News & Commentary

November 2, 2015

Local Labor for Bernie.  Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders, who has represented Vermont in Congress for over two decades, is enjoying home-turf advantage as he campaigns in New Hampshire.  Recently, he has won the endorsement of three New Hampshire labor unions: the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) chapter, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 490, and Hanover’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 560, reports Seven Days, a Vermont newspaper.  Janice Kelble, speaking on behalf of the APWU, called the decision a “no brainer,” and an IBEW member, Richard Maynard, remarked “I don’t see how any union in the state of New Hampshire would not want him.” Sanders, however, has not fared as well with national labor organizations.  Despite his consistent pro-labor stance throughout his tenure in office, the only nationwide labor group to buy into his camp is the National Nurses United.

Talk of the desirability of importing foreign professionals through the H-1B visa program has lit up conservative media outlets after CNN’s coverage of the third Republican debate last Wednesday.  So what are H-1B visas?  They are the principle immigration vehicle for the admission of temporary professional workers with highly-specialized skills.  Currently the H-1B is capped at 65,000 per year, and much of the current debate is what to do with that ceiling.

At the debate, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump indicated that he is in favor of retaining foreign talent in the U.S. so long as it enters legally, “We have a country of laws . . . It’s fine if they come in, but they have to come in legally,” reports Business Today.  Marco Rubio, another presidential hopeful, also defended the program on air.  He argued that until America can “modernize higher education,” it is critical that we keep the program to fill labor shortages at technology companies and other job-creating enterprises.  Yet favorable opinion of the H-1B program is far from unanimous among the conservative wing.  Ian Tuttle, writing for the National Review, called out the program as a subterfuge for Silicon Valley companies looking to keep costs down, “There is ample evidence that Silicon Valley is using the H-1B program simply to cut labor costs.”

Off the campaign trial, Sprint announced that it will be cutting costs as it struggles to keep its wireless services competitive, reports The Verge.  In the wake of years of subscriber losses, CEO Marcelo Claure is looking to tighten the company’s operating expenses by $2.5 billion.  The first perk to go is a $600,000 snack program that provides water bottles, yogurts, and other goodies to employees free of charge.  Accompanying these retracted perks are cutbacks that truly hit employees where it hurts.  Sprint has put a “freeze on raises, reduced severance pay, and increas[ed] out-of-pocket healthcare costs.”  Although the mega-carrier has yet to announce mass layoffs, that possibility  looms on the horizon.

Are graduate research and teaching assistants employees?  For now, the answer remains no.  Reuters reports that on Friday Karen Fernbach, a Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), “rejected a petition” from a United Auto Workers (UAW) affiliate looking to represent graduate assistants at Columbia University.  The refusal comes on the heels of the NLRB’s October 21 announcement that the Board will review an identical ruling from Fernbach that denied a similar UAW petition to represent assistants at the New School in New York City.  For many labor experts reading the judicial tea leaves, the decision to review Fernbach’s ruling suggests that the Board is gearing up to reverse a 2004 precedent that affirmatively held that graduate assistants at Brown University are not employees.  According to Reuters, Fernbach relied on the Brown decision in rejecting both the Columbia University and New School petitions to unionize.  Yet as labor enthusiasts hold out for the Board to reverse the ban on graduate students’ right to organize, Columbia University is celebrating Fernbach’s finding.  “PhD candidates undertaking an intellectually challenging course of post-graduate scholarship are not employees of the university” . . . for now, at least.

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