Labor unions ring in new year with lawsuits, strikes, and more
Monday, January 07, 2019
It’s 2019 and the year is so new that everyone wonders what it has in store.
One thing is for certain. U.S. labor unions are starting off the new year swinging. Whether they are opposing GM plant closures, contesting the no-pay provision of the current government shutdown, or planning a large urban teachers strike, 2019 has already started off as a year filled with strong labor voices amidst record-setting partisan rancor.
The partial federal government shutdown started on Dec. 22, largely fueled by President Trump’s insistence that $5 billion be included in the budget for a Mexican border wall.
Government shutdowns are not new. But they always share the distinctive quality of being entirely cumbersome to federal workers. Since this weekslong shutdown has been in effect, President Trump has shown no sign of backing down.
But federal workers are fighting back in a lawsuit claiming the shutdown is illegal.
400,000 federal workers have been expected to work without pay since Dec. 22. This not only placed undue hardship on workers during the holiday season, but it also produces low morale as workers perform their same jobs with no idea of when their next paycheck will arrive.
These are the workers who stay on during shutdowns, deemed “essential” government employees who perform “emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Law enforcement, border patrol, federal firefighters, U.S. Postal and Federal Reserve employees are examples of employees performing essential functions — and not getting paid while doing so.
Essential employees represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) have filed the first union-initiated lawsuit for this shutdown. Evoking the Fair Labor Standards Act, the union claims it’s illegal to work without pay.
J. David Cox Sr., President of AFGE, states: “Our members put their lives on the line to keep our country safe. Requiring them to work without pay is nothing short of inhumane. Positions that are considered ‘essential’ during a government shutdown are some of the most dangerous jobs in the federal government.”
The union wants employees working the most dangerous jobs to be fairly compensated.
Fair compensation is a commonplace union battle, to be sure. Over at the General Motors plants threatened with closure people are rallying for not only better pay, but they are saving their jobs as well. When GM announced earlier that it plans to close several plants in an effort to streamline production while focusing on the new electric vehicle market, workers fought back.
At the threatened GM Canadian plant in Oshawa, Ontario, the union, Unifor, has launched a major public relations blitz intended to shame the company into keeping GM jobs in Canada. GM has promised to announce its intentions for Oshawa soon.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) has remained vocal about GM plant closures anticipated in Detroit and other locales.
Teachers are also in the mix in 2019, as usual. 2018 was the year that U.S. charter school teachers went on strike for the first time ever. The major Chicago charter chain, Acero, was awakened by the demands of its striking teachers, represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, in early December. A tentative settlement was reached days later.
Now, there are rumors that a massive teachers strike is planned in Los Angeles for mid-January.
Perhaps emboldened by the Acero teachers’ negotiating victory, L.A. teachers, represented by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), plan for a Jan. 10 strike date. The Los Angeles school district employs 34,000 teachers (including subs) and serves a whopping 640,000 students. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has been in contract negotiations a year and a half.
Given its sheer size, a strike is a huge undertaking, but the school district is ready. It has hired over 400 subtitutes to teach classes during the strike.
The union says hiring nonunion teachers is illegal: “It is outrageously irresponsible...to force this strike when the district holds $1.9 billion in reserves and it is even more irresponsible to think that 400 substitutes can educate more than 600,000 students. We believe that it is illegal for the district to hire people outside our bargaining unit to teach in LAUSD classrooms.”
What do L.A. teachers want? More money for school budgets to hire counselors, nurses, social workers and librarians; a 6.5 percent pay raise; standardized testing reductions, and more community schools. But the district is fully aware of these demands, and does not want to dip into its reserves to meet union demands.
Given the size of the L.A. school district, this strike fervor will surely spread and impact other sectors also feeling the current financial squeeze.
How friendly negotiations are likely to be in this and other cases is undecided. What’s decided is 2019 will prove to be another essential year for labor — whether it’s federal employees, auto workers, teachers, fast food employees, healthcare and hotel workers, or other essential occupations.
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