Category Archives: Future of Unions

The Conservative Case for Unions

Source: Jonathan Rauch, The Atlantic, July/August 2017

How a new kind of labor organization could address the grievances underlying populist anger. ….

…. Even before getting my small taste of what working-class Americans are experiencing in horse doctors’ doses, I had come to see the decline of unions as one of the country’s most pressing problems—and at least as much a social and political problem as an economic one. Old-style, mid-20th-century industrial unions had their flaws, unquestionably. But when unions work as they should, they serve important social functions. They can smooth the jagged edges of globalization by giving workers bargaining power. They are associated with lower income inequality, as the accompanying graph shows. Perhaps most important, they offer workers a way to be heard. “Unions provide a mediating function,” Matthew Dimick, a labor-law expert at suny Buffalo’s law school, told me. “Their social-capital function creates ties that reduce anomie and the sense of being abandoned and forgotten.” No other social institution, or at least none yet discovered, can serve that mediating function for workers. ….

…. In America, the modern conservative movement was founded on anticommunism and antiunionism. Senator Barry Goldwater (“Mr. Conservative”) built his career bashing unions. President Ronald Reagan, although a former union leader himself, made his bones by breaking the air-traffic controllers’ union. Just this past February, Republicans succeeded in their long push for a right-to-work law in Missouri. But the conservative war on unions is beginning to look like a Faustian bargain. If 2016 taught us anything, it was that miserable workers are angry voters, and angry voters are more than capable of lashing out against trade, immigration, free markets, and for that matter liberal democracy itself…..

Special Issue: Part I of II on “U.S. Labor and Social Justice”

Source: Class, Race and Corporate Power, Volume 5, Issue 2, 2017

This is a special issue of “Class, Race and Corporate Power”, part of a two-part series edited by Kim Scipes.

Articles include:
Introduction to Section on Labor and Social Justice by Section Editor Kim Scipes
Kim Scipes
John L. Lewis and His Critics: Some Forgotten Labor History That Still Matters Today
Staughton Lynd

Time to Tackle the Whole Squid: Confronting White Supremacy to Build Shared Bargaining Power
Erica Smiley

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: A Lifetime with Labor
Vincent Emanuele

The Epic Failure of Labor Leadership in the United States, 1980-2017 and Continuing
Kim Scipes

Labor’s Bill of Rights

Source: Shaun Richman, The Century Foundation, July 18, 2017

….What You Should Know
• Less than 10 percent of Americans currently hold union membership (compared to over one-third of the workforce in the 1950s).
• Lack of worker representation has resulted in today’s stunning income inequality, wage stagnation, continued wage discrimination against women, tens of millions of Americans working for sub-poverty-level wages, and widespread gaps in basic health, retirement, and family leave benefits.
• Pro-union labor law reform has been largely unachievable since the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—which Congress has instead twice amended to severely restrict workers’ rights, such as their ability to engage in solidarity activism.
• Currently, labor rights are technically rooted in Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce. In reality, labor law regulates fundamental constitutional rights. By considering impact on commerce before fundamental civil rights, labor law frequently violates workers’ constitutional rights.

Simply put, unions are hampered by rules that would never be applied to corporations, or to any other form of political activism…..

….This report will outline the below ten rights which, together, constitute Labor’s Bill of Rights:
• The Right to Free Speech
• The Right to Self Defense and Mutual Aid
• The Right to Strike
• The Right to Organize Free from Unreasonable Search and Seizure
• The Freedom From Taking Away Union Fees
• The Right to Not Be Locked Out for Exercising Labor Rights
• The Right to a Job
• Freedom from Cruel and Unusual Regulation
• The Right to Make Demands and Bargain Freely
• Powers Not Exercised by Unions Are Reserved to Workers Who Act in Concert….

Organizing in Red America

Source: Dissent Magazine, Summer 2017

Articles include:
Left in the Middle
Michael Kazin

….The good news is that a left does exist in Red America—and, amid the failures of the Trump administration, appears to be growing. Its adherents may share, in whole or in part, the cultural proclivities of the more numerous conservatives who live there. But they are arguing and organizing for many of the same demands as are their counterparts in places like New York City and Los Angeles; they are also busy defending the same people at risk from Trump and his allies in Congress and their own states. In this special section of Dissent, you will learn about some of those activists and a few of the politicians who share their goals…..

Working Too Hard for Too Little: An Interview with Senator Sherrod Brown
Michael Kazin

….This spring, the senator issued a lengthy document, “Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America,” which lays out a set of innovative ideas about how to raise wages, make jobs more secure, and compel employers to adhere to decent standards on the job. In late April, Michael Kazin interviewed the senator in his office on Capitol Hill…..

