In recent decades, organized labor has been negatively impacted by the process of deindustrialization and the birth of a “new economy,” liberalized trade policies, global markets, global corporations and global payrolls. For example, Maine lost 30,630 manufacturing jobs (or 37.9 percent) during the NAFTA-World Trade Organization period (1994-present), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A renaissance of classical liberal economic ideology and pronounced employer resistance to organized labor can readily be added to the mix of challenges facing organized labor. Such resistance is reassured, in part, by demands for “flexibility” in business operations, which often translates into demands for changes in union work rules, concessionary bargaining, employment of striker replacements or the elimination of unions altogether. An increasingly diverse workforce in terms of race, ethnicity and gender (the white man is now a minority worker), the rise of “contingency” workers (independent contractors, part-time workers and temporary workers) and the unprecedented application of technology and science to the workplace are also among the disparate factors that challenged labor’s historic role as a countervailing power to the hegemony of capital in the workplace.
Recently, organized labor in Maine and the nation has found new hope in the calls for new sweeping labor legislation, and an increasing focus on the need for a union resurgence to neutralize the growing disparities in wealth and power in the nation and restore its middle class.
Among such labor reform proposals is the Protecting the Right To Organize Act, introduced in Congress in 2019, with 100 House sponsors and 40 Senate sponsors including Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden. The bill seeks to again make labor a countervailing power to corporate sovereignty over the workplace by addressing critical roadblocks to union growth and strength. It is the first major labor reform measure introduced in Congress since 2003.
For example, the bill dramatically increases the scope and powers of the National Labor Relations Board to levy penalties and to enforce them, imposes liability on directors of corporations and officers who participate in violations of workers rights, protects employees by seeking an injunction that prevents unemployment while a worker’s case for violation of rights is pending, and empowers the board to enforce its own rulings instead of waiting upon an appeals court to make a determination.
The bill further permits workers to directly go to court when they believe their rights have been violated. It combats misclassification of workers as supervisors and independent contractors, strengthens workers’ right to support boycotts, strikes and other acts of solidarity, and prohibits companies from permanently replacing workers who participate in a strike. It also permits unions and employers to negotiate contracts that allow unions to collect fair-share fees, protects the integrity of union elections against coercive captive audience meetings empowers workers to go directly to court if they believe their rights have been violated, and prohibits employers from forcing employees to waive their right to engage in collective or class action.
When taking note of the ballooning disparities in national income and wealth, the House Committee on Education and Labor reporting on the bill noted, “The growing inequality, stagnation, and instability for so many is not a natural product of a functioning economy, it is the result of policy choices that have stripped workers of the power to stand together and bargain for fairer wages, benefits and working conditions.”
The provisions of the bill, along with other calls for progressive labor reform, address the most prominent concerns of workers and organized labor and place into sharp relief the new seeds of reform seeking to take root to secure a new balance of power in capital-labor relations, restore democracy to the workplace, ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth and reignite the “spirit” of the labor movement.
Charles Scontras is a historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine.