Worker Rights

  • Democracy and Worker Rights: A Discussion of Labor's Approach to China

    Event Date

    On April 6-7, 2006, the Institute sponsored a lively discussion among representatives from nine AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions on the U.S.labor movement’s differing approaches to the increasing economic dominance of an ongoing worker rights repression in mainland China. After opening remarks by AFT and Shanker Institute President McElroy, participants heard from two prominent China experts, Andrew Nathan (Columbia University) and James Mann (School for Advanced International Studies).

  • Unionism and Democracy: The Experience, the Legacy, The Future

    Event Date

    The Institute received a grant from the ILGWU Heritage Fund in April 2005 to help sponsor this three-day seminar aimed at educating new AFT leaders on the rationale and history behind labor’s support for democracy and worker rights in the world.

  • Seminar on Workforce Development

    Event Date

    Research has shown that most corporations would be better off if they stopped raiding one another for superstar staff and concentrated on identifying and developing the talents of their current workforce. For their part, unions have a vested interest in helping members increase both the value and the quality of their work. This discussion explored the convergence of these interests.

  • Contingent Work In The U.S. Labor Market

    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.

  • The Civic Power Of Unions And The Anti-Union Political Agenda

    This is the second of two posts on the political dimensions of the Friedrichs case. The first post can be read here.

    Before Justice Scalia’s sudden death, it appeared that, through the Friedrichs case, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority would succeed in imposing “right to work” status on public sector working people across the nation. As discussed in a previous post, there were signs that this conservative bloc was looking to deliver its decision in time to sideline the four largest public employee unions – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – from the 2016 elections. Not coincidentally, these are also the unions that have the strongest political operations in the American labor. If Scalia had not died and these intentions were realized, what would have been the impact on the 2016 election and beyond?

    To grasp the full impact of a negative Friedrichs decision, had the conservative justices been successful in their plans, it is necessary to gauge the effect that public employee unions have on the political activism of their members. Ironically, insight into this question can be gleaned from an essay that exhibits a critical attitude toward public sector unions and collective bargaining, Patrick Flavin’s and Michael Hartney’s “When Government Subsidizes Its Own: Collective Bargaining Laws as Agents of Political Mobilization.”1 (Hereafter, F&H.) While not without analytical flaws, a number of which will be discussed below, F&H contributes to the literature with a new way of measuring the effect of teacher unions on teacher political activism and engagement, above and beyond voting. (Teachers have always voted at consistently high rates, with over 90 percent turnout in presidential elections and over 80 percent in mid-term elections.) Consequently, F&H places in relief the union contribution to member political activism that was targeted by the SCOTUS conservatives.

  • The Political Calculus Behind Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

    When the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered its March 29 ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the announcement of a 4 to 4 deadlock was something of an anticlimax.  Ever since the sudden February 12 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, SCOTUS watchers had anticipated just such an impasse. Based on Scalia’s questions when the case was argued before the Court a month before his passing, the late justice appeared to be the fifth vote for a decision that would have overturned 40 years of precedent – in effect, imposing “right to work” status on all those working in the public sector and eviscerating their unions. Without this vote, the four remaining conservative justices failed to constitute a majority.

    In the days following this decision, observers across the political spectrum described the judicial deadlock in Friedrichs as a victory for public sector workers and their unions (at least for the moment). A more definitive resolution of the issue awaits Senate confirmation of Scalia’s successor, whether President Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, or someone yet to be named by the next president.

    But, so far, what has been missing from most media commentaries is a recognition of the immediate political import of the Court’s impasse, and most especially, its impact on the 2016 election campaign. To understand the full political dimensions of Friedrichs – how the Court’s conservative majority seem to have been prepared to use the case to sway the election – a brief review of the case is necessary.

  • Is The Motherhood Penalty Real? The Evidence From Poland

    It has long been assumed that the residual gap in earnings between men and women (after controlling for productivity characteristics, occupation and industry segregation, and union membership status) is due to gender discrimination. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests that it may also reflect the effect of having children.

