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Sharon Block

  • U.S. railroad worker fight for pay, benefits could be model for other deals

    September 19, 2022

    Union railworkers in the United States scored a potential key victory in their fight for improved pay and working conditions on Thursday in what could…

  • A super-sized labor experiment

    September 15, 2022

    NPR – Historically, building a union in the United States has been a grassroots process. For example, while workers at one Chipotle may succeed in…

  • US Freight Railroads to Cut Services as Union Talks Fail, Report Says

    September 12, 2022

    Bloomberg – US freight railroads will reduce their services starting Monday after two of the country’s largest rail unions failed to agree on a new…

  • California legislature passes bill that could transform worker bargaining. Here’s how.

    September 1, 2022

    U.S. labor unions enjoy their highest level of approval in almost 60 years, as high-profile worker victories at Amazon and Starbucks have galvanized public support.

  • Labor union approval at highest rate since 1965: Poll

    August 31, 2022

    Across the country, labor unions have celebrated recent victories at companies like Starbucks and John Deere. However, union membership rates have dropped to a historic…

  • Recent union efforts in Mass. part of growing national trend

    August 31, 2022

    A slew of unionizing efforts at companies across Massachusetts reflects a national labor trend and a shift in attitudes about unions. Last month, workers voted…

  • Labor movement adds union members store by store

    August 29, 2022

    Workers at a Chipotle outlet in Lansing, Michigan, and an REI in Berkeley, California, voted to unionize this week. They’re the latest of hundreds of…

  • Biden’s yet to fill the job that may soon matter more than any other

    August 29, 2022

    The fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda could soon rest with the administrator of a tiny office deep within the White House. But first, Biden…

  • On a vivid orange background eleven arms are raised with clenched fists with the symbols of various corporate entities in their sleeves.

    State of the Union?

    July 16, 2022

    "My hope is that workers bank power for when things aren’t as good and build unions to protect themselves," says Sharon Block.

  • An orange striped towel rests on the arm of a wooden beach chair that's on the sand facing the ocean. A book and sunglasses on the sand next to the chair.

    Summer 2022 beach reads

    June 27, 2022

    Harvard Law faculty and staff share their reading lists for beachside, poolside, or inside with the AC.

  • Workers at a second Amazon facility on Staten Island just voted against unionizing. But that doesn’t mean the movement is slowing down

    May 3, 2022

    The Independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) scored a surprise victory last month when it successfully unionized the first Amazon warehouse in the U.S. on Staten Island, New York. Now, the grassroots organization is trying to prove that it can notch more victories against the retail megalith. The voting results at a second Staten Island facility today, though, proves that winning maybe an uphill battle. ... Regardless of today’s loss, the unprecedented nature of the first victory will likely keep the movement energized. “[Workers] were told that Amazon was too big, that the company's pushback would be too fierce, that an independent union can't mount a big enough campaign,” Sharon Block, executive director of the labor and worklife program at Harvard University’s law school, told Fortune. “But now, no one can say that anymore.”

  • Starbucks Store Unionizing Surge Tests Cash-Strapped Labor Board

    April 28, 2022

    The recent deluge of union elections at Starbucks Corp. stores is pushing the federal labor board to its limit, reflecting a broader influx in labor action as the pandemic winds down. Flat funding and a restless labor force have created a near perfect storm for the National Labor Relations Board, charged with overseeing every private-sector union election. Election petitions have already swelled by 57% in the first half of the 2021 fiscal year as unfair labor practice charges rose by 14%. At the same time, ballooning inflation and long-term staff declines have made the agency less equipped to fulfill its statutory mission of overseeing union elections, current and former officials say. “The board certainly has been in a funding crisis for awhile,” said Sharon Block, who served on it during the Obama administration and more recently as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Joe Biden.

