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Posts Tagged ‘unions’

Ohio Democratic campaign staffers fight the state party for a fair contract

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

Democratic field organizers in Ohio working roughly 60-84 hours hours a week are fighting their own state party as they attempt to negotiate a fair union contract.

More than a month ago, the Ohio Democratic Party, with 90 percent support, recognized a union of coordinated campaign staff that collectively bargained with the help of the Campaign Workers Guild. Now, however, staffers say the party isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.

“After several day-long bargaining sessions, the ODP has made it clear to us that they are not serious about negotiating a fair contract that lives up to our Democratic values,” union leaders wrote last week in a letter to Ohio county party chairs across the state.

“We were so excited to see our party stand for working people by ultimately recognizing our union,” they continued. “Unfortunately, this excitement has not held at the bargaining table, where we’ve been continually disappointed and angered as the ODP has refused to present proposals that ensure us the union protections and provide us the working conditions we need and deserve.”

While the negotiations are still ongoing and a bit rough at the moment, it is still extremely early in the negotiation process. The party only recognized the union five weeks ago and most contract negotiations take months.

In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, Ohio Democratic Party leaders are generally optimistic that the state will become the first to unionize a political party.

“Consistent with our long record of fighting for workers’ rights, the Ohio Democratic Party is proud to be the first state party in the nation to recognize the Campaign Workers Guild representing our campaign field organizers.

We believe their representation is an important step nationally. Because this is the first contract of its type in the nation, there are many details to work through. But in only four weeks, negotiations over the contract itself have led to agreement on half the points of negotiation, and we’ve made progress on many others.

The good news is that while negotiations are ongoing, we and our growing team of organizers are out knocking on the doors and making the phone calls that will elect our strong ticket of candidates up and down the ballot.”

Members of the union, however, claim that instead of meeting with the union face-to-face, as is customary in any contract negotiation, party officials hired lawyers from a law firm that specializes in “union-avoidance” to represent management in the negotiation process. The lawyers work at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a firm named in part by the Taft-Hartley Act, a federal law that significantly diminished the power of unions.

According to ODP party officials, however, the Ohio Democratic Party Operations Director has been in attendance and at every negotiation session, and ODP Executive Director Greg Beswick attended the full first session of negotiations.

Among the union’s requests are basic items, such as guaranteed water and stationary supplies in the office. They’ve also requested bigger-picture things, like a living wage.

According to the party, they have agreed to half of the union’s demands, including smaller requests like water, rest and meal periods, paid leave, and even health insurance for field organizers, the ODP has refused to meet the union’s expectations when it comes to issues like compensation and mileage reimbursement.

That last point is critical for McClelland, who over the course of the campaign has put in some 10,000 miles on his car, driving around the state for work. Currently, organizers get a $150 gas card to help offset the cost, but McClelland says that is nowhere near enough.

“Over the course of the campaign…I’ve used about $500 dollars worth of gas cards. If I got a true reimbursement, that number would be more like $5,000, which would help immensely with things like the three oil changes I had to pay for or new tires and brake lines,” he said.

When the union raised this issue to management in a survey, the ODP dismissed it, according to organizers.

“We showed them the survey about cars and everything and their response was ‘yes we got your survey and we weren’t moved by it,’” they said.

ODP instead countered with a $125 car stipend, which is lower than what staffers currently receive with the gas card.

As far as compensation goes, the union requested a salary floor of $4,000/month for field organizers and $4,500/month for regional field directors, which is what the union claims staffers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) are paid. Ohio DCCC field organizers, however, only make roughly $2,700/month, according to party leaders.

Instead, according to the union, the state party has offered a salary schedule of $12.25 per hour, less than the $15 minimum wage on which most Democrats, including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, have campaigned for.

The Ohio Democratic Party currently provides their workers with a salary floor of $3,000 including benefits, which is what the Campaign Workers Guild has negotiated at other campaigns.

“Right now, half of our money money goes towards bills and the other half goes to gas or eating fast food because we cant afford anything else,” McClelland said. “We’re not asking for the world here. We’re asking to be treated fairly as workers and to not have to pay to work.”

Some staffers are concerned that some of Ohio’s most ardent pro-labor Democrats including Brown and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray, haven’t involved themselves personally in the issue.

