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LGBTQ groups vow to extend landmark court ruling beyond workplace

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Justice Samuel Alito warned that the ruling “is virtually certain to have far-reaching consequences,” in his dissent from the 6-3 decision.

The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that federal anti-discrimination law extends to gay and transgender workers could usher in a new era of expanded rights for LGBTQ people in areas from housing to health care.

While the high court’s ruling Monday only applies directly to the workplace discrimination protections provided under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, advocacy groups are vowing to extend to myriad other laws the justices’ view that discrimination “based on sex” includes sexual orientation or gender identity.

Justice Samuel Alito warned that the ruling “is virtually certain to have far-reaching consequences,” in his dissent from the 6-3 decision. “Over 100 federal statutes prohibit discrimination because of sex,” wrote Alito.

There are still no explicit federal legal protections for gay and transgender individuals in health care, credit and education, among other areas. Advocates are hoping the ruling will bolster efforts to win such protection in the courts or in Congress. Gabriel Arkles, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, said he expects hundreds of cases to be filed in the wake of the ruling.

“There’s so many other aspects of our lives where there are no federal protections, or where those protections are being challenged,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We have to recognize that Title VII is a great piece of legislation, but it does not provide comprehensive protections.”

The Supreme Court ruling affects employment, “the area of law where Congress has prohibited sex discrimination,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the HRC, during a press call Monday. “We will fight to ensure that it extends to every sex non-discrimination statute in federal and state law.”

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch addressed this concern in the majority opinion, writing that “none of these other laws are before us; we have not had the benefit of adversarial testing about the meaning of their terms, and we do not prejudge any such question today.”

“Whether other policies and practices might or might not qualify as unlawful discrimination or find justifications under other provisions of Title VII are questions for future cases, not these,” he added.

The ACLU says it already plans to seize on the high court ruling to challenge the Trump administration’s move on Friday to formally roll back an Obama-era policy that banned health care providers from discriminating against transgender patients.

“The administration cannot rewrite the statute,” said Sean Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, “and they cannot overrule the Supreme Court. So today’s decision directly undermines any of the administration’s attempts to eviscerate protections for LGBT people when it comes to health care.”

The Supreme Court ruling is a matter of statutory interpretation, meaning that Congress still has the ability to change the law.

“Not all of the provisions of the Act include sex as a protected characteristic, most notably, it’s missing from public accommodations, and from a guaranteed across the board non-discrimination with respect to federally funded programs,” said Warbelow. “Congress must act to provide those protections.”

Gay and transgender people have reported widespread harassment due to their orientation or gender identity.

At least 1 in 5 said they have experienced discrimination when applying for jobs, in their compensation, when being considered for promotion, or when trying to rent a room or apartment or buy a house, according to a 2017 survey conducted by National Public Radio and the Harvard School of Public Health.

A 2016 survey of nearly 28,000 people conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality also found that 26 percent of trans people lost a job due to bias and that 50 percent were harassed on the job. Some 20 percent of respondents said they were evicted or denied housing, and 78 percent of trans students said they were harassed or assaulted.

Of the more than 23,000 Title VII sex-based discrimination charges the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received in fiscal 2019, 1,868 were related to LGBTQ discrimination, according to the agency’s data.

In May 2019, the Democratic-controlled House passed the Equality Act, which would codify anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, credit and federally funded programs, among other areas.

But the bill hasn’t been taken up by the Republican-majority Senate and is not likely to go far, especially during an election year.

Absent a new law passed by Congress, attorneys say discrimination in other areas outside the workplace will have to be litigated in court.

“These issues are out there.” said Jim Paretti, a former chief of staff to the acting chair of the EEOC during the Trump administration. “They will continue to percolate,” he said, saying that questions around other statutes that use the same language as Title VII will have to be worked out in the courts.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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In massive win for equality, Supreme Court rules no one can be fired for being gay or transgender

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In a stunning 6-3 decision written by Justice Neil Gorsuch (!), the Supreme Court has ruled that LGBTQ people cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is now against the law to be fired from your job for being LGBTQ. Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining: “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” he wrote. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

Title VII bars discrimination on the basis of “race, color, national origin, sex, and religion,” but the original statute did not define what “sex” meant. The Trump administration argued that the original intent of the drafters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have included LGBTQ workers, but was focused specifically on women and meant only cis women. Gorsuch doesn’t let them pass it off that way—he acts like an actual textualist. “Only the written word is the law,” he wrote, “and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Joan McCarter is a Senior Political Writer for Daily Kos.


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Get Ready for Janus 2.0, Which Could Devastate Labor More Than the First

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On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which radically changed established constitutional interpretation to make it a violation of the First Amendment for public-sector unions to collect fair-share fees. These fees are equivalent to the portion of union dues that are germane to collective bargaining. The plaintiff in the case was Mark Janus, a child support specialist with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, who objected to paying $23.48 in fair-share fees per pay period to AFSCME, the union that represented him and his coworkers. Backing Janus was a coterie of anti-union groups, headed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which has spent decades attacking labor. 

Despite this stinging loss before the Supreme Court, many unions had prepared for this possibility, and laid the groundwork to help mitigate the damages. The result was that—at least in the short term—the case that was intended to serve as a major body blow to labor appears to have had a rejuvenating effect.

For many, it seemed like the Janus case was over. Mark Janus, the lead plaintiff, had left his state job and went to work for the anti-union Liberty Justice Center, which helped represent Janus before the Supreme Court and whose entire “Workers’ Rights” platform consists of workers suing unions to recover fair-share fees. Janus was gone, fair-share fees in the public sector were gone, and unions became better at membership engagement such that they didn’t see the “free-rider” tidal wave that many had feared.

Now, Mark Janus is back before the Supreme Court, asking to make their 2018 decision retroactive, and force public sector unions to refund much of the fair-share fees they collected in recent years. If the Court agrees to hear the case and sides with Janus again, it could cost organized labor many millions of dollars.

Janus’s case is being brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871—or “Section 1983” as it is more commonly called—which allows people to sue state actors for constitutional violations. The typical subject of such lawsuits includes such issues as excessive use of force by police, cruel and unusual punishment towards prisoners and violations of public employees’ First Amendment rights. In rare instances, usually when a private creditor uses state procedures to attach a debtor’s assets in violation of due process, a private actor can be found to be engaging in state action and sued under Section 1983 for violating constitutional rights. Therefore, AFSCME and other public sector unions could be sued for collecting fair-share fees under state law, which a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court found in the 2018 Janus case was a violation of the First Amendment.

However, what makes this second Janus case truly bizarre is that the Supreme Court has stated, and every court has agreed, that there is a good-faith defense for private parties being sued under Section 1983.

Sheldon Nahmod, Emeritus Professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and an expert on Section 1983, says that the good faith defense grew out of the simple “matter of public policy that private parties follow the law rather than act contrary to it.” With regard to public-sector fair-share fees, the union relied on a decades-old state law that was passed pursuant to a 1977 Supreme Court decision that treated fair-share fees as constitutional. Janus is arguing here that Justice Alito and several other conservative Justices voiced their discomfort with public-sector fair-share fees over the past few years, so unions should have been on notice that the law was problematic. But the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in this case rebuked this idea, stating, “The Rule of Law requires that parties abide by, and be able to rely on, what the law is, rather than what the readers of tea-leaves predict that it might be in the future.”

The trial court judge went even further, acknowledging the empty Supreme Court seat left by Sen. Mitch McConnell’s refusal to call a Senate vote for President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, stating, “had the general and/or presidential election resulted differently, the composition of the Supreme Court that decided the case may well have been different, leading to a different result.” If ever there was a case for arguing that a party acted in good faith in following the widely accepted law, this was it.

Another strange facet of Janus’s petition to the Supreme Court is that, though it claims to be attacking the good faith defense available to private parties under Section 1983, it does not cite any articles about the good faith defense. Instead, the only articles it cites concern the very different and problematic issue of qualified immunity, which is available to state actors.

Qualified immunity was created by the courts to protect public actors from liability unless they violated “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights that a reasonable person would have known. However, over the years, the courts interpreted the doctrine so broadly that it has become extremely difficult to win a lawsuit against police for extreme misconduct.

A recent investigation by Reuters describes in grizzly detail how police killed a confused hospital patient with pneumonia who refused to return to his room, a man who suffered brain damage after being smashed to the ground by police, a bicyclist who was shot 17 times in a case of mistaken identity, and many more where qualified immunity protected unlawful action by police.

For years, there has been growing anger at the doctrine of qualified immunity because of the ways that it shields police officers, and since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, that drumbeat for reversal or reform of the doctrine has grown louder. Several Justices have called for a reexamination of qualified immunity and there are currently eight qualified immunity cases pending before the Court. A bill has been introduced by a broad bipartisan group in the House to eliminate qualified immunity. Now, it appears that Janus is trying to use the important issue of qualified immunity reform to get rid of the relatively rare good faith defense that unions are relying on.

On June 18, the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether it will accept the second Janus case for review. Labor law professor Charlotte Garden of the Seattle University School of Law says, “I don’t think there’s any reason for the Court to take this case. The lower courts have been unanimous in holding that there is a good faith defense. Absent a circuit split, the Court would typically take this case only if it presented an especially important question (such as the constitutionality of a major federal program)—and I just don’t see a question that rises to that level here.”

However, Justice Alito writing for the majority in the original Janus case, stated “It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment.” This sentiment was echoed by one of the judges on the 7th Circuit panel who heard this case. The conservative majority of Justices has shown that it is willing to accept cases where there is no split in the circuits and that it’s willing to overturn established precedent if the result is to harm labor.

Janus II may represent such a case. But, as Professor Garden stated concerning the “windfall” that unions are alleged to have received, “if we really wanted to unwind union agency fees, we’d also have to think about what represented workers got in exchange for their agency fees. Suppose Janus’s union (backed by agency fees) negotiated pay raises, or better insurance benefits, etc., and then enforced those contractual provisions through a grievance process. Assuming the union negotiated pay/benefits/etc. that were worth more than the amount of union dues, then, shouldn’t we say that by Janus’s logic, Janus received a windfall, or at least got the benefits he paid for with his agency fees?”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.


