News & Commentary

March 23, 2022

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

Sean M. O’Brien was sworn in as the new General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters on Tuesday. Before ascending to the General Presidency, O’Brien had served as the President of Teamsters Union Local 25, located in Boston, for sixteen years. O’Brien campaigned for the General Presidency as a reform candidate, committed to a militant, adversarial, grass-roots approach, and his candidacy was endorsed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Decisively defeating the candidate backed by outgoing President James P. Hoffa, O’Brien’s victory in November last year ended the Hoffa dynasty’s nearly four-decade reign over the Teamsters. O’Brien announced that his administration would usher in “a new day for the Teamsters Union,” in which the union will become “bigger, faster, [and] stronger.” CNN Business exclaimed yesterday that O’Brien “is poised to shake up the US economy in a way no one else has in recent memory.” Indeed, last month, O’Brien affirmed his commitment to organizing e-commerce conglomerate Amazon, and many have predicted that his administration will almost certainly launch a massive strike against the United Parcel Service (UPS) next year, when the Teamsters’ contract expires with the shipping firm, which is the nation’s largest unionized employer.

A new report published by Oxfam America on Monday investigated “the crisis of low wages in the United States” and found that more than 51.9 million workers in the American economy—nearly a third of the labor force—earn less than $15 an hour, including half of all working women of color and almost 60 percent of all single working parents. The vast majority of these workers are not teenagers—nearly 90 percent are 20 years of age or older. The report emphasizes the essential services that these low-income workers provide to our communities—“[t]hese are the workers who care for our loved ones, transport and harvest our food, stock our shelves, and deliver our packages,” and without them, “our economy grinds to a halt, as does the functioning of our society.” Kaitlyn Henderson, the author of the report, noted that this level of pay “is just not livable,” and that it can be difficult for these workers, those whose labor is critical to the daily operation of our society, to obtain basic necessities.

In addition, the Oxfam report includes interactive “low wage maps” that display wage information for all fifty states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, broken down into race, age, parenthood, and gender. According to their data, Mississippi has the highest share of workers earning less than $15 an hour—more than 45 percent—while Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, and New Mexico also register above 40 percent of their workforce earning these povety wages. On the other hand, only 14.2 percent of workers in the state of Washington make less than $15 an hour, and the figure is also below 20 percent in California and Massachusetts. The report concludes by noting that millions of working people in the United States are “living in poverty and anxiety” and calling upon federal lawmakers to, as a starting point, raise the federal minimum hourly wage to $15 an hour for all workers across the country.

On Tuesday, the Democratic majority on the Labor and Public Employee Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly approved two bills, on a party-line vote, seeking to expand workers’ rights in the state, reporting them out of committee and sending them to the floors of both chambers of the state legislature.

The first, S.B. No. 317, would allow striking workers to collect unemployment benefits after two weeks off the job, or immediately once their employer engages in a lockout. As a note, the states finance and administer their own unemployment insurance programs, which must be approved by the Secretary of Labor (see 42 U.S.C. § 503), so, subject to some general federal requirements, a state may design its own eligibility scheme for unemployment benefits.

The second bill, S.B. No. 318, would forbid an employer to coerce employees into attending meetings about the employer’s views on “political or religious matters,” and, importantly, “political matters” is defined to include “the decision to join or support any . . . labor organization.” More specifically, then, the legislation would prohibit an employer from discharging an employee who refuses to attend a captive audience meeting, in which  a worker is forced to endure, at a mandatory company meeting during work hours, anti-union propaganda. It is unclear if such legislation could survive a preemption challenge under the National Labor Relations Act, which, as I detailed last month, have been permitted under NLRB precedent since 1953. The Connecticut AFL-CIO celebrated both measures, though Republican lawmakers and corporate interests in the state have sharply opposed the bills—the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, for example, charged that the bills would “stunt the state’s already weak economic growth.”

Finally, in the latest update on the “Starbucks unionization wildfire” blazing across the nation, the National Labor Relations Board announced yesterday that workers in the coffee giant’s hometown of Seattle have unanimously voted to join Starbucks Workers United, becoming the seventh store nationwide to unionize and the first on the West Coast.

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