Monday morning musings for workplace watchers.
DOL Sets Sights on Southern Workers|Organizers Using One-Day Strikes
Rebecca Rainey: Leaders of the US Labor Department say they’re focusing agency efforts on the South as part of the administration’s work to ensure federal investments enhance racial equity, noting the lack of protections some states provide to workers there.
“Here at the Department of Labor, the Labor Secretary and I and our teams have talked a lot about what’s happening in the Southeast, and why it’s happening in the Southeast,” Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su said during an event at the DOL last week.
“We know that workers do not have the same opportunities to organize in many of the states in the southern part of the country,” she added. “But not all regions experience barriers to organizing equally.”
Trillions of dollars of federal investments for battery and solar manufacturing, as well as for bridges, roads, and other infrastructure projects will likely land in the Southeast, which Su said presents a challenge to President Joe Biden’s goal to create “good jobs” out of government-funded projects, which the administration says includes the right to organize.
Su cited data indicating that southern states have the lowest union membership rates in the country, and that more than half of the Black population in the US lives in the South. Southern states also rank among the worst to work in, according to OXFAM’s 2022 analysis of state worker protection policies.
“So none of these are an accident, or coincidence. Right?” Su said.
“There is a huge gap at the national level between Blacks and Whites in terms of what are the rules of the game,” William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and the AFL-CIO’s chief economist told Punching In. “The legacy of Southern labor history is so tied to the fact that Blacks are the disproportionate share of the workforce in the South.”
The elephant in the room: The event was one of the first public appearances since Labor Secretary Marty Walsh officially announced he would be exiting the Biden administration for a job at the NHL Players Association. But it was almost as if the former Boston mayor had already left, as Deputy Secretary Su led the roundtable and Walsh spoke largely in the past tense, reminiscing on his travels as Labor Secretary.
Walsh spoke about a trip to the Mississippi Delta last summer that prompted the DOL to organize a strikeforce targeting the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program. The DOL found that 11 companies in the Mississippi Delta had violated the H-2A worker program by discriminating against Black US workers.
“The US Department of Labor has a presence out there right now, making sure no worker is taken advantage of in this country,” Walsh said at the event. “And we’re going to remain vigilant until discrimination is taken out of that industry. We have to continue to do that.”
Daniel Moore: The fabled US labor strike may summon images of picket lines, burn barrels, and drawn-out conflicts resolved over weeks of painstaking negotiations.
While those strikes can still occur, workers are increasingly using another tactic to pressure employers and grab headlines: walking out for one day, and clocking in the next morning.
One-day strikes nearly doubled in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to a report released last week by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The report tallied a total of 424 work stoppages (417 strikes and seven lockouts) last year—a 52% jump from 2021—involving a total of 224,000 workers. Nearly 200 of those stoppages lasted just a day, and about two-thirds of stoppages lasted less than five days, according to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker.
The so-called “fixed-duration” strike was popularized over the last decade by the Fight For $15 movement that pressed McDonald’s and other companies to raise their minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. The strategy has spread to workers in other sectors, such as health care and retail chains like Starbucks, seeking to organize unions and improve pay and working conditions, according to the Cornell report.
Short-duration strikes can be a powerful tool because they immediately raise awareness of workers’ demands, said Gretchen Purser, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, who praised the one-day walkout of 7,000 union nurses in New York in January.
“They capture the attention of management in a much more dramatic way than other forms of action and negotiation,” Purser said. “They’re showing the capacity for the workers to take collective action.”
Read more: Starbucks, Education Strikes Fuel 17-Year High in Work Stoppages
Whether the short strikes meet their mission, however, is difficult to measure, and workers’ leverage can vary depending on the workplace and the scale of the walkout, said Johnnie Kallas, project director of the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker. Kallas is currently working on identifying measures of success in the work stoppage data.
A walk-out of registered nurses “can cause a lot of economic disruption for hospitals” because they must immediately find temporary workers to fill those positions to ensure continuous patient care—a tough task in a tight labor market, Kallas said. And the National Employment Law Project found in 2021 that the Fight For $15 campaigns had spurred higher wages for about 26 million workers since 2012.
But at big retail chains such as Starbucks, “It’s hard to see how going on strike at a store for a single day can cause that much of a dent,” he said. Starbucks workers are now coordinating walkouts at dozens of stores in one day.
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