News & Commentary

June 10, 2019

Rachel Sandalow-Ash

Rachel Sandalow-Ash is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

Graduate student workers at the University of Chicago held a three day strike last week to pressure the university to recognize and bargain with their union, Graduate Students United.  As previously reported in OnLabor, UChicago student workers voted to unionize nineteen months ago, but the university administration has yet to sit down for contract negotiations.  Claudio Gonzáles, a fourth-year graduate student in math and co-president of the union, explained that “people feel more and more that the way to get the university to the bargaining table is to force them to reckon with how critical our labor is to making this place run.”  The Chicago Tribune reports that the UChicago grad worker strike is “at least the fourth work stoppage at an Illinois college campus in 2019;” workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, City Colleges of Chicago and Loyola University all went on strike this past spring.  Chloe Watlington writes in the New Republic that academic workers are “organizing what were once stable, middle class professions, which have seen wages and benefits erode precisely as positions opened up to women and minority candidates.”


An “overwhelming majority” of the attorneys, paralegals, financial counselors and administrative staff at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) have signed union cards with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – UAW 2325.  NYLAG staff are unionizing to secure increased diversity in hiring as well as improved compensation, benefits, and professional development.  NYLAG attorney Alejandra Caraballo explained, “Having access to full comprehensive healthcare and livable wages for all staff would allow us to focus on our work with clients.”  The NYLAG staff announcement follows recent successful staff unionization drives at other legal services organizations in New York, such as Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and CAMBA Legal Services.  NYLAG has refused to voluntarily recognize the union, so NYLAG workers will vote on unionization in an NLRB election.


One year after the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, the Massachusetts House passed a bill to strengthen public sector unions 155-1.  If passed by the State Senate and signed by Governor Baker, this bill would guarantee unions the right to meet with all new employees within 10 days; to use public agencies’ email systems; to meet with workers at their job sites during the workday; and to conduct union meetings at the office during lunch breaks or non-work hours.  Some public sector unions have already secured these union access rights through contract but this legislation will codify these rights into law.  The legislation would also give unions access to all employees’ personal phone numbers and work and personal email addresses, in order to facilitate organizing and worker engagement.  Furthermore, the legislation would allow unions to charge non-members fees for grievance representation.  John Dinkwater, legislative director of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said that in light of the Janus decision, “it’s important to . . . update our state collective bargaining laws to ensure that unions can continue to effectively represent the workers we represent.”  State Representative Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, praised the bill, saying, “We’re here to say we continue to stand for working families, we continue to stand for democracy.”


The New York State Assembly and Senate have passed a bill to extend the state’s minimum wage protections to car wash workers in New York City as well as the suburban Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester counties.  If Governor Cuomo signs the bill, it will raise the wage for over 5,000 workers. State Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), who sponsored the legislation, explained, “Car wash workers . . . have been underpaid for years, and rely on tips to make their living.  Wage theft is rampant, and many of these immigrant workers are exploited at the hands of a system that does not protect them.”  Car wash workers have been organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).  Stuart Applebaum, the president of the RWDSU, applauded the legislation, saying, “As a result of the work of both chambers passing this legislation, over 5,000 workers will now have a chance to earn fair wages for their work.”


Jack Delaney argues in Truthout that Congress should eliminate the Fair Labor Standards Act’s exemption for workers with disabilities, Section 214(c).  Employers currently use Section 214(c) to pay 320,000 people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.  Indeed, many prominent multinational corporations — such as “Firestone, Home Depot, Kohler, Kroger, Mary Kay, Raytheon, Time Warner Cable, Walmart and Honda” — work with contractors that use Section 214(c) to pay their workers as little as $1/hour.  Delaney points to two bills introduced in the House, the Raise the Wage Act and the Transition to Competitive Employment Act, which would gradually phase out the subminimum wage for workers with disabilities.


Kim Kelly writes in Teen Vogue about how unions help secure rights and protections for LGBTQ workers.  The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union was the first union to win contractual protections for gay people in US history; and in 1970, the AFT became the first national union to publicly call for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ workers.  Today, because “queer and trans workers can still be fired due to their sexual orientation and gender identity [in 28 states] . . . a strong union contract is often the only legally binding workplace protection available to LGBTQIA workers to fight employment discrimination.”  As Arsenia Reilly-Collins, director of Contract Campaigns for the Writers Guild of America, East, explains, unions have fought for and won contracts that include “protections around pronouns, anti-harassment language, non-discrimination, health and safety, [and] expansive health benefits [that] include trans benefits.”

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