News & Commentary

January 25, 2023

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s news and commentary, Biden renominates his pick for head of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division; Walmart announces wage hike; Sanders plans Starbucks hearings as incoming chairman of the Senate HELP Committee; organizing efforts continue in the gaming industry; Amazon fires another union activist; and Harvard Law School launches the Center for Labor and a Just Economy.

The White House revealed yesterday that President Joe Biden has renominated Jessica Looman, a former labor lawyer and union official, to lead the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, as Looman’s initial nomination was blocked by Republican Senators in December and returned to the President earlier this month. Biden originally nominated Looman to serve as Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division last July, the agency that enforces such notable federal workplace statutes as the FLSA, the FMLA, and various legislative protections afforded migrant workers, following the Senate’s rejection of Biden’s first pick, David Weil, in March. Looman continues to lead the Wage and Hour Division as she awaits confirmation, currently serving as the agency’s principal deputy administrator.

Walmart Inc. announced yesterday that the company will “begin investing in higher wages for associates,” which means raising its minimum pay from $12 to $14 per hour next month, an increase that will, according to the company, bring its average U.S. pay to more than $17.50 per hour. Walmart remains both the largest retailer in the world and the largest private employer in the United States—although a pay increase for service workers is always a welcome development, More Perfect Union observed that, in light of the Wal-Mart CEO’s astronomical salary, the company’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio will remain monstrous even following the wage hike at 1029 to 1.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will soon chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), as Kevin detailed over the weekend, and the democratic socialist appears to be harboring exciting intentions to deploy the powerful committee’s influence to protect worker power. Kevin explained that Sanders intends to use his leadership position to revisit paid sick leave for rail workers, the central point of contention that compelled four major railway unions to threaten a nationwide railway strike last year, and Bloomberg law reports that Sanders also plans to initiate hearings concerning Starbucks’ management of the unionization efforts erupting at its stores across the country, possibly even to the extent of calling CEO Howard Schultz in for live testimony. It is “wrong that a major corporation like Starbucks, according to the NLRB, has broken the law numerous times in trying to prevent workers from forming unions,” Sanders declared.

Yesterday, the New York Times’ morning newsletter explored the burgeoning movement among game developers to organize the video game industry. The gaming industry, the Times observes, is now worth more than “music, U.S. book publishing, and North American sports combined” and “employs hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone.” But, the Times proceeds, it “has also faced accusations of brutal work conditions, discrimination and harassment,” which have driven many game developers to seek unionization. The newsletter notes that the most pervasive worker complaints in the industry relate to inadequate compensation, intense hours, gender-based discrimination, and sexual harassment. Unions have recently been formed at several Activision Blizzard and Microsoft studios, and organizers reportedly informed the Times that dozens more efforts are underway.

An Amazon warehouse worker named Darryl Richardson claims that he was terminated over the weekend, without any explanation, from the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, the site of last year’s hotly contested rerun union election. Richardson contends that his termination was “definitely cause of union activities.” According to Bloomberg law, an Amazon representative insists that the discharge was not related to Richardson’s union organizing efforts. Although concededly very little information has yet been uncovered about Richardson’s termination, in light of the NLRB’s findings, affirmed by federal judges, that Amazon has repeatedly violated the labor law by dismissing union activists, it is difficult to accord much credibility to the company’s contrary contentions here. One can only hope that the NLRB will utilize its recently enhanced funding to vigorously investigate and expeditiously remedy any unlawful discharge of union activists on the part of Amazon.

Finally, Harvard Law School launched the Center for Labor and a Just Economy (CLJE) on Tuesday, a research and policy initiative focused on empowering working people to countervail the influence of concentrated wealth and corporate power and to build an equitable economy and democracy. CLJE represents a refinement and expansion of Harvard Law’s preexisting Labor and Worklife Program, which was established in 2002. In light of the renewed organizing energy among the American workforce, catalyzed at least in part by the restructuring of work occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, CLJE has identified the need for new policy ideas to meet the moment. “We are looking to develop—in collaboration with folks from across the labor movement, academia, worker advocacy—new strategies for empowering workers so that the economy and our democracy will be more fair,” explained Sharon Block, CLJE’s executive director. “The mission of the center is to reimagine American labor laws to enable working people to rebuild the economy and politics in a more equitable fashion,” concurred HLS Professor Benjamin Sachs, who serves as faculty co-director at the Center.

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