Don’t Underestimate the Power of Working People

There is no denying that this Labor Day may feel a little bleak to many working people and to those of us committed to workplace justice.

This year, the Trump administration and Congress have continued their barrage of attempts to roll back workers’ hard-won rights—including the right to be safe on the job, to collectively bargain, and more—while Supreme Court conservatives, aided by Trump’s pick Neil Gorsuch, have wasted no time in curtailing workers’ rights in their rulings.

Among the most devastating blows was this summer’s decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, in which a slim majority of the Supreme Court aligned itself with the decades-long corporate effort to undermine the rights of working people to join together in unions. That decision, which brought “right to work” to the public sector, garnered considerable media coverage because of its potential impact on public sector unions’ capacity to represent their members in broader spheres of public discourse and decision-making. But one certain consequence is that it will impinge on some union locals’ ability to provide the representation and services that the workers formed a union to secure in the first place.

The Court’s decision will also hurt public sector employers’ ability to partner with workers’ unions, as they have for decades, to improve not only workers’ jobs, but also the services the workers provide, whether in teaching our kids, caring for our parents, or keeping our cities clean.

But the Court is not limiting its assault on collective action to workers’ unions. Building on earlier decisions upholding forced private arbitration of individuals’ workplace disputes, the Court’s Epic Systems ruling made it much easier for corporations to prevent workers from joining collective actions challenging class-wide workplace wrongs. In other words, even when employers engage in unlawful workplace practices across the board, they can require affected employees to undertake individual, one-on-one arbitrations, cloaked in secrecy and conducted by a company-paid arbitrator, as their only avenue of redress. Taken together with the Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes imposing stringent limits on class actions in employment disputes, the Court has now made it harder for groups of workers to get into court in the first instance, or to pursue their claims collectively once there.

But even in such a dark hour, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously noted in his final speech—delivered just hours before he died fighting for striking sanitation workers in Memphis—there is something happening in our world. You don’t have to look too hard to see it, either.

Just weeks ago in Missouri, voters resoundingly repealed the state’s anti-union right-to-work law—surely leaving the corporate lobbyists that fought for the law speechless. That remarkable referendum is testament, first and foremost, to the power of working people joining together—even as their right to do so is being systemically undermined by the courts, by the Trump administration and Congress, and by state laws like the one the people of Missouri roundly rejected.

Meanwhile, the successful teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma this spring showed us that the power of collective action lives—and can accomplish real and substantial wins for working people and our communities.

Then, in July, Seattle became the latest city in the country to pass a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, a historic ordinance that begins to restore a measure of equity to a group of workers who have long endured racist exclusions that shut them out from protections that all workers should have. Weeks later on the opposite coast, New York City passed a landmark law to regulate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft and to improve working conditions for traditional taxi and livery drivers as well as app-dispatched drivers. Our partners Casa Latina, Working Washington, the National Domestic Worker Alliance, and in New York, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, were instrumental in those victories—but more than anything those wins belong to the workers who spoke out and fought back.

Even during this Labor Day week, working people are continuing to fight back—including some of the most marginalized workers in the U.S. Notwithstanding real and threatened extreme retaliation, incarcerated people across the country—including those who are working for public- and private-sector employers during their incarceration—are striking and taking other actions to demand humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, and sentencing reform, and to hold prisons and other employers accountable both to honoring the fundamental human rights embodied by our nation’s labor and employment laws.

Tipped workers are showing up in extreme heat to fight for one fair wage for their labor in Washington, D.C. and New York State, and immigrant workers around the country continue to demand an end to the Trump administration’s deeply inhumane immigration policies. A broad coalition of working people, women, LGBTQ folk, and advocates are fighting with everything they have to resist President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court—because we know that his presence on the Court would be disastrous.

We should not underestimate the potential harm of the anti-worker attacks we are facing at the state and federal levels—especially the Supreme Court’s rulings in Janus and Epic Systems—will have on working people and on our ability to fight for good jobs and opportunity for all at work. It would be naïve to do so.

But we also cannot underestimate the power of working people when they come together—and their tenacity in fighting back, no matter how dark the landscape grows.

This Labor Day, all of us at NELP are focusing on that power. For as Dr. King also noted in his fateful final public address, “Only when it’s dark enough can [we] see the stars.”  There is undoubtedly more than enough darkness to go around us—but through it, the power of working people is breaking through and shining bright.

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Christine L. Owens

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