Unions are schools of workers’ struggle — that’s why socialists talk so much about them. But they’re also contradictory institutions that often become complacent and bureaucratic. That’s why the rank-and-file strategy is so important.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced a new rule barring home health care workers from paying union dues through their Medicaid-funded wages. The new Department of Health and Human Services rule, which will impact more than 800,000 workers and was immediately met with a legal challenge, followed years of planning by anti-union activists to promote such measures in states across the country, and, more recently, on the federal level.
In anticipation of a crushing blow to public-sector unions by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, conservative groups ramped up their efforts to bring the federal government’s attention to the issue of Medicaid-funded union dues, according to an audio recording obtained by The Intercept and Documented.
On an invitation-only call with donors last June, leaders with the State Policy Network — a corporate-backed umbrella group of right-wing think tanks across the country — raised the issue of directly deducting union dues from Medicaid-funded paychecks, what they call “dues-skimming.” Vinnie Vernuccio, a labor policy adviser to the State Policy Network told donors that its plan was to end this practice by getting “an administrative rule passed at Health and Human Services” and passing federal legislation with the assistance of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash…..
Last year’s strikes and direct action by workers, especially red-state public school teachers, have rightly been celebrated for injecting new energy into the American labor movement. Yet these mobilizations should not distract progressives from the magnitude of the challenges facing unions and their supporters in the Democratic Party. The next time Democrats regain control of Congress and the White House, they will need to put major reforms of federal labor law front and center. In the meantime, they ought to learn from conservative anti-union efforts about pursuing change through the states and developing a politically minded strategy for labor reform.
In particular, Democrats need to think about labor law reform not just as yet another area of public policy, but rather as conservatives do: as a set of reforms that can build durable political power that enables further policy wins on other issues. Before spelling out the specific lessons that the left can take from the right’s victories, it is helpful to step back to see just how differently Democrats and Republicans think about unions.
All-Out Republican Opposition versus Democratic Ambivalence
Over the past four decades, conservative political activists and donors, often bolstered by private-sector businesses, have fruitfully used public policy as a political weapon to weaken unions, especially public-sector unions. Crucially, these cross-state conservative coalitions, above all the conservative “troika” of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity, have never seen their anti-labor efforts as simply an end in themselves. Instead, right-wing advocacy against unions recognizes the inherently political role that the labor movement plays—and thus that efforts to weaken unions will eventually redound to conservatives’ long-term political victories. …..
Workers must build durable collective identities on their own behalf, and unions must institutionalize that social solidarity.
Source: Lane Windham, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Vol. 16 no. 2, May 2019
From the abstract:
Anyone who glimpsed the diverse group of young women intently conferencing at Georgetown University might have mistaken them for diligent students. In fact, they were the inaugural apprenticeship class of the WILL Empower initiative that is designed to identify, nurture, and train a new generation of women labor leaders. The Apprenticeship Program is one of four interwoven programs spearheaded by WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership), jointly founded in 2017 by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and Rutgers University’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization. By focusing on building women’s leadership for a broad range of worker-based economic justice organizations, WILL Empower is breaking fresh ground even as the nation’s political economy remains stubbornly stacked against working people.
Three big ideas undergird WILL Empower’s unique approach to building a successful twenty-first-century labor movement: (1) women must lead at a whole new level, especially women of color; (2) traditional labor unions and new forms of worker organizations constitute a single movement; (3) a multilayered partnership can model the sort of innovative approach that the movement needs……
A generation of young workers is rebuilding a battered union movement.
Blue-collar jobs are disappearing. But a powerful new wave of organized labor is taking its place. ….
…. At the University of Arkansas, where I work and serve as president of AFSCME Local 965, union membership has about doubled in recent years. Although the local was started by the university’s maintenance crew in the 1960s, nearly every new member has been a professor or professional employee. Their concerns: campus safety, a living wage for all employees, collective bargaining rights, and gaining more influence over campus policies. ….
…. One reason for the shift is the evolution of the American economy. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared as service jobs have increased. That means fewer opportunities for blue-collar workers to join unions if they wanted to. (And employers don’t want them to.)
The professional class is by no means offsetting the country’s net loss of union members, but how the newbies are behaving shows they understand exactly how collective action is supposed to work: They’re leaving their manners at home and making demands. It was kindly teachers in rural West Virginia who flexed their muscle in a strike that put the country on notice—kind of like the textile workers in 1912, but without smashing any windows. ….
From the summary:
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
– While corporations and political campaigns have been able to leverage direct marketing and other digital tools to advance their interests, the labor movement seems to be struggling to do the same.
– Labor’s traditional “retail” model of organizing, in which professional organizers physically go into one workplace at a time, is not cost-effective for reaching many workers who do want to unionize—in particular those in smaller and/or geographically isolated workplaces
– Collective bargaining units of twenty-four or fewer employees, for example, are 11.6 percent more likely to win a union election than larger groups, and these employees consistently demonstrated more cohesion in their vote in support of the union.
– A digital organizing strategy that includes an online organizing platform that directly empowers workers to self-initiate organizing drives and file National Labor Relations Board paperwork can help organized labor significantly increase its membership.
Traditional unions may be stymied, but workers are finding new ways to organize….
According to the official records, U.S. workers went on strike seven times during 2017. That’s a particular nadir in the long decline of organized labor: the second-fewest work stoppages recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics since the agency started keeping track in the 1940s.
There was little reason to believe 2018 would be different, especially with the U.S. Supreme Court, in two decisions, making it harder for public employees unions to fund themselves and restricting workers’ rights to bring class actions. The power of employers appeared to be almost limitless. The unions were, if not busted, then certainly on the verge.
Aggrieved workers, however, took matters into their own hands, using social media and other tech tools to enhance their campaigns. From industry walkouts to wildcat teachers’ strikes, they made very public demands of their employers. The official number of major work stoppages recorded by the BLS in 2018 nearly tripled, to 20. Off the picket line, workers also won a wide range of concessions. Facing employee pressure, Google and McKinsey & Co. dropped contracts for government work employees found objectionable; thousands of dismissed Toys “R” Us workers got a severance fund; and Starbucks Corp. expanded parental and sick leave policies.
In many cases, workers and their advocates bypassed their employers entirely…..
Source: William J. Tronsor, Labor Law Journal, Vol. 69 no. 4, Winter 2018
From the abstract:
The gig economy has fundamentally changed the employer-employee relationship throughout America. In the past, employers relied on an industrial model for production, depending on long-term employees to ensure quality and productivity. The traditional employer-employee relationship was the norm and America’s labor laws were built around that relationship. Today, in order to hinder collective action and skirt America’s labor laws, employers are classifying their workforce as independent contractors. Whether these companies are accurately classifying their workforce as independent contractors requires an extremely fact-based legal assessment, but the ambiguity in the law has made it advantageous for employers to deliberately misclassify their workers. This has resulted in the rise of the gig economy, led by companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Grubhub. The gig economy has created a new class of workers, i.e., gig workers. A class of workers whose numbers are growing every year and workers who find themselves unable to avail themselves of the protections of America’s labor laws. The American workforce has evolved, and America’s labor laws need to evolve to respond to these changed circumstances. This article examines the history of organized labor, the importance of organized labor, and the circumstances that brought about the gig economy in America. The article also proposes new organizing strategies, changes that should be made to the law to ensure that all workers are able to collectively organize and avail themselves of the protections of America’s labor laws, so that the organized labor movement can be brought into the 21st century.