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Benjamin Sachs

  • Apple’s first unionized workers say the company is withholding new benefits

    October 31, 2022

    Organizers at Apple’s Towson Town Center store in Maryland claim that the company isn’t telling the whole truth when it comes to withholding benefits from…

  • Apple to withhold latest employee perks from its only unionized store

    October 17, 2022

    Apple Inc. is withholding its latest employee benefits from staff who work at its sole unionized retail store, a move that could potentially inflame labor…

  • Apple to withhold latest employee perks from unionized store

    October 14, 2022

    Apple Inc. is withholding its latest employee benefits from staff who work at its sole unionized retail store, a move that could potentially inflame labor…

  • Amazon labor union protesters

    ‘It just shouldn’t be this hard’

    September 20, 2022

    This is an encouraging moment for labor law — and a potentially scary one as well, according to Harvard Law School Professor of Practice Sharon Block.

  • The Amazon Labor Union beat a behemoth — can it keep winning?

    April 26, 2022

    Today, workers at Amazon’s LDJ5 warehouse facility will vote on whether to organize with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the same union that pulled off a historic win at another Staten Island, New York, facility earlier this month. With ballots scheduled to be counted on May 2nd, the election will last just one week. After months of slow buildup, workers are just a week away from learning whether their site will unionize — assuming there aren’t any tiebreaker court fights of the kind that held up Bessemer’s second vote. ... “It seems to me that Amazon has to worry about its public persona, and to be viewed as viciously anti-union and anti-worker at this moment in history is probably a bad look for them,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, in an interview with The Verge. According to Sachs, support from the public and policymakers is a factor in the ALU’s favor. “I think the support from President Biden matters. I think the visible support from the National Labor Relations Board to enforce the law matters,” Sachs said. “Broad public support definitely matters in a lot of ways. It helps to embolden workers who are making this decision about whether to support the union, knowing that the country is essentially behind them.”

  • Amazon workers in Staten Island have unionized in historic win

    April 4, 2022

    Amazon workers have voted to unionize for the first time in the company's history in the United States, securing a sweeping and unexpected victory in a National Labor Relations Board election for a group of around 8,000 workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York. Amazon Labor Union secured 2,654 "yes" votes to Amazon's 2,131 "no" votes. The union won the election with 55% of the vote, a lead of 523 votes. The union and Bloomberg both declared victory for unionization Friday morning. ... "Amazon is a corporation with massive essentially unlimited resources which it has deployed to stop workers from exercising their right to organize, and that nonetheless the workers have been able to do it. And they deserve enormous credit for that," Benjamin Sachs, a labor and industry professor at Harvard Law School, told Protocol immediately after the Staten Island victory was announced.

  • Workplace Activists Build Mettle At Harvard’s Grad Union

    March 17, 2022

    Annie Hollister had designs on a public interest career when she entered law school in fall 2017 as the campaign to organize Harvard University's graduate student workers and teaching assistants geared up for a second election. Hollister had inherited a "vaguely positive attitude" toward unions from her father, a member of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 52. So she was an easy sell when a classmate approached her about signing a union card in the lead-up to a rerun election, but not quite a true believer. ... Benjamin Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School and a co-director of the Labor and Worklife Program, said he's observed an uptick in interest in the labor program over the last several years amid broader public attention to unions. Now, labor law courses are overenrolled and students face long waitists to join seminars in advanced labor topics. "My sense is that participation in the graduate student union has been an incredibly important and formative experience for a lot of those students," alongside other initiatives, like the Clean Slate for Worker Power project that reimagines labor law, Sachs said.

  • Sharon Block

    Labor law expert Sharon Block appointed professor of practice

    March 15, 2022

    Sharon Block, a labor policy expert who most recently served as acting administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Biden administration, has been appointed professor of practice.

  • Washington state eyes law that would give rideshare workers benefits, independent status

    March 9, 2022

    The state of Washington could be on its way to adopting a law with big implications for the gig economy. State lawmakers have passed a bill that offers ride-hailing drivers some new benefits. The bill bars them from being classified as employees. Washington is the latest state to grapple with providing rideshare driver benefits – like sick leave and minimum pay — while still giving drivers flexibility over their schedules. Lawmakers there sought some input from organized labor. ... Benjamin Sachs at Harvard Law School said under that law, employees can still have control over their hours. “There is nothing inconsistent between being an employee and having a flexible work arrangement,” he said, adding that remote workers often set their own schedules and are still considered employees.

  • Union labor complaint against Amazon takes aim at “captive audience meetings”

    February 25, 2022

    Organizers of an effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board this week, challenging the company’s right to require employees to attend anti-union presentations at work, a common tactic that is currently considered legal. These so-called “captive audience” meetings are usually held at workplaces during work hours, where employers make their case. ... Labor advocates have long argued unions should be offered equal time in workplaces to present their own information said Benjamin Sachs, co-director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “It would also be a big deal symbolically, because it would symbolize that the union was not so much an outsider,” he said.

  • It’s Easy to Find Balance. Just Find the Meaning of Life.

