The big story this weekend comes out of Washington. The terse negotiations currently unfolding within the Democratic Party are somewhat complicated – but deeply, if indirectly, implicate unions and the labor movement – so it might be helpful to offer some guideposts at the outset.
President Biden’s domestic agenda, dubbed the “Build Back Better” plan, is a comprehensive and transformative multi-trillion effort that would revolutionize American social policy through huge – and hugely popular – investments in infrastructure, health and child care, education, housing, labor, and climate and energy, which would be funded through a varied collection of tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. To placate moderate Democrats, however, the agenda has been sliced into two distinct bills: (1) the $1.2 trillion “infrastructure” bill, which passed in the Senate last month and is considered, at least from the perspective of moderate Democrats, the more palatable of the two; and (2) the as-yet-undecided-trillion (the scope of current negotiations ranges from roughly $1.5 trillion to upwards of $3.5 trillion) dollar “budget reconciliation” bill, which is much larger and more ambitious, includes the signature long-term planks of President Biden’s plans, and – because of the Senate’s arcane rules – must be passed through the budget reconciliation process. Both bills must receive the votes of all 50 Senate Democrats, in addition to those of most House Democrats, in order to arrive at Biden’s desk. Progressive Democrats, cognizant that many moderates intend to pass the popular infrastructure bill and then reduce (or perhaps eliminate entirely) the larger budget reconciliation bill, desire to link the two together, and they are refusing to vote on the former until a realistic framework is reached regarding the latter. Moderates, predictably, want precisely the opposite: to pass the infrastructure bill first and only then, when the progressives no longer have any bargaining leverage, to begin to “negotiate” the details of the budget reconciliation bill.
This weekend, the conflict between the two factions, which had been fermenting for months, reached a tipping point. Late Friday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was unexpectedly forced to scrap a planned vote on the infrastructure bill after progressive Democrats, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, banded together and, in a move that surprised many, refused to lend it their support without first reaching agreement on the budget reconciliation bill. The moderates, led informally by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, were forced to yield to the progressives’ determination, thrusting the fate of both bills into political limbo. President Biden met with House Democrats yesterday to facilitate negotiations but, in another surprising twist, ultimately sided with the progressives, telling members of his party that an infrastructure vote must wait until the budget reconciliation bill is passed. (Although he did privately express his willingness to reduce the budget reconciliation bill’s topline to $1.5-2.2 trillion, a number far below the $3.5 trillion that he initially proposed – viewed at the time as a compromise with the $6-10 trillion range originally advanced by progressives.) Many organizations and activists have praised the principled stance taken by progressive Democrats, but some unions, including the AFT (although members have protested the decision) and AFL-CIO, have urged the House to pass the infrastructure bill, implicitly rebuking the progressives’ efforts to link the two together. Either way, unions, as explicated in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, have expended large sums of money to push through the budget reconciliation bill, which includes many long-term union priorities intended to boost organized labor (for more on this, see Maxwell’s explainer for OnLabor last month).
Outside of Washington, a recent piece in ESPN detailed the increasing interest of minor league baseball players in forming a union, although no official action to that effect has been taken as of yet. While professional athletes’ unions are well-known, powerful, and – particularly in the case of the MLBPA, the Major League Baseball Players Association – have delivered extraordinary results to their members, providing a more equal distribution of profits, greater stability and job security, and more power and respect in their workplaces, the situation among minor league players is far different. As the article explains, most minor leaguers make between $8,000 and $14,000 during the seven-month season, and some make as little as $290 per week. These poverty wages – in addition to the lack of stability or job security – leave many unable to secure housing or even decent food and have occasioned a serious mental health crisis among players. These exploitative and dehumanizing working conditions are the result of the atomization and lack of power of minor leaguers, many of whom, feeling they are on the precipice of professional success and all it would entail, are afraid to speak up and jeopardize their future careers.
It is also the result of the complex legal framework that governs the rights of minor league players. In Federal Baseball Club v. National League in 1922, the Supreme Court exempted the MLB from the Sherman Act, effectively permitting it to monopolize professional baseball. The league’s uniform player contract states that teams control the rights of players for up to seven years in both the minor and major leagues, so – because of the antitrust exemption – a player cannot play baseball professionally until his contract expires if he decides to stop playing before the seven years elapse. Free-agent rights have been collectively bargained between the MLB and MLBPA, yet the Curt Flood Act of 1998, which amended the Clayton Act to include major league players under federal antitrust law, explicitly excludes minor leaguers, thereby preventing them from gaining free agency before seven years of service, greatly limiting their individual bargaining power and effectively shackling them to the system.
But there are rumblings that this situation may not be tenable for long: Although the Supreme Court declined to hear a case in 2018 in which minor league players claimed that the MLB violated antitrust laws and colluded to suppress their salaries, Justice Gorsuch, in NCAA v. Alston, questioned the legal status of the MLB’s antitrust exemption, and even Justice Kavanaugh recognized that collective bargaining may be a better option for minor league players than legislation and litigation. Many players, too, are recognizing that organization and collective bargaining might be the only way to secure a decent standard of living for themselves and their teammates.
In other news, SAG-AFTRA announced that it has ratified a new collective bargaining agreement with NPR. The new nationwide contract, which covers more than 500 NPR staff members, including reporters, editors, researchers, producers, and announcers, includes 2.5% annual pay raises, 20 weeks of paid parental leave, and numerous commitments to equity, diversity, transparency, and inclusion. 98.7% of covered SAF-AFTRA members voted to ratify the agreement, and, if approved by the union’s executive committee later this month, it will take effect retroactively to October 1.
In Hollywood, however, as Hannah wrote for OnLabor on Friday, more than 60,000 behind-the-scenes workers began casting their ballots in a strike authorization vote on Friday. If the workers, who belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) vote to strike, it could lead to the film industry’s biggest disruption since the World War II era. Months of bargaining have stalled between the unions and film and television producers, and the workers are negotiating primarily for better working conditions, such as longer breaks, greater time between shifts, shorter workdays, and higher pay for its lowest-paid members and fair compensation for crews working on shows for online streaming services, which typically involves a complicated and exploitative pay scheme. Numerous Hollywood stars have offered their support to the workers, who have until tonight to cast their votes. The union requires that 75% of members vote “yes” for a strike to be authorized, and the results are expected to be announced tomorrow.
If the IATSE and AMPTP workers do vote to go on strike, they would be joining a legion of tens of thousands of other workers who could do the same in the coming weeks, as the Guardian noted on Friday, in what could be the most significant surge of labor activism since the teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019. We as a nation are, it appears, officially entering a strike wave. For a lengthier description of the workers who could be authorizing strikes this month – spanning a wide range of industries, from healthcare to public transit to coal mining to academia (including graduate students here at Harvard) – visit the piece published in the Guardian. That the labor unrest is unfolding amid the backdrop of a resurging pandemic and lagging economic recovery – and, of course, the increasing inequality these have occasioned – is no surprise. In any event, the rest of the year is poised to be one pregnant with opportunity for the labor movement – and a perfect opportunity for the self-described “most pro-union president ever” to take action. Whether he will choose to do so, however, remains to be seen.