Today the US Supreme Court will take up a case that may pose the biggest test to the labor movement that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Janus v. AFSCME, which takes direct aim at the heart of public-sector unions, could make it much harder for working people to organize for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
That’s not just bad news for unions. It’s bad news for all of us. Labor unions are the best tool we have to combat income inequality, a rigged economy, and systemic mistreatment of women and people of color in the workplace. Labor unions created the American middle class. Turned dangerous jobs into safer ones. Gave workers a voice against abuses. And, yes, created the weekend.
So there’s a lot at stake. That’s why, in cities throughout the country, we aren’t just waiting around. In the face of the Janus case, local elected officials across the country are renewing our efforts to help workers organize—in traditional ways, and in new ones.
Consider the case of airport workers. As these workers have organized for union recognition with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), pressing their case from Austin to Milwaukee to Washington, DC, local elected officials have stood with them. In cities where officials control airport ground leases, as in Philadelphia, they have used their leverage to push for recognition. In other cases, they have taken part in days of protest and civil disobedience, met with airport authority leadership, or called on airline executives to get involved. The result: Tens of thousands of subcontract workers have better jobs.
Meanwhile, as cable-TV giants have worked to undermine their employees’ bargaining position, we’ve held public hearings to examine whether those practices violated the companies’ franchise agreements. After a three-year struggle at Cablevision in New York City, workers organizing with the Communications Workers of America finally defeated union-busting CEO James Dolan in 2015 (Dolan also owns Madison Square Garden and the Knicks) and won a new contract. Similar hearings helped build pressure during the six-and-a-half-week Verizon strike of 2016. Now, New York City Council members are supporting the Charter/Spectrum workers organizing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on strike for nearly a year.
And in California and New York City, when legislators learned about pervasive wage theft and toxic working conditions facing overwhelmingly immigrant car-wash workers, we joined the fight. As workers organized with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (in New York City) and United Steelworkers (in Los Angeles), City Council members joined labor, faith, and community leaders to organize food drives for striking workers and took part in civil disobedience to help these carwasheros fight wage theft and win labor contracts. We also passed innovative new legislation requiring car-wash owners to maintain licenses to operate, as well as bonds against wage theft and environmental abuses to make sure the rules are followed.
Just as crucial, the support often goes the other way: In many states with Republican legislatures, unions have been a key source of strength to thwart state attempts to erode city power. In Philadelphia, public-school teachers led a 17-year fight against the state takeover of the Philadelphia school system, which included a years-long standoff over their contract. In 2017, not only did they win a new teachers’ contract; they also helped end the state takeover of the schools and restored them back to local control.
Our cities are also rising to help workers confront the growth of contingent, shift, and “gig” jobs that make it harder for workers to piece together a living.
We’ve helped retail and fast-food workers organize to win a fair workweek, so they aren’t stuck involuntarily in part-time jobs, forced to wait “on-call” (but without pay) for potential shifts, and subject to erratic schedule changes at the boss’s whim. San Francisco passed the first fair-workweek law in 2014. Seattle, San Jose, and Emeryville (California) followed their lead, as did New York City. As a result, workers get two weeks’ advance notice of their shifts, no longer are subject to abusive on-call scheduling, and have a pathway to full-time jobs. Just this month, advocates launched a campaign for a fair workweek in Philadelphia.
And back in New York, where some 70 percent of freelancers have been cheated out of payments they were owed, the City Council passed the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” in 2016 to protect freelancers and independent workers from getting stiffed. The law was championed by the Freelancers Union, which encourages freelancers to work together on enforcement.
Finally, cities are legislating new ways to help workers organize when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935 and desperately in need of a strong overhaul to bring it up to date, does not meet the needs of their sector. Because Uber and Lyft drivers are considered independent contractors, the NLRA does not currently offer them a framework for collective bargaining. So in Seattle, the City Council passed a law in 2016 to give them a way to organize and bargain collectively. Uber and Lyft are challenging the law in federal court—but also facing a challenge of their own, via a New York Taxi Workers Alliance lawsuit that their drivers are actually employees.
Meanwhile, fast-food workers face a different challenge: Their employers are the franchise-owners, not the corporations themselves, so the NLRA has not provided a way for fast-food workers to bargain directly with McDonalds, Burger King, or Wendy’s. (The Obama administration tried to change this, but the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board has reversed it.) So, in New York City, workers who came together through the Fight for $15 lobbied the City Council to create the Fast Food Worker Empowerment Act. Passed last spring, the new law allows workers to voluntarily deduct contributions from their paychecks to a nonprofit that can advocate on their behalf. The law, championed by SEIU 32BJ, led to the formation of a groundbreaking new organization, Fast Food Justice, which is empowering fast-food workers to advocate collectively not just within their individual franchises but across the industry. And they aren’t stopping with fighting for better jobs; they are also organizing on issues like affordable housing and immigration reform that affect low-wage workers and their families.
The Roberts Court may well strike a blow for the corporate elite with the Janus case, with results that could be devastating for the labor movement.
But the answer can’t be less worker organizing. If we want a fairer economy, good jobs, and more equal opportunity, there must be more organizing. In our cities, we’ll do all we can to help.