  • For The Starbucks Union Campaign, A Bruising Contract Fight Is Just Beginning

    April 18, 2022

    The organizing campaign at Starbucks has succeeded in unionizing nearly 20 of the coffee chain’s U.S. stores so far, a historic breakthrough for the labor movement. But the union effort is now in the early stages of an even heavier lift: negotiating a first contract. Starbucks has every incentive not to offer the workers a satisfactory deal, since that would only encourage more workers to organize. From the perspective of the union, Workers United, securing solid gains in a collective bargaining agreement could turbocharge an already hot organizing drive, and bring many more of Starbucks’ 9,000 corporate-owned U.S. stores into the fold. Both sides are now girding for what’s likely to be a bruising fight at the negotiating table, one that could ultimately determine the future of unions inside Starbucks. ... Sharon Block, a labor law professor at Harvard University and former official in the Biden White House, said the brand dynamic is “hard to quantify,” but reputable considerations must figure into Starbucks’ calculus. “I imagine it weighs on their decision-making,” she said. “It isn’t just about doing the [financial] math.” If workers can successfully organize hundreds of stores, there may be a point in which Starbucks finds it in the company’s interest to acknowledge itself as a union employer and bargain accordingly, rather than continue to wage a battle at every store where a union petition pops up.

  • The Amazon Labor Union’s Fight With Amazon Is Far From Over

    April 12, 2022

    Fresh off their historic win against online retailer Amazon, Staten Island warehouse workers who voted to form a union earlier this month are loading up their arsenal as the internet behemoth ratchets up its defenses against the upstart group. Amazon has filed more than two dozen objections with the National Labor Relations Board and seeks to overturn the Amazon Labor Union victory at the Staten Island JFK8 warehouse. The company argues that the union intimidated workers into voting in favor of organizing and alleges that the federal agency gave the ALU preferential treatment by filing a lawsuit against the internet retailer ahead of the vote. ... “Amazon, I think, has demonstrated that they are willing to go to great lengths to prevent their workers from having a union,” [Sharon] Block said. “And because the incentives in the law are to play this out as long as possible, if you’re a company that mistakenly but nevertheless believes that you want to keep the union out of your workplace, the law provides a path for you that is essentially costless to push the date out as much as possible.”

  • Amazon workers won the company’s first US union — here’s what happens next

    April 5, 2022

    Amazon (AMZN) warehouse workers at a Staten Island, N.Y., facility on Friday established the first U.S. union in the company's 28-year history, delivering a blow to the e-commerce giant and intensifying a wave of labor organizing nationwide. The astonishing victory of a worker-led, crowdfunded union over the nation's second-largest employer became an immediate symbol for resurgent worker strength. But for now, a symbol is just about all that it is. ... Federal law requires employers to bargain with representatives of unionized employees in "good faith," but the penalties for violating the law are "negligible at best," said Sharon Block, a former Biden administration official and the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program.

  • Amazon Warehouse Workers Just Redefined What’s Possible for U.S. Labor

    April 5, 2022

    Two years ago, on the day Christian Smalls led a walkout demanding better Covid safety protections at his Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in New York City, the company fired him, saying he himself violated safety rules. There were some copycat protests scattered around the country shortly afterward, and the company’s public relations took a hit, but its grip on its labor relations appeared very much intact. For longtime labor advocates, Smalls’s firing seemed like one more example of a targeted dismissal that achieves its goal of scaring other workers away from organizing, even if it gets reversed. ... ALU could still fail to get any further with Amazon, and the company could prevail in the rematch slated to occur at a second Staten Island warehouse later in April. Overall U.S. unionization declined last year, despite 2021’s wave of prominent strike authorizations, mass resignations, and other organizing efforts. But Smalls’s win signals that there’s an opening for workers, one that many others are now more likely to explore. “The psychological and symbolic importance of a win can’t be overstated,” says Sharon Block, a former Obama Labor Department policy chief who now directs Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. “The wonderful thing about the beginning of a wave is that you don’t know that it’s a wave.” —With Michael Tobin and Matt Day

