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Labour Last Updated: Apr 15, 2021 - 4:50:11 PM

Labor After Bessemer
By Harold Meyerson, TAP, April 12, 2021
Apr 14, 2021 - 10:52:10 AM

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To halt unions’ seemingly endless losing streak, they need a law that lets workers chart their own course.

Democratic members of Congress join union representatives outside the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, March 5, 2021, to advocate for the unionization vote.

When was the last time a union had a major victory at a large private-sector workplace? I guess it was at the Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse in 2008, and before then, at the Fieldcrest Cannon textile mills in 1999—both in North Carolina. The victory at Smithfield was the third such election there, the union having lost the previous two, and at Fieldcrest Cannon, the fourth, the union there having lost the previous three. By dint of never leaving, those unions had become a permanent part of their respective communities, which was one reason why they finally prevailed.

In the years since, however, there have been no comparable victories to speak of, and most certainly not at the nation’s two largest and most powerful private-sector employers, Walmart and Amazon. Whereas unions in the 1930s and ’40s had been able to gain recognition and far-reaching contracts at the nation’s largest employers—General Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel, and so on—thereby setting unprecedented wage and benefit standards for other companies and much of the postwar economy, the mega-employers of the 21st century have defeated all of their workers’ attempts to unionize, substituting an age of spiraling inequality for the social contracts of yore.

Unions did make a run of sorts at Walmart, as well as at some of its supply chain and transportation hubs, in the first years of the new century. They got absolutely nowhere. Walmart made its attitude toward unions rather clear when some meatcutters in one Texas store sought to form a union. The company responded by closing the meat department in that store, in all its stores in Texas, and all its stores in six surrounding states.

Unions then tried to unionize the company’s peripheries. In 2009, I reported on a campaign to unionize the warehouse workers of California’s Inland Empire. Fully 42 percent of the nation’s imports that came by ship landed in the adjacent harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach, whence they were trucked to a vast collection of Inland Empire warehouses, where roughly 100,000 largely immigrant workers toiled. More of those warehouses were shipping those imports to Walmarts than to anyplace else, but that didn’t make the workers Walmart employees. In fact, they effectively weren’t anyone’s employees; though most worked full-time, they were officially employed by an ever-changing sequence of the more than 270 temporary employment agencies that had sprung up in the area, precisely to enable Walmart and its ilk to disclaim any responsibility. Walmart didn’t even own the warehouses; a logistics company did, with which the temp agencies contracted. Confronted with all these obstacles, the unions’ campaign never got off the ground.

The failure of any union to have a major private-sector victory in more than a decade puts the failure at Bessemer, Alabama’s Amazon warehouse in a more understandable context. Yes, there were flaws in the campaign. It was initiated when a relatively small group of workers approached the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); the union agreed to launch its effort, believing that the plant employed 1,500 workers. When it was told there were actually 5,800 workers, it then collected signatures on election petitions from 2,000 of them. Under the circumstances, it might have been wise to wait until at least 3,500 or so had signed. Such campaigns require months if not years of work building community support (see: Smithfield, Fieldcrest Cannon) and calling on the workers in their homes, where they’re free to talk and ask questions. The union believed the iron was a lot hotter than it turned out to be; it also believed that with COVID raging, it could compensate for not doing home visits through its use of digital media.

But campaigns that have taken different approaches haven’t been notably successful, either. The decks are so stacked in the employer’s favor that hardly any group of workers who believe themselves to be easily replaceable has won recognition in decades. At Bessemer, Amazon deployed many standard union-defeating techniques. They required employees to attend anti-union propaganda meetings; they forced employees into one-on-one meetings with their supervisors; they used social and anti-social media to deluge workers with anti-union messages. Had they ever believed they might lose, they could have delved deeper into the union-busting playbook: bringing in local officials to say they feared the plant would close, spreading such rumors themselves, perhaps firing some of the workers leading the unionization effort. Most of these techniques are legal, thanks to decades of court rulings and congressional failures to outlaw them, and the ones that aren’t only require employers, if found guilty, to pay negligible fines long after the campaign is finished.

The decks are so stacked in the employer’s favor that hardly any group of workers who believe themselves to be easily replaceable has won recognition in decades.

Amazon also took advantage of the fact that the wages it paid its workers were higher than the wages paid by many other Alabama employers. Alabama is one of only six states (five of them in the Deep South) that never enacted its own minimum-wage law, so that the legal minimum there is the appallingly low $7.25 set by the federal government. By paying its employees a base wage of $15.30, Amazon was able to persuade some number of workers that no matter how exhausting and demeaning their jobs were, they still paid more than they could get elsewhere. (Many warehouse workers in Alabama do, in fact, make more than that, but younger workers new to the warehouse industry may not have known that.) The regional dearth of good jobs doubtless helped convince many European and Japanese corporations that have opened factories in the South in recent years that they, too, could fend off unions by looking relatively munificent by local standards. All this just strengthens the argument for enacting a national $15 minimum wage, which would give disconsolate Amazon (and Volkswagen and Nissan, etc.) workers of the South the option to find work elsewhere or vote to bring in a union where they worked.

