(Podcast) A re-energized labor movement sparks hope

Podcast Photo by Joe Piette, https://www.flickr.com/photos/109799466@N06/

Photo by Joe Piette, https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/

September 8, 2022

In an earlier era, a vibrant labor movement nurtured a broad middle. But half-a-century ago, under severe attack from corporations, the fortunes of organized labor began to turn for the worse.

Right now, though, we are seeing hopeful signs of a revival of union power, explains Mark Brenner, an economist and co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at the University of Oregon. Mark discusses the past and present state of the labor movement.

Few workers face greater challenges than farmworkers, who endure low-pay and dangerous working conditions while performing truly essential work. In the second half of the show, Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), discusses the challenges faced by Oregon’s farmworker movement, as well as its achievements and aspirations.

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Transcript

We make this transcript available for your convenience and to increase the accessibility of our content. The transcript was generated by software and was reviewed manually, so we cannot guarantee that it is a perfect transcription. If you are able to, we encourage you to listen to the audio

Juan Carlos Ordonez (host): There are many things that need to happen for all Oregonians and Americans to enjoy economic security and the opportunity to thrive.

And without a doubt, one of the most important things that needs to happen is a revival of union power. In an earlier era, a vibrant labor movement nurtured a broad middle class. By setting standards for wages and benefits. But half a century ago, the fortunes of the labor movement began to turn for the worse. Coming under severe attack by corporations and elected officials.

Today, the share of workers belonging to unions is but a fraction of what it used to be. Along with that decline, we've seen a massive shift in income and wealth going to the rich. While many working families struggle to get by. Few workers face greater challenges than farm workers who endure low pay in dangerous working conditions while performing truly essential work.

In the second half of this show, I'll play my conversation with Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon's Farmworkers Union. We discuss the challenges faced by the farmworkers movement, as well as its achievements and aspirations.

But first, we'll hear about the state of the broader labor movement from Mark Brenner, an economist and co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at the University of Oregon. Before his time at LERC, Mark served for many years as the director of Labor Notes, a nonprofit dedicated to putting the movement back in the labor movement. Mark is a member of United Academics, AFT Local 3209. And, I should mention, Mark Brenner is also a member of the board of directors of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

In our conversation, Mark explained what caused the erosion of worker power over the past five decades and why. Right now, there are hopeful signs of a return of a strong labor movement.

***

Juan Carlos: So, Mark, we’re speaking a few days before Labor Day, a day to celebrate workers and the achievement of the labor movement. And you've been reporting and researching on the labor movement for quite some time. How important are unions to the economic well-being of workers?

Mark Brenner: We can talk about that all day. But let me give you just a couple of angles. I mean, I would say, first and foremost, I think unions are probably the biggest anti-poverty program in operation in the United States today and probably the most successful anti-poverty program in our nation's history.

Just as an example, here in Oregon right now, union workers are earning about $2 billion more than they would be if they didn't have a union card in their pocket. And that's billion with a B. So we're talking about a lot of money that has been funneled into the pockets of working people over the years, thanks to their union membership and their collective organizing and activity. Being in a union in Oregon, for example, you'll earn about 16% more than you would if you were working nonunion, on average. And for women, that number is quite a bit bigger. It's almost 24% more.

But it's really more than just wages and benefits. Unions are the only way we have in this country to guarantee that we have a voice to work. The current corporate class is not that interested in creating workplaces that people want to come to. And unions are some of the only ways to guarantee that you have a voice at work and that you can actually have some control over your work life.

Juan Carlos: For many decades, we've seen the share of workers belonging to unions go down. There's been upticks here and there. But on the whole, it's been a long term decline. What do you think are the main drivers of this weakening of the labor movement?

Mark: Well, I think the one that we should talk about first, which is the most important, is what Doug Frazier, who was the former president of the United Auto Workers, called the one-sided class war that's been going on in this country since the 1970s. Since that time, we've seen corporate leaders and elected leaders at the highest level give a green light to union busting, to efforts to try and make unions an illegitimate actor in the American economy.

But I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the deindustrialization of the 1980s and the rise and globalization in the nineties and the 2000s has also been really devastating to many unions. And, you know, the heart of the labor movement was very much in the manufacturing economy and blue collar jobs. So some of it is what's been happening in the economy writ large.

But I think the through line that's really important is the one-sided class war. That's how we explain, in short order, how CEO pay is now 324 times what it was, what the average worker pay is. Corporate profits are through the roof. I mean, you know, you document this every day. Those kind of stats are a direct result of this generation's long effort to cripple the labor movement.

Juan Carlos: Yes, in fact, as you mentioned, we've seen the decline in unionization coincide with a massive rise in income and wealth inequality. And it seems pretty clear that the two are tied together.

