If you are in Washington and you want to buy marijuana with the union label, you can thanks to UFCW Local 367, who represents workers at a processing plant. Union Yes!
On August 13, 1887, leathermakers in Newark, New Jersey, locked out their employees as a strategy to crush the Knights of Labor. This lockout would demonstrate the lengths to which American employers would go in order to ensure their shops remained union-free, a significant departure from the accommodations made by European employers, a difference that still resonates in the American labor movement today.
Newark has become a major industrial center by the 1880s and unlike many cities, hosted a wide number of industries. One of the largest was the leather industry. This was exceedingly odious labor. As a noxious industry, leather production was banished to the outskirts of cities going back to colonial New England. Two centuries of technological advancement had not significantly decreased the odiousness of this work. By the late nineteenth century, as was happening with laborers around the country, skilled workers were increasingly replaced by unskilled, often immigrant labor, laboring in mass-scale industrial operations. Newark was also a strong union town and a Knights of Labor local began there in 1879, as the Panic of 1873 subsided. The leather workers do not seem to have been involved in its early days. The first specifically leather-based Knights hall opened in 1883. After 1884, the Knights grew rapidly in Newark, as they did throughout the country. Strikes abounded. More than twice as many strikes took place in Newark in 1886 than did between 1881 and 1885. Half of the strikes were over employers backsliding from agreements they had made to stop earlier strikes. Leather worker struck over other issues, including an end to piecework and for higher wages.
As 1886 turned into 1887, the leatherworkers, skilled and unskilled and often in different Knights’ lodges, began to coordinate their strikes more effectively. Solidarity and a more concrete sense of class identity was building. This was important. It took time for the ideology of free labor republicanism to wear off in the face of endless drudgery and exploitation. Workers didn’t see themselves as that different from employers in the first twenty years after the Civil War. Slowly that began to change. The growth of the Knights was far from what Terence Powderly had envisioned and the growing direct action tactics of many lodges demonstrated that this ideological commitment to free labor had started to fade by the mid-1880s. This hardly meant that these Knights were radicals. It took time to give up old conceits. Despite the famous connections between Knights’ actions and the Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Knights had very little tolerance for radicals, and not only at the top. Newark Knights repeatedly stated the conservative nature of their actions. They largely believed in the American Dream and respected the small employers who had risen out of the working class. They saw a big difference between that person and John D. Rockefeller or Jay Gould.
By 1887, the Knights had begun to decline. In part this was about the backlash to Haymarket and in part it was due to divisions both within the Knights and between the Knights and other labor unions. The Knights really weren’t constructed to be a mass movement. But masses of workers around the nation still held to their Knights membership. Sensing weakness, the leather manufacturers banded together and struck back. The initial issue was that in June, they had agreed that workers could only tan a limit of forty hides in a day. They resented giving up any control over the shopfloor, which the agreement had also allowed. The manufacturers began to coordinate with each other. They selected one to violate the agreement, knowing workers would strike. When this happened, the employer imported strikebreakers while the other employers took over his orders and worked them in employer solidarity. The Knights lost.
This set the stage for the August lockout, where the leather owners sought to eliminate the Knights entirely. Given the cutthroat nature of American business competition (a scenario that would continue until the New Deal) it was almost as hard to get employers to cooperate as it was for workers to try and unionize. But the success in freeing one factory from the union convinced many skeptical owners to join the employers association. The bosses announced the lockout for August 1, but waited until August 13 as rhetoric rose between the two sides and the Knights debated on whether they should strike first. But the workers simply didn’t have the resources of the bosses, even pooled together as a union. Knights’ dues were very low and though the union said it could stay out for 3 months, it ran out of money almost immediately. The Knights tried to appeal to the small manufacturers in terms of the working-class and small employer solidarity at the heart of free labor ideology, but not a single one failed to honor the lockout. By the third week, the situation grew desperate. Internal tensions between the more radical German members and more conservative English and Irish members and rapidly dwindling funds destroyed the Knights. A few went back to their old jobs but most were not rehired. Shop stewards were blacklisted and many had to move from Newark to find work. The Knights were dead in the leather industry. Unions in Newark were pushed back significantly. At the start of 1887, there were 48 workers associations in the city. By the end of 1888, there were 12.
Ultimately, the Knights failed in Newark because employers would do anything to crush them. And this has been the primary problem of American unionism. It took remarkable government action during an unprecedented economic crisis to change this scenario in the New Deal and employers have resented it ever since. That is the fundamental problem organized labor has today. It’s not bad union leadership, a lack of union democracy, not enough organizing, or the other reasons union supporters and those who critique unions from the left usually provide. These are small factors, but the fundamental issue is that American employers will stop at nothing to eradicate unions. And that’s a very different circumstance that either Britain and France during the 1880s or, say, Germany today, where employers and unions routinely work together on management decisions, up to the point of encouraging unionization of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This post is based on Kim Voss, The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. This is critical reading because it provides the direct comparison to employers in England and France that I didn’t have time to explore in this post.
