The obstacles that a well-known chain of coffee shops is putting in the attempt to unionize the staff of one of its premises, in Memphis, may have the hours numbered. The company has fired those involved in the mobilization, alleging violation of corporate rules. Those affected accuse the company of retaliation. The conflict is not the first, nor will it be the last, just one more drop of water in the boiling cauldron of the labor market in the United States. The pandemic has turned the cards face up: workers have become aware of their strength —of how valuable they are in a market with more job supply than demand—, and trade unionism rises from its ashes.
No one was more decisive than Joe Biden, president of the United States, in supporting the growing trade union movement, which had been in the doldrums since the 1980s: the membership rate, 10.3% in 2021, is half what it was then, about four million fewer members. This Monday, the Democratic president, the closest to the workers since Franklin Delano Roosevelt if not the most unionist in history, received the conclusions of a high-level working group, created by his executive order last April, with 70 recommendations to promote the organization of workers and collective bargaining.
Under the direction of the vice president, Kamala Harris, and the head of the Department of Labor, Martin Walsh, the group of experts, which includes 13 members of the Cabinet, has studied together with government agencies and the main unions of the country the steps to give to strengthen the union muscle. The basic idea is to make the federal government “a model businessman”, something revolutionary in a country with such a palpable mistrust of the role of the State and, at the same time, with so many levels of Administration (local, state and federal). Biden signed an executive order last week that requires salary agreements between unions and companies awarded federal construction contracts worth more than 35 million dollars (just over 30 million euros).
The Democrat was not bluffing when in the electoral campaign he repeatedly winked at what he describes as the “backbone of the middle class.” He repeats it whenever he gets the chance, like this Tuesday, when he reiterated his support for “American workers: those who built the middle class, with good wages and benefits and the right to organize.” One of his main bets, the PRO Act (acronym in English for Law protecting the right to organize), has been stuck since last spring in Congress. The rule will update current legislation, which allows companies, among other things, to “permanently replace” —note the euphemism— striking workers to settle any protest.
The main unions in the country have enthusiastically welcomed the conclusions of the working group, which will be followed in six months by a report on the implementation of the measures. On Biden’s part, it’s not a toast to the sun. On the verge of decisive elections, the mid-term elections, in November, Biden needs to gain all possible support, and the workers —especially the workers most affected by the Great Recession of 2008 and, now, by the pandemic— are a hotbed of votes key code. They were in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
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The unions are decidedly on Biden’s side. “This unprecedented report recognizes the critical role unions play in forging a fairer economy. By taking steps to give more workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is committed to using its power to support unions,” said Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, in a statement. the largest union in the United States and Canada, which brings together 57 sectoral unions and represents 12.5 million workers. “We are committed to working with the Administration to implement these recommendations, and look forward to the task force’s next report in six months.” A period of discount towards the important electoral appointment of November.
“This could be a game changer, taking into account the power of the federal government and how its practices can be used to promote the organization of workers,” Shuler continues. That is precisely the intention of the White House: that the example sinks in the private sector, much more reluctant to union activity. Among the recommendations of the group of experts, there is facilitating the unionization of federal workers, but also of employees of contractor companies of the Administration, or facilitating the access of union organizers to employees inside government facilities, which does not always happen. nowadays.
Companies with labor standards that respect the rights of workers will score more when it comes to getting awards. A kind of positive discrimination that currently exists just the other way around: according to current legislation, the Government cannot deny contracts to companies hostile to unions. Only if it considers that this animosity, and the labor consequences derived from it – conflicts, strikes or protests – can substantially delay the provision of important goods or services, could it rule out said firm in the award contest. The idea is that the money that the Government pays to companies for goods and services does not end up being used in anti-union practices.
“Common sense proposals like these, like harnessing the power of federal offices to help workers better understand their rights, and interagency coordination to enforce existing labor laws, will help restore the balance of power and pave the way for for workers to get better wages and working conditions and more secure retirements,” Tom Conway, president of the 1.2 million-member United Steelworkers, said in a statement.
A key premise of the think tank was that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which protects federal labor rights, explicitly encourages collective bargaining, yet according to the Biden White House, no previous Administration has explored ways to do it systematically. the echoes of New Deal of Roosevelt, the series of programs and actions to overcome the ravages of the Great Depression, once again resonate strongly in the crusade union of Joe Biden.
From workers to university students
While in an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer (Alabama) the votes of the second vote to form a union are counted – the first, which in April rejected the proposal of the workers, was declared null by the Labor Relations Board for “interference of the company in the process”-, the labor mobilization in different sectors gathers speed: it is not only the blue-collar workers (the workers), but also liberal professionals and university graduates, who demand more rights and better conditions.
The labor staff of Congress presented their initiative last week, which despite having the explicit support of Biden must be approved by a resolution of the House of Representatives, predictably this week. Union fever also reaches the newsrooms of well-known newspapers, with fifteen initiatives in 2021, including those of the New York Times and the delegation in the United States of the British Financial Times. Also the assistant professors in numerous universities, such as Columbia, Harvard, Boston, Cornell or Illinois, claim rights and better compensation.
The chain of coffee shops with an international presence that this Tuesday fired several employees in Memphis, can hardly contain the push of the rest. Of its 9,000 locations in the country, workers in 50 locations in 19 states of the country have already submitted a request to unionize; the pioneers were the baristas of a coffee shop in Buffalo, in December. In New York, food delivery people – the deliveristsin Spanglish– They have enjoyed their first labor rights since January, including being able to use the bathroom in the restaurants they serve, thanks to the formal support of the City Council for their mobilization. An example of the decisive role that the Administration can play in the US union spring.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.