Mark: 100%. That is, in my mind, the single most important explanation for why we are living in the most unequal society in American history and why in the richest country in the history of the world, we still have people who can't put a roof over their head or can't put enough food on the table every day.

Juan Carlos: Most private sector workers in our country are supposed to have a right to form a union under the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRA. And it's true that there are some categories of workers who are excluded from the protections of the NLRA, notably agricultural workers and domestic workers. But nevertheless, most private sector workers are protected in theory. Why is the NLRA in practice not enough to protect the right to organize?

Mark: The most important reason that the NLRA is not enough is because it was designed to be a sort of technical oversight agency to have the kind of process and supervised union representation elections. It was not really designed for the kind of anti-union, corporate behavior that we now experience starting in the seventies.

There emerged an entire industry called the union avoidance industry. That's what they called themselves. We just call them union busters. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year are spent by corporations to convince their employees that they should vote against unions. If unions show up in the workplace, the kind of harassment and intimidation that is on display in the typical union campaign is really kind of unbelievable. About 45% of employers violate the law when they're faced with a union election, and in about 20% of cases, they'll fire workers. So if you're facing a one-in-five chance that you're going to get fired for forming a union, you're being brought into your supervisor's office and browbeaten and threatened, the employer says, well, you know, I don't know, we may need to close the Starbucks location because, you know, it's just not making enough money. But they've only ever said that two weeks after you've gone public with your union election plans. It's not hard to figure out how so many of these elections go against the union.

And I think that's really what the NLRB was not prepared for and certainly not in recent times. The National Labor Relations Board, the agency charged with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, they haven't had an increase in their budget since, I believe, 2014.

And so they're really unprepared administratively for both the uptick in union elections and thoroughly investigate and enforce criminal behavior on the part of corporations. If you fire someone for union organizing and 18 or 24 months later, after an investigation, you were found to have violated their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, you pay them back their back wages, minus what they've earned in the intervening months. So there's really zero incentive for corporations not to break the law.

Juan Carlos: In recent years, we've seen some hopeful signs that things might be turning around. About a year before the pandemic, we saw the Red for Ed movement, when teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma really flexed their muscles. And more recently, we've seen a wave of organizing in sectors and companies that had long been able to keep unions at bay, companies like Starbucks and Amazon. What do you make of this new energy in the labor movement?

Mark: I've never been more optimistic about the future of the American labor movement tonight than I am right now. Union approval ratings are over 70% in the latest Gallup poll, which is the highest they've been since the thirties. I think that as a result of what we've seen during the pandemic, where the billionaires have added trillions of dollars to their wealth and most of us have been left to fend for ourselves, people have really hit a boiling point with these inequities and indignities in the workplace and really are starting to see that flower in terms of workplace organizing. Starbucks, I hope, is just the first of many retail organizing efforts. I think there's a lot of energy in traditionally nonunion segments of the economy to get union protection and to have a voice at work. So I think we're going to see much more of this.

And it's important to say, if you look at our history, this is pretty normal. The union movement doesn't grow in steady increments. It grows in fits and starts. And so I hope we're beginning to see the sort of flowering of a new a new upsurge in union organizing.

Juan Carlos: So let's switch gears here and talk about the way forward. And I'm wondering what needs to happen for the labor movement to build on the recent successes and really grow in earnest to regain power?

Mark: The first thing that most people will point to is trying to fix some of what's broken with American labor law. We should have a level playing field when workers are trying to form unions. They shouldn't have to face the kind of gauntlet of intimidation, harassment and threat of termination that they constantly face every day. And we should certainly stiffen the penalties for employers who are violating labor law.

But ultimately, as a movement, we need to focus more on helping support these initiatives where they are and fanning the flames. I mean, I think for too long, the American labor movement has been focused on putting out fires. We've been in a defensive crouch, and I feel like right now is the time to start some fires and really help encourage people to see their workplaces and their communities as potentially different than they are today. And as the union, as a vehicle for making that change.

And I think that we're going to fail a lot more than we're going to succeed. But when we succeed, just like every big movement from the thirties to the Civil Rights movement to today, when we win after a string of losses, we're going to win much bigger. And it certainly wouldn't hurt if our elected officials would at least give us a fighting chance.

Juan Carlos: Speaking of elected officials, do you see any hopeful signs in Congress or in the Oregon legislature to put in place the public policies that would remove the obstacles that stand in the way of workers forming unions?

Mark: I counted myself as a skeptic, having lived through the Clinton and the Obama years, but I would I think it's fair to say Joe Biden is the most pro-union president we've had in the White House in my lifetime. And he's certainly doing things that are within his power to try and encourage and incentivize union organizing, whether it is requiring project labor agreements on federal construction projects or putting vigorous advocates in key positions in his Cabinet and also in the National Labor Relations Board, in the Department of Labor.

