Union leaders O’Brien, Nelson, Fain to Senate: Unionization battles corporate greed
Teamsters President Sean O'Brien testifies on the value of unions at the U.S. Senate. Teamsters photo.

WASHINGTON—Labor’s renewed activism and unionizing nationally not only wins battles for workers but also combats corporate greed and increasing income inequality, Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson told senators in mid-November.

Fain summed up the progress by declaring, “In the past six months, we have begun to turn the tide in that class war—for the American worker.”

The three presidents detailed how unions benefit workers, including non-union workers, at a Senate Labor Committee hearing. Panel chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., is holding a series of sessions to bring corporations to account for their economic exploitation of workers.

Fain noted massive public support, as shown by opinion polls and out on the streets, for unionists standing up and fighting for better lives for themselves and their families. The support, he noted, extended all the way up to Democratic President Joe Biden, the first president ever to walk a picket line, with UAW.

O’Brien noted the corporate chieftains tried every trick in their book to alienate consumers from workers and demonize unions. They failed.

“Throughout the bargaining process, corporate interest groups and their representatives used all the expected fear tactics to try to convince the public and government officials at all levels that paying UPS Teamsters their fair share would harm the economy, consumers, and small businesses.

“As usual, some in Congress took the bait, but none of that fearmongering was accurate.”

Rank-and-file UPS Teamsters sacrificed everything to get this country through a pandemic and enabled UPS to reap record-setting profits. Teamsters at UPS demanded their fair share of those profits, which they earned through their hard work.”

And Nelson linked the fight for workers and their rights to the fight for democracy.

“There are no red, blue, purple, green, or any other color states,” Nelson said. “Every state is a working-class state. If we want a free society where everyone can thrive we need the kind of working-class moral clarity with clear demands that came from the picket lines” by the long list of workers—including AFA members—who stood up for themselves and their rights.

“America needs to support the rights of workers and the people do. More than ever before in our history the public understands this and finds common cause in fighting corporate greed and demanding shared prosperity and shared productivity as technology advances.”

But workers would be even better off with the passage of the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, other legislation cracking down on monopolistic and anti-competitive practices by corporate behemoths and honchos, curbs on executive pay, and a ban on corporate ability to use union-busters and to deduct that expense from their taxes, the three—particularly O’Brien—added.

That’s particularly needed because the concentration of wealth at the top of the income ladder leads to a concentration of political power, too. Citing the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis, they reported families in the top 10% of income and wealth held 72 % of total wealth, and families in the top 1% held more than one-third; families in the bottom half held only 2% of total wealth.

Meanwhile, worker productivity increased almost four times as much (61.8%) as workers’ incomes (17.5%) over the last four decades, while executive pay and perks skyrocketed by (1460%). The profits went into the executives’ pockets, the three union leaders added.

“The extreme consolidation of wealth and power in this country is a crisis that deserves Congress’s immediate and full attention,” said O’Brien, seconding a theme Labor Committee Chair Sanders hits often both in committee hearings and elsewhere.

Workers not waiting for Congress

But workers aren’t waiting anymore for Congress to act, O’Brien added. They’re taking matters into their own hands, by taking to the streets and gaining public approval, too, “to improve their standard of living, stay safe and have a voice at work by organizing and building worker power.”

Nelson agreed with her colleagues, but also provided a practical example of how effective legislation, if and when it’s enforced, helps workers. Harking back to the massive shutdowns of the airline industry due to the pandemic, she again described for the senators—and gave full credit to some Republicans, notably Mississippi’s Roger Wicker—for the Payroll Support Program enacted as part of congressional rescues of workers thrown out of jobs by the modern-day plague.

Nelson took the lead in inserting the PSP into the legislation approving billions of dollars in federal subsidies to keep planes flying and the two million workers, including flight attendants, pilots, mechanics, and ground personnel, on the job. The PSP, which Oregon native Nelson worked out with then-House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., put conditions on those dollars: No layoffs, limits on executive pay, no stock buybacks or excessive bonuses.

But as the pandemic subsided and the PSP expired, the airline unions and the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department launched a public campaign to keep those restrictions in place, voluntarily. Three of the nation’s biggest airlines—Southwest, American, and United, all of them unionized, agreed. The non-union airline (except for its pilots), Delta, didn’t. It immediately started laying off workers. That’s prompted a joint AFA-Teamsters-Machinists campaign to organize Delta.

The hearing was briefly thrown off the topic when ultraMAGAite Sen. Markwayne Mullins, R-Okla., a former mixed martial arts champion who parades his physique by going coatless in the committee room, challenged O’Brien to a fight right then and there and got up ready to battle.

Sanders had to repeatedly gavel Mullins to sit down, reminding him he’s a senator, not a cage match combatant. O’Brien kept his cool but was willing to take Mullins on. O’Brien and Fain touted the recent contracts their union members ratified with UPS and the Detroit car companies, respectively. Those four pacts, combined, cover almost half a million workers—and gave them all big raises and benefits unseen in years.

They also forced non-union car companies to play catch-up, UAW’s Fain noted. That’s an example of how unions benefit non-union workers, too.

The week after the UAW agreements, which have since been ratified, non-union car companies Toyota and Honda announced first-year pay hikes virtually equal to those UAW won, as well as promises to cut the time their workers need to move to the top of the scale from eight years to three. UAW had won that, too.

Before the recent wins, corporate “decisions were being made under the guise of ‘helping’ the [car] companies be more competitive. Code word for corporate greed,” Fain said. “Workers got caught on the losing end of a ‘one-sided class war,’” and were “unfairly villainized for all that ailed the Big Three.”

Those decisions led to 65 plants closing in the past 20 years, ruining workers and families and tearing communities apart, he noted. By contrast, in its new contracts, UAW won the right to strike over individual plant closures, and Stellantis—formerly FiatChrysler—signed, in writing, the reopening and expansion of its Belvidere, Ill., plant, which it shut just before talks began.

“All these sacrifices bore by our members were made to help the Big Three stay afloat and remain ‘competitive,’ all to feed corporate greed…With our recent success with the Big Three, our union just showed the world what’s possible when workers unite to fight for more, fight against corporate greed. Workers win.”

While Mullins challenged O’Brien, a Republican witness from the right-wing Heritage Foundation—which is helping construct the dictatorial “platform” for GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump—railed against the PRO Act. Witness Diana Furchgott-Roth also claimed the UAW “missed an opportunity” by not killing electric vehicles in its bargaining with the Detroit automakers. Like the rest of the right, Heritage denies the existence of global warming; UAW doesn’t.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.