This is the 186th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
On July 28, 1932, the U.S. Army 12th Infantry regiment commanded by Douglas MacArthur and the 3rd Calvary Regiment, supported by six battle tanks commanded by Major George Patton violently evicted the Bonus Army from their Washington, D.C. encampment. This violent action and horrible treatment of impoverished veterans shocked the American public and demonstrated the utter indifference of Herbert Hoover to the desperate poverty the nation faced, helping to seal his overwhelming defeat that fall that ushered in the widespread change of the New Deal that would follow.
The Great Depression absolutely decimated the American working class. Unemployment shot up to 25 percent by the winter of 1933, while underemployment affected perhaps an additional 25 percent of workers. Herbert Hoover was simply unable to deal with these problems. Hoover was a man with a long humanitarian record, but he was very much a Progressive in a period where the voluntarist response to social problems that movement valued no longer worked. Charges that the Hoover didn’t care about the poor are overstated. But he simply could not accept any large-scale state involvement in solving the problem. By the summer of 1932 he had slightly moved off his position, but widescale social programs were anathema. Even more horrifying to him was worker activism.
In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act that granted World War I veterans a one-time pension check in 1945. Calvin Coolidge vetoed this bill because of course Coolidge would veto a bill that gave anyone a dime, but Congress overrode the veto. But by 1932, these soldiers needed that money now. They faced unthinkable poverty. They could not feed their families. What difference did it make if it was 1932 or 1945, veterans thought. So they began to demand the immediate payment of their bonus. The bonus was not a huge amount of money. It paid veterans $1 a day for service while in the U.S. and $1.25 in Europe, up to a maximum of $500 in the U.S. and $625 in Europe. That $625 is about $8000 today. This was not going to make people rich. But it was something at time when something is exactly what was needed.
As the Depression deepened, Congress did allow veterans to borrow against the value of the certificates. Originally they could borrow up to 22 percent of the total, but in 1931 Congress expanded this to 31 percent. Congressional support for paying the entire bonus grew. In January 1930, 170,000 desperate veterans applied for the loans–in 9 days. Veterans struggled with what must have been PTSD, as Veterans Administration studies in 1930 and 1931 showed that veterans had unemployment nearly 50 percent higher than non-veterans of the same age. Beginning in 1930, Congress began exploring new bills to help veterans, but none became law. On June 15, 1932, the House passed the Bonus Bill that would grant the bonuses immediately.
At the same time, veterans began descending on Washington, DC demanding the immediate payment of the bonus. Organizing this protest was an organization you might not expect today–the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW was really struggling in the early 1920s. But after 1929, its membership exploded because it supported the immediate payment of the bonus, while the American Legion, a proto-fascist anti-worker organization, opposed it. They created a Hooverville in Anacostia, in what is today Anacostia Park. The veterans created a sanitary camp, despite being in Washington during the summer. The camp did not welcome non-veterans or other radicals who might want to turn the event to their purposes. To stay in the camp, people had to prove their veteran status and eligibility. They could however bring their families. Approximately 20,000 veterans traveled to Washington during the summer of 1932.
Beginning in March, the VFW aggressively lobbied for the bonus. VFW leaders presented Congress with a petition from 281,000 veterans demanding their money. Veterans camping was an annual event for the VFW. So the act of setting up in one place was not radical, nor unusual, although the official 1932 encampment was in Sacramento. But in 1932, encamping in DC had a specifically politically agenda. The movement for a specific Bonus Army came out of Oregon, where veterans began organizing for an encampment in Washington, DC. They hopped trains and headed east. Thousands joined them. The VFW did not precisely endorse the Bonus Army and it wasn’t quite affiliated with it, but there was a lot of support for it and many VFW locals sent supplies and provided other forms of support. Hoover refused to even meet with the veterans, although he spoke at American Legion conventions on at least two occasions. And while the House passed the bill, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it, 82-18.
For the most part, the Bonus marchers accepted their defeat. Congress even passed a bill to pay for their transportation to go home. Most left, but not all. Herbert Hoover was very nervous about the remaining bonus marchers. The Washington police force had no patience for the Bonus marchers and neither did the military. The remaining marchers began squatting in government buildings. Hoover ordered them cleared. The police were happy to do so. This led to skirmishes. That led Hoover to order MacArthur to clear out the camp. But Hoover was pretty clear–this was not to be violent. MacArthur disobeyed his orders and burned the whole camp. After he demolished the camp, he told the press that the Bonus Army was full of communists. That Douglas MacArthur, what an American hero. MacArthur’s actions absolutely devastated Hoover’s re-election chances, if he still had them in July 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would obliterate Hoover in November, creating a rare complete realignment of American politics. The VFW strongly supported Roosevelt, wanting revenge on Hoover for what happened to the Bonus Army.
