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With Gov. Snyder Failing to Fix the Problem, Working People Step Up in Flint Water Crisis

Thursday, January 28th, 2016
Kenneth Quinnell

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has been rightly criticized for how he has handled the water crisis in Flint. In his State of the State speech earlier this month, he had a chance to take the crisis head on and failed to do so. Working people, on the other hand, are stepping up where Snyder has failed.

Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, responded to Snyder’s speech:

The people of Flint deserve answers and accountability, but the governor didn’t provide either tonight. Until the governor waives his [Freedom of Information Act] exemption and releases all materials on the Flint water crisis—including those from his senior staff—his promise to release a handpicked number of emails is hollow. To help the people of Flint start to heal and ensure a disaster like this never happens again, the governor needs to be fully transparent with the public and start telling the truth.

Sam Muma, president of the Greater Flint Central Labor Council, agreed:

It seems pretty clear that Rick Snyder still doesn’t get it. Our city needs sustained, long-term resources from the state to clean up the mess that Snyder created, and on that front, the governor’s speech fell short. All I heard were more empty promises from a politician who’s desperate to dodge the blame. Snyder needs to start being straight with people and show real leadership if he’s ever going to help Flint recover.

Meanwhile, union members have been helping out Flint residents. UAW and LIUNA members have volunteered to help out, and now Plumbers and Pipe Fitters members are going door to door to help residents install filters that will make their water a lot safer. Focusing on seniors and people with disabilities first, the plumbers have helped instill more than 1,000 filters since last week. Residents like Lucia Chapman, who was deeply concerned about the safety of her brother who has a disability and her grandchildren, have been thankful for the efforts of the union members. “I don’t have to worry about if I’m drinking bad water. Everything will be alright because we got people like him,” she said, in reference to plumber Tony Slatton, who changed her faucet and installed her filter.

Learn More:

If you would like to know how you can help, visit Michigan AFL-CIO’s website for details.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 27, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell is a long time blogger, campaign staffer, and political activist.  Prior to joining AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as a labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  He was the past Communications Director for Darcy Burner and New Media Director for Kendrick Meek.  He has over ten years as a college instructor teaching political science and American history.

Chicago Window Workers Who Occupied Their Factory in 2008 Win New Bankruptcy Payout

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

kari-lydersenSeven years after Republic Windows & Doors workers occupied a recently-shuttered factory in Chicago, making international news, and three years after they opened their own window company, they are receiving a $295,000 payout in bankruptcy court that is both a symbolic and pragmatic victory.

When a company goes bankrupt, workers are usually at the end of the line to get paid, as they are considered “unsecured creditors” behind various secured creditors who are owed money. That means workers often never get money they are owed.

But the Republic Windows workers have broken the mold in many ways, starting when they occupied the factory on Goose Island in the Chicago River, receiving massive community and political support and convincing Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase to hand over the severance and vacation pay due them.

They became a poster child of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (or the “stimulus”) after the company was bought by a California-based maker of highly energy efficient products. Then they occupied the factory again when that owner threatened to close it. Finally in spring 2013 they opened their own factory, New Era Windows.

In January 2009, not long after the occupation, the United Electrical Workers (UE) union, which represented Republic workers, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the company violated the union contract by closing abruptly without negotiating over the closure terms. Two years later, the board ruled in favor of the workers and decided they were due two weeks’ wages, the estimated amount of time that bargaining over a closure would have taken.

The company was in bankruptcy proceedings by then, however, and it wasn’t until this week that the bankruptcy court ordered the release of the funds. The NLRB will distribute the money to individual workers.

A release from the NLRB this week noted:

The Board found that the employer violated the National Labor Relations Act when they closed their Goose Island facility and moved operations to an alter ego operation in Iowa. However, ongoing bankruptcy procedures made full or partial compliance with the order unlikely until a successful suit against the employer’s insurer made additional assets available for the repayment of debts.

The board continued that: “Bankruptcy proceedings often prevent compliance with Board-ordered remedies as employer’s assets are liquidated through Chapter 7 processes. While the employees did not receive full back pay, obtaining partial compliance in this case is a victory for workers who have been waiting for a remedy since 2008.”

“Some people feel like it’s not enough, but it’s symbolic,” said Armando Robles, one of the New Era worker-owners and a leader of the occupation and ensuing efforts. “It’s a huge victory.”

