Today's News & Commentary — February 4, 2016


Published February 4th, 2016 - 02.04.166


For all of the talk about Donald Trump wooing union voters, the Iowa caucuses indicate that the real fight for union votes is still — at least for now — between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And the first round in that fight appears to have gone to Clinton. POLITICO reports that “[u]nion households favored Clinton 52-43 over . . . Sanders.” Although these numbers suggest that “labor endorsements and aggressive union campaigning are bearing fruit for Clinton,” Sanders still clearly “enjoys significant grass-roots support among rank-and-file unionists.” And regardless of who union members tended to vote for, Monday’s caucuses reflect the continuing influence of organized labor on the presidential race: “Twenty-one percent of all caucus-goers belonged to a union,” and “[a]bout 12 percent of all Iowans are union members.”

While unions’ popularity and influence may be on the decline, one area in which that has not been true is professional sports. Case in point: the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, which is currently embroiled in a labor dispute with soccer’s national governing body over the team’s expired collective bargaining agreement. The New York Times notes that U.S. Soccer “is seeking to have a court rule that the terms of the agreement . . . remain valid” under a memorandum of understanding that was agreed to in March 2013 but is set to expire at the end of this year. The move comes after Richard Nichols, executive director of the players’ union, “informed U.S. Soccer that the union considered the updated memorandum of understanding invalid as a C.B.A.” Nichols had further suggested “that if a new agreement was not in place in 60 days — by Feb. 24 — the old one would end and the players would no longer be bound by its no-strike clause.” Although the team is coming off its recent triumph in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, its players have also taken a vocal stand against what it considers to be sub-par artificial playing surfaces — surfaces that the women’s team often plays on, whereas the men’s team typically plays on grass fields.

On the same day that President Obama visited a U.S. mosque for the first time as president, a company in Wisconsin announced that it had fired seven Muslim factory workers and that fourteen of their colleagues had resigned due to changes in the company’s policy on prayer breaks. The New York Daily News reports that Ariens Company, which manufactures snowblowers and lawnmowers and previously employed over fifty Somali immigrants, had recently revoked its policy of allowing “two extra five-minute pray breaks per day.” The company attributes its change in policy to “unscheduled breaks in production” that resulted in large portions of its factory workforce taking breaks to pray. “We pray by the time,” said one worker in explaining why he and his Muslim colleagues could not just pray during “scheduled lulls in the workday” as the company requested. The Council of American-Islamic Relations has asked the company to “find common ground with the workers out of ‘respect for constitutionally-protected religious rights and for the legitimate needs of both employees and employers.'”

We worry about pesticides poisoning our fruits and vegetables, but what about the workers who pick our produce for us in the first place? Although “[f]armworkers are supposed to be protected by government rules regulating exposure to toxic farm chemicals,” the Associated Press reveals that “the pesticide-safety system is riddled with problems.” For example, “[i]nvestigations often take years to complete and result in few penalties. Written warnings are common, fines rare. Compliance is sometimes voluntary, not required. And worker anonymity can be compromised, making employees reluctant to report violations.” Part of the problem may be in who is doing the enforcing: “In all states except California, enforcement of federal pesticide-safety laws is managed by the same agencies that promote agricultural industries.” To make matters worse, some workers — especially undocumented ones — are afraid to file complaints. “[Poisoned workers] were told ‘You would never find a job in agriculture again. Their husbands may also be fired, and it would take years to get a settlement,'” said one state health department investigator.

There is no shortage of guides and rating systems to tell us which restaurants serve delicious food. Finally, there is now a guide to tell us which restaurants treat their workers fairly. NPR sat down recently with Saru Jayaraman, founding director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of Forked: A New Standard for American Dining. The book — which was published earlier this month — “features 14 case studies and rankings of the working conditions at eateries ranging from greasy spoon diners to coffee shops, white tablecloth places to national chains like Olive Garden.” In her interview, Jayarman touches upon such topics as no-tipping policies — ‘[i]t’s not tipping per se that’s the problem, it’s the tipped minimum wage, which hasn’t gone up in a quarter century’ — and how conscious foodies might help to improve restaurant working conditions — “the most important thing we’d like you do is communicate that you support ‘high-road’ practices to the owner or manager.”

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