News & Commentary

June 15, 2022

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

The 29th Constitutional Convention of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of labor unions in the country, kicked off on Sunday in Philadelphia and wraps up later today. The quadrennial convention presents a democratic forum in which delegates representing the AFL-CIO’s dozens of affiliated unions throughout the country, as well as the more than 13 million workers those unions represent, gather to elect the Federation’s leadership, enact constitutional amendments, and adopt resolutions to guide the future of the labor movement.

President Biden took the stage in Philly yesterday morning to deliver remarks to the Convention crowd. During his speech, Biden recognized that “without unions, there would be no middle class” and promised to continue to “be the most pro-union president in history,” “for as long as [he has] this job.” Biden expressly criticized the billionaire class, called on Congress to pass the PRO Act, and insisted that he has “never been more optimistic about America than [he is] today”—“we’re not going back to the false promises of trickle-down economics,” according to the President, but instead “we’re going forward” and “unions are going to play a critical role in that future.” Other notable outside speakers at the Convention included Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia Stacey Abrams and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

At the Convention on Sunday, Liz Shuler, who had been serving as acting president after former president Richard Trumka’s sudden death last summer, was elected president of the Federation, becoming the first woman elected to the highest role in the country’s largest labor organization, and Fred Redmond was elected to continue to serve as the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, the first African American to hold the second-highest office in the Federation.  Upon announcement of the election results, president-elect Shuler proclaimed in a moving speech that the labor movement is “the single most powerful and hopeful movement for progress in this country” and, recognizing that “this is a defining moment for our movement” because “the wealthy have concentrated power and profit away from working people” and “upward mobility . . . has been reversed,” asserted that “we are on the brink of something big” as “working people are rising” and “people are turning to unions as a solution to their problems.” Additionally, president-elect Shuler announced, from the Convention stage, the launch of the Center for Transformational Organizing—the CTO—to “develop, implement, and scale powerful campaigns for unprecedented union growth,” and expressly committed the CTO, and the broader Federation, to the goal of organizing one million working people in the next decade.  

Although both the American President and the Federation president struck an optimistic and inspired note, some leftist voices received the AFL-CIO’s freshly unveiled strategy to revitalize the labor movement with a degree of cynicism. Hamilton Nolan, for example, provided a cold dose of reality in In These Times, writing that organizing one million new workers over the next decade would, statistically speaking, not be enough to reverse organized labor’s steady decline toward single-digit union density. Nolan conceded that “it is good that [the AFL-CIO] are trying, at long last, to feature new organizing as a high-profile priority,” but stated bluntly that “the goal sucks” and instead encouraged labor leaders “to be thinking in terms of doubling union density,” which would, according to Nolan “bring us back to where we were in 1980, before Reaganism started eating us all alive.” “It is a problem,” Nolan concluded, “that the leadership of the AFL-CIO only believes that it can get its member unions to agree to a target of 1 million new workers in a decade.”

Although it appears incontrovertible that reversing the relentless decline of organized labor, and the accompanying rise in economic inequality and erosion of American democracy, will require massive new organizing efforts, perhaps Nolan’s criticism of the AFL-CIO’s organizing goal in particular is somewhat misplaced—at a press gaggle event, president-elect Shuler noted that “the federation has never been seen as the place that does the organizing; it’s the unions themselves.”

In Amazon Labor Union (ALU) news, a post-election administrative hearing before a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing officer began on Monday and is set to continue throughout the week to consider the various objections that Amazon filed in the wake of the ALU’s stunning victory in April, in the matter 29-RC-288020. The e-commerce conglomerate, in a last-ditch effort to overturn the election results, filed more than two dozen objections a week after the ALU’s victory accusing both the ALU and NLRB Region 29, the Region that managed the election, of improper conduct during the election.

More specifically, Amazon’s lawyers accused ALU leaders and organizers of, inter alia, intimidating employees; perpetuating lies about the company; engaging in electioneering in the polling place; and distributing marijuana among the workforce in exchange for support, and accused Region 29 agents of generally “act[ing] throughout this proceeding in a manner that unfairly or inappropriately facilitated the ALU’s victory,” conduct which, according to the attorneys from Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP representing Amazon, “destroyed the laboratory conditions necessary for a free and fair election.” On the first day of the hearing, the Hearing Officer deferred ruling on ALU’s motion to dismiss many of Amazon’s objections, requiring the company to first provide an offer of proof, thereby setting the stage for a lengthy and contentious proceeding that will likely continue throughout this month. The hearing is being conducted remotely from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST for at least the rest of the week and is available for public viewing—the link can be accessed here.  

On the East Coast, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the highest court in the Commonwealth, yesterday unanimously blocked a high-profile and controversial statewide ballot initiative bankrolled by tech giants, most notably Uber and Lyft (including the largest one-time political contribution in state history), that would have classified app-based drivers and deliverers as independent contractors rather than employees, thus excluding hundreds of thousands of such workers in the state from the panoply of workplace rights, protections, and benefits conferred by labor and employment statutes—in a nutshell, the ballot initiative represented the Massachusetts version of Proposition 22.

The initiative was slated to appear on this fall’s statewide ballot until the SJC, in response to a complaint filed in January by a coalition of labor advocates in the state, ruled that “the petitions contain at least two substantively distinct policy decisions,” thus violating Article 48, § 3 of the Massachusetts Constitution, which provides that an initiative petition must contain “only subjects . . . which are related or which are mutually dependent.” According to the SJC, the initiative “encompass[ed] at least two distinct public policy decisions”: (1) classifying gig drivers as independent contractors; and (2) narrowing the tort liability of tech companies to third parties injured by drivers’ misconduct or negligence. “When even lawyers and judges cannot be sure of the meaning of the contested provisions,” concluded Justice Kafker of the SJC, “it would be unfaithful to art. 48’s design to allow the petition to be presented to the voters, with all the attendant risks that voters will be confused and misled.”

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