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Sharon Block

  • “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.

  • The Technology 202: Coronavirus raises the stakes in new court fight for gig worker benefits

    May 6, 2020

    The coronavirus pandemic is lending the battle over Uber and Lyft's classification of its drivers fresh urgency. California is suing the companies for allegedly breaking a landmark state law that went into effect earlier this year that would reclassify many gig workers as employees, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports. Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is among the California attorneys bringing the suit, said the ride-hail companies are preventing drivers from enjoying many worker protections and accessing safety net programs by continuing to classify them as independent contractors...And Uber and Lyft drivers do not have mandated sick leave because of their work classification. The  companies have taken steps to expand sick leave during the pandemic, but drivers have raised concerns that it's difficult to access.  “What it's done is laid bare more the consequences of allowing companies to opt out of the social safety net,” Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told me. “For a lot of workers, those consequences have been very apparent for a while. What's happening right now is the public is being forced to see this in a different way when there is such a groundswell of workers who are dealing with those consequences all at the same time.”

  • Fired in a Pandemic ‘Because We Tried to Start a Union,’ Workers Say

    April 28, 2020

    Truck drivers and warehouse workers at Cort Furniture Rental in New Jersey had spent months trying to unionize in the hopes of securing higher wages and better benefits. By early this year, they thought they were on the cusp of success. But when the coronavirus arrived, Cort, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, laid off its truck drivers and replaced them with contractors, workers said. The union-organizing plans were dashed. “They fired us because we tried to start a union,” said Julio Perez, who worked in Cort’s warehouse in North Bergen, N.J. As American companies lay off millions of workers, some appear to be taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to target workers who are in or hope to join unions, according to interviews with more than two dozen workers, labor activists and employment lawyers...The pattern is playing out across the American business landscape. “This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” said Sharon Block, a former National Labor Relations Board member appointed by former President Barack Obama. “The pandemic has given them another tool in their toolbox.”

  • New proposal to steer nation through COVID-19 crisis would give a voice to frontline workers

    April 24, 2020

    As the coronavirus has spread throughout America so has the outcry from frontline workers anxious about their livelihoods—and their lives. Since the onset of the pandemic, walkouts and protests have been staged by, among others, packers and shippers in Amazon warehouses, those on the line at a Smithfield pork processing plant, Instacart supermarket shoppers, cooks and cashiers at McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, trash collectors in Pittsburgh, and nurses around the country. Today, scholars from the Clean Slate for Worker Power project at Harvard Law School and the Roosevelt Institute will unveil a proposal that seeks to channel not only employees’ indignation, but also their insight, into a mechanism that can help steer the nation through the crisis... “The medical folks need to take care of stopping the virus, but policymakers need to get the structural problems with the economy under control,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, which runs the Clean Slate project. “Maybe what we’re going through now will open up some imaginations.” The proposal, which is intended to serve as the basis for the drafting of federal legislation, has three parts.

  • The Future of the Regulatory State

    April 24, 2020

    An obscure agency housed within the Office of Management and Budget has the power of life and death over all Americans. You may not have heard of it, but you’re living under its dictates. Every manner in which government acts flows through this team of fewer than 50 economists, who quantify and qualify whether it’s worth it to avoid noxious fumes in the atmosphere, or to prevent harmful chemicals from being ingested, or even to stop prison rape. The agency is called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), and it’s been around in one form or another for half a century. It uses centralized planning and cost-benefit analysis to determine the efficacy of regulations across the federal government, and historically this has delayed or even blocked rules that could save lives...We have assembled a series of voices to discuss the future of OIRA and the regulatory state in the next Democratic administration. Tucker and Nayak expand on their reasoning for why they see a boosted OIRA as the best opportunity for strong progressive governance. Sharon Block of Harvard Law gives her opinion for why the coronavirus pandemic makes the concept of a bulked-up OIRA even more urgent.

  • Congress Must Seize the Spotlight Back From Trump

    April 21, 2020

    Next Thursday, April 23, the CPC will convene the first in a series of remote congressional hearings to highlight bold and necessary proposals for responding to the pandemic and to the economic crisis that has developed as a result. Thursday’s hearing will consider mass unemployment, with a focus on “Preventing Layoffs: Keeping People Employed Through Worksharing and a National Paycheck Guarantee.” ...Pocan and CPC cochair Pramila Jayapal have since March been advocating for proposals that would have the federal government intervene in a major way to help businesses keep workers on the payroll at a point when unemployment claims are surging to record levels. Last week, Jayapal introduced the Paycheck Guarantee Act, a plan to provide a three-month federal guarantee for 100 percent of worker salaries of up to $100,000 to ensure employers keep workers on the payroll and continue to provide employer-sponsored benefits...This is the kind of big, bold response that needs a hearing. And Pocan, a cosponsor of the Paycheck Guarantee Act and a leading advocate for providing protections for small businesses and their employees with an expansion of existing state workshare programs, says the CPC will provide it. Organized along the lines of a traditional House hearing, the “Preventing Layoffs” hearing will be chaired by Pocan and Jayapal and feature expert testimony from Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and Amanda Ballantyne, the director of the Main Street Alliance, a group that advocates for small businesses.