We still have a long way to go. There's no question.

But just as a small sign, I think it was last week, the NLRB actually put a very good compilation of materials together on their website about how to organize a union, which has never before been part of the board's outlook on their mission. That already was very clear in the thirties. Unions are good for our economy. Unions are good for our citizenry. We need to encourage and foster them. Many union organizers went around in the thirties saying, you know, President Roosevelt wants you to join a union. And it was true. There was a very strong bias towards unionization in the early days of the NLRA. And I think now we are getting back to at least some members of Congress realizing that that is also going to be good for our economy, good for our country.

Juan Carlos: Any final thoughts you want to share with us on the state of the labor movement?

Mark: This is really, I believe, a moment where people are taking their future in their own hands and starting to organize for something better. I'm very optimistic about our prospects, but as I said, this is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. So we're going to have a lot more organizing to do. We're going to face a lot more obstacles and hurdles as we go, and they're going to be a lot more battles in our future, but I feel much more ready to tackle them and I think the public's definitely on our side.

***

Juan Carlos: If you're just joining us on today's show, we're discussing the state of the labor movement. Many workers face difficult working conditions and few face bigger challenges than farmworkers. I discuss these challenges, as well as the achievements and aspirations of Oregon's farmworker movement with Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, PCUN.

Reyna, for the listeners who may not be familiar with the work of PCUN, can you give us a brief explanation of what PCUN is? Why the organization exists, and what it does?

Reyna: We started actually as a union for farm workers fighting to gain collective bargaining rights, and this was really something that was never legally provided to farmworkers, the ability to have collective bargaining rights in the workplace. And that's why back in 1985, there were 80 farmworkers who were pretty fed up with the conditions that were happening out in the fields around that time, but also very inspired by the work of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez down in California to unionize farmworkers through the UFW.

So those workers actually started what is today Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noreste to really fight against exploitation and all of the effects that come with it. But throughout time, PCUN really has become so much more than than a union. We actually became a hybrid community organization and union, and today our mission really got expanded to empowering farmworkers and Latinx working families in Oregon by building community, increasing Latino representation and elections.

And also we do a lot of policy advocacy both at the state and federal levels, and we're based in the heart of Oregon's Latinx community. I like to say one of the most vibrant agricultural areas in the state, which is in the mid-Willamette Valley. Through our history and towards our future, we continue to build an agenda that strengthens workers’ rights by creating safer workplaces, advocating for fair wages and pushing for just enough economic security to care for our families. We really value equity, dignity and respect for all workers. And that si se puede spirit that we learned from our from our ancestors and the organizers that came before us. And today that legacy continues.

Juan Carlos: How important are farmworkers to Oregon's economy and what kinds of challenges do farmworkers face in terms of their working conditions?

Reyna: The importance of farmworkers is on everyone's table, right? Without farmworkers people don't eat. So they're the people that put food on our tables and make sure that our agricultural economies are moving forward, that our prized, most prized cash crops here in Oregon and across the country, that they're moving and that they're providing everything from not just food and vegetables, but also trees and nursery, nursery products, dairy. Right. All kinds of things that that ensure that people are being fed.

These are some of the most important jobs. They are some of the hardest jobs. They are also some of the most dangerous jobs. Agricultural labor is in the top ten most dangerous jobs in the country because of deaths that happen on the sites and also because of injuries that happen on the work sites. They're at very, very high rates.

And this is also one of Oregon's largest economic sectors. It's essential for feeding families across Oregon and across the country.

Farmworkers are also one of the lowest paid workers in the country, despite being so important, even being deemed essential during the pandemic. And today we see that based off of a number from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that farmworkers make about $28,000 annually. Which is ironic, right? The same workers that are making sure that we have food on our tables may have some struggles keeping their own table fed. We want to just make sure that people understand that we're here. This is work that sometimes goes so invisible, especially to the some of the more urban hubs across the country. And that it's also something that people sacrifice a lot to do for the good of the of the nation and the world.

Juan Carlos: So in addition to low wages and difficult working conditions, another challenge that farmworkers face is that they are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, NLRA. And the NLRA gives most private sector workers, but not farmworkers, the right to organize and bargain collectively and at least on paper, the NLRB protects workers seeking to form a union from retaliation by the employer. I'm wondering, how does this exclusion, the denial of certain protections that other workers enjoy, affect Oregon's farmworkers today?

Reyna: Thank you for that question, Juan Carlos. I think when people hear that statement that you just made, they're very surprised. They're surprised to hear that farmworkers are excluded from a lot of these rights that most workers take for granted. Farmworkers do not have these legal protections, collective bargaining protections. And in Oregon, it's not actually required for an employer to stay in a contractual relationship with farmworkers when there is a contract in place, a collective bargaining contract.

