The Fight for Union Rights Is Heating Up

Just a few hours ago, the Senate sided with billionaire rail owners over rail unions in their ongoing contract dispute. After urging from President Biden, Congress passed a bill that legally forces rail unions to accept an agreement that many of them have voted against, saying it is inadequate and does not provide enough paid sick leave. This is a massive blow to the tens of thousands of rail workers who were depending on a new contract to give them better working conditions, and a deep failure by a President and a Democratic Congress that claim to be pro-union and pro-worker.

It’s clear that if working people are going to get the pay and working conditions they deserve, they’re going to have to fight for them.

That fight is well underway. Last year, the “Striketober” movement marked a time when workers used their unprecedented bargaining power to demand more and better from their employers. Over a year later, we are once again looking at another wave of resistance from mistreated workers who are fighting for a better life, pay, and working conditions.

From Amazon to Starbucks to nurses in Minnesota and California teachers, workers are standing up for themselves and using their collective power to fight for better pay and working conditions. This week, we’d like to highlight the importance of unions in America and the current news surrounding a striking workforce.

We have said it before, and we will say it again: our economy and country as a whole always do better when workers do better. And workers do better when they are unionized.

Higher unionization rates are good not only because workers deserve the right to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions, but also because it’s a smart business decision. Better working conditions are better not just for workers but for businesses and the economy as a whole.

Companies both big and small would do well to welcome unionization efforts not out of a sense of generosity but out of an understanding that employees who are treated well are more productive, more loyal, more committed to their company’s success, and stay on the job longer. Paying workers more might adversely affect companies’ bottom lines in the short term, but they are far more profitable in the long term.

We’ve seen proof of this over and over throughout American history. The steady decline in union membership and support since the mid-20th century has undoubtedly led to greater economic inequality. Today only 10.3% of workers are members of a union, as opposed to roughly one-third of the workforce in the 1950s and ’60s, a time known as an economic Golden Age in America.

As a direct result of the decline of unions, American workers have a harder time supporting themselves and an even harder time building wealth for themselves and their families. In the ’50s and ’60s, inequality was at its lowest point in American history, while today, inequality is higher than ever, and many American workers live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford basic necessities like groceries and rent.

Potential Rail Workers Strike
As we referenced earlier, the White House helped to broker a tentative deal between rail worker unions and rail carriers this past September, but since then, four rail worker unions, including the sector’s largest union, voted to reject the deal, citing its inadequate amount of sick leave (currently, most rail workers get no paid sick leave whatsoever, and the new deal would barely change that). This renewed fears that a rail strike that would cripple the American economy was imminent.

In an attempt to prevent an impending nationwide rail strike, President Biden called on Congress to force railway workers’ unions to accept the contract immediately and “without any modifications or delay,” even though the unions made it clear that the deal in question was inadequate.

Some progressive members of Congress made a last-minute push to add a provision that would mandate adding seven days of paid sick leave to the contract, but that failed in the Senate. Instead, Congress just forced rail workers to accept the current deal on the table, siding with the billionaire owners of the rail companies (like Warren Buffett) over rail unions.

This is hugely disappointing. For a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President to brazenly prioritize corporate profits over workers’ rights is, to put it simply, a betrayal.

You know things are bad when a President who once claimed to be “the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union Administration in American history” comes out with a less progressive stance on the rail strike than Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

No one wanted a strike to paralyze the US economy, but this was not the only option. If Biden were as pro-union as he claims to be, he should have called on Congress to improve the contract for workers and force railway management to accept it. It’s a shame that he didn’t, and it’s a shame that Congress failed to act on behalf of rail workers.

As we’ve covered in previous pieces, the fight for Starbucks unions has been extremely contentious. Since the first Starbucks union was formed last December, the company has ramped up its union-busting efforts: It’s fired countless organizing baristas, threatened to withhold benefits from stores planning to unionize, and closed stores that began the process of unionizing.

Starbucks workers have not taken well to the company’s union-busting campaign. In response to the company’s brutal tactics, on November 17 – “Red Cup Day,” Starbucks’ holiday season kickoff and one of the busiest days of the year for the company –  thousands of employees in over a hundred cafes nationwide walked off the job in a massive strike that has henceforth been dubbed the “Red Cup Rebellion.” And more employees are joining the fight for unions – no fewer than 60 new bargaining sessions have been scheduled for this month alone.

Amazon also has a long history of resisting and challenging its employees’ unionization efforts. The company’s first store unionized late last year in Staten Island, but that didn’t stop Amazon from accusing organizers of illegally aiding workers in voting to unionize and engaging in other union-busting tactics.

On Black Friday, Greenpeace, Oxfam, and Amazon Workers International led a global strike among Amazon employees over concerns regarding low pay and unsafe working conditions. Momentum continues to grow within the company in some surprising places; even the company’s corporate employees have begun moving to unionize themselves. Amazon recently received judicial orders to stop their union-busting campaigns, so with one major obstacle out of the way, hopefully, these new efforts will prove fruitful.

While we watch the fights of laborers unfold in the private sector, it’s important to remember that union rights aren’t just a corporate matter: they’re also profoundly political. In recent months, Republicans have taken their cue from their ultra-rich corporate donors and have been hard at work rolling back labor protections. The Conservative bloc on the Supreme Court now seems poised to follow their lead, as the Court recently released its intention to hear a case, Glacier Northwest Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, that threatens to decimate labor protections for striking workers.

In this upcoming case, a concrete company has sued its workers’ union for damages the company received as a result of a 2017 strike. While the case was originally dismissed, as the union’s behavior was protected by the National Labor Relations Act, Glacier Northwest appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which has now agreed to hear the case.

If the Court rules in favor of Glacier Northwest in this case, unions would be required to fight any accusations of strike violation, no matter how frivolous, in court. This would require unions to shell out funds every time a lawsuit was levied against them, depleting their already tight budgets, which could very well spell disaster for union workers already receiving the short end of the stick.

Background Reading and Resources
What you need to know about the threat of a rail strike and Congress | Washington Post
Union Strike Power Under Threat as Supreme Court Mulls Labor Law | Bloomberg
Weakened labor movement leads to rising economic inequality | EPI
When Reagan Broke the Unions | Planet Money | NPR
Opinion | Reagan vs. Patco: The Strike That Busted Unions | The New York Times
House Passes Bill to Avert a Rail Strike, Moving to Impose a Labor Agreement | The New York Times
Amazon workers strike in the US and 30 other countries on Black Friday in global ‘Make Amazon Pay’ campaign | Business Insider
Thousands of Starbucks workers strike on Red Cup Day | NPR
Teamsters members and national leaders march on Amazon HQ, escalating union campaign | GeekWire

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