To rebuild unions, lobbying and organizing must go hand in hand

WASHINGTON – According to two of the nation’s leading labor lawyers, to win better lives and rebuild the union movement, workers must do two things at once: organize and lobby.

The lawyers are Judith Scott, general counsel for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Richard Griffin, general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

They spoke at a recent symposium here on labor law.

They described what is now the fastest growing movement among low wage workers, the “fight for 15 and a union,” which is being led by SEIU.

Scott recalled that it started in November, 2012, with 200 fast-food workers in restaurants in New York City. They struck for the right to unionize without employer harassment.

“Now it’s spread to thousands of workers in at least 30 cities,” Scott said. “And workers in six countries overseas have launched solidarity movements.”

“We in the SEIU didn’t send people into small cities in Arkansas,” Scott said, “but we got calls from fast food workers there. ‘We’re on strike,’ they said. ‘What do we do now?'”

The first priority of the movement, which Scott said also restored the right to strike in many locations, was not to win union recognition and collective bargaining. Instead, workers made gains through winning new legislation.

The results have been dramatic: raises in minimum wages in cities and states across the U.S.

For example, fast food workers in New York City and New York State won legislation raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour and the establishment by Governor Andrew Cuomo of a commission to investigate low wage workers.

They did this through building political power.

To illustrate the importance of low wage workers organizing into unions and fighting for political clout at the same time, Griffin cited the movement of Wal-Mart workers to unionize into the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

The campaign has as one of its objectives the establishment of nationwide wages and hours standards to cover Wal-Mart workers.

However, the UFCW has had to fight store by store. The U.S. Supreme Court several years ago barred them from a nationwide class action suit charging wage and promotion discrimination against female workers.

“The organizing process has been slow and fraught with obstacles,” Griffin said. “There’s a steady stream of cases, and handling them efficiently is a challenge.”

The NLRB, he continued, has convicted Wal-Mart officials at least 288 times for violating the rights of workers.

But those convictions did not influence Wal-Mart to change its anti-union practices, Griffin said, because the penalties involved are so small. All Wal-Mart had to do was to shell out some back pay and post notices in its stores and warehouses informing workers of their rights.

Wal-Mart continues to disregard these rights with impunity.

Griffin said “the National Labor Relations Act has not necessarily been flexible enough to accommodate workers.”

What’s needed is new, stronger legislation to protect workers’ rights.

Such legislation has been blocked by big business and the Republicans

To effectively fight back, Scott said, workers from many different industries must join together. “In the service sector of the economy,” she said, “we are looking at putting together fast food workers, retail workers, port truckers, Wal-Mart workers, warehouse workers, home health care workers, and adjunct professors.”

“It’s important not to suffer from a lack of imagination,” she said.

Griffin concluded “The fight for 15 and a union has the same strategy and mobilization tactics as Black Lives Matter, the environmental justice movement and the campaign for LGBT rights.

“Sooner or later,” he predicted, all four movements “will have a convergence on their issues,” with all four supporting each other.

Photo: Fight for $15 Facebook page


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.