By Doug Porter
A Gallup poll released this week says organized labor is making a comeback in the public consciousness. Support for labor unions has jumped five percentage points over the past year, with nearly six in 10 people approving of unions, up from 48% in 2009.
This increase in support comes despite an unrelenting effort by right-wing groups to blame unions for everything from unemployment to inciting class war. There are twin editorials/columns in Tuesday’s Union-Tribune misrepresenting the truth, casting labor as the evil opponent of good government and economic prosperity.
Today’s column will examine the phenomena driving the resurgence of the contemporary labor movement and the challenges it faces, along with some information on organizing efforts.
Victories in the California Legislature
On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring large chain grocery store owners to retain employees for at least 90 days after a merger or buyout. Management would be required to offer existing employees continued employment, but would not be prevented from dismissing people for cause.
San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez authored AB359 to protect workers faced with uncertainty following corporate mergers or sell-offs.
From the Los Angeles Times:
“Wall Street mergers and acquisitions that make big money for corporations and private equity firms should not jeopardize jobs of the grocery workers who live and work in our communities,” said Gonzalez in a statement. “This is a common sense opportunity to save people’s jobs and make sure the most-experienced, best-prepared workers stay on the job during a complicated transition period.”
The bill was strongly backed by labor groups, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery workers.
Business groups opposed the bill, arguing that it would force a company to keep its predecessor’s employees and adhere to contracts that the new owner did not negotiate. The California Chamber of Commerce labeled the measure, AB 359, a “job killer.”
“The grocery industry is changing at a fast and furious pace and that can create a lot of uncertainty for the employees that have made these stores so profitable,” said Mickey Kasparian, president for the San Diego-based United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 135.
Labor-backed legislation enacted in 2014 included measures calling for three paid sick days, new protections for temporary and contract workers, reporting by big companies with workers receiving Medi-Cal (along with the cost to taxpayers) and protections for immigrant workers.
A Little History
Decades of declining union membership in the US are hardly a coincidence. Since the day the National labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, corporate interests have worked unceasingly to weaken its status as the legal foundation allowing employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining for better terms and conditions at work, and take collective action including strike if necessary.
William Domhoff’s the Rise and fall of Labor Unions in the US documents these efforts to undermine organized labor over the past 80 years. Many of the popular misconceptions of union activity can be traced to the efforts of the pro-business groups.
While some shortcomings in the union movement came through corruption, quests for personal power and unresponsiveness to the everyday needs of members, other failures can be attributed to divide and conquer strategies involving race and red-baiting.
Unions were afraid to innovate, and they got away from being a real labor movement to being business unions administering contracts. The contradiction between “business unionism” and a broader social movement has been (and is) at the heart of the history of labor organizations.
The nadir for the labor movement came in the millennial years, as seven unions – led by the Service Employees International Union – bolted from the AFL-CIO in 2005, saying they were frustrated with leadership and wanting a more aggressive approach in building membership.
The ascension of mineworker Richard Trumka to the top spot in the AFL-CIO in 2009, signaled a sea change in the organization. (Like all large organizations they are, however, challenged by sudden changes in direction.)
Today’s labor movement is seeking to broaden its influence, going beyond the interests of traditional unions to include constituent groups like environmental and civil rights organizations. There’s what is called the alt labor movement, which is things like the National Guestworker Alliance, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United, the fast food worker strikes, the Wal-mart workers groups, and hundreds of worker-centers around the country.
Why the Comeback?
It’s too soon to tell if the changes within the labor movement will result in meaningful growth for unions. One thing is for sure, and that’s the complete failure of (most) corporations to treat workers with respect. Whether it’s at Walmart or Amazon, the modern day business model too-often consists of creating a workplace devoid of respect or fairness. For entry-level or semi-skilled workers it seems incredible to me that there is no shame for these companies as they depend on government assistance for their employees. It’s really not a bug. Their business models are designed that way.
A wave of anti-union legislation at the state level in recent years has blocked many of the paths to organizing for collective bargaining.
