Biggest Labor Stories of 2017: The Attacks From Above and the Fight From Below

Shaun Richman

A protestor is taken into custody outside the Willis Tower where United Continental Holdings, Inc. (UAL), the parent company of United Airlines, was holding its shareholder's meeting on May 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The first year of any Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion is sure to bring new attacks on unions and their allies. This year has seen plen­ty of anti-labor offen­sives, as well as inspir­ing fights and encour­ag­ing signs for the future.

Let’s start with the most over-blown fake news” labor sto­ry of 2017: the asi­nine notion that Don­ald Trump has a cun­ning plan to cleave white work­ing-class vot­ers away from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty by pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can jobs and giv­ing unions a fair shake. From the coalmines of West Vir­ginia to the Car­ri­er plant of Indi­ana, Trump’s claims of sav­ing jobs have been spec­ta­cles of huck­ster­ism that result­ed in few­er good jobs.

His invi­ta­tion of build­ing-trades lead­ers to the White House in his first week on the job — once seen as a can­ny exploita­tion of union lead­ers’ sim­mer­ing resent­ment towards Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty indif­fer­ence — is now under­stood as the ges­ture of a clue­less buf­foon strug­gling vain­ly to treat his new job like his busi­ness ven­tures. Let’s bring in a few deal­mak­ers and talk about con­struc­tion projects,” he prob­a­bly thought. Maybe they have some good sug­ges­tions for how my idiot son-in-law might go about bar­gain­ing for peace in the Mid­dle East.”

Mean­while, his Depart­ment of Labor and Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) appoint­ments, and the speed with which they are revers­ing any gains that work­ers made under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, are all bog-stan­dard right-wing moves. The offi­cial labor poli­cies of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion are exact­ly the same as would have been Jeb Bush’s or Mitt Romney’s.

But work­ers refuse to wait until Trump is impeached, vot­ed out or felled by his nau­se­at­ing­ly unhealthy diet. The year was marked by some impres­sive orga­niz­ing cam­paigns that offer hope for the future.

Beat­ing Trump in the rebel cities

Some of the most strate­gic orga­niz­ing of this Trump moment has been focused on win­ning real gains for work­ers where we can: in our rebel cities and blue states. Alt-labor orga­ni­za­tions have been lead­ing this fight.

The Fair Work­week Ini­tia­tive has been fight­ing the most­ly non-union retail, fast-food and oth­er min­i­mum wage ser­vice indus­tries that have kept their employ­ees vir­tu­al­ly on-call through abysmal short-staffing poli­cies. From New York City to the entire state of Ore­gon, work­ers won new laws in 2017 that force employ­ers to post work sched­ules at least one week in advance, pay work­ers sur­charges for last-minute changes and abol­ish the preva­lent prac­tice of sched­ul­ing work­ers for clopens” (work­ing a first shift the morn­ing after clos­ing up).

The New York City fair sched­ul­ing ordi­nance was part of a com­pre­hen­sive labor law passed by the city coun­cil in May. One part that will be watched close­ly by union allies and haters alike is a require­ment that fast-food estab­lish­ments cre­ate a mech­a­nism to allow employ­ees to make vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions from their pay­checks to a qual­i­fied non­prof­it to pro­vide ser­vices and advo­ca­cy on their behalf.

This is dues check-off for Fight for $15, and that is amazing.

One of the biggest chal­lenges for alt-labor is fund­ing the work. Col­lect­ing vol­un­tary mem­ber­ship dues from more than a few hun­dred of your most hard­core sup­port­ers is a mas­sive chal­lenge if you don’t have access to pay­roll deduc­tions. With­out those deduc­tions, a union or work­ers cen­ter is rely­ing on auto-renew­ing cred­it card con­tri­bu­tions or Auto­mat­ed Clear­ing House direct deposit arrange­ments with mem­bers’ check­ing accounts.

Speak­ing from expe­ri­ence, even teach­ers bounce checks and miss cred­it card pay­ments with dis­tress­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty in our new age of inequality.

If New York City’s vol­un­tary-for-work­ers-but-legal­ly-man­dat­ed-for-employ­ers dues check-off sys­tem helps Fight for $15 find a sus­tain­able fund­ing stream, it will be a mod­el for oth­er rebel cities and even­tu­al­ly for fed­er­al legislation.

Also of note is the return of the big May 1 Day With­out Immi­grants” protests that first rocked the coun­try in 2006, this time as an obvi­ous rebuke to our racist pres­i­dent. Not near­ly enough atten­tion was paid to the fact that in the midst of the May Day actions, immi­grant work­ers and small busi­ness own­ers shut down the small city of Read­ing, Pa. in a gen­er­al strike. The action was orga­nized by Make the Road PA. In the end­less orga­niz­ing debates about the val­ue of going wider vs. deep­er with com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, Make the Road’s impres­sive action is a pow­er­ful exam­ple of what can be done with scant resources but long-term com­mit­ments in work­ing-class communities.

The Empire strikes back

In July, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial­ly aban­doned Obama’s effort to dou­ble the min­i­mum pay that salaried employ­ees should legal­ly be paid. That effort was spear-head­ed by Tom Perez, the most dogged Labor Sec­re­tary we’ve seen in half a cen­tu­ry. It aimed to raise the wage of over­worked employ­ees clas­si­fied as pro­fes­sion­als” and super­vi­sors” by cor­po­ra­tions seek­ing to avoid pay­ing over­time to the still-insuf­fi­cient sum of $47,476. Many cor­po­ra­tions—Wal­mart most promi­nent­ly—raised their mid­dle ranks’ pay in antic­i­pa­tion of the new rule. For­tu­nate­ly, few com­pa­nies have rescind­ed those rais­es now that they are no longer legal­ly oblig­at­ed to pay (prob­a­bly out of fear of mass res­ig­na­tions and lawsuits).

