“The state of labor in the city is good and has been for awhile,” Vinny Alvarez, the president of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council said, taking stock in his Chelsea office a couple of weeks before Labor Day and the Sept. 7 parade that he expects will once again bring out more than 50,000 people.
“Our numbers have been steadily increasing over the years,” said Mr. Alvarez, who earlier this year gained his third four-year term leading the umbrella group for the city labor movement, noting that 24.5 percent of the workforce, covering both public and private sectors, is unionized, up from 21.5 percent when it “bottomed out” in 2012, a point when labor was still feeling the impact of the national recession and a municipal hiring freeze imposed by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
‘Got Past Janus’
“We’ve made it through the post-Janus world for the public sector,” he continued, alluding to the fact that in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling overturning public-employee unions’ right to collect the equivalent of dues from nonmembers, labor behemoths such as District Council 37 and the United Federation of Teachers had confounded predictions and increased their dues-paying ranks.
In the private sector, Mr. Alvarez said, “We’re doing a good job in making sure that workers who want a voice in the workplace have it.”
Nationally, union membership sits at just 10.5 percent, and 33 percent of public employees are represented, more than five times the private-sector percentage. Damage was done to public-sector representation by-laws passed by Republican state legislatures at the urging of GOP Governors, most notably in Wisconsin after Scott Walker won the governorship in 2010 with the strong support of right-wing interests led by the Koch Brothers.
A couple of months after he took office, Mr. Walker signed legislation that sharply restricted what public-employee unions could deal with in collective bargaining while also curbing workers’ rights. The result has been that unionization in the public sector in that state was cut in half, from 47.1 percent in 2911-12 to 23.1 percent last year. Among Teachers, the reduction was also significant but not as steep: from 76.2 percent being union members in 2011 to 45.6 percent by last year.
Union Interest Spreading
But Mr. Alvarez pointed out that a recent Gallup Poll showed that “60 percent of Americans would join a union if they had the opportunity,” a distinct rise in interest over the past decade.
Asked whether organizing had been made more difficult by the “gig economy,” in which workers often are forced to cobble together two or more part-time jobs to make ends meet, he replied, “There’s no question about it.” And, he added, “The Trump Administration has not helped with that,” citing a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that those shuttling from gig to gig were contractors rather than workers who would be eligible to organize.
That is just one of the areas in which the President has hampered the ability of unions to stand up for Americans, even as Mr. Alvarez contended, “We’re doing a good job in making sure that workers who want a voice in the workplace have it.”
The NLRB under Mr. Trump having become a pro-management organization at the top, and the President’s recent nomination of Eugene Scalia—a management lawyer best known for his legal challenges to Obama Administration regulations protecting consumers and employees and being the son of the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—for U.S. Labor Secretary figured to further tilt the Federal Government against union interests.
Defending Scabby the Rat
As much of a union bastion as New York is, Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79 has found itself pitted against the NLRB here, trying to make the case that having Scabby the Rat serve as a giant, inflatable symbol of its battle against a ShopRite store in Staten Island using non-union construction crews was a legitimate assertion of First Amendment rights. A Federal Judge in Brooklyn early this summer declined to issue a preliminary injunction that would have prevented Local 79 from picketing outside the store and other properties with the visual assistance of Scabby and a giant inflatable cockroach.
“I think we always have to be on our guard for litigation that’s gonna restrict the right to speech,” Mr. Alvarez said. “It’s all designed to diminish our presence in protest of [unscrupulous] employers.”
There are differences between public- and private-sector unions when it comes to issues outside the workplace and racial make-ups. “The commonality between all of us,” the CLC leader said, “is the issues relating to class and economics. The pressures on workers have been enormous for the past four decades, as the war on unions that serve as the vehicle for workers in this country continues.”
Labor has been fighting a recurring—and often frustrating—battle against Republican Presidents in Washington, D.C. dating back to President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 firing of striking Air Traffic Controllers that labor historians generally cite as the point when the Federal Government sent a clear signal to private employers that it was acceptable to take the fight to organized labor and tilt the balance of power sharply in management’s favor.
