The Labor Prospect: Election Hangover

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Kentucky Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin speaks at a candidates forum during a meeting of county judge executives and magistrates conference, in Louisville, Kentucky, Friday, June 19, 2015. 

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly newsletter highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson)

Despite the widespread belief that the 2016 election is the only political thing that matters for the nation’s future, here’s a public service announcement: Although it’s an off year, yesterday’s elections mattered.

Kentucky remains the only Southern state to be free of a right-to-work law, but that could change now that Tea Party conservative Matt Bevin won the governor’s race. The AFL-CIO and its political-organizing arm Working America had invested substantial resources backing Jack Conway’s Democratic bid against Bevin, according to a report from WFPL News. Bevin is a right-to-work supporter. Democrats were, however, able to maintain their control of the House of Representatives, which will make passage of such legislation more difficult.

At the city level, there were a number of ballot measures to raise wages for workers. In Portland, Maine, voters rejected a measure that would have incrementally increased their minimum wage to $15 an hour. In September, the city council had passed a $10.10 minimum wage.

In Tacoma, there were two dueling minimum wage measures on today’s ballot. As The Seattle Times reported, one would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour (with inflation adjustments) for workers whose employers who generate more than $300,000 in annual revenue. The second initiative, backed by the city council, would phase in a $12 minimum wage for all the city’s workers. Preliminary returns show that voters favored the more modest $12 minimum wage hike over the $15 minimum.

In Spokane, voters rejected a measure that would have instituted workers bill of rights, including a minimum wage hike, along with a host of other worker protections.

In Seattle, which began to phase in its $15 minimum wage last year, a new survey found that many low-wage restaurant workers are earning poverty wages and still face poor working conditions due to a lack of effective enforcement.

Workplace Wins

As Buzzfeed’s Sapna Maheshwari reported last week, the popular retailer Urban Outfitters has junked the controversial practice of on-call scheduling for all its stores. The retailer had previously announced that it would only stop the practice in New York, but changed its position after an onslaught of protests from labor advocates. Michelle Chen notes for The Nation that J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Bath & Body Works, and Victoria’s Secret—covering roughly 240,000 workers—have also abandoned on-call scheduling.

Just months after The New York Times published a blockbuster inside-look at Amazon’s pervasive workaholic culture—and the company’s subsequent hissy-fit attempt at a rebuttal—the online retail giant has announced that it will extend paid parental leave and allow employees’ spouses to utilize the benefit as well. As The Washington Post reports, Amazon joins Silicon Valley heavyweights like Facebook and Google in bolstering worker benefits.

On Monday, President Obama announced his intention to sign an executive order to “ban the box” on job applications for federal employment that require applicants to note if they have a criminal record. Rather, Obama said, such information won’t be sought until later in the hiring process. Advocates for criminal justice reform and worker rights have long pushed the president to take this action, which complements Obama’s recent focus on prison reform issues.            

However, Lydia DePillis points out for The Washington Post that Obama notably exempted federal contractors from the executive order. DePillis ponders whether this is the president’s way of leaving the door open for Congress to pass a broader law, more enduring than an executive order, given the bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform.

A Collective Posture?

At the White House Summit on Workers Voice, Obama unequivocally endorsed collective bargaining as the strongest tool to reduce income inequality. Labor advocates praised it as collective bargaining’s most resounding presidential endorsement in generations.

Now, as The Hill’s David McCabe reports, Hillary Clinton appears to be following a similar bent. In Charleston, South Carolina—a locale known for union hostility—Clinton pledged her support for union rights and singled out the effort to unionize at the local Boeing plant. “They are fighting for the right to organize free from intimidation and harassment, because those rights are central to building the middle class, and we need to stand up to attacks on workers’ rights,” she said.

Clinton’s praise for unions in South Carolina—the state with the second-lowest rate of unionization in the nation—is of a piece with her embrace of the pro-worker positions she’s taken during her campaign. These include her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, over which she previously had enthused; her support for minimum wage hikes and her opposition to Obamacare’s Cadillac tax—which unions want repealed because many of their members would higher taxes on their premium healthcare coverage.

The Obama administration’s (and most mainstream economists’) case for the Cadillac tax is that over time, companies will move to less expensive healthcare plans and reallocate those savings to higher wages for their workers. However, health policy wonk Sarah Kliff argues at Vox that evidence for this theory is thin. As she writes, “A close review of the evidence reveals something discomfiting: Economists have convincing arguments about why, in theory, the Cadillac tax should raise wages. But when it comes to actual data—real-life examples that show the wage-premium trade-off is happening—evidence is sparse.”

Required Reading

The New York Times ran an important series this week that looks at the pervasive rise of arbitration in workers’ and consumers’ lives. Many companies now require employees to sign an arbitration clause upon hiring, or require consumers to sign such a clause when purchasing a product or service, thereby enabling those companies to shield themselves from the possibility of future lawsuits. Additionally, a growing number of companies include language that bans employees or consumers from filing future class-action lawsuits.   

For Washington Post Magazine, Glen Finland profiled National Education Association President Lily Eskelen García. The piece details her fight against the “toxic testing” that she argues has come in the wake of No Child Left Behind, and her efforts to cast teachers unions as a solution, not an obstacle, to education’s problems.

At the Huffington Post, Eleanor Goldberg detailed a new report from Oxfam America that highlights rampant poor working conditions in America’s poultry processing industry. Despite raking in $50 billion in profits every year, the industry keeps wages at poverty levels and job security at a minimum. Slowly but surely, though, workers—often undocumented immigrants—are coming out of the shadows and speaking up.

Tidbits

Duquesne University has let go many of its English Department adjuncts, many of who were leading a unionization drive at the private institution.

A House committee has approved a Republican bill that would reverse the NLRB’s recent Browning Ferris joint-employer standard.

Taxi drivers in Tucson won recognition as employees and unionization rights in a NLRB ruling last week.

Amidst tumultuous labor relations, port drivers ended their eighth limited strike of the past two years at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. During that time, some trucking companies have acknowledged the obvious, and hired their drivers as employees, rather than “independent contractors.” Other companies haven’t—hence the strikes.

At The Prospect…

The Supreme Court will soon begin considering Friedrichs v. CTA, a potentially disastrous case for public sector unions. Adele Stan reports on who has been behind the legal push to get the case before the high court. Surprise: It’s a who’s who of anti-labor conservatives with ties to the Koch Brothers. Read more…

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