Today’s News & Commentary — March 14, 2017

While Uber attempts to discourage the unionization of drivers in Seattle, some drivers are challenging the municipal law giving drivers the right to organize.  According to the Seattle Times, “the drivers are seeking a temporary restraining order barring the city from enforcing the law — the first of its kind in the country — saying it goes against federal labor and privacy laws, as well as violates their rights to free speech and association.”  The lawsuit is being led by the National Right to Work Foundation and the Freedom Foundation.  The drivers primarily argue that the National Labor Relations Act pre-empts the municipal law.

Another innovative municipal law has gone into effect, in San Jose, CA.  The Mercury-News notes that ” San Jose businesses with 36 or more employees must now offer extra shifts to part-time workers before hiring new staff.”  Under the Opportunity to Work measure, “companies must offer — in writing — extra work hours to existing qualified part-time employees.  If those employees aren’t qualified or decline the extra hours, an employer can then hire additional workers to fill the shifts.  The idea, advocates say, is to give existing workers access to extra hours to boost their paychecks.”

Muslim workers in Europe suffered a legal setback in seeking to assert their right to wear the hijab in the workplace.  The Washington Post reports that “The European Court of Justice issued a non-binding ruling Tuesday that employers can prohibit the Muslim headscarf in the workplace, setting an important precedent for a continent in the midst of a fraught political climate.”  The ECJ concluded that rules against the wearing of the hijab in the workplace were in fact rules against the visible wearing of religious signs, and thus not direct discrimination.  Notably, “in the absence of official internal regulations prohibiting what employees can wear to work, the court suggested, Muslim women have a stronger case for wearing the hijab to the office.”

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Guest Post: The Ghent System and Progressive Federalism

Matthew Dimick is Associate Professor of Law at the University at Buffalo School of Law.  He can be reached at mdimick@buffalo.edu.

Last week, the US Department of Labor released its latest union membership statistics.  In 2016, the rate of union membership among wage and salary earners—or union density—was 10.7 percent, down 0.4 percent from the previous year.  Unsurprisingly, union membership remains low, and far below its historical high point.  In 1964, for example, nearly a third of workers belonged to a labor union.

Union density is not the end-all and be-all of unionism, but it’s hard to overestimate its importance for succinctly capturing the strength of a labor movement.  Union members pay dues, are more likely to vote (and probably more likely to vote Democrat), and are more likely to participate in job actions and other tactics necessary to put economic pressure on an employer.  Even more broadly (and loftily), union membership initiates workers into an institution of community for both transcending differences (e.g., between races and genders) and developing broader, collective interests.

It’s not surprising therefore that goal number one of the labor movement has been to reverse the decades-long decline in union density.  This goal takes on existential proportions in light of the continued legal and political assaults on labor unions.  Last year, public sector unions—constituting no less than 40 percent of total union membership—dodged a bullet when the death of Justice Scalia led to a deadlocked Supreme Court in the Friedrichs case.  Had Justice Scalia lived, it is almost certain that the Court would have allowed public sector workers to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to join the union or otherwise contribute to supporting it financially.

Unfortunately, with a Trump presidency, labor supporters weren’t allowed much of a reprieve.  And given the larger political climate and vicissitudes of national labor law, this should impel the labor movement to seek out other ways of building union membership.  One of these ways, as I discuss in this post, is to adopt what is called the “Ghent system.”

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Today’s News & Commentary — November 28, 2016

Following last week’s nationwide injunction against the Department of Labor’s overtime rule, the Washington Post editorial board urged Congress to make the rule law. The board noted that five Republican senators earlier proposed a law phasing in the overtime rule’s higher salary threshold over a period of four years, with opt-outs for nonprofits and state governments.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said today that global growth will grow under the Trump administration, pointing at lower taxes and increased infrastructure spending, according to Fortune. As growth increases, OECD predicted unemployment will drop from 4.9% to 4.5% in 2018.

Tomorrow’s a big day for Uber: first, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will hear arguments in a case that will affect Uber’s status across the continent, the New York Times reports. The case was filed by the Spanish taxi association, which claimed unfair competition. The Spanish judge referred the case to the ECJ to determine whether Uber is a transportation service, and thus subject to Europe’s strict labor laws, or a digital platform. Second, hundreds of Uber drivers are joining Fight for $15 protests tomorrow across the United States, Reuters reports. Continue reading

Today’s News and Commentary — February 16th, 2016

Steel workers took to the streets in Brussels to demand continued European Union protections against cheap Chinese imports.  According to The New York Times “some 5,000 protesters packed the European district of the Belgian capital, where many European Union offices are, and their leaders handed an engraved metal plaque with their demands to Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission.”  Some assert that Chinese imports destroy both jobs and the environment, but the European Commission will decide this year whether to give China market economy status.

In the United States, the government is closing a loophole on products tied to slaves.  The New York Times notes that “President Obama will sign legislation this week that effectively bans American imports of fish caught by forced labor in Southeast Asia, part of a flurry of recent actions by the White House, federal agencies, international trade unions and foreign governments to address lawlessness at sea and to better protect offshore workers and the marine environment.”  The action closes a loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930, which “which bars products made by convict, forced or indentured labor” but “has exempted goods derived from slavery if American domestic production could not meet demand.”

Turning to Brazil, labor rights campaigners are asserting that over 300 Brazilian companies have been fined for operating  with labor arrangements akin to modern-day slavery.  The Thompson Reuters Foundation reports that the rights group Reporter Brazil revealed “that 340 Brazilian companies from May 2013 to May 2015 employed people working in slave-like conditions, including in sweatshops producing clothes, in farms, cattle ranches, timber companies, construction and charcoal production.”  According to the group, the Brazilian minister of labor has fined the companies in question.

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Today’s News & Commentary – February 16

Strikes at U.S. oil refineries have entered their third week, and both employers and employees have begun to raise safety concerns.  As replacement workers join the ranks at the nine striking refineries, questions are arising about potential safety and production risks from an extended walkout.  While such warnings may seem like a negotiating tactic for management, some striking employees are concerned about the training for contract workers.  “Management says it’s safe. I disagree,” said John Ostberg, a non-union control engineer who works in the main computerized control center at Toledo and quit his job on Monday weeks before he was scheduled to retire.

The New York Times‘ Editorial Board writes that “the deaths of some 300 migrants on Wednesday in the icy February waters of the Mediterranean and of 29 others who died of hypothermia after being rescued last week were predictable and preventable.”  Though European Union government officials are quick to blame the smugglers who brought the migrant workers to Europe, the Editorial Board believes that the EU shares the blame and should work to increase public safety measures.

The Wall Street Journal writes that the Canadian government may introduce back-to-work legislation as early as Monday to end a strike by unionized workers at Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) that is “snarling freight service across Canada.”  The collective action started with a walkout on Sunday, and the Canadian government has moved swiftly to respond.  Canada’s Minister of Labour Kellie Leitch issued a “strongly worded statement” on Sunday that blamed the union representing CP’s locomotive engineers and conductors for the breakdown in contract talks over the weekend, calling on CP union officials to abandon their strike and begin earnest negotiations with management.  Secretary Leitch, who personally intervened in the dispute, stressed the government would move swiftly to end the job action.

New York City job creation is at a five-year high currently, but unlike past recession recoveries, Wall Street job growth is conspicuously absent, The New York Times reports.  New York City is proving that it can grow at a rapid pace without leaning on Wall Street.  The City has added 425,000 jobs since the end of 2009, raising total city-wide employment to 4.1 million jobs.  Many new jobs are in lower-paying businesses, such as hotels and restaurants. Continue reading