It would be nice to say that what happened to Green is unusual or that going to the government means she’ll get justice. But the truth is that companies fire workers for union activity all the time, and they often get away with it.
My latest Prospect piece explains why this fall could be the last opportunity for pro-labor NLRB decisions for a long time, and suggests what some significant ones could be:
Over the past months, the GOP has escalated attacks on the NLRB as a rogue job-killing agency, and Republicans’ willingness to use procedural tactics to block even recess appointments further raises the likelihood that once the pro-labor majority reaches its January expiration date, the board could be left to languish until the next presidential election. Although President Barack Obama inherited an NLRB with three vacancies, it took 14 months for him to fill any of them, due to a familiar combination of Republican obstruction and Democratic hesitance. Since then, “they’ve been playing defense,” says law professor and former NLRB attorney Jeff Hirsch, “and I don’t fault the board for that because they haven’t had a lot of time.” Come January, “I would be stunned if they actually get a third member on,” he adds. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says Republicans are trying “everything they can to prevent the NLRB from actually doing what it’s intended to do.”
My feature in next month’s Dollars & Sense labor issue is on news stands this week and online now:
So whatever the result, the Boeing case is less a story about the potency of current labor law than about the power of the strike on the one hand and the threat of retaliation on the other. It’s the story of workers who have refused to believe that they should cede a hard-won package of middle-class wages and workplace protections in the face of a major company’s multi-year effort to persuade or intimidate them into backing down. Now, after decades during which Puget Sound has been the only place Boeing assembles commercial aircraft, workers are right to recognize that the power to move work elsewhere has become a powerful weapon in management’s arsenal.
It was frustrating this summer seeing half the coverage of the Boeing NLRB complaint fail to mention retaliation for striking, and none of it address why Boeing workers have chosen to go on strike five times in three decades. So I went to Puget Sound to hear from veterans of the Boeing strikes. Check out the piece. And if you’re looking for a response to the claims of GOP politicians (echoed last week by NYT columnist Joe Nocera) about the case, here’s something I wrote in May.
At his press conference yesterday, President Obama made another move to distance himself from the NLRB’s complaint against Boeing for anti-union retaliation. While insisting he wouldn’t get into the merits of the case, Obama took the chance to emphasize the importance of capital mobility within the United States.
Here’s a different way he could have answered the question:
“There’s an legal process underway here, both Boeing and the union are having their day in court, and I’m not going to weigh in on what the evidence will show. I’m always happy to see cases like this reach a settlement both sides can live with – but that’s up to the parties. What I do know is this: there’s an important principle at issue here – the protection of workers’ right to engage in collective action without being punished. Workers taking action together for their families and their communities is part of what has made this country great. Every worker, union or not, should know that there are laws not just regulating their working conditions but also protecting their right to push to make their jobs better. On my watch, those laws will be enforced.”
Same refusal to judge the merits of the case. But a very different emphasis.
Jim DeMint Communications Advisor Amanda Carpenter yesterday tweeted a link to a Wall Street Journal story on a motion filed by three South Carolina Boeing employees working with the National Right to Work Foundation. Boeing, as I explained in this piece, is charged by the NLRB’s General Counsel with retaliating against union members in Washington State by transferring a new line of airliners to South Carolina. The three workers, at least one of whom was active in campaigning to get rid of the Machinists union at the South Carolina plant, want to intervene in the case in defense of Boeing. Carpenter is presumably tweeting (on her personal feed) the article because she likes seeing Boeing employees siding with the company (at least three, that is). But I’d say the most revealing piece of the WSJ story is buried in the sixth paragraph (emphasis mine):
When Boeing bought one of the pre-existing 787 facilities in the state, the production employees working there at the time were represented by the Machinists union and Boeing was “more than willing to work with” the union, the motion says. Still, one of the three employees now seeking to intervene successfully led an effort to decertify the union at that plant in September 2009, in part to improve Boeing’s chances of building the new facility, the motion says.
So one of the Boeing workers thought going non-union would improve the chances of Boeing moving production to South Carolina. How does that help Boeing’s case that it doesn’t retaliate against union activity? Would be interesting to know if any Boeing management suggested to this worker that getting rid of the union would be seen favorably by the company. (That could have been grounds for another Unfair Labor Practice charge). Maybe the Journal could do a follow-up story on the topic.
I tweeted at Carpenter yesterday to get her take on this part of the story, but so far no response.
