Feb 9


Labor’s challenges and opportunities

Speaking at an Investigative Post event, union leaders discussed changing tactics and public opinion, and what it will take to reverse the decline in membership.

Watch our panel discussion on organized labor. Video by Garrett Looker.

Regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, it will be incumbent on workers and union members to fight for better pay, schedules and working conditions.

And that’s to say nothing about addressing the effects of climate change and rectifying social injustices. In other words: The labor movement is going to have to save itself.

That was one of the big takeaways from Investigative Post’s panel discussion on the labor movement Wednesday night. President Joe Biden may be better for labor than Donald Trump and the Republicans, the panelists agreed, but they said labor would be wise to not put all its eggs in the Democrats’ basket.

“We had a trifecta: We had the presidency, we had the House and the Senate, and do we got a PRO Act? Nope,” said Peter De Jesús Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, referring to Democrats’ failure to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in 2021 and 2022. “So I think we’re going to stop looking at elected officials to solve our problems.”

The PRO Act, championed by labor unions around the country, would weaken “right to work” laws passed by 27 states, legalize secondary strikes and allow the National Labor Relations Board to fine employers who violate labor law, among other provisions.

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De Jesus  — along with labor attorney Michael Dolce and United University Professions President Fred Kowal — agreed that the labor movement needs to be better organized, to capitalize on recent pro-labor sentiment and to push for change in the workplace and in society. The panelists cited recent victories at UPS by the Teamsters, the Big Three automakers by the United Auto Workers, and the fight Workers United is waging against Starbucks as inspiration for the labor movement to continue organizing and winning better contracts.

The three men spoke on a panel Wednesday evening at Big Ditch Brewing Co., hosted by Investigative Post. The event was the first “At Issue” forum Investigative Post has hosted since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panelists addressed political issues, climate change, young people’s interest in unions and a host of other topics during the 90-minute discussion. Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney moderated the panel.

Here’s what they had to say:

Non-traditional tactics help labor target Tesla, Amazon

Following a successful “stand up” strike at the Big Three Automakers that led to what the union called  “historic” contract gains, Dolce said other unions are drawing inspiration from the United Auto Workers and its innovative tactics.

He called their victory “probably the most powerful labor story” of the moment, thanks to Shawn Fain and a “progressive administration” winning leadership roles in the union. The strike they led, he said, “was extremely successful, [and] got huge contract gains at the table.”

“And now they are committing their resources to organizing non-union plants in the south. And they’re saying they’re going to go after Tesla.”

Dolce added: “You also have the Teamsters who are saying they’re committed to going after Amazon. I am confident that those unions do mean business and that they’re going to commit the resources to doing that.”

Michael Dolce, a local labor attorney, speaks on the current state of organized labor. Video by Garrett Looker.

An independent union, Tesla Workers United, launched an organizing drive at the Tesla factory in South Buffalo last year. Days later, Tesla fired dozens of employees although Dolce said a judge ruled the firings were legal.

Tesla Workers United has since joined up with the United Steelworkers. The UAW has since said it would attempt to unionize Tesla factories.

De Jesus said the UAW took inspiration from the Teamsters, who used an aggressive social media campaign to build support for its contract fight last summer, which led to big gains for UPS drivers.

“It was something that we have not seen,” he said. “You want to talk about non-traditional organizing and execution of a campaign, their social media, they gave a Master’s class, and how to use social media effectively, and how to to use it in terms of your bargaining priorities.”

De Jesus added: “I think the Teamsters gave us a glimpse into what organizing and what a successful campaign looks like going forward.”

Unions face a rocky legal, political landscape

The three speakers Wednesday heaped praise on Biden, particularly for appointing Jennifer Abruzzo as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. Her appointment, Dolce said, has led to some groundbreaking legal decisions, such as last year’s Cemex ruling speeding up the time it takes to organize a union and giving organizing workers more power against employers who try to stop them from unionizing.

But as De Jesus noted, Democrats have so far failed to pass the PRO Act. And at the state level, Kowal said that neither Andrew Cuomo nor Kathy Hochul have been ideal for unions in New York during their tenure as governor.

That led De Jesus to emphasize the need for unions to be better organized so they can better pressure politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — to side with labor.

“Generally speaking, what you’re going to see across the unions is a consensus to build worker-led majorities,” he said. “What I mean by that is far too often, we’ve put our eggs into a political basket and expected them to bring about change.”

Western New York Area Labor Federation President Peter De Jesus reflects on the struggles of organized labor. Video by Garrett Looker.

Kowal said he’s seen more young people become energized about joining and becoming active in labor unions which is “exciting” given the difficult legal landscape unions still face. He cited the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case, in which the court ruled that public sector employees can enjoy the benefits of a labor union without paying dues.

Dolce noted that while the NLRB under Biden has been good for labor, some cases at the federal appeals court level are likely to not go in unions’ favor, and that the Supreme Court is stacked with conservative justices.

Kowal said unions have to become better organized internally in part to fend off Trump, who he called “one of the most anti-labor presidents ever.” However, he noted, Trump won “record levels of worker votes.”

“We are at a real complex tipping point,” he said.  “And I think it is so important for unions to embrace our traditional role of emphasizing the economic interest we share. We need to focus on labor needs, economic needs, and those things that can bring us together because of what we have to accomplish in order to have a far more humane society.”

Unions need to energize young people and help address climate change

Looking toward the future, the panelists agreed that labor unions should take advantage of young workers’ energy for organizing, and use it to tackle issues outside of the workplace, like climate change.

De Jesus went a step further: Unions need to win community support beyond just labor issues.

“Historically, when we were at our best as a movement is when we took on those bread and butter issues. When we stood up for civil rights, when we stood up for freedom and equality, when we stood up against racism,” he said. 

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“The reality is … probably eight out of 10 times our issues align with the general public. But yet we don’t speak to them. We don’t engage them,” he added.

De Jesus said the Area Labor Federation is looking to open a “worker empowerment center” in a brick-and-mortar building where members of the public can seek out apprenticeship training or get help filing an unfair labor practice complaint against an employer.

“We are thinking outside the box,” he said. 

United University Professions President Fred Kowal speaks on the vulnerability of the American economy. Video by Garrett Looker.

Young people, too, are thinking outside the box, Dolce said. He said virtual meetings over Zoom and the ability to record conversations with employers have made it easier for younger workers to organize and hold their bosses accountable to the law. Younger workers are also good at using social media to spread awareness of their union drives, he said, another innovation in organizing.

“That’s a big boost. The [Starbucks] campaign spread like wildfire, because all the young workers are very good at social media,” he said. 

One issue young people care a lot about? Climate change. Both De Jesus and Kowal said unions are well positioned to help address the crisis.

“I think we recognize the immediate danger that global warming presents and we recognize the need for a just transition to green jobs and green energy,” he said, “one that allows for individuals to provide for their family in a safe manner.”

“Do we care about the next generation and not just ourselves? That’s what this work is about too,” Kowal said. “I think unions are uniquely positioned to take this on.”


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