  • Foundations and Donors Step Up Grants to Help Workers Hurt by the Pandemic

    April 20, 2020

    In the coronavirus era, the heroes drive delivery trucks, bag groceries, and clean hospital floors. As those employees have stayed on the job, risking their lives to ensure others can stay comfortable in seclusion, a new movement is underway to help those workers. Foundations that have long supported labor groups are stepping up their funding and recruiting others to join a movement that some experts think could lead to sweeping policy changes. On Tuesday, a group of eight grant makers and individual donors committed $7.1 million to the Families and Workers Fund, which will make grants for emergencies and for advocacy efforts to push for long-term policy efforts to reshape labor regulation...Other labor nonprofits are building support for policy changes that would benefit employees. The Clean Slate for Worker Power at Harvard University Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, for instance, used grants from the Ford, Hewlett, Kellogg, and Public Welfare foundations to produce a 130-page set of policy recommendations that would help worker groups generate revenue, provide better or portable health coverage for workers, and require that 40 percent of corporate board seats are chosen by workers, among other things. Sharon Block, the program’s executive director, says the project will continue to flesh out a labor agenda. "We are not going to alleviate the pain that so many workers are in tomorrow," she says. "What we want to do is provide source material for groups that are trying to make systemic change. We want to provide some of the answers."

  • Don’t let Big Gig game the system

    April 20, 2020

    An article by Sharon Block and Mike Firestone: In its sweeping response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress threw a financial lifeline to millions of Americans and made so-called “gig economy” workers, like Uber drivers, eligible for unemployment assistance for the first time. But the economic crisis begs the question why Uber drivers weren’t eligible already. The answer is simple. It’s because, unlike other Massachusetts businesses, Uber doesn’t pay unemployment insurance to cover its workers or extend them other crucial protections, and the major gig-economy companies (we’ll call them Big Gig) fight every effort to require it. This opposition left millions of workers without a safety net when the bottom fell out of our economy. Massachusetts should continue to fight Big Gig’s tactics to deny full protection to workers, but in this moment of crisis, the state should take new action to require Uber to pay for benefits their drivers so desperately need and deserve. It’s time to end Uber’s free ride. States like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California have fought for years to protect gig workers by demanding that DoorDash, Lyft, and other Big Gig companies stop misclassifying their drivers and delivery workers as independent contractors instead of as employees. Through misclassification, Big Gig companies have flouted state laws requiring employers to cover the cost of unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, and sick days.

  • Coronavirus may bring a labor reckoning for Amazon

    April 9, 2020

    From the Bubonic plague in the Middle Ages to the 1918 flu epidemic, pandemics in the past have wreaked havoc on — and restructured — how society treats its workers. With pressure on mega-retailers like Amazon to deliver essential goods to people stuck at home — coupled with increased scrutiny over labor practices and a long-simmering labor movement that has been nipping at the heels of these huge suppliers — could this coronavirus pandemic bring about the labor reckoning that activists have been seeking? “It should,” said Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “I certainly hope that one of the lessons we’ll learn from this horrible experience is how important so many low-wage workers are, and how precarious their positions are.” ...Still, it seems like labor pressure may be building elsewhere. A group of warehouse workers in Chicago staged a demonstration on March 30 as well. Workers in Detroit did the same two days later, and Amazon quickly announced thereafter that they would provide masks and temperature checks in warehouses, the Verge reported. But Block told Digital Trends she was unsure if the labor movement can successfully leverage this moment to have its demands met. “Part of recovering from this nightmare will be giving workers the tools they need to have the voice they’re demanding,” Block said. A post-coronavirus world could offer opportunities for workers to snatch more rights for themselves.

  • How states and employers can use work sharing to avoid more layoffs

    April 7, 2020

    An article by Sharon Block and Terri Gerstein: An unprecedented 10 million people applied for unemployment insurance across the country over the last two weeks with more likely to come. Many employers are responding to shutdown orders, lack of cash flow, and the crisis by laying people off. Leaders have enacted measures to encourage employers to avoid more layoffs, such as conditioning business loans on maintaining payroll and providing tax credits for payroll expenses. There is a little known program within our existing unemployment system, however, that would enable us to avert more layoffs. Most companies and workers have not heard of it, but work sharing, also known as “short time compensation” is a way to avoid layoffs and keep people employed while reducing payroll. It was widely used during the Great Recession. In the book “Policies to Address Poverty in America,” Melissa Kearney and Ben Harris noted that work sharing programs “played a substantial role in ameliorating the rise in unemployment in many countries” when the Great Recession hit hard. Rhode Island has made good use of work sharing, with claims accounting for a sixth of state unemployment claims in 2009. This proven approach should be getting far more attention right now.

