News & Commentary

October 9, 2022

Swap Agrawal

Swap Agrawal is a student at Harvard Law School.

In this weekend’s news and commentary, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that Starbucks illegally fired a Michigan employee; Labor Secretary Marty Walsh pledges to assist those pardoned for federal marijuana possession offenses; and union organizing among undergraduate students is on the rise.

On October 7, an administrative law judge (ALJ) for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Starbucks illegally fired a Michigan employee for engaging in union activism. The ALJ’s decision requires Starbucks to reinstate the worker with back pay. Starbucks must also hold a meeting with employees, management, the government, and the union at which a notice will be read about the company’s violation of labor law and workers’ union rights. The ALJ’s order can be appealed to the NLRB and from there to federal court. Starbucks has waged a fierce anti-union campaign amidst widespread organizing activity at store locations across the US. The union has prevailed in elections at more than 240 of the chain’s 9,000 domestic corporate-owned locations, and Starbucks says it plans to start negotiating its first collective bargaining agreements this month. This is the first time that an NLRB judge has ruled that Starbucks broke the law in its struggle with Starbucks Workers United, although the NLRB’s general counsel has issued dozens of other pending complaints. Starbucks’ illegal actions in firing this Michigan employee underscore workers’ demands for just-cause protections, which will be a key issue when contract negotiations begin.

On October 7, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced that Biden administration officials will be working to ensure that people who receive a pardon for federal marijuana offenses under a proclamation issued by President Joe Biden on Thursday are not impeded from future job opportunities. The President’s pardons affect about 6,500 people convicted of federal marijuana possession. None remain in prison, but the pardons will help ensure that their criminal records will not be a barrier to securing employment, housing, occupational licenses, and educational opportunities. Biden’s actions will not affect the 3,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for higher-level marijuana crimes or the 30,000 people in state prisons for marijuana offenses. Biden has called on governors to give similar pardons in their states, where most possession cases are prosecuted.

On October 3, a group of resident assistants at Barnard College delivered a letter to their college president stating that 95 percent of them had voted to unionize with OPEIU and asking for voluntary recognition of the union. Last week, student employees at Mount Holyoke College filed for recognition with the NLRB after the college failed to voluntarily recognize the union. In March, Wesleyan University voluntarily recognized a bargaining unit of undergraduate residential employees. Although undergraduate unions are still rare, union organizing is increasing among college student workers who have been inspired by the wave of unionization nationwide. Undergraduate students who work in dining or residential halls are seeking to combat poor working conditions including low pay, long hours alongside busy school schedules, and lack of protection from COVID-19. At the same time, tuition, fees, and costs of living continue to rise. “There is quite a common idea and misconception that students at private, liberal-arts schools are wealthy and that they should feel lucky. For so many students it is not true, because many students use those jobs they get in school to put themselves through school,” said Emma Kang, a student worker at Kenyon College involved with the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee. Most of this union organizing activity has occurred at private colleges, as state college employers are exempted from the NLRA’s coverage. The NLRB ruled in 2017 that undergraduate resident advisors at private colleges could unionize. The Trump NLRB proposed shrinking the definition of “employee” to exclude undergraduate students in 2019, but Biden’s NLRB withdrew the proposal in 2021 to ‘focus its limited resources on competing Agency priorities.’

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