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What’s at Stake in Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Whether Unions Can Bargain for the Entire Working Class

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

“Solving Chicago’s affordable housing crisis? What’s that got to do with a labor contract for educators?”

That’s the question the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board asked last week as the city’s teachers and school support staff inched closer to an October 17 strike date, with little progress made in negotiations for a new contract.

A standoff at the bargaining table over the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) package of housing demands dominated the city’s news cycle last week. The union is asking Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to provide housing assistance for new teachers, hire staff members to help students and families in danger of losing housing, and take other steps to advocate for more affordable housing overall in the city.

In response, recently elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot accused the union of holding up contract negotiations, and the Sun-Times chided teachers to take a “reality check.”

It’s true that CPS has no legal obligation to bargain with the union over affordable housing policy. But it’s hardly unrelated—an estimated 17,000 students in the city are homeless, as CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates stated on Chicago Tonight.

Housing advocates agree. “The mayor’s view reflects a very narrow understanding of the professional responsibilities of public school educators,” says Marnie Brady, assistant professor at Marymount Manhattan College and research committee co-chair of the national Homes For All campaign. “The living conditions of their students are indeed the working conditions of their classrooms.”

By raising an issue that affects not only teachers, but the communities they live and work in, CTU is deploying a strategy known as “bargaining for the common good.” That approach was key to the union’s victory in its landmark 2012 walkout, but a potential strike of 35,000 school and parks workers this week is shaping up to be an even more dramatic test.

Bargaining for the common good

During their eight-day strike in 2012, Chicago teachers rallied under the slogan “fighting for the schools our students deserve.” By highlighting issues such as class sizes, standardized testing, predatory Wall Street deals and a pattern of racist disinvestment in the city, teachers helped secure wide support from the city’s parents while wringing concessions from then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The CTU also helped galvanize a new wave of teacher militancy that’s seen unions in red states use unauthorized strikes to address abysmal state funding for education and protest tax breaks for the rich and the fossil-fuel industry.

Teachers in cities like Los Angeles, meanwhile, have won contracts that include more nurses and additional resources for students, as well as special provisions requiring the district to provide immigration support for students and curtail school policies that the union said amounted to racial profiling.

The increasing embrace of “common good” bargaining by teachers has, in turn, helped boost public support of their unions nationwide—from 30 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in 2019, according to a poll from Education Next.

Frequently vilified as greedy in the media, teachers unions often have their hands tied by laws restricting the issues they can bargain and strike over. Per a 1995 Illinois law, for example, the only “mandatory” bargaining issues for Chicago teachers are pay, benefits and the length of the school day. But unions can still mobilize public pressure to try to force employers to negotiate over additional demands.

In 2013, citing inspiration from Chicago, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) worked with community allies to jointly draw up a list of 29 demands to bring into its contract negotiations, including the expansion of preschool, reforms to school discipline procedures and the reduction of standardized testing. While the school district initially refused to negotiate over 18 of these areas, a united front by teachers and community members eventually pressured it to include language on almost every area in the SPFT’s new contract.

“I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the SPFT,” explained the union’s then-president Mary Cathryn Ricker in a 2015 article for Dissent. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

These victories helped give birth to a formal network called “Bargaining for the Common Good,” which now includes some 50 unions and community organizations. The goal is to expand labor’s scope of bargaining beyond wages and benefits to advance a broad, working-class agenda and go on the attack against shared enemies, including Wall Street and corporate America.

Three strikes at once

Chicago remains at the cutting edge of this effort. This fall, it may not be just CTU walking out—school support staff and Chicago Parks District workers represented by SEIU 73 have also set strike dates of October 17. While negotiating separately, the unions are pushing a common narrative: The new mayor must get the city’s priorities in check by committing more resources to vital public services and the workers who make them run.

Other key issues include adequate staffing of nurses, counselors and librarians—which many of the city’s schools lack entirely—rolling back the privatization of school services, creating enforceable sanctuary protections for undocumented students, and lifting poverty wages for school support staff and part-time parks workers.

The unions have also taken on the question of where the money to accomplish all this could come from. The Chicago Teachers Union has been leading the fight against massive tax giveaways to developers through the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program. Earlier this year, SEIU 73 members waded into what’s often a third-rail for public-sector unions when they protested outside Chicago Police Department headquarters to demand the city stop diverting resources from schools and parks to the police budget.

Venus Valino, a member of SEIU 73’s bargaining team, notes that the parks district has been subsidizing police patrols to the tune of about $4 million a year. But she rarely sees police where she works, in Wolfe Park on the city’s far Southeast Side, while dealing with periodic drive-by shootings, and a teen who was stabbed in the neck.

“That money is going to tourist areas, and we’re mostly left to fend for ourselves,” Valino says. She would prefer that resources be put back into dedicated park security guards who are familiar with the area, as well as public programming that would benefit the neighborhood. Two-thirds of park staff are part-time and receive zero paid-time-off, she adds.

As a 20-year parks worker, Valino sees her role as similar to that of a teacher. During the 2012 teachers strike, she remembers, she helped take care of 300 school children when the city made use of parks for its contingency plan. The fact that parks workers could be out on strike at the same time as teachers this year will put a squeeze on both city agencies and parents, but Valino says that since the union announced a potential strike, she’s been receiving calls of support from parents she’s worked with over the years.

“We’re always there for the public, and we see the needs of the public,” she says. “When it was freezing this winter, we’re the ones who opened up warming centers. I’m really touched that the public is thinking about how they can support us.”

Why affordable housing?

The close relationship between public unions and the communities they serve can make them especially well-suited to bring the concerns of those communities to the bargaining table. The CTU’s demand for affordable housing is perhaps the boldest example of this, and it’s one that labor commentators have been urging unions to take up in recent years.

Lightfoot and media commentators, conversely, have attempted to use this demand to paint the CTU as out-of-touch and drive a wedge in public support. “If the CTU strikes over this one, we predict it will not go down well with most of the rest of the city,” wrote the Sun-Times editorial board.

Eva Jaramillo, a mother of three who is currently in court fighting her family’s eviction, tells In These Times that she is grateful to see the teachers union taking up the issue. Jaramillo’s 10-year-old daughter attends North River Elementary, just blocks from the Albany Park apartment where the family has lived for 16 years. Earlier this year, Jaramillo was served with an eviction notice after complaining about malfunctioning heat during the winter. Two other families in the building who reportedly complained about conditions are also facing eviction, which would represent a violation of Chicago’s landlord-tenant laws. The group has formed a tenants union and protested outside the landlord’s home, but one of Jaramillo’s biggest concerns is that her daughter will have to transfer schools.

