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Can Working People Rely On The NLRB?

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Across the United States, workers are being pressed from every side as the capitalist class seeks to shunt the burden of their crises and their desire for ever increasing profits onto the shoulders of working class families. We’re paying the prices of inflation despite record corporate profits, rents are soaring from coast to coast, and the effects of climate change are killing us.

Workers already in unions are going on strike rather than accept yet another concessionary contract: from carpenters in the Pacific Northwest to John Deere workers in the Midwest. Service, retail, and warehouse workers in notoriously non-union workplaces and industries, from Starbucks to Amazon, are fighting to unionize and collectively address their grievances over pandemic workplaces, unfair schedules, poverty wages, and inadequate benefits.

In all these situations, the question of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and how it will act looms large. The NLRB sets the rules for labor-employer relations which includes the rules for official union recognition. Many union organizers point to the NLRB as a crucial tool – or crucial enemy when Trump was president – for union organizing. This completely overlooks the most powerful and decisive ingredient: the workers themselves, both in the workplace and as a class in society with a shared interest.

These recent stirrings in a long dormant labor movement raise many questions on how to address challenges to workers getting organized and fighting back. As we’ve seen in the Starbucks Workers United union drive that’s grown to over 150 shops filing for union elections, no punch is below the belt for bosses bent on keeping workers from collectively organizing and advancing their interests.

Starbucks 2022

On February 8, Starbucks ramped up its union busting by firing the entire seven person organizing committee of a shop in Memphis. This has sparked a limited fightback centered on the demand to reinstate the “Memphis Seven.” Starbucks then went on to terminate leading workers at several other unionizing shops across the country. This isn’t a new phenomenon, Amazon has fired workers in retaliation for union activities and this basic threat to a worker’s ability to make rent and feed themselves has been a go-to tactic of employers as long as there have been bosses and workers.

Some union leaders will point to Starbucks’ actions as illegal and ask the NLRB to step in, and it should. But working people cannot wait or have faith in an institution that we don’t control and have no power over. Most people at this point understand that the political establishment and its government serves big business and not workers, and it’s these same politicians appointing those in charge of the NLRB.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson recently stepped down and has been replaced by former CEO Howard Schultz who, in his first speech back in the bosses chair, said corporations are being “assaulted by unions.” This change at the top shouldn’t be mistaken for a change in Starbucks’ union busting approach, but a deepening of it. The most recent tactic they’re employing is cutting workers’ hours to force a substantial turnover, flushing the layer of organizers in stores across the country down the drain. This is already achieving some success, as workers scramble to find second jobs to make up the hours difference and Starbucks refuses to accommodate any scheduling conflicts that arise.

If we allow the bosses’ union busting to go without a serious challenge, workers will not feel confident that this struggle is worth it. Further, it will be the most bold and outspoken voices for the union that will be targeted. The NLRB, even if it is forced to sometimes dispense justice to workers, is managed by appointees of big-business-backed politicians on the foundation of respect for the “right” of the employers to dictatorial control over the workplace. It is not an institution designed to advance or protect the rights of workers when inevitable conflicts between these contradictory class interests arise.

No “Justice” from the Courts

One of the first things you’ll hear in the labor movement is terms like “unfair labor practice,” “arbitration,” and the “NLRB.” With union density at 11% of the workforce, most people probably only have a vague idea of what these are referring to. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a government entity that sits between labor and management and facilitates a sort of court process to address some of the sharp edges of the fundamentally opposite interests of workers and their bosses. Both sides get lawyered up and complaints are reviewed and rulings dispensed by this government entity. Consistently, the rulings favor the employers.

Sounds similar to the rest of the so-called justice system in the United States, right? Where those with power regularly get away with their abuses and those without are put through a demoralizing, confusing process and come out of it largely with the same problems and grievances we entered with. This isn’t by accident or just some minor flaw that could be ironed out with the right people in charge, because the government isn’t a neutral entity. The government and both political parties that operate it have been created, sustained, and managed, by the same employers who exploit labor for profit.

To understand why we can’t wait around for the NLRB to act in our interests today, let’s talk about what it is and how it came to be.

No Substitute for Workplace Action

The NLRB was established through the Wagner Act of 1935 which was a sweeping bill addressing the hostile relationship between the owning class and the workers. It was touted as “giving workers the right to unionize” by, among other things, making retaliation against unionizing workers illegal, as well as mandating that if a majority of workers in a workplace voted for union representation, the company had to recognize and negotiate with the workers collectively through their union.

These worker’s rights weren’t granted from on high, but were fought for and defended through direct action in the workplace by workers themselves. The year prior had seen explosive developments in the labor movement that turned around years of defeats and declining union membership into a tidal wave of militant worker organizing that swept the country.

The Wagner Act was only part of a series of government initiatives aimed at softening the edges of a system in deep crisis facing the threat of a radicalizing labor movement. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced a bevy of reforms and programs under the banner of “a New Deal for the American people” in an attempt to save capitalism from the crises it creates. While the New Deal was an unprecedented maneuver that focused on addressing the most intense grievances of the working class during the Great Depression, it fell far short of what was needed. Rather than reforming capitalism, it prioritized preserving it. Had workers not been organizing and taking action, however, the pressure for even these limited reforms would not have existed.

