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.

Walmart CEO to shareholders: America’s minimum wage is ‘too low’

From today’s CNN News Online:

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon thinks the federal minimum wage is “too low.” Now the head of the country’s largest private employer is calling on Congress to raise it beyond $7.25 an hour.

“The federal minimum wage is lagging behind,” Doug McMillon said at Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas on Wednesday.

Congress has not raised the minimum wage since 2009, but McMillon’s surprise comments may give lawmakers an incentive to act. McMillon’s call may also ease pressure on Walmart.Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, along with workers’ rights groups, have called on Walmart to raise its wages above the company’s current $11-an-hour minimum.

McMillon said “it’s time for Congress to put a thoughtful plan in place” to increase wages. It was the first time he has pushed Congress to raise pay nationwide, according to the company.

Any plan to increase the minimum wage, however, should take into account cost of living differences around the country “to avoid unintended consequences,” McMillon said. He also noted that a hike may need to be phased in over time.

McMillon defended Walmart’s moves to raise wages, expand benefits and train its 1.5 million US workers in recent years. The company has steadily been raising its minimum wage, boosting it to $11 an hour more than a year ago. That’s up 50% in the last four years, McMillon said.

McMillon added that Walmart pays more than $11 in some markets to “recruit and retain the talent we need to run a good business.”In a hotel ballroom near Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Sanders pressed the world’s largest retailer to increase its wages and called out McMillon for his nearly $24 million in total pay last year. Sanders also introduced a shareholder resolution that would put hourly workers on Walmart’s board of directors. The resolution was voted down on Wednesday.

Read the complete article here.

He Has Driven for Uber Since 2012 and He Makes About $40,000 a Year

From today’s New York Times:

Uber’s public stock offering next month will make a bunch of people remarkably rich. Peter Ashlock is not one of them, although he has toiled for the ride-hailing company almost since the beginning.

Mr. Ashlock, who will be 71 next week, has racked up more than 25,000 trips as an Uber driver since 2012. His Nissan Altima has 218,000 miles on it — nearly the distance to the moon. His passengers rate him 4.93 out of five stars. His favorite review: “Dude drove like a cabdriver.”

While he is an integral part of Uber’s success, Mr. Ashlock is barely getting by. His 2018 tax return will show an adjusted gross income in the neighborhood of $40,000, better than 2016 and 2017. But he has maxed out his $3,200 credit limit at the local Midas car-repair shop and needs to come up with $5,000 to pay his taxes. He has Social Security but no savings to buy a new car that will let him keep working.

Silicon Valley has always been a lottery where immense wealth is secured by a few while everyone else must hope for better luck some other time. Rarely, however, has the disparity been on such stark display as with Uber. Its stock market value is expected to be about $100 billion, which would make it one of the richest Silicon Valley public offerings of all time.

Among those with something to celebrate: Uber’s founders, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, the elite venture capitalists Benchmark and Google’s GV, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the mutual fund giant Fidelity. Some have already cashed in. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and chief executive until he was forced out after a series of scandals, reaped $1.4 billion by selling fewer than a third of his shares to private investors in 2017.

As independent contractors, drivers are not eligible for employee benefits like paid vacations or stock options. Uber said Thursday that it would offer bonuses of $100 to $10,000 to long-serving drivers. Its chief competitor, Lyft, did the same when it went public in March.

Read the complete article here.

Why does Congress allow contractors to exploit immigrants in detention?

From today’s New York Times:

There are more than 48,000 people being held in immigrant detentionin more than 200 facilities in the United States. More than two-thirds of them, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center, are confined by private companies, working on contracts with the federal government. Those numbers have ballooned in the last two years under the Trump administration, drawing new attention to the terrible conditions detainees are living in.

One feature of privately run centers — the Voluntary Work Program — is the subject of six separate lawsuits, which say that privately run immigrant detention centers are coercing detainees into working for a dollar a day and punishing those who don’t. The lawsuits demand, among other things, that the practice stop and that detained workers be paid minimum wage.

Congress should not wait for these lawsuits to be decided. Democrats have won the House, so even if they can’t stop the president’s anti-immigrant push, they can push to raise the obsolete and exploitative $1-a-day wage. And, just as they have rejected Mr. Trump’s request for $5.7 billion for the border wall, they should reject the request for $2.8 billion to expand detentions to 52,000 beds.

Prison labor is nearly as old as the American prison system itself, and it is protected by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and indentured servitude except as punishment for a crime. This exception means that prisons can require their prisoners to work, even without compensation.

Read the complete article here.

New Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Would Remedy Decades of Injustice

From The Nation Magazine:

There are about 2 million domestic workers in the country, a workforce that is only growing larger as baby boomers age and millennials have children. But despite the size of the workforce and the importance of the work it performs, domestic workers are excluded from basic workplace protections and face rampant abuse and exploitation. Eight states and Seattle have passed bills of domestic-worker rights that extend some of these protections, but outside of those places, domestic workers labor in people’s homes with little recourse if they get hurt or taken advantage of.

That could change under legislation that was just unveiled in Congress. On Wednesday, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal announced a federal bill of rights for domestic workers, the first-ever nationwide legislation that would extend working rights to domestic workers and offer them financial stability and safety. The bill would ensure that domestic workers are covered by some basic labor laws: the right to overtime pay when they put in more than 40 hours a week, to the protections of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to form unions, and to recourse against harassment and discrimination. It also extends new ones, such as the right to meal and rest breaks, paid sick days, advanced notice of scheduling, written agreements, and privacy and other protections for live-in workers.

As of 2012, domestic workers made less than $11 an hour at the median, while nearly a quarter were paid less than their state’s minimum wage. They very rarely get health insurance or retirement benefits from work. Their schedules are usually dictated by their employer’s whims and wishes, even when this interferes with sleeping and eating. Rates of injury are high, as are incidents of discrimination and harassment.

Read the complete article here.

Amazon announces it’s raising minimum wage for U.S. workers to $15 per hour

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Amazon is boosting its minimum wage for all U.S. workers to $15 per hour starting next month.

The company said Tuesday that the wage increase will benefit more than 350,000 workers, which includes full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal positions. It includes Whole Foods employees. Amazon’s hourly operations and customer service employees, some who already make $15 per hour, will also see a wage increase, the Seattle-based company said.

Amazon raising minimum wage for U.S. workers to $15 per hour

Amazon has more than 575,000 employees globally. Pay for workers at Amazon can vary by location. Its starting pay is $10 an hour at a warehouse in Austin, Texas, and $13.50 an hour in Robbinsville, N.J. The median pay for an Amazon employee last year was $28,446, according to government filings, which includes full-time, part-time and temporary workers.

Amazon said its public policy team will start pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“We intend to advocate for a minimum wage increase that will have a profound impact on the lives of tens of millions of people and families across this country,” Jay Carney, senior vice president of Amazon global corporate affairs, said in a statement.

Read the complete article here.

One Reason for Slow Wage Growth? More Benefits, Sort of

From today’s New York Times:

One of the most perplexing questions about the nation’s economic recovery is why a tight labor market has not translated into faster wage growth. Part of the answer appears to be that American workers are receiving a growing share of compensation in the form of benefits rather than wages.

The average worker received 32 percent of total compensation in benefits including bonuses, paid leave and company contributions to insurance and retirement plans in the second quarter of 2018. That was up from 27 percent in 2000, federal data show. The rising cost of health insurance accounts for only about one-third of the trend. And the data do not include the increased prevalence of nonmonetary benefits like flexible hours or working from home, or perks like gyms and “summer Fridays.”

Best Buy, the electronics retailer, began in July to offer four weeks of paid time off to its employees, including part-time workers, to take care of family members. The company decided that paid leave was the best way to show appreciation for its employees, said Jeff Shelman, a company spokesman. “Our philosophy is that our employees are our most important asset, and we want to take care of them and allow them to take care of the people that matter most to them in their lives,” he said.

For many workers, the returns from one of the longest economic expansions in American history have been paltry. Wages have grown more slowly than the economy in the wake of the 2008 crisis, and faster growth in recent months has been offset by rising inflation. Between August 2017 and August 2018, the most recent available data, average hourly wages increased by 2.9 percent, but after adjusting for inflation, the increase was just 0.2 percent, according to the Labor Department’s flagship survey.

Read the complete article here.

Robots or Job Training: Manufacturers Struggle to Improve Economic Fortunes

From today’s New York Times:

For Anthony Nighswander, rock-bottom unemployment is both a headache and an opportunity. For businesses and workers, it could be the key to reversing one of the country’s most vexing economic problems: slow productivity growth.

Mr. Nighswander is president of APT Manufacturing Solutions, which builds and installs robotic equipment to help other manufacturers automate their assembly lines. Lately, business has been booming: With the unemployment rate now below 4 percent, he says he gets calls every day from companies looking for robots to help ease their labor crunch.

The problem is that Mr. Nighswander faces a hiring challenge in his own business, especially because, in this town of fewer than 4,000 people near the Indiana border, the pool of skilled workers is shallow. But rather than turn to robots himself, he has adopted a lower-tech solution: training. APT has begun offering apprenticeships, covering the cost of college for its workers, and three years ago it started teaching manufacturing skills to high school students.