UE organizer Leah Fried noted that the payout is thanks to “the constant haranguing we had do to. We had to wait until everyone else came out of the woodwork, but the fact we kept pressuring the court” paid off.

“It’s great that seven years later, [the workers are] still winning money,” she says.

The former Republic Windows CEO, Richard Gillman, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud charges related to the closing of the factory and the purchase of another window factory in Iowa. He was released after serving significantly less time than the sentence.

New Era has been growing, with 14 worker-owners and four new hires, Robles said. This is the slow season, however, when few people are ordering windows. Robles said the bankruptcy payment should mean about $1,200, helping him pay rent and bills until New Era business picks up in the spring.

“It hasn’t been easy, obviously,” said Fried. “But they’ve shown you can run a company without bosses, and do well.”

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on January 25, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.

Yesterday’s ‘Friedrichs’ Arguments Show Labor’s Difficulties in a Post-‘Citizens United’ World

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Editor’s note: In These Times has covered the Friedrichs case since the beginning. For more pieces on the case and its potential impact, see this roundup.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard extended arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The case is ostensibly a First Amendment case about whether public employees who do not want to join a union can withhold all fees—the same as “right to work”—or whether unions can charge those employees fees—“agency” or “fair share” fees—to cover activities germane to collective bargaining. The plaintiffs, 10 objecting teachers and a Christian education association, were asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that declared that agency fees were the proper compromise between workers’ constitutional rights and the government’s interest in promoting labor peace.

However, despite a fairly clear issue before the Court, the arguments proceeded bizarrely, jumping repeatedly between disparate issues. This seemed to be largely the result of two fairly unique circumstances surrounding this case.

First, the Supreme Court had almost no record that could be used to address basic questions. Usually, cases that end up in front of the Supreme Court take a slow path in front of lower courts, where evidence is introduced and a conversation of sorts develops between the parties and the judges. By design, the conservative Center for Individual Rights, which represented the plaintiffs, pushed this case through the system in record time.

At each lower court, the plaintiffs’ position was that the case should be dismissed on the basis of longstanding Supreme Court precedent. As a result, the plaintiffs were able to get the case in front of the Supreme Court in less than two years. But they did so without much evidence from which either side could draw from.

This led to arguments that were, at best, abstract political positions talking past each other. At one point, the attorney for the California Teachers Association tried to explain to Justice Scalia about the history of public sector agency fees and public services, arguing that in New York City the use of such fees helped the city deliver better transit services. When pressed by Scalia on how the fair share fees led to this result, the union attorney basically had to throw up his hands and state that without a factual record, he has little to rely on other than what was raised in the various amicus briefs.

However, it was not just the lack of a record in this case that made it so peculiar—it was also the broad assumption among the Justices and the attorneys that money is speech. Being required to pay a fee for a benefit is now considered compelled speech, and any expenses negotiated between a union and a government employer constitute political speech. In one telling moment of the argument, when the attorney for the State of California tried to argue that mileage reimbursement rates are among the prosaic matters that public sector unions negotiate, Chief Justice Roberts shot back, saying, “It’s all money. That’s money.”

Chief Justice Roberts further articulated this position when, in one of his classic simplifications (recall his 2007 affirmative action formula: “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race”) he stated, “If your employees have shown overwhelmingly that they want collective bargaining, then it seems to me the free-rider concern that’s been raise is really insignificant.” Completely missing from Justice Roberts’ statement was any awareness of how people act in the real world, or half a century of social science research on collective action and the free rider problem. Instead, it’s as simple as: if they approve, then they will pay; if they don’t pay, they don’t approve.

According to the Court’s current First Amendment jurisprudence, money appears to be not only speech, but also the type of speech that deserves the highest form of protection. The problem with this view is that even if one assumes that money does represent some form of speech, it would represent among the most imprecise and inscrutable type of speech.

When someone buys a banana from Walmart, does that purchase signal that the buyer believes in Chiquita’s use of paramilitary organizations in Colombia, or affirms Walmart’s use of union-busters, or buys into the myriad of conservative causes supported by the Walmart and Walton Family Foundations? Or does it mean that the person craved a banana and found herself near a Walmart? It is impossible to know without engaging in actual speech with the individual.

In the yesterday’s arguments, Justice Breyer tried fruitlessly to point out that we have to beware in ascribing too much meaning to money. “You will go out this door and you will buy hundreds of things, if not thousands, where money will go from your pocket into the hands of people, including many government people, who will spend it on things you disagree with.” But with a quick out-of-context quote by James Madison, the attorney brushed aside Justice Breyer’s concerns.

