Supreme Court delivers blow to organized labor in fees dispute

From Reuter’s News Service:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday dealt a big blow to organized labor, ruling that non-members cannot be forced in certain states to pay fees to unions representing public employees such as teachers and police, shutting off a key union revenue source.

The 5-4 ruling overturned a 1977 Supreme Court precedent that had permitted these so-called agency fees, which have been collected from millions of workers who opt not to join unions in lieu of union dues to fund non-political activities such as collective bargaining. The court’s conservative justices were in the majority, with the liberal justices dissenting.

Forcing non-members to pay these fees to unions whose views they may oppose violates their rights to free speech and free association under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, the court said in the ruling authored by Justice Samuel Alito.

“States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from non-consenting employees,” Alito wrote. In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan accused the court’s conservatives of “weaponizing the First Amendment” to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.

“This case was nothing more than a blatant political attack to further rig our economy and democracy against everyday Americans in favor of the wealthy and powerful,” public-sector unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union directly involved in the case, said in a statement.

Two dozen states had required agency fees. The ruling means that the estimated 5 million non-union workers for state and local governments who have paid them can stop. Agency fees do not involve federal or private-sector employees.

The decision represented a major victory for conservative activists who long have sought to curb the influence of public-sector unions, which often support the Democratic Party and liberal causes.

With the U.S. organized labor movement already in a diminished state compared to past decades, the ruling now deprives unions of a vital revenue stream, undercuts their ability to attract new members and retain current members, and undermines their ability to spend in political races.

Republican President Donald Trump, whose administration backed the challenge to the fees, welcomed the ruling, writing on Twitter, “Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!”

Read the complete article here.

In parts of America, Department of Labor hasn’t updated “prevailing wage” for taxpayer-funded work in decades

From Bloomberg News Network:

Thanks to a web of loopholes and limits, the federal government has been green-lighting hourly pay of just $7.25 for some construction workers laboring on taxpayer-funded projects, despite decades-old laws that promise them the “prevailing wage.”

Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Labor has formally given approval for contractors to pay $7.25 for specific government-funded projects in six Texas counties, according to letters reviewed by Bloomberg. Those counties are among dozens around the nation where the government-calculated prevailing wage listed for certain work—such as by some carpenters in North Carolina, bulldozer operators in Kansas and cement masons in Nebraska—is just the minimum wage.

That’s in part because, according to publicly available data from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, the agency is relying on wage survey data in more than 50 jurisdictions that’s from the 1980s or earlier. Experts said that’s a far cry from what Congress intended when, starting with the Depression-era Davis Bacon Act, it passed a series of laws meant to ensure that private companies contracted for government-backed projects pay their workers at least in the vicinity of what others get for the same work in the same geographic area.

In an emailed statement, the Labor Department didn’t address whether the decades-old data is a problem.

“The Wage and Hour Division carefully plans where to survey on an annual basis to ensure that prevailing wage rates reflect the reality of construction pay practices in a locality. The division identifies potential survey areas based on a number of criteria, including where available data on active construction projects in an area reveal changes in local pay practices such that a survey is necessary,” the department said.

Because government contracts are often required to go to the “lowest responsible bidder,” supporters say prevailing wage rules prevent a “race to the bottom” in which exploitative companies who pay workers less outbid safer, higher-quality firms, and in turn drive down industry standards to pocket more taxpayer dollars. Opponents of prevailing wage rules counter that they’re intrusive mandates that waste money, inflating construction costs in order to help unionized firms beat non-union competitors.

In recent years, the opposition—largely Republicans and industry groups—scored a series of wins, successfully pressing state governments in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia to repeal their own “little Davis Bacon” rules. By contrast, the federal statutes remain in place, despite the efforts of Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, who said last year  that “no one can claim to be a fiscal conservative if they think the federal government needs to inflate the cost of wages.”

Read the complete article here.

Trump Changes Executive Regulations to Ease the Firing of Federal Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Seizing on a longtime ambition of many Republicans, President Trump on Friday overhauled rules affecting at least two million federal workers, making it easier to fire them and rolling back the workplace role of their unions.

Mr. Trump, furthering a goal cited in his State of the Union address this year, signed a series of executive orders affecting disciplinary procedures and contract negotiations and limiting the conduct of union business on government time.

Andrew Bremberg, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the president was “fulfilling his promise to promote more efficient government by reforming our Civil Service rules.”

Past administrations of both parties have argued that Civil Service rules are in need of modernization, but Mr. Trump zeroed in on aspects that create sharp partisan divisions. And the action follows growing acrimony between his supporters and the federal bureaucracy that they portray as the deep state.

Unions representing government workers were quick to denounce the actions. “This is more than union busting — it’s democracy busting,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a statement. “These executive orders are a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress has specifically guaranteed.”

