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How should workers respond under weaker labor laws?

In the autumn issue of the WLHS newsletter, an essay by Ken Germanson asked:  Now that the National Labor Relations Act has turned 80 years old, has it lost its promise to protect workers?  Read that essay by clicking here for PDF of autumn issue and scroll down to Page 5. Following are two responses to that essay.

Alternatives offered

The Autumn 2014 WLHS Newsletter contained a very thoughtful article by Ken Germanson, in which he stated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) today “is hardly more than a toothless tiger.” Ken additionally argued “ organizing under the current rules of the NLRB has become almost impossible.”

The article closed by indicating it is now time to create strategies which will enable workers to again march in solidarity with each other and win reforms in the workplace. The following takes up the challenge from Mr. Germanson, and proposes a few ideas for consideration.

  • Experiment with contracts that do not contain no-strike clauses. Contracts with no-strike clauses prohibit militancy by the rank and file during the length of a contract, as the union is prohibited from striking, which historically is the most effective tactic labor can use. While the rewards might have outweighed this concession in the past, the decades have eroded the strike. The UE (United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America) has retained the right to strike over grievances in its 2011-15 contracts with General Electric (GE), adding clout to the favorable resolution of grievances.
  • Bring radicals back into the welcoming arms of organized labor. What is meant by a radical is not a liberal Democrat who wishes a bit of re-structuring of the Democrat Party, but, instead, Marxists, Socialists, and Anarchists. The passage of Taft-Hartley, which required loyalty pledges during the anti-Communism scare era, drove radicals out of organized labor. However, John L. Lewis did not hesitate to employ and include such radicals when building the CIO.
  • Adopt “solidarity unionism” as an organizing model. Solidarity unionism is a model of labor organizing in which the workers themselves formulate strategy and take action against the company directly without mediation from the government or paid union representatives. Staughton Lynd, a longtime labor and peace activist, is a chief proponent. In times during which Act. 10 prohibits formal bargaining, it is a worthy alternative. In November 2014 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has won significant waqe concessions from Whole Foods in the Bay Area using this model.
  • Organize non-white low wage workers. Labor was built in mining, auto, and steel by ethnic white immigrants – Italian, Irish, Croatian, Lithuanian, and the list goes on. The successful 1912 IWW “Bread and Roses” strike in 1912 was conducted by organizers in over 10 languages. Today’s “Fight for 15” campaign being organized nationally by SEIU in the fast food industry takes up this same challenge, and it deserves the support of all organized labor.

With the significant drop in both labor union membership and effectiveness, it is time for organized labor to try some things which worked before enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and other federal legislative efforts. These are just some examples which labor might turn to.

— Jim Mitchell, member of Milwaukee General Membership Branch (GMB), Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

1938 court ruling doomed protections

Thanks to Ken Germanson for his article on how changes in labor law have undermined the promised right to collective bargaining at the heart of the National Labor Relations Act passed by Congress in 1935. I would like to add a little to what he says there on how court rulings and changes in law have severely weakened unions’ power to strike.

As early as 1938, in NLRB v. Mackay Radio, the Supreme Court ruled that employers had the right to continue operating struck plants and the right to hire workers to replace workers on strike. In 1939, in NLRB v. Fansteel, it ruled that sit-down strikes were illegal and employees engaging in them could be fired even if the sit-down-strike was inspired by unfair labor practices by management. In the period following these rulings, unions relied on mass strikes, placing large numbers of strikers and strike supporters on picket lines at plant gates, to discourage would be scabs. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, included among its other revisions to the NLRA, a provision outlawing picketing that was determined by a court to be coercive in nature.   The net effect of these changes has been to undermine the power of a union, elected by workers to represent them, to strike in order to pressure an employer to actually engage in collective bargaining.

— Dick Hudelson, Duluth MN, AFT (UW- Superior) retired


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