Today’s News & Commentary — February 20, 2017

A former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler Rigetti, penned a brave blog post yesterday detailing her repeated sexist treatment while working for the ride-hailing company. She writes about being harassed; how she and other women engineers were discriminated against; and how Uber’s management and human resources were not just unresponsive, but actively fought back against her. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report how, later yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced that the company would be launching an investigation into the allegations.

In the Washington Post, Jared Bernstein reminds us why the Department of Labor is so important in today’s times. Specifically, Bernstein talks about the “fissured workplace,” the term coined by David Weil to describe an increasing distance between employers and workers due to franchising, subcontracting, and outsourcing. This reality led the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division—which was run by Weil during the Obama Administration—to be more proactive about monitoring FLSA violations. Furthermore, such a “fissuring” places renewed importance on divisions within the department like OSHA.

Acquisitions and sales are adding to worker tensions overseas. McDonald’s may sell its Hong Kong and China operations to a large franchisee, which the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions warns may affect worker pay. Currently most workers earn just above the current minimum wage in Hong Kong—roughly $4.20 per hour. In the UK, General Motors may sell their Vauxhall business to the French car company PSA, according to Reuters. The purchase is being influenced by “overcapacity at existing sites, Britain’s move to leave the European Union and pension liabilities,” prompting talks with trade unions.

Politics and the DOL Website

I reported on Saturday that at the very moment Donald Trump was at the Capitol delivering his Inaugural Address promising a better life for the working class, a staffer was inside the Department of Labor taking information off the DOL website.  The first to go was a report on efforts to promote LGBT inclusion in the workplace.  After a furor on social media about the deletion of the report, it was briefly restored to the site, but now it is gone again.

Other things have also disappeared. For example, if one searches “Paid Leave DOL” on Google, or on the DOL site, one gets the following:

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The New Regime

President Trump’s first afternoon in office was short on major developments for labor rights.  The big news was that shortly after noon, a U.S. Department of Labor webpage about LGBT rights suddenly disappeared from the government’s website.  You can read the deleted report here.

Now, a Google search on the DOL.gov site for LGBT produces the following item on the list of search results:

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But clicking on the link produces this:

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The other labor news from the new Trump Administration comes from his Inaugural Address.  In dark tones, he hit on his populist campaign themes about the decline of American manufacturing and American jobs.  The annotated transcript of his address is on the New York Times website.

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Today’s News & Commentary — December 29, 2016

One of the nation’s largest labor unions is preparing to respond to Trump with less.  Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Eidelson reports that an internal memo shows the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is planning a 30 percent budget cut over the next year.  The memo cites fear that a Republican-controlled federal government will enact policies that impede collective bargaining.  The SEIU represents 2 million workers nationally and has been spearheading the Fight for $15 movement.

Trump’s chosen Secretary of Labor similarly inspires concern that the federal government will be hostile to workers outside of the collective bargaining relationship.  Accoring to Mother Jones, a review of old interviews shows that Andy Puzder has previously complained on the record about overtime rules and protective regulations, calling workers “overprotected” and questioning the need for mandatory breaks.

Workers in New York State can at least have confidence in their state government.  The National Law Review reports that the New York State Department of Labor has amended minimum wage regulations to increase the salary basis threshold for executive and administrative employees, irrespective of the status of a similar planned increase of the federal threshold.  The new thresholds in New York depend on employer size and whether the employer is located in greater New York City .

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Sharon Block to Join Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program as Executive Director

Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program (of which I am a faculty co-director) announced this morning that Sharon Block will become the new Executive Director in February. While the announcement means that the Program will lose its long-time director, Elaine Bernard, who has successfully stewarded the Program for nearly thirty years, the addition of Block will mean great things in the years ahead. Stay tuned.

The complete announcement is below:

Sharon Block, currently the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor and Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor, will be the new Executive Director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program.  She will join faculty co-directors Richard Freeman and Benjamin Sachs and staff members Lorette Baptiste, Larry Beeferman and John Trumpbour at the Program. Block will succeed Elaine Bernard, who has successfully served in the role of Executive Director since 1989.

“We are delighted that someone with Sharon Block’s extensive experience and deep insight into the issues facing 21st Century workers will become the Labor and Worklife Program’s new director,” said Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School.  “We welcome Sharon to Harvard and look forward to building together on the superb work the Program has done under Elaine Bernard’s leadership.”

For twenty years, Block has held key labor policy positions across the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.  Early in her career she worked as an attorney at the National Labor Relations Board, and returned to the NLRB in 2012 when she was appointed to serve as a member of the Board by President Obama.  She was senior counsel to the Senate HELP committee under Senator Edward Kennedy, playing a central role in the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act.  She has held senior positions in the U.S. Department of Labor throughout her career.

