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The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

Friday, August 4th, 2017

After years of painstaking work by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to build support for a union at the big Nissan auto and truck assembly plant near Canton, Miss., the workers themselves will vote today and tomorrow on whether to accept UAW their collective bargaining voice at the plant.

“I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW president Dennis Williams told a press conference just days before the vote, “but we’re doing an ongoing evaluation. We’ve been thinking about it for six to seven months,” roughly since the UAW held a large march and rally at the factory attended by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is particularly concerned about a surge in the kind of unlawful management tactics to scare workers that brought charges against Nissan this week from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Canton factory is one of only three Nissan factories worldwide where workers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto “transplants,” or foreign-owned factories built with state subsidies for the past three decades, largely in the South and border states.

Many see the upcoming vote as another test of whether unions can thrive in the South, where union membership has historically been well below the national average. However, the battle is far greater. Now the corporate strategies and values of the South have persisted and influenced multinational companies, as well as labor relations and politics in the North. The Nissan campaign is best conceived as a battle for the U.S. labor movement.

Nissan has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Organizing the South

Organized labor, usually prodded by leftists in the movement, has undertaken high-profile campaigns in the South to organize unions across the racial divides. Such drives were especially prominent during the 1930s-era organizing upsurge and the post-World War II “Operation Dixie,” which lacked adequate support from existing unions and was plagued by internal political divisions.

The UAW has, at various times, escalated organizing in the South, especially when General Motors was considering relocating much production there in the 1960s—and when the transplant growth surged in recent decades.

Despite the shortcomings of labor’s campaigns, many union strategists think that unions can only reverse their decline by directly tackling the racist strategy of employers and their conservative political allies. But employers have many tools to divide workers, such as Nissan’s employment of temporary, contract workers to divide a predominately African-American workforce.

In recent years, the South has suffered key organizing blows, including the big defeat in January for the Machinists’ union trying to organize the new Boeing factory in Charleston, S.C., and the limited UAW success organizing a skilled trades union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. against a supposedly neutral employer. Such defeats typically inspire funereal chants for labor rights and unions, but sound like party music for managers and investors.

Yet, some organizers dispute that the South is impossible territory. One veteran organizer with the AFL-CIO, who has overseen many organizing drives in the South and asked not to be identified or directly quoted, said that he thought it was not significantly more difficult to organize in the South. It just took more time and more money.

The organizer cited one success that defied expectations: the campaigns over roughly 15 years to organize 26,000 workers and preserve business at Louisiana’s giant Avondale shipyards for a shifting cast of corporate owners doing repair and rebuilding work mainly on military contracts. Ultimately, a decline in military orders led its latest owner to close the shipyards, wiping out the organizing victory.

“The unions often do not realize it, but they have been winning in the South more than in the Midwest for years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor relations professor who specializes in research on union organizing. “Because [in the South] there are more women working, more African Americans, and because there’s less high-tech work.” Each of those categories of workers is more pro-union than their counterparts, thus building in a small theoretical advantage in the South.

The South’s poor labor standards are spreading

In the end, it may be that the poor labor standards of the South are spreading nationwide. The ascendant conservative political power of the new Republican Party, linked with the more aggressively anti-worker and anti-union policies of big corporations and financial firms, indicate that, in this country’s long Civil War, the South is gaining ground.

Consider what has occurred from 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads were on the horizon, as well as in 2016, when Donald Trump pledged to “make America great again.” Then and now, most people would consider Michigan and Wisconsin as typically northern, in terms of labor conditions and union density. Yet over that period, federal data shows that the percentage of all workers in Michigan who were covered by union contracts dropped from 32.8 percent in 1983 to 15.5 percent in 2016. For Wisconsin, the share dropped from 26.9 percent to 9.0 percent.

Unions are losing members and failing to gain new ones at an adequate rate to avoid the rough halving of the union share of the workforce over the past 15 years in most of both the South and the North.

Assault on workers knows no boundaries

It will be better for workers everywhere if the Canton, Miss., workers vote for the union, but management still has the upper hand. Workers are still weak and getting weaker nearly everywhere, with partial exceptions, like the Fight for 15 movement, which flourishes in nearly all of the country.