The Bonus Army was not a movement with a radical or unionist agenda. But it was a clear expression of activism that was transforming the working classes by the early 1930s and would lead to the greater explosions of worker activism in the next few years that would force the government to pass laws like the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act. Interestingly, Roosevelt was not a big supporter of paying the bonus either. There was another march in 1933. FDR provided them a camp site in Virginia and 3 meals a day but did not publicly support their goals. Finally, in 1936, Congress passed a bonus bill. FDR vetoed it. But Congress overrode it and much of the bonus was paid early.
I borrowed from Steven Ortiz, “Rethinking the Bonus March: Federal Bonus Policy, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Origins of a Protest Movement,” in the July 2006 issue of Journal of Policy History, in the writing of this post.
This is the 185th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
You can disagree with the police unions’ political positions. You don’t have to support their ideas or their positions. You don’t have to respect the police. But I refuse to accept arguments from the left that the police should not have unions. Jeff Spross has more on why the police need unions.
Cops are workers, too. They are workers put in an almost impossible position. And they need a union to stand up for them.
Go down the standard list of proposed police reforms — more accountability for bad cops, body cameras, demilitarization, more federal monitoring, civilian oversight, transparency, and so on. They’re all worthy, but what they all have in common is getting police to behave better within the role of “police” as we already conceive of it; namely, as the state’s enforcers of law and order, whose primary tools are the threat of violence and the ability to throw people into cages.
What these reforms don’t deal with is the possibility that our society has rendered this role an impossible one to pull off in any sort of successful, functional, or healthy manner.
Cops must deal with everything from gang violence to drug addiction to mental illness to domestic abuse to helping single parents to broken taillights and speeding cars. They respond so often with violence and incarceration because those are the tools we train them to use. They are no more immune to racism than any other human institution in American society. And of course the well-being of cops themselves often resembles what you’d find in veterans from a war zone.
Meanwhile, America’s long history of racism has left many black American communities deeply damaged. And poverty and crime go hand in hand. So when cops are shoved into the role of what is often privileged white society’s sole institutional interaction with black Americans’ world, and left with nothing but violence and incarceration as their tools, of course racism still permeates the way they operate.
Our society has pulled out of supplying the resources, the institutions, and the personnel that could support cops in handling this societal breakdown. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” said an exhausted David Brown, Dallas’ police chief, in the aftermath of the killing of five cops at a protest march. “Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems.”
Can anyone be surprised when police unions bristle and revolt at reforms aimed at drawing even greater virtue out of cops in the course of performing very difficult tasks? Cops wield an immense amount of power in our society. But that abstract privilege does not change the lived experience of being a cop, which is what the police and the unions that represent them draw upon when deciding how to defend themselves. We can’t just keep trying to make the police better-armed saints in the very places where the injustices of U.S. society collide the hardest. Nor can we assume that combating racism is merely a matter of enlightening individual cops or their departmental culture.
Getting rid of police unions will do precisely nothing to solve any problem with the police the left has. All it will do is make the lives of the police worse and make these problems harder to solve. If you believe that unionbusting is the answer, you need to examine where you are coming from on this. And you need to answer the question of how this will solve the problems of police brutality and racist violence.
Because I would do literally anything other than watch 1 second of the Republican National Convention, I’m going to assume that at least some of you hold the same policy. So if you want to learn more about the terrible things going on in the world and why we need to fight it, here’s a new animation on the abuses in the palm oil industry, which is in many of the food products you buy everyday.
There’s a lot of tension between parts of the labor movement and the environmental movement right now. This can often be painted too broadly. Basically, the building trades hate environmentalists for not supporting building every dirty power project and the UMWA hates environmentalists for supporting restrictions on coal. But there are lots of unions with perfectly fine relationships with environmentalists, even if the big public sector unions like SEIU, AFSCME, and AFT could do much, much more to represent the interests of their members in supporting a clean, sustainable environment with plenty of recreational opportunities. But even within those hostile unions, it’s not as if there isn’t room to work with environmentalists on issues where their interests coincide. And this is one of the lessons of so-called blue-green alliances. It’s not as if unions and environmentalists have to agree on everything. They may never be a force marching together for combined ecological and economic justice. Rather, this sort of alliance-building is going to be dependent on the given issue. And that’s OK so long as there is enough dialogue to allow that alliance to happen when it can. That’s what groups like the BlueGreen Alliance try to do. And we are seeing it pay off with both labor and greens outraged over Flint, which has shamefully fallen out of the headlines in the last 2 months.
When you think of an environmental hero, a plumber might not be the first person who comes to mind. But the BlueGreen Alliance gave its “champion” award this year to the union representing plumbers and pipe fitters. The big reason: people like Harold Harrington, of the United Association local 370 in Flint, Michigan. He says during the lead in water crisis there, his members volunteered to go door to door and replace faucets and water filters in people’s homes. “We replaced 650 faucets, just because the filters wouldn’t fit the old faucets. And they’re carbon filters, so they do remove lead,” he says.