    February 7, 2022

    Before I became a journalist, one of the best jobs I had was waiting tables at a barbecue restaurant atop a little bump on Snowmass Mountain called Sam’s Knob. My daily commute involved riding a high-speed chairlift, and I was guaranteed an hour and 15 minutes of snowboarding every morning before my shift. Tips were good, so I could afford to work four days a week, thus netting myself another three days to snowboard. Sam’s was where I learned that fresh snow made a sound when you were surfing through it: shhhh, softer than a whisper. ... There’s just one obvious catch: historically, work-life balance has largely been out of our hands. “Most people don’t have much of a choice about whether, or how much, to work, given the state of wage and benefit levels in the nation and the lack of government-provided social safety nets,” notes Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard law professor and a faculty codirector of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program. “The power generally resides with the employer.”

  • Kellogg’s Threatened To Replace Strikers. That Doesn’t Mean It Will Work.

    December 16, 2021

    Last week, Kellogg’s workers rejected a contract offer from management that could have ended a two-month strike at four cereal plants. Their decision to stay on the picket lines for a better deal elicited an ugly threat from Kellogg’s: to permanently replace the strikers with other workers. ... It’s routine for companies to bring in replacement workers — “scabs,” in union parlance — to try to maintain production during a strike. But can the company just get rid of the striking workers for good? ... “The bite of the permanent replacement doctrine is the employer has no obligation to discharge the replacement workers when the strike is over to make room for returning strikers,” said Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard Law School. “That means if the replacement never leaves, you can never get your job back.”

  • The Starbucks unionization vote could mark a shift for the broader food industry

    November 16, 2021

    Something could be brewing at Starbucks. Starbucks workers from three Buffalo, New York, stores are set to begin voting on unionization, and if successful, it could mark a major shift for the broader food industry, labor professors told Retail Brew. ... Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, told Retail Brew that splitting the vote does increase the odds in favor of the union supporters. “That seems like a small detail, but that’s probably going to be the difference between victory and loss [for the pro-union workers],” he said.

  • IATSE’s Labor Push Is Part of Broader Worker Struggle Across U.S.

    October 15, 2021

    IATSE isn’t working alone when it comes to pressing for better labor conditions. As Hollywood waits to see whether the union that represents thousands of technicians and craftspeople will go on strike as part of an effort to improve on-set working conditions, the rest of the country has already seen similar maneuvers from workers in a broad range of industries. ... “We are seeing what may be the biggest part of a new strike wave, in which workers are expressing their unwillingness to put up with intolerable conditions. That’s happening in health care. It’s happening in coal mines. It’s happening at Kellogg. It’s happening at Nabisco,” says Benjamin Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School who studies labor law and labor relations. “It’s really cutting across sectors.”

  • Weiler

    Paul C. Weiler LL.M. ’65, 1939–2021: North America’s foremost labor law scholar and the founder of ‘sports and the law’

    July 22, 2021

    Paul C. Weiler LL.M. ’65, the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law, Emeritus at Harvard Law School, renowned as North America’s foremost labor law scholar and the founder of sports law, died July 7 after a long illness.

  • Factory worker walking through warehouse

    Evaluating President Biden’s first 100 days: Labor and employment

    April 28, 2021

    Harvard Law Today asked Professor Benjamin Sachs to tell us if the Biden administration is keeping its promises on labor and employment, how it’s doing — and what problems it may encounter down the road.

  • American flag on the wall in the background; President Joe Biden at a podium with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting behind him.

    Evaluating President Biden’s first 100 days

    April 28, 2021

    As President Joe Biden approached his 100th day in office, Harvard Law Today asked faculty members and researchers from across Harvard Law School to weigh in on the new administration’s agenda, actions, accomplishments, and failures to date.

  • The Case for Virtual Picket Lines

    April 13, 2021

    Coverage of the recent union election by Amazon warehouse workers has often referred to “national attention” around the “high-profile” event, for which “the world” and “we” have breathlessly awaited the outcome. The implied “we” are mostly news media, politicians, celebrities, and a pro-labor contingent of avid tweeters. It’s my job to relay Amazon workers’ reports of dehumanizing graveyard shifts and paranoia-inducing surveillance. But what about everyone else? ... Since people can’t protest at an e-commerce site, however, some labor reform advocates have floated the idea of a virtual picket line. This comes up in the Clean Slate Agenda, a report from Harvard Law School, produced by over 70 researchers, labor professionals, tech workers; they suggest lawmakers compel a company to post a notice on its website that informs consumers of a labor dispute and forces them to actively decide to cross the picket line...We asked Benjamin Sachs, a co-founder of the Clean Slate for Worker Powerproject, to elaborate. Sachs pointed to the existing legal framework and—a great idea—an easily achievable self-install that wouldn’t require any political battle at all.

  • Amazon workers union vote in Alabama fails as labor tries to regroup

    April 12, 2021

    Despite the strongest public support and the most sympathetic president in years, the American labor movement just suffered a stinging defeat -- again. Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, overwhelmingly voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in much-anticipated election results announced Friday...The retail union complains that Amazon plastered the Alabama workplace with anti-union posters and forced employees to sit through mandatory sessions in which the company disparaged the union. Labor organizers, by contrast, had to catch employees outside the warehouse gate to make their pitch. "The law failed the workers,'' said Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard Law School. "The law gives employers far too much latitude to interfere in workers' ability to make a choice to join a union. That choice should be for the workers to make, not the employers to make."