During the Bush years, many progressives gave up hope that the government could really make companies pay when they broke the law. Now a big company may have to pay a big price for illegally punishing workers. Last month the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body that enforces labor law, issued a complaint charging that Boeing illegally transferred the production of a line of aircraft out of Washington State. Boeing is accused of transferring the production to punish the workers there for going on strike. Punishing workers for union activity is retaliation, and it’s illegal. If Boeing is found guilty, it could be made to transfer the whole production line back. Naturally, the prospect of the Labor Board seriously enforcing labor law has Republicans freaking out…
Right-wingers are rising to defend Boeing, bash the NLRB, and blame Obama. But rather than debate retaliation against workers, conservatives want to conjure phantom menaces: bureaucrats micro-managing production, Democrats punishing “Right to Work” states, and union bosses paralyzing job creators.
Check it out.
While I don’t at all agree with Thomas Geoghegan’s contention in Which Side Are You On that the ACLU’s agenda, while noble, wouldn’t “cost anyone anything” to implement, he does speak to a well-justified frustration many “labor liberals” feel at the difficulty of stirring certain civil libertarians to get up in arms about the civil liberties of workers on and off the job. Not only are positive rights (like economic security) crucial to the meaningful exercise of negative rights (like free speech), positive and negative rights frequently and fundamentally intersect, perhaps nowhere moreso than the workplaces in which millons spend the majority of their waking hours. Opposition to civil liberties comes not only from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their values but also from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their economic interests. That’s why the right of workers to speak, assemble, and organize on and off the job has always been threatened in this country. And that’s why it’s so often fallen to unions, in Nathan Newman’s words, to “bring the first Amendment to the workplace.” It’s worth asking (as Geoghegan was trying, though through a troubling turn of phrase, to do) why the idea of deprivation of civil liberties affects many of us more viscerally than the idea of economic deprivation. But even those who only get up in arms over the former should be disturbed that, as Geoghegan has been reminding us for years, American law offers you no protection against being fired for expressing your political beliefs, and promises the weakest of responses to employers who threaten, punish, or fire workers seeking to bargain collectively.
What are the stakes? The Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board provided a reminder last month when it upheld a security firm’s rule that bars its employees from “fraternizing” with each other on or off the job. Guardsmark insisted that its employees give up their right to associate with each other socially on their own time as a condition of employment, and the NLRB blessed the company to keep the rule in place.
Keith Urbahn makes an unpersuasive comparison between graduate student workers and allies fighting for the right to organize and flat-earthers:
Our lovable but deluded Flat-Earthers are the members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the self-proclaimed representatives of graduate students. GESO’s unremarkable history is marred by failure and distinct feelings of apathy and even opposition from many graduate students — both realities the organization continues to deny. Never mind the fact that the Yale administration has always refused to consider it a legitimate interest group, or that over the summer the National Labor Relations Board unequivocally struck down any right for students to organize as employees at private universities, or that GESO just might be the only group in history to lose its own rigged election, as it did in April 2003.
As I argued at the time, the vote by the Bush-appointed majority to overturn a unanimous decision and strip graduate student workers of their rights as employees is one of a constellation of anti-labor decisions pushed through by right-wing activist NLRB judges over the past three years. Other recent targets have included non-union workers, casual workers, and disabled workers. Hell, even the prophets of classlessness at The New Republic have taken notice. It wasn’t so long ago in this country when publice employees, or agricultural workers, or workers as a whole were denied a legal right to unionize. It’s hard to imagine that the same Yale administrators who blithely ignored the NLRB’s historic NYU decision now expect graduate student workers to roll over because lobbying by, inter alia, those administrators has yielded a new one.
As for the election Keith calls “rigged,” the date and time were well-publicized, the qualifications were clear and well-scrutinized, and the whole process was overseen by the League of Women Voters. Every graduate student who showed up, whether or not they were on the list of those who would be part of the bargaining unit, got to cast a provisional vote, and GESO chose not to contest any of them. Certainly, GESO should have done a better job of turning out their supporters, more of whom went out on strike with the union than made it out to vote for it. Unfortunately, Yale’s strategy of depressing pro-union turnout through publically describing it as “like getting your friends together to have an election,” while hiking anti-union turnout through intense pressure from advisors on advisees, particularly in the sciences, was more effective than many had predicted. Read more about Yale’s anti-union campaign here. Even under those circumstances, the result was a near tie. Nearly two years later, last month three out of five teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences declared they had signed union cards and demanded Yale recognize their union. But Keith is unfazed:
And indeed, a 12-week process of soliciting names from a predetermined list of eligible “voters” had finally created the results GESO organizers long desired. Sixty percent of 521 eligible TAs in the humanities, social science and language departments voted in favor of unionization. In a crude attempt to lend at least a veneer of legality to the sham of an election, GESO solicited the help of Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz to certify the “vote.” What Bysiewicz and giddy GESO supporters failed to mention at the Dec. 14 meeting was that the card count was hardly representative of the whole graduate student body. In an effort to exclude departments predominately opposed to unionization — most notably those in the natural sciences — GESO changed the eligibility requirements, denying the right to vote to hundreds who differed with the group’s agenda.
