Labor Day 2021

By Frank Emspak

Labor Day is here, and the usual suspects will write the usual pieces, either describing organized labor on its deathbed, or claiming organized labor is about to experience a rebirth because of new leadership and the possible passage of the PRO ACT.

This year, we need to look at the situation from a different point of view. No democracy has survived long with only 6.3 percent of the private sector workforce organized. This is especially true when about thirty percent of the population no longer believes in the legitimacy of the federal government. Unions have been some of the chief defenders of democracy in America. Thus, the low level of organization is not just the AFL-CIO’s problem, but everyone’s problem.

In the United States, increasing economic equality has only occurred when there is a mobilized, socially conscious labor movement that pushes for income redistribution in the form of wage increases tied to productivity, a fair tax system, and direct services such as child care. Absent that kind of labor movement, the current trends toward increased income inequality will tear our society apart. The interests of the super-rich are only tangentially related to the rest of us, and since they are in charge of the media and how issues are framed, confusion, misinformation, and a slide toward increasingly unequal authoritarianism are the natural outcomes.

Racism at the workplace and throughout our society must be addressed. Huge popular mobilizations have made that clear—but leverage is the question. Most people spend most of their time at work. And it is the workplace where racism has been most fiercely challenged—initially by class conscious trade unionists in the Packing House industry for example, or in the mines in the south by sections of the United Mineworkers and the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.

These fundamental issues of recapturing our democratic society, responding in some meaningful way to economic and social inequality, and fighting against racism are the province of all honest people. If you accept this framework, then we here in Madison can begin to act on the concept that all of us have an interest in a robust union movement.

What can that mean for the DSA? Many of us are proud of the progressive leadership that we see in Madison, or in Dane County. Let’s put that leadership to a modest test when it comes to collective bargaining.

The introduction to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) says among other things:

“The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest… It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self- organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.”

The NLRA is a clear affirmation of the right of freedom of association, especially for the purposes of improving one’s standard of living. One step towards ensuring that more people in our community benefit from the theoretical freedom of association is making associating a reality. If our city believes in collective bargaining, let the city council endorse the NLRA—making it clear that it is the declared policy of the city to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining.

If our leaders vote to endorse collective bargaining, then the next step is to follow through. In accordance with city policy, relevant city boards and commissions should have standards that support collective bargaining. For example, the Planning Commission would insist that as part of the review process that firms follow good labor practices—not only in terms of adherence to federal law as regards bargaining, but also regarding prevailing wage, health, and safety standards. Likewise, licensing boards could look at applications and reject firms that pay substandard wages, have outstanding wage claims, or have been shown to discriminate. Of course the city administration would expect professional staff to be compliant with the commitment to collective bargaining and seek solutions to employee-employer disputes which reflect that commitment. 

Progressives at all levels can fight for boards like the Board of Regents, the UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority, and similar to also endorse the preamble to the NLRA. 

The “labor movement” should not be treated as some sort of outside agency called upon when one needs votes but as part of our city. Of course, the labor movement means more than just traditional unions; the NLRA has a very expansive view of what constitutes an organization. 

“The term “labor organization” means any organization of any kind, or any agency or employee representation committee or plan, in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work.”

Given this definition, a group of workers could come together to set up any kind of organization to deal with the issues of wages, hours, and working conditions… and any kind of organization they choose is recognized under federal law. The city could recognize such a group as speaking on behalf of their fellow employees. Or, more likely, the South Central Federation of Labor could work with, for example, a newly-formed group to establish standards for the restaurant industry and assist the group in negotiations with restaurants. Class conscious delegates, some of whom are in the DSA, could play a leading role in urging this type of approach. (The great steel strike of 1919 was led by William Z. Foster, then on the staff of the Chicago Federation of Labor.) 

It is clear that working people—whether they are at Amazon, Fed-Ex, Walmart, or the local restaurant—are meeting, and trying to figure out what to do, up to and including direct action. The NLRA has something to say about this as well introducing the concept of protected concerted action. This is an action taken by at least two people. According to the NLRB website “Employees at union and non-union workplaces have the right to help each other by sharing information, signing petitions, and seeking to improve wages and working conditions in a variety of ways.” For more information on this aspect of the law, see the NLRB’s Protected Concerted Activity page.

At this moment in our history, it is up to all of us to find ways to build a climate together that supports the organization of labor. Here in Madison, working though the city council, the county board, the school board, the South Central Federation of Labor, and all local unions, we have the means to break the isolation of the organized union movement. We can set standards that are fair to working people who seek to organize, and thus help build the bulwark for democracy that we all favor. 

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