Right-to-Work Passes in Michigan

Awash with the sound of protesters yelling and the chaos of arrests being made, the process of passing ‘right-to-work’ laws continued among the pepper spray fumigated hallways of the Michigan state legislature. Regardless of state legislators attempting to spin the legislation as not being anti-union, but pro-worker, the purpose of such legislation is clear: to weaken the vitally important abilities of labor organizations to collect dues and build resources.

Realistically, the justification for these types of laws are doubly flawed; on one hand, much if not most of the financial support for legislators passing Right-to-Work laws comes from individuals associated directly with the coffers of successful, moneyed corporations. This of course isn’t very surprising given that the spending power of labor unions, politically speaking, is becoming increasingly trumped by corporate interests which can quickly mobilize huge reserves of financial resources. It must be pointed out that this is only a specific aspect of a larger economic narrative and is related directly to such factors as the stagnation of wages and the decline of the labor share in contrast with the continued growth of the national GDP. All of these factors have the consequence of creating a more politically precarious labor movement.

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The other form of flawed logic behind right-to-work legislation comes from the more ideologically-driven advocates on the right. Destroying labor unions, they believe, will make it easier to further depress wages and make the U.S. economy more competitive. This is nothing more than a band-aid for a severely wounded economy and doesn’t address systemic problems and questions about creating a healthy, stable market place. These market based ideologies beg the question: how many more decades will millions of workers have to tolerate destructive boom and bust cycles before legislators decide to build a more stable economy.

Far from being surprising, these legislative battles are a difficult reminder for labor unions mainly that they can expect political victories for workers to increasingly dry up. The most important lesson for labor can probably be learned from the shortfalls of the Democratic Party, whose failure to pass EFCA while simultaneously supporting trade agreements which are destructive for the workforce seem to drive one point home: that labor unions can’t afford politics anymore. This isn’t so devastating, perhaps, when you consider that there’s still an alternative. That alternative is to begin rebuilding union membership in industries with little to no representation. This is the best chance labor unions have of rebuilding their resources and gaining political leverage. Undoubtedly, it will be a difficult task, but at this point, truthfully, it might be less difficult than trying to win political victories. Not to mention, that might be the only option left, anyway.

Fast Food Workers Go On Strike in NYC

Strikes are currently underway at fast food locations in New York City. Beginning at 6 am, the strikes were organized in a clandestine, cloak and dagger manner; but not unnecessarily given the tendency of McDonalds to intimidate and discipline workers for attempting to organize, as shown in an article published this morning by the prolific Josh Eidelson.

This is the second such large scale mobilization by a coalition of labor unions in low-wage industries in a two week period. These events are important to follow, as they affect industries which have traditionally been considered infeasible for organizing. For labor advocates, the bourgeoning service industries present a very difficult paradigm. These industries have high turn over and are highly competitive for employees.

This competitiveness comes from the common modus operandi of large companies in these industries; there are a lot of unemployed workers in the economy, so wages can be depressed, and work hours for employees are suppressed as supervisors micromanage the work flow in the business (sending workers home early when the business is slow, 3 hour shifts during rush hour, etc). But legally, these workers do have rights. As the Walmart Strikes showed last week, even workers in a highly competitive industry maintain basic Section 7 rights as covered under the National Labor Relations Act. This includes the right to petition your company for better pay, distribute information about your work conditions, and even protects the right to go on strike and walk off the job site. After the strikes, Walmart workers went back to work, their employment protected.

So we can of course conclude that fast food strikes, as long as the correct organizational work is done beforehand, will be a successful demonstration. This organizational work involves talking to workers, planning actions, and keeping the energy up during demonstrations.

And this is the common thematic element of the new organizational efforts we’re seeing take place in the service industries. Both the Walmart strikes and the New York City fast food strikes taking place are very demonstrative. That is to say, they are attempting to expose a contradiction in an industry (very successful companies who compensate workers very minimally) with a very visible, highly publicized action. This is a great way to create a discussion, but the question remains after that discussion begins: what type of organizations, unions, and institutions are we to build which can maintain the energy we’ve produced through activism. What receives this infrastructure being built by organizers? How are resources built, and more importantly, how are victories produced in which workers are not only politically better off, but economically better off?

There are very big questions to ask, and they are not meant to understate the current strikes, but to celebrate them. Because for the first time in these industries workers have energy, organization, and resources like they’ve never had before; now these questions are relevant not only conceptually but urgently and physically. And these questions involve elements (i.e., democratic action, organizing, economic inequality, social justice, etc) which are the building blocks not only of institutions, like labor unions, but of entire movements which have the potential of really changing the economy in a real way. But the building blocks (if I may be abstract here) are material; they still require design and effective architecture to maintain power—and produce impact.

