When you start separating the people from their rivers what have you got? ‘Bureaucracy!’ Says Old Bull… ‘Tain’t nothin but bureaucracy. And unions! Especially unions!’ – Jack Kerouac, On The Road (Penguin Modern Classics, p. 134)
Unions are bureaucratic machines and it was known to Kerouac in the 1950s when he was writing his opus magnum, as well as it is known nowadays. Compared to the 1950s, the Americans’ approval of labor unions is relatively similar (71% vs 75%), though the membership has plummeted considerably. 70 years ago, the unionization rate peaked at 35%, while in 2022 it fell to 10.1% from 10.3% the previous year.
The fight with the bureaucratic machines has made unions in the past years ask themselves on what is there more to be done to new organizing, which in turn will increase the membership, the revenues and build more power to put pressure on political actors. While percentage-wise the union membership fell, it increased overall by 273.000 with most of them coming from the private sector (193.000). Regardless of that, only 6.8% of private employees are organized compared to 36.8% in the public sector.
Movements to fight agains the union bureaucracies, to prioritize organizing and to give a stronger voice to the rank and file workers have been undergoing.
Teamsters for a Democratic Union is a rank-and-file organization that aims at reforming the Teamsters (the union which Jimmy Hoffa represented) and in 2022 they backed Sean O’Brien who won the union’s presidential election. Fighting against Big Labor means something different depending on where one situates themselves, because a move from within can in fact make the movement more democratic, while on coming from the Republicans can further hurt workers.
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In February, Floridian Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, who in 2021 supported the Amazon warehouse unionization drive published an opinion piece in the Orlando Sentinel condemning Big Labor. Just as any other conservative who dislikes workers taking real power within their hands, he pushed for an antiquated form of organizing, the company union. The op-ed follows a bill he introduced alongside another republican aimed at establishing an “employee involvement organization (EIO)”.
Rubio looked at the low unionization rate and concluded that a suitable approach would be to put bosses and workers in a group they voluntarily create that can easily be dissolved by the employer and have no collective bargaining power. Practically those are groups that meet once in a blue moon where workers can, in theory, voice their concerns – without any clear path of further actions. Collective bargaining ensures that workers and employers come to a table and negotiate, while Rubio’s EIOs do not grant anything but a title a worker can add to his resume: “member of the employee involvement organization at the local fast food joint”.
Marco Rubio’s proposal is based on the assumption that has been proven false over the years that bosses are there to work with you, to make everything better for you as a worker and to offer the required accommodations. Republicans have done this for centuries, portray themselves as people’s defenders, while being the first to toss them underneath the bus. The obsession now lays with wokeness, a placeholder term that American conservatives (and not only) use to target everything they do not agree with. While people on the left might imagine a woke person as being a blue-haired college-educated TikTok creator ready to correct us over every mistake, for Republicans the definition is wider and can encompass everything they want to bash.
In terms of investments, the Republican party has been so annoyed with the Envrionmental, social and corporate governance framework (ESG) that several conservative states have been trying to ban it from retirement funds. This move follows the US Department of Labor 2022 November regulation which allows investors from retirement plans to take into consideration climate change, renewables, green energy and the like when trying to multiply workers’ money. The founder of Advancing American Freedom (AAF), a right-wing think tank told Fox News “The woke capital agenda of the Biden administration needs to be cast aside for commonsense policies that protect American retirees.”
The assumption amongst Republicans is that by taking into consideration ESGs, the retirement funds will be less productive further hurting the working class. If the concern for the workers were real, then maybe an expansion of medicare, of social security were top of their agenda, instead the opposite is true. The economist Paul Krugman wrote in his latest NYTimes newsletter that Republicans are increasingly listening to a person close to Trump who imagined a budget that will be stripped of its woke components.
If to be woke means to support services for the people, then I would wholeheartedly call myself one.