The Amazon fulfillment workers in Bessemer, Alabama have one more week to vote for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union to represent them. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It seems inevitable that a success for RWDSU would spur organization of Amazon facilities and other workplaces across the country; if they can do it in Alabama, surely they can do it in blue states like New York and California. A failure, on the other hand, would seem to signal the futility of challenging a behemoth like Amazon.
President Biden joined the chorus of encouraging voices several weeks ago, and on Wednesday, Bernie Sanders brought one of the Bessemer workers to testify before Congress. The media has drawn attention to the tricky tactics Amazon is using to scare workers into voting no. Many outside the labor movement have looked on, wondering, how is this legal? Why did Amazon get to hold "captive audience" meetings in which they falsely claimed employees would lose their health insurance if the union succeeds? Why did they get to barrage employees with “vote no” text messages and emails, misleading them about the voting period and urging them to cast their ballots in the company mailbox? For that matter, why did Amazon get to determine the size of the bargaining unit--shouldn’t that be up to workers?
Amazon can do these things because labor law overwhelmingly favors bosses. Companies like Amazon have “free speech” rights that protect all manner of trickery and coercion. Even when union busting campaigns do break the law, it’s extremely difficult for workers to pursue redress.
Employers in many states can misclassify workers as supervisors or independent contractors, thereby denying them the right to organize. Big companies hire elite lawyers and even pressure our politicians to fight for them, but if Lyft drivers band together for better wages they might be violating antitrust law. We often hear about this problem in the gig economy, but reliance on contract labor is increasingly the model in many other sectors as well. Following the passage of Prop 22 in California, powerful corporations and their allies are looking to turn all work into gig work.
With the right to strike severely limited, organized labor is largely unable to win gains that might popularize a belief in the power of collective action.
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Even when workers are allowed to form unions, employers can simply refuse to bargain in good faith for a first contract, dragging out the process until the union’s momentum dies down. With the right to strike severely limited, organized labor is largely unable to win gains that might popularize a belief in the power of collective action. Unions are sometimes portrayed as being selfishly focused on narrow sets of issues that affect only their members. The reality is, labor law forces them to constantly struggle for their own survival rather than fighting expansively for the common good.
Fortunately, the House just passed a bill that could transform the playing field for unions—and for the many Americans who approve of unions and wish they could join one. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act restores the power of the National Labor Relations Act, which explicitly sought to encourage unions, recognizing that collective action by working people is the most effective way to check the parasitic greed and dehumanizing violence of powerful corporations. Here are some things the PRO Act would do:
- Take employers out of the union election process so they can’t gerrymander the bargaining unit; provide a clear remedy when employers interfere in union elections.
- Ban “captive audience” meetings and impose heavy fines for these and other unfair labor practices (ULPs).
- Require employers to disclose information about third parties they pay for “union avoidance” help.
- Enable workers to file civil actions against their employers for NLRA violations; make it possible to hold corporate officials personally liable for these violations.
- Require the NLRB to get injunctions to immediately reinstate workers who are fired for organizing. Under current law, this process can take years.
- Codify the “ABC test” to crack down on employee misclassification.
- Make all employers who control workers’ terms of employment obligated to enter into collective bargaining agreements, so bosses can’t deflect responsibility to other firms.
- Override the “right-to-work” laws that hamstring unions and depress wages.
- Force employers to follow a clear process for reaching a timely first contract agreement.
- Prevent employers from using offensive lockouts or permanently replacing strikers.
- Remove restrictions on secondary activities that give workers real economic leverage. These forms of transformative class solidarity are legal in many countries, but are prohibited here under Taft-Hartley and other legislation.
- Ban the use of arbitration agreements that ask workers, as a condition of employment, to waive the right to pursue class action against their employers.
- Extend protections to undocumented workers, who currently have little recourse when they are damaged by ULPs.
Organized labor is unified behind the PRO Act, and Biden has expressed his support for it. It’s clear that if we want to make the structural changes needed to build back better, empowering unions is a critical first step. Still, it’s going to take a Herculean effort (including serious filibuster reform) to get this thing through the Senate. You can join the push by emailing your senators or making some calls.
Labor unions reduce inequality, promote cross-racial solidarity, and boost democratic participation. They can help protect us from COVID and other pandemics by improving workplace safety and access to healthcare and time off. Now more than ever, it’s vital that we restore unions’ ability to fight for everyday people.