News & Commentary

October 14, 2021

Maxwell Ulin

Maxwell Ulin is a student at Harvard Law School.

A record 2.9% of U.S. workers left their jobs in August, marking the highest month-to-month quits rate of the century.  According to a report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some 4.2 million workers resigned from work, including over 1.6 million in the retail and hospitality industries.  While quits remain disproportionately concentrated in the service sector, other areas such as manufacturing have also seen a sharp rise in worker departures.  The Washington Post offers a number of possible causes for the uptick—chief among them, a historically tight labor market, which has increased employee leverage and allowed workers to more securely leave their jobs and seek employment with improved terms.

Unions also appear emboldened by labor market conditions.  Yesterday, Matthew Loeb, President of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), announced plans to begin a nationwide strike Monday in event that no deal is reached before then between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). As Jon reported last week, 98.6% of participating union members voted to strike earlier this month in what amounted to IATSE’s first strike authorization vote in 128 years.  Among other matters, the union is seeking to reign in some of the grueling and unpredictable scheduling policies that have defined the film industry for years, particularly at burgeoning streaming services such as Netflix.  With some 60,000 union members affected, the IATSE strike is poised to be the largest such action in the private sector since 2007, when over 74,000 United Autoworkers (UAW) members walked off the job at General Motors.  

IATSE members will hardly be alone on the picket line.  This morning, over 10,000 John Deere employees are set to walk off the job in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas for the first time in 35 years, hoping to secure better wages and pension benefits than those negotiated by UAW staff and voted down last Sunday.  Meanwhile, about 2,000 New York hospital workers, 700 Massachusetts nurses, 1,400 Kellogg factory employees, and 300 Denver Airport janitors are already on strike.  As Zach noted Tuesday, as well, around 24,000 Kaiser Permanente employees are poised to walk off the job in Oregon and California after an overwhelming strike authorization vote, with some 38,000 Kaiser employees now authorized to strike nationwide.  All told, well over 100,000 unionized employees could be manning picket signs by the end of the month.  Many observers view the tight labor market as key several unions’ decisions to strike this fall, as many employers will likely be hard-pressed to find strike replacements under current conditions.

Other workplace actions have made Hollywood headlines this week, as well.  Yesterday, a group of Netflix staffers announced plans to stage a walkout next Wednesday, October 20, protesting the company’s decision to stream Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special “The Closer” for its transphobic content.  Members of Trans* and their allies, a worker resource group at the company, object to Chappelle’s defense of novelist J.K. Rowling’s transphobic remarks during the special, as well as other offensive jokes mocking the LGBTQ community.  In calling for a “day of rest,” the group hopes to pressure Netflix to acknowledge the harmful nature of Chappelle’s remark and commit to producing more content representative of the LGBTQ community.

A tight labor supply has also led to major supply chain issues, as critical transportation and retail posts remain understaffed.  In particular, a massive, 67% increase in the number of empty trucking and warehouse job positions has begun creating serious transportation bottlenecks as the holiday season approaches, prompting the Biden administration to arrange 24-hour operations at the Port of Los Angeles yesterday in order to clear growing pileups.  While multiple factors appear to be aggravating the worker shortage, job quality appears key; as the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday, rising temperatures have made working at many Southern California warehouses physically unsafe, particularly as companies like Rite Aid seek to move operations to cheaper properties further inland, where the effects of climate change are more dramatic.  Coupled with poor wages, such conditions have made warehouse work unattractive to many jobseekers, even as companies continue to add new side-benefits. 

In the trucking sector, meanwhile, a new $30-million settlement approved Tuesday between hundreds of LA port drivers and their employer, XPO Logistics, underscores some of the reasons workers might hesitate to enter the business in the first place.  According to plaintiffs, XPO, the world’s second-largest logistics provider and freight broker, paid its drivers below the minimum wage, failed to compensate for missed meal and rest breaks, and refused to reimburse truckers for business expenses and wait-time penalties at the ports.  For years, haulage companies such as XPO have sought to classify their truckers as independent contractors in order to avoid these costs. Even after California adopted the more stringent “ABC” test to limit independent contractor status, trucking firms have repeatedly resisted reclassifying drivers as employees, arguing in multiple cases that applying the state’s new test to the trucking industry was federally preempted under the Federal Aviation Administration Act (FAAA).  While the Supreme Court declined earlier this month to review one such case, Cartage Trans. Express v. California, No. 20-1453 (U.S. Apr. 16, 2021), another similar petition for certiorari addressing the question, Cal. Trucking Ass’n, Inc. v. Bonta, No. 21-194 (U.S. Aug. 11, 2021), remains under review.

Finally, in Washington, officials at the U.S. Department of Labor published a proposed rule Wednesday allowing workplace retirement investors to more easily weigh social and environmental factors in their investment decisions. The proposal, issued by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (ESBA), would reverse a 2019 Trump-era rule, which sought to target so-called environmental, social, and governance (ESG) funds by limiting retirement investors to weighing only “pecuniary factors” in most investment decisions.  In addition to returning ESBA to the laxer prudence standard of the Obama years, Biden officials are seeking to reduce documentation requirements for when ESG factors are considered.

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