“The candidates are nonexistent,” McClelland told ThinkProgress. “We as workers feel they are complicit in this […]. Our candidates are supposed to be labor-friendly.”

When reached for comment, Sen. Brown voiced his support for the campaign workers and their efforts to unionize, urging the party to resolve negotiations soon.

“All workers have the right to organize and bargain for their wages and benefits. I admire these young staffers for unionizing and speaking up, and I hope the negotiations are resolved soon,” Brown told ThinkProgress.

Several Democratic campaigns across the nation have decided to unionize since December 2017, when the workers for Randy Bryce, the Democrat vying for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) open seat, became the first bargaining unit to join the Campaign Workers Guild. Since then, workers from 22 campaigns have unionized.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebekah Entralgo is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Previously she was a news assistant on the NPR Business Desk. She has also worked for NPR member stations WFSU in Tallahassee and WLRN in Miami.

The Union Difference Is Even More Pronounced for Families of Color

Monday, September 10th, 2018

A new report from the Center for American Progress shows that union membership helps increase wealth and prosperity for families of color. The research comes on top of recent polls showing that more and more people are embracing the powerful benefits of collective bargaining.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

When working people collectively bargain for wages, benefits and employment procedures, as union members they have higher wages, more benefits and more stable employment as a result of the bargaining agreement.

Household wealth is dependent on several factors, including income, savings, people having benefits like health insurance and life insurance.

Higher wages lead to higher savings, particularly when combined with job-related benefits, such as health and life insurance, since those benefits require union members to spend less out-of-pocket to protect their families.

Union members have higher job stability and protections, which lead to longer tenures at a workplace. This can lead to more savings as longer-tenured employees are more likely to be eligible for key benefits that accrue over time.

Nonwhite families with a union member in the household have a median wealth that is 485% as large as the median wealth of nonunion families of color.

Union members’ annual earnings are between 20 and 50% higher than those for nonunion members.

The benefits of union membership for nonwhite families is more significant than it is for white families because nonwhite workers tend to work at jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits and less stability. Union membership lowers the gap for everyone, but the gains are larger when you are starting from a lower level of income and benefits.

Union members also are less likely to experience a negative shock (a large change in income) and more likely to experience a positive shock.

Read the full report.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on September 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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

News from the Courts: Executive Orders Partially Struck Down

Friday, September 7th, 2018

News from the Courts: On August 25, 2018, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a 122-page memorandum opinion in American Federation of Government Employees et al. v. Trump, No. 1:18-cv-1261. The Court struck down significant portions of the three May 25, 2018 executive orders concerning federal employees.

As previously analyzed in this blog, Executive Orders 13,837-13,839 announced a number of new policies relating to federal employees, both as to the rights of individual employees and the rights of federal sector unions who represent federal employees. After the executive orders were issued, a number of federal sector unions all sued to block implementation; their various lawsuits were then consolidated into the single lawsuit in front of Judge Jackson, which then proceeded to expedited cross-motions for summary judgment. The unions focused their attack on provisions chiefly dealing with the union issues; certain other provisions whose effect was not limited to unions were not included in the lawsuit.

Judge Jackson ultimately found that a number of provisions in the three executive orders violated federal statutes governing collective bargaining, chiefly by pre-deciding major issues which Congress had intended to be decided between unions and agencies through bargaining. Included in the list of provisions which the court struck down were restrictions on the amount of official time and the availability of below-market office space to unions. Concerning individual employees, the court also struck down Section 4c of Executive Order 13,839, which limited Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) periods to 30 days unless the agency in its sole discretion opted for a longer period.

However, several other provisions which impact federal employees remain in effect. Section 5 of Executive Order 13,839, which limits the ability to modify disciplinary or performance records in settlement, was not challenged in the lawsuit and fell outside the scope of Judge Jackson’s Memorandum Order. Sections 2f-2g of Executive Order 13,839, which set time limits for processing of disciplinary actions, also fell outside the scope of the lawsuit. These provisions potentially remain on the books, although outstanding issues remain open (for example, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has not yet completed its review of the need for possible implementing regulations).

This blog was originally published by Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on September 4, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness. The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

The Fight Against Racism Starts in the Union

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

“In your union or workplace, what’s a situation where you’ve observed or experienced racism?” That’s the first question we ask people to discuss, in groups of three, as part of a Race and Labor training that our state labor council has offered for 29 local unions and labor councils so far in Washington state.