The executive orders come after a series of prominent Republican victories against public employee unions in recent years at the state level and a rollback of Obama-era policies favorable to labor at the federal level.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will rule on a case, propelled by years of conservative philanthropy, that could end mandatory fees for public-sector unions in more than 20 states, dealing a body blow to union coffers.

The Trump administration portrayed its new rules as a needed remedy to make a sclerotic work force more efficient and responsive, but Newt Gingrich, who has been an informal adviser to the White House on Civil Service issues, has given a different explanation in the past.

In an interview last year, when the administration was considering action, Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, said that a major impetus was the federal bureaucracy’s ideological opposition to the Trump agenda.

Read the complete article here.

Democrats’ Next Big Thing: Government-Guaranteed Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

Prominent Democrats — stung by their eroding support from working-class voters but buoyed by the deficit-be-damned approach of ruling Republicans — are embracing a big idea from a bygone era: guaranteed employment.

The “job guarantee” plans, many of them pressed by Democratic White House hopefuls, vary in scope and cost, but they all center on government-sponsored employment that pays well above the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage — a New Deal for a new age, absent the bread lines and unemployment rates of the Great Depression. The most aggressive plans seek to all but eradicate unemployment and to set a new wage floor for all working Americans, pressuring private employers to raise wages if they want to compete for workers.

How such guarantees would be paid for is still largely unresolved. And criticism of the idea has emerged not only from conservatives who detect a whiff of socialism but also from liberals who say guaranteed employment is the wrong way to attack the central issue facing workers in this low-unemployment economy: stagnant wages.

But Democratic leaders hope the push will help their party bridge the growing political divide between white and minority workers, and silence the naysayers who accuse the party of being devoid of new, big ideas.

The employment plans, along with single-payer “Medicare for all” health care, free college, legalized marijuana and ever less restrictive immigration rules, are parts of a broader trend toward a more liberal Democratic Party in the Trump era.

“It’s going to create a more competitive labor market where people are going to start getting living wages, not just minimum wage,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who unveiled a job-guarantee planin April. “Giving people the dignity of work, of being able to stand on their own two feet, there’s such a strengthening element of that.”

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS Upholds Workplace Arbitration Contracts Barring Class Actions

From today’s New York Times:

 The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that companies can use arbitration clauses in employment contracts to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues.

The vote was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative justices in the majority. The court’s decision could affect some 25 million employment contracts.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court’s conclusion was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court’s precedents. If workers were allowed to band together to press their claims, he wrote, “the virtues Congress originally saw in arbitration, its speed and simplicity and inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a sign of profound disagreement. In her written dissent, she called the majority opinion “egregiously wrong.” In her oral statement, she said the upshot of the decision “will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well being of vulnerable workers.”

Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to address the matter.

Brian T. Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who studies arbitrations and class actions, said the ruling was unsurprising in light of earlier Supreme Court decisions. Justice Gorsuch, he added, “appears to have put his cards on the table as firmly in favor of allowing class actions to be stamped out through arbitration agreements.”

As a result, Professor Fitzpatrick said “it is only a matter of time until the most powerful device to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds is lost altogether.”

But Gregory F. Jacob, a lawyer with O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, said the decision would have a limited impact, as many employers already use the contested arbitration clauses. “This decision thus will not see a huge increase in the use of such provisions,” he said, “but it does protect employers’ settled expectations and avoids placing our nation’s job providers under the threat of additional burdensome litigation drain.”

Read the complete article here.

Massive UC workers’ strike disrupts dining, classes and medical services

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

A massive labor strike across the University of California on Monday forced medical centers to reschedule more than 12,000 surgeries, cancer treatments and appointments, and campuses to cancel some classes and limit dining services.

More than 20,000 members of UC’s largest employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, walked off their jobs on the first day of a three-day strike. They include custodians, gardeners, cooks, truck drivers, lab technicians and nurse aides.

Two altercations involving protesters and people driving near the rallies were reported at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz. At UCLA, police took a man into custody Monday after he drove his vehicle into a crowd, hitting three staff members. They were treated for minor injuries at the scene and released, said Lt. Kevin Kilgore of the UCLA Police Department.

The system’s 10 campuses remained open, largely operating on regular schedules, and protests were peaceful and even festive.

At UCLA, workers marched through campus in green union shirts that said “We run UC” and held signs calling for equality, respect and more staff. Some brought children and walked dogs. Drivers honked in solidarity. Hundreds of workers rallied in front of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, taking taco breaks under green balloons.

Oscar Rubio, a UCLA food services worker, said that staffing at some dining hall stations has been cut from five workers to three, leading to more injuries for those who remain.

