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labor Oklahoma Senator Driven to Violent Frenzy by Teamsters President

A Capitol Hill hearing highlights how much labor unions have won this year, as well as the Republicans who are furious over it.

On the morning of November 14, during the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s hearing on organized labor’s recent victories, the junior Republican senator from Oklahoma, Markwayne Mullin, yowled at Teamsters president Sean O’Brien over tweets from earlier this year.

“If you want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults and we can finish it here,” Mullin said. Moments later, O’Brien responded with a taunt, saying, “Stand your butt up.” Mullin obliged, but as he adjusted his wedding ring, apparently with an intention to brawl on the committee floor, HELP chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) ordered Mullin to sit down. “You’re a United States senator,” Sanders said.

Mullin and O’Brien’s feud, while amusing, was only a side plot to what has been an incredibly successful year for organized labor. Before the dustup, labor leaders including UAW president Shawn Fain, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson, and O’Brien were invited by Sen. Sanders to share how “historic union victories” were won “all in the face of unprecedented corporate greed and unlawful union-busting tactics.”

Republicans limply attempted to respond with conservative intellectuals. The HELP Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), invited Heritage Foundation economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Sean Higgins, a researcher for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which hosted an Elvis-themed gala in September. But few noticed.

This year, approximately 340,000 Teamsters employed by UPS ratified a new five-year contract that, on the highest end, increased wages and benefits for senior drivers to $170,000 a year. Lesser-compensated UPS Teamsters saw considerable wage gains too. The hourly floor went up to $21 an hour from a mid-teens figure before. But aside from the contractual gains, the Teamsters’ militancy throughout the UPS negotiations is a preview of how the union plans to take on Amazon. As Amazon has reduced its reliance on third parties for shipping, the Teamsters see that as an opportunity to make headway into the notoriously anti-union behemoth.

“Workers in Amazon are twice as likely to be injured on the job. Workers in Amazon are under constant surveillance and fear of losing their jobs,” O’Brien said at the hearing. “This is a contract that sets the tone of what’s happening in the labor movement today.”

Meanwhile, the UAW has secured a tentative agreement with the Big Three automakers, which the union has touted as a “record contract.” The details are complex, but overall the agreement moves toward eliminating tiered wage systems entirely, as well as ensuring wage gains that recover losses dating back to the financial crisis of 2008. More importantly, the tentative agreement sets up the scaffolding needed for the UAW to apply its master contract to the