In this case, which was purportedly all about the First Amendment, it was shocking how little speech or the political positions of the unions were discussed in the oral arguments. Indeed, though several of the Justices repeatedly cast teacher pay and merit pay as highly political issues over which teachers could disagree, it appears that Rebecca Friedrichs (the lead plaintiff in the case) actually agrees with the union on these issues.

This leads to the natural question of what happens when conservatives have completed the project of going after union money and actually go after union speech. Contrary to the picture painted by many of these conservative organizations, unions are not simply massive war chests secretly funding the Democratic Party. They are organizations that represent millions of workers each and every day in grievances, contract negotiations, the press, the legal system, the political sphere and in a variety of other domains. Unions engage in an enormous amount of “speech” on behalf of their memberships—is each and every part of that speech open to First Amendment attack?

Judging by the briefs submitted in this case and the oral arguments, there is good reason to be concerned about future attacks. After union dues and fees, the likely next attack will be about exclusive representation. If the Supreme Court here determines that the requirement to pay fees for representation violates public sector workers’ First Amendment rights, it is hard to see how they won’t also soon determine that public sector unions’ representation of workers does not also violate their First Amendment rights. While some union advocates have argued for the elimination of exclusive representation (especially in response to “right to work”), one has to recognize that American labor law was established with a careful balance in mind. Without required fees and without exclusive representation, the horizon will change greatly.

Though it’s impossible to divine from oral arguments which way the ultimate decision will go, yesterday’s argument showed a lack of understanding on the part of some of the justices of how unions function, an antipathy towards their activities on behalf of their membership and a view of them as being at odds with the Constitution. None of that bodes well for the outcome unions are hoping for in this case.

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on January 12, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

What's This Friedrichs Case Really About?

Monday, January 11th, 2016
Jackie Tortora

You may have heard something about the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The main thing you need to know is that this is an attack on working people’s freedom to come together and form unions, plain and simple. These are the nurses who make sure their patients have what they need to get well and the teachers who advocate for their students and class sizes.

Here’s a handy graphic you can share with your friends and family.

Friedrichs_3_800
This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on January 5, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.
Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at AFL-CIO.

 

UAW Overrules Academic Workers BDS Vote Against Israel Despite Finding Strong Turnout, No Misconduct

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

in these timesOn December 15, 2015, the United Auto Workers (UAW) International Executive Board (IEB) nullified the resolution passed last year by members of UAW Local 2865, the 13,000 teaching assistants and student-workers at the University of California system, that called on the International to endorse the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel by withholding their financial investments in companies “complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations as part of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

The decision to nullify the BDS resolution, which had made Local 2865 the first American local union to endorse a boycott, was the outcome of an appeal filed by a member of Informed Grads, a group of local union members who opposed BDS. Stephen Brumbaugh, a Local 2865 member at UC Los Angeles, took his case up with the International’s executive board after Local 2865 had previously dismissed it in May 2015, failing to find merit in its claims.

The IEB went through a period of fact-finding, gathering testimony and evidence from Informed Grads and Local 2865 before issuing the decision. While UAW IEB admitted that the December 2014 vote on the BDS measure was democratic and free of any misconduct, producing a turnout higher than previous elections held by the local, the IEB concluded that in its view the resolution violated the International’s constitution by “lead[ing] to a direct economic deprivation for members of the UAW, as well as other organized members by, categorically interfering with the flow of commerce to and from earmarked companies” at Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, ITT, Northrop-Grumman and Raytheon, the firms targeted by BDS advocates.

Brumbaugh’s attorneys on the appeal are associated with Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, a global law firm known for providing for big business, including Walmart in a 2011 landmark civil action discrimination suit. “We are very pleased by [the UAW] International Union’s forceful rejection of BDS, which sets a powerful precedent for other labor unions and national organizations,” said Scott Edelman, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in a statement by Informed Grads.

At one August hearing, Brumbaugh and his attorneys introduced several letters sent by “prominent labor union advocates” to UAW International to condemn BDS, including Randy Cammack and Rome A. Aloise, both International Vice Presidents with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and J. David Cox, Sr., National President of the American Federation of Government Employees.

“We would find it difficult to ask our members to support your union in a labor dispute with the University of California so long as you are engaged in activities that are fundamentally hostile to their interests,” Cammack and Aloise say in their letter. “Unlike the members of your union, who are graduate students and therefore union members for a short period of time, our members are working in jobs that must support them for a lifetime and it is our job to protect them for all of their working lives.”