  • In Coronavirus Response, Republicans and Democrats Like Big Government

    April 7, 2020

    In the scramble to contain the coronavirus financial fallout, U.S. policy makers have embraced an ambitious big-government agenda—from new worker protections to a guaranteed minimum income—that could redefine Washington’s role in the economy. The evolving emergency response playbook, adopted by the White House and congressional leaders from both parties, draws from key elements of the liberal activist platform honed over the past decade...Organized labor has also won new protections. One new rule says that larger corporate aid recipients are required to honor existing collective bargaining agreements for the duration of their federal loans and two years beyond. That provision flows from the lingering political fallout from the bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis. “Companies that took bailout money said, ‘Let’s share the sacrifice, we have to renegotiate our agreements,’” said Sharon Block, executive director of the labor and worklife program at Harvard Law School. “Then shareholders benefited quickly during the recovery, while it took workers—especially auto workers—a long time to get back to where they were before,” said Ms. Block, who was a labor adviser in the Obama White House.

  • How Trump Could Dismantle Workers’ Rights with Another Four Years

    April 6, 2020

    From the perspective of the liberal policy establishment, Donald Trump has launched an aggressive and unprecedented assault on workers’ rights and the labor movement. From the perspective of the right, Trump has governed on labor almost exactly as any other Republican president might have...One way Trump has taken aim at unions is through the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, which is the federal agency tasked with protecting the rights of private-sector workers and encouraging collective bargaining. Private-sector workers are barred from bringing workplace grievances through the courts themselves, so filing complaints with the NLRB—which has more than two dozen regional offices spread across the country—is how employees can seek redress if they feel their rights have been violated...The decisions already issued by Trump’s NLRB could weaken the impact of California’s new labor law by confusing workers and deterring other states from moving forward with their own solutions. “I think it is probably very confusing to hear that you are not an employee and don’t have a right to collectively bargain under federal law, but that you are an employee for the purposes of California law,” said Sharon Block, an Obama Labor Department official and now a labor expert at Harvard Law School. “When labor rights are more complicated it makes it less likely that they will be invoked. It’s good lawmakers are moving forward in California, but this counter-signal from the federal government could have a chilling effect on workers who might otherwise assert their rights.”

  • With strikes and a ‘sick out,’ some grocery and delivery workers take defiant stance: One-time bonuses, temporary pay hikes aren’t enough

    April 1, 2020

    Temporary wage hikes. Special bonuses. Paid sick time. In recent weeks, tensions are on the rise between grocery workers and their employers, spurring many to take public action. Employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods planned a “sick out” Tuesday, while some drivers who deliver Whole Foods groceries are calling for more protections. Thousands of people have signed an online petition circulated by Trader Joe’s employees. On Monday, some Instacart workers held a nationwide strike. And a major grocery union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, is advocating for workers to have access to coronavirus testing and protective gear...Grocers don’t have the depths of experience dealing with dangerous work, said Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and a former Obama advisor. With health-care workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires certain standards, such as employer-provided protective gear for hospital workers to wear when they draw a patient’s blood. She said there are no similar rules for grocery workers now thrust into a similar situation — and there’s few ways to quickly force those requirements. “Whether the law requires it or not, this is just a moment that it’s incredibly important for employers to listen to their workers,” she said. “It’s very concerning that there are a lot of really life-and-death decisions being made and so few workers have the ability to be part of the decision that drives those answers.”

  • When Did Labor Law Stop Working?

    March 30, 2020

    A podcast by Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs: Why would it take an Amazon worker, employed full time, more than a million years to earn what its CEO, Jeff Bezos now possesses? Why do the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than all African-American households combined? And how are these examples of extreme income inequality linked to the political disenfranchisement of the lower- and middle-income classes? The established “solutions” for restoring balance to economic and political power in the United States have been tax increases on the rich, on the one hand, and campaign-finance reform on the other. But in this episode, we’ll explore the idea that retooling labor laws for the modern economy may be the most effective way to address both these issues. Harvard Law School’s Kestnbaum professor of labor and industry Benjamin Sachs, together with Sharon Block, executive director of the school’s Labor and Worklife Program, explain.

  • Why American Workers Have Been Left Out of Our Life-and-Death Decision-Making

    March 30, 2020

    An article by Sharon BlockBy now, almost every worker in America has been affected by the coronavirus. As grocery stores ramp up, restaurants close, flights get canceled, and hospitals get swamped with patients, workers are on the front lines of dealing with the consequences of this crisis. For too many American workers, this crisis is happening to them, not with them. With only approximately 6 percent of the American private-sector workforce in unions, the vast majority of workers have no voice in the decisions that businesses are making in response to the pandemic. Our laws fail to ensure that workers have an adequate voice in important decisions that affect their lives. The current crisis highlights the ways that our labor law leaves workers out of these critical conversations.

  • House to vote on legislation to protect workers’ rights to form and join unions

    February 6, 2020

    The US House of Representatives will vote on a bill on Thursday to protect US workers’ right to form and join unions that supporters are calling the “most ambitious pro-labor legislation” in decades and one Republican congressman has dismissed as “the worst bill in congress”. ... “There is a crisis in our country regarding income inequality and workers’ ability to exercise their countervailing power,” said Sharon Block, the co-director of Clean Slate for Worker Power, an initiative of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. “I think the Pro Act is the most ambitious pro-labor legislation we’ve seen in years, decades maybe. There is an urgency to start to fix the problem the Pro Act addresses, but it can’t be the end of the conversation of what we need to do for workers to rebuild or build countervailing power, as we see this incredible increase of corporate power, the influence of corporations, and the wealthy’s influence on our political system.”