“She loves everything about her school,” Jaramillo said in Spanish. “She wakes up excited to go, and when she is sick, she cries because she doesn’t want to miss a day. This situation has affected her the most, because she doesn’t want to leave the school.”

Chicago students living in temporary housing situations have the right to remain enrolled in their current school, and can stay until the academic year if they find new housing. But Jaramillo is skeptical that, if her family is evicted, they will ultimately be able to find affordable housing anywhere nearby.

The school district doesn’t keep statistics on how housing displacement ultimately contributes to school enrollment, but anecdotal evidence suggests that in many neighborhoods, they’re closely linked.

In Albany Park, a gentrifying neighborhood in the city’s northwest side, the Autonomous Tenants Union documented how a 2017 mass-eviction in a single building being rehabbed by its new owner impacted some 30 children who attended Hibbard Elementary.

Data from a study released in May shows that the eviction rate is twice the citywide average in some Black neighborhoods, including ones where schools were shuttered in 2013 due to purported under-enrollment. Thanks to the model known as student-based budgeting, when students and their families have been forced out of schools, funding follows them. This cycle of housing displacement and school disinvestment has played a prominent role in driving thousands of Black residents from Chicago each year.

For these reasons, it’s hard for Jaramillo to understand how the city could consider housing and schools as unrelated. “The school and home have a deep relationship,” she says. “The school is the second home, but children also need their first home to be a stable one.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

This Women’s World Cup is reaching new heights thanks to collective actions from female footballers

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Inside the labor movements that are taking women’s soccer to new heights.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is already on its way to being the most successful edition of the event ever. Though the tournament is still in the group stages, it is already breaking viewership records around the globe.

FIFA likes to take credit for this increase in popularity, but that credit is, of course, wholly unearned. In the past four years, as more and more people called for the sport’s governing body to close the gap in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cup, FIFA actually increased the disparity between the two by $40 million, and on the ground in France, it seems that FIFA has not done an adequate job of promotion or ticketing.

Rather, the increased excitement is owed largely to the overall growth of women’s football; and that growth is due solely to the women who not only play the sport, but have taken it upon themselves to be its fiercest and most effective advocates and activists. Female footballers have always had to fight for the right to merely exist, but since the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, collective labor actions from teams around the world have extracted more concessions and progress from federations than FIFA ever has.

Even the most casual sports fans have likely heard about the defending World Cup champions, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), suing U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination, arguing that it pays the men’s team more money than the women’s team, despite the fact that they do the same job, and have achieved more success than their male counterparts.

The USWNT — which has been battling U.S. Soccer for more equitable treatment since it was founded — really brought their fight with the federation into the public square after winning it all in Canada in 2015 and being subjected to a Victory Tour of exhibition games that were played primarily on subpar turf, a surface the men’s team hardly ever has to play on. After boycotting a match in Hawaii because of the dangerous field conditions, the USWNT launched an #EqualPlayEqualPay campaign in 2016 and filed a wage-discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Since the issue still has not been remedied to their liking, the USWNT has now taken its fight to the biggest stage in the sport.

The Spanish women’s team actually began its collective action in 2015, when the Women’s World Cup was still happening. After the Spanish women finished in last place in their group in their World Cup debut, the players wrote an open letter asking for the firing of their manager, Ignacio Quereda, who was allowed to oversee the team for 27 years despite only winning 38% of their matches under his direction. As detailed by Deadspin, he also emotionally abused the players by attacking them for their weight and calling them immature little girls (“chavalitas”); kept players off the team if they crossed him; and did so little actual coaching that the players actually had to scout their opponents on YouTube themselves.

The letter received enough attention that Quereda ultimately resigned, and the Spanish football federation — which spent less than 1% of its budget on women’s football in 2014 — has begun prioritizing the women’s game a bit more. At this year’s World Cup, the Spanish team has already advanced to the knockout rounds.

In the fall of 2015, the Australian women’s national soccer team canceled a sell-out tour of the United States because players were so upset over their pay, which was far below minimum wage. Despite the fact that the Matildas reached the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup, they left Canada with just $2,014 in their pockets, which did little to boost their $14,844 annual salary. The strike was effective — their annual salary has essentially doubled, and contracts in the Australian pro league have increased significantly as well.

In 2016, the Chilean women’s team was fed up after years of neglect, and decided to form a players’ union. This union ended up integrating with the men’s union, and gained enough power to convince the Chilean federation to host the Copa América, a major women’s football tournament in the region, which ended up being the launchpad for Chile to earn its maiden Women’s World Cup bid.

“The Chilean team would not be playing in the 2019 World Cup were it not for the voluntary labor, blood, sweat, tears of the players themselves,” said Dr. Brenda Elsey, an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and co-author of Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America.

In December 2016, the Nigerian Super Falcons decided to stage a sit-in at the Agura Hotel in the nation’s capital until they received their bonuses for winning the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations — a total of $23,650 per player. Janine Anthony, a presenter and reporter for BBC South Africa, told ThinkProgress that it is not uncommon for bureaucracy in Nigeria to complicate payments, since most of the money for football comes from the government. However, those complications disproportionately impact the women.

“You just know that if it was for the men’s team, a lot of things would be faster,” Anthony said. “Every time you have issues, the girls have to be the one to … just understand. ‘Oh, please bear with us.’”

This time, however, they were done bearing with anybody. Their protest garnered national attention, and the federation very quickly found a way to access the money that had been so unobtainable just a day prior.

The following year, the Swedish women’s football team threatened to boycott the Player Awards Gala and their friendly against France if a new contract wasn’t reached, and Scottish players implemented a media blackout to raise awareness about the lack of financial support and respect shown by the Scottish Football Association. Both actions led to improved contracts.

Also in 2017, Argentinian and Brazilian female players followed in Chile’s footsteps and challenged their federations. In Brazil, multiple players retired in protest and a group of former and current players released a powerful letter denouncing the federation’s abrupt firing of Emily Lima, the team’s first female coach. The Brazilian federation launched a commission to address the concerns raised in the letter, but it was disbanded four months later, without any concrete advances.

The Argentinian women had a bit more luck. In the spring of 2017, the Argentinian women’s team was convened after an 18-month hiatus to play a match in Uruguay. But players had to travel in and out of the country on the same day as the match, there was hardly any support staff present, and the players didn’t even receive their paltry $8.50 per day stipends. So, they went on strike, and wrote a letter as a national team.

