Labor's Surprisingly Great Year: 5 Victories For Workers So Far In 2015

In the interest of fairness, let's begin with the bad news. Overall, union membership is still tracking down at roughly 11.1% (though private sector unions did tick up briefly in 2014), anti-labor practices are still widespread, Scott Walker’s scorched earth union busting in Wisconsin is still hurting millions, and inequality continues to grow unabated. But Labor day is a day of celebration and some serious victories have been achieved in both the court of public opinion and law. Here are some highlights:


1. $15 minimum wage has gone mainstream

Just five years ago, the idea of a 15 dollar minimum wage was a fringe idea, something relegated to green party reps handing out flyers in Union Square. In 2015, after years of struggle by the broader #FightFor15 movement, it officially achieved mainstream acceptance, having just been cemented as the official stance of the Democratic Party last week.

After years of protests, arrests, lost jobs, and hardship, the notion that workers should get something approaching a living wage - rather than a meager minimum one - has become orthodoxy among American liberals. Seattle led the way last year, followed soon by the two largest cities in the United States, Los Angeles and New York (note: New York's only applies to fast food workers ); serving as a brief reminder that on a local level democracy is not quite dead. Though it is now popular among much of the left in this country, actually implementing a federal $15 minimum wage is going to be a long struggle with much push back, most notably in the still-GOP congress. But what happened in 2015 thus far is, no doubt, a very good start.

2. “McDonald's franchise” court ruling

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in the "Browning Ferris case” in August that corporations can no longer use the franchise model to divorce labor entirely from their liability burden. Large brands, such as Subway and McDonalds, are now considered a “joint employer” with their franchisees, radically altering the relationship between the millions of service industry workers and their employer. McDonalds, which is over 90% franchise, has the most to lose from the ruling because its entire business model is based around this arrangement. 

The board voted across party lines, with the three democrats - all appointed by President Obama - voting in favor and the two Republican dissenting.

As the Huffington Post noted:

Labor unions and worker advocacy groups have been hoping for just such a decision. In their view, since companies like McDonald's influence the working conditions in their franchised stores, they should be legally accountable to the workers who wear their logos, even if it's a franchisee that's technically signing the paychecks. Bringing companies at the top of the contracting chain to the table will help restore corporate responsibility in a "fissured" economy, advocates say.

3. Uber drivers begin unionizing, are seen as employees in California

The word “share,” in the words of Sam Bliss, has been "appropriated and stripped of all meaning by people trying to sell you things. The share economy is another way of rendering once-regulated markets unregulated by fundementally altering the relationship between the person carrying out the task (in the case of Uber, the driver) and the person arranging, branding and taking the vast majority of money from the purchase of the task (Uber Technologies, Inc). In June, California Labor Commissioner’s Office rejected this exploitative arrangement, ruling that the Uber drivers were indeed employees subject to rules governing the paying back of expenses incurred in the course of work. Uber was ordered to pay driver Barbara Ann Berwick, over $4,000 in back expenses setting the table for similar actions.

The Labor Commissioner’s office ruled on a separate, but similar case again in August, granting Uber drivers class action status, making lawsuits and, ultimately, collective bargaining much easier. Similar efforts in Seattle to let Uber drivers unionize are quickly gaining traction as well.

4. Online media began unionizing - a first in the medium 

An interesting thing happened in 2015: online media outlets began organizing, beginning with Gawker in June. Salon's wrting staff soon followed, rallying to start their own unionizing effort. Vice voted to unionize in August. Even reliably pro-corporate liberal Dana Milbank of The Washinton Post joined the Local 32035 of the Communications Workers of America out of solidarity with his fellowing comrades. Other efforts didn't go so well, with Buzzfeed and clickbait site Upworthy moving to discourage their employees from unionizing with claims that doing so ran counter to their company "culture." Nonetheless, the groundwork was laid and in 2015 online media unexpectedly joined the ranks of organized labor.

5. Charter schools unconstitutional in Washington

Another win for grassroots activists in Seattle, this time against the fervently anti-Union charter school lobby. On Wednesday, a Washington State Supreme Court ruled that Washington's new charter school system was unconstitutional because it funneled state funds into private corporations without any public accountability.

The case, brought by The Washington Education Association, League of Women Voters of Washington, El Centro de la Raza, the Washington Association of School Administrators was a huge defeat for charter schools billionaire benefactors Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, most notably because it happened right in their own backyard. The two men, worth a combined $125 billion (or roughly the GDP of Bulgaria) along with others outspent the opposition 50 to 1 to pass the 2012 charter school referendum by only a 1% vote margin. The measure had previously failed to pass in 1996, 2000, and 2004 but was ultimately jammed through two years ago, only to be undone by a 1909 Washington state law preventing the use of public school funds for private gain.

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