News & Commentary

May 28, 2015

L.A.-area labor leaders are calling for unionized workplaces to be exempted from the city’s recently approved minimum wage hike, reports the Los Angeles Times. Rusty Hicks, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a key figure in L.A.’s Raise the Wage coalition, stated that such exemptions “give[] the parties [to a collective bargaining agreement] the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing.” Coalition representatives also claimed that “the proposed exemption would ensure the city complies with federal laws which they say give collective bargaining agreements precedence over local ordinances,” as well as “keep L.A.’s [new minimum wage] ordinance consistent with previous city wage laws;” for example, L.A.’s minimum wage ordinance for employees of large hotels — approved just last year — includes a similar exemption. Critics of the proposal, such as Ruben Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, contended that such a provision “could pressure companies into letting employees unionize as a way to seek relief from the mandated wage hike.” The Los Angeles Times later reported that L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has “declined to take a position on the exemption,” but is “open to examining it.”

New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman argues for fairer treatment of food workers in his latest op-ed. Calling the Fight for $15 “the most successful labor movement in the country,” Bittman contrasts last week’s minimum wage vote by the L.A. City Council with Walmart’s recent announcement that it would be asking its food suppliers to adopt higher animal welfare standards. Noting first that Walmart’s proposed standards are “voluntary, vague, and without a deadline,” Bittman then asks: “[W]hat does it say that you can buy a can of tuna guaranteed to be dolphin-safe but can’t guarantee that its human producers — fishers, processors, transporters, packers, sales representatives — haven’t been abused?” Bittman goes on to describe the current state of low-wage labor in the food industry —  observing that “[w]hen you look at who does the work in the food system, it is clear we have institutionalized racism, we exploit immigrants to do the work citizens won’t stoop to do, and we are as a society abiding the consequences of employers who underpay workers” — before closing with a call to continue “demonstrating, organizing, striking and even publicly shaming those who belong in some Dickensian 19th-century netherworld.”

Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post further explores the ongoing struggle for improved working conditions in Mexico, with a look at how recent protests by agricultural workers in Baja California — which led to organic blueberry shortages in San Francisco and prompted the Baja government to promise to subsidize a minimum wage increase — “illustrate[] just how trapped Mexico is between rising popular pressure for better living standards and the desire to keep businesses from chasing ever-lower wages around the globe.” The protesting workers were supported in part by the UFW, whose president, Erik Nicholson, claimed that “this kind of movement wouldn’t necessarily have happened several years ago, before the American public started to become more conscious of the people who produced their food, just like they became aware of the sweatshops where their Nikes were made.”

According to Politico, organized labor groups have mounted an “aggressive effort” to urge House Democrats to vote no on both renewing President Obama’s Trade Promotion Authority and approving his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. While campaign spending threats such as those detailed in Politico‘s report “aren’t radically different from standard union organizing, and unions certainly aren’t the only groups to play hardball in seeking to get their way in Washington,” what “Democrats aren’t used to is having labor’s exertions turned on them.” For its part, the AFL-CIO said through a spokesperson that it “ha[sn’t] made any spending decisions on 2016 yet, and that [such decisions] come[] after a candidate is endorsed locally.”

News of yesterday’s early morning raid and arrest of FIFA officials has renewed interest in the working conditions of laborers preparing for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post charted the number of migrant worker deaths in Qatar compared to those in countries that have recently hosted major international sporting events. Though the figures include all migrant worker deaths since the December 2010 announcement of Qatar’s successful World Cup bid and not just those related to stadium construction, the numbers nonetheless make “clear that Qatar is in a league of its own when it comes to poor worker safety.” Ingraham further notes that while the relevant authorities have pledged to examine any improprieties surrounding the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar, “as the families of 1,200 dead workers can attest, in many ways the damage has already been done.”

The percentage of “contingent” employees in the United States is on the rise, the Boston Globe reports. According to the Government Accountability Office, the percentage of employees who do not have traditionally stable jobs — such as “agency temps, on-call workers, independent contractors, self-employed workers, and standard part-time employees” — rose from 35.3% in 2006 to 40.4% in 2010. Contingent employees are disproportionately “younger, Hispanic, have no high school degree, and have low family income,” and “some government officials and labor analysts are concerned that ‘contingent employment relationships may have long-term adverse consequences for workers and government programs.'”

Meet Amanda Renteria, current political director of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, one-time Democratic candidate for California’s 21st Congressional District, and the subject of a recent BuzzFeed News profile. Notably, Renteria serves as Clinton’s primary liaison to labor and immigrant groups; BuzzFeed News reports that she has met recently with leaders from such organizations as the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFT, NEA, and American Postal Workers Union.

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