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What Should Labor Do?

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Rather mixed on this In These Times article on how unions should deal with the post-Friedrichs world. Yes, Friedrichs is an assassination attempt on unions in the United States. Yes, some workers will sign up for an organization that can’t directly bargain for them but will be a social movement for all workers. And these are good ideas, at least in the pie in the sky way of thinking about the future:

Opening up the labor movement and pursuing new rights for all workers would help get labor out of the box of thinking mostly about unionized workplaces and appearing to be a special interest. Unions’ recent embrace of ambitious efforts to raise state-level minimum wages to $15 has so far been at the heart of these efforts. Upwards of 24 million working people would receive a raise if the pathetic federal floor of $7.25 an hour was raised to just $10, so the Fight for $15 has a huge built in constituency beyond just fast food workers.

Unions should add to this a state-by-state effort to change the legal standard of employment relations to “just cause.” “Just cause” is the principle that an employee cannot be fired unless it’s for a good reason—basically, that the punishment (losing your livelihood) should fit the crime (stealing, lying, just not being good enough at the job). This often means that an employee has been given some advance notice of her supposed shortcomings and an opportunity to improve and/or be presented with the documentary evidence to back up the employer’s claims of sub-standard performance with an opportunity to contest it.

This is very commonly negotiated into union contracts. Non-union workers generally labor under an “at-will” standard of employment, a holdover from English common law that basically tells a worker, “Congratulations, you are not a slave. That means you are free to quit your job—and your boss is free to fire you.” It’s a kind of liberty, I guess, but not one that’s particularly appealing.

The only job protection that at-will employees currently have is to try to shoehorn their case into one of a handful of legally “protected categories” of workers: be a woman, be a racial minority, be over the age of 42, be disabled, be a whistleblower. And even if a case does fit in one of those categories, a worker can only receive some financial recompense—generally not retaining her job—if she can prove that she was fired because of their protected status. It’s a lousy framework, but the best that an at-will employee has.

Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit advocate for union activists to be added as a protected class through an amendment to civil rights laws. They do us a favor by getting unions to think outside of the National Labor Relations Act for labor law reform. But their proposal is still too limited. We should not merely be fighting for “special” rights for union activists. As union density has declined, the remaining unionized workplaces come to be seen as islands of relative privilege. Bosses and the media exploit this and try to whip up a degree of working-class support for stripping our last few rights away, seen most clearly seen in the public debate around teacher tenure protections (which is simply the just cause standard by a different name).

Imagine how quickly the debate would change if unions fought for and won meaningful job protections for all workers in a state! Call it a “right to your job” law. Such a law would lay bare just how cynically manipulative and hollow the so-called “Right to Work” laws are.

To be meaningful, such just cause laws would have to include some kind of a court in which to hear cases. This could be as simple as mandating private mediation and arbitration or as complex as creating new state regulatory agencies to hear such cases. If workers did have a court in which they could defend their employment, unions would have something real to offer at-large members as a part of joining the union. And with that offer comes the potential for substantial membership growth.

That’s fine, I think of ways to craft legislation for international labor standards that has no chance of passing tomorrow. But I think asking unions to be the leaders here is a step too far. They can and should be a leader in coalitions fighting for this. But unions with dues-paying members also have to represent those members’ interests in grievances and at the bargaining table and with legislators. And I feel like these fundamental jobs of unions are often dismissed by union activists who want to see unions be social movements. The problem is that someone has to fund that social movement and that’s the dues-paying members. And those members are going to have other interests as well. Yes, if labor can sign up a million workers for this social organization type movement than, sure. But let’s not ignore the very good reasons why unions protect their membership while also calling for new ideas on how unions can move forward.

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