Some stories are dramatic, like the member of color who was threatened with physical violence after winning union office. Other are more subtle, the kind of incidents that can weigh on you when they’re repeated over and over. A Black union staffer often interacts with members by phone or email; when she later meets them in person, she is told, “Oh, you’re not how I pictured you.”

After one or two people share powerful stories, other hands start shooting into the air.

This workshop isn’t simply a diversity training. It’s designed to look at the history of racism in our country and in our labor movement. We talk about how racism shows up in our workplaces, our family and community life, and even our unions; how racial categories historically have served the interests of employers; and how divide-and-conquer hampers organizing today.

Once we’ve accepted those truths, the next question is, what can leaders do to change them? The workshop is very practical. We want folks to leave with real ideas for what they can do.

Participants brainstorm solutions in four areas: bargaining, organizing, union culture, and community connections. We also discuss how to answer union sisters and brothers who aren’t convinced racial justice has anything to do with union politics. One small-group activity is to write a persuasive speech you might give to your executive board.

People leave feeling hopeful. One older gentleman told me he’d been through a number of diversity and racial equity workshops, but this was the only one that made him feel he could do something about it. Another person said she’d been afraid even to talk about racism, for fear of saying the wrong thing. Now she knew how to start.

How we started

Our state isn’t very diverse—and its labor leaders are even less so. Out of 15 central labor councils in Washington, only one has a principal officer who is a person of color. Only a handful of the 600 affiliate union locals do, either.

The project started with a resolution that passed our convention in 2015. It called on the state labor council president to take up AFL-CIO President Trumka’s call to have “a serious and open-ended conversation about what we can do, about what we should do” about race and the labor movement.

The resolution made clear that we should discuss how racism affects not just our individual beliefs, but also the policies and practices that shape our unions. For instance, who gets into the union—is it tough unless your father or uncle was a member? Who is considered for leadership roles?

A special committee convened in 2016. With the help of longtime labor activist Bill Fletcher and our state’s Labor Education Research Center, the committee developed a seven-hour Race and Labor workshop.

Get leaders on board

Some of our largest affiliates have sent leaders and staff through the training, including Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, the state AFSCME federation, and the state Teachers (AFT).

It’s not easy to sell a seven-hour workshop to union officers. But we ask them to resist the urge to modify the workshop to fit a 90-minute conference schedule. Real conversations take time.

Some leaders have a natural inclination to stick to lunchbox issues: wages, benefits, and working conditions. But here’s one argument why this topic matters to a union’s self-interest: Before the Janus decision, a large public sector union did a national member survey. It found that union favorability was the highest among African American workers—but also that, given the opportunity, they were the most likely to leave the union.

To me that suggests that many African-American workers recognize the value of the labor movement, but don’t see a place for themselves in our institutions. I suspect other people of color may feel the same way.

It’s personal for me. As I often tell people, it was my mom’s union job that got us off welfare and gave her the dignity that comes from being able to pay bills and provide for your family. So I believe in the labor movement. I know what a difference it can make. If we continue not addressing racism, we create a weakness in our movement. I don’t want to let that happen.

Goal: 100 percent

In 2017 we offered our first two-day train-the-trainer workshops with 100 union leaders and staff. We did it twice more this spring.

The first day, participants go through the Race and Labor workshop. We ask union principal officers to attend this first day, so that they “buy in” to the process. The second day, principal officers may leave, while the facilitators assigned from their locals (usually union staffers) stick around to learn the curriculum, including the goals of each section, and to discuss how adults learn.

Labor council delegates passed our Race and Labor 2.0 resolution in 2017, moving into wider implementation. They set ambitious goals—by the end of 2018, half our union affiliates’ executive board and staff members should have attended the workshop; by 2019, threequarters; and by 2020, all of them.

They also resolved that we should train 30 “certified trainers” ready to take the workshop around the state. We’re developing that training now.

The next step is a Race and Labor summit in September. We’ll be bringing together 100 young workers of color plus allies to develop a toolkit that might include contract language, sample policies, and plans for additional training. We’ll ask, “If we didn’t have to deal with institutional racism in our movement, what would that look like—and how do we get there?”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: April Sims is the political and strategic campaigns director of the Washington State Labor Council. She presented a version of the Race and Labor workshop at the 2018 Labor Notes Conference.