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • The White House after a heavy snowfall

    More Harvard Law faculty and alumni tapped to serve in the Biden administration

    February 19, 2021

    Since President Joe Biden took office in January, dozens of Harvard Law community members, including faculty and alumni, have been tapped to serve in high-profile positions in his administration

  • Sharon Block, Union Ally, Named to White House Regulatory Post

    January 22, 2021

    President Joe Biden has installed Obama-era labor official Sharon Block as interim political leader of the White House regulatory review office—an agency she’s recently said needs a worker-oriented overhaul—multiple sources briefed on the appointment told Bloomberg Law. Block, in an April article published by The American Prospect, advocated for the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to undergo structural changes to expedite revocation of Trump administration rules that she deemed harmful to workers and progressive interests. Her opinion piece also called for OIRA to take on an expanded role to swiftly advance urgent regulations tied to pandemic recovery, rather than sometimes functioning as a bottleneck for such rules. Block’s title is now OIRA associate administrator, four sources said, meaning she’s the top politically appointed official at the office until Biden nominates someone for administrator, who would then be subject to the Senate confirmation process. By tapping an experienced Democratic hand to steer the White House regulatory office on Wednesday, the new president is signaling a desire to avoid the potential for Senate confirmation delays to stall efforts to undo deregulatory, corporate-friendly regulations issued by the Trump administration.

  • 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.

  • Biden Seen Reining In Mergers and Cracking Down on Big Tech

    November 12, 2020

    Since Joe Biden left office almost four years ago, antitrust enforcement has gone from a backwater of Democratic policymaking to a key tool for reshaping the U.S. economy. That trend is expected to continue -- and could even accelerate -- under a Joe Biden administration, according to antitrust experts and those who advised his campaign on competition policy. Biden will take office as progressives have come to see antitrust enforcement as a means for tackling the power of dominant companies and improving economic outcomes for workers. There’s mounting evidence that many industries have grown more concentrated, contributing to such economic woes as income inequality, declining business investment and stagnant wages...Biden economic adviser Ben Harris also has an interest in antitrust and how it can help workers. He is writing a book with Harvard Law School’s Sharon Block titled “Inequality and the Labor Market: the Case for Greater Competition.” It will propose reforms to labor and antitrust laws with the goal of pushing wages higher, making workplaces safer and increasing mobility. Using antitrust law to help workers is one of the policy recommendations from the unity task force, made up allies of Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The document calls for antitrust enforcers to consider possible harmful effects on labor markets when evaluating mergers.

  • Uber, Lyft Shares Jump as Companies Win Vote Over Drivers

    November 4, 2020

    Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. jumped in U.S. premarket trading Wednesday after California voters approved a measure to protect the companies’ business models from efforts to reclassify their drivers in the state as employees. Uber shares jumped 13% while Lyft rose 17% premarket following the passage of Proposition 22, an initiative crafted and bankrolled by gig-economy companies to exempt their workers from a new law designed to give them employee benefits. The ballot measure in their home state was the costliest in California history. Uber and Lyft, along with venture-backed food delivery companies DoorDash Inc., Instacart Inc. and Postmates Inc., contributed about $200 million to fund “Yes on 22.” Labor unions and other opponents raised only about $20 million. The reaction from investors Wednesday reflects not just the stakes in California but also expectations of what will happen elsewhere. Officials in New York, Illinois and other states have also considered bolstering labor protections in the gig economy. “This could be seen as a shot across the bow,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “Everybody’s looking at California.” Under the new law, gig companies have agreed to provide some new protections to California workers, including a guaranteed wage for time spent driving and a health insurance stipend, but does not include paid sick leave, unemployment insurance and other standard protections afforded under California labor laws. Tom White, an analyst at DA Davidson, said the result “is probably most impactful for Lyft in the near-term,” given that California accounts for about 16% of Lyft’s rides. He estimates the state represents a high-single digit percentage of Uber’s overall business. Uber is scheduled to release quarterly financial results on Thursday, and Lyft reports Nov. 10.

