Weekend News & Commentary — February 14-15
President Obama has announced that he will intervene in the long-running West Coast ports labor dispute between the union representing longshoremen and an association of the major West Coast shipowners, The New York Times reports. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez will travel to California and attempt to mediate a settlement that would affect nearly half of America’s imported cargo. Negotiations have lasted nine months, and there have been recent fears of a lockout or near-total shutdown. According to The Wall Street Journal, the federal mediator in charge of negotiating a settlement met separately with both sides on Friday. International trade economist Jock O’Connell told the Journal that neither side seems willing to budge and that “right now it’s almost like a war of attrition. They’re going to stay in the trenches and wait to see who blinks first.”
Writing in The Washington Post, Lydia DePillis explains that the ongoing United Steelworkers oil worker’s general strike, the first since 1980, is driven by worker safety concerns. She argues that concerns over staffing and safety precautions aren’t new, but that because the business for oil companies is improving there is less pressure on wages and therefore an opportunity for the Steelworkers to push for safety terms in their contract they have sought for years. Oil companies are resisting modifications to staffing levels and the use of contractors. Bloomberg reports that President Obama is unlikely to intervene in the strike because he has little economic incentive to do so.
In Illinois, Governor Bruce Rauner is attempting to sidestep Comptroller Leslie Munger and Attorney General Lisa Madigan to withhold “fair share” fees from unions owed to them by workers at state agencies who opt not to join the unions, according to The Chicago Tribune. Gov. Rauner previously issued an executive order prohibiting payment of the fees, but Comptroller Munger refused to implement it after Attorney General Madigan advised her withholding the fees would be illegal. Illinois state law and the collective bargaining agreements between unions and the state require payment of the fees. Gov. Rauner will now order state agencies to withhold the fees and has also initiated a court battle. An editorial in The New York Times questions the legality of the move and warns of the consequences and goals of anti-unionism.
The New York Times reports that engineers and conductors at the Canadian Pacific Railway have gone on strike over wages and benefits. The report notes that “although the company said it would try to maintain some service by using managers, the strike is likely to disrupt key industries throughout North America, including automakers, oil companies, papermakers, lumber suppliers and agriculture and mining companies.”
Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, Harold Meyerson describes how U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez believes we both need to defend our system of collective bargaining and also promote alternative ways of increasing worker representation such as works councils. Meyerson believes that Perez acknowledges a need to bolster both worker income and power.
Graduate students at Cornell University have initiated efforts to formally seek union recognition by signing union cards, according to a report in The Ithaca Journal. While the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2004 that graduate students were not employees, the move could allow the students to gain better working conditions and an improved status, and the NLRB may be ready to revisit their previous ruling. Cornell may also choose to voluntarily recognize the union.
With potential negotiations with the National Basketball Association on the horizon, the National Basketball Players Association has elected star LeBron James vice president, The Wall Street Journal reports. In naming all-stars to leadership positions, the union is attempting to increase its power and influence to get a better contract than the one agreed to after the 2011 lockout, which was widely considered pro-owners.
According to The Associated Press, a state employee right-to-work bill has been introduced in the Montana Legislature. The bill would “allow state employees the choice of whether to become a union member and that would end collection of union dues through the state payroll system.”
In The Nation, Michelle Chen writes about the challenge of organizing migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. She describes the lack of collective bargaining rights and basic civil rights as obstacles to overcoming widespread abuses, but also highlights successful models of grassroots campaigning.