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New International and Comparative Labor and Employment Challenges: Dean Colvin and Director Katz Share Insights

Recently, the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) hosted an international virtual discussion on employment relations issues. The conversation included topics such as global supply chains, climate change, restructuring of sectoral employment, digitalisation, and national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. ILR Dean Alexander Colvin and Professor Harry Katz, the Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining at the ILR School and Director of the Scheinman Institute, joined panelists from Canada, Germany and South Africa in the discussion. Cornell Professor Virginia Doellgast co-chaired the event with Greg J. Bamber of Monash University, Australia and Newcastle University, UK.

Colvin spoke about two underlying trends that have influenced employment relations issues in the United States recently: relatively weak collective representation characterized by an individualized employment relations system, and an increasing legalization of the American system. 

He explained how despite little success in public policy updating national labor statutes, the courts have changed the scope of employment relations through decisions like Janus v. AFSCME, which essentially created “a national right to work law” for the American public sector. Additionally, Colvin remarked on how the Supreme Court decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis has played into a move towards a “privatization of justice” regarding mandatory arbitration. 

He also explained the legal debates surrounding gig economy workers. This includes Uber and Lyft’s campaign to exempt themselves from California’s “ABC Test,” the state’s standard legal determination of which workers are considered employees instead of private contractors.

Katz analyzed recent developments in collective representation. “Even in the face of extremely innovative efforts at organizing,” according to Katz, “there’s no sign of an imminent spurt of growth in private sector unionism overall” from its current extremely low level of 6.5%. On a more optimistic note for the labor movement, he added that even taking the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME into account, public sector unionization rates have held up at the local, state and federal levels. 

Additionally, workers such as teachers in states with relatively weak unionism have been able to engage in collective action and achieve gains despite their lack of traditional union support. Katz noted that the federal support for unemployment insurance as well as parental leave and sick leave that arose during the pandemic represents a change from the federal government’s typical role in employment relations.

View the Entire Discussion.