The Great Google Revolt

From today’s New York Times:

Laurence Berland had just gotten out of the subway in New York, some 3,000 miles from his desk in San Francisco, when he learned that Google had fired him. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the news came to him, bad-breakup-style, via email. “Following a thorough investigation, the company has found that you committed several acts in violation of Google’s policies,” the note said. It did not elaborate on what he had done to violate these policies.

Berland, an engineer who had spent more than a decade at the company, had reason to expect he might be fired. He had been suspended a few weeks earlier after subscribing to the open calendars of several senior Google employees, whom he suspected of meeting with outside consultants to suppress organizing activity at the company. During a subsequent meeting at which he was questioned by Google investigators, he had the feeling that they were pressuring him to say something that could be grounds for termination. Then, the Friday before he was fired, he had spoken at a well-publicized rally of his co-workers outside Google’s San Francisco offices, accusing the company of silencing dissent.

Even so, the timing and manner of his dismissal surprised him. “I thought they’d do it when all the media attention died down,” he said. “When the suspensions and the rally were no longer on people’s minds.” Instead, at a moment when the spotlight was shining brightly, Google had escalated — as if to make a point.

Berland was one of at least four employees Google fired that day. All four were locked in an ongoing conflict with the company, as they and other activists had stepped forward to denounce both its treatment of workers and its relationship with certain customers, like U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Berland’s terminated colleagues were even more shocked by the turn of events than he was. Rebecca Rivers, a software engineer based in Boulder, Colo., was dismissed over the phone after accessing internal documents. Rivers had only recently come out as transgender and was pursuing a medical transition. “I came out at Google expecting to stay at Google through the entire transition,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think about going to a job interview, because I’m so scared of how other companies treat trans employees.”

Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, the two other Googlers fired that day, had not received so much as a warning, much less a suspension. Though they had been questioned by corporate security two months earlier about whether they had circulated documents referring to Customs and Border Protection contracts, they had been allowed to continue their work without incident. Waldman, a software developer in Cambridge, Mass., said she was given a 15-minute notice before she was summoned to the meeting where she was fired; Duke, an engineer in New York, said an invitation appeared on his calendar precisely one minute beforehand. Security officials escorted him out of the building without letting him return to his desk. “I had to describe to them what my jacket, scarf and bag looked like,” he said.

Read the complete article here.

Philadelphia in works to set up agency to protect worker rights in the city

From today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would all but ensure the creation of a permanent city agency dedicated to enforcing the numerous progressive labor laws it has passed in recent years.

The bill — introduced by Councilmembers Helen Gym and Bobby Henon in partnership with the Kenney administration — would pose this question to voters in the April primary: Should the city create a permanent Department of Labor that would enforce city labor laws and function as a front door for all worker-related issues?

The question has to be put to voters because it requires a city charter change. Right now, the Mayor’s Office of Labor, created under the Kenney administration, provides these services, but advocates fear a future mayor with different priorities could scrap the office all together.

This effort is part of a broader push by advocates and organizers for stronger labor law enforcement in a city that’s passed some of the most progressive pro-worker legislation in the country but has historically failed to both educate workers about these laws and enforce them.

That started to change in the last year, as advocates who pushed for these laws set their sights on enforcement. Advocates won a modest increase in funding for the Mayor’s Office of Labor, which grew its budget to nearly $1.1 million this year and doubled its staff to six. The number of complaints filed by workers to the office quadrupled from 2018 to 2019 to nearly 100.

Read the complete article here.

DoorDash’s anti-worker tactics just backfired spectacularly in court

From today’s Vox News Online:

The food delivery company DoorDash made its delivery workers sign away their right to sue if a legal dispute arises between a worker and the company. Instead, disputes would be resolved by a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor corporate parties.

It’s a common tactic, often used by companies seeking to discourage workers from asserting their legal rights at all. And, if a decision handed down Monday by a federal district judge stands, the tactic backfired spectacularly for DoorDash.

