Ronald Reagan's firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers put an end to the public sector strike wave. But not even Reagan challenged public workers' right to collective bargaining. Credit: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com
As public sector unions contemplate losing key rights under the law, it’s worth remembering that for much of their history, such unions organized with no rights at all.
It wasn’t till 1958 that New York became the first city to authorize collective bargaining for city employees. Wisconsin did the same for state employees in 1959, and federal workers got bargaining rights in 1962.
Yet as early as 1940, a book titled One Thousand Strikes of Government Employees described strikes dating back to the 1830s, when workers at U.S. Navy shipyards stopped work multiple times to press demands for better wages and conditions.
The book, written by David Ziskind, a lawyer at the Department of Labor, actually identified 1,116 strikes, involving firefighters, teachers, sanitation workers, hospital workers, railroad workers, postal employees, printers, park laborers, bathhouse attendants, caddies at public golf courses, gravediggers, construction workers… the list goes on and on.
In short, collective action was a tradition for more than a century before the law began to catch up.
Public workers formed unions without waiting for legal recognition. For instance, letter carriers established the first postal union in 1889. The American Federation of Teachers formed in 1918, the same year that several independent unions of firefighters merged to form a national union. AFSCME was born in Wisconsin in 1932, the same year as the American Federation of Government Employees, a union of federal workers.
So take heart—history shows that workers can mobilize and organize even without cover of law. Public workers have done it time and again. Of course labor law matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
A related lesson is that even workers who are supposedly unorganizable can in fact organize.
Never was this more evident than among the unemployed workers who found jobs in public works during the Great Depression. Of the 1,116 strikes in Ziskind’s book, nearly 700 involved people working in New Deal programs.
These programs employed jobless people at subsistence pay. They provided only temporary employment; law dictated that these workers would be dismissed as soon as jobs became available in the private sector. And as public employees, the workers had no legal rights to collective bargaining.
Yet they did organize. On top of mobilizing hundreds of strikes, they built organizations. And they won concessions; construction workers, for instance, won shorter workweeks with no loss of pay.
Mostly these workers organized not through recognized unions but through local Unemployed Councils, Unemployed Leagues, and groups called Workers Alliances. In 1935-1936 these local groups merged to form the Workers Alliance of America, whose first convention brought together 791 delegates representing at least 200,000 workers.
Besides workplace fights, chapters of the Workers Alliance agitated for better relief provisions for jobless people and demanded that unemployed workers be recognized and respected as workers.
Along the way, the Workers Alliance also broke new ground in organizing united action by Black and white workers in the Deep South, where simply holding a racially integrated meeting was against the law.
In other words, this was what we would now call social justice unionism—worker organizing that combines militancy on the job with a fight for justice in the wider society. It went deeper than a reciprocal exchange of support between unions and community groups. The Workers Alliance recognized that causes beyond the workplace were crucial to its own members.
It’s no coincidence that this social-justice approach proved especially effective at organizing “unorganizable” workers. People presumed to be unorganizable have almost always been those without political clout—for instance, migrant workers, recent immigrants, African Americans in the Jim Crow South, and others ignored by lawmakers. For workers on the political margins, building power on the job was—and still is—inextricably knit up with struggles to assert their rights in society at large.
More than 90% of Teamsters workers employed by UPS voted earlier this week to go on strike if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached before the current one expires on August 1, according to CNN Money. The Teamsters is one of the largest unions in the US, representing 1.3 million mostly manual laborers, including a majority of UPS' employees. The two parties, which have been in negotiations since late January, haven't made any significant progress over the last few weeks, making a strike increasingly likely.
The disagreement is primarily over the shipping giant's desire for employees to work every day of the week. UPS started regularly delivering parcels on Saturdays about a year ago, but hasn't started making Sunday deliveries, largely because of the costly overtime wages it's required to pay drivers.
