Labor News: What the DOL Has Done So Far This Autumn to Support Workers and Unions
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Workers need all the help they can get when it comes to standing up for their rights in the workplace.
While union support is one of their most critical resources, they particularly need the support of federal agencies that make and enforce labor laws. That’s something the Biden administration has been focused on since the start of his presidency, and his pro-labor Department of Labor (DOL) continues to demonstrate a commitment to strengthening unions and worker power.
“I really respect the collective bargaining process … and the desire and choice to form a union is up to workers, full stop,” says Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su. “But I also think continuing economic policies that create good jobs and that create upward incentives on wages and working conditions is a good thing for all workers.”
Here are some of the most recent initiatives undertaken by the DOL that aim to protect workers and boost union power.
DOL Investigating Starbucks’ Compliance with LMRDA
Starbucks has used legal, illegal, and gray-area tactics to fight employees every step of the way in worker efforts to unionize various locations around the country. To illustrate, baristas have successfully organized at over 300 Starbucks locations in the past two years, but none have secured a first contract because of the company’s heavy-handed approach to union busting, efforts the company has worked hard to hide or deny.
“Under [company founder and former CEO Howard] Schultz’s leadership, Starbucks (and its legal team at the employer-side firm Littler Mendelson) has expanded this template of strategic avoidance,” reports E. Tammy Kim, contributing writer at The New Yorker, a strategy that has continued under the current CEO Laxman Narasimhan.
But the company can no longer avoid the consequences of some of its actions.
On October 4, 2023, a federal court in Seattle, Washington, ruled that the company must comply with a DOL’s Office of Labor-Management Standards’ (OLMS) administrative subpoena requesting documents regarding money spent in persuader activities in fiscal years 2021 and 2022. The company fought the subpoena, saying the DOL didn’t have the authority to issue it, explains Peter Romeo, editor at large for Restaurant Business.
The court disagreed and ruled that the OLMS does have that power — given by the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) — and Starbucks must comply so the department can do its investigation into persuader activity conducted by the company during union campaigns.
“The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act is an important tool that allows workers to understand ‘who is doing what’ to counter an organizing campaign,” says OLMS Director Jeff Freund in a DOL news release. “By enforcing the department’s subpoena, the court will help us determine if Starbucks must file a report on its response to its workers’ efforts to organize.”
It’s a critical win for workers and the union because it forces the company to expose the extent of its use of anti-labor consultants.
“The transparency created by these requirements is designed to better inform workers in making determinations regarding the exercise of their rights to organize and bargain collectively,” explains the DOL. “For example, with the knowledge that the source of the information received is an anti-union campaign managed by an outsider, workers will be better able to assess the merits of the arguments directed at them and make an informed choice about how to exercise their rights.”
DOL Grants to Boost Number of Women in Registered Apprenticeship Programs
A career in the trades offers men and women the opportunity to be financially stable and fulfilled in their profession. The problem is there aren’t enough women in the trades. A report by Zippia shows only four percent of all tradespeople are women.
The federal government wants to bring more women into the trades through its Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) Grant program. To achieve that end, the DOL awarded $5 million in 2023 to organizations in seven states to attract more women to registered apprenticeship programs. It is the largest award of such grants to date.
“Women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce but remain vastly underrepresented in industries like construction, which needs more skilled workers needed to fill these high-paying jobs,” says Women’s Bureau Director Wendy Chun-Hoon. “The Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations program prepares women for promising careers and provides the technical assistance to employers and unions to recruit and retain more women effectively.”
One recipient, Hope Renovations in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, says the funds will extend the organization’s reach and more than triple the number of women who complete its pre-apprenticeship program. The anticipated end result will be 150 women placed in industry jobs and apprenticeships.
DOL Proposed Rule Offers Protections for Temporary Farm Workers
In September 2023, the DOL proposed a rule that would strengthen workplace protections for H-2A (temporary) farm workers in the U.S.
“The federal government has recognized for decades that farm workers often face abuses on the job, including poor housing and wage theft,” writes Sky Chadde, assistant editor and senior reporter for Investigate Midwest. “H-2A workers’ time in the country is tied to their employer, which advocates and experts have said lead workers to not complain about abuses.”
In an attempt to rectify this, the new rule:
- Gives workers greater access to unions and a more protected right to organize.
- Narrows the definition of “for cause” termination.
- Requires farms to identify the recruiters they use to recruit workers in foreign countries.
- Calls for more transparent and predictable wage rates.
- Improves worker access to safe transportation to and from the work site.
- Enhances the enforcement of H-2A program rules.
Its passage would be a win for the more than 258,000 temporary farm workers in the H-2A program. These workers have become critical to the agricultural industry in the U.S. that often struggles to fill labor shortages with domestic workers.
“Farm workers are vital to our farmers, our food supply and our communities,” says Su in a DOL news release. “The administration is committed to protecting all workers, and this proposal would significantly advance that effort.”
DOL Funds Mine Health and Safety Training Programs
Mining is one of the most dangerous industries for workers. Despite efforts to improve health and safety conditions, miners are always at risk of injury, illness, and death from cave-ins, falls, explosions, toxic air, and a number of other hazards.
Data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows the number of fatalities and the fatality rate in the mining industry between 1983 and 2022. While those numbers improved, particularly between 2015 and 2019, the rates have ticked up a bit the last three years.
The federal government has long worked to better protect miners through legislative initiatives like the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and investments in training programs through the DOL’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). To that end, MSHA recently awarded $10.5 million in grants for training programs aimed at reducing mining accidents, injuries, and illnesses.
“In examining the mining industry’s troubling trend of fatalities this year , MSHA has found that training deficiencies continue to be a root cause of fatal accidents,” says MSHA Assistant Secretary Chris Williamson. “The grants…further key priorities of the agency and the Biden-Harris administration, including preventing fatalities and serious accidents from safety issues, while also addressing miner health, such as preventing exposure to toxic materials like silica dust.”
Each of these DOL initiatives is important to workers and the unions that support them. It can only benefit the labor movement for workers to know just what the government is doing to protect them on the job and protect their rights in the workplace.
As trusted sources of information for their members, unions should regularly share such updates with their members. A communication platform like UnionTrack® ENGAGE® makes it easy to disseminate real-time information to all members at one time.
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