News & Commentary

January 3, 2019

On Monday the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing federal government workers, filed a wage-and-hour suit against the Trump administration over the government shutdown that started on December 22.  The complaint alleges that the plaintiffs, two federal corrections officers, and similarly situated employees whose work is deemed “essential” were not paid overtime wages on their most recent scheduled payday in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  If the government shutdown continues past the next scheduled pay day, a broader suit for nonpayment generally (not just for unpaid overtime wages) is expected.

In a New Year’s Day op-ed in The Washington Post, Senator-elect Mitt Romney condemned President Trump’s divisive stewardship of the country as injurious to America’s standing on the world stage.  In urging the adoption of “policies that strengthen us,” Romney called on the nation’s leaders to “defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.”  Given Romney’s record as an anti-union crusader, his plea for the defense of unions, even “responsible” unions, is noteworthy.  His remark is also in line with academic research recognizing the importance of unions as civil society organizations that help build and maintain democracies.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s announcement that she is launching a committee to explore a run for President signaled that support for labor would be a key part of her potential campaign.  In her launch video, Warren explained that “billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie,” and “they crippled unions so no one could stop them.”  Bloomberg Law noted how her campaign is likely to “put labor issues front and center” in the Democratic primary.  SEIU President Mary Kay Henry tweeted favorably about the candidate’s pro-labor rhetoric.

This week The New Yorker profiled Elizabeth Anderson, University of Michigan philosophy professor and author of, most recently, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It).  The piece details Anderson’s view of the modern workplace as autocratic, “where superiors can issue changing orders, control attire, surveil correspondence, demand medical testing, define schedules, and monitor communication, such as social-media posts.”  In response to the defense that employees can negotiate their contracts or simply quit if they are not satisfied, Anderson counters “that low-level workers can rarely wrangle raises, and that real-world constraints eliminate exit power.”

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