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9 campaigns and 1 major political firm have unionized ahead of the 2018 midterm elections

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Nine political campaigns have unionized ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, and one major political firm, Revolution Messaging, joined them this week, according to a BuzzFeed report Tuesday.

Revolution Messaging workers join a number of unionized campaign staffs, all of whom work for progressive Democratic candidates whose campaigns run the gamut from local county council races to congressional and gubernatorial races.

Staffers on Chris Wilhelm’s campaign for county council in Maryland have unionized, as have workers on Renato Mariotti’s campaign for attorney general in Illinois. Erin Murphy, who is running for governor in Minnesota, saw her staff unionize recently, as did Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, Jess King in Pennsylvania, Andy Thorburn in California, Brian Flynn in New York, Dan Haberman in Michigan, and Marie Newman in Illinois, all of whom are running for Congress.

The recent campaign unionization push has been led largely by the Campaign Workers Guild (CWG), which was formed about a year ago, and CWG is now facilitating negotiations with as many as 25 more campaigns, CWG vice president Meg Reilly told BuzzFeed Tuesday.

“It doesn’t show any sign of stopping,” Reilly said, adding that it is the first “really serious concerted effort” by political staffers to collectively bargain.

The trend is notable not only in that it reflects a commitment to labor, but also because campaigns are often staffed by young people who work long hours with low pay and few benefits.

“Campaign work is characterized by 80 to 100-hour weeks — making much less than minimum wage, even when candidates pay well like Bernie [Sanders] does — and immediately burning out,” Reilly told HuffPost. “We don’t get to talk to our family. We get exhausted.”

“That leads to a lot of talented, well-trained organizers leaving the field,” she added.

Unions can help prevent that.

“The more folks we can help stay in the field, the better off the Democratic Party and the progressive movement will be,” Reilly said.

Bryce, who is challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), is the most high-profile of the unionized bunch. Bryce, who has been a union ironworker for years before running for Congress, said in an interview with ThinkProgress last month that he was very supportive of the union.

“‘Yeah let’s do it. Why not?’” Bryce said he told the staffers. “That’s what I’ve been pushing for everybody else to do!”

“These are the people that are responsible for winning this election for me,” Bryce added. “It’s the very least I could do.”

In a letter to senior staff earlier this week, Revolution Messaging staffers reportedly said they felt it was time to “illustrate our pro-labor values” by organizing themselves.

“As progressives who care deeply about the work that we do, we feel that it’s time to illustrate our pro-labor values by organizing ourselves,” the letter said. “Our union will allow everyone at Rev to have a voice on the job and a seat at the table, which will undoubtedly help retain current and future employees, bolster our recruitment efforts moving forward, and attract business from clients who seek out unionized firms.”

Leadership at Revolution Messaging, which is known for helping drive Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) 2016 presidential campaign, was, like Bryce, quick to support its newly unionized staffers.

Founder and CEO Scott Goodstein recognized the union the same day, reportedly writing, “This is great news! … As most of you know, we fought on behalf of dozens of labor unions since our inception, and it is part of our DNA. We believe in workers’ rights, labor rights, women’s rights and human rights.”

“We are excited to work with our workers and their chosen representatives,” the company tweeted Monday.

Revolution Messaging was the subject of a recent HuffPost report in which workers outlined a number of workplace complaints, including the handling of an incident in 2015 when an employee said she was physically assaulted by one of the company’s partners. The partner was fired, but the woman soon left her job, too, which some employees said they believed may have been an act of retaliation.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Addy Baird is a reporter for ThinkProgress on the news cycle team. Previously, she covered local politics and health policy at POLITICO New York and worked for The Charlie Rose Show digital team.

3 Democratic Campaigns Now Have Staff Unions. Why Not More?

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

All signs point to a messy battle in the 2020 Democratic primaries, pitting establishment types against democratic socialists. Thanks to an effort spearheaded largely by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaigners, the staffers for a few 2018 Congressional candidates could be pioneering a new litmus test for determining candidates’ progressive credentials: Do they recognize their employees’ union?

Last week, the upstart Campaign Workers Guild (CWG) announced that staff members at three Democratic campaigns around the country have formed unions, each of which was voluntarily recognized. Campaigners for Jess King, running for a House seat representing southeastern Pennsylvania, Randy Bryce, vying to take Paul Ryan’s Congressional seat, and Chris Wilhelm, running for Montgomery County Council, have each successfully negotiated union contracts with their progressive—and in some cases openly Left—bosses. The two non-management staffers in Democrat Dan Haberman’s campaign for Michigan’s 11th Congressional District have also taken first steps toward a collective bargaining agreement, with Haberman recently signing a letter of support for the process to move forward.

While these efforts will almost certainly transform working conditions for electoral staffers, the organizing drives might also transform the Democratic Party.

“Every campaign worker at a certain point has either joked about joining a union or unionizing their workplace,” says Brian Wivell, field director for the Wilhelm campaign, and one half of a newly-minted, two-person CWG local. At a previous campaign he worked on, staffers hung the union logo from the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant—of Simpsons fame—in their office. “As soon as we heard this was happening, we jumped on it,” he tells In These Times.

Campaign work often involves long hours—80 to 100 per week—for little pay, particularly for those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy of electoral politics. Piled-up expenses—for gas, especially—often don’t get reimbursed, and staffers can find themselves staying in precarious housing with supporters of the campaign while out on the road. The frantic, temporary nature of campaigns also means there’s little recourse for employees who face sexual assault or harassment on the job, a problem compounded by the fact that so much of the economy of campaign work depends on relationships within a relatively small network of staffers, at the state and local levels especially. Aside from improving wages and working conditions across campaigns, one of the biggest impacts of the CWG’s efforts could be establishing an industry-standard policy for dealing with sexual assault and harassment.

Campaign staffers are hoping to address harassment from supervisors and coworkers, as well as volunteers, who they depend on to meet canvassing and phone-banking quotas. As CWG organizer Meg Reilly puts it, “If your boss is constantly breathing down your neck saying you didn’t meet your goals, do you report [a volunteer] for being a creep or get your numbers up so you don’t get fired?”

