Sunday, September 13, 2015

Editorial: Executive Action for Labor

President Obama on Labor Day unveiled a new executive order requiring federal contractors to provide at least seven days of paid sick leave for employees. He also renewed his call on Congress to pass the Health Families Act, which would provide sick leave to most of the private sector.

Obama has relied on executive orders to help American workers since Republicans not only have refused to cooperate with Obama on labor issues but have been openly hostile to the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Obama has raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors. He’s bolstered overtime pay protections for all private sector workers. Under Obama, federal employees are also guaranteed up to six weeks of paid paternity or maternity leave.

During President Obama’s first year, with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, unions had hoped to get approval of a “card check” bill, which would let unions organize a workplace if they could get a simple majority of employees to sign union cards, rather than allowing employers to insist on a secret-ballot election. That hope was dashed as several moderate Democratic senators, under pressure from business leaders, balked at supporting the Employee Free Choice Act when a united Democratic caucus would have been required to overcome the Republican filibuster.

Republicans are fond of needling Democrats for failing to accomplish much during Obama’s first two years. Oh, they managed to pull the economy out of the nose dive George W. Bush had left it in, they rescued General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy and they passed the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans put the stopper on progressive initiatives such as the DREAM Act for young immigrants, a climate-change bill and the union card-check bill because Dems had to muster 60 votes to overcome Republican filibusters on practically every item of business in 2009-2010.

Democrats didn’t have those 60 votes until July 7, 2009, when Al Franken finally was sworn in as senator from Minnesota after seven months of disputes over his narrow electoral victory. Even then, Sen. Ted Kennedy was housebound due to illness and died a few weeks later, and while Democrat Paul Kirk was appointed to fill in for Kennedy Sept. 24, Republican Scott Brown won a special election and took the seat Feb. 4, 2010, setting the Democratic majority back to 59. The Senate Democratic majority fell to 53-47 after the 2010 election, so Democrats had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate for a grand total of 72 working days under Obama.

Obstruction of the National Labor Relations Board was a priority of Republican senators, who blocked Obama’s nominees to the board as well as appeals court judges. Obama appointed two NLRB members in March 2009 during congressional recess, as the Constitution allows, but Republicans blocked other attempts at recess appointments and the five-member board never got the three members it needed for a quorum until July 2013. That’s when Republicans agreed to end the impasse over NLRB and judicial nominees after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” and change Senate rules to let a simple majority end filibusters. Obama not only filled the NLRB and other administrative vacancies but also filled four seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, reversing what had been a 4-3 Republican majority into a 7-4 Democratic majority on the court that reviews the actions of many federal agencies.

Two of those new judges were on a D.C. Circuit Court panel that this past August revived a rule that the Department of Labor adopted in 2013 that made two million home health care workers eligible for minimum wage and overtime. A district judge had struck down the DOL rule earlier this year.

In December 2014, the NLRB adopted a rule that sped up the union election process, depriving management of a stall tactic that unions claimed allowed bosses to intimidate workers into voting against the unionization. Since its April implementation, the rule has shortened by 40% the time it takes to hold a union election, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In June, Obama, acting under the authority of the Fair Standards Act of 1938, announced a new set of overtime rules that will boost the pay of an estimated five million workers, or about 40% of the country’s full-time salaried workforce. The changes would more than double the salary threshold for automatic overtime eligibility from the current $23,600 a year to those making $50,440 or less and put an extra $1.3 billion in workers’ pockets.

In August, the NLRB issued six pro-labor decisions. The biggest one changed the standard for when a corporation may be designated a joint employer of workers hired by its contractors and franchisees, which may make it easier for workers at chains, such as McDonalds, to organize. The board reversed a Reagan-era ruling.

Among the other actions, the board ruled that a worker may demand that a union rep be present during a drug test, and an employer may not exclude union reps from voluntary peer-review committees.

The NLRB is challenging the use of “mandatory arbitration” clauses in employment contracts that sign away employees’ rights to sue their bosses. Courts have said such clauses are legal; Obama’s NLRB has ruled, repeatedly, that they are not, even when workers are given the chance to opt out.

Larry Cohen, who recently stepped down as president of the Communications Workers of America, told Politico, “The quality of this board is the best ever,” adding, “The NLRB appointments is one place where President Obama would get a perfect score.”

Obama outraged many labor advocates with his push for a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would remove trade barriers (along with health and labor standards, many fear) among 12 Pacific-Rim nations, on the model of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been blamed for increasing US trade deficits, losses of manufacturing jobs and a downward pressure on wages as US workers compete with labor in Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam.

Republicans — in their only major cooperation with Obama — drove the approval of the Trade Promotion Authority, which puts the free-trade agreement on a fast track to an up-or-down vote by Congress without amendments. The House passed Trade Promotion Authority June 18 on a 218-208 vote while the Senate approved it 60-38 June 24. Since then, talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership have stalled, but fast-track authority remains in effect for trade bills for the next six years.

Since most of the gains made for labor by the Obama administration could be rolled back by a Republican administration, it is important that progressives join organized labor in making sure that a candidate friendly to organized labor advances toward the Democratic nomination.

Any of the Democratic candidates would be preferable to any of the Republican candidates who have surfaced so far. Of the top two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton is a friend of labor, with a 94% lifetime score from the AFL-CIO, but Sen. Bernie Sanders is the most outspoken pro-labor candidate in the Democratic race, not only with a 98% lifetime score with the AFL-CIO, but also with his introduction of federal $15 minimum-wage legislation, his opposition to cuts Republicans are demanding to the unionized US Postal Service and his consistent opposition to the TPP, which Clinton promoted as secretary of state but has since backed away from.

The AFL-CIO is not expected to make an endorsement in the primary and President Rich Trumka has tried to keep union leaders neutral in the primary race, but Sanders has received endorsement of the 185,000-member National Nurses United while Clinton has been endorsed by the 1.6-million-member American Federation of Teachers. Other unions may be holding off to see if Vice President Joe Biden, who has an 86% lifetime score with the AFL-CIO and is thought to be popular among the rank and file, enters the race. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015

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