What the vote was representative of is a three-fifths consensus of those whose primary employment is teaching in the humanities and social sciences supporting a union of teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences. For years now, Yale has been claiming that GESO was illegitimate because its proposed bargaining unit included both students in the sciences and the humanities. Since the new NLRB decision, the union’s opponents have flipped their argument. Negotiations over the shape of a bargaining unit are a standard part of a unionization process. The problem is, Yale is still maintaining its dozen-year policy of refusing to negotiate – or meet – with GESO about anything. That includes the nature of a fair process for unionization, another issue on which Keith takes the administration’s side:
Furthermore, the method of a “card count,” a process in which GESO representatives solicited support for unionization by approaching eligible TAs, is hardly a fair way of gauging the graduate community’s interest in unionization. The card count allowed for the possibility of intimidation and coercion — both well-worn GESO tactics according to some graduate students.
Card count neutrality agreements provide workers a measure of protection against the employer intimidation made possible by the asymetrical power relationship in the workplace. As Kate Bronfenbrenner’s research demonstrated, majorities of workers during NLRB election processes strongly fear losing their jobs if they vote for the union, and a third who vote against the union themselves identify their vote as a response to employer pressure. That’s why politicians of both parties are pushing the Employee Free Choice Act in support of card check processes. That said, GESO’s demand for years was an agreement with Yale on a fair process whose results both sides would follow. But Levin, while with one breath telling GESO only an NLRB process was acceptable, that “democracy means elections,” with the other maintained that he would appeal the results of any election, leaving the ballots uncounted and impounded, as his allies in the Penn, Brown, and Columbia administrations have done in response to NLRB elections there. Democracy means following the results of elections. And as I’ve said before, I don’t think a graduate school in which students refrain from trying to win over students who might disagree with them on the issues they face is one living up to the values of liberal education. If you think it’s hard being an anti-union graduate student in a department where most of your peers are in the union, trying being a union member whose research funding depends on a supervisor who hates the union. Now imagine that situation if, say, losing your research funding means being deported out of the country. The plight of international students is, incidentally, one of many issues on which GESO’s lobbying has successfully brought change from the administration. But Keith isn’t too keen on GESO’s issue agenda either:
GESO has become increasingly involved with locals 34 and 35 on issues that are at best tangentially related to graduate student organization…Duped by that word “union” and the “Norma Rae” fantasies of some Yale graduate students — or more likely, attracted to the opportunity of political allies in the fight against the Yale administration — members of the real unions locals 34 and 35 attended the December meeting, dutifully holding up signs and chanting in support of the new “union” of graduate students.
This is the classic “narrow agenda/broader agenda line of argument Yale’s administration has been firing at its unions for at least as long as Keith and I have been at Yale: Either the unions are parochial institutions only narrowly concerned with their members’ wages and benefits who could care less about the greater good, or they’re shadowy, expansive conspiracies with designs to meddle everywhere they’re not wanted. The truth is, unions best protect the rights of their own workers and of all Americans when they have broad agendas. That’s why the trade union approach of the CIO did more for American labor, and for America, than the craft union approach of the AFL ever could. GESO is right to recognize that fighting for graduate student workers means fighting for their rights as immigrant workers against capricious deportation. And GESO is right to recognize that graduate student workers’ voices are most powerful, and their interests are best represented, when they stand together with other Yale employees on issues of common concern, like diversifying Yale’s workforce and supporting working mothers. And members of Locals 34 and 35, far from being the ignorant dupes Keith labels them, are right to recognize that their rights as workers are best protected and advanced by safeguarding the right to organize for all Yale employees and joining them in struggle over common challenges. That’s why, for so many in Yale’s service, maintenance, and clerical workforce, it rings hollow when Dan Koffler argues that:
The suggestion that Ph.Ds in waiting have a common class interest with lifelong wage-laborers, least of all Yale Ph.Ds in waiting, is an unfunny, borderline obscene joke. It is, moreover, a notion that can only hurt the cause of real workers.
