News & Commentary

February 18, 2021

Maxwell Ulin

Maxwell Ulin is a student at Harvard Law School.

Yesterday, President Joe Biden announced the nomination of Jennifer Abruzzo, Special Counsel for Strategic Initiatives for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), to serve as the next General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Biden’s selection of Abruzzo, a renowned labor lawyer and active contributor to the Clean Slate Project, has already been heralded as a boon for unions in the wake of the firing of the previous General Counsel, Peter Robb, who took a firmly antagonistic stance toward union organizing.

Also on Wednesday, the Biden Administration reversed a 2017 Trump executive order directing the Department of Labor (DoL) to enable reduced oversight of federally sanctioned apprenticeship programs. Under the initiative, DoL sought to establish a series of industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs), in which certified private industry groups would oversee workplace standards in place of the federal government.  At the time, Democrats and organized labor worried that these channeling workers away from the government’s more traditional registered apprenticeship programs would undermine unions’ talent pipeline and weaken workplace safety protections.  In all, 131 IRAPs were created under the Trump administration, overseen by some 27 private Standards Recognition Entities (SREs).  While Biden’s order effectively moves to dismantle the program, existing IRAPs and SREs have been grandfathered in.

On the legislative front, President Biden on Tuesday continued to signal willingness to lower his minimum wage proposal from $15 an hour to $13 or $12, or to extend the phase-in period, as part of his coronavirus relief package. Biden’s messaging presumably is meant to address challenges posed by an evenly divided Senate, as moderate Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have already expressed opposition to such an increase.  Should Biden’s minimum wage proposal fail to make it into the final package, the administration has suggesting including the measure in the president’s long-term economic recovery program, which is slated to be unveiled next month.

In New York, State Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against Amazon on Tuesday, accusing the company of dodging state-imposed workplace safety standards for COVID-19 at two of its New York-based facilities.  Among other alleges, James claims that Amazon failed to enact legally required cleaning, social distancing, and contact-tracing protocols, and failed to notify workers of potential exposures to COVID-19 in a timely manner.  The complaint also alleges that the company fired at least one work, Christian Smalls, for raising concerns and subsequently organizing his fellow workers. Amazon has denied the allegations.  Just last week, the company filed its own lawsuit seeking to block James’s complaint, arguing that federal workplace safety laws preempt state action despite the lack of any binding federal standards.  As Bloomberg Law notes, a victory for the AG’s office would help cement states’ right to regulate workplace safety in the absence of express federal authorization or disapproval.

Amazon’s anti-worker policies have continued making news out of Alabama, as well, where the largest union organizing campaign in the company’s history is underway.  Last week, the NLRB sent out mail-in ballots to around 6,000 employees at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, as workers begin voting on whether to unionize under the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Amazon has developed a reputation for running highly aggressive anti-union campaigns at other facilities, and the story in Bessemer is little different; workers claim that they have been regularly subjected to misleading, anti-union captive audience meetings, along with text messages and signage that follows them at work all the way up to the bathroom stall.  This week, news outlets confirmed that Amazon successfully convinced the City of Bessemer to change traffic lights around the fulfillment center, allegedly so that organizers would have less time to discuss unionization with employees stopped in traffic. Mail-in balloting for the election will conclude at the end of next month.

State-level wage-law enforcers also made headlines this week, as at least two contractors were slapped with multi-million-dollar wage theft fines.  In California, a hearing officer on Tuesday upheld a nearly $2 million wage-theft citation levied by the California Labor Commission against Fullerton Pacific Interiors Inc., a major construction firm in the region.  The Commission charged that the company had failed to properly compensate 472 employees on 26 projects throughout the southern half of the state, with around 28 workers making less than the minimum wage.  Meanwhile in New Jersey, the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development announced that it had assessed $2.75 million in back wages, penalties, and fees against Three Sons Restoration LLC due to the firm’s failure to pay the prevailing wage at six job sites.  The New Jersey Carpenters’ Union lauded the move, stating that the decision represented a major victory for workers in an industry where labor abuse is often severe.

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