Guest Post: An Obama Executive Order That Trump Should Love

Sharon Block served in the Obama Administration as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor and Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor.  In February, she will become the Executive Director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program.  Chris Lu served in the Obama administration as the Deputy Secretary of Labor, and is now a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center.  This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

As former political appointees in the Obama administration’s Labor Department, we can think of few areas where we are in agreement with Donald Trump.  In fact, we have fundamental differences with him about how to build an economy that works for everyone.

Yet, we share his belief that government needs to do more to lift up American workers.  If the new president is interested in delivering on his promise of creating jobs and growing wages for workers, there’s an executive order already in place that he should support.

Every year, the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on procurement contracts.  By some estimates, one quarter of all American workers are employed by a federal contractor — that’s millions of families whose livelihoods are connected to the federal procurement system.

In 2014, Barack Obama signed an executive order called “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” that was premised on two fundamental principles: doing business with the federal government is a privilege, not a right; and taxpayer money should only go to companies that are abiding by the laws that protect American workers.  Under the Obama executive order, the federal government would give contracts only to companies that pay their workers the wages they’ve earned, protect the health and safety of employees, and prohibit discriminatory practices.

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Today’s News & Commentary — October 14, 2015

Two camps are preparing for battle over the future of Los Angeles education. As philanthropists and civic leaders bring together $490 million for charter schools, the teachers union has pulled in support from other employee unions for more traditional public schools. The Los Angles Times reports, although the California Teachers Association has long been wary of charter schools, the broader union support is new. Non-teaching employees at charter schools often lack union protections and are exempt from the $15 minimum wage. The coalition of unions representing administrators, clerical workers, janitors, police officers and other employees represents investment in existing neighborhood schools.

Add B&H Photo Video to the list of workplaces likely to unionize. The New York-based electronics and shipping company is known for expert customer service, but less so for employee relations, according to the New York Times. On Sunday, the United Steelworkers submitted a petition to the N.L.R.B. to represent B&H warehouse workers. The mostly Latino workers raised complaints that they face discrimination, have been pressured to sign English-language forms releasing the company from medical liability, and have been forced to work long hours in hazardous health conditions.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez received a lesson in labor organizing at an unlikely meeting spot: a children’s playground. As part of his tour through New York City, the Secretary met with the Domestic Workers Alliance, the recently unionized staff of Gawker, and carwasheros who made legislative victories this summer. Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post writes that the Obama administration recognizes its limited political power to pass meaningful workplace legislation. But Perez has found other ways to get at his goals, whether through executive orders on minimum wages for federal contracts, industry-specific rules issued by the Labor Department, or funding cities to design paid leave laws. While his tools remain limited, Perez encourages workers to keep organizing. “You might not get a return on investment next year, but you’ve got to invest in it, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul, because that’s the key to success.”

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Today’s News and Commentary — December 29

NPR today released an interview recording with President Obama. Among the highlights as reported by the Los Angeles Times, President Obama discussed circumstances in which he would be more likely to veto legislation passed by the Republican Congress. Discussing Republican opposition to Executive Action, he stated, “So the question then becomes, by me having taken these actions, does that spur those voices in the Republican Party who I think genuinely believe immigration is good for our country?  Does it spur them to work once again with Democrats and my administration to get a reasonable piece of legislation done? Or does it simply solidify what I do think is — is a nativist trend in parts of the Republican Party?”

The Associated Press reports that railroad executives are attempting to decrease the number of workers required to operate freight trains from two to one. They argue that advances in technology, including improved safety systems and an automatic braking system under development, could minimize risks. Labor groups have pointed out the risks of such a move. J.P. Wright, co-chair of Railroad Workers United, argues that railroads cannot put all their faith in technology, stating that, “We’re transporting chlorine through your town in the middle of the night completely fatigued with the possibility that the computer is going to make a mistake.”

