Labor Day: Fighting For Workers So They Can Fight For Themselves

The National Law Journal this week posted an article that declared that unions received “an early Labor Day present” from the National Labor Relations Board: a memorandum from the board’s general counsel that set standards for how union organizers could use online methods to certify worker interest in forming a union.

This adds to the anger anti-union conservative politicians have against efforts to restore to workers the bargaining power they have lost the past 30 years. They are already irate over last month’s NLRB decision that large corporations, such as the major fast-food restaurant chains, could not hide behind their franchisees and claim that they were not employers to avoid union organizing efforts. That ruling prompted Sen. Lamar Alexander, of the right-to-work-less state of Tennessee, to introduce legislation to overturn the NLRB “joint employer” ruling and to rein in what he called a “runaway” agency.

Now Alexander can add to his indictment the specter of workers indicating their interest in being represented by a union with the ease with which workers at some banks can deposit their paychecks with a smartphone. This, as the Law Journal warns, “will greatly reduce the time employers have to respond to such efforts by educating their employees on the pros and cons of such a choice” – because employers, despite their resources, are apparently ill-equipped to compete on a level plane with advocates for workers unless those advocates are somehow slowed down.

That, of course, is silly. The real “runaway” actors in this whole drama, of course, have been corporations and their right-wing enablers in the Congress. It’s been their actions to weaken the ability of workers to fight for better wages and benefits that have left workers little to celebrate on Labor Days for the past two decades.

Two reports this week highlight the consequences. The Economic Policy Institute detailed how workers have failed in recent years to reap the benefits of their productivity gains. The National Employment Law Project offered even more devastatingly pointed statistics: Lower-wage workers in particularly have experienced significant wage declines when measured against increases in the cost of living.

Bottom line: We are working longer than ever – this Gallup survey from 2014 found that full-time U.S. workers report working an average of 47 hours a week, and nearly four in 10 work more than 50 hours a week – but are less likely to receive a fair wage for their more-than-fair-day’s work.

That is why the attacks from the right on the ability of workers to organize are so nefarious, and so dangerous. They are a fundamental factor in the national debate we should be having over income inequality and how to address it. (Keep in mind that the whole point of so-called “right-to-work” laws is to keep worker wages low – and it works: An Economic Policy Institute paper shows that workers in right-to-work states earn on average 3 percent less than workers in states that do not restrict union organizing. That translates into more than $1,500 less a year for the average worker.)

In an ideal political climate, we would have a Congress that could intelligently address such issues as ensuring that workers could indicate their wish to join a union without filibustering and obstruction from employers. Congress could – and in fact should – declare that workers should have a baseline set of benefits, protections and rights regardless of whether they are classified as employees or contractors, and whether their boss is a corporate manager or a franchise owner.

An ideal Congress could have arguably stepped forward and taken on the task of updating the nation’s overtime rules, which currently allow a $24,000-a-year worker to be christened a “manager” and thus required to work more than 40 hours a week – sometimes 80 hours a week or more – without so much as an additional dime in pay.

The Labor Department has had to instead step in to administratively rectify that wrong. The department opened a 60-day comment period, which is ending Friday, on proposed regulations that will lift the salary floor for who can be considered a manager not eligible for overtime to close to what it was in the mid-1970s. (As of midday Friday, the department had more than 194,000 comments.) When the regulation goes into effect, that will close a loophole an increasing number of retailers and other businesses have used to nullify one of the most important achievements of the labor movement, the 40-hour workweek and time-and-a-half pay for rank-and-file workers who are called to work longer than 40 hours a week.

That is an example of an administration using its authority to take action when a Congress compromised by corporate interests and paralyzed by ideology cannot act. This would not have happened without grassroots activists pushing President Obama and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to take this on in the face of major corporate opposition. This augments such other administration initiatives as the executive orders President Obama signed in 2014 that set a $10.10 minimum wage for employers with federal government contracts and cracked down on contractors who violated wage and worker safety laws.

But there remains a major contribution that President Obama must make to ensure that workers receive a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. That would be a “good jobs” or “model employer” executive order that would require federal contractors to be open to collective bargaining. Ideally, this executive order would raise the floor for federal contractor pay to $15 an hour, the minimum breadwinners actually need to care for themselves and their family.

This would not be extraordinary. As Peter Dreier pointed out in this Los Angeles Times op-ed last year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 issued Executive Order 9017 that often required employers to recognize unions and bargain collectively with employees in exchange for workers taking a no-strike pledge. “As a result, unions added millions of workers to their ranks, which after the war helped build the biggest middle class in history,” Dreier wrote.

We are not at war – unless you count the very real war against working people being waged by the corporate class and its right-wing facilitators, which has resulted in tangible economic losses felt by millions of people. That damage to workers and to the Main Street economy warrants the next bold step by President Obama to ensure that workers can fight for themselves – and have Labor Days in the future worth celebrating.


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