“Right to work” laws threaten unions nationwide, by prohibiting them from charging agency fees to workers who do not join the union but benefit from actions it takes. In recent years, the widespread passage of such laws outside of the South—now extending to half of all states—is a clear indication of the decline in union power.

Workers in Canton may win a union for a variety of reasons beyond the basic proposition that they need collective power to counter the power of their bosses. Or they may reject the union due to fear engendered by Nissan and its anti-union campaign, out of conservative political beliefs or for other reasons.

The best union organizers—and some very good organizers have played a major role at Nissan—understand how important it is to involve workers themselves as-organizers in reaching out to workers. In addition, organizers recognize it is vitally important to mobilize the progressive leaders and groups in the community for support, and employ a wide assortment of tactics to minimize the influence of the boss’s war on unions—a war conducted in large part on turf and terms favorable to the employer.

However, if the labor movement is striving to with significant gains for workers, it must create a progressive strategy for politics, workplace organizing and culture that focuses on the working class very broadly construed, including multiple levels of poverty, affluence and job histories. U.S. union organizing will need to strengthen and expand its community activities to develop a broader range of strategies to defeat racism. Within such a political context, union organizing might prosper—and workers might do so as well.

Whether the UAW does or does not win this summer, future successful organizing of workers in their communities and workplaces require an alternative political force that is more supportive and transformative.

 This piece was originally published at In These Times on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

NLRB Drops Boeing Case as Machinists Requested

Friday, December 9th, 2011

adele_stan_140x140After months of contention that drew the attention of presidential candidates and members of Congress, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) today announced that the Machinists (IAM) District 751 dropped its charge against the Boeing Co. after negotiating agreeable terms with the company.

Lafe Solomon, the NLRB’s acting general counsel, announced the closing of the case after Machinists in Washington State voted to accept a four-year contract extension and commitments from Boeing to expand manufacturing operations in the state.

Earlier this year, the NLRB agreed to hear the union’s complaint that claimed Boeing’s decision to produce its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft in South Carolina, an anti-union state, was made in retaliation for the union’s 2008 strike against Boeing. A Republican NLRB threatened to quit the board—which would have prevented the case from going forward—and Republican presidential candidates made the labor board a campaign-trail target.

District 751 also won raises described as “substantial” for its members, as well as job security measures deemed “unusual by the New York Times.

From the statement issued today by the NLRB’s Solomon:

This is the outcome we have always preferred, and one that is typical for our agency. About 90% of meritorious NLRB cases are resolved as a result of agreements between the parties or settlements with the agency before the conclusion of litigation.

One of the stated goals of the National Labor Relations Act is to foster collective bargaining and productive labor-management relations. From the beginning of this case, and at every step in the process, we have encouraged the parties to find a mutually-acceptable resolution that protects the rights of workers under federal labor law.  The parties’ collective bargaining agreement, ratified this week, does just that…I am pleased that the collective bargaining process has succeeded and that the parties have begun a promising new chapter in their relationship.

IAM members ratified the new contract 74 percent.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on December 9, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adele Stan is a journalist and lifelong member of the labor movement, reports on a timely forum on inequality and jobs at Georgetown University today.

S.C. Workers Say Boeing Should Not Break Law to Move Jobs There

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Image: James ParksIn advance of a politically motivated hearing, South Carolina working men and women called today on lawmakers to focus on creating good jobs instead of mounting a political three-ring circus in defense of Boeing lobbyists and CEOs.

The workers spoke prior to a field hearing in North Charleston, S.C., organized by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and attended by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and several Republican members of Congress.

In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint alleging that Boeing’s 2009 decision to locate a Dreamliner 787 final assembly line in North Charleston represented illegal retaliation against Machinists (IAM) members who work for the company. The NLRB is seeking a court order requiring Boeing to operate the second 787 line, including supply lines, with union workers in the Puget Sound. To learn more and check out the real deal on the NLRB and Boeing, click here and here.

