News & Commentary

June 30, 2021

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

As an extraordinary heat wave continues to smash all-time records and scorch the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest, melting pipes, roads, and infrastructure, Vice reports that, because of the sweltering temperatures, the region’s agricultural workers, who already endure brutal conditions, have been pushed even harder in recent days, often without access to shade, breaks, or water, in a scramble to harvest the vast fields of cherries and blueberries before they shrivel up and die in the blistering heat. Some fruit pickers have been toiling up to 12 hours a day for weeks on end without a single day off, often pressured to keep working even if sick, overheated, fatigued, or dehydrated. Labor organizers report that many fruit pickers in the region have suffered heat-related illnesses, but they face pressure “to work as fast as [they] can” and “not to hydrate,” according to Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director for the United Farmworkers of America. Over the weekend, one farmworker tragically collapsed and died at a worksite in Oregon, found unresponsive in a field.  The Oregon OSHA attributed the fatality simply to “heat,” as temperatures in the area soared past 100 degrees. This summer’s heat wave serves as yet another illustration that marginalized communities will be the ones forced to bear the most devastating effects of climate change and extreme weather events in the coming decades.

In California, labor groups have seized the historic heat wave as an opportunity to bolster support for The Fast Food Accountability and Standards (FAST) Recovery Act, a bill introduced in the California State Assembly in January. The FAST Act, largely a response to the mistreatment of “essential workers” so vividly exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, would create an 11-person Fast Food Sector Council authorized to set industry-wide standards on wages, hours, benefits, safety, scheduling, and other working conditions, and further tasked with reviewing all labor regulations that affect the fast-food industry. Under the Act, two seats on the Council would be held by fast-food workers, and two more by union representatives. The Fast Act, which has been passed by the California Assembly Judiciary, Labor and Employment, and Appropriations Committees, is shelved at the moment, but labor groups, led by Fight for $15 and a Union and SEIU, have been attempting to muster public support for the bill by spotlighting recent instances in which employers have forced workers to continue laboring in the immense heat despite inadequate or dysfunctional air conditioning systems. On Tuesday, for example, the group organized a demonstration at one Jack-In-The-Box location in Sacramento, where workers walked off the job after the temperature reached 109 degrees and management refused for days to fix the broken air conditioning unit. Indeed, heat-related labor agitation has been seen throughout the West in recent days. On Sunday, for example, workers at Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon launched a strike on what was the hottest day ever recorded in the city’s history, insisting that “no person should work in excess of 90 degrees.”

In international news, tens of thousands of workers in Iran’s oil, natural gas, and petroleum industries continue to engage in a national strike. The widespread protests, dubbed “Strike Campaign 1400” in reference to the current year of the Persian calendar — 1400 — were launched on June 19, mere days after Ebrahim Raisi, an ultraconservative cleric who has been implicated in severe human rights abuses, secured the Iranian presidency in what many have claimed was a fixed election. Labor organizers announced on Sunday that employees from more than 60 refineries and plants have joined the movement, and the Council of Protesting and Striking Temporary Contract Oil Company Workers insisted in a statement that the aggrieved laborers “will continue our protest and strike to express against our present unbearable and poor economic conditions,” demanding “higher wages and salaries and better living conditions.” The national strike is the largest seen in the nation in decades, and it has received massive support from Iranian workers in other industries.  Some have speculated that the widespread protests are likely to spread to other sectors and could shut down vital segments of the Iranian national economy. Dozens of labor unions around the world have expressed their support for the striking Iranian workers in an inspiring demonstration of transnational labor solidarity.

This morning, President Biden announced eight new candidates for the federal bench, including Jennifer Sung, a labor lawyer and former union organizer. Sung, a graduate of Yale Law School, currently serves as a member of the Oregon Employment Relations Board, and before that she worked for several years as a labor and employment attorney in private practice, representing labor organizations and employees in arbitrations, administrative proceedings, and civil litigation in state and federal courts. Sung spent six years as an organizer with SEIU before attending law school. President Biden has nominated Sung to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. As Jon noted just yesterday on the blog, Biden received criticism earlier this week for nominating Christine O’Hearn, a union-busting management-side labor and employment lawyer, to the federal bench, along with several other prosecutors and corporate attorneys. As Jon pointed out, Biden has nominated some former public defenders and civil rights lawyers to the bench, but Sung’s selection represents his first nomination of a union-side labor lawyer, after four previous rounds of naming federal judges. In light of Jon’s timely comments yesterday, it has now been all but confirmed that President Biden reads the blog.

As labor shortages persist around the country, candy-making giant Russell Stover has seemingly snubbed the proven strategy of raising wages and instead turned to prison labor to patch up the dearth of employees at one of its factories in Kansas, as reported by Eoin Higgins. After worker shortages forced the candy conglomerate to shut down some production lines at the plant, Russell Stover became the 42nd company to participate in the state’s work release program. Higgins writes that 150 inmates from the Topeka Correctional Facility are bussed to the plant daily to work the night shift. Though the workers are paid $14 an hour, the prison seizes 25% of their wages for “room and board” and $50 a week for the bus trips to the factory, leaving the workers with around $200 a week — less than half of their earnings, and only about $5.89 an hour. Kansas ACLU Legal Director Sharon Brett explained to Higgins that these programs “can very quickly become exploitative.”

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