Last month a few hundred retail and fast-food workers, from places like Sears, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s, walked off their jobs for a rally in downtown Chicago. Carrying signs saying “Fight for 15” (or “Lucha Por 15”) and “We Are Worth More,” these workers make $9 or $10 an hour, at best, and they figure they’re worth at least $15.
A one-shift walk-out and protest by a few hundred out of the thousands of such workers in the Chicago Loop and along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile cannot have the economic impact of a traditional strike – one that shuts down an entire workplace or industry for an extended period of time and, therefore, can bend an employer’s will. And these workers’ chances of getting $15 an hour any time soon are worse than slim. This “job action,” bolstered by community supporters organized by Action Now and with help from Service Employees International Union organizers, is more in the nature of a public protest than a “real strike.” You could even call it “a public relations stunt,” but you’d be wrong to dismiss it as inconsequential.
“Public relations,” ironically, has a bad image. But think of it as workers witnessing their own plight, calling for others in similar situations to join them and appealing to those of us with decent incomes to support them. Witnessing, with its religious overtones, is not intended as an immediately practical action. It’s first about individuals summoning the courage to put themselves forward to make a public claim that they are one of thousands (millions nationally) who are being treated unjustly. In this case, it means taking the risk that they may be fired or otherwise disciplined for leaving work and going into the streets to proclaim “We are worth more.”
Witnessing is meant to make us think about justice as the witnesses simultaneously inspire and shame us with the courage of their individual actions. I was at one of the first draft-card burnings that protested the Vietnam War in 1965, and I remember saying something like, “I’d do that if I thought it would do any good,” while knowing in my heart of hearts that I didn’t have the guts to take that kind of risk then. But it inspired and shamed me – and thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others — to do many other things to fight against that war as we inspired and bolstered (and exerted peer pressure on) each other.
For the broader public, these initial job actions – in New York and Chicago among retail and fast-food workers; in California and Illinois among workers at Walmart warehouses; and all over the place among Walmart retail workers – are “public relations” that raise awareness and pluck consciences. But for workers who watched workmates walk off the job to witness for them, there may be some of that inspiration and/or shame that is a particularly powerful call to action. That’s what organizers are counting on, in the hope that the numbers of such workers will grow helter-skelter across the retail industry, eventually initiating a contagion of worker direct action that can put these workers in a position to negotiate for “labor peace,” with or without the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board.
There’s another determined witness who couldn’t be more unlike these striking workers. He’s a retired law professor from the University of Texas, Charles Morris, who is a leading expert on the legislative and early administrative history of the National Labor Relations Act and the Board that enforces it. In a 2005 book, The Blue Eagle at Work, Morris makes the legal case that the Act defined a labor union as any group of two or more workers who act together (“in concert”) to seek redress of grievances from their employer. According to Morris, the “concerted activity protection” articulated in the Act means that employers cannot legally fire workers for forming a non-majority or “members-only” union (as few as two workers acting together), and what’s more, an employer is legally bound to “bargain in good faith” with that union.
Through meticulous legal research, Morris has shown that these worker rights were in the Act from the beginning but have been forgotten by the subsequent customary practice of defining a union as only that group of workers who have formally voted to be represented by a petitioning union. What’s more, other legal scholars have now signed on to Morris’s legal interpretation and are ready to bolster it before an NLRB that is willing to hear their case. There would be such an NLRB, what Morris calls “a friendly Board,” if Republican Senators would allow a vote on President Obama’s nominees for the Board.
A favorable NLRB ruling would be important for a variety of legally technical reasons that workers and organizers could use to their tactical and strategic advantage – none of which includes the expectation that employers will voluntarily obey the law just because it is the law. But equally important is that Morris’s reading of the Act’s history restores the original meaning of a labor union that is based on workers’ decisions to act together “in concert” with one another. That is, a labor union is not just an institution with a bureaucracy and a marble palace in Washington, D.C., though it may be that as well. It is any group of workers in any workplace, no matter how big or small, who decide to and then do act in concert to advance their own interests in their workplace.
In March Chicago Working-Class Studies helped organize a public forum that brought Charles Morris together with workers and organizers from Fight for 15, the Walmart retail and warehouse strikers, and two other groups who are already acting as unions under this definition. Though there were some disagreements between the elderly legal scholar and the mostly young workers and organizers — one emphasizing the importance of politics and administrative case law in the long run, the others focused on the potential of direct action in the here and now – they agreed that if and when the two come together, the possibilities for a worker-led upsurge of union organizing are great.
Nonetheless, through their actions these workers have already changed what a labor union is and is thought to be. It is now, and really always has been — even a century before the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, even when it was an illegal “conspiracy” — simply a group of two or more workers acting in concert with one another. To be really effective there will need, of course, to be many, many more than the hundreds and thousands who have begun this process. But it starts with a few brave witnesses who take a risk and ask others to join them. The peer pressure is now on the rest of us.
Jack Metzgar, Chicago Working-Class Studies