The federation ended up re-hiring head coach Carlos Borello, who they had let go after the team failed to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, adding a bit more support staff, and paying the players a stipend. It’s far from equality, but it did lead to the Argentinian women making their World Cup debut in France.

Of course, these examples only come from the 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup. These labor movements are happening throughout the ranks of women’s football.

Last September, the Puerto Rico women’s team actually stopped playing right after their friendly against Argentina kicked off and stood united facing the main stand, putting their hands to their ears, signaling for the Puerto Rican Football Association to listen to their complaints about working conditions and support.

In December, The Guardian reported on allegations that Karim Keramuddin, a top official with the Afghanistan Football Federation, had been sexually abusing players on the Afghanistan women’s national team. The players — who do not all live in Afghanistan, but rather are spread out around the globe — came together and reported the abuse. Just last week, FIFA banned Keram for life, and Afghan officials have issued a warrant for his arrest.

“I think the executives and the men complicit in this abuse were feeling like, because the women were not all in one place that they would not be unified or have that network. But sometimes WhatsApp does wonderful things, and it can keep you bonded. And these women really, literally decided to stick together,” said Shireen Ahmed, a freelance sports reporter and co-host of Burn It All Down, a weekly feminist sports podcast. [Editor’s note: the author of this article is also a co-host of the podcast.]

Thanks to all of these collective actions, progress is slowly unfolding.  In the past couple of years, both Norway and New Zealand have struck historic equal pay deals with their women’s teams, and in 2019, just before they left for the World Cup, the South African football federation told the women’s national team that it would earn the same bonuses that the men earn in tournaments from here on out.

All of these gains are only possible because female footballers worldwide are banding together and demanding their worth, recognizing and embracing the power of solidarity.

Of course, until FIFA itself decides to get its act together and close the $410 million prize money gap, and mandate that federations spend more than 15% of their FIFA funds on programs for women and youth, the gender gap in football is always going to be gaping.

“FIFA is ultimately the gatekeeper because they have the most amount of resources,” said Meg Linehan. “U.S. soccer isn’t happy with them but no one in the world was happy with them either.”

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on June 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lindsay Gibbs covers sports. SportsReporter CoHost  Tennis  Mystics   

After Janus, Should Unions Abandon Exclusive Representation?

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling on Janus vs. AFSCME, which could have far-reaching consequences for the future of public-sector unions in the United States. The case has sparked a wide-ranging debate within the labor movement about how to deal with the “free-rider problem” of union members who benefit from collective bargaining agreements but opt-out of paying dues. We asked three labor experts to discuss what’s at stake in the case and how they each think unions should respond.

Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University, Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes and Shaun Richman is a former organizing director at the American Federation of Teachers.

Chris Brooks: The way I see it, right-to-work presents two interlocking problems for unions. The first is that unions are legally required to represent all workers in a bargaining unit that the union has been certified to represent, and in open shops the Duty of Fair Representation (DFR) requires unions to expend resources on non-members who are covered by that contract. This is commonly known as the free rider problem and it gets a lot of attention, for good reason.

The second problem is that open shops also undermine solidarity by pitting workers who pay their fair share to support the union against those who do not. This is the divide-and-conquer problem.

So the free rider problem is institutional: the union has to expend all these resources fighting on behalf of workers who are not members and do not pay dues. And the divide-and-conquer problem is interpersonal: when workers do not all support the union this results in union and non-union members developing adversarial attitudes toward each other which undermines the ability for collective action.

If you believe that the source of a union’s strength is its ability to unite workers in common fights to better their conditions on the job and in the community, then the divide-and-conquer problem is a real impediment to union power. Yet, the free rider problem gets far more attention from union leaders and activists than the divide-and-conquer problem. This is especially true in the discussion around whether unions should ditch exclusive representation and pursue a members-only form of unionism.

In my opinion, most arguments in support of kicking out free riders actually reinforces the employers’ logic—turning union membership into a personal choice and unions themselves into competing vehicles for individualized services rather than vehicles for broad class struggle. So by focusing on the free rider problem to the exclusion of the divide-and-conquer problem, unions run the danger of turning inward and representing a smaller and smaller number of workers rather than seeking to constantly expand their base in larger fights on behalf of all workers in an industry.

Shaun Richman: I had an article published in The Washington Post and I admit it was too cute by half partly because I was trying to amplify what I think was actually the strongest argument that AFSCME is making in the case itself, which is that the agency fee has historically been traded for the no strike clause and if you strike that there is the potential for quite a bit of chaos. So I wanted to put a little bit of fear to whoever might potentially have the ear of Chief Justice Roberts, as crazy as that may sound. But I also wanted to plant the seed of thinking for a few union rebels out there. If the Janus decision comes down as many of us fear then the proper response is to create chaos.

If the entire public sector goes right to work, unions will never look the same. So, then, the project of the left should be “what do we want them to look like?” and “what will drive the bosses craziest?” I’ve written about this before and Chris has respondedat In These Times. There are three things that I am suggesting will happen—two of which, and I think Chris agrees, are sort of inevitable and not particularly desirable. The third part is notinevitable and depends a lot on what we do as activists.

If we lose the agency fee, some unions will seek to go members-only in order to avoid the free rider problem, and that’s a lousy motivation. I’m not encouraging that, but I think it’s also inevitable. Once you have unions representing these workers over here but not those workers over there, it’s also inevitable that you wind up with competitor unions vying for the unrepresented. And the first competitor unions are going to be conservative. These already exist. They’re all over the South and they compete against the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) in many districts and they offer bare bones benefits and they promote themselves on “we’re not going to support candidates who are in favor of abortions and we’ll represent you if you have tenure issues.” That’s also bad but also inevitable.

The third step, which is not inevitable but we need to consider in this moment, is at what point do new opposition groups break away from the existing formal union?  When do we just break the exclusive model and compete for members and workplace leadership? Can we get to a point where on the shop floor level you’ve got organizations vying for workers’ dues money and loyalty based on who can take on the boss in a better fight or who can win a better deal on the basis of we’re going to be less confrontational (which, I think, there are a lot of workers whom that appeals to as much as I don’t like that idea)? But the chaos of the employer not being able to make one deal with one union that settles everything for three or five years—that’s just the sort of chaos that the boss class deserves for having pursued this whole Friedrichs and now Janus strategy.