As I argued here before, the salient question is not and should not be whether a teaching assistant or a secretary is more exploited or more sympathetic. The question is, do these workers face common challenges? And out of these common challenges, how do they find common cause and better effect progressive change in their own lives and in Yale as an institution? The argument that different kinds of workers should keep to themselves is not new. It was a hallmark of Yale’s anti-union campaign against clerical and technical workers before Local 34 was finally recognized in 1984. Unions are all well and good for the largely male, largely minority, blue-collar workforce of Local 35, Yale clerical and technical workers were told, but are they really the kind of institutions that Yale’s “pink-collar” clerical and technical workers should be associated with. Local 34 and Local 35 stood together, in the face of threats of reprisals against Local 35 by Yale’s administration, and after Local 34 won its ten-week strike and its first contract, Local 35’s new contract was settled quickly once Local 34 made clear its intention to stand in support of Local 35. That’s what winning looks like. And so it’s strangely appropriate how Keith chooses to end his article:
…we know whom they truly stand for: themselves.
Yes, graduate students signing union cards are standing for themselves, and for each other. And because many undergraduates see themselves as future graduate students, its understandable that those who believe in a comfortable dichotomy between service and self-interest have more trouble getting on board with GESO. But now more than ever, in the face of the growing casualization of the academy (a trend which makes Dan’s description of graduate students as “YalePh.D.s in waiting” more misleading), graduate students are right to organize for better working conditions and a better university, and others in the Yale community are right to stand with them.
More troubling moments from Levin’s open forum Wednesday night:
On the Board of Aldermen’s call for community benefits agreements: “Unconstitutional…we’ve been doing it already, and I don’t think it’s their place…”
On Yale’s underreporting of rape statistics: “If we were not in compliance with the law, I’m sure we are now.”
On financial aid: “We have not quite made the aggressive moves of Harvard and Princeton.” He went on the claim that because we’re competitive with those schools in admissions, there must not be too much of a problem.
He argued that lowering the family contribution for low-income students would lead parents to be less interested in their children’s education.
He attributed the lack of diversity amongst Yale’s faculty to minority students unwillingness to enter the academy because they won’t earn as much there
He refused the idea that there are any problems with the NLRB process for union recognition.
Looks like Errol is (not surprisingly, given the number of debates the two of us have had previously over this issue) celebrating the NLRB decision stripping graduate student workers of legal recognition of their right to organize. Errol contends that this represents “Finally a common sense decision by the NLRB.” I’d say common sense explains the motivation behind this decision – as part of a broader Bush agenda of chipping away workers’ rights through court decisions, executive orders, and legislation, and as one with tremendous cache with certain University Presidents, including some with significant influence – but that that’s about the only relationship common sense and this decision have. There are a lot of points to be made in this argument; for now I’ll stick to responding to those Errol brings up directly.
It’s always been especially telling to me that the graduate student unions have all changed the name of what they do to being “graduate employees” in order to fight this battle. What does that say to me? Well it says that there is a PR game and that most people don’t actually see them as employees at all, so it’s necessary to confront them with the idea. “See I am an employee, because my wannabe union has the word employee in it.” That sort of thing.
This is a cheap and, I’d say, pretty misleading argument. The people subject to this decision are students at the Universities in question and employees of these universities. Sometimes they call themselves graduate employees because those two words communicate that they are both graduate students and employees. Hence GET-UP, Graduate Employees Together, U-Penn. Yale’s parallel union is called GESO, Graduate Employee Student Organization (Light and Truth alleged last year that the fact is was called GESO rather than GSEO showed its members were lazy students. I’ll like to hear them pronounce GSEO). I’m not sure what Errol means when he says that they “changed the name of what they do,” although he certainly makes it sound sinister. What they’ve done, rightfully, is come up with various phrases which allude to the multiple identities they take on simultaneously in the academy. I’d guess it’s the confluence of those identities, not their reflection in names, which Errol and others have a problem with:
That being said, it is obvious that graduate students do work, and probably much of it. Why doesn’t that make them employees of the university and not students? The only thing that separates the two is the possibility of the award of a professional degree. All the other people who recieve payment from the university who are employees are not being paid in their capacity as degree candidates, and it seems to me someone being paid in their capacity as a degree candidate should be considered a student. The payment that the university extends to it’s graduate students for their work is more akin to the financial aid of an undergraduate being paid in work study than it is to a teacher in secondary education.
