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Union solidarity will prevail

Ann Markusen

Like many of my neighbors and co-workers, I am alarmed at the Republican project to cripple labor unions. Our political leaders – President Donald Trump, many state governors, and the now right-leaning Supreme Court – are engaged in a high priority campaign. They seek to defeat organizations that our grandparents’ generation fought for tenaciously and won against great odds. They aim to make organizing and collective bargaining difficult for unions in every way they can. But this year’s statewide organizing drives and voter rejection of “right-to-work” (RTW) laws show us that solidarity is alive and well across the nation.

Heavily underwritten by big corporations, their lobbying organizations, and wealthy individuals, the Republican assault has weaponized the Constitution’s “freedom of speech” clause to gut elected union leaders’ ability to finance their work on behalf of members. Trump’s two appointments to the Supreme Court have reversed decades-long precedents allowing union organizing and affirming that all who benefit from the improved wages and health and safety conditions should pay a modest fee to support staffing. Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent in the recent Janus case explains it all.

Over the decades, 22 U.S. state legislatures have refused to pass right-to-work laws, including Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri. Since the control of the presidency and Congress passed to Republicans in 2016, and with the threat of the new initiatives, worker organizing has quickened. Prominent among them are statewide teachers’ walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, the latter two right-to-work states. Their movements reveal how poorly teachers are paid, with negative consequences for teacher recruitment and student learning. They attracted broad support among their peers and mobilized many parents to support their actions.

Iowa’s recertification election

Here are some heartening stories from mid-continental states. Let’s start with Iowa. After that state flipped to Republican control of statehouse and legislature in 2016, the legislature passed, and then-Gov. Terry Branstad signed, a law that curtailed bargaining rights for nearly all public sector workers. They forbade union negotiating for health insurance, pensions and teacher evaluation standards, and required public employee unions to hold recertification elections at the end of every contract. Yet in Iowa’s first recertification election last fall, covering nearly 500 worksites and more than 33,000 public employees, 90 percent of teachers turned out and 98 percent of those voted to keep their union.

Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, the latter two right-to-work states, organized campaigns this past year to take their issues to the public and legislatures. They were successful. In March of 2018, West Virginia teachers went on strike for higher wages. It took only two weeks of shuttered public schools for the Republican legislature to pass, and the Republican governor to sign, a 5 percent pay raise averaging $2,000 for teachers and other state employees.

In April, Oklahoma teachers took on their Republican-controlled statehouse and legislature with a walkout, rallies, marches and lobbying. Hundreds of parents joined the protests. One parent picketing at the Capitol was quoted as saying, “I’ve never been involved in politics before, but the conditions of my three children’s schools – aging textbooks, broken furniture – drove me to act.” She was willing to pay more in taxes if it meant adequate funding for schools.

The strike in Arizona

In May, Arizona teachers launched a statewide strike for higher pay, a grassroots effort of Arizona Educators United (AEU). Decades of legislative tax cuts and funding limits had savaged school budgets for wages and student services. Some 78 percent of Arizona teachers supported a strike. While the teachers didn’t win everything they sought, they wangled a 20 percent raise for all, worth $644 million from the Arizona state Legislature.

In addition, voters have fought back in statewide elections on right-to-work proposals. Legally, unions must represent everyone in a bargaining unit, whether or not they are union members. RTW laws undermine unions’ finances by preventing them from requiring that all of the workers who benefit from this representation pay their fair share of the cost. Just this August, Missouri voters nixed a “right-to-work” law on the primary ballot by a two-to-one margin. The Missouri vote was a bold popular rejection of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision.

Teachers unions have been important to our local schools. A couple of years ago, our Cromwell-Wright teachers union worked hard to demonstrate that compared to other Minnesota schools of our size, teachers were seriously underpaid. They held out. It took months. At a school board meeting, I watched their local president, Kathy Koenig, make a passionate case for better pay. They won. It has made a big difference to the quality of our teaching staff and our ability to hire and retain.

