News & Commentary

March 20, 2022

Kevin Vazquez

Kevin Vazquez is a student at Harvard Law School.

This weekend, legislative kerfuffle over the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) – which Jason described for OnLabor earlier this month – continued. Last year, the USPS awarded Oshkosh Defense (a subsidiary of Oshkosh Corporation, a public conglomerate traded on the New York Stock exchange) a 10-year contract to produce a new fleet of delivery vehicles, which was the agency’s first large-scale procurement of new vehicles in nearly 30 years. The contract calls for up to 165,000 vehicles to be produced over the next decade, 90% of which will be gasoline-powered trucks – a decision that has not been without its own share of contention. On Friday, a group of Congressmen, led by Carolyn Maloney, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, asked Oshkosh if its decision to build the next generation of USPS delivery vehicles in South Carolina was intended to avoid using union workers in the Midwest. Maloney, along with three other Congressmen, requested documents from Oshkosh explicating its decision to produce the vehicles in the largely non-union South rather than in more union-dense Wisconsin (and also explaining its capacity to produce electric vehicles and how quickly it could do so). The UAW and congressional Democrats have criticized Oshkosh’s decision to manufacture the fleet in South Carolina, but Oshkosh maintains that the chosen location “would best meet the needs of this important program” and that hiring and facility preparations are already underway. The lawmakers have given Oshkosh until April 1 to produce the documents.

Also on Friday, Democrats in the House passed a bill, the CROWN Act, that would prohibit hair discrimination in employment, public accommodations, housing, and other venues, barring adverse action taken on the basis of locs, braids, Bantu knots, or numerous other hairstyles. The bill was supported by all House Democrats, and all 189 “nays” came from Republicans, some of whom were critical of the bill, calling it “unnecessary and duplicative” and a waste of time in light of modern federal court decisions. In reality, federal courts are split on the issue, and the bill moves the nation closer to a legal regime in which race discrimination may not be based exclusively on the bare color of a person’s skin or other immutable morphological features – a change for which many legal scholars have advocated for years. The bill’s prospects, however, thus far seem bleak in the Senate: Sen. Cory Booker introduced a companion bill in the upper chamber, but it currently has no Republican backers.

In other Friday news, the NLRB set a date for a union election at a second Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, known as LDJ5. The vote, which will be in person, will start on April 25 and last through the week, and votes will be tallied beginning May 2. Workers will vote to certify the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) as their exclusive collective bargaining representative. The union filed a petition to hold the election on February 4, and it was approved by the NLRB later that month. There are now three union campaigns unfolding in Amazon warehouses: two in Staten Island and the Bessemer, Alabama rerun. For a more detailed explanation of the current state of labor organizing affairs at Amazon, see OnLabor’s coverage from last month.

A Seattle Times opinion piece, Americans Rediscover Labor Unions, written by two University of Washington professors and published on Friday, surveys the contemporary landscape of organized labor in the U.S. and concludes that “unions are growing in size, in power, and in importance,” citing the recent examples of high-profile labor action at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, John Deere, tech firms and media organizations, and universities. It labeled this “union resurgence” a “positive development for American workers,” who, it highlights, had been by assailed by decades of deteriorating working conditions even before the pandemic – with all its deleterious downstream consequences – emerged. The article explores the ways in which corporate management tactics have disrupted and destroyed both already existing unions and new attempts at worker organizing – dividing employees, firing activists, and other “top-down” management strategies. The piece highlights the obvious reasons unionization is an increasingly attractive prospect for an increasingly marginalized and precarious workforce, such as the union premium (wages that are on average 20% higher) and the job protection offered to the most vulnerable, like women and people of color, who are usually the first to suffer from any adverse workplace decisions or macroeconomic developments. Despite these truths, however, union membership rates continued to decline in 2021, suggesting that even successful high-profile organizing efforts and visible labor actions are, while valuable, alone insufficient to revive the flagging labor movement.

Finally, looking ahead to the rest of the week, Pres. Biden’s Supreme Court nominee to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, will begin her confirmation hearings with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. Although her eventual confirmation appears to be likely – particularly considering that the conservative Supreme Court supermajority will remain deeply entrenched even if she is confirmed – the process may nonetheless be rockier and more dramatic than predicted. Ultimately, however, most are anticipating a less contentious nomination fight than has been the norm in recent years. Unions and other worker organizations have supported Judge Jackson’s nomination, and Jason surveyed her labor and employment decisions, which have generally been pro-worker, for OnLabor last month.

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