In a statement, Machinists (IAM) Vice President Bob Martinez said:

Based on clear-cut evidence of law breaking by Boeing that’s available on YouTube, federal law enforcers had no choice but to move forward with an investigation. Today’s hearing is about GOP opposition to the very existence of a federal agency that enforces labor law.

Workers emphasized that South Carolinians support Boeing bringing jobs to the Palmetto state but said the corporation should not break the law to do it. “We have heard a lot of talk recently about what is right for South Carolinians from lawmakers, both here in our state and in Washington D.C.,” said Joe Shelley, a mill worker at the Kapstone paper mill in Charleston.

Well, I am here today, as a South Carolinian, to share my opinion about what we need to create good jobs and a stronger economy and it isn’t the political grandstanding you see here today.

Georgette Carr, a Charleston long shore worker said:

South Carolinians want good jobs, including the jobs Boeing has to offer, but employers who break the law, as Boeing is doing in Washington State, need to be held accountable and must respect workers’ rights.

The South Carolina workers emphasized that today’s hearing is part of a broader political assault on working families taking place nationwide. James Johnson, a recently laid off construction worker from Summerville, said:

This is just another example of the extreme political agenda being pushed by politicians around the country to reward corporate CEOs and lobbyists who are rigging the system– not working families. We have seen it in Wisconsin and Ohio, with the attacks on public service workers, in Washington, D.C., with the GOP budget plan to gut Medicare, and now right here in our backyard.

“The right-wing attacks on the NLRB have nothing to do with the facts of the case or the economy, and everything to do with politics,” said Erin McKee, Charleston Labor Council president.  “Working people play by the rules, and so should businesses.”

Yesterday, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, called on  Issa to delay his demand that the NLRB’s Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon testify at today’s hearing about the Boeing case, which is currently being argued before an administrative law judge. Top Republicans on both the committees also have requested that Solomon turn over sensitive internal documents relating to the ongoing case.

Check back for coverage of the hearing today.

This article originally appeared on the AFL-CIO blog on June 17, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

Boeing Targets Union with Legal Probes in ‘Wisconsin of Manufacturing’ Fight

Friday, June 10th, 2011

mike elkWASHINGTON, D.C.—Late last week, three workers at Boeing’s North Charleston, S.C., factory filed for a right to intervene in the upcoming National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) case against the aerospace company. As I have reported, the federal agency has charged Boeing with illegally shifting work away from a union facility in Washington state to South Carolina as punishment for a 2008 strike at a Puget Sound facility.

The three South Carolina workers claimed that that they would be hurt if production was moved back to Washington because of the NLRB ruling. By gaining the right to intervene in the NLRB case, the nonunion South Carolina workers would have had the right to subpoena the union—and more important, be seen as the public face of Boeing’s argument that the jobs should not be moved back to the union facility in Washington state. Today, an NLRB judge dismissed the three workers’ motion.

International Association of Machinists (IAM) officials disputed that the workers were acting on their own without support from Boeing to file their charge. The legal brief was paid for by the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, which is rumored to be funded in part by corporations like Boeing. The National Right to Work Legal Foundation refuses to release records of its donors. The organization’s spokesman declined to respond to questions about whether or not the foundation is funded by Boeing. A Boeing spokesman could not be reached for comment.

IAM officials claim all three workers did not work in a section of the South Charleston facility that would be affected if work was moved back to the union facility in Washington State. The NLRB agreed, and denied the motion by the three South Carolina workers to have the right to intervene on the grounds that they had no direct financial interest in the proceedings.

But the complaint is still significant to understanding the anti-union strategy of Boeing.

The complaint represents a strategy by Boeing to say that enforcement of the law against Boeing would cost American jobs overall. In Wall Street Journal op-ed written by Boeing CEO Jerry McNeiry, McNeiry claimed closing the factory would cost Americans jobs at a time when they desperately need them.

Union officials say this is a false dichotomy: Whether or not the Boeing plant is located in South Carolina or Washington state, it would create jobs. Also, IAM officials claim that the nonunion facility in South Carolina would eventually result in the loss of nearly 1,800 jobs at the Everett, Wash., facility as work is shifted to the South Carolina facility.

