Tag Archives: labor unions

Firing Workers for Off-the-Job Protests

New Orleans      A small notice in an email caught my eye.  A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) attorney in a newly released guidance letter wanted to make sure that employers knew that it was alright to fire workers who are involved in advocating for police reform or racial justice outside of the workplace, unless the political or social causes for their protests are directly tied to the workplace.

Was this really necessary?  Or, was it simply the fact that the NLRB now, with nothing but Trump-appointed Republicans, felt it important to do their part in joining the Trump team in pushing back during this election season on any effort to curb police abuses or stop racial profiling and attacks?  Lawyers refer to this kind of thing as “chilling,” an attempt to act preemptively to discourage workers from getting involved in protests.

All of this harkens back to the times in the South – and elsewhere — when Black workers were routinely fired for being involved in civil rights protests or boycotts against businesses that wouldn’t serve or hire Black workers.  Bosses wanted to rule the private and political life of their workers because it reflected on them and their position in a racist social structure where they couldn’t control “their” people.  With long memories, we can also recall workers fired for demonstrating against the war in Vietnam.  The examples are endless, but is this the American way?

Not really.  Read closely this NLRB advisory and note that protests by workers are still protected if they are tied directly to the workplace or its issues.

In fact, a 2018 NLRB’s counsel memo  in a Detroit case involving a company called EZ Industrial that fired eighteen of its Mexican workers for joining the Day Without Immigrants protest in 2017 was clear on this issue. The General Counsel for the Trump NLRB, as a Maine law firm described it,

…found that the Mexican employees’ participation in the “Day Without Immigrants” fell squarely within Section 7 of the NLRA’s protection of “concerted activity” for the purpose of “mutual aid or protection” to improve working conditions or terms of employment.  The NLRB further found that Section 7 protection “extends to concerted political advocacy” when the subject matter of that advocacy has a direct nexus to employees.  Translation?  Since the Mexican workers were protesting for “mutual aid and protection” of themselves and other immigrant workers subject to possible raids and discrimination in the workplace, the “Day Without Immigrants” was protected activity under the law.

In short, there’s a way for workers to take these actions, but you have to be careful.  The whole point of the latest NLRB advisory is to discourage workers being involved in reform movements.  The whole point of unions is advising workers on how they can participate in such movements and still be shielded by the Act.

It is also worth advising workers and everyone else that, despite the machinations of the current president and attorney general, freedom of assembly is still firmly planted in the constitution.  In fact, those freedoms are the origins of the NLRB’s section 7 protections.  Most state constitutions also underscore those protections and, in some cases, expand the ability of workers to organize even while trying to keep them out of unions.

We need to make sure we’re ready to protect everyone’s rights in this fight both at work and in the streets, no matter how many ways obstacles are put in our way.

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Unions are Feeling the Love, While Weaker

Pearl River     Even here along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, the temperature has edged down a couple of degrees, signaling Labor Day’s arrival.  In my time this meant school was starting and no matter what the thermometer read, it was fall, doggone it, and time to pull out the long-sleeved shirts and get ready to hump it for another year.

Labor Day now means union-time for me, not school days.  At the Regional Transit Authority where we represent workers along with the Amalgamated Transit Union and the electricians, they are grilling hot dogs and hamburgers under the breezeway at the A. Philip Randolph RTA building.  Maybe the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO will try to have its picnic in City Park, a tradition we restarted when I was Secretary-Treasurer of that body, but given social distancing and Covid-19, maybe not?  Riding bikes in the evenings along the Mississippi Sound between Waveland and Bay St. Louis over the weekend, we saw lots of picnics, but no union banners.

For unions, these are contradictory times.  According to the new Gallup poll, we’re feeling the love with 65% public support, the highest in seventeen years.  Their poll shows that,

Democrats’ current 83% approval of labor unions is the highest on record since then. At the same time, 45% of Republicans and 64% of independents approve of unions.  In 2009, 66% of Democrats, 29% of Republicans and 44% of independents viewed labor unions favorably. Since the Great Recession, union approval has recovered among all three major party groups.

With huge unemployment underlining the fact that job security means almost nothing whether you are table server, an airline attendant, or a school worker, more workers are at least wishing that they had a union, and that’s good news.

On the other hand, 30 million on unemployment benefits with a lot of those union members as well, means unions are facing cutbacks in many cases as dues income drops.  Workers could be ringing the phones at union halls and find more answering machines and less follow-up on organizing plans.  Unionized janitors, casino workers, and a pile of manufacturing workers have found themselves on the unemployment line.  Salaried, professional, and office-based workers have largely been able to return to work, even if remotely, but service, industrial, and other workers remain on the bench as the economy still struggles with the pandemic and reopening.

We’re hardly in shape to muster the resources for great drives, even if workers were clamoring for help.  For all his faults, there are also no John Lewis-types out there ready to rally either the institutional unions or the unorganized to wave our flags.

Certainly, there are opportunities.  Teachers are standing up over health-and-safety concerns, but given the way the administration and OSHA have walked away from the issue, the same need – and demand – for collective action exists in all workplaces.  Joining with the unemployed, many of them union members, to demand more benefits and security, and leading the way is another obvious path we could pave.

Or not.

It’s unclear if hunkering down and hoping for the best is a winning strategy.  Certainly, it hasn’t proven to be over recent decades, so it’s unclear how well it will work in the current crisis we face now.

The good news is that people love us again.  The bad news is we may be in no position to return that love.

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