The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued its much anticipated “Kentucky River Decision” today, and it pretty much went exactly as expected. Voting along party lines, the Republican dominated NLRB gutted long-time federal labor laws by allowing employers to reclassify up to 8 million workers as “supervisors,” thus prohibiting them from forming unions.
That’s right, millions of American workers have just lost their fundamental right to organize. Lost it. Completely. It will now be illegal for them to join unions.
I could spend pages wonkishly boring you with the legal details, but why bother reinventing the wheel when Stephen Colbert has already done such a fine job of summarizing the larger issue?
The labor movement is directly responsible for winning American workers the rights and standards we all enjoy today… you know, little things like a living wage (well, some of us,) workplace safety, the 40-hour work week, um… the weekend. In fact, many historians would argue that the labor movement played a pivotal role in saving our nation from the threat of Communism during the 1930’s — certainly, many Communist historians might argue this, seeing as one of the first thing totalitarian regimes do is ban independent labor unions. (Remember how Solidarity helped bring down the Polish government, and led the way for the rest of the Eastern Block? That’s what they’re afraid of.)
No wonder then that Human Rights Watch lists the US alongside many Third World nations as a violator of basic human rights, due to the degree to which we restrict the freedom of association and the freedom to form unions.
Each year thousands of workers in the United States are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized by employers in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association. In the 1950’s, victims numbered in the hundreds each year. In 1969, the number was more than 6,000. By the 1990’s, more than 20,000 workers each year were dismissed or otherwise victims of discrimination serious enough for the government-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to issue a reinstatement and “back-pay” or other remedial order…
Loophole-ridden laws, paralyzing delays, and feeble enforcement have created a culture of impunity in many areas of U.S. labor law and practice. Employers intent on resisting workers’ self-organization can drag out legal proceedings for years, fearing little more than an order to post a written notice in the workplace promising not to repeat unlawful conduct.
Human Rights Watch found that millions of workers, including farm workers, household domestic workers, and low-level supervisors, were expressly excluded from protection under the law guaranteeing the right of workers to organize. In Washington and North Carolina, Human Rights Watch found evidence of campaigns of intimidation against migrant workers.
Other findings included: one-sided rules for union organizing that unfairly favor employers over workers, allowing such tactics as “captive-audience meetings” where managers predict workplace closures if workers vote for union representation; workers being caught up in a web of labor contracting and subcontracting that effectively denied them the right to organize and bargain with the employers holding the real power over their jobs and working conditions; employers having the legal power to permanently replace workers who exercise the right to strike; and harsh rules against “secondary boycotts” that frustrate worker solidarity efforts.
The Kentucky River Decision is a direct assault on the right to organize that will have an immediate impact on workers nationwide, and will likely lead to disruptive, wildcat strikes. Locally, Virginia Mason has already announced plans to reclassify its 600 registered nurses as “supervisors,” effectively busting the state nurses union. Nationally, as many as 300,000 nurses face a similar fate.
While this is what surely comes from the Republicans’ relentless efforts to permanently tilt the playing field to the advantage of their corporatist sponsors, their primary motivation is actually much simpler.
Democrats, already at a distinct fundraising disadvantage, heavily rely on Labor money to support their issues and candidates. Destroy labor and you defund the Democratic Party. Defund the Democratic Party and you effectively buy yourself a one-party state. To the Republicans on the NLRB, Kentucky River isn’t about workers’ rights, it’s about political domination.