News & Commentary

September 8, 2021

Jason Vazquez

Jason Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

As the corporate-funded effort to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom heads into its final stretch (the election date, September 14, is now less than one week away), CNN reports that Newsom has increasingly relied on labor unions and union workers to propel his campaign in its waning days. Local chapters of CTA, SEIU, AFSCME, IBEW, and other major unions have spent $14 million to fight the “anti-worker” and “anti-union” recall effort, and in Los Angeles County alone, the AFL-CIO has contributed more than $2 million to protect Newsom and made hundreds of thousands of phone calls. “This is not an attack on the governor only,” insists Gloria Alvarado, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, who spoke at an event with Newsom on Sunday, “this is an attack on the house of labor.”

In 2018, Newsom rode a wave of support from organized labor into the governorship, but he took some blistering heat from major unions early in his tenure. Indeed, though in recent months Newsom has presented himself as an unabashed ally of the working man — “I just want to, from the bottom of my heart, say thank you to all working folks here in the state of California…you had our backs, and I want you to know, I will have your back,” he promised at a recent campaign event — he has adopted a host of more moderate positions during his two and a half years inhabiting the California Governor’s Mansion, including backtracking on single-payer healthcare and vetoing a number of bills championed by unions in the state. Nonetheless, the Golden State’s labor unions have hailed Newsom’s pro-worker leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his compassion for working people infinitely surpasses that of his foremost opponent, Trump-loving and vaccine-skeptical right-wing radio host Larry Elder, who believes that the minimum wage shouldn’t exist, has dismissed the notion that “unions are for workers” as a “myth,” and has stated that the “so-called racial wealth gap” could be closed if black children had somebody “who tells [them] to go to bed on time.” If Newsom survives the recall and maintains his role as chief executive of the country’s largest state, one can only hope that he won’t be quick to forget the hundreds of union leaders who organized, rallied, canvassed, and spoke for him, and, most fundamentally, the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of union workers who voted for him.

In a Labor Day interview with New York Magazine, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh discussed the priorities for his Department of Labor and affirmed his commitment to workers, unions, and collective bargaining. “As Secretary of Labor,” Walsh declared, “my priorities are focused on bolstering worker power…ensuring that all workers have fair pay, health care, and unemployment benefits.” Walsh explained that the previous administration, under which the Department of Labor was headed by anti-worker corporate lawyer Eugene Scalia, “left millions of workers worse off,” but over the last nine months, Walsh’s department has, according to him, “already begun the work of overturning regulations and implementing a pro-worker agenda,” including the issuance of 18 final rules, both rescinding prior regulations and implementing new ones, “to improve the health, safety, and economic security of workers,” and recovering hundreds of millions of dollars in back wages. Additionally, Walsh reiterated that “President Biden has been unequivocal in his support for labor unions and collective bargaining,” highlighting that the President asked Walsh to serve as vice-chair of his newly-created Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment — dedicated to “mobilizing the federal government’s policies, programs, practices to empower workers to organize and successfully bargain with their employers” — the first time in U.S. history that the president has directed his Cabinet to promote labor organizing.

There is no doubt that Secretary Walsh and President Biden espouse an impressive degree of commitment to the labor movement, and, to be sure, the Biden Administration has taken several executive actions designed to empower working people, including firing Trump-appointed pro-management NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb and placing two union-side lawyers on the Board, naming a former union organizer to the federal bench, and issuing nearly a dozen pro-worker executive orders. But for President Biden to have a truly transformative impact on the deteriorating state of American labor, the Democrats in Congress must find a way to pass both his $3.5 trillion budget resolution and the PRO Act, which Biden, for his part, has expressly encouraged.

Speaking of Congressional Democrats and their ‘big, boldbudget blueprint, which would radically expand the nation’s social safety net and reduce economic inequality, conservative Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced last Thursday in a Wall-Street Journal opinion piece that he “won’t support a $3.5 trillion bill, or anywhere near that level of additional spending, without greater clarity about why Congress chooses to ignore the serious effects inflation and debt have on existing government programs,” calling for his fellow Democratic lawmakers to “hit a strategic pause” on the legislation. In the piece, Manchin articulated his concerns about the growing national debt and rising inflation; Manchin writes that trillions of dollars in new federal spending — “the largest single spending bill in history” — might “overheat” the economy and “impose a costly inflation tax” on the working class.

Even if one were to accept the premise that trillions of dollars in additional federal spending might trigger an inflationary spiral, a proposition that many smart people reject, Manchin seems to ignore the fact that the budget plan, as written, will not add $3.5 trillion to the national debt. In fact, Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly affirmed that they will pay for the entire bill through tax hikes on the rich, and, in any event, the blueprint that the Senate already passed would only allow them to add about half of the overall cost of the budget package to the national debt. Ultimately, Manchin’s antics seems to be nothing more than a strategic ploy, part of an ongoing tug-of-war with progressive members of Congress to secure the centrist wing of the Democratic Party that he represents some influence over congressional Democrats’ major legislative initiatives. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klein called Manchin “very persuadable” and likely to vote for the legislation, and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said that Manchin has “many times” been willing to “get to the right place.” On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) rebuffed Manchin’s request for a strategic pause, insisting that “we’re on a good timetable,” and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who has spent the last week on a tour of the Midwest promoting the budget bill, seemed unbothered by Manchin’s demands, telling the New York Times over the weekend that “you can’t slow it down,” vowing that “we are going to pass the most comprehensive bill for working families that this country has seen…I think we are going to get a $3.5 trillion bill.”