  • It’s Women’s Work

    October 16, 2020

    An article by Sharon Block: The September unemployment numbers provided a lot of bad news for the economy overall: decreasing rate of new jobs being created, rising number of permanent layoffs and a persistently high unemployment rate. The most shocking number from September’s report, however, was the number of women who left the labor market. More than 800,000 womenhave given up trying to find a job. During the pandemic recession, women’s labor force participation – the percentage of women holding jobs or looking for jobs – is lower than at any point since the late 1980’s. That marks a generation of progress lost in just six months. This dramatic drop in women’s labor force participation is just the latest reflection of how poorly women have fared in the pandemic recession. Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, we can see thatwomen’s unemployment rate has been consistently higher than men’s as industries with predominantly female workforces have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. These alarming statistics exist in the context of many reports of how much harder it has become for women to balance their job and caregiving responsibilities. How many women are doing double duty – managing their jobs and Zoom school for their children at the same time? How many women have given up going for that next promotion or new job or even asking for a raise because they are barely able to get through these exhausting days?

  • 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."

  • What Rights Do Workers Have As The Economy Reopens?

    October 1, 2020

    More than seven months after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, large segments of the economy are reopening. That includes businesses, offices and restaurants, as well as entertainment and cultural institutions like museums and cinemas. But what are the rights of the people who will be working there? Can they decide not to work if they feel unsafe? And what protections are employers required to provide? Sharon Block is executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and co-author of the Clean Slate report which provides pandemic recommendations for employers and employees. She joins host Robin Young to discuss the issue.

  • 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.

  • Trump’s National Labor Relations Board Is Sabotaging Its Own Mission

    September 8, 2020

    On a June afternoon in 2019, in front of a statue of George Washington at Federal Hall in New York City’s financial district, more than 100 construction workers and activists gathered for a First Amendment rally...The challenge to these workers came from a seemingly unlikely quarter: the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing labor law...But with management-side lawyers dominating the agency, which is run by a five-seat board and a general counsel, labor advocates say the NLRB is more stridently anti-labor than ever before and is sabotaging its own mission. Not only has Trump’s board consistently sided with bosses, but career civil servants at the NLRB’s regional branches say they are being deprived of funding and staff...Sharon Block, the director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and an NLRB member under Obama, said that during the pandemic, it was “incumbent on worker protection agencies like the [NLRB]…to be exceptionally vigilant on behalf of workers and attuned to violations of their rights, because it is so hard to feel secure enough to speak out. [But] this is a board that we watched operate for three years in a way that would not give that kind of security to workers.” Nonetheless, she added, the systemic problems with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act go beyond the Trump administration. “Even with board members…and a general counsel with the best of intentions who really believe in the spirit and the purpose of the act, it’s just a tool that doesn’t work anymore.” The Labor and Worklife Program wants to overhaul labor law and extend protections to domestic and undocumented workers. It also advocates for sectoral bargaining, which would enable workers in an industry to negotiate en masse.

  • Professional Athletes Went On Strike Over Police Brutality. So Let’s Call It A Strike.

