Labor Law and Leverage

Ideas and Issues

December 19, 2020


New Orleans One of the cabinet positions still waiting for a nomination from President-Elect Biden is the Labor Department, where the devastation of workers’ rights and protections has been particularly acute. This is going to be a hard job. Ironically, the easiest piece may be raising the minimum wage finally.

With the Senate up for grabs, and, as usual, the odds are against working people and our unions, there is already speculation, and what looks to me like lobbying, for what the new president can do without help from the Congress.  Sadly, no one seems to be saying much about any substantive changes in labor law. What had been touted so heavily in anticipation of a Clinton presidency in 2016, seems to have virtually disappeared from union and labor advocates agenda in 2020, becoming another footnote to the horror of the Trump interregnum for working people. Now it all seems to be about leverage.

The greatest organizing success over the last generation for unions has been the expansion of organization among home-care workers which has brought up to a half-million members into the Service Employees International Union and additional hundreds of thousands into other unions as well. SEIU and its president, Mary Kay Henry, seem to be advertising an effort to try to push Medicaid into providing financial incentives, which seem unlikely, or using labor shortages to intervene in states to create pay and work supplements to encourage more people into the industry. They seem to want federal Medicaid money to help create a collective bargaining structure and provide more sustenance to the states who have not adopted this system to move in that direction. Wouldn’t it be wonderful! Given the amount of political polarization, it hard for me to believe progressive forces have enough political power to leverage that to happen either at the state or federal level.

Using federal contracts to raise wage floors and protections for subcontracted workers under section 4C of the Service Contract Act seems more likely and within reach, since that’s a pretty straightforward DOL directive. Whether the DOL could create “most favored nation” arrangement for procurement, in league perhaps with Defense and other big spenders that would both keep jobs and benefit unionized contractors, would also seem reasonably achievable.

We’re bound to get a better makeup in the membership of the National Labor Relations Board. Whether that could happen more quickly than we saw under the Obama administration to be able to rehear and decide cases on co-employer status and definitions of employees versus contractors or giggers is unclear.  The notion that the NLRB would cede federal jurisdiction to the states for regulating certain industries, like gig workers, just seems a terrible idea that might have appeal for the short term in certain deep blue states, but long term would be disastrous for millions of workers everywhere if states were ever allowed to become the vassals of big corporate interests and contributions with power over significant number of workers.

The important thing about leverage in organizing is knowing when to grab a handle, and when to let it go and pass it by for a better angle.