Weekend News & Commentary — July 15-16, 2017

On Wednesday, nurses at Tufts Medical Center went on strike.  This marks the first nurses’ strike in Boston in over 30 years and, according to the union, the largest in Boston’s history.  Approximately 1,200 members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association participated.  The strike comes on the heels of 15 months of failed contract negotiations between the nurses’ union and the medical center.  The union is seeking more competitive salaries and increases in staffing.  The key point of contention appears to be the hospital’s proposed changes to retirement funds. The hospital would like the 300 nurses still participating in pension plans to switch to defined-contribution plans, which function like 401(k)s. The new plans would require nurses to invest their own funds for retirement instead of receiving set employer pay-outs upon retirement. The hospital claims the switch would cut costs.  The union wants to keep the pension system in place.  In response to the strike, the hospital has hired approximately 320 replacement nurses, which is expected to cost a minimum of $6 million.  On Thursday, the hospital turned away nurses who attempted to return to work.  Negotiations are expected to resume on Monday.


On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held confirmation hearings for Patrick Pizzella, the Trump administration’s pick for Deputy Secretary of Labor, and William Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan, two National Labor Relations Board nominees.  Labor unions took issue with Pizzella’s ties to Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who was sentenced to prison for corruption in 2008.  As anticipated, Pizzella faced intense questions from the committee about his work with Abramoff.   Members of the committee asked Pizzella pointed questions about his lobbying efforts against legislation proposed in 1990s that would have increased the minimum wage on the Northern Marina Islands, where work conditions for minimum wage workers were found to be deplorable.  Emanuel and Kaplan also faced tough questions during their hearings.  Both candidates were asked where they stood on two key NLRB rulings, the Columbia University decision (defining undergraduate and graduate students who provide services to the university in connection to their studies as employees for the purposes of collective bargaining) and Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile (allowing “micro-unions” to bargain independently).  Both nominees were reluctant to state their positions on either opinion.  Emanuel, currently a management-side attorney at the employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson, was asked about his pro-management leanings and whether he would recuse himself in cases involving his law firm.  Kaplan, currently a lawyer for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, was asked if he would recuse himself from labor disputes concerning President’s Trumps businesses if asked to do so.  The committee is expected to confirm all three nominees.


During her testimony before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke about the opioid crisis and its potential impact on the labor market.  Yellen said she does not know if the opioid epidemic is the result of or cause of declining participation in the labor market, but she believes the two are related.  Yellen spoke about the increase in death rates and the continued decline in labor participation, and identified increased opioid usage as a contributing factor.  Yellen is right to point to opioid usage as one of the causes of higher death rates across the country; recent research has shown that opioid usage is linked to increased middle-age mortality for some subsets of the American population.  Yellen’s comments are timely, as they underscore the pervasiveness of the opioid crisis.

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