Today, the U.S. Supreme Court compromised one of our fundamental rights as working people when it ruled that government workers who choose not to join a union cannot be charged for the cost of collective bargaining.
The decision in Janus vs. AFSCME overturns 40 years of precedence and invalidates the laws of 23 states. It also nullifies the wording in thousands of union contracts across the country. The effects of this decision will be felt far beyond the 6.8 million workers who are directly affected.
In states without “fair share” laws, the wages of public sector employees are universally lower than in states with them. A study done by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute estimates that the loss of bargaining power will likely lead to an average pay cut of $1,800 per year for the affected workers. This could shrink the national economy by up to $33 billion  and demonstrates just how important unions are and just how successful corporate interests have been in attacking them.
In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over our nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”
Unions help boost the wages of not only the workers in a specific workplace but all the workers in that industry and region by establishing wage and benefit standards that are adopted by even non-union workplaces.
For more than forty years this balancing force has been under constant attack from corporate interests. These attacks have taken a toll on unions and the rising income inequality in this country can be directly traced back to their efforts.
It’s time that we made it easier for working people to join unions and counteract the current descent into inequality. Reach out to your Senator and Congressman TODAY and demand that they enact the Workplace Action for the Growing Economy Act (WAGE Act)! This law would improve workers rights and protections by:
- Tripling backpay that employers must pay to workers who are fired or retaliated against because they engaged in collective action, regardless of immigration status.
- Providing workers whose rights have been violated with private right of action to bring suit to recover monetary damages and attorney’s fees in federal district court, just as they can under civil rights laws.
- Providing for federal court injunctions to immediately return fired workers to their jobs.
- Ensuring that employers that actually control the wages and working conditions will be jointly responsible for violations affecting workers supplied by another employer.
This Act would help put an end to the perverse financial incentives companies have to violate fair union elections.
In this diverse world that we live today we need to take the words of Pope Francis to heart when he said labor unions that protect and defend the dignity of work and the rights of workers continue to have an essential role in society, especially in promoting inclusion. 
Working people need to stand together now more than ever. Join us and support the work of IWJ today.
Joseph Choi / Flickr
by Julian Medrano
Another critical pillar in improving lives and creating a just economy is ensuring that working people have access to paid sick days and paid family leave. The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was a powerful step forward and provided millions with the right to take time to nurture their newborns, care for their loved ones, and care for their own health without fear of losing their jobs. But it has been 25 years since it was passed and much has changed.
The FMLA was always meant to be the first of many steps and not the first and only step. The subsequent 25 years of policy paralysis have exposed the inadequacies of the current law. First, half of all workers would not be eligible for FMLA leave because either their employer is too small or because they have not worked the required number of hours before applying for leave. Second, even if a worker is eligible the law does not require that any of their 12-week job-protected leave be paid. In fact, only 13 percent of private sector workers have access to paid leave and only four percent of the workers with the lowest wages have access to paid leave.
Paid family and medical leave isn’t the only area where workers in low-wage industries are left to the whims of individual companies. While approximately 64 percent of all private sector workers have access to paid sick days, only 27 percent of private sector earners who are in the bottom 10 percent of wage earners have access.
This lack of paid leave and paid sick days is forcing the most vulnerable workers to make decisions that no one should have to make. They are forced to choose between staying at home with a sick child and earning a paycheck to feed that child. Sending a sick child to school or going into work sick themselves can endanger their own health or the health of their classmates or colleagues, and will affect the overall quality of their education or work. Additionally, workers are forced to choose between their careers and their responsibilities as parents or family members precisely when they are most vulnerable. After the birth of a child or during the illness of a family member is precisely when a paycheck is most needed.
IWJ affiliates across the country are enacting policy changes at the state and local level to expand protections for working people so they won’t have to choose between family and a paycheck. These common sense protections include:
- Increased access to protected leave for the most vulnerable workers
- Paid leave benefits for all employees, including part-time and self-employed workers
- Expanding the definition of ‘family’ to reflect the reality and diversity of the real world
- Providing paid sick days to improve health in the workplace, health in the home, and economic security while recovering from an illness
These are not novel approaches. Most nations around the world already secure these protections for their citizens. Countless studies have demonstrated the benefits of these protections not only for the family and for the community but also for businesses.
