News & Commentary

September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day! To celebrate the holiday, the Washington Post interviewed four workers from the D.C. area about “what they do and why they do it.” The Post also published excerpts from an interview with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. The interview touches upon Secretary Perez’s plans for the Department of Labor, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and minimum wage.

Today’s opinion pages are brimming with commentary on the challenges that low- and middle-income workers face and ideas for overcoming those challenges. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman contends some politicians “can’t even bring themselves to fake respect for ordinary working Americans.” In the same paper, Benjamin Sachs suggests one way that labor law could be reformed to give low- and middle-income workers more political power: labor law could allow workers to use unions to organize themselves politically, even if the unions are not used to bargain collectively with any employer. (Professor Sachs provides more information about his op-ed here).

 The Times also features a piece in which Jennifer Gordon discusses appallingly exploitative guest worker programs, which provide cheap, subcontracted labor to American businesses. Gordon suggests several ways that immigration and labor laws might be reformed to eliminate these programs. In particular, she argues that businesses at the top of a subcontracting chain should not be able to escape liability for the way that workers at the bottom of the chain are treated.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Robert Samuelson argues that we are witnessing “the final breakdown of the post-World War II job compact, with its promises of career jobs and something close to ‘full employment.’” The Post’s, E.J. Dionne Jr. takes a more optimistic view: he suggests that this Labor Day could “mark the comeback of movements for workers’ rights and a turn toward innovation and a new militancy on behalf of wage-earners.” Citing the fast food strikes, Dionne discusses ways in which individuals and unions are advocating for workers without pressing for unionization.

Also in the Washington Post, Theodore McCarrick suggests that, as we celebrate Labor Day, we should be mindful of the “large underclass” of undocumented workers who contribute significantly to our economy, but do not receive the same protections or benefits as documented workers. McCarrick applauds the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that the Senate passed this summer, and urges the House to follow the Senate’s lead.

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan suggests that unemployment is more than an economic problem; joblessness can be “a personal crisis because work is a spiritual event.” Noonan goes on to argue that, in a time when so many Americans are living with the pain or fear of joblessness, we need to find a political leader who has “real passion about the idea of new businesses, new inventions, growth, productivity, breakthroughs and jobs, jobs, jobs.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Harold Meyerson contends that “traditional union organizing in the private sector no longer works.” However, the California Legislature could help revive collective bargaining by extending the California Fair Employment and Housing Act to protect union organizers.

 Meanwhile, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times argues that, while low wages for fast food workers may be a problem, the bigger problem is workers’ inability to advance into better-paying jobs. In order to address this issue, the board argues, we need to improve government-funded career training, which is often “inefficient, duplicative and poorly targeted.”

The Wall Street Journal observes that strikes by fast-food workers have called attention to a debate about whether raises for fast food employees are economically feasible.

In international news, the New York Times reports that inspections of foreign factories are often flawed. Many inspections are “so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes.” Even when the inspections are rigorous, however, factory managers find ways to hide serious violations (such as employing children or locking exit doors).

The Washington Post reports that workers on Thai fishing vessels face abysmal conditions. The Post also notes that almost 200 workers at Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal are on strike because their wages are several months overdue.

Finally, the New York Times observes that, while factory activity in the euro zone rose sharply in August, companies remained reluctant to hire new workers. 

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