News & Commentary

September 24, 2015

Workers at the busiest distribution warehouse in the Western Hemisphere are on strike, Buzzfeed reports.  Since Tuesday, workers at the Los Angeles warehouse, which serves giant retailers like Amazon, Kmart, Sears, and Lowes have been protesting their working conditions.  The workers’ complaints includes wage and hour violations, unsafe working conditions, and retaliation by employers against organization attempts.  As one worker put it, “This warehouse moves products for some of the largest companies in the world, but pays us barely more than minimum wage.”  This case may present a high-stakes test of the real impact of the NLRB’s Browning-Ferris decision–discussed further here.  After all, warehouse workers are directly employed by California Cartage, but Amazon accounts for a third of the warehouse’s business.  As Professor Sachs points out in the article, the law is becoming increasingly friendly to joint employer claims, “even in cases where there is no direct or immediate supervision by the putative joint employer.”  In other words, Amazon might be held liable for the workers’ conditions at the warehouse.  For now, the workers vow to strike until they see some changes made.

Pope Francis has arrived in the U.S., and the labor movement is eager to welcome him.  Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post reports that low-wage workers from federal facilities in Washington have been striking over the past couple of days carrying signs in the Pope’s image.  She writes that labor groups “are making an unprecedented show of unity with the Catholic church at a time when its leader is more focused on issues of inequality and economic justice than any other pope in recent memory.”  Friar Clete Kiley, who founded the Priest-Labor Initiative in 2012, spoke at the AFL-CIO’s conference in June; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of Pope Francis’s closest confidants in the U.S., also attended the AFL-CIO conference; and the Pope has made appointments across the country who are reaching out to organized labor.

Union leaders joined together to welcome the Pope at the White House yesterday.  According to Politico, the guests included AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, and other union leaders and activists.  Notably, the Pope’s motorcade is also embracing American unions; Pope Francis has ditched his Mercedes for a Fiat, and Fiat-Chrysler has the closest relationship with the UAW of Detroit’s Big Three.

In gig economy news, Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post reports that a hospitality workers union in Washington, D.C., has proposed a bill for regulating Airbnb.  UNITE HERE Local 25 represents about 6,500 workers in the D.C. area, and they explain they seek to protect hospitality workers’ jobs as well as the housing market in the area.  Their proposed legislation attempts to address hosts who own and rent many units; their bill limits the number of rentals a user may have at a given time to 5.  Solomon Keene, president of Hotel Association of Washington, explains that it’s not an attempt to drive Airbnb out of the market, but rather, an attempt at preventing entrepreneurs from using Airbnb to set up a more lightly regulated, geographically distributed hotel.

One year after Starbucks pledged to improve conditions for its barista employees, the New York Times reports that conditions haven’t improved.  The Times criticized Starbucks in 2014 for some of its employees common complaints, including understaffing shifts, making work schedules available to employees less than 10 days in advance,  and assigning baristas “clopenings”–closing shifts followed be opening shifts the next morning.  Starbucks promised to improve, but a 200-barista survey conducted by the Center for Popular Democracy suggests baristas are still frustrated.  Starbucks relies on advanced technology to assist its shift assignments, ensuring that busier hours are more highly staffed, but managers are also incentivized to keep shift staffing down, and many baristas complain of understaffing.  MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Zeynep Ton suggests a solution: a “mini force” of floating relief employees who may fill in for shifts that are understaffed or for sick employees.

Looking abroad, El Salvador is experiencing the most violence the country has seen since the civil war in the 1980s, and work might be the way out.  According to the New York Times, gangs have taken over towns and villages, and El Salvador just saw its most violent month ever—911 people were murdered in August alone.  A citizens’ government advisory council, Safe El Salvador, has creating jobs for young people as its first proposal.  The article looks into one garment factory, which produces the t-shirts for League Collegiate Outfitters, and its general manager, Rodrigo Bolaños.  Bolaños’s factory hires anyone who wants to work–including former gang members seeking new lives–with hopes of getting them “back in society.”  As he puts it, “This is my country, all these are my countrymen; El Salvador cannot be successful if we cannot take care of our people.”

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