  • Tesla Is Ordered to Rehire Worker, Make Musk Delete Tweet

    March 26, 2021

    Tesla Inc. repeatedly violated U.S. labor law, including by firing a union activist, and must make Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk delete a threatening tweet from his account, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Thursday. The ruling, issued by two Republican and one Democratic member of the agency, states that the electric-car makermust offer to reinstate the fired employee. The board members also ruled that Tesla broke the law by retaliating against another union activist, “coercively interrogating” union supporters and restricting employees from talking to reporters...The administrative law judge ruled that Musk should be required to attend a meeting at which either he or a labor board representative would read employees a notice about their rights, but in Thursday’s decision the agency rejected that remedy and said instead that posting a written notice would be sufficient...Posting a written notice sends a much weaker signal to employees than making executives read it aloud, said Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs, who suggested that forcing Musk to post the notice on his Twitter account would also have been a more fitting remedy. When executives have to read the notice to employees, he said, it shows workers “that the boss is not the only authority in the world -- that the law is a higher authority than the boss.”

  • Martha Minow and Emily Broad Leib

    COVID and the law: What have we learned?

    March 17, 2021

    The effect of COVID-19 on the law has been transformative and wide-ranging, but as a Harvard Law School panel pointed out on the one-year anniversary of campus shutdown, the changes haven’t all been for the worse.

  • Amazon Workers’ Union Drive Reaches Far Beyond Alabama

    March 2, 2021

    Players from the National Football League were among the first to voice their support. Then came Stacey Abrams, the Democratic star who helped turn Georgia blue in the 2020 election. The actor Danny Glover traveled to Bessemer, Ala., for a news conference last week, where he invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pro-union leanings in urging workers at Amazon’s warehouse there to organize. Tina Fey has weighed in, and so has Senator Bernie Sanders. Then on Sunday, President Biden issued a resounding declaration of solidarity with the workers now voting on whether to form a union at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse, without mentioning the company by name... “This is an organizing campaign in the right-to-work South during the pandemic at one of the largest companies in the world,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. “The significance of a union victory there really couldn’t be overstated.” ... Mr. Sachs, of Harvard Law School, said that despite Mr. Biden’s admonishments of companies’ interfering in elections, the current labor law does allow Amazon to hold certain mandatory meetings with workers to discuss why they shouldn’t unionize and enables the company to post anti-union messages around the workplace. “It is very helpful that the president is calling out these tactics, but what we need is a new labor law to stop companies from interfering,” he said.

  • Hundreds of Amazon Drivers Agree That They Deserve a Union in an Informal Driver-Led Survey

    March 2, 2021

    In just a few short years, Amazon’s warehouse workers have gone from suffering in silence to jobsite walkouts in Minnesota and more recently a full-blown union vote in Alabama. Now it seems another segment of Amazon’s workforce is taking its first steps towards advocating for better conditions. In an informal driver-led survey shared with Gizmodo, hundreds of U.S. and Canada-based delivery drivers—who transport packages for but are technically not employed by Amazon—describe constant surveillance, to-the-second time crunches, and accelerated work with stagnant pay. And the vast majority say they’d like to unionize...Harvard professor and labor rights expert Benjamin Sachs advocates for a complete overhaul of FDR-era labor law in order to accommodate such non-employee-employees. (See his “Clean Slate” agenda, designed with former National Labor Relations Board member Sharon Block.) In the shorter term, he said, the National Labor Relations Board could authorize states to allow sectoral bargaining, an expansive bargaining system more common in Europe, which allows workers to bargain with multiple employers so long as they’re performing work in the same sector. “You can franchise and subcontract anything,” Sachs told Gizmodo over the phone. “More and more companies are getting away with these games that have enormous human costs, that allow companies to maintain control and profits while shedding all responsibility to the workforce.”

  • Amazon’s Creepy Fight Against Unionization Has Reached This Warehouse’s Bathrooms

    February 11, 2021

    Perry Connelly quickly noticed that something was off when he began working at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, last spring. Managers were unfriendly to the point of not acknowledging employees when they walked past, and they were quick to write people up for infractions that seemed minuscule or made-up, such as too much time “off-task.” “The main thing was just the disrespect,” the 58-year-old told The Daily Beast. Any concern, even one related to safety, went unattended unless it was an emergency, he said...Nearly 6,000 workers at the Bessemer warehouse began a vote this week to determine whether they will become the first Amazon employees in the country to form a union...Just like the town of Bessemer, a large portion of the warehouse employees are Black. “It’s significant that it’s a movement of primarily Black workers and women—the workers that have been most impacted by the pandemic,” Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, told The Daily Beast. A win at the Bessemer warehouse would be a “huge victory for economic and racial justice,” Sachs said, and workers with positive experiences with unions often go on to unionize other workplaces.

  • As Labor secretary, Marty Walsh would face daunting challenges and high expectations

    January 19, 2021

    As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy, with job losses mounting, work norms upended, and employees fearful for their safety, the country’s next Labor secretary will be thrust into the spotlight as never before. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to be the strongest labor president in American history, and as his pick for the crucial Cabinet position, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh could significantly improve the lives of working people across the country. He’s poised to lead the charge in restoring rules rolled back by the Trump administration, which steered employment regulations toward corporate interests, and to push for new safety regulations and other benefits for a workforce that has been battered by the coronavirus...It has been nearly 50 years since the country had a Labor secretary with union ties: Peter Brennan, a housepainter turned labor leader who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. A number of progressive unions whose political leanings don’t often align with those of construction labor groups endorsed Walsh for the post, and this crossover appeal could help the Biden administration gain support from both sides of the aisle. “What strikes me as important about the Walsh choice is that it’s somebody with a clear commitment to the labor movement and the importance of unions and the importance of worker power, and that’s not always true about Labor secretaries, even Democratic ones,” said Benjamin Sachs, a labor professor at Harvard Law School.

