It’s only Tuesday, but there have already been two big pieces of positive news for American workers this week. It’s not all good – CEO pay is on the rise, recent wage gains for workers have not kept pace with inflation, and billionaire Ken Griffin is bankrolling Republicans to the tune of $100 million in the 2022 midterms – but, for this week’s Closer Look, we want to focus on two developments that give us hope for a brighter, better-compensated, and safer future for working Americans.
The first bit of good news this week comes from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the Teamsters (BMWED), a 12,000-member strong union of railroad workers that yesterday voted to reject the tentative contract agreement that the Biden administration negotiated last month between rail carriers and twelve rail worker unions. For some time now, the two parties have been embroiled in a dispute over the carriers’ draconian points-based attendance policy, which penalizes employees for missing work for things as simple as doctor’s visits. The updated contract addressed some of the unions’ concerns about workplace treatment but nowhere near enough. BMWED’s vote to reject the deal renews the prospect of a nationwide rail strike, which was narrowly averted last month by the tentative agreement.
On the surface, BMWED’s vote may seem like bad news. A nationwide rail strike would cripple the American economy, especially if it occurred during the peak holiday season. Last month, the Association for American Railroads estimated that such a strike could cost the American economy up to $2 billion a day, a not-altogether-surprising figure given that 30% of the country’s freight moves by train. This sort of economic devastation couldn’t come at a worse time, as families all across the country are already being pushed to the brink under the weight of record-breaking inflation.
But here’s the thing: BMWED’s rejection vote is good news for anyone that cares about workers’ rights. No one is denying that a nationwide rail strike would be bad for the economy, but the real problem here is why a strike looms in the first place: because greedy, ultra-profitable railway carriers (including BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway) won’t budge an inch when it comes to letting workers have better, healthier schedules. That’s behavior that is worth fighting against.
It’s time for workers to stand up to greedy corporations and demand fair compensation and fair treatment, and almost no group is in a stronger position to do so than rail workers, who are so essential to our economy that the threat of them striking sent Wall Street, Congress, and the White House into a panic. If their relatively simple demands for better working conditions are not being met, then how could any other group of workers expect better? By making it clear that they won’t be pushed around and exploited any longer, BMWED is paving the way for workers from all industries to start demanding better.
BMWED’s vote follows on the heels of workers all across the country rising up and demanding more. In recent months, workers at big-box chains like Starbucks, Apple, REI, and Trader Joe’s have taken historic first steps in forming unions. They’ve been met with unprecedented, albeit predictable, union-busting efforts on the part of ultra-wealthy corporate executives, but this hasn’t broken their stride. (Click HERE to read a fantastic opinion piece that one of our own members, Drew Pomerance, penned for Newsweek about the importance of unions and the urgent need for Democrats to act to protect them.)
The other good news for workers comes from the US Labor Department under the Biden Administration. Earlier today, the Department released a proposal for a test to determine whether workers should be classified as independent contractors or full employees of their companies. This proposal would replace the current test put in place by the Trump Administration that is extremely lax in its requirements – giving many companies free rein to classify their workers however they want.
In determining worker status, the new test considers a variety of factors involved in a working relationship – e.g. how much control workers have over their duties, how much additional entrepreneurial initiative workers are allowed to pursue, the permanence of the relationship between the parties, and the extent to which the job performed by the worker is an integral part of the employer’s business. Affected companies, workers, and the broader public will have 45 days to formally comment on the proposal, after which point the Department will finalize the rule.
This is a big deal and a long time coming for millions of workers in America, but it’s particularly impactful for gig workers. For too long, digital platform companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have misclassified their workers as independent contractors in order to save millions on things like overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation. This has left these workers underpaid, unprotected by some of the country’s most important workplace protection laws, and reliant on an inherently unstable source of income without many of the safety nets provided to most standard employees.
The Biden Administration’s new rule lowers the threshold by which a worker can be classified as a full employee, which will make it harder for many of these companies to get away with misclassification.
Uber and Lyft have complained that having to treat their drivers as full employees would force them to alter their entire business models. In our eyes, this is a good thing. If your business model and bottom line are based on exploiting workers and denying them their rights, you don’t deserve to be in business at all. This applies to any and every company in America. It doesn’t matter how popular your brand is (Uber and Lyft) or how critical your industry is to the country’s supply chain (BNSF).
For too long, employers have had the upper hand over workers when it comes to determining wages and working conditions. Thanks to efforts by groups like BMWED and the Labor Department, that’s beginning to change. If they haven’t already, ultra-profitable companies – not to mention their billionaire C-suite executives – should wake up and realize that workers are joining forces, pushing back, and finally gaining ground.