Employers and government play hardball with workers in motion

In February 2022, Starbucks staff and supporters protested outside corporate headquarters in Seattle to demand that management end its anti-union practices. PHOTO: Doreen McGrath / FS
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Workers are on the move. The number of strikes has more than quadrupled since before the pandemic. Low-wage toilers are organizing like never before — over 300 Starbucks stores have unionized since December 2021. Teachers, nurses and others have hit the picket lines and won significant wage gains.

Clearly, working folks are fed up with inflation and stressful working conditions, and they are hell-bent on doing something about it!

Bosses hit back. Make no mistake, employers are not going to sit on their hands while their serfs take a bigger slice of the pie. Business is concerned that supply chain-driven inflation and labor shortages will put even more upward pressure on wages. So they are keen to put an end to all this troublemaking. They have many tools at their disposal.

Retaliation for organizing is the first cudgel that the bosses pick up. One out of every five union drives result in at least one worker being fired in retaliation, according to a 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute. Starbucks alone has canned more than 200 “partners” for organizing.

These firings are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, which was passed in the wake of mass strikes during the 1930s. But there are no penalties for breaking this act, so scofflaws like Starbucks consider a little back pay when they are forced to rehire someone just a cost of doing their dirty business.

Another strategy for corporations is to dig in their heels and refuse to negotiate a first contract. This is a brazen attempt to wear out the newly organized employees and break the union. Almost none of those who have won a representation election in the last two years have a contract yet. Considering that dues are not paid by members until the first contract is ratified, this puts a financial strain on the union. Again, labor law is not much help, with no way to force companies to bargain.

Government by and for the thieves. Corporate overlords know that they can always count on their eager partners in Congress, the courts, and the Oval Office to have their backs.

There have been attempts in Congress to reform the nation’s employer-friendly labor laws. But the supposedly pro-union Democrats have let them die, even when they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House in 2009–2010 and 2021–2022.

The courts have never been sympathetic to workers’ rights. Countless injunctions over the years have severely restricted the ability to engage in effective picketing. These days you can only stop traffic going into a struck work site for a couple of minutes.

The Supreme Court gang now led by Chief Justice Roberts has been actively hostile to unions. It has limited employees’ right to collectively sue their bosses over things like discrimination. Its 2018 Janus decision was a broadside against public sector unions, removing their ability to require all those benefiting from representation to pay dues. And recently the court ruled that farmworkers’ unions could not talk to workers on company property.

The latest salvo in this war on labor is this session’s ruling in the Glacier Concrete v. Teamsters case. Teamsters will have to pay damages to the company for the ruined concrete that was left in trucks on the first day of a walkout.

Many labor leaders are emphasizing that SCOTUS did not go further and directly attack all workers’ right to strike. But they are ignoring the fact that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent.

Normally such disputes would be handled by the National Labor Relations Board. Allowing a case to be brought before a state court opens the door to harassment lawsuits whenever pickets go up. And in many conservative states, those courts will be looking to stick it to strikers. The most conservative justices have practically invited future cases that would undermine the ability to strike.

The biggest gut punch was thrown by President Biden when he broke a national railroad strike late in 2022, imposing a contract that a majority of rail workers had voted down. Shamefully, six months later the AFL-CIO endorsed his re-election bid without any discussion involving the rank and file.

Solidarity is job one. UPS drivers will likely be picketing in August. The impact on the economy of 350,000 Teamsters not delivering packages will raise the specter of another government intervention. The movement needs an inspiring victory to spur continued organizing. It does not need another debacle like the PATCO walkout in 1981. Reagan smashed that union by firing all air traffic controllers, and labor went into a tailspin for decades as a result.

The stakes are high. Now is the time to build labor-community solidarity committees in every city to support UPS drivers. Any attempt to force them back to work deserves a robust response from labor, including a general strike.

Opportunities to build the current workers’ insurgency are great, but it will require equal measures of tenacity and defiance.

Hoffman is a shop steward with Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304. Send comments to FSnews@socialism.com.

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