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Supreme Court stacks the deck in favor of businesses, again

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The Trump Supreme Court sided with business over workers yet again, in a case that got the four liberal justices so exercised that they each wrote their own dissent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg even noted that she wrote her dissent to “emphasize once again how treacherously the court has strayed from the principle that arbitration is a matter of consent, not coercion.”

In Lamps Plus v. Varela (note the name if you’re in the market for a lamp), Frank Varela, one of 1,300 workers whose tax information had been compromised thanks to his employer, Lamps Plus, tried to sue, only to be tripped up by a mandatory arbitration clause in his contract. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit did say that class arbitration would be allowed. The Trump-Bush wing of the court disagreed, because class arbitration would be inconvenient for businesses, and they are all about stacking the deck in favor of employers.

In the primary dissent, Justice Elena Kagan noted that Varela’s contract called for “any and all disputes, claims, or controversies” to go to arbitration without explicitly rejecting class arbitration, and that California law requires ambiguity in a contract to go against the party that wrote the contract. “Lamps Plus drafted the agreement. It therefore had the opportunity to insert language expressly barring class arbitration if that was what it wanted. It did not do so,” Kagan wrote. But Republican justices care neither about California law nor about workers’ rights when an employer’s wishes are at stake.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Should Workers Be Punished for Being Employed By Subcontractors? This Legal Battle Will Decide.

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Over the last few decades, a growing number of American workers have effectively lost many of their labor rights because of the way their bosses structure the employment relationship. These workers are contractors who are hired by one company but work for another: the Hyatt Hotel housekeepers who actually work for Hospitality Staffing Solutions, the Microsoft tech workers who actually work for a temp agency called Lionbridge Technologies, and the Amazon warehouse workers who actually work for Integrity Staffing Solutions. These workers often perform the same work at the same place as other workers, frequently on a permanent basis.

But because their employers have entered into complicated contracts with each other, these workers have been unable to exercise their labor rights. If the workers can only bargain with the staffing company and not the lead company where they actually work, they are negotiating with the party that often has no power to change the terms of their employment. For that reason, workers have fought for a more inclusive definition under the National Labor Relations Act of what constitutes an employer—and when two employers are joint employers.

Recently, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a major ruling that was a win for workers, and now this issue seems destined for the Supreme Court. As the legal battle heats up, workers everywhere should be paying close attention, since their livelihoods—or unions—could be affected.

Contracting expands as workers’ rights shrink

Under a traditional employment relationship, workers have one employer who has the power to hire, fire, pay, supervise and direct them. If such workers form a union, the law requires the employer to recognize the union and bargain in good faith. (Employers routinely violate the law and suppress workers’ labor rights, but workers at least have a theoretical path to collective bargaining.) Workers also have the right to picket and engage in other disruptive activities when they have a labor dispute with that employer.

However, there is a growing group of blue-collar, white-collar and service workers who find themselves working for two employers, either through contractors or temporary help firms. “In 1960 most hotel employees worked for the brand that appeared over the hotel entrance,” David Weil, former adminstrator for the Department of Labor Wage and Hour, explains in his 2014 book, The Fissured Workplace. “Today, more than 80 percent of staff are employed by hotel franchisees and supervised by separate management companies that bear no relation to the brand name of the property where they work.”

For those who work in a fissured workplace, organizing a union can be especially tough. The contracting firms have little power to raise wages or change working conditions, unless the company that controls the worksite agrees. Therefore, workers need both employers at the bargaining table.

Starting in 1984, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) began imposing difficult requirements to show that two employers are joint employers. By 2002, the NLRB was requiring that it be shown that the putative joint employer exercises direct and immediate control over employment matters. This meant that even when a company hired workers through a staffing agency to work at its site, chose the number of workers, gave specific work assignments and directions, and exercised supervision, it was not found to be a joint employer. Workers could, of course, form a union to negotiate with the staffing agencies, but those agencies usually have little room to maneuver alone.

Obama’s labor board

Recognizing this growing problem, in 2015 the NLRB changed the test to determine when two employers constitute a joint employer in its landmark Browning-Ferris Industries decision. No longer would workers have to show that both employers exercise direct control over them. Instead the NLRB recognized how power actually functions in the workplace and ruled that it would only require a showing that an employer had indirect or reserved control over the workers.

In its ruling, the NLRB recognized that for 30 years its approach to continuously adding requirements was moving in exactly the opposite direction from what was required: “As the Board’s view of what constitutes joint employment under the Act has narrowed, the diversity of workplace arrangements in today’s economy has significantly expanded.” And indeed, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent Contingent Worker Survey, there are approximately 2.3 million workers who work for contractors or temporary help agencies, and this figure captures only a portion of those that one could reasonably find have joint employers.

