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The results of the 2022 midterm elections were a mixed bag for working families. Congressional candidates who support legislation that would give us more power to join unions and bargain strong contracts (like the Protecting the Right to Organize [PRO] Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act) did better than expected. But the House of Representatives is now in the hands of leaders who want to boost the profits of large corporations and the salaries of executives instead of reforming labor laws so we can bargain for fair wages and benefits. That fact, plus the anti-democratic Senate filibuster rule, will make it nearly impossible to make meaningful progress on federal legislation over the next two years.
The outlook at the state level is much better. Last year, pro-worker Democrats won “trifectas” (control of both the state legislature and governorship) in four states that previously had divided governments – Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland, and Massachusetts – bringing the total to 18. On some issues, like broadband, there is bipartisan interest in advancing our priorities that would benefit workers and communities.
While federal law must ultimately be changed to protect workers across the country, state and local governments can take action to strengthen worker rights. State and local policies have the potential to raise wages and benefits; create jobs; strengthen worker dignity, voice, and health and safety on the job; and help reverse the increasing income inequality that has harmed workers and our economy for many years.
In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure law, which funds job-creating investments in roads, bridges, airports, public transit, clean water, next-generation energy technology, and high-speed broadband internet buildout.
For broadband, passing the infrastructure bill was just the first step. Thanks to CWA members’ advocacy and support from the Biden Administration, federal guidelines require states to consult with unions as they develop plans to award these funds to internet service providers. Members of CWA’s Broadband Brigade have been educating state legislators, governors’ offices, and state broadband commissions to make sure their plans prioritize proven, future-proof technologies like fiber-optic broadband and create good jobs.
“Technicians like me who are out in the field see the problems that poorly trained contractors can cause,” said Mike Songer from CWA Local 6300 in Missouri. “In some places, broadband contractor mistakes have even led to gas line explosions. We want legislators to know why it is important to have a directly employed workforce and that training and good jobs matter when it comes to doing high-quality work safely.”
“Congress has allocated $65 billion for broadband buildout and adoption and Colorado is going to get about $842 million of that,” said Sandra Parker Murray from CWA Local 7777. “Every CWA member has a stake in making sure that money is put to good use. Too many people have slow or unreliable internet service, and some have none at all. This is our chance to fix that and to create more good union jobs in the process.”
To learn more and get involved, visit BuildBroadbandBetter.org.
Protecting the Freedom to Negotiate Fair Contracts
One of the most common ways that anti-worker politicians and their corporate backers attack union membership is by passing laws that restrict negotiations between employers and unions.
By law, unions must represent every worker in the unit equally. But these misleadingly named “right-to-work” laws prohibit agreements that ensure workers covered by a contract to pay for their share of the costs of work done on their behalf by the union. That means that some members reap the benefits the union provides without sharing the cost. This limits our ability to bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Currently, more than half the states have laws like this on the books. In these states, working families' quality of life plummets. On average, workers in states with “right-to-work” laws make significantly lower wages and have fewer benefits, and those states generally have a higher poverty rate and a higher rate of workplace-related deaths than states without these laws.
Repealing these laws is critical to rebuilding worker power. We have an opportunity to do that in Michigan. Thanks to the commitment and hard work of CWA members in the 2022 mid-term elections, pro-worker Democrats are now in the majority in the state legislature and Gretchen Whitmer, a champion for working families, was re-elected as Governor. CWA members, other union members, and allies are actively mobilizing to get their state representatives and senators to support this effort.
“Michigan is the home of the modern labor movement and working people are the backbone of our economy,” said CWA Local 4108 Plant Craft Vice President Jeff Nodalny. “Our state took a wrong turn when corporate CEOs and wealthy special interests passed laws that prevented unions from negotiating contracts that ensure that everyone contributes to the costs of the work our union does. I am so proud of what Michigan workers and our supporters were able to achieve in the last election. But that’s only part of the victory. We have to keep up the fight to repeal so-called ‘right-to-work’ and other anti-union measures and take back our freedom and power.”
Extending Unemployment Benefits to Striking Workers
Going on strike is one of the most powerful tools we have to win fair contracts. CWA members have a history of powerful strikes including large strikes by Verizon workers in 2016 and by workers at AT&T in the southeast in 2018. More recent walkouts include the 2021 strike at Catholic Health in New York, last year’s strike by Frontier workers in California, and the CWA mailers, typographers, and journalists who went on strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last October.
The financial burden of striking can affect how long workers can afford to sustain a strike. One of the reasons that mobilization and strike preparation have been a powerful tool for our union is that employers know that CWA’s strong strike fund makes a strike more feasible for members. When all of the AFA-CWA members at Piedmont Airlines voted in favor of striking in 2021, their unity gave the bargaining team more leverage to negotiate a fair contract. Last year, CWA members at the Minnesota-based New Flyer bus manufacturing company won a fair contract after strong mobilization efforts during bargaining, including a massive rally and overwhelming strike authorization vote.