Three history-making strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo, Ohio, led by socialists, showed workers during the Great Depression how to organize, fight, and win. These strikes took a militant, class-struggle approach that rallied the broader working class, the unemployed, and even farmers and small business owners behind the banner of the union and the worker’s demands. Workers took on not just the bosses, but their hired thugs, their police, their press, and their political establishment.

This provided important lessons to the U.S. working class and inspired further militant action like the heroic sit down strikes in Flint, Michigan and ultimately to the awakening of a fighting labor movement that organized a third of all workers in the country. The point here is that workers, through their independent collective action, had already established the rights “granted” by the Wagner Act.

The legislation was by no means a silver bullet to winning a union as, even after it was passed, over half of all strikes were for union recognition despite votes already being taken and ballots being counted. The courts were fully prepared to rapidly issue injunctions banning strike pickets when asked by employers, and to jail strike leaders following violent raids on union halls. But the government was apparently completely incapable of enforcing the rights of workers. 

Labor leader and socialist Eugene Debs once said, ”The class which has the power to rob upon a large scale has also the power to control the government and legalize their robbery.” Few people these days dispute that the billionaire bosses are the ones who really run the show, that it’s their interests who are represented by the political establishment.

NLRB and the 2022 Organizing Wave

So in the face of bold mass action by the workers – when the flow of commerce, and by that the flow of wealth into the pockets of the rich, is threatened by the strikes of those who create all that wealth – the state intervenes and insists on a legal process of arbitration instead. “Don’t protest, don’t walk out, don’t strike, trust the system” is the message of those who want to mollify the oppressed into inaction and take the fight from the workplace where we have power, to the courts where we don’t.

How else can one explain that the NLRB was able to immediately halt the Starbucks union vote in Mesa, Arizona but somehow can’t immediately reinstate fired workers? One is an express delivery for the bosses, the other a protracted process that can take years? Working people can’t just go without a paycheck until the lawyers get us our jobs back. Bills are due the first of the month.

This is because the government, including the NLRB, respects the rights to the profits and private property of the ruling class before they consider any “rights” of workers and the oppressed. The overarching priority of this state entity is to service the interests of the employers. This means avoiding any disruption to production, effectively robbing workers of the only means by which we can defend and advance our interests – the strike.

The reality is, the only rights we have are the rights that we fight to defend. Look at the threats to Roe v. Wade, the voter suppression legislation getting passed, police brutality violating civil rights, and on and on. There’s no such thing as “rights” if you don’t have the power to defend them. So the question of our rights under the law or a contract is not about a legal framework, but about exercising workers’ collective power at the point of production, the shop floor.

Two Examples

As long as the labor movement allows itself to be limited by legal process, it will fail to grow into the robust, fighting movement we so desperately need. There are countless examples, here are a couple from history and today.

The blow of the Taft-Hartley act came in 1947 when the labor movement was at its strongest. It followed a decade of determined class struggle, and coincided with misleaders in the labor movement collaborating with the employers and their politicians to purge our unions of “radicals” during the red scare. This legislation targeted key effective tactics of a labor movement built on solidarity in class struggle: it outlawed political and sympathy strikes, secondary boycotts, and more. The very methods that built the American labor movement were under attack, and accepting this yoke was a shameful betrayal of the working class by sellout labor leaders ready to enter into a “partnership” with the very bosses our unions are supposed to protect us against.

But examples don’t only include the negative. A positive lesson can be gleaned from the West Virginia teacher’s strike in 2018, where educators organized with all school staff and established real connections to working-class families more broadly ahead of walkouts in every district in the state. Keep in mind, this is a Right-To-Work state. These teachers were not legally allowed to collectively bargain, let alone go out on strike. The legal process determining their wages and conditions was: the state legislature passes a budget, always smaller than the last one, and tells the teachers to deal with it. In defiance, educators and school staff organized an illegal statewide strike and through that won 5% raises not just for themselves, but for every public sector worker.

“Yeah but then they got sued and people went to jail or were slapped with crippling fines, right?”

Nope. This demonstration of working-class solidarity and collective power showed the bosses and their political lackeys these workers were ready to fight and to continue at their own peril. As one of the strike leaders said, “There’s no such thing as an illegal strike, only an unsuccessful one.”

The Path Forward

The lesson from history is that as workers from Starbucks to Amazon are fighting to unionize their workplaces and facing union busting and retaliation, they should not wait around for the NLRB or the courts to dispense justice. There is no story in the history of the labor movement that ends with “and then through arbitration, the anti-union boss was forced to concede to the workers’ demands.”

When the boss escalates and retaliates, there needs to be an immediate collective response from as many workers as can be organized. Mass rallies aimed at reaching broader layers of the working class, mass walkouts of workers that make it clear to the employers workers are learning again the old labor adage, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

There are no substitutes or shortcuts when it comes to building a fighting labor movement. The primary means of changing our working conditions and daily existence is through action in the workplace. Everything else is secondary to exercising our collective power on the shop floor.

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