As Mackenzie and Zach discussed earlier this week, responses to recent protests by union leaders have reflected a growing divide within the movement. On Monday, the Writers Guild of America, East joined existing calls by the Flight Attendants and numerous labor-adjacent organizations to expel the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) from the AFL-CIO. In Seattle, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) halted dock work in honor of George Floyd and noted their special responsibility as union members to call out the actions of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. On Tuesday, Lee Saunders, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and one of the nation’s most prominent African-American labor leaders, called on Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll to resign. Meanwhile, the former president of Minnesota’s SEIU Local 26 put forth seven proposals to rein in the city’s police union, including public bargaining sessions, more limited job protections, and removal of management figures from the bargaining unit.
Other labor leaders, meanwhile, have taken a more cautious—or outright contrary—position. AFL-CIO leadership joined in demanding Kroll’s resignation on Tuesday but dismissed calls to disaffiliate with the IUPA. The American Federation of Government Employees’ (AFGE) also released a statement in support of protestors but stopped short of condemning police unions, many of whom make up the federation’s ranks. Patrick Lynch, President of New York City’s Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the largest police union in the Big Apple, decried George Floyd’s death as “murder” but raged against protesters and state politicians, who have renewed debate over repealing 50-a, a state law which keeps police personnel records under seal. Tensions between police and more progressive labor activists appear set only to grow wider going forward.
A new study released this week by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) identifies profound racial disparities in perceived workplace safety risks and employer retaliation during the pandemic. According to the report, Black workers are more than twice as likely as whites both to perceive threats of retaliation at work and to report unresolved COVID-related safety concerns. Indeed, the perceived risk of employer retaliation has gone up generally during the pandemic, perhaps in part due to a dramatic upsurge in employment insecurity. These issues have prompted some scholars and labor activists to point to unions as the solution, while others have emphasized the need for local and state workplace safety regulation absent federal leadership.
Agricultural labor continues to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. As Leigh reported yesterday, coronavirus outbreaks have spiked in recent days across much of the food system; in Immokalee, Florida—the historic epicenter of the Southern farm labor movement—case counts have jumped from just 44 diagnoses in May to nearly 1,000 as of Tuesday. In Yakima County, Washington, nearly 500 workers have been diagnosed, while over 100 have fallen ill at two large New Jersey produce operations, and still more across farmworkers camps in North Carolina.
Lawmakers discussed the ongoing risks to farm laborers and other essential workers during a hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform yesterday. The meeting comes as Democrats take up two bills, H.B. 6800 and H.B. 6909, which would impose new workplace health and safety standards for the pandemic and create a new compensation system for essential workers who contract COVID19. Democrats also grilled Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia at the hearing, as he continued to insist on there being no need for the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to issue new binding workplace safety rules. On the other side of the Capitol, meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted to advance the nomination of Catherine Bird as general counsel for the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), allowing the agency to resume unfair labor practice charges in cases involving federal employees.
Courts this week were similarly busy, both in and outside the beltway. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case over whether the California Supreme Court’s legal standard for contractual unconscionability of forced arbitration clauses violated the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). In Michigan, the State Court of Claims yesterday granted Fair and Equal Michigan, an LGBTQ rights group, 69 additional days to collect signatures to place an initiative on the state ballot this fall banning LGBTQ employment discrimination. Meanwhile, in the midst of statewide protests, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled 5-2 to uphold Minneapolis’s paid sick leave ordinance, which the state chamber of commerce sought to invalidate on grounds of state preemption and extraterritoriality.
Finally, state and federal agencies continue to tee up court battles to come. On Tuesday, California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) issued an order declaring that drivers at transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft are employees under A.B. 5, the state’s controversial new employee law, and would be required to obtain workers’ compensation by July 1. The ruling comes in the midst of a brewing legal fight between the two rideshare companies and both state and local prosecutors, and as the firms launch a $110 million ballot measure campaign to repeal the law. At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Board rejected jurisdiction over Bethany College, a private religious university, yesterday. In doing so, the Board overturned an Obama-era rule established in Pacific Lutheran Univ., 361 N.L.R.B. No. 157 (2014) for whether religious institutions are exempt from labor protections under the First Amendment. In its place, the Board opted for an earlier, looser standard for the exemption defined in Univ. Great Falls v. NLRB, 278 F.3d 1335 (D.C. Cir. 2002), continuing an ongoing partisan battle over the scope of religious regulatory exemptions.