As L.A. ports automate, some workers are cheering on the robots

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Day after day, Walter Diaz, an immigrant truck driver from El Salvador, steers his 18-wheeler toward the giant ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Will it take him half an hour to pick up his cargo? Or will it be as long as seven hours? He never knows.

Diaz is paid by the load, so he applauds the arrival of more waterfront robots, which promise to speed turnaround times at a port complex that handles about a third of the nation’s imported goods.

“I’m for automation,” Diaz says. “One hundred percent. One hundred percent.”

But what about the thousands of International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers who have mounted massive protests, saying the robots will replace human jobs? The ILWU members, who transfer cargo from ships to trucks and direct terminal traffic, “don’t care about the drivers,” said Diaz, 41, who has serviced the ports for two decades. “Never. We sit in line while they take two-hour breaks. With automation, we don’t have that problem.”

The arrival of robots at the nation’s largest marine terminal, a 484-acre facility run by Danish conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk, is exposing a stark economic divide between two sets of Southern California workers.

Read the complete article here.

For 53 million Americans stuck in low-wage jobs, the road out is hard

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Unemployment is hovering near a five-decade low, workforce participation is at the highest level in six years and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell recently called the labor market “strong.”

Yet, 44% of Americans age 18 to 64 are low-wage workers with few prospects for improving their lot, according to a Brookings Institution report.

An estimated 53 million Americans are earning low wages, according to the study. That number is more than twice the number of people in the 10 most populous U.S. cities combined, the report notes. The median wage for those workers is $10.22 an hour and their annual pay is $17,950.

Although many are benefiting from high demand for labor, the data indicated that not all new jobs are good, high-paying positions. The definition of “low-wage” differs from place to place. The authors define low-wage workers as those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage for full-time workers, adjusted for the regional cost of living. For instance, a worker would be considered low wage in Beckley, W.Va., with earnings of $12.54 an hour or less, but in San Jose, Calif., the low wage bar rises to $20.02 an hour.

“We have the largest and longest expansion and job growth in modern history,” Marcela Escobari, coauthor of the report, said in a phone interview. That expansion “is showing up in very different ways to half of the worker population that finds itself unable to move.”

Read the complete article here.

5-Hour Workdays? 4-Day Workweeks? Yes, Please

From today’s New York Times:

A German entrepreneur named Lasse Rheingans has become a subject of attention since The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a novel idea he has put in place at his 16-person technology start-up: a five-hour workday. Mr. Rheingans is not just reducing the time his employees spend in the office; he’s reducing the total time they spend working altogether. They arrive at 8 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m., at which point they’re not expected to work until the next morning.

This distinction between time in the office and time spent working is critical. In our current age of email and smartphones, work has pervaded more and more of our waking hours — evenings, mornings, weekends, vacations — rendering the idea of a fixed workday as quaint. We’re driven to these extremes by some vague sense that all of this frantic communicating will make us more productive.

Mr. Rheingans is betting that we have this wrong. His experiment is premised on the idea that once you remove time-wasting distractions and constrain inefficient conversation about your work, five hours should be sufficient to accomplish most of the core activities that actually move the needle.

To support this new approach, he has employees leave their phones in their bags at the office and blocks access to social media on the company network. Strict rules reduce time spent in meetings (most of which are now limited to 15 minutes or less). Perhaps most important, his employees now check work email only twice each day — no drawn out back-and-forth exchanges fragmenting their attention, no surreptitious inbox checks while at dinner or on the sidelines of their kids’ sporting events.

The Wall Street Journal described Mr. Rheingans’s approach as “radical.” But as someone who thinks and writes about the future of work in a high-tech age, I’ve come to believe that what’s really radical is the fact that many more organizations aren’t trying similar experiments.

Read the complete article here.

Early UAW votes on ending the GM strike are a mixed bag

From today’s CNN Online:

Nearly 50,000 General Motors employees are in the process of voting on a tentative labor deal that could end their five-week strike. The early results are mixed.

The Warren Technical center, in Warren, Michigan, which is made up mostly of engineers, voted 85% in favor of the deal. It also passed easily at a metal stamping plant in Saginaw, Michigan, and a transmission plant in Toledo, Ohio.

But at the enormous assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, which has almost as many UAW members as Warren, Saginaw and Toledo combined, members voted narrowly against the deal by a 51% to 49% margin. That factory builds three different SUVs, including the GMC Acadia, and the Cadillac XT5 and XT6.

Union locals across the country are voting on different days. They will remain on the picket lines while the vote is completed. The nationwide results are expected to be announced Friday evening.

The tentative deal reached last week would pay members an $11,000 signing bonus and raise hourly pay for veteran workers 6% over the life of the contract, to $32.32. And many workers who have been getting by on $275 a week in strike benefits are eager to get back to work earning more than $30 an hour.