Kate Bronfenbrenner: I have a different perspective that has to do with having looked at this issue over a longer period of time and also having witnessed the UK labor movement wrestle with exclusive representation when their labor law changed. First, I believe there is a third thing that right to work does that is missing from your analysis. Right to work gives employers another point to intimidate, coerce, and threaten employees about being part of the union, all of which employers find much more difficult to do in a union or an agency shop.

My research suggests that employers will act the same way now they do in the process of workers becoming members as they do during an organizing drive. The historical trade-off for unions was that the price of exclusive representation was Duty of Fair Representation (DFR) and unions saw DFR as a burden.

Those of us who were progressives saw that Duty of Fair Representation was the best thing that ever happened to unions because DFR said that unions had to represent women, people of color, the LGBT community, and you couldn’t discriminate against part time versus full time. Historically it was used to force the old guard had to give up domination of unions and to fight for for union democracy because the simplest basis of DFR is the concept of good faith. If used effectively it would be the thing that could break the hold of the mob, or the old guard, or just white men. So you have to remember when you give up exclusive representation you could lose DFR. I can tell you that women and people of color are not going to want to give it up. And I think the fact that the two of you didn’t think of that is probably because you have not been using that in your roles, but it is central to those who are fighting if you are dealing with members who are fighting discrimination in your union, the whole DFR exclusive representation is absolutely critical.

Brooks: Kate, am I wrong that the actual court case establishing the DFR in exclusive representation comes out of the Railway Act, where a local was refusing to represent Black workers?

Bronfenbrenner: Historically, but it kept being reinforced over and over again in cases involving most collective bargaining laws. It’s been reinforced over and over again that the trade-off for exclusive representation that the DFR is tied with exclusive representation.

Richman: Yeah, it was the entire thrust of the NAACP workplace strategy before the 1960’s—that the labor law could be a civil rights act as long as we could win DFR. Herbert Hill wrote a great book about it (Black Labor and the American Legal System). I would also recommend Sophia Z. Lee’s The Workplace Constitution, which explores that history and makes a compelling argument for returning to a strategy of trying to establish constitutional rights in the workplace through the labor act.

Bronfenbrenner: Right. So union workers had protection for LGBTQ workers under DFR long before any other workers did because you could not discriminate on the basis of any class under duty of fair representation. Now whether workers knew that, whether their unions would represent them, is another matter but if you were a union worker or a worker who knew about it, this was where you fought it. So that was very important.

And the third thing that I wanted to say that related to this was that there is a long history in the public sector of independent unions, of company unions, acting as if exclusive representation didn’t exist, where there would only be one member and employers would recognize the “union” establishing a contract bar so no other union could come in.

In the 1980s and 1990s, public sector unions assumed that they were winning decertification elections rather than the independent unions and discovered that they weren’t. Soon enough they realized that the problem was that they weren’t doing a good enough job of representing their members. Workers were not voting for the company unions, which were little more than law firms or insurance companies. They were voting against the poor representation.

The prevalence of these independents is a long running problem that existed before and after exclusive representation, and it exists when there are agency fees and when there are not. Poor enforcement by the NLRB and the difficulty of tracking down these front groups that are not really unions is a much bigger issue that comes out of a divided public sector, and exclusive representation has nothing to do with it.

Brooks: I think right-wing groups are trying to capitalize on the history of company unions and fragmentation in the public sector. The State Policy Network (SPN) has a nationally coordinated strategy that builds on right-to-work laws to further bust unions. One of the tactics their member organizations, which exist in all fifty states, are pursuing is so-called “workers’ choice” legislation. This legislation allows unions to maintain a limited form of exclusivity, but with no duty of fair representation. Unions must still win a certification election to be the sole organization bargaining with the employer, but workers can opt out of the union and seek their own private contract with the boss outside of the collective bargaining agreement.

Requiring a certification election for collective bargaining also saves employers from having a situation where multiple unions can simultaneously pursue separate bargaining agreements for the same group of workers, a legal can of worms that corporations don’t want to open. SPN affiliates tout this legislation as a solution to the free rider problem for unions, since they have no duty to represent non-members, but it also incentivizes employers to bribe and cajole individual workers away from the union.

Employers could offer bonuses to workers if they drop union membership and call it “merit pay.” I don’t think that corporate advocacy groups like the SPN would be promoting this legislation unless they believed it would further weaken unions and fragment the labor movement.

The SPN is also actively organizing these massive opt-out campaigns, where they encourage workers to “give themselves a raise” by dropping union membership. They even have a nationally coordinated week of action called National Employee Freedom Week that eighty organizations participate in. In fact, the SPN think tanks work hand-in-glove with a host of independent education associations—which are basically company unions, purporting to represent teachers while advancing the privatization agenda. In Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, these independent education associations claim to be larger than the AFT and NEA affiliates.

So in those places where unions are really strong, there is a high likelihood that we will see an increase in company unions that are working closely with State Policy Network affiliates to further divide workers on the job.

Richman: Chris, what you’re describing are things that are mostly going to happen anyway, if we lose Janus. That SPN opt-out campaign is going to happen. The legislation you describe is not inevitable. I agree we dig a hole for ourselves if the only reason we want to “kick out the scabs” is so we don’t have to represent them in grievances. Because that lays the groundwork for making a union-busting bill seem like a reasonable compromise.

If we lose Janus, unions will never look the same. It’s at moments like this when we have to critically evaluate everything. What do we like about unions and our current workers’ rights regime? What don’t we like and what opportunities has this created for us to at least challenge that?

For me, the opportunity is to think about having multiple competitive unions on the shop floor. I don’t think of this as a model that will lead to multiple contracts. It might lead to no contracts. Everything that I’ve written on this subject so far has been with the assumption that ULP protections against discrimination remain in place so that the boss can’t give one group of workers a better deal because they picked one union over another (or no union at all). If a boss makes a deal with any group of workers or imposes new terms because a union got bargained to impasse, everybody gets the same thing.

Under a competitive multiple union model, I think no strike clauses become basically unenforceable. And these no strike clauses have become really deadly for unions in ways we don’t want to acknowledge. Currently, the workers who should be the most emboldened at work, because they’re protected by a union, have a contract that radically restricts their ability to protest. It’s not just strikes. It curtails the ability to do slow down actions, and malicious compliance, and it forces the union rep to have to rush down to the job and tell their members, you have to stop doing this. And they end up feeling bitter toward the union leadership as much—if not more—than the boss for the conditions that were agitating them still being in place. And then their “my union did nothing for me” stories carry over to non-union shops. Every organizer has heard them.

We need to bring back the strike weapon. And that’s far easier said than done. But it’s really hard to do when you’re severely restricted in your ability for empowered workers to set an example for unorganized workers in taking action and winning.

