Today’s News & Commentary — March 6, 2019
The California Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the state may roll back or eliminate certain pension benefits without violating the state’s Constitution. In Cal Fire Local 2881 v. CalPERS, the court upheld the California legislature’s elimination of an “air time” benefit that allowed public employees to purchase retirement “service credits”—essentially years of public service—by making payments to their pension fund. Those who did so could “receive pension benefits calculated on the basis of up to five years’ more public employment than they actually worked.” Public employers argued that repeal of the benefit was necessary to address billions of dollars in pension shortfalls. Labor unions countered that public pensions are constitutionally protected contracts. The Court split the difference, distinguishing between core pension benefits that are protected by contract law as a form of deferred compensation and optional benefits like the one at issue. The latter are not “term[s] and condition[s] of public employment protected from impairment by the contract clause ….” However, the Court declined to address the constitutionality of the “California rule,” a legal doctrine under which a worker’s pension benefits may not be diminished unless offset with benefits of equal value. The Court is set to hear at least three more cases that implicate the reach of the California rule.
The Columbia Journalism Review interviewed five Ohio and Pennsylvania-based union members from across the political spectrum about their lack of faith in the news media. According to the Review, coverage of working class issues by mainstream media outlets has decreased considerably in recent years, with publications eschewing news about plant closings and layoffs in favor of upscale puff pieces about ski vacations and investment advice. When strikes do get mass media coverage, they tend to involve white collar workers, such as the recent walkout of 20,000 Google workers. Consequently, many interviewees felt that “the American worker has been put on the back burner” and no longer trust the press. Almost all interviewees expressed a preference for local news outlets, a distrust of mass media channels like CNN and Fox News, and a dislike of personalities like Rush Limbaugh. As one worker pointed out, when “US Steel was on the brink of shutting down every plant … [i]t was on the local news. National media didn’t cover it.”
The American Prospect assesses whether it is constitutional for courts to strike down state right-to-work laws. As Bibeka wrote yesterday, a judge in West Virginia recently held that those parts of the state’s right-to-work law that permitted workers to refuse to pay agency fees were unconstitutional in part because they “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally impose[d] an excessive burden on plaintiffs’ associational rights.” The Prospect suggests that the West Virginia ruling is reflective of a broader movement challenging the Taft-Hartley Act on First Amendment and other constitutional grounds. The piece acknowledges the “hyper-partisan treatment of workers rights at all levels of the judiciary[,]” but points out that some judges are “reconsidering decades of anti-union case law” in the context of rampant inequality and wage stagnation.
An ongoing mechanics’ strike is costing Southwest Airlines millions of dollars per week, according to CEO Gary Kelly. Just yesterday, the airline canceled over 110 flights across the country, at least half of which were due to maintenance issues. By comparison, the daily average number of planes removed from service normally hovers around 20. Last week, the airline filed suit in federal court against the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association alleging that the union is aiding an illegal work slowdown in order to gain leverage in bargaining sessions over a new contract. The union denies that workers are engaging in a work slow down and accuses Southwest of pressuring mechanics to approve planes despite “degrading safety standards.”