  • Preparing U.S. workers for the post-COVID economy: Higher education, workforce training and labor unions

    December 17, 2020

    The pandemic has exacerbated the need for improvements in how we train and protect our workforce. Some of these needs are immediate, such as better worker health protections during the pandemic. Other needs are more longstanding but still urgent, such as equipping workers with the skills that will be demanded in the labor market in coming years. We propose three avenues to make progress along these lines. First, doing more to support the higher education sector in skills training. Second, focusing federal worker training programs on particular occupations and skills. And third, doing much more to support private-sector unions... Despite the decades-long failure of labor law, there is reason for optimism: several academics, advocates, policymakers, and other stakeholders have put forward a menu of policy reforms—both at the state and federal level—that would go a long way to help restore union strength to workplaces. By extension, strong unions can provide workers with the necessary institutional support they need to prepare for the post-COVID economy. For policymakers working to reverse the direction of labor law in this country, there are two paths available. The first, acknowledging the original sins and subsequent weakening of labor, involves a fundamental rethinking of labor-management relations in the United States. This approach is embodied by the innovative work being done by the Clean Slate for Worker Power Project, a project of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program headed by Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs. The project puts forward a plan for rewriting the rules that underpin labor law. For example, they suggest moving away from fundamental system establishment-level bargaining and instead moving toward a sectoral bargaining system, as already exists in Europe.

  • Why gig companies should be scared of a Biden administration

    November 24, 2020

    Forget regulating Big Tech: Gig economy companies could face the industry's most aggressive government regulation during a Biden administration. Tech lobbyists and labor experts told Protocol that gig companies are gearing up for an expensive, existential battle with the Biden administration. They know that an antagonistic Biden Labor Department has the ability to override state efforts to limit gig workers' rights, and experts described to Protocol how that could play out...The NLRB, which handles the question of who has a right to unionize, could issue a rule about whether gig workers are employees under the National Labor Relations Act or adjudicate an unfair labor practice charge from a group of gig workers trying to unionize. "That's two routes [at the NLRB] to the same outcome, which is 'drivers are employees,'" said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. "Once that determination was made, every Uber and Lyft driver everywhere in the country would have the right to form a union." But the NLRB process will likely be stalled as Democrats wait for the tenure of NLRB general counsel Peter Robb — who has sided with gig companies on the question of worker classification — to expire in November 2021.

  • With $200 Million, Uber and Lyft Write Their Own Labor Law

    November 10, 2020

    Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and California’s other gig companies emerged victorious Tuesday night, as voters endorsed a ballot measure that allows them to continue to treat hundreds of thousands of workers as independent contractors. Fifty-eight percent of the state’s voters approved Proposition 22, which repudiated a recent state labor law that would have required the companies to hire their drivers and delivery people as employees—and pay them traditional benefits, including health care, sick pay, and workers’ compensation. With a $200 million campaign, the companies pulled off what once seemed unlikely: reversing the work of state lawmakers and courts, which had sided against Uber and its peers...The urgency made sense: The gig companies believed that treating their workers as employees would disrupt the disruptors, driving their already precarious business models over the brink. One Barclays analysis estimated that shifting Uber and Lyft drivers to employee status in California would cost the companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The companies had threatened to leave California, or at least temporarily shut down service in the state, if they had lost...The gig companies, which made their names by exploiting legal loopholes and gray areas, have found another way to win. “California is, in some sense, a bellwether for the gig economy,” says Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. The companies’ willingness to spend big in the state, he says, proves how important the labor fight is to them, and how much they have to lose...Labor advocates say that reordering the country’s labor regime may prove a slippery slope. Companies are more likely to “downgrade” employees to quasi-independent contractor status than “upgrade” independent contractors, says Sachs, the law professor. That would make it harder for American workers to access benefits and protections.

  • Like many US workers, Trump staff has little recourse if asked to work alongside sick colleagues

    October 8, 2020

    On Wednesday President Donald Trump's chief of staff announced that White House staffers who come into contact with the president, who has COVID-19, will wear masks, gowns, gloves and eye gear to protect themselves from getting infected with coronavirus. Still, that puts White House workers in an odd position, as their boss — the most powerful man in the country — is going to work sick. Meanwhile, workers who may have compromising immune conditions or merely don't wish to put themselves at risk are now expected to feel safe because of a little bit of PPE between them and a coronavirus-ridden boss who eschews mask-wearing...The case of meatpacking employees may end up being comparable to the situation in the White House. Sharon Block, the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, explained that workers at meatpacking plants "were told to continue to show up for work even as their coworkers were testing positive in high numbers and even dying." "As different as these workplaces may seem, the dynamic is similar — especially for the non-partisan staff in the White House, many of whom are people of color who are not highly paid. Because of the failures of the Trump Administration and their political objectives, workers' health and lives are needlessly being put at risk." ... "Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employees in the United States have a right to refuse to work when they reasonably fear serious injury or death," Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and history at Harvard Law School, told Salon by email. "In my view, COVID-19 presents such a threat, especially in a work environment when employees are being asked not to wear protective gear. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proven time and again that it will not stand up for workers. That's why workers need new leadership at OSHA and across government."

