Is it the job of American labor groups to build and expand businesses? No. However, it is the mission of the American labor movement to protect American jobs, advance the rights of American workers, and fight to make sure that we build and manufacture more goods in America. Labor groups are vital to the American way of life and to sustaining and expanding American industry.
Simple math: When a business succeeds, there is opportunity for growth. When there is growth, there is more work to be done. More work to be done means more people needed on employment rolls. More Americans employed means more wealth into workers’ hands to be invested right back into the economy. However, business operations should not override long-standing laws. Perhaps it is because the National Labor Relations Board did not have a full board for several years during the Bush administration that modern day commentators forget what it was created to do: protect workers’ rights.
The NLRB filed a complaint recently arguing that Boeing illegally retaliated against its unionized Washington state workers by moving 30% of its 786 Dreamliner production plant to South Carolina. Like most labor issues these days, the complaint in NLRB v. Boeing was quickly polarized as a fight between free markets and organized labor. But the NLRB is doing its job. It is checking a business decision which violates the law. In fact, the NLRB’s complaint does not even demand closing the South Carolina plant.
The right to strike is a legal right for all Boeing workers in Washington. Therefore, if Boeing says its primary reason for moving its 787 Dreamliner assembly to a South Carolina plant is because workers can't strike, then that is a clear retaliation of workers rights. They placed the livelihood of their workers on the line because of a right they already have. It seems that Boeing’s decision is more political than the NLRB’s response. South Carolina is a right-to-work state. Washington is not.
What is worth looking at is if Boeing’s retaliation is a move to pass anti-strike legislation in Washington. By threatening to take away jobs, Boeing will get the attention of every legislator in the plant’s district.
I’m wary of a move to pass anti-worker legislation. It is a trend that has swept across the country. Many contracts, especially in the public sector, make it illegal for workers to strike. In some ways, anti-strike legislation makes sense. Public services are a vital component of our economy and safety. They take people to work and keep our communities safe. A strike in the public sector can threaten the public’s livelihood. No one wants that. On the other hand, taking away the right to strike hurts a powerful tool for workers to show how important they really are. Without it, who really remembers if their bus driver showed up to work that day?
As our economy transitions to a new skilled workforce with an emphasis on scientific and technological innovation, we need to protect our workers and make sure they have the means to protect their dignity and families through fair wages and working conditions.
No one seems to be talking about the several examples of unionized workplaces where workers have taken deep cuts to keep their companies and governments functioning.
Look at the Dana Holding Corporation’s 13 plants in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wisconsin who just ratified a three-year contract with the United Auto Workers. When Dana went into bankruptcy in 2007, the workers there sacrificed many benefits while the executives refinanced. They have not had a contract since Dana emerged from bankruptcy in January 2008.
How about the Teamsters members in Kentucky and West Virginia who just ratified a new contract with Armstrong Hardwood Flooring where they will pay higher healthcare premiums as a way of respecting Armstrong Hardwood’s need to make budget cuts during challenging times in the flooring market. Over the past three years, Armwood has cuts its employee healthcare costs by twenty-one percent; despite increased expenses, the Armwood Teamsters members did not strike. Both sides have come to a deal that keeps the workers afloat and the business on path to success.
Or the Maryland state employees who’ve taken furlough days and pay decreases for the past four years. On top of this, many Maryland state employees will be paying more into their pension fund and more for their prescription drug costs this year.
Taking a pay cut is not easy, especially when working class Americans did not cause the recession. No one accepts a cut without a fight. When you are barely making ends meet, a decreased paycheck is a huge difference. It’s not right, and it’s not American to sit on the sidelines and watch your family’s livelihood deteriorate. As Americans, we fight, we listen, we work hard, and we reason matters out with one another. At the end of the day, we are living in the United States and we want our country to succeed. We can only do that by working together.
It worries me when young professionals deride unions and labor. How many of us enjoy our weekend? Go to happy hour after work at 6 PM? We’ve taken for granted the weekends and evenings we get off, and the healthcare some of us receive from our employers and / or parents if we are unemployed. These examples are all effects of the labor movement’s fight to keep families strong and to keep American society healthy and working.
Photo Credit: IMLS DCC