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Collective Bargaining

A new class divide is making itself known. Labor vs. Management.

Yes, we’ve seen this movie before. An old fight, to be sure, and one we thought management had won hands down. Which is a shame.

Because the long, sad neutering of the labor movement has had a warping effect on our economy, our politics, and our entire way of life. We used to have respect for unions, for collective bargaining, for the rights of workers to resist exploitation. It was part of being a citizen. We didn’t even think about it.

But that was before Reagan fired the entire flight controllers’ union, and it was downhill from there. Since then, the Republican assault on unions, and on collective bargaining itself, has been relentless.

Most of us no longer make the connection between strong unions and a strong country. We forget how bitterly people fought for collective bargaining. How people died, in vicious strikes, for the things they bargained for: forty-hour week, paid vacation, overtime pay, health insurance. Things we once took for granted.

The labor movement was a formative factor in the rise of the middle class. So it’s no surprise that both started going south at the same time.

But not so fast. History ebbs and flows, and we might just be seeing the first glimmers of a labor resurgence. As with everything these days, the virus is exposing all sorts of running sores.

While the press goes chasing those high-profile “reopen” protests you’re seeing — mostly just photo ops for wingnuts — the more intriguing news from the heartland is about workers walking off their jobs, rather than risking their lives.

The fight — which the press is covering only minimally — is about many things, mostly related to worker safety and health. But one of the flashpoints concerns companies pushing to reopen while their workers beg them not to.

Not coincidentally, the states most aggressively reopening are the ones most aligned with the Trump regime. Red state governors are only too happy to allow companies to trade worker safety for quarterly earnings.

So if you work for a company in a state that is reopening too much, too soon — in full defiance of science and sanity — you and your family could be in deep trouble. If you work in the wrong meat packing plant — where any given breath could carry a viral payload — you may have no choice but to stay on the job. If your plant is in the wrong state, you could lose your unemployment insurance if you refuse to go back to work. No matter how unsafe the conditions. In other words, your paycheck or your life.

That’s bad enough. But here’s where they take it to another level. If your plant is actually testing for the virus — a big if — you might have to stay on the job while you wait for your test results. Really?

How crazy is that? You get tested, presumably because you have symptoms. Then you go back to your job? Seriously? In your mind, you’re a walking bomb, spewing virus in all directions, but you’re still working shoulder-to-shoulder with people equally vulnerable. Then you go home and hope you don’t kill your kids. Or your parents.

This is the stuff of which labor movements are made. Life and death issues in the workplace, brought into stark focus by game-changing events. Labor history is full of them, and there are already small but significant picket lines forming outside some of these plants. The longer this plays out, the more we can expect to see walkouts, sickouts, maybe even full-fledged strikes. It is not clear, however, that you’ll see them in the news. If there are no guns involved, the media are largely uninterested.

Meanwhile, over on the management side, the big nightmare is liability. For every company that reopens, there’s an in-house lawyer panicking about employees being put in harm’s way. Every employee who tests positive is a plaintiff waiting to happen, so if you’re putting your workers in jeopardy, you desperately want some protection against the inevitable lawsuits.

That’s where Mitch McConnell comes in. Moscow Mitch is the guy holding up the next round of rescue money — money desperately needed by workers and everyone else — until the liability issue can be resolved. He’s saying to workers, in effect, if you don’t let us kill you, you don’t get your money.

Blanket liability protection is, of course, a terrible idea. It incentivizes bad behavior by management. It shields companies from responsibility for poor safety practices. It lets them move with impunity to put profits before the health of their employees.

But because of the monumental incompetence of the Trump administration, companies are in a bind. Normally, workplace safety lawsuits hinge on whether the company can show they’ve followed government safety guidelines. The problem here is that there are no guidelines to follow. The federal government isn’t providing mandatory guidelines for the virus at all.

So we can perhaps spare a little sympathy for companies that are flying blind. They’ve been ordered to reopen, even as the infection curve turns sharply upward. Most would like to protect their workers — they’re not all monsters — but they have no idea how they’re supposed to do that in a legally defensible way. In other words, they face huge liability issues for failing to follow guidelines that, unfortunately, don’t exist.

So the lines between labor and management are being drawn in new ways. Each side knows it’s dependent on the other. Each side knows the challenges of the moment are dire.

And while there’s plenty of bad faith to go around, the virus is flipping over the card table, putting pressure on everybody. So who knows? They might think of something to talk about, maybe look for some common ground. They could call it something like, oh, collective bargaining.


Berkley MI

Friday 05/22/20

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