Weekend News & Commentary — November 17–18, 2018

Published November 18th, 2018 -  - 11.18.183


In Boston, Unite Here Local 26 and Marriott have struck a deal, ending an historic 46-day strike.  Saturday afternoon the workers ratified the new contract in a 677-9 vote.  Terms remain undisclosed, but union representatives indicate that workers now have more robust – unprecedented – job security and a vastly improved benefits and compensation package, which more adequately responds to Boston’s astronomical housing and living costs.  After stopping work on October 3, more than 1,500 hotel workers will return to the job this Wednesday.  CBS Boston reports that the mood was jubilant on Saturday, and that the organizers now “declare a victory,” in this “strike success story.”

The Federal Reserve has announced that next year it will host a series of stakeholder meetings as it conducts an extensive review of its priorities and methods in shaping the U.S. economy.  According to the Financial Times, Fed Chairman Jay Powell is committed to boosting transparency and accountability for the central bank, and also aims to insulate its decisions from the whims and vituperation of politicians.  President Trump has repeatedly criticized the Fed for raising interest rates, which, according to Trump, rattle the economy and stunt growth.  Debates over interest rates are longstanding; today, some experts argue, due to consolidation of firms and the decline of debt-funded capital investment, interest rates no longer control inflation.  Workers’ advocates have lobbied the Fed not to respond to (limited) wage raises with higher interest rates, and may continue to push this argument in the new review.  The “alternative frameworks” the Fed considers could also invite arguments from employers and employees on tools to shape monetary policy.  While Congress sets the Fed’s goals – maximum sustainable employment paired with stable inflation – the Fed can adapt how it pursues those goals and how it communicates monetary policy to the public.

The NLRB continues to seek public comment on its new rule to determine when a firm is a “joint employer” of its workforce.  The NLRB rarely has changed regulations through the rulemaking procedure, and so the legitimacy of the new rule will likely be challenged under the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs agency actions.  Bloomberg Law explains that to withstand a challenge under the APA, the NLRB must, in the least, justify its rule change with an evidentiary basis.  Anecdotal evidence should not suffice, scholars claim.  NLRB Chairman John Ring has indicated that he is interested in, and will be ready to rely on, testimonials from employers and business owners on the nature of their experiences with the previous standard for joint employment.  Whether a new rule based on limited quantitative or systemic data will withstand judicial review may depend on the court, as judges vary in their approach to what changes are “reasonable” per the APA.  Regardless, warring anecdotes – from unions and other pro-labor constituencies – may indicate that more “rigorous” statistical analysis is necessary to complete the record, although the NLRA prohibits the NLRB from hiring an agency economist.  The initial comment period has been extended, and will remain open until December 13.  The public may then respond to initial comments until December 20.

Minnesota’s labor activists are seeking a statewide minimum wage hike, as they aim to capitalize on the momentum gained in the recent election, when the Democratic-Farm Labor Party won the majority in the state House and the governor’s seat.  St. Paul and Minneapolis have both set a new $15 an hour minimum wage, and 15 Now Minnesota organizer Celeste Robinson tells the Star Tribune that “having capital cities, larger economic hubs, raise the wage is one of the best things that workers can organize around to push the state toward adopting a higher minimum wage.”

The New York Times this weekend published an extensive report on working conditions for female employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  While the EEOC and the House Oversight Committee have been investigating cultures of misconduct and pervasive harassment for years, according to the Times, many of the more than 10,000 female employees feel as if they have no recourse when they endure systemic abuse from supervisors, coworkers, and the incarcerated.  The Times refers to a “hypersexualized” environment in prisons, wherein the conduct of the incarcerated and a total lack of accountability for abusive employees both endanger women.  Prominent in the complaints are that women employees have felt “terrified” or “humiliat[ed]” when incarcerated men masturbate in front of them.  Because federal prisons often permit incarcerated people to walk outside of their cells at scheduled times of day, women guards report to the Times that they often feel vulnerable to inmate threats, as well as undermined, unsupported, and targeted by their male coworkers and managers.  Despite consistent allegations of hostile environments and harassment, administrators continue to reap bonuses and promotions.

Notably, federal and most state prisons prohibit the incarcerated from “public masturbating” – effectively, masturbating at all – and violators may be punished with consequences as harsh as solitary confinement or longer sentences.  According to Vice, these regulatory infractions are punished with increasing frequency and severity.  Incarcerated individuals are also vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of prison employees or other incarcerated people; while data is difficult to collect and assess, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that at least 200,000 incarcerated people are raped or abused yearly.  Today, the federal government incarcerates about 181,000 people, out of a total of 2,121,600 individuals across state and federal facilities.

In California, which is facing one of the nation’s worst ever natural disasters, incarcerated firefighters are at particular risk of death and injury.  Time reports that the incarcerated firefighters are “more than four times as likely, per capita, to incur object-induced injuries, such as cuts, bruises, dislocations and fractures, compared with professional firefighters working on the same fires.”  All firefighters are likely to suffer exhaustion and extreme stress as they battle the profoundly destructive blazes.

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