  • Worker Organizations Must Enable Worker Power

    September 24, 2020

    An article by Sharon Block and Benjamin SachsThe premise of this feature is that both conservatives and progressives should support workers having a “seat at the table.” We agree with that premise. But it is crucial that we ask, what is the point of ensuring workers a seat at the table? It can’t merely be the symbolism of being included. It must be that the “seat” comes with actual power to influence outcomes. We see this commitment to actual power reflected in American Compass’s recent statement, “Conservatives Should Ensure Workers a Seat at the Table,” in which the authors describe their goal as ensuring that “participants meet as equals able to advance their interests through mutually beneficial relationships.” Enabling workers to meet management as “equals” requires that workers have the capacity to build and exercise more power than they possess as individuals. That is the point of organizing. That is the point of labor law.  Eli Lehrer recommends that we “unleash[]” unions and workers from the strictures of sections 8(a)(2) and 302 as a means to “offer labor organizations a new business model while giving workers new choices.” Free of the legal strictures of 8(a)(2) and 302, workers could join works councils, workplace safety committees, quality circles, and even company unions. Unions could become benefits consultants and generate revenue by serving in that capacity. According to Eli, “People on the right should like this proposal because it allows greater entrepreneurial creativity and offers hope for new civil society forms; those on the left should support it because it offers hope for organized labor through a new business model, as well as a path toward more democratic workplaces.”

  • Labor Law Must Include All Workers

    September 24, 2020

    An article by Sharon Block and Benjamin SachsIn January of this year, we published a comprehensive set of recommendations for reforming U.S. labor law. Although the recommendations were extensive, the theory that lay behind them was straightforward: our country is facing dual crises of political and economic inequality, and we can help address those crises by giving working people greater collective power in the economy and in politics. Although progressives and conservatives disagree on many things, we all ought to agree that the stark inequalities that now pervade American life constitute grave threats. Politically, the viability of our democracy is threatened by a government that responds to the views of the wealthy but not to those of the poor and middle class. Economically, the viability of our community life is threatened by the fact that that we live in a country where it would take an Amazon worker 3.8 million years, working full time, to earn what Jeff Bezos alone now possesses. Saving American democracy and American communities will take a wide variety of interventions, but labor law reform must be one of them. In fact, much of the explanation for our current crisis of economic inequality is the decline of the labor movement. Unions redistribute wealth—from capital to workers, from the rich to the poor and middle class— and without unions, we have not had an adequate check on economic concentration. The decline of the labor movement also accounts for much of the current crisis of political inequality. When unions were active and strong, they helped ensure that the government was responsive to the needs and desires of the poor and middle class. Without unions, these poor and middle-class Americans have lost their most effective voice in our democracy. We have seen the consequences of this decline in unionization play out dramatically during the pandemic and recession, which have had devastating consequences for workers trying to navigate their physical and economic survival with so little collective power.

  • Rear view of a man wearing medical mask placing a sign saying:

    How COVID-19 has changed the workplace in 2020

    September 8, 2020

    Sharon Block and Ben Sachs of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program discuss COVID-19’s continued impact on the workplace and worker’s rights to a safe and healthy work environment.

  • ‘Strike?’ ‘Boycott?’ What to call it when athletes won’t play, and why it matters

    August 28, 2020

    The front of the New York Times sports section on Thursday commemorated a historic day in sports, when three NBA playoff games, along with games across Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the WNBA, were postponed because athletes refused to play, in protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man in Kenosha, Wisc. The image was simple: an empty court in the NBA bubble in Orlando. The headline was one word: “Boycott.” And the backlash, once the Times tweeted the image Wednesday night, came quickly. “You need to change it to STRIKE,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, wrote on Twitter. Ocasio-Cortez spread her frustration around the media, responding to a tweet by The Washington Post that also called the action a “boycott," though the story itself used “strike." "NBA players are courageously on strike (withholding labor), NOT boycotting (withholding their $ /purchase),” she wrote. "The diff is important bc it shows their power as *workers*.” Others piled on. In New York magazine, Sarah Jones and Chas Danner offered their own critique of sportswriters who referred to the day’s events as a boycott. “The term,” they wrote, "is inaccurate, and dampens the political thrust of the Bucks’ protest.” ...Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, [says] labeling what happened may be less important than describing what happened, and why. “We tend to think about strikes as about wages and benefits," Sachs said. "Those are very important, but this was about something much bigger than that, something involving the character and future of the country. So you can call it whatever you want, but the name seems less important than the meaning of what happened.”

