News & Commentary

June 20, 2021

Nikita Rumsey

Nikita Rumsey is a student at Harvard Law School.

Lawmakers in Maine approved a bill this week to enable workers alleging violations of certain state labor laws, including wage-and-hour violations, to bring private enforcement actions in the name of the state after providing notice to certain state agencies. The bill, introduced by state Senate President Troy Jackson (D) and titled the Act to Enhance Enforcement of Employment Laws, is modeled on California’s Private Attorney Generals Act (PAGA), which likewise deputizes workers to enforce state labor laws on behalf of the state. However, as Bloomberg noted, the two bills are not identical: namely, while PAGA requires aggrieved workers themselves to bring suit, Maine’s new law authorizes advocacy groups and other organizations to sue on workers’ behalf as well. In a statement in support of the initiative, Jackson noted that the problems in Maine have been at least twofold. For one, workers often don’t realize they are signing away their right to sue when starting a new job (by way of a forced arbitration clause), and second, state agencies simply lack the resources to bring enforcement actions themselves for all legitimate claims. Advocates hope Maine’s new bill will galvanize other states to pursue similar legislation.

The Times reported this week about growing efforts by Republicans to expand control over state and local elections across the country, generating fears that the right’s unsuccessful efforts to subvert the 2020 Presidential election may well have greater success next time around. In Georgia, state Republicans recently passed a local election law granting county commissions, most of which are G.O.P.-controlled, sole authority to restructure local election boards, a marked change from the previous practice whereby county election boards were selected on a bipartisan basis. As a result, across Georgia members of at least 10 local election boards have been (or are set to be) removed by virtue of recently passed local ordinances and state laws. Troublingly, as the Times noted, Republican lawmakers across several states have “stripped secretaries of state of their power, asserted more control over state election boards, made it easier to overturn election results, and pursued several partisan audits and inspections of 2020 results.” According to the States United Democracy Center, G.O.P. lawmakers have introduced at least 216 bills in 41 states seeking to give state legislatures more authority over local election officials, and 24 of such laws have already been enacted across 14 states.

Meanwhile, employees at the 24-hour cable news channel MSNBC announced this week that they are organizing a union, which would represent about 315 workers including producers, bookers, fact checkers and writers. As the Times noted, the push is but another instance of a recent surge in union organizing across major media organizations, which has seen recent organizing campaigns among Times tech workersand, as detailed by William earlier this week, contract gains for the New Yorker Union after a strike threat and direct action. At MSNBC, a majority of network employees signed a letter seeking voluntary recognition of the Writers Guild of America, a union with longstanding presence in the industry and which represents workers at ABC News and CBS News, as their exclusive bargaining representative. However, MSNBC management reportedly told employees that they will be insisting on a formal representation election, in lieu of voluntary recognition. Management’s response came after high-profile anchors, including Joy Reid and Chris Hayes, publicly expressed support for their fellow network employees’ unionization efforts. Objecting to the network’s decision, the Writers Guild executive director stated that “MSNBC needs to follow its own progressive principles and honor the decision made by its editorial employees to unionize.”

Lastly, in a speech before an International Labor Organization conference, Pope Francis championed the rights of all workers to organize to better their working conditions and help build an equitable economy in the wake of COVID-19, calling “the right to organize in unions” one of the fundamental protections for workers and stressing the needs of the most vulnerable workers in the underground economy, especially migrant workers.  

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