Weekend News & Commentary — March 18-19, 2017

On the campaign trail, President Trump pledged that he would create 25 million jobs over the next decade.  Will he keep his promise?  The New York Times thinks not.  The Editorial Board takes aim at the President’s “wheezing jobs effort,” pointing to his recently released budget proposal — which would cut the Department of Labor’s budget by 21% and eliminate several important jobs programs — and his neglect of important job markets, such as the clean energy sector.

President Trump’s labor policies have also attracted the ire of unions and labor leaders.  The SEIU and Food Chain Workers Alliance have announced a general strike on May 1 (#May1Strike), coinciding with International Workers’ Day.  More than 300,000 food chain employees and 40,000 service workers are expected to turn out, The Hill reports, to protest the Trump administration and in particular its hardline stance on immigration.

Meanwhile, the administration’s immigration crackdown has worsened the farm labor shortage in California, The Los Angeles Times reports.  Although farm wages have shot up, few Americans have been willing to accept those jobs — casting doubt on President Trump’s claim that tougher borders will help American-born workers.

Disney will be paying $3.8 million in back wages to 16,339 of its “cast members” as part of a settlement with the Department of Labor.  The DOL’s investigation revealed that Disney resorts in Florida deducted a “costume” expense that caused some employees’ hourly rates to fall below the federal minimum wage.  The Christian Science Monitor has more.

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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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Educating America’s Twenty-First Century Workforce

The nature of work in America is changing, with increasingly sophisticated automation, advanced digital platforms, and other technological innovations serving as a catalyst.  And these transformations are only adding to the challenges facing the American labor force and its readiness to succeed at work, especially younger workers who are relying on their secondary educations to jump-start their careers.  In a survey released by Achieve in 2005, employers estimated that about 39 percent of high school graduates were unprepared to meet entry-level job expectations, and the same percentage of recent graduates in the labor market found “gaps” in their workforce preparation.  Even more notable, employers in the same survey estimated that about 45 percent of recent graduates in the workforce were not prepared to advance in their companies beyond entry-level positions, a problem that at the time resulted in millions of job openings that companies are unable to fill with the right people.  A similar 2011 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona found similar results, with about 40 percent of high school graduates unprepared for career training.

And these numbers could become even more stark as technology continues to impact the labor landscape, leaving millions of Americans without the skills necessary to secure and maintain employment.  For instance, technological advancements will increasingly polarize “labor-market opportunities between high- and low-skill jobs, unemployment and underemployment (especially among young people), and stagnating incomes for a large share of households.”  Moreover, while automation “brings the promise of higher productivity, increased efficiencies, safety, and convenience,” it also carries the danger — continually increasing as robotics and artificial intelligence advances — of job displacement and depressed wages.

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Weekend News & Commentary — February 4-5, 2017

The weekend started with some good news, with an above-expectations jobs report released Friday.  January saw 227,000 new jobs and modest wage growth; average hourly wages were up 3 cents at $26.  President Trump has already claimed credit for the strong numbers, predicting that job growth will “continue, big league,” under his administration.
Meanwhile, federal workers who want to express dissent against that same administration are turning to incognito forms of communication to do so, POLITICO reports.  In order to avoid rules covering workplace communications, EPA employees — fearing that the President’s incoming appointees will undermine existing policies — are now using an encrypted messaging app to talk strategy.  Similarly, Labor Department employees are using their private email accounts to circulate a letter asking senators to oppose Andrew Puzder’s nomination for Labor Secretary.
Speaking of which, the nominee — still facing delays in his confirmation process — continues to attract criticism.  The New York Times investigates Puzder’s early career as a lawyer, when he represented business owners and battled labor regulators in the courtroom.  In one of his biggest cases, Puzder defended his boss (a famous mob lawyer and casino owner) against allegations of squandering $25 million from union workers’ pension funds.
Puzder’s opposition to raising the minimum wage has also drawn fire, as the “Fight for $15” and related movements continue to build momentum.  Without a doubt, the importance of a “living wage” has become a central tenet of workers’ activism.  But where does it come from?  JSTOR Daily takes a step back from the debate, pointing out that workers’ acceptance of wage labor — a system that was still decried in the nineteenth century as “wage slavery” — is of relatively recent vintage.  Meanwhile, some commentators are of the view that minimum-wage hikes won’t be enough, in an age of automation, to secure the livelihoods of workers.  Writing for Jacobin, Mark Paul, William Darity Jr., and Darrick Hamilton argue instead for a federal job guarantee that would ensure employment for all.