  • The Future of Uber and Lyft Might Look a Lot Like FedEx

    August 20, 2020

    In 2009, the year Uber launched, FedEx made a change to its business model. The shipping firm had previously relied on independent contractors who owned their own trucks and were paid by the delivery or mile rather than the hour. For years, the company faced an onslaught of lawsuits arguing that the people who delivered mail in a FedEx branded truck and uniform should actually be classified as employees, rather than contractors, and protected by minimum wage and other labor laws. ... As FedEx and other franchises have already shown, the franchise model can serve a similar purpose to the independent contractor model. While there are legitimate uses for both models, says Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, “they are also schemes to avoid taking responsibility for workers […] And if they offload their responsibility onto someone who can’t bear it, then the driver is left holding an empty bag.”

  • Must workers choose between benefits and flexibility?

    August 13, 2020

    A California court Monday ruled that Uber and Lyft must reclassify drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. Employee status comes with many important benefits, like paid sick leave, unemployment insurance and subsidized health insurance. But Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi argued in a New York Times op-ed that it comes at the expense of flexibility, the lifeblood of the gig economy. He called for a new “third way” to classify and provide benefits to workers who fall somewhere between employee and independent contractor. Under existing labor law, workers in America have to be classified as either an employee or an independent contractor. Paul Oyer, an economist at Stanford University, said that binary system goes back to the early 20th century when work looked pretty different. “So the law isn’t perfect,” he said. “There’s a spectrum of possible work relationships. And we want to both protect workers along that spectrum, but also allow some amount of flexibility.” While the pandemic has highlighted the need for better protections for gig workers, most still prefer to be independent, according to one survey, so they can set their own hours. Gig platforms have argued that won’t be possible if workers are employees. “That is just untrue,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor law at Harvard University. “You can be an employee and have an entirely flexible work arrangement.” Many workers already do, especially now.

  • How Police Unions Fight Reform

    July 27, 2020

    In May, just days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, Lieutenant Bob Kroll, the bellicose leader of the city’s police union, described Floyd as a violent criminal, said that the protesters who had gathered to lament his death were terrorists, and complained that they weren’t being treated more roughly by police. Kroll, who has spoken unsentimentally about being involved in three shootings himself, said that he was fighting to get the accused officers reinstated. In the following days, the Kentucky police union rallied around officers who had fatally shot an E.M.T. worker named Breonna Taylor in her home...The list goes on. Along with everything else about American society that was thrown into appalling relief by Floyd’s killing, there has been the peculiar militancy of many police unions. Law enforcement kills more than a thousand Americans a year...Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School, points to new data showing that, when police have greater access to collective bargaining, it correlates with a long-term increase in police killing of civilians, specifically nonwhite civilians. Strong union towns like Chicago often have a more dangerous police culture than cities with weak labor laws do. In Dallas, for instance, the main police union is not the sole bargaining agent. Several different groups, including fraternal organizations of African-American and Latino officers, sign off on union contracts. The result is both more transparent and markedly less violent policing...Sachs agrees that there is an urgent need for reform, but he suggests considering more procedural steps: limiting collective bargaining to non-disciplinary matters; opening bargaining sessions to the public; encouraging departments to have multiple unions, representing more diverse views. Many analysts emphasize the need for new use-of-force protocols that are known to save lives but that the unions reject.

  • The Workplace Powers That Employees Need

    June 24, 2020

    A few weeks ago, Angely Lambert was serving customers at a McDonald’s on a bustling commercial strip in Oakland, California, when she started to feel ill on the job. Her sharp headache and dull body aches bothered her enough that she asked if she could go home, she told me, but a manager insisted that she finish her shift....Frightened, angry, essential: This is American labor during the coronavirus pandemic. Decades of economic trends and legal shifts have tilted the balance of power in the employer-employee relationship toward corporations and away from workers. This means that, months into the pandemic, millions of low-wage workers are still facing an impossible choice: their lives or their livelihood. But it need not be this way. And as businesses reopen, workers such as Lambert need more say in how... “Economic issues are life-and-death issues,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “What COVID has done is illustrate the life-or-death nature of those economic issues in a very accelerated time frame.” ...Workers have a voice, and the government needs to let them use it, giving employees such as Lambert more of a say in creating and maintaining a safe workplace. Clean Slate for Worker Power, an advocacy group led by Block and Benjamin Sachs of Harvard Law School, is pushing for new rules to require open businesses to have a worker-elected “safety steward,” who would make sure a given workplace is complying with local and federal laws. They also propose that the government set up commissions to negotiate workplace-safety standards, business sector by business sector rather than one burger joint or nursing home at a time, and to help workers organize online. Because demanding safe conditions should not be a firing offense, the government could also pass just-cause dismissal statutes to protect workers from retaliation by their employers.

  • How COVID turned a spotlight on weak worker rights

    June 24, 2020

    As the economy reopens after the COVID-19 shutdowns, businesses are taking a varied, often patchwork approach to ensuring health and safety for their workers, and much uncertainty persists regarding employers’ obligations and employees’ rights. The Gazette spoke with labor law experts Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School (HLS), about how the pandemic has turned a spotlight on the lack of clear workplace protections in general, and in particular for women and people of color, who were disproportionately represented among those deemed essential. Block and Sachs recently co-authored a report urging that U.S. labor law be rebuilt from the ground up. On June 24, they will release the report “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.”