    According to this research, employed mothers now account for most of the gender gap in wages (Glass 2004). In the U.S., controlling for work experience, hourly wages of mothers are approximately four percent lower for each child they have, compared to the wages of non-mothers (Budig and England, 2001). The magnitude of these family effects differs across countries, but, in general, men accrue modest earnings premiums for fatherhood, whereas women incur significant earnings penalties for motherhood (Waldfogel, 1998; Harkness and Waldfogel, 2003; Sigle-Rushton and Waldfogel, 2007; Budig and Hodges, 2010; Hodges and Budig, 2010; Smith Koslowski, 2011).

    The size of the penalty seems also to vary by whether women and men are toward the top or bottom of the employment hierarchies of skills and wages, and it also varies across countries (England et al. 2014; Cooke 2014). The findings in this area are sometimes inconsistent, however, and suggest that there is a need to include a combination of skills and wages (England et al. 2014) and to choose carefully measures of job interruptions (Staff and Mortimer, 2012).

  • Fighting For Fairness For U.S. Domestic Workers

    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.

  • In Defense Of The Public Square

    A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

    And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

    In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

  • Teacher Strikes In China

    Teachers in China are joining other workers in protesting their compensation and working conditions, reports the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a workers rights-monitoring and research group founded in Hong Kong in 1994 (CLB’s executive director, Han Dongfang, is a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors).

    Throughout the past three months there have been at least 30 strikes by Chinese teachers. In the map below, which is taken from the CLB article, the numbers are strike frequencies. Many of them occurred in smaller cities and higher-poverty inland areas. For example, last month, over 20,000 teachers went on strike in cities and districts surrounding Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

    The article notes that low (and/or unpaid) salaries are a recurrent theme in the protests, but there are a couple of other issues on the table that may sound familiar to those who follow U.S. education policy.

  • Invisible Labor Redux

    Recently, I learned that the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would mandate coverage of labor history in high school curricula. I was surprised. And interested. At a time when there are immense pressures to align curriculum --  ever more narrowly --  to standardized tests, these Connecticut politicians were advocating for material that is unlikely ever to appear on a high-stakes test.

    What makes it even more interesting is that the legislation is urging the study of labor history. Let’s face it, unions are in drastic decline in this country and the political climate is as hostile to labor as it has ever been -- so much so that the U.S. is cited by international democracy and human rights organizations as a country where basic worker rights are routinely violated, in law and in practice.

    There has been little public outcry over the years as unions have weakened, although some commentators (here, here) have recently noted that the decline of unions has tracked the decline of real wages and the rise of wealth inequality.  In this context, the economic benefits that unions bring to individual workers (through good wages and benefits) have long been recognized by the World Bank and others, see here, and here for example.   In cross-national studies, the Bank has also noted the ‘negative correlation’ between high rates of union density and collective bargaining coverage, and wage inequality and variance.

  • Richard Parrish And The March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom

    Our guest author today is William P. Jones, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of The March on Washington:  Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)

    If Richard Parrish had his way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have occurred in 1941 rather than 1963.  As President of the Federation of Colored College Students in New York City, the 25-year old student was a key organizer of the mass demonstration that union leader A. Philip Randolph called to protest discrimination in the armed forces and the defense industries during the Second World War.  He was furious, therefore, when Randolph cancelled the march in exchange for an executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibiting defense contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, color religion, or national origin.  Parrish agreed that this was a major victory, but pointed out that it would expire when the war ended and do nothing to address discrimination in the armed forces.  Accusing Randolph of acting without consulting the students and other groups that supported the mobilization, he insisted that the March on Washington be rescheduled immediately.

    Randolph refused—accusing Parrish and other young militants of being “more interested in the drama and pyrotechnics of the march than the basic and main issues of putting Negroes to work”—but the disagreement did not prevent the two black radicals from working closely together to build a powerful alliance between the civil rights and labor movements in the postwar decades.  After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1947, Parrish worked as a teacher and union leader until his retirement in 1976.  He also worked closely with Randolph to open jobs and leadership positions for black workers in organized labor.  When Randolph decided to reorganize the March on Washington in 1963, Dick Parrish was one of the first people he turned to for support.

  • ‘A Single Garment Of Destiny’ For American And Bangladeshi Workers

    “Injustice anywhere," Martin Luther King famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

    Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny."

    In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.

    Neither of these terrible events was “an accident." In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable.