Colorado Public Sector Workers on the Verge of Winning Right to Unionize

From today’s Jacobin Magazine:

he Colorado legislature will soon consider a bill that would establish collective bargaining rights for the hundreds of thousands of public sector workers in the state who are currently without such a framework. The legislation’s primary sponsors are the majority leaders in both chambers — Democrats Daneya Esgar in the House and Stephen Fenberg in the Senate — and the AFL-CIO and the Colorado Education Association (CEA) are backing the bill too.

Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to workers from Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 7799, which is helping lead the charge for the legislation: Alex Wolf-Root, an adjunct lecturer in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado Boulder and a founding member and current vice president of CWA Local 7799; Jacob OldeFest, a paramedic for Denver Health and a member of the Denver Health Workers United union; and Rachel Godby, a registered nurse at UCHealth Memorial North and Central hospitals and a member of UCHealth Workers United. They discussed the obstacles they face without collective bargaining rights, the wave of workers leaving health care, and where legislation fits into building worker power.


ANP: So, you’re part of a coalition pushing to expand collective bargaining rights for public sector workers in Colorado. What are your rights now, and how will the bill change them?

AWR: It’s important that we start by stating that we have the right to organize and unionize regardless of what state labor law says about collective bargaining. However, because we’re public workers, our right to collectively bargain and force recognition with our bosses is different than in the private sector. In the private sector, employees’ right to organize is codified through the National Labor Relations Board. Those rules and regulations don’t apply to public workers, whose organizing rights are determined state by state.

In Colorado, the law is silent on the rights of the vast majority of public workers. We recently passed a bill for state workers, which created a union that represents them. But with respect to all other public workers, be they health care workers, higher ed, K-12, firefighters, or municipal workers, the state has no legal framework for us to get to the table. Some local jurisdictions have passed ordinances or laws to change things, but this bill will provide a legal framework for all public workers to have our unions recognized by our bosses and collectively bargain.

ANP: What specifically is in the draft of the bill?

AWR: There are two avenues for recognition: the standard 30 percent of workers signing cards and holding an election route, and then card check, i.e., 50 percent plus one, which is important because of what the boss can do between when elections are called and when they happen. The bill also has strong protections against employee interference — retaliation, intimidation, and discouraging unionization — both once there’s a recognized union and beforehand.

It is very open around what can be on the table. We’re firm believers in a wide scope of bargaining so that we can bargain for the common good: for class sizes, for staffing ratios, etc. Additionally, there is no restriction on our right to strike, because we know that a collective bargaining agreement is only as strong as the power we bring, and the right to strike is the biggest flex of that power. If that gets chopped off at the knee, we lose a lot more power than we would gain through a collective bargaining agreement.

Read the complete interview here.

Whole Foods Claims Right to Prohibit Workers’ ‘Black Lives Matter’ Masks

From today’s Yahoo Finance:

U.S. labor board prosecutors are trying to violate Whole Foods Market’s copyright and constitutional rights by forcing it to let employees wear “Black Lives Matter” masks at work, the Amazon.com Inc. subsidiary claims.

In a Dec. 17 filing with the National Labor Relations Board, Whole Foods denied the agency general counsel’s allegations that the company violated federal labor law by banning employees from wearing “Black Lives Matter” insignia and punishing staff around the country who did. The filing is a response to the labor board’s accusation that by prohibiting Black Lives Matter messages at work, the company interfered with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act to engage “in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection.”

Whole Foods counters that it’s the one whose rights are being violated. The company’s filing, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, accuses the labor board’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, of trying to unconstitutionally “compel” speech by Whole Foods in violation of its First Amendment rights. The upscale grocer also accuses her of “unlawfully infringing upon and/or diluting WFM’s protected trademarks” by trying to mandate that it allow the display of a “political message in conjunction with” its trademarked uniforms and logos.

Whole Foods contends that Section 7 of the NLRA, which protects employees’ right to take collective action related to working conditions, doesn’t extend to workers’ BLM messages, which it calls “political and/or social justice speech.” The company’s filing argues that “BLM” and related phrases “are not objectively understood to relate to workplace issues or improving working conditions at WFM’s retail grocery stores” or employment terms and conditions in general. “Employees do not have a protected right under Section 7 of the Act to display the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘BLM’ in the workplace,” the company’s attorneys wrote.