The NLRB’s new Browning-Ferris test looked at whether two employers actually share or codetermine employment matters by also considering reserved or indirect control. Therefore, an employer could no longer avoid its liabilities and obligations by structuring its power in an indirect fashion. James Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters, the union that represented Browning-Ferris workers, said at the time, “This decision will make a tremendous difference for workers’ rights on the job. Employers will no longer be able to shift responsibility for their workers and hide behind loopholes to prevent workers from organizing or engaging in collective bargaining.”

Similarly, employer-side attorneys recognized the scope of the decision. In their dissent in Browning-Ferris, NLRB Members Philip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson wrote that the decision was “the most sweeping of recent major decisions. Attorney Marshal B. Babson who represented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in its opposition to this case, said at the time, “The decision today could be one of the more significant by the NLRB in the last 35 years. Depending on how the board applies its new ‘indirect test,’ it will likely ensnare an ever-widening circle of employers and bargaining relationships.”

The right strikes back

Reaction among corporate groups and Republicans was immediate, severe and comprehensive. Within two weeks, both House and Senate Republicans had introduced the Protecting Local Business Opportunity Act, which would amend the National Labor Relations Act to define joint employers as those who “directly, actually and immediately” exercise control. In 2017, the House passed its version of the bill in a vote that fell largely along party lines.

Once the NLRB came under Republican control and was presented with a case that touched upon the joint employer question, the NLRB, in the Hy-Brand case, overruled Browning-Ferris. This decision was so potentially damaging to workers that former NLRB Member and current executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, Sharon Block, wrote that the decision constituted part of a “December Massacre.” 

But then, on February 9, 2018, the NLRB Inspector General issued a memorandum that determined that there was a “serious and flagrant problem and/or deficiency” in the NLRB’s deliberations surrounding the Hy-Brand case. Specifically, the memorandum found that Hy-Brand was effectively a “do-over for the Browning-Ferris parties,” and since NLRB Member William Emanuel’s former law firm represented Browning-Ferris in that case, he should have recused himself. Following this memorandum and Emanuel’s recusal, the NLRB unanimously vacated its Hy-Brand decision that overruled Browning-Ferris—and announced that Browning-Ferris was still good law.

The fight heats up

The Republican-controlled NLRB, intent on overturning the Browning-Ferris decision, decided to pass a rule redefining joint employers under its rarely used administrative rule-making authority. But since administrative rules require the agency to go through a series of steps and collect public comments, this rule will likely take years to become final. 

On December 28, 2018, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which, according to The New York Times, is “widely views as second in importance only to the Supreme Court,” released its long-awaited decision on the Browning-Ferris appeal. The Court issued an important and unqualified win for workers in affirming the NLRB’s 2015 Browning-Ferris decision, agreeing with the NLRB that its new Browning-Ferris test was firmly grounded in the common law. Using the unfortunate legal language of “master-servant,” the Court explained that “retained but unexercised control has long been a relevant factor in assessing the common-law master-servant relationship.”

The court fully affirmed the NLRB’s new Browning-Ferris joint employer test, but it sent the case back to the NLRB, because the NLRB did not fully apply its new test to all the facts of the particular case. This means that the NLRB must use its Browning-Ferris test going forward, which is good news for labor rights. 

The case is now headed to the NLRB, but that is unlikely to be the end of the road for this major issue. It is quite possible that this matter will eventually end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, and this should be cause for some concern among workers. The Supreme Court currently has an ultra-conservative majority, which has shown no hesitation in rewriting decades of law in support of employers in labor cases. As recently as 2014, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court engaged in a bizarre misreading of the definition of joint employer in order to deny labor rights to home healthcare workers. With the addition of Brett Kavanaugh, the Court has become more conservative since that time. Labor may have won this latest battle, but the fight is far from over.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.


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The Trucking Industry Is a “Sweatshop on Wheels.” Here’s How Kavanaugh Could Make It Worse.

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While the nation was focused on Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation process, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, a major labor case that could impact thousands of workers throughout the country. The Court will determine whether workers in the hyper-exploitive trucking industry can sue their bosses for breaking the law. Kavanaugh wasn’t present for oral arguments and new Justices often recuse themselves from such cases, but there’s nothing but an unwritten rule preventing him from casting a vote. If Kavanaugh’s vote were to prove decisive, he could choose to participate or the justices could decide to re-hear the case.

New Prime (Prime) is a transportation outfit that runs an interstate trucking company. Dominic Oliveira claims that he participated in Prime’s apprenticeship program and was told by the company that he’d make more money as an independent contractor than he would as an actual employee. Oliveira signed an Independent Contractor Operating Agreement which allowed him the flexibility to determine his own schedule and work for companies besides Prime. However, Oliveira claims that Prime had a “pervasive involvement” in his work which prevented him from working for other places, despite the fact the company wasn’t supposed to. Oliveira filed suit against Prime in district court, alleging that the company failed to pay him minimum wage, a clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Prime’s contract with Oliveira contained an arbitration clause that hypothetically required the two parties to resolve any work disputes through an arbitration process, as opposed to a lawsuit. Prime filed a motion to compel arbitration and dodge the legal action, but Oliveira opposed the action, pointing out that the contract is exempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) which makes arbitration agreements enforceable. The FAA exempts “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” In 2001, the Supreme Court determined that his exemption applied to “contracts of employment of transportation workers.”