Leaders in both the environmental and labor movements say the country could prevent more public health disasters like Flint, if old infrastructure is fixed or replaced — like leaky drinking water pipes, and natural gas pipelines. And at the same time, the repairs would create jobs. Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. He gives the example of new regulations in California to fix old gas pipelines. They were passed in response to a four-month leak of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – in Aliso Canyon, in southern California. “And there will be lots of jobs and there will be a cut in the pollution from these pipelines,” says Brune.
We need a lot more of this. New infrastructure building is the kind of agenda that should create broad agreement on the left. First, this nation really, really needs it. Second, it would be a huge spur to the economy. Third, that new infrastructure could create a far-more sustainable network of power and transportation than we currently have. But even when that’s not available, working together over issues of the relationship between the environment and everyday people is the kind of thing that can bring unions and greens together.
I have long stated that environmentalism ultimately hurt itself by focusing more on wilderness and wildlife preservation over the broad-based anti-pollution measures that made it politically popular in the 1960s and 1970s. There were lots of good reasons for that–the fact that the Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts were so successful that the obvious need for stronger laws diminished, the growth of conservatism making it necessary to defend laws in the courts instead of push for new laws, and the wealthy people funding environmentalism who wanted campaigns around wilderness, rain forest protection, and wildlife protection. Add to this the deindustrialization, outsourcing, and automation transforming the American economy and making working people scared of supporting environmentalism because their employers were threatening to move their jobs overseas (which they were often planning on doing anyway) and the political calculus for environmentalism changed rapidly. Yet this is unfortunate and needs to change. Building alliances around environmental injustice and infrastructure is at least a starting point.
David Bensman has a really great piece on how the Teamsters are taking the lead on organizing Uber drivers in Seattle and how doing so has relied on the kind of community effort necessary for organizing in the modern day. It’s taken building not only union power but connections within immigrant communities, working with politicians, and building alliances with environmentalists and community activists. This is the sort of campaign that can make a long-term difference and as Uber has begun facing political pushback for its exploitative model, is highly necessary. And how bad are things for drivers now that Uber has flooded the market?
Since Uber and Lyft came to town and recruited ten times the number of drivers that had been issued licenses under the city’s regulatory taxicab regime, earnings of all drivers have tumbled. While Uber started out allowing drivers to keep almost the same amount per mile driven as the regulated taxi drivers were getting, it has since cut that rate from $2.35 to $1.35 per mile. Now Uber drivers charge lower fares, and they get the lion’s share of the business. But with their low mileage rate, they have to work seven 12-hour days each week to make enough to live in the expensive metropolitan region. Mohammed, a somali driver I met near the Al Aqbar mosque that was the first to allow drivers to hold organizing meetings, told me that he knew driving such long hours was dangerous. “But what choice do I have?” he asked. “I have to pay for my car, my apartment, to put food on the table.”
Mohammed told me he pays $600 per week for the car Uber pressured him to lease from Toyota. He also pays the company $1.40 per passenger as a “safe rider fee,” though he can’t figure out what he or his passengers are getting for the money, since background checks are minimal and fingerprinting is unknown. On the day I visited the airport parking lot, Uber drivers waited 40 minutes, on average, before they got a call to pick up a passenger. Some days are better, Mohammed informed me; by now the drivers know when the planes are landing, and they try to time their arrival at the airport to minimize their wait. But even when they time it right, their earnings are limited; a ride from the airport to town only nets them $16, and there’s no tipping. Worse, a recent company-imposed pooling policy requires drivers to pick up multiple passengers at different places to take them to common destinations at severely reduced fares. This “innovation,” communicated to drivers through Uber’s app, really has the drivers grumbling.
Licensed-cab taxi drivers probably have it worse. At nights and on weekends, millennial customers use their Uber app. As a consequence, most licensed drivers work an early shift, from 4:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, seven days a week. Driving cab number 718, a Somali driver who was afraid to give me his name told me that before Uber arrived, he used to be able to make a decent living driving eight hour days. Now he has a choice; he can drive seven 12-hour days or he can reduce his lifestyle. He’s moved to a cheaper apartment and settled for straitened circumstances. He’s philosophical about his change of life, but he doesn’t think it’s right. “I don’t mind competition,” he told me. “Competition makes everyone play their best game. If you are skilled and have a good strategy, you can win. But this competition is unfair. Uber doesn’t pay the standard mileage rate, its insurance is no good, and it makes its drivers work unsafe hours. This competition you can’t win.” Another driver, an Ethiopian, made the other choice, working seven 12-hour days. “My kids think I’m an ATM machine,” he told me. “I never see them.”
This is total exploitation. There’s nothing wrong per se with having more cabs on the road. There is something very wrong in driving workers into poverty and pooling profits at the top.
On Monday, in a 3-1 ruling, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed a Bush the Younger-era precedent that gave employers a say over whether temporary and subcontracted workers can be included in the same bargaining unit as the regular, full-time employees with whom they work beside. Go figure, most employers said “no” to the proposition that people who work shoulder to shoulder, but are paid from separate checkbooks, could bargain together in the same union. But the new Miller & Anderson, Inc. decision could force subcontractors to bargain with a certified union over the wages and working conditions determined by the controlling employer.
