Unions must reckon with racial inequality and speak to 'a more marginalized workforce,' former U.S. labor board chair says
By Levi Sumagaysay
'Unions have been hobbled by the fact that they have been historically implicated in racial discrimination themselves,' says former NLRB chair William Gould
The Value Gap is a MarketWatch interview series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.
Today's reinvigorated labor movement can improve by bringing young people into leadership positions, elevating the concerns of people of color, and pushing for a stronger social safety net, a former U.S. labor board chair says.
William Gould, professor emeritus at Stanford Law School and a chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under former president Bill Clinton, has mediated hundreds of labor disputes, including the Major League Baseball strike in the mid-1990s.
His latest book, "For Labor To Build Upon: Wars, Depression and Pandemic," was published earlier this year and is more timely than ever as the U.S. labor movement sees a resurgence. It also comes as the nation deals with the continued effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has laid bare glaring inequality.
In Gould's book, he takes a historical look at the ebb and flow of labor unions and how crises play a role. He also devotes attention to the two-tiered labor force of the gig economy popularized by Uber Technologies Inc. (UBER), DoorDash Inc. (DASH), Lyft Inc. (LYFT) and other companies; the student-athlete movement; and the state of labor organizing today.
"Though frequently flawed on more than an intermittent basis by racism, corruption, and lethargy, the idea of union-provided workplace representation and voice is basic, enshrined by international labor law as well as its national law counterpart," he writes. "It remains as vital as representative government."
Gould talked with MarketWatch about his book and shared his thoughts about developments in the labor arena since its publication. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MarketWatch: Your book highlights the importance of democracy in the workforce. If you had to summarize the importance of labor unions at this point in our nation's history -- as some of the nation's biggest companies hold such an outsize role in our lives -- how would you do so?
Gould: There needs to be a rebalancing of economic power. The unions are really the only institution in modern American life that provide an ability to promote worker voice in the workplace, and at a local level. They're a vehicle through which other interests in society can be balanced and limited and not acted on unilaterally.
MarketWatch: In your book, you talked specifically about the plight of the marginalized, such as gig workers and student athletes, as possibly key to the labor movement. Can you explain?
Gould: Increasingly -- going back about four decades or so -- there is a growing contingent workforce which is insecure. It involves workers who must seek employment at more than one facility or company. People holding two, sometimes three jobs has fostered a more marginalized workforce, in need of assistance from the state and from unions.
In the past half century of American life, inequality has increased enormously. Whether the administration in Washington is Democratic or Republican, it matters not. A principal factor in this inequality is the absence or decline of unions. One of the points I try to make in my book is that while law can play a role in this process, particularly in connection with the gig-worker classification issue of employee vs. independent contractor, the principal protection these workers will get will come from growth in unions.
MarketWatch: How does this relate to racial and economic inequality?
Gould: Gig workers are disproportionately people of color and immigrants, many of whom may not have adequate protection to be here in the U.S. They are vulnerable to employer retaliation, and can't speak up and protect themselves.
The overwhelming number of student-athletes in big-revenue sports are Black. They are not compensated beyond reimbursement for tuition. And now, by virtue of the Supreme Court decision [last year], education-related expenses. But they're still badly hobbled in their ability to share in the bounty of universities because they have no institution or legal mechanism supporting their ability to do so.
MarketWatch: What do you think about how large companies like Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) and Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) are responding to unionization efforts? [Amazon and Starbucks are facing charges of unfair labor practices. Both companies have said repeatedly, including to MarketWatch, that they prefer to deal with their employees directly, though they deny accusations of union-busting.]
Gould: The policies of companies like Amazon and Starbucks are antediluvian, really out of the playbook of the lowest common denominator in American society.
Starbucks has engaged in behavior which may well be unlawful. This business of providing benefits to nonunion employees, on the theory that they can't provide these same benefits to unionized workers, is absolute nonsense.
[These companies are] stymieing union negotiations. They are Exhibit No. 1 as to why we need sweeping labor law reform. They're a bad example for the business community generally.
Justice delayed is justice denied -- that's never more true than in the labor arena.
MarketWatch: How vital is the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act to the labor movement? [The House passed the PRO Act in 2021, but the Senate hasn't taken it up.]
Gould: It could be of great aid to the labor movement. It provides for a wide variety of revisions to the National Labor Relations Act. It's the most ambitious labor-law reform ever undertaken going back to the Carter administration in the 1970s.
I think it can help. It would increase sanctions for companies' violations of labor law. It addresses companies' refusals to bargain when a majority of workers have agreed to unionize.
It would be an important step forward. But it will not act on its own, and will be effective only in conjunction with a reinvigorated union movement.
MarketWatch: What are two or three of the most important changes unions need to make?
Gould: There needs to be a reallocation of resources and the establishment of autonomous departments inside the movement, where young people will have an opportunity to rise to the top and make decisions about organizing that they may not fully have right now.
Unions have been hobbled by the fact that they have been historically implicated in racial discrimination themselves. They need to do direct outreach to organizations like Black Lives Matter and groups that are trying to lift up those who are primary victims of inequality in our society.
Third, they need to promote legislation which strengthens the safety net in our country -- sustenance that every civilized society must provide to workers who are in between employment opportunities.
There is an opportunity in that the pandemic has left so much of our workforce in an environment of uncertainty. Questions of safety and health have become so important. It's an ongoing issue that unions are well-positioned to play a role in addressing.
MarketWatch: I have to ask what you think of President Joe Biden signing legislation that forced a deal to avert a strike by the nation's railroad workers. [Biden called his decision "tough" but said "it was the right thing to do at the moment to save jobs," adding that he would continue fighting for paid sick leave in the U.S.]
Gould: I say in the book, which was published before the railway dispute, that Biden has been the most pro-labor president in American history.
His intervention was a major error.
The president would've been well-advised to either enhance more bargaining or to promote sick leave if bargaining would not be fruitful as the conditions of the agreement itself.
One of the tragedies of this past half century is that the Democratic Party has missed the boat on a number of genuine concerns of the [poor and marginalized]. We saw this most vividly in the '80s, '90s and the early part of this century when there were mass layoffs of union-represented workers, particularly in the industrial Midwest.
Unlike European countries, no mechanism was established to provide laid-off workers with anything beyond unemployment insurance. We compare extremely unfavorably with Scandinavian countries and Germany in providing aid to workers who are dislocated.
The railroad dispute is another illustration of the rhetoric of leaders in Washington not aligning with programs [available to workers].
Read next: Unions' push at Amazon, Apple and Starbucks could be 'most significant moment in the American labor movement' in decades
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December 14, 2022 14:04 ET (19:04 GMT)
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