With the social contract between employers and the workforce steadily eroding for nearly 50 years, the study and practice of labor and employment law has never been more crucial, says law professor Ruben Garcia. Workers are currently subjected to an unprecedented undermining of regulations designed to protect their rights, and their power to collectively bargain is under siege. As he states in his article “Politics at Work After Citizens United” for the Loyla Law Review, there are “seismic changes going on in our political system."
In an interview, he said, “This lack of political power that leads to these lesser protections, I think both originates from and is exacerbated by the political imbalance in the country: The growing gap between those who have money to spend on politics — the casino magnates of the world and the Koch brothers of the world — versus those who have the numbers but can’t exercise their power. So my latest piece is really about the ways in which individual workers might be able to organize politically to leverage their numbers in the face of these growing political inequalities that come out of Citizens United.”
It’s a subject area for which Garcia makes himself available as a go-to media source and that he examined at length in his 2012 book Marginal Workers: How Legal Fault Lines Divide Workers and Leave Them Without Protection. But Professor Garcia’s focus on labor and employment law has deep roots.
“I made the decision in law school,” he said. “But I think the reason I made the decision was because I saw some economic or employment injustices in my family when I was growing up, my dad in his career. I thought it was a good area to get into, that I might like in terms of trying to deal with some of those injustices for other people.”
Garcia botained his law degree from UCLA and the practiced in Los Angeles for several years before entering academia and joining the UNLV faculty in 2011. Las Vegas, with 14.4 percent of Nevada’s workforce unionized versus a national average of 11.1 percent and a private sector rate of 6.7 percent, turned out to be a fascinating laboratory for labor law.
“It was a great opportunity to come to a place where there’s a dynamic labor movement,” said Professor Garcia. “The unique issues in gaming and casinos in terms of tips or supervisor status are an incredible opportunity, which I didn’t have in San Diego, to have a voice in the public sector. … I think there’s a lot of opportunity here to speak out about different issues related to labor law.”
Garcia avidly promotes expanded labor-community partnerships, as he expresses in “Politics at Work After Citizens United,” while in Marginal Workers he advocates for basic rights for workers on par with minimum constitutional and human rights. But it’s the current minimum wage fight, five years after the symbolic flashpoint of Citizens United, that holds the most promise for the growth of future grassroots organizing.
“What you will see at the local level is more of these grassroots campaigns,” he said. “The minimum wage, one of the reasons I’m looking at it, is because it’s become an organizing principle for a lot of different things. The cry in fast food strikes has been ‘fight for $15 and a union.’ There’s backing from the SEIU [Service Employees International Union] and backing from different unions for these campaigns, and they’re trying to make it not just about the minimum wage but greater workplace justice, greater workplace protection.”
Professor Garcia sees a big fight ahead between local movements and “those who prefer a totally unregulated market” who are embedded in state and local legislatures, but the bottom line for him is unions need more numbers and the public sector must be strengthened if the labor movement is going to rebound and reinvigorate. Workers need better protections against a spectrum of anti-labor activities, from exploiting immigrant labor to skirt prevailing wage standards to classifying employees as independent contractors.
“That’s why the fact that the private sector unionization rate at 6.7 percent is a real problem for the enforcement of labor laws, because the traditional way of enforcing these things was through collective action, through collective bargaining,” said Professor Garcia. “But when we have such a small percentage of the workforce actually organized, more and more rights are going to go unenforced.”