A Rundown of All the Ways Trump Is Overseeing an All Out, Under-the-Radar Attack on Workers

Friday, August 17th, 2018

Amidst headlines about porn stars and bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it can be hard to track the many ways the Trump administration is hurting workers in the United States. The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling that struck a blow to unions’ ability to collect membership dues held a brief spotlight in the national news churn. But in a more-quiet fashion, the Trump administration already has been slowly dismantling worker protections, especially those enacted under the Obama administration.     

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly proclaimed that he would help workers. He even boasted, “I have great relationships with unions.” But actions speak louder than words, and the policies pursued by the Trump administration have directly targeted middle and lower-income workers and labor unions.

The anti-labor attack gained momentum in the last weeks of 2017. President Trump had to wait until his two nominees to the five-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were confirmed. Those new members flipped the board’s majority from Democratic to Republican. The NLRB, which oversees collective bargaining law and enforcement of U.S. labor laws and standards, then quickly issued a slew of key decisions that rolled back a number of worker- and union-related reforms.

In one of the most important changes, the NLRB reversed a 2011 ruling that helped workers form smaller unions within a single workplace. The precedent set under Obama allowed the holding of a union election without including all the different types of jobs within that business that don’t share similar job duties, wages and working conditions. Employers complained that it led to “micro unions.” In a specific case, after 100 welders unionized at a large manufacturing plant, the NLRB ruled that the smaller organizing unit was illegitimate since any union election would have to include all 2,500 workers at the company, spanning 120 job classifications. The NLRB ruled 3-2 along partisan lines.

Another consequential case decided under Trump will hurt low-income fast food workers. The Trump board overturned a major 2015 decision that ruled employers are responsible for bargaining with workers, even if they have only indirect control over those workers’ employment. Fast-food companies like McDonald’s license smaller franchise businesses to run most of their restaurants. McDonald’s instructs these franchises on how to operate but leaves them to control many aspects of their day-to-day business. For decades, franchise employees who wished to bargain collectively were caught in a vicious trap. Their boss, the franchise operator, could insist that McDonald’s controlled the terms of their employment. But if they tried to bargain with McDonald’s, the company would insist that the franchise operator was their true employer.

Obama’s NLRB solved this problem by clarifying that companies like McDonald’s are, jointly with franchise operators, employers of these workers and can be forced to the bargaining table. This new standard permitted much more meaningful collective bargaining among millions of low-wage workers. Longer term, that ruling on joint employers would have dramatically improved collective bargaining rights in the fast-food industry. But the GOP majority on the NLRB scrapped this standard, returning to an old, stringent policy that requires employers to exercise “immediate and direct” control in order to be liable under labor law.

Other damaging decisions by Trump’s NLRB include:

— Reversing a 2004 decision bolstering workers’ rights to organize free from employer interference.

— Reversing a 2016 decision safeguarding unionized workers’ rights to bargain over changes in employment terms.

— Overturning a 2016 decision that required settlements between employers and employees to provide a “full remedy” to aggrieved workers, instead of partial settlements.

All of these were 3–2 decisions, with Republicans in the majority and Democrats dissenting.

Beyond the NLRB

But the NLRB is only one federal agency. Trump’s Labor Department has also rolled back several rules and executive orders that the Obama administration issued to protect workers. Those include the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which required companies bidding for large federal contracts to disclose and correct past labor and safety violations. Another rescinded rule had established guidelines for when states can drug-test applicants for unemployment insurance benefits. Also rescinded was the “persuader rule,” which required law firms to publicly disclose any work they do for employers trying to fight against union organization efforts.

Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has delayed three workplace safety rules issued during the last year of Obama’s presidency. Those rules required certain employers to submit injury and illness data electronically to OSHA for publication on the agency’s website; tightened exposure standards for silica dust, which is often breathed in by certain construction workers and linked to lung disease; and weakened workplace exposure limits for beryllium, an industrial mineral linked to lung cancer.

The Supreme Court also ruled to allow employers to require workers to sign arbitration agreements that waive their rights to file class or collective action lawsuits. Last June, Trump’s acting solicitor general filed a brief with the Court that took the opposite stance from the Obama administration, asserting that mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act and are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act.

