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.

Today’s News and Commentary — February 28, 2017

The fate of several of President Obama’s signature labor and employment policies could soon hang in the balance.  The Hill reports that “President Trump is facing pressure to roll back union-friendly policy changes made by the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  In particular, the Chamber urged Trump to target “policies that hold companies accountable for labor violations committed by their partners, speed up union elections, and allow small groups of workers to organize multiple unions inside a single company.”  Meanwhile, a Washington Post columnist notes that the Republican Congress is targeting President Obama’s “Fair Pay and Safe Workforces” executive order aimed at ensuring the compliance of federal government contractors with labor laws.

As President Trump acts, Americans work confidently while those without or about to lose work struggle.  USA Today highlights data from payroll company ADP which shows that American workers are increasingly “shifting into new sectors, such as a marketing manager who leaves retail for finance.”  Notably, “in eight of the 10 major industries tracked by ADP, the share of job-switchers who came from a different industry increased from late 2014 to late 2016 while the share swapping jobs within the same industry fell.  That’s up from seven of 10 sectors that met that criteria in the third quarter.”  ADP attributes such shifts to a tight labor market and worker confidence.  Many workers are, of course, struggling.  USA Today also features the story of John Feltner, an Indiana machinist whose union job is being outsourced to Mexico.  Feltner “is left to wonder how Middle America will endure in the age of offshoring moves such as the one [his employer] is executing.”

The reports of sexual harassment of female engineers at Uber continue to make headlines.  According to The New York Times, “the company dismissed the head of its engineering efforts for failing to disclose a sexual harassment claim from his previous job.”  If Americans are surprised by the allegations, many female engineers are not.  The CBC interviewed women in the tech world who note the commonality of harassment and misogyny in the industry.

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Abortion Restrictions as Forced Labor in the Age of Trump

The new administration has made no secret of its intent to dismantle remaining protections for reproductive rights.  Despite the fact that 79 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, President Trump and Vice President Pence have both made statements indicating their desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is likely to be hostile to reproductive rights.  The administration has also made moves to defund Planned Parenthood via the global gag rule, entrench the Hyde amendment, and repeal the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.  A drastic anti-choice bill was introduced in Congress that would ban abortion after six weeks, a point at which many people do not even know they are pregnant.

These attempts to constrict reproductive choice are not only an affront to the basic principles of liberty and privacy that underlie this country’s abortion jurisprudence, but also a threat to the labor rights of anyone capable of becoming pregnant.  Should the new administration’s assault on reproductive rights come to fruition, many of those capable of becoming pregnant will be coerced into pregnancy and parenthood—a kind of labor they did not choose.  These burdens will be placed most severely on low-income women and women of color who cannot afford to access reproductive services.  Cuts to funding and services will further negatively impact trans men, who already face ignorance and discrimination when trying to access reproductive healthcare.

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Workplace Discrimination Against Muslims

It’s a difficult time to be a Muslim in America.  Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Muslim Americans have faced greater scrutiny, with recent global events triggering further anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States and abroad.  According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 39% of Americans and 49% of Republicans believe that Muslims in America should be subject to more scrutiny than people of other religions.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has translated into a serious issue of anti-Muslim discrimination in the workplace.  After September 11th, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) saw a 250% increase in cases of religion-based discrimination against Muslims.  Since 2002, Muslims continue to make up a disproportionate amount of the commission’s religion-based discrimination charges, hovering over 20%.

While in office, President Obama spoke out against Muslim discrimination on several occasions.  Last July, seen as a response to the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric of then candidate Trump’s campaign, President Obama called discriminatory policies against Muslims an insult to the “values that already make our nation great.”

The EEOC looked poised to further take on discrimination against Muslims in the workplace under President Obama.  Last September, the commission adopted its strategic enforcement plan for 2017 to 2021.  Among other things, the plan added the “emerging issue” of anti-Muslim discrimination to its list of priorities.  Specifically, the plan called for a focus on “backlash discrimination against those who are Muslim or Sikh, or persons of Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, as well as persons perceived to be members of these groups, as tragic events in the United States and abroad have increased the likelihood of discrimination against these communities.”