UPS is seeking to change this in negotiations, proposing a two-tiered wage structure that would make part-time employees full-time workers at their current wage of $15 an hour, and cap their hours so they only work either Sunday to Thursday or Tuesday to Saturday. The Teamsters' members are currently divided on the proposal. UPS Teamsters United, a subset of the union, is arguing that UPS should pay any new full-time workers the same as it pays its existing workers, $36 an hour, on average, with the opportunity for overtime.
A strike would be a huge blow to the shipping giant at a time when it faces new competitive pressure from DHL and the looming threat of Amazon. DHLrevealed earlier this year that it planned to re-enter the US business-to-consumer (B2C) last-mile delivery market nearly a decade after its initial exit.
It may take the Germany-based company years to stand on the same competitive footing as UPS and FedEx, which combined operate more than 1,000 planes, 200,000 vehicles, and 4,000 warehousing and sorting facilities; however, it still poses a large threat to UPS since it can leverage its business-to-business (B2B) parcel delivery operations in the US.
Meanwhile, Amazon has startedpiloting a new service in Los Angeles that delivers packages for third-party retailers, showing it has ambitions to take on established US logistics providers. A massive strike like this — the Teamsters represent a whopping 260,000 UPS employees, roughly 60% of the company's total workforce — would, at least temporarily, be yet another major hurdle for the company.
Disputes like this one will grow more frequent and serious, as logistics providers increasingly tap into digital technologies to automate routine, low-skill jobs.As part of its initial proposal to UPS, the Teamstersdemanded that the shipping giant not use self-driving cars or drones for last-mile parcel deliveries. While that proposal was quickly shot down, it provides an early glimpse at the resistance logistics companies will face as they look to develop automated delivery capabilities.
The 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Ohio’s supplemental voter ‘list maintenance’ process—ruling that Ohio’s program does not violate the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) by impermissibly targeting persons who have not recently voted for possible removal from voting rolls—is truly alarming.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the NAACP’s amicus brief in her dissenting opinion in which she wrote the following: “In concluding that the Supplemental Process does not violate the NVRA, the majority does more than just misconstrue the statutory text.It entirely ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate.”
Justice Sotomayor's statement is especially poignant as we reflect on the life and legacy of Medgar Evers, who was assassinated 55 years ago today because of his voter registration work in Mississippi. We call on our members and supporters to urge state and local officials to focus efforts on increasing voter participation in this fall’s elections rather than targeting the most vulnerable of our citizens for removal from the voting rolls.
The nation’s new tax law is a job killer that will exacerbate the country’s income divide and will hamper infrastructure investment efforts, lawmakers and tax experts agree.
Speaking at an Economic Policy Institute event this week, House members and academic authorities stated that Congress’ so-called landmark legislative achievement this term is nothing but a ruse that will hurt working people while further enriching the corporate class.
“The tax law is the single most expansive rule that has been put in place in the last quarter century to exacerbate income inequality,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “Republican claims that tax law will produce jobs, jobs, jobs is fake news.”
She noted the tax changes encourage the outsourcing of jobs overseas. Meanwhile, more than two thirds of the tax savings by corporations are being used for stock buy backs instead of paying their workers more. “The country doesn’t know what this tax bill has done to their lives in terms of jobs,” DeLauro added.
Another overlooked element of the measure is that it won’t encourage much-needed U.S. infrastructure investment. Instead, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said, many corporations are likely to move operations overseas.
“This Republican majority is guilty of false and misleading advertising,’ he said. “The door is wide open to continue off-shore tax dodging.”
Kimberly Clausing, an economics professor at Reed College, said corporations will see a $620 billion tax cut over the next 10 years because of the legislation. But it is not likely to have a dramatic effect on U.S. competitiveness, and there is no reason to believe it will fuel investment. “A vast majority of economists believe these tax cuts were oversold,” she said.
Rebecca Kysar, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, agreed. “Given the enormous gamesmanship … in the end, you could say this was a lost opportunity,” she said. “We need to think a bit more about ambitious reform.”
Workers deserve policy changes that put more money in their pockets, but it is clear the new tax law doesn’t do it. While promises were made by some elected officials, corporate America isn’t following through. Hardworking Americans are left to foot the bill instead.