The American labor movement finds itself in a “good news, bad news” situation — which is better than the standard “bad news, bad news” situation, but just as perilous. This week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that in the past nine months, petitions that workers have filed to unionize with the agency have risen by 56% over the previous year. This is a clear and tangible sign of what public opinion polls have already told us: In the aftermath of the pandemic, with a union-friendly president in the White House, workers are more enthusiastic to form unions than they have been in many years. Organized labor is always pining for a moment of opportunity, and that opportunity is here. Right now.
Then there’s the bad news. In the same press release trumpeting the boom in union election filings, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo made a pointed case that the institution is starved for resources. “The increase in cases comes during a period of critical funding and staffing shortages for the Agency,” a release from the agency said. The NLRB’s budget from Congress has been flat for a decade, meaning that a quarter of its budget has been lost to inflation during that time — since 2002, its staffing levels have fallen by nearly 40%. Demand for union elections, and the enforcement of labor law violations, is up, and the government’s ability to handle that demand is down. This is how moments of opportunity get strangled in the crib.
Lest too many eyes glaze over here, it is useful to take a step back and consider the big picture. The United States has developed, over the course of generations, a rough bargain with labor: There will be a codified legal right for workers to have unions, and those rights will be backed by the power of a regulatory agency, and in exchange we will have, broadly speaking, labor peace, which will allow business to function. Sure, unions can still haggle over contracts and protest and strike, but all of these things will be governed by a predictable set of rules that remove much of the uncertainty that accompanies less regulated versions of labor fights, like “general strikes” or just “riots.” You can think of this as the governmental aspect of the larger bargain that organized labor has struck with business for the past century. Workers have the right to organize a union and collectively bargain, rules will govern this dynamic, both workers and employers will follow the rules, and, as a result, capitalism will not be inherently threatened by any serious disruptions to its constant demand for labor.
The problem with this sort of grand bargain is that, from the very beginning, business has sought to eradicate it. Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, the Boss Lobby has worked nonstop to grind it down, repeal it, cut its corners, ignore it, and handicap the ability of the government to enforce its provisions. Starving the NLRB of resources is a natural part of this resistance. It’s one thing to say that workers are legally allowed to hold supervised union elections in any workplace, and that workers have the right to file unfair labor practice charges whenever an employer breaks the law, and that those charges will then be investigated fully and dealt with fairly by the government. But those promises become more and more meaningless in practice as the agency that is supposed to carry them out becomes less and less able to carry out its duties due to a lack of staff.
Abruzzo is the single most committed person in the entire U.S. government to the task of improving the rights and power of organized labor. And, even with her in office for a limited and precious few years, we are witnessing the limits of her practical power. Even as members of Congress in both parties wail constantly about the need to fund more police, the enforcement agents responsible for protecting working people’s rights are far too few.
When you think about this big picture, it becomes clear that the capitalists’ assault on labor rights is stupid. After all, this whole edifice is a compromise. Workers get rights, and business gets workers. The consistent desire of employers to abdicate their side of this bargain — as evidenced not just by ubiquitous corporate union busting, but by the Republican Party’s determination to handicap labor law enforcement on behalf of those corporations — is just pure, excessive greed. It’s not even in the long term self-interest of business. But this is a little like saying that it’s not in the long term self interest of billionaires to push for lower taxes because it will eventually starve society of resources and cause the peasants to rise up and chop off billionaires’ heads. Yeah, maybe one day, but that day might be a long, long way off. They’re willing to risk it, in order to get a bigger yacht.
All of this is essentially a dare to organized labor: “What are you going to do about it?” The rational response to a situation in which the government is robbed of its ability to enforce the bargain that provides labor peace is to end labor peace. That means, in a concrete sense, that workers and unions need to create their own brand of enforcement by walking out and striking on their own timetables. Interest in unions is up, yes, but strike activity is actually still languishing at historic lows. Employers know better than anyone that, if they tell their workers “fuck you,” the government does not have the capacity to make them pay for it, and most unions are far too cautious to agitate for wildcat strikes or other extra-legal remedies. So why not?
The most powerful institutions in the American labor movement today need to stop sending out happy tweets about how beloved unions are and take a swig of this very bitter brew. We have the president that unions want, and the Labor Secretary that unions want, and the head of the NLRB that unions want. And with all of that, the government is still not able to guarantee workers the rights that they deserve. So? What are unions going to do about it? If the answer is “complain, but don’t shut down anything,” then you can be damn sure that this fragile moment of opportunity will be squandered.