It’s not clear how anti-Muslim workplace discrimination will evolve under President Trump’s administration.  The President appointed Commissioner Victoria Lipnic as the acting chair of the EEOC shortly after taking office.  Lipnic, a Republican, voted against the strategic enforcement plan that called for an increased focus on discrimination against Muslims and is expected to move the commission in a conservative direction.

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Today’s News & Commentary — February 8, 2016

Yesterday, Republican lawmakers “proposed sweeping changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws” in the form of House Study Bill 84 and Senate File 213.  As the Des Moines Register explains, the new bills would limit mandatory negotiations for most public-sector union workers (public safety workers such as firefighters and police officers are exempted) to base wages only; negotiations over issues like health insurance and overtime would be prohibited.  The bills would also require unions to go through a certification process before each new contract negotiation.  Additional coverage is available at the New Republic, which also provides a brief historical overview of collective bargaining law in Iowa.

The New York Times reports that New York is attempting to revive the once-thriving, now-troubled garment industry.  City officials have increased efforts to create a new garment industry in Sunset Park, including a $115-million renovation of the city-owned Brooklyn Army Terminal, which will expand manufacturing space by 500,000 feet.  They have also partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America in order to assist companies with modernizing their manufacturing processes and workplaces.

Can Andy Puzder survive?  That’s the question Politico asks, noting that Puzder has faced allegations of beating his wife, began his career working for “one of the most notorious mob lawyers in the country,” and just admitted that he employed an undocumented immigrant as his house cleaner and didn’t pay taxes on her employment.  Despite these scandals, however, Puzder is “somehow . . . still standing.”

In other news, the New York Times observes that the appeals panel that heard oral argument yesterday in State of Washington v. Donald Trump “appear[ed] skeptical of Trump’s travel ban.”  The Times also notes that nearly 130 companies, most of them from the tech industry, filed an amicus brief in support of Washington State.

 

Gorsuch’s Judicial Approach and Workplace Protection

When Judge Neil Gorsuch accepted his nomination to the Supreme Court, he professed modesty about his role on the Court, if he is confirmed.  He proclaimed that it is the role of judges to “apply not alter the work of the people’s representatives.”  But, unfortunately, Judge Gorsuch’s record casts serious doubt on whether he would truly respect the role of Congress when it comes to drafting legislation that protects the well-being of the American people.  A recent case involving a truck driver who was fired for leaving his load to take refuge after waiting two and a half hours without heat on a sub-freezing night illustrates how Judge Gorsuch’s approach to the law would endanger workers and the public.

For 150 years, Congress has drafted remedial legislation with the understanding that the courts would liberally construe the provisions of the laws to accomplish their ends.  Here’s what Representative Samuel Shellabarger, the author and manager of the 1871 Civil Rights Act said regarding that Act: “This act is remedial, and in aid of the preservation of human liberty and human rights.  All statutes and constitutional provisions authorizing such statutes are liberally and beneficially construed.  It would be most strange, and in civilized law, monstrous were this not the rule of interpretation.  As has been again and again decided by your own Supreme Court of the United States … the largest latitude consistent with the words employed is uniformly given in construing such statutes….”

Nor was that just the wishful thinking of a legislator.  Even in 1930, during the height of what we refer to as the Lochner era, a unanimous Supreme Court acknowledged that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a law designed to protect injured workers, was “to be construed liberally to fulfill the purposes for which it was enacted.”  Thus, the Court held that even though the statute only imposed liability on railroads for injuries that resulted from the “negligence” of the railroad’s agents or employees, it was proper to impose liability where a foreman assaulted a worker.  The Court explained that since the employer would clearly be liable if the worker’s injuries “had been caused by mere inadvertence or carelessness on the part of the offending foreman it would be unreasonable and in conflict with the purpose of Congress to hold that the assault, a much graver breach of duty, was not negligence within the meaning of the Act.”

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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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