For Walmart Workers, The Possibilities Are Endless

A lot of the discussion following the Walmart strikes has centered on the reception of the strikes by the general public. Questions of efficacy and impact, it seems, have mostly surrounded how Walmart responded, how much media attention there was, and even how the strikes impacted sales.

This type of analysis incorrectly assumes that the role of striking is to gain public support and in general to win favor. Instead, what are important are not these sorts of ‘intangibles’ which can never be fully controlled by the workers or organizers, but instead the objective parameters for the organizing.

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The relevant parameters, objective and quantifiable in this case, are the legal framework and the leverage of the workers. In the case of the Walmart strikes, the workers are within their total legal right in organizing. This point will undoubtedly be evidenced by the breaking down of Walmart’s Unfair Labor Practice filing before the National Labor Relations Board.

Leverage, however, the power of the workforce, is something that doesn’t remain constant. The workers begin with no leverage and then build that leverage out of strong organizational infrastructure. In this case, that infrastructure looks like workers being emboldened, talking to each other, and labor issues becoming a common topic of discussion for the typical Walmart worker.

The Walmart workers and organizers of the strikes have done everything right in this case. They have built a groundswell of organizing activity among the workforce; from here, it is easy to see where the strongest leverage points are located. Some Walmarts may have had lower turnout, whereas others may have had immense turn out (reports say up to 600 demonstrators at certain locations). This has tremendous benefits for organizing because now energy can be directed away from an exhaustive national organizing campaign to individual locations where there is great potential for strong employee-based leverage to be built. While this means that the front lines will become smaller, organizing resources will become increasingly concentrated, and more intense conflicts with Walmart management will take place, it also means that certain units of employees will become strong resource and organizing centers for not only other employees spread out throughout Walmart, but the entire industry.

In this way, the possibilities are endless. How and where the workers decide to consolidate power from certain groups, like whether organizing becomes more community based or strictly workplace based, will be determined. But it’s clear, and surely the organizers recognize this, that the organizing for Walmart workers is just starting. In this age of total information saturation, it’s easy to place too much importance on the media and visibility. There’s no doubt, however, that yesterday’s actions inaugurated a new era, as far as labor issues are concerned, in which there is something very new and very real happening, and just beginning.

Walmart Strikes and Redefining Organizing

In a time of labor uncertainty, the ongoing groundswell of strikes, protests, and labor actions centered on Walmart provide hope for both workers and labor organizations.

We live in an era defined by the markedly fast decline of organizational power. This is due to a variety of social, economic, and political reasons. But the most common iconography is the rise of powerful service-based corporations with a highly globalized division of labor and the decline of organizations which can properly manipulate the market to accommodate the needs of the workforce.

But there is hope, for which we can cite the requisite and primary conditions against which the workers are organizing: wages, scheduling, benefits, and treatment by management. These are all real areas where the workers can have material impact through effective organizing. But there is a deeper aspect to the strikes which calls for a certain optimism.

In recent history, labor unions have tended to focus on union elections and contract negotiations as legally mandated by the National Labor Relations Act. This process is often exhausting and slow, and as Josh Eidelson wrote last May, workers generally end up looking more like they’re “shackled to labor law” by the end of the process.

What is so promising about the Walmart strikes is that it represents a definitive departure with traditional forms of labor organizing. In fact, there are real signs that even Walmart is properly intimidated; their recent Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) filing against the UFCW fails to even accurately engage and analyse the ongoing labor campaign . The company incorrectly assumes that the workers are striking for the purpose of petitioning and being represented by a union, when in reality, the workers have not made a request for representation.

This is astounding! It’s especially astounding when you take into account the modern application of labor law to organizing. Without a union contract, the workers can only leverage raw organizing onto the company. This is much higher stakes. If they can’t mobilize the numbers or affect the production of Walmart, they won’t have a contract to fall back on and the work will be wasted. But, if they are successful, they will win concessions from the company all the while taking full protection under Article 7 of the Wagner Act while having none of the restrictions that come along with the negotiating and representational process of union contracts.

If the Walmart organizing campaigns are successful, we can predict a few outcomes. First and foremost, if the ULP filing by Walmart is ruled against by the NRLA, there will be no further legal recourse for companies to fall back on in order to prevent or restrict this style of organizing. Additionally, if the actions of the Walmart workers are successful in receiving concessions from the company and subsequently protected by Federal law, then we can expect to see this type of organizing increasingly more in industry wide organizing campaigns. This could be a big game changer, as labor unions have had a difficult time organizing in the service and retail industries which have recently experienced huge growth.

So when it really comes down to it, this is huge. The Walmart strikes have a chance of redefining the way we approach organizing on a massive level in industries that have been largely untouched. This could mean a lot of growth for labor in the coming years. Maybe, maybe not. What is certain, however, is that the next question to ask will be: how do we turn this into infrastructure and institutions, and begin building resources. If the strikes are successful, do we begin certifying unions? If not, what else?

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