The Supreme Court will now determine whether Oliveira should have been classified as a contractor, and therefore will be forced to settle for arbitration, or whether he will be allowed to take Prime to court. “If the Supreme Court rules for the bosses in this case, it will send a clear message: that big companies that break the law get to decide if and when the rules apply to them,” Ceilidh Gao, a staff attorney who filed an amicus brief in the case with the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. “If the Supreme Court rules against the workers, it would create further incentives for companies to misclassify their employees as independent contractors. Such a perverse outcome would be an affront to the basic fairness American workers demand.”

The case shines a light on an industry that has become tremendously exploitative over the last 40 years. In the 1960s and 70s, trucking was a lucrative profession with regular hours—drivers were taking home around $100,000 a year in today’s dollars. But things have changed drastically since the business was deregulated in 1980. In his 2000 book Sweatshop on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation, analyst Michael H. Belzer sounded an alarm, writing that truckers’ median earnings had dropped 30 percent. Eighteen years later, things have gotten even worse: After factoring inflation, the wages for truckers have fallen since 2003.

Deregulation also had the predictable effect of weakening the industry’s unions and increasing the number of “independent contractors” like Oliveira who end up owing their company money as a result of the associated expenses. “In the modern unregulated industry, the solution has been to shift the risks of truck ownership to the workers themselves,” explained Steve Viscelli, economic sociologist and author of The Big Rig Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, in a 2016 interview. “Companies insulate themselves from the costs of market [and fuel-price] volatility by getting the workers themselves to buy the trucks and pay the operating expenses. That’s what they’ve achieved with these independent contractors.”

Oliveria’s case is just one of three arbitration cases that the Court is scheduled to hear this term, with Kavanaugh recently added to the bench. Typically, Justices don’t cast a vote in cases where they weren’t present for oral arguments. Most recently Justice Gorsuch recused himself from cases that had been heard before he was confirmed. However, there’s nothing compelling Kavanaugh from participating and he could weigh in if he wanted to.

Kavanaugh’s judicial career indicates that he’ll consistently side with business over workers. In 2008, he dissented from a ruling that established undocumented workers as employees who can start a union. In 2016, he wrote for the majority in a case that overruled an NLRB decision which allowed Verizon workers to adorn their vehicles with pro-union messages. Most infamously he sided with SeaWorld after one of its trainers was killed by a whale, criticizing calls to sanction the company and impose regulations on it.

The case is also being heard amid dozens of gig economy lawsuits filed by workers fighting to be classified as employees. One recent suit showed that Uber saves $500 million a year by classifying drivers as independent contractors in California. Early analysis of New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira indicates that the Court might be more skeptical of the employer’s claims than initially expected, but it remains to be seen whether a surprising outcome can be won on a Supreme Court that will now presumably remain conservative for decades to come.

Clarification: An earlier version of this piece implied Kavanaugh would definitely be voting in this case. Although that is a possibility, Justices often recuse themselves from cases in which they weren’t present for oral arguments.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 10th, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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Kavanaugh Is Terrible on Workers’ Rights—And That’s Anti-Woman, Too

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On October 6, the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, the Republican federal appellate judge accused by multiple women of sexual assault, to the Supreme Court.

In light of the allegations—which include attempted rape—the opposition to Kavanaugh has been dominated by concerns about the impact he will have on the lives of women. In addition to his alleged history of physical and sexual violence, protesters fear what Kavanaugh’s “radical” conservatism may augur for reproductive-rights victories, namely Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that expanded the legal right to abortion in the United States. Yet these don’t constitute the only perils of the judge’s appointment: Kavanaugh bears a pattern of anti-worker adjudication—a stance that inordinately harms women.

Kavanaugh’s catalog of judicial decisions indicates a clear predilection for the capitalist class. In 2008’s Agri Processor Co. Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, Kavanaugh argued that a kosher-meat wholesaler, Agri Processor Co., wasn’t required to bargain with an employee union. Before the suit, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after Agri Processor Co. refused to bargain. Kavanaugh upheld the company’s claim that the workers who had voted in the union election were undocumented workers and therefore didn’t qualify as “employees” protected by the National Labor Relations Act—and thus were prevented from unionizing, so their votes in the union election were invalid.

There are numerous other examples of Kavanaugh issuing anti-worker rulings. In 2015, Kavanaugh ruled in favor of a Las Vegas casino that requested that police officers issue criminal citations against demonstrators protesting the lack of collective-bargaining rights of casino employees. And in 2013, he argued that a Black woman, LaTaunya Howard, couldn’t pursue a race discrimination suit after being fired from her position at the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives for “insubordination.” Howard alleged that her termination was both racially motivated and in response to complaints she’d made about racial pay disparities at her place of work. What’s more, Kavanaugh helped thwart an NLRB order that would have required the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino to bargain with the United Auto Workers.

