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National Labor Relations Board Twists the Knife in the Heart of Unions and Workers

New Orleans    It may be hard to remember, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is supposed to ensure the right of workers to organize and safeguard the stated public policy expounded in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which favors collective bargaining. Under the Trump administration, the NLRB is going out of its way to attack the Act. We are not talking about the usual thrust and jab common to any new administration. Trump’s NLRB and General Counsel are gutting the Act like a fish and then stabbing that knife into the heart of workers, their rights, and their unions.

During the eight years of the Obama administration, the NLRB had the opportunity to recast some contentious issues more favorably for workers and their unions.  Progress was made, though less than unions and organizers had hoped to see. Elections were processed more quickly.  Employers could not challenge a unit before the election, so they could not run out the clock and extend their campaigns through unnecessary hearings and fake challenges to specific jobs or bargaining unit descriptions.  The NLRB made a long overdue and significant update to the determinations for joint employer status, a key issue for franchises and their overlords like McDonalds.  Acknowledging joint employer control of the workforce would have finally made the primary, deep-pocketed company responsible for the labor practices of their franchisees.  Graduate student unions were allowed to be certified and protected under the Act.  Email communications by workers complaining about working conditions and organizing their co-workers were allowed and were protected, concerted activity within workplaces rather than solely company-controlled property, and Facebook rants were protected.

Three years into the Trump term, the NLRB now has three Republican appointees and only one Democratic appointee on the five-member board, and these Obama-era initiatives have either been rolled back already or are under attack. Things will not get better any time soon.  The last Democrat’s term concludes at the end of 2019, and it’s unlikely that a new member will be appointed in 2020. That leaves a 3-0 partisan board to steamroll over workers’ rights.  The decisions are guaranteed to become worse.

The actions of the Trump NLRB and the proposals of the current General Counsel go to the heart of generations of organizing practices and do so deliberately. For example, the NLRA specifies that “an appropriate bargaining unit” can represent workers. It does not require “a” single unit. But in the recent Boeing case emerging from the efforts to organize their South Carolina plant, the Board ruled against this time-honored definition, blocking the certification of a 178-member unit with the larger Boeing workforce.

Furthermore, the General Counsel Peter B. Robb has also proposed to flip the script on presumption of units in order to proceed more quickly to elections, a move that encourages companies to try to delay elections by challenging the unit and forcing a hearing.  He has also proposed a laundry list of reasons an employer can now use to challenge the majority of an incumbent union, forcing it to hold an election to prove its majority.

The General Counsel has also indicated he wants to stop the practice of unions filing charges to block unfair labor practices, known as “blocking” charges – usually actions by the company that taint the election conditions — during campaigns. This proposal is a total union-buster.  Instead of allowing the Regional NLRB supervising the election to postpone the voting while it investigates the charge, workers would be forced to vote in the poisoned conditions that the union opposed.  The election would proceed and results would be held “in the box.” If the charges were not found meritorious, the election box would be unsealed and the votes counted, presumably to the union and the workers’ peril.

Collective bargaining is also under attack.  One of the rock-solid foundations of bargaining prohibits employers from making unilateral changes once an organizing drive has begun. Any unilateral change could be a potential unfair labor practice and could lead to an election objection if it materially impacted the results.  Once a union was certified, the ban on unilateral changes meant that the company had to bargain with the union.  No more.  The NLRB wants to allow employers more leeway, turning upside down the rules governing what bosses can do under management rights.  The new rule seems to be “anything goes” for employers.

The NLRB reported another 11% drop in the filing of unfair labor practices in 2018.  The General Counsel for the Machinists has reportedly commented that we shouldn’t worry, because a lot of this will go away if Trump wins a second term.  Personally, I’m not feeling as secure about that as my brother machinist is.  Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute has suggested that the NLRB and the General Counsel have been following the work order set by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce point by point.

Does it matter?  Yes. However, because nothing better is likely to be legislated anytime soon, we need to hold onto everything we can in the current act.

Many unions and organizers have claimed that the failures to improve the protections of the NLRA are so serious that they are not filing for representation elections before the Board, but the statistics indicate otherwise. 1597 elections were filed in FY18 and another 1588 in FY08.  Workers are still organizing under the Act, and that’s a fact.

Like it or not, the NLRA provides both organized and unorganized workers some protections, despite weak and erratic enforcement.  In the contemporary workplace, workers need those protections more than ever.  The rights that remain are themselves organizing tools.

Published first in the Working Class Perspectives on November 18, 2019 

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The Challenges of Organizing Gig Workers

When we think about organizing precarious “gig” workers, the task seems biblical.  The workers may be ready, or not, but the spirit and the flesh are weak. We all bemoan the rise of gig workers. Low pay, few hours, no benefits are some of them, worsened by the uncertainty of a position where you can only work to deliver something being demanded by consumers at a premium you are powerless to control. App companies misclassify workers as independent contractors rather than employees in order to pass on all of the maintenance and capital costs, aside from web work and marketing, to the workers, avoiding the personnel benefit and equipment costs that are routine and inescapable for regular employers. Worker conditions seem to cry out for a union, but unions have to be wary at answering the call no matter how loud.

