New York Labor Law Blog

Court decision upholds farmworkers' union rights

Farmworkers in New York have won an important victory in an appellate court, upholding their right to form unions. The Appellate Division of the state's Supreme Court ruled that farmworkers, like all other workers in New York, have the right to unionize, rejecting an exemption in state law that excluded agricultural employees from collective bargaining rights. The court ruled that this exemption was unconstitutional. Workers' rights advocates hailed the decision, saying that it was critical to protecting farmworkers' rights and dignity on the job.

The case was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, representing a dairy worker who was fired from his job for attempting to form a union. The case sought a change in state law and a declaration that the exemption violated the New York constitution. While New York's Democratic governor declined to defend the state law in court, the Farm Bureau stepped in to present a defense to the exclusion of farmworkers from collective bargaining rights. Advocates noted that while many farmworkers may choose to work long hours to accumulate pay during the months with the heaviest work, many agricultural laborers are mistreated on the job.

A basic overview of how unions work

Many New York workers have the right to form or participate in a union. They are designed to protect the rights of its members, and collective bargaining is governed by the National Labor Relations Act. The unions themselves are overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Working conditions are determined by the terms of deals bargained between the labor union and management. Those terms are what each side will turn to first for guidance if a dispute arises.

Collective bargaining agreements can cover a variety of workplace issues such as how much workers will be paid or what benefits they will receive. It can also cover general workplace conditions and the type of health and safety standards employers will be held to. The NLRA states that management is only allowed to negotiate with the representative chosen by the workers.

Unions experience divided loyalties in the wake of #MeToo

New York’s unions have a proud history of combatting social injustice. They give employees the strength to stand up against unsafe or unfair practices, including wrongful termination. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, more unions are finding their loyalties pulled in two competing directions.

A recent article by The New York Times highlighted the matter. Even as the #MeToo movement has encouraged more victims of sexual harassment to report, it has prompted many employers to respond swiftly and aggressively against perpetrators. Their responses are sometimes out of line, but when unions speak against the employers’ use of discipline, they can appear as though they’re dismissing the victims. This is especially troubling when the victims may be union members too.

New York transit workers' union urges improved safety

The transit workers' union representing conductors and other Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers is urging increased protections for staff after a conductor was stabbed unexpectedly while on a subway platform in the Bronx. The New York City transit worker declined attention when contacted by local media, saying that he just wanted to rest and recover. The man was released from the hospital on Apr. 22 after receiving treatment for his injuries.

The man had been sitting on a bench while on duty at the 149th Street and Grand Concourse subway station when a young man in the station launched an unprovoked argument with him. The man then pulled out a switchblade, stabbing the subway conductor. Others on the platform said they were shocked by the violence, noting that these types of incidents were uncommon yet frightening. The worker had five years of experience on the job, and fellow employees said that they were struck by how calmly he handled the situation despite his serious injuries. The conductor was stabbed four times by the man, who was arrested and taken for a psychiatric evaluation.

Joint employer rules may change soon

When two companies share control over a worker, they are considered joint employers. The Department of Labor is proposing new rules to determine if joint employer status is proper. To determine if this is the case, New York companies would have to answer a series of questions. Among those questions is who has the right to hire or terminate an employee and who pays the employee and when.

In 1958, the joint employer standard was first implemented. It says that the companies must have direct control over an employee, and that standard was largely unchanged until 2015. At that time, the National Labor Relations Board said that it would look at other factors in cases involving contractors and subcontractors. The International Franchise Association claimed that it could cause independent franchises to be placed in the middle of national disputes with unions. Ultimately, the change could have impacted the owner's ability to exercise control over how much workers were paid among other issues.

NewsGuild of New York welcomes 2 new publications to union

The majority of employees at the publications Pitchfork and Ars Technica have voted to authorize union membership and join the NewsGuild of New York. Condé Nast owns both publications, and a spokesperson from the media company said that management would evaluate the demands for union recognition.

Concerns that prompted editorial workers at the publications to unionize included job security, layoff procedures, and fair cost of living raises. They also want to pursue policies that would expand diversity in their workplaces. At Pitchfork, staff members expressed a desire to evaluate the pay received by their subcontracted colleagues who work for an outside staffing agency. The vote at Ars Technica marked the first time that an entirely remote staff chose to form a union.

Labor agreement reached between developer and union association

The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York (BCTC) reached an agreement with Related Cos., a major city developer. The agreement could lead to improved labor relations at work sites managed by the development company. Over the years, the BCTC and local labor unions have challenged Related's alleged union-busting practices and violations of the National Labor Relations Act. There has been a significant amount of litigation between the parties in the past as well as an ongoing media and public campaign that has included protests at construction sites.

The conflict between the BCTC and Related flared up again during work on the $25-billion Hudson Yards Manhattan development. The developer claimed that union corruption had cheated it of $100 million during an earlier phase of the project. It sued the BCTC, claiming that the union association was attempting to include problematic companies in the ongoing project. Related filed another suit, claiming that the union council was delaying progress at the development, including through members refusing to deliver concrete to the site.

Public sector unions continue to grow in New York

While many have warned of the detrimental effects of one U.S. Supreme Court decision undermining union rights, labor organizing in New York has continued to remain strong. Janus v. AFSCME, decided in June 2018, undermined the ability of public sector unions to assess fees from non-members of the union to cover the cost of collective bargaining for the entire group of workers. In the past, these non-members had to pay an agency fee to contribute to the costs of bargaining. The decision was widely interpreted as a conservative attempt to reduce the ability of public sector workers to organize, defend their rights and speak collectively.

However, New York unions have continued to grow, including in the public sector. The New York State United Teachers added 15,097 more dues-paying members for the 2018 fiscal year. This increased the union's membership to 426,396, marking a 4 percent increase overall for the organization. In addition, the Civil Service Employees Association, representing laborers at the state and municipal levels, grew to 230,354 dues-paying members in 2018, an increase of 4,294 from the previous year.

Buzzfeed employees work to unionize

Following a round of layoffs, employees of the digital media company Buzzfeed are working to establish a union with NewsGuide of New York. More than 200 people were let go from the company in January. In doing so, Buzzfeed joined several other digital media companies, including HuffPost, AOL and Yahoo, that have laid off workers. Buzzfeed's CEO said the layoffs were necessary despite the company's revenue growth.

Buzzfeed initially also said it would not pay earned PTO to the employees it laid off, but after public pressure, the company reversed its decision. Guaranteed paid time off was one of the demands of the unionizing employees along with affordable health insurance, 401(k)s, rights to their creative work, diversity, severance pay and due process when terminations were necessary. They also say there are unfair discrepancies in pay and other grievances. Buzzfeed employees have been trying to unionize for years without success, but they say they are increasing their efforts. The CEO of Buzzfeed has made statements indicating his resistance to unions.

Unions push back against major online retailer

Outside of City Hall in New York City, protesters representing the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union stood against the city's decision to let Amazon establish a headquarters in Queens. A major part of their complaint was the online retailer's policy to only hire non-union employees. When asked during a meeting whether or not Amazon would be willing to let its workers unionize, a representative from the company stated that they would not.

New York City is giving the large online retailer $3 billion in subsidies to establish their headquarters in Queens, but many council members are not sure what the benefit is for the city. Advocates for workers are concerned about Amazon entering the city due to its history of poor labor practices. While the corporation made some promises about funding local schools and other programs, it's not yet clear whether or not they will follow through with their commitments.

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