Under Judge William Alsup’s order in Abernathy v. DoorDash, DoorDash must arbitrate over 5,000 individual disputes with various workers who claim that they were misclassified as independent contractors, when they should be treated as employees. It also must pay a $1,900 fee for each of these individual arbitration proceedings.

Though DoorDash might settle the various claims before it is hit with these fees, Alsup’s order means that if it doesn’t, the delivery company will face a bill of nearly $10 million before any of the individual proceedings are even resolved. Add in the cost of paying for lawyers to represent them in each proceeding, plus the amount the company will have to pay to the workers in each proceeding that it loses, and DoorDash is likely to wind up paying far more money than it would have if it hadn’t tried to strip away many of its workers’ rights.

Ordinarily, when thousands of workers at the same company all raise very similar legal claims against that same employer, those workers will join together in a class action lawsuit — a process that allows all of the disputes to be resolved in a single suit rather than in thousands of separate proceedings. But DoorDash required these delivery workers to sign away their right to bring a class action as well.

That decision also appears to have backfired.

Read the complete article here.

Congress passes bill to ease bids by workers to form unions

From today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:

In a move that supporters said would help working families, the Democratic-controlled House has approved a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain for higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions.

The “Protecting the Right to Organize” or PRO Act would allow more workers to conduct organizing campaigns and would add penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights. The act would also weaken “right-to-work” laws that allow employees in more than half the states to avoid participating in or paying dues to unions that represent workers at their places of employment.

In one of its most controversial provisions, the bill would close loopholes that allow what supporters call intentional misclassification of workers as supervisors and independent contractors in order to prevent them from joining a union.

The House approved the bill, 224-194, on Thursday. The measure is unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate and faces a veto threat from the White House.

Even so, Democrats touted it as a major victory for worker rights and said it would help reverse a decades-long trend of declining union membership in the U.S. workforce. Less than 11% of American workers belong to a union, a statistic Democrats called disgraceful.

“Without these protections, the playing field will remain heavily stacked against workers,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., called labor unions one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve their standard of living. But under current law, there are “no meaningful penalties for predatory corporations that use unlawful tactics to discourage workers from organizing a union,” said Scott, who chairs the House Education & Labor Committee.

Read the complete article here.

New York Governor Lays Down Ultimatum on Gig Worker Rights

From today’s Bloomberg Law Online:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) kicked gig worker rights out of the state’s budget discussion, instead creating a task force to study the issue. But he also provided lawmakers with an ultimatum.

If the issue isn’t resolved by May 1, the state’s labor department will be authorized to enact regulations protecting workers, Cuomo announced Jan. 21 as part of his executive budget proposal.

Policy is often negotiated alongside fiscal plans in the state’s budget process, which is kicked off by the governor. The state budget is due by March 31, before the next fiscal year begins.

One political expert says creating a task force is a way to delay a difficult decision that puts the governor between the state’s powerful unions and popular companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.

Some Albany insiders, companies, and lobbyists say the governor’s legislative proposal is vague. Several lawmakers and union leaders, however, are applauding Cuomo’s plan to further study whether many workers currently operating as independent contractors should instead be classified as employees, entitling them to benefits such as minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, and the right to collectively bargain.

“We certainly are in a better place now, than we were at the end of last session,” New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in an emailed statement. “In addition to creating a task force, the legislation would establish a framework to provide rights and protections to workers in the growing gig economy.”

Companies and business coalitions said they’re glad to have a seat at the table. “No matter the forum, we are ready to discuss solutions that provide workers with the protections they deserve while maintaining the flexibility they want and the economic growth vital to the state,” said Christina Fisher, a spokeswoman for Flexible Work for New York, a coalition of app-based technology companies, business groups, and civic organizations.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS could upend consumer financial protection as we know it

From today’s CNBC News Online:

A case before the Supreme Court has the power dramatically to reshape how the U.S. government polices financial fraud and other misdeeds against consumers — which many experts fear would weaken existing protections and expose the public to more harm.