And this is something that we actually tried, despite not having this protection for many, many years. This is where the roots of the Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste union came from. In the 1990s, we actually went into our first big collective bargaining campaign. We had a big strike at cucumber grower farms and ended up getting our very first contract in in the mid-nineties. But still, you know, for even all of that effort, it was always something that was at the will of the employer.

And there's not exactly a statute that excludes farmworkers from organizing, at least not in Oregon, really. That protection came to Oregon farmworkers with something that actually happened in the seventies where public employees were able to pass collective bargaining rights. And in Oregon, once we we covered public employees, we were actually able to also, as farmworkers say, you know what, we can we actually have some some protections to organize. And what that meant is that we could actually picket or we could do strikes and things like that, which is what we saw in the nineties when PCUN really started to get out there and try to unionize from farm to farm.

But it came with many, many challenges. And there was a couple of cases in in Oregon that were really monumental to being able to bring different remedies for farmworkers to be able to organize, including this the Oregon Roses case, which actually upheld damages for farmworkers in Washington County who tried to organize. And there was some violations that happened from their employer around that time.

All in all together, I think that it's pretty clear, too, that the National Labor Relations Act just needs modernization in general, not only to include farmworkers, but also domestic workers. And then the new economies that we're seeing now that don't have protections, gig economies.

Juan Carlos: Yeah, and this law was enacted 90 years ago. So definitely it's time to update it in certain respects. If you look at the history, it's pretty clear that when it was enacted, that Roosevelt administration back then struck a devil's bargain with Southern Democrats to exclude farmworkers and domestic workers, as you mentioned, from the protections of the NLRA. This exclusion has racist roots, an effort to preserve a system of exploitation of Black workers. I'm wondering how that plays out right now in terms of impacting racial equity.

Reyna: In the 1930s, the majority of farmworkers were actually Black. They were African-American people who were excluded based on the legacy of Jim Crow. And that has real impacts today. Throughout time, we did see some changes to the faces of farmworkers, even in the forties when the Bracero program started. And that's when we really saw migrant workers, mainly workers from Mexico — that at first were celebrated when they were coming, right — where were later received with the racism, the same racism that African-American workers were also facing.

And today, the majority of farmworkers in the United States are not only from Mexico, but they're also from Central America, from some of the poorest, poorest indigenous communities. The reality is the majority of the people who are doing the farmwork, that are doing some of the toughest jobs in the country, these people are not white, right? They they are Black. They are brown people who are being basically asked to come to the United States to do this work, but get left in institutional limbo. There is an institutionalized caste system that is called the immigration system that really has worked to suppress worker voice, especially with immigration policies that keep folks undocumented. For us, seeing that these are the dynamics that are playing out today. The fact that still today farmworkers — the majority of them are indigenous communities from Mexico and Central America — are brown people, that are black people, just tells you right there the impact. It is something that you can see. It's something that you can feel. And it's something that's institutionalized in the policies of our country today through the immigration system.

Juan Carlos: Any final thoughts you want to share with us regarding the state of Oregon's farmworkers and their ability to organize there?

Reyna: I mean, there's so many things, right? But I think first and foremost, there does need to be something more than the NLRA. I think that that's clear. And we just talked about it. I mean, 90 years ago, the needs were different, the industries were different, the sectors were different. The tricks the employers were putting on were different. The whole economy was different. So for us, having some modernization of collective bargaining rights and really how to strengthen that not only at a democracy level but in every aspect of people's lives. We need to think more strategically and think more critically about how we expand collective bargaining rights to all workers, including farmworkers. And for for that, I think that it is going to take a different approach and thinking a bit outside the box.

Also, we are really looking forward to eventually trying to come up with all the elements that would be a Farmworker Bill of Rights. And collective bargaining is definitely on the short list to be on that. So, you know, stay tuned for that.

Juan Carlos: And finally, where can people go to learn more about the work of PCUN?

Reyna: Yes. If you would like to learn more about PCUN or just want to keep in touch, you can visit us at www.pcun.org. Sign up for our newsletter. You can also donate on that page and also can sign up for volunteer opportunities.

But there is going to be a really awesome opportunity coming up in November to celebrate our work. We've had a really big, big couple of years and we had to put our annual fundraiser on hold because of the pandemic, which now we're feeling like it's the right time to get everyone back together. On November 11, we're going to have our annual party and the theme this year is El Pueblo Vive, La Lucha Sigue, the community lives on, but the struggle continues.

We're still here, we're still fighting, and we're still in it to win it for our communities to make life a little bit better for the future generations.