And, Kate, I have considered the DFR. I can’t imagine a world of multiple competitive unions in a workplace where there wouldn’t be at least one union that says we’re going to be the anti-racist union, we’re going to be the feminist union, and we’re the union for you. Without DFR, you’re right, there’s no legal guarantees. But someone steps into the vacuum and my hope is that at least creates the potential for militancy when militancy is called for in the workplace. With all the other messiness.

There’s going to be plenty of yellow unions and the boss is going to bring back employee representation programs and company unions and all of that. But that mess is exactly what they deserve. They’ve forgotten that exclusive representation is the model that they wanted—we didn’t, necessarily—in the 1940s and 1950s.

Bronfenbrenner: I wouldn’t be ready to throw out DFR. I think that there is too little democracy, and too much discrimination in the labor movement. At this time, we already have right to work in most of the public sector and most of the public sector doesn’t allow strikes, but workers still strike. We see that workers are willing to strike even if they are not allowed to strike, as evidenced by all these teachers, and we have to remember the strike statistics in this country only report strikes that are over 1,000 workers and most workplaces are under 1,000. We have a lot more strikes than are reported.

The labor movement is not going to strike more just because you get rid of no strike clauses. Teamsters had the ability to strike as the last step of their grievance procedure for decades and they never went on strike. I think what is more important is the question of what is going to change the culture and politics of the labor movement. I don’t think changing the right to strike is going to do it.

What is going to make unions actually fight back even on something like fighting on Janus? They’re not even getting in the streets on Janus, so what makes you think they’re actually going to strike on issues in the workplace? We need to think about why workers and unions are so hesitant to strike. I do not believe that chaos necessarily is going to happen. I think employers are much more prepared for this. I think what will happen is that the unions that have been effective and have been working with their members and educating their members and involving their members will be fighting back and the ones that have been sitting back and not doing anything will continue to sit back and not do anything and some will die.

The problem with getting rid of exclusive representation is that some unions are going to think “aha this is what I’m going to do, this is an easy way out,” the same way people used to think “oh it’s easier to organize in health care, oh it’s easier to organize in the public sector, so rather than organize in my industry, which is hard, I’m going to go try health care or the public sector.” But they found that “why can’t I win organizing teachers the same way that AFT does” or “why can’t I win organizing in health care the same way SEIU is doing” and they discovered that it’s not quite as easy as it looks.

Brooks: Yeah, I think Kate’s point is really important: in a right-to-work setting, the employer anti-union campaign never ends. The boss is constantly trying to convince and cajole workers into dropping union membership. And employer anti-union campaigns are really effective, which is why unions don’t win them very often.

If the Supreme Court rules against unions in Janus, anti-union campaigns are only going to gain strength. So, my fear, Shaun, is that you are being overly romantic. I just don’t think left-wing unions are going to suddenly emerge and step into the void left by business-as-usual unionism. If that was the case, then why hasn’t that already happened with the 90 percent of workers that don’t have any union at all?

Richman: The structure is a trap, and exclusive representation is part of that. I don’t think we have a crisis of leadership. I want to turn to the private sector because most of the potential hope in abandoning exclusive representation is in the private sector. Look at the UAW and their struggles at Volkswagen and at Nissan, which Chris is intimately familiar with. I think all three of us could find fault in their organizing strategy and tactics. Kate, I think you have more grounds than anyone in the country to be frustrated because you’ve scientifically proven what it takes to win and most unions have ignored that research for decades! But a third of the workers at Nissan want to have a union. To do so, they have to win an exclusive representation election where the entire power structure of the community comes down on their heads arguing keep the UAW out of the South.

If they had eked out an election win and managed to win a contract a year down the line, at the end of the day they get the obligation of having to represent everyone and probably the one-third of the workers who wanted the union all along are the only ones that join. That’s insane. Charles Morris threw out this theory a decade ago, in The Blue Eagle at Work, about how the NLRA was not intended to have these winner-take-all exclusive representation elections. The point of the NLRA was merely to say to employers anywhere there’s a group of workers that say hey we’re a union you must bargain with them in good faith. He argues that pathway is still open to unions. To the best of my knowledge a few unions politely asked the NLRB for their opinion on that a couple of times rather than all of us demanding that should be a valid pathway for union representation.

If you can win that exclusive representation election, you should win it, and you should also be saddled with the burdens of DFR. But why can’t, and why shouldn’t, the UAW file a petition at every auto factory in the country right now and say we have members here and you need to bargain with us over their working conditions? And why shouldn’t other unions jump into the fray and claim to represent their portion of the workers and drive those non-union companies nuts with a bunch of unions placing demands on them, and organizing to take action?

I think the work that Organization United for Respect (OUR) is doing at Wal-Mart is a good example of that. They by no means have a majority of the workers at Wal-Mart. They are in a few strategic locations. They are a nuisance to the company. They just won a right that workers are allowed to wear union buttons on the shop floor. Wal-Mart has given workers raises in response to their agitation. I’m not suggesting that that model is perfect or what we should all be doing, but I am saying that this should be an avenue open to us. And it only becomes open to us if we’re willing to experiment more with abandoning exclusive representation where it doesn’t work for us.

I would argue that in 90% of private sector workplaces where winning these elections is not possible it’s not working for us currently.

Bronfenbrenner: The comprehensive campaign-organizing model should be part of every organizing effort. Workers are protected under the NLRA when they engage in concerted activity and, as I say in all my organizing research, the union should be acting like a union from the beginning of the campaign. Unions should also be organizing around workplace problems and going to the employer and engaging in actions during the organizing campaign. I’ve been saying for 30 years that you don’t wait to start acting like a union until you win. But there is serious pushback against that element of my model from many organizers.

Unions are very hesitant to start taking on the employer before they win the majority. But there are unions that do that. It’s not just OUR. It’s Warehouse Workers United, SEIU 32BJ, RWDSU, Communications Workers, the Teamsters. All have run campaigns where they begin taking on the employer before the union has been recognized or certified. The unions that have been doing comprehensive campaigns are doing it in bargaining and it’s being done in organizing by the unions who are winning in organizing. So they’re not waiting until they win.

Richman: Thirty or forty years into people getting really serious about organizing as a science and as a craft, the fact that most unions still haven’t embraced an organizing model…

Bronfenbrenner: People have been serious about organizing as a craft from the beginning. It’s just that no one wrote very good books about what they did. The IWW and the UAW organizers, and the textile organizers, they were organizing using the same strategies that are being done now. No one wrote good books about what they did.

