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COVID-19 and the War on Workers


The coronavirus has most certainly not stopped the Republican war on workers. What it has also done is put some of those workers in the spotlight, as they used their expanded leverage and incredible fear of catching the virus to demand safety on the job. We saw a lot of short labor actions in the last two weeks for greater protection. Vice ran a long piece last week on what this means in the context of thinking about the possibility of a general strike coming out of it. I was interviewed for the piece and am extremely skeptical of the idea, even though I do think that these labor actions are important.

A general strike is when workers from not just one company but across different businesses and even industries go on strike together in pursuit of some common goal. If you live in the U.S., you’d be excused for having never heard of a general strike before, because they’re extremely rare and haven’t happened since just after World War II.

“You’re talking about a very difficult thing to pull off,” said Erik Loomis, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. “It requires a lot more solidarity among American workers than has typically happened in American history.”

As we’re now seeing, though, these times are anything but typical.

A key feature of general strikes is they don’t start off as general strikes. Historically, they’ve begun as a regular work stoppage by a single union. In the early 20th century, these would occasionally erupt into general strikes when the state tried to suppress it, University of California, Santa Barbara history professor Nelson Lichtenstein said in an interview; workers in other unions who ordinarily would have little skin in the fight suddenly realize that’s no longer the case.

“The state is seen to be clearly illegitimate in some fashion, or what they’ve done is illegitimate,” said Lichtenstein.

In the United States, three of the most well-known general strikes took place between 1919 and 1946: when shipyard workers in Seattle after World War I were trying to protect their wartime wages; the 1934 longshoremen’s strike on the west coast shipyards to establish their organizing rights, and the 1946 Oakland general strike against the region’s Republican machine.

Such strikes can result in the strikers forming their own shadow government—the Russian word “soviet” literally translates to “council.” The first such quasi-government was created during the general strike of 1905 in St. Petersburg to coordinate the strike and to provide basic services, as happened in the 1934 longshoreman’s strike in America.

There hasn’t been anything resembling a general strike in the U.S. for almost 75 years. There are two reasons for this. First, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947—perhaps most infamous for establishing Right to Work states—specifically outlaws “sympathy strikes” or other union efforts to compel another employer to bargain. The second is that under U.S. labor law, the collective bargaining process has served to defuse worker unrest and, as Lichtenstein put it, “routinizing and bureaucratizing conflict.” Instead of workers taking it to the streets, their lawyers sit in conference rooms for months or even years on end.

Neither Loomis nor Liechtenstein thought a general strike was likely today, but they both acknowledge times are different now. Paradoxically, the labor movement has been so defanged by the restrictions placed on unions and steps taken to prevent union formation that fewer workers than ever are bound by the rules that make general strikes legally tricky for unions. Plus, large national unions have hardly been consistent allies in general strikes, which are inherently radical. For example, the head of the Teamsters, Dave Beck, essentially broke up the 1946 Oakland general strike without accomplishing the strikers’ goals of increased wages that kept up with inflation.

Likewise, the government’s disastrous response to the coronavirus crisis has lent further credence to those who perceive the administration’s authority as illegitimate. Add to that the outrage among people being asked to die for the companies that pay them peanuts to work during a pandemic, and you have exactly the type of scenario that creates big changes.

“Some of these big companies who want people to just go to work, and then Trump and that element sort of downplaying something that’s obviously real,” Lichtenstein said, “it creates an absolute sense of ‘you’re bankrupt, you’re intellectually and morally bankrupt. And therefore we have no obligation to work.’”

Neither Lichtenstein nor Loomis were willing to go so far as to predict a general strike, but neither do they predict the status quo will prevail. Workers, especially low paid workers, have more leverage than ever. The question is, will they use it?

The idea of a general strike is basically a leftist dream that isn’t really thought out, particularly the end game. But the question is indeed what workers do with the leverage they have. Of course, Republicans are highly concerned about that and are doing whatever they can to ensure that workers can’t do anything to help themselves. In fact, the Trump administration is now effectively trying to make unionization impossible.

