News & Commentary

February 5, 2023

Kevin Vazquez

Kevin Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

On Friday night, Disney World workers in Orlando overwhelmingly rejected Disney’s latest offer for a five-year contract. Unions that represent the 32,000 workers—ride operators, performers, restaurant and retail employees, bus drivers, and custodians—announced that 96 percent of the workers who cast votes voted against Disney’s contract offer. The previous three-year contract expired in October, and, since then, the Disney World employees have been working under an extension that prohibits them from striking. The company’s offer would have raised pay for the workers by at least $1/hour every year, bringing most workers up to at least $20/hour by 2026. It also included various fringe benefits, including an additional 401(k) plan and eight weeks of paid family leave. Nonetheless, the unions are demanding an immediate $3/hour raise, in addition to $1/hour more every year, which they say is necessary to address the increasing cost of living in the Orlando area. (For reference, Bob Chapek, Disney’s former Chief Executive, received a $20 million severance package after his termination last year, and Disney Parks generated nearly $8 billion in operating profit.) Disney and the unions will now return to the bargaining table.

A guest essay published today in the New York Times by Eric Reinhart, a physician at Northwestern University, argues that American doctors are increasingly suffering from a condition similar to “demoralization syndrome,” except that their “demoralization,” he argues, is a reaction to “the diseased systems for which [they] work.” He notes that the U.S. is alone among high-income nations in failing to provide universal healthcare for its citizens and instead maintains a for-profit healthcare system, which leads to tens of thousands of preventable deaths every year. The consequences of this, of course, were only magnified during the Covid-19 pandemic—one study estimates that at least 338,000 Covid deaths in the United States could have been prevented by universal health care. Reinhart claims that the devastation wrought by this inhumane system has disillusioned many doctors, who have been leaving the profession in droves and causing a chronic physician shortage. This, he says, is “a symptom of deeper collapse”: underinvestment in public health systems, uneven distribution of medical infrastructure, inequities in healthcare available to the rich and the poor, deliberately understaffed and profiteering hospitals saddling patients with debt, and so on. Reinhart calls for numerous reforms to health policy, including, most interestingly, that doctors continue to unionize: “If we can build an organizing network through doctors’ unions, then proposals to demand universal health care through use of collective civil disobedience via physicians’ control over health care documentation and billing, for example, could move from visions to genuinely actionable plans.”

The NLRB ruled last week, 3-2, that nearly 90 employees at a Nissan assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee may vote on whether to unionize, as the Associated Press reported over the weekend. The employees are the plant’s tool and die technicians—although they comprise only a small portion of the factory’s thousands of workers, the Board found that they constitute an appropriate craft unit, thereby permitting a union election within the unit to proceed. The ruling overturned a 2021 decision by Region 10 that the tool and die technicians were an inappropriate unit because of the community of interest they share with other employees in the plant. AP explains that the ruling “offers a dash of hope for unions in their struggle to get a foothold in foreign-owned assembly plants in the traditionally anti-union South.” In recent years there have been union elections at two of Nissan’s other Southern factories—another one in Smyrna and two in Chattanooga—all three of which the union lost. Perhaps the Board’s authorization of a much smaller unit in Smyrna may lead to a different result this time around.

A Politico piece published on Friday underscores that college workers across the country—both graduate and undergraduate students and faculty—are “moving with new urgency to organize.” Students at USC, Northwestern, Yale, and John Hopkins, among others, moved to organize last year. Then, in November, a historic six-week strike among 48,000 campus workers at the University of California really kicked things off, and there has been a surge in labor activity among students and faculty in the months since—even in Southeastern states, such as Tennessee, Arizona, and Mississippi, where labor organizing has proven exceptionally difficult and union density is abysmal. Campus workers are frustrated with low wages, long hours, poor benefits, lack of job security, and limitations on subjects they may teach. Many campus organizers feared that Trump’s NLRB would overturn Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90 (2016), an Obama Board decision that itself overturned a 2004 Bush Board decision and affirmed the rights of graduate student workers to unionize under the NLRA. In part because of the Biden administration’s pro-union bent, however, campus organizing efforts have been reinvigorated. Boston University graduate student workers, for example, abandoned a unionization drive during the Trump administration but, buoyed by a Democratic Board majority under Biden, reinitiated the organizing drive last fall. The intensity and militancy of campus workers’ unionization efforts is a further testament to the tenancy of the revived twenty-first labor movement, and—along with fast-food and retail workers—could become an important counterweight to the continued decline in union membership rates.

On Friday, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that “[b]ig changes that favor labor unions could be coming soon to large municipal construction projects built by the city of San Diego,” as city officials, led by Mayor Todd Gloria, are planning to enter into a city-wide labor agreement with local unions that would apply on a uniform basis to all of the city’s construction projects. San Diego government officials have reportedly begun the process of developing a framework PLA, which is slated to be presented to the San Diego city council either this month or next. The city appears to be moving quickly to take advantage of a pro-labor ballot referendum approved by San Diego voters last November, by a margin of more than 15 percentage points, which rescinded a ban on PLAs that had existed in the city’s municipal code for a decade. 

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