A Whole Foods spokesperson declined to comment Friday on the filing. The company said last month that its dress code policy doesn’t single out specific slogans but prohibits any messages unrelated to its business. The case is slated to be heard by an agency judge at a trial in March.

Read the complete story here.

Europe Pushes New Rules Turning Gig Workers Into Employees

From today’s New York Times:

In one of the biggest challenges yet to the labor practices at popular ride-hailing and food-delivery services, the European Commission took a major step on Thursday toward requiring companies like Uber to consider their drivers and couriers as employees entitled to a minimum wage and legal protections.

The commission proposed rules that, if enacted, would affect up to an estimated 4.1 million people and give the European Union some of the world’s strictest rules for the so-called gig economy. The policy would remake the relationship that ride services, food delivery companies and other platforms have with workers in the 27-nation bloc.

Labor unions and other supporters hailed the proposal, which has strong political support, as a breakthrough in the global effort to change the business practices of companies that they say depend on exploiting workers with low pay and weak labor protections.

Uber and other companies are expected to lobby against the rules, which must go through several legislative steps before becoming law. The companies have long classified workers as independent contractors to hold down costs and limit legal liabilities. The model provided new conveniences for traveling across town and ordering takeout, and gave millions of people a flexible new way to work when they want.

But in Europe, where worker protection laws are traditionally more robust than in the United States, there has been growing momentum for change, particularly as the pandemic highlighted the fragile nature of gig work when food couriers and others continued to work even amid lockdowns and rising Covid-19 cases.

While there have been some important legal victories and laws passed in some countries targeting Uber and others, the policy released by the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, is the most far-reaching legislative attempt to regulate companies to date.

The rules would affect drivers, couriers, home cleaners, home health care aides, fitness coaches and others who use apps and online platforms to find work. As employees, they would be entitled to a minimum wage, holiday pay, unemployment and health benefits, and other legal protections depending on the country where they worked.

Read the complete story here.

Uber Must Overhaul Business Model in U.K. after High Court’s Ruling

From today’s The Guardian:

Uber will be forced to change its business model in London to contract directly with passengers who book, after a high court ruling that will affect all private hire operators in the capital.

The judgment was hailed by unions for giving both drivers and passengers more protection, by underscoring previous legal rulings that drivers are workers with rights, and making firms responsible once bookings are accepted.

The ruling could indirectly lead to a price rise, with Uber and others now liable for VAT, which could add up to 20% more to the cost of a trip.

The high court case was brought by Uber after supreme court judges suggested, in the case this year where it ruled that drivers were workers and not contractors, that Uber could not be viewed simply as an agent.

Uber sought clarification on the point, hoping to retain its existing model, but in a ruling on Monday, the judges said the law required a contractual obligation between operators and passengers once a booking is made, adding: “To interpret the act in this way gives effect to the statutory purpose of ensuring public safety.

“If the passenger’s only contractual relationship is with a driver he or she has never heard of and who is in any event unlikely to be worth claiming against, any claim is likely to be practically worthless.”

Transport for London has written to the larger operators to review their contracts to ensure compliance. A TfL spokesperson said: “All operators will need to carefully consider the court’s judgment and take steps to ensure that they comply with it, including considering whether any changes to their way of working are required.”

Others said it was a “damning” verdict for TfL, as well as Uber. Sian Berry, a Green party London assembly member, said TfL had, since Uber emerged, been “failing properly to use the powers it has to regulate and protect London’s private hire operators and drivers”.

She added: “In the interests of passenger safety, they must now follow the court ruling and make sure all operators are compliant with the correct legislation without delay.”

The GMB union said the ruling confirms London private hire drivers are legally classed as workers and should be treated as such under law, adding: “It means TfL’s guidance is now incorrect and it means most operators are acting illegally and must get their house in order.”

Read the complete article here.

Gov. Lee Will Try to Put Right-To-Work Law in Tennessee Constitution

From today’s Tennessean:

Gov. Bill Lee will chair the committee campaigning to enshrine Tennessee’s right-to-work law into the state constitution in November 2022, the governor announced Monday. 

