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Labor Report

Federal Workers, American Public Feeling Impact of U.S. Government Shutdown

With the federal government shutdown heading toward its fourth week, and 800,000 public employees and contractors caught in the middle of a stalemate over the proposed border wall, organized labor is mobilizing to ensure that workers’ voices are heard.

On Jan. 8, about 200 federal employees, union leaders, and their supporters demonstrated and rallied in Philadelphia at Independence National Historical Park, carrying cardboard signs with messages such as, “I’d rather be working for the greater good, and “Don’t use us as a bargaining chip,” the Inquirer reported.

The event was organized by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) – which represents about 10,000 workers in Philadelphia including Transportation Security Administration agents, Housing and Urban Development employees, and correctional officers – along with the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents about 5,000 workers in the city.

There are about 45,000 federal employees in the Philadelphia region, which has one of the largest concentrations of U.S. government workers outside Washington, D.C., and about 62,000 across Pennsylvania. About 12,000 federal workers in PA have been furloughed or are working without getting paid.

Two days later, hundreds of workers and supporters gathered outside the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C., holding signs declaring, “I want to go back to work,” and “Congress: Do your job so we can do ours,” according to the Washington Post. The group then marched toward the White House, calling on President Trump to endorse government funding legislation, regardless of border wall funding.

The AFGE is also acting in the courtroom. In a collective action lawsuit , filed in U.S. District Court, two union members allege that the federal government is breaking the law by forcing some employees to continue working without pay. These workers include correctional officers, Border Patrol and ICE agents, TSA officers, other “essential” employees.

About 420,000 employees continue to work without pay. In a Jan. 8 news release, AFGE TSA Council President Hydrick Thomas said many TSA officers are quitting the job because they can’t afford to keep working without pay.

“Every day I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck. Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown,” Thomas said. “The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers.”

Public security isn’t the only risk at stake if the shutdown continues beyond the short term, according to a Jan. 10 report by NBC News. Economists and expert analysts told the news agency that a long-term shutdown – a so-called “doomsday scenario” – could stymie public assistance for the poor, federal courts, income tax refund disbursement, disaster relief, food and environmental safety checks, business regulation, and countless other government functions.

Sears/Kmart Employees Caught in Middle of Bankruptcy Negotiations

As the Sears Holdings Corp. board considers a new takeover bid that may stave off a bankruptcy liquidation while preserving an estimated 50,000 jobs, employees in Pennsylvania and across the country are continuing to feel the pinch of the company’s ongoing downsizing.

A Jan. 10 regulatory filing by the company reported that board Chairman Eddie Lampert had submitted a revised takeover bid of more than $5 billion through an affiliate of his ESL hedge fund. Notice of the bid followed a tumultuous week for the company, which operated about 700 Sears and Kmart stores when it filed for bankruptcy protection last October.

On Jan. 8, the board reportedly rejected a $4.4 billion bailout offer by Lampart, a move that appeared to clear the path to liquidation of the 126-year-old retailer. But later that day, company representatives reportedly said during a bankruptcy hearing in the U.S. District Court for Southern New York that the board had accepted a revised bid that could keep 425 stores open.

The Associated Press stated that, “The revised bid is not official, and will be evaluated in an auction set for Jan. 14 (and) will compete with other bids from liquidators looking to shut it down.”

For most Sears and Kmart locations, the possible reprieve is already too late. The company downsized from about 2,000 locations five years ago to about 700 last October. Since last August, it has closed or announced plans to close 228 stores. One of those was the Kmart in New Kensington, Westmoreland County, which shut its doors for the final time on Jan. 6.

A viral video posted on Facebook documents the sorrowful farewell speech that longtime  employee Lisa Wilson made over the store’s loud speaker. As of Jan. 11, the video had garnered 79,000 views.

“The New Kensington Kmart will no longer be the place to meet,” Wilson said. “Many loyal customers have shared good memories about our store, and we will always hold them dear even after they lock our door.”

Wilson told the Tribune-Review that she routinely addressed customers from the PA system over the years and “relished the role.”

In an article published just before the New Year, PennLive compiled an extensive list of the many large retail and food service chains who closed stores in 2018 or announced imminent closings. They include Toys ‘R’ Us, The Bon-Ton, Lowe’s, Victoria’s Secret, Chipotle, Starbucks, Subway, Foot Locker, Best Buy, J.C. Penney, Sam’s Club, Macy’s, Gap, OfficeMax, Walgreens/Rite Aid, and many others.

White House Rescinds School Guidance on Fair Treatment of Minorities and Disabled

The Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era guidance aimed at ensuring that minorities and students with disabilities aren’t disciplined unfairly at school, relative to other students, according to Disability Scoop, which reports on issues related to developmental disabilities.

In late December, the Department of Justice and Department of Education officially rescinded a January 2014 letter issued by the Obama administration to inform schools of their responsibilities in meting out discipline. Federal officials said at the time that minority students and those with disabilities were being disproportionately suspended or expelled, often for petty violations of school rules.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” then-Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Though children in special education represent just 12 percent of all the nation’s students, Disability Scoop reported, they account for about 20 percent of suspensions and expulsions and nearly a quarter of students experiencing school-related arrests.

30,000 LA Teachers Scheduled to Strike Over Class Sizes, Funding Issues

Teachers from the nation’s second-largest public-school district are planning to walk off the job on Monday, Jan. 14, in a dispute with the Los Angeles Unified School District over class sizes, salaries, and a shortage of support staff. The action would be the nation’s first major teachers strike of 2019, according to CNN, following a year that saw a flurry of them in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina.

United Teachers Los Angeles represents 30,000 educators and is affiliated with both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, as well as the California Teachers Association. The L.A. school district serves 600,000 students.

Members were originally planning to walk out on Jan. 10, one day after the most recent bargaining session, but postponed the strike four days to adhere to a 10-days’ notice requirement. Another bargaining session was scheduled for Jan. 11, but the sides reportedly remain far apart and public comments have been acrimonious.

Public Educators, Right to Work Lawyers Argue Against Unions’ Exclusive Bargaining Rights

With last year’s favorable U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Janus vs. AFSCME case in their pocket, lawyers for the National Right to Work Foundation are now trying to win seats at the bargaining table for several non-union public-sector educators in Massachusetts.

Two professors and a computing director from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, along with a teacher from Hanover Public Schools, have appealed to the state’s Supreme Court seeking to overturn unions’ exclusive bargaining rights with their employers.  The Right to Work lawyers represent them.

According to the Boston Globe, the case began as a dispute over fair-share fees. But that matter became moot with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus ruling, which ordered that fair-share fees violate public employees’ constitutional right to free speech. The question of bargaining rights was one facet of the underlying case, but it became the focus after the Janus ruling.

On Jan. 8, the sides argued the question before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Attorneys for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO filed a brief stating that “the plaintiffs essentially want unions to open the doors to people who oppose them,” the Globe reported. And that, “Dissenting employees already have plenty of ways to air concerns about their working conditions.”

The Massachusetts high court has yet to rule on the case.