Mississippi Autoworkers Mobilize
Michelle Chen

The workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, had high hopes when the state-of-the-art factory complex moved in fourteen years ago to a small, majority black town where more than a quarter of residents live in poverty and decent jobs are scarce. …. After fourteen years at the plant, he says, “People are hurting inside of my factory.” His fellow coworkers have been concerned by what they see as increasingly unstable working conditions and general deterioration in benefits and safety protections. A few years ago they campaigned to organize with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Since then, he says, the workers have faced growing hostility from management for seeking to unionize, which only confirms its disrespect for a community that’s invested decades of public funding and faith in Nissan’s promise of stable manufacturing careers. ….

Birmingham’s Fight For a Living Wage
Scott Douglas

The election of Donald Trump has turned our attention to the politics of white working-class people, particularly in the states that voted for him last fall. But progressives should not ignore the activism of the black working class in many of those same red states. ….

The Next Operation Dixie
Sarah Jaffe

The election of Donald Trump has led to a lot of soul-searching on the left. In particular, the narrative since the election has focused on Trump’s appeal to working people, and whether this reflects an inherent racism among the so-called “white working class” or a failure of liberals and the left to speak to their economic concerns.

While the divide between “red” and “blue” states is often overstated (just ask the Republican governors of Massachusetts and Illinois), the Deep South has always lagged behind in union organizing. The failure of the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” in the late 1940s and concerted campaigns to divide black workers from white workers in law and on the shop floor left southern workers with fewer rights, lower wages, and, without unions to press their case, with less political representation. Yet there have always been exceptions, unions and organizations that have fought against great odds to build power for workers in the South, and with the accession of Trump, they can offer us advice for how to move forward when workers’ rights are under attack and racism being fomented from the highest levels of government. Dissent’s Sarah Jaffe spoke with three labor organizers from the South about their experiences and what can be learned from their successes….

Standing With Immigrants in Nebraska
Julie Greene

…. Many states have been transformed by immigration in recent decades, but some are better prepared than others to cope with the crisis. Take my home state of Nebraska. A solidly red state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in more than half a century, Nebraska has nonetheless seen the flowering of a pro-immigrant political culture. Over the past six years, activists across the state built a coalition that has made it possible to confront the harsh words and actions of the Trump administration head on. Examining what they did and how they did it can offer lessons for activists beyond the Great Plains. ….

Bringing Power to the People: The Unlikely Case for Utility Populism
Kate Aronoff

One glaring omission in the postmortem handwringing about the 2016 election is the fact that most poor people in America—of all races and genders—simply didn’t vote. They were prevented from doing so by a number of structural barriers—voting restrictions, second and third jobs, far-flung polling locations—as well as a lack of excitement about two parties they saw as having abandoned them.

Enter: twenty-first-century electric cooperatives, a perhaps unlikely player in the contest for power between progressives and conservatives in the heart of so-called Trump country in rural America.

If there’s one thing poor, rural communities tend to have in common, it’s where they get their power—not political power, but actual electricity. Over 900 rural electric cooperatives (RECs)—owned and operated by their members—stretch through forty-seven states, serving 42 million ratepayers and 11 percent of the country’s demand for electricity. They also serve 93 percent of the country’s “persistent poverty counties,” 85 percent of which lie in non-metropolitan areas. REC service areas encompass everything from isolated farm homes to mountain hollers to small cities, with the highest concentrations in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. And they might just offer an opportunity to curb the right and the climate crisis alike…..

Anti-Democratic Attacks on Unions Hurt Working Americans

Source: David Madland, Alex Rowell, and Gordon Lafer, Center for American Progress, June 22, 2017

From the summary:
It is highly likely that unions will soon be under attack at the federal level. The exact nature of the attack is still in question, but based on recent state actions—including the passage of new right-to-work laws and attacks on public sector workers’ bargaining rights—and bills that have been introduced in both this and recent sessions of Congress, it is clear the attacks will come.

This issue brief delves into these recent threats to unions, specifically exploring a category of attacks on worker power that would make it harder for workers to organize by undermining the union formation process. Previous and forthcoming reports from CAP Action highlight other likely attacks on unions, such as so-called right-to-work and paycheck protection legislation…..

How We’re Surviving Right to Work: Letter Carriers Keep Numbers up with Shop Floor Action

Source: Alexandra Bradbury, Labor Notes, June 28, 2017

Postal unions, like all federal employee unions, are open shop. That means workers can get the benefits of union representation while opting out of paying dues.

Yet the postal unions generally maintain high rates of voluntary union membership—and Letter Carriers Branch 82 in Portland, Oregon, does even better than most. From 90 percent membership five years ago, it has “slowly up-ticked,” says Organizing Chair Willie Groshell, to around 95 percent of the 1,200 represented carriers.

