Labor unions in America are in crisis. In the mid-1950s, a third of Americans belonged to a labor union. Today only 10.7 percent do, including a minuscule 6.4 percent of private sector workers. The decline of union membership explains as much as a third of the increase in inequality in the US, caused voter turnout among low-income workers to crater, and weakened labor’s ability to check corporate influence in Washington, DC, and state capitals.
The future for traditional unions looks so bleak that a growing number of labor scholars and activists are coming to the conclusion that the US approach is dead and can’t be revived.
Benjamin Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School and former practicing labor lawyer, says, “The way I would think about it is that there’s an existential panic about what will happen to the labor movement. That’s not new, it’s just getting worse. … If we need unions for economic and political equality as I think we do, we have to do something to stop that downward spiral.”
THE AMERICAN LABOR movement, over the past four decades, has had two golden opportunities to shift the balance of power between workers and bosses — first in 1978, with unified Democratic control of Washington, and again in 2009. Both times, the unions came close and fell short, leading, in no small part, to the precarious situation labor finds itself in today.
[Sharon] Block, the former lawyer to Kennedy in the Senate [current Executive Director, LPW], doesn’t think Obama’s lackluster advocacy really made much of a difference. In fact, she said, some version of EFCA probably would have gotten through, but the final blow came when Senate Democrats lost 60 votes following Kennedy’s death. When the Massachusetts Democrat died of brain cancer in August 2009, he was succeeded by Republican Sen. Scott Brown, and the filibuster majority was no more, and EFCA never came up for a vote again.
We are proud to present this year's John T. Dunlop Memorial Forum speaker: The Honorable Tom Perez, HLS and HKS'87, DNC Chair and former U.S. Secretary of Labor. Moderated by Sharon Block, HLS. Additional remarks by Archon Fung, HKS and David Weil, Brandeis Heller School.
OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
Sponsored by the Harvard Trade Union Program Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School
Thirty-six distinguished economists and professors of law and economics including three Nobel laureates, two recipients of the American Economic Association’s prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, and two past presidents of the American Economic Association filed an amici curiae brief to assist the Supreme Court in understanding the free-rider problem at issue in Janus v. AFSCME.
Richard B. Freeman, who holds the Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics at Harvard University, and is currently serving as Faculty co-Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at the Harvard Law School, was on of the 36 signers.
In November, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta said ominously that he was “looking at” the possibility of imposing new regulations on worker centers that could hobble their ability to get funding and operate freely. This would be the regulatory equivalent of a sniper taking pot shots at the medic who has rushed onto the battlefield to tend to a dying soldier. It is a remarkably bold threat. To see what is at stake, I traveled to frozen Minneapolis, home to one of the most effective worker centers anywhere in America.
[Sharon Block, who served as a Labor Department official in the Obama administration and is now the director Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program] points out that the George W. Bush administration already scrutinized worker centers on the same basis—and the Bush Labor Department sided with the worker centers, twice. “Who am I to argue with the Bush administration?” she laughs.
The Trump administration is moving to undo the actions of former President Obama on almost every front, and now it's happening with breathtaking speed at an agency charged with protecting worker rights.
Now, it appears Robb may also back off what has become one of the most expensive and staff intensive cases in the board's history: A complaint filed against McDonald's in 2014 that claims the company should be held liable for alleged retaliatory actions by its franchisees against workers who participated in daylong strikes as part of the Fight for $15 movement, a union-backed campaign to raise wages.
"I think that's a bellwether issue as to whether this leadership cares about these statutes making sense and applying today," said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, who served as head of policy at the Department of Labor until President Trump took office. "Or is this just a way of letting everybody fend for themselves, without the protections that they were supposed to have?"
The Trump administration is proposing to let small firms act more like big corporations to buy cheaper health insurance, a measure that would get around some of Obamacare’s requirements.
The rule would broaden the availability of less-regulated health insurance coverage to more small employers, and to self-employed people. The rule does so by letting many more small firms band together under “association health plans,” or AHPs. Those plans would be exempt from many of the Affordable Care Act’s rules on what benefits have to be covered.
“This rule seems to err on the side of making AHPs broadly available without making any effort to embed the protections that people get from ACA-covered plans,” said Sharon Block, a former senior Obama administration Labor Department official who now runs the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “You’re moving people towards less-quality plans and potentially doing harm to the people who stay in the ACA-covered plans.”
The National Labor Relations Board has overturned a 2015 law that made it easier for contractors and workers at franchised businesses to form unions and collectively bargain with big corporations.
The 2015 NLRB ruling said contract workers at a recycling center were jointly employed by a third party staffing firm and the business they worked for. Sharon Block was a member of President Obama's NLRB. She's now executive director of the labor and worklife program at Harvard Law School.
“What the Obama board did was try to apply the proper legal standard, but in a way that fit the way that our economy and our business relationships work today,” she said.
The administration says the changes will steer more money to cooks and dishwashers. Worker groups say it will lead to lower pay and wage theft. Sharon Block, LWP, tweeted, "Hard to see how workers benefit when employers are allowed to keep their tips."
"Loosening the rule is right in line with Trump’s assault on regulations since he took office. As HuffPost previously reported, many of the changes his administration has pursued have benefited lower-wage employers like retail and restaurant chains. Trump has...
The newly conservative National Labor Relations Board may scrap worker-friendly reforms made under Obama.
Sharon Block, a former Democratic member of the labor board, tweeted Tuesday that the “predictions of catastrophe” hadn’t materialized and that the only good reason to revisit the rules is “a political one.”
Should tips be shared? And, WHO do those tips belong to?
Those are some of the questions coming up as the Trump Administration proposes changes to the Tipping rule.
Listen in as Ronn talks with Sharon Block - Executive Director of the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. And, former Senior Counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and the head of the Dept. of Labor policy office.
Speculation has been simmering for months that the Trump administration might ask the Supreme Court to ban public sector unions from collecting mandatory fees. Calling for a decision that could significantly reduce labor movement finances and political influence would be a major shift in approach for the federal government.
“If they were to take such a radical step to undermine workers’ rights, I have no doubt that it would be motivated not by a genuine concern about constitutional rights but by a desire to destroy the labor movement,” Sharon Block