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The Five Best Labor Stories of 2014

Despite serious challenges, there’s life in the US labor movement.

Walmart employees picket outside of the Walmart store in Pico Rivera, California on November 6, 2013. The employees accuse Walmart of continued unlawful retaliation against workers who speak out for change at the company. Some of the striking workers say that when they have come forward to call on Walmart to address issues with scheduling, wages, benefits and above all else, respect in the work place, Walmart has reacted by retaliating against them. (Photo: UFCW International Union / Flickr)

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This year has turned out to be another tough one for US workers. In particular, the results of the 2014 midterm elections, which saw the reelection of anti-union governors in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, demonstrated that the attack on labor rights at the state level, which started in earnest in January 2011, has yet to run its course. Next year, more states will introduce legislation that restricts collective bargaining rights, right-to-work bills that outlaw voluntary union security agreements and “paycheck protection” bills that make it more difficult for unions to raise and spend money on politics.

But 2014 also saw several more positive developments for workers and unions that suggest that the labor movement might yet have a brighter future in the coming years. Below are five important and hopeful stories from the past 12 months.

1. The Fight for Fifteen: Nothing comes close in significance to the struggle of fast-food workers, airport workers, home-care workers and workers at federal government buildings for a minimum wage of $15 per hour. In the latest round of actions, fast-food workers and their allies held strikes and protests in at least 190 cities around the country. Prior to the first strikes in New York City two years ago, few would have taken seriously the demand for $15 per hour for McDonald’s and Burger King workers. Now, not only is it taken seriously, but it has also influenced living wage battles in cities across the nation. Next year the most important labor campaign in decades will escalate its protest action.

2. OUR Walmart: Just over two years ago, Walmart workers participated in the first ever strikes in the history of the world’s largest retailer. This year’s Black Friday protests were the largest so far: Thousands of community allies joined workers from OUR Walmart to engage in walkouts, sit-down strikes and other protests. These actions highlighted the high cost to the public of poverty wages, poor working conditions and management retaliation. Each year, employees at Walmart, like those at McDonald’s, receive billions of dollars in public assistance because their wages are so low. Workers continue to face intimidation, but the tide may be turning against billion-dollar corporations that pay poverty wages at home and abroad. Coordinated by UNI Global Union, the campaign at Walmart has a vigorous international component: Workers in Chile and South Africa have protested this month, and next year will see more protests in the United States and overseas.

3. The UAW Campaign at Volkswagen in Tennessee: In February, when the United Automobile Workers (UAW) narrowly lost a representation election at the Chattanooga plant, this campaign could easily have been remembered as one of the year’s low points. After the UAW collected membership cards from a majority of workers, Tennessee’s governor and senior US senator colluded with anti-union organizations to mislead and intimidate workers into voting against the union. But the UAW has rebuilt support within the plant and now at least 45 percent of the Volkswagen workers are members. The company, which has behaved in an exemplary fashion throughout, has granted it limited bargaining rights. The campaign demonstrates that if employers remain neutral and workers are free from coercion, they will choose union representation – even in the South. If McDonald’s and Walmart were to behave like Volkswagen, their employees would benefit from unions, decent wages, full-time hours and respect at work.

4. The Reinvigoration of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): For much of the past four years, the GOP Congress, anti-union groups and big business have attempted to stop the NLRB from functioning, with considerable success. In the past few months, however, the Board has made a number of important decisions that should offer some protection to workers who want to choose a union. Earlier this month, the NLRB reissued its final rules to streamline the union certification process and get rid of the worst cases of pre-election delay. In a landmark case in December, an administrative law judge ruled that Walmart violated the law when it discriminated against protesting workers at two California stores. Most recently, the Board’s general counsel ruled that McDonald’s is a “joint employer” and thus responsible for the unlawful actions committed by franchise managers against workers who participated in legal strikes and protests. It’s tempting to dismiss the NLRB as increasingly irrelevant, but the Board under the Obama administration has shown that it still matters and can still play a critical role in protecting workers’ rights.

5. The San Francisco Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights: For several years, California has bucked national trends, both in terms of maintaining union membership levels and improving labor standards. Perhaps the most significant development in the latter respect has been the enactment in December of San Francisco’s “Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights.” The pioneering legislation provides several important benefits for tens of thousands of low-wage workers in grocery and department stores, restaurants and banks: advance notice of work schedules and estimates of how many hours they are likely to work; the posting in conspicuous places of schedules two weeks in advance; and “predictability pay” if their employer changes their schedules at short notice. Enforcement of the new law will prove challenging, but progressive lawmakers throughout the country are watching it closely, as are its opponents. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce said that state and national chambers were extremely concerned that “what’s happening in San Francisco can spread nationally.” And with a bit of luck, it just well might do that.

Some commentators have suggested that the labor movement’s problems have been caused by “self-sabotage,” including its alleged backing for law enforcement after recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, and its support for more prisons. Such an analysis both exaggerates the influence of the labor movement – militant managers, not militant workers, have been the driving force behind the transformation of US employment relations – and misrepresents the labor movement’s position on these issues, which has evolved significantly. In the wake of the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson and New York, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, AFT president Randi Weingarten, among others, spoke out in support of “Black Lives Matter” protests.

Trumka said: “We cannot wash our hands of these issues…. Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. Every city, every state and every region of this country has its own deep history with racism. And so does the labor movement.” Trumka, who has made confronting racism a priority, has also attacked mass incarceration, stating that we need to replace it with “mass employment,” and has given it significant attention at AFL-CIO conventions. Police and prison guard unions disagree with these actions, of course, but they have seldom played well with most other unions, and should not be confused with the entire labor movement. The views of the leadership of the mainstream labor movement on race, policing and mass incarceration is now more progressive than ever before. While that is a welcome development, it will not reverse the long-term decline of unions.

“Self-sabotage,” if it exists, certainly does not explain the decades-long decline in union membership. If the labor movement is to be criticized, it should be for being a little too timid for a little too long. The experience of the past few decades has demonstrated that organizing within the official NLRB system is virtually impossible, and that organizing “outside of the law” is extraordinarily difficult. Most likely, it can be done only as part of a mass movement, which is why the Fight for $15 is potentially so important.

Next year, like 2014, will likely pose serious challenges for US workers and their organizations. But the campaigns and the policy and regulatory developments discussed above demonstrate that there’s life left in the labor movement, which remains the last, best hope for reversing skyrocketing levels of economic inequality and restoring some measure of justice and decency to the US workplace.

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