From the Huffington Post, reporting on the latest Gallup polling:
Although a majority of Americans support organized labor, most remain pessimistic about its future. Fifty-three percent predict unions will become weaker in the future, and only 21 percent predict they will become stronger. Twenty-three percent said they think unions’ influence will remain unchanged.
The correlation between the decline of union activity and the increase in economic inequality is certainly changing the nature of public perception. And the recent vote of the Securities and Exchange Commission requiring public companies to disclose the pay gap between the CEO and the average worker is likely to further stoke the controversy.
From the Los Angeles Times:
A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, showed that chief executives of large public companies saw their pay soar in recent decades.
That study said average CEO compensation was $16.3 million in 2014, an increase of 997% since 1978, compared with 10.9% growth for the typical worker.
Digital Media Organizing
In recent months workers at several digital media companies including Gawker, Salon, the Guardian US, and writers at Vice Media have voted (by large margins) to unionize.
Not all efforts have been successful. Labor reporter Mike Elk is no longer with Politico after announcing plans to organize workers at the company.
Elk is among those backing The National Convergence to Organize Digital Media, to be held in Louisville, Ky. in October.
Rainbow Warriors on Strike
Workers with Greenpeace, including those in San Diego, have gone on strike.
From Young Progressive Voices:
According to a press release sent by a new organization named “Greenpeace on Strike,” many the environmental organization’s canvassers with over 1 year experience regularly raise nearly 6 to 7 times as much money as they are paid. Despite the significant payday for Greenpeace, the organization uses a quota system that doesn’t take into account the lifetime fundraising totals of canvassers. The system runs on a 3 week quota that means that canvassers can be fired for short-time lull in fundraising even if the canvassers’ lifetime totals are still above the 3 week average.
In response to the strike, 16 of the Greenpeace workers in San Diego were delivered with letters of intent to terminate by Greenpeace under a claim of job abandonment.
Greenpeace On Strike’s press release claims that these letters are a direct violation of section 7 & 8 of the National Labor Relations Act.
Without a union to back them up, those leading the insurrection at Greenpeace lack the resources or the knowledge to challenge their employer in the long run.
Rite Aid Contract Negotiations
Things between the United Food and Commercial Workers and Rite Aid drug stores look to be getting tense, as attempts to negotiate a new contract have led to what UFCW Local 135 President Mickey Kasparian calls “Union Busting tactics, along with disrespectful contract proposals.”
There are 372 stores and nearly 8,000 workers affected in these negotiations.
Kasparian took to social media recently, urging consumers to call store managers saying they’d move prescription business elsewhere unless the company treats their workers with dignity and respect. The union has engaged in informational leafleting at several Rite Aid locations.
The UFCW won a major victory recently when the El Super grocery chain settled with the National Labor Relations Board over allegations that it refused to bargain with union locals and mistreated unionized workers,
From the Los Angeles Times:
El Super, which employs 45,000 people at 50 markets across California, Arizona and Nevada, has voluntarily agreed to begin bargaining with the union locals.
Under the settlement, the chain must also post signs saying that it cannot refuse to negotiate. The notices should also remind workers that they have the right to band together and seek bargaining representation.
What You Don’t See Unions Doing
It’s kind of amazing once you start looking around. Even in San Diego, where the media’s relationship with labor is generally hostile or oblivious, there are organizing projects underway and contract negotiations taking place.
Here at San Diego Free Press I’ve reported on dozens of stories about the fight for a decent minimum wage, janitors for fighting for justice, hotel and casino workers seeking representation, taxi workers organizing and many others. These stories are just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve come to the conclusion that organized labor, warts and all, is the only force capable of pushing back against the plutocrats bent on ruining this country.
To be honest, many of those stories I’ve written about labor were sourced from social media. I’d love to have a source/reporter relationship with organized labor. But in San Diego, that ain’t happening. (I’m still hoping…) For now, I’ll (mostly) have to settle for what I can get off Facebook.
On This Day: 1927- Radio station WEVD, named for Eugene V. Debs, goes on the air in New York City, operated by The Forward Association as a memorial to the labor and socialist leader. 1962 – Peter, Paul & Mary’s “If I Had A Hammer” was released. 1963 – James Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi. He was the first black man to accomplish this feat.
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