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:


But clicking on the link produces this:


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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Weekend News & Commentary — January 7-8, 2017

The last jobs report for 2016 came out Friday, marking 75 months of consecutive job growth under the Obama administration.  December saw 156,000 new jobs and wage growth of 2.9%; unemployment held steady at 4.7% (up slightly from 4.6% in November).  The report is consistent with the Fed’s outlook for continued gains in the labor market in 2017, according to The Wall Street Journal.

With the last numbers in, The New York Times looks back at President Obama’s jobs record.  Job growth has not been as robust as under previous administrations, but Obama will be passing an economy near full employment — “something only a few modern presidents have accomplished.”  Meanwhile, NPR sums up Obama’s jobs legacy in just eight charts: under Obama, wages have started to climb, part-time workers who wanted more hours are getting them, and jobs have shifted from manufacturing to other sectors.  Will President-elect Trump be able to build on — or even sustain — the progress made during the Obama era?  Business Insider weighs in.

In other news, it’s official: Kentucky will now become a right-to-work state.  A bill that allows workers to opt out of union dues was approved by Kentucky Republicans Saturday morning, and is expected to be signed into law immediately.  State lawmakers also voted to repeal the prevailing wage law, dealing a serious blow to labor, The Huffington Post reports.  Kentucky will be the 27th state to adopt right-to-work.

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Today’s News & Commentary — December 28, 2016

At the New York TimesLeslie Picker disputes Donald Trump’s claim that a “tax holiday”  would lead to an influx of cash that would, in turn, create new jobs.  As Picker explains, “American corporations have kept an accumulation of earnings abroad because they would be subject to paying more taxes when they bring it home.”  Current law requires companies to pay up to 35 percent of their earnings to the government, but Trump has said that he wants to offer a one-time rate of 10 percent to incentivize companies to bring their profits home.  However, it is far from clear whether such a move would create new jobs.  According to adviser’s of America’s top corporate executives, American companies are likely to use the money — estimated at $2 trillion — to acquire businesses, buy back their own stock, or pay off debt.  These actions would generate profits for the companies, but would not create new jobs.  Past experience bears that out: the last time Congress initiated a tax holiday, in 2004, the top 15 repatriating companies brought home $150 billion but reduced their work force by 20,931 jobs.

The Wall Street Journal weighs in on the strength of the U.S. dollar, which is currently at a 14-year high.  A strong dollar increases purchasing power, which could boost retail sales and drive economic growth.  However, what is “good for U.S. consumers and companies that purchase components abroad” spells a threat to U.S. manufacturers reliant on sales in overseas markets: it makes “their exports more expensive and their foreign earnings less valuable.”

United Airlines has reached a settlement with the Department of Labor over the working conditions for Newark Airport baggage handlers.  The New York Daily News reports that a lawsuit was filed after inspectors “found baggage handlers too often were forced to lift heavy bags or perform other functions while leaning over, twisting or reaching overhead.”  According to the Labor Department, United baggage handlers reported over 600 musculoskeletal injuries between 2011 and early 2015.  As part of the settlement, United will install conveyor belts on jet bridges so that handlers do not have to manually lift and lower gate-checked passenger luggage.  United will also hire an expert on repetitive stress injuries to evaluate injury risks.