Thursday, December 1, 2022

The US and UK offer different courses on workers’ rights

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If you had any doubts about US President Joe Biden’s determination to shift the balance of power between capital and labor in the world’s largest economy, consider the plight of a man called Peter Robb.

A few minutes after Mr. Biden took office on January 20, he asked Mr. Robb to resign as Advocate General of the National Council for Labor Relations, the federal agency which protects the right of workers to organize. The unions had complained that Mr Robb, a former management lawyer appointed by Donald Trump, was eroding workers’ rights and gutting the agency. When he refused to resign, Mr. Biden fired him and later his assistant.

Another is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a small but powerful agency that reviews major regulatory proposals before they take effect. Progressives like Elizabeth Warren have long since complained that OIRA slows down or weakens new rules and is sensitive to corporate lobbying. Mr. Biden installed Sharon Block at the agency. She supports the reform to make it “a force to ensure that the most progressive regulations pass through the door”, she written in April of last year.

Chicken factories provide a third signal. Mr. Biden blocked The Trump administration plans to allow chicken factories to speed up production lines, which safety experts say would exhaust workers and make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Amidst eye-catching policy proposals like a $ 15 minimum wage, it’s easy to miss these small changes that are deeply ingrained in America’s bureaucracy. But they reveal the scale of Mr. Biden’s ambition and the attention to detail that underpins it.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. In 2020, only 6.3% of private sector workers in the United States were union members. In key industries for working-class jobs such as personal care, restaurants and retail, that figure is less than 5 percent. But Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, said Mr Biden’s approach to workers’ rights has so far been very different from that of previous Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. .

“We’re at the very beginning, but the first signs are that the Biden administration is really focusing on worker power, collective bargaining, social justice, in a different way than we’ve seen in the past,” says -it.

The UK offers a striking counterpoint. Here, too, political leaders have pledged to improve working conditions at the bottom of the labor market. When Theresa May became Prime Minister in 2016, she said working-class families: “I know you are doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government that I lead will not be motivated by the interests of the privileged few, but by your own. She commissioned a review of workers’ rights and promised to act on its recommendations.

The pandemic has underscored the urgency. Rising unemployment, which makes workers more desperate for a job, is likely to exacerbate the UK’s problem with bad application minimum wage. Meanwhile, the virus has spread to workplaces with poor working conditions such as meat factories and garment factories. Boris Johnson, Mrs May’s successor, has promised to “Rebuild better” and address long-standing issues that have been “brutally illuminated by this Covid lightning”.

Yet the post of Director of Labor Market Enforcement has just fell vacant. The government announced the post in November, but did not appoint anyone and turned down an offer from incumbent Matthew Taylor to continue without pay in the meantime. It also hasn’t released its latest strategy, which was completed in March of last year. A bill on employment has been promised but has not yet appeared. Important political issues raised by changes in the nature of work, such as worker protection saving odd jobs, go unanswered.

Unions fear the UK government is considering using Brexit to dismantle workers’ rights in an attempt to boost ‘competitiveness’ and free employers from’ bureaucracy ‘. These fears seemed well founded last month when it became clear that the business department was review rights included in the European working time directive, such as paid holidays and breaks.

Ministers U-turn on this idea after the public objected and companies pointed out that they did not particularly want to be “released”. It seems less likely that the government has a secret plan to weaken workers’ rights than it does not have a clear strategy.

The past two weeks have shown Mr. Biden trying to chart a new course for the U.S. economy. The UK, on ​​the other hand, is floating in the wind.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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