 “I never thought that I would be training high school students in our facilities,” Mr. Nighswander said. “What I knew was that I was in survival mode. I knew the orders for robots and for automation were coming in faster than I could get the jobs out.”
That kind of urgency could prove to be a powerful economic force. The investments in training and automation by Mr. Nighswander and his customers should, over time, make their companies more productive. Multiplied across thousands of companies, those decisions could have benefits for companies and workers that endure even after today’s hot economy inevitably cools.
Productivity — how much value the economy generates in an average hour of work — gets less public attention than more intuitive economic concepts such as employment and wages, but it may be even more fundamental.
Rising productivity — whether through better technology, more educated workers or smarter business strategies — is why people’s economic fortunes, on average, improve over time. When productivity growth is strong, companies can afford to pay workers more without eating into their own profit margins, letting a rising tide lift all boats.
Since the end of the Great Recession, however — and, to a lesser extent, even during the stronger economic times that preceded it — productivity growth has been confoundingly weak, forcing business owners and workers to compete over a relatively meager sliver of economic growth. There have been peaks and valleys, but not since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s has the American economy consistently delivered productivity growth above 2 percent a year.
Now some economists think a rebound could be on the way. For most of the recovery, wage growth has been anemic, suggesting companies faced relatively little pressure to invest in automation or to find other ways to squeeze more production out of workers. But as the labor market tightens, companies’ incentives could be changing.

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: When Companies Supersize, Paychecks of Workers Shrink

From today’s New York Times:

Anyone with a cellphone should have paid attention to the big merger news on April 29: T-Mobile and Sprint announced their intention to tie the knot after years of speculation. If it goes through, it will leave the country with just three major wireless carriers instead of four.

Less noticed, on the same day, about a dozen other corporate marriages were announced worldwide, worth a combined $120 billion. So far this year, $1.7 trillion worth of deals have been declared globally, higher than the pre-financial-crisis record set in 2007. This year’s big-dollar mergers in the United States range from Cigna’s purchase of Express Scripts, oil refiner Marathon Petroleum buying rival Andeavor, and Dr Pepper Snapple cozying up to Keurig Green Mountain. That’s in addition to AT&T’s play for Time Warner in 2016, CVS’s offer for Aetna, and Amazon swallowing up Whole Foods.

All this activity means fewer companies, which means less competition. For consumers, that can raise prices if the merged companies face less pressure to keep things cheap. That’s the main test these deals have to pass: whether regulators, including the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, think consumers will fare worse.

That narrow focus on consumer prices hides another, potentially more dangerous side effect. A growing body of evidence has found that as mergers thin the ranks of businesses, workers have fewer options when they look for jobs. That reduces their bargaining power and, in turn, is part of why wages have stagnated.

Read the complete article here.

The Case for a Federal Jobs Guarantee

From the New York Times “Opinion” Section by Eric Loomis:

Employment numbers may look solid now, but economists, physicists and industrial engineers all say that automation will, in the not-so-distant future, drive higher unemployment. The Columbus Dispatch recently calculated that in Ohio, out of total state employment of about 5.5 million workers, 2.5 million jobs are at risk of automation.

How do we prepare for such disruption and the future of work? We might revisit an idea from the 1970s: a federal guarantee of employment. In recent weeks, three Democratic senators (and likely presidential contenders) — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have either expressed their approval of the idea or unveiled initial ideas about how an updated version could work.

They are building on the legacy of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, introduced in the 1970s by Senator Hubert Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, and Representative Augustus Hawkins, Democrat of California. In addition to the guarantee of employment, their initial bill allowed citizens to sue the government if they could not find a job.

Resurrecting Humphrey-Hawkins can help pre-empt a technology crisis and even future labor dislocation from globalization. In the original Humphrey-Hawkins bill — not the watered-down version that ultimately passed in 1978 — the president would submit an annual plan to Congress to achieve full employment, and local committees would coordinate job needs in their communities. The bill would have spurred private-sector job creation and a New Deal-style federal job creation program. Private employment would limit government investment, while federally mandated wage and price controls would fight inflation.

The final bill fell far short of this. Unions stripped out the wage and price controls in exchange for their support and put a priority on negotiating better contracts for their members over the fate of the nation’s poor. The Carter administration fretted about the potential impact on inflation from a bill without those controls. President Jimmy Carter never truly supported it, and the bill that passed committed the nation to ending inflation more than to full employment. Since then, the idea of full employment has largely disappeared from the American political system.

The arguments against Humphrey-Hawkins in 1978 are largely irrelevant today. After decades of low inflation, wage and price controls are unlikely to be problems. Mr. Booker’s pilot plan to test these ideas in 15 areas of the country builds on the Great Society belief in community control over federal resources.

Read the complete article here.