Top UC officials “make more money … while we suffer,” Rubio said. “We’re not asking to make like they make. We’re asking to support us enough to pay our rent.”

Read the complete article here.

Public Servants Are Losing Their Foothold in the Middle Class

From today’s New York Times:

The anxiety and seething anger that followed the disappearance of middle-income jobs in factory towns has helped reshape the American political map and topple longstanding policies on tariffs and immigration.

But globalization and automation aren’t the only forces responsible for the loss of those reliable paychecks. So is the steady erosion of the public sector.

For generations of Americans, working for a state or local government — as a teacher, firefighter, bus driver or nurse — provided a comfortable nook in the middle class. No less than automobile assembly lines and steel plants, the public sector ensured that even workers without a college education could afford a home, a minivan, movie nights and a family vacation.

In recent years, though, the ranks of state and local employees have languished even as the populations they serve have grown. They now account for the smallest share of the American civilian work force since 1967.

The 19.5 million workers who remain are finding themselves financially downgraded. Teachers who have been protesting low wages and sparse resources in OklahomaWest Virginia and Kentucky — and those in Arizona who say they plan to walk out on Thursday — are just one thread in that larger skein.

The private sector has been more welcoming. During 97 consecutive months of job growth, it created 18.6 million positions, a 17 percent increase.

But that impressive streak comes with an asterisk. Many of the jobs created — most in service industries — lack stability and security. They pay little more than the minimum wage and lack predictable hours, insurance, sick days or parental leave.

The result is that the foundation of the middle class continues to be gnawed away even as help-wanted ads multiply.

Read the complete article here.

Teachers’ strikes: meet the leaders of the movement marching across America

From today’s The Guardian:

When teachers in West Virginia went on strike in February, there was little indication that a swath of other states would follow suit.

But that action in the Appalachian state, which resulted in teachers winning a 5% pay rise, has spurred on educators in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona.

Teachers in Oklahoma have been on strike since 2 April, while school districts have also walked out in Kentucky. In Arizona, teachers are demanding a 20% pay rise and could go on strike at the end of April.

In some states the protests are being driven from the bottom up, rather than by unions, as teachers and school districts take matters into their own hands.

Here are some of the leaders of the teachers’ strike movement.

Cindy Gaete is a 25-year-old teacher at Marshall elementary school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The daughter of Chilean immigrants, she is currently the only Spanish speaker in her school, which is nearly a third Latino.

She says it is frustrating that in addition to her teaching duties that the lack of Spanish speakers means that any time the schools needs to communicate with parents that she has to serve as translator.

“The first thing I told my principal when I got hired is that if we are a third Latino, there should not be just one Hispanic teacher in your school,” said Gaete.

Inspired to fix her school, she helped lead a 110-mile March for Education that arrived in Tulsa from Oklahoma City.

As teachers are expected to end their strike this week, she says that it’s important for teachers like her to run for office to keep the momentum. On Saturday, Gaete decided to lead by example and file her papers to run for state representative in Oklahoma 78th house district.

“Today I start day one of my campaign for house district 78,” said Gaete in announcing her bid. “For my students. For my community. Because all students deserve an equitable educational experience, regardless of race, socio-economic status and gender.”

Read the complete article here.

Without no pay raise in years, Oklahoma Teachers Could Be the Next to Walk

From today’s New York Times:

When she woke up one morning last week, Tiffany Bell, a teacher at Hamilton Elementary School here, had $35 in her bank account.

On take-home pay of $2,200 per month, she supports her husband, a veteran who went back to school, and their three children, all of whom qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal benefit for low-income families. The couple’s 4-year-old twins attend a Head Start preschool — another antipoverty program.

Money is so tight for Ms. Bell, 26, that she had to think twice before spending $15 on Oreos for a class project, in which her third graders removed differing amounts of icing to display the phases of the moon.

She knew it would be hard to support a family on a teacher’s salary. “But not this hard,” she said.

When West Virginia teachers mounted a statewide walkout last month, earning a modest raise, it seemed like an anomaly: a successful grass-roots labor uprising in a conservative state with weak public sector unions. But just a few weeks later, the West Virginia action looks like the potential beginning of a red-state rebellion.

In Arizona, teachers clad in red, the color of the teacher protest movement, have conducted a series of #RedforEd demonstrations demanding higher pay. In Kentucky, teachers have organized rallies to protest proposed cuts to their pensions.

And in Oklahoma, where teachers have not had a raise from the state in a decade, they have vowed to go on strike on April 2 if the Legislature does not act to increase pay and education budgets.

Read the complete article here.

Will Trump’s Tariffs Help or Hurt American Workers? Contrasting Views

From the New York Times:

The Case for Trump’s Tariffs and ‘America First’ Economics