Animating the Right to Organize (VIDEO)

Deb Wilmer, a law student at University of Massachusetts.
Editor, Law@theMargins

Special thanks to Kabita Parajuli for a summary and transcription of our 2016 Right to Organize webinar.

The legal right to organize is under attack. When workers try to exercise their right, they are faced with threats, intimidation, harassment, captive audience meetings and firings . Employers spend untold dollars on “union avoidance” consultants, exploiting a loophole in the law that would require them to disclose the amount of money they spend on these consultants. While the Obama administration proposed changes to close the loophole, the Trump administration has rescinded that proposal.

Between 2011 and 2015, fifteen states outlawed or severely curtailed public workers’ right to collectively bargain. Since 2012, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Missouri have all passed “right to work” laws. Right to work laws allow workers who are represented by a union to avoid paying dues or fair share fees for that representation. Republicans in Congress have introduced a bill that would make both public and private sectors right to work nationally.

If Janus v. AFSCME,  recently argued in front of the Supreme Court in the current session, is decided in favor of Janus it will effectively make right to work the law for all public employees across the nation. This result was narrowly avoided in 2016 when a similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, remained at the lower court’s labor-friendly holding after the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia left the Supreme Court divided 4-4. Scalia has since been replaced by Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch, whose previous decisions and writings have been consistently anti-worker. Read Law@theMargins take on Janus here.

Still, all news is not grim. In Missouri, unions and their allies succeeded in putting the right to work law passed by their legislature to a popular vote this fall, and the law is on hold until then.

And there have been organizing successes. In 2016 alone, Columbia University graduate student workers became the first graduate students at a private university to organize through an official NLRB election; educators and support staff at a Cleveland charter school voted to join the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the AFT; and in Memphis, Tennessee, a right to work state, hundreds of workers at Electrolux organized with the IBEW. Digital media is rapidly becoming unionized: the Writers Guild of America East has organized staff at Slate, Vox Media, VICE, HuffPost, The Intercept, Gizmodo Media Group, ThinkProgress, MTV News, Thrillist and Salon.

It is in this climate that Law@theMargins organized a webinar on the right to organize on May 1, 2016. Participating were four speakers engaged in separate struggles connected by the fight against rising corporate power, the challenges of new technology and the mobility of capital.  The conversations from this webinar are still relevant and important today.  Law@theMargins seeks to build on lessons from our speakers as we continue to support organizing efforts.

Professor Daniel Kovalik of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and senior counsel to the United Steelworkers pointed out that it was major agitation of the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that brought about the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, giving legal protection to the right to organize in the United States. “[A] lot of times we have to go beyond the margins of the law to fight for our rights. The right to organize in the United States…was built through struggles that were largely illegal … We shouldn’t wait for the law to be good for us to make these struggles.”

Professor Kovalik also spoke about how US unions have worked in solidarity with Colombian trade unionists facing murder and death threats. While the killing of unionists and workers has gone down significantly in recent years, death threats continue to have a severe chilling effect. Successes there, however, represent a positive impact of cross-border solidarity by unions.

Javaid Tariq is senior staff and organizer of the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, the first worker center given a charter by the AFL-CIO. New York taxi drivers are independent contractors by law, which places them outside the protections of the Wagner Act. But that hasn’t stopped them. For over 20 years now, they have been developing the consciousness among the drivers that “we have to stand together, otherwise we cannot win anything.” Mr. Tariq focused on the implications of Uber, the app company was also held up as a symptom and symbol of disregard for service sector workers – particularly drivers. The Alliance is now affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and includes among its members Uber drivers who are unhappy with the company’s callous approach to driver expenses and needs. At the same time that the company has undercut the strength of the taxi industry, it has pushed more and more workers towards part-time employment, increasing their dependency on precarious work.

United Auto Workers lead organizer Sanchioni Butler emphasized the importance of making connections with our brothers and sisters across the globe. Since multinational corporations operate globally, labor has to as well. Attending workshops together and seeing how international union and affiliate partners organize are a few of the strategies Ms. Butler discussed. Ms. Butler also highlighted some additional points of inequality. She provided examples of how management continues to favor White employees, with respect to both pay and opportunities for promotion. Ms. Butler emphasized the need for a two-pronged approach to build the strength of labor: by developing stronger relationships within the US and abroad, while also promoting successes to community members. In doing so, workers and advocates will be more successful in gaining ground for organized labor.

Lorraine Clewer, formerly of the Solidarity Center in Mexico and now with Maquila Solidarity Network, highlighted the work of the Center and partner unions, focusing on gender justice in labor organizing. Ms. Clewer indicated that women are disproportionately concentrated in the informal sector of the economy, outside guarantees in labor law. Domestic workers, however, recently won recognition in the federal labor law, but are still fighting for an eight-hour day.

Despite obstacles, organizing remains central to the struggle to build labor power. Ms. Clewer remarked, “Law everywhere in the world comes after the struggle. We win decent labor law because we fight.” Professor Kovalik’s advice, “[W]e need to agitate more, at the margins or beyond the margins of the law, for our rights,” will take the labor movement back to its radical roots and simultaneously move labor organizing forward in the 21st Century.

Panelists and moderator underlined that while good laws, and changes to the law, are important, they are not sufficient to ensure decent work and working conditions. Struggle has always been a precursor to better laws. Given history, as well as the mobility of capital, it becomes necessary to work at the margins of the law, using new organizational alliances and an eye to cross-border solidarity. This advice remains true today.  The most recent inspiring example of the strength of collective action came from the West Virginia teachers strike, which was resolved in favor of a pay raise. We have to continue to support efforts around the globe to reinvigorate the power of organizing.

Watch the webinar here.

For a transcript of the webinar click here

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