News & Commentary

October 17, 2018

Yesterday, the Council of the District of Columbia voted 8-to-5 to repeal Initiative 77.  The ballot initiative, which 55% of D.C. voters approved in June, would have raised the district’s tipped minimum wage to $15 by 2025.  Employers are currently allowed to pay tipped employees $3.89 per hour as long as their total earnings reach the standard minimum wage after factoring in customer gratuities.  The Council simultaneously passed the Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act, which it hopes will address many of the concerns that fueled campaigning around Initiative 77.  The act creates a hotline to report wage theft, requires employers to use a third-party payroll system, and mandates that managers receive sexual harassment training. Critics accused council members of siding with corporate donors over the will of the people.

The Washington Legal Foundation, a pro-business and free market advocacy group, petitioned the Supreme Court to review an NLRB order blocking In-N-Out Burger from requiring employees to remove buttons supporting Fight for $15.  The group argues that the order violates the Constitution by privileging employees’ statutory labor rights over employers’ First Amendment free speech rights.  The case arises from an incident in April 2015, in which several In-N-Out Burger employees in Austin, Texas were told to comply with the company’s “no pins or stickers” policy after they wore Fight for $15 buttons to work.  In July, the Fifth Circuit ruled that In-N-Out Burger violated the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers’ rights to engage in “protected, concerted activity.”

The American Prospect writes on the Fight for $15 other goal: a union.  After leading a wave of strikes by fast food employees and other low-wage workers, the advocacy group is now reportedly organizing actions explicitly focused on demanding union representation.  Between October 2 and 4, workers in Detroit, Flint, Chicago, and Milwaukee went on strike to demand union rights.  Workers and advocates see unionization as necessary to protect raises and prevent employers from cutting hours to recoup costs, but many think that securing union representation will be more difficult than winning wage gains.  Still, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry is optimistic that the movement is “closer to the union” and that “union wins can escalate just like [they did] for $15.”

After months of negotiations, United Steelworkers and United States Steel Corp have agreed on a new four-year contract, giving thousands of workers across the country their biggest pay raise in years.  Unionized Steel Corp employees will see a 14 percent pay raise over four years.  By comparison, wages were frozen under the workers’ last contract, while their 2012-2015 contract provided for raises of only 1.5 percent each year over three years.  Under the new contract, workers will reportedly also receive a share of company profits and a bonus.  Steel workers have been calling for raises since at least September, pointing to rising domestic steel prices and increased company profits after the Trump administration imposed a 25% tariff on imports.

NPR reports that cities like New York and San Francisco have made millions of dollars from selling taxi medallions to drivers at upwards of $250,000 per medallion.  Before the advent of Uber and Lyft, taxi medallions were considered an investment; drivers could reliably make $5,000 per month and eventually resell the medallion to a successor.  But competition from ridesharing companies has driven down driver earnings and with them the value of medallions. In New York City, for example, medallion prices in the secondary market dropped from $1.3 million in 2013 to $160,000 in 2018.  Now, medallion owners who have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity are reporting mental health problems and committing suicide in record numbers.  Seven taxi drivers have committed suicide in New York City alone.  While New York is attempting to address the problem by capping the number of rideshare drivers allowed on the road at any given time, San Francisco is exploring other options, including permitting corporations to buy up medallions and giving taxis exclusive access to airport pickups.

Jay Youngdahl, a labor lawyer and Visiting Research Scholar at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Education and Labor Studies, writes critically about the Clean Slate Project in Jacobin.  The Clean Slate Project, to which many of this blog’s writers contribute, seeks to develop a set of actionable policy proposals aimed at reshaping U.S. labor law and redressing economic and political inequality.  

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