Weekend News & Commentary —March 14-15

Published March 15th, 2015 -  - 03.15.151


The United Steelworkers union and refinery operators have reached a tentative agreement that would end a walkout by thousands of employees, according to The Wall Street Journal.  The dispute over wages, benefits and safety issues has lasted six weeks and has previously been covered by OnLabor.  The tentative agreement calls for annual wage increases, maintenance of current health benefits, and an immediate review of staffing and workload assessments for union employees.  Refinery operators must still work with local union chapters to reach plant-specific agreements.

Popular ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft may soon have to categorize drivers as employees rather than independent contractors, as OnLabor has recently documented.  The Wall Street Journal reports that re-classification as employees would give workers “protections such as minimum-wage and anti-discrimination statutes, workers’ compensation, and union-organizing rights” and would force the services to greatly alter their business models.  Writing in The Washington Post, Lydia DePillis argues that categorization of drivers as employees wouldn’t destroy Uber and Lyft’s business models, but rather would just lead to more revenue going to drivers than to profits.  DePillis also discusses the possibility of creating a third “dependent contractor” category of workers, and compares the drivers’ circumstances to those of temp workers.

A recently-proposed Massachusetts law would eliminate the state’s subminimum wage for tipped workers and mandate they receive the same minimum wage as all hourly workers in the state by 2022, according to The Boston Globe.  The bill has implications beyond wages, as tipped workers are predominantly female and are more likely than other workers to live in poverty.   Currently, Massachusetts has the second-lowest minimum wage for tipped workers, ahead of only Rhode Island.  OnLabor has previously covered efforts to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers there.

Lydia DePillis writes in The Washington Post that Democrats have increasingly come to the defense of collective bargaining in the face of Republican attacks on unionization.  She documents statements and efforts undertaken by Democratic leaders to support expand union membership, such as through the National Labor Relations Board, and acknowledge the linkage between increased income inequality and the decline in union membership.

The New York Times reports that a New York judge has allowed a State Supreme Court lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s teacher tenure laws to move forward.  Under the law, “teachers in New York can earn tenure after a three-year probationary period, and union officials say the shield of tenure is necessary to protect against indiscriminate, or politically motivated, hiring and firing.” The suit contends that “teacher tenure and discipline policies deprive children of their right to a “sound basic education,” essentially by making it too difficult to fire bad teachers.”

According to The Los Angeles Times, Viacom has reached a $7.2 million settlement in a suit affecting over 1,000 former interns claiming the media conglomerate’s unpaid internship program violated federal and state labor laws.  The suit was one of many brought against entertainment companies, and their internship practices have come under widespread criticism for saving costs while not being in the spirit of laws that require unpaid internships to be primarily for the benefit of interns, not employers.  Viacom, despite coming to the settlement making the interns eligible for compensation, defended its unpaid internship program as helping students launch careers as part of an educational experience.

In The Upshot, Justin Wolfers analyzed the results of a new report from the Institute of Policy Studies and concluded that “the Wall Street bonus pool for last year is roughly double the total earnings of all Americans who work full time at the federal minimum wage.”

Unions in Ecuador are among the groups planning nationwide demonstrations next week to protest the administration of President Rafael Correa, The Wall Street Journal reports.  Unions are concerned that the government is attempting to divide union workers and want President Correa to change labor, economic and social policies.

Utah has passed a law that will prohibit discrimination against LGBT individuals in the workplace due to sexual orientation while exempting religious institutions, according to The Washington Post. The bi-partisan legislation was backed by the Mormon Church.

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