Another letter submitted by Brumbaugh came from Jonathan D. Ginzel, the Director of Labor & Employment Relations at Caterpillar (one of the corporations targeted by BDS resolutions for its alleged role in the demolition of Palestinian villages), who tells a UAW International executive that the company “outright rejects any suggestion that Caterpillar is engaged in or complicit in any human rights violations anywhere in the world” and asks the International to “void this Resolution and take whatever additional steps are necessary to confirm that the UAW does not support an effort to divest from Caterpillar or Israel.”

Kumars Salehi, a UAW 2865 member and BDS caucus member at UC Berkeley, calls the IEB’s claims of potential economic deprivation a “model of business unionism,” the union model that eschews engagement with broader social issues beyond its members’ day-to-day needs.

“This is clearly an argument that is from the perspective of the employers rather than of workers. This is the sort of argument that could be used against any boycott,” Salehi says. “There are people within UAW and the labor movement in general that critique the assumption that the interests of employers and ‘the flow of commerce’ are the same as the interests of workers.”

The IEB uses these letters later in their report to support their conclusion that by passing the BDS resolution, Local 2865 broke its constitutional obligation to work together with other unions for the “solidification” of the labor movement. But UAW members claim that their local began organizing around BDS after a call for boycott was made by Palestinian trade union confederations in July 2014 in the midst of the 50-day assault waged by the Israeli military that left 2,100 Palestinians dead.

“Citing ‘the solidification of the labor movement’ in order to justify negating the will of our members is pretty sinister and hypocritical,” says Salehi, adding that in the eyes of the IEB, it seems the rule is that Palestinian trade unions are not a part of the labor movement.

The IEB also ruled in favor of Informed Grads on the charge that the BDS resolution violated the union constitution’s ethical code, saying the resolution was “suggestive of discriminatory labeling and a disparagement” of its Israeli and Jewish members.

“The local union’s attempt to address the predicament of the Palestinian people appears to be accomplished through biased targeting of Israeli/Jewish UAW members, and the scorning of the state of Israel and all alleged entities complicit in actions against Palestine,” the IEB said in report of the decision.

David McCleary, UAW 2865 Northern Vice President, speaking on behalf of UAW 2865 Executive Board, told In These Times, “We firmly reject accusations of antisemitism, and the evidence presented during the appeal process clearly supports this view. As one of many Jewish members of UAW 2865 who supported this divestment campaign, I can say that the accusation is personally hurtful and I expected better of our International Executive Board.”

“While this decision nullifies our non-binding resolution, it does not erase the voices and efforts of the countless rank-and-file members of our union, passionate about equality and justice for Palestinians,” McCleary added.

Unted Electrical Workers (UE) and the Connecticut AFL-CIO have followed Local 2865’s lead on a BDS endorsement over the course of the past year but have met opposition. UE’s resolution has been challenged through the National Labor Relations Board by an Israeli non-governmental organization on the grounds that it amounts to illegal secondary boycotts (aproduct of the Taft-Hartley Act). In California, as Glenn Greenwald has written for the Intercept, UC administrators and state lawmakers have been vocally supportive of expanding hate speech definitions to include criticism or “demonization” of Israel, which would conceivably limit BDS activism at least in theory.

“No letter from the IEB can erase the educational and organizational work we have done over the past year—work we will continue to do, energized no doubt by the IEB’s undemocratic, business-friendly attempt to nullify this vote,” the BDS caucus says in a statement. “We are part of a growing movement for union solidarity with the people of Palestine and for a democratic and visionary U.S. labor movement.”

At New York University, graduate worker and UAW member David Klassen, says he was “excited” about the BDS campaign in California because it was everything he felt was missing in the UAW: “a long period of education, open debate” followed by “an open referendum in which members can actually decide what the policy of their union will be.”

Klassen is a member of the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union within UAW, a new wave of graduate student workers who say they aim to reform the International in more progressive directions, and says he is invested in ensuring that UAW has “venues in which people can forward their voices and have open debate” rather than important union decisions being made “quietly, in backrooms.” Klassen says that the nullification decision is the “perfect example” of closed-door decision-making that the International needs to break from.

