It's called Labor Day for a reason. E.J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson examine creative ways in which the labor movement may be making a comeback.
September 2, 2013

E.J. Dionne this Labor Day morning examines creative ways in which labor is making a comeback — from Thursday's one-day fast food strikes in cities across the country to filing complaints insisting that food franchises in federal buildings not flaunt wage and overtime laws. Federal contracts and subsidies should aim toward creating a higher-wage economy.

The genius of the labor movement has always been its insistence that if the law genuinely empowered workers to defend their own interests, the result would be a more just society requiring fewer direct interventions by government. This Labor Day could be remembered as the moment when that idea rose again.

Should "workers seeking to organize unions ... be covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from firing or discriminating against workers for reasons of race, gender, age or disability"? Harold Meyerson thinks so.

Citing "Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice" by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a labor and employment discrimination attorney, Meyerson argues in the L.A. Times that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has more teeth than the National Labor Relations Act. Union organizing may be activity protected under the NLRA, but "it's just not protected very well," Meyerson writes.

There is, of course, one problem with this proposal: Getting it through Congress might prove just as difficult as reforming the NLRA itself. But that doesn't mean this proposal can't be enacted — because many states have their own versions of Title VII written into their statutory codes. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act, for instance, prohibits discrimination or harassment against the same categories of workers that Title VII protects, and adds a few protected categories of its own, such as workers who report patient abuse in hospitals or nursing homes that receive public tax dollars through programs like Medicaid. As with Title VII, the penalties that can be imposed on employers under the California act are substantial.

Trends that start in California have a tendency to migrate east. Paging Jerry Brown.

The Guardian reports that in the fast-food sector, more and more workers are the breadwinners in their households, and women.

Women make up two-thirds of workers in the fast-food industry, and the median age of a female worker is 32, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A quarter of fast-food workers are raising children, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research

Because of the low wages, a disturbing number of those workers must rely on public assistance just to get by, Amanda Marcotte observes, meaning "the American taxpayer is bearing a huge chunk of the labor costs for wildly profitable companies like McDonald's." The Food Chain Workers Alliance last year reported that 13.8% of food industry workers depend on public assistance compared with the 8.3% of all American workers on SNAP (food stamps). Three in ten get their primary care at the emergency room.

When someone working a job (or two) needs to go on public assistance for food and health care, the worker is not the "taker." That message is starting to gain traction.

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