News & Commentary

January 30, 2020

Maxwell Ulin

Maxwell Ulin is a student at Harvard Law School.

On Tuesday, around 7,800 healthcare workers walked off the job at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle to begin a three-day strike for better pay and working conditions.  The work stoppage, led by Service Employees International Union 1199NW, is part of a larger strike against corporate giant Providence Health & Services, with some 13,000 employees expected to cease work this week across 13 Providence Health locations.  The walkout takes place after ten months of negotiations with hospital management over issues such as staffing shortages, wages, equipment issues, and hospital security.  Under the previous contract, which expired in June, workers made between $15.55 and $26.04 per hour—short of the $26.87 needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Washington State.  As one of the state’s largest medical providers, Swedish Medical has been forced to close select emergency services, reschedule elective procedures, and fly in out-of-state staff to maintain basic operations this week.  The walkout, which ends this Friday, amounts to one of the largest healthcare strikes in recent memory.

Wednesday marked a newsworthy day for labor legislation in Congress.  In the Senate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would repeal state “right-to-work” laws, which prohibit unions from negotiating contracts requiring non-union workers within a bargaining unit to pay agency fees to support the union.  Currently enacted in 27 states, right-to-work laws create a “free-rider effect” for non-union employees and have been closely associated with reduced unionization rates and wages in states that adopt them.  Warren’s bill, co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), would repeal Section 14(b) of the Taft Hartley Act, which has allowed for the passage of right-to-work laws since 1947.

In the House, meanwhile, Democrats plan to move to a floor vote next week on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, an ambitious proposal to reform labor law and empower union organizers.  In addition to repealing right-to-work laws, the PRO Act (H.R. 2474) would strengthen and expand penalties against employers for illegal anti-union activities, enable unionization through a the more informal “card check” process, and increase union leverage at both the bargaining table and at the picket line (read summary here).  Many features of the PRO Act are discussed in the recent report by the Clean Slate for Worker Power project, found here.

Courts have been no less busy.  On Monday, Chipotle reached a $1.4 million settlement with Massachusetts regulators after a state attorney general’s office investigation uncovered over 13,000 child labor law violations. In Tennessee, meanwhile, a federal court ruled in Torres v. Precision Indus., Inc. that federal immigration law does not preclude undocumented workers from collecting back pay and damages for employer retaliation against Tennessee workers’ compensation claims.  Then on Tuesday, the D.C. Court of the Appeals ruled in that Duquesne University’s status as a Roman Catholic institution exempts it from the National Labor Relations Board’s union protections, threatening an eight-year campaign by United Steelworkers to unionize school’s adjunct faculty.

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