On the picket line

Photo: Milwaukee Teachers' Education AssociationMilwaukee bus drivers stage walkout

Contract negotiations between the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, representing over 1,000 public bus drivers and mechanics, majority African American, in the Milwaukee (Wisc.) County Transit System, came to a halt June 29, when 93 percent of the membership voted to reject the company’s latest concessions offer and 92 percent voted to authorize a strike. At issue are management’s plans to hire several hundred part-time drivers, with no benefits and an exemption from paying union dues under the state’s “right to work” law. Also, management won’t increase the length of bathroom breaks during workers’ routes, and workers are demanding no cuts in their pensions and no more out-of-pocket costs for health care.

The walkout, which began July 1 and lasted 72 hours, was met with large, enthusiastic rallies organized by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and supported by the Public Museum Employees Local 526, the Milwaukee County Labor Council, the state AFL-CIO affiliated unions, Defeat Right to Work in Wisconsin, Fight for 15 and the Transit Riders Union, among others. The All People’s Church organized a free solidarity ride program to help commuters during the walkout. (fightbacknews.org, July 2)

Photo: Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association

One step forward, one step back for Calif. farmworkers

Two lawsuits brought by California farmworkers against the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration were settled June 11. The suits charged CalOSHA with failing to protect farmworkers from extreme heat conditions on the job, resulting in multiple worker deaths. At a press conference, family members of the deceased, alongside United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez, announced sweeping changes to CalOSHA’s inspection and enforcement procedures. Changes include more frequent and comprehensive inspections of outdoor working conditions, with specific attention to repeat violators of safety laws. A pilot program was set up so workers can anonymously report violations in the field. (ufw.org, June 11)

However, another court decision threatens the ability of farmworkers to bargain collectively with employers. On May 18, the state’s Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled that farmworkers’ “mandatory mediation law” was unconstitutional. The law, passed in 2002, provides for a state mediator to institute terms for a binding union contract when management walks away from the bargaining table. Without this law, management is under no legal obligation to bargain in good faith with workers over issues like job safety, pay, hiring and firing. UFW vowed to appeal the ruling. Not surprisingly, the case is supported by some of the U.S.’s most powerful conservative, ­anti-union organizations. (inthesetimes.com, June 17)

New labor regs take effect

A National Labor Relations Board regulation went into effect April 14 that is designed to shorten the time workers wait between petitioning for union representation and holding elections. Before this, organizers had to wait over a month before an election could be held, giving employers time to use intimidation tactics and propaganda campaigns to upset election results. “Delay hurts because they can fire one more worker, or engage in five more captive-audience meetings or three more supervisor one-on-ones per person,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

After just three weeks from the start date, average waiting times have been decreased by 14 days compared to the same period in 2014. (Labor Notes, June 19) No wonder a big business coalition, led by the Chamber of Commerce, has filed a lawsuit challenging the new regulation.

A June 11 report by the Century Foundation notes that the regulations have the potential to encourage innovation in the unionizing process: ”We believe a new online tool designed to take employees through a step-by-step labor organizing process could be effective in increasing unionization.” For a new generation of tech-savvy, low-wage workers, unionizing may soon be easier.

Millions more to receive overtime pay

President Barack Obama announced on June 30 a proposal to extend overtime pay to as many as 5 million salaried workers. Since the 1938 passage of the so-called Fair Labor Standards Act, employers have been required to pay salaried workers one-and-a-half times their regular hourly wage when they work more than 40 hours a week. Regarding the salary cap, this provision has failed to keep up with inflation, thus excluding pay at time-and-a-half for millions of workers. Currently, only workers who make less than $23,660 yearly are entitled to overtime rates. This salary is so low that as income for a family of four it is well below the federal poverty line.

The Obama administration’s proposal would more than double the salary cap. Thus, workers making less than $50,440 a year are eligible for the overtime rate effective in 2016. Notably, women workers comprise 56 percent of those who will benefit from this reform. The U.S. secretary of labor has the authority to change overtime provisions without congressional approval. (whitehouse.gov and ­dol.gov, June 30)