State lawmakers can strengthen our right to strike by passing legislation to give strikers the right to collect unemployment insurance. Legislation has been introduced in Connecticut to extend unemployment benefits to striking workers, and a bill under consideration in New Jersey would reduce the amount of time strikers need to wait before they are eligible for unemployment benefits.
While private sector workers’ right to strike falls under federal labor law, public sector members’ right to strike is governed by state laws. Twelve states allow some or all public sector workers to go on strike. Passing state and local legislation to expand the ability of public sector workers to strike and to collectively bargain is a key priority for CWA members.
Banning Mandatory Anti-Union Meetings
Forcing workers to attend mandatory anti-union”captive audience” meetings is one of the most common tactics employers use to prevent us from forming unions. During these meetings, managers spread misinformation about what having union representation means. Managers, under the direction of high-priced, anti-union consultants, often cross the line and break federal law by intimidating workers and making threats during mandatory meetings because the penalties for doing so are weak. Under current law, workers who refuse to attend can be fired by their employers.
Legislation banning mandatory company meetings on political or religious matters can prevent employers from using mandatory meetings to discourage workers from forming a union or exercising any other political or religious beliefs. Putting a stop to this coercive practice would allow workers the opportunity to refuse to attend these meetings without fear of retaliation from the company.
“Last year, Connecticut became the second state in the country, following Oregon, to pass legislation effectively banning mandatory, employer-sponsored, anti-union meetings. CWA members and other labor activists strongly advocated for this bill and worked with our workers’ rights champions in the state legislature to get it passed. Our members understand that our ability to negotiate good contracts and fight for our rights is tied to our ability to grow as a union. That’s why we fought hard to eliminate this barrier and allow workers to organize freely. Our hope is for more states to follow suit,” said CWA Local 1298 President Dave Weidlich.
Raising Standards for Airline Workers
Unlike most private sector employees, who are covered by the National Labor Relations Act, union protections for aviation workers, including passenger service agents and Flight Attendants represented by CWA and AFA-CWA, fall under the Railway Labor Act. The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which expires this year, also has a big impact on working conditions for airline workers. However, some regulations passed at the state and local level can have an impact on the airline industry as a whole.
For instance, state laws in Washington and California set higher standards for FMLA and sick leave usage, meals, and rest breaks than current federal regulations. AFA-CWA is battling these issues in court, and in some cases seeking technical corrections in state law to apply the workers’ rights provisions to the work environment and scheduling for Flight Attendants. Meanwhile, airlines are seeking to preempt ALL aviation workers from accessing benefits of state law. Even though airline workers have collective bargaining rights under federal law, our union has to remain vigilant to attempts to undermine basic human needs like the ability to call in sick when we are sick, care for loved ones, and get proper rest to do our jobs. We expect this to be a real battle this year in Congress and at State Houses across the country.
Building Power for Public Sector Workers
Public sector workers are especially affected by state and local labor laws since there is not currently any federal law that gives public sector workers the right to form a union and collectively bargain. Without union representation, public sector workers have less power to fight corporations and the politicians who do their bidding when they push to privatize and eliminate public services. Some states where collective bargaining is permitted for public workers place severe limitations on what topics can be addressed, making it more difficult to improve wages and working conditions.
Strong protections for public sector union rights in California, New York, and New Jersey mean that CWA members in those states are able to exercise collective power, like New Jersey state workers did last year when they won an agreement to dramatically reduce the impact of a proposal to increase their healthcare premiums. In 2019, UPTE-CWA Research and Technical members joined 40,000 other University of California employees in a one-day strike for a fair contract. In New Mexico, where public workers also have collective bargaining rights, CWA-represented state workers won full funding for a $15 minimum wage.
In Texas, which does not permit collective bargaining for state employees, the 8,000 members of the Texas State Employees Union-CWA have spent over 40 years building political power in order to fight for fair pay, secure pensions, and first class state services and higher education for Texans. Members of United Campus Workers (UCW-CWA) at public colleges and universities in states without collective bargaining rights in the southeast have successfully fought to eliminate burdensome mandatory student fees and have won higher pay and fair treatment.
Protecting Call Center Jobs
Since 2018, CWA activists have introduced legislation to protect call center jobs in almost half the states, winning bipartisan support to pass bills in Alabama, Colorado, California, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York. These bills include provisions that range from requiring states to monitor and report on call center job losses to requiring companies that offshore jobs to forfeit state loans, grants, or tax breaks.
For More Information
The CWA Legislative-Political Department has prepared a detailed set of recommendations for building worker power in the states, which includes additional opportunities and links to model legislation.