florida state senator, Rodriguez proposed an increase in unemployment benefits and extending aid to gig workers, and his comments on the need to reform and expand the unemployment insurance system have faced criticism from Republicans. The stalled nomination raises the possibility of President Biden nominating a new candidate to lead the ETA, a crucial subagency responsible for the nation’s workforce development system and the federal-state unemployment insurance system.

On Thursday, an NLRB judge found Starbucks violated labor law by terminating two union supporters and engaging in anti-union practices at a Portland, Oregon café. NLRB Judge Sharon Levinson Steckler ordered Starbucks to rehire a shift supervisor and a barista who had been fired for union activity after working at the store for more than 14 and 20 years, respectively. Starbucks claimed the firings were based on the workers’ disciplinary records, but the judge determined the company had actively built those records by targeting the employees after learning of their union support. The Portland store unanimously voted to be represented by Workers United in July 2022. The judge found that before the election, Starbucks illegally opposed the union campaign by instructing the supervisor to remove her union T-shirt and removing union flyers and a button from bulletin boards. The judge noted a discriminatory approach in enforcing the dress code, pointing out Starbucks had not similarly objected to a Black Lives Matter T-shirt worn by the supervisor in 2020. Starbucks plans to appeal the decision.

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