Labor unions have made headlines throughout 2015 and few issues have been more noteworthy than the fights they had with companies and lawmakers.
Labor unions fight on many different fronts for policies that help employees and themselves. They also have some powerful political tools at their disposal and historically have been defined by their ability to mobilize workers and organize strikes. Here are some of the most interesting labor unions fights of 2015.
1. West Coast Port Fight Drowns Trade
The West Coast port fight began in May of 2014 when the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) were unable to agree on a new labor contract. The inability to come to a deal and the resulting port congestion prompted economic problems in many industries. It wasn’t until pressure from President Barack Obama and a visit from Labor Secretary Tom Perez Feb. 20 that the two sides were able to reach an agreement.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) found in its report that the resulting port disruptions and work stoppage cost $2.5 billion a day. It also impacted employment numbers, caused a loss of overall GDP and put significant strain on families of port workers and related industries.
2. Unions Unite Against Obamatrade
Obama experienced first hand the wrath of union power. While unions tend to support Democrats, they had a big issue with the president’s international trade deal. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is likely to have a significant impact on global trade. At roughly 39 percent of the world’s GDP, it is the largest regional trade deal in history.
Negotiations began in 2010 and by the end included a total of 12 countries. The deal also caused a considerable rift between Obama and fellow Democrats. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders are among those more adamantly opposed to the deal. Critics have compared the deal to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which they claim resulted in many American jobs being lost.
Obama, though, has said the deal could help fix many of the problems NAFTA caused. It is designed to gradually end thousands of import tariffs and other international trade barriers. It would also establish uniform rules for intellectual property, environment protections and open Internet access, even in communist Vietnam.
The deal has been finalized among partner countries but will still need approval by Congress.
3. California Farm Workers Sow The Seeds Of Anti-Unionism
The Gerawan Farming labor fight has pitted state officials, farm management, thousands of farm and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union all against each other. The resulting case would eventually become the longest labor hearing in California history.
It all began in 2013 when Silvia Lopez and many of her fellow at Gerawan filed to decertify UFW. The union came back after 20 years of absence to demand dues, angering many of the workers, some of whom didn’t even know they were in a union. Some workers have alleged Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) officials have intimidated voters opposed to the union.
No one quite knows what the Fresno-based farm workers want when it comes to unionization. After an unfair labor practice charge against management, ALRB decided to lock away a ballot vote which was going to determine whether workers wanted to continue being represented by the union.
Though the ballot could be unlocked pending an investigation, concerns ALRB is biased toward the union have made critics skeptical. California officials eventually decided Sept. 17 the farm workers must stay in their union. Their decertification vote will not be opened.
4. Kentucky Right-To-Work Working From The County Up
Kentucky received a lot of attention from national and local unions over its right-to-work fight. While states like Missouri and West Virginia are also in fierce debate over the policy, Kentucky has taken the fight in a rather unique direction. It has a statewide battle like the others but also a county level fight.
The policy has traditionally been a state issue. At the moment 12 counties have enacted the policy while an additional four are close. Newly-elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has also promised to make the policy a priority.
5. McDonald’s: The Beginning Of The End For Franchising
McDonald’s does far more than just offer fast-food at a competitive price. According to national unions the company also subjects its employees to near slave-like conditions and wages. Unions have held protests against the company throughout 2015 as well as encouraged federal policy changes some argued undermine the entire franchise model.
The case against McDonald’s involves whether the main corporation should be considered a joint-employer over the individual businesses it contracts with. Under the National Labor Relations Act, two or more companies that contract with one another can be considered a single employer. Known as the joint-employer standard, it is determined by how much control one company has over the employees of another.
McDonald’s is just one a few cases which have allowed the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to revisit the standard. The other cases involve CNN and Browning-Ferris Industries. With decisions that have already been made, the board seems determined to expand the standard to include more businesses that contract with one another. The NLRB has defended the changes by saying franchisors oftentimes have too much control over the independent franchisees for them to be considered independent operations.
6. Walmart Can’t Catch A Break
The past year continued an already bitter fight between national unions and Walmart. The company has become the face of corrupt greed in the eyes of labor leaders and their supporters. Critics complained about low wages and working conditions by staging protests against the retail giant on multiple occasions.
Protesters even conducted a hunger strike before Thanksgiving against the company. The protests are primarily led by union-backed groups like Fight for $15 and OUR Walmart. The United Food and Commercial Workers is one of the main unions fighting against Walmart.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon first announced Feb. 19 a plan to raise the company minimum wage. The $9.00 an hour minimum wage took effect in April and in schedule to increase again by February of 2016. Currently the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
7. The Union That Wouldn’t Leave
Employees at the Hamilton NTN-Bower plant in Alabama tried on numerous occasions to decertify their union. Many workers, led by Ginger Estes, no longer wanted to be represented by the United Auto(UAW). Workers were finally able May 19 to disassociate from the union on their firth decertification vote.
The fourth vote was deemed invalid by NLRB after the union alleged management threatened employees. Prior to that the union was accused of allegedly manipulating the only vote it had won during the third election.
The NLRB found the second election invalid following an objection that the company acted unfairly. After the third election, Estes began leading some of her colleagues in rallies against the union.
8. Walker Walks All Over Wisconsin Unions
Wisconsin became the 25th state Mar. 9 to enact a right-to-work law. Gov. Scott Walker became the main target for unions who opposed the measure. They launched numerous protests against him throughout the legislative debate. The policy outlaws mandatory union dues or fees as a condition of employment.
The labor movement have long been at odds with Walker over labor reforms he pursued in 2011 during his first term as governor. The reforms, known as Act 10 , allowed state employees to choose whether they wanted to pay union dues. It also required public unions to hold a renewal vote every couple of years to determine if workers still wanted them.
He has defended the reforms as being beneficial to state residents. The two laws became huge issues for unions when Walker decided to run for president. Walker officially announced his run July 13 but eventually ended it Sept. 21. He proposed a plan Sept. 15 to rein in their power nationally. Unions claim the reforms caused his campaign to fail.
9. Rauner Tries To Rein In State Unions
Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has made himself a target of public sector unions. Rauner tried to limit the power public sector unions have and pursued policies unions tend to oppose. He has argued that limiting union power will help the state economy.
Rauner and some of the more powerful state unions have been in a stalemate since their last state public sector labor agreement expired in June. There were even concerns state workers could end up striking. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois stood their ground as other unions eventually compromised with the governor.
Democrats even introduced a bill in February that would have allowed unions to override the governor during troubled labor negotiations. It was passed by the Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature but Rauner vetoed it in July.
According to The Illinois Policy Institute, the state is struggling in jobs and education, two areas vital to economic growth and stability. According to a memo sent out by the governor’s office, AFSCME has demanded a 11.5 to 29 percent pay increase for state employees, a 37.5 hour work week and five weeks of fully-paid vacation, among other privileges.
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