Reilly realizes the optics of CWG emerging from several former Sanders campaign staffers might raise questions about the Senator’s labor practices. But she says that Bernie was not a bad boss at all. “The Bernie campaign was just about as good as you could get,” Reilly underscores. “It’s the Cadillac: We got days off and health insurance. It’s just that on the Bernie campaign we had a lot of pro-labor people, and people who were fairly radical.”

Of sexual harassment and assault, Reilly says, “Campaigns are just rife for it. You’re spending 80 to 100 hours a week all together, and campaigns are so small. Everyone knows everyone, and there’s a huge fear of being blacklisted if you do report something. A lot of people who are victims of harassment or assault don’t say anything but because they’re afraid of being blacklisted.” When abuses are reported, she explains, they tend to be handled internally. By contrast, the contracts the Guild has negotiated so far explicitly outline a process for handling such processes through a third party.

“On campaigns, there is no HR department,” says Lauren Hitt, communications director for the Bryce campaign and a member of the bargaining unit there. (I spoke with her and Bryce jointly by phone.) “Problems are always better solved when you address them before they’re problems, and have policies laid out and written down. That’s a big difference from the way campaigns operate now. There has never been anything like that.”

Reilly says that some CWG contracts included mandatory training on issues of sexual harassment. “A big part of it is just admitting that it happens. A big part of this culture is silence around it,” she argues. “And a big part of the training is just admitting that progressive and left campaigns are not immune from this.”

The campaign staffers that have organized so far faced relatively friendly audiences. The first shop—Bryce’s campaign—came about when his digital director, Nate Rifkin, asked him about the idea of starting a staff union as they were driving around talking to voters in Wisconsin. “It was a no-brainer,” Bryce tells In These Times. “It’s an extension of why I’m running in the first place. It comes down to what’s important to me as a candidate. It’s not about me. I am where I am today because we have a very talented staff.” Staffers hammered out a contract with management, which includes Bryce and campaign manager David Keith, who both have hiring and firing power. An Ironworker, Bryce got his start in politics through his union, and has campaigned as a working-class opponent to incumbent Paul Ryan.

Reilly, who worked for the Sanders campaign in 2016, ultimately hopes that CWG will adopt a “hiring hall” model, along the lines of the building trades. As in those industries, campaign work can be sporadic, with staffers facing months-long gaps between election cycles. Membership in the union provides workers with a backstop of support in dry months, and sets industry standards on wages and working conditions.

“Even if campaigns go well, they end, and the staff is looking for another job,” says Hitt. “Most campaign workers—if they do it from campaign to campaign—are looking at at least a month or two when they’re unemployed.” Several of the staffers In These Times spoke with noted that such chronic instability means campaign demographics tend to skew toward the people best able to shoulder it: young, white and middle class individuals, often recent college graduates. Hitt, Reilly and others were excited about the potential of unionization to diversify campaigning more generally, making it a more stable prospect for people dealing with student debt or familial responsibilities.

“You have to be pretty privileged to work for such little pay, and to have a place to crash in campaigns,” Reilly says. “It all sort of fits together like a puzzle. Even progressive candidates who talk the talk about diversity—even reparations—don’t pay attention to the fact that their campaign staff is coming from a pretty homogenous background.” She notes that campaign workers are often expected to have their own cars and phones, on top of sacrificing time that might otherwise be used to care for children or loved ones.

“Just personally, I have epilepsy. So not having healthcare consistently and paying for anti-seizure medications isn’t an option for me,” Hitt says, adding that it was only in the past several years that healthcare benefits became widespread for campaign staffers. Stipulations already built into certain CWG contracts—for benefits and higher wages, for instance—could make campaigning more accessible to organizers from diverse backgrounds, potentially expanding the range of communities within candidates can build relationships with.

Wivell tells In These Times that he “would love to see a future where there’s a Project Labor Agreement between the Democratic Party and campaign workers. There is a reason the building trades follow that path and are able to enforce certain standards for workplace protections.” When unionized crews aren’t used in construction projects, it’s not uncommon to see an inflatable rat outside of job sites. Feasibly, the same thing could happen to Democratic campaigns who hire non-union staff.

Staff unionization could also factor into Democrats’ efforts to win endorsements from organized labor. Especially in state and local races, union endorsements can offer critical resources. Often that money goes toward candidates considered to have the surest chance at winning; their willingness to fight for organized labor can sometimes take a backseat. Yet the optics of a union endorsing a candidate that either failed to recognize or even fought a staff union are more stark, and could create an uncomfortable situation for establishment or even progressive Democrats who are more willing to make public overtures to unions than welcome them into their own campaigns. “It’s really hard to take labor’s money and endorsement and not actively support labor when it’s coming to organize,” Harry Baker, Wivell’s data director, tells In These Times.

As it broadens the range of people who are able to work on campaigns, CWG hopes that collective bargaining agreements will translate into rank-and-file campaign staffs having more say over their campaigns’ strategy. It is well known that electoral work runs on strict hierarchies, but a strong bargaining unit could democratize decisions around things like outreach strategies and messaging.

As in the building trades, CWG envisions that the union could at some point offer not just economic security, but training—to keep staffers updated on the latest voter database software, for instance. Like any other profession, political campaigns require specialized skills. The union could help candidates standardize how those skills are developed and ensure that staffers are competent and up-to-date on the latest developments in their field.

“Every cycle we hear about how field is the most important part of any campaign,” Reilly says. “It’s a really specific skill set, and we think that it’s really been hurting candidates—Democratic and others—to not be systematically investing in it. We can train up these workers who are really excited to work. We think if we treated the workers better and kept them trained, we could win more campaigns.”

Having started around a year ago, CWG now has a 16-member advisory board comprised of both former Sanders and Clinton staffers. Union members pay $30 a month in dues, and campaign workers who aren’t actively working on a campaign can affiliate for $10 a month. CWG is eager to support union drives from Republican campaign staffers, although the union hasn’t gotten any bites yet. To date, Reilly says, the union is working to win contracts and recognition on everything from local ballot-initiative campaigns to Senate races.

Organizers see the CWG as similar in spirit to the unionization campaigns taking place in some digital newsrooms—beneficial both as a way to improve wages and working conditions and to build solidarity among white-collar workers for working-class politics in the United States and abroad.

In These Times asked Hitt and Bryce whether they had heard rumblings from Paul Ryan’s Congressional campaign about any latent unionization efforts. Laughing, Bryce replied that his office had just dropped off 16,000 signatures to his Racine office calling for gun reform: “I kicked myself afterwards for not asking them.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda.

