Let’s not forget unions and collective action when discussing victories on workers’ rights

Lynn Rhinehart

Lynn Rhinehart Senior Fellow, EPI

Too often in our public discourse about workplace issues, the crucial role of labor unions and the legal right of workers to join together in collective action to improve their working conditions is forgotten or ignored.

In a column about the importance of pay transparency in achieving pay equity published in The New York Times last month (“Want to Close the Pay Gap? Try Transparency,” Jan. 21, 2019), the author outlines possible policy measures to protect workers when they discuss pay with their co-workers. Yet in a rather stark omission, the piece ignores the reality that existing federal law—the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act—currently protects the right of private-sector workers to discuss pay with one another. It also overlooks the millions of unionized workers who currently benefit from the pay transparency that a collective bargaining agreement provides.

In late November, The Washington Post ran an op-ed about the challenges of effectively addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. The column gave credit to the American Hotel & Lodging Association—the hotel industry lobby—for providing panic buttons to hotel workers to protect them from harassment and assault by hotel guests.

In fact, the trade association was merely following the lead of UNITE-HERE, the hotel workers union, which won panic buttons and other protections for both union and nonunion hotel workers in Chicago and other cities through collective bargaining and legislative activity. (The author also omitted the fact that the hotel association was in the middle of a lawsuit seeking to strike down a Seattle ballot initiative approved by 70 percent of the voters providing panic buttons to hotel workers—yes, the very protection they group had just been credited for.)

Just a month earlier, thousands of Google workers walked off the job to pressure the tech giant to change its policy on requiring employees to sign away their right to go to court if they face sexual harassment on the job. Google workers had reason to be concerned about harassment—news reports disclosed that Google’s parent company paid secret severance to a number of executives accused of harassment. Prominently featured in the articles about the walkout were Google’s CEO’s statements that Google was supportive of the strike activity. (See, for example, “Google Workers Walk Out Over Allegations of Harassment,” Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2018, reporting that “Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said Google is supporting employees who choose to participate in the walkouts.”)

Here’s what the coverage blithely missed: under existing labor law, it would have been illegal for Google to take any action against the strikers, because they were engaged in collective efforts to address a workplace issue. In other words, Google got public credit for saying it would follow the law. The fact that labor law protects protests by non-union workers like the Google strikers was totally lost. (And, in a final twist of irony or hypocrisy, Google has now been outed for trying to change labor law to prohibit workers from talking about workplace issues on the company e-mail system.)

Why is labor law and its importance to workers winning justice on the job so frequently overlooked? Why is there so little awareness of a law—passed during the New Deal and every bit as relevant today—that protects the right of all private-sector workers—both union and nonunion—to join together in strikes and other types of collective action to make things better at work?

It would be easy to chalk this up to right-wing domination of the media and their desire to ignore the labor movement or see it disappear altogether—except that the pieces referenced above appeared in fiercely independent national newspapers not owned by the right wing.

A more likely explanation is that the traditional labor movement, while still formidable, is much smaller than it once was. As a result, the public, reporters and commentators are much less aware of workers’ rights—and gains—under labor law.

Perhaps the recent resurgence of labor activity—the Marriott hotel workers represented by UNITE HERE winning pay increases and protections against sexual harassment through their recent strikes; the airline industry unions collectively speaking out against the safety risks caused by the recent government shutdown; a group of Somali workers forcing Amazon to the bargaining table to address issues in Minnesota; and the inspiring strike by Los Angeles teachers to win improvements in the schools—can inject greater awareness about existing rights into the public conscience, as well as emphasizing their importance to basic dignity and fairness in the workplace.


Reposted from EPI

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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A Friendly Reminder

A Friendly Reminder