Another important ruling made under the Obama administration regarded which workers were eligible to receive overtime pay. The Obama-era rules required nearly everyone paid less than $47,476 a year to be eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours a week. That was a big jump from the $23,660 threshold in place since 2004, and a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s efforts to lift wages. But a federal judge in Texas blocked that rule a week before it was scheduled to take effect, and Obama’s Labor Department appealed. However, Trump’s Labor Department filed a brief in federal appellate court indicating it will not advocate for these overtime changes.

In addition to all that, the Trump administration has proposed $2.6 billion in budget cuts—an enormous 21 percent—to the Department of Labor. Those cuts include a proposed elimination of four department programs and their services, such as training for worker-safety and for migrant farmworkers. The budget also seeks to significantly slash funding for Job Corps, a program that provides job training to disadvantaged youth, by $407 million, or 24 percent. Dimitri Iglitzin, a labor attorney in Seattle, says that “Of all of the ways that the Trump administration has been crushing labor, the most important has been the neutering of the Department of Labor. On a day-to-day basis, the agency that should be fighting for working people is doing so no longer.”

Typically, when the U.S. government shifts from a Democratic presidential administration to a Republican one, a certain level of pro-business policies and erosion of labor rights is expected. However, many labor experts say that the presidency of Donald Trump has led to a repeal of Obama administration regulations that is unprecedented, and is proceeding faster than is typical under a new GOP administration. Celine McNicholas, labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., says the Trump rollbacks of various pro-labor rules and regulations, in addition to deep cuts to the Labor Department’s budget, have been devastating to U.S. workers and “are not business as usual.”

In just over a year and a half as president, Donald Trump has wiped away a number of the modest policy gains that organized labor made during the Obama years. The nominees he chose to fill crucial regulatory roles already are making it more difficult for workers. Taken together, this blizzard of decisions will hurt millions of workers and weaken their abilities to unionize and bargain collectively.

Another way forward

But it does not have to be like this. Germany, Sweden and other EU member states show another path that is better for workers and that creates a stronger relationship between businesses, employees and trade unions.

Countries like Germany and Sweden have stronger labor laws than in the United States, and consequently more influential trade unions. In addition, many EU member states benefit from what is known as “co-determination,” which includes works councils at every job site and worker-elected boards of directors for the biggest of businesses, including Fortune 500 companies. Imagine if Walmart and Amazon were legally required to allow its workers to elect up to 50% of the members of its board of directors? It’s unimaginable to most Americans, yet this is standard practice throughout Europe. Co-determination fosters a “culture of consultation” and a degree of economic democracy. As a result, there is more broadly shared prosperity, with social supports like universal health care, child care, affordable university education, affordable housing, job training/re-skilling, workplace protections, a decent retirement and more.

In an age of growing inequality, the European practice of co-determination has broken with a strictly “shareholder model,” and has set a standard for corporate governance that holds great potential for the digital age if used in a widespread fashion.

Labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan has proposed that U.S. states should try out codetermination. Geoghegan says states should offer tax breaks to companies that allow rank-and-file employees to elect a third to a half of its corporate board of directors. Doing so, says Geoghegan, would allow U.S. companies to test drive an alternative model to the current dysfunctional stockholder model. Also, states could try out this model by requiring that nonprofits, NGOs and universities allow their employees to elect a portion of its board of directors or trustees.

Three senators (Democrats Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren and Brian Schatz) have introduced legislation that would require that companies allow workers to elect one-third of their corporate board. The bill is not expected to pass, and while the AFL-CIO has endorsed this legislation, historically unions and labor advocates have not taken up this cause. Yet labor leaders don’t seem to have any other proposals that might stop the hemorrhaging of union members.

Certainly such progressive proposals are going nowhere at the federal level under the administration of Donald Trump. So the landscape for political change has shifted to states and to cities where Democrats and progressives are more dominant. Still, even when Democrats have been in control, whether at the federal level under President Obama or in heavily Democratic states like California, Maryland and Massachusetts, there has been little appetite to push the boundaries of ways to support labor unions or progressive labor reform.

Which is surprising, since the unionization rate in the United States has fallen to fewer than 7 percent in the private sector and 11 percent of all workers. And future prospects don’t look too bright.

