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The pandemic could be leading to a golden age for unions


Meanwhile, this pandemic has not been good for most workers, right? There's been layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, not to mention deaths and illness. But that's not the whole story. John Deere and Kellogg workers on strike, employees in several sectors ready to do the same. No wonder the hashtag #striketober is trending on social media. One researcher documented some 175 strikes so far this year in a tight labor market upended by the pandemic. Is this the golden age for collective bargaining? Celine McNicholas is the director of policy and government affairs at the progressive Economic Policy Institute, and she joins us now. Hello.

CELINE MCNICHOLAS: Hello. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you see as you look at the strength of the country's labor movement?

MCNICHOLAS: I think that there is no question that the labor movement is having a moment. You see that in the strike activity. You also see that in, you know, workers - even in unorganized settings - attempting to win a union, even if not successful. I think that there is a great deal of organizing going on, and I think workers have woken up as a result, frankly, of what the pandemic revealed about the nature of work in this country to the bad deal that they have in our current system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, we should say that America's labor movement came into this pandemic very weak. I mean, it's been hacked at by legal limitations - company actions for decades. This is not a sort of robust movement that was doing terribly well.

MCNICHOLAS: That's absolutely correct. And I think what we saw in the pandemic is the fact that there were countless examples of health care and food service workers doing essential jobs and being forced to work without, often, basic health and safety gear and certainly without pay commensurate with the critical nature of the work that they were doing. And you know, we were woken up as, I think, workers and as consumers to that reality. But you are right. The conditions predated the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So are there signs that unions are getting more people to join and that they're actually successfully getting better contracts?

MCNICHOLAS: I think unfortunately, in spite of all of the energy around organizing campaigns - and there have been numerous examples of workers trying to organize those sort of behemoths like Amazon that have so avoided unionization - workers lack, really, a meaningful right to organize in this country. Employers face very little by way of penalties under existing law when they do violate workers' rights. And so unfortunately, I think without some meaningful reform, workers are really in a system that is very much rigged against them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, Delta Airlines has fought flight attendants and baggage handlers from unionizing for years. You mentioned Amazon - also unsuccessful attempts at unionization. I mean, what are the roadblocks that keep them from forming unions? And we should say Amazon is one of NPR's funders.

MCNICHOLAS: Well, in the current system, there are no real penalties under the National Labor Relations Act, which is the fundamental labor law in this country. It is one of the only pieces of legislation where there are no civil monetary penalty. As a matter of fact, I would argue that the law basically creates an incentive for employers to violate workers' rights when they attempt to organize. And so I think, you know, we're seeing the flaw in that system play out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, these companies would say if you treat your workers well with decent wages - and, certainly, that's been the argument from Amazon - there is no need to unionize.

MCNICHOLAS: And I think that's - what's really revealing about what's going on is so many times, you hear from large retail giants like Amazon, you know, before, like, Walmart, who sort of make this all about wages. But I think when you look at what's happening, particularly in the strikes, you know, you're seeing that this is, of course, about fair pay, but it's also about fair benefits structures for fellow workers. You know, it isn't only about that hourly wage. It's about the terms and conditions of work, the way in which people work. Do they have meaningful access to breaks? Do they have meaningful access to fundamental health and safety equipment?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How effective are strikes?

MCNICHOLAS: I think that strikes can be incredibly effective. I would argue that there is no more effective tool that workers have than withholding their labor from an employer when they are in a fundamentally unjust working situation. Unfortunately, the law does work against workers who are on strike in that it provides employers an avenue to replace those workers, to bring in replacement workers and essentially defeat a strike through that avenue. It's harder to do in some of these instances where you have skilled labor, as in the case of John Deere - finding a workforce and replicating that is no small challenge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, we're also probably going to see strikes next fall around the time of the midterm elections. How do you think labor strikes and the discussion around work might shape the political fights we're going to see?

MCNICHOLAS: Workers, by overwhelmingly voting for strike authorizations in many of these examples are showing that they view these jobs as worth striking to win. And what I hope is that policymakers will pay attention and see that these are jobs worth a political fight to change the filibuster, to reform our broken system of labor law and restore those basic rights to a union and collective bargaining. Workers are risking a paycheck. Certainly, elected officials should be compelled to respond and held accountable to make sure that the law works for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the concerns, obviously, on the side of business and, sometimes, on the side of the right - is that we are in a period of inflation. And, you know, raising wages, having perhaps expectations raised is going to damage the economy.

MCNICHOLAS: I think that that is something that we hear often, and I don't think that it rings true. And I - one of the most encouraging things about this moment, I would say, is that whether you see this in an unorganized workplace and an organized workplace - in an unorganized workplace, workers don't have the opportunity to negotiate for better terms and conditions. So they are essentially deciding to take it or leave it, and they are leaving it right now. We're seeing that in a mass exodus of the workforce.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Celine McNicholas from the progressive Economic Policy Institute. Thank you very much.

MCNICHOLAS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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