Today's News & Commentary — January 7, 2016


Published January 7th, 2016 - 01.07.165


There may be more than one First Amendment issue at play in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which the Supreme Court will hear on Monday. Writing in the American Prospect, Sarah Posner suggests that “[w]hile the plaintiffs in Friedrichs base their claims on a free speech argument that many find dubious, tucked away in the case lies another, real First Amendment concern: the separation of church and state.” Notably, the only organization to join the nine individual plaintiffs in the case is Christian Educators Association International (CEAI). That organization “bills itself as an alternative to the ‘secular’ teachers’ unions, and argues openly that the Constitution does not bar teachers from imparting their Christian faith in their classrooms.” Accordingly, Posner contends, CEAI’s primary interest in joining the suit is in “undermin[ing]” teachers unions — “an important bulwark against the incursion of religion in public schools.” Indeed, CEAI is hardly shy about its anti–teachers union stance: the organization’s website advises its members of the National Educational Association’s “liberal political stance” and its purported conflict with “Christian beliefs.” CEAI even addresses the specific issue of agency fees, arguing that “California’s agency shop laws have the ‘effect of creating a drain on CEAI’s resources'” because they “cause[] CEAI to spend money counseling its members on how they can opt out of union fees based on religious objections, rather than spending money on other services for its members.” Thus, in addition to wreaking havoc upon public-employment schemes across the country, Posner argues that Friedrichs “could open another chapter in the war over religion in public schools, emboldening groups such as CEAI to intensify efforts to allow public school teachers to endorse and promote religion with their students once their best-organized opponents — the teachers’ unions — are weakened.”

Also, in case you missed it: Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog has posted a detailed “Argument Preview” on Friedrichs, including description and analysis of the major issues, as well as a review of the merits briefs on both sides.

“Uber is terrible for millennials in the workforce,” says Peter Sloan in an opinion piece published on AL.com. Sloan, who himself works three jobs (one at a restaurant and the other two in “independent contract teaching”), describes the experiences of two of his “millennial” friends who have driven for Uber: “It was dehumanizing,” said one friend. “The worst part was there was no recourse” for drivers who were treated unfairly by the company, said the other. These sorts of experiences, Sloan contends, show that the “basic tenets” of the “sharing economy . . . are myths: Uber drivers are not ‘entrepreneurs,’ they are workers who would prefer more stable employment. Uber is not a software provider, it’s an employer. Adjunct professors are not adjunct, they are the core of higher education instruction.” Sloan goes on to lament the bigger picture: “As income inequality soars to breathtaking heights, and as automation continues to reduce the need for all kinds of labor, the decades to come may find more of us always looking to our phones, waiting for the next task and the next dollar, slowly forgetting the distinction between professional and personal life, gradually eroding the wall between labor and leisure, that basic mark of a civilization American workers before us have fought and died to erect.”

Sloan is not the only one this week to challenge Uber’s way of doing business. WCAU, NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate, reports that a group of Uber Black drivers have filed a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging that they have been misclassified as independent contractors and thus improperly denied the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and other employment law regimes. (These arguments will be familiar to those who have been following Uber’s various legal battles.) Dozens of Uber Black drivers also protested outside of Uber’s Philadelphia headquarters, accusing the company of “promoting UberX over [Uber Black]” and releasing a list of seven demands it has of the company.

New York City’s workers are getting a raise, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, Mayor Bill de Blasio will raise the hourly wages of approximately 50,000 city workers — “including crossing guards, prekindergarten teachers, custodial workers and others” — to $15 an hour by the end of 2018. The Times notes that while “[t]he majority of the city’s 300,000 employees already earn $15 an hour or more, . . . Mr. de Blasio’s plan would affect about 20,000 unionized workers, mostly represented by District Council 37, and 30,000 employees of outside organizations — like day-care providers — whose services are paid for by the city.” The move comes just days after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $15 minimum wage for state university workers, and less than a month after Mayor de Blasio announced that the city would provide up to six weeks of paid parental leave to its nonunionized managers and workers.

Wearable devices are nearly ubiquitous these days. But if insurance giant AIG has its way, the devices may be used for more than simply measuring heart rates or counting the number of steps taken in a day. Rather, the company is exploring the use of such devices “to monitor the movements of employees in factories, on construction sties and at other hazardous workplaces to reduce on-the-job accidents.” Per the Wall Street Journal, AIG has invested in a company that “uses sensors attached to the back of workers’ safety vests and transmits data about their movements in real time.” This technology purportedly helps reduce workplace injuries by telling mangers “where all of their workers are” and potentially “decreas[ing] fraud.” Of course, “the technology might [also] give employers and insurers access to detailed information about individuals’ behavior and health” in violation of their privacy rights.

Finally, some political news from the Golden State: Emilio Huerta, son of labor leader Dolores Huerta, is throwing his hat into the ring to represent California’s 21st Congressional District. Huerta is vying for a seat currently held by Rep. David Valdao, whom the Los Angeles Times describes as one of “the state’s most vulnerable Republicans.” However, the seat is hardly Huerta’s to win: the Times notes that “Democrats suffered an embarrassing landslide defeat in the district in 2014 despite having a 16 percentage point edge over Republicans in terms of registered voters.” The Dems’ previous candidate? Amanda Renteria, who currently serves as Hillary Clinton’s political director. Nevertheless, Huerta, who works as a labor lawyer, “is counting on building a grassroots campaign base from his local family roots and a focus on economic issues and immigration reform.”

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