    August 28, 2020

    When the Milwaukee Bucks announced Wednesday that they would not be playing their NBA playoff game due to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the media couldn’t agree on what to call this extraordinary thing that was unfolding. Were the players mounting a protest? Were they initiating a boycott? Or were they carrying out a strike or work stoppage? Other teams in the NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball followed the Bucks’ lead by refusing to suit up and play in solidarity, calling for an end to police brutality against Black people. Professional athletes across sports are throwing their collective weight around in historic fashion, and it’s good to call these actions what they really are: They’re strikes...Workers typically carry out strikes against their employers, and they usually do it for economic reasons. Here, the players’ beef is not with their leagues or their teams’ ownership. They are not trying to win raises or better health care coverage. They are demanding an end to social injustice. But what’s happening is still a strike, for the same reason it doesn’t fit the definition of a boycott: Workers, not consumers, are applying the real pressure here. NBA fans did not decide to halt the playoffs; the players did. And that matters because it could inspire other workers to push for social justice through their workplaces...Sharon Block, director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said the situation brought to mind the walkout led by employees of Wayfair, the online home furnishings retailer, because the company was supplying beds to U.S. detention centers for migrant children. The dispute was about social injustice ― not working conditions ― and the workers were asking the broader community to stand by them in condemning it. “Whatever the label is, this is about solidarity,” Block said of the athletes’ move. “It’s not just to advance their own interest, but to lead on a bigger public policy issue...They’re asking the public to join them in saying there’s something more important going on than sports.”

  • The mask debate rages on

    August 19, 2020

    How important is it to wear a mask at work? According to the French government, it’s very important indeed. People working in French offices and factories will, from September 1, be obliged to wear masks in all shared and enclosed spaces—unless they’re working alone. Unions had been pushing for the move, due to fears about worker safety. The timing is intended to help France keep its economy open while dealing with the September reopening of schools and the return of thousands of people who have been vacationing in other countries. Plenty of European countries now mandate masks on public transport and in shops, but it is still rare to see governments making them compulsory at work. The U.K., for one, does not seem set to follow in France’s footsteps. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said today that evidence shows most infections take place in the home, so “we are not currently considering” a workplace mask mandate...Particularly where workers are in direct contact with the public, they could start by listening to Harvard Law School’s Sharon Block and the Ford Foundation’s Rachel Korberg, who have written a wise piece for Fortune that advocates for frontline workers to be given a voice in the reopening of the economy. “Workers have a key role to play in designing and implementing new, on-the-job health practices—and even more so in the absence of enforceable federal standards,” they write. “If they aren’t able to speak up when they spot a problem, we risk prolonging this crisis, deepening the economic pain, and ultimately losing more lives.”

  • Why empowering frontline workers is a key element to a safe reopening

    August 18, 2020

    An article by Sharon Block and Rachel Korberg: As the U.S. reopens despite the coronavirus continuing to ravage the country, workers across industries—from agriculture to airport security and meat processing—are getting sick. A century ago it was very common for people in the U.S. to fall ill or even die on the job. We are at risk of returning to a horrifying reality where earning a paycheck again means risking your life.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal government agency charged with enforcing workplace health and safety, has been missing in action during this pandemic. So what can a responsible company do to operate successfully without becoming a hotbed for COVID-19 transmission? Requiring face coverings, implementing thorough sanitation practices, and providing paid leave for all are critical, but businesses should be careful not to ignore a too-often missing element: the voices of their workers themselves. Workers have a key role to play in designing and implementing new, on-the-job health practices—and even more so in the absence of enforceable federal standards. If they aren’t able to speak up when they spot a problem, we risk prolonging this crisis, deepening the economic pain, and ultimately losing more lives. MIT research has shown that companies with empowered frontline staff who have trusting, collaborative relationships with management are better at quickly identifying challenges and developing and implementing new solutions. This makes intuitive sense—workers know better than anyone how to do their jobs best, what risks they face, and how to solve problems in the workplace.

  • Many workers don’t get new paid sick leave, because of ‘broad’ exemption for providers, report finds

