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How to Boost Unions’ Power? Sectoral Bargaining.

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sec•tor•al bar•gain•ing

noun

1. a labor pol­i­cy that enables unions to set stan­dards for their whole indus­try, boost­ing their lever­ag­ing power 
“Sectoral bargaining could shift employers from competing based on who can pay their workers the least, to competing based on the quality of their services.” —Charlotte Garden, Professor, Seattle University School of Law

Why can’t unions do “sec­toral bar­gain­ing” now? 

In the­o­ry, they can—and have before. In 1980, for exam­ple, about a tenth of work­ers were cov­ered by mul­ti-employ­er agree­ments that set indus­try-wide stan­dards, espe­cial­ly work­ers in steel, auto, truck­ing, con­struc­tion and mining. 

What hap­pened? An onslaught of dereg­u­la­tion and anti-union attacks reversed those gains. 

Only 11% of work­ers are cov­ered by union con­tracts today, total. (And just 6% of the entire pri­vate sec­tor.) Unions sim­ply lack the pow­er and mem­ber­ship to orga­nize entire sec­tors and indus­tries. Sec­toral or mul­ti-employ­er bar­gain­ing does exist—in heav­i­ly union­ized indus­tries, like hos­pi­tal­i­ty—but, most­ly, unions nego­ti­ate wages and improve con­di­tions at one indi­vid­ual work­site at a time. 

How much of a dif­fer­ence would sec­toral bar­gain­ing make? 

You may have already heard of the “union dif­fer­ence”—that the aver­age union­ized work­er has high­er wages, bet­ter ben­e­fits and safer work­ing con­di­tions than a non-union work­er. There’s also a “sec­toral bar­gain­ing dif­fer­ence” (the phrase just isn’t as catchy). In Euro­pean coun­tries where indus­try-wide bar­gain­ing is rou­tine, union con­tracts cov­er more work­ers and have an even greater impact on decreas­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty while improv­ing work-life bal­ance. Ger­man met­al­work­ers, for exam­ple, won a 28-hour work week in 2018. 

Less inequal­i­ty and more pow­er for work­ers sounds good. How do we get sec­toral bargaining? 

We have a bit of a chick­en-and-egg prob­lem: To build a stronger labor move­ment, we could use bet­ter labor law that favors work­ing peo­ple—pre­vail­ing wage laws, for exam­ple, would help force employ­ers to nego­ti­ate indus­try-wide stan­dards. But to win bet­ter labor law, we could real­ly use a stronger labor movement. 

So the place to start is wher­ev­er you hap­pen to be: Labor needs more union mem­ber­ship. And pret­ty much every­one in labor agrees it needs to be eas­i­er for work­ers to join unions.

The Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize Act would remove some of the major dif­fi­cul­ties faced by union orga­niz­ers and passed in the House ear­li­er this year. It now waits in the Sen­ate. Like so much else, its chance of becom­ing law any time soon great­ly depends on who wins in Novem­ber. If it does pass, unions can begin the process of rebuild­ing their bar­gain­ing pow­er from the bot­tom up. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 22, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: This blog was written by the editors of In These Times as part of their Big Idea series.


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Trump Is Waging War on the VA’s Union, and Workers Are Living in Fear

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As Don­ald Trump cam­paigns for reelec­tion by declar­ing his love for the mil­i­tary and its vet­er­ans, the union that rep­re­sents more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs (VA) employ­ees says that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has cre­at­ed an atmos­phere of fear and retal­i­a­tion among the peo­ple tasked with tak­ing care of America’s veterans.

More than 250,000 VA work­ers are rep­re­sent­ed by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE), and the union says that the VA’s con­tract is the largest sin­gle pub­lic sec­tor union con­tract in the coun­try. Nego­ti­a­tions for a new con­tract are cur­rent­ly mired before a “Fed­er­al Ser­vices Impasse Pan­el,” which is tasked with resolv­ing bar­gain­ing dis­putes. (AFGE also filed a law­suit against the pan­el itself, charg­ing that its anti-union pres­i­den­tial appointees were improp­er­ly installed. Regard­less, the union expects the pan­el to ren­der a deci­sion on its con­tract in a mat­ter of weeks). The bureau­crat­ic maneu­ver­ings sur­round­ing the con­tract are just the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of a years-long cru­sade by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to crush fed­er­al unions—one that VA union lead­ers say is push­ing their mem­bers to the break­ing point. 

In These Times spoke to the pres­i­dents of three AFGE union locals, who rep­re­sent thou­sands of VA mem­bers across the coun­try. They paint­ed a pic­ture of an agency in which employ­ees live in fear of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment if they speak out about injus­tice in the work­place. And they say that the effects of a set of 2018 Trump admin­is­tra­tion exec­u­tive orders that dras­ti­cal­ly restrict­ed the union’s rights—in par­tic­u­lar by slash­ing the “offi­cial time” pro­vi­sion giv­ing access to union rep­re­sen­ta­tives at work, and by kick­ing the unions out of their long­time office space inside VA build­ings—have weak­ened the VA itself and made work­ers’ lives hard­er, even jeop­ar­diz­ing safe­ty in the midst of a pan­dem­ic. The real­i­ty for VA employ­ees is quite dif­fer­ent from Trump’s rhetoric about valu­ing vet­er­ans above all. 

