When considering the state of the America workplace, the year 2012 will be remembered for events seen by some as more attempts at a redistribution of wealth in America. Others will see them as further evidence of industry’s efforts to maintain a status quo while maximizing profits on the backs of the working man. What can’t be denied is that the battle lines are being drawn. The workplace is changing, adapting to new demands, demographics and technology.
Most notably because it happened at the state level, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed into law legislation making Michigan the 24th “Right to Work” state in the country. The law prevents employees from being compelled to join a union and pay dues in order to keep their jobs, even in a union shop. Some see the move as an outright attack on organized labor in the bastion state of the movement; one that diminishes labor’s ability to negotiate on behalf of its constituents, ultimately resulting in lower employee salaries. Proponents of the new law see it as a way to make Michigan more competitive with other “right to work’ neighbors and allow her to attract more commerce to the state. Enacted during a lame duck session of an outgoing republican congress, what financial impact the new legislation will have on employees living in an already tenuous economy remains a big question.
But also noteworthy for 2012 is the uptick in the number of labor protests. Last year there were 19 work stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers. So far, this year has recorded 11 events, not including the months of November and December. Recently dockworkers belonging to the International Longshoreman’s Association reached an agreement to extend their contract for 30 days thus averting a strike that would’ve sent shockwaves along the East and Gulf coasts during holiday crunch time. Across the country, port clerks in Los Angeles and Long Beach returned to work after eight days, settling their differences and restarting an import machine that was losing a billion dollars a day.
In New York, more than 200 fast food workers from Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s walked off their jobs protesting for higher wages and the right to organize. Black Friday will be remembered for the mass Wal-Mart protests that occurred nationwide. Unlike similar actions in the past, this year’s effort was concerted across many states and nations with reports of over 1,000 people walking off their jobs in Wal-Marts across regions in Argentina in a show of solidarity with their American counterparts. But the most significant stoppage of 2012 was the Hostess Bakery stoppage that resulted in the liquidation of the business and the commercial loss of many iconic brands. Walking away from the bargaining table, the Baker’s Union effectively sealed the fates of all the workers when they refused to return to negotiations.
Finally, the workplace was brought more in step with the 21st century as The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that comments made on social media are protected in the same manner as comments made around the “water cooler”. Some speech is considered “concerted” and is therefore protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In Hispanics United of Buffalo, 359NLRB No.37, the Board ruled that the firing of five non-union personnel for comments they made on Facebook was unlawful and ordered their full reinstatement with back pay. This means that employers must now reevaluate their social media policies and be wary of terminating employees on that basis.
So why are these events significant? They are so because they show the American worker’s continuing attempts to organize and management’s continuing attempts to thwart those efforts. They show the positive outcomes that can occur when both sides stick with negotiations until a deal is done and what can happen when either side refuses to talk. Most importantly, they show the continued need for some form of collective bargaining in this country. Third quarter corporate profit this year was up 19 percent but workers wages continue to fall. That tells me that we aren’t there, yet and someone has to be allowed to speak up for the working man, still.
Sources: Partial deal with Union Averts strike at 14 Ports, Steven Greenhouse, NYT; NLRB Rules That Employer’s Termination of Non-Union Employees for Face Book Posts Violates NLRA, Alan Levins, JDSupra Law News; The New Michigan Labor Laws, Right to Work States, and Worker Finances: Analysis by Attorney David Chang, SF Gate; The Great Wal-Mart Walkout, Josh Eidelson, The Nation; McDonald’s, Burger King & KFC Workers Protest in NYC, Emily Jane Fox, CNN Money; Port strike could hit retailers during the holidays, Chris Isidore, CNN Money