If you look at recent headlines, it appears workers are finally making progress.
The 11-day strike strike by 25,000 Chicago teachers—hailed as the “longest in decades”—was framed as a fight to decrease the gap in services between rich and poor neighborhoods. The city will be hiring hundreds more social workers, nurses, and librarians; spending millions on reducing class sizes; and increasing teacher salaries 16 percent over the coming five years.
After 40 days the 47,000 United Auto Workers at GM plants got a contract that gave most a six percent in wage increases, two lump sum payments, and great health insurance during the next four years. The lower wage-scale for workers hired after 2007 is being phased out—and General Motors is to invest $9 billion in its U.S. plants, upping workers’ job security.
Building on successful strikes by teachers in four states last April, the gains seem signs of a growing movement, the kind that “raises all boats.”
A 30-page report issued in mid-October by the Economic Policy Institute, however, suggests they may instead be a “last hurrah.”
The EPI itemizes changes in the National Labor Relations Board that threaten to end effective collective action by workers.
The Board itself consists of five members and a general counsel. In addition there are 26 regional, plus 19 smaller, field offices. Usually, employers and unions take cases to a field office; the Board examines them for merit; and the general counsel presents them to a court.
But that’s changing. Three board members and the general counsel — all Trump appointees — are former corporate lawyers experienced in representing employers.
Now, if they don’t agree with court decisions, they formulate new rules themselves.
One issue — allowing groups of employees with a “community of interest” to form a bargaining unit— had been upheld by courts of appeals eight times.
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Without seeking any public input, the Trump majority on the NLRB overturned the decisions.
It’s not done overnight — these men are lawyers — but they are working on major changes.
The Board is narrowing those who may form unions. Uber drivers don’t qualify because they’re being classified as “independent contractors,” like the repairman that fixed your furnace last winter. Students who work, as well as study, at private universities may not form unions either—but those at public universities may.
The Board is cutting off communication methods for union advocates. Workers can be punished for discussing grievances in company lunchrooms and parking lots or through company email.
Companies are getting broader rights. Walmart may retaliate against strikers who didn’t have a plan formalized by a bargaining organization which Walmart hasn’t allowed to exist. Companies may punish workers for some offenses without union interference. They may also change some contract provisions without notice. And, when a contract expires, they may change all provisions instead of honoring the old contract during ongoing negotiations.
In addition, the NLRB general counsel is pushing the board to rule that if the majority of workers form a bargaining unit, it must represent all employees without requiring any payment in lieu of dues—basically, it’d be a national “right to work law” investigated and passed by three millionaires.
(For more details on the report, visit epi.org and click the word “Unprecedented.”)
I imagine many Idahoans don’t care much about the elimination of rights they’ve never had. Today, after three decades as a right-to-work state, only one in every 20 Idaho workers belongs to a union.
But life here is better because one in five workers in Washington gets union wages and benefits. Idaho employers compete to keep good workers.
We may see that end.