West Virginia Teachers Are Showing How Unions Can Win Power Even If They Lose Janus

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Today’s “Workers’ Day of Action,” organized by AFL-CIO affiliates and labor groups, aimed to show the labor movement’s opposition to a verdict for the plaintiffs in Janus v. AFSCME, which begins oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Monday. Unions fear their power will be diminished if the Court rules against AFSCME, as it is expected to do, and restricts public-sector unions from collecting fees from non-members to pay for collective bargaining. The Right intends to use Janus to gut public employee unions, weakening what is the strongest constituency in organized labor. This in turn will greatly diminish labor’s strength as a progressive force.

Public employee unions are right to be worried, and yet, as today’s demonstrations evidenced, on the eve of oral arguments labor is still grappling with how to protect workers’ rights. The protest’s slogan, “It’s about freedom,” mimics the Right’s own language when it argues that unions shouldn’t be able to collect fees from workers who don’t want to pay. In fact, it’s about social justice: The struggle to protect collective bargaining is a fight for the dignity of work and working people.

How then can public employee unions and the labor movement transition from defense to offense, winning economic and political demands? Must a defeat in Janusmean the end of public employee unions? A movement of school employees in West Virginia is providing answers to these questions, showing organized labor how workers can defend their rights without the legal protections that unions rely upon: the right to strike and the right to bargain collectively.

West Virginia bars strikes by public employees and, as a so-called “right to work” state, bans unions from requiring that everyone represented by a bargaining unit become a dues-paying member. Yet, despite this hostile legal environment, school employees, led primarily by teachers, organized walkouts that resulted in closure of schools in every county on Thursday and Friday. School districts could not remain open because school employees had shown they would not come to work. Although officers of the American Federation of Teachers –West Virginia (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), the state affiliates of the two major teachers unions, are quoted in the press and are widely seen as the movement’s leaders, they are not the force behind the job actions.

As when Detroit teachers organized “sick outs” about appalling conditions in their schools, the West Virginia teachers who took the lead in organizing this movement did so independent of the union apparatus. They invited teachers in both AFT-WV and WVEA, which many activists felt had wasted resources wrangling with one another. As one teacher-leader explained to In These Times, the strategy from the start was “keeping it open.” For this reason, teachers brought in other school employees in  planning actions and demands.

School workers were frustrated and angry about low wages, further diminished by growing health insurance costs. Within months, the movement mushroomed, with the closed Facebook page expanding to 17,000 members. (Although I am not a West Virginia school employee, I was invited to join the closed group because my writing about teacher unionism has informed the organizing. I have commented and posted, making clear that I am a visitor to their site.)

West Virginia is a red state, but one in which union pride and an attunement to class inequality still bubble up. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary, and memories of the state’s history of labor battles in the coal fields still resonate. Many teachers in the state identify as workers and with unions, not always the case among teachers.

Understanding this movement’s success requires seeing that the WVEA and AFT-WV, which ostensibly spoke for teachers and other school workers, failed to tap into or build this labor consciousness. Instead of mobilizing actions that addressed anger at poor wages, the unions’ strategy was to court state politicians with donations and votes. As I learned in conversations over the past several months, the activists who built the grassroots movement, many of them socialists, believed that traditional labor tactics, ranging from rallies to walkouts, were essential and that their colleagues throughout the state would respond.

They were right. The movement developed at breathtaking speed. Protests and local walkouts expanded to a state-wide strike and mass protests in the state Capitol. Teachers and school workers confronted legislators who had failed to raise wages while rising healthcare costs cut into teachers’ paychecks. At each step, the movement has made demands on the union and prepared to carry out actions without union endorsement or help. In the process they have gone far in making the union carry out its responsibilities to them—and to public education. A key concern of teachers is that by keeping wages so low, West Virginia has created a teacher “shortage” that it has “solved” by allowing people who have no preparation to teach to become teachers—a strategy being adopted in many other states.

The West Virginia struggle has mirrored the energy of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, which electrified teachers throughout the world and set a new standard for militant union action in the U.S. But it also resembles what occurred in Madison, Wisc., when public employees, with teachers in the forefront, took their defense of collective bargaining to the state legislature, occupying the seat of power. Labor was badly bruised in that battle because workers did what union officials instructed: They disbanded the protest and channeled power into recalling Gov. Scott Walker. The alternative would have been maintaining the strike while building more public support by expanding their political program beyond collective bargaining, to other economic and political rights that have been attacked.

This same choice confronts the movement in West Virginia. One logical expansion of their political struggle is to demand more progressive funding for schools and a statewide “single payer” health plan to cover medical care for everyone in the state. Public employees who face higher healthcare costs will find natural allies in parents who cannot afford insurance or are worried about cutbacks to Medicaid and Medicare because the fight will be to alleviate health care costs for everyone, rather than only protecting costs for public employees. Such an alliance would join the growing movement within labor for “Medicare for all,” a struggle that requires taking on Democrats who won’t break with their party leadership’s rejection of “single payer” as unrealistic. The demand can also weaken the grip of Republicans who won’t break with the GOP’s—and Trump‘s—refusal to fund healthcare as a human right.

Officers of large public employee unions say that Janus has caused deep introspection and change. While public employee unions are reaching out to “involve,” “engage” and “hear” members, the need for the self-organization of workers is seldom expressed in this narrative of change—except in unions in which reform caucuses have won leadership, like the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The consciousness and capacity of workers to organize at the work site is what will save labor. West Virginia’s school employees have demonstrated what workers’ power looks like without collective bargaining or the right to strike. Their lesson is clear to the unions: Either fight for the dignity of work and workers or move over and let others show you how it’s done.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on February 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

Union workers rally ahead of major Supreme Court case

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Unionized workers and their allies held rallies across the country Saturday to support unions in advance of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could significantly weaken the power of organized labor. Workers are attending rallies as part of a “working people’s day of action.”

There’s a rally in Foley Square in New York City, a street party in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a Columbus, Ohio party on the statehouse steps, and a gathering at Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Clayborn Temple has historical significance. It’s the place where striking sanitation workers, who had the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., began their march to City Hall in 1968 and where they gathered during another march when police attacked them with tear gas.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (AFSCME) case. Non-union public school teachers in California brought the case.