The ruling comes hot on the heels of the Board’s American Baptist Homes decision. That case re-established a balancing test for whether a boss’ employment of permanent replacement strikers is actually motivated by a desire to bust a union —which goes a long way towards restoring a legal right to strike.
And, of course, the Board’s attempt to expedite representation elections by holding frivolous management objections in abeyance until after the workers vote nearly broke the Congress. (Seriously, if you want to drink some delicious boss’ tears Google “quickie NLRB election.”)
As veteran union organizer Stephen Lerner succinctly puts it, “Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it.” I have advocated that unions should pursue an agenda of judicial activism. These recent NLRB actions prove that the time is ripe to challenge the rules of the system that keep unions shackled. I’ve spent most of my career complaining about how slow and ineffective the NLRB is, as have most union organizers. That bias should not blind us to the opportunity of the moment.
Speaking of Lerner, this is worth your time:
Austerity, growing inequality, and the economic and political domination of billionaires, bankers, hedge funds, and giant corporations make the current moment ripe for birthing a movement that can radically transform the country and the world. This is a time of great peril, but also of extraordinary opportunity and—yes—reasons for hope. The last four decades have been characterized by unrelenting attacks on the working class, the weakening of unions and the financialization of capitalism. The fiscal crisis of 2007-2008, the burgeoning wealth gap, and the flood of money from corporations and the rich drowning our democracy have exposed the nation’s political, moral, and economic decay, creating conditions that beg for an alternative to a system that increasingly only works for the super-rich.
I agree that there are a lot of reasons to hope right now. I don’t see the failure of the Sanders campaign or the Walmart organizing campaign as actually failures. I see them as moments leading to something much larger, something we are already seeing in the debates around income inequality, the growth of minimum wage legislation, and even Republican politicians sometimes having to admit that these are real problems (even if their solutions are as anti-poor as ever).
So what role do unions play now, given their decreased density? Lerner suggests several possibilities. Each of these have longer descriptions but let me just lay out their intros with a brief comment. First:
Unions need to understand and educate the public about what is going on in the economy if labor and other social movements are to seize this opportunity and figure out how to turn frailty into strength. They need to demystify the complexity of the how the economy works, so that working-class people and social movements can respond in kind.
Unions are well-placed to do this, as they hire labor economists and analysts who produce perceptive critiques of the economy. In this, I would say that these unions should (and of course they already do) work in conjunction or in conversation with left-leaning think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute to build up these critiques, and then find ways to disseminate this through the politically active population.
Assert control over wealth and capital: In the post-World War II era, unions made two related mistakes that have contributed to labor’s isolation and to unrestrained corporate control of the economy: First, organized labor focused nearly exclusively on winning higher wages and benefits for only the unionized sector of the economy; and second it declined to challenge how companies were managed or how capital and wealth were invested or controlled. In the auto sector, the United Auto Workers (UAW) won higher wages in Big Three assembly plants at the same time the companies spun off and outsourced manufacturing of parts that used to be done by UAW members. These two moves both lowered standards for these workers and undercut the union’s overall power in the industry.
All of this was predicated on the idea that unions and collective bargaining were accepted by the corporate and political elites as a permanent fixture of the system and as a legitimate method for setting wages and benefits. Since the 1970s, however, union membership has been in a steady free fall with today’s union density at roughly 11 percent. This means that, in addition to having ceded control over wealth and capital, unions have largely focused on protecting the interests of only a small fraction of workers.
Some unions have already moved in this direction, especially seen in SEIU’s support of the Fight for $15, for which they have expended millions of dollars without organizing a single establishment under a contract. Lerner also points to labor support of immigrant rights in recent decades as another example of this. Of course, there are some tricks here. A union has to remain financially viable and it has to serve its own members. Those things are paramount. But that can be done while also fighting for the broader agenda of all workers. Of course, not all unions are doing this and thus you see unions arguing for exemptions to minimum wage laws for their own members. That’s the kind of negative leadership unions have to stop doing. Broadly, unions need to be allies in other mass movements. Sometimes that is happening, sometimes it isn’t. But some unions are just never going to adjust to thinking of themselves as part of a social movement.
Unions are still the best-resourced progressive organizations in the U.S., but they have been far less successful at capturing the national imagination than other movements that have no resources. If unions limit their mission to the four walls of the workplace, then they become less relevant as they represent fewer workplaces. But by embracing other mass movements—without attempting to control or hijack them—unions can grow alongside of them and those movements will benefit from the organizational resources that organized labor can bring to bear.
The idea in Occupy Wall Street that unions would co-opt the movement was laughable from an evidentary standpoint. As if the unions had that power! But the fact that activists thought it was a real thing is a sign of the distrust a lot of activists in other movements have toward organized labor and to no small extent, that reputation has been earned over the past century. But Lerner provides several examples of how unions have been doing a much better job on these issues in recent years. Such alliance building is not just about the economy, but also making unions leaders in the fight for racial justice. That’s also going to take internal organizing in many of the unions, which are not always made up of racially progressive people.