Democracy matters. Voting matters. Even in an age where money terribly slants the playing field. The most direct way to hold our state legislatures, Congress, and elected governors and president accountable is to vote. And in campaigns, to convey to candidates how important labor union laws and practices are to decent incomes, good working conditions and our social safety net, including adequate health care.

Economist Ann Markusen is an emerita professor from the University of Minnesota and lives with her husband, Rod Walli, in Red Clover Township, Carlton County.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 09/16/2018 - 08:33 am.

    When given the chance many workers leave their union, if the union is so good, why? We will see how strong the union is when public sector union members have the option to stay, pay and back union or leave it.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/16/2018 - 12:13 pm.

      Mr. Smith, it’s a choice without direct costs. These free riders can sponge off the system and not pay for it. In contravention to free speech, the remaining union members are compelled to speak on behalf of the free riders who suck off the system. It doesn’t prove they don’t find benefit in working under a union contract, just that some people are looking to get something for nothing. This is the only example I know of where conservatives are in favor of free loading!

      The best union organizing tactics were made illegal under Taft-Hartley. Most other Western democracies have labor laws that are more friendly to allowing the free association of workers than we do here. For example, most countries allow card check authorization; just sign a card to indicate you want to join. Get over 50%, and the workers are permitted to seek a contract with the employer that raise their wages, something which American workers haven’t been seeing much of for 4 decades.

      Here, we have this over-bearing heavy handed government mandated system where first the authorization cards are signed, then there is an election. Often employers spend thousands of dollars (which raise incomes for lawyers but not workers) delaying the election and intimidating workers, often firing the leaders.

      If, after months and quite possibly over one year, the National Labor Relations Board investigates and finds the employee(s) was (were) illegally fired, they will order reinstatement with back pay. BUT, the law says that the employee must have sought work in the mean time (a good idea if you like to eat), and those wages are deducted from any back pay owed. In what other area of law do we allow the offender a break like this? You robbed a bank of $10K, but the next week they made a $15K profit so it’s all good, let the crook off.

      Employers also delay negotiating a first contract. They “bargain in good faith” as the law requires, delaying any agreement for one year. After one year, they know they can have a Quisling seek another election to de-certify the union. Having seen the union “can’t get a contract” and that the fired organizers haven’t gotten their jobs back, plus hiring new employees carefully screened for union sympathies, they often succeed at this game, with the help of those $400/hour attorneys. But hey, someone’s income goes up.

      When government empowers workers rights to free association as opposed to comforting the comfortable, they often choose union membership.

      So I ask you again Mr. Smith, can you give me another example of conservatives advocating for free riders who seek something without giving back?

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 09/16/2018 - 08:44 pm.

        There’s an easy answer to “free riders”. Allow them to negotiate the terms of their own compensation and work rules, irrespective of what union members got.

        Boom. Fixed.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/17/2018 - 09:50 am.

          Employers in this country get the labor laws they want, and employers have opposed that. If you allow the union to not represent free riders, it opens the door to minority unions representing different groups of the same bargaining unit. Imagine General Motors negotiating with 6 different unions representing employees at one assembly plant. Employees would be free to change unions at will. Your kid needs braces? Join the union with the best dental coverage. You’re a young single guy? You go for the union with skimpier medical benefits and more $$$ on the check. You really think employers want this?

          Certifying only one union to represent one set of employees is for the convenience of the employer. That’s the way the 1% want it, so good luck getting it to change.

          It’s possible a union may challenge free riders on free speech grounds. But we all know that SCOTUS is hostile to union members rights to free association. And the people are well aware that SCOTUS is where corporations go to get their way.

          So in all likelihood we will have conservatives content to saddle unions with free riders.

          And still, no one has identified another example of conservatives cheering on free loaders. But given the way “conservatives” are no longer very conservative and are virtually free of principles, this should surprise no one.

          • Submitted by joe smith on 09/19/2018 - 08:03 am.

