State of the Unions: What happened to America’s labor movement?

From today’s New Yorker Magazine:

Do you have rights at work? Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought you did. In 1936, while trying to haul America’s economy out of the bog that the free market had driven it into, Roosevelt argued that workers needed to have a say, declaring it unjust that

a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us throughout the land, life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

For Roosevelt, a system in which bosses could unilaterally decide “the hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor” amounted to “dictatorship.” He hoped that the New Deal would bring workers and managers together in a new form of workplace governance.

New Dealers drew on an idea known as industrial democracy, developed, in the late nineteenth century, by English socialist thinkers who saw workplace rights as analogous to civil rights such as due process and the freedoms of speech and assembly. Senator Robert Wagner, who wrote the National Labor Relations Act of 1935—also known as the Wagner Act—made the point explicitly: “Democracy in industry means fair participation by those who work in the decisions vitally affecting their lives and livelihood.” In their efforts to civilize the workplace, however, Roosevelt and his allies didn’t set up a new institution for workers to speak through. They relied on an existing one: the union.

Whenever the rate of unionization in America has risen in the past hundred years, the top one per cent’s portion of the national income has tended to shrink. After Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act and other pro-union legislation, a generation of workers shared deeply in the nation’s prosperity. Real wages doubled in the two decades following the Second World War, and, by 1959, Vice-President Richard Nixon was able to boast to Nikita Khrushchev that “the United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.”

America’s unions and workers haven’t been faring quite as well lately. Where labor is concerned, recent decades strongly resemble the run-up to the Great Depression. Both periods were marked by extreme concentrations of personal wealth and corporate power. In both, the value created by workers decoupled from the pay they received: during the nineteen-twenties, productivity grew forty-three per cent while wages stagnated; between 1973 and 2016, productivity grew six times faster than compensation. And unions were in decline: between 1920 and 1930, the proportion of union members in the labor force dropped from 12.2 per cent to 7.5 per cent, and, between 1954 and 2018, it fell from thirty-five per cent to 10.5 per cent. In “Beaten Down, Worked Up” (Knopf), a compact, pointed new account of unions in America, Steven Greenhouse, a longtime labor reporter for the Times, writes that “the share of national income going to business profits has climbed to its highest level since World War II, while workers’ share of income (employee compensation, including benefits) has slid to its lowest level since the 1940s.”

Read the complete article here.

Yes, America Is Rigged Against Workers

From today’s New York Times:

The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave. It is also the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developedcountry (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, the European Union’s 28 nations guarantee workers at least four weeks’ paid vacation.

Among the three dozen industrial countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage — just 34 percent of the typical wage, compared with 62 percent in France and 54 percent in Britain. It also has the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers among that group, exceeded only by Latvia.

All this means the United States suffers from what I call “anti-worker exceptionalism.”

Academics debate why American workers are in many ways worse off than their counterparts elsewhere, but there is overriding agreement on one reason: Labor unions are weaker in the United States than in other industrial nations. Just one in 16 private-sector American workers is in a union, largely because corporations are so adept and aggressive at beating back unionization. In no other industrial nation do corporations fight so hard to keep out unions.

The consequences are enormous, not only for wages and income inequality, but also for our politics and policymaking and for the many Americans who are mistreated at work.

Read the complete article here.

Trump won key union workers in 2016. Will Scalia as labor secretary change that for 2020?

From PBS Newshour Online:

To critics, the nomination of a labor secretary who built his career fighting unions underscores a President Donald Trump’s attacks against organized labor.

But for Trump, it seems appointing Eugene Scalia is a way to continue taking on unions through deregulation and business-centric policies without alienating rank and file union members in key states he’ll need to win reelection in 2020.

The president’s pick, which he announced on Twitter but has not officially submitted to the Senate, also shows Trump’s willingness to push the boundaries on who makes a suitable labor nominee, compared to past Republican administrations.