While the IEB may have halted the BDS resolution from Local 2865 for the moment, Klassen says that AWDU members have learned from the effort in California and have launched their own BDS campaign at NYU. While he admits the common assumption is that members would want to shy away from a “controversial” or “divisive” issue, he says members have seemed to prefer democratic debate over the issue.

“People want to know that their union is a place where they can have debates about the world that they live in—that collectively, they can negotiate not just for [their] narrow, material interests at work, but also the world in which they live.” he says.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.com on January 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at [email protected]

Working People Must Be Protected in 'On-Demand Economy'

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallToday, the AFL-CIO released its “Statement of Principles on the On-Demand Economy” laying out ways to protect working people in an ever-changing work environment.

AFL-CIO Director of Policy Damon Silvers said:

“The AFL-CIO is committed to making sure that the on-demand economy leads to better lives for working people. New technologies must not be an excuse for old-style injustice. Workers in the on-demand economy, no matter what their titles, must have decent wages and benefits, safety and, most of all, a collective voice on the job.”

Here are the principles:

1. Use technology to empower, not weaken, workers.

2. Promote economic and social inclusion.

3. Establish rules to achieve binding corporate accountability, regardless of where or how people work.

4. Make portable benefits available to all workers.

5. Safeguard the employment relationship to ensure workers’ job protections.

6. Increase opportunities to access good jobs.

7. Ensure a level playing field for business.

Read more about each of the principles.

The AFL-CIO is committed to working with business, government and communities to find solutions that work for employers and working people in the on-demand economy. Today, AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker is participating in a forum with The Hamilton Project. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler will speak on a panel at the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Future of Work” symposium on Thursday.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO.org on December 9, 2015. 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.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Seattle City Council Votes That Uber and Lyft Drivers Can Unionize

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

LauraClawsonCompanies like Uber and Lyft consider their drivers to be “independent contractors,” which is all about freedom—specifically, the company’s freedom to not pay for things like workers comp, unemployment, or even the minimum wage. That’s a system facing significant court challenges in some places, and now another form of challenge in Seattle. The Seattle City Council on Monday night passed a bill giving drivers union rights.

Under the bill passed Monday, “for-hire drivers” would be legally entitled to seek out “exclusive driver representatives” for the purpose of collective bargaining — i.e., labor unions. If a majority of drivers at a particular company designate a union as their representative, then by law the company will have to bargain with the union within the city of Seattle.

The law has implications well beyond Uber and Lyft. Many traditional taxi drivers are classified as independent contractors as well, and would have new rights under the law.

At least, they would if the law ever goes into effect. Uber and others in the industry are expected to challenge the law in two possible ways: by claiming that it conflicts with federal labor law, and by arguing that it runs afoul of antitrust law.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said he won’t sign the law, but he can’t block it. Despite the delays the law will face thanks to legal challenges, the pressure is growing—on multiple fronts—for Uber and Lyft and other gig economy companies to quit using the weakness of American labor law to exploit their workers.

This blog originally appeared in DailyKOS.com on December 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

How the Friedrichs v. Calif. Teachers Association SCOTUS Case Could Actually Be a Boon for Unions

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

in these timesAs unions file their legal briefs in the epic Friedrichs vs. CTA anti-union Supreme Court case, one clever legal scholar argues that Friedrichs is “an unexpected tool for labor.”

University of Chicago Teaching Fellow Heather Whitney’s forthcoming paper in the NYU Journal of Law and Liberty makes a compelling case that an adverse decision in Friedrichs would hand unions a first amendment argument to refuse to represent non-members. And, as I have argued, that is a roadmap to union competition at workplaces, competing demands on individual employers and the end of contractual no-strike agreements.

Chaos, in other words—and just the sort of chaos that this attack on unions deserves in response.

Friedrichs and labor’s response

The First Amendment is at the heart of the Friedrichs case. It is a right-wing argument that public sector employers (in other words, the government) violate individuals’ First amendment rights by compelling employees, through contracts negotiated with unions, to pay a fee to a union. Currently, unions that are certified to represent a group of employees in a bargaining unit are legally compelled to represent all of the employees in that unit. That means not just bargaining on their behalf, but expending significant resources on grievances, meetings, communications and everything else that goes into running a union.

But union membership, including the payment of dues, is completely voluntary. That’s why unions negotiate agency fees into contracts. These fees are calculated through complicated formulas to only represent the true cost of bargaining representation. Agency fees do not pay for things like political activity (unions usually have separate voluntary political funds).

