News & Commentary

May 20, 2018

Cornell University violated the National Labor Relations Act in March of 2017, but Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) will not receive a unionization revote, an independent arbitrator ruled last week.  In an email sent twenty-four hours prior to the election to unionize 2500 graduate research and teaching assistants, Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth stated that “It is possible that significantly increased costs . . . could lead to reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell.”  This statement, according to arbitrator Howard Edelman, had “unmistakable” “import,” such that a voter “would have to believe that a vote for [the union] puts his/her position in danger.”  Despite this violation, Edelman concluded that the impact of the offending conduct was too “speculative” to warrant a new election; absent a “substantial showing that, but for the offensive conduct, the results would not have been altered,” the election must be certified.  The University announced that the election results – against unionization – are likely to stand after challenged ballots are examined. The University must post notice of its NLRA violation in a form and location agreed upon by both parties. Two other complaints regarding University emails were denied.  CGSU members gathered on Thursday to plan further organizing efforts.

On Thursday, Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced to the House a bill that would require airlines and other transportation providers to establish formal sexual harrassment policies that would cover passenger-to-passenger and passenger-to-employee conduct. The Stop Sexual Assault and Harrassment in Transportation Act mandates that commercial airlines, railroads, ships, certain bus lines, and other “covered entities” follow new requirements for training, policy posting, record keeping, and federal reporting. The bill also raises financial penalties – from $25,000 to $35,000 – for “Interference with Cabin or Flight Crew,” an existing federal offense that now would explicitly include sexual assault as “interference.” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson referred to the bill as a “detailed roadmap” for combatting the widespread problem of harassment and assault “on every mode of transportation,” including on airlines, where 68% of attendants recently reported that they have been sexually harassed at work.

Uber’s announcement last Tuesday that it would no longer force employees, drivers, and passengers to arbitrate individual claims of sexual harrassment and assault has continued to generate commentary.  In the New York Times former labor attorney E. Tammy Kim urged Uber to eliminate mandatory arbitration for a broader range of claims, and advocated for the Arbitration Fairness Act, a federal law that would keep all employment and consumer claims out of arbitration.  Kim stressed that Uber “risks little” in exempting individualized sexual harrassment and assault claims, while “the full power of #MeToo” would be in “a fight for much more: a rejiggering of the economy that begins with collective action and unbridled access to the courts.” Kim has not been alone in voicing skepticism of Uber’s efforts to “turn the lights on,” as the company markets virtue with its new vow “We do the right thing, period.”

In Albany, the New York State Department of Labor held the fifth of seven hearings addressing the lower minimum wage for tipped workers.  Governor Cuomo called for the hearings last December, when he put forward that immigrant and women workers may be disproportionately harmed by the lower rate, and that many workers are not making up the difference in tips (or, as legally required, by wages when the tips don’t suffice).  As the Times Union reported on Friday, the proposal to eliminate the lower rate is dividing upstate and downstate tipped workers and industry stakeholders, as those downstate more often support the change, while those upstate fear that the change would lower overall take-home pay by discouraging tipping, and would also burden restaurateurs and other business owners as they struggle to absorb the costs of higher wages.  Upstate, the general minimum wage is set to increase to $12.50 by 2021 and $15 for fast food workers by 2020, while in New York City it will reach $15 by the end of this year for employees on workforces of 11 or more.

Workers and other community members rallied for a $15 an hour living wage in Ohio.  In front of the Columbus statehouse, demonstrators spoke of how the little the state’s current $8.10 minimum wage travels. Two bills have been pending in Ohio to raise the minimum to $10, or to $15 by 2025, respectively, but their progress appears to be stalled.

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