Today’s News & Commentary — August 21, 2019


Published August 21st, 2019 - 08.21.194


Legendary labor activist Dolores Huerta was arrested in Fresno Tuesday during a protest in support of raising wages for home healthcare workers.  Huerta, who is eighty-nine, was arrested alongside seven others while demonstrating outside of a meeting of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.  The demonstration was organized by SEIU 2015, which represents home care and assisted living workers in Fresno.  The union is engaged in negotiations with the Board of Supervisors over wages for home care workers, who are currently paid the state minimum wage of $12 per hour.  Huerta was released after being charged with a misdemeanor for “failing to disperse.”  In a statement to press, Huerta said that she will “keep fighting until these workers get a wage increase.”

In an order earlier this week, the NLRB invited challenge to Midland National Life Insurance Co., Board precedent limiting the circumstances under which a union election may be invalidated.  Under Midland National, misleading statements by a union or employer can be grounds for throwing out an election only if the offending party has relied on forged documents that voters are “unable to recognize as propaganda.”  In this week’s order, Board Chairman John Ring and Member Marvin Kaplan, both Republican appointees, indicated that they would be “open to reconsidering”  Midland National in a future case.

Business Roundtable, a group representing the executives of the nation’s largest corporations, has released a statement that redefines “the purpose of a corporation” to include commitments to stakeholders other than shareholders.   The statement, which has been signed by 181 chief executives, asks corporations to consider the needs of customers, employees, suppliers, and communities alongside those of shareholders when making business decisions.  Specifically, the statement asks employers to commit to “investing in” employees, including by “compensating them fairly and providing important benefits.”  The statement represents a shift in tone for Business Roundtable, which for at least twenty years has explicitly advocated the primacy of shareholder profits over all other considerations.  But some critics have expressed concern that a statement of this kind from sitting CEOs is empty rhetoric.  As Charles Elson, a professor of corporate governance, put, it: “I’d like each of them to volunteer to cut their own salaries by two-thirds and give it back to employees if that’s the way they feel.”

Ryan wrote earlier this month about a group of miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, who  vowed to block a coal train from leaving the mine until the workers are paid the wages they are owed.  The New York Times reports that, more than three weeks later, the workers’ protest has grown and the train remains trapped in the mine.  Blackjewel, the company that owned the mine, declared bankruptcy in July, leaving miners without work and without pay for their final three weeks of employment.  Since July 29, former Blackjewel employees, who are not unionized, have prevented the company from claiming the mined coal – valued at over $1 million – left behind when the bankruptcy was filed.  Under the slogan “No pay, we stay,” residents of Harlan County (which has a rich history of labor unrest) have turned the protest site into a tent city with a generator, portable toilets, and a functioning kitchen.

Royal Dutch Shell made headlines earlier this week for apparently coercing employees to participate in President Trump’s visit to the company’s plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.  Terri Gerstein writes for Slate that using workers as political props is hardly new corporate behavior.  Gerstein points out that Postmates and Amazon have both recently attempted to co-opt worker voices to push pro-business messages.  But these corporate actions bear little resemblance to true expressions of worker voice, which, Gerstein writes, can be identified by the presence of workers who are “mad as hell and undeniably happy to be there.”

In the New Yorker, Caleb Crain surveys recent literature about the evolution of the American labor movement.  Using Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up as a starting point, Crain traces the history of labor unions as institutions in American public life and draws on the successes of the Fight for $15 movement and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to suggest that “altruism and storytelling are the new union weapons.”

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