Two months after this effort was ditched, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a lazy remake of a bad sequel of an attempt to force pub­lic sec­tor unions to go right-to-work” that had seem­ing­ly died along with Antonin Scalia. The new case, Janus vs. AFSCME, is wrong on facts and legal prece­dent. But it has the ben­e­fit of a stolen Supreme Court seat — and the bless­ing of the U.S. gov­ern­ment, which has filed an ami­cus brief against the very con­cept of a strong labor movement.

More recent­ly, the right-wing hack who Trump appoint­ed to befoul the for­mer office of Tom Perez declared his intent to restrict and over-reg­u­late work­ers cen­ters as if they were statu­to­ri­ly-rec­og­nized unions. This is an attempt to silence these shoe­string bud­get orga­ni­za­tions by mak­ing their boy­cott activ­i­ties pun­ish­able by crip­pling mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar fines. As Sharon Block writes, it’s a back-hand­ed com­pli­ment that cor­po­rate inter­ests see these alt-labor groups as a threat to their agen­da. It also shows why we need a new Labor’s Bill of Rights.

New hope in the pri­vate sector

Work­ers in the pri­vate sec­tor con­tin­ue to orga­nize. Even where there are notable suc­cess­es, there are also chal­lenges relat­ed to how bad­ly any Repub­li­can pres­i­dent can dam­age the legal paths to jus­tice for workers.

Respond­ing to tumul­tuous changes in their indus­try, jour­nal­ists and oth­er con­tent pro­duc­ers for major media com­pa­nies have been orga­niz­ing at a rapid-fire pace. Jour­nal­ists at Salon, The Inter­cept, Thril­list and Vox, video writ­ers at Vice, and edi­to­r­i­al pro­duc­ers at MTV News all orga­nized with the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca East this year. Mean­while, the reporters at the Los Ange­les Times—long a bas­tion of anti-union­ism—orga­nized with the News Guild.

But, in a move that threat­ened to chill this orga­niz­ing heat wave, bil­lion­aire Joe Rick­etts abrupt­ly shut down his Gothamist and DNAin­fo news net­works days after work­ers pre­vailed in an NLRB elec­tion. This move is per­haps the stark­est exam­ple of how our labor-rela­tions sys­tem is bro­ken beyond repair — and why new mod­els of work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion are needed.

In high­er edu­ca­tion, fol­low­ing a frus­trat­ing­ly late-in-term Oba­ma NLRB deci­sion to restore the right of grad­u­ate employ­ees to orga­nize, grad­u­ate work­ers have begun to do so in great num­bers. Grad­u­ate employ­ees at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty, Bran­deis, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and beyond have joined the ranks of adjuncts and oth­er con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty who orga­nized with a crowd­ed and com­pet­i­tive field of unions who seek to rep­re­sent them.

There are vary­ing degrees of resis­tance. Rare is the col­lege that doesn’t at least put up a fan­cy F.A.Q. that bemoans the poten­tial dimin­ish­ment of the col­le­gial rela­tion­ship between some stu­dents and their men­tors.” But some uni­ver­si­ties — led by the Ivy Leagues — are refus­ing to bar­gain with cer­ti­fied unions or coop­er­ate with the NLRB at all. They’re drag­ging out the clock, wait­ing for Trump’s board to over­turn Obama’s prece­dent and strip grads of their orga­niz­ing rights all over again.

To be clear, that means that the Ivy League uni­ver­si­ties — which tout them­selves as bul­warks of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy — are appeal­ing to an increas­ing­ly author­i­tar­i­an Trump admin­is­tra­tion to rule that their employ­ees have no rights.

Final­ly, as a part of their Bet­ter Deal,” Sen­ate Democ­rats intro­duced a com­pre­hen­sive reform bill to reshape the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act. It would ban right to work,” restore work­ers’ right to engage in sol­i­dar­i­ty activism, expand the act to cov­er pub­lic sec­tor work­ers and inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors,” stream­line union cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­ce­dures and cre­ate finan­cial penal­ties to boss­es who will­ful­ly break the law.

It’s exact­ly the bill we need­ed Jim­my Carter to sign into law in 1978.

I don’t mean to be churl­ish. These reforms would sure­ly be help­ful in restor­ing work­ers’ rights. But they also wouldn’t go far enough towards expand­ing the mem­ber­ship and polit­i­cal reach of unions in all states and all sec­tors of the econ­o­my as rapid­ly as we need if we’re going to stop the creep­ing spread of fascism.

For that, we need all-in” sys­tems of labor rights like just cause and sec­toral labor stan­dards. These ideas are being dis­cussed in Wash­ing­ton. I’ve been in some of the con­ver­sa­tions. Repeal­ing Taft-Hart­ley, as the Bet­ter Deal” would essen­tial­ly do, is – amaz­ing­ly — the cen­trist com­pro­mise with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment right now. Big­ger and bold­er reform ideas are possible!

There are two key dynam­ics at play. First, while the Repub­li­cans’ con­trol Con­gress, any Demo­c­ra­t­ic bill is a dead let­ter. This actu­al­ly makes the next year an ide­al time to float rad­i­cal tri­al bal­loons, which, if they gain any trac­tion could remain a part of the agen­da in 2021. Sec­ond, the race for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion is quick­ly shap­ing up into a race to the left, and most poten­tial can­di­dates want to make their mark on work­ers’ issues.

These polit­i­cal dynam­ics, plus con­tin­ued on-the-ground orga­niz­ing, are rea­sons for opti­mism in 2018.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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