Perhaps even more significantly, the complaint of the three nonunion workers proves IAM’s point that work was shifted to South Carolina because the facility was nonunion. According to the Wall Street Journal, one of three employees involved in filing the complaint was involved in an effort to decertify the union at the North Charleston, S.C., facility. In the motion filed by the three workers, the worker says they led the effort to decertify the union “in part to improve Boeing’s chances of building the new facility.”

Additionally, the motion by three nonunion workers represented a broader legal strategy by a nervous Boeing to pressure workers involved in the rulings. Boeing recently subpoenaed all the communications of several union officials involved in the matter. “They issued a very broad reaching subpoena that may or may not have anything to do Boeing or the NLRB case,” said IAM Local 751 spokesman Bryan Corliss, which represents several thousand union Boeing workers in Washington state.

It is extraordinarily rare for a company to subpoena all the documents of union in an NLRB case and is seen by union officials as an attempt to intimidate the union. Meeting the requirements of the subpoena will be very costly to the union. The subpoena request is troubling to union officials since Boeing would be allowed to acquire sensitive union documents that have absolutely nothing to do with the NLRB case at hand. Boeing could acquire documents relating to new organizing at facilities and use the documents to disrupt the organizing and the privacy of the workers involved in the matter.

Boeing, with the help of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, appears to be involved in a no-holds-barred legal and media fight to stop the NLRB from siding with the Boeing workers. The company’s campaign is aimed not only at intimidating IAM Boeing workers, but also at union workers in other sectors who would be inspired to file similar charges against a company for moving work away from union facilities.

“For private sector manufacturing workers, this is our Wisconsin. If Boeing prevails, these corporations will have the right to pack up and move for any reason at all,” says IAM Local 751 spokesman Bryan Corliss. “Being able to punish American workers for exercising the rights under federal law is a threat to all workers. If you can’t discriminate based on the basis of race creed or religion why should you be able to do it on first amendment of freedom of association.”

The question remains: Will progressives respond to the Boeing case the way they responded to Wisconsin? The answer could be vital to future fights over the fate of the country’s manufacturing industry.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on June 9, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times as well as Alternet, The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.

Republican NLRB Threats Part of Bigger War on Workers

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

The Republican “outrage” machine has been operating in high-dudgeon mode since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint against the Boeing Co. in April.

But as David Madland of the Center for American Progress Action Fund points out, the manufactured Boeing outrage is “part of a long-running, highly orchestrated right-wing campaign against workers and their unions that has now reached a fevered pitch.”

This is not, of course, the conservative movement’s first attempt to prevent the Obama administration from trying to protect workers’ basic rights to join a union and collectively bargain.

Earlier this year, Madland writes, 176 House Republicans (75 percent of the caucus) voted to eliminate all funding for the NLRB and while that failed to pass, a continuing resolution previously passed by the House included a $50 million reduction in the NLRB’s budget and would have forced NLRB staff members to be furloughed for 55 days, causing a backlog of cases to pile up.

Madland points out that congressional Republicans also are fighting to overturn the National Mediation Board’s (NMB’s) new rule that says air and rail union elections should be decided like any other election—including congressional elections—by a majority of votes cast. Previously each worker who did not cast a vote in a representation election was automatically counted as a “No” vote.

Senate Republicans also attempted to attach an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill that would have blocked workers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from voting to join a union. Madland writes these congressional actions are in addition to the state attacks on workers’ rights being waged in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states. He says the attacks on the NLRB over the Boeing case are part of the:

conservative movement’s campaign to weaken workers’ rights. Sadly, conservatives have shown they want to eliminate laws protecting workers’ rights to join a union and collectively bargain, and when they can’t get rid of the law, they seek to prevent its enforcement.

Click here for his full article.

Keep in mind that when the NLRB issues a complaint, it’s only the first step in a long process of determining whether the company violated the law, a process in which Boeing will have ample opportunity to present its side of the case.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on May 18, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.