The Yes on 1 Committee Lee will chair was formed to support the right-to-work constitutional amendment, which Tennessee lawmakers approved earlier this year. The initiative, which will appear on the ballot on Nov. 8, 2022, will require final approval from voters.

“We believe that in order to make certain that in this state that right to work is enshrined … for all workers, to provide freedom for all workers, we should have that as part of our constitution,” Lee said Monday during an event in Nashville to announce the effort.

Tennessee’s right-to-work law prohibits contracts between companies and labor unions that would require all members to pay their union dues. 

Republican lawmakers have argued approving the measure would further protect the state’s right-to-work law — which has been on the books since 1947 — by codifying it in the state constitution. 

But the issue has drawn opposition from union groups such as the Tennessee AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the nation, which argues the law hurts unionizing efforts and hinders Tennesseans from accessing better benefits.

When asked if adding the state law to the constitution has any practical impact, Jim Brown, Tennessee director of National Federation of Independent Businesses, said this offers the law “extra protection.”

Read the story here.

Portugal Bans Employers from Texting Employees after Work. Could it Happen Here in the US?

From today’s The Guardian:

Employers in Portugal will now face fines if they attempt to contact remote workers after hours, thanks to a new law.

The legislation was conceived by Portugal’s ruling Socialist party to improve work-life balance for the country’s remote workforce, which expanded due to Covid-19, and to make Portugal a more attractive base for international “digital nomads” – people who travel while telecommuting.

Portugal isn’t the only country modernizing its labor laws; citizens of France, Spain, Belgium, Slovakia, Italy, the Philippines, Argentina, India and more, all currently enjoy “the right to disconnect” – or abstain without punishment from working and communicating with their employers during designated rest periods.

In 2013, Germany’s employment ministry implemented a ban on employers contacting workers outside of contracted hours, and several of the country’s large employers, including Volkswagen and Daimler, have instituted policies intended to limit the number of emails employees receive outside of work hours, too.

The provincial government of Ontario is also introducing legislation that would require employers to establish a written policy setting generous “expectations about response time for emails and encouraging employees to turn on out-of-office notifications when they aren’t working”, according to a government release.

Could this ever happen in the United States?

“I don’t think that we’ll see a firm requirement of employers to not at all contact employees during non-work hours,” says Orly Lobel, professor of law at the University of San Diego.

While California does have laws against employers forcing employees to work overtime, and mandates that all overtime be paid, Lobel thinks that adopting and enforcing rules about work hours on a federal level would be overly complex and contradictory to the nature of globalized professional work, in which urgent tasks inevitably crop up and must be dealt with by someone.

Read the complete story here.

Workplace Strikes Surge During Pandemic, Empowering Workers

From today’s Washington Post:

Factory workers, nurses and school bus drivers are among the tens of thousands of Americans who walked off jobs in October amid a surge of labor activism that economists and labor leaders have dubbed “Striketober.”

The strike drives, experts say, stem from the new leverage workers hold in the nation’s tight job market: Having seen the massive profits their companies collected during the coronavirus pandemic, they want their contributions acknowledged in the form of better pay and working conditions.

While work stoppages may contribute to near-term inflation and production tie-ups, economists say they could fundamentally change the economic standing of millions of workers. Here’s what you need to know about the tide of recent strikes.

There are a number of reasons, but ultimately it comes down to how the pandemic has changed the way people see themselves, their employers and their jobs — especially if going to work heightened their risk of exposure to the deadly virus. So while millions of people quit or switched positions, others have staged walkouts — or at least are threatening to.

“People don’t want to go and die at work. I mean, they’re not compensated enough,” said Kim Cordova, president of the 23,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers in Colorado.

Strikes or strike authorizations — when a union supports a walkout if negotiations with management break down — typically revolve around compensation. At John Deere, where 10,000 workers at 14 factories walked off the job on Oct. 14, employees want better pay and retirement benefits. The company offered 5 to 6 percent raises in a new collective bargaining agreement, but workers say it’s not enough, given the company’s soaring profits.

Kaiser Permanente nurses and health workers in California and Oregon want the health care provider to drop a proposed two-tiered wage and benefits system that would compensate new employees less than existing ones. More than 30,000 workers represented by several unions authorized a strike in an Oct. 11 vote.