In the past, “Republicans tended to choose businessmen” to lead the Department of Labor, said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. “Often they were businessmen who had dealings with unions. But [they] were not anti-union.”

Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appears to be a departure from that norm.

Scalia is a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Gibson Dunn, where he focuses on labor and employment issues. As an attorney, he has worked on behalf of Walmart, Ford, UPS and a host of other companies in lawsuits fighting against workers’ rights claims. He also served a brief stint as the Labor Department’s solicitor in 2002.

Some union leaders argued Scalia is also more extreme than Trump’s past appointments for the cabinet position. Scalia is Trump’s third pick for labor secretary. Businessman Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration after it was reported that he had hired an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper. Former prosecutor Alex Acosta served as labor secretary for two years before resigning earlier this month after coming under scrutiny for his role in a 2008 plea deal for financier Jeffrey Epstein, who is facing charges of sex trafficking.

Read the complete article here.

Can Courts Strike Down Right-to-Work?

From The American Prospect:

Last week, in a move that’s as likely to baffle union activists as it is to encourage them, a West Virginia judge struck down key portions of the state’s “right-to-work” law.

The Kenawha County judge’s ruling may amount to no more than a temporary hiccup in West Virginia Republicans’ war to destroy unions. But it’s another example of how hotly provisions of the 1947 federal Taft-Hartley Act are being contested in the courts as it becomes clearer that the anti-union impact of the law has contributed to an era of massive inequality that threatens our democracy.

West Virginia’s “right to work” law was rammed through on a party-line vote prior to 2016’s presidential election and the recent statewide teachers strikes. It had survived a Democratic gubernatorial veto and a previous injunction based in part on its ridiculously sloppy drafting. Last week, however, siding with a coalition of unions that included the building trades, Teamsters and Mineworkers, Judge Jennifer Bailey ruled the law  “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally imposes an excessive burden on Plaintiffs’ associational rights,” and that the goal of letting workers opt out of union membership “can be, and have been, fully accomplished without taking the additional steps of prohibiting agency fees, and giving free riders something for nothing.”

Anne Marie Lofaso, a professor of law at West Virginia University, describes Bailey’s ruling as “an extremely well-done decision that holds together and reflects some excellent lawyering for the union plaintiffs.”

In many respects, the West Virginia decision is a replay of a briefly encouraging moment in April of 2016 when a Dane County judge struck down Wisconsin’s recently enacted “right-to-work” law. That decision was predictably reversed by a Republican-dominated higher state court one year later.

Read the complete article here.

In victory for unions, judge overturns key parts of Trump executive orders

From today’s Washington Post:

A federal judge late Friday dealt a victory to federal employees and the unions that represent them, invalidating overnight key provisions of a series of Trump administration executive orders aimed at making it easier to fire employees and weaken the unions.

The overnight ruling by U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington was a setback to the White House’s efforts to rein in the power of federal unions. Though federal employees’ pay is set by Congress, their unions have retained significant power even as private-sector unions have been in decline.

The three executive orders, issued just before Memorial Day, had sought to severely restrict the use of “official time” — on-duty time that union officials can spend representing their members in grievances and on other issues. The rules also limited issues that could be bargained over in union negotiations. And it rolled back the rights of workers deemed to be poor performers to appeal disciplinary action against them.

Read the complete article here.

Missouri voters blocked the state’s ‘right-to-work’ law in perhaps the biggest electoral stunner of the night

From today’s Business Insider:

Missouri voters on Tuesday struck down a right-to-work law by a resounding margin, representing a huge victory to the organized labor movement and a decisive blow to the agenda of the state’s majority-Republican legislature.

In 2017, Missouri Republicans passed legislation to ban compulsory union fees for workers who choose not to join, which would’ve severely limited the influence of the organized labor movement.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens signed the bill into law, but union organizers started a petition to stall its implementation, ultimately gathering enough signatures for the law to be put on hold pending a statewide referendum.

In the end, on Proposition A, roughly 67% voted against the keeping the law, while 33% voted in favor of it.