Recently, as head of the policy office at the Department of Labor, Block hosted – with Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil and Open Societies Foundation’s Ken Zimmerman – the Department’s three-day symposium on the Future of Work. The symposium brought together a wide array of thought leaders to address how changes in labor markets and business models impact key issues such as enforcement, labor standards, workforce development, employee benefits, and data in the U.S. and around the world.  Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez stated:

Sharon has been a trusted advisor, a tireless leader and an invaluable member of our team at the Labor Department as we have tackled the challenges facing working people.  She has dedicated her entire career to improving the lives of workers and their families, and I am thrilled that she will lead the Labor and Worklife program and continue to make progress toward an economy that works for everyone. 

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The Future of Labor

This post is part of a series on Labor in the Trump Years.

From the end of Reconstruction up through the election of 2016, political elites have done a masterful job convincing the white working class that they do not share a common interest with nonwhite workers.  They used regional differences to political advantage by convincing Southern and rural voters that Northerners, urbanites, and intellectuals disdain them.  The task for labor and the left now is to make sure that the 2016 election is the last time that happens.  Rather than demonize those who voted for Trump as bigots, labor should take their economic demands seriously.  Labor should seek common cause among all people around the economic issues that animated the vote for change.  White voters in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin put Trump in office because he promised to improve their lives.  When he doesn’t deliver on his populist promises because his policy agenda is entirely about cutting taxes and freeing corporations from all labor regulation, labor must remind middle class and working class voters of all races and ethnicities that corporate interests are dominating a Trump Administration.

Republicans now have to govern in a way that at least makes a gesture toward the populist campaign that Trump ran.  The longstanding Republican strategy of using religion and social issues as wedges to divide the working and middle classes may not work in a Trump Administration.  Trump is not beholden to the religious right; for the first time since 1980, the religious right did not get the Republican candidate they wanted.  Trump will not be able to make good on, and has already begun backing away from, his most hateful nativist promises to build a wall along the Mexican border and to deport 11 million people because business elites in agriculture, shipping, service work, and manufacturing depend on immigrant labor.  He has also begun to back away from the most reckless promises about repealing the Affordable Care Act because too many of his likely voters depend on some of its protections.  Unless there is a major attack, Trump cannot use the threat of terrorism, as the George W. Bush administration did, to distract the electorate from serious attention to the declining or stagnant fortunes of the vast majority of Americans.  He ran on domestic economic malaise in the regions of the country that haven’t seen the spectacular increases in wealth of the urbanized coasts, and labor should now hold government to account for doing something about it.

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Guest Post: Trump, Sunk Cost Fallacies, and the Next Labor Movement

David Rolf has led some of the largest union organizing campaigns since the 1940s.  He is President of SEIU 775, The Workers Lab, Working Washington, and the Fair Work Center; International Vice President of SEIU; and the author of “The Fight for Fifteen” (New Press, 2016).  Views expressed here are his own.

This post is part of a series on Labor in the Trump Years.

If one were able to magically scrub the embedded racism, misogyny and xenophobia from Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” one might conjure up an image of unionized America circa 1946-1976: high wages, high employment, stable jobs,  good benefits; expanding investments in infrastructure, education, and home ownership;  a growing economy that lifted all boats and created more middle class wealth than in any era before or since.  “Solidarity Forever,” we would sing, to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “for the Union makes us strong.”

But although Donald Trump spent precious few words on labor law and labor policy during his campaign, it’s fair to expect that single-party Republican control of all three branches of the federal government will bring only bad news for America’s already-fading unions.

Between now and at least 2021, the best scenario that union leaders can reasonably hope for from the Federal government includes hostile appointments to the NLRB, the DOL, and the judiciary; a rolling-back of progressive Obama-era efforts to modernize both NLRB election procedure and DOL overtime rules; the use of regulation, budget-writing, procurement, and other government powers to chip away around the edges of prevailing wages, wage and hour protections, workplace safety, and nondiscrimination; total or partial repeal of Obamacare; and some short-term job creation if the President-elect is successful in passing an infrastructure package and renegotiating trade agreements on more favorable terms (and assuming he is simultaneously unsuccessful in deporting 11 million wage-earners and triggering a depression by doing so).

A worse but equally likely scenario is a continued and concerted national campaign to weaken and shrink unions themselves.  More right to work laws.  The return of Friedrichs and its ilk. Continued assaults on public employee unions in the two-thirds of state houses controlled by conservatives.  And legal challenges to the notion of exclusive representation itself, brought by adherents of previously obscure and cultish legal theories.

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