But the Friedrichs case argues that any interaction that a union has with the government, including bargaining, is inherently political. Agency fees, therefore, are compelled political activity.

This ridiculous argument is only before the Supreme Court now because Justice Samuel Alito inserted the issue into last year’s otherwise unrelated Harris Vs. Quinn case. That case was only a partial defeat for unions, as Alito lacked the fifth vote to totally do away with agency fee in the public sector. In his written decision, Alito basically solicited for someone to bring a case with exactly Friedrichs’ set of facts, and it has raced up to the Supreme Court. This is the stuff of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Unions have mounted an excellent legal case, backed up by a broad array of supporting briefs. A ruling against the unions would reverse a 37-year-old precedent. The Supreme Court is supposed to be guided by the principal of stare decisis, which is essentially to let long-settled precedent stand. And finally, the case will be decided in the middle of a presidential election that is already turning on questions of inequality and workers rights. In his handling of the Obamacare and gay marriage cases, Chief Justice Roberts has shown that he does seem to care about his legacy. Would he support such a nakedly partisan political move by his Court in this election cycle?

So, on the facts, on the law and on the politics, unions really ought to win this case. And, to be clear, agency fee and exclusive representation are worth defending. They create the conditions for tremendous worker power at workplaces that have both.

But if unions lose agency fee, then exclusive representation no longer makes sense. This is not simply because of the free-rider problem that will drain union resources. It is because exclusive representation is essential to labor peace, and a Friedrichs ruling that guts union rights is the clearest signal that the billionaire class does not want—nor does it deserve—any kind of peace.

Labor’s First Amendment rights

If the Supreme Court rules that every interaction that a union has with its government employer is inherently political, Heather Whitney argues in her article, then that would open the door to unions claiming their own First Amendment right—to choose who they represent. In other words, if agency fee is compelled speech, then the duty of exclusive representation imposed on unions is also compelled speech.

Imagine a group of registered nurses at a public hospital who want to bargain for much larger raises than the rest of the members of the bargaining unit. Or imagine a group of young workers who want to bargain away pensions in exchange for larger salaries in the here and now. (Forget for the moment that both scenarios are just bad unionism.) Once these contract demands are considered by the Court to be political speech, then the fact that these workers are compelled by the government to represent workers who disagree with them, and who could outvote them, is a violation of their First Amendment rights!

I’ll also point out that unions’ rights to freely engage in actual political speech is already impeded by the duties of exclusive representation. Unions are politically cautious and loathe to wade into non-economic controversies for fear of alienating a segment of their bargaining unit. For instance, most unions were slow to oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for fear of alienating bargaining unit members who were veterans or who had children in the military. Even in a so-called “Right to Work” state, those people may not be members but they could still express their displeasure by voting to decertify the union. Does that not coerce unions into more limited political activity?

This is not an abstraction. The day after the Friedrichs decision, if the Court kills agency fee by making all public sector union work “political,” does anybody doubt that the first time a non-member walks into a union office with a grievance that she will be told, “Join the union or get the hell out of our office?” And then we’ll be off to the races with a case that will go to the Supreme Court to revisit exclusive representation in the public sector without agency fee.

Then, the only question would be whether the government has a “compelling interest in requiring unions to negotiate and grieve their nonmembers’ complaints without receiving just compensation.” And here scholarship would demonstrate that it has been the employers’ preference to deal with one exclusive representative because it is easier for them, and, as Whitney writes, “convenience is no response to whether exclusive representation is properly tailored to the government’s legitimate interest.”

Breaking the peace

So far, we’re just talking about public sector unions because having the government as employer, Alito’s right-wing conspirators argue, converts all of the activities of those unions into inherently political acts. But if thisFriedrichs logic takes hold, then arguably having the government—in the form of the National Labor Relations Board—compel unions to represent workers they would choose not to (and perhaps vice versa) might become unconstitutional as well.

Currently, the NLRB will only certify unions as exclusive representatives of all of the workers in a bargaining unit, and only if the union can win a majority vote. This is often an insurmountable threshold for unions to reach in the face of intense employer opposition. In his 2005 book The Blue Eagle at Work,  law professor and labor law expert Charles J. Morris documented that in its early history the NLRB used to certify minority unions as the bargaining agent for their members only. Morris argued that this pathway was still technically open to unions to gain a foothold at a workplace and legally compel an employer to recognize a non-majority union.