In an age when many workers are becoming freelancers and contractors who supposedly are the “CEOs of their own business” (whether driving for Uber, or being a hotelier for Airbnb, or a freelancer for Upwork and dozens of other online platform companies), the fate of labor unions hasn’t been this threatened in nearly a century. The Trump administration is just the latest nail in a slowly closing coffin that has been in process for decades. It’s time for U.S. labor unions to try new tactics.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steven Hill is a senior fellow at FairVote, a former senior fellow and political reform program director with the New America Foundation, and former Holtzbrinck fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. For more information, visit Steven Hill’s website at www.Steven-Hill.com and follow him on Twitter @StevenHill1776.

Beware the Janus Fix That Relies Too Much on Bosses

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, a new approach to financing unions called “direct reimbursement” is gaining traction with Democratic politicians, academics, and even the New York Times editorial board.

It boils down to this: Rather than public sector workers paying dues, their government employer would pay an equivalent amount directly to the union.

Proponents claim this approach will neutralize the impact of the Janus decision and shore up union budgets.

The idea has legs. New York’s most senior Democratic Assemblyman Richard Gottfried is sponsoring a bill to allow public sector unions to negotiate this scheme into their contracts. Hawaii is entertaining a version too.

Backed into a corner and fearful for the future, some unions might jump at this quick fix. It’s a big mistake.

Employer-sponsored unions?

There’s a good reason why such an arrangement would be illegal in the private sector. Federal labor law bars unions from receiving employers’ financial support.

The point of that bar is to keep unions independent and out of the control of the boss. Direct reimbursement would make unions more vulnerable to employer domination.

“It is like a company union,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor researcher at Cornell University. “What the employer gives out, it can take it away.” 

Aaron Tang, the law professor at the University of California-Davis who dreamed up the idea, has a simple remedy to preserve union independence—guarantee the reimbursements by law, and send any disputes to a third party such as a state labor board. 

But given the depth of employers’ hostility, the feeble enforcement of existing labor laws, the history of company unionism in the U.S. and the fact that state labor boards are often filled with political appointees (just look at the anti-union board stacked by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner), Tang’s proposal is naïve.

It would also leave unions unprepared to collect dues in the event of repeal by a court or legislature.

“Remove the workers”

A law like this would play right into the anti-union talking point that a union is an outside organization, imposed on workers from above. 

Tang’s proposal treats workers as the problem, not the solution. As he puts it, the policy would work by “removing the workers from the equation” of union funding. Seriously?

A “solution” to Janus that leaves out workers will only reinforce the bad behaviors that got us into this mess in the first place. Too many union leaders react to a weak position by looking for a technical fix or a way to partner up with the boss.

You can’t find a technical fix to an organizing problem.

“This idea is coming from the Democratic Party because they are concerned about union money,” said Bronfenbrenner, “not about workers or building worker power.”

“Many unions have lost the understanding that our fight starts in the workplace,” said Cherrene Horazuk, president of AFSCME 3800 in Minneapolis, who supported a resolution at the union’s national convention opposing the direct reimbursement approach. “If our members know we are fighting for and with them, they’ll know that it is in their interests to be a part of their union.”

Let’s stop looking for shortcuts to surviving Janus, and get down to the hard work of organizing.

This article was originally republished from Labor Notes at In These Times on July 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.

A Dark Veil

Friday, July 20th, 2018

The Trump administration on Tuesday rescinded the Department of Labor’s “persuader rule” requiring companies to disclose any consultants or lawyers contracted for anti-union persuasion efforts. The most recent in a series of anti-worker regulatory rollbacks, the decision has drawn harsh condemnation from union leaders and working people.

When the Labor Department issued the rule in 2016, it was hailed as a win for workplace transparency. Workers would have the right to know when their bosses hired outside union-busters to influence organizing decisions.

Then-Secretary of Labor Tom Perez explained it would “ensure that workers have the information they need to make informed decisions about exercising critical workplace rights….Informed decisions are the best decisions.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, AFL-CIO National Media Director Josh Goldstein slammed the administration’s decision to shield the “sinister practices of employers and their hired guns.”

“By repealing the persuader rule, the Department of Labor is siding with corporate CEOs against good government and transparency,” Goldstein said. “They have thrown a dark veil over the shady groups employers hire to take away the freedoms of working people.”