  • House Democrats Poised To Pass Major Labor Reforms Boosting Unions

    February 6, 2020

    The House is set to vote Thursday on a sweeping plan to overhaul U.S. workplace law in a way that could grow union membership and rejuvenate an ailing labor movement With Democrats holding the chamber’s majority, the legislation ― called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act ― will likely pass but then face certain death in the GOP-controlled Senate. ...The legislation shares a lot in common with a new labor reform plan being passed around progressive circles called Clean Slate for Worker Power, spearheaded by Harvard University law professors Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs. While their plan goes much further than the PRO Act ― for instance, Clean Slate calls for worker representation on corporate boards  ― Block and Sachs told HuffPost they see the Democratic legislation as an important first step in fixing a collective bargaining system that dates to the Great Depression and that unions say is broken. “Folks are thinking in a bigger, bolder, more progressive way,” said Block, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that referees labor disputes. “It enables workers to see that their lives could really be different… rather than the smaller-bore fixes like we’ve tried in the past that didn’t work.”

  • The most ambitious attempt to strengthen unions in years is set for a vote next week

    January 29, 2020

    One of the most significant bills to strengthen workers’ abilities to organize in the past 80 years is headed to a vote next week in the House, where it will probably pass amid a newfound momentum for progressive legislation. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would amend some of the country’s decades-old labor laws to give workers more power during disputes at work, add penalties for companies that violate labor law, and grant potentially hundreds of thousands of workers collective-bargaining rights they don’t currently have... “This is the most ambitious labor law reform to get to the floor of the house in a very long time,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and a former member of the National Labor Relations Board. “I think it’s really important.” The bill addresses what Democrats, union organizers and labor advocates say are fundamental weaknesses with the U.S. labor law. Republicans have argued strongly against it, saying that it will erode worker privacy and strengthen union power.

  • Technology Has Made Labor Laws Obsolete, Experts Say

    January 27, 2020

    In the 1930s, at the time of the writing of the Wagner Act—the law which grants workers the right to form unions and collectively bargain— union organizing took place during shift changes on factory floors and over beers in union halls. The law protected workers from retaliation for this type of in-real-life organizing, and it still does...In a new report “Clean Slate for Worker Power,” released last Thursday by Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, experts argue that U.S. labor law is obsolete and in need of a massive overhaul to meet the needs of workers organizing in modern times... “When [legislators] looked out at the economy in 1935, they saw factories where people worked similar shifts at similar jobs,” Benjamin Sachs, an author of the report and a professor of labor at Harvard Law School, told Motherboard. “But the modern workplace is fissured. Now we have gig workers and temp workers and franchised workers and freelancers. Empowering workers in the modern economy is different.” “There is no actual water cooler anymore,” Sharon Block, another author of the report, and director of Harvard’s Law School’s Labor and Workplace program, told Motherboard. “We recommend that employers should have to create digital meeting spaces, virtual water coolers, where there’s a safe space for workers to talk with each other about their collective interests.”

  • A SOS Call for America’s Workers

    January 24, 2020

    On one level, the new report,  Clean Slate for Worker Power:  Building a Just Economy and Democracy—released Thursday and written by more than 70 professors, labor leaders and activists—is an ambitious menu of recommendations for how to remake America’s labor laws. ...Professor Sachs said, “The dire assessment by political scientists is that today in America the majority does not rule.” He added, “As economic wealth gets more and more concentrated, the wealthy build greater and greater political power that they, in turn, convert into government policy that enables them to build even more wealth, and on, and on.”The report is a wake-up call that something bold, even radical, needs to be done. Its authors see radical inequality and recommend radical solutions that seek to make the capitalist system fairer to workers, by giving them more power and say on the job, in politics and in policymaking. As Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and also one of the report’s main authors, put it, “The problem of inequality is on a different scale than in other countries, and the solutions have to be on a different scale.”

  • A Gut Renovation for U.S. Labor Law

    January 24, 2020

    American Labor Law is broken, argues a report released today by Clean Slate for Worker Power, a project of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. So, the report urges, the nation’s labor laws need to be fundamentally rewritten to make it easier for workers to organize, to have a voice in corporate decisions that affect them, and to participate in democracy—all essential to address larger concerns about economic and political equity in a divided, polarized society. At bottom, the project aims “to shift power from corporations to workers,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, at the project’s launch Thursday morning. The ambitious, 100-plus page report lays out an agenda for a revitalized, robust labor law for the twenty-first century. ... “The richest 20 people in this country have more wealth than half the nation put together,” said Kestnbaum professor of labor and industry Benjamin Sachs, the co-leader with Block of Clean Slate. “It would take an Amazon worker about 4 million years working full-time to earn what Jeff Bezos now has. This vast disparity in material wealth means that millions of American families struggle just to barely get by.

  • Sharon Block introduces Clean Slate Initiative

    Harvard Law’s Labor and Worklife Program releases major report aimed at reforming American labor law

    January 23, 2020

    The Harvard Gazette sat down with Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs of Harvard's Labor and Worklife Program to talk about their report "Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Democracy and Economy," and about what they envision for the future of labor law in the United States.