Mark Janus, a child support specialist who chose not to join the union, said “fair-share” fees levied on non-members, amounting to 78 percent of full union dues, are a violation of his First Amendment rights. A Supreme Court decision in his favor, which is expected, would be a huge setback for public sector unions, which depend on these funds.

A decision in Janus’ favor would also give workers far less incentive to join unions, in essence   expanding “right-to-work” laws from the current 28 states to the entire country.

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld fair share fees by arguing that since all workers benefit from the representation of a union, represented workers should pay for those benefits. But these workers don’t have to pay full union dues, because they aren’t paying for the union’s political work.

AFSCME argues that “the Republic’s first 150 years are replete with government curtailments of public employees’ free-speech rights, including on issues of public concern” and that most of the collective-bargaining, which is what fair-share fees cover, isn’t political but focused on working conditions and grievance procedures.

Unions are preparing for this possible setback by doing more aggressive internal organizing, hoping to drum up new membership, and also hope that local governments could come up with new ways to facilitate fee collection, labor experts told ThinkProgress in January.

The workers’ rights organization Jobs With Justice, which organized the protests, referred to the historic sanitation workers strike supported by King in explaining the reason behind rallies:

Fifty years later, our struggle continues. For far too long, a handful of corporate CEOs, extremists and corrupt politicians have rigged the rules in their favor: making us work harder for less, taking away our health care, stripping away our voting rights, defunding our schools and polluting our air and water. And now the same forces are behind Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.

People tweeted out photos and videos of rallies with the hashtag #UnrigTheSystem.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on February 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

In Janus Case, Working People Continue Fight Championed by Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. joined the sanitation strikers in Memphis, Tennessee, who carried signs that boldly proclaimed “I Am a Man,” at a time when many employers rejected that very notion. King and the working people of Memphis fought for the freedom to join together in unions and to be treated with dignity and respect on the job.

Now, corporate lobbyists and the special interests that fund them are trying to undo many of the things King, the sanitation workers and many others have fought hard to win. Through a Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME Local Council 31, they are ratcheting up their fight to divide and conquer us. These are the same extremists who are working to limit voting rights, roll back economic protections and gut the laws that protect working people.

The Supreme Court soon will hear the Janus case, and it will have a big impact on our voice in the workplace. Tomorrow, working people across the country will be standing up in defense of the freedoms that we’ve fought for with a day of action from coast to coast (find an event near you).

Working people across the country have been using their voice to reject the attacks on unions in the Janus case. Here are some highlights of what they’ve been saying.

Bonnee Breese Bentum, science teacher, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers: “As a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for the past 16 years, I am living proof that being a member, a supporter and an activist in my local union assists not only the lives of our members, but also the consumers, the clients and the children we serve. Our contracts go far beyond what we do in the classroom or in an office. Our members withstood a four-year fight for a fair contract from a hostile School Reform Commission, driven by our state with an antiquated and unfair funding formula, and coupled with the force of a majority of politicians who opposed public schools and unions. We were able to win counselors and nurses for every public school; pay increases for staff after obtaining graduate degrees; and safe and healthy building conditions for all our children.”

Maureen Dugan, RN, University of California-San Francisco and board member of the California Nurses Association/NNOC: “With the union I have that platform where I can safely speak out for patient care. A lot of time in nonunion environments, nurses are intimidated and bullied into staying quiet. These hospitals that don’t have unions don’t care. It’s the union that brings many safety laws in legislation and public regulatory protections. It’s the union dues that fund those efforts. It’s the nurses in my hospital, in my region, in my whole state that make up the strength of our union and our ability to protect our patients, our license, and our profession.”

Dovard Howard, certified control systems technician in California, AFSCME Local 1902: “It is my job to make sure that the public has safe drinking water. There is no room for any mistakes. That’s why I am deeply concerned that this Supreme Court case threatens the ability of the skilled and dedicated people I work with to have a say about their future.”

Stephen Mittons, child protection investigator in Illinois, AFSCME Council 31: “My work as a child protection investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is vital to the safety of our state’s most vulnerable children and families. This court case is yet another political attack on the freedom of my colleagues and I to speak up to ensure that we can safely and adequately manage our caseloads, which reflects our commitment to safety and public service to our community.”

Rich Ognibene, chemistry and physics teacher, Fairport (N.Y.) Educators Association: “Technological advances and societal changes make us more isolated, and we are hesitant to make commitments to others. We assume the wages, benefits, safety and social justice that we enjoy at work have always been there, and that they will never disappear. That’s a dangerous assumption. The benefits we have today were earned over many years of hard-fought negotiations; they could disappear tomorrow without our union. Billionaire CEOs are trying to destroy our community and create a Hunger Games scenario for workers. They want to remove our collective voice and reduce the quality of life for working families. We cannot let them succeed. Now, more than ever, we must fight to keep our unions strong.”

Sue Phillips, RN, Palomar Medical Center, Escondido, Calif.: “Union protection absolutely saves lives.”

Matthew Quigley, correctional officer in Connecticut, AFSCME Local 1565, Council 4: “Big-money corporations and super-wealthy special interests are trying to prevent correctional officers, firefighters, police officers and other working people from having the freedom to join together and create positive working conditions. When we belong to strong unions, we are better able to fight for staffing levels, equipment and training that save lives within state prisons and the communities where we work and live.”

Stephanie Wiley, child care attendant in Columbus, Ohio, AFSCME Local 4/OAPSE: “Our ability to speak together with a collective voice ensures that we can better assist children who need our help. That’s why I am deeply concerned about the Supreme Court case, which could severely limit our voice on the job and hurt our ability to best serve the children we care so much about.”

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on February 22, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

Disney is using 'tax cut bonus' to try to force union workers to accept low pay

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Disney got some positive press for saying it would give its workers a $1,000 tax cut bonus—but it’s using the bonus to try to force some of its lower-paid workers to accept a bad deal at the bargaining table. The entertainment giant carefully specified that the bonuses would go to union workers “currently working under existing union contracts”—and that doesn’t apply to everyone.

They say rank-and-file workers in December voted 93% against Disney’s most recent offer of a 50-cent-an-hour raise over the next two years, coupled with a $200 signing bonus. Most unionized Disney World employees make less than $11 an hour, according to the union.

