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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Labor Law Reform

    Written on April 11, 2018

    This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was working in support of the union rights of striking African American sanitation workers. We thought it was an opportune time to reprint this July 17, 1977 piece, in which Al Shanker turned over his weekly column to his friend and mentor Bayard Rustin, advisor to King on nonviolent protest strategies, chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and founding president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

    The nation's labor laws need to be reformed to give workers a fair chance to organize. Enlightened opinion has long recognized that unions are essential if workers are to have any hope of dealing on an equal basis with their employers.

    The nation's basic labor relations policy was expressed in the Wagner Act of 1935 as "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining" and "protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of their own choosing." The Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin amendments to the Wagner Act undermined those principles by creating an imbalance in favor of employers.

    Although companies no longer employ the brutal anti-union methods of the past, many have adopted a sophisticated arsenal of devices -- legal, illegal, and extralegal -- to interfere with and frustrate the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

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  • Thinking About A Third Category Of Work In The Trump Years

    Written on February 14, 2017

    Our guest author today is Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School. This post, originally published at OnLabor, is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    During the last few years of the Obama Presidency, we saw a productive debate over the question of whether changes in the organization of work called for a new legal categorization of workers. In particular, the question was whether we need a third category, intermediate between “employee” and “independent contractor,” to capture the kinds of work arrangements typified by gig economy firms like Uber. Seth Harris and Alan Krueger, in a leading example, called for the creation of a legal category they named “independent worker,” which would grant some – but not all – protections of employment law to workers engaged in these types of work relationships.

    There were several primary points of contention in the debate. One was whether such a third category actually was necessary, or whether the existing categories of employee and independent contractor were flexible and capacious enough to capture the new work relationships. Harris and Krueger took one position on this question, I took another.

    A second question was whether a third category would result in ‘leveling up’ or ‘leveling down.’ One hypothesis was that if we created a new category – independent worker or something similar – workers previously classified as independent contractors would be shifted up (as it were) into the new category and thus granted expanded protections relative to what they enjoyed as contractors. The other hypothesis, the more pessimistic one, was that workers previously classified as employees would be shifted down into the new category and thus offered fewer protections relative to what they enjoyed as employees.

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  • Contingent Work In The U.S. Labor Market

    Written on June 9, 2016

    For the past 20 or so years, it is fairly common to hear that the U.S. workforce is an increasingly precarious workforce – that is, made up of jobs with non-standard employment arrangements, such as temp jobs, on call work, and independent contracting.

    Because these types of employment arrangements, often called “contingent work,” tend to offer less stability, lower wages, and less opportunities for advancement, compared with “standard” full-time jobs, the growth of the contingent workforce is often portrayed as a cause and/or signal of the erosion of workers’ rights and the decline of the middle class in the U.S. Others see it differently, however, and argue that contingent work offers the flexibility desired by employers and employees alike, and that flexible jobs allow faster and more efficient “matching” of workers with positions, thus boosting productivity. This debate, of course, centers largely around empirical questions, and the body of research on contingent work has been building for a few decades now (see Kalleberg 2000Connelly and Gallagher 2004). Yet not all labor force surveys are designed to capture the full set of nuances of workers’ employment arrangements. Starting in the mid 1990s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) had the good sense to collect data on this topic, in the form of the Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) to the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CWS was administered five times between 1995 and 2005, and provided valuable data on these “nonstandard” employment relations.

    The CWS, however, has not been conducted since 2005, substantially decreasing the high quality information available on contingent work at a particularly important time, given that the Great Recession began shortly thereafter. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) made a laudable attempt to fill this hole with an April 2015 report, which uses several data sources to provide an important snapshot on the prevalence of and trends in contingent work in the U.S. (the data go up to 2010). There are a few key takeaways from this report, some of which are long established.

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  • Fighting For Fairness For U.S. Domestic Workers

    Written on July 17, 2015

    On September 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced the Home Care Final Rule, which extends the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers who provide home care assistance to the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled. The Home Care Final Rule is essential to improving the lives of two million domestic workers who, unlike other U.S. workers, are in many states not protected by the FLSA regarding minimum wage, overtime, sick leave, and vacation. Domestic work differs from other jobs in that the work takes place inside other people’s homes, which often puts domestic workers’ wellbeing at the mercy of their employers.

    The exclusion of domestic workers from the FLSA was a concession to Southern politicians in the early 1900’s. It had left many homecare aides vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment by their employers. The rule was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2015. However, lawsuits filed by homecare corporations have hindered the change and served as an excuse for states to postpone implementation. For example, in Home Care Association of America v. Weil, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated the portion of the Rule that prevents third-party home care providers from using the companionship services exemption, and later vacated the revised definition of companionship services.

    As of July 2015, only five states have passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights: New York; Hawaii; California; Massachusetts; and Oregon. New York was the first state to pass the law (in July 2010) after six years of efforts by domestic workers, unions, employers, clergy and community organizations. The bill was introduced in two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, but has yet to be passed.