  • Overhaul US labor laws to boost workers’ power, new report urges

    January 23, 2020

    More than 70 scholars, union leaders, economists and activists called on Thursday for a far-reaching overhaul of American labor laws to vastly increase workers’ power on the job and in politics, recommending new laws to make unionizing easier and to elect worker representatives to corporate boards. ... The Clean Slate report, nearly two years in the making, aims to rethink American labor law from scratch. “We firmly believe that we’re past the point of tinkering around the edges, that to really fix the problems in our economy and political system we need a fundamental rethinking of labor law,” said Sharon Block, one of the report’s main authors and executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. ... “This is an attempt to lay out a comprehensive vision of what labor law reform ought to look like,” said Ben Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School and one of the report’s main authors. “We need this as a kind of North Star to know where we’re going when we have a chance to do reform of any kind.”

  • Rewriting labor law, circa 2020

    January 23, 2020

    American workers have had the right to unionize since 1935, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his first term as president and the Great Depression was ravaging the economy. But the parameters haven’t changed much in 85 years. Not as the treatment of women and people of color became more equitable. Not as businesses employed more independent contractors who weren’t protected by labor laws. And not as the gulf between the haves and have-nots expanded. On Thursday, two Harvard Law School faculty members unveiled a sweeping proposal to rewrite US labor law, aimed not at updating what’s on the books but at starting over. ... “ ‘Clean Slate’ is our vision for what labor law would look like if it were actually designed to enable workers to build an equitable economy,” said Benjamin Sachs, Harvard Law School professor and coauthor of the report. “It’s not a project designed to garner bipartisan support. It’s not a project designed to get the maximum amount of business endorsement.” ... The project is not just about unions, said coauthor Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, who served in the US Labor Department under President Obama. It’s also intended to reform democracy, including proposals to promote workers’ civic engagement by mandating same-day voter registration and granting paid time off to vote and attend meetings.

  • Why U.S. labor laws need to be revamped

    January 23, 2020

    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) are calling for an overhaul of American labor law. The Gazette sat down with Block and Sachs to talk about their report “Clean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Democracy and Economy,” which was released today.

  • A Surprising Solution to Save American Democracy

    January 23, 2020

    An article by Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs: Running throughout the Democratic presidential debates has been a consistent theme: We are living in an era of deep economic and political inequality, and these dual crises now threaten to undermine our democracy. What does economic inequality look like today? Well, it would take an average Amazon worker 3.8 million years, working full time, to earn what CEO Jeff Bezos now possesses. And the country's wealthiest 20 people own more wealth than half of the nation combined—20 people with more wealth than 152 million others. On the political front, the facts are just as stark. Political scientists increasingly believe that our government no longer responds to the views of anyone but the wealthy. Of course, these forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing: As economic wealth gets more concentrated, the wealthy build greater and greater political power that they, in turn, translate into favorable policies that lead to even more profound concentrations of wealth. And on and on.

  • Google Salary-Sharing Spreadsheets Are All The Rage. Here’s What You Should Know.

    January 20, 2020

    “What’s the real value of my work?” It’s a question many of us wonder privately when negotiating salaries. Now, that information is becoming more public. Workers across a number of industries are creating their own widely shared salary databases, with employees anonymously entering their earnings for all to see. In 2019, there were organized efforts to capture industry-wide salary information for arts and museum workers, media workers, baristas in different cities, workers at Jewish nonprofits, academics, design interns, workers in publishing, staff at creative agencies, and paralegals, just to name a few. ...“People who are employees, treated as employees, have been able to assert their right as employees. In circulating this spreadsheet, they are acting concertedly, they are joining with their co-workers to say we think pay transparency is important,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “They cannot be fired for that. The law says they have a right to act concertedly.”

  • Can California rein in tech’s gig platforms? A primer on the bold state law that will try.

    January 15, 2020

    A new law in California seeks to rewrite the rules of work and what it means to be an employee. Known informally as the gig-economy bill, or AB5, the legislation went into effect on Jan. 1, seeking to compel all companies ― but notably those like Lyft and Uber ― to treat more of their workforce like employees. The law represents a cataclysmic shift for workers who depend on apps to get gigs, and it has inspired similar efforts in New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Heavyweight presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have championed the measure...A coalition of tech companies have pledged a reported $110 million for a new measure on the November ballot to exempt app-based drivers. Lyft and Uber, which together have more than 500,000 drivers in California, say they believe the law does not apply to their drivers, while simultaneously pursuing other avenues to exempt themselves from its provisions... “We are in this place because we have these really big companies that will put tens of millions up for the right to deny basic protections for workers,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

  • Grant Makers Face Uphill Battle as They Push for a Kinder Form of Capitalism

    December 9, 2019

    Some of the country’s largest foundations and billionaire philanthropists want to upend the very system that allowed them to build massive endowments and personal fortunes. Among wealthy donors and foundation heads there is a growing belief that capitalism, the financial engine that put Ford cars in driveways and Hewlett-Packard printers on office desktops nationwide needs to be rewired. The relentless pressure on companies to serve up quarterly profits to shareholders has widened the gap between the superrich and the rest of the country, they say, and made one of philanthropy’s main jobs — fixing social problems — even harder. ... Omidyar has also supported policy change. The grant maker is also pushing for rules to allow employees to unionize industrywide, rather than employer by employer and has expressed an interest in the work of Clean Slate for Worker Power, a program at Harvard University that will present a proposed revamp of national labor policy in January.