    August 12, 2020

    A government watchdog said in a report out Tuesday that the Labor Department “significantly broadened” an exemption allowing millions of health-care workers to be denied paid sick leave as part of the law Congress passed in March to help workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March to ensure workers at small- and medium-size companies were able to take paid leave if they or a family member became sick with the coronavirus. The law exempts health-care providers as well as companies with more than 500 employees. But an Office of the Inspector General report noted that a move by the Labor Department to more broadly expand how they categorize health-care providers ended up leaving far more workers without a guarantee of paid sick leave than the agency’s estimate of 9 million...Actions taken to enforce the sick-leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act have skewed even further away from investigations: 85 percent have been resolved through conciliations. The agency’s Wage and Hour Division responded to the OIG’s findings, noting that they were “developing and sharing models for conducting virtual investigations,” and that they also pledged to maintain a backlog of delayed on-site investigations to be tackled when it was safer to conduct those reviews. But critics suggest the pandemic alone is not a sufficient excuse for the drop-off in investigations, some aspects of which could be done remotely. “These numbers just look so different than the numbers that I’m used to seeing in terms of conciliations versus investigations,” said Sharon Block, a senior Obama administration labor department official. “It really does jump out. That 85 percent is just a really big number.”

  • From elevator etiquette to break room buddies, your burning questions about a return to work

    August 7, 2020

    For workers fortunate enough to have been working remotely during the pandemic amid historic layoffs, thoughts about a return to the workplace are not just centered around plexiglass dividers, sanitizer dispensers, and separated workstations. Employees surveyed by NBC News had a whole range of concerns...While most employers say they will follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compliance is largely left up to businesses. With workers thankful to have jobs during record unemployment, most employees are afraid to flag any safety breaches or issues. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of workplace safety, has said it has received nearly 8,000 complaints about unsafe work situations related to COVID-19, according to the agency’s database. Over 6,500 of them have been closed. “OSHA is supposed to protect workers. All they’ve done is issue suggestions and voluntary guidance,” to employers,” said Sharon Block, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA and current executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. OSHA has “turned everything over to employers to inspect themselves,” Block said. “If workers can’t rely on the federal government to stand up for them, they have to stand up for themselves.” Some workers have been fired for speaking up about conditions, she said. OSHA didn’t respond to an NBC News request for comment. Block recommended that concerned employees should document conditions at work and, if they feel unsafe, workers can consider leaving and filing for unemployment, using the unsafe conditions as justification. “But the employer can fight it, and then the employee is in a legal fight with their employer while trying to put food on the table,” she said.

  • Safeguarding Employee Health While Returning to Work

    July 29, 2020

    Employees planning a return to their workplaces face a series of obstacles thanks in part to failures by the federal government, three experts said recently during a panel discussion at Duke...Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, added that “every workplace [should] have a safety monitor who can provide information and confidential advice to workers about their right to a safe workplace.” Both Martinez and Block are concerned about federal regulators’ failure to step up in this pandemic. “There are no OSHA regulations specific to coronavirus transmission,” Ms. Block says.  “In the past,” she said, OSHA has “looked at CDC guidance and said to employers, this is the best thing that we know … in short order about how to protect workers. So we're going to enforce CDC guidance.” But during this outbreak it hasn’t done that. Martinez agrees that “OSHA has been completely missing in action throughout the … pandemic.” In this vacuum, “We're seeing states start to step up and … come up with their own standards,” Block said, adding that without strong federal protection, workers in other states, can be left vulnerable. This is especially true for workers with underlying conditions. “It’s hard to … find the balance between what [employers] can do for an individual to protect them,” Bouvier said. In other words, there will be some employees for whom being in the workplace will simply be too risky. Block noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act does require employers to give workers “reasonable accommodation” to allow them to do their jobs. “But you have to be able to come to work” to access these protections, she cautioned. “There’s just no way around that there has to be a level of government support for people who can’t work safely.”