Supporters of right-to-work laws say workers shouldn’t be forced to join unions and pay membership fees. But opponents contend these fees are necessary to protect worker’s rights, especially given that federal law requires unions to represent all employees — even those who opt out of joining unions.

The Supreme Court in June ruled unions could not require public-sector employees to pay such fees. Twenty-seven states have laws permitting workers in unionized settings to choose not to join and pay membership fees.

Read the complete article here.

Disneyland reaches a tentative contract settlement with workers, ending a heated battle that lasted months

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Walt Disney Co. reached a tentative settlement Monday with four unions at the Disneyland Resort, putting an end to a contentious dispute that attracted the attention of Sen. Bernie Sanders and prompted a ballot measure to require the Burbank media giant to pay resort workers a “living wage.”

Although details of the settlement were not disclosed, the agreement appears to end a heated, months-long contract dispute with about 9,700 employees who work in the eateries and retail shops, operate the attractions and provide maintenance at the two Anaheim theme parks, the Disney hotels and nearby shopping district.

“The Disneyland Resort and Master Services Council are proud to have reached a tentative agreement, which we are hopeful will be ratified later this week,” the park and the council that represents the workers said in a joint statement. “We have had a successful history of working together since Disneyland Park opened in 1955, and this contract continues that shared commitment to cast members.”

Union members vote on the proposed contract Thursday. Negotiations began in April for the contract that was set to end in June. Employees have been working under an extension to the contract.

The unions have been pushing Disney to pay a “living wage” by, among other tactics, commissioning a study that looked at the economic hardship of the workers and sponsoring a rally featuring Sanders, who called on Disney to share its wealth with employees who are struggling to make ends meet.

The unions were successful in collecting at least 13,185 valid signatures — or at least 10% of the city’s voters — to put on the Nov. 6 ballot a measure requiring large hospitality companies that accept a subsidy from the city to pay at least $15 an hour, with salaries rising $1 an hour every Jan. 1 through 2022. Once the wage reaches $18 an hour, annual raises would then be tied to the cost of living.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS Hears Fiery Arguments In Case That Could Gut Public Sector Unions

From NPR News:

The Supreme Court heard fiery arguments Monday in a case that could remove a key revenue stream for public sector unions.

A sharply divided court could be poised to overturn a 40-year-old Supreme Court decision that would further undermine an already shrinking union movement.

Attorneys for Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois, argue that people like Janus, who choose not to join a union, shouldn’t be compelled to pay partial union fees. The union argues that he should because he benefits from collective bargaining negotiations. The Supreme Court agreed in 1977, but that could change with the new conservative tilt of the court.

When a decision is reached, expected in June, all eyes will be on Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was uncharacteristically quiet in Monday’s proceedings. He asked no questions and is likely to be the deciding vote, given that the other justices split 4 to 4 in a similar case in 2016. That case was decided just after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the balance didn’t seem to change Monday.

“You’re basically arguing, do away with unions,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued at one point in questioning the attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, William Messenger.

On the other side, conservatives sympathized with Janus’ argument that the unions are political, and people shouldn’t have to join a union they disagree with on politics.

Chief Justice John Roberts argued that what unions do affects policy and therefore makes them political. “How do negotiation over wages not affect the state budget?” he asked.

Justice Anthony Kennedy asked David Frederick, the attorney for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Illinois affiliate, whether a ruling against AFSCME would reduce its political influence.

Frederick agreed that it would.

“Isn’t that the end of this case?” Kennedy asked.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan warned against the potential breadth of the decision, which would affect 23 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, which have similar laws on the books.

“Thousands of municipalities would have contracts invalidated,” Kagan warned. “Those contracts probably cover millions, maybe up to over 10 million, workers.”

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS conservatives set to strike down union fees on free-speech grounds

From today’s LA Times:

Paying union dues and baking a wedding cake may not seem like classic examples of free speech—except perhaps at the Supreme Court.