‘Overt Attack From the Top’
“It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment,” Mr. Alvarez said, “but that’s one we pinpoint as an overt attack from the highest office in the land. And it has continued, generally, over the past four decades.”
Even when Democrats have won the White House, they haven’t been as attentive to labor’s interests as the unions would have wanted. Hillary Clinton’s support among blue-collar workers during the last election was fragmented partly because she was associated with her husband Bill’s championing, during his two terms as President, of the North America Free Trade Agreement, and her own advocacy for part of the 2016 campaign of the Trans Pacific Partnership, because of the perception that both trade deals made it too easy to ship work overseas that had long been done within the U.S.
Mr. Obama was perceived as more sympathetic to traditional workers’ interests, but he shelved national legislation that would have made it easier for unions to organize in order to devote political capital early in his first term to passing the Affordable Care Act. The withering of what was known as the “Card-Check” bill, as well as remarks he made late in his second term to union leaders that they should begin conditioning their members to relinquishing some of the fringe benefits that set them apart from nonunionized employees, exasperated outspoken officials like the late Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley. He accused Mr. Obama of being oblivious to what a force the labor movement had been in building the middle class, and the way in which it’s being stymied by GOP leaders starting with Mr. Reagan had a direct impact on the widening inequality between business executives and their workforces.
Mr. Alvarez, whose early years in the labor movement came with Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said one bright spot in the Age of Trump has been that “we see the pushing back with some of the Teachers’ strikes,” starting last year in West Virginia and spreading to other states including Arizona, North Carolina and Oklahoma that have been strongly Republican and inhospitable to labor.
The support those strikers have gotten from the public, he said, derived much of its steam from how poorly they were being treated by their school districts and state governments. But he said Mr. Trump’s judicial nominations, from “anti-worker judges to the Supreme Court” such as Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to those in lower Federal courts nationwide, put unions on the defensive but also gave union members a good look at the impact of so many conservative judges.
“It’s not just Janus,” Mr. Alvarez said. “It’s 81 cases around the country. Some of them have to do with [fair-share] fees, some with exclusive representation, some with authorization—dues check-off [rights]. Members are very aware of those consequences.”
And, he said, the hope many blue-collar workers in particular invested in Mr. Trump in 2016 because of campaign positions he took began fading when he made policy choices once in office.
Talk About Forgotten Workers
“When you talk about wages in this country,” Mr. Alvarez noted, “President Trump supported the minimum-wage [increase] during the campaign; he hasn’t done anything about it since.”
Among the policy changes implemented by Mr. Obama that his successor has rescinded was one that provided real-money raises for millions of employees outside the collective-bargaining process by making them eligible for overtime. When Mr. Obama became President in 2009, a standard determining which supervisory employees, based on salary that hadn’t changed since the 1970s, were ineligible for extra compensation beyond a 40-hour week set the threshold at $23,450. He virtually doubled the barrier, allowing anyone making less than $47,000 to qualify for overtime pay.
After taking office, Mr. Trump split the difference, lowering the pay level at which employees were ineligible to $35,000. The difference, Mr. Alvarez said, has meant that one million people who would have been ineligible under the 1970s standard are currently getting time-and-a-half for extra hours, three million fewer than benefitted during the Obama years.
President Obama, he continued, in 2016 put in place a requirement that most employers maintain databases of injuries in their workplaces that indicated where greater safety precautions had to be taken; Mr. Trump gutted the requirement soon after taking office the following year. And the 875 Safety Inspectors employed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the lowest number at the agency since soon after President Richard Nixon created it nearly 50 years ago, Mr. Alvarez said.
Other Anti-Worker Acts
Mr. Trump also rescinded an Obama-era “persuader rule” requiring employers to disclose whether they were retaining anti-union, anti-worker firms, and rolled back the grounds under which employees of franchises of establishments like McDonald’s could sue, which the CLC leader described as “part of an attempt to deregulate this industry so workers can be exploited.”
Nonetheless, a key part of the President’s base of support is white blue-collar workers, many of them unionized, who may not like his labor policies but applaud his bluntness, his protectionist position when it comes to jobs and his hard line on immigration.
