The State of the Labor Union

On Sunday August 19th, AFAR had its second to last Community Circle for 2019 where we theme of our discussion was "The State of the Labor Union". We spent time digging into what it means to live in a Right-To-Work/Employment-at-Will State. The day was illuminating and impacting due to our esteemed expert panel:

  • Legendary worker's rights activist and co-founder of Black Workers for Justice, Ajamu Dillahunt.

  • Former attorney and advocate for farm workers, Meghan Melo.

  • Duke Facilities electrician and steward of union 463, A. Wade.

  • Union organizer and Legislative Assistant Rep. Julie von Haefen, Hudson McCormick.

I personally came into the afternoon with little knowledge beyond my research in preparation for the conversation, and left with my mind blown by the sheer power of unions and the reactionary power by corporations and their sympathetic politicians that has essentially undermined the entirety of the United State's workforce, no matter the existence of union representation. 

One of the first things we learned about the initial piece of legislation, the National Labor Relations Act, was put in place as a way to curtail the highly disruptive protests that were occurring during the early 20th century. The Act, however, strategically left the rights of farm workers and domestic workers unprotected, as pointed out by Mr. Ajamu. This was not by accident: in order to get the Southern Democrats on board, they had to adhere to their Jim Crow societal rules of disenfranchising Black and Brown people. We see the repercussions of this injustice even today, as farm workers regularly work in inhumane conditions.

There were a group of people who heard about our event through Students Action for Farm Workers that unfortunately fell ill to Green Tobacco Sickness and had to stay home and recover. Green Tobacco Sickness a serious condition that develops in farm workers who handle wet, unripened tobacco leaves with no protective clothing or gloves and essentially get nicotine poisoning. But, as Meghan pointed out because demanding something as simple as protective gloves can be a big risk for a farm worker. If they are on a guest visa, that means that it is only valid if they are employed, and they have no union contract that protects their employment if they raise this or any other work-related issue. Therefore, if they complained and were fired, there status would change to undocumented and they would be at risk for deportation.  So, essentially, many of our farm workers are slaves to this broken-by-design system and live and work in the worst of conditions.

Alternatively, Wade was able to share with us what it was like to be a part of a union. At Duke Facilities, there is 91% union participation among its employees, which is nearly unheard of in North Carolina.  As Wade taught us, its all about the union contract; it is what turns the employer from a "dictator" to a negotiator. Every item in a union contract has historic prescient and must be honored by the employer and all management. From pensions, to receiving multiple uniforms, the ability to refuse a job that's too dangerous, to the right to bring a third party into a meeting with a supervisor - all of these items are guaranteed to all of Duke's electricians. Essentially, "Union contracts give workers personal rights" in the workplace. For public workers, being a part of a union does not give you collective bargaining power (or the ability to have a union contract), but it does give you something that is increasingly important in today’s political climate, lobbying power. Unions like the NCAE and the North Carolina Nurse's Association have put on massive demonstrations outside and inside the NC Legislative Building and visit lawmakers on a regular basis to hold their feet to the fire on the issues that most effect them. Hudson helped us understand how important this is by showing us that lawmakers put the requests made to them by association representatives when creating bills, and when the tide finally turns, those groups will not be forgotten. Mr. Ajamu also did not let us forget that when the teachers were in the streets by the thousands, they also caused the schools to close. "This is an important piece!" he said with enthusiasm, "We cannot forget the power of the demonstration!"

When I asked our panelists if they were hopeful for the future of unions due to an increased interested by Millennials, the response was cautious. "It's tricky," Meghan began, "because the definition of 'worker’ is changing due to the gig economy." Many gig jobs give their workers an "independent contractor" status, which, conveniently, not protected by the National Labor Relations Act. And the Trump Administration is actively reversing many worker and environmental protections that have been put in place over the last 10 years, creating an extremely hostile environment to collectivism. Also, as Wade put it, "These days, folks aren't interested in solidarity." The greatest weapon of the labor movement is mass demonstrations through strikes, protests, and civil disobedience. It is also its Achilles's heel. 

I hope that, as we come to grips with what we are truly up against, workers and their allies will put differences aside to stand up collectively and demand what is deserved. As Hudson reminded us, "The party will not save us." Though politicians have their part to play, it is a united front of working people who will truly make the difference. 

~ Courtney Napier, Community Circle Facilitator, Indy Week contributor, Co-host “Mothering On The Margins” Podacat