Returning for a moment to the National Labor Relations Board, a POLITICO article on Tuesday explains that in the coming months, the new Democratic majority on the Board is “poised to carry out sweeping policy changes” that could “dramatically shift the balance of power toward workers and away from employers,” including, most notably, increasing the number of workers who qualify as employees instead of independent contractors, expanding the scope of protected concerted activity, and punishing businesses that interfere with union elections. As mentioned above, President Biden acted immediately to reshape the NLRB, so far installing a Democratic chair, general counsel, and two additional Board members, all of whom are former union lawyers. POLITICO explains that the Board’s expected rulings could “serve as a backdoor for enacting provisions included in [the PRO Act],” though, as Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) noted to POLITICO, the NLRB’s rulings can be undone by the next Republican majority and are “no substitute for legislative change.”

As Alabama suffers another deadly surge of the coronavirus and the state’s ICUs are experiencing a shortage of beds, nearly two dozen emergency room night-shift nurses at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital refused to work on Labor Day, protesting low wages and difficult working conditions. One nurse told reporters that “we are extremely overwhelmed…we want to be equally compensated and treated correctly while we save all the lives that we do.” Lindsey Harris, president of the Alabama State Nurses Association, claimed that nurses in Alabama make on average nearly 10 percent less than those in neighboring states, and stated that the protest was “definitely a cry for help” and for “equal pay.” Alabama, which has the second-worst vaccination rate in the country, saw a record number of COVID-19 cases in August, and every day dozens of the state’s residents perish from the virus, virtually all of them unvaccinated. The average annual registered nurse’s salary in the state is around $65,000.

In local news, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will join grocery workers, digital workers, and union members in Allston, Massachusetts today, September 8, to demand that major tech conglomerates, most notably Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, abandon their recently-filed $100 million ballot initiative to define their rideshare drivers as independent contractors under MA law rather than employees, thereby undermining their legal protections and exposing them to enhanced exploitation and abuse. The rally was organized by the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights, a new organization self-described as a “broad alliance of workers, civil rights, immigrant, faith, labor, community organizing, racial and environmental justice groups who believe that all workers in Massachusetts should be able to earn a decent wage, take care of their health, and protect against harassment and discrimination on the job.” The exorbitant ballot initiative, bankrolled by the gig industry, is essentially a copy of California’s Proposition 22, which was recently held unconstitutional in that state. At today’s event, Warren will reportedly endorse the movement and demand that the CEOs of these BigTech companies withdraw the measure, which was approved as constitutionally permissible by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey just last week, before it appears before the state’s voters next fall. For any reader who is local and wishes to participate, the rally is slated for 10 AM at the Stop and Shop on Everett Street in Allston.

In birthday news, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) turns 80 today. Senator Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, is, as noted above, the current chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and a former Mayor of Burlington. Sanders’ loud demands for a “political revolution” during his two momentous campaigns for the presidency, one in 2016 and the other in 2020, transformed the American political landscape, attracting massive crowds, enthusing and galvanizing millions of young people, raising enormous sums from millions of small donors, and spreading a progressive economic message throughout the entire country. Senator Sanders, a self-described ‘democratic socialist,’ has been a lifelong crusader against income and wealth inequality, corporate greed, “unfettered capitalism” and the “enormous wealth and power” of the “billionaire class.” Sanders has been the most popular senator in the country for years, and his relentlessly consistent left-wing message calling for a massive downward transfer of wealth has won broad support even among registered Independents and Republicans and in rural and conservative areas of the country. In 2010, nearly 70 percent of young people had a positive view of capitalism, but less than half a positive view of socialism. Today, after Bernie has enjoyed a decade under the national political spotlight, socialism is as popular as capitalism among young adults in the United States, and nearly 70 percent of Americans support a single-payer healthcare system and more than two-thirds support a $15 an hour minimum wage — two of Bernie’s signature issues.

Finally, we end the day with a dash of optimism. Axios reported on Monday that labor unions currently represent a larger percentage of U.S. based workers that at any time in the past five years, likely explained by the tsunami of pandemic-induced furloughs and discharges, which disproportionately impacted nonunion workers more than union workers, showcasing the power of labor unions to protect their members even amidst a lethal pandemic. According to Axios, 10.8 percent of all wage and salaried workers were members of unions in 2020, up half a percent from 2019 and at its highest point since 2015. Though the actual number of union workers declined in 2020 by more than 321,000, the rate of elimination of nonunion jobs was much higher, and the overall number much larger. Furthermore, new research by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative found that nonunion Latinos were seven times more likely to lose their jobs in the early months of the pandemic than unionized Latino workers. According to the report, from April to June 2020, the employment rate for nonunionized Latinos fell by more than 10 percent, while that for unionized Latinos fell by only 2.5 percent.

These fragments of data highlight the protections that labor unions furnish to marginalized workers and serve as yet another indication that though the COVID-19 pandemic has, in so many ways, been an unfathomable tragedy, the labor movement, as Kevin noted on Sunday, might have emerged in the strongest position that it has been in for decades.

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