Occupational Health News Roundup

Collective bargaining and the fair-share fees that enable unions to negotiate for better working conditions that ultimately benefit all workers in a particular sector or workplace may truly be in peril, writes Lily Eskelsen García in The Nation.

In “Unions in Jeopardy,” García writes about the legal precedent upholding fair-share agreements and recent legal threats threatening to dismantle a core tenet of labor relations. She begins the article with the 2012 case Knox v. SEIU, in which she said the Supreme Court “went out of its way to cast doubt” on fair share representation fees. In particular, she noted the court’s addressing of the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court upheld fair-share fees in the public sector. García writes:

But that common-sense solution was seriously questioned by the majority in Knox. Although the technical question presented could have been answered without addressing Abood, the majority went out of its way to paint that ruling — a precedent that has been followed, cited, and relied on hundreds of times — as an “anomaly,” a decision that “approach[es], if [it does] not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate.”

Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court’s newfound doubts about Abood prompted pundits to proclaim that the Court had taken a turn to the right. Writing in The American Prospect, legal scholar Garrett Epps said that Knox was “the Court’s Scott Walker moment.”

García goes on to discuss an upcoming Supreme Court case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which was brought by the conservative Center for Individual Rights and asks the justices to overturn Abood on the theory that fair-share fees violate the First Amendment. García reminds readers:

Although the group is challenging a California statute that applies to public schools, the law is no different from the scores of statutes enacted by other states and localities that permit the collection of such fees in support of strong collective bargaining. If the Court accepts the plaintiffs’ arguments in Friedrichs, all of these statutes, and the tens of thousands of agreements founded on them, will be placed in jeopardy.

To read the full article, visit The Nation.

In other news:

Al Jazeera America: The outlet published an Associated Press report that the United Arab Emirates has announced new labor reforms that could affect the millions of temporary migrant workers who make up a majority of the country’s workforce. (The country has been criticized for inhumane working and living conditions — more coverage of that is here.) The reform focuses on improving transparency of job terms and employment contracts as well as making it easier for workers to switch employers, among other measures. The Associated Press reports: “Rights groups have long raised concerns about conditions for workers, including inadequate housing, low pay, the illegal confiscation of passports and limits on workers’ ability to change employers. Labor unions are not allowed to operate in the country and strikes are illegal. Protests over working conditions do occasionally occur, however.”

The Hill: The U.S. Department of Labor has announced $1.55 million in funding to help state and local governments explore paid leave policies. Reporter Tim Devaney writes that the eight new grantees are: California, Washington state, Tennessee, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland.

In These Times: Tom Ladendorf reports that hundreds of cab drivers at O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago stopped service last week in protest of proposed rules from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. If enacted, the rules would open airport access to ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft; however, those mobile app-based services would be exempt from the traditional rules by which taxi drivers must abide, such as chauffeur’s licenses, background checks, drug tests and biannual cab inspections. The article noted that the mayor’s brother is an investor in Uber. Ladendorf reports: “In a (Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500) press release, taxi owner/operator and CDU member Godwin Anetekhai mentioned that a plan his group released last week would raise $65 million a year ‘just by making Uber follow the rules.’”

Orlando Sentinel: The Fight for $15 movement has arrived in central Florida, according to reporter Paul Brinkmann. On Monday, protestors gathered in Orlando to support a pending state bill that would raise the current state minimum wage of $8.05 per hour to $15. Rallies were also held in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and St. Petersburg. Brinkmann also wrote about the many state legislators taking the Minimum Wage Challenge, spending just $17 per day for food and basic expenses to experience what life is like for low-wage workers. Brinkmann reports: “It’s a struggle just to survive at $8.05,” said Bleu Rainer, 26, who said he worked in fast food for eight years. “Making $15 an hour would mean we can pay our bills, take care of our families, and live with dignity.”

CNN: In a piece from Kaiser Health News and published on CNN, reporter Jay Hancock reports that workplace wellness programs may be risking the privacy of workers’ health information. The story began with a recent push in Houston to require city employees to fill out a wellness company survey about their personal health history — those who opted out would be penalized an extra $300 a year for medical coverage. But upon reading the fine print, Houston workers realized they would be effectively waiving their privacy rights. Employees loudly objected, and the city switched to a different program. However, Hancock writes that the Houston example isn’t too far from the emerging norm. He reports: "What are the vendors doing with the data they collect? They aren't telling us," said Ifeoma Ajunwa, who teaches health law at the University of the District of Columbia. "Are they selling it? I would be surprised if they're not selling it, because it's valuable."

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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