Opinion: Labor organizers fight to adapt
We learned some lessons from Chattanooga this month – lessons that were years in the making. Lessons about a broken system; lessons about how labor has changed, how management has changed, and how the world has changed.
Public support for labor unions is over 61% – a fifteen-year high, and over the last few years, it has been climbing steadily. The maintenance workers at Volkswagen voted to form a union in December of 2015, but due to some clever legal maneuvering, the company simply refused to bargain. They spent nearly four years pretending that those votes did not exist. It did not matter what the workers clearly said that they wanted.
Almost half of all “first contracts” for new bargaining units are never reached. Companies are allowed to refuse to come to the table. Worse, companies are allowed to have anti-union meetings where the only goal is to instill fears of retaliation or of losing jobs and benefits, if the workers band together and join a union.
The middle class is disappearing. In the last 30 years, income for the bottom 50% of workers grew by 1%. The income for the top 1% of workers? It grew by 205%. Corporations are allowed to pay their workers so little that those same workers qualify for public benefits while CEOs pay, and profit margins rise precipitously.
This is due to a long line of policy decisions over the last few decades, made solely by politicians paid for by large scale corporate donors – decisions that those corporations should not have to pay taxes, should not have to pay a living wage, should be able to pour unlimited dark money into politics, and should be able to squash any hint of workers attempting to join together to fight for better working conditions or better wages.
Labor organizing needs to change from the models we used in the 1970s. Between the digital campaigns, social media, and the enormous influence of money in politics, organizing drives need modernization. Workers want instant information, and we need to give it to them. Workers should know when politicians do not have the best interest of the workers in mind when they spout anti-union, pro-corporate rhetoric. Workers should know when those same politicians have voted against workers’ protections and expansion of workers’ rights.
At the same time, labor needs to continue the concerted efforts to both overturn anti-labor policies as well as advance new worker protections through legislation. We need to work hard to rally support for legislation like the PRO Act, introduced in the United States House of Representatives this year. The PRO Act would help stop company interference in union elections and would help protect workers from punishment for seeking union representation.
It would help workers when they need to strike to protest unsafe conditions or expired contracts. It would enact “fair share” rules that would require workers who choose not to join a union to pay for the services that they use, rather than being able to freeload off dues-paying members.
Gary Jones is president of UAW International Union.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.