            I agree, farmers shouldn’t get paid subsidies, also shouldn’t get paid not to farm. That debacle started long before Trump and hopefully will be stopped. Ethanol is another disastrous policy. Yes and able bodied Americans shouldn’t get paid not to work, especially with 7 million jobs waiting to be filled (nice to see a thriving economy after 1.8% GDP growth for 8 years).
            That being said, workers still opt out of unions at a high rate. Why?

        • Submitted by joe smith on 09/17/2018 - 03:25 pm.

          Free riders? If unions were that good you wouldn’t have to make dues compulsory. I wouldn’t elect to pull my money from a group that was truly helping me. Free riders is such a catchy phrase but what it really means is workers that don’t agree with or see the good in their union.
          As I stated, when given the chance, members leave the union in large numbers.

          • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/18/2018 - 07:15 am.

            Mr. Smith, with all due respect, this is so incredibly rich. Conservatives, for as long as I can recall, have preached the danger of welfare recipients getting something for nothing. Oh, how they lament the harm it does to their self esteem! Except for white farmers who are getting cash welfare payments from Don Trump in a shameless attempt to create dependency on the government in order to buy votes in November! Why, that sort of budget busting spending is both hunky and dory in that case.

            And yet, in another example of how modern “conservatives” have lost all sense of principle save comforting the comforted, they cheer on these free loaders. What bunk.

  2. Submitted by Mike Davidson on 09/16/2018 - 12:53 pm.

    It would be funny – were it not so alarming – how many folks are against unions, especially those who work for corporate America. Think about the myriad of benefits your company offers? Where do you think the five-day work week came from, or the beginnings of what is now known as paid time off (PTO), sick time, vacation, company sponsored health insurance? Corporations did not suddenly decide to provide you these benefits out of the goodness of their hearts. We have these benefits because of unions, and the work that unions did. If unions are ultimately squashed, corporate America has no incentive to hang on to these benefits.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/16/2018 - 04:01 pm.

      Indeed. We can’t have unions, because they drive up wages.

      Hmm, wages have been flat for 40 years now.

      What to do? What to do?

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/17/2018 - 09:53 pm.

    Arizona teachers “wangled a 20 percent raise for all” which wasn’t everything they wanted. Anybody else get a 20% raise which was less than you wanted?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/18/2018 - 12:11 pm.

      What were their wage increases the previous ten years?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/19/2018 - 12:10 am.

      I received a 30% increase in wage over the first 2 years of employment in MY job, almost 85% in 10. I would say a 20% increase is quite modest compared to what most average private sector employees receive. Perhaps you need to find better employment…

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/19/2018 - 11:23 am.

        And yet the papers continue to tell us that wages have stagnated and even fallen behind the rate of inflation (which has been less than 2%. Congrats on your 15% annual increase in the first two years and 8.5% annual increases in the last ten. Far less than the 20% annual increases for private sector employees, but it sounds like you are content and that’s what really matters.

        • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/19/2018 - 04:47 pm.

          According to the Economic Policy Institute private sector wages over the past ten years have not reached a goal of 3.5% per year and the 2017-2018 increase is 2.9%. For all of those 20% increases that you claim there must be some workers going backward…

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/20/2018 - 10:59 am.

          20% once. Are you under the mistaken impression that union contracts are negotiated annually? Why is it that you are so gung ho to deprive others of success yet simultaneously so timid in seeking it for yourself?

          • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/20/2018 - 05:25 pm.

            Strangely enough, I support high CEO salaries, and high salaries or hourly wages for us little people since no matter what anyone else makes, it has no affect on me personally nor does it take away from my wages. I also prefer that the government not take money from one group and give it to another. I did ask a simple question as to how many people have received a 20% raise recently as I know physical therapists, nurses, machinists, service workers, delivery workers, etc. who haven’t received even a 5% raise in years. Nobody else has piped up about their big raises so I think that perhaps I am correct in believing that the Arizona teachers were very fortunate even though they wanted much more. As to my financial situation, I was able to choose a position at less than half my previous wage, but not because I am timid.

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