This anti-labor positioning is particularly injurious to women, who benefit disproportionately from union membership. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women covered by a union contract earn an average of 30.9 percent more per week that women with non-union jobs, compared to men’s increase of 20.6 percent. Correspondingly, the wage gap between men and women workers is more narrow among those with union representation than those without it. The Economic Policy Institute reported last year that female union workers earn 94 cents for every dollar their male peers earn, versus 74 cents on the dollar without union safeguards.

Kavanaugh also has a history of jeopardizing the work benefits that inform earnings. Workers with union representation enjoy greater access to family, medical and maternity leave—an advantage for women, who are more often tasked with child and elder care than men, and often lose wages as a result. Unionized women are much more likely to have at least partially paid health insurance than those who aren’t unionized: Notably, 73.1 percent of women in union jobs have employer- or union-provided health insurance, an advantage only 49.1 percent of their non-union counterparts receive. It’s virtually the same case for retirement: The ratio of unionized to non-unionized women with employer-sponsored plans is 74.4 percent to 41.8 percent.

If unions and earnings among women are to be examined, it’s necessary to consider the huge impact a figure like Kavanaugh could have on Black women. Though the unionized workforce has decreased precipitously over the last several decades, Black women have traditionally had a higher rate of unionization, particularly in public-sector jobs, than women of other racial and ethnic groups. As of 2013, Black women outnumbered white, Latinx and Asian-American women in terms of unionization. And by 2015, unionized Black women outnumbered unionized Black men.

This is essential for a demographic that, research shows, would have to work an additional seven months to receive the same pay as white men, despite working more hours than white women. (Black women are also paid less than white men for the same job, independent of education level.)

The same urgency for protections applies to Latinx women, who are now the least likely of all women to have union representation. Statistics show that they’re in the most dire need of the boons of organized labor: Latinx women, for example, make 54 cents for every dollar earned by white men. As Esther López of United Food and Commercial Workers urges, “There exists a sure-fire way for Latina women to earn the better wages they deserve: joining a union in their industry. Latina women who have joined a union earn more than their non-union counterparts—$242 more per week, in fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Another concern arising from Kavanaugh’s anti-labor record—and one particularly pointed in the wake of the allegations levied against him—is women’s vulnerability to workplace sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” Echoing López, writer Michelle Chen contends that collective bargaining is a viable means of combating this. “Union agreements,” she writes, “protect equality at work, provide everyday organizational support for workers, and promote public accountability by establishing legally binding conditions of employment,” and can pursue such measures as municipal anti-harassment ordinances.

Heeding Kavanaugh’s roster of rulings, the AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of AmericaNational Nurses United and other unions have formally opposed the now-Supreme Court associate justice. NNU has cited specific concerns for women, stating his assaults on collective bargaining rights and workers’ healthcare render him “unfit to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.” The subtext is that women will pay the greatest price.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.


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Kavanaugh’s SeaWorld dissent shows he wants to drag workers back a century

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During his years as a judge on the D.C. Circuit court, Brett Kavanaugh has dedicated a solid amount of time to writing extremist dissents to show us just what kind of a deciding vote he would be on the Supreme Court. One of those is his notorious SeaWorld v. Perez dissent, in which Kavanaugh said SeaWorld shouldn’t be held responsible for the killing of a trainer by an orca. Steven Greenhouse writes that the dissent is “remarkable because Kavanaugh shows far less sympathy to the whale trainer who was dismembered and killed than he shows to SeaWorld for being the victim of what he sees as government overregulation and overreach,” and that he “seemed to lack an empathy gene.”

It’s not just a lack of empathy, though. Kavanaugh’s dissent, Greenhouse suggests, is either profoundly ignorant of history or is an active attempt to undo historical progress:

He said that state tort law—for instance, lawsuits that workers bring against their employer because a machine chopped off an arm—would pressure SeaWorld to assure safety to its workers. But Kavanaugh bafflingly fails to realize that the workers compensation system was set up in the early 1900s in large part to prohibit workers from filing tort lawsuits against their employers. Moreover, state tort law compensates employees only after an arm is amputated or a worker is crippled, while government regulation in the form of OSHA aims to prevent such horrific injuries from ever happening.

In likening Dawn Brancheau to NFL players and NASCAR drivers, Kavanaugh essentially embraced a pro-corporate legal doctrine that was prevalent in the 19th century—that workers assume the risks inherent in a dangerous job. In other words, if Brancheau got killed or injured, well, tough luck. It’s on them. David Michaels, the head of OSHA under President Obama, criticized Kavanaugh for making “the perverse and erroneous assertion that the law allows SeaWorld trainers to willingly accept the risk of violent death as part of their job.” 

Is Kavanaugh that ignorant of history or is he fully aware of the brutal past of American workplaces, and knowingly trying to drag us back to that brutality? Given the totality of what we know about him, the latter seems the safe bet.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on September 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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A Rundown of All the Ways Trump Is Overseeing an All Out, Under-the-Radar Attack on Workers

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Amidst headlines about porn stars and bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it can be hard to track the many ways the Trump administration is hurting workers in the United States. The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling that struck a blow to unions’ ability to collect membership dues held a brief spotlight in the national news churn. But in a more-quiet fashion, the Trump administration already has been slowly dismantling worker protections, especially those enacted under the Obama administration.     