Only 3,000 make more than $15 an hour. The union says the average hourly wage for its members is $10.71.

Eric Clinton, president of the Unite Here local at the theme park, said Disney is forcing the union to accept that same rejected offer for its members to receive the $1,000 bonus due to other Disney employees. […]

He said the union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that the demand amounts to punishing members for engaging in legally protected contract negotiations.

This maneuver by Disney shows what a load of bull these “tax cut bonuses” are to begin with—Republicans cut the corporate tax forever, but Disney isn’t offering its workers a raise that will be with them next year and the year after. It’s offering a one-time bonus while trying to low-ball on wages. Not just while trying to low-ball on wages—to use the bonus as bait to get workers to accept low pay. We see you, Disney.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on February 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Here’s How a Supreme Court Decision To Gut Public Sector Unions Could Backfire on the Right

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

Janus v. AFSCME, which begins oral arguments on February 26, is the culmination of a years-long right-wing plot to financially devastate public-sector unions. And a Supreme Court ruling against AFSCME would indeed have that effect, by banning public-sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from the workers they are compelled to represent. But if the Court embraces the weaponization of free speech as a cudgel to beat up on unions, the possibility of other, unintended consequences is beginning to excite some union advocates and stir fear among conservative constitutional scholars.

The ruling could both wildly increase workers’ bargaining power and clog the lower courts with First Amendment challenges to routine uses of taxpayer money. At a minimum, it has the potential to turn every public sector workplace dispute into a constitutional controversy—and one Midwest local is already laying plans to maximize the chaos this could cause.

Toward labor’s bill of rights

From the earliest court decision dealing with workers’ protest activity—the 1806 Cordwainers Trial in Philadelphia–courts have strenuously avoided applying the First Amendment to unions. Instead, conservative courts treated unions as criminal conspiracies that interfered with employers’ property and contract rights.

have been arguing that unions and their allies should be challenging the most unequal aspects of labor law as violations of our constitutional rights. Currently, employers in the private sector have a legal right to force employees to attend mandatory anti-union presentations, on penalty of firing. Workers can also be fired for making “disloyal” statements, even in the course of otherwise protected concerted activity. Meanwhile, the government has restricted the scope of issues that unions can legally compel employers to bargain over.

All of these practices are vulnerable to First Amendment challenges as government restrictions of workers’ speech. They become more vulnerable if the Supreme Court rules in Janus that every interaction that a union has with a governmental subdivision is inherently political.

Even more vulnerable are anti-union laws in the public sector. Take Scott Walker’s Act 10, which forbids unions from making bargaining proposals over anything other than wages that don’t exceed the cost of living. Or the New Jersey case law that forbids teachers unions from even proposing restrictions on class size. How are those not explicit restrictions on workers’ speech?

The most common objection to this kind of thinking on the Left is that a judiciary that could buy such a craven argument as Janus will refuse to take the precedent to its logical conclusion and shamelessly waving away workers’ free speech rights. That may be true, but there is a decent chance that the next couple of federal elections could bring a “blue wave” that will alter the ideological make-up of the courts for decades.  Janus could hand new liberal majorities a roadmap for restoring a legal balance of power between corporations and workers. It’s enough of a possibility that conservative legal scholars have begun paying attention to the case, and they see the potential peril for their cause.

Every workplace dispute, a constitutional controversy

Amicus briefs in the Janus case have been rolling in since the summer. These briefs are filed by scholars and organizations who are not parties in the case, but who nevertheless have strong opinions about its outcome. They may (or most likely may not) be read by the justices, but they could influence questions and oral arguments at the hearing.

Most of the amici have been from the usual suspects. Right-wing think tanks are spouting the same tired clichés and intellectually bankrupt arguments. Union advocates question the standing of the plaintiff to even mount a First Amendment claim, argue in favor of respecting long-settled precedent, or—in a new argument—suggest treating agency fees as a kind of tax .

But two briefs stand out, both for what they say and for who is saying it.

One brief, filed by influential right-wing libertarian ideologues Eugene Volokh of UCLA and William Baude of the University of Chicago, actually argues for strengthening the 40-year-old precedent that Janus aims to overturn. The 1978 Abood decision was wrong, they argue, to moot the question of whether workers compelled to pay their fair share for union representation might have a legitimate First Amendment objection to how a union might spend any portion of their fees. That opened the door, Baude and Volokh say, to taxpayers making line-by-line objections to how the government spends its money. “Just as non-union members may find many reasons to disagree with a public union’s speech, there are countless grounds to object to other speech supported by government funds,” they write.

Pointing to government propaganda urging military enlistment and purchase of war bonds, the scholars note that there has never been an option for taxpayers to opt out of funding such practices with which they may disagree, nor even any kind of “equal time” right of rebuttal. A ruling for the plaintiff in Janus could tug at the loose threads of the very notion of a common interest in government.

Another amicus, filed by law professors Charles Fried of Harvard and Robert C. Post of Yale, warns of undermining the precedent set in the 2006 Garcetti v. Ceballos. That decision gave public sector employers “the broad discretion they need to manage their workplaces” by permitting them to compel employees to comply with directives they find politically objectionable. Ruling in favor of Janus, they warn, “would therefore threaten to transform every workplace dispute into a constitutional controversy.”

Fried served as Solicitor General under Ronald Reagan, so his brief likely carries more water with the conservative justices than pro-union arguments for status quo. Furthermore, swing Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority decision in Garcetti, so he would presumably take interest in how the Janus case could blow his work up.

A lot of time and money and energy

One local union in the Midwest is champing at the bit to turn every disagreement they have with the bosses into a constitutional controversy. A January blog post by the Countryside, Ill.-based Operating Engineers Local 150, titled, “Union Busters Set Themselves Up for Janus Backfire,” was widely circulated in #1u social media circles. In it, the union eyes overturning the laws that have made public-sector bargaining illegal in many jurisdictions. It also suggests that workers should be able to opt out of paying for their pension funds’ lobbying expenses and taxpayers opt out of funding municipal lobbyists (the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for example, receives indirect support from many taxpayer-funded organizations.)

While the gauntlet thrown down by Local 150 was certainly exciting for the few minutes it took to read their fantastical plan to make utter chaos out of a post-Janus world, many readers were left wondering, Are these guys for real?

