Public Unions vs. the Public Good

“Derek Chauvin, the policeman who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, had a history of citizen complaints and was thought to be “tightly wound,” not a trait ideal for someone patrolling the streets with a deadly weapon. But under the police union’s collective bargaining agreement, the police commissioner lacked the authority to dismiss Chauvin, or even reassign him. The lack of supervisory authority resulted in harms that continue to reverberate in American society.”

The Supreme Court hears a case this week that endangers workers’ ability to strike

“The Teamsters, the union in this case, allegedly timed a 2017 strike so that it would begin after some of Glacier Northwest’s mixing trucks were already filled with concrete, forcing the company’s non-union employees to race to dispose of this material before it hardened in the trucks. But the company was able to remove this wet concrete from the trucks before they were damaged, and there are a wealth of cases establishing that workers may strike even if doing so will cause some of their employer’s product to spoil.
In one case, for example, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — a kind of quasi-court that hears disputes between unions and employers — sided with milk truck drivers who struck, even though their strike risked spoiling the milk before it was delivered to customers. Another case, handed down by a federal appeals court, reached a similar conclusion regarding striking cheese workers.

That said, there are also some cases establishing that workers may not walk off the job at a time that could result in truly egregious damage to their employer’s business. In one such case, for example, a federal appeals court ruled that foundry workers who work with molten lead could not abruptly walk off the job and leave the lead in a state where it could melt the employer’s facilities or injure other workers.

In any event, the Supreme Court’s decision in San Diego Trades Council v. Garmon (1959) lays out the process that employers must use if they believe their workers timed a strike so recklessly that the union should be held liable. In nearly all cases, the employer must first obtain a ruling from the NLRB establishing that their workers’ strike was not protected by federal law. Only then may they file a lawsuit against the union.

The employer in Glacier Northwest, however, wants the Supreme Court to water down Garmon considerably, potentially enough to render that decision toothless.

If that happens, it would be a tremendous blow to workers. One important reason the Garmon process exists is that it shields unions from lawsuits that could drain their finances and discourage workers from exercising their right to strike — after all, that right means very little if well-moneyed employers can bombard unions with lawsuits the union cannot afford to litigate.”

Americans Generally Support Unions — And Averting A Rail Strike

“For most of the time since the 1930s, a majority of Americans have favored labor unions, but support began to decline in the 1960s, dropping from 71 percent in 1965 to 55 percent by 1979. After a slight increase, Americans’ support of unions hit a low of 48 percent in 2009. The share of private-sector workers in unions also declined steadily since the 1980s. This was caused by a multitude of political and economic factors — industrial deregulation, the rise of anti-union politicians, increasing globalization — but American workplaces also fundamentally changed. Employment opportunities moved from traditionally organized workplaces, like factories, into a service industry where union density was already lower. Many workers unionizing today are making coffee instead of cars, and issues like high turnover and irregular worker schedules in those industries led to job instability.”

“Americans largely favor the kinds of worker protections and benefits unions fight for. In general, Americans think businesses should treat workers with respect, pay fair wages and provide health care benefits. Sixty-two percent of Americans support a $15 federal minimum wage, and three-quarters of Americans think the current federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, is too low. Americans strongly support paid family and medical leave, a sticking point in the rail-worker negotiations. While the pandemic led to more states and cities mandating paid sick leave and 79 percent of civilian workers had paid leave available to them as of March 2021, the workers least likely to have it are the lowest paid.”

Freight rail strike averted, after frenzied negotiations

“The Senate voted Thursday to avert a freight rail strike just days before crucial drinking water, food and energy shipments were set to be sidelined, after hurried talks in both chambers of Congress and a visit to the Senate from two of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet secretaries — but a bipartisan push to add paid sick leave to the deal fell short.
Ultimately the Senate voted 80-15, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voting present, to pass a bill that would impose the terms of a contract negotiated among freight railroads and most of their unions in September. Four out of the 12 unions involved had been holding out for additional paid sick days, making a strike possible as soon as Dec. 9.”

““What’s frustrating is that the railroads know that their backstop is federal government intervening in a strike,” said Tony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, one of the four unions that rejected the tentative agreement. “The railroads would have come running to the bargaining table if they knew that we would have been able to go on strike. But they were reliant on the Congress stopping our strike, and therefore they bargained in bad faith.””

‘Could have gone either way’: Railroad union deal barely survived

“Steering clear of disaster required some 20 straight hours of talks beginning Wednesday that taxed Labor Department coffee supplies, kept West Wing office lights burning through the early hours and left everyone involved bleary-eyed and largely sleepless.”

What a rail strike could mean for you (and the economy)

“Tens of thousands of freight rail workers are prepared to go on strike on Friday at 12:01 am, which could have wide-ranging effects across the economy. It’s already causing some disruptions for rail passengers, freight companies, and others.

The cause is a dispute between the freight industry and the workers who make it run.

Most of the 12 unions representing the workers have already agreed to a proposal put together by a presidential emergency board established by the White House over the summer to try to help resolve the dispute. The proposal includes a 24 percent increase in wages for workers by 2024, but many workers have complained that it fails to address leave, on-call scheduling, and poor working conditions.

