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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

Labor, NLRB, Unions

The federal minimum wage rose by 70 cents to $6.55 per hour on July 24, 2008; it will rise to $7.25 in 2009. Some 2.2 million US workers earned the federal minimum wage or less in 2008. About 75 million US workers were paid on an hourly basis in 2008, and 300,000 earned exactly the federal minimum wage and 1.9 million earned less. Half of the minimum wage earners are 16 to 24, and were employed in the leisure and hospitality industry.

DOL revised the 2000 standard occupational classification (SOC), raising the number of detailed occupations to 840. These occupations are grouped into 23 major and 97 occupational groups.

Unions. The number of union members rose by 428,000 in 2008 to 16.1 million, with most of the growth among public sector workers, especially home-health care aides. Many states enacted laws requiring cities and counties to establish employer entities for home-health care aides, who were then organized--half are related to the elderly or disabled person to whom they provide care.

Some 12.4 percent of US workers belong to unions, including 37 percent of public sector workers and eight percent of private-sector workers. California has 2.7 million union members, 17 percent of the US total, and accounted for almost 60 percent of the growth in union members in 2008.

DOL/EFCA. Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-CA) was sworn in on March 13, 2009 as the 25th Secretary of Labor. Republican senators objected, arguing that Solis was an active proponent of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow, over employer objections, unions to be recognized as bargaining agents for workers without secret ballot elections if more than 50 percent signed union-authorization cards.

The EFCA would also require the NLRB to give top priority to charges of unfair labor practices during pre-election campaigning and allow a federal arbitrator to impose a first contract within 120 days after the parties failed to reach agreement. Workers fired unlawfully could receive triple back pay, and employers could be fined $20,000 per ULP.

The battle over the EFCA, called the biggest change in US labor law since 1935, began in earnest in March 2009. The bill had 223 co-sponsors in the House, a majority, but only 40 in the Senate, where unions and businesses concentrated their lobbying efforts. Unions say the fact that fewer than 10 percent of private-sector workers are members, that wage growth has lagged behind productivity growth, and that in half of cases where unions are certified to represent employers no first contract is reached, shows the need for the EFCA.

However, Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) opposed the EFCA for doing away with the secret ballot, prompting talk of a compromise that would retain just one of the three major reforms in the EFCAÑ tougher penalties on employers who violate worker rights during organizing campaigns or refused to bargain with certified unions. The compromise would also make other changes in pre-election procedures, including holding elections within 30 days or a fixed period after a union requests an election and allowing union organizers to come onto company property during the campaign to talk to workers, for instance, on their lunch break.

DOL's Wage and Hour Division enforces the Fair Labor Standards Act and other laws that establish minimum wages, regulate child labor, and monitor hours of work for 100 million US workers.

Unions. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney will retire after 14 years; Richard Trumka, former president of the United Mine Workers, is hoping to succeed Sweeney. The AFL-CIO's 55 unions had about 8.4 million members in 2008. The largest AFL-CIO unions include AFSCME with 1.4 million members in 2008, the AFT with 1.1 million members, the Electrical and Communications Workers, with about 600,000 members each, and the Steel and Auto Workers, with about 500,000 members each.

Seven unions quit the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form the Change to Win federation, and efforts to re-unite the labor movement picked up steam in spring 2009. UNITE HERE'S board voted to leave Change to Win to rejoin the AFL-CIO in March 2009.

The co-presidents of UNITE-HERE, a merger of unions representing 400,000 apparel and hotel workers in 2004, respectively, sought a divorce in February 2009. The logic of the merger was that UNITE had resources, including Amalgamated Bank, the nation's only labor-owned bank, but few new workers to organize, while HERE had many opportunities to organize but not enough resources.

The merger has not gone as planned. UNITE is a top-down union based in New York, while HERE is a decentralized union that includes workers in its bargaining teams. UNITE leaders sued HERE for trying to obtain more UNITE-HERE funds for organizing, and in March 2009 announced that they were taking 150,000 workers from UNITE-HERE to the SEIU. HERE leaders, who successfully organized workers in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos, denounced the move.

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