Read the complete story here.

Facebook settles federal lawsuit over allegations it favored foreign workers

From today’s NPR News Online:

Facebook is paying a $4.75 million fine and up to $9.5 million to eligible victims to resolve the Justice Department’s allegations that it discriminated against U.S. workers in favor of foreigners with special visas to fill high-paying jobs.

Facebook also agreed in the settlement announced Tuesday to train its employees in anti-discrimination rules and to conduct more widespread advertising and recruitment for job opportunities in its permanent labor certification program.

The department’s civil rights division said the social network giant “routinely refused” to recruit, consider or hire U.S. workers, a group that includes U.S. citizens and nationals, people granted asylum, refugees and lawful permanent residents, for positions it had reserved for temporary visa holders.

Facebook sponsored the visa holders for “green cards” authorizing them to work permanently. The so-called H-1B visas are a staple of Silicon Valley, widely used by software programmers and other employees of major U.S. technology companies.

Critics of the practice contend that the foreign nationals will work for lower wages than U.S. citizens. The tech companies maintain that’s not the case, that they turn to foreign nationals because they have trouble finding qualified programmers and other engineers who are U.S. citizens.

“In principle, Facebook is doing a good thing by applying for green cards for its workers, but it has also learned how to game the system to avoid hiring U.S. tech workers,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Facebook started lobbying to change the system more to its liking starting back in 2013 when the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate was being negotiated.”

The settlement terms announced Tuesday are the largest civil penalty and back-pay award ever recovered by the civil rights division in the 35-year history of enforcing anti-discrimination rules under the Immigration and Nationality Act, officials said. The back pay would be awarded to people deemed to have been unfairly denied employment.

Read the complete story here.

As Starbucks Workers Seek a Union, Company Officials Converge on Stores

From today’s New York Times:

During her decade-plus at Starbucks, Michelle Eisen says she has endured her share of workplace stress. She points to the company’s increased use of productivity goals, inadequate attention to training and periods of understaffing or high turnover.

But she had never encountered a change that the company made after workers at her store and two other Buffalo-area locations filed for a union election in late August: two additional “support managers” from out of state, who often work on the floor with the baristas and who, according to Ms. Eisen, have created unease.

“For a lot of newer baristas, it’s an imposing force,” Ms. Eisen said. “It is not an easy job. It should not be complicated further by feeling like you’re having everything you’re doing or saying watched and listened to.”

Workers and organizers involved in the unionization effort say the imported managers are part of a counteroffensive by the company intended to intimidate workers, disrupt normal operations and undermine support for the union.

Starbucks says the additional managers, along with an increase in the number of workers in stores and the arrival of a top corporate executive from out of town, are standard company practices. It says the changes, which also include temporarily shutting down stores in the area, are intended to help improve training and staffing — longstanding issues — and that they are a response not to the union campaign but to input the company solicited from employees.

“The listening sessions led to requests from partners that resulted in those actions,” said Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman. “It’s not a decision where our leadership came in and said, ‘We’re going to do this and this.’ We listened, heard their concerns.”

None of the nearly 9,000 corporate-owned Starbucks locations in the country are unionized. The prospect that workers there could form a union appears to reflect a recent increase in labor activism nationwide, including strikes across a variety of industries.

Read the complete story here.

Texas Sues Biden Administration Over Transgender Worker Rights

From today’s Forbes Online:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration on Monday, seeking to block enforcement of guidance focused on transgender workers and employment discrimination, which was released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last year, arguing that it is “unlawful” and “increases the scope of liability for all employers.”

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Texas against Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Charlotte Burrows and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Paxton claims in the lawsuit that the EEOC violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which came under scrutiny in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the court found that Title VII protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender, according to the Texas Tribune.

The EEOC guidance, released in June following that ruling, said that employers couldn’t stop employees from dressing according to their gender identity and transgender employees couldn’t be denied from entering bathrooms, locker rooms or showers that correspond with their gender identity, according to The Hill.

Paxton said in the lawsuit that the guidance “misstates the law, increasing the scope of liability for the State in its capacity as an employer” and “allows private individuals to sue their employers for violating EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII.”

Read the complete story here.