Redefining the Possible for Labor

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Redefining the Possible for Labor

Our best weapon to combat wealth inequality remains a strong union contract, but innovative direct action is also needed.

'Our best weapon to combat wealth inequality in this day and age,' writes Smiley, 'remains a strong union contract, a collective bargaining agreement.' (Photo: peoplesworld/flickr/cc)

My dad has always been afraid of flying. Even when we had the money, he preferred driving, which was a challenge considering we lived in North Carolina and my dad’s family lived 16 hours away in Clarksdale, Mississippi. So we drove. I still remember my frustration as a kid about not stopping overnight in Alabama, regardless of how bad I needed to go to the bathroom. My parents were protecting me from some external threat — people who might hurt us for no reason. And they were angry about it, but they kept driving.

In those moments, I realized there were barriers to what I could do to fulfill my basic needs. And that those barriers weren’t right. They weren’t fair. And I was angry about it.

But then we’d get to Clarksdale, and my dad went from being Bill to Doctor Bill, a nickname he’d earned after he got a PhD in education and became an accomplished music educator, a nickname that represented a victory over all of the other names he had likely been called growing up in Mississippi during the ’40s and ’50s.

My dad had challenged the norms, and he’d won. And in doing so, he’d given our entire extended family hope that things could be different.

In my work as the organizing director for Jobs with Justice, I have the opportunity to work with many community-based activists who, like my father, have overcome significant obstacles and redefined what’s possible for others. And let’s face it, we need this kind of courage to help people believe there is a future for labor organizing in this country.

Our best weapon to combat wealth inequality in this day and age remains a strong union contract, a collective bargaining agreement. And yet attacks on worker rights are coming from every direction. Workers in my home state of North Carolina and throughout the South face some of the most intense oppression, with unchecked right-to-work-for-less laws that severely limit their ability to bargain — even making bargaining completely illegal in some cases.

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National Labor Relations Board elections have never blazed the strongest path to the bargaining table.

But relying on National Labor Relations Board elections has never actually blazed the strongest path to the bargaining table. We will ultimately have to reform the existing law to make it work better for unions, but that will never be enough.

It’s telling that even in 1937, a high point of labor militancy, only 262,000 workers won union recognition through the electoral process sanctioned by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, while over 700,000 workers won union recognition by striking. Direct action always won more.

And since when did we ever wait for something to be legal to do what was right anyway? Can you imagine if black people had waited for the Voting Rights Act to pass before showing up at the polls in Virginia or Tennessee? Can you imagine if undocumented youth had waited for the DREAM Act to pass before enrolling into colleges around the country? If our ancestors had waited for the Emancipation Proclamation before risking their lives to abolish slavery, I’d still be on someone’s plantation right now!

If today’s labor movement is going to build the kind of bargaining power we need to provide the protections, the safety net, the quality of life we all deserve, then we need to re-familiarize ourselves with the direct action strategies that got us this far while expanding the framework in which workers come together to collectively negotiate their conditions.

The definition of collective bargaining must be expanded, including who the agreement is between and what the contract covers. Why shouldn’t non-union temp workers, contract workers, adjuncts, migrant workers, or workfare workers negotiate with the same actors giving union workers hell at the bargaining table? And why shouldn’t we bargain together? How do we ever expect to build density in any given industry without having a coordinated strategy with workers in all segments of it?

Fortunately, many of our Jobs With Justice allies have already started paving the way.

Since when did we ever wait for something to be legal to do what was right?

For example, in 2012, the National Guestworkers Alliance supported foreign workers facing abusive practices at C.J.’s Seafood in Louisiana. The workers took their strike to the doors of Walmart, which bought most of the company’s shrimp. They acted big, and they won big. C.J.’s was forced to pay back wages and was cut off as a Walmart supplier.

The Chicago Teachers Union also went on strike in 2012 and set a model for bargaining for the common good. They expanded what workers traditionally bargain for to incorporate the needs of their community, the people who need a stronger public education system.

At the global level, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance is working with U.S. distribution and retail unions to exert pressure on some of the largest multinational corporations. Few American manufacturing workers have successfully stopped production in the past two decades, but that’s hardly an excuse not to disrupt distribution and consumption. Coordinated with manufacturing workers overseas, these disruptions can create a new context for workers to collectively bargain against multinational corporations. Some of these same unions wee able to get companies to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Indonesia Freedom of Association Protocols.

It’s time to tap into the spirit of the movement leaders who came before us, build on successful new approaches to bargaining, and redefine the possible for the future of the labor movement.

Erica Smiley

Erica Smiley is the organizing director of Jobs With Justice, a national network of grassroots-based labor and community coalitions.

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