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly proclaimed that he would help workers. He even boasted, “I have great relationships with unions.” But actions speak louder than words, and the policies pursued by the Trump administration have directly targeted middle and lower-income workers and labor unions.

The anti-labor attack gained momentum in the last weeks of 2017. President Trump had to wait until his two nominees to the five-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were confirmed. Those new members flipped the board’s majority from Democratic to Republican. The NLRB, which oversees collective bargaining law and enforcement of U.S. labor laws and standards, then quickly issued a slew of key decisions that rolled back a number of worker- and union-related reforms.

In one of the most important changes, the NLRB reversed a 2011 ruling that helped workers form smaller unions within a single workplace. The precedent set under Obama allowed the holding of a union election without including all the different types of jobs within that business that don’t share similar job duties, wages and working conditions. Employers complained that it led to “micro unions.” In a specific case, after 100 welders unionized at a large manufacturing plant, the NLRB ruled that the smaller organizing unit was illegitimate since any union election would have to include all 2,500 workers at the company, spanning 120 job classifications. The NLRB ruled 3-2 along partisan lines.

Another consequential case decided under Trump will hurt low-income fast food workers. The Trump board overturned a major 2015 decision that ruled employers are responsible for bargaining with workers, even if they have only indirect control over those workers’ employment. Fast-food companies like McDonald’s license smaller franchise businesses to run most of their restaurants. McDonald’s instructs these franchises on how to operate but leaves them to control many aspects of their day-to-day business. For decades, franchise employees who wished to bargain collectively were caught in a vicious trap. Their boss, the franchise operator, could insist that McDonald’s controlled the terms of their employment. But if they tried to bargain with McDonald’s, the company would insist that the franchise operator was their true employer.

Obama’s NLRB solved this problem by clarifying that companies like McDonald’s are, jointly with franchise operators, employers of these workers and can be forced to the bargaining table. This new standard permitted much more meaningful collective bargaining among millions of low-wage workers. Longer term, that ruling on joint employers would have dramatically improved collective bargaining rights in the fast-food industry. But the GOP majority on the NLRB scrapped this standard, returning to an old, stringent policy that requires employers to exercise “immediate and direct” control in order to be liable under labor law.

Other damaging decisions by Trump’s NLRB include:

— Reversing a 2004 decision bolstering workers’ rights to organize free from employer interference.

— Reversing a 2016 decision safeguarding unionized workers’ rights to bargain over changes in employment terms.

— Overturning a 2016 decision that required settlements between employers and employees to provide a “full remedy” to aggrieved workers, instead of partial settlements.

All of these were 3–2 decisions, with Republicans in the majority and Democrats dissenting.

Beyond the NLRB

But the NLRB is only one federal agency. Trump’s Labor Department has also rolled back several rules and executive orders that the Obama administration issued to protect workers. Those include the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required companies bidding for large federal contracts to disclose and correct past labor and safety violations. Another rescinded rule had established guidelines for when states can drug-test applicants for unemployment insurance benefits. Also rescinded was the “persuader rule,” which required law firms to publicly disclose any work they do for employers trying to fight against union organization efforts.

Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has delayed three workplace safety rules issued during the last year of Obama’s presidency. Those rules required certain employers to submit injury and illness data electronically to OSHA for publication on the agency’s website; tightened exposure standards for silica dust, which is often breathed in by certain construction workers and linked to lung disease; and weakened workplace exposure limits for beryllium, an industrial mineral linked to lung cancer.

The Supreme Court also ruled to allow employers to require workers to sign arbitration agreements that waive their rights to file class or collective action lawsuits. Last June, Trump’s acting solicitor general filed a brief with the Court that took the opposite stance from the Obama administration, asserting that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act and are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act.

Another important ruling made under the Obama administration regarded which workers were eligible to receive overtime pay. The Obama-era rules required nearly everyone paid less than $47,476 a year to be eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours a week. That was a big jump from the $23,660 threshold in place since 2004, and a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s efforts to lift wages. But a federal judge in Texas blocked that rule a week before it was scheduled to take effect, and Obama’s Labor Department appealed. However, Trump’s Labor Department filed a brief in federal appellate court indicating it will not advocate for these overtime changes.

In addition to all that, the Trump administration has proposed $2.6 billion in budget cuts—an enormous 21 percent—to the Department of Labor. Those cuts include a proposed elimination of four department programs and their services, such as training for worker-safety and for migrant farmworkers. The budget also seeks to significantly slash funding for Job Corps, a program that provides job training to disadvantaged youth, by $407 million, or 24 percent. Dimitri Iglitzin, a labor attorney in Seattle, says that “Of all of the ways that the Trump administration has been crushing labor, the most important has been the neutering of the Department of Labor. On a day-to-day basis, the agency that should be fighting for working people is doing so no longer.”

