Why Are Workers Struggling? Because Labor Law Is Broken : Economics


Full text 2/s:Hundreds of thousands of workers turned to massive strikes. In 1934, longshoremen paralyzed the ports of the West Coast for weeks, Teamsters and the police killed one another during a strike in Minneapolis and striking workers at an auto-parts plant in Toledo clashed violently with National Guardsmen and company police. The strife was a challenge for Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress. At first, two longtime social reformers, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Senator Robert F. Wagner, a Democrat from New York City, counseled the unions to be patient and negotiate. But in 1934, Wagner went to Virginia in hopes of using his personal influence to settle a strike at a textile plant and came back “breathing wrath” at the plant’s owners, according to Perkins’s memoir. “We’ve got to have a law that requires them to deal with the union in collective bargaining,” he told her. “Just imagine, they won’t even talk with the union.”The N.L.R.A. forced employers to the bargaining table by giving workers the right to collectively bargain. Along with investigating companies for interfering with organizing, the N.L.R.B. would hold elections for unions and certify them when they won.But from the start, the law had limitations as a tool for protecting workers. To win the votes of white Southern Democrats in the Senate, Roosevelt and Wagner agreed to exclude farmworkers and domestic laborers — nannies, cooks, house cleaners — many of whom were black, from the N.L.R.A.’s guarantees. More broadly, the law’s purpose, stated in its preamble, was “to diminish the causes of labor disputes burdening or obstructing interstate and foreign commerce” — in other words, to make peace between labor and business, not fundamentally alter the economic or political relationship between them. Unions could not organize across an industrial sector but had to do so company by company. Labor federations were given no role in setting wages, as some do in European countries.For a dozen years, however, the N.L.R.A. was an engine for organizing American factories. Within months of the law’s passage, a new coalition, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, mounted a massive campaign of sit-ins and walkouts and succeeded in establishing unions with clout across the auto, steel and garment industries. Unions increased their membership to a high point of 35 percent of American workers in the mid-1940s.Then big business hit back. In 1947, over President Harry Truman’s veto, Republican majorities in Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which amended the N.L.R.A. by effectively permitting employers to use work time for mandatory anti-union meetings, banning sympathy strikes and boycotts and allowing states to pass right-to-work laws, which ban mandatory union dues for workers even though they are benefiting from a union’s representation. The last change is a big blow to labor’s political power because it reduces union membership and revenue.For decades, though membership began to decline, unions held their own in an economy that still centered on U.S.-based manufacturing. They also expanded into the public sector. In the 1970s, 1,000 workers or more participated in each of nearly 300 strikes a year. But in a warning of labor’s waning power, a major push to stiffen the penalties for companies that violate the N.L.R.A. died in a Senate filibuster in 1978, blocked mostly by Republicans as well as a few Democrats. That was also the last year in which unions were able to match the campaign donations of businesses to congressional elections.American workers took a beating in the 1980s — “labor’s witching hour,” as Steven Greenhouse, author of the 2019 book “Beaten Down, Worked Up” and a former longtime New York Times labor reporter, puts it. The event that set the stage for crippling unions began with a strike by federal air traffic controllers in August 1981. President Ronald Reagan declared their action illegal and fired more than 11,000 striking workers, hiring replacements. In October, the government decertified the union, which disbanded. One of the Reagan administration’s lawyers in the case was Peter B. Robb, now general counsel of the N.L.R.B.The law the Reagan administration relied on had been on the books since 1955, but over the course of 39 previous work stoppages, no president had used it to fire federal workers. When more than 150,000 postal workers went on strike in 1970, for example, the Nixon administration didn’t retaliate against them, and they won a big raise. But once a popular president busted a union, private-sector employers saw new opportunity. “By showing the way, Reagan invigorated the militant efforts of business to break strikes,” Joseph A. McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, told me. As the president of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, a copper-mining and smelting company, said after hiring more than 1,300 replacement workers to defeat a long strike in 1983: “Suddenly people realized, Hell, you can beat a union.”Unions struggled to adjust to the hardball strikebreaking tactics just as a cascade of forces — deregulation, the outsourcing of factory work abroad and corporations’ increasing focus on maximizing shareholders’ wealth — ate away at workers’ job security. The N.L.R.A. was unequal to the task of protecting them. When workers voted to start a union, it became routine for companies to contest the validity of the results, delaying certification for years. When the N.L.R.B. sided with workers, as it continued to do during Democratic administrations, the main remedy it could offer — back pay — was too small to have a lasting deterrent effect. “Researchers have found that nearly 20 percent of rank-and-file union activists are fired during organizing drives,” Greenhouse writes in his book. “It’s almost foolhardy for anti-union companies not to fire the two or three workers heading an organizing drive.”These dynamics help explain why the share of workers who belong to a union has fallen to about 10 percent, the lowest rate of any wealthy country, even though public approval of unions has risen to 64 percent in the past decade, according to Gallup. As unions go, so goes inequality. The division of income among Americans has increasingly tilted to the richest 10 percent, and away from everyone else, as union membership has ebbed.This month, Democrats in the House passed a bill to broaden the right of employees to organize and strike to include independent contractors, who number between 10.5 and 15 million, and to increase the penalties for companies that violate the N.L.R.A. In January, Clean Slate for Worker Power, a coalition of more than 70 participants from labor, academia and nonprofit organizations brought together by Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, released proposed reforms that would extend the N.L.R.A.’s protections to agricultural and domestic workers as well as independent contractors and also give all workers a say in how companies are run.One of Clean Slate’s most sweeping recommendations is for sectoral bargaining, which is common in Scandinavia, and makes it legal to negotiate a contract across an industry rather than one company at a time. There’s a potential competitive benefit for businesses: If McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s agree to pay the same wages and benefits, one can’t gain an advantage over another. In a sense, the Fight for $15 has achieved a broad version of it in some blue states. Since 2016, California, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut have enacted minimum-wage increases for all workers to $15 an hour, phased in over time. So have more than 15 cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and St. Paul, Minn.But there’s little pressure for corporations to accede to labor’s demands; in the 2016 election cycle, businesses outspent unions by a ratio of 16 to 1. To change the law, unions have to increase their political power in spite of all the obstacles. Héctor Figueroa, a respected labor leader in New York City who added 50,000 members to his chapter of the S.E.I.U., criticized his own movement, in a July 2019 Op-Ed in The New York Times, for failing to put sufficient resources into expanding its ranks and building new sources of power. Figueroa noted the problems for labor caused by the weakness of the N.L.R.A.: “But there’s plenty of blame to go around,” he wrote. “We have let ourselves be backed into a corner, by trying to just hold on to what we have.” (Figueroa died that July.)In the past couple of years, a new burst of organizing has succeeded by reviving an old weapon — the strike. In her new book, “A Collective Bargain,” the organizer Jane McAlevey describes the strategic preparation behind the Los Angeles teachers’ successful strike in early 2019. The teachers built support among parents. They prioritized “community demands”: reductions in class size, green spaces for schools and an immigrant-defense fund for undocumented families.In McAlevey’s vision, educators and health care workers, “mostly women and women of color, different from the guys in the factories,” can build the organizing capacity and leverage to transform American politics. Could teachers and nurses achieve what steel and autoworkers did in the 1930s? “We didn’t get the N.L.R.A. without a massive crisis on the streets,” McAlevey says. “That comes first. Then you get to change the rules.”McCartin, the Georgetown historian, also sees the “militant re-emergence of workers” as a precondition for turning around the labor movement’s losses. “Remember, the N.L.R.A. wasn’t even on the wish list of a president like Roosevelt,” he said. “He came through because he saw that he had to.”


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