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Union Power Growing in the Wake of Covid, Public Opinion

The U.S. has not been a union-friendly nation in the last few decades, and union membership continues to decline in some sectors. However, unions appear to be entering the autumn season on a fierce note. Workers can thank the economy that bounced back from the COVID epidemic for a flurry of successful organization attempts. Plummeting unemployment, nagging health risks, and skyrocketing job demand are giving U.S. workers the impetus to finally demand the kind of benefits union organizing provides.

“As bad as the whole COVID experience was, some good things came out of that,” said University of Mississippi professor and labor activist, Joe Atkins. “There’s been an increase in worker consciousness. Workers saw that they were put in vulnerable positions all for the sake of the bottom line and saw they need to speak in one voice for their rights.”

Public approval of union membership is changing, and decades of effective corporate union-busting are not as effortless as they once were. Union representatives are brazenly calling executives out for bad behavior. The AFL-CIO claims employers are charged with breaking the law in more than 40% of all union organizing elections.

“They lie. They threaten and coerce. They routinely fire union supporters. Workers are forced to attend mandatory meetings with one item on the agenda: union-bashing,” the AFL-CIO said. “These messages of fear and intimidation come from the very people who control our paychecks.”

The Lighthouse reported earlier how Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz declared he had no intent of ever allowinga union at a company store, and Starbucks branches reflect his attitude. Jaz Brisack, an advisory organizer in the effort to unionize a Starbucks in Oxford, Mississippi, claims management fired Starbucks employee, Haley Morgan, as recently as this month in retaliation for her union work.

Still, baristas across America defied Schultz and organized roughly 200 restaurants right out from under him, despite a burst of retaliatory tactics, including store closures, more arbitrary firings and withholding pay. Company employees took a further step of responding with a rash of unfair labor practice charges against employers, which have ramped up 14% in the wake of the pandemic. Union members in Anderson, South Carolina, filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging Starbucks management unlawfully suspended 11 employees after baristas handed management their demands to improve working conditions, which included fixing broken equipment and ending manager’s union busting practices.

While Starbucks CEOs are likely feeling the ground shift beneath them, workers over at Amazon managed to organize a vehemently anti-union Amazon warehouse in New York. They did this despite of the company openly resisting the union push with captive audience meetings and anti-union messages on company walls. Amazon also hired disadvantaged, desperate employees to oppose and water down the union movement on the warehouse floor.

Employees in the much-maligned health field are also winning union arguments. A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ordered a West Virginia hospital and its owner to either compensate workers with back pay or restore their paid time off after the hospital forced unionized nurses to use accrued leave. The hospital and its owner must also provide back pay to former workers. Another NLRB decision declared pharmacy chain, Rite Aid, unlawfully altered and eliminated health care insurance benefits for retirees and part-time workers without bargaining for the changes with their union representatives.

Public approval of unions is ramping up even as bosses go on the attack, and Congress is now working to pass new legislation preventing companies from using tax breaks to pay for union busting work. The legislation is appropriately called the “No Tax Breaks for Union Busting Act.” President Joe Biden claims to stand behind unionization efforts, having supported the U.S. House’s effort to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which bans captive audience meetings and penalizes executives who are proven to block union drives. It also stops companies from stalling negotiations for a first contract.

On a more local level, an independent arbitrator found management at the Bureau of Prisons Federal Correctional Institution, Yazoo City guilty of violating the civil rights of local union President Cyndee Price and willfully retaliating against her in violation of her union contract.

The arbitrator awarded Price $300,000 by banning her from performing union-related work on official time, according to accusation from the American Federation of Government Employees.

"It appears that the entire chain of command was complicit in thwarting the efforts of Price in performance of her duties as president of the local union," Arbitrator Ed Bankston wrote in a July 14 statement. The union claims prison officials forced Price to work more than 1,000 hours off the clock with no overtime pay since becoming president of the union in 2020.

Price is the first Black woman elected to represent the AFGE union at any federal correctional complex in the nation, and coworkers claim officials treated her differently from the male president who preceded her.

Price said she welcomed the outcome but demanded more accountability from management.

“I’m grateful for this arbitration decision and affirmation of all the mistreatment, harassment, retaliation, and discrimination I have endured,” Price said. “However, for true justice to occur, the Bureau of Prisons must hold accountable the management officials who targeted me.”


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