By Eve Ottenberg / CounterPunch
One of the first dead giveaways for fascism is animosity toward trade unions. That’s not to say all anti-union businesspeople are fascist, but simply that that hatred is a first step on the primrose path to a polity of utterly oppressed wage slaves and strictly limited civil rights, a step that the current supreme court, composed of reactionaries who protest too much that they aren’t partisan hacks, has now taken several times. As Martin Niemoller said of the Nazis : “Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because was not a trade unionist.” Well, for those of us who support trade unionists, it’s time to speak out.
Fascists know that their organic enemy is the labor movement, and their first effort when they come to power is to crush the working class. That’s why the current anti-labor ferocity of the supreme court is so alarming. At what point do we call this judicial determination to eliminate unions what it is? A proto-fascist resolve to subordinate workers’ rights to owners’ whims, to replace human rights with corporate power, to dismantle the legal architecture, such as it is, protecting subordinate employees, to turn the clock back to a time when workers had no rights and their so-called betters exercised total control over their lives – an appalling predicament that, by the way, already exists in many U.S. industries. Take, for example the Frito Lay strike of 2021.
Six hundred Frito Lay workers struck in Topeka Kansas that summer. They revolted against 84-hour work weeks and forced overtime. They disliked their treatment in the plant, where a worker collapsed and died on the job, and then co-workers were allegedly ordered to move the corpse out of the way so another worker could step in and production could resume. Though Frito Lay denied this anecdote about employer tyranny, it couldn’t refute the other accusations, which are not atypical in factories across the nation, where the eight-hour work day and five-day work week are things of the past, if employees want to keep their jobs.
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Or take the atrocity that occurred January 9 at the Seaboard Foods factory in Guymon, Oklahoma. An employee was fired. HR told him to finish his shift. He did so. His supervisor saw him still at work and called the police, who came and shot him to death. One worker filmed parts of the incident on his cellphone and, according to the Guardian January 20, “was later fired for doing so.” Seaboard Foods did not refute the story about the murdered worker. But it claimed that work stopped for the rest of the evening and that it provided counseling services to its employees. The fired worker contradicted these assertions. “I worked in maintenance,” he told the Guardian. “All they had us do was cover the scene with plastic, and we proceeded to finish what was on the production line. This company fired me for recording the truth they were trying to brush under the mat. They never asked me if I was OK. It was my first time seeing a guy get killed – and then I got fired.”
Workers have always been killed on the job. Bosses, not so much. That’s one of the fevers of the management-labor inequality disease. Lots of occupations are deadly for employees, from construction to working on an assembly-line, while many pose routine and serious hazards, like being a line cook. But the callous disregard for human life that workers claim to have witnessed in these two incidents combines with the same anti-human disdain for workers’ rights, embodied, as aforementioned, in eliminating such restraints on owner abuse as eight-hour work days and the weekends off.
Such decay of accepted, historical employee wins, of course, links to the explosion of the gig economy earlier this century, a disastrous development which does an end-run around trade unions by falsely designating employees as contractors or freelancers. Thus wildly exploitative companies like Uber and Lyft could put multitudes of taxi drivers out of business – causing, incidentally, many suicides – while their own drivers worked themselves to the bone ferrying passengers around during 80-hour work weeks. And very unfortunately, the right-wing partisan fanatics who rule the roost on the supreme court, led by so-called justice Samuel Alito, whose social, political and economic views appear to spring directly from the harsh, infertile, backward soil of the seventeenth century, those “justices” see nothing wrong with the many abuses labor currently tolerates. In fact, those arbiters of the law made the situation much worse.
Most notably with their 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision. In that, reactionary luminaries on the high court – most notably Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, with Anthony Kennedy making a cameo appearance in the far-right beauty contest to lend it supposedly moderate legitimacy – eviscerated public sector unions by ending their power to collect dues from nonmembers, even though those nonmembers benefit from union contracts. Such a ruling, of course, incentivizes workers not to unionize: let the other guy join the union – why pay dues when you can get a great deal for free?
Now the high court is at it again, like a serial union killer, this time ready to gut the right to strike, according to Matt Ford in the New Republic on January 10, and Nancy Snyder in CounterPunch January 20. The new case features a concrete manufacturer suing the Teamsters over a work stoppage that accidentally caused financial losses. Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters involves an August 2017 strike, in which drivers left their trucks’ cement mixers running after a walkout. Leaving the mixers running prevented the concrete from hardening, which could ruin the trucks. But “nonunion employees at Glacier then emptied the concrete mixes into a makeshift structure where it could harden, which also rendered it useless,” according to Ford. This was the only loss – “an unspecified quantity of mixed concrete.” But “Glacier sued the Teamsters in Washington state courts for allegedly working to intentionally destroy the company’s property.” On January 10 the case came before the U.S. supreme court for oral arguments.
If the supremes side with Glacier, as expected, that could have a chilling effect, to say the least, on strikes, as workers hesitate at being sued for financial losses. “That would fit with the conservative majority’s broader trend of hostility to labor rights in major cases like…Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid,” Ford writes, “where they struck down a California state law that allowed union organizers onto farm owners’ land during certain nonworking hours.”
Things don’t look good for labor in Glacier. According to Snyder, “Glacier hired Jones Day, the elite law firm whose senior partner, Don McGahn,…served as former president Trump’s white house counsel.” In this capacity, he greased the wheels for the supreme court confirmations of three far right ideologues, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Gorsuch. “A former Trump solicitor general, Noel Francisco, served as counsel to Glacier Northwest.” So this company yanks lots of political strings – before a court that has already demonstrated, quite notably with the pathological anti-union mania of its chief justice Roberts, that it will bend over backwards to accommodate corporations and stick it to workers.
If the Teamsters lose, what happens to workers, like those at Frito Lay and Seaboard Foods, where abusive conditions murder employees? Will they shy away from striking, because they fear having to pay damages? Very possibly. And this is only one way in which the very far right proto-fascism of the supreme court menaces civilized redress for labor.
Because, to repeat, in the labor-boss struggle, always a pivotal skirmish in the larger class war, the high court has a favorite – the owner. At least two glaring instances, Janus and Cedar Point Nursery, so far evinced this favoritism. Now a third comes along, and it’s fair to predict this court of puppets of capital won’t stop until they’ve crushed all of labor’s gains over the past two centuries. Biden and congress are useless in this regard, as neither will consider expanding the high court or limiting the justice’s terms, to curb their promiscuous extremism. And employees better not walk out at any time inconvenient for the president, or they’ll receive the railroad workers treatment, as Biden gets on the phone with the appalling Dem congressman Steny Hoyer to corral other legislative reactionaries to smack down a strike.
In Glacier, the supreme court will render its decision come June, while the supposedly impartial justices stay busy measuring labor’s corpse for its coffin. Tough times ahead for unions.