The Biggest Labor Developments of 2014 [Updated]

Benjamin Sachs

Benjamin Sachs is the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School and a leading expert in the field of labor law and labor relations. He is also faculty director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy. Professor Sachs teaches courses in labor law, employment law, and law and social change, and his writing focuses on union organizing and unions in American politics. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2008, Professor Sachs was the Joseph Goldstein Fellow at Yale Law School.  From 2002-2006, he served as Assistant General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Washington, D.C.  Professor Sachs graduated from Yale Law School in 1998, and served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, the New York Times and elsewhere.  Professor Sachs received the Yale Law School teaching award in 2007 and in 2013 received the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence at Harvard Law School.  He can be reached at [email protected].

This post has been updated below.  We’ll continue to update this post throughout the week with more input from leading labor voices.

As our reader poll continues, we wanted to share the votes of some leading labor voices.  You can click here to add your own vote (we won’t post anyone’s vote without asking first (unless you tweet it!)):

Anna Burger: Harris v. Quinn

Catherine Fisk: The fast food campaign and the political success of minimum wage laws

Charlotte Garden (via twitter): The political success of minimum wage laws

Dave Jamieson: The fast food campaign

Wilma Liebman:  Volkswagen/UAW efforts, fast food strikes and Market Basket (not necessarily in that order)

Moshe Marvit (via twitter):  Harris in the courts, Fast Food campaign in the streets

John Raudabaugh:  VW’s decision to engage in ‘constructive dialogue’ with worker organizations at the Chattanooga plant

David Rolf: Political success of minimum wage laws

Andy Stern: Harris v. Quinn

[Updated] Trevor Burrus: Harris v. Quinn

Here, too, are a couple of explanations that accompanied the votes above.

Catherine Fisk, of U.C. Irvine Law School, writes to us:

It was tough to choose between the fast food campaign and the political success of the minimum wage laws as the most important labor event of the year because they are closely related.  The fast food campaign has managed to put livable wages and work hours at the top of the news over and over again. And they have done so in a way that convinced voters across the nation to increase wages even in states in which Republicans won elections.  Voters appear to care about working conditions in low wage and service sector jobs and to be willing to pay more for goods and services to improve wages.  It’s important to note that some of the local wage laws also attempted to legislate on the issue of scheduling, which is another really important issue that the fast food campaign has brought to national attention.  The fast food campaign was able to turn news events — such as the mothers who have been prosecuted for child neglect for leaving kids unsupervised while working a very short shift at a fast food restaurant — into consciousness-raising moments:  these are not bad moms or irresponsible women neglecting their kids, but family breadwinners who are dealing with an unnecessarily difficult work schedule.  If workers in low-wage jobs had a powerful voice at work — a union, for example — and could bargain both with their immediate employer and, in the case of franchised operations or subcontracted labor, the corporation that effectively controls schedules, prices, and wages, the biggest news story of the year would be that food service and retail jobs got just a little bit better.  Perhaps in 2015?

And David Rolf, President of SEIU 775 and founder of The Workers Lab, explains:

That’s a tough set of choices.  Almost any of them would be justified…and even the way the two questions are phrased: “developments in labor” vs. “developments in labor law…” might lead to different answers.

I picked the political success of the minimum wage fights.  But I’d honestly make a distinction between the 2014 election-day successes at the state level, which were generally small, incremental changes in state minimum wages, and the more ambitious municipal efforts in Seatac, Seattle, SFO, L.A., Chicago, NY, etc.   These cities are setting the bar much, much higher, and in the process passing laws that actually impact very significant portions of their city’s economies.   An increase of a dollar spaced over 2-4 years impacts only a relatively small single-digit percentage of workers directly, and some more through compression.  But an increase of 6 dollars spaced over the same period of time impacts from a quarter to a third of all hourly wage-earners.

If I had to write my own summary for 2014: “Labor law & collective bargaining continue to collapse. Populist economics shows the way forward.”

[Updated]  Trevor Burrus, of the Cato Institute, writes to us:

Harris v. Quinn was the biggest development for me. We have a precedent now clearly saying that unions, particularly public-sector unions, are an aberration that have few and limited justifications. The decision was good for both labor and for limited government types. Labor advocates miscalculate how severely broad public sector unionization can hurt their cause and divert their attention from helping out the private-sector, blue collar workers who are not protected by civil service laws.

Voting is still open.  We’ll post the full tally soon.

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