The Labor Prospect: Getting Sick of No Paid Sick Leave


AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

In this Friday, Jan. 18 2013 file photo, activists hold signs during a rally at New York's City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu. 

Welcome to The Labor Prospect, our weekly round-up highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

Despite an expanding patchwork of paid sick leave policies cropping up around the U.S., an In These Times investigation reminds us that this country is woefully behind the rest of the world in terms of such worker rights. Lacking any sort of basic safety net, nearly one-quarter of working mothers are back on the grind within just two weeks of giving birth, the report finds.

As Sharon Lerner writes, “most Americans don’t realize quite how out of step we are. It’s not just wealthy, social democratic Nordic countries that make us look bad. With the exception of a few small countries like Papua New Guinea and Suriname, every other nation in the world—rich or poor—now requires paid maternity leave.”

As workers’ organizations highlight the problem, Democratic Senators Gillibrand and DeLauro are finally floating a national solution. The likelihood of a federal mandatory paid leave, however, has slim chances in the Republican-controlled Congress.

For The Washington Monthly, Caroline Fredrickson dives into the plight of low-paid adjuncts who fuel higher education instruction in the U.S. while highlighting an oft-overlooked impact of contingent faculty: as adjuncts suffer, so too does student learning.

Heads or Hearts?

A growing number of labor unions are officially throwing their weight behind Democratic contenders early in the race, with big endorsements doled out to both frontrunner Hillary Clinton and challenger Bernie Sanders. Increasingly, the AP reports, a battle between the heads of union leadership and the hearts of the rank-and-file has ensued. “For labor, Sanders' rise in the polls and Clinton's trade agenda have made its calculations more difficult. Unions that endorse Clinton this year might gain more clout if the former secretary of state wins the White House. But some union leaders may risk a backlash from rank-and-file members who have been drawn to Sanders' blunt, anti-establishment message.”

Wage Wins

After passing a ballot initiative in 2013 that raised the Seattle suburb SeaTac’s (home to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport) minimum wage to $15 an hour, the airport authority and Alaska Airlines (Sea-Tac’s biggest)  challenged whether such a measure had jurisdiction at the airport. Initially, a judge ruled in their favor, writing that since the airport was operated by the Port of Seattle, not the city, it was exempt from the wage hike.

Last week, though, the Washington Supreme Court delivered a big victory in the Fight for 15 when it ruled 5-4 that the airport is subject to the SeaTac minimum wage—and in doing so, giving thousands of low-wage airport workers a big raise and setting an important precedent for similar organizing efforts around the country.

In another blockbuster court ruling, almost two million home-care workers have been granted a basic right which they’ve hitherto been denied: the protection of federal minimum wage and overtime law. The industry workforce—predominately women and minorities—has long been in the margins of the economy, but in recent years highly successful organizing efforts like those of SEIU have given these exploited workers a series of wins. As Cora Lewis explains for Buzzfeed News, “companionship” service workers have been exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act since 1974. The federal appeals court decision affirms a Department of Labor rule that grants protections to those who care for the sick and elderly in-home. As SEIU President Mary Kay Henry puts it, this ends a “sad chapter of racial discrimination that was ingrained in the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

Minimum wage fever appears to be spreading to the South. Last week, Birmingham’s city council voted to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017. In North Carolina, the Greensboro city council supports raising the minimum wage for the city’s contract and seasonal workers to $10. As The Texas Tribune reports, after years of failed attempts to raise the Texas state minimum wage, organizers have recalibrated to focus on localities. Alexa Ura reports that the a number of public employees could get a raise soon: the city of Austin will consider next month a minimum wage raise to $13.03 for full-time workers, San Antonio will consider a wage hike to $13, and two additional Texas counties are poised to raise wages. City-by-city seems to be the emerging strategy, likely with the hope that this puts unavoidable pressure on states to act.


In what continues to be one of the most important emerging dilemmas in the labor movement, Steven Greenhouse explores whether SEIU’s can translate its surprising fast-food-organizing success (to which the union has devoted a ton of money) to gaining new union members. As Greenhouse reports for The Atlantic, SEIU says its brought raises to 8 million U.S. workers while its membership is far less—1.8 million. “If the SEIU can come up with a way to unionize a franchising giant like McDonald’s, it would be a watershed for organized labor—and could create a replicable strategy for lifting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of low-wage workers.” That path remains murky and full of obstacles, but experts posit that getting fast-food companies to require franchisees to allow card checks and remain neutral in union drives would be the first step.

The NLRB could also ease the way forward, Politico’s Morning Shift reports, as it is expected to deliverer a ruling that will set a new “joint employer” standard clarifying the legal responsibility of employers for employees of its subcontractors, staffing agencies, and (most importantly for fast food), franchisees. “Hanging in the balance,” Michael Hiltzik opines in the LA Times, “is the ability of the big companies to use franchise arrangements to obscure their role as the ultimate employer.”

The union crusade against McDonald’s worker treatment is going global, Noam Scheiber writes for The New York Times. This week, dozens of politicians, union officials, and McDonald’s workers have descended upon Brazil to strategize about how to expand unionization efforts abroad and boost unionization efforts at home. While McDonald’s defenses at home remain strong, the labor campaign abroad hopes to weaken the company on other fronts.”

Dave Jamieson reports for The Huffington Post that, in what could be considered the White House’s clearest endorsement of the movement, Labor Secretary Tom Perez will travel to Detroit today in a show of solidarity with the national Fight for 15. "People are increasingly understanding that they're taking it on the chin at work," Perez said. "If you battle your boss alone, it's a heck of a lot harder to succeed. But when you work in concert with fellow workers not just in your workplace but across sectors, that's how you succeed." Still, the official Obama minimum wage policy remains hinged to the mainstream Democratic position—a staggered federal hike to $12 an hour.

Uber lobbyists are on the prowl in Sacramento. The ride-sharing company has spent $1 million—more than Apple and Facebook combined—on lobbying in California alone. As Alison Vekshin writes for Bloomberg, “the company is fighting from the Pacific to the Atlantic to derail efforts by regulators, lawmakers and the taxi industry to extend rules governing cabs to the nascent ride-sharing industry.” In the Golden State specifically, Uber and Lyft are pushing lawmakers to exempt its drivers (but don’t you dare call them employees) from needing commercial licenses to operate.


Google Express workers who run warehouse and shipping operations for the company’s same-day delivery service in the Bay Area  have voted to unionize with the Teamsters. The workers are employed to work for Google through the staffing agency Adecco.

The recent surge in unionization drives at digital media outlets comes at the same time that these thriving young companies are courting investors to pump in new capital.

For all you labor law nerds, SCOTUSblog is hosting an ongoing symposium on the impending Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association Supreme Court case.

At the Prospect…

Daniel Block looks at the peculiar world of New York state politics and how gerrymandering and a strong Cuomo-Republican alliance has kept the senate in Republican’s control, despite the disproportionate share of Democratic voters in the state. “The impact on policy has been palpable” in the labor-friendly state, Block writes. Unions have criticized Cuomo for acting more like a Republican than a Democrat on a number of issues. Read more…

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