A recent “strike” by Uber drivers in Los Angeles illustrates the problem. The company had triggered the strike by increasing its percentage of the fare, thereby decreasing drivers’ pay.  In response, the drivers turned off the Uber application on their phone.  Stated more plainly, they went on strike by simply didn’t respond to any calls or inducements to drive.

Did it work?  Who knows?  How would any of us, whether organizers, curious observers, or company officials, know how to measure the number of drivers protesting in this way versus those who just decided not to drive on any given day or got ticked off and responded to Lyft instead or whatever?  ACORN tried a similar approach in the early 1970s when we were fighting increases by the Arkla Gas Company in central Arkansas. Our “Turn Off Arkla Day!” action got a bit of press, as the Uber drivers did in Los Angeles. But in both cases, the company yawned since there was no way to measure whether the strike affected their cash flow at all.

Organizing gig workers can be challenging, but there’s some good work going on for bicycle deliver drivers in Europe, where companies like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and others have become ubiquitous. Last fall one of ACORN’s affiliates organized a meeting in Brussels that brought together union activists interested in organizing European bicycle delivery drivers with fledgling groups of drivers from a dozen countries from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and others. That meeting highlighted several active organizing projects:

  • Bike Workers Advocacy Project (BWAP), a new group seeking to organize cycling workers and, eventually, lead to some kind of unionization or union-style representation. Drivers at Postmates and Caviar in New York City and some bicycle shops seemed to be stirring the pot in 2018, but nothing seems to have emerged formally to date.
  • Bike delivery workers at Foodora and Dilveroo in Germanyhave raised issues about low wages and their independent contractor situation while advocating for a union.
  • In 2016, London gig workers for delivery services Deliveroo and Uber Eats organized protests and strikes for higher wages.  There was also an outcry in Philadelphia when a rider for Caviar was killed while working.
  • Legal action has managed to win back employment rights, such as a recent ruling in Spain that declared that a Deliveroo rider was in fact an employeeand not an independent contractor, as the company claimed. Caviar is in mandatory arbitration in California on the same issue.  As importantly, riders in London struck for three days in 2018, and joined with striking McDonalds’s workers to demand higher wages, largely organized by a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

While these examples seem promising, unions clearly lack any real commitment to organize these workers, and the workers have limited leverage. David Chu, who directs the European Organizing Center, a joint project between European unions and the US-based Change to Win federation, told me recently that he hears a lot of talk about organizing gig workers but sees little action in that direction, but perhaps the spirit – and many workers – are willing to organize, but the flesh-and-bones unions are not?

Serious organizing efforts in the United States have been contradictory and embryonic.  Uber in New York City and San Francisco reacted to organizing efforts by attempting to coopt the organizations into agreeing that the workers were not employees in exchange for consultation rights on rule changes and other issues like receiving tips.  More concerted efforts to create a mini-National Labor Relations Board representation mechanism were launched at the municipal level in Seattle, but the organizing effort is currently mired in litigation over preemption by the National Labor Relations Act and the question of employee status.

Local efforts reflect the way companies keep changing their practices, as Marielle Benchehboune, coordinator of ACORN’s affiliate, ReAct, noted recently in Forbes. “What will make the difference,” she suggested, is workers organizing “on the transnational scale.” Perhaps her analysis is correct.  Perhaps a rare global organizing plan could create enough pressure and leverage among these competing companies that could weld a workers’ movement together from the disparate pieces of independent worker mobilizations that are cropping up around the world.

Given the challenges, how much should we invest in organizing gig workers? Labor economists in the US caution that despite all of the hype from Silicon Valley and even some labor officials about the emerging gig economy, it involves a very small percentage of the workforce.  Others, like Louis Heyman in the recent book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream became Temporary, argue that gig workers are just the pimple on the elephant’s ass of contingent and temporary labor that has been hollowing out the American workforce for decades, just as consultants have chipped away at management jobs as well.

I heard something similar fifteen years ago, when I asked a leader of the Indian National Trade Union Congress if they were doing anything to organize call center workers in India. He answered that they estimated that there were 30,000 such workers, but there were 450 million workers in India at the time and hardly 9% were organized.  He then shrugged. That’s all he said, but we got the message.  There’s much to be done in organizing the unorganized, and resources and capacity are always restrained, whether in India or Europe or North America.

Is that a reason for not finding ways to organize workers who are attempting on their own to find justice on their jobs? Or is it just another rationale for doing little or nothing?  The one thing that seems clear is that if unions are going to be relevant to the modern workforce and the irregular and precarious forms of work that are being created by technology married to avarice, we must debate and address these challenges. It may be difficult, but unions and organizers need to devise practicable strategies that allow workers to organize, win, and build enough power to force companies to adapt and change.

I wish we had the answer now, because the workers seem ready, but one way or another, we need to figure this out quickly!

The Challenges of Organizing “Gig” Workers Posted on April 29, 2019 by Working-Class Perspectives

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