Pexels/John Legrand

Labor

Apropos, in advance of the Labor Day holiday: Round two of discussions about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened on Friday in Mexico City and organized labor is pushing for NAFTA to guarantee a living wage.

Shortly before round one talks began in August, the AFL-CIO presented its recommendations to the United States trade representative, writing, in part: “Equitable economic development, whether for the U.S., North America, or globally, requires fundamental changes to trade policy. It must promote international commerce while simultaneously promoting a virtuous cycle of wage-led growth and high standards of protection for working families and our very democracy.”

Also on Friday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report on accomplishments in advancing the rights of workers, which showed the state had been successful in collecting $2.7 million in back wages for more than 1,500 workers (including fast-food and restaurant workers) over the past year.

The possibility of a globally “virtuous cycle of wage-led growth,” recovered back wages, and a day during which we honor the efforts of working people are as good as any reasons to cheer three big labor victories and put four disputes on your radar to watch.

For the win

1. The “Fair Workweek” package

One of the most clear-cut “yep, that’s a win” labor stories of the last several months: In New York City, fast food workers gained a slew of new rights. Starting near the end of 2017, they’ll get their schedules two weeks in advance, have first dibs on any open shifts (this was intended to subvert the employer tendency to hire scores of part-timers in order to avoid providing full-time worker benefits), and employers will be penalized for “clopenings,” or the practice of scheduling the same person to close a store and reopen it the next day.

The new rules will also create a mechanism that allows people to pay union-type fees to union-type worker advocacy nonprofits straight from their paychecks. Though these new organizations won’t be called unions, they’ll function somewhat similarly.

Kevin Moloney / Aurora Photos

2. The “hostile work environment” case

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled in favor of more than a hundred Somali Muslim employees of agri-giant Cargill, who left their slaughterhouse jobs at a Cargill plant in Ft. Morgan, Colorado over a perceived “prayer ban.”

The EEOC’s decision is news in and of itself: The commission finds cause in less than three percent of its cases, and it ruled that Cargill fostered a “hostile work environment based on [its Muslim employees’] religion, race and national origin, including making disparaging racial, ethnic and religious comments and by requiring them to choose between their religion and work.”

Perhaps more significantly, the EEOC also ruled against the workers’ labor union, essentially saying that the local Teamsters hadn’t represented the Somali Muslim community fairly in negotiations with Cargill management.

The former employees may have still a long road ahead. Cargill and the Teamsters could elect to proceed with a private conciliation process, or they could decide not to participate. If that happens, the case may proceed to court.

Teamsters 812

3. The pension protest

Back in April, dozens of unionized employees walked off the job at Long Island’s only Budweiser beer distributor, Clare Rose, Inc. They were protesting a change in pay structure and their employer’s plan to stop contributing to their pensions, offering a 401(k) instead.

The employees, mostly truck drivers, enlisted Long Island community members to assist them: They convinced several businesses to stop carrying Budweiser (including the raceway that hosted the Belmont Stakes), and they persuaded town authorities to open an investigation into employment promises the distributor had made in order to reap tax benefits.

Ultimately, the Teamsters won the day. Now the Clare Rose employees are back to work, pensions intact.

For your radar

1. The middle finger to ICE

In Jerome County, Idaho, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tried to rent beds in the county jail, presumably to house detainees.

But Jerome County is dairy country, and dairy workers aren’t covered by guest worker programs like H-2A, which makes an ICE presence of any kind seem especially threatening. In August, a group of farmers—who rely heavily on immigrant labor—sent a letter to their county commissioners in protest of the proposed deal. And community members rallied outside the county courthouse.

The situation remains unresolved. But what if farmers across the country banded together to refuse ICE’s presence in their hometowns? That’d be a labor win. Kind of.

2. The blue card

Back in May, Senator Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill called the Agricultural Worker Program Act. If passed, the legislation would allow undocumented agricultural workers who have worked in the U.S. for at least 100 days in the past two years to apply for a “blue card.” Blue card holders will then have a clear path to a green card: they can either work in agriculture for 150 days per year over three consecutive years, or 100 days per year over five consecutive years.

But Democrats have struggled to rally Republican support for the bill, and a Huffington Post article in June suggested it may be dead on arrival. Still, powerful farm groups with bipartisan support have an obvious interest in immigration reform. We may not have seen the end of this bill.

 

3. The right to organize

In May of 2016, advocacy groups sued the State of New York on behalf of plaintiff and former dairy worker Crispin Hernandez for collective bargaining rights for farmworkers. Lawyers began arguing the case in July, the New York Times reported.

Though the original suit was filed against the State of New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declined to defend it, signaling that they agreed with the plaintiffs. But the New York Farm Bureau stepped in as an intervenor and is defending the case instead.

The New York State Supreme Court hasn’t yet handed down its decision on farmworkers’ right to organize. But if the court rules in favor of Hernandez, it’ll pave a path toward unionization for one of the most vulnerable populations in the state.

4. The overtime rule

A federal judge in Texas on Thursday struck down an Obama administration rule that would have required employers to pay overtime to salaried employees making $47,000 or less. The current salary threshold is $23,660.

Last year, the same judged blocked the rule from taking effect after 21 states sued, saying in part that the rule would force the private sector to cut jobs and cost states millions of dollars in overtime pay.

U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant in his decision took issue with the new salary threshold, which he said was high enough that it might include management positions that are typically exempt from overtime protections. Reuters reports that some business groups were especially pleased with Mazzant’s decision: “The National Restaurant Association in a statement said the Obama administration had overstepped its authority in adopting the rule. The group said it would work with the Trump administration ‘to ensure workable changes to the overtime rule are enacted.’”