News & Commentary

December 8, 2014

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial by Harold Meyerson about the “reinvention” of American labor unions.  Meyerson says that recent labor union collective action has been largely successful, but this success has not generated new dues-paying union members.  Unions have recently begun investing major resources in “organizing drives more likely to yield new laws than new members.”  Meyerson compares modern unionism to the Knights of Labor, the 19th-century workers’ organization that “didn’t seek contracts between workers and their employers, but rather worked to advance workers’ interests through legislation.”  He believes that Los Angeles could be the place where unions try out this new form of unionism by exerting their political power through ballot initiatives and pressuring Southern Californian City Councils.

The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a new employment concern for labor economists — slow recovery in “labor-market churn,”  defined as job turnover combined with layoffs and newly created positions.  The “churn rate” plummeted during the recession as many workers were afraid to change jobs and has yet to bounce back during recovery.  Employers may like not replacing workers often, but economists worry the lower churn rate and other factors may calcify the labor market.  An aging workforce and a slowdown in the formation of new companies appear to be making the American labor market less flexible as a whole.

The New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman writes that recent employment numbers have proved that some pundits’ explanations for why the economy has lagged are “nonsense.”  However, he believes that it is too early to unequivocally celebrate, since the recent recession has harmed families who have lost savings and has damaged our long-run economic prospects as a nation.  Krugman concludes that “we can now say with confidence that the recovery’s weakness had nothing to do with Mr. Obama’s (falsely) alleged anti-business slant. What it reflected, instead, was the damage done by government paralysis — paralysis that has, alas, richly rewarded the very politicians who caused it.”

In international news, Reuters highlighted the work of Chinese labor lawyer Duan Yi, a pro-labor activist who has spent “nearly 10 years spent testing the boundaries as China’s economy has been transformed.”  After setting up Laowei Law Firm in 2005, Duan and his partners realized that the problems they faced as labor lawyers could only be resolved by collective bargaining backed by the threat of collective action.  Duan Yi has helped workers at one of the world’s busiest ports negotiate for better pay and benefits, assisted line workers at an Apple supplier in southern China how to establish a union branch, and advised striking workers at IBM and Nokia how to protect their rights during ownership changes.  Though China has the largest labor union in the world, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), it is run by the Communist party government and critics say that the ACFTU “regularly favors investors over workers.”

Greek labor unions rallied on Sunday night to protest a planned parliamentary vote on next year’s budget.  Greece’s main labor unions — the Greek General Confederation of Greece (GSEE) and Greek public employees’ union federation, ADEDY, alongside the Communist Party-affiliated labor union, PAME — protested in opposition to the government’s plans to continue with harsh austerity measures, including tax hikes and other public benefit cuts.  This protest follows a general strike in late November over the same planned austerity measures that shut down schools, airports, government agencies, and courts.

The Associated Press reports that Brazil’s Labor Ministry says labor laws have been broken and health and safety standards not met in construction of buildings for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Workers have been forced to work beyond the two-hour overtime limit, have not been given 11 consecutive hours of rest between shifts, and not received the mandatory one day off a week.  Additionally, inspectors found workers did not use personal protective equipment like gloves, safety glasses, shoes, earplugs, and hard hats.

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