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Labor Report

Largest Auto Worker Strike in Years Reflects Issues Facing America’s Labor Movement

When 46,000 United Auto Workers walked off the job at General Motors on September 16, they launched the largest strike by any single American labor union since 2007, CNN reported. Now less than a week old, the labor action is already the UAW’s longest strike in more than a decade, according to The Detroit News.

UAWAs GM and union officials continue to negotiate numerous issues, including wage increases, health insurance contributions, seniority, plant closures, and job security, analysts and commentators have been weighing in on what the strike means for the labor movement in general.

“Union members at General Motors have joined a national uptick in strikes, with Americans increasingly turning to collective action in the face of unstable employment practices,” Time wrote.

Although unions have suffered “serious setbacks” such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, the expansion of Right to Work laws, and a sustained decline in membership, union activism has seen a recent surge.

“In the last two years, there have been more strikes involving more workers,” Time wrote. “Striking workers spent about 2,815,400 days idle in 2018, up from 439,800 in 2019 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

About 485,000 U.S. workers took part in strikes last year, the highest total since 1986. More than 90% of those were in the education, health care, and social assistance industries.

The UAW said that “GM refuses to give even an inch to help hard-working middle-class families” after those workers have spent years helping the company “reach record-level profits.” The union has complained that GM is increasingly sending jobs overseas and giving more work to temporary employees.

“In that respect, GM is no different to many corporations today,” Time wrote.
“Wages for many workers have stagnated, and work is more likely to be temporary and offer poorer access to benefits. This sense of instability is likely to energize union workers and to increase popular support for unions.”

Kentucky Miners Tell Bankrupt Employer “No Pay, We Stay” While Blocking Million-Dollar Shipment

Coal mineA tiny county in Southeastern Kentucky best known for violent coalmine strikes in the 1930s and ’70s has again become a national focal point of labor unrest. For the last eight weeks, laid-off miners have camped out on a stretch of railroad tracks in Harlan County to block a shipment of coal by their former employer. They have adopted the rallying cry, “No Pay, We Stay!”

Blackjewel LLC, the nation’s sixth-largest coal company, declared bankruptcy on July 1 and laid off 1,700 employees in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. The miners’ June 28 paychecks bounced. They were granted no severance or other benefits.

“On July 29th, a woman who lives near a Blackjewel prep plant noticed a train being loaded with coal. She sent a message to some Blackjewel workers, and soon enough (a group of miners) were clambering onto the tracks to stop the train full of $1.4 million worth of coal,” Rolling Stone reported.

According to the New York Times, the company had found a buyer for the load from its Cloverlick No. 3 mine near Cumberland, Kentucky. The unpaid workers were determined to stop its delivery.

“A protest that began with five men blocking a train full of coal has grown into a small 24-hour tent city along some railroad tracks next to the highway,” the Times reported. “It has become a pilgrimage site for labor activists, a rallying point for the community — ‘a tailgate party on steroids,’ as one local official approvingly put it. And it is the first organized miners’ protest that anyone can remember for decades in Harlan County, Ky., a place once virtually synonymous with bloody labor wars.”

The Blackjewel miners were not unionized, but they have garnered support from the United Mine Workers of America and the AFL-CIO, who were on-site for an August 6 rally.

“Tuesday‘s rally in support of the protesting Harlan County miners is more proof—as if it were needed—that organized labor sticks up for more than our own,” the Kentucky AFL-CIO stated.

As part of an agreement reached between the Department of Labor and Blackjewel this week, the company issued overdue paychecks to “a few dozen” miners who worked at one of its West Virginia mines, according to NPR. Yet, “about 1,000 miners in Kentucky and Virginia are still owed millions of dollars in back wages.”

NLRB Plans to Revoke Student Union Rights in Reversal of the Board’s Own Recent Precedent

The National Labor Relations Board has announced that it will publish newly proposed rules on September 23 that would rescind the rights of university student-teachers and research assistants to unionize.

The proposal would reverse the board’s own 2016 precedent regarding graduate students who earn compensation for duties they fulfill while pursuing advanced degrees, and it would deliver a major setback to student groups that have already organized unions at many American universities.

National Labor Relations Board“Since the 2016 decision, in a case brought by Columbia students, a number of graduate student unions have made impressive gains. Before the decision, only one such union had a contract with a private university. Now five do, and a total of 15 universities have held union votes since 2016, according to researchers at Hunter College,” the New York Times reported.

Republicans appointed by President Trump hold a 3-1 majority on the NLRB. Traditionally, three seats are allocated to the president’s party, while two are reserved for the opposition party. The administration has allowed one seat – which would traditionally be held by a Democrat – to remain vacant since August 28, 2018. The lone Democrat on the board has a term due to expire on December 19, 2019.

“The basis for this proposed rule is the board’s preliminary position, subject to revision in light of public comments, that the relationship these students have with their school is predominantly educational rather than economic,” the NLRB stated.

Student organizers across the country have argued that unions are necessary to protect the rights of graduate assistants who often teach classes, maintain office hours, and plan discussion sessions, among other duties typical of employment. Also, they have argued that unions are needed to protect graduate assistants from discrimination or harassment by faculty members who supervise them. Many universities have contested student unionizing efforts.