The case, which concerns the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, ultimately could lead to the dissolution of the agency, which lawmakers created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and was bestowed with broad powers to issue and enforce consumer-protection rules in areas such as banking, student loans, credit reporting, mortgages, payday loans and debt collection.

Depending on their verdict, Supreme Court justices could also diminish states’ power to investigate and punish financial wrongdoing.

“It would be effectively a big rollback in the consumer protection enforcement authorities,” said Christopher Peterson, the director of financial services and a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group. “There would be fewer deterrents [for financial institutions] to use tricks and traps” to ensnare the American public, he said.

Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 when it passed the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, giving it a mission to protect Americans from unfair, deceptive and abusive financial practices. At the time, families were grappling with the effects of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, perpetuated by irresponsible lending practices that reverberated across the U.S. and global economies.

Oversight of consumer finance was previously “scattered across government” and laws “escaped regular federal oversight,” according to the CFPB website. The CFPB has collected billions of dollars in penalties from financial companies for wrongdoing. Its largest, for $2.13 billion in 2013, was levied against mortgage servicing firm Ocwen Financial Corp. and a subsidiary for allegedly putting thousands of people at risk for losing their homes.

The agency has recovered more than $12 billion for consumers to date, according to a Consumer Federation of America report published in March last year. The agency’s activity has dropped off under the Trump administration, the report says.

Read the complete article here.

The Gig Economy Is Coming for Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

A few years ago, Adalberto Martín began to see some troubling changes at work. As a veteran member of the room service staff at Marriott’s W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, he was an expert in delivering carefully assembled trays of food and drink to hungry guests. But the number of orders had sharply decreased. What was once 50 glasses of orange juice every morning had dwindled to 10, and Mr. Martín’s tip income fell accordingly. At lunchtime, he seemed to make more deliveries of plates and silverware than actual food.

Room service, as we imagine it in the movies, with white tablecloths and silver cloches, has long been in decline, even at the fanciest hotels. But Mr. Martín attributes his loss of earnings to the proliferation of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates, successors of online ordering services like Seamless. Now he wonders if soon he’ll be out of a job altogether. “We’re always worrying and concerned when we see other hotels nearby closing room service,” Mr. Martín told me. “It’s just a matter of time.”

His co-workers at the W and staff members at other hotels report similar trends: The doormen and bellmen who once summoned cabs for guests, and were tipped in return, now watch lines of Ubers and Lyfts coil in front of the lobby doors, while concierges have had their work outsourced to iPad consoles. Some hotels offer tablets in every room preloaded with food-delivery apps, and give guests vouchers for Uber and Lyft rides. In the microcosm of the hotel, the app economy has expanded choices for some (the guests) and shrunk options for others (the workers).

These currents in hospitality represent a subtle, sneaky form of technological displacement, care of the gig economy. They’re not robots stepping in for humans on a factory floor, but rather smartphone-based independent contractors and supplemental “cobots” (a portmanteau of “co-worker” and “robot”) chipping away at the careers of full-time and in some cases unionized employees.

In the beginning of the gig economy, people most feared one-to-one job loss: An Uber driver comes in, a taxi driver goes out. And taxi drivers have indeed lost their livelihoods — and taken their own lives. Yet many app workers are only part-time, driving or TaskRabbit-ing to supplement their wages in a traditional job. App companies, for their part, deny that even full-timers are employees, perpetuating the fantasy that gig workers are solo entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that reduces everything to a series of app-enabled transactions, and calls it work, leaving what’s left of the welfare state to fill in the rest.

Aaron Benanav, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, explains that this process of “de-skilling” and misclassification is happening all over the world. The gig economy “is being used to replace skilled workers with less skilled, or continuing a process that’s happening all over the world of ‘disguised employment,’ where you bring in independent contractors to replace employees,” he said. “There’s an app for that” means that there’s less steady, reliable work for traditional employees.

Read the complete article here.

Major union launches campaign to organize video game and tech workers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The last two years have witnessed a wave of walkouts, petitions and other workplace actions at video game and tech companies.