  • The second wave of essential workers

    July 22, 2020

    The pool of American workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic is getting a lot bigger. The big picture: Just as grocery and delivery workers found themselves fighting a crisis they didn't sign up for back in March, teachers, hairstylists and temperature checkers are part of a new wave of workers who are now in harm's way as the pandemic rages on. "This is a new group of essential workers," says John Logan, a U.S. labor historian at San Francisco State University. "They're people who never thought they’d be putting their life on the line by going to work." By the numbers: There are already around 55 million Americans working front-line jobs — defined as jobs that require exposure to a large number of people who could potentially carry the virus. Now add to that millions of teachers, retail sales reps, nail techs and other professionals who have returned or will return to work in the coming weeks as their workplaces reopen. "With most of the country reopening — whether it's safe or not — workers in so many occupations are put in the untenable position of having to choose between being able to sustain their families or putting their health at risk," says Sharon Block, executive director of the labor and work-life program at Harvard Law School. Teachers are under tremendous pressure as some cities and states push forward on reopening schools. 1 in 4 teachers — nearly 1.5 million people — are at a heightened risk of serious illness if infected by the coronavirus, per a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

  • ‘We Need Help’: People At Higher Coronavirus Risk Fear Losing Federal Unemployment

    July 7, 2020

    Many people with underlying medical conditions are worried about what's going to happen at the end of the month. It's not currently safe for many of them to go back to work. The COVID-19 death rate is 12 times higher for people with underlying conditions. But an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, which has been enabling them to pay their rent and other bills, will stop coming at the end of July...Democrats in Congress want to extend those expanded benefits. But Republicans have expressed concern that the extra money is keeping some people from going back to work in lower paying jobs. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. "It's absolutely critical that it's figured out before this expires in July," says Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and a former senior Labor Department official. She says the need is particularly urgent "when you consider that we are in an expanding pandemic and not an ebbing one." Block says the added federal benefits are needed for unemployed workers in general — but especially for those with serious underlying health conditions...Beyond the unemployment issue, for these people at higher risk, the conditions their family members are working in can pose a threat, too. Alan is a manager at a real estate company in Alabama. He doesn't want his last name used because he fears repercussions at work. His wife has lupus, an autoimmune disease, and he says she takes medicine that suppresses her immune system...But Alan says he didn't feel comfortable pushing the issue too hard with his employer because he's afraid of losing his job in the pandemic and he has to support his family. Block says a lot of people are in that same situation. "They're very, very vulnerable to retaliation for speaking out when it's this kind of labor market," she says.

  • Police unions blamed for rise in fatal shootings even as crime plummeted

    June 29, 2020

    Police unions have emerged as the leading opponent of reform efforts as lawmakers respond to weeks of protests over the police killings of Black people across the country. Despite years of demonstrations against police violence, data shows that law enforcement agencies killed more people last year than they did five years ago. Black people are killed at a far higher rate than white people. The rise comes even as violent crime has plummeted across the country for decades. Despite the falling crime numbers, America's policing budget has nearly tripled over the last 45 years...Police unions have increasingly come under fire after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Bob Kroll, the president of the Minneapolis Police union, defended the officers charged in Floyd's murder and described protesters as a "terrorist movement." Kroll complained that the officers involved in Floyd's death were "terminated without due process" and that "what is not being told is the violent criminal history of George Floyd," whose criminal history mostly involved just nonviolent drug and theft charges...As a result, many in the labor movement have pushed to disassociate police unions from other public sector unions. In Seattle, the King County Labor Council, a coalition of 150 unions representing 100,000 workers, expelled the Seattle police union last week.  "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 Vox. "That is happening at a significant rate and that's just a completely different context from the rest of the public sector."

  • Unions Fend Off Membership Exodus in 2 Years Since Janus Ruling

    June 26, 2020

    Public-sector unions were largely able to stave off a membership exodus in the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court barred them from collecting mandatory fees, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis of federal disclosures. The court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME on June 27, 2018 that unions could no longer collect mandatory “fair share” fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining, reversing a 40-year precedent that let unions charge partial dues. These agency fee payers, as they were known, paid a lower rate than full members, whose dues also support the union’s political activity. But the high court sided with conservative petitioners, who argued that fair share fees in the public-sector violated the First Amendment. The Labor Department disclosures show that many unions were able to convert passive fee payers into full-time members, though the results vary by union. Questions remain whether the unions’ strategy is sustainable in the long run, particularly during a pandemic that has wiped out local government budgets and snarled traditional organizing efforts. “The tax base is just cratering—you have so much reduced economic activity, people aren’t paying,” said Sharon Block, a former Obama administration official who directs the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “State and local governments have to have balanced budgets, they can’t pass a trillion-dollar relief bill, so any shortfall is devastating.” The impact of the Janus decision could take on new proportions if the justices agree to consider whether public-sector unions have to pay back previously collected mandatory agency fees. Lower courts thus far have rejected a slew of lawsuits seeking refunds, finding that unions relied on what was then valid law when they required nonmembers to pay fees.

