Today’s News & Commentary — October 24, 2016

The Department of Labor defended a new regulation requiring businesses to disclose recent labor law violations when bidding on federal contracts, urging a Texas Court not to grant a preliminary injunction against the rule, reports Politico.  On Thursday, DOL argued that the regulations are within their authority as an executive agency,  are not preempted by existing labor law, and do not constitute “compelled speech” in violation of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.  The regulations are set to be phased in beginning tomorrow.

A recent ruling by a California appeals court which found that existing pensions for public employees can be reduced is now before the California Supreme Court in a case that could dramatically alter 60 years of California law governing pensions, reports the L.A. Times.  The ruling approved a a 2012 “pension reform” law which cut pensions, increased the retirement age for incoming government employees, and banned “pension spiking” for existing workers.  The earlier decision, if upheld, would weaken the current “California Rule,” which generally allows the State to alter the formula for calculating retirement income only if the result is neutral or advantageous to the employee.  Twelve other states have adopted some version of the California Rule.

The Wall Street Journal reported that retailers began recruiting seasonal hires for the holidays as early as August this year, anticipating a strong consumer demand and more difficulty in recruiting seasonal workers than in past years.  Companies and analysts attribute this early hiring to several trends: increasingly early holiday shopping, a tighter labor market given the low unemployment rate, and holiday competition between retailers, restaurants, and logistics and distribution firms.  While overall seasonal hiring is not expected to increase much this year, the tighter labor market is expected to put upward pressure on wages for seasonal workers.

Today’s News & Commentary — August 3, 2016

On Monday, Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit employers from asking applicants to share information about past salaries prior to being hired.  Hailed as an innovative strategy to combat the disparity in wages between women and men, the law requires companies to calculate and offer salary figures without regard for past compensation.  Commentary on the bipartisan legislation comes from Slate, Mother Jones, and Forbes, while The Boston Globe takes a deeper look at the history of the equal pay movement in Massachusetts.

Organized labor is flexing its political muscle in New Jersey, with one of the state’s largest unions refusing to donate to democratic candidates until the New Jersey Senate votes on a constitutional amendment requiring the state to make quarterly payments into the public employee pension fund.  The teacher’s union has demanded progress on the amendment—now stalled because of negotiations surrounding a transportation bill—and faces a looming deadline for passing the measure if it is to appear on the November ballot.

A unit of telecommunications workers at AT&T has voted to authorize a strike—though contract talks continue—a sign, perhaps, that the recent Verizon strike has encouraged workers in the industry to take action.  The Communications Workers of America, which represents both sets of workers, has also stepped up its organizing activities at competitor T-Mobile in the aftermath of the 45 day walkout.

In The Washington Post, Michael Wasser, a senior policy analyst at Jobs With Justice, makes the case for a broader rebirth of organized labor in the United States.  Focusing on the gap between widespread public support for unions and diminishing union density, he suggests strengthening penalties under the National Labor Relations Act to improve the ability of workers to organize.

Today’s News and Commentary — August 1, 2016

The New York Times reported Saturday that Lee Saunders, the President of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, was a key figure in the recent negotiations on the Democratic Platform’s position on trade agreements like the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership.  The agreed upon language, while silent on the TPP, “oppose[s] trade agreements that do not support good American jobs, raise wages and improve our national security.”   Saunders, who is known in the union for his engagement with rank-and-file workers and efforts to fight against threats to public sector unions like his own, has helped provide crucial support needed for Hillary Clinton to secure the Democratic nomination.

Amnesty International has criticized a recent decree from the government of Venezuela allowing citizens to be called upon to join state sponsored organizations to farm the country’s fields, saying the policy amounts to “forced labor.”  Under the decree, workers may be required to work for the organizations for 60 days, at which point their contracts will be renewed or they will be allowed to return to their former jobs.  The decree comes in the midst of an economic crisis in Venezuela, which is currently facing a food shortage, an inflation rate of almost 300% as well as widespread protests.  Erika Guevara Rosas, the Director of the Americas for Amnesty International has said that the decree “completely misses the point” and that “trying to tackle Venezuela’s severe food shortages by forcing people to work the fields is like trying to fix a broken leg with a band aid.”

The Baltimore Sun reports that Baltimore’s City Council will be voting next month on a $15 minimum wage, which would be the highest in the state.  Baltimore is currently subject to the state minimum wage of $8.75 an hour, and while the City Council is reportedly split on the increase, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake  said she would sign the proposal if it reaches her desk.  If the wage is increased, businesses would be required to pay their employees $15 an hour by 2022, and Baltimore would join a growing number of jurisdictions with a $15 an hour minimum wage.  On the national scale, Democrats have recently agreed to make the $15 minimum wage a part of their platform, while Republicans maintain that determinations of minimum wage should be left to the state and local levels.

The New York Times has sought permission from a Federal Judge in New York to dismiss gender discrimination claims made by its employees and to strike gender, race, and age claims from seeking certification.  According to Law 360, the complaint, filed by two African American women in their 60s, alleges that the “paper’s advertising department pays minorities, women and older workers less and has targeted them for buyouts as part of companywide layoffs.”  The plaintiffs are seeking  injunctive and monetary relief under the New York State Human Rights Law, New York City Human Rights Law, New York City Administrative Code, Equal Pay Act and New York Labor Law.