The deal also will allow many temporary workers to become permanent employees, which will significantly improve their pay and benefits. And the union got GM to drop its demand that workers pay a much greater percentage of their own health care costs.

But union members are angry at GM’s management, because the deal would lead to the closure of three US plants: an assembly line in Lordstown, Ohio, and transmission plants in Warren, Michigan, and Baltimore.

Although GM has found other jobs for most of the employees who were working the plants when production ended earlier this year, most of the workers had to relocate. Those displaced workers, and some of those who lost their jobs and have not taken new ones, will get a chance to vote on whether to accept this deal.

Read the complete article here.

Worker rights are shaping up a key issue in 2020. Who has the best ideas?

From today’s New York Magazine:

Never before have I seen Democratic candidates do so much to woo workers and win over union leaders. Elizabeth Warren kicked off her campaign at the site of the famous 1912 Bread and Roses textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Julián Castro marched in Durham, North Carolina, with fast-food workers demanding a $15 wage, while Pete Buttigieg spoke outside Uber headquarters in San Francisco alongside drivers demanding to be considered employees. Joe Biden held his first official campaign event at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh. Kamala Harris has called for a raise averaging $13,500 for the nation’s schoolteachers, while Bernie Sanders has bolstered labor’s cause by using his email lists to urge supporters to join union picket lines.

Why all this sudden attention and affection for workers and unions — far more than I’ve ever seen during my nearly 25 years of writing about labor? Part of it is that this year’s Democratic candidates are doing what any smart politician would do when the field is so large — court one of the party’s largest constituencies, i.e., unions and their members. Part of it is that the candidates see that something is seriously broken in our economy: that income inequality, corporate profits, and the stock market have all been soaring while wages have largely stagnated for decades. Also, Democrats realize that a big reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 was that she didn’t show enough love to labor. The field seems to recognize that if a Democrat is going to win the presidency in 2020, the surest route is to win back the three longtime union strongholds — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that were key to Donald Trump’s victory. So the candidates have loosed a flood of pro-worker ideas, not just to make it easier to unionize, but to extend paid sick days and family leave to all workers, provide protections to pregnant workers, and safeguard LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination on the job.

Four of them — Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rouke, Pete Buttigieg, and Cory Booker — have put forward remarkably detailed platforms of pro-worker and pro-union proposals, while Elizabeth Warren’s elaborate plan on trade goes far beyond what many union leaders have called for. Andrew Yang says his universal basic income will be a boon for workers, providing a lifeline to those who lose their jobs because of artificial intelligence and robots. Biden has been vague so far on labor matters, calling himself a union man and saying he supports a $15 minimum. Booker has introduced a fairly radical bill, the Worker Dividend Act, which would require corporations that do stock buybacks to pay out to their employees a sizable chunk of the money going to the buyback.

Considering how many candidates there are and how many proposals and speeches they’ve made, it’s hard to keep track of who stands for what — and which plans are substantively the most pro-labor. Below, I give grades to the Democratic front-runners, based not just on the positions they’ve espoused during the campaign, but also on their track records. (Some candidates seem to have discovered the cause of workers only after announcing that they were running for the presidency.)

Read the complete article here.

5 questions about labor strikes that you were too embarrassed to ask

From today’s Vox News Online:

Nearly 1,000 Amazon employees are walking out of work. More than 45,000 GM auto workers are on strike for the fifth day in a row. In October, about 80,000 Kaiser Permanente employees are set to go on strike.

The wave of labor unrest has become a defining feature of the economy since the 2008 Great Recession. In 2018, a record number of employees went on strike: School teachers, hotel workers, health care workers — even Google employees. Most of them were angry about stagnant wages and proposed benefits cuts, but some were just frustrated with company policies.

But all the walkouts have raised the question of what, exactly, counts as a strike and what are the consequences? Is it the same as a walkout? Is it even legal?

I spoke to four labor lawyers across the country to get a better understanding of what legal rights workers have to throw up their hands and walk off the job — and what right a company has to respond.

One law professor pointed out that a walkout to protest government inaction climate change, for example, is not protected under federal labor law because it’s not related to an employee’s working conditions. But if workers walk out because they believe their employer (like, say, Amazon) isn’t doing enough to make the company sustainable, then that would likely be a protected work stoppage.

“If everyone walks out or calls in sick, it’s still a strike,” Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, an employment law professor at Indiana University Bloomington, said to me. Whether or not the law protects workers from getting fired depends on the context.

Read the complete article here.

Experts warn GM strike not likely to be resolved anytime soon

From NBC News Online:

On this General Motors and the United Auto Workers agree — the strike that sent 50,000 workers out on the picket lines Monday is not likely to be over anytime soon.

Both sides are talking, but both sides are bracing for a long and costly fight as workers dig in on their fight for better wages, health care benefits and job security, union representatives and auto industry experts said.

