News & Commentary

July 30, 2021

Fran Swanson

Fran Swanson is a student at Harvard Law School.

The federal government joined a growing list of government employers instituting vaccine requirements for workers. Federal employees and on-site contractors must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or wear masks and undergo testing, President Biden announced. This comes days after the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it would mandate vaccines for workers who interact with patients. The reaction from labor organizations representing some of the 4 million federal workers likely to be impacted by Biden’s announcement was mixed, the Washington Post reports. The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers applauded the measure. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association opposed any requirement outright. But the American Federation of Government Employees and the American Postal Workers Union, along with the American Federation of Teachers which represents many workers impacted by state and local government requirements, argued that such requirements must be subject to the collective bargaining process.

These divisions are playing out within unions, too. The Sacramento Bee reports that the president of SEIU Local 1000, California’s largest state worker union, did not consult the rest of the board of directors before sending a cease-and-desist letter to the California Department of Human Resources in response to vaccine requirements for state workers.  At a meeting discussing his decision, the newly elected president, Richard Louis Brown, told those who opposed vaccination to “stay strong” because “[t]his is America.” Some members, like Rona Johnson, argued that “the union’s job is to provide a safe workplace” and opposed Brown’s letter. Other members pointed to the state’s failure to follow proper procedure in providing workers with notice about a change in working conditions. And still others opposed any vaccine requirement at all. Brown has also called for the local to end its political spending and has criticized its past advocacy related to immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, and the minimum wage.

These debates raise broader questions about how unions should wield their collective power in relation to the communities that they and their members inhabit, questions explored by Diana Reddy in a post yesterday on the Law & Political Economy Project’s blog. She describes “a shift in the ethos of collective bargaining” in recent years toward “bargaining for the common good,” a paradigm in which “unions should use their power at the bargaining table to negotiate . . . to benefit the community as a whole.” She considers the risks of such a paradigm—that “amorphous claims of public or consumer benefit [become] the lynchpin of union legitimacy”—but suggests that it could also benefit unions by “build[ing] broader solidarities to increase countervailing power.”

New developments in tech surveillance threaten consumers and workers. A coalition of advocacy groups is calling on the Federal Trade Commission to ban corporate facial surveillance technology and continuous corporate surveillance of public spaces, Vice reports. The groups, which include the National Employment Law Project and Public Citizen, use Amazon as an example of how networked surveillance devices in the hands of anticompetitive firms entrench existing monopolies through data collection and put everyone, but particularly Black and brown people, at risk. The Guardian reports that home health care workers and the people they work for are also being harmed by electronic surveillance. Workers providing home personal care who are paid through Medicaid must now use electronic visit verification (EVV) apps, a move that lawmakers said would improve care and decrease fraud but that has actually harmed caregivers and the people who rely on their services. The requirement hit people who receive self-directed services particularly hard and with little notice. EVV is difficult to use, undercounts hours, and results in payment delays, which harms workers—largely women of color—in an industry where pay was already low. LeDanté Walker offered his caregiver “every spare dime he saved” to cover the shortfall that she experienced because of EVV. He explained, “I want to be independent . . . [t]hat’s my right.” EVV also “geo-fences,” flagging when people are not within the immediate vicinity of the home of the person receiving services. This creates fears that time spent in the community will be considered fraud. This aspect of EVV contradicts a fundamental element of decades of disability rights advocacy: that people have a right to live and receive services in their communities.

In other news, DoorDash delivery drivers are planning to strike tomorrow, Vice reports. Currently, DoorDash hides tip amounts—which the customer has already assigned and which DoorDash knows— from drivers before they agree to deliver an order. With cuts to base pay on each order, which left many drivers earning $2 per delivery before tips, drivers are forced to agree to deliveries with no sense of how much they will make. It’s a big gamble, especially when they are also footing costs like gas. But many drivers used another app, Para, to extract the tip amounts from DoorDash’s code every time they received a delivery request. In mid-July, DoorDash rewrote its code to prevent that. Bridgit, a mother of three in New Jersey who drives for DoorDash, said that she is striking because “it’s ridiculous that DoorDash hides tips for orders,” especially when “[i]t’s very common to get no tips.”

Finally, former Senator Carl Levin died yesterday at the age of 87. He represented Michigan for 36 years before retiring in 2015. He was remembered as a champion of working people and consumers who put corporate executives in the hot seat in his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearings. The Detroit Free Press’s obituary is available here.

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