News & Commentary

August 23, 2021

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

On Monday morning, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted full approval to the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which has already been administered to more than 100 million people in the country. According to the FDA’s news release, the public can be “very confident” that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which relies on mRNA technology and was the first COVID-19 vaccine authorized for emergency use in December 2020, “meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product.” The Pfizer-BioNTech product has now become the first coronavirus vaccine to obtain full licensing from the FDA, which will trigger a stream of vaccine mandates for a potential combined total of more than a million employees of various hospitals, universities, government offices, the military, and private corporations. The governor of Oregon, for example, announced earlier this month that all healthcare workers and school employees in the state must be vaccinated six weeks after the vaccines receive full approval by the FDA, and a range of other organizations, from United Airlines to the Pentagon, have adopted similar requirements. Beyond these, the FDA’s full approval will pave the way for a cascade of additional vaccine mandates in coming weeks — following the news this morning, for example, New York City announced a stricter vaccine mandate for its roughly 148,000 city employees, and oil giant Chevron declared that its field workers must receive inoculations.

Although Pfizer, a multinational pharmaceutical giant with a disturbing history of fraud, misrepresentation, lawsuits, and product recalls, has already reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from their COVID-19 vaccine — and expects $33.5bn in vaccine revenue this year — one must admit that their coronavirus vaccine is very safe, extraordinarily effective, and has already saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I highly encourage any and all readers of the blog who have not yet received the jab to click here and schedule a vaccination appointment as soon as possible.

In a new interview with Bloomberg News, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, after five months on the job, sat down to discuss a wide range of topics, from the Delta variant and unemployment aid to worker organizing and gig work, among various other subjects. Walsh admitted that the exceptionally infectious Delta variant and the subsequent resurgence of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations (including among children and relatively young adults), and deaths, has dimmed his anticipation of a robust labor market recovery in the final quarter of the year — his own department, for example, has delayed a partial return to the office until at least October. Though July payrolls witnessed the most positions added in nearly a year, the U.S. labor force continues to suffer an economic crisis, featuring nearly 6 million fewer job than existed before the pandemic. “We’ve had some good job growth here in the last six months,” Walsh explained, “I get worried that this is going to slow some of that.”

Walsh also remarked that if the variant forces more workers to stay home in the coming months, then the dozens of Republican-led states that have slashed emergency federal aid for the unemployed might be forced to boost benefits, and affirmed that his department will “act with urgency” to enforce employment laws and promulgate pro-labor regulations, which he labeled “definitely a priority” — things like, for example, expanding federal overtime protections and updating construction-wage standards. Moreover, Walsh insisted that he’s “going to try and push as much as possible into reconciliation,” referring to congressional Democrats’ upcoming “once-in-a-generation,” according to Walsh, $3.5 trillion budget bill, the framework of which was recently approved by the Senate along party lines, including new penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights to organize and other “transformative policies” — for example, multibillion-dollar investments into labor law enforcement and job training programs and the nation’s first system of paid family leave. On the issue of gig work, Walsh largely demurred, explaining that “there’s (sic) lots of conversation around gig workers and what to do with gig workers…this isn’t an issue that I can tackle and have an answer in five months — it’s a lot more complicated than that.” Walsh averred, however, that he “will take misclassification very seriously to make sure that we are protecting the workers.” In recent weeks, Secretary Walsh has been touring the nation, visiting workers in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, and several other states to promote the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill and paid family and medical leave for all.

On Sunday night, the Association of Legislative Employees (ALE), an independent, unaffiliated union that represents hundreds of legislative aides and staff, announced that the New York City Council Union has won full recognition from the city of New York, making ALE the country’s largest legislative staff union and allowing them to collectively bargain with the City Council. The New York City Council Union represents more than 350 aides to lawmakers on the New York City Council, and the unionization effort was formally launched via card campaign in November 2019 — though discontent among the poorly-paid staffers had been bubbling for more than a decade. Because of the position’s natural instability and heavy turnover, it’s generally uncommon for legislative staffers to organize, but in recent months there has been a rising surge of legislative staffers around the country opting to join unions, including, for example, workers in the New York City Public Advocate’s office and state lawmaker aides in Oregon, both just earlier this year.

