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Point: The ‘Year of the Strike’ Could Be a Turning Point for the Labor Movement

For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: 2023 Won’t Mark a Union Revival, and That’s Good News.”

Picket lines captured headlines in 2023 like no year in recent memory.

In October, U.S. companies lost more workdays to strikes than in any month during the last 40 years. More than half a million American workers left the job this year — and many wound up winning significant concessions.

Big Three auto workers, Hollywood writers and actors, Las Vegas and Los Angeles hotel staff, and Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers will enter the new year with greater economic security, thanks to bargaining table wins. For UPS drivers, the mere threat of a Teamsters strike was enough to secure historic wage hikes and safety protections.

Many New Year’s toasts will celebrate these achievements, and for good reason. Corporate CEOs have gorged on ever more massive paychecks for decades while leaving their workers with crumbs.

But the strikers of 2023 are part of the tiny unionized share of the private sector labor force — which fell to a record low of 6 percent in 2022. If the labor movement can’t make greater inroads in challenging organizing environments, corporations will always have enormous power to pit union and non-union workers against each other in a race to the bottom in wages and benefits.

This point is not lost on unions that scored two of the most significant victories in 2023: the UAW and the Teamsters.

After the UPS win, the Teamsters doubled down on Amazon, picketing outside 25 of the union-busting behemoth’s warehouses. A key demand: a fair contract for unionized drivers for one California-based Amazon delivery service.

UAW leaders — after securing a 25 percent pay hike for their GM, Ford and Stellantis members — sent a message to unorganized auto workers at other companies, urging them to join the union bandwagon.

Top executives at Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai were also listening. In an apparent attempt to fend off organizing drives, they immediately raised wages for their non-unionized U.S. employees.

These four firms have been part of an investment boom in southern states notorious for anti-union laws and politicians. Expanding worker power in this tough territory will be crucial for the labor movement’s future. In 2023, unions proved it can be done, winning elections at a Blue Bird bus factory in Georgia and AT&T Mobility hubs in Alabama.

The past year also saw union progress in another tough territory: tech. This December, Microsoft signed an agreement to remain neutral in organizing drives among their U.S.-based workers. This will make it easier for 100,000 Microsoft workers to unionize, with potential ripple effects across the industry.

These encouraging signs aside, labor laws still stack the deck in favor of bosses. Just look at the fact that Starbucks and Amazon have been able to get away with refusing to negotiate with workers who voted to unionize well more than a year ago.

Efforts in Congress to strengthen union rights are dead for now, with only two Republicans endorsing the Democrats’ Protecting the Right to Organize Act. On the other hand, President Biden is supporting unions in several ways — and could do more.

In September, Biden became the first American president to join a union picket line. Beyond showing moral support, the White House is using the power of the public purse to boost worker power.

Federal construction contractors now must negotiate project-specific collective bargaining agreements with workers. Biden should require the same of all corporations that get taxpayer-funded contracts and subsidies.

The White House should also demand that all corporations receiving public funds commit to union neutrality and have reasonable gaps between CEO and worker pay. This could make a huge difference since federal contractors employ 25 percent of U.S. workers — and they include Amazon and other corporations known for union-busting and overpaid CEOs.

We might dub this the “year of the strike.” But let’s hope we’ll someday look back at 2023 as more than that — as the year a re-energized movement began reversing its downward slide so that all American workers can get a fair reward for their labor.

MOONEY: Free Speech Suit against Teacher’s Union Could Boost Labor Reform

A Pennsylvania court may strike down a labor law that is clearly unconstitutional, but elected officials shouldn’t wait on the legal system to rectify state law with Supreme Court precedent, the lead sponsor of pending legislation said in an interview.

Since the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas is now expected to rule on the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s “fair share fee” law, state Rep. Kate Klunk, a York County Republican, sees an opportunity for her colleagues in both parties to “end the confusion” without delay. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that under the First Amendment government workers who are not union members cannot be forced to pay union fees.

The decision affected about 5 million workers in 22 states including Pennsylvania. But Klunk is concerned that too many public employees remain largely unaware of their rights despite the Supreme Court ruling. That’s why she’s sponsoring HB 2042, which would require public employers to notify nonunion members and new employees that they do not need to make financial contributions to a union as a condition of their employment.

“In my conversations with teachers and municipal employees, they are primarily concerned about doing their job whether it’s in the classroom or in another setting and they are not well versed with employment law,” Klunk observed. “Sometimes they don’t understand what they are signing, and they don’t have someone sitting there with them to go through the process.”

The first notification of employee rights would be sent out 30 days after Klunk’s bill becomes effective. From that point forward, notifications would be sent out annually every January. Klunk’s bill would also repeal the “fair share fee” law that is no longer enforceable after the Janus decision.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court directed the Lancaster Court of Common Pleas to evaluate constitutional claims made against Pennsylvania labor laws that now conflict with federal law. A Lancaster judge had previously ruled that a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania State Education Association was moot after the union agreed to stop collecting fees from nonmembers.

“The courts want this issue of fair share fees settled,” Klunk said. “But we can do this much quicker legislatively, and we can do it in a matter of two to three weeks. I’d say we have all the more reason to do it now that this case has been kicked back to the Lancaster court. These cases are going to continue to play out until there’s some kind of finality. My bill strikes fair share fees from the books so they cannot be included in future contracts. We can end the confusion.”

The PSEA, the largest public employee union in the state, and its affiliates have inserted fee provisions into at least 20 collective bargaining agreements signed since the Janus decision, according to the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Harrisburg.

“The Supreme Court made clear in 2018 that public employee unions cannot force nonmembers to pay a union,” Nathan McGrath, president of the Fairness Center, said in a press statement. “But Pennsylvania law still says unions can do just that. And almost four years after Janus, PSEA and its affiliates have continued to write illegal fair share fee provisions into teachers’ collective bargaining agreements. Our clients want to force PSEA to respect the Supreme Court ruling.”

The Fairness Center represents retired Chester County teacher Jane Ladley and Lancaster County teacher Chris Meier in litigation they filed against the PSEA more than seven years ago. Both teachers raised religious objections toward paying the union. They also both had a right to send their fees to a charity rather than a union. But the PSEA rejected their charities of choice. After the Janus ruling, the union agreed to return the money to the teachers. But Ladley and Meier continue to seek definitive court action that would strike down the fair share fee law. The Lancaster court could potentially deliver that ruling.

On Tuesday, Klunk’s bill was among four of the labor reform bills the committee approved, which means they are all eligible for a full vote in the House. One of the other bills (HB 844) would protect the privacy of public employees so their personal information like their Social Security numbers, addresses, and phone numbers cannot be shared in the collective bargaining process. Another bill (HB 845) calls for greater transparency in the collective bargaining process while another (HB 2048), known as paycheck protection, prevents public employers from deducting political action committee (PAC) contributions from public employees’ wages using public payroll systems.

Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, offered the following comments:

“Pennsylvania should not have unconstitutional laws on its books. Nor should we use taxpayer-funded payroll systems to collect campaign cash. Correcting these problems will empower public employees and help ensure fairness in government. It’s encouraging to see House lawmakers moving to protect employees’ private data and shine the light of transparency on deals that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.”


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