This blog was originally published at the AFL-CIO on July 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Study: Popularity of Joining Unions Surges

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

After holding steady for decades, the percentage of American workers in all jobs who would say yes to join a union jumped sharply this past year, by 50%, says a new, independent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The evidence is clear: The popularity of the labor movement is surging as more people want to join unions than ever before. Every worker must have the freedom to negotiate in a union over pay, benefits and working conditions.

The national narrative that the economy is doing OK, while working people struggle and billionaires bask in their latest round of massive tax cuts, is all wrong.

The truth is more working people want collective power. From 1977 to 1995, the percentage of all workers who would say yes to a union drive stayed flat, at about 32% of nonunion workers. Today, that number is 48%, a remarkable 50% increase.

This independent study from MIT confirms a broad trend we’ve seen in recent months as teachers have marched and rallied en masse for better school funding and higher pay, as tens of thousands of workers have voted to join unions and as the concept of unionism has spread in countless other ways in America.

The rich and powerful still hold many of the levers of power in America, but working people are claiming our seat at the table. We demand that every worker have the freedom to form or join a union.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on June 22, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Today’s Bad Idea: Merge Labor and Education Departments

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

The Trump administration today proposed to merge the Department of Labor into the Department of Education.

While some have suggested that the new department be christened the “Department of Child Labor,” the Trump administration has come up with the “Department of Education and the Workforce.”

Some may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu at this name change.  In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives changed the name of what had always been the Education and Labor Committee to the Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats replaced “Workforce” with “Labor” when they regained the majority in 2007, and the Republicans duly changed it back to “Workforce”when they regained the majority again in 2011.

In short, the word “labor” sounds too much like “labor movement” and those nasty, unpleasant, trouble-making labor unions.

We’ll see what happens when the Democrats retake the majority after the November elections.

Some have suggested that they could christen the new agency the “Department of Child Labor”

While the alleged purpose of this merger is to consolidate vocational skills training programs in one agency, the real goal is, as the Washington Post describes, to build “on Trump’s pledge to shrink the size and scope of the federal government, a long-sought goal of conservatives.”  And of course, draining the swamp:

“This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget who has led the 14-month reorganization effort, said in a statement. “The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient,” he added.

Now, there are several reasons why this is a bad idea. Chris Lu, Deputy Secretary of Labor during Obama’s second term notes that only parts of DOL and Education deal with worker training. Most of the Department of Labor consists of enforcement agencies like OSHA, MSHA, Wage & Hour and OFCCP that protect workers’ health and safety, pay, benefits and anti-discrimination rights.

And while neither OSHA, nor MSHA, nor enforcement were mentioned by Mulvaney, the idea of turning OSHA and MSHA into educational agencies that just provide education,  training and fact sheets to employers is probably appealing to Republicans and the business community.

Seth Harris, who was Deputy Secretary of Labor under Obama’s first term, calls the proposal “a solution in search of a problem” and predicts that it’s not going to happen. Any major reorganizations of Cabinet departments require Congressional approval — which means 60 votes in the Senate — and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

These type of major reorganizations rarely succeed because there are too many powerful organizations that have an interest in maintaining the status quo.  Lu notes that “there are also training programs at HHS, Interior, USDA, EPA, VA, DOD, DOJ. Shifting all of those programs would cause a firestorm on Congress and with outside groups.”

The National Employment Law Project points out that the Trump administration’s track record on labor issues doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this proposal is being done in the best interests of workers:

This latest half-baked idea is just one more betrayal of the very workers Donald Trump pledged to put front and center when he took the oath of office. Since then, his administration has—among other things–relaxed protections for workers’ retirement savings, weakened overtime pay rights, attacked workers’ unions, rolled back important health and safety protections that would protect workers from hazardous substances on the job, and pushed through a massive tax bill that further enriches corporations and the nation’s wealthiest at the expense of workers and their families.

So if swamp draining is the goal, I have a few suggestions.  Merge ethically challenged Cabinet officers like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos with the unemployment office (even though only Pruitt would probably need the assistance.)  Then get these agencies back to accomplishing their missions: protecting workers, the environment, public housing and public schools) and, as Chris Lu says, “fill vacant positions with competent people, provide agencies with sufficient funding, and stop denigrating federal employees. ”

This blog was originally published on June 21, 2018 at Confined Space. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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.
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