  • How police unions became so powerful — and how they can be tamed

    June 24, 2020

    In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by now-former Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officer Derek Chauvin, few have been inclined to defend Chauvin or his colleagues who stood by and watched as he suffocated Floyd to death. Few, that is, except Bob Kroll...Kroll’s statements illustrate a central challenge in American efforts to transform policing: Police unions, the groups that represent police officers, are a powerful force that stands in the way of holding police accountable...Some veteran labor lawyers and academic labor activists are also opening up to the idea of sharply limiting police union power, recognizing this as an unusual case. A group of faculty at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school — Ifeoma Ajunwa, Virginia Doellgast, Shannon Gleeson, Kate Griffith, and Verónica Martínez-Matsuda — argued in a public statement that the labor movement “must also acknowledge that contemporary police unions have contributed to racism.” Benjamin Sachs, the Kestenbaum professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School and a leading voice in labor law debates, published a blog post suggesting openness to limiting what issues police unions can legally bargain over, perhaps excluding from bargaining matters like discipline for police who beat or kill civilians. “The consequence of police abusing [collective bargaining] power is that people end up dead,” Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law and a member of the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama, told me. “That is happening at a significant rate and that’s just a completely different context from the rest of the public sector” or unionism generally.

  • How We Can Reform Police Unions To Address Systemic Racism

    June 22, 2020

    The weeks of outrage after a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd have made police reform feel more urgent and achievable than ever. As city and state officials across the country debate how to prevent police brutality, law enforcement unions have emerged as a key impediment to reform. The political power of police unions has helped them secure strong job protections ― too strong, reform proponents said...Rather than strip away bargaining rights from police unions, Malin said reform proponents might consider expanding the universe of what those unions bargain for. In general, employers have to discuss only certain mandatory subjects, such as wages and other working conditions. But there could be a way to bring broader community concerns into play...The concept is known as bargaining for the common good. By working together, unions and community groups can advance common goals that benefit both workers and the people they serve...Bargaining for the common good is a central feature of Clean Slate, a sweeping proposal for labor law reform that the Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program is spearheading. The professors leading that, Benjamin Sachs and Sharon Block, said communities could be looking at ways to apply the concept to law enforcement in order to curb killings and address racism. They are now leading another project to brainstorm ideas for reforming police unions. “The problem is not public sector unions,” Block said. “The problem is police unions, and the lack of accountability structures that police unions have negotiated.” Of course, plenty of police unions may not willingly bargain in the interest of reform supporters. In that case, maybe they could be forced to ― either by opening up bargaining sessions to public oversight or by formally giving community groups a seat at the table when unions hammer out contracts with cities. “Bringing community groups into the bargaining process is something definitely worth considering, … the idea being that certain collective bargaining processes have such profound impacts on the community,” Sachs said. “The argument for it seems pretty clear.”

  • How Police-Union Power Helped Increase Abuses

    June 22, 2020

    Police unions have long had a singular—and divisive—place in American labor. What is different at this fraught moment, however, is that these unions, long considered untouchable, due to their extraordinary power on the streets and among politicians, face a potential reckoning, as their conduct roils not just one city but the entire nation...To critics, all of this highlights that the disciplinary process for law enforcement is woefully broken, and that police unions have far too much power. They contend that robust protections, including qualified immunity, give many police officers a sense of impunity—an attitude exemplified by Derek Chauvin keeping his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, even as onlookers pleaded with him to stop. “We’re at a place where something has to change, so that police collective bargaining no longer contributes to police violence,” Benjamin Sachs, a labor-law professor at Harvard, told me. Sachs said that bargaining on “matters of discipline, especially related to the use of force, has insulated police officers from accountability, and that predictably can increase the problem.” ...Benjamin Sachs, the Harvard labor-law professor, argues that the union movement needs to join the push for police reform. “When unions use the power of collective bargaining for ends that we...deem unacceptable it becomes our responsibility—including the responsibility of the labor movement itself—to deny unions the ability to use collective bargaining for these purposes,” he wrote. “We have done this before. When unions bargained contracts that excluded Black workers from employment or that relegated Black workers to inferior jobs, the law stepped in and stripped unions of the right to use collective bargaining in these ways.” Sachs proposes amending the law to curb the range of subjects over which police unions can bargain, perhaps even prohibiting negotiations over anything involving the use of force.

  • The AFL-CIO’S Police Union Problem is Bigger Than You Think

    June 18, 2020

    After the near murder of a 75-year-old man on a sidewalk in Buffalo, New York, the city’s police union, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, responded with organized demonstrations of support for the officers who shoved the elderly man to the ground. After the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation was defiant, with President Bob Kroll, who had recently defended his role in three police shootings, attacking Floyd as a criminal, and lashing out at local politicians for not allowing the police to be rougher on protesters. The Sergeants Benevolent Association in New York City, which has attracted reprobation for doxxing NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter Chiara, has also moved to a furious war footing. The Louisville Metro Police Union in Kentucky rallied around the killers of Breonna Taylor, as the officers involved haven’t been fired, let alone charged...Ben Sachs, a labor and industry professor at Harvard Law who recently launched a project to reform police union collective bargaining to end police abuses, understands the concerns of union leaders and others that a push to reform police union collective bargaining could endanger a broader subset of workers. “It is absolutely critical that any reforms remain tightly focused on the actual problem here, which is police violence. Any changes to police collective bargaining law should apply only to collective bargaining practices that directly implicate police violence. We can’t allow changes to police collective bargaining to become a stalking horse for those with a political agenda to undermine other public sector unions,” Sachs said. “At the same time, this is an immediate and enormous crisis. That has to be dealt with in a robust way. If that means that being open to some changes to police collective bargaining laws, it’s incumbent on us to be open to that.”

