The first lesson network leaders learn in the Jobs With Justice training is never give your power away. While easier said in a workshop than in the North Carolina General Assembly, it does compel us to remember how change happens. While we need labor law reform, we should not wait for it to build a movement to expand the scale and scope of collective bargaining. Early industrial unions were bargaining long before the Wagner Act codified the practice, leveraging their ability to halt production when necessary. Only through exercising their power, and even breaking some rules, were they able to win the legal protections to back up workers’ ability to bargain equally with employers.
The Wagner Act was a good start—including the creation of the National Labor Relations Board which, when funded, protects workers from employer abuse. It provided a roadmap for millions of workers to bargain—opening up pathways to home ownership, retirement security, vacation time, and other benefits. But while providing massive gains for some, it ultimately left workers vulnerable to the whims of multi-national companies and their political allies who spent the last half century negotiating each victory away with the slow-and-steady persistence of a melting glacier. In a recent article for the American Prospect, Lane Windham of Penn State University adds, “in depending on unions to do the negotiating for a social wage, the U.S. had inadvertently given employers in the U.S. a higher incentive than employers in other nations to fight union organizing.”
And fight they have! The corporate class attacked the very power that makes workers equal at the bargaining table—regardless of whether they are attacking a union or a worker center. The Taft-Hartley Act was the first well-known blow, prohibiting jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, and more. States could pass right-to-work laws, gutting union membership first in the South, and later throughout the country. Riding this legacy, Scott Walker and the Koch Brothers would have us believe collective bargaining is in its final death throes.
In its current form, it may be.
Recently, the Chamber of Commerce released a series of reports attempting to categorize worker centers as unions—not so they can bargain better but so their activities could be restricted. Addressing what rules should govern worker centers, Jarol B. Manheim of George Washington University wrote, “The answer has implications for labor and management alike, for it will determine the limits and extent of activities in which these centers can legitimately participate, and the ways and extent to which the laws and regulations governing labor-management relations in the US apply to them.”
Manheim’s report demonstrates the root desire of labor opponents to dismantle the right to collective bargaining. Therefore before reforming labor law to simply “include” everyone, worker organizations should first focus on modeling collective bargaining 3.0. The definition of collective bargaining, in our minds and our organizing, must be expanded to meet the context of the modern-day worker and the economy she functions in regardless of what the law says. In a world where jobs long considered safe career paths are contracted and sub-contracted out, our campaigns must be organized differently. Our best weapon to combat wealth inequality is still a strong union contract. But we must expand who the agreement is between and what the contract covers.
The National Guestworkers Alliance paved the way in 2012, when eleven Louisiana workers were able to obtain a meeting with Walmart. Instead of targeting their small supplier, their “boss” CJ’s Seafood, the workers targeted the end of the food chain—Walmart. They acted big, and they won big.
While few American workers have the ability to stop production given the decline in manufacturing, it is hardly an excuse not to disrupt distribution and consumption which, when done in coordination with manufacturing workers overseas, can create a new context for workers to collectively bargain against multinational corporations littering the globe. Such is the strategy of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, U.S. distribution and retail unions, and the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) to tackle Walmart at the source of its business model.
In Connecticut, a coalition of care workers, fast-food workers and others won the creation of a low-wage employer advisory board, designed to make recommendations to the state addressing issues created by low wages. It normalizes the idea of $15 an hour as a floor wage, and it creates a new platform for workers to jointly establish industry protocols. These campaigns have the potential to redefine the role of government in setting baseline standards.
In addition to reimagining who workers bargain with, we must expand what they bargain for. Public sector unions often address similar issues at the bargaining table that community organizations tackle legislatively. Together, these groups can advance common interests, literally “bargaining for the common good,” as coined by the Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown University.
The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union contract negotiations exemplified this. The union fought to improve education for over 400,000 students through increased funding, stronger curricula, support systems for parents, quality facilities, equitable treatment of students—particularly those tracked and racially segregated from opportunities to advance—all while fighting for fair compensation for teachers. The union went beyond the traditional scope of workplace bargaining, and expanded it to include broader community conditions.
The great myth our opponents propagate is that we are somehow boxed-in by a set of rules—as if laws cannot be abolished and reconstructed based on our values and a changing global economy. But laws only change after the emergence of a robust movement willing to break them, even at the risk of reorganizing institutions we have built over the last century. Many workers—particularly disproportionately exploited black and immigrant workers in low-wage sectors—are not waiting for union recognition to begin acting like a union. They have tapped into the power of worker organization and demonstrated the necessity of new institutions and laws to support them. Fights like these must be embraced and integrated into every aspect of the labor movement in order to build the foundation for a truly equal collective-bargaining climate for workers.
Erica Smiley is director of campaigns at Jobs With Justice.