  • Citing religious beliefs, electrician sues SEIU, Boston College over mandatory union dues

    December 5, 2019

    A religious discrimination lawsuit filed last month in federal court against a local union and Boston College is being hailed by anti-union groups for upholding individual workers' rights — and railed against by union advocates who say it's an attempt to weaken organized labor. The plaintiff, a Muslim electrician and member of Service Employees International Union 32BJ District 615, informed the school and the union last fall that his religious beliefs conflicted with being part of the union...The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation was involved in the 2018 Janus Supreme Court decision, which made it illegal for public-sector unions to charge fees to workers who choose not to be union members, which is expected to drive down revenues. Labor advocates fear that if a similar case involving private-sector unions makes it to the Supreme Court, it could be devastating for the labor movement. The National Right to Work movement and its supporters are “trying to get cases before the Supreme Court to push the impact and the consequence of Janus as far as possible," said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

  • More and more workers are taking advantage of informal activism

    November 11, 2019

    Former WeWork chief executive and co-founder Adam Neumann walked away with a $1.7 billion payout when he was forced out of the company. Now, ahead of the planned layoffs of thousands of workers, WeWork employees are organizing to make demands of management. ... According to Sharon Block, executive director of the labor and worklife program at Harvard Law School, informal actions like WeWork’s have the potential to address issues more quickly than formal union bargaining. “It’s understandable that workers want a process that’s more agile and can be more responsive to their needs in the moment,” she said. Forming a union to bargain with an employer may be a years-long process but, Block added, union bargaining does have the advantage of making it legally binding for the employer to come to the negotiating table.

  • Walmart’s Strategy When Wading Into Culture Wars: Offend Few

    November 4, 2019

    Walmart is getting out of the vaping business, but still sells cigarettes. It is working to reduce plastic packaging for the products on its shelves, but continues to use plastic grocery bags in its checkout lines. After a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso this summer, the retailer said it would no longer offer certain types of ammunition, but stopped short of banning customers from carrying their guns into stores. When navigating the nation’s culture wars, Walmart follows a strategy is has honed for years: alienate as few customers as possible and do no harm to its core business...The same year Walmart raised its starting wage, the company also eliminated health care coverage for tens of thousands of part-time employees. The company says it provides health insurance to 1.1 million workers and their family members. “Their strategy is to give a little here and there, but not provide the thing that is most valuable to workers, which is collective bargaining,” said Sharon Block, who ran the policy office at the Labor Department during the Obama administration and now teaches at Harvard Law School. “That is the only way Walmart workers are going to make any real gains.”

  • One year after the Google walkout, key organizers reflect on the risk to their careers

    November 1, 2019

    One year ago on November 1, tens of thousands of Google workers spilled out of their offices around the world, protesting sexual harassment, misconduct and a lack of transparency at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world. In New York City, hundreds of workers gathered in a park near Google HQ, holding signs like "Women's rights are human rights" and chanting "time is up." Organizers took turns using a megaphone to address the crowd, reading anonymous stories from colleagues who said they'd been treated unfairly by the company. ... While the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects some organizing by employees outside of a union, the law has many weaknesses, said Sharon Block, an executive director of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program. "The law is pretty narrow," said Block, a former policy office head at the Department of Labor under President Barack Obama. She added that there's some understanding that workers are protected if they organize related to something that has an "immediate nexus to their working conditions."

  • Candidates Grow Bolder on Labor, and Not Just Bernie Sanders

    October 15, 2019

    When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, his campaign was strikingly pro-labor...Several candidates have pledged to ban noncompete agreements, which hold down wages for workers, and mandatory-arbitration clauses, which prohibit lawsuits against employers...Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America and a top volunteer adviser to Mr. Sanders in 2016 and now, said that he has been touting the importance of sectoral bargaining to Mr. Sanders in recent years...Mr. Cohen has also been involved in an effort by two faculty members at Harvard Law School, known as the Clean Slate for Worker Power project, to convene dozens of labor experts, activists and organizers to reimagine labor law from the ground up. The group won’t publish its recommendations until January, but in the meantime it has worked to disseminate ideas like sectoral bargaining across the campaigns. Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs, the Harvard faculty members involved, have weighed in with several campaigns that have embraced this approach, according to aides to Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Booker. Ms. Block, a former Obama administration official and congressional staff member who is a veteran of legislative efforts to make unionizing and collective bargaining easier, said experience had taught her that advancing labor interests through provisions like card check doesn’t work: Such measures tend to be too small to matter substantively, and they fail to generate political excitement among those who would benefit. “The folks who don’t want this to happen will fight just as hard whether it’s small or big,” Ms. Block said. “But doing something bigger makes moving legislation easier because you have the potential to have a much bigger constituency behind it.”