Richman: Sure, that’s fair. But the fact that unions are not following an organizing model that’s informed by your researchand other unions’ best practices suggests it’s not a matter of culture but the legal framework that we find ourselves trapped in. Most of the pressure on a union leader is to bring back good contracts for the members you currently represent and keep winning re-election. So that puts more resources into grievance handling and bargaining and it leads to the cost cutting in organizing campaigns.

Bronfenbrenner: I disagree. For the last three decades servicing and education budgets have been cut while huge amounts of the labor movement’s financial and staff resources have been shifted into labor law reform. And I can tell you because I’m part of the debate they don’t want to have about what they they need to do to change to organize. But most either think they are doing everything they can, or it is too hard to do anything different. It is the law that is the problem.

Either way the shared understanding is that unions should put resources into politics and in getting labor law reform because trying to do comprehensive organizing campaigns we’re asking them to do is “too difficult.” But they’re not putting resources into grievance handling anymore. They are putting it into politics and  labor law reform.

Richman: The approach to labor law reform has been too much about trying to preserve the system. The opportunity of the moment is to think beyond the boundaries of the workplace. Enterprise level bargaining has been killing us since the 1970s. As long as union membership is tied to whether or not some group of workers voted to form a union sometime in the past within the four walls of your workplace, that just incentivizes the offshoring and contracting out that’s really what has decimated the labor movement.

Humpty Dumpty is sitting on the wall and if Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts kick him off I am not particularly interested in being one of the king’s horses and men trying to put him together again. At that point the system is fundamentally broken and we need new demands about what kind of system we want and new strategies about how we exploit the brokenness of the system to make them regret what they have done.

Exclusive representation—combined with agency fee and DFR—worked for a long time. But if you knock one piece out, it all falls apart. We shouldn’t be pining for bygone days. We need to be thinking forward about what opportunities this creates. I hope that some people get inspired to try something as crazy as the IWW saying fuck it, we’re going to organize in different workplaces and agitate for work slowdowns and try to gain a few members in a few places we don’t care about expenditures of resources and dues. We’re going to create some chaos.

Brooks: I share Kate’s concerns, I believe that many unions have devolved into highly legalistic organizations. So the solutions they are pursuing to our current problems are highly technical and legal in nature, which means that lobbying and electing Democrats often becomes their top priority. Laws are important, but unions should spend far more time and resources on organizing comprehensive campaigns that build support among large majorities of workers, winning them over to a plan for collective action that can change conditions on the job and in the community.

Instead of this kind of organizing, what we’ve seen over the past few decades is the increasing confinement of class struggle to smaller and smaller segments of workers. Few unions these days aim to represent all workers in an industry. How many unions are engaged in pattern bargaining and setting contract standards across an industry or openly organizing toward a master agreement? To your point, Shaun, unions have become limited to firm-level representation. Or even just a bargaining unit within a firm, since many do not even try to organize everyone who works for the same employer.

Members-only unionism just continues this trend as unions move to represent an even smaller fraction of workers, not as a stepping stone to building a majority, but as a strategy to get out of providing services to workers who don’t pay dues. Ultimately, I believe this is a capitulation to the employers’ right-to-work framework and a retreat from the kind of broad-based organizing that the labor left has been historically committed to.

Bronfenbrenner:  We can no longer talk about the workplace solely through a U.S. framework. Ownership structures are so large, diffuse, and complex that what we should be doing is organizing and bargaining and building relationships between workers across the entire corporation world-wide, company-wide, and industry-wide. That requires getting workers to understand that they need to build power to take on whomever the decision-makers in the company are. It is not the boss that they see once a year at the annual holiday party. It is whoever has the money and really makes the decisions in the ultimate parent company. And that requires building alliances locally, nationally, and internationally, and building a much broader labor movement.

It also means understanding that the person who doesn’t pay union dues in their shop is not the problem. The problem for workers is that now what they have is the chamber of commerce fighting against their right to bargain and the state at all levels is interfering with economic and union rights. Their boss is now some investor somewhere who has decided to buy and sell their company and their jobs who does not care what they make or whether they stay open or not.

You have to figure out what they care about because that is what gives unions  leverage. That’s why workers in America have to get to know workers in Mexico and workers in Europe, those kinds of relationships, that is what the labor movement needs to spend their energy on. That’s what I’m going to spend my energy on.The U.S. labor movement cannot afford to be picking petty fights between workers who are paying dues and workers who aren’t paying dues because they need each other.

Richman: The structure is a trap partly by forcing unions to focus on individual bargaining units, individual workplaces and somehow winning them one-by-one. What we should be doing is not retreating from our bargaining units, but claiming to represent the willing workers in every company in every industry. I’m trying to inspire anyone who is out there reading this to think about an opportunity to spread out wider—in a much more bare bones, scrappier way—but one that puts the union idea in many more workplaces. To get the word out now, rather than we’ll get to you after we somehow win Nissan or Volkswagen. Because that’s not working.

Bronfenbrenner: But you’re not going to get labor law changed unless you have power.  It takes political power to get labor law changed. You can’t get political power until you organize a lot. You’re asking for a labor law change. The point is that focusing on labor law is backwards. We only get labor law reform after we do a great deal of organizing. First you have to organize and build power.

During the whole Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) fight everyone stopped organizing and spent all their energy on EFCA. That’s the danger of labor law reform.

This article was originally published at In These times on May 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Authors: Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University, Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes and Shaun Richman is a former organizing director at the American Federation of Teachers.

The sinister history underlying Neil Gorsuch’s decision lashing out at American workers

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

The ink was barely dry on Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in Epic Systems v. Morris before Ogletree Deakins — a management-side employment law firm that earned nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in profits per equity partner last year — started hawking an “innovative new product” that would enable employers to enrich themselves at the expense of their most vulnerable workers.

Epic Systems held that employers may force their employees, under pain of termination, to sign away their right to bring a class action lawsuit against their employers. It is an invitation — if not an incentive — for wage theft, as class actions are often the only recourse available to someone robbed of a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars by their boss.

Employment lawyers have known this decision was coming for months. And many of them are going to cash in.

Yet, while this Epic Systems decision became inevitable the minute Gorsuch claimed ownership of a Supreme Court seat that Senate Republicans held open more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, the Court’s decision would shock the lawmakers who actually enacted the laws at issue in this case.

Gorsuch’s opinion is a mix of willful historical ignorance, ideological blindness, and a smug insistence that he has a special window into the law that many of his more experienced colleagues lack. Now, it threatens to revive one of the Supreme Court’s most disgraceful chapters.

