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For workers, much remains unsettled as new year begins

Richard Vogel/Associated Press/File 2017

Union workers and minimum wage activists rallied on Labor Day in Los Angeles and other cities.

By Globe Staff 

As 2018 begins, battles are being waged over a number of issues that affect workers — with outcomes that could help determine which party controls Congress as voters head to the polls later this year.

President Trump campaigned on a promise to lift up working-class Americans. But so far, businesses have been reaping most of the rewards, ending 2017 with a big win in the form of a major corporate tax cut and a number of rolled-back regulations.

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And as workers contemplate changes in their wages and workplace protections, or a lack thereof, many of them will be asking themselves: Has my quality of life improved since President Trump and the Republicans took over?

If the answer is no, it could fuel a political backlash.

F. Vincent Vernuccio, senior fellow at the right-leaning Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, said that the recent tax overhaul, which will reduce taxes for many people, should put voters in a good mood.

“When workers across the country see that in their paychecks, obviously they’re going to be grateful that they can keep more of their hard-earned money,” Vernuccio said.

Workers also benefit from business-friendly policies that allow the economy to flourish, he said: “Policies that give employers more freedom to run their business and create jobs will undoubtedly help employees.”

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But the November 2017 elections indicate that more liberal candidates could be gaining the upper hand, said Paul Sonn, general counsel at the National Employment Law Project, a New York advocacy group for low-wage workers, noting that gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey were both won by Democrats who campaigned on a $15 minimum wage.

“The [2018] election will show contrasting economic visions in many states, between a pro-worker populist agenda on the one hand versus a deregulatory Trump-style platform on the other,” Sonn said. “Trump ran on delivering a real difference to the lives of working-class voters, especially in the Midwest, and instead he’s delivered attacks on health care and a tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. The big question is, will the voters notice?”

With this in mind, here are five labor issues that could have an impact on the 2018 midterm elections:

Wages

A handful of companies already have announced bonuses and minimum-wage increases as a result of lower tax rates included in the recent tax overhaul. But it remains to be seen how widespread the generosity will be. Wages have been flat for years; in Massachusetts, average pay is expected to rise only 2.66 percent this year, slightly less than it rose in 2017, according to a survey by Associated Industries of Massachusetts. Massachusetts is one of a number of states considering raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour (California and New York have already approved this rate). If the Legislature doesn’t act, the issue will be put before voters in the fall.

Overtime pay

For years, salaried exempt workers earning as little as $23,660 a year were not eligible for overtime pay, including retail store or restaurant managers putting in 80 or 90 hours a week. Under President Obama, the Department of Labor doubled that salary threshold to $47,476, making more than 4 million additional workers eligible to earn extra pay when they work overtime. But before it went into effect, a district court judge in Texas ruled the salary cap invalid. Trump’s labor department is expected to issue a new threshold this year, but the amount is widely anticipated to be lower than $47,476. Meanwhile, Democrats have introduced a bill to restore the overtime salary level to roughly that amount.

Public sector unions

In February, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case whose outcome could be devastating to organized labor. The plaintiff, Mark Janus, a state worker in Illinois, argues that forcing public employees to pay union dues is unconstitutional. The court heard a similar case in 2016 but deadlocked 4-4 following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, and Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, is expected to be the deciding vote. If the court rules in Janus’s favor, it would free government workers from financing a union they don’t support. It would also mean less money for unions to negotiate and enforce contracts, a change that could hinder workers’ ability to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.

Joint employers

After Trump appointed two members to the National Labor Relations Board, shifting the balance of power to Republicans, the board in December reversed a 2015 ruling that made companies liable for the actions of their franchisees and subcontractors. Following the recent decision, a lead company can be considered a joint employer only if it has direct control over subcontracted or franchise employees, removing the parent organization from responsibility for labor law violations. Business groups applauded the decision as a victory for entrepreneurs, while worker advocates say it leaves the growing number of temporary and contract workers with fewer protections.

Paid family and medical leave

The United States is the only developed country without a national paid-leave program, and an overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats support giving employees paid time off to care for a newborn or sick family member. A number of proposals are in the works at both the federal and state level, including in Massachusetts, yet there are drastic differences between what the two parties are proposing when it comes to the amount of time off and how it would be implemented.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.