  • Police unions become target of labor activists who see them as blocking reform

    June 16, 2020

    It was a far cry from “defund the police,” but the response was severe anyway. In 2019, Steve Fletcher, a first-term member of the Minneapolis City Council, decided to oppose a budget proposal to add more officers to the Police Department. Business owners soon started calling Fletcher, who represents part of downtown, complaining of slow police responses to 911 calls about shoplifting...But after a Minneapolis officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for more than eight minutes, killing him — unleashing a national protest movement that has yielded criminal charges against him and the other three officers on the scene — the police union, like many others, has become a target for otherwise labor-friendly liberals like Fletcher who see them as major obstacles to reform...The labor movement in the U.S. is facing questions about what its relationship should be with the hundreds of thousands of police officers who make up a major portion of unionized public-sector workers. The AFL-CIO has faced growing calls to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Assns., and some liberal activists have started calling for Democratic politicians to reject campaign contributions from police unions. “Even for people who have a deep long-standing genuine commitment to the labor movement ... there’s a recognition that the power of unionization, the power of collective bargaining is being abused in indefensible ways by police unions,” said Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard law professor and faculty director of the school’s labor and work-life program, which will be studying potential legal reforms to collective bargaining by police.

  • Police Unions Face Reckoning Over Contracts Shielding Misconduct

    June 10, 2020

    Democrats’ sweeping proposal this week to curb police violence against minorities doesn’t address what’s drawn criticism from Black Lives Matter activists and management-side attorneys: union contracts that shield officers who use lethal force. Activists have begun to focus on collective bargaining agreements that allow accused officers to resolve their complaints through arbitration behind closed doors; wait 48 hours after a lethal incident before being questioned by police, often with an attorney and a union representative present; and access information on evidence and witnesses that wouldn’t be available to civilians. The calls for reform follow days of global protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed, restrained black man, after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Other videos of police violence—including an incident in Buffalo, N.Y., in which a protester was injured after being pushed to the ground—are going viral...It’s not uncommon for union contracts to require a waiting period, typically 24 or 48 hours, between an incident and the time an officer is interviewed. This allows officers to meet with an attorney and union representatives, who are usually present during questioning, said Benjamin Sachs, the faculty codirector of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “It allows officers time to develop a strategy to avoid accountability,” Sachs said.

  • Floyd killing shows police unions abuse power. We need radical reform: Former union lawyer

    June 9, 2020

    An article by Benjamin Sachs: Among the many outrages in the death of George Floyd is this one: Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed Floyd, had been the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints and yet he remained an armed member of the Minneapolis Police Department. How does that happen? Part of the answer is the collective bargaining agreement reached between the police department and Chauvin’s union. Like other such police agreements, the one in Minneapolis gives cops extraordinary protection from discipline for violent conduct. It mandates a 48-hour waiting period before any officer accused of such conduct can be interviewed, a common delay and a luxury not afforded even to criminal suspects and one that allows officers time to develop a strategy to avoid accountability. Like many police contracts, including those in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., the Minneapolis agreement also requires the expungement of police disciplinary records after a certain amount of time. Under the Minneapolis police contract, any disciplinary action that does not result in punishment must be removed from an officer’s record. Even in cases where an officer is fired for misconduct, the agreement requires an appeals process that frequently leads to reinstatement, especially if the investigating agency has committed procedural errors. Police collective bargaining agreements, in short, insulate cops from discipline.

  • Essential Workers Unite for a May Day Strike. Is It Enough?

    May 4, 2020

    On Friday, front-line workers from Amazon, Instacart, Shipt, Target, and Whole Foods have organized to walk out of their jobs together over demands that their companies provide better pay, benefits, and protections...Despite being classified as essential workers in a crisis, they say, their companies treat them as disposable...That workers are now looking outside their own company isn’t surprising, some experts say. “The problem isn’t unique to Instacart, or Target, or Whole Foods. The problem is across essential work,” says Benjamin Sachs, a labor law expert at Harvard Law School...In other countries, there’s ample precedent for industrywide organizing among workers with similar jobs, like a delivery workers union, but not in the United States. “In fact, under existing law, it’s almost impossible to form unions and bargain at the level of the sector,” says Sachs. As a leader on Clean Slate for Worker Power, a project at Harvard Law School, he recently called for a change in labor law that would allow people who do similar types of work to band together and demand industrywide changes, either as a union or an official collective of workers. “You don’t fix cross-sectoral health and safety problems with just a group of workers at Whole Foods,” he says. Friday’s strike, Sachs says, highlights the pressing need for that kind of change. So far, companies like Amazon have successfully fought off efforts to form unions within their workforce. Withholding labor is only one part of a strike’s goals. The other part is rallying consumer action. “Even a small strike with a lot of attention can hugely influence consumers—and these are all entirely consumer-dependent companies,” says Sachs.

  • Andrew Crespo works from a podium as he teaches his online class from his home

    Zooming in on faculty at home

    April 29, 2020

    With a little help from their at-home photographers, HLS professors share what teaching classes via Zoom looks like.