Today’s News & Commentary — March 1, 2017

President Trump delivered his first address to Congress last night, in which he called again for increased spending on infrastructure projects and efforts to increase the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States.  No details of these plans were provided, though unions and businesses have begun lobbying to secure portions of the predicted infrastructure package.  A meeting with television news anchors before the speech partially overshadowed the event, though, with Trump apparently indicating some willingness to discuss an immigration compromise that would allow many undocumented workers to remain in the country.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the growing number of restaurants introducing automated ordering or production to reduce labor costs, including Wendy’s, which just announced that more than 1,000 restaurants will receive self-service kiosks by the end of 2017.  The chain’s chief operations officer called the installations an initial step in replacing “repetitive production tasks” with automated systems.

In other news from Washington, as part of an effort to promote job growth through the reduction of regulations, the Trump administration ordered the EPA to begin rolling back an Obama-era regulation that had subjected a number of previously exempt waterways and wetlands to additional pollution standards.  Businesses, especially farmers and developers, had objected to the increased burdens the rule placed on economic activity in regulated areas, though sport fishing and hunting groups supporting the rule argue that significant economic benefits have accrued in newly clean waterways.

The teachers union in the nation’s second-largest school system reelected its president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, by a large margin yesterday.  United Teachers Los Angeles called the result a clear mandate for Caputo-Pearl’s plans to fight back against school reforms supported by the Trump administration that could harm students and weaken unions through an increased reliance on private and charter schools.

Weekend News & Commentary — April 23-24, 2016

In the wake of the Uber settlement, more outlets release their take on the resolution. The Washington Post provides details of the terms of the settlement, gauging that it is ultimately in Uber’s favor. The Wall Street Journal dives deeper into the tipping notice issue. For the first time, Uber drivers can post a sign stating that fares do not include tips but that passengers may leave tips in cash. Unlike its competitor Lyft, Uber will not build tipping into the app. Given the app’s appeal of riding currency-free, along with drivers’ hesitancy to do anything that might put off customers, drivers don’t know if the optional notices will have any effect on tipping or if they will even post them.

While Uber workers remain classified as independent contractors, the National Labor Relations Board takes up the question of whether misclassification is an unfair labor practice. Politico announced that the NLRB regional office filed a complaint alleging an NLRA violation for misclassification of Southern California port truck drivers as independent contractors. The Teamsters called the complaint a “historic” moment in their organizing drive. Additionally, this summer the NLRB will release decisions on whether graduate student teaching assistants have collective bargaining rights, and whether new rules will make it easier for permanent and temporary employees to unionize in a single bargaining unit.

The Boston Globe released a report on a federal investigation into alleged use of strong-arm tactics to stifle non-union development projects—with the implicated actors risings as high as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. As the former head of the Boston Building Trades, Walsh was drawn into the investigation through 2012 wiretaps, in which he reportedly told a development company it would face permitting problems unless it hired union labor on an unrelated development project. Walsh denied threatening any company and maintains that as mayor, “no one gets any special treatment under [his] administration — developers, contractors, or unions.”

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Weekend News & Commentary — April 2-3, 2016

Only a few years ago, the prospect of a $15 minimum wage seemed laughable. Now, California has a graduated increase on the books, and New York may soon follow. Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times discusses how unions—even with historically low participation rates—convinced the people and politicians to support raising the minimum wage.

As economists battle over whether the higher wage will cause job losses, Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post says this is the wrong question. For DePillis and advocates of wage increases, the issue is not whether jobs will be lost, but what structures exist to support unemployed people. They contend that if the goal is to prevent job loss, then the minimum wage will always stay below a living standard. SEIU chief economist asked: “‘What should be the criterion about setting a minimum wage? Should it be the level which produces minimal job loss? Or should it be, in the language of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for the health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers?’”

Workers in Elkhart, Indiana are not thanking President Obama, despite the success of his economic recovery plan in the region. The city’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country, and the auto industry bailout staved off up to150,000 auto jobs in Indiana. But many Elhart voters’ mistrust of big government and strong stances on abortion, gun rights, and same-sex marriage trumps the president’s efforts there. As the New York Times reports, “autoworkers are more apt to complain about the president’s gun proposals than to acknowledge the auto turnaround.”

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Today’s News & Commentary — March 30, 2016

If Chicago students arrive to teacher-less schools Friday, it won’t be an April Fools joke. The Chicago Teachers Union is preparing for a one-day strike with teach-ins and rallies, in response to alleged school closings, furloughs and layoffs next year. Through the walkout, the union intends to highlight its contract dispute with Chicago Public Schools as well push Illinois Governor Rauner to approve funding for public education and social service agencies, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Amidst a contentious election season, one political issue unites disgruntled voters: blaming economic woes on foreign trade. According to the New York Times, many voters think international trade deals have hurt American workers, and politicians’ rhetoric fans their flame. Economists accuse politicians of “following in the footsteps of politicians of all stripes who have found it convenient to blame the boogeyman of unfair trade for domestic economic problems.” But voters for both Trump and Sanders reflect a disappointment with the politicians’ and economists’ long history of “understat[ing] the costs of globalization, which tend to be more concentrated than the benefits.”

Trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership made one meaningful difference this week, though. US Customs and Border Patrol seized a shipment of goods produced by forced labor for the first time in 15 years, which they could at last do because the TPP closed a loophole in enforcement mechanisms. Quartz explains that the TPP now prohibits goods made with forced labor from entering the US, even if they meet “consumptive demand.” China’s confiscated shipment of soda ash made by forced prison labor may be the first of many goods to now come under US scrutiny.