The board’s majority and dissenting opinions on the issue, as well as links for public commenting, are available on the NLRB website.

Whole Foods Abruptly Revokes Worker Health Benefits, Installs Customer Satisfaction Terminals

Whole FoodsAmazon plans to revoke healthcare benefits for about 1,900 part-time employees who work at least 20 hours per week at the company’s Whole Foods Market stores. The new policy will take effect on January 1 and impact about two percent of the company’s 95,000 employees, according to Business Insider, which broke the news on September 12.

The business news website spoke with a 15-year employee who said “she would have to increase her hours to become eligible for full-time benefits and pay for childcare, or shop for a new and potentially more-expensive health-insurance plan on the private marketplace.”

The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said she keeps her Whole Foods job mainly for the health benefits. A Whole Foods spokesperson told Insider that healthcare-eligible positions will now require at least 30 hours per week and that part-timers will continue to receive other benefits, like a 20% discount at Whole Foods stores.

Many employees first learned that their benefits would be cut from the news media and not their employer, the Seattle Times wrote.

Salon reported that companies associated with Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos seem to be developing a pattern of cutting worker benefits. After Bezos became publisher of the Washington Post, the newspaper cut its retirement benefits. Conversely in August, Amazon joined Apple and other tech companies in “a pledge to invest in workers.”

“Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities, and our country,” the pledge stated.

Whole Foods workers were also disconcerted recently when the company abruptly introduced new touch screens at checkout stands asking customers to rate their experiences at the store.

“The ratings are not meant to evaluate individual employees, but their arrival caused anxiety for at least one Whole Foods checker, who said neither a training video nor management communications about the new technology covered what the ratings data would be used for,” the Seattle Times reported.

“… the lack of detail provided about the new ratings system raised questions about employee communications at a time when labor groups are trying to organize its workers.”

August 2019 PA Jobs Update

Pennsylvania’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate experienced no change from July to August 2019, remaining at 3.9%. Over the month, unemployment rolls increased by 4,426 individuals, with total unemployment rising to 254,613. State unemployment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Unemployment – 254,613
  • Change Over Month – UP   4,426
  • Change Over Year – DOWN   15,340
  • Change Over Gov. Wolf 1st Term – DOWN   78,565
  • Change Over Gov. Wolf to Date – DOWN   90,251
  • Rate Change Over Month – no change
  • Rate Change Over Year – DOWN   0.3%
  • Rate Change Over Gov. Wolf 1st Term – DOWN   1.3%
  • Rate Change Over Gov. Wolf to Date – DOWN   1.5%

As indicated above, total unemployment’s rounded percentage of the labor force, or unemployment rate, saw no change over the month (rate = unemployment / labor force). The labor force is the number of employed individuals combined with the number of unemployed individuals actively searching for work. Labor force growth can be a sign of a strengthening economy from more people working and/or more individuals searching for jobs. In August 2019, PA’s labor force rose for a second consecutive month, increasing by 9,134 individuals, a combination of total employment* rising by 4,708 and unemployment up by 4,426 as noted above. Over Governor Wolf’s first term, the state’s labor force grew by 58,755 (employment +137,320 - unemployment -78,565) and is up 77,414 (employment +167,665 - unemployment -90,251) over both terms thus far. State labor force statistics for the month are as follows: 

  • Total Labor Force – 6,479,402
  • Change Over Month – UP  9,134
  • Change Over Year – UP  50,959
  • Change Over Gov. Wolf 1st Term – UP  58,755
  • Change Over Gov. Wolf to Date – UP  77,414

PA non-farm* job rolls rose by 16,500 from July to August 2019, rebounding after three consecutive months of negative growth, increasing total non-farm employment to a new record high of 6,051,700. Year-over-year (August 2018 to August 2019), a total of 38,400 new non-farm jobs have been added. Over Governor Wolf’s first term (Jan. 2015 – Jan. 2019), a total of 223,000 new non-farm jobs were added, roughly 71,000 more than were added over the four-year term of the prior Corbett Administration. The addition of 223,000 non-farm jobs over Governor Wolf’s first term ranked the commonwealth 35th out of 50 states for new percentage growth, an improvement from it’s ranking of 49th in the same survey over Governor Corbett’s term. Non-farm job growth has slowed somewhat in 2019, with a total of 13,700 new jobs added through Governor Wolf’s second term thus far (Jan. 2019 – Aug. 2019). However, the commonwealth’s ranking among states for new percentage non-farm job growth through Governor’ Wolf’s second term has improved to 31st. State non-farm employment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Employment – 6,051,700
  • Change Over Month –   UP   16,500
  • Change Over Year –   UP   38,400
  • Change Over Gov. Wolf 1st Term –   UP   223,000
  • Change Over Gov. Wolf to Date –    UP   236,700

*Total employment for labor force provided by U.S. Census Household survey. The separate BLS Establishment survey measures non-farm jobs only.

2019 PA vs. Nat. Unemployment