President Biden issued a suitably blunt statement last week in support of striking Kellogg’s workers, who faced the threat of being permanently replaced by the cereal company that has decided to ditch its cheerful Frosted Flakes image and play union-busting hardball. Unfortunately, corporations are going to need more than a push from the president to clear the way for workers to organize unions and negotiate for fair pay and workforce protections.
For that to happen, the Democratic-led Congress must enact the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a comprehensive set of labor-law reforms that, among other things, would prevent employers from firing and permanently replacing workers who are on strike. A bipartisan majority in the House already approved the measure in March. But, as with so many other vital pieces of legislation, filibustering Republicans in the US Senate are now blocking the act from advancing through the chambers. And Democrats have failed to muster the majority needed for a filibuster-busting rules change.
Every filibuster delay in this Congress is troublesome. But the failure of US lawmakers to take up the PRO Act is especially frustrating because, in addition to being widely popular with the base of voters that elected Biden and gave Democrats control of the Senate, it is necessary at a time when corporations like Amazon and Kellogg’s are seeking to game the system in order to undermine the collective bargaining rights of working-class Americans.
Biden recognized the crisis in his message supporting Kellogg’s workers.
“Collective bargaining is an essential tool to protect the rights of workers that should be free from threats and intimidation from employers,” declared the president, who has been far more willing than his Democratic predecessors to align with organized labor. “That’s why I am deeply troubled by reports of Kellogg’s plans to permanently replace striking workers from the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International during their ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.”
The president’s statement got to the heart of the matter in the dispute between the cereal company and workers who have been on strike at four plants since October 5. While the walkout has achieved some progress on pay and benefits issues, the workers voted this month to maintain their strike in an effort to end a two-tier wage system that pays younger employees less and undermines the bargaining position of all workers at the plants. It was then that Kellogg North American President Chris Hood announced, “The prolonged work stoppage has left us no choice but to continue executing the next phase of our contingency plan including hiring replacement employees in positions vacated by striking workers.”
That’s a threat to the livelihoods of workers who during the course of the coronavirus pandemic have been recognized as “essential” but are now a target for displacement. “Permanently replacing striking workers is an existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods,” observed Biden in his statement on Friday, adding that “such action undermines the critical role collective bargaining plays in providing workers a voice and the opportunity to improve their lives while contributing fully to their employer’s success.”
The president also stated, “I have long opposed permanent striker replacements and I strongly support legislation that would ban that practice,” and that his “unyielding support for unions includes support for collective bargaining, and I will aggressively defend both.”
All good. And certainly encouraging for union members who are on the picket lines as the holiday season approaches. Biden’s statement is “exactly what we needed at this time,” said Dan Osborn, president of the BCTGM 50G local in Omaha, Neb.
However, good words must be matched with good deeds, especially at a point when an unstable and rapidly changing economy has made more Americans recognize that they are going to need strong unions in order to navigate the future of work. There is no question that support for organized labor is high—with 68 percent approval in the latest Gallup poll, better than at any time since the 1960s—and that unions are flexing their muscles. United Auto Workers members who work at John Deere plants struck this year and, after refusing initial offers from the company, secured what the union describes as “a groundbreaking contract” that “sets a new standard for workers not only within the UAW but throughout the country.” And baristas at a Starbucks shop in Buffalo just voted to unionize, joining Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United, a breakthrough victory in efforts to organize 8,947 country-owned stores.
But the Starbucks vote was exceptionally contentious, and Workers United members continue to raise the alarm about the tactics of managers who have sought for months to thwart organizing and collective bargaining efforts. One manager wrote after the vote that she was “saddened” by the result and warned about “the divisive ‘us versus them’ environment that has changed our work environment.” That letter offered a reminder that the work of negotiating a fair first contract is likely to be rough. Even as he recognized the Buffalo vote as “historic,” Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) advised, “The company should stop pouring money into the fight against the union and negotiate a fair contract now.”
It doesn’t have to be this hard. If Biden and the Democrats would simply upend the filibuster and pass the PRO Act, fundamental barriers to organizing and collective bargaining would be struck down. Under the proposal:
- Employers would no longer be allowed to intimidate and pressure workers who want to organize a union, as happened earlier this year when Amazon workers were seeking to organize in Alabama.
- Newly organized unions could use mediation and arbitration to overcome management resistance to negotiating first contracts, a change that would be critical for the Starbucks workers in New York and millions like them.
- Employers could not use the immigration status of employees in order to threaten workers who stand up for their rights.
- Companies that violate the rights of workers would face financial penalties, as would executives and corporate officers.
- Unions would be allowed to override so-called “right-to-work” laws, which were initially used to undermine multiracial unions in segregated Southern states but have now spread to states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.
- Employers would be prevented from locking out, suspending or withholding work from employees to stop them from striking; from telling employees that they are independent contractors when they are actually employees; from forcing employees to attend anti-union messaging meetings; from changing work conditions, pay or benefits while negotiating a union contract; from forcing employees to waive their right to collective and class legal action. And, of course, it would prevent the permanent replacement of workers who are striking, thus averting the threat facing Kellogg’s workers.
Nearly 60 million Americans would join a union if they get a chance, but too many employers and states prevent them from doing so through anti-union attacks. They know that without unions, they can run the table on workers—union and non-union alike.
We should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that we shouldn’t hamstring unions or merely tolerate them. It said that we should encourage unions. The PRO Act would take critical steps to help restore this intent.
Biden’s rhetoric is great. But this requires more than pronouncements from the bully pulpit. If the president wants to protect workers, he needs to turn up the heat on reluctant Democrats such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom were elected with significant union support. Manchin is a cosponsor of the PRO Act, while Sinema is not, but both have refused to embrace meaningful filibuster reforms. Until they do, Democratic talk about supporting union members won’t be backed up by the protections those workers need.