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Today’s News & Commentary — November 17

According to the Associate Press, IG Metall President and German autoworker head Detlef Wetzel called on Volkswagen to recognize the United Auto Workers as its bargaining partner at its Chattanooga, TN plant once the union has a majority. His statement, issued from Frankfurt, came after Volkswagen established new polices last week, stating that worker groups that could demonstrate minority representation of at least 15 percent of the work force could use the Chattanooga plant’s facilities for regular meetings with management. The policy commits Volkswagen management to participate in the talks, but does not outline any binding outcomes. Prof. Sachs was quoted in the article, stating, “On paper that’s not much of a commitment, you could satisfy that by sitting down, listening to what organizations have to say and then leaving.”

BusinessWeek reports that a new paper written by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland challenges the theory that unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. The paper’s authors found that the effect of extending benefits “can, at its highest, account for only one-fourth of the increase in the unemployment rate; an impact that is much lower than other estimates in the literature.”

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Today’s News & Commentary — November 13

Harvard Law Professors Ben Sachs and Jacob Gersen have an op-ed in today’s New York Times advocating for greater protections for food workers.  Employees who work in the food industry–from farm workers to servers at restaurants–are a key part of protecting public health and safety by preventing transmission of diseases like norovirus and salmonella.  But neither state law or the Food Safety Modernization Act recognize this.  They argue that “food workers” should be recognized as a distinct category of employee, and food workers should then have special protections to ensure they can do their jobs safely and protect public safety.

In arts news, the Metropolitan Opera is asking solo singers to voluntarily lower their fees, according to the New York Times.  Over the summer, the Metropolitan Opera had a long-running labor dispute with its performers, leading to pay cuts for its workers. This new request asks soloists to accept a comparable 7% paycut.

Low-wage contractors for the federal government continue to advocate for better wages, according to the Washington Post.  Recently President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour.  (The order included other changes as well, which we covered here).  But many workers continue to struggle to make ends meet despite the new salary.  This week, a group representing contract workers in federal buildings, Good Jobs Nation, released a report asking President Obama to sign another executive order that would require agencies to consider how contractors treat their employees when agencies award contracts.

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Today’s News and Commentary – July 22

Monday, President Obama signed an executive order which bars federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. The executive order also expands federal workplace protections on the basis of gender identity. While some have applauded Obama’s bold move to address bias, The Salt Lake Tribune reports that some lawmakers, such as Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, have criticized the President for not carving out an exemption for contractors tied to religion. “In seeking to curtail unjust discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Hatch said to The Salt Lake Tribune, “we must ensure that legal protections do not trample upon basic religious liberties.” Commentators, including The New York Times Editorial Board, argue that an exemption would be inappropriate, and some activist groups, like the Human Rights Campaign, have backed off support of the federal nondiscrimination bill that cleared the Senate and has yet to be debated by the House because they fear it makes it too easy for companies to claim a moral exemption. University of Utah law professor and Chairman of Equality Utah Clifford Rosky gave his comments on the matter. “Religion cannot be used as an excuse to justify discrimination against gay and transgender individuals.”

Huffington Post reports that workers at a Subway location inside a Pilot Flying J travel center in Bloomsbury N.J. voted Friday to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The 13 workers are employed by Pilot Flying J, which is the Tennessee-based family business of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. Gov. Haslam’s actions and statements during the union drive at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, including threatening to condition financial incentives on VW’s union status, are being considered by the NLRB. We have covered the Chattanooga Volkswagen story extensively. In February, a group of cashiers, gas pump attendants, and maintenance workers at the same Pilot Flying J travel center voted in favor of joining RWDSU, a foothold that undoubtedly helped the Subway workers in the center organize, despite the professionally managed anti-union campaign staged by the company.

President Obama’s Use of Executive Power to Strengthen Workers’ Rights: A Backgrounder

Two weeks ago, in his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama proclaimed a “year of action” in which he would use his executive powers to advance his agenda, in spite of a deadlocked Congress. In particular, the President announced that he intended to issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour.

Such an executive order would not be the first use of Obama’s presidential pen to help workers, and should not be the last.  This backgrounder discusses the ways in which President Obama used his executive power to benefit workers during his first five years in office and outlines a few ways in which the President might use the executive power to strengthen workers’ rights in the future.

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