Thursday Dec 01

Fall 2022

BACKSTORY 52.3 - Labor’s Window of Opportunity Remains Open, But…

In the continuing aftermath of the pandemic and the new found recognition of essential workers, or what in the old days we would have called the “working class,” unions continue to crawl from the back of the line to edge towards the front. 

Gallup reports that, “Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of labor unions. Although statistically similar to last year's 68%, it is up from 64% before the pandemic and is the highest Gallup has recorded on this measure since 1965.”  That’s saying something, since virtually no one today could name the head of the AFL-CIO or in all likelihood the names of any of the leaders of our major unions, even though many have held the post for years. 

Does it matter?  Maybe so, and definitely it means something in some places where unions are still a force in the political equation. Take California, for example, and the passage of the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act or FAST Recovery Act for short. 

This is a first-round experiment in a form of sectoral bargaining, common in some European countries, like France and Germany, and holding a small bulwark in the Canadian province of Quebec in North America.  Where it operates, once unions have a certain threshold of organization, generally a tripartite bargaining mechanism involving industry, labor, and the government is triggered to set minimum standards on wages, benefits, and working conditions for an entire work sector be it service, like cleaning standards, or industrial, like textiles or steel manufacturing.  Workers covered by sectoral agreements don’t become union members automatically or even eventually, but wages and the like are taken out of competition, so unions are more secure and workers are less precarious.

The FAST Recovery Act is a small, somewhat tentative step in that direction.  As Ken Jacobs, director of the UC Berkely Labor Center describes the provisions of the Act,

It will create a Fast Food Sector Council made up of worker, employer, and government representatives charged with establishing sector-wide standards related to wages, health and safety, and training….The collection and validation of 10,000 signatures of workers in the industry will be required for the Council to be established. The ten-member council is to be made up of two representatives each of fast-food workers, fast-food worker advocates, franchisors, and franchisees, in addition to two representatives of the Governor’s administration. The Council functions as a “social bargaining” table — involving workers, business, and the public … over wages and working conditions in the fast-food industry. It is charged with establishing sector-wide minimum labor standards in the industry to supply “the necessary cost of proper living to … fast food restaurant workers” and to effect “interagency coordination and prompt agency responses” regarding issues affecting the health, safety, and welfare of fast-food workers.  Every six months, the Council must hold meetings that will provide a forum for fast-food workers to address issues in the industry. Cities and counties with a population over 200,000 may establish their own similarly-constituted Local Fast Food Sector Councils that will hold hearings and make recommendations to the State Council….As with collective bargaining, the adequacy of the standards will be reviewed every three years.

This legislation is a bittersweet victory for labor, and especially for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which for a decade has led the fight for $15 per hour and for unionization among fast-food workers through its McDonalds’ campaign.  Where there has been some success in some markets around increased wages, the project of unionizing McDonalds in the United States has been caught somewhere between limited life support and dead-on-arrival since Trump’s election, and although it has a heartbeat in France and the United Kingdom, prospects are hardly better.  Mary Kay Henry, SEIU’s president, had indicated in the run-up to the 2020 election that a commitment to sectoral bargaining was one of the preconditions to the union’s endorsement then.  At best the issue was a footnote then, but finally finds some life on the West Coast, where SEIU continues to be a powerhouse. 

As Jacob notes, “when the Fight for $15 began ten years ago, the demands were $15 an hour and a union.”  Conceding that unionization has failed, sectoral improvements in one state seems to be Plan B, but whether that aids workers forming unions there, or makes it seem unnecessary, is an open question.

This is the problem with this feelgood moment for unions.  It is support in the abstract without real understanding of what unionization means, the hurdles in the road, or any recognition of union leadership in general or specific.  It’s a bit like “friending” unions on social media without any deeper commitment.  Starbucks has been exciting, but it’s a long road to power still.  The victory at Amazon achieved an historic beachhead, but doesn’t herald any coming tidal wave.  Others are organizing, whether minor league baseball players, REI co-op workers, gamers, or dollar store workers, but despite a robust and aggressive National Labor Relations Board, the needle is still hardly moving, even as the number of NLRB certification election filings has gone through the roof.

The best news in this “movement moment” is that it’s not coming from organized labor per se, but from workers themselves who are fed up, aren’t taking it anymore, and are joining together, come hell or high water.   Can it be sustained without institutional labor stepping up its game?  I doubt it.  Will sectoral bargaining be the solution?  Absolutely not.  Nonetheless, as long as workers themselves are still moving and feeling the love, hope springs eternal.

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