  • 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.”

  • Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic

    May 19, 2020

    Wildcat strikes, walkouts and protests over working conditions have erupted across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic as “essential” workers have demanded better pay and safer working conditions. Labor leaders are hoping the protests can lead to permanent change. Norma Kennedy, an employee at an American Apparel clothing plant is one of those people. Kennedy along with dozens of other workers walked off her job in Selma, Alabama, on 23 April after two workers tested positive for coronavirus. The plant has remained open during the pandemic to manufacture face masks for a US army contract...Working conditions, low pay and lack of safety protections have triggered protests throughout the pandemic as workers across various industries, including food service, meat processing, retail, manufacturing, transportation and healthcare have come together to protest about issues, many of which were apparent before the coronavirus...Uber and American Apparel did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said it was too early to tell if these worker actions around the US will have a lasting impact. “These walkouts show that essential workers don’t want to be treated any more as if they were disposable. They are demanding a voice in how their companies respond to the pandemic. Having a voice is a life-and-death matter now more than ever,” said Block. “Success will be a matter of whether consumers and policymakers will be inspired by these workers’ courage.”

  • “Disposable workers” doing essential jobs

    May 13, 2020

    Millions of Americans are risking their lives to feed us and bring meals, toiletries and new clothes to our doorsteps — but their pay, benefits and working conditions do not reflect the dangers they face at work. Why it matters: People who stock grocery shelves and deliver packages never expected to be on the front lines of a national crisis, and now they're playing a vital, but undervalued, role...What's happening: Some companies, including Amazon and Walmart, increased hourly pay or distributed cash bonuses to low-wage workers when the pandemic began — in recognition of the hazards involved — but many of those pay bumps are expiring as employers worry about how much longer the pandemic will last...The bottom line: The coronavirus crisis is exposing the ugly ways in which low-wage workers are treated — by employers and customers alike. "But for the first time, the workplace conditions of low-wage workers are directly relevant to the whole country," says Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School...Says Block: "The fates of workers and consumers are tied together in a way that the American public has never known before."

  • Trump’s Plan to Reopen U.S. Puts Labor’s Scalia in Limelight

    May 7, 2020

    Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia’s spot aboard Air Force One for a trip to a Honeywell International Inc. plant in Arizona on Tuesday was the latest sign the low-profile Cabinet member with a familiar last name is primed for an increasingly public role in the Trump administration’s efforts to recover the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. Scalia’s Labor Department oversees many of the paid leave, workplace safety, and training programs the administration is likely to turn to as President Donald Trump shifts focus from combating the health-care crisis to restarting the nation’s economy...Business groups and some Republican officials expect Scalia to get a more public spot in leading the charge to get Americans back to work. That includes pushing for Republicans’ top legislative and policy priority: legal liability protections for companies operating during the pandemic...The labor chief is already under fire for his management of the DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Worker advocates have accused OSHA of being too lax in its response to the pandemic by ignoring calls to issue emergency safety standards that would be mandatory for businesses. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka seized on that issue in a letter to Scalia last week...Scalia argued OSHA’s approach of periodically updating guidance for employers is a better way of responding to the contagion because scientific knowledge of Covid-19 continues to evolve. “At almost every decision point he has opted against the position that would be the most protective and compassionate,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and a senior DOL official under President Barack Obama.