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Normal Americans Back Workers’ Efforts To Form Unions— Republicans On The Other Hand…

A new report just released by City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies shows that despite invigorated new union drives this year, the overall number of workers represented by unions hasn’t increased, not in New York City and not in the U.S. There were 685 new union elections this spring (March-May), almost 3 times more than in the same time period in 2020. Media is paying more attention but net results haven’t changed much over previous years. The best results— still mediocre— were in New York City, Seattle and Boston.

The report points out that 4,362 Starbucks employees are now represented by unions, which is just slightly over 1% of the reactionary company’s 383,000 workers, “a drop in the bucket,” according to one of the report’s authors, sociologist Ruth Milkman. The share of workers represented by unions national is still at historic lows, just 10.2% (and 21.4% in NYC). The study pointed out though that “unlike in prior years, this year’s report found a greater share of union elections ended with a successful union vote. More than half of union elections in the second quarter of 2022 were successful, a higher success rate that had been tracked going back decades.”

New polling from Data For Progress of likely voters in 8 swing states— Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin— shows that a strong majority of normal voters— and even a plurality of Republicans!— support recent efforts to establish unions at Amazon warehouses, Apple stores, Starbucks coffee shops, and other establishments: 80% of Democrats, 66 % of independents and 43% of Republicans.

When voters are asked to choose between a pro-union Democrat and an anti-union Republican, Data For Progress found that the pro-union Democrat won by a 12-point margin. In congressional match-ups, a pro-union Democrat outperforms an anti-union Republican by a 20-point margin among Democrats, by a 24-point margin among independents, and by a 14-point margin among Republicans.

On Tuesday, Democrats on Congress’ Joint Economic Committee issued a report about the work the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is doing to support union organizing, noting that the organization “plays a key role in protecting labor rights and strengthening workers’ economic security. In particular, their efforts protecting the right to organize help address economic inequality and ensure that workers see the benefits when the economy grows. Unionized workers get higher pay, better benefits and more flexibility in their work schedules compared to workers who are not in a union. These benefits are especially large for Black and Hispanic workers. Importantly, unions generate broader spillover effects for all workers in industries with high rates of unionization, even for workers who are not in unions. During the pandemic and in its aftermath, the NLRB has played a particularly important role in ensuring that workers’ right to organize is protected.”

In the last year, the NLRB has moved decisively to strengthen workers’ rights and economic status. For example, the NLRB issued a decision acknowledging that being illegally fired has consequences beyond income loss. As a result of this decision, employers are now required to pay an employee for consequential damages, such as job-hunting expenses. The NLRB is also considering including emotional damages, such as reputation loss, in their definition of consequential damages.
Over the past year, the NLRB has especially focused on improving the unionization process. For example, the NLRB recently took steps to ban captive-audience meetings where employees are mandated to listen to arguments against unions. In late 2021, the NLRB negotiated a settlement that allowed Amazon workers to organize while at work, and throughout 2022, they have filed lawsuits on behalf of wrongly-fired Starbucks workers.
More broadly, the NLRB’s General Counsel has proposed changing the unionization process in order to prevent employers from intimidating workers and causing delays in union elections. The proposal, which the board is currently considering, would reinstate the Joy Silk standard, which previously allowed workers to form a union without a formal election if they had a clear majority. Reinstating this standard would make it significantly easier for workers to unionize by streamlining the process and putting the onus on employers to demonstrate “good-faith doubt” in majority support.
The NLRB is also considering extending to gig workers the right to organize and other crucial labor protections. Since 2019, the NLRB has classified gig workers as independent contractors, which denies them the right to organize and other crucial protections such as a minimum wage. The Department of Justice has urged the NLRB to reverse this earlier decision, which would have far-reaching implications as 29% of Americans participate in the gig economy as their primary job, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.
In the past year, the strong labor market and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have empowered many workers to organize. A series of high-profile service sector unionization efforts and the wave of strikes in fall 2021 have captured national attention, and the NLRB has played a key role during this uptick in organizing activity.
The far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic include an increase in potential labor law violations and subsequent NLRB rulings. For example, many employees organized in opposition to their employers’ COVID-19 protocols. As some of those employees were fired, the number of retaliation cases the NLRB reviewed increased.
The strong economic recovery has empowered workers to organize, including in sectors that have not traditionally unionized, such as retail and warehousing. While unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon have made international headlines, the increase in organizing activity is not limited to these high-profile cases but is spread across industries. But many employers in these sectors do not voluntarily recognize unions, and the NLRB is tasked with conducting an increasing number of union elections. There are also an increased number of unfair labor practice charges for the NLRB to rule on as some employers seek to deter workers from organizing. For example, some retail employers are now training managers to recognize and discipline union supporters, and the NLRB is responsible for enforcing labor laws against such union-busting tactics.
The number of cases before the NLRB has increased significantly, with fiscal year 2022 on track to see the largest single-year increase in decades. From October 2021 through the following June, union election petitions increased by 58% compared to the previous comparable time period. At the same time, charges of unfair labor practices by employers or unions have increased by 16%. These cases were filed across the country, with nearly every state seeing an increase (see table below for data on cases in each state and territory).
In recent years, the NLRB’s funding has fallen, including an especially sharp decline over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2022, NLRB funding decreased by 26% in real terms. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees and President Biden have proposed increasing NLRB’s budget by $45.4 million in fiscal year 2023, a 13% increase in real terms. (See graph below.) These additional resources would allow them to fill empty field staff positions and develop an electronic voting system, making them more efficient and effective. By providing the NLRB with sufficient resources, these proposals would help the NLRB carry out its statutory responsibilities to ensure workers’ right to organize.
While the NLRB has helped protect workers’ rights under current labor law, additional authorities could greatly expand their impact. Right now, when an employer violates the law, the NLRB can compel them to compensate the impacted employees; however, the NLRB does not have the authority to levy fines. While existing financial penalties such as back pay are important to the employee, they are often not large enough to provide a significant deterrent effect. By attaching significant financial penalties to labor law violations, the NLRB could prevent future violations.
Legislation is also needed to codify recent NLRB decisions so that future boards cannot reverse them. For example, the PRO Act would codify the NLRB’s recent moves to ban captive audience meetings where employees are forced to listen to anti-union arguments, reinstate wrongly fired workers, properly define independent contractors and streamline the union recognition process. Making these safeguards permanent law would allow more workers to pursue unionization, which both improves their own economic security and creates broader spillover effects for other workers and the economy as a whole.

Ever watch the documentary Bernie made in 1977, before he became mayor of Burlington, about American labor leader and 5-times presidential candidate Eugene V Debs? This weekend might be a good time to watch it:

When I was growing up, New Yorkers would often spend Labor Day at Coney Island. New York photographer, architect and pilot Jeffrey Millstein has released a series of iconic new photographs of Coney Island today. The last time I went to Coney Island, it was dead winter in 1967 or '68 and I went with 2 friends to ride the Cyclone on acid. It’s the second-steepest wooden roller coaster in the world and goes as fast as 60 miles per hour.

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