Keena Smith, the pres­i­dent of AFGE Local 2192 in St. Louis, says that the Trump administration’s orders have evis­cer­at­ed the union’s last con­tract, strip­ping out health and safe­ty pro­vi­sions and whistle­blow­er pro­tec­tions, and severe­ly cut­ting back employ­ees’ rights to fight back against dis­ci­pli­nary actions. She describes a work­place in which VA employ­ees who process claims are “ter­ri­fied” that they will be fired for fail­ing to meet unre­al­is­tic quotas. 

“It’s def­i­nite­ly changed how we work and how we’re able to ser­vice our employ­ees. Over 80% of the employ­ees [here] are vet­er­ans them­selves,” says Smith, who is also a U.S. mil­i­tary vet­er­an. “These attacks become per­son­al… this is the thanks that you give those vet­er­ans who have already done their time. You put on fear tac­tics, and stan­dards that are almost impos­si­ble to make.” 

Smith seems gen­uine­ly stag­gered by the con­tempt with which the admin­is­tra­tion has treat­ed her union mem­bers, who process ben­e­fit and com­pen­sa­tion claims for vet­er­ans. “We lit­er­al­ly got evic­tion notices” for union offices in VA facil­i­ties,” she says, still incred­u­lous. “They said, ‘You have to get out or pay rent.’ What?” 

For the past three years, Lin­da Ward-Smith has led AFGE Local 1224 in Las Vegas, rep­re­sent­ing about 3,000 work­ers at a VA hos­pi­tal. “Pri­or to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion tak­ing over, I can attest to you that man­age­ment and labor had cor­dial rela­tion­ships,” includ­ing week­ly labor-man­age­ment meet­ings to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions, she says. That has all changed since Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Now, she says, man­age­ment is so unre­spon­sive that it has left many of the union’s mem­bers dispir­it­ed and ques­tion­ing the point of the union’s existence. 

“We’d hear rumors like, ‘the union isn’t here any more, there’s nobody for us.’ Espe­cial­ly when we got kicked out of the office and our equip­ment got tak­en away,” says Ward-Smith. Though she still tries to meet with man­age­ment as she can, “I feel like I’m at their mer­cy. I have to some­times bite my tongue and do things on behalf of the mem­bers. But now the man­agers feel empow­ered as if they’re Superman.” 

Christi­na Noël, a press sec­re­tary for the VA, says of the ongo­ing con­tract bat­tle, “AFGE has con­sis­tent­ly fought for the sta­tus quo and opposed attempts to make the VA work bet­ter for Vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies. It’s no sur­prise that AFGE has tak­en the same approach with its refusal to accept com­mon­sense improve­ments to its col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agreement.”

For Bar­bara Whit­son Casano­va, who has led AFGE Local 2054 in Arkansas for two decades, deal­ing with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion “was like wak­ing up in a for­eign coun­try.” As the VA has become almost com­plete­ly unwill­ing to work with the union unless it is legal­ly required to, a con­se­quence has been that the union is oblig­at­ed to use the legal arbi­tra­tion process to address minor dis­putes that in the past could have been solved with good faith dis­cus­sions. Casano­va says that before Trump, her local might have only filed one arbi­tra­tion case per year; now, it has 17 arbi­tra­tion cas­es in process, each one cost­ing the gov­ern­ment itself thou­sands of dol­lars to litigate. 

“We feel like our Com­man­der in Chief has waged war on his troops,” she says. “The staff is burned out and liv­ing in fear.” 

All gov­ern­ment employ­ees now have “right to work” sta­tus, mean­ing that the union is oblig­at­ed to rep­re­sent them, but can­not make them pay dues if they don’t want to. Nor do the VA’s work­ers have the right to strike, by law (a right that not even pub­lic sec­tor union lead­ers are will­ing to spend the polit­i­cal cap­i­tal to fight for). Those legal restric­tions, com­bined with the Trump administration’s bat­tle against labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, have left AFGE strug­gling for ways to assert its pow­er. “It’s a bat­tle not to give up and feel total­ly hope­less,” Casano­va admits. 

The VA’s union holds infor­ma­tion­al pick­ets and ral­lies to pub­li­cize its plight, and is enmeshed in law­suits against the gov­ern­ment, but it is unwill­ing to vio­late the law with more aggres­sive labor actions. Boxed in by reg­u­la­tions designed specif­i­cal­ly to lim­it its pow­er, the union lead­ers inside the VA say that the bal­lot box is their only promis­ing route back to nor­mal­cy. AFGE has endorsed Joe Biden, who has said he will roll back Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Ward-Smith believes that every­thing hangs in the bal­ance on Elec­tion Day. 

“If we con­tin­ue the way we are,” she says, “the union will not be in existence.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at [email protected]


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New Collective Bargaining Law Paves the Way to Worker Justice at Delaware DMV

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Kenneth-Quinnell_small

After Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a bill to expand collective bargaining rights for public employees in June, workers have begun organizing at state agencies. Employees of the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles voted last week to join Laborers (LIUNA) Local 1029, establishing a union there for the first time.

Gurvis Miner, business manager for Local 1029, said the organizing win was hard earned and well worth it.

“Employees at the DMV now have a voice on the job, and I commend the state Legislature and Gov. Carney for changing the law to expand our rights and making this all possible,” he said.

The new bargaining unit includes 340 workers at the DMV.

SB 8, the bill that provided these employees their new collective bargaining rights, was made possible through the diligent advocacy efforts of the Delaware State AFL-CIO and others. The law expanded collective bargaining rights for about 2,000 workers across the state.

“We congratulate LIUNA Local 1029 and all of the DMV workers, and we welcome these brothers and sisters to our growing labor movement in Delaware,” said Delaware State AFL-CIO President Jim Maravelias (LIUNA).

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on July 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

 


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