The new Lochnerism

The conceit of Gorsuch’s Epic Systems opinion is that workers and their bosses sit down like equal bargaining partners to hash out their terms of employment. “Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration?” Gorsuch begins his opinion with a question framed as if it could only have one answer. “Or should employees always be permitted to bring their claims in class or collective actions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?”

In reality, the facts of Epic Systems bear little resemblance to the civilized negotiation presented by Gorsuch. Workers at one of the companies at issue in this case received an email one day informing them that they must give up their right to bring class actions. Employees who “continue[d] to work at Epic,” according to the email, would “be deemed to have accepted” this agreement. A similar email was sent to the employees of one of the other companies that prevailed in Epic Systems.

These employees, in other words, only “agreed” to the terms proposed by their bosses in the same sense that a person accosted by a gunman in a dark alley “agrees” to give up their wallet. Their choice was to give up their rights or to immediately lose their jobs.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court ignored the fairly basic fact that employers typically have far more bargaining power than their workers — and can use this greater share of power to exploit their employees.

In its anti-canonical decision in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court struck down a late nineteenth century law prohibiting bakeries from overworking their bakers. Such a law, Justice Rufus Peckham wrote for the Court, “interferes with the right of contract between the employer and employes [sic],” adding that “there is no contention that” bakery workers were unable “to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State.”

In reality, bakers faced horrific working environments before the “protecting arm of the State” intervened to improve these conditions.

At the time, the overwhelming majority of New York City bakeries were basement operations located in the same tenements in which their customers lived. “’Filth, cobwebs and vermin’ filled these basements,” according to a city inspector’s report. Sewer pipes ran through many such bakeries, leaking their raw contents onto the workers, their workplaces, and the dough. In one such bakery, “’the water closet walls were literally black’ with roaches from floor to ceiling.”

Bakeries often had no windows and little ventilation, filling the air with irritating flour dust and fumes. Ovens heated the workplaces into infernos. Low ceilings required many workers to crouch, and the floors were typically either dirt or rotten wood filled with rat holes.

The average bakery worker labored at least 13 hours a day in these conditions, though some worked as much as 126-hours a week. Workers, moreover, were often required to sleep on the very same tables where they prepared the dough, and the cost of these makeshift beds were then deducted from their wages.

These were the sorts of conditions that the free market offered workers who, without the law to protect them, were forced to bargain alone with their employers. Perhaps, in some narrow sense, these workers “agreed” to work countless hours among the roaches, the heat, and the raw sewage. But only a judge blinded by their own ideology could conclude that these workers had any real choice in the matter.

“Concerted activities”

By the mid 1930s, Congress understood what men like Peckham and Gorsuch refused to see. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains in her Epic Systemsdissenting opinion, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) on the premise that “employees must have the capacity to act collectively in order to match their employers’ clout in setting terms and conditions of employment.”

The law may not have the power to equalize bargaining power between workers and their bosses, but, by enabling those workers to join together, it could give them a fighting chance.

One provision of the NLRA — a provision that Gorsuch refused to honor in his Epic Systems opinion — provides that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Class actions are precisely this — a form of “concerted activity” that workers may use for their own “mutual aid or protection.”

The idea behind a class action is that multiple workers with the same legal claim against their employer can join together under a single lawsuit. Such concerted activity is necessary for the simple reason that litigation is often prohibitively expensive. As Ginsburg notes in her dissent, employers at one of the companies at issue in Epic Systems “would likely have to spend $200,000 to recover only $1,867.02 in overtime pay and an equivalent amount in liquidated damages.”

Only a truly fanatical worker — and one with very deep pockets — might be willing to spend such an exorbitant sum for such a small amount of money. The only real hope for such a worker is to join a class action lawsuit with colleagues who were also cheated out of their fair pay.

Except that workers will soon be unable to seek this remedy. An estimated “23.1% of nonunionized employees are now subject to express class-action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements,” according to Ginsburg’s dissent. Now that the Supreme Court has endorsed such illegal agreements, this number will skyrocket. Law firms are already lining up to show employers how to draft such agreements, and workers throughout the country will soon be left powerless against wage theft.

Twisted commerce

Gorsuch concludes his Epic Systems opinion with a flourish. “The policy may be debatable but the law is clear,” Trump’s Supreme Court nominee claims. “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

As it turns out, Gorsuch is half correct. The law is, indeed, clear. It just doesn’t say what he wants it to say.

The contracts at issue in Epic Systems are “forced arbitration” contracts, meaning that they not only strip employees of their right to bring a class action, they also require employment disputes to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor employers more than real courts of law. Though a law known as the Federal Arbitration Act protects arbitration agreements in certain contexts, that very same law explicitly exempts employment contracts.

Nevertheless, in its 2001 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court wrote this safeguard for workers out of the law.

Circuit City turned on two interlocking provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act. The first provides that “A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable” except under limited circumstances. The second exempts “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

To understand the scope of these two provisions, it’s important to understand some of the history surrounding the Federal Arbitration Act, which was enacted in 1925.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — the same period when the Court handed down Lochner — the Supreme Court also imposed strict limits on Congress’ constitutionally granted power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.” During this period, the Court defined the word “commerce” narrowly, to encompass little more than the transit of goods across state lines. Manufacture of goods to be sold, mining of raw materials, and the farming of commodities were all deemed to be beyond Congress’ power to regulate.

Among other things, the Court relied on this stingy definition of the word “commerce” to strike down a federal law banning the interstate sale of goods manufactured by child labor.

In the 1930s, a little more than a decade after the Federal Arbitration Act became law, the Supreme Court abandoned this narrow understanding of Congress’ power to regulate commerce. Under modern precedents, Congress’ power over “commerce” now includes broad authority to regulate economic matters of nearly all kinds.

Which brings us back to the text of the Federal Arbitration Act. When Congress wrote this law, it understood phrases like “a transaction involving commerce” or “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” to use the narrow, pre-New Deal understanding of the word “commerce.” As the law was originally understood, it only protected arbitration agreements involving the transit of goods for sale.

Contracts involving manufacture, mining, or agriculture were beyond the scope of Congress’ authority, according to the Supreme Court at the time, and therefore beyond the scope of the Arbitration Act. Similarly, when the Act exempts “seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” Congress sought to exempt all employment contracts that it believed that it had the power to regulate at the time.

