The Labor Prospect: Unions in 2016

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders smiles as he stands in front of members of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) in Washington, Thursday, December 17, 2015, following the union's endorsement of Sanders. 

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

Unions’ Political Power

Last week, the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, joining the other major unions (both teacher unions, AFSCME, and SEIU) that have cast their support for the Democratic heavyweight. (The only million-plus-member-union yet to endorse is the Teamsters.) Clinton has built an impressive stable of institutional support within the labor movement, earning endorsements from unions that represent the vast majority of union members in the country. Those endorsements could be key to defeating progressive challenger Bernie Sanders, who has struggled to get many union endorsements despite strong grassroots support within the labor rank-and-file. (The support for Sanders among many union activists and the kind of young progressives whom unions like to hire will mean the pro-Clinton unions aren’t likely to run anti-Bernie campaigns.) The one mega-union to endorse Sanders is the Communications Workers, which has roughly 600,000 members.

As The New York Times reports, the Clinton campaign—despite claims of a massive national infrastructure—is targeting most of its resources at winning Iowa, and will be relying heavily on union volunteers to organize other states. Those volunteers could prove to be crucial in a race that the Clinton campaign is quickly realizing will likely last longer than anticipated.

Relatedly, as Steven Greenhouse notes for The Washington Post, labor unions in future elections may not be the political powerhouses for Democrats that they have been in the past. If the Supreme Court rules in Friedrichs that non-members of public-sector unions are not required to pay “fair-share” fees, that could even further tilt the imbalance of political spending between unions and corporations. “If Democratic candidates emerge with less financial support from labor,” Greenhouse writes, “they might seek to make up the difference from Wall Street and rich donors, potentially shifting the party’s priorities away from middle-class workers and toward those of wealthier Americans.”

Fudging the Right-to-Work Numbers

The Republican-controlled West Virginia State Senate could vote on right-to-work legislation as soon as this week, now that the bill has cleared committee, the Daily Telgraph reports.

As Republicans claim that the legislation would boost the state’s struggling economy, the research they are using to back up that assertion is coming under scrutiny. The labor-allied Economic Policy Institute is contesting the integrity of a report from researchers associated with the West Virginia University School of Business, who claimed that there is a causal relationship between right-to-work laws and a state’s employment growth rates. EPI says the report relies on flawed data and analysis and doesn’t follow best practices of similar studies in the past. Republicans cited the report, which was apparently commissioned by the right-wing  Heartland Institute think tank, in committee hearings on the legislation.

Organizing the Media

After much delay, Huffington Post management has agreed to voluntary recognize its staffers’ vote to unionize, making it the largest digital media outlet to go union. The bargaining unit will reportedly consist of 262 employees. Organizing within digital newsrooms has been surging since Gawker staffers first announced their intent to unionize last May. Since then, Salon, the Guardian US, and Al-Jazeera, among others, have successfully unionized.

What the contract priorities will be for an industry that skews toward young workers, most of whom have never been in a union, has remained unclear.

Since Gawker successfully unionized, its process to reach a strong collective bargaining agreement has come under scrutiny. In a survey leaked to the International Business Times, 68 percent of Gawker employees in the bargaining unit voted against including in the contract a “just cause” provision, which has long been a union-contract standard to protect against wrongful termination. Additionally, 30 percent of employees didn’t want to mandate that a diversity representative be involved in the hiring process, which reportedly is seen by some as a solution to a newsroom that is 78 percent white.

On the Minimum Wage

A measure that hikes Maine’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $12.50 by 2025 will likely appear on the 2016 ballot there, as organizers report that they’ve collected the required petition signatures.

Attempting to balance progressive pressure in Portland with a more moderate populace statewide, Oregon Governor Kate Brown is proposing a two-tiered wage hike: Portland’s minimum would rise to $15.52 by 2022, and to $13.50 in the rest of the state.

Minimum wage advocates have found an unlikely ally. Last week, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told The Washington Post he thinks the party needs to support raising the minimum. “I think we’re nuts not to raise the minimum wage,” Romney said. “I think, as a party, to say we’re trying to help the middle class of America and the poor and not raise the minimum wage sends exactly the wrong signal.”

At the Prospect…

As Rachel Cohen reports, the NLRB ruled last week that a Chicago charter school must pay $250,000 in back wages and severance to 13 teachers who were fired after a majority of the school’s teachers voted to unionize. Read more…

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