In 2012, the best of labor was on the organizing front and the worst came in the form of law and policy.
On the law and policy front, the year saw further encroachments on labor, in the form of additional bans on collective bargaining for public sector workers and “right to work” laws. For the past few years, Republican governors in states such as Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio have been pushing anti-union legislation that limits the collective bargaining rights of most public sector employees. In late 2011, it appeared as if the tide was turning. A massive campaign to recall Governor Walker and a number of Republican state senators in Wisconsin and a public referendum in Ohio led to the overwhelming defeat of Senate Bill 5.
These, however did not prove to be signs of positive developments for labor law and policy in 2012. In Wisconsin, the Democratic candidate in the recall election, Tom Barrett, was opposed to Governor Walker, but not to his policies. Barrett had a history, as the mayor of Milwaukee, of trying to limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, and during the campaign he distanced himself from labor. Instead of a referendum on Walker’s anti-worker legislation, Wisconsin had a redo of the 2010 election, with similar results.
During the November elections, Michigan unions pushed a referendum to enshrine the right to collective bargaining in the state’s Constitution. The initiative, known as Proposal 2, would have voided existing and future laws that restricted a worker’s ability to organize a union or to negotiate or enforce collective bargaining agreements. The union rhetoric surrounding the issue was that if Proposal 2 passed it would serve as a model for the rest of the country.
Unfortunately, whether due to a poor organizing effort on the part of Michigan unions or the hesitancy of voters to tinker with the state’s Constitution (four other ballot initiatives to amend the state’s Constitution were also defeated), the loss sent a message to many conservative groups that there was an opening in the state for anti-labor legislation. In the past few weeks, a lame duck session of the Michigan legislature rammed through a “right to work” law, which was signed by the governor. Furthermore, the bill was attached to an appropriations bill, meaning that it cannot be overturned by referendum as in Ohio. Now, in a cruel irony, it is the Michigan “right to work” law, rather than Proposal 2, that may serve as a sign to other states with Republican control that if “right to work” can pass in Michigan, it can pass in other traditionally pro-labor states.
As opposed to the largely anti-labor law and policy front, the best of labor in 2012 was almost entirely on the organizing front. Perhaps one of labor’s biggest successes this year was an impressive strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, led by their new president, Karen Lewis. The teachers in Chicago had suffered years of abuse, including increased school closures; proposed longer hours with no increase in pay; lack of school resources such as books, counselors, and nurses; backtracking on a promised pay raise; an increased push for teacher evaluations based on test scores; and a new state law that required 75% of members to vote for a strike. As a result, the teachers held an impressive nine-day strike, which effectively organized parents, students, and the general public. The union engaged its members and made effective use of rallies and social media. The result was not only a 3-year contract with many of the provisions that the teachers demanded, but a strongly positive public perception of the teachers and their cause.
Similarly positive organizing efforts were seen in a renewed push to organize Wal-Mart employees, a current effort to organize Nissan workers in Mississippi, a massive organizing effort among fast food workers, and an impressive campaign by New York taxi drivers for a fair wage.
The Wal-Mart campaign is still in its infancy, but it has engaged with community groups and captured national attention in ways that previous campaigns have not. Large rallies supporting workers were held at Wal-Mart stores across the country on Black Friday, and in a sign that the company is beginning to get nervous, Wal-Mart filed unfair labor practices against unions. When the nation’s largest private employer turns to the NLRB for assistance, it means that they recognize that the movement has legs.
In Mississippi, the United Auto Workers have been mounting a campaign to organize workers at the Canton Nissan plant using a civil rights message. Organizing Japanese auto manufacturers in America has traditionally been difficult, especially in “right to work” states. This time, however, the UAW is making the argument that the right to join a union is a civil right. The union is working closely with civil rights groups in Mississippi, churches, and students in helping the workers gain a voice in the workplace.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance took impressive and important steps in 2012, as it succeeded in a long campaign for increased wages and joined the AFL-CIO. Taxi drivers are often classified as independent contractors, which excludes them from the protections of the NLRA. But the group conducted a many-year intense organizing drive at airports, restaurants, and taxi stands around the city and formed a strong labor organization. Standing together, these workers pushed the city to raise fares and allow them a living wage. Following this success, the NYTWA accepted a charter from the AFL-CIO, which was an important step in including their voices in the labor conversation.
In another impressive organizing effort in New York City, community, labor and civil rights groups held the largest wave of job actions by low wage fast food workers. This group has proven difficult to organize in the past for a variety of reasons, but the current Fast Food Forward campaign has shown impressive political and organizational strength. These efforts show growing alliances between labor, community groups, and civil rights groups that are leading to innovative organization drives that help more workers have a voice at work.
Click here for more from our Fellows: Best and Worst Policy of 2012.