The legislative elections in the US will measure the support for union mobilization in two States | International
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Coinciding with the US legislative elections, voters in two states will also speak out on labor rights on November 8, a significant event that reveals the nervous action-reaction dynamic in the face of union spring of the USA, the most remarkable union boiling since the beginning of the seventies. Illinois and Tennessee are taking to the polls two antithetical visions of the future of work: the right to collective bargaining versus the individual right, called the “right to work,” which gives workers the freedom to join or not join a union, and exempts them from of the obligation to pay representation fees, to which he is obliged even if he is not a member of the union. Illinois wants to ban these “right to work” laws, which are in force in 27 states and included in the Constitution of nine of them; Tennessee, enshrine them in yours. The polarization that is tearing the country apart has also permeated labor relations.
In the US, it is the workplaces, and not individuals, who unionize, as shown by the string of votes in recent months in large corporations and small businesses, from restaurants to architecture studios or local newspapers. It is the tip of the iceberg of a tide of uncertain course, at the mercy of the progress of the economy and the distribution of forces provided by the legislative ones, and which is also explained by the atomization of the services sector, where the union struggle has taken over to the traditional mobilization of the industry. Only the Starbucks coffee chain, which made headlines in December by forming its first union in Buffalo (New York), has more than 8,000 stores in the country, and they must vote one by one… The fight is taking place party by party, I would say a well-known trainer, and, faced with the achievement of Búfalo, and the hundred stores that followed in his footsteps, the employees of another coffee shop in the Chelsea neighborhood (New York) denounce the company’s threats, which proliferate within the big corporations.
Employees at an Apple store in midtown Manhattan, which applied to unionize in the spring, are refusing to speak out for fear of showing off. “Here the walls hear, it is not well seen that we speak with journalists, what is more, it would be harmful. Speaking openly about the unions does not favor us individually, quite the opposite, ”says a worker from the establishment by phone. Neither the anonymity nor the achievement of his colleagues from Towson (Maryland), who in June created the first Apple union, encourages him to expand. Small collective victories and daily miseries combine in a bittersweet result, inconclusive about the future of the movement. After the historic victory of the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island (New York) in April, workers at another logistics center of the largest private employer in the country refused to unionize last week in Albany (New York State), the second setback in a few months. . The trend in 2022 shows greater achievements in small stores, according to the economic information portal MarketPlace.
Illinois and Tennessee represent two polar opposites of union activity, which has gained colossal traction in the service sector, with nearly a 60% boost in the last six months. Both queries have a historical dimension, regardless of the result. The Illinois referendum calls for enshrining collective bargaining rights in the State Constitution, as New York, Hawaii and Missouri have done. The difference is that it would be the first time that voters affirmed that right at the polls in a state, Illinois, where the so-called “right to work” has been in force since 1947.
In Tennessee, with a membership rate of 5.9%, significantly lower than that of Illinois (13.9%, above the national average of 10.3%), the Republicans’ preemptive attempt to neutralize the democrat PROAct (Protect the Right to Organize Act), passed in the House in the spring of 2021 and blocked in the Senate, advocating the exact opposite. This federal labor reform project, the most ambitious since Roosevelt’s time, would prohibit, among other things, state right-to-work laws, as well as the permanent replacement – another euphemism – of strikers. Because there is something perverse, of pure conceptual contradiction, in opposing collective bargaining and the so-called “right to work”: the reality is that an unemployed person finds it impossible to aspire to the former.
“Right to work is the name of a policy designed to take away workers’ rights. Supporters of right-to-work laws claim that they protect workers from being forced to join a union. Its true purpose is to tip the scales towards large corporations and further rig the system at the expense of working families,” stresses the US Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), one of the largest unions in the country.
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The current mobilization reflects “a changing balance of power in labor markets, with workers gaining more influence after recovering from the covid collapse. But there are so few unionized workers that much of this discontent continues to be channeled individually rather than collectively,” said Gabriel Winant of the University of Chicago in a recent interview.
Talking about a union revolution is not trivial in the US, with the lowest representation rate in history: in 2021, 30 states and the District of Columbia did not even reach the national average. Just over 14 million workers were members of a union last year, in a country of 332 million people. “US labor laws are heavily biased against union elections, as those at Amazon in Alabama clearly demonstrated,” says Jack Rasmus, a former union promoter who is now a professor of economics at Saint Mary’s College in California. In April 2021, workers at the e-commerce giant’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, overwhelmingly rejected the formation of a union. The National Board of Labor Relations, which watches over the rights of the worker, forced to repeat the vote after verifying pressures and irregularities on the part of the company. “Anti-union law firms are a multibillion-dollar industry that have prevented companies from unionizing for decades,” confirms Rasmus about corporate maneuvering.
Add to the picture the fact, denounced by his own union this week on Twitter, that the Board – the only federal agency in charge of protecting the rights to organize and collective bargaining in the private sector – is going through a crisis, “after years of neglect by part of Congress, [y] it no longer has the necessary resources to adequately fulfill its function.” Since 2014, the Board has not seen its budget increased by Congress, which means, according to the union, that inflation turns its current frozen funding into a budget cut.
On the Democratic side, gusts of changing winds are also blowing, despite the clear impulse of Joe Biden, the most pro-union president in decades. A poll taken earlier this year revealed that as many as 69% of Virginia Democrats advocate that public sector workers should “have the right to leave the union at any time and stop paying union dues.” Support for right-to-work laws reaches 91% among Republicans in Virginia, another southern state, and 90% among those who call themselves independents. These laws are in force in most southern states.
In 2017, when Donald Trump occupied the White House, Republicans in Congress introduced legislation to try to make the right to work, which since the 1940s has survived several recessions and two major crises, the 1970s and 2008, a law applicable throughout the country. In fits and starts, the States have been legislating one by one on this aspect that is so representative, in the end, of democracy: whether the opinion of the majority should prevail over the rights of the minority or, vice versa, if each one, as shown every day any survival exercise in the US, is the protagonist of his particular every man for himself.
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