Ironically, the failure at Bessemer comes at a time when unions are more popular than they’ve been in several decades. In each of the most recent Gallup and Pew polls, unions’ approval ratings stood at 65 percent. And in workplaces where employees know they can’t easily be replaced, unions have been having a pretty fair run over the past several years. Media outlets new and old (including the historically anti-union Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune) have seen their workers unionize, as have the grad student teaching and research assistants on a range of campuses, and the employees of a host of nonprofit organizations. Throw teachers and nurses (who continue to unionize) into the mix, and the membership of unions is tilting more and more toward professionals, while working-class Americans, whose forebears began trade unionism and whose current members desperately need them, constitute a steadily smaller share of the unionized workforce.


Just how much those workers need unions has been documented by an Economic Policy Institute study authored by former EPI President Larry Mishel, which was coincidentally released last Thursday, as the vote-counting at Bessemer began. Between 1979 and 2017, the share of workers covered by union contracts declined from 27 percent to 12 percent, and that decline, Mishel calculated, has led to a concomitant decline in the median worker’s yearly wages of $3,250 (and to a decline of $5,171 for median male workers, who’d comprised the overwhelming majority of union members in 1979).

Where, then, does this leave America’s unions, and the tens of millions of workers who both need them and would vote for them if they weren’t intimidated by management? In recent decades, unions have been able to rebuild their popularity (particularly among millennials) in part by championing marginal workers and immigrants, and largely by embodying a plausible solution—if still out of reach—to the problems of inequality and low wages. The best known and most far-reaching of these successes has been the Service Employees’ minimum-wage campaign, the “Fight for $15 and a Union.” The “Fight for $15” part has been a roaring success; that’s now set to become the minimum wage in California and New York and a host of other cities and states. But “and a Union”? To date, SEIU has gained no new members from this historic campaign; the laws and the playing field are dead set against it.

Unions aren’t going to gain members again absent the enactment of the kind of major reforms to labor law that are part of the PRO Act.

In short, unions aren’t going to gain members again absent the enactment of the kind of major reforms to labor law that are part of the PRO Act, a bill that has already passed the House and awaits an uncertain fate, at best, in the Senate. The bill would impose real penalties on employers for violating labor laws, would outlaw most of management’s coercive tactics, would make parent companies the co-employers of workers at their franchises, and would even ban the right-to-work laws now on the books in 26 states. It’s a sweeping bill, but it still doesn’t go far enough to redress the inequalities that result from more than half a century of union decline. Amazon, for instance, has more than 110 mega-warehouses spread across the nation, and Walmart boasts a tidy 5,300 domestic outlets. Unless Congress can require company-wide or even sectoral bargaining, it’s hard to imagine how any union, or combination of unions, or all unions together, could really unionize those companies, much less the fast-food chains. When the United Auto Workers won recognition from General Motors in 1937, they prevailed by occupying and thereby shutting down four factories in Flint, Michigan, without whose auto parts the company was compelled to shutter all its plants. Shut down ten Amazon warehouses or 100 Walmarts or 1,000 McDonald’s and those companies will roll along with only minor adjustments. The kind of mass action that led to the unionization of the nation’s leading industries and, ultimately, to the broadly shared prosperity of post–World War II America just isn’t attainable today.

One thing the Biden administration can do, even if the Senate doesn’t pass the PRO Act, is boost unionization through the terms it imposes on companies that get federal government contracts. Right now, the administration is committed to unveil new criteria for all federal contractors that include paying their workers an hourly wage of at least $15 and providing paid sick leave. President Biden is supposed to unveil these very welcome and long-overdue standards within the next month, but he could do more. He could, for instance, require any company bidding for a federal contract to pledge to stay neutral in any effort of its employees to unionize, and should they do so, to either agree to a contract with them within 90 days or submit to binding federal arbitration. That shouldn’t be a hard sell; a good contractor should also be a good citizen. And Biden doesn’t need congressional approval to do it.

For the nation at large, though, a whole host of changes are needed to enable Americans to regain the workplace power that once made our economy the envy of the world. Forbidding employers to threaten workers as they decide whether to form unions, raising wages legislatively so that workers needn’t fear having to take a lower-paying job, using the tax code to diminish corporate offshoring; leveling the playing field for workers will require any number of fundamental changes to our economy. But if there’s anything our economy, and our workers’ ability to build power, needs, it’s fundamental change.

Source:Ocnus.net 2021

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