The holdout unions’ position is that pay increases aren’t enough to make up for some real downsides — and dangerous aspects — of the job.

The two most powerful unions involved in the negotiations, which represent engineers and conductors, are continuing to resist the proposal, putting both sides in a deadlock. If workers do go on the strike they appear to be hurtling toward, it would be the first such strike in 30 years.”

“If a freight strike were to occur — and especially if it’s long-lasting — it could have disastrous effects across an already fragile economy still reeling from supply chain disruptions and inflation.

“Rail moves a lot of the foundational, basic goods that we don’t think about day-to-day,” said Rachel Premack, editorial director at FreightWaves, which covers supply chains. “They’ll move sand and gravel that would then be crushed into concrete for roads or for laying home foundations. Railroads move the chemicals used to purify water or to compromise fertilizer for crops, soybeans that could become food for humans or [animals] that are then food for humans. It’s a lot of early-chain-type goods.”

Many passenger trains also run on freight rails, and their service could be suspended. Amtrak has already warned of potential disruptions and canceled cross-country trains in anticipation of a strike, though so far its Northeast service will not be affected.”

“Replacing freight with other forms of transportation is not easy if workers do walk out. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Vox in an interview that one train has the freight capacity of 400 semi-trucks. “I don’t know of a shipper who just has 400 semis sitting in a garage ready to be accessed,” he said. He noted that for agriculture, the timing couldn’t be worse because of harvest season, adding more urgency for a deal.”

“Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the ability to block or end a rail strike. Since 1963, it has passed legislation more than 10 times to intervene in rail disputes.

So far, though, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to commit to doing so, while Republicans have been eager to pressure workers into agreeing to the terms set by the presidential emergency board.

If Congress were to intervene, there are a few routes lawmakers could take. They could require the unions and carriers to accept the presidential emergency board’s conditions, which included a pay increase but no acknowledgment of other demands like sick leave. They could extend the existing cooling-off period so both sides have more time to negotiate. Or they could turn the talks over to independent arbitrators who would be tasked with finding a resolution.

For now, congressional Democrats are waiting to see what might come out of the talks the Labor Department is leading between unions and railroad carriers on Wednesday before they lay out a policy response.”

Biden Celebrates $90 Billion Bailout of Private Union Pension Plans

“a $90 billion bailout of union retirement plans—one that’s completely paid for with federal borrowing.

The bailout was approved last year as part of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion emergency spending bill that was ostensibly meant to combat COVID-19 but included an impressive array of spending that had nothing to do with public health. The bailout will direct funds to more than 200 nearly insolvent multiemployer pension plans, which are established jointly by unions and the private companies that contract with them through collective bargaining agreements.”

“Millions of union workers, that is. If you’re not part of that select club, there’s no bailout coming your way—even as a sagging economy eats into private retirement savings, inflation makes every saved dollar worth less, and Social Security looms on the brink of insolvency.

Oh, and you’ll have to pay back (with interest!) the money borrowed to make this bailout (and the rest of the American Rescue Plan) possible. Sounds like a great deal, right?”

“What happened to the private multiemployer pension systems will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the slow collapse of public sector pension plans in many states. A 2018 study by the Government Accountability Office found that the Central States Pension Fund, one of the largest and most deeply indebted private multiemployer funds, would have 91 percent of the assets necessary to cover future costs if it had achieved its target annual financial return of 7.4 percent every year since 2000. Instead, the fund has earned an average of less than 5 percent annually and was on pace to run out of money by 2025. (It’s also worth noting that there are more than 1,400 multiemployer pension plans out there; most are well-managed and not at risk of insolvency.)”

“”creates perverse incentives for further mismanagement and underfunding and leaves the taxpayer holding the bag.””

“For the roughly 3 million workers enrolled in the sinking multiemployer plans, the situation may well have been dire. But it wasn’t an emergency. Congress had been bickering for years over how to deal with this problem—until the American Rescue Plan offered an opportunity for a party-line vote to approve a bailout for a constituency that reliably votes Democratic.

In that regard, this is something of a no-brainer. Biden delivered a major win to his labor union allies, put the cost on the taxpayers’ tab, and took a victory lap for doing it.”

Congrats! You formed a union. Now comes the hard part.

“while the hard-won union votes might be the most cinematic part, it’s not the end of the story. The lengthy and difficult process of negotiating a contract that benefits workers has only just begun — and its conclusion is far from certain.

To move forward, the union must write a contract with the company, the union and the company must agree on it, and then union members vote on whether they also agree. The process can take anywhere from six months to a few years — and some don’t end with a contract at all. Some 30 percent of unions don’t establish a contract within three years.

The unions representing Starbucks and Amazon workers are off to a good start because, for the most part, their goals are clear. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has said its main objectives are to raise wages to $30 an hour, give workers longer breaks, and mostly eliminate mandatory overtime. The first Starbucks Workers United union, at the Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo, New York, has been in contract negotiations since January 31; it has so far proposed “just cause” firing, better health and safety protocols, and giving customers the option to tip on credit cards. Future proposals include better wages and benefits.

The harder part, experts say, will be getting Amazon and Starbucks to agree on contracts. That’s not for lack of trying on the unions’ part. Rather, unions often face uphill battles with uncooperative companies and toothless labor laws.”