Mr. Alvarez noted that in the labor movement there were pluralities of union members who were “self-identified” moderates and those who leaned left, and a smaller but sizable segment of conservatives.
The Central Labor Council will take its direction from the national AFL-CIO when it comes to a presidential endorsement, which almost certainly will be for whoever emerges with the Democratic nomination. Asked how his group and the labor movement as a whole would convince the Trump voters in their ranks that they should reconsider, Mr. Alvarez said, “You begin to make the case with them that with the courts, with the NLRB, with the Department of Labor, none of these agencies have workers’ best interests at heart” presently.
‘Not Strong for Workers’
He continued, “There’s a general understanding on the part of members that the administration has not been a strong one for working people in this country. There are always going to be disagreements on issues outside the workplace, but when we focus on economic issues, there’s been a strong consensus.”
Asked if he detected strong sentiment for a particular Democratic candidate at this point in the process, Mr. Alvarez said it was too early to reach a conclusion but, “I think union leaders want a candidate who’s strong on labor issues and collective bargaining in the workplace. I think they want them to focus on trade issues to make sure workers have been protected. There’s been wage stagnation for four decades, although with a small increase in the last few years.”
And most importantly, he added, “They want to make sure they have a President who’s not gonna work against employee interests,” as he believes Mr. Trump has.
Even as next year’s election takes shape, he said the unions will be pursuing legislation that is crucial to their efforts to expand their ranks. Foremost among the bills it is pushing is the “Protect the Right to Organize Act,” which would guarantee that representation elections would be held if a majority of the workers in a potential bargaining unit signed cards to express their interest, and would speed the often-protracted process to obtain a wage contract once a union has been authorized so that if no deal was reached within 90 days of talks beginning, the dispute would be submitted to arbitration.
“I think all the Democratic candidates have signed up,” Mr. Alvarez said. “It’s a good bill.”
Major Census Effort
The CLC has also created a committee to represent its interests in a collaboration with the city, state and other advocates to maximize New York’s response to the 2020 U.S. Census.
“There’s literally billions of dollars at stake” that will be allocated based on the state’s participation rate, Mr. Alvarez said. “We’re communicating with our members, we’re educating them to make sure we have the greatest possible turnout,” which for the first time will involve solely online participation. “All of our unions fully get the importance of it, not only representation in the House but also for funding, including for the industries they work in. It was an easy sell to them: they understand.”
The CLC is also involved in a Climate Jobs New York campaign focusing on the economic and employment opportunities presented by sources of clean energy, from solar power to wind turbines. This initiative was launched in 2016, when Mr. Obama was still in the White House, and Mr. Alvarez is a co-director along with former Building Services Workers Local 32BJ President Mike Fishman and Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. A broad cross-section of the CLC’s membership is participating, including District Council 37, Transport Workers Union Local 100, the plumbers and carpenters unions, Utility Workers Union Locals 1 and 2 and Local 32BJ.
He noted ruefully that Mr. Trump added “some burdensome regulations in the off-shore wind industry that are going to delay the wind turbines. For an administration that hated regulation, they’re all of a sudden big on regulation when it comes to clean energy.”
Sending an Early Message
Those kinds of issues won’t necessarily be at the forefront of what Mr. Alvarez, himself a former Grand Marshal of the Labor Day Parade, called “the oldest and largest Labor Day Parade in the country.” And perhaps the liveliest, too, as he pointed out, “We ask people to participate. Don’t just come and watch—march.”
He expects that the contradictions between Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and his actions will help fuel the spirit on display from unions and their members as they try to send a message on the first Saturday of September. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Lee Shuler is serving as Grand Marshal and Ernie Logan, the former president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrations who now heads its national union, in the role of parade Chairman.
“The election is gonna be very close,” Mr. Alvarez said. “I think, though, the country is somewhat ‘Trump fatigued,’ and if we do our job—educating our members, registering them, mobilizing them, we can make a change.”
Whoever is the next President, he said, both the CLC’s member unions and the movement nationally are looking to “thrive, not just survive.”
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.