  • Democratic presidential candidates come under pressure to release Supreme Court picks

    October 15, 2019

    Democratic presidential contenders are coming under increased pressure from their base to take a page from Donald Trump’s 2016 playbook and release a shortlist of potential Supreme Court nominees — one part of a larger strategy from party activists to make the courts a central issue in the 2020 race. Demand Justice, a group founded to counteract the conservative wing’s decades-long advantage over liberals in judicial fights, will release a list of 32 suggested Supreme Court nominees for any future Democratic president as they ramp up their push for the 2020 contenders to do the same. The slate of potential high court picks includes current and former members of Congress, top litigators battling the Trump administration’s initiatives in court, professors at the nation’s top law schools and public defenders. Eight are sitting judges. They have established track records in liberal causes that Demand Justice hopes will energize the liberal base...The full list from Demand Justice includes...Sharon Block, the executive director of the labor and worklife program at Harvard Law School and former member of the National Labor Relations Board.

  • Economists Sound Off on Elizabeth Warren’s Plan to Reform Labor Laws

    October 8, 2019

    Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has released a comprehensive plan to reform America’s labor laws. While the Democratic presidential hopeful’s campaign says her proposal will empower American workers and raise wages, it has economists from across the political spectrum sounding off. “What really struck me the most is the framing of it around the issue of power—the fact that workers collective power is at a historic low,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

  • What California should do next to help Uber drivers

    September 13, 2019

    An op-ed by Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs: The struggle for gig workers’ rights took a big step forward this week when the California legislature passed a law classifying many such workers—including Uber and Lyft drivers—as “employees.” Once it is signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the law will grant workers in California critical protections such as minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance — all of which they currently lack. Uber has vowed to fight application of the law to its drivers through litigation or repeal by referendum. It’s a significant victory for the gig workers, and California’s move could lead other states to act, but there’s a problem. It’s that the new law fails to offer gig workers one of the most important employment rights of all: the right to form a union. As important as minimum wage and overtime pay are, they are minimum protections that fall far short of ensuring that workers earn what they need; only a union and a collective bargaining agreement enable workers to demand and secure anything beyond these minimum standards. But even more important, a substantial body of economic research confirms that basic workplace protections are adequately enforced only when there’s a union on the scene.

  • Even If California Law Classifies Its Drivers As Employees, Uber Has Options

    September 9, 2019

    A California bill that is on the brink of becoming law threatens the business model of the gig economy. Called Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), it would make workers for companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash employees under state law, rather than independent contractors, as they are currently classified. That change would legally entitle them to a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and other benefits. ... Drivers could still bring a lawsuit through California’s Private Attorneys General Act, a law that allows workers to sue even if they have signed a mandatory arbitration agreement. Or they could file arbitration demands. “They still can bring suits. They just have to be in arbitration,” says Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. But, she says, “it does impede [drivers’] ability to be in control and bring a lawsuit in the most effective way that they want to or believe they can.”

  • Bernie Sanders Sets a Goal: Double Union Membership in 4 Years

    August 27, 2019

    Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Wednesday rolled out an ambitious plan to strengthen organized labor in the United States, setting a goal of doubling union membership in his first term as president...The plan “is an important recognition of the fact that tinkering around the edges isn’t going to be enough to return power to American workers in our economy,” said Sharon Block, a former National Labor Relations Board member appointed by President Barack Obama, who is executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

  • No More Corporate Lawyers on the Federal Bench

    August 21, 2019

    In response to President Donald Trump’s historic transformation of the federal judiciary, several Democratic candidates for president have promised to prioritize the swift appointment of a new wave of federal judges if they enter the White House. ...Instead of someone like Katyal, Democrats ought to nominate judges whose day jobs involve working for ordinary Americans. That means, for example, choosing lawyers who represent workers, consumers, or civil-rights plaintiffs, or who have studied the law from that vantage point. Many outstanding lawyers have dedicated their career to advancing the interests of workers. For example, Deepak Gupta has represented the employees’ side in multiple arbitration cases before the Court, and Jenny Yang is a former plaintiffs’ lawyer and former chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sharon Block is a former National Labor Relations Board member who now runs an employment-law program at Harvard Law School, and Tim Wu is a Columbia Law School professor whose scholarship has questioned corporate power. Any of them could bring to the bench experiences and perspectives that are sorely lacking in our federal courts.

  • A crackdown on working from home is pushing the EPA’s workforce in Boston to the brink

    July 30, 2019

    The Trump administration’s disregard for the Environmental Protection Agency’s mission has riled many agency veterans, particularly when it comes to sustainability and climate change. But a new crackdown on working from home is pushing the already beleaguered workforce in Boston to the brink...The clampdown at the EPA is part of an “unmistakable pattern” of hostility toward public servants, said Sharon Block, a former labor adviser to former president Barack Obama who runs the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

  • Fox in the henhouse? Why Trump’s latest appointment has labor advocates so alarmed

    July 30, 2019

    After Eugene Scalia was picked by President Trump last week to head the Labor Department, former Senator Barbara Boxer went on TV to suggest that there is another assignment for which someone with Scalia’s background as a business lawyer would be far better suited. “Let them go . . . be the secretary of commerce, for God’s sake,” the California Democrat said...Time and again in the current administration, “the impact of proposed rules on business is what shapes the agenda—not the benefit to workers,” says Sharon Block, who served as a senior aide in the Obama Labor Department and is now executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. She fears that having Scalia as labor secretary is likely to accelerate the trend. And that, in turn, would mark a sharp reversal of history.