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Today’s News and Commentary — March 1, 2016

Labor unions have gone digital…media, that is.  The New York Times reports that “Gawker Media and the union that represents its employees announced on Monday that they had reached an agreement on a labor contract, the first designed and negotiated specifically for a digital media company.”  Gawker workers are represented by the Writers Guild of America, East and voted to join the union last year.  The agreement sets wages, gives workers editorial control, and ensures salary increases and severance, but leaves workers as at-will.  Voting on the agreement will take place this week.

French labor law won’t be changing so quickly after all.  Despite earlier reports suggesting a proposal to revamp laws might have been under consideration, Bloomberg notes that “President Francois Hollande held off presenting his proposals to revamp French labor law after the nation’s main unions all opposed the plan.”  The proposals would eliminate France’s 35 hour work week and give businesses more latitude to increase working time and fire workers with limited severance.

The Chicago Teachers Union is moving closer to striking as soon as April 1.  According to the Chicago Sun-Times, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkley said strike preparations would proceed “if Chicago Public Schools follows through on its threat to unilaterally cancel the 7 percent pension pickup it has made for decades.”  Chicago teachers have been working without a union contract since June.

You go to B&H…for discrimination?  The New York Times reports that the U.S. Department of Labor filed suit against New York electronics retailer B&H “for hiring only Hispanic men into entry-level jobs in a Brooklyn warehouse and then subjecting them to harassment and unsanitary conditions.  The company was so unlikely to hire women to work in the warehouse that it did not have a separate restroom for them, according to the suit.”  The suit marks the second time in nine years B&H has been sued by the government for alleged discrimination, and the company came under fire for discrimination during a unionization campaign last year.

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Today’s News & Commentary — February 26, 2016

Delays in the Labor Department’s processing of H-2B applications are “reigniting a clash over the program’s merits and whether it harms domestic workers,” reported the Wall Street Journal.  Some in the business community are accusing the Labor Department of intentionally “slow-walking the process to appease unions and other critics” of the H-2B visa program, which allows employers to hire foreign seasonal workers to fill jobs that they say U.S. workers do not want.  The top 10 occupations that H-2B workers filled in fiscal year 2015 ranged from landscaping and groundskeeping to amusement park operations, housekeeping, and construction labor.  Facing criticism from unions that the H-2B program cheats U.S. employees out of jobs, underpays foreign temporary workers, and thus drives down wages for their U.S. counterparts, the Labor and Homeland Security Departments implemented regulations last April to require employers to undertake more robust recruitment of U.S. workers before turning abroad to fill positions, as well as to pay guest workers the regional prevailing wage for the type of work performed.

The New York Times, Politico, and local news outlets covered yesterday’s oral arguments in the latest round of Vergara v. California, the controversial case on California’s teacher job protection laws.  In June 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down job protection measures codified in five state statutes.  Declaring that the student plaintiffs’ evidence “shock[ed] the conscience,” the Judge held that the provisions on teacher tenure, as well as procedural rules and seniority requirements in the dismissal process, “grossly” exposed poor and minority students to “ineffective teachers” in violation of the state constitution’s equal protection clause.  Much of the oral arguments before the California Court of Appeals focused on the propriety of judicial intervention into crafting a policy on teacher job protection.  Appellants argued that such policy decisions are best left to the state legislature.  The case has drawn national attention from teachers unions and education advocacy organizations, and similar challenges to teacher tenure laws have been filed in New York and other states.

Teachers unions fared better in Indiana, at least for the time being.  According to the Indianapolis Star and other local outlets, Indiana’s Republican Senate leader pronounced dead House Bill 1004, which would have allowed school districts to offer more money to teachers in hard-to-fill subject areas without union input.  The state’s teachers unions vehemently opposed the bill, noting that “the law would pit teachers against one another” by subjecting only some to the collective bargaining process.  But the battle is not yet over.  Senate Bill 10, which would also allow school districts and certain individual teachers to negotiate salaries without union approval, is pending.  The House Education Committee is scheduled to hear the senate bill next week.

Today’s News & Commentary — February 18, 2016

What should the Supreme Court do with Friedrichs now that only eight Justices remain on the bench? If it were up to the Center for Individual Rights — which, along with Michael Carvin of Jones Day, represents the Friedrichs petitioners — the Court would rehear the case next Term before a full complement of Justices rather than hand down a 4-4 affirmance this Term. The Daily Signal reports that Terry Pell, the organization’s president, is claiming that lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs “believes the case needs to go before the justices again.” In the words of Pell: “[Friedrichs] is obviously sad about Justice Scalia’s passing and is concerned about the effect that has on the case, so I think she fully recognizes the need to press forward and get a full rehearing in order to get an authoritative decision from the court.” Accordingly, the organization “is pushing the high court to rehear the case after a new justice is confirmed to the bench.”

Changes are coming to the way that Walmart schedules its workers. But are the changes enough? Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post takes a closer look at the conglomerate’s recent announcement that it would offer new scheduling options to its employees by the end of the year. Currently, most Walmart stores use a system of “open shifts,” whereby “managers schedule workers within the times the employees said they’re available.”  However, in a purported effort to “improv[e] the daily experience for employees,” the company “plans to make two more options available: Fixed shifts, which guarantee the same weekly hours for as long as a year, and flex shifts, which allow associates to build their own schedules from the hours available, in roughly two-and-a-half-week increments.” Yet DePillis reports that OUR Walmart — which stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart — “was critical of the new changes, which don’t explicitly guarantee more hours for part-time workers who want them.” In a statement, the group contended that “[f]or workers who have been speaking out, protesting, and fasting for $15 and full-time hours, [Walmart’s] announcement represents a hard-won victory, but without increased pay or additional hours, it falls short of what most associates need to support their families, and or what is needed to improve customer service.”

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