President Biden recently signed a bill forcing rail unions into accepting a contract many of them had rejected. That complicates his promise to be “the most pro-union president” in U.S. history.”
But if he can pressure Congress now into funding the fight against illegal union busting, he can take an important step toward repairing that damage.
After all, workers across the country and across industries—from Amazon warehouses in New York to Starbucks stores in Arizona and video game companies in California—are exercising their legal right to unionize and bargaining to make their jobs and lives better.
Union election filings increased 57 percent over the first six months of this fiscal year. If current trends continue, 2022 is slated to be a landmark year for organized labor.
In an age of increasing inequality, rising costs of living, and billionaire bosses run amok, workers need the power that comes with collective bargaining more than ever. But all too often, corporations are squashing that right in open defiance of the law.
At Amazon, workers face illegal intimidation and firing in retaliation for their organizing efforts. At Starbucks, whose workers have filed successful union elections at over 250 locations, corporate executives have withheld benefits from employees at unionized stores and even closed a number of stores after workers voted in favor of a union.
How are they getting away with this? In part, it’s because the only cop on the beat is underfunded and overstretched.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the independent federal agency that oversees union elections, labor practices, and more—has seen an effective 25 percent cut to its funding since 2010 when inflation is factored in. Staffing levels have dropped by 39 percent over the past two decades, leaving the agency with limited resources to address the union-busting tactics deployed by CEOs and the high-priced consultants who do their bidding.
Republicans are not expected to prioritize funding the agency when they take over the House in a few weeks. “It’s been a top priority of Republicans to prevent us from getting a single dollar of an increase,” NLRB attorney Michael Bilik told Politico.
That’s why the leadership of the Congressional Labor Caucus submitted a Nov. 29 letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging them to approve additional funding for the NLRB before Republicans take control.
“The status quo of NLRB funding is untenable,” the members wrote. “Continuing to underfund the NLRB not only puts workers’ rights at risk but also subjects employers to costly uncertainty.” They concluded: “Our economy, our nation’s employers, and our nation’s workers need the NLRB to receive funding that allows it to fully implement its mission.”
The resurgence of the U.S. labor movement should come as no surprise given the ever-growing chasm between rank-and-file-workers and the extremely wealthy bosses who employ them. A recent Institute for Policy Studies report found the average pay gap between CEOs and median workers at the 300 U.S. corporations with the lowest median worker pay hit 671 to 1 in 2021.
Among the 300 companies in the report, workers of at least six companies have filed to unionize: Starbucks, Target, Amazon, Dollar General, Maximus, and Chipotle. Pay gaps at these companies reached highs from over 1,000 to 1 at Chipotle to an eye-popping 6,474 to 1 at Amazon.
Here’s another way to think about it. At Starbucks, then-CEO Kevin Johnson made $20.4 million in 2021, while median worker pay at the chain was under $13,000. It would take that typical Starbucks worker 1,579 years to make what Johnson made in just one year.
To be sure, the NLRB is doing what it can to advocate on behalf of workers and rein in union-busting CEOs.
The agency recently ruled that Starbucks violated labor law by refusing to bargain with unionized workers at the company’s roastery in Seattle. The NLRB filed five lawsuits seeking injunctions against the coffee giant, including one that led to the reinstatement of seven illegally terminated employees at a unionized store in Memphis.
The agency has taken similar action on Amazon, successfully petitioning a federal judge to make the company comply with a cease-and-desist order to stop retaliating against workers involved in union organizing.
Now imagine how successful the agency could be if it were fully funded—and what a difference that could make to frontline workers and their families during this surge of union activity. With mere weeks until Republicans take back control of the House, funding the NLRB has never been more urgent.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for America’s workers. Despite historically high levels of public support for unions, actual union membership has fallen to its lowest level ever. If labor laws aren’t enforced now, that divide will only continue to grow.
For Biden’s pro-union promise to have any meaning—and more importantly, for the wellbeing of workers—Congress needs to act to fund the NLRB before the lame duck period ends.
Rebekah Entralgo is the managing editor of Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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