While most non-essential services are shut down, union elections are suspended, and most of America is working from home worrying about a global pandemic, Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was passing a rule to make it harder to win a union election.

The proposed rule was published on April 1 and contains several anti-union changes. The new rule would eliminate the NLRB’s “blocking charge policy,” which permits the delay of union election results if the employer is accused of union-busting or coercion. It would also allow a decertification campaign to start just 45 days after an election and with as few as 30% of the workforce supporting a decertification effort.

This would give bosses much more power over a union election. They could union-bust without fear of an election being delayed and without the union getting a chance to inoculate the workers against the illegal activity. If the boss loses the election, they then can start organizing a minority of the workforce to file for a quick decertification further slowing down the bargaining process.

“The Trump NLRB takes this moment to publish a rule that will make it harder both for workers to unionize and to keep unions they have,” tweeted Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “Shameful does not even begin to describe this.”

The new rule will be in place starting May 31st.

This is the second time that the Trump administration has used the coronavirus pandemic as cover for changing labor law. At the end of February, Trump’s Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) announced that federal employees would now be able to opt-out of their union whenever they wanted instead of during a limited window during the year.

“In two weeks time, in the middle of a pandemic, President Trump’s NLRB suspended representation elections and then made it harder for employers to voluntarily recognize unions,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “In other words, the board is effectively sealing off any viable path to unionization at a time when workers need a voice on the job more than ever. Donald Trump’s caustic hostility to collective bargaining has manifested itself in the most anti-worker NLRB in America’s history. The labor movement will fight these actions with everything we have.”

It is my view that Republicans will move toward making unions illegal in the next couple of decades and this is a big step toward that goal. It’s truly, genuinely reprehensible and it has received almost no media coverage, in part because labor stories never get much and in part because there are obviously bigger stories right now. But the entire Trump NLRB is utterly revolting.

In decision after decision, the NLRB has stripped workers of their protections under the law, restricted their ability to organize at their workplace, slowed down the union election process to give employers more time to campaign against the union, repealed rules holding employers accountable for their actions, and undermined workers’ bargaining rights. (Disclosure: I co-authored a report detailing these rollbacks with my colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute. See “Unprecedented: The Trump NLRB’s Attack on Workers’ Rights.”) One measure of their impact: As of last October, the Chamber of Commerce was 10 for 10 in getting the board to act on the chamber’s recommended changes to weaken workers’ organizing and bargaining rights.

One of the board’s actions resonates particularly loudly in this moment. Last May, NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb decided that Uber drivers—and presumably other “gig” workers—are not protected by federal labor law because (according to Uber and Robb) they are independent contractors, not employees. As a result, workers who are so vulnerable in this current crisis won’t be protected by the NLRB if they are fired or retaliated against for protesting for better safety on the job.

But the board’s actions over the past three weeks has seen their anti-worker, anti-union bias descend to a whole new level.

First, citing the Covid-19 crisis, the board unilaterally halted all elections by workers seeking to form unions. Thousands of workers who were poised to vote on forming unions had their elections canceled—even though the elections could be held by US mail, whose employees are courageously keeping the Postal Service going.

Then, after claiming that the agency could not run elections for workers who want a union, just last week the NLRB issued new rules to make it harder for workers to form and keep a union. The new rules undermine the longstanding practice of voluntary recognition, by which employers agree to recognize and bargain with a union when a majority of employees sign cards saying they want a union. The board is now requiring these employers to post a notice telling workers they can file a petition and have an election to get rid of the union—the very same union that a majority of workers have just chosen. Separately, the new rules call for running union elections and counting ballots even when charges have been filed alleging that an employer has engaged in illegal unfair labor practices that have tainted the election. In an Orwellian twist, the board calls these new rules, which undermine workers’ ability to form and keep their unions, rules to “Protect Employee Free Choice.”