After 25 years it is time we take action and protect the sanctity of our families and our communities. There are currently two bills in Congress that would expand these common sense protections to every state in the union. The Healthy Families Act would set a national paid sick days standard and the FAMILY Act would create a comprehensive national program that meets the needs of new mothers and fathers and people with serious personal or family health issues. Call and write your Representatives and Senators TODAY and demand that they sign on to these bills.
photo from Poor People's Campaign
by Julian Medrano
Across the country, people of faith and goodwill kicked off week five of the Poor People’s Campaign to draw attention to systemic poverty, jobs, income & housing. We join them in asserting: Everybody’s got the right to live!
This week’s focus on living wages, good jobs, and the fight to protect the inherent rights and dignity of working families gets to the very heart of IWJ’s mission.
We believe that the work of every individual contributes to the creation of community, the richness and diversity of culture, and provides a chance for connection and fellowship with one another. There is dignity and value in all work, but our economy has left the majority of working people behind.
Over the last three decades, wages for all but a small minority of people have largely been stagnant. The modern reality for workers in low-wage industries is that even when working full-time their annual income ($15,080) will still be $10,000 below the 2018 federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Worse, when the numbers are adjusted for inflation, a minimum wage worker would have to work an additional 41 days to have the same purchasing power as they did in 2009.
Bottom line: our current economic system is propping up capital and business at the expense of labor. Building wealth on the backs of working families is antithetical to our morals as people of faith.
Putting our faith values into practice means paying all workers a living wage – a wage that would allow every worker to adequately feed, house, and provide transportation and healthcare for themselves and their families.
As people of faith and goodwill, we have a responsibility to make sure our neighbors have the means necessary to live with dignity and respect.
Thanks to overwhelming public pressure, many states, counties, and cities have taken up the call to raise the minimum wage. However, 25 states have laws that prevent counties and cities from taking action.
What we need now is for Congress to act and ensure that working people receive enough pay so they and their families can live vibrant lives and build their communities.
We call on you to urge Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act of 2018. This bill would raise the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2024 and would lift the wages of 41 million workers in the United States.
No measure on its own can raise someone out of poverty but passing this bill will drastically improve the lives of millions. Sign on and show your support!
IWJ is proud to be a part of the Poor People’s Campaign. We urge you to join us by participating in local actions this week and beyond. Please click here to find actions in your area.
This week, we were thrilled to hear the proposed rule change by the U.S. Department of Labor that would extend overtime protections to nearly five million workers within the first year of it’s implementation; an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute predicts more than 11 million workers would benefit from the rule change. Currently, if an employee is salaried at $23,660 a year (or $455 a week) and falls under the “white-collar” exemption they are not entitled to any overtime pay. The new rule would change the amount, which was updated only once since 1975 in 2004, to $50,440 a year or $970 a week.
Right now, the Department of Labor is collecting comments during a 60-day period from stakeholders and supporters about the proposed changes to overtime regulations. At IWJ, we're gathering comments online and will deliver them to the Department of Labor before the Sept. 4 deadline. Click here for sample language and to add your comments.
Since it opened in 2013, four different workers visited the Chicago Wage Theft Legal Clinic seeking legal advice but were not entitled to overtime because they made above $23,660 a year and fell into the “white-collar” exemption. These workers were not highly compensated executive, administrative, and professional employees, which the law was intended to cover. Instead, all of these workers were either fast food restaurant managers and assistant managers or convenience store managers. All were making between $24,000 and $30,000 per year and very single one of them who came to the clinic was working between 55 and 70 hours a week.
Their employers knew the rules and knew exactly how much salary they would have to pay them in order to take advantage of them and exclude them from overtime protections.
Because their jobs duties included supervising two or more other employees, managing the restaurant or store when they were on duty, and because their opinions on hiring and firing employees had weight in the decision making process, every one of the four workers fell under the “white-collar” exemption. This is not what was intended when these overtime rules were originally written. And while these new rules do not contain revisions to those “white-collar” exemption duties tests, which would prevent these four individuals from being taken advantage of, we're hopeful that information provided during the public comment period may cause the Department of Labor to reconsider making adjustments in the future.
This rule change will have a positive impact on workers across the U.S. One thing is certain, if these rules were already in place the four managers and assistant managers that visited the legal clinic would be much better off.
Yet, if some predications come true and employers switch some salaried employees to hourly employees it will be more important than ever that the Department of Labor issue a clear paystubs regulation. This will allow workers to see their pay rates and exactly how many hours they worked, which will help them ensure that they are receiving the overtime that they are finally owed.
Julian Medrano is IWJ's Legal Director, in addition to supporting our team and affiliates with legal capacities, he runs Interfaith Worker Justice’s pilot wage theft clinic and is committed to providing all individuals access to the justice system. Photo courtesy: Bernard Polet, Flickr