“We’re going to immediately respond by filing suits to say these laws are unconstitutional,” confirms Local 150 president Jim Sweeney. “Maybe we get screwed again, but we’re going to put corporate powers in a position where they’re forced to explain why workers should only have free speech when it serves them.” So, file that answer under: Hell to the yes.

Local 150 has a track record of pushing the envelope on legal arguments in defense of unions. They’re the union that filed Sweeney vs. Pence, a federal court challenge to Indiana’s “right-to-work” law. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it resulted in a strong dissenting opinion from Chief Judge Diane Wood that forcing unions to spend resources on non-members without compensation is an unconstitutional “taking” under the Fifth Amendment. That has become the legal argument that could overturn “right-to-work” laws around the country, with several cases wending their way through federal circuits at this very moment.

The union has already sent a formal demand letter, chock full of legal citations, to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. In it, they complain that their members’ mandatory 4.5 percent retirement contributions are going towards Bank of America lobbying and demand to opt out.

More letters are on the way. Local leaders are hoping to trigger a few rounds of panicked, “WTF?” phone calls to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and other Janus cheerleaders.

If enough unions follow Local 150’s lead and make enough hay out of Janus—or even pose a credible threat to do so—don’t be surprised if more conservative jurists rethink their strategy.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on February 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

Union membership rose in 2017

Friday, January 26th, 2018

This is somewhat unexpected: overall union membership rose by 262,000 workers in 2017, while union density stayed at 10.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute’s Lawrence Mishel warns against reading too much into the numbers, but pulls out the following interesting data points:

  • Union membership became more common among men: some 32 percent of the net increase in male employment in 2017 went to men who were union members, leading union membership to rise from 11.2 to 11.4 percent of all male employment. Growth of union membership for men was strong in both the public and private sectors and for Hispanic and for non-Hispanic white men.
  • Correspondingly, union membership dipped slightly among women because women’s union membership did not rise in the private sector although employment overall did rise—private sector employment growth for women was concentrated in nonunion sectors. Union membership growth, however, was strong among Hispanic women.
  • Union membership grew in manufacturing despite an overall decline in manufacturing employment. Union membership was also strong in the wholesale and retail sectors, in the public sector and in information sector (where union membership density rose 1.9 percentage points).
  • Union membership density was stable or grew in a number of Southern states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia with especially strong growth in Texas.

That last point is particularly interesting, since the South has long been such a challenge to union organizing, and since Republicans are bent on making the union organizing environment in the rest of the nation much more like the South has historically been.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on January 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Republicans Are Taking Voter Suppression to the Workplace

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

A Republican party that survives through voter suppression may be replicating its model in the workplace. In December, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) invited public commentary on a possible revocation of a rule that makes employers provide union organizers with contact information for workers in advance of a representation election.

Ostensibly, the Board, which will almost certainly remain in control of Republicans until 2021, is reconsidering Obama-era rules that sped up the timeline of union elections and added phone numbers and email addresses to the list of contact info that unions must be furnished before an election. But outgoing Board Chairman Phil Miscimarra’s bellyaching about “employee rights of free choice and privacy” implies openness to removing any legal right of union organizers to talk with potential members.

The very fact that Trump’s NLRB is inviting public comment indicates that it is considering reversing a much older precedent: the 52-year-old Excelsior rule that employers should provide a list of names and addresses of eligible voters in an upcoming union certification election. Sharon Block, a former member of the NLRB and current Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, has argued that the slew of hastily-decided reversals of second-term Obama precedents “seemed to be a rush to set the clock back on workers’ rights as much as possible.”

The Excelsior rule makes employers provide union organizers with a list of eligible voters and their home addresses a few days before an election. It’s an essential tool in a campaign, and any cut is a blow to unions. However, it is also important to remember that Excelsior was a bad compromise, and a real solution lies in actual free speech in the workplace. That will require that unions wage a free speech fight to regain our voice at work.

Captive-audience meetings versus knocking on doors

As soon as the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, employers were already challenging the legal framework for workers to organize and bargain collectively.

In six short years, the bosses succeeded in demolishing the Act’s mandate of employer neutrality by strenuously appealing to the Supreme Court that the standard restricts bosses’ First Amendment right to inform their workers about just how strongly they oppose unionization. Six years after that, a Republican Congress codified this unequal application of free speech in the Taft-Hartley Act.

For a brief time after Taft-Hartley, the NLRB enforced an equal time standard by granting union organizers access to talk to workers on the job when an employer conducted captive-audience meetings. In an all-too-familiar pattern, the Board ping-ponged back and forth between different legal standards on employer speech and union access, depending on which political party was in the White House, until 1966.

That was the year of Excelsior Underwear, Inc ., the NLRB decision that established the right for unions to be furnished with a list of names and addresses of eligible voters. It was issued on the same day that the Board declined to reinstate the equal time rule. The case that we should have won that day was General Electric Co. and McCulloch Corp.

Loathe to trample on management’s rights and private property, the Democratic majority begged the unions in that case to try visiting workers at home and see if that effectively counter-balanced the boss’s work-time campaigning.

Anyone who has worked as a union organizer will tell you that an Excelsior list is no match for the mandatory round-the-clock campaigns of intimidation that union-busters consider “management’s most important weapon” in beating back an organizing drive.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, has been documenting employer union-busting tactics for decades. Her most recent study, covering the period of 1999 to 2003, found that 9 out of 10 employers use captive-audience meetings to fight a union organizing drive. Bosses threaten to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of documented cases, and to shut down entirely in 57 percent of union elections. Incredibly, in one out of 10 campaigns employers hired “consultants” to impersonate NLRB agents.

That report is nearly nine years old. It is likely that when Dr. Bronfenbrenner updates her research, all of these numbers will be even higher—particularly the instances of outright lies and deception.

Within the General Electric Co. and McCulloch Corp. decision, the NLRB explicitly invited unions to press the issue of equal time if experience were to prove that knocking on workers’ doors was no match for mandatory captive-audience meetings. Labor law scholars Charles Morris and Paul Secunda were clever enough to notice this half-century-old invitation. Last year, they organized 106 of their leading peers to sign on to a petition to the NLRB to reinstate the equal time rule.