The modern NLRB has dodged efforts by unions to get an advisory ruling on Morris’ theory. But if the Friedrichslogic holds, private sector unions may have a First Amendment challenge to the NLRB’s continued refusal to grant certifications for just the members they choose to represent.

And that, if you’ll follow me down this rabbit hole, could spell the end of contractual no-strike clauses. They would simply be unenforceable in an environment of competing, non-exclusive, members-only unions. Workers would simply drop their union memberships to participate in wildcat job actions. Or else join new workplace organizations that have not signed agreements committing to labor peace.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any fantasy of some huge wave of potential strike actions that would occur tomorrow if only the enraged working class would stop being “repressed” by current union leadership and our current collective bargaining agreements. But these no-strike clauses go well beyond total shutdowns of production to include all manner or slow-downs, work-to-rule and refusal to carry out selective duties.

Any experienced union rep reading this can recall at least one incident of having to talk his members off a ledge—out of refusing a new duty or clocking out for lunch at the same time. These actions would be concerted protected activity in a non-union workplace, but under a “no-strike” contract could result in all participants legally getting fired. How the hell are we supposed to get workers who don’t enjoy union protection fired up about taking action against their bosses, when their unionized peers can’t set any kind of example in terms of actually enjoying their supposed protections?

It’s funny that the First Amendment could make this possible. Union rights in this country are not constitutionally rooted in the First Amendment, but in Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce—which is one of the reasons that our labor laws make no damn sense. So, yes, Friedrichs could be a useful tool for labor by finally connecting our work to our rights of free speech and free assembly.

But if you’ve followed me down this rabbit hole and are starting to get a little excited about a possible post-Friedrichs world, let me give you an “on the other hand.” Heather Whitney’s First Amendment argument for ending the duty of exclusive representation would come before a Court that would not be weighing it against a long-established precedent as Roberts’ Court is considering Freidrichs. It will be weighing the argument against a very recent Court decision.

If labor successfully causes enough chaos of the nature I’m driving at—or even poses a credible threat to do so—don’t be surprised if the Supremes try to put the lid back on Alito’s can of worms.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on December 11, 2015. 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.

Big Organizing Victory in the South: Volkswagen Workers to Be Represented by UAW

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAnother story about working people in the South successfully organizing comes our way via Chattanooga, Tennessee, where skilled trades employees at Volkswagen’s plant in the town voted overwhelmingly to be represented by UAW Local 42. More than 70% of workers who cast ballots voted for the union.

Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said:

A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multiyear contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga. We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time.

Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8, commended the workers after the vote:

Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress. We’re proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit.

Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of UAW, urged Volkswagen to drop plans to appeal the election:

It’s overdue time for Volkswagen to refocus on the values that made it a successful brand — environmental sustainability and meaningful employee representation. The hardworking members of UAW Local 42 stand ready to assist in the Volkswagen comeback story. Our hope is that the company now is ready to move forward in the German spirit of co-determination.

This blog originally appeared at AFLCIO.org on December 7, 2015. 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.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Workers in Trump Las Vegas Hotel Vote to Unionize

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

LauraClawsonHappy news for workers … and news I really, really want a Donald Trump quote on:

After two days of voting in a National Labor Relations Board election, a majority of workers at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas have voted “YES” to be represented by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the Bartenders Union Local 165 of UNITE HERE. Over 500 employees of the hotel are in the union’s bargaining units and were eligible to vote.

Trump Las Vegas workers voted in the NLRB election on December 4 and 5 at their hotel. This victory for workers at the luxury non-gaming hotel co-owned by businessman Donald Trump and casino owner Phillip Ruffin, comes nine months after workers at the Trump International Hotel Toronto voted to join UNITE HERE, and one week after the Trump Toronto workers ratified their first contract.

During the organizing drive, 86 percent of workers signed union cards, but they faced opposition from management:

 According to NLRB charges filed by the union, five hotel workers were “unfairly suspended for exercising their legal right to wear a union button and organize their coworkers” last year (they were eventually reinstated with back pay, along with an agreement to post workers rights publicly and not interfere with future organizing). Last June, the union filed new charges alleging the management “violated the federally protected rights of workers to participate in union activities” including “incidents of alleged physical assault, verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats by management.” The workers charged the managers with blocking organizers from distributing pro-union literature in the workers’ dining room, while stealthily allowing anti-union activists to campaign during work hours.

So, Donald: Here are some workers in your own hotel fighting to make American jobs better. Tell us how you feel.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on December 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

 

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