News & Commentary

November 21, 2014

President Obama unveiled the details of his long-awaited executive action on immigration last night. The provisions directly affecting the most people are deferred deportations for (1) parents of legal residents and (2) an expanded number of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. The President’s plan makes several other changes whose impact, though still significant, will be less widespread. Labor leaders Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO and Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU expressed strong support for the President’s action. Some labor experts believe that the President’s action will encourage undocumented workers to unionize and to assert workplace rights, as fear of immigration-related retaliation has stymied action by these workers in the past. This will in turn benefit documented workers who stand to gain from expanded unionization and from not having to compete with undocumented workers whose working conditions fall below legal minimum standards. Empirical studies of beneficiaries of President Obama’s 2012 DACA program deferring deportation for a large group of childhood arrivals show that individuals taking advantage of DACA experienced a significant increase in economic opportunities.

Some labor advocates did express disappointment with certain aspects of the plan. Richard Trumka criticized the President’s suggestion that he would expand access to temporary visas for high-skilled tech sector workers, saying that such an action would continue to depress wages in the tech sector. And the action contained no specific protections for workers complaining of unlawful employer conduct or for farm workers.

According to a new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, a strong majority of Americans—56%—agree that the political and economic system is stacked against them. The percentage of the country holding this view has steadily risen since 2002, when only about a third of Americans felt this way. This sentiment crosses lines of political party, race, age, work type, and retirement status. The wealthy and people holding advanced degrees account for the bulk of Americans who do not feel the system is stacked against them.

The Senate HELP Committee conducted a hearing yesterday addressing the confirmation of Lauren McFerran to replace Nancy Schiffer on the National Labor Relations Board when the latter’s term expires on December 16, 2014. Outgoing Committee Chair Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, offered high praise for McFerran and for Sharon Block, whose nomination President Obama withdrew in the face of strong Republican opposition. Harkin expressed his desire for McFerran’s speedy confirmation. At the hearing, ranking member and soon-to-be chair Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, criticized Block and touted a bill introduced by himself and Mitch McConnell that would weaken the NLRB. Harkin has said that he expects the Committee to vote on advancing McFerran’s nomination to the full Senate sometime after Thanksgiving.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Scott Walker and John Kasich, two prominent anti-labor Midwestern Republican governors, both of whom are potential 2016 presidential candidates, have indicated that they are unlikely to pursue right-to-work legislation during their second gubernatorial terms.

Drivers at a FedEx Freight facility in Charlotte, North Carolina voted to unionize with the Teamsters this week. The vote is part of a large national effort on the part of the Teamsters to unionize drivers at FedEx Freight and Con-Way Inc. It also comes on the heels of the vote of bus drivers servicing Facebook to join the Teamsters, which gives unions a foothold in Silicon Valley and may open the door to unionization at other Silicon Valley companies like Google and Apple.

Mother Jones reports that four years after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers, federal and state governments have done little to improve enforcement of mine safety laws or to enact new laws and regulations to address the problems the Upper Big Branch disaster revealed. The decline in safety standards at mining operations is attributable at least in part to the decline of unionization among mine workers. Meanwhile, Don Blankenship, the former CEO of the company in charge of the mine where the 29 workers were killed, pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal conspiracy to commit violations of mine safety rules in federal court yesterday.

AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka is questioning contracts between large financial institutions and their managers that grant bonuses to managers who leave for high-level government positions. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had such a provision in his contract with Citigroup. Trumka is concerned that implicit in these arrangements is the idea that the exiting manager will grant favorable treatment to her former employer in her government position. According to Secretary Lew’s contract, he would only receive the bonus if he took a governmental position from which he could most directly assist Citigroup.

The New York Times reports on a new study from the National Employment Law Project documenting the decline in wages for U.S. manufacturing workers. Since 2007, line work in factories has paid less than the typical private sector job, and the gap has grown continuously since then.

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