The right to free speech

We shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for Trump’s NLRB to respond to that petition, but we also shouldn’t be patient about demanding change. This past summer, I proposed that unions wage a constitutional battle to challenge the most unequal aspects of labor law and fight for workers’ constitutional rights on the job. Call it Labor’s Bill of Rights.

At the heart of the problem is that the National Labor Relations Act derives its constitutional authority from the Commerce Clause. That means that when workers’ rights are challenged in the courts, judges are weighing corporations’ First Amendment claims against unions’ claims that workers’ rights to organize and go on strike are good for business.

Under that framework, bosses’ rights and business interests have trumped workers’ free speech and human rights. Consider union certification elections. These are official legal elections conducted by an arm of the federal government. At stake is whether the government will enforce certain statutory rights of the workers who wish to form a union. The rules of the election are determined by the government through court decisions, congressional action and NLRB rule-making.  In this simple “yes” or “no” vote about whether there shall be a union, only an employer—and only one advocating a “no” vote—can force voters to attend speeches where they will tell them how to vote And if any voter declines to attend, she can be fired. This is compelled political speech and a massive violation of workers’ free speech rights.

Perversely, Trump’s NLRB could be doing us a favor if it really does kill Excelsior lists by making the imbalance of free speech rights in union organizing campaigns that much starker. Regardless of what new form of union busting the Trump NLRB endorses, we should start waging a campaign to restore the equal time rule now.

What this free speech fight would look like as a campaign is this: every time an employer stages a captive-audience meeting in advance of a union election, we should file an Unfair Labor Practice charge. And every time a union loses an election where the employer conducted captive-audience meetings (which, again, is almost always), we should file an appeal to have the election results overturned.

We should be filing these cases now, even with a Trump Board that will dismiss them all. If we can file a couple hundred challenges and make enough noise about them, we can turn the free speech fight over captive-audience meetings into an obvious controversy that the next Democratic-majority NLRB must respond to.

A Democratic NLRB with a modicum of decency would—at a minimum—re-establish the rule that conducting captive-audience meetings while providing union advocates no right of response is grounds to void an election and order a re-run. Better would be a rule making the very act of conducting captive-audience meetings an Unfair Labor Practice subject to court injunctions, unless union advocates are granted an equivalent platform—in work locations, on work time—from which to campaign for a union yes vote.

If the NLRB were to rule in our favor, we should expect the first employer to face sanctions to resist and drag the case into the federal courts. And then we’re off to the races with a well-deserved counter-attack to the cynical right-wing HarrisFriedrichs and Janus efforts to use free speech as a cudgel against union rights.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 16, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

How Bosses Use “Open Shop” Campaigns to Crush Unions

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

U.S. employers have never been particularly accepting of unions. Yes, there were a few decades after World War II when most employers engaged in a largely stable pattern of collective bargaining that recognized unions as junior partners in industry. Wage increases kept pace with gains in productivity, and union endorsements were courted by both parties. But, as heavily as that postwar labor relations compact features in the rosy rhetoric of union boosters who decry global capitalism and the modern GOP, the truth is that corporations have been periodically going to war against their workers far more often they’ve occasionally conceded their basic humanity.

Two new books shed light on the sustained union-busting campaigns that bookended that all-too brief period of labor-management détente. One focuses on the innocuously named “open shop” drive, which was a vicious nationwide union-busting campaign that began at the dawn of the 20th century and lasted well into the New Deal era. The other documents how the last great wave of worker militancy was smashed by a coordinated union-busting drive that anticipated Ronald Reagan’s presidency by more than a decade.

Reform or repression?

The unions that managed to survive the turbulent boom-and-bust cycle of the 19th century were largely organized on a craft union model that bears only a slight resemblance to today’s trades. Unions not only trained their members in their craft skills, but also determined the process, materials and speed of production. Employers had to contract with strong unions for a certain number of orders at prices that the unions determined.

The “open shop” drive was a coordinated effort by industry associations like the National Association of Manufacturers for bosses to gain complete control over production decision-making. This is the subject of Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement.

As Pearson compellingly documents, open shop campaigners sought to place their movement within the mainstream of the vaguely-defined “progressive movement” that preceded the Great Depression.  Corporate executives railed against “union dictation,” and claimed their aim was to wrest control from union contracts in order to promote harder-working men. The breakfast cereal magnate C.W. Post claimed his union-busting work was necessary to protect children from picket-line violence. Some of the earliest appearances of the noxious slogan “right to work” come from this era.

That phrase was disingenuously employed to convey a sense of freedom for workers to not have to pay fealty to a union in order to get hired for a job. In practice, the “freedom” to not join a union was paired with a blacklist for those who chose to do so. Promoting “harder-working men” was a way of speeding up Taylorist production lines to sweatshop standards. And violence on picket lines was almost always instigated by privately hired armies of Pinkertons and other assorted spies and mercenaries.

Open shop campaigners did find allies within the broad political class of self-styled “progressives” who—then as now—did not root their efforts in the centrality of class politics. For example, it is somewhat shocking to read in Reform or Repression about “open shop” endorsements from Louis Brandeis—the attorney who negotiated the vaunted “Protocols of Peace” in the New York City garment industry. Without a base of actual workers, these earlier progressive men supported unions in the abstract, but were uncomfortable with the grisly details of strikes, boycotts and enforcing the union shop that were necessary to maintain unions as a permanent presence in the economy.

In this hair-splitting, open shop advocates probably found their biggest hero in Theodore Roosevelt. The trust-busting “progressive” was the first sitting president to weigh in on industrial disputes and mediate settlements that involved pay increases and other concessions to striking workers. He also steadfastly refused to endorse any deal that forced any employer to recognize any union as the exclusive representative of its workers.

Open shop organizations also recruited “free men” to be face of their drives. We can call them scabs, but forcing workers to join a union before they could get the job rubbed some the wrong way, and bosses exploited this.

Pearson has a good eye for vivid character studies. A particularly engrossing chapter contrasts the stories of two very different class traitors in the Cleveland open shop movement: John A. Penton and Jay P. Dawley. In the 1880s, Penton was president of a craft union of ironworkers that competed for worker loyalty with a more established union called the Iron Molders Union (IMU). In those days, unions competed to see who could organize the most militant protests. A campaign that ended in a union contract could mean terms that forced workers to join the victorious union—or face termination—If they wanted work. By 1893, Penton’s union had been forced to merge with the larger IMU.