Friedrichs Rehearing Petition Denied

Months after reaching a 4-4 tie in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the Supreme Court has denied the petitioners’ request for a rehearing. The Court waited until its final conference of the Term to vote on the petition, after postponing its decision eight times since April. No opinion was included with the Court’s denial.

While today’s announcement effectively brings the case to a close, the questions presented by Friedrichs — (1) whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education should be overruled and public-sector “fair share” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment, and (2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively opt out of subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions — may be litigated again and brought back before a (presumably full) Court in the future.

Today’s News & Commentary — April 27, 2016

According to the New York Times, 2,000 full time employees of the upstate New York-based Chobani yogurt company recieved ownership stakes in the company yesterday which could be worth up to ten percent of the company in total if it is sold or goes public.  The number of shares will be calculated by the amount of time each employee has worked for the company, which was founded in 2005, with some employees receiving shares which could be worth over $1 million.  The shares are coming directly from Hamdi Uklaya, Chobani’s founder, who still owns a “vast majority” of the company.  Ulukaya stated of the transfer, “I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people…. Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time.”

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and AFSCME, the largest state employee union in Illinois, began a hearing before the Illinois Labor Relations Board Monday over whether negotiations which have been ongoing for almost a year are at an impasse.  The Chicago Tribune reported that attorneys for the governor allege that the parties have “enormous” differences in positions and ask that the Board officially declare an impasse, which may leave the union with no choice but to accept the governor’s terms or strike.  The union, however, contends that the administration is taking a deliberate hard bargaining stance and refusing to give key information in order to force a lockout or a strike.  The previous contract, which covers nearly 38,000 state employees, expired in July.  The hearing is scheduled to continue through the end of May.

The L.A. Times looked into possible impacts of a fifteen dollar minimum wage, as was recently passed in California and New York, on different aspects of employment and inequality.  While the L.A. Times contends that there is little to no impact of “modest” increases in minimum wage on overall employment, it is difficult to predict the impact of the $15 hike.  However, some possible consequences identified include an increase in unemployment among minority youth, a decrease in wage inequality within states, an increase in inequality between “red” and “blue” states, and the possibility that some low-wage employers will increasingly hire under the table.

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Friedrichs Opinion

In case you missed it, the Supreme Court has handed down a 4-4 affirmance of the lower court’s opinion in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Court’s 1977 opinion in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education thus remains good law, and public-sector unions may continue to collect agency fees from nonmembers.

Today’s News & Commentary — March 25, 2016

The Illinois Supreme Court issued two rulings with mixed results for Chicago unions.  First, Chicago city workers enjoyed a legal victory when the Court declared unconstitutional a 2014 law that required workers to contribute more toward their retirements while simultaneously reducing their pension benefits.  The Illinois Constitution includes a “pension protection clause,” which guarantees the right to be paid and prohibits pension benefits from being “diminished or impaired.”  The reduction in pension benefits violated that state constitutional guarantee.  According to the New York Times, this ruling will “make it more difficult for city leaders to resolve a developing financial crisis exacerbated by their obligation to pay into pension funds.”  Last year, the City Council increased property taxes by $589 million to fund police and firefighter pensions.  After the ruling, another property tax increase for city residents may not be out of the question.

Alongside the pension decision came another ruling on back wages from the state’s high court.  In this second decision, the Illinois Supreme Court held that five state agencies need not pay $53 million in back wages to 24,000 employees because the General Assembly did not appropriate sufficient funds for that expense.  According to the Herald & Review, the executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31—which represented workers in both cases—called the back-pay ruling “disappointing”: The case was “about the integrity of state government – that when it enters into a contract, it must live up to its terms.”

The pair of rulings come as the Chicago Teachers Union, along with a dozen other unions and community groups, announced a one-day walkout on April 1, as repeated efforts to negotiate a new contract with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have failed.  The Chicago Tribune reported that the Union and the CPS agreed on one point: that the state government must create a new funding plan for public schools.  “We need funding from Springfield, we need Gov. Rauner to get off his anti-union ‘turnaround agenda’ and get a budget done,” said the President of the Union.  Meanwhile, the CEO of the Public Schools warned that the walkout may give “Gov. Rauner more ammunition in his misguided attempt to bankrupt and take over Chicago Public Schools.”  300,000 children will be out of the classroom for two consecutive Fridays as a result of the impasse: The CPS had set today (Friday, Mar 25) as one of three furlough days to save cash.  This forced unpaid vacation time was one of the issues that contributed to the walkout.

American Airlines agreed to offer an employee profit-sharing program on Wednesday.  As a result, all four of the top U.S. carriers will now share profits with employees.  According to the Wall Street Journal, American Airlines has long insisted that the best way to increase compensation was through defined increases in base pay.  The carrier decided to change course, however, because it “heard from many [employees] that a profit-sharing plan is important to [its] success as a team.”  American Airlines announced that it would share five percent of pretax profits with all but management employees.  This rate is lower than those offered by competitor carriers, but a memo from American’s CEO revealed “plans to offer higher hourly pay rates than those same peers in contracts being negotiated now and in the future.”  Last year, Southwest Airlines paid $620 million on $2.2 billion in profit, while United paid $698 million on $7.3 billion in profit.