It’s high time for a fundamental change in U.S. labor law. We need meaningful labor legislation that truly protects workers, or at least gives them a fair shake and a basic sense of dignity. We need laws that treat workers with the same reverence currently reserved exclusively for those who own the companies rather than those who do the heavy lifting to generate the vast majority of those companies’ profits.
Labor law as it exists in our country today is toothless at best and, at worst, is explicitly engineered to sacrifice workers on the altar of economic stability. And who do you imagine is best-positioned to take advantage of the slanted language of these laws and win gain after gain for their interests and their interests alone? It’s the ownership class, of course.
I challenge every union to consider adding judicial seats to their endorsement process and go a step further to recruit and support labor lawyers for the bench.
A textbook example of this kind of pro-capitalist, worker-exploitative U.S. labor law is the Railway Labor Act (RLA). A relic of 1926 — a time when railroads were becoming increasingly important to U.S. interstate commerce — the RLA was designed to allow the federal government to keep its finger on the button of labor relations in the rail industry in order to keep freight moving no matter what unionized railroad workers might demand.
Earlier this month, the RLA was used by federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to kill a strike and force a negotiation that sold out railroad workers who simply wanted the ability to call in sick without being fired for doing so. Ultimately, the decision will hand more profits to the railway companies while giving workers nothing in the way of sick days. It’s pure abuse.
When I was an organizer, I saw the archaic RLA used in a similar fashion — to squeeze workers and frustrate their ability to bargain — when it was invoked to prevent aviation mechanics from unionizing at FedEx. According to the language of the RLA, a group of workers can’t just organize at a single location. They have to unionize the entire system under a single election.
While at first glance that might seem advantageous to organizers who chase many shops to gain market share, it is, in effect, a way to dilute a campaign. FedEx used it to successfully prevent unionization again and again; classifying an aircraft mechanic in Seattle with a truck mechanic in Indianapolis with a ground equipment mechanic in Florida proved to be nearly impossible.
I would later see a similar stifling effect when I had the privilege of working with the union reps at United Airlines Tech Ops as Teamsters 856/986 members. I saw how the RLA had stripped bargaining power away from the shop floor decades prior, allowing the industry to ravage the workforce with outsourcing, and how loyal workers lost their pensions and employee stock every time the industry faced volatility. All told, I’ve seen how worker strikes and the ability to flex union power have been curbed by each and every presidential administration.
For a union activist like me, to witness this is exasperating, yet it makes perfect sense. The RLA functions precisely as designed, limiting the power of workers to balance corporate greed and control over the workplace and, by extension, sacrificing the health and safety of everyone on the job in the name of smoothly flowing logistics.
But this is why we stay politically engaged. This is why we need to continue bothering our Senators to bring the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act to the floor for a vote, as, if passed, it would go a long way in restoring the right of workers to freely and fairly form a union and bargain together for changes in the workplace.
It is with our political ground game that we can affect real change, but we also need the courts on our side. I challenge every union to consider adding judicial seats to their endorsement process and go a step further to recruit and support labor lawyers for the bench.
And at the very least, we should always be working to organize more and more workers into unions, because with more of us working in solidarity with one another, the more likely it is that our laws will start reflecting our interests rather than solely those of the owners.
Together we can do this. Happy holidays and a happy new year to everyone — here’s to a strong 2023 filled with more solidarity than ever before.