Marking Labor Day with a Summary of Labor-Related News from 2014

In the 120 years that Labor Day has been a federal holiday, it has morphed from a day celebrating the blue-collar working class to a handy if inaccurate marker of the end of summer. As for Spend Matters, instead of the usual programming, here is a run-down of significant news relating to labor from this year.

In January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union membership has dropped to its lowest level since 1916, with only 11.3 percent of workers in unions. That number could get a marginal bump if the Northwestern University football team is successful in its appeal to unionize.

In February, the future of New York City’s not-insignificant source of free labor – the unpaid interns – became a bit more precarious as Columbia University and New York University both tightened their policies on unpaid internships, the former especially by ending so-called registration credit.

In March, the sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler filed an antitrust lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Kessler’s vision is to have an open market where universities would compete for athletes, even offering them cash. The case is currently working its way through the court system. As for Northwestern’s football team, the Chicago branch of the National Labor Relations Board deemed the student athletes eligible to unionize. On the other side of the world, more than 1,000 workers participated in a strike at one of IBM’s factories in southern China.

In April, Kate Middleton wore white to an evening reception at Government House in Canberra, moving the needle slightly into anti-labor territory. In other news, Lufthansa’s pilots held a three-day strike, grounding almost all flights and causing a $79-million loss in first-half profits. However, the strike was heavily criticized by the German public, so the needle remains still for this one.

In May, the fast-food workers’ push for a $15 hourly wage went global as protests took place in 80 cities in more than 30 countries.

In June, Seattle’s city council raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour, more than double the federal minimum. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that home care workers, who are paid with Medicaid funds, are not required to pay agency fees to public-sector unions that represent them. Metro workers in São Paulo, one of the host cities of this summer’s World Cup, threatened to go on strike on the opening day of the tournament. They ultimately voted to continue working but not before giving the Brazilian government and subway riders a good scare.

In July, 15 unions representing around 2,500 workers at the Metropolitan Opera refused to sign new contracts with a 17-percent pay cut. The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel ruled that McDonald’s can be held responsible for its franchise operators’ labor and wage violations. Needle moves in laborly direction.

In August, the Met Opera settled contracts with the unions, strike averted just in time for the start of the season. Lufthansa, meanwhile, is hit with another strike. Pilots at Germanwings, Lufthansa’s budget airline, staged a six-hour strike after an agreement regarding an early retirement plan was not reached. In Argentina, labor unions organized their second national strike in five months. In Spend Matters’ home state, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour.

And in September Labor Day took place, allowing a good number of workers to not go to work without announcing a strike. Happy Labor Day, readers!

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