Workers, even the more than 90 percent who don’t belong to a union, are going to have to pay attention and advocate for each other if they want to advance — or even to retain many of the rights that previous generations fought for.
Challenges are just as much a part of this Labor Day as celebrations.
I asked Charlotte Garden for her take on where workers stand. She’s an associate professor at the Seattle University School of Law and an expert on labor law and regulation.
Garden said this “seems like a transformational time for workers and for labor.” Because of the outcome of the presidential election and the composition of Congress, there is a lot of danger at the federal level that worker gains will be pushed back. But there is also movement at the local level to improve conditions and compensation for workers.
Garden listed some of the actions Seattle has taken that benefit workers — some things to celebrate before we get back to the challenges:
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• Establishing a minimum wage that will eventually reach $15 for many low-wage workers.
• Requiring businesses in the city to provide paid sick leave and safe time (for issues related to domestic violence, sexual assault or other safety issues).
• Allowing for-hire drivers to engage in collective bargaining beginning last year.
• Adopting a secure-scheduling law that is intended to make schedules for retail and restaurant employees more predictable. That is especially important for parents trying to work and care for young children.
• Creating the Office of Labor Standards in 2015 to implement labor ordinances and develop new policies.
Cities around the country are taking steps to improve life for workers, especially those at the low-end of the wage scale. But that leaves out people who don’t happen to live in one of those cities.
And whether those big-city efforts stick, Garden said, often depends on what state a city is in.
About half the states have laws that prevent cities from establishing their own minimum wages, and in other states, sometimes a city action leads to state counteraction.
Earlier this year, St. Louis raised its minimum wage to $10 an hour, but the Republican-controlled Legislature reversed the raise by passing a bill that set a statewide minimum ($7.70) and forbade cities from adopting a minimum wage of their own. That law went into effect last Monday.
That’s not likely to happen in Washington state, but what happens in the other Washington will have an impact here, and there is a lot at stake, Garden said.
Just before the start of Labor Day weekend, a U.S. District Court judge in Texas struck down an Obama administration rule that would have made more than 4 million additional workers eligible for overtime pay.
The overtime rule was supposed to address the erosion of real pay by inflation and would have allowed people who earn up to $47,476 a year to qualify for overtime pay. The ceiling set in 2004 was $23,660.
The Department of Labor under Obama appealed the court’s decision when it was first issued last year, but after Donald Trump’s team took over, the department dropped the appeal and the judge, Amos Mazzant, carried out his decision, invalidating the rule before it could take effect.
A lot of working people in our state might have benefited from the rule, even workers in booming Seattle. The Seattle Times FYI columnist Gene Balk reported last week that more than half of Seattle income-tax filers report less than $50,000 in adjusted gross income.
Garden said there are several cases coming before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall that involve worker rights. The election led to the appointment of a conservative judge, Neil Gorsuch, to the court, which will affect decisions in labor cases.
If unions had fulfilled their traditional role in getting out the Democratic vote during the election, the situation with regard to regulatory agencies and the court would be different.
“What was big in 2016,” Garden said, “was the diminished role that unions played in getting out the vote.”
Union membership is lower today than it has been in the past, and there were also significant divides within labor last fall. The majority of union leadership supported Hillary Clinton, Garden said, but more members than usual voted for the Republican candidate this time.
That’s normal for public-safety union members, but not for some others, including teachers. This election, even though teachers mostly supported Clinton, a significant portion went for Trump.
This is a volatile time.
The nature of work is rapidly changing, and politics are unusually divisive. Workers, even the more than 90 percent who don’t belong to a union, are going to have to pay attention and advocate for each other if they want to advance — or even to retain many of the rights that previous generations fought for.