Weekend News & Commentary — December 1-2, 2018

Published December 2nd, 2018 -  - 12.02.183


The nation’s minimum wages are lower than the wages the nation’s voters would prefer, according to a Pew Research Center survey. While many workers across the nation have been celebrating recent victories for higher minimum wages, the average state resident prefers a wage approximately two dollars higher than her state’s mark.  The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham explains the politics and the numbers at play in this example of “non-representative democracy.”

Labor leaders in Minnesota are looking forward to the New Year, when Gov.-elect Tim Walz will take the helm of the Gopher State; many anticipate Walz will be a “strong advocate” for workers and economic justice.  As the Star Tribune reports, 2018 was a “do-or-die” election for the state’s labor unions, who feared the “Wisconsinization of Minnesota” after a Republican sweep in 2016, and after the crushing blow of Janus.  With the partisan tides turning again, labor appears “ascendant at the Capitol,” and expectations are high.  Those in the building trades, for example, are lobbying for public works projects, higher gas taxes to fuel transportation projects, and broad-scale, effective protection against the harms of wage theft.  Because many labor leaders now perceive that their organizing power has to come from outside of the traditional union model, they seek expansive policy that will benefit all workers.  Walz, a six-term U.S. Congressman whose twenty-year career as a high-school teacher included proud union membership, ran on a pro-labor platform that articulated a set of policy goals – including paid sick leave and a statewide living wage – designed to secure for “all families” “the opportunity to thrive.”

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled last week that a 2013 state reform of public pension funds violates the state constitution, which guarantees that pension benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired” after they have been granted.  Legislators enacted the challenged state law in response to a 2011 Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV investigation documenting how 23 of Chicago’s labor leaders were collecting millions from city pension funds.  (A 1991 law authorized union leaders to access benefits in proportion to their union, rather than city salaries, which are considerably lower; those exposed were also taking leaves of absence from city jobs to reap those “inflated” pension benefits while they continued to earn union salaries.)  The overhaul restricted cost-of-living increases for retirees, raised the retirement age for the still working, and set a ceiling on individual pension benefits; further, at issue in the courts, the law repealed union-service credits, as well as the participant’s ability to scale her benefits to any other than her public salary.  As the Wall Street Journal observes, the state’s pension system has been “consistently underfunded,” with the largest shortfall in the nation, at an estimated $111 billion.  In response to the ILSC’s ruling, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is urging a constitutional amendment, warning that tax increases, budget cuts, or even municipal bankruptcy may otherwise be looming.

Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY 8th District) was named the Democratic Caucus chair last week in a tight and controversial contest with Barbara Lee (D-CA 13th District), and teachers’ unions may have cause to worry.  In the Intercept, Rachel Cohen describes Jeffries’ longstanding relationship with Democrats for Education Reform (“DFER”), a political action committee founded on Wall Street with the goal “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”  DFER, which has struggled in recent years to push certain ed-reform candidates and legislation, is still a powerful source of funding and support, as it was for Barack Obama.

In San Francisco, Marriott workers entered their 59th strike day with a rally to galvanize support for full health-care coverage and higher wages.  UNITE HERE Local 2 President Anand Singh insisted to a crowd that rising health care costs do not permit a 44-billion-dollar-corporation to skimp on coverage.  As the union argues, negotiations will stall so long as management fixates on the “false choice” of “health care or . . . a decent wage increase and a pension.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer/ Gazette contextualizes the “organizing success” of the 30,000 Toys “R” Us workers who recently secured severance pay after months of protests and petitions (as Sejal explained previously).  Retail employees, mostly un-unionized, have strategically challenged their employers with a range of public campaigns in the fight for better wages and more dignified working conditions.

Progressive neoliberal attacks on occupational licensing “obscur[e] far more important problems in the labor market,” argue Professor Frank Pasquale (U-MD King Carey School of Law) and Sandeep Vaheesan (legal director of Open Markets Institute).  In Law and Political Economy, Pasquale and Vaheesan concisely and clearly walk through the economics and “implicit assumptions” of attacks on licensing, and refute the claim that licensing “distorts” markets or does little more than saddle consumers with the burden of wage premiums.

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