The Labor Prospect: Right-to-Work Whack-a-Mole

Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signs a ceremonial veto of the controversial "right-to-work" legislation on Thursday, June 4, 2015, at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 training facility in St. Louis. 

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

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

Right-to-work legislation continues to bubble up in states that have been successful in staving off such laws. Call it a never-ending game of right-to-work whack-a-mole.

Last week, West Virginia Senate President Bill Cole called for lawmakers to pass right-to-work legislation in what he—and conservatives invariably—characterize as an attempt to attract businesses to the economically downtrodden region. Labor leaders contend that it’s just the latest attempt to reduce wages for already-struggling workers. (Given West Virginia’s history as the geographic heart of the United Mine Workers, once the nation’s most powerful union, now nearly vanished, the possible shift to right-to-work status would be particularly depressing, if not all that surprising.)

The 2016 election will likely determine whether right-to-work can pass in Missouri. Democratic Governor Jay Nixon has vetoed such legislation each time the Republican legislature has passed it, but due to term limits, he can’t seek reelection, and the gubernatorial race is wide open. All the Republican contenders have touted their support for making Missouri a right-to-work state.

The rightward drift of the Civil War border states is also apparent in Kentucky. Just weeks after Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin won a surprise victory in that state’s gubernatorial contest, a Democratic state representative has decided to run for reelection in 2016 as a Republican. The move is part of state Republicans’ efforts to win control of the Kentucky House for the first time in 90 years. With a Republican soon to occupy the governor’s office, the only thing keeping the Bluegrass State from going right-to-work would be continued Democratic control of the House.

On a more promising Kentucky note, Lexington’s County Urban Council passed an ordinance that incrementally raises the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2018. The hike comes just months after Louisville passed its own wage hike, which was quickly challenged by business groups that argued that the city doesn’t have the authority to issue its own minimum wage. Wage-hike opponents in Lexington argued that the city should have held off until the Louisville case is decided before the Kentucky Supreme Court.  

Ensuring Enforcement

The push for a $15 minimum wage for California has led to a power struggle within SEIU, the state’s most powerful union. As David Dayen writes for In These Times, both SEIU’s state council and its United Health Workers affiliate have launched competing ballot measures to raise the state’s minimum wage. Unless the two groups reach a compromise, voter confusion over the different measures could spell trouble for a statewide minimum wage hike to $15 (for which the Field Poll has found 68 percent public support).

After approving a countywide $15 minimum wage, Los Angeles County supervisors have now approved a measure that creates a new division aimed at enforcing employer compliance with the new wage. County supervisor Sheila Kuehl (a former state senator and onetime teen actress who played Zelda on the Dobie Gillis show of the early 1960s) was the driving force behind raising the wage, while former U.S. labor secretary and current county supervisor Hilda Solis led the push for the enforcement measure, which labor leaders say is crucial to ensuring that workers actually benefit from the new wage standard.

Despite passing a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave, critics have long said that the city of Seattle has been lackluster on the enforcement side. Mayor Ed Murray is seeking to change that as he pushes for an expansive new labor law that would increase fines for wage violators, better protect whistleblowing workers, and give teeth to the city enforcement office.

In a strong sign of investment in Southern labor organizing, the United Auto Workers has announced a new partnership with German labor union IG Metall. The two unions will open a joint office in Tennessee that will reportedly experiment with implementing new forms of worker representation, like German-style works councils. Many also see this as a doubling down on UAW efforts to organize at Volkwagen’s Chattanooga plant.

Clinton Snags SEIU

As expected, SEIU endorsed Hillary Clinton for president last week. It thereby joined a list of the most politically active unions, which have thrown their weight behind Hillary, and in so doing raised a chorus of protest from their pro-Bernie Sanders rank-and-filers. However, as David Jamieson notes for The Huffington Post, SEIU has a large membership base of Latino and African Americans, who have been historically supportive of Clinton. The union said that internal polling showed 72 percent support for her among its members. SEIU is poised to be a major political player in the 2016 election, and has already launched TV ads attacking Republicans for their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Still, a number of labor and left activists and critics have question why SEIU, which has organized and funded the Fight for 15 campaign, would back Clinton, who favors a national $12 minimum wage, rather than Sanders, who favors $15. One such critique is that of Jacobin’s Ted Fertik, who argues that SEIU’s willingness to settle for Hillary is indicative of a mentality that has long contributed to the labor movement’s decline.

Uniform Hillary support within the union, however, is not a foregone conclusion—at least among locals that are close to Sanders’ home state of Vermont. Soon after the two million-member national organization’s endorsement, New Hampshire’s SEIU Local 1984 (11,000 members) announced that it is endorsing Sanders.

At The Washington Post, James Hohmann digs back into Hillary’s past as Arkansas’s First Lady, where she drew huge criticism from the state’s teachers unions for championing major education reform. (For a long time, however, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have been Clinton’s foremost labor backers.)

Former Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen is profiled by the Wall Street Journal, highlighting the labor leader’s crusade to build grassroots support for Bernie within the labor movement.

Tidbits

Who is responsible when a temp worker is killed while being taken to the job? 

Airport workers at seven major hubs went on strike last week.

A U.S. judge rules that McDonald’s must comply with NLRB subpoenas seeking information on corporate-franchisee relations.

Televangelist Ernest Angley is being sued for violating minimum wage, overtime, and child labor law, and the judge is refusing to throw out the case.

The New York Papa John’s franchisee convicted of wage theft gets actual jail time.

New Republican House leadership could threaten Obama’s TPP trade deal.

At The Prospect…

School districts and teachers unions are teaming up to push for affordable housing for teachers as a way to attract, and retain educators in their communities. As Rachel M. Cohen writes, “[a]cross the country, other variants of teacher housing developments have cropped up, or are in the works—though the motivations for them, and allies behind them, differ from city to city.” Read more…

Elizabeth Warren and other progressive lawmakers are backing a new policy platform that aims to close the gender wage gap, Isaac Park reports. Read more…

Employers are increasingly using their power to coerce their workers to back their (the employers’) politics. And, as Alexander Hertel-Fernandez writes, it’s all legal. Read more…

Ai-Jen Poo argues that in 2016, presidential candidates need to focus on both the white working class and the minority working class. Read more…

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