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Labor Relations News Update November 4, 2013

Today’s Labor Updates:

The Supreme Court Totally Screwed America’s Labor Unions

Issue Brief: Worker Centers


The Supreme Court Totally Screwed America’s Labor Unions

Posted: 11/03/2013 5:53 pm Read more Business News

Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said that you can judge a country by how well it treats its prisoners. This observation has been amended to apply to other groups: to how well a country treats its old people, to how well it treats its minorities, to how well it treats its children, to how well it treats its mentally ill, even to how well it treats its pets. That last one is a bit hard to swallow. (“Hey, Freedonia must be a great country….they’re really nice to their dogs.”)

Because most of the world’s people are required to work for a living, and because it’s always a temptation to posit universal truths, some of us have suggested amending Dostoyevsky’s observation thusly: One can judge a country by how well it treats its working people. And by that standard, the U.S. has a pitiful record.

Because everyone has to work, and because (as Marx noted) there is almost always going to be a surplus of labor (too many people applying for too few jobs), two things are clear: (1) management is always going to be in the driver’s seat, and (2) workers are forever going to be vulnerable to the inexorable squeeze of a seller’s market.

That’s why the safety net of the minimum wage was established as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and that’s why labor unions were invented, to give the working class a modicum of leverage when dealing with management.

Union workers have two forms of leverage: collectivism (strength in numbers) and striking (refusing to work until given a fair contract). Anyone can readily see the difference between having a lone worker complain to the company that it’s not right to arbitrarily cut his pay simply because they can, and having four-hundred workers march into company headquarters and complain about the same thing. Which is why collectivism is so important.

But in June of 1985, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, agreed with an earlier NLRB decision (Pattern Makers League of North America vs. NLRB) allowing union members to cross their own picket line without fear of being fined or otherwise penalized by the union. The majority justices in that decision were Burger, Rehnquist, O’Connor, Powel and White. The minority were Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens.

What the Pattern Makers decision did was make scabs legal. With one stroke of the pen, the Supreme Court shredded the fabric of union solidarity. American workers have a clear choice; they can work in a union shop, which offers superior wages, benefits and working conditions, or they can take their chances in a non-union shop. Fewer than 7-percent of private sector businesses are unionized, which means that more than 93-percent are non-union. Good luck.

But if you do choose to join a union, it’s only fair that you behave as a member. Union membership is a privilege, not a right. Again, it was your choice to join, and with fewer than 7-percent of the jobs being union jobs, it’s obvious that you ferreted out a union shop in order to reap the benefits. Accordingly, if the membership votes to strike (and by law, they must vote on such a measure), then, as a member in good standing, it’s only fair that you honor that vote.

Yet, by virtue of the Pattern Makers ruling, when a union hits the bricks in order to seek an improved contract, this employee–who has heretofore wallowed in those union wages and benefits–can cross the picket line, continue to work and draw a paycheck (while his union brethren languish as pickets), and then, when the strike is settled, and the union succeeds in gaining some hard-fought improvements, can partake of those improved benefits as if nothing happened. The Supreme Court made it legal.

It’s no wonder the labor movement has lost so much traction. With anti-union Republicans, the pro-business media, and gutless Democrats all being joined by a faux-libertarian Supreme Court, organized labor is fighting for its life.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), is a former labor union rep.


Issue Brief: Worker Centers

As its ranks decline, unions have turned to alternative approaches to organizing.  One of their new tactics is the Worker Center.  This movement is gaining both momentum and sophistication and may help organized labor find entry into facilities where workers have previously declined to embrace unions.

Worker centers are usually organized as nonprofit, “charitable” organizations, claiming to provide education and training services.  While they act like unions in many respects, their §501(c)(3) status allows them to harass employers while avoiding the restrictions on picketing and boycotts established by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the disclosure and democracy requirements of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA).  Their “charitable” status also brings an element of creditability — in the eyes of both employees and the public — to a corporate campaign that a union would typically not have.

To exist, worker centers do not need substantial support within a workplace — they only need to enlist a few disgruntled workers to launch a campaign against an employer.  Their activities include negotiating directly for higher wages and benefits, raising grievances on behalf of particular employees, conducting publicity-driven smear campaigns, engaging in secondary boycotts, filing lawsuits against employers and encouraging government agencies to investigate baseless charges of discrimination and workplace safety violations.

Some of the most active worker centers are the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Our Wal-Mart, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and the Food Chain Workers Alliance.  These groups are active in multiple states.

Traditional labor unions have been increasingly collaborating with these alternative groups, and Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, recently declared that worker centers would be a new partner in expanding union membership.  In fact, unions are already leveraging worker centers for direct economic campaigns against employers and for opportunities to enact public policy changes.  For example, the Black Friday campaign against Wal-Mart, strikes at fast food restaurants in New York City and demands that supermarkets and restaurants in Florida and other states observe “codes of conduct” are all led by union-backed worker centers.

Worker centers are striving for mainstream acceptance and increased influence.  Many receive taxpayer and philanthropic funding.  The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, has entered into a formal partnership with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, essentially deputizing the activist organization to act as the eyes and ears of enforcement agents.

Both employers and workers need to monitor the worker center movement.  In particular, if these groups are going to claim to represent workers and make demands of employers, they need to be governed by laws that regulate union behavior and provide democratic protections for employees.

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