NLRB Issues Complaint Over Boeing’s Move to S.C.

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Image: James ParksA complaint issued on April 20th by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the Boeing Co. is a victory for all American workers—particularly aerospace workers in both Puget Sound and South Carolina, officials with the Machinists (IAM) said.

NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon issued the complaint, which alleges that Boeing’s decision in 2009 to locate a Dreamliner 787 final assembly line in North Charleston, S.C., represented illegal retaliation against IAM members who work for the company. The NLRB is seeking a court order requiring Boeing to operate the second 787 line, including supply lines, with union workers in the Puget Sound

“Boeing’s decision to build a 787 assembly line in South Carolina sent a message that Boeing workers would suffer financial harm for exercising their collective bargaining rights,” said IAM Vice President Rich Michalski.

Federal labor law is clear: It’s illegal to threaten or penalize workers who engage in concerted activity.

The decision by Boeing to locate the assembly line in South Carolina followed years of 787 production delays and an extraordinary round of mid-contract talks in which the IAM proposed an 11-year agreement to provide Boeing with the labor stability it claimed was necessary to keep 787 production in the Puget Sound area.

The board’s action reinforces the fact that “workers have a right to join a union, and companies don’t have a right to punish them for engaging in legal union activities,” said Tom Wroblewski, president of Machinists District Lodge 751 in Seattle, which represents Boeing workers.

Taking work away from workers because they exercise their union rights is against the law, and it’s against the law in all 50 states.

The board’s complaint comes in response to an unfair labor practice charge filed in March 2010 by District 751. Wroblewski added:

Had we allowed Boeing to break the law and go unchecked in their actions, it would have given the green light for corporate America to discriminate against union members and would have become management’s new strategic template to attack employees.

“A worker’s right to strike is a fundamental right guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act,” the NLRB’s Solomon said.

We also recognize the rights of employers to make business decisions based on their economic interests, but they must do so within the law.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and has worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on April 20, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

FedEx Threatens to "Destroy" Members of Congress

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

FedEx CEO Fred Smith’s arrogant campaign of threats and intimidation continued this week when his top spokesman threatened to take down members of Congress who oppose FedEx’s position on a key piece of legislation.

When asked about FedEx’s multi-million dollar ad campaign against the legislation that is reported to launch on Tuesday, June 9, top FedEx flack Maury Lane told U.S. News and World Report in a story posted in The White House Bulletin, “I’m going to try to destroy them.”

This follows Smith’s repeated threats to cancel a $10 billion contract to purchase Boeing 777 planes if FedEx Express workers were moved under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

FedEx clearly threatened in a March 24, 2009 SEC filing, and Smith reiterated in testimony before Congress in May, that its contract to purchase additional aircraft from Boeing is contingent upon its labor relations for all of its employees being governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Under this provision, if Congress dares to grant even a portion of its workers the rights enjoyed by most American private sector employees under the NRLA, FedEx has the right to cancel those purchase orders.

“Fred Smith and FedEx breed a culture of arrogance,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “First, they cut wages, increase medical insurance premiums and eliminate pension benefits for its employees. Then they try to blackmail Congress with threats to pull the Boeing contract. Now they threaten to destroy the political careers of those who oppose them.”

Currently, all workers at FedEx Express are covered by the RLA regardless of whether they have any direct relationship with the operation or maintenance of the air fleet. This includes package delivery drivers, workers at sorting facilities and truck mechanics.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation on May 21 that is a part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization and would place those workers under the NLRA, the statute that protects virtually all other private sector workers. Under the NLRA, workers may organize by individual terminals while the RLA requires a more difficult path to unionization that requires a national vote by every worker at FedEx Express. The reauthorization bill is currently awaiting action in the Senate.

“It’s astonishing that Fred Smith and his flacks will go to any length to boost FedEx’s profits at the expense of American workers and the economy,” said Ken Hall, Director of the Teamsters Package Division. “By threatening to destroy members of Congress, FedEx’s efforts to manipulate the American system of government have crossed the line.”

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

This article originally appeared in Union Review on June 5, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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