But despite this swell in labor activism, employees at no major video game studios and only a handful of tech offices have formally voted to form or join a union.

A new campaign launched Tuesday by one of the nation’s largest labor unions — and spearheaded by one of the leading video game industry activists in Southern California — aims to change that.

The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE for short) is a new project of the Communications Workers of America aimed specifically at unionizing video game and tech companies.

It grew out of conversations between the CWA and Game Workers Unite, a grass-roots organization that sprang up in 2018 to push for wall-to-wall unionization of the $43-billion video game industry, alongside conversations with organizers across the larger tech industry.

Separate from the new initiative, the Toronto chapter of GWU has also signed a formal partnership agreement with CWA to work on organizing in the area. (CWA is also the parent union of the NewsGuild, which represents workers at the L.A. Times and most major newspapers in the country.)

Read the complete article here.

Pay Is Rising Fastest for Low Earners. One Reason? Minimum Wages.

From today’s New York Times:

These days, wages in the United States are doing something extraordinary: They’re growing faster at the bottom than at the top. In fact, recent growth for workers with low wages has outpaced that for high-wage workers by the widest margin in at least 20 years.

The main story here is the long economic recovery, now entering its 11th year. For much of the early phase of this recovery, wage growth for the bottom group was weaker than for others, but it began gradually accelerating in 2014 as unemployment continued to fall. This was around the same time the labor market started tapping into people some economists had all but given up on as work force participants, such asthose who had been citing health reasons or disability for not having a job.

But there has been another factor at play: the rise in state and local minimum wages.

For the last decade, the federal minimum wage has been unchanged at $7.25 an hour. But over that period, dozens of states and localities have enacted their own minimum wages or raised existing ones. As a result, the effective U.S. minimum wage is closer to $12 an hour, most likely the highest in U.S. history even after adjusting for inflation.

And with two dozen states and four dozen localities set to raise their minimums further in 2020, the effective minimum wage will keep rising this year.

These state and local actions are affecting wage data, especially for workers at the bottomTo get a sense of this impact, Ihaveused data in the Current Population Survey to look at minimum wage workers as a group and calculate the pressure their wage gains have put on aggregate wage growth over time, controlling for compositional changes in the share of minimum wage work.

Read the complete article here.

Fashion Nova’s Secret: Underpaid Workers in Los Angeles Factories

From today’s New York Times:

Fashion Nova has perfected fast fashion for the Instagram era. The mostly online retailer leans on a vast network of celebrities, influencers, and random selfie takers who post about the brand relentlessly on social media. It is built to satisfy a very online clientele, mass-producing cheap clothes that look expensive.

“They need to buy a lot of different styles and probably only wear them a couple times so their Instagram feeds can stay fresh,” Richard Saghian, Fashion Nova’s founder, said in an interview last year.

To enable that habit, he gives them a constant stream of new options that are priced to sell. The days of $200 jeans are over, if you ask Mr. Saghian. Fashion Nova’s skintight denim goes for $24.99. And, he said, the company can get its clothes made “in less than two weeks,” often by manufacturers in Los Angeles, a short drive from the company’s headquarters.

That model hints at an ugly secret behind the brand’s runaway success: The federal Labor Department has found that many Fashion Nova garments are stitched together by a work force in the United States that is paid illegally low wages. Los Angeles is filled with factories that pay workers off the books and as little as possible, battling overseas competitors that can pay even less. Many of the people behind the sewing machines are undocumented, and unlikely to challenge their bosses.

“It has all the advantages of a sweatshop system,” said David Weil, who led the United States Labor Department’s wage and hour division from 2014 to 2017.

Every year, the department investigates allegations of wage violations at sewing contractors in Los Angeles, showing up unannounced to review payroll data, interview employees and question the owners.

In investigations conducted from 2016 through this year, the department discovered Fashion Nova clothing being made in dozens of factories that owed $3.8 million in back wages to hundreds of workers, according to internal federal documents that summarized the findings and were reviewed by The New York Times.

Read the complete article here.