The bitterness of that defeat curdled and warped Penton’s principles. He became an “open shop” advocate, ostensibly because men should be free to choose which organization to join—or not join. In practical effect, he served as a propagandist and recruiter of scabs for the industry’s campaign to break the Cleveland IMU in 1900, where he was regarded as “The Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde of the Labor Movement.”

Dawley was a compatriot of Penton’s, a lawyer who secured injunctions against union picket lines and defended Penton’s efforts to arm his scabs with .38 caliber revolvers. The former president of the Cleveland Employers Association shocked his white shoe comrades by coming to the aid of the city’s striking garment workers in 1911. It was no small coincidence that Dawley’s conversion-by-fire came just two months after the actual fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That the picket lines were mostly full of women helped him finally see that the violence and law-breaking that he so abhorred in industrial conflict was a mostly one-sided affair—and that it was his (former) side that was perpetuating most of it.

Dawley spent the rest of his life as an advocate of union causes—albeit one who counseled peaceful bargaining and arbitration over strikes and boycotts. There’s a lesson about the power of narrative and visible leaders here. The average union member today is more likely to be a black or brown woman than some Archie Bunker cliché. Labor can pick up unexpected allies by putting the actual workers whose livelihoods are on the line front and center in our campaigns.

Knocking on labor’s door

How women and people of color began to organize themselves into the mainstream of the labor movement is the subject of Lane Windham’s new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970’s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. It is also a tale of how the open shop drive came roaring back to life.

This is an essential read for anyone grappling with the question of why modern union organizing isn’t more successful. It is also a much-welcome corrective to the false narrative that unions simply stopped trying to gain new members sometime after the merger of the AFL and CIO.

In fact, the early 1970s brought a major wave of worker militancy, the kind that periodically roils the United States. The massive teacher rebellion of unionization that began in New York City in the early 1960s was still in full-swing. Unprotected by the National Labor Relations Act and still with few public-sector labor laws to fill the gaps, teachers continued to stage illegal strikes for union recognition throughout the decade. Other public sector workers fought for union recognition, too. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which Martin Luther King was in town supporting when he was assassinated, was a notable flashpoint in that struggle.

The unionized private sector was also in the midst of a historic strike wave. Many of the strikes were formally sanctioned by union leadership seeking wage increases that kept up with record-high inflation. A large number of workers rocked the postwar labor relations framework by waging wildcat strikes in defiance of contracts that traded impressive-sounding wage increases for brutal speed-ups in productivity. There’s a whole bookshelf of material written about how one General Motors factory in particular—its Lordstown, Oh. plant—simply could not maintain smooth production between its periodic wildcats and the thousands of workers who quit every year. 

During this same period, unions sought to organize roughly half a million private sector workers a year in NLRB elections. Much of this organizing was led by women and workers of color. It represented, Windham argues, a second wave of the civil rights era, as regulations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened up new industries and jobs to workers who had previously been excluded. Once in the job, women and minorities soon concluded that actual fair treatment would only come with unionization.

Although the number of eligible workers voting in union representation elections did not decline in the 1970s, the percentage of successful union yes votes did. For the first time since the NLRB was established in 1935, unions began to lose a majority of all representation elections—a decline that has continued to the present day.

Egged on by a then-new cottage industry of “union avoidance” consultants and anti-union law firms, employers aggressively pressed against the limits of labor law when campaigning against union organizing drives. They skirted the prohibition against threatening the jobs of union supporters by phrasing those threats as predictions of the negative impact that a union would have on the company’s bottom line. They threw out fantastical scenarios about how unions might trade away benefits. They swore the unions would make no gains unless the workers went on strike—and that the company would permanently replace them if they did so. They froze planned pay increases and told the workers that the unions and the law forced them to do so.

And when they got caught actually breaking the law—by being too obvious in their espionage of organizing activity or materially punishing a union leader—the paltry punishments that were meted out sparked a new union-busting revolution. Why obey the law at all? Paying an illegally fired union activist just the wages she was owed—minus whatever unemployment insurance or moonlighting money she earned in the years it took for the case to get adjudicated—was far less money that a successfully negotiated union contract would ever cost.

At the heart of American corporations’ renewed resistance to union organizing was the increase in domestic competition from foreign competitors. This was not strictly the dumping of products made cheaper in overseas sweatshops that we tend to think of as the driver of inequality in the global economy. The first pangs of competitive anxiety were triggered by German and Japanese manufacturers who had finally recovered from the world war and could export quality products at affordable prices. Their competitive edge was that the cost of their workers’ health and retirement benefits were not loaded onto their payroll and then passed on to consumers as a higher retail price: Those social welfare benefits were the responsibility of the state.

Since most U.S. corporations—to this day—are unlikely to embrace social democracy, those in the 1970s resolved to fight the global pressure by fighting their own workers. But union supporters must grapple with an uncomfortable fact about our system of labor relations, which bases the very existence of a union, as well as the additional expenses of pensions, health insurance and other “fringe” benefits, on the individual firm level. In any industry that is not 100% unionized, the decision by workers to form a union really can make a company less competitive. And high-union-density industries are just juicier targets for capitalist vampires like Airbnb and Uber to compete by undercutting those standards.

In her conclusion, Windham writes “As the twentieth-century version of industrial capitalism gives way to new forms, working people find themselves in need of a wholesale redefinition of collective bargaining.” She finds some hope in the “alt-labor” organizations that are “struggling to shore up workers’ economic security in new ways, such as through workers’ centers, new occupational alliances, and public campaigns to raise wages.”

Both Pearson’s and Windham’s books, by highlighting the controversies in two of labor’s roughest periods, help us sharpen the question of how we regroup and reform to fight back in the 21st century. I would encourage more creative thinking about “all-in” labor rights models. What if we pushed for laws to end the “at-will” legal doctrine and grant a “Right to Your Job” to all workers? And what if we looked to countries that we compare ourselves to that have labor laws that apply wage increases and work rules to entire sectors all at once?

What these books make clear is that bosses rarely stop trying to blow up whatever system workers have won to enforce basic standards of decency—and that their strategies evolve with the times. How much longer will we spend trying to patch-up a badly battered 70-year-old labor relations system?

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

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