Sunday, September 09, 2012

Unions - Use the law or not ?

“This labor law is a scam,” says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America. “It is garbage. … It's a fucking lie.”
In speeches to workers and testimony in Congress in the '80s and '90s, then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland repeatedly declared that union members would be better served by “the law of the jungle.”

Richard Trumka, who now heads the AFL-CIO in 1987, called for abolishing both the law's “provisions that hamstring labor” and “the affirmative protections of labor that it promises but does not deliver.”
This is in part because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), as amended by Congress and interpreted by the courts, bans or restricts labor's most effective tactics. The occupations of workplaces that fueled momentum for the NLRA, passed by Congress in 1935, are now illegal under it. The aggressive strikes – shutting down workplaces or even entire cities – that forged the modern labor movement have largely been replaced with strikes that are essentially symbolic.  Labor unions face a legal framework stacked against them. Laws can’t be casually broken: Unions have an important responsibility to their members and the financial assets they safeguard. Circumventing the law is a provocative tactic.

On paper, the NLRA actually commits the government “to promote collective bargaining” and requires most companies to recognize and negotiate with unions that win elections. It made it illegal for companies to spy on, threaten or retaliate against workers for union activism or other “concerted activity.” During an organizing drive, managers can legally hold mandatory anti-union meetings in which they predict that unionization would shut down the company. Even when workers win a union election, 52 percent of the time they haven't won a union contract a year later, because managers can legally sabotage union contract negotiations by refusing to concede anything. If a union contract is in place, once it's up for re-negotiation managers can legally lock out union members, denying them any work until they accept a worse contract or vote out the union.

And companies don't restrict themselves to these legal union-busting tactics. In 57 percent of union elections, employers threaten to shut down the worksite. In 34 percent, they fire union activists. When a union activist is illegally fired, it's difficult to prove that the firing was retaliatory – and even if the government sides with the union, generally the worst that can happen to management is being forced to reinstate the worker with back pay. This process often takes years, which can be more than enough time to quash an organizing campaign. Fred Feinstein, who served under President Clinton as the NLRB's top prosecutor, says the penalties available against employers “don't provide any deterrence” for companies set on breaking a union.

Labor is succeeding in spite of or outside of the law, not because of it. By blocking tracks, spilling grain, and defying a restraining order in Longview, Wash., members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union beat back a company's attempt to do their jobs without them. Other labor organizations – like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, or “workers' centers” – are growing and achieving victories through activism without identifying as unions at all.  In the Justice for Janitors campaign, labor law restricted the Service Employees union (SEIU) from targeting building owners, even though they – rather than the contractors who technically employed the janitors – were the real decision-makers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The Florida-based group doesn't identify itself as a union, it doesn't seek recognition as one by management or by the government, and it doesn't negotiate union contracts. But CIW has extracted “Fair Food” agreements from the growers who directly employ farm workers. CIW has won and defended agreements with the growers by pressuring – and sometimes boycotting – well-known companies at the other end of the supply chain. In February, following a multi-year campaign, CIW achieved an agreement with Trader Joe's under which the company will only buy tomatoes from growers following “Fair Food” rules. For farm workers under CIW agreements, says Reyes, “it is better as it is right now” than it would be under the NLRA.

Some, however, argue that stripping away labor law would leave unions far worse off because withdrawing the formal protection for union activity would make such activism much harder to pull off. “If we took away the NLRA right now,” says Cornell University Labor Education Director Kate Bronfenbrenner, labor “would lose the protections that they do have when employers try to break unions.” While harshly critical of the current labor law regime, Bronfenbrenner suggests that labor leaders may use it as a scapegoat in an era of declining unionization. “It is not like unions are using the power they have” under current law, says Bronfenbrenner

In 1974, there were 424 major work stoppages, each involving at least 1,000 workers. By 2009, only five such stoppages occurred. Wider economic trends have worked against labor for decades. Internationally, the 1970s saw the intersection of weak growth and persistent inflation. This structural crisis was resolved against the interests of working people, with the aftermath especially stark in America. Real wages have declined and our social safety net has eroded, while hyper-mobile corporations are glossier and equipped with slick public-relations departments, but just as exploitative as ever.

The response from reformers within the labor movement hasn’t helped matters. As Joe Burns writes in Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, “Adapting their own ideas to match this new conservative reality, these activists created the one-day strike, the corporate campaign and social unionism – tactics that functioned comfortably within the existing structures imposed by management and the legal system.”

We in Royal Mail learned that our strengths, the wildcat walk-out and blacking diverted mail, which effectively trapped mail within the system, was circumvented by an over-reliance on official one-day strikes which provided Post Office management with advanced details of strike time-tables so they could eventually take counter-measures to weaken the strikes.

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