  • NLRB Case Hinders Workers’ Path To Justice

    June 4, 2019

    An article by Sharon Block: The Trump era has not been an easy time for workers who want to stand up for themselves and have a voice in their workplaces and our economy. This administration has made anti-union appointments to federal agencies, repealed rules designed to protect workers' lives and livelihoods, and successfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to deny basic workplace rights in cases such as Epic Systems v. Lewis and Janus v. AFSCME. Surprisingly to many, American workers have met the challenge of the Trump administration with a big wave of activism and collective action — teachers marching on state capitols, Uber drivers turning off the app, and tech workers refusing to develop software used to repress people in other countries or immigrants at our border.

  • 1 year after Janus, unions are flush

    May 20, 2019

    One year after the Supreme Court dealt government employee unions a severe financial blow, the country’s biggest public employee unions remain surprisingly flush. In its June 2018 ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the high court shut off a crucial source of revenue for unions that represent government workers: mandatory fees collected from union nonmembers to cover their share of collective bargaining costs. ... “In talking to folks, my perception is that there has been good news, that membership has not been falling off dramatically,” said Sharon Block, a former Obama Labor Department official who now runs the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

  • Your Uber Is Not Here: Drivers Strike, Rally Nationwide Ahead Of IPO

    May 8, 2019

    Uber’s IPO is about to hit the market. Ride-hail drivers head out on strike for better wages and working conditions. We look at the gig economy now. Guests: ... Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, which is Harvard’s forum for research and teaching on the world of work and its implications for society.

  • Labor Dept. Says Workers at a Gig Company Are Contractors

    April 29, 2019

    The Labor Department weighed in Monday on a question whose answer could be worth billions of dollars to gig-economy companies as they begin selling shares to the public: Are their workers employees or contractors? ... Sharon Block, a former top official in the Obama Labor Department who is executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said it was hard to tell from the facts the Labor Department chose to include in its letter whether the workers using the platform in question were truly independent contractors. But she said there seemed to be a stronger case to make for contractor status in that case than for Uber. Still, she speculated that the finding could be procedurally useful for the department if it later sought to deem Uber drivers to be independent contractors. “This as a strategy makes sense,” Ms. Block said. “They set the standard in a way that makes it really clear this company gets past it, and in a way that’s going to help them in the harder cases.”

  • The Last Kennedy

    April 22, 2019

    ... When the news broke that he’d been picked, Kennedy had just come from hours sitting in a classroom at Harvard Law. He was already at work on a speech he was writing on his big idea: moral capitalism. A few months earlier, in late 2017, Kennedy had emailed Sharon Block, the director of the school’s Labor and Worklife Program and a former Ted Kennedy aide, asking for help in developing his concept, which he was viewing as a kind of working political philosophy. ... In telling me about how it went, Block kept bringing up Ted Kennedy. She tends more toward policy discussions than daydreams, but there’s just something about the family, she insisted, and something that’s made its way down to Joe. “I don’t feel like I have to denigrate other people to say he’s unusual or impressive. This has been a more intense interaction, intellectual exercise,” she said, “than I am used to having with members directly.”

  • Back to the labor future

    April 4, 2019

    Strikes have been breaking out all over the country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 485,000 workers were involved in strikes in 2018. This was the largest number since 1986. Tens of thousands of K-12 teachers have gone on strike in Republican-dominated states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina and Arizona, but also in California, Colorado and Pennsylvania. The fever spread to hotel workers in several cities, university employees (grad students, regular staff and faculty), Lyft and Uber drivers and tech employees at Google and Amazon. ...The labor movement’s invigorated militancy reflects the spirit of the times, according to Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. She told veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, “When there’s a lot of collective action happening more generally — the Women’s March, immigration advocates, gun rights — people are thinking more about acting collectively, which is something that people hadn’t been thinking about for a long time in a significant way.”

  • The Trump Administration Has Found a Creative New Way to Screw Franchise Workers

    April 2, 2019

    The Labor Department announced a proposal today that would limit the ability of workers to sue big companies for violations made by franchises or contractors, according to the New York Times. This would affect workers who fall under the category of joint employment, in which more than one company directly or indirectly controls their working conditions. ... “It has provided such an obvious road map for employers to evade liability,” Sharon Block, a former Obama Labor Department official, now the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told the Times. “But that’s going to introduce tremendous uncertainty into the lives of American workers who are subject to these business models.” Block says that like almost every Trump administration change, this proposal is likely to be challenged by the courts as it goes into effect, after a 60 day commend period. Courts may still decide to disregard it when hearing lawsuits.