Labor Briefing: January 2017

jan-2017-airportBy BILL ONASCH

Good News, Bad News From SEIU—In recent years, this paper has often had good news to report about the two-million member Service Employees International Union. They have played an exemplary role in championing long neglected low-wage workers.

The Fight for 15 Dollars and a Union has become the most important and inspiring class struggle effort in the USA. Beginning with Fast Food workers, it has come to embrace airport service workers, home-care employees, adjunct professors, and child-care workers. They have carried out one-day strikes along with marches, rallies, and civil disobedience actions that have attracted wide solidarity by other unions and working-class communities.

These efforts have now won union recognition, and some first contracts, for thousands of workers. The Faculty Forward “partner” of SEIU has won recognition for adjunct faculty on 20 campuses. Recently, SEIU Local 32BJ negotiated a first contract covering 8000 baggage handlers, airport security officers, wheelchair attendants, skycaps, cabin cleaners, and terminal cleaners at JFK and LaGuardia airports in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

While this contract was a victory it is also an example of the complexity of such bargaining. Wage rates had already been set in negotiations that began nearly five years ago with the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey, which manages the three airports. It was designed to work in lock-step with the fight for boosting state minimum wages in stages to $15.

That was accomplished in New York and was passed by the New Jersey legislature. But New Jersey Governor Christy refused to sign it and instructed his appointees to the Port Authority to insist that Newark workers be subject to New Jersey laws. As it stands now, the raises for Newark Airport workers will lag considerably behind those east of the Hudson River. That fight continues.

In coalitions with others, SEIU has been in the forefront of winning increases in state and local minimum wage laws boosting pay for millions. A year-end report from the National Employment Law Project stated, “When combined with increases approved in recent years, on New Year’s Day 2017, workers in at least 41 states, cities and counties will receive raises—followed later in 2017 by raises for workers in another 21 states and cities.” Even the boss-backed American Enterprise Institute acknowledges these advances in the minimum wage are the biggest component of the minuscule national increase in wages.

Of course, these new minimums are uneven. Even the $15 goal is five dollars less than the average blue-collar wage. But it’s more than double the current federal minimum, and full-time at $15 can provide a modest living rather than poverty. And if the $15 is included in a union contract there can be a path to further improvement.

But it’s not just low-wage workers who have money problems, and that’s where the bad news from SEIU comes in. A Dec. 28 article in the London Guardian about an internal union memo they had obtained was titled “SEIU, one of the largest US unions, plans 30% budget cuts in wake of Trump win.”

The union’s concerns are not paranoid. While the Obama administration was certainly no faithful friend of labor, Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary is a Fast Food CEO, with a personal interest in smashing the Fight for 15 as well as being a class enemy of all unions. There is also a serious threat of the new Congress’ enacting a national “Right to Work Law” banning union shop contracts, which would result in some lost dues revenue.

SEIU was undoubtedly already feeling a financial squeeze. SEIU in Texas had to file for bankruptcy after an employer won a judgment of $7.8 million in a lawsuit arising from a Justice for Janitors strike in Houston. And it’s estimated that the union has spent $25 million over the course of the Fight for 15 campaign.

The $25 million was well spent. But the hundreds of millions of dollars collectively spent by unions, and union PACs—including SEIU—on the last election was waste bordering on malfeasance. Nearly all went to Democrats who are not only faux “friends” but are such inveterate and inventive losers that they failed to win an election while receiving the most votes!

Some of those funds should have gone to sustain and expand organizing successes like Fight for 15—while the rest could have been used to finance the launch of a party of our own—a labor party.

Trump Concedes Victory to Union—The President Elect, as co-owner of Trump Hotels, had refused to recognize a 2015 union representation election victory by Hotel and Culinary Workers at Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas and objected to a union election at a new D.C. Hotel. Normally such disputes would go through a series of findings by the National Labor Relations Board. Since Trump will be appointing new NLRB members, the union threatened to send some dark clouds over his inauguration with legal actions against conflict of interest. Recognition—and a contract—was quickly agreed to in Vegas, and the election will be held in Washington, where the union is confident of another victory.

Child Abandonment—Texas was one of the first states to pass a law requiring teenagers to have parental consent before consulting a health-care professional about birth control. Now there is legislation pending in the state’s legislature requiring parental approval before anyone under age 18 could join a union.

Ann Montague and Michael Schreiber contributed to this month’s Briefing. If you have a labor story appropriate for this column please contact billonasch@kclabor.org