At this moment financialized capitalism is dominant, but also incredibly fragile, caught in cycles of booms and busts. Wall Street, mega corporations and newly minted tech billionaires boast of using “creative destruction” to reshape companies and the economy while enriching themselves at labor’s expense. Instead of accepting their dominance and control unions can start to counter their destruction with their own “creative disruption”, demonstrating just how fragile their control is and the potential power of labor—if unions are willing to flex their muscles.
By articulating a vision of a more just world, going on offense, demanding more instead of accepting less, and aligning campaigns against the billionaires at the top, labor can inspire and organize a movement dedicated to redistributing wealth and power.
Going back to Richman to end this long post, he argues that unions need to build upon this newly aggressive NLRB and start making real demands of the agency (assuming that Hillary Clinton wins the general election) that would push back against the decades of corporate attack upon workers:
A good case in point is employers’ “right” to force employees to attend mandatory anti-union “captive audience” meetings during a union organizing drive. Most organizers accept that it “is what it is”—another fucked up way that NLRB election rules are rigged so that unions lose a ton of representation elections. (Although, it should be noted that unions used to lose half of all representation elections during the Clinton I-era and now tend to win about two-thirds of elections, thanks partly to more strategic organizing choices and partly to the NLRB’s recent return to its historic mission of encouraging unions and collective bargaining.)
Meanwhile, apparently, the NLRB has been on the record for half a century as inviting unions to make a case that there should be some kind of equal access standard for unions if an employer forces workers to attend mandatory meetings on the subject of union representation. A group of 106 leading labor scholars, led by Charles Morris and Paul Secunda, have filed a petition at the NLRB to re-establish just such a rule.
The speculation is that the NLRB is unlikely to act on Morris’ and Secunda’s petition, as it prefers to act on union (or employer) initiated procedural cases. The Miller & Anderson decision came in response to a union representation petition; the American Baptist Homes decision in response to an unfair labor practice charge. To win equal time, a union will have to file exceptions to a losing representation election in which the employer made use of mandatory captive audience meetings. Surely, and sadly, someone reading this article has recently lost an election under such circumstances, and can take the initiative.
Similarly, most unionists just accept that an employer has a “right” to permanently replace striking workers. For example, Jane McAlevey, in her organizing memoir Raising Hell (and Raising Expectations), incorrectly chalks it up to a law signed by Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t. It was a poorly decided 1938 Supreme Court case that was dusted off in the 1980s. Like referees in a schlocky Hulk Hogan wrestling match, Reagan’s NLRB appointees looked the other way as employers engaged in a coordinated union-busting drive that weaponized the unfrozen caveman Supreme Court precedent.
After an unsuccessful attempt to legislatively ban permanent replacements during the first Clinton era, most unions seem to have shrugged and accepted that workers can legally lose their jobs for striking—that is until the NLRB reverted to the pre-Reagan rules. But the Board can go further. The crucial phrase in that 1938 Court decision, NLRB vs. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co., is that an employer can hire permanent replacements if it is necessary “to protect and continue his business.”
In other words, to meet the Supreme Court standard, the NLRB could force Verizon or any other Fortune 500 company to prove that they would otherwise go out of business unless they can hire scabs to steal the jobs of their striking workers. Good luck with that. Unions should get in the habit of filing unfair labor practice charges any time a boss advertises for scabs.
The NLRB even potentially has the power to reverse “Right to Work.” The statutes, passed on a state-by-state basis, aim to prevent unions from collecting fees from all of the workers they are legally obligated to represent. But the federal law that allows “Right to Work” statutes has, until recently, faced very few judicial challenges. One open question is whether the legislative intent of the Taft-Hartley act was merely to ban union membership as a condition of employment—not whether unions could negotiate mandatory fees for grievance representation services. Seattle University Associate Professor of Law Charlotte Garden notes that the NLRB could approve such a formula, and has indicated openness to cases arguing for it.
There’s a lot of potential here. But it’s going to take unions taking the offensive to make that happen. I believe that even with their decreased membership, unions have an absolutely vital role to play any future left-leaning organizing in this nation. The potential is there for far-reaching changes that would go far to reset the playing field between workers and employers. We’ll have to see if they can take advantage of it. But the first thing that has to happen is Hillary Clinton must be elected to the White House. Otherwise, the rules of the game are going to get much, much, much worse.
In their myriad ways to avoid not only unions but also responsibility for their own employees, employers have come up with any number of ways to control workers without having any legal obligation to them. One of the most effective ways is to use temp agencies for long-term workers who labor on the shop floor next to actual employees, doing the same work with lower wages and fewer if any benefits. The Japanese auto industry’s investment in American factories for instance has relied heavily on this sort of arrangement. How can a factory unionize when the workers are technically employees of different companies? This is of course half the point of it, the other half being lowering employee compensation. Before this week, the rule was that the temp company would have to grant permission for their employees to be included in such a bargaining unit, which is of course laughable that they would grant. But by a 3-1 vote, the NLRB overturned that rule this week.
The National Labor Relations Board is reaffirming its view that labor law must now address the brave new world of the fissured workplace—where workers are often separated from their actual employer by layers of subcontractors and staffing agencies. On Monday, the board announced a decision on the case Miller & Anderson, ruling that unions that want to represent bargaining units including direct employees as well as “permatemps,” contract workers, and other indirect workers that share a “community of interest” are no longer required to get permission from the parent company.
The old standard, established by George W. Bush’s NLRB in 2004, which required unions to gain such parent-employer consent, allowed companies to use staffing agencies and subcontractors as a barrier to organizing drives. Under the new ruling, a nurses union, for example, can now more readily expand bargaining units at a hospital to include registered nurses who are directly employed by the hospital, as well as nurses who work for staffing agencies hired by the hospital.
This is absolutely huge and another enormous advance in labor law by Tom Perez’s Department of Labor.
In an increasingly fractured world of labor relations, it’s hard to understate how big of a deal this is for easing union organizing efforts. And coming less than a year after its Browning Ferris ruling that established a bold new standard for defining when parent companies are joint employers of subcontracted workers, the Miller & Anderson decision is yet another important step that increases employer accountability to their workers by expanding the responsibilities of joint employers.
Not only does the decision mark an emerging new jurisprudence on labor relations, it also serves to burnish President Obama’s second-term record on labor and worker rights, which includes a rash of bold new policies enacted through executive power.
This is why I have zero patience with anyone voting for Jill Stein. While there’s no guarantee that Hillary Clinton will have as strong a DOL as Obama has since naming Perez to his cabinet, there’s also no question that her NLRB appointees will build on these sorts of decisions to improve conditions for workers. I simply assume that most people who refuse to “compromise their values” by voting for Hillary basically don’t actually care about working class people.
That populist Donald Trump, he’s really a friend of the working person. I really take his populist talk about jobs and trade agreements very, very seriously. The history of workers in his own properties shows he’s the kindest, warmest, man to ever live.
GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump fashions himself a friend of union workers. He has bragged about having good relationships with labor unions. When the AFL-CIO recently endorsed his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed it was he who deserved the labor federation’s coveted backing.
“I believe [union] members will be voting for me in much larger numbers than for her,” Trump declared last month.
Before entering the voting booth, those union members might want to know how much money one of Trump’s businesses has spent in an effort to persuade low-wage workers not to unionize.
The Culinary Workers Union recently organized housekeepers and other service workers at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. The union won the election in December — but not without a fight from hotel owners Trump Ruffin Commercial LLC. That’s a joint venture between the likely GOP nominee and casino magnate Phil Ruffin, himself a major financial backer of Trump’s presidential run.
According to Labor Department disclosure forms reviewed by The Huffington Post, Trump Ruffin shelled out more than half a million dollars last year to a consulting firm that combats union organizing efforts. The money was paid from Trump Ruffin to Cruz & Associates in a series of seven payments between July and December, totaling $560,631.
Nearly $285,000 of that money was paid over the course of two weeks in December, shortly after the hotel held its union election.
Despite the heavy investment from Trump Ruffin, the union prevailed by a vote of 238 to 209. Trump Ruffin argued in a filing with the National Labor Relations Board that the union illegally swayed the vote, but a regional director for the NLRB rejected those claims. The hotel has asked that the board members in Washington review that decision. According to an NLRB spokeswoman, the board has not yet determined whether it will grant that review.
A lawyer for Trump and a campaign spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the payments. Lupe Cruz, the owner of Cruz & Associates, did not respond to a voicemail left at his office on Friday.
I’m not going to say that it’s not in the interests of union members to vote for Trump. It’s certainly not in their economic interest to do so. But too many Americans prioritize their interests in white supremacy over their interest in feeding their kids. That’s unfortunate, but it’s true and some of those people will vote for Donald Trump. Racial resentment has usually trumped economic solidarity in American history. But this should be brought up over and over whenever Trump talks about himself as a friend to union members.
Are right-to-work laws an unconstitutional taking of property? That’s what unions and their lawyers are arguing in Wisconsin and West Virginia, both states that have recently passed such law.
Eleven state labor unions filed petitions in Kanawha Circuit Court Monday challenging the state’s new “right-to-work” law as an illegal taking of union property and resources.
“First and foremost, it’s unconstitutional because it’s an illegal taking of property without due process,” said Josh Sword, secretary treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, one of the 11 plaintiffs.
The lawsuit, and a motion for a preliminary injunction to block the law from going into effect July 1, contends that the Workplace Freedom Act (SB 1) is intended to discourage union membership by “enabling nonmembers of unions to get union services for free.”
Vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, but enacted into law by override votes with no Democratic support in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and Senate, the legislation allows employees in union shops to opt out of paying union dues.