“It will go on as long as it’s going to take to achieve our bargaining goals,” Chuck Browning, the UAW’s Region 1A Director, told MSNBC. “The bottom line is this company has been extremely profitable for a long period of time. Those profits have been made off the sweat and the hard work of our members, and our members want a fair agreement.”

Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan and an auto industry maven, said the leadership of the UAW needs to take a stand against GM not just for the rank and file — but for its own survival.

UAW President Gary Jones and other top union officials are currently under investigation by federal authorities for allegedly embezzling member dues and blowing thousands of dollars on everything from fancy vacations and golf equipment to $400 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne.

“I think the union leadership wanted a strike because they’re under attack, and when you feel like you could be losing your grip on power the age-old tactic is to go to war,” Gordon said.

And because they need to be seen as taking a hard line against GM management, union negotiators won’t seek a swift solution even though rank-and-file workers will start feeling the financial pain almost immediately.

Read the complete article here.

CA Senate Approves State Rent Control Capping Increases at 5% Plus Inflation

From today’s KTLA5 News Online:

California lawmakers on Tuesday moved to cap annual rent increases statewide for most tenants as a limited housing supply in the country’s most populous state continues to drive up the cost of living while pushing more people to the streets.

The California Senate voted 25-10 to cap rent increases at 5% each year plus inflation for the next decade while banning landlords from evicting tenants without just cause. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom says he will sign the bill into law, but first it must survive a final vote in the state Assembly where the California Association of Realtors is pushing to defeat it. Lawmakers must act by Friday.

California’s largest cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, have some form of rent control, but a state law passed in 1995 has restricted new rent control laws since that year. In most places, landlords can raise rents at any time and for any reason, as long as they give advance notice.

In Pomona, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, Yesenia Miranda Meza says her rent has jumped 20% in the past two years. Monday, she marched with other tenants through the halls of the state Capitol chanting: “Once I’ve paid my rent, all my money’s spent.”

“I’m a rent increase away from eviction, and that’s with me having two jobs,” she said “So if this (bill) doesn’t go through and I get another rent increase, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m either going to be homeless or I’ll have to cram into a room with a whole bunch of other people.”

Opponents have likened the proposal to rent control — a more restrictive set of limitations on landlords. California voters overwhelmingly rejected in a statewide ballot initiative to overturn the 1995 law last year.

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: You Call It the Gig Economy, but California Calls It “Feudalism”

From today’s New York Times:

Labor leaders cheered in the balcony and lawmakers embraced on the floor of the California Senate on Tuesday as it passed a landmark measure that defines employees, a move that could increase wages and benefits for hundreds of thousands of struggling workers.

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But the bill is as much a starting point as an endgame: It will drive a national debate over how to reshape labor laws fashioned in the industrial era of the 1930s to fit a 21st-century service and knowledge economy.

With the measure, which Gov. Gavin Newsom says he will sign, California will lead in a shift that will likely redefine the roles of governments, unions and worker organizations. Just as federal labor laws were promulgated to help the country recover from the Depression, the imperative to extend basic guarantees like a minimum wage stems from the staggering income inequality in California, the state with the highest poverty rate in the country.

The new paradigms will need to fit not the relatively stable industrial work force of the last century but a gig economy in which workers are increasingly likely to hold multiple jobs or report to no workplace at all. California lawmakers took a major step in constructing the foundation of such a model with the new measure, which presumes workers are employees, entitled to all concomitant protections and benefits, unless they meet strict criteria as truly independent contractors.

Read the complete article here.

Sweeping bill rewriting California employment law sent to Gov. Newsom

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

California lawmakers rewrote the rules of employment across a wide swath of industries Wednesday in legislation that could grant hundreds of thousands of workers new job benefits and pay guarantees.

After vigorous debates over what occupations should be exempted, Assembly Bill 5, which curbs businesses’ use of independent contractors, gained final approval in the state Senate and the Assembly and was sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has pledged his support.

The 6,700-word bill is one of the most controversial of the year. It could upend the relationship between workers and bosses across businesses as varied as ride-hailing tech giantsconstruction, healthcare, truckingjanitorial servicesnail salonsadult entertainment, commercial fishing and newspapers.

The message of the legislation, said its author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), is “we will not in good conscience allow free-riding businesses to continue to pass their own business costs on to taxpayers and workers. It’s our job to look out for working men and women, not Wall Street and their get-rich-quick IPOs.”

Contractors, including many in multibillion-dollar technology companies, are not covered by laws guaranteeing a minimum wage, overtime pay, sick leave, family leave, unemployment and disability insurance, workers’ compensation and protection against discrimination or sexual harassment. Nor do businesses pay into Social Security or Medicare for contractors.

After months of lobbying by the California Chamber of Commerce and a score of trade associations, AB 5 exempted a host of occupations — but not platform-based gig giants Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates and others that mounted a powerful push to avoid reclassifying their workers as employees with labor law protections.

Read the complete article here.