Weekend News & Commentary—April 15-16, 2017

Yesterday, in dozens of cities across the U.S., tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand that Trump release his tax returns.  Reuters explains that organizers of the “Tax March” wanted to draw attention to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.  The marches were planned for April 15 because it is the traditional filing deadline for U.S. federal tax returns (this year the filing date was pushed back two days).

Politico reports that the “clock is ticking” for expanding the number of available H-2B visas.  The H-2B visa program permits business to hire temporary, non-agricultural foreign workers, with a cap of 66,000 visas per year.  The 2015 spending bill exempted returning workers from the cap, and business leaders are pushing for Congress to do the same in 2017.  Although a House appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2017 already includes the exemption, business leaders are lobbying the Senate to do the same by April 28, the date by which Congress needs to pass a spending bill to keep the government functioning.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts Leo T. Sorokin presided over a two-hour hearing regarding two City Hall aides charged with extortion for “allegedly threatening to withhold permits for the Boston Calling festival in September 2014 unless organizers hired union workers.”  According to the Boston Globe, a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office asserted that the aides thought they were advancing Mayor Walsh’s agenda.  Attorneys for the defense countered that the aides acted as city workers seeking jobs for constituents, that they had the right to negotiate the use of City Hall Plaza, and that the prosecutors “have failed to show that the defendants received anything of value for allegedly urging the labor union jobs.”  As Attorney Thomas Kiley argued, “A violation of the National Labor Relations Act is not the same as [extortion].”

Today’s News & Commentary — September 21, 2016

On Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on Wells Fargo’s sham account case.  As the New York Times reports, Wells Fargo employees created nearly two million fake accounts to pad their sales numbers.  At the hearing, senators noted that top executives had faced no real consequences, while the bank’s lowest-paid workers had “borne the brunt of the punishment.”  As Senator Elizabeth Warren put it to John G. Stumpf, Wells Fargo’s chief executive, “Your definition of accountability is to push this on your low-level employees. This is gutless leadership.”

Forbes reports that 21 states have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Labor to block its new overtime rule.  The suit, filed in the Eastern District of Texas, alleges that the rule is in contravention of the Tenth Amendment and the APA.  Most of the states party to the lawsuit have also joined lawsuits seeking to block other Obama administration rules, including the challenge to DACA, the Clean Water Rule, and the Clean Power Plan.

According to Politico, the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. has served as a catalyst for state legislation protecting pregnant workers from workplace discrimination.  In Young, the Court held in favor of a pregnant UPS worker who alleged that she had been denied pregnancy-related accommodations as required by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  Although the holding was a narrow one, it seems to have prompted legislative action.  Emily Martin, general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, explained that since the decision, “we’ve seen even more bipartisan support for the notion that pregnant workers … should be entitled to very reasonable accommodations at work.”

A Thai court has found a British labor activist, Andy Hall, guilty of criminal defamation and violating cyber crimes law.  The charges came in connection with his work on a 2013 report accusing Natural Fruit, a Thai-based company, of violating its workers’ rights.  Hall was originally sentenced to three years in prison and fined $4,300, but the judge suspended his sentence.  Still, human rights advocates are worried that the case will seriously hinder efforts to investigate and monitor workers’ rights abuses in Thailand.  Coverage is available at the New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and Jurist.

Senate Cafeteria Workers: Vindication for Some and a Continuing Fight for Others

In February, we reported that the DOL seemed like the best hope for Senate cafeteria workers who had been reclassified and denied the benefits they anticipated in their new contract with Restaurant Associates (RA).  While the DOL investigation is ongoing, the workers have also made some promising advances through a top Capitol Administrator and a Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee.

Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers told a legislative subcommittee last Tuesday that suspicions had been raised about a widespread problem of reclassifications shortly after the renewed RA contract was signed last December.  These “suspicions” were likely bolstered by the extensive campaigns of the workers themselves to call attention to and attempt to remedy the “wage theft.”  Roll Call reports that last month, Ayers met with several Senate Democrats about this issue, and they demanded a thorough investigation.  As a result, Ayers and his deputies interviewed 86 workers and found that RA had properly classified only 35 of them.  RA responded by immediately reclassifying 35 of the 51 found to be improperly classified. This leaves 16 workers still in dispute.  Half of those are currently being negotiated, and half of them have been referred to DOL.

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The DOL is Best Hope for Senate Cafeteria Workers

In late 2015, Senate cafeteria workers made headlines when they organized to demand that Restaurant Associates, the exclusive caterer at the U.S. Senate, pay a living wage (covered here and here in our News and Commentary).  The workers’ efforts included strikes and walkouts and received high-profile, bipartisan supportWashington Post columnist Catherine Rampell posited: “This story was supposed to have a happy ending.”  But that happy ending has proven elusive.  Despite securing higher wages in a new contract, the workers are being reclassified into lower pay grades and seeing their raises shrink.  Now that media attention has dwindled, the Department of Labor (DOL) represents the workers’ most immediate hope for vindication.

Background: Privatization of the Senate Cafeteria and the Fight for a Living Wage

In 2008, Democratic leadership privatized the Senate cafeterias in order to cut costs.  Restaurant Associates won the contract bid and now employs 115 food-service workers in the Senate.  The company is owned by the British firm Compass Group, whose annual profits exceed one billion dollars.

The contract with Restaurant Associates came up for renegotiation on December 1, 2015.  Targeting that critical moment, Senate cafeteria workers lobbied to secure living wages.  They staged strikes and walkouts, and the national media embraced their stories.  The public was surprised to learn that one worker had been homeless for five years, one was a single mother moonlighting as a stripper to make ends meet, and many others were working long hours at second, supplemental jobs.  One worker was being paid more at KFC than she was at the Senate.  The workers partnered with Good Jobs Nation, which has been active in the Fight for $15 (profiled in our Fast Food News series) and is funded largely by unions.

When Restaurant Associates signed a new seven-year contract in December, it included substantial raises and appeared to be a victory for the workers.  Though it fell short of the $15-mark, the minimum wage rose from $10.50 to $13.30, and the average rose from $11.50 to $14.50. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a win.

Reclassifications Under the New Contract

Under Service Contract Act (SCA), which controls wages of federal contractors and subcontractors, a worker’s title determines his or her wages.  These titles and responsibilities are laid out in the Directory of Occupations, which are federal regulations promulgated by the U.S. DOL.  It is a violation of federal law to misclassify workers under the SCA. Continue reading

Weekend News & Commentary — August 22-23, 2015

According to The Detroit Free Press, the United Auto Workers union is trying to radically reshape worker health plans as part of its contract negotiations with the Big 3 automakers.  The UAW has proposed the creation of a single health benefits co-op that would include General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler employees, with the hope that it would both save the companies money and avoid union contract concessions.  According to the story “the new health care purchasing pool…would be independent and could represent  800,000 to 900,000 people, gaining leverage with insurance companies, hospitals, clinics and health care providers to get better care at more affordable rates.  The idea is that a co-op of active workers, both unionized and salaried from all three companies, would work with the group that manages retiree benefits.  While they would be separate entities, their combined purchasing power would benefit with the ability to strike better deals for care.”  The proposition is considered risky, but automakers are open to it.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the NLRB’s pending joint employer decisions that address “whether a big company should share responsibility for the workers with intermediary hiring firms”, including Browning-Ferris.  Worker advocates believe that finding joint employer relationships exist will help protect workers and place responsibility where it belongs, while anti-regulation groups believe that finding such a relationship will “upend American business practices.”  The rulings would implicate large franchisors like McDonalds and their ability to “use franchise arrangements to obscure their role as the ultimate employer.”

Writing in The New York Times, Joe Nocera reviews Amazon’s Darwinian treatment of workers and founder Jeff Bezos’ unrelenting defense of the culture he created.  Nocera frames the decisions made by Bezos as designed to maximize the amount of work performed by “fundamentally fungible human beings,” whereas previous generations of Americans relied on a social compact with employers promising mutual loyalty.

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Today’s News and Commentary — December 15

As Prof. Sachs recounts in more detail here, the NLRB on Friday issued a new final rule which allows the NLRB regional director responsible for elections to decide “which, if any, voter eligibility questions should be litigated before an election is held.” This marks a shift from prior practice under which voter eligibility questions had to be litigated prior to the election.

SFGate reports that on Saturday, restaurant workers at San Francisco International Airport returned to work after a two day strike led by UNITE HERE! Local 2. The union stated that the walk out was intended to send a message to the airport’s restaurants that they were determined to win job security protections and health care coverage. Union representatives hinted that such actions could continue during the busy holiday travel period.

According to the StarTribune, members of the International Association of Machinists Lodge 1947 approved a 5-year extension of their labor contract with Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac, WI. This Midwestern employer of 2,800 had openly discussed moving its manufacturing plant to Oklahoma, with the IAM offering concessions and local government offering incentives to convince them to stay.

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Today’s News and Commentary–December 5, 2014

Fast food workers and their supporters walked off the job and protested in over 190 cities yesterday, calling for $15 an hour, improved scheduling and working conditions, and a union. This fast food strike, occurring just over two years since the first such strike in November 2012, was the largest of its kind to date. For the first time, convenience and dollar store workers (from such outlets as Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar, Shell, Sonoco, BP, and Speedway, among others) joined the protests. The protests have received support and guidance from the SEIU. The SEIU says it does not pay anyone participating in the protests, with the exception of a small amount (less than a day’s wages) from its strike fund for striking employees who miss work to participate. Airport workers at several major airports, home health care workers, and employees of federal contractors also took part in the protests.

Delta Airlines fired baggage handler Kip Hedges of Minneapolis for appearing in a video for a labor publication calling for improved pay and working conditions and unionization at the airline. 15 Now, one of the groups coordinating the recent efforts to improve working conditions in service sector employment, plans to hold a rally outside the Delta terminal in Minneapolis today calling for Hedges’s reinstatement.

And Steven Greenhouse, the outstanding and sadly soon-to-be outgoing labor and employment reporter for the New York Times, profiled Terrance Wise, a fast food employee and father of three from Kansas City, Missouri who has emerged as a leader of the fast-food and retail labor movement. Wise worked two jobs and 16-hour days, making $7.47 an hour at Pizza Hut and $9.30 an hour at Burger King. “My kids are living in poverty. It’s hard getting just the basic necessities, and they truly are the reason I fight,” Wise told other employees on a recent conference call planning yesterday’s protests.

On Tuesday, the NLRB ruled that automaker Daimler, maker of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, must allow employees at its Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama to discuss unionization on the plant’s premises during non-work time. Specifically, the Board ruled that the automaker has to change its employee handbook, which had apparently banned such conversations. The handbook will now have to explicitly inform employees of their statutory right to organize and to engage in unionization discussions on the employer’s premises during non-work time. The United Auto Workers is attempting to organize the Alabama plant as part of its push to unionize foreign automakers in the South, an effort that also includes Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga and Nissan’s plant in Mississippi. Continue reading