How did they raise that number so high? It’s mostly the work of volunteers like Groshell, who delivers the mail full-time. (Three top officers make up the branch’s full-time staff.)

Most new hires sign up right away at orientation, where the branch vice president spends up to two hours with them—the union has this right guaranteed in its contract—talking through the union’s history and what to expect. One perk is getting immediate access to the union’s uniform closet, since the Postal Service won’t provide a uniform allowance until your probation is up…..

How Bad Could it Get (Legally)?

Source: Benjamin Sachs, OnLabor blog, May 26, 2017

It’s a good moment to think creatively and expansively about how to revitalize the U.S. labor movement. This important work is underway, with contributions from academics, labor lawyers, union organizers, and others. Substantive debates about the future of labor law and labor organizing now populate the pages of publications ranging from the Yale Law Journal to Boston Review. Much of this writing evidences an appropriate degree of optimism – the pieces assume a future in which, for example, progressive law reform might be possible, or in which workers can regain power through increased use of strikes even in the absence of law reform, or in which fundamental aspects of U.S. political economy (and political ideology) might be transformed. This kind of optimism is necessary to visionary thinking, and it’s badly needed today.

But, I thought it might also be worth writing from the opposite perspective and asking how bad it might really/plausibly get over the next handful of years. Most of us know much of this already, so you might wonder what the point of such a morose exercise would be. The idea is not to wallow. To the contrary, the idea is that putting in one place the major pieces of what could go wrong (legally) over the next few years could help as we continue to imagine and build a better future for the labor movement. As Van Jones put it recently, “hope for the best but expect and prepare for the worst.”

Some caveats. One, and most important, what follows are not predictions, and I do not mean to suggest that these things are likely. Instead, these are thoughts about the kinds of negative developments that seem within the realm of the possible (even though, with respect to every one, I think the better arguments are on the other side). Two, given the limits of my expertise, I focus exclusively on how bad labor law could get, leaving to others the question of how bad things could get on other fronts. Three, I may be wrong in two directions: omitting other possible problems and including things that aren’t plausible. For that reason, we invite follow-on posts that offer either kind of corrective. Four, and finally, it might be worth saying that this exercise goes against my own nature, which, for better or worse, skews optimistic (as I’ve been critiqued for being).

All that said, here’s what seems within the realm of the plausible: ….

The Entire Public Sector Is About to Be Put on Trial

Source: Naomi Walker, In These Times, Views, May 25, 2017

The Right’s assault on public-sector workers is an assault on the public sector itself.

Within the next year, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on the latest existential threat to workers and their unions: Janus v. AFSCME. Like last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA—a bullet dodged with Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death—the Janus case is a blatant attack on working people by right-wing, moneyed special interests who want to take away workers’ freedom to come together and negotiate for a better life.
For years, the Right has been hammering through state-level “right-to-work” laws in an effort to kill public sector unionism; it would see victory in the Janus case as the coup de grace. ….

Republicans Will Turn the NLRB into a Force for Union Busting. We Can Turn It Back.

Source: Shaun Richman, In These Times blog, May 17, 2017

….On the potential chopping block are the board’s expedited election rules, the organizing rights of graduate employees and workers at charter schools, the rights of subcontracted employees to join their coworkers in a union, the ability of unions to organize smaller units within a larger enterprise and the culpability of a parent company for a subsidiary’s illegal behavior.

As inevitable as this right turn is for our nation’s workers’ rights board, so, too, should be our planned counterattack…..

How We’re Surviving Right to Work: Conversations Are the Building Blocks for Milwaukee Teachers

Source: Alexandra Bradbury, Labor Notes, May 16, 2017

For public-employee unions in Wisconsin, an open shop isn’t even the worst of it. The anti-union Act 10, which Governor Scott Walker forced through in 2011, mandated annual recertification votes and all but eliminated collective bargaining.

Some unions gave up on staying certified at all—but not the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. So far its 4,600 members include 69 percent of the district’s teachers and a narrow majority of educational assistants.

An organizing team of two staffers and six members on release time is working hard to raise those numbers, focusing on six schools per semester. Organizers tailor a plan based on the particular history and challenges at each school, but the universal building blocks are one-on-one conversations to find out members’ concerns, identify leaders, and ask people to join the union.

You have to learn to tolerate the discomfort of directly asking people to join, says Vice President Amy Mizialko. Especially in a district where school vouchers and private charter schools have already siphoned off a major share of the public schools’ budget, she tells co-workers that their students are counting on them: “The only way we can effect change for students and educators is being collectively organized.”….