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Amazon, Starbucks handling unionization push ‘very badly,’ Rep. Levin says

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Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the push for unionization among congressional staff and workers at Amazon and Starbucks, improving wages, and the outlook for the labor regulation.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JULIE HYMAN: Well, as concerns around staffer pay rise in Washington, DC, eight House lawmakers have filed petitions to unionize, becoming the first to make that move on Capitol Hill. This marks the next step in an ongoing fight for better worker conditions for House lawmaker staffers.

Joining us now to discuss is Representative Andy Levin of Michigan. Congressman, thank you so much for being here. And before we get to that, we just got the news that President Biden has tested positive for COVID-19. I know you yourself had a case of COVID-19 back in the spring.

I don't know what-- I mean, it seems like it's going around. Almost everyone is getting it at this point. But I just wonder if you would have any reaction to it.

ANDY LEVIN: Upsetting. This new variant seems to be more troublesome than omicron. And so I'm just all thinking about President Biden and wishing him the best and hoping he has a really easy time of it, not too bad a case, and a quick recovery.

JULIE HYMAN: And the White House does say it is a mild case thus far, and he has mild symptoms. So that is good news. So let's move on to the topic at hand, which is unionization of congressional staffers. I got to say, I was shocked at some of the salary numbers that I was seeing for what staffers have been making here. So what kind of traction are you getting with this push for unionization? And what is it going to do for the pay of these workers?

ANDY LEVIN: Well, I mean, the first thing I have to say Julie is it's their push. It's not my push or my colleagues' push. At the top you said that eight of us filed for representation petitions. We're the employer. It was the workers in our offices who filed with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights to form unions in eight congressional offices. One of them happens to be mine. And I'm proud of my staff for doing that.

I think this could have a major, major impact for working conditions on Capitol Hill. Many independent analysts have said this is the most important thing that's happened for working conditions on the Hill in 30 years. And so what we have is, there's an overall budget that the members have, called the Members Representation Allowance.

Obviously, our staff can't negotiate to make that bigger. That's passed each year by Congress. But within that, there's a lot of flexibility. And they, in chat groups and Instagram accounts, congressional staffers have been talking not just about low pay but about difficult working conditions, racial issues.

And so I think it's a great thing for them to have their own organization to fight for better conditions. And I can tell you, I've already started bargaining informally with my staff. And I've set a floor of $55,000 in salary for my district office and my DC office because of these discussions and because that Members Representation Allowance was increased by 21% earlier this year. So we had some room to improve things.

BRAD SMITH: That starts to get to my question of how this would improve compensation and the overall package for your staffers and the broader base that would be looking to unionize, especially considering Washington, DC is consistently one of the top five expensive cities, most expensive cities in the US to live in. For the staffers, I imagine that's a lot to bear, a heavy burden on a lower salary, especially considering the living expenses in the city as Washington, DC is.

ANDY LEVIN: Well, you're so right. And do we want to have the Congress staffed by Americans in all their diversity, or do we basically just want to have wealthy people be able to work there, the children of wealthy families because their families can support them in some other way? We need to pay people enough to live on in Washington, DC and in our districts.

And they need to have good working conditions and dignity on the job and a way to raise issues. And when you have a union, you have procedures, you have a real contract, then you have a way to do that. So I think your point is really well taken. It's very expensive to live in DC. And hopefully this will help raise the wages for workers in our offices and on our committees.

And let me just point out that unionization in the American economy more broadly helps all workers, not just the workers who unionize. And I think that will be the case here. So in the United States in the private sector, our peak of unionization back in after World War II in the late '40s and early '50s was about 35%. And yet that created the whole middle class in that country. That created the whole idea of health insurance and pensions and so forth that many non-union workers also got.

So these brave workers in these first eight offices are really blazing a trail that will hopefully help all workers, Republican offices, Democratic offices, leadership offices, all of them.

BRIAN SOZZI: Representative, curious to get your assessment on how big companies like Starbucks and Amazon are handling pushes by their workforce to unionize.

ANDY LEVIN: Yeah, they're handling it very badly. And they're allowed to handle it badly by our very weak labor laws. They are having mandatory meetings where they spout anti-union propaganda, and they try to talk their workers out of forming unions, pressure them. They are having one-on-one sessions where workers have to talk to the person who sets their wages and hours. That's very uncomfortable.

Amazon was caught having this tent where they were encouraging people to vote in their parking lot in Bessemer. Starbucks is dragging out and dragging out this process of their workers being able to get first contracts when over 100 places have already unionized. So we really need to pass the PRO Act, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, to let workers in the private sector just form a union if they darn well please. If they don't want to, fine. But the employer shouldn't have such a huge thumb on the scale.

And you're seeing the up swelling of organizing activity. It's like nothing I've seen in my whole adult lifetime. I started helping nursing home workers organize with SEIU in 1983. So that's a long time ago. And this activity at Amazon and Starbucks and REI and Trader Joe's and in digital media companies, it's really amazing.

And by the way, we have to give the National Labor Relations Board a bigger budget because cases of new elections have risen 60% in the last year. So meanwhile, they have fewer staff than they had in 2010. So it's really important that we give the NLRB the resources it needs to do its job. And it's really amazing to see the activity at these kind of companies you're mentioning.

JULIE HYMAN: Well, Congressman, I wonder if that is going to be possible with this Congress, to give the NLRB more resources and/or to pass the labor legislation that you were just talking about. So barring that, it seems like the onus is indeed going to be on the unions and on the workers to try to push this stuff through.

ANDY LEVIN: Well, I'll tell you, Julie, that's the history of this country though. The truth is that only one time in the last century have we passed really fundamental labor law reform, really anything that made it easier for workers to organize, form unions, and bargain collectively. And that was way back in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act.

The reason I mention this is, that law only passed because workers were in motion. They were starting to organize at the companies that were emerging in what we call the Taylorist economy, the big manufacturing facilities that marked that era.

And so they organized. That pressed Congress to pass the National Labor Relations Act. And then boom, you had the biggest wave of worker organizing in the history of our country. And we went to a situation where we are like now, where today, just 6% of private workers are in unions. Quickly after 1935 and the National Labor Relations Act, we went to 35%. And we built the middle class of this country or, we should really say, the workers of this country built their own middle class. And we need that to happen again, obviously.

BRIAN SOZZI: Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan, good to see you this morning. We'll talk to you soon.