To insist that GESO members are not “employees and not students” is to take down a straw man argument – GESO members have never contended not to be students. What they are is employees and students. The receipt of educational certification from an employer doesn’t make them as singular a phenomenon as Errol seems to suggest. Apprentices organized some of the first unions in this country so as to better secure the conditions and compensation they deserved for the significant work they were doing while training under their employers. Stipends and benefits for graduate student teaching assistants and researchers are not comparable (except in that both are too low…) to financial aids grants for undergraduates because, while the university’s award of financial aid is hopefully grounded in an understanding that education at the university is strengthened by the presence of a more diverse student body, undergraduates are not being compensated for the provision of a service to the school. Just ask the IRS, which recognizes the former, and not the latter, as salaries. Meanwhile, it’s Yale’s administration, not GESO, which has for the past months engaged in covert and strategic renaming, couching the teaching and research requirements for graduate employees in new language as academic requirements in anticipation of a new NRLB ruling. The fact of the matter is that graduate students are doing over 30% of the work of teaching at our august university, and that they are replacing paid faculty in doing so.
The [generalized] University’s obligation to all its students to provide an atmosphere conducive to learning is perhaps it’s highest one and that being said, it matters very much to that atmosphere if a graduate students’ family doesn’t have an affordable health care plan, or enough money to eat well balanced meals. The University should take care of these needs, and, if the best way to assure that it is in tune with the needs of its students is to recognize them as a group rather than a collection of individuals, I certainly believe that the University should do that. The University should also be perceptive to the outcries of its students that they want to be represented collectively because it’s in the best interest of both the students and families involved and the University to do so. However, that group, those families, that collectivity, are not, and shouldn’t ever be considered a union.
No organization (certainly not the Graduate Student Assembly) has acheived as much for Yale’s graduate students as GESO, whose organizing drive has won the concessions on stipend increases, childcare, international visa reform lobbying and a score of other issues which then become repackaged by Yale’s administration as further evidence of why Yale’s graduate students don’t need a union. That’s because no other type of body has demonstrated the same capacity to leverage pressure, represent constituents, and effect change. But we needn’t just look at Yale. Graduate student unions across and beyond this country have won landmark agreements with universities protecting the institutional support, resources, and freedoms whose procurement by graduate student employees, as Errol says, are vital to the health of the university for all its members. Why shouldn’t graduate employees pursue collective representation through unionization?
It doesn’t do justice to the struggles of everyday working people by calling it so, but most of all, it doesn’t represent the truth of the situation.
But it does represent the truth of the situation, which is that these unions’ members are workers with a right to organize protected by the Wagner Act and the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. They receive payment for the work they do for an employer, and unlike most undergraduates, the majority of them depend on the funds they receive from the university to support themselves and often dependants (this proportion rises as the benefits provided by the university rise, and as this proportion rises, so does the diversity of the graduate employees). The construction of a group called “everyday working people” as the proper constituents of a union, and of a distinction between that group and the workers in question – be they teachers, writers, waiters, nurses, or graduate employees – is not new, and neither is the struggle of every group of workers to demonstrate and defend their right to organize. These struggles absolutely have different contours, and different stakes. But they remain parallel struggles, and while a good number of Yale undergraduates believe that the question of whether Mary Reynolds, GESO Chair and American Studies Teaching Assistant, has the same right to a union that Bobby Proto, Local 35 President and pipefitter does, is a question of whether Mary’s is more or less oppressed than Bobby, my experience is that many fewer members of Local 35 and Local 34 (Yale’s service and maintenance and clerical and technical unions, respectively) see it that way. My experience is that many more members of Locals 34 and 35 see their stake in GESO’s right to organize as similar to Local 35’s stake in Local 34’s right to organize back in 1984, when conventional wisdom was that “pink collar unions” were a contradiction in terms which would destroy the collegiality and intellectual vigor of the university. What doesn’t do justice to their struggle for the right to organize is not GESO’s campaign for the same right, but rather Yale’s campaign, with the unfortunate assistance of the Bush administration and the NLRB, to deny it.
In a shameful, if unsurprising, assault on the right of all workers to organize, the Bush National Labor Relations Board overturns the historic and unanimous NYU decision recognizing graduate students’ right to organize with a 3-2 decision buying into the Levin-Simmons-Bollinger-Rodin line that graduate students employees, whose low-wage work makes the university function, are not employees with workers’ rights. This is of course, what they used to say about public employees, about teachers, and about all workers before that. None of which stopped those workers from courageously organizing anymore than this decision will be able to halt the national movement for graduate student unionization. As the dissenting judges wrote:
…the majority’s reasons, at bottom, amount to the claim that graduate student collective bargaining is simply incompatible with the nature and mission of the university. This revelation will surely come as a surprise on many campuses -not least at New York University, a first rate institution where graduate students now work under a collective bargaining agreement reached in the wake of the decision that is overruled here…Today’s decision is woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality.
Shame on the Bush administration for another callous and backwards slap in the face of all workers, and shame on the Yale administration for its years of lobbying for this result.