News & Commentary

August 4, 2023

Greg Volynsky

Greg Volynsky is a student at Harvard Law School.

In Today’s News & Commentary, more journalists and labor veterans weigh in on the current state of the labor movement, Google and Accenture accused of illegally terminating contract employees in the process of unionizing, Amazon warehouse workers rally for better wages in the wake of Teamsters’ agreement with UPS, and ProPublica reports how Wisconsin makes it difficult for workers critical to the state’s dairy industry to live and work.

The Washington Post reports that 2023 has been among the busiest year for strikes in three decades. The strike of Hollywood writers and actors has been the most visible, but baristas, housekeepers, graduate students, among many others, have contributed to the growing numbers. As I covered two weeks ago, Bloomberg has similarly reported that this summer is poised to produce an “avalanche of union activity not seen in the US in decades.” 

There is a paradox at the core of current American labor relations. Workers are striking, and more of the public supports unions than at any time since 1965. One veteran of the labor movement, Dave Kamper, penned an article on Monday explaining why, “for the first time in my 27 years in the labor movement, so help me, I think I’m an optimist.” The immediate impetus for Kamper’s optimism was Teamster’s tentative agreement with UPS, which Michelle described last Thursday. The agreement “represents a real, substantive, sustainable improvement in the working conditions of 340,000 UPS workers. UPS put $30 billion in new money on the table. This may very well be the best and most important contract win of the 21st century.” Kamper attributes the success to a tight labor market, Bidenomics (or Abruzzonomics), and a labor movement that is “united, aggressive, and ambitious.” 

And yet, union membership dropped to a record low in 2022, with the private-sector union rate four times lower than it was in 1973. While strikes were up 52% in 2022, strike activity is nevertheless considerably lower than in previous eras. The disparity between union support and success has one main reason: legal design.

Google and Accenture have been accused by the Alphabet Workers Union of illegally terminating a majority of contract employees who were in the process of unionizing. Among other things, these workers helped improve Google’s AI chatbot by providing feedback. The complaint, filed Thursday, asserts that over 70% of a proposed bargaining unit comprising 118 writers, designers, and launch coordinators were informed in July that they would lose their jobs. The union maintains that Alphabet should be considered a “joint employer” of these Accenture staff, arguing that Alphabet shares responsibility for their treatment. Google disputes joint-employer status, stating, “Google does not control their employment terms or working conditions.” 

Amazon warehouse workers are rallying for better wages in the wake of Teamsters’ agreement with UPS. Teamsters’ tentative agreement could see new wages as high as $24.75 per hour, Amazon employees have started to question their own earnings, which can max out around $20.90 after three years. 

ProPublica reported on Thursday that, while Central Wisconsin’s dairy industry heavily relies on a predominantly undocumented workforce, state laws prevent these estimated 70,000 undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses—making it difficult for the workers to live. If they drive without a license, the workers can face hefty fines, and in some instances jail time or deportation. Yet there are few alternatives to driving: in many areas there are no buses or taxis. ProPublica found that “roughly half of the 16,000 circuit court convictions for driving without a valid license involved Hispanic drivers,” despite Hispanic residents being less than 8% of the population. The catch-22—needing to work for a living, but being deprived of that living if caught on the way to work—was captured by a dairy worker from Mexico: “I’ve been pulled over probably 15 times . . . They recognize me immediately and call me by name, saying, ‘I told you not to drive.’ But I have to drive to get to work.”

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