Of course, the Arbitration Act could also be read anachronistically. If the modern definition of the word “commerce” is inserted into the law, that would mean that nearly all contracts are governed by the law, but all employment contracts are exempt. Thus, under either plausible reading of the statute, contracts between workers and their employers are exempt.

Circuit City, however, read the statute a third way. It reads the phrase “a transaction involving commerce” using the modern definition, while reading the phrase “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” using the 1925 definition. Thus, the policy favoring forced arbitration is given the broadest scope, while the exemption favoring workers is read exceedingly narrowly.

It’s a sick double-standard — the kind that should make anyone who reads the Court’s Circuit City opinion doubt the good faith of the justices in the majority.

Without Circuit City, there could not be a decision like Epic Systems. Gorsuch’s opinion builds upon Circuit City‘s holding that the word “commerce” can mean one thing in one provision of the law and something completely different in another provision of the same law. Circuit City is one of the Supreme Court’s greatest sins against the English language, and the text of the law itself is entirely at odds with Gorsuch’s claim in Epic Systems that “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

So the law, as Gorsuch condescendingly asserts, is indeed clear. The Federal Arbitration Act exempts all employment contracts, and any claim to the contrary requires the Court to turn a blind eye to history.

Which, of course, is exactly what Gorsuch did in Epic Systems. He ignored the way the law was originally understood, ignored the text of the National Labor Relations Act, ignored the law’s hard-won understanding that employees and employers do not have equal bargaining power, and ignored Congress’ explicit efforts to strike a different balance of power between workers and their bosses.

It is a great day for law firms that profit off the exploitation of workers. And it is an even greater day for their clients.

The rest of us can either sign away our rights or lose our jobs.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Trump’s Justice Department Is Trying to Turn Back the Clock on Workers’ Rights 100 Years

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a trio of cases, captioned as NLRB v. Murphy Oil, that examined whether management commits an unfair labor practice when it requires employees to sign arbitration agreements that waive their right to wage class-action lawsuits. The question of whether an employee can give up her right to act in concert with other workers may seem technical, but it implicates the very core of collective action.

During the hearing, Trump’s Department of Justice clearly sided with employers, who are calling for significant cutbacks to workers’ rights to take collective action.

The significance of this case was evident throughout the oral arguments. On one side the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a University of Virginia Law Professor argued that the issue implicates the basic employment rights of tens of millions of U.S. workers. On the other side, the Principal Deputy U.S. Solicitor Jeff Wall (“Solicitor”) and an attorney for the companies argued that these are technical issues related to contract and civil procedure.

The case revolves around a key question: Do forced arbitration agreements that ban collective or class legal actions violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? That section permits employees “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The employers’ and Solicitor’s position is that Section 7 only protects workers’ rights to get to the “courthouse door.” According to the line of reasoning this side presented in the courtroom, the NLRA gives workers the right to act together at work, but the moment their workplace concerns get to a legal forum, they have no right to continue together. Once they enter the courtroom or arbitrator’s chambers, the argument went, all parties must abide by the rules of the forum, be it the NLRB, the federal courts or the arbitrator. They argued that this principle applies even if those rules require workers to proceed individually.

The problem, of course, is that there is a long history of employers using forced contracts to require employees to waive their rights as a condition of employment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg invoked this history when she asked the attorney for the employers whether forced arbitration agreements are simply “yellow dog” contracts by another name. This was a reference to contracts where employees agree not to join a union as a condition of employment. (“Yellow dog” contracts were made illegal in the 1932 Norris LaGuardia Act.)

Justice Stephen Breyer put an even finer point on the matter when he expressed his concern that the employers’ position “is overturning labor law that goes back to, for [Franklin D. Roosevelt] at least, the entire heart of the New Deal.”

Nonetheless, the arguments of the management-side attorneys appeared to gain traction with conservative Justices. This iss despite the fact that the employers’ side consistently failed to address a key problem: the rules of the forum that they said everyone has to follow are not made by some neutral third party. They are written by the employer, who then makes participation in the forum a condition of employment for the employee to sign the agreement. Research shows that almost 25 million non-union workers have been forced to sign such arbitration agreements.

Yet, some Justices bought the management-side argument. At one point, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who seemed to be the swing vote in this case, insisted that workers can still engage in collective action because they can simply go to the same attorney and ask her to represent them each individually.

Presumably, Justice Kennedy did not intend to imply that the attorney could share the details of each of the cases with each worker, because that would violate the confidentiality clause in many of these agreements. And presumably, he did not mean that the attorney could share confidential information, because then there would be no attorney-client privilege protection.

The employers’ counsel agreed with Justice Kennedy, and said that even though the confidentiality clause would prohibit the attorney from sharing information among the workers, it couldn’t “stop the same lawyer from thinking about the three cases in conjunction.” In Justice Kennedy’s words, “that is collective action.”

In reality, forced arbitration agreements that prohibit class or collective action have grown exponentially in recent years through a tactical decision by corporations to strip Americans of their rights to litigate their claims together. The NLRB responded in 2012 to the growing use of these forced arbitration agreements by finding that these agreements violate federal labor law.

The liberal Justices repeatedly demonstrated that this case is not about neutral rules of a forum, or technical issues of civil procedure, but about basic concepts of power.

Justice Ginsburg asked the Solicitor, “What about the reality? I think we have in one of these cases, in Ernst & Young, the individual claim is $1,800. To proceed alone in the arbitral forum will cost much more than any potential recovery for one. That’s why this is truly a situation where there is strength in numbers, and that was the core idea of the NLRA. There is strength in numbers. We have to protect the individual worker from being in a situation where he can’t protect his rights.”

Justice Ginsburg was making the point that if workers cannot bring class or collective actions, many who have low-dollar claims will be denied justice because it would be more expensive to bring their cases than they could possibly win.

The Solicitor’s response was telling. He claimed that the different arbitration agreements have different clauses, which deal with issues of costs and fees. In essence, he insisted, the contract takes care of those concerns. And, in the final analysis, the employers’ attorney and Solicitor explained that the contract—even if it is a forced contract—should trump any possible rights workers may have to bring their actions collectively.

In a sense, this position answered Justice Breyer’s initial question: Yes, this case does bring us back to a pre-New Deal framework, and the employers and Trump administration are comfortable with that.

This case is poised to have a far-reaching impact. When the Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting consumer arbitration agreements that waive consumers’ rights to file a class action, such arbitration agreements ballooned. If the Court similarly holds that workers do not have a substantive right under the NLRA to vindicate their labor and employment rights collectively, then it is likely that soon almost every non-union worker will face even more limitations to real justice.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: 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.

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