After eight long years of a George W. Bush Presidency, Organized Labor finally had an ally with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.  In 2009 with strong Democrat majorities in Congress the Employee Free Choice Act was introduced. The bill aimed to remove the need for a ballot to join a union if a majority of workers signed a card expressing interest in union membership, upon union certification negotiations as soon as ten days, and to protect workers discriminated by employers with fines as high as $20,000 per violation. All 41 Republican Senators were opposed to the bill and 6 Democratic Senators were also against The Employee Free Choice Act thus it never becoming law. This was the best opportunity for Organized Labor to regain its strength in recent memory. A year later during the 2010 midterm elections democrats at the federal and state level took serious losses. State legislatures were lost across the country during a wave election and losses were coming.

 

At the start of 2011 in Wisconsin newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker and GOP majorities in the state legislature sought to balance the state’s budget. In February a bill was introduced limiting pay increases to inflation of public sector unions, eliminating the right to collectively bargain pensions, healthcare, ending automatic union dues collection, and requiring public sector unions to recertify annually. Police officer, firefighter, and state trooper unions were strategically exempted. Within days of the bill’s introduction thousands protested outside the Wisconsin State Capital and the 14 senate democrats fled the state to prevent a vote. The days got intense with as many as over 70,000 protesters outside the State Capital. On February 25th at 1am following 60 hours of debate a vote was held with only seconds to decide. It was passed with 51 in favor, 17 opposed, and 28 not voting. Rounds of ammunition were found outside the State Capital and inside another government building a week later as protests and tensions continued to run high. The Governor threatened to send layoff notices to 1,500 state employees if the law was not passed. On March 9th the bill was amended so the state senate could vote on the bill without the 14 democrats. The bill was passed and the following day March 10th the Wisconsin Assembly passed the bill 53-42. The next day it was signed by the Governor and many republicans faced death threats and the law was challenged in court. A recall effort was launched against the Governor the following year but he won reelection. In January 2013 a Federal Court upheld the law. Two years later Wisconsin became the 25th state in prohibiting businesses and unions reaching agreements that require all workers to pay union dues. Currently the Right to Work law was blocked by a circuit judge.            

 

The state of Ohio in 2011, following Wisconsin’s lead, decided that restricting unions was the best way to balance their budget. With a new Republican Governor and GOP majorities Senate Bill 5 was passed in late March mirroring what happened in Wisconsin. Senate Bill 5 reduced collective bargaining for all of Ohio’s public workers including 15 topics management can simply refuse to negotiate, banning and penalties for striking including jail, teacher pay according to student performance, and firefighters and police officers losing the ability to have a say in the protective equipment they use. Unlike Wisconsin, the opposition sought to take the issue directly to voters and was successful in landing a referendum on the ballot later that year asking whether to implement or repeal Senate Bill 5. On November 8, 2011 61.59% voted for repeal.

 

The West Virginia Legislature has been in Democratic control for over 80 years and that came to a close during the midterm elections of 2014. Republicans eagerly sought to enjoy their newfound political power and became the 26th right to work state in February this year when the legislature overrode the veto of the Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin. The “Workplace Freedom Act” was quickly challenged in court and an injunction was filed blocking implementation of the law.            

 

There have been considerable setbacks in the organized labor movement during the Presidency of Barack Obama but also some key victories. In addition to the defeat of Senate Bill 5 in Ohio in 2011, The National Labor Relations Board, which was established in 1935 during the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has been aggressive in restoring worker’s rights since 2013 when a full five member board was successfully appointed. In July of this year the NLRB ruled temporary workers had the right to unionize alongside their coworkers employed by the company overturning a case 12 years prior. A week ago today the board announced grad students who teach and/or do research at private universities have the right to unionize and collectively bargain reversing another 2004 decision. The National Labor Relations Board has also helped recover lost jobs. In September 2011 at the Amglo factory in Bensenville, Illinois most of the non-union employees went on strike for a week and upon returning to work 22 workers were told their jobs were being transferred to factory in Mexico. The NLRB ordered the jobs returned and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed.    
      

The percentage of unionized workers in the United States has dropped dramatically since the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1983 20.1% of the workforce was union, and in 2015 the number was 11.1%. Membership has seen a steep decline and the state with the lowest percentage of unionized workers is South Carolina with 2.1%, New York is the highest with 24.7%. Public workers continue to be well organized with a rate of 35.2% but private sector workers are at 6.7%. Labor unions were critical in the creation of the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, holiday pay, maternity/parental leave, collective bargaining, pensions, and more. Since the 1980s unions have slowly been on the decline. Since 2013 the National Labor Relations Board has breathed new life into the organized labor movement. Will it be a short lived or the signs of the future of a new era of worker’s rights?

 

Angel Guzman    

 

Published by Angel Guzman