After the board got called out publicly by worker advocates and a key congressional leader on this double standard—not running elections when workers want them but issuing rules to undermine worker organizing—the board backtracked and announced that it would resume union elections.

The board has so exposed its anti-worker, anti-union bias that many union organizers are doing everything they can to avoid the board. Workers will still find ways to join together and take action to improve their jobs. But the board is creating a strong headwind for workers and giving more tools to employers to fight them—the exact opposite of what this agency and this law is supposed to be about.

“Never let a crisis go to waste” is the mantra of corporate America.

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable workers in the entire nation–the undocumented farmworkers--are now both classified as “essential” and are denied any benefits at all.

For the first time in U.S. history farmworkers have been officially declared “essential workers.” Without their labor there would be no fruits, vegetables or dairy products in the stores. Yet the economic situation of farmworkers has never reflected that essential status – nor does it now. The last National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2017 found that the average farmworker family had an annual income between $17,500 and $20,000.

More than half relied on at least one public assistance program, with 44 percent using Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California). A third received either food stamps or WIC nutrition assistance. But most telling as they face the pandemic, less than half of farmworker families have health insurance, and among them, only a third got it from their employer. A third of farmworker families paid cash for doctor visits, and a quarter relied on Medicaid or Medicare.

Exacerbating these problems, according to NAWS, half of all farmworkers are undocumented. Lack of legal status makes workers ineligible for almost all public benefits. Emergency rooms normally must accept people with serious conditions regardless of status, but otherwise, no papers usually means no healthcare.

Sandy Young, a family nurse practitioner at the Las Islas Family Medical Group clinic in Oxnard, California, says that “it’s always been true that undocumented people fear that if they go to hospitals or clinics, their names will be given to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. In our present situation that lack of free access can be critical.”

The Las Islas clinic has a specific program to provide care in Mixteco, the language of the valley’s main population of indigenous Mexican immigrants. Young describes them as “a young population, which in the current crisis is a plus factor. But their general health is bad, and they usually get healthcare in a hospital emergency room, which is the most dangerous place.”

The new interpretation by the Trump administration of the “public charge” policy would disqualify anyone from applying for a visa if they were deemed likely to receive public healthcare, housing or nutrition benefits. Undocumented families, therefore, fear that getting healthcare will stop them from gaining legal status in the future or being able to reunite families. People might stay at home with the coronavirus rather than seeking testing or treatment, she fears.

Further, without sick pay the pressure to keep working is intense. “We won’t stop working,” Jimenez declares. “We’re willing to risk the virus. But I didn’t come here to die. I came so that my family in Mexico will live. We don’t know what will happen to those who get sick. How will we pay our bills and send money to help our families survive?”

Undocumented workers are not the only farmworkers who are particularly vulnerable. Another such group are workers in the H-2A visa program, through which growers and contractors recruit workers in other countries, who then work for the duration of a contract and afterwards must return home. Last year over 250,000 workers were brought to the U.S. under that program.

For these workers, living conditions make maintaining a social distance of six feet virtually impossible. Housing for H-2A workers in central Washington often consists of prefab dormitories, in which four workers sleep on bunk beds in a single small room, and many workers share a common kitchen.

According to attorney Corrie Arellano with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the legal aid organization for the state’s farmworkers, growers and contractors bring about 800 workers to Santa Maria each year. “At first they filled up almost all the inexpensive motel rooms in town,” she said. “Now they’re renting out houses and apartments and pushing up rents.” In a case filed by CRLA attorneys in Santa Maria, Jose Gonzalez, Efrain Cruz, Ana Teresa Cruz and Rosaura Chavez were held in a house in which 18 to 20 workers slept in two bedrooms and were told they could leave only to go to work. One Santa Maria residence (at 1318 North Broadway) was listed as the residence of 80 of these workers.

When these near-prison like living conditions lead to enormous outbreaks of COVID-19 and produce prices skyrocket because of it, I’m sure we will figure out a way to build an even higher wall and blame the brown people for it. But hey, at least they won’t be able to form a union…..

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