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  • The Cutting Edge Of Teacher Quality

    Written on October 11, 2011

    The State of Michigan is currently considering a bill that would limit collective bargaining rights among teachers. Under the proposal, paying dues would be optional. This legislation, like other so-called “right to work” laws, represents an attempt to defund and create divisions within labor unions, which severely weakens teachers' ability to bargain fair contracts, as well as the capacity of their unions to advocate on behalf of of public schools and workers in general.

    Last month, Michigan State Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekoff (R- West Olive) was asked whether he thought the bill would pass. He responded in the affirmative, and added:

    It's an opportunity to let teachers get farther away from union goons. That should give them a better chance to break away from the mediocrity. That should make things better for our schools and our children.
    Well, there you have it, folks. We’ve been wasting our time by designing rigorous standards and overhauling teacher evaluations. The key to improving teacher quality is not training, compensation or professional development.

    It’s goon proximity.

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  • A "Decent Work" Solution To America's Jobs Crisis

    Written on July 21, 2011

    Decent work? Some days, it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? It also brings to mind an old saying, favored by the AFL-CIO’s late president, Lane Kirkland, that if work were so great, the rich would have kept it for themselves.

    But the truth is that work is one of life’s realities. For most people, it is the sole source of income. Work also can bring great personal satisfaction. Whether self-employed or working for a large multinational corporation, we all aspire to jobs that are interesting, safe, and pay a good wage with benefits – a job that can support a family, with something left over. Even these days, when people are happy to have ANY job, we still want THAT kind of a job: Decent work at decent pay.

    But "decent work" is much more than a daydream – it is a concrete social and economic policy issue that is at the heart of a decade-long campaign by a major United Nations agency, the International Labor Organization, (ILO). Since 1999, the ILO, with support from member governments as well as employer and labor representatives, has pushed the "Decent Work Agenda". This document declares that "work is central to people's well-being." Not only does work provide income, it can bring about broad "social and economic advancement" and strengthen "individuals, their families and communities", in other words, "decent work" creates "upward mobility" or as Americans often put it, "raises all boats."

    But these broader "social and economic" gains don’t come with just any work, the ILO argues.

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  • Wisconsin: Will It Be "Cool Hand Luke" Or "Norma Rae"?

    Written on July 13, 2011

    As the implications of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining begin to sink in, some local officials have eagerly embraced one possibility opened up by the new anti-bargaining law: replacing union workers with convict labor.

    This is not a new idea, at least not in Racine County. Last summer, budget problems led the county to try to replace unionized seasonal workers with prison labor. Teamsters Local 43 sued, arguing that the move violated the union contract. The judge sided with the union, but changes in the state’s collective bargaining law since that time have altered the legal picture, and Racine County administrators are taking another look at the idea.

    How has the new law changed things? Not only did it strip unionized workers of their right to negotiate over health care and retirement issues, it also removed their contractual rights to their jobs – in the sense that they can no longer claim that certain jobs fall within the scope of the union contract and should be filled by union workers. This gives state and local officials the ability to hire private contract workers and even prison inmates to take those positions.

    This is a "win-win" situation, according to Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig. While conceding that the idea is unpopular, he argued that "once people see things are still running smoothly, running efficiently, a lot of the fears will be alleviated." While the prisoners do not get paid for their work, they may earn time off their sentences, he said.

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  • Q: Do We Need Teachers' Unions? A: It's Not Up To Us.

    Written on June 21, 2011

    I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions." These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…," followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid." In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.

    I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions," though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

    It’s not up to “us." The choice belongs to teachers.

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  • A Call For Democracy And Human Rights In The Arab States

    Written on November 23, 2010

    On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world," they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.

    Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.

    The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.

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  • A Hypocritical World Bows A Little More Deeply to Workers' Rights

    Written on October 6, 2010

    What to think? The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) last week approved by "consensus" the creation of a "Special Rapporteur" on freedom of association and assembly. Special Rapporteurs are empowered to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions to human rights problems. In this instance, the Rapporteur will review members’ compliance with a UN resolution on these fundamental rights.

    The first reaction to this development, of course, must be skepticism, leavened with deep suspicion. The UNHRC’s membership is usually heavily weighted toward nondemocratic states which routinely infringe on citizens’ right to freedom of association and assembly, including many nations with a majority Muslim population. As a result, the Council, formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has a long record of pursuing any and all human rights allegations against Israel with single-minded fury. So, when such a body, with such a disgraceful record, creates a Special Rapporteur on any subject, it necessarily sends a shiver down the spine.

    Still, it is interesting. What makes the resolution intriguing is that Russia, China, Cuba, and Libya – who love to grandstand at the Council – opposed the Special Rapporteur and "disassociated themselves" from it, though they chose not to upset the "consensus" applecart by calling for a vote. Their objections make interesting reading. To sum up, they are all for freedom of assembly and association (sort of). They just don’t need some UN guy snooping around, raising questions, talking to people, and writing reports. Even worse, if they don't cooperate with the snooper, he’ll write a report about that.

    Well.

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