This year, the high court is poised to announce its most significant expansion of the 1st Amendment since the Citizens United decision in 2010, which struck down laws that limited campaign spending by corporations, unions and the very wealthy.

Now the “money is speech” doctrine is back and at the heart of a case to be heard this month that threatens the financial foundation of public employee unions in 22 “blue” states.

Like Citizens United, the union case is being closely watched for its potential to shift political power in states and across the nation.

The legal attack on the campaign funding laws was brought by conservative activists who hoped that the free flow of money from wealthy donors would boost Republican candidates. And since 2010, the GOP has achieved big gains in Congress and in state legislatures across the nation.

Conservatives also believe the attack on mandatory union fees has the potential to weaken the public sector unions that are strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

“This is a big deal,” Illinois’ Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said in September on the day the Supreme Court said it would hear the lawsuit that he initiated. A court victory would be “transformative for the state of Illinois, transformative for America and the relationship between our taxpayers and the people who work for our taxpayers.”

Read the complete article here.

LA Times Newsroom Votes on Whether to Unionize, Tronc tries to suppress it

Here is an object lesson in why workers at the LA Times newsroom voted to unionize. Below is the “story” that appears in the LA Times about this historically significant event, in a time of digital transformation, job displacement, and mismanagement of news sources. The second article below is from the New York Times, and provides extensive coverage of both the background and context of yesterday’s vote by LA Times reporters. No wonder they are making a serious effort to unionize—their own management apparently wouldn’t even let them cover their own important story. Shame on Tronc for this selective editorial heavy-handedness.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Newsroom employees of the Los Angeles Times voted Thursday on whether to form a union.

Employees began casting ballots at 10 a.m. at The Times’ offices in downtown Los Angeles and Fountain Valley in an election held by the National Labor Relations Board. Those who work outside those offices were to able vote by mail.

Election results are expected to be announced Jan. 19. If a simple majority votes for the union, nearly 400 journalists would be represented.

A group of more than 40 Times journalists launched efforts last year to have the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America represent employees in collective bargaining.

Organizers are calling for regular raises as well as improved benefits and job protections. The management of The Times had urged employees to vote no, arguing a union would not benefit employees.

From the New York Times:

Newsroom employees at The Los Angeles Times began casting ballots Thursday on whether to form a union, in what they believe is the first time journalists have held a union vote in the newspaper’s 136-year history.

Workers — who are calling for more competitive salaries, equitable pay for women and minorities, more generous benefits and improved working conditions — began voting at 10 a.m. in a first-floor community room at The Times headquarters in downtown Los Angeles and at the company’s offices in Orange County. Those who work remotely or who are on assignment will be able to vote using mail-in ballots.

A tally of the vote is expected to be announced on Jan. 19; forming a union requires a simple majority of votes cast.

The unit would include roughly 380 employees. People familiar with the process said they believed the organizing effort had the votes to join the NewsGuild, which represents 25,000 reporters, editors, photojournalists and other media workers at news organizations across the United States.

The union vote affirms something of a shift at The Times, where a bombing by union organizers in 1910 helped shape a historically anti-union stance. The organizing effort has also exacerbated tensions between newsroom employees and the newspaper’s executives.

Times employees, who have seen repeated management and ownership turmoil over the years, have long expressed skepticism over their top leaders, but a wave of recent changes further strained their relationship.

Over the last several months, Tronc, the Times’s Chicago-based corporate parent, installed a new publisher, Ross Levinsohn, and editor in chief, Lewis D’Vorkin, who has vowed a “digital transformation” that has left some in the newsroom anxious. A dispute between The Times and the Walt Disney Company also raised tensions between the paper’s employees and its new top management, with some employees questioning how Mr. D’Vorkin had handled the paper’s response.

Management typically counters efforts to organize employees, but many in The Times newsroom — especially against the backdrop of already tense relations — said they felt that those in charge have been unduly aggressive in the attempt to thwart the union effort.

Read the complete article here.