The lawsuit contends that amounts to an illegal taking of unions’ property and resources, since state and federal labor laws require unions to negotiate contracts and provide representation to the non-union employees at “considerable cost” to the unions.
“Requiring unions to provide services to free riders while simultaneously prohibiting unions from charging for those services necessarily takes union funds and directs them to be expended on behalf of third parties,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit contends one intent of the law is to discourage employees from joining unions.
“Why, the employee would ask, should I pay for something that the law requires be made available to me for nothing,” the petition states. “Such a circumstance would — naturally and predictably — seriously burden a union’s ability to recruit and retain members.”
In April, a Wisconsin circuit court judge overturned that state’s right-to-work law in a case that similarly argued the law amounts to an unconstitutional taking of union property and resources. That ruling has been stayed, pending an appeal to the Wisconsin state Supreme Court.
“This is ultimately going to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, without question,” Sword said of the challenges to right-to-work laws. “The general question of whether it’s an illegal taking of property without due process will be ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
This indeed does seem headed up the court ladder. We have a very good idea what a court with Scalia would have ruled on such a case. Once again, the fate the Court is the single most important reason to vote for Hillary Clinton this fall, even if you hate her. It’s the only responsible for choice for anyone who cares about unions at all.
Speaking of Tom Perez, his Department of Labor helped even the playing field between unions and employers earlier this year by forcing employers to be transparent to their workers about the unionbusting firms they hire.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) passed the “persuader rule” that closed a major loophole, which has for decades allowed employers to hire attorneys and consultants to secretly assist them in what is politely referred to in the industry as “union avoidance.” The goal of this activity is to persuade and prevent workers from organizing unions.
The new rule did not try to make the consultants’ and attorneys’ practices illegal, or regulate the types of activities that employers and consultants could engage in; it was simply intended to provide transparency to workers who are the subject of a coordinated anti-union campaign. But last week, a Texas federal district court judge issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the DOL from implementing the rule.
The persuader rule reinterpreted the “advice” exemption in Section 203(c) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), which had only required disclosure when employers hired outside consultants who directly communicated with employees. Under the previous interpretation of the exemption, the vast majority of employers who hire labor consultants—sometimes referred to as “union busters”—and the consultants they hire have been able to evade their filing requirements and remain in the shadows by having these consultants work behind the scenes.
As a result, the workers are never privy to who is coordinating the anti-union campaign or how much their employers are spending on it. It is estimated that employers in 71-87 percent of organizing drives hire one or more consultants, yet because of the massive loophole in the law, only 387 agreements were filed by employers and consultants.
Good idea, right. Well, sure, except for that Texas judge issuing an injunction against it at the behest of right-wing Texans and, oddly, the American Bar Association.
The new persuader rule, which covers all agreements and payments after July 1, was intended to close this loophole. The rule requires employers who hire anti-union consultants (and those consultants hired) to disclose to the DOL the agreement and the amounts paid. It would not require disclosure of what the consultants said or any legal advice sought. It is akin to a requirement that political campaign ads disclose who is paying for the ad so that people know who is behind the message they are receiving.
But now, under last week’s injunction, all of that is in jeopardy.
“This was one of the most one-sided orders I have ever seen,” explains Seattle University School of Law Professor Charlotte Garden. “The court found every one of the theories brought by the plaintiffs likely to succeed.”
The suit was brought by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Texas Association of Business, the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Home Builders, the Texas Association of Builders, and a group of GOP-controlled states. Some of these organizations were concerned that their current activities of providing anti-union seminars and materials would require them to file reports identifying themselves as labor relations consultants.
Perhaps the most surprising group to take a side in this case was the American Bar Association (ABA), whose mission is “To serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession.” The ABA cited attorneys’ ethical rules for their opposition to the DOL Rule, and said, “by imposing these unfair reporting burdens on both the lawyers and the employer clients they represent, the proposed Rule could very well discourage many employers from seeking the expert legal representation they need, thereby effectively denying them their fundamental right to counsel.”
This coalition of business and attorney groups and states brought forward a number of arguments, from the DOL lacking authority to pass the rule to the rule exceeding the DOL’s estimated compliance costs by $59.99 billion over 10 years. (The DOL estimated the rule would cost all employers and consultants a total of approximately $826,000 per year; the plaintiffs estimated it at $60 billion over 10 years.) Additionally, in line with the growing use of the First Amendment against government regulation of business, the plaintiffs argued that the rule violated the employers’, lawyers’, and consultants’ free speech, expression and association rights. The Judge concluded that some union busters may not offer their services as freely, and some attorneys may leave the field, if their identities and the terms of their arrangements were disclosed.
This is the sort of case that is probably going to be adjudicated over the next few years going up the ladder, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court. And as we know, voting is a consumer choice and Hillary Clinton doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside so I am going to vote for Jill Stein to show those Democrats. If that means Trump gets elected, then it’s totally that neoliberal Hillary’s fault when Trump’s judges rule in favor of corporations in cases like this.