Typically, when the U.S. government shifts from a Democratic presidential administration to a Republican one, a certain level of pro-business policies and erosion of labor rights is expected. However, many labor experts say that the presidency of Donald Trump has led to a repeal of Obama administration regulations that is unprecedented, and is proceeding faster than is typical under a new GOP administration. Celine McNicholas, labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., says the Trump rollbacks of various pro-labor rules and regulations, in addition to deep cuts to the Labor Department’s budget, have been devastating to U.S. workers and “are not business as usual.”

In just over a year and a half as president, Donald Trump has wiped away a number of the modest policy gains that organized labor made during the Obama years. The nominees he chose to fill crucial regulatory roles already are making it more difficult for workers. Taken together, this blizzard of decisions will hurt millions of workers and weaken their abilities to unionize and bargain collectively.

Another way forward

But it does not have to be like this. Germany, Sweden and other EU member states show another path that is better for workers and that creates a stronger relationship between businesses, employees and trade unions.

Countries like Germany and Sweden have stronger labor laws than in the United States, and consequently more influential trade unions. In addition, many EU member states benefit from what is known as “co-determination,” which includes works councils at every job site and worker-elected boards of directors for the biggest of businesses, including Fortune 500 companies. Imagine if Walmart and Amazon were legally required to allow its workers to elect up to 50% of the members of its board of directors? It’s unimaginable to most Americans, yet this is standard practice throughout Europe. Co-determination fosters a “culture of consultation” and a degree of economic democracy. As a result, there is more broadly shared prosperity, with social supports like universal health care, child care, affordable university education, affordable housing, job training/re-skilling, workplace protections, a decent retirement and more.

In an age of growing inequality, the European practice of co-determination has broken with a strictly “shareholder model,” and has set a standard for corporate governance that holds great potential for the digital age if used in a widespread fashion.

Labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan has proposed that U.S. states should try out codetermination. Geoghegan says states should offer tax breaks to companies that allow rank-and-file employees to elect a third to a half of its corporate board of directors. Doing so, says Geoghegan, would allow U.S. companies to test drive an alternative model to the current dysfunctional stockholder model. Also, states could try out this model by requiring that nonprofits, NGOs and universities allow their employees to elect a portion of its board of directors or trustees.

Three senators (Democrats Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz) have introduced legislation that would require that companies allow workers to elect one-third of their corporate board. The bill is not expected to pass, and while the AFL-CIO has endorsed this legislation, historically unions and labor advocates have not taken up this cause. Yet labor leaders don’t seem to have any other proposals that might stop the hemorrhaging of union members.

Certainly such progressive proposals are going nowhere at the federal level under the administration of Donald Trump. So the landscape for political change has shifted to states and to cities where Democrats and progressives are more dominant. Still, even when Democrats have been in control, whether at the federal level under President Obama or in heavily Democratic states like California, Maryland and Massachusetts, there has been little appetite to push the boundaries of ways to support labor unions or progressive labor reform.

Which is surprising, since the unionization rate in the United States has fallen to fewer than 7 percent in the private sector and 11 percent of all workers. And future prospects don’t look too bright.

In an age when many workers are becoming freelancers and contractors who supposedly are the “CEOs of their own business” (whether driving for Uber, or being a hotelier for Airbnb, or a freelancer for Upwork and dozens of other online platform companies), the fate of labor unions hasn’t been this threatened in nearly a century. The Trump administration is just the latest nail in a slowly closing coffin that has been in process for decades. It’s time for U.S. labor unions to try new tactics.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is a senior fellow at FairVote, a former senior fellow and political reform program director with the New America Foundation, and former Holtzbrinck fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. For more information, visit Steven Hill’s website at www.Steven-Hill.com and follow him on Twitter @StevenHill1776.


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Trump’s Supreme Court pick is eager to take the war on workers up a notch

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Another week, another bout of Supreme Court-related horror for workers. Up this week, Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad—a reminder that, even following a disastrous-for-workers Supreme Court session, things can get worse.

  • Daily Kos’ own Meteor Blades wrote about Kavanaugh’s awful SeaWorld dissent, noting that Kavanaugh’s demeanor as he makes the rounds of the senators he needs to vote to confirm him is surely a sharp contrast with “the snarls and sneers and outright contempt contained in his judicial record when he talks about workers.”
  • Brett Kavanaugh once sided with an anti-union company that scapegoated undocumented workers, Ethan Miller writes. Oh, and the son of the owner of that company? Was sentenced to prison, the company’s violations were so egregious … and then Donald Trump pardoned him.
  • Moshe Marvit writes that Trump’s Supreme Court pick could spell a fresh hell for workers, citing repeated cases in which Kavanaugh ruled against the most basic exercises of the right to organize, like wearing t-shirts critical of the employer or displaying pro-union signs in parked cars.
  • And while I haven’t come across any allegations that Kavanaugh has a history of sexual harassment—and in fact the execrable Amy Chua wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he’s been a good mentor to women (I’m not linking, the piece is so disgusting and such an indictment of the elite legal world)—it’s worth noting that Kavanaugh clerked for and remained notably close to Judge Alex Kozinski, who was forced to retire due to a well-established pattern of harassment. Did he know? It’s a question worth asking. And if he didn’t know, how didn’t he know?

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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