Let’s not forget unions and collective action when discussing victories on workers’ rights

Too often in our public discourse about workplace issues, the crucial role of labor unions and the legal right of workers to join together in collective action to improve their working conditions is forgotten or ignored.

In a column about the importance of pay transparency in achieving pay equity published in The New York Times last month (“Want to Close the Pay Gap? Try Transparency,” Jan. 21, 2019), the author outlines possible policy measures to protect workers when they discuss pay with their co-workers. Yet in a rather stark omission, the piece ignores the reality that existing federal law—the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act—currently protects the right of private-sector workers to discuss pay with one another. It also overlooks the millions of unionized workers who currently benefit from the pay transparency that a collective bargaining agreement provides.

In late November, The Washington Post ran an op-ed about the challenges of effectively addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. The column gave credit to the American Hotel & Lodging Association—the hotel industry lobby—for providing panic buttons to hotel workers to protect them from harassment and assault by hotel guests.

In fact, the trade association was merely following the lead of UNITE-HERE, the hotel workers union, which won panic buttons and other protections for both union and nonunion hotel workers in Chicago and other cities through collective bargaining and legislative activity. (The author also omitted the fact that the hotel association was in the middle of a lawsuit seeking to strike down a Seattle ballot initiative approved by 70 percent of the voters providing panic buttons to hotel workers—yes, the very protection they group had just been credited for.)

Just a month earlier, thousands of Google workers walked off the job to pressure the tech giant to change its policy on requiring employees to sign away their right to go to court if they face sexual harassment on the job. Google workers had reason to be concerned about harassment—news reports disclosed that Google’s parent company paid secret severance to a number of executives accused of harassment. Prominently featured in the articles about the walkout were Google’s CEO’s statements that Google was supportive of the strike activity. (See, for example, “Google Workers Walk Out Over Allegations of Harassment,” Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2018, reporting that “Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said Google is supporting employees who choose to participate in the walkouts.”)

Here’s what the coverage blithely missed: under existing labor law, it would have been illegal for Google to take any action against the strikers, because they were engaged in collective efforts to address a workplace issue. In other words, Google got public credit for saying it would follow the law. The fact that labor law protects protests by non-union workers like the Google strikers was totally lost. (And, in a final twist of irony or hypocrisy, Google has now been outed for trying to change labor law to prohibit workers from talking about workplace issues on the company e-mail system.)

Why is labor law and its importance to workers winning justice on the job so frequently overlooked? Why is there so little awareness of a law—passed during the New Deal and every bit as relevant today—that protects the right of all private-sector workers—both union and nonunion—to join together in strikes and other types of collective action to make things better at work?

It would be easy to chalk this up to right-wing domination of the media and their desire to ignore the labor movement or see it disappear altogether—except that the pieces referenced above appeared in fiercely independent national newspapers not owned by the right wing.

A more likely explanation is that the traditional labor movement, while still formidable, is much smaller than it once was. As a result, the public, reporters and commentators are much less aware of workers’ rights—and gains—under labor law.

Perhaps the recent resurgence of labor activity—the Marriott hotel workers represented by UNITE HERE winning pay increases and protections against sexual harassment through their recent strikes; the airline industry unions collectively speaking out against the safety risks caused by the recent government shutdown; a group of Somali workers forcing Amazon to the bargaining table to address issues in Minnesota; and the inspiring strike by Los Angeles teachers to win improvements in the schools—can inject greater awareness about existing rights into the public conscience, as well as emphasizing their importance to basic dignity and fairness in the workplace.