News & Commentary

May 31, 2020

Maxwell Ulin

Maxwell Ulin is a student at Harvard Law School.

Protests over the death of George Floyd and other unarmed Black Americans rocked the nation this week and intensified this weekend following racially charged comments by the President.  While unions in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement have often been viewed through the lens of police union recalcitrance, numerous labor organizations have this time played a prominent part in supporting protesters.  In New York and Minneapolis, the scene of George Floyd’s death, bus drivers have refused to cooperate with police in transporting protesters to local jails.  Transportation Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 praised one of its members for refusing to drive arrestees at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for booking at the NYPD’s request.  In Minneapolis, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005 issued a similar statement of solidarity with drivers declining to be commandeered. Meanwhile, ATU members created an online petition entitled “Union Members for #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd”, now signed by over 400 union members across various locals.  A number of Minneapolis-based worker organizations have taken active steps to support protesters, including the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, UNITE HERE Local 17, Minnesota Nurses Association, National Nurses United, St. Paul Federation of Educators, and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL).  Additionally, both The NewsGuild and the Broadcast Employees Union (NABET) released statements condemning the arrest of Black CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, whom police apprehended on live television without apparent justification Friday.

Also on Friday, Bloomberg Law reported on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) first known coronavirus-related citation.  In a citation letter dated May 18, the agency proposed to fine the Georgia-based nursing home Winder Nursing, Inc. $6,504 for a recordkeeping violation after the home failed to alert OSHA to the hospitalization of six employees with COVID19. The citation comes after over 4,000 pandemic-related complaints had already been filed with the agency, as Strikewave details in an impressively comprehensive, interactive map. While OSHA has opened around 403 pandemic-related inspections, the agency has announced its intentions to rely on self-inspections in many workplaces and to conduct only limited inspections in high-risk industries such as healthcare.  Lackluster enforcement by the agency garnered fierce criticism on Thursday at a meeting of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on workforce protections, where Rep. Alma Adams accused OSHA of being “invisible” during the greatest public health crisis the agency’s 50-year history.  The agency also faces a lawsuit by the AFL-CIO for failing to impose binding workplace safety standards.

Congressional action last week extended beyond criticizing OSHA, of course. On Thursday, the House passed an amendment liberalizing the Paycheck Protection Program’s (PPP) small-business loan system.  The bill, sponsored by Reps. Dean Phillips (D-MN) and Chip Roy (R-TX), expands the repayment period from eight weeks to twenty-four and reduces the required allocation to payroll from 75% of the loan to 60%.  As noted earlier this week, the bill was revised after aggressive pushback to the initial bill by labor groups led by UNITE HERE.  Regardless, however, the bill is unlikely to clear the upper chamber, as Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) has taken issue with alleged technical errors in the House proposal.  

On Friday, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) sent a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia expressing concern over the legality of President Trump’s recent order directing the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB) to decline to invest in Chinese companies under U.S. sanctions and export bans.  In the letter, Connolly asserted that under Federal Employees’ Retirement System Act of 1986, the FRTIB is an independent agency not subject to the president’s directive authority. 

Trump’s FRTIB order is not the only administrative policy facing legal scrutiny.  Yesterday, D.C. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson struck down a series of new regulations by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regarding union elections.  Among these were new rules lengthening the period between filing and hosting union elections and creating additional opportunities for employer election challenges.  Rejecting the agency’s claim that the policies were purely procedure, Judge Jackson held that the rules were substantive and thus required submission to notice and comment.  Meanwhile, a New York lawsuit has accused Secretary Scalia of defying congressional intent by excluding healthcare and other essential industries from paid sick leave coverage under the CARES Act.  According to the Center for American Progress, up to 80% of workers may be exempt from the Act’s protections thanks in part to Department of Labor regulations.

Tomorrow also marks the end Amazon workers’ $2 hourly hazard pay bonus.  The reduction comes in spite of Amazon’s record-shattering profits in recent months, which have catapulted CEO Jeff Bezos’s fortune north of $146 billion. The change also defies concerns over continued lack of safety at Amazon facilities, for which the companies continues to refuse to release numbers on COVID19 infections.   Taking matters into their own hands, Amazon employees have themselves counted around 1,079 COVID19 cases as of May 20, including six workplace deaths.  Nonetheless, Bezos himself has largely dismissed worries over workplace safety, as well as continued allegations of retaliatory discharge against pro-union workers. 

On a final note, a new report by Tova Wang of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center provides powerful evidence of union’s potential to help reinvigorate democracy. The report finds that unionization is associated with a 3-5% increase in voter participation among workers, with a whopping 11% increase among high-school dropouts. Unions were also found to have spillover effects in increasing overall voter turnout throughout the communities they occupy.  Wang concludes that these differences stem not only from unions’ get-out-the-vote efforts but also from the ways they foster leadership, electoral engagement, and issue awareness among working people.  The paper concludes by endorsing a number of the Clean Slate Project’s proposals to boost unionization as a way to promote democracy and voter engagement.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.