News & Commentary

June 2, 2021

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court, in the case of Missouri National Education Association v. Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, invalidated House Bill 1413, a Missouri state law signed by former-Governor Eric Greitens (R) in 2018. The law, which had, according to the AFL-CIO, been promoted in the state by “extremist legislators and their corporate backers,” was one strand of the broad attacks launched by right-wing legislators against workers and unions throughout the Midwest, and across the country, in the last couple of decades, and it imposed major restrictions on public sector unions. First, HB 1413 stipulated that a union must receive a majority of votes from all eligible workers in the shop in order to win certification, which effectively counted any worker who didn’t vote at all as casting a vote against the union. Second, in stark contrast to the recommendations of the Clean Slate for Worker Power, HB 1413 limited the range of terms subject to collective bargaining, prohibiting public sector unions from negotiating over hiring, promotion, discipline, discharge, or amending and rescinding workplace rules and procedures. Finally, union dues could no longer be automatically deducted from a member’s paycheck under HB 1413, unless the employer had received written consent from the employee, which had to be reaffirmed annually. This provision, dubbed “paycheck deception,” was designed to financially cripple unions and to reduce their influence both in the workplace and in the political arena. Indeed, Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones expressly declared paycheck deception “a way to get to the ultimate goal of right to work,” which Missouri voters had rejected in a ballot initiative the same year that HB 1413 was rammed through the legislature. HB 1413 contained a last-minute exception for police and other “public safety” labor organizations, which the Missouri Supreme Court, composed of four liberals and three conservatives, relied on to find, sitting en banc, a violation of the equal protection clause of Missouri’s Constitution. The 5-2 decision was heralded by the Missouri AFL-CIO as “a huge win for workers.”

A new report released on Tuesday by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a democratic coalition of SEIU, IBT, CWA, and UFW, reveals that Amazon warehouse workers are injured at nearly double the rate of laborers in other warehouses. According to the study, from 2017 to 2020 there were 5.9 serious injuries — defined as those that force an employee to miss work — for every 100 Amazon warehouse workers, which is 80% higher than the injury rate at non-Amazon warehouses. For the year of 2020, Amazon’s injury rate rose to 6.5 per 100 workers, more than twice that of Walmart in the same year. Eric Frumin, the SOC’s health and safety director, declared that the injury rate reflected “a stunning degree of incompetence.” Union representatives have attributed the high rate of injuries to the demanding efficiency targets and intense productivity pressures imposed on the more than one million workers toiling in Amazon’s fulfillment centers. SOC’s report was published on the same day that leaked pamphlets showed Amazon referring to its laborers as “industrial athletes” and imploring them to “prepare their bodies to be able to perform their best at work” by taking such steps as monitoring their urine color and buying shoes that “allow for plenty of room” to anticipate when their feet “swell during work” because of walking “up to 13 miles a day.” The sprawling e-commerce empire, dubbed by some the harbinger of a dystopic neo-feudalism, has a welldocumented history of worker abuse, and CEO Jeff Bezos recently admitted in his final letter to shareholders that the company must “do a better job for [its] employees.” In recent years and months, Amazon has continued to expand at an astounding pace. The highly publicized unionization drive in Bessemer may have been unsuccessful, but the appalling and dangerous working conditions highlighted by SOC’s study will likely continue to spawn worker resistance.

More than 1,000 coalminers, represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), continue to strike in Brookwood, Alabama against Warrior Met Coal, the major coal producer owned by powerful Wall Street financial institutions that took control of the mine after previous-owner Walter Energy declared bankruptcy in 2016. The workers launched the strike in April, as many of them struggled to afford basic necessities while working more than 70 hours a week, though Warrior has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, even hitting record highs, since the takeover. In the words of Rily Hughett, a coalminer who has worked in the mine for 13 years, the striking workers “only want a fair wage and good insurance for our families, but while they make hundreds of millions of dollars, they should show a little respect for the men and women that brought this company from bankruptcy to a thriving company.” The strike, which has galvanized a surge of support across the region, is the latest episode in a growing wave of labor activity in the South, an area that has traditionally been hostile to labor rights.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) published a survey on Tuesday finding that American companies “continue to struggle to meet increasing levels of demand,” because of shortages of raw materials and labor, which has, according to the survey, limited manufacturing’s growth potential. In recent months, as the pandemic has abated and the economy has reopened, consumer demand has surged, but supply bottlenecks and labor shortages continue to constrain manufacturing capacity. The survey reports that an “overwhelming majority” of companies are attempting to hire employees, but more than half of them have struggled to do so. As manufacturers find themselves unable to satisfy the demand for goods by millions of Americans emerging from months of lockdown, perhaps it’s an appropriate moment to question the impacts of unlimited manufacturing and economic growth. Perpetually increasing production and consumption has had, and will have, truly devastating effects on the planet and on human civilization.

Out west, a slate of major labor unions in the state of California announced their support for Governor Gavin Newsom (D) in the recall election that he’s likely to face later this year. The California Labor Federation, composed of major unions that represent more than 2 million workers in the manufacturing, retail, grocery, hospitality, and healthcare industries, endorsed Newsom on the steps of the state capitol building on Tuesday. “It makes no sense to attack the one person who gets up every day with the intent of keeping the state safe and moving forward,” explained the president of one of the Labor Federation’s member unions. But California’s labor leaders have not uniformly backed the incumbent Governor. Last week, Richard Louis Brown, the president-elect of the largest union of public employees in the state, SEIU Local 1000, notably refused to support Newsom in the potential recall, angry that the Governor had imposed wage cuts on state government workers last year to shore up the pandemic-induced budget deficit, which Newsom has since promised to restore. Bob Schoonover, however, the president of the umbrella organization SEIU California, joined the California Labor Federation in expressing his firm opposition to the “destructive, costly and distracting recall.”

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