The unionization campaign among City Council staffers was prompted by a 2019 POLITICO analysis which exposed that many staffers were paid salaries so low as to be bordering on — or, in some cases, after mandatory overtime and night meetings, even less than — minimum wage. POLITICO’s findings were especially disturbing in light of the fact that only three years earlier, in 2016, City Council members had voted to increase their own pay, already six-figures annually, by more than $35,000, citing the exorbitant cost of living in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the country, and insisting that, in the words of Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, “we have a right to make a living, to support a family,” a right which is possessed by all working people, surely including the Council’s legislative staffers. Two months later, in January 2020, after collecting signed union cards from more than 60 percent of the staffers working for City Council members and the Council’s central office, organizers asked Speaker Corey Johnson to immediately recognize their union. Though the process was stalled by legal concerns and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the union officially won full recognition on Sunday. “This is the history-making moment,” proclaimed Daniel Kroop, a member of the ALE core committee and a senior legislative finance analyst for the City Council, “this is about pay equity, it’s about consistent standards, it’s about fair grievance procedures. And it’s really about lifting up the professional standards of the City Council so we can do the best we can for the people of New York.” ALE plans to hold a press conference and rally at 11 a.m. on Thursday, August 26, in City Hall Park.

As hundreds of Nabisco factory workers across the country continue their ongoing strike against Mondelez International, the snack-producer’s parent company, which Maxwell described last week, a new article published in The Guardian this morning uncovers that Mondelēz, which has shuttered numerous Nabisco plants in recent years to offshore the work to cheaper labor markets abroad, reported nearly $6bn in profits in the second quarter of 2021 and, though, as Maxwell explained, the multinational confectionary conglomerate has been slashing overtime pay and health benefits for hundreds of its workers, spent $1.5bn on stock buybacks in the first half of this year and paid its CEO, Dirk Van de Put, nearly $20m in total compensation in 2020 — 544 times more than the annual compensation of the company’s median employee. “It’s greed. They don’t have any respect for their workers that gave them the opportunity to make that kind of money. We’re peons to them,” exclaimed Darlene Carpenter, business agent of BCTGM local 358 and former employee of the company’s plant in Richmond. You can donate to support the striking Nabisco workers in Portland, Oregon, who have been on the picket line for nearly two weeks, here.

Lastly, Stanley Aronowitz, professor, scholar, author, social activist, political candidate, and labor leader, was confirmed by his family to have passed away last Monday, at 88 years old, after suffering a stroke. Aronowitz had an enormous influence on the labor movement throughout his decades-long career as a union leader, labor activist, and, later, professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, arguing, according to a profile ran in the New York Times on Saturday, that “electoral politics had failed American labor and that unions needed to adopt militant strategies to pursue a broad social agenda.” Aronowitz became involved in the labor movement as a union organizer in the late 1950s, and, in the 1960s he was famously appointed by Bayard Rustin to be the labor coordinator for the March on Washington, tasked with enlisting the support of labor unions for the march. Professor Aronowitz, who dubbed himself a “working-class intellectual,” was an outspoken Marxist, a prolific author, and a biting leftist social critic, who maintained that “capitalism is not a rational system,” and “the only way it turns around is through mass struggle.” He insisted that the labor movement had become captured by the political establishment and criticized unions for remaining “supplicants of the Democratic Party” who engage in “collective begging” instead of employing the direct, militant, tangible tactics necessary to confront the overwhelming power of the capitalist class, contending that “a militant minority can have a tremendous effect if it engages in direct action.” He asserted that electoral politics have been “horrendously overemphasized at the expense of organizing” and advocated for the development of a labor party outside of the two major political parties and a “post-political” labor movement, one that doesn’t rely on conventional politics, but on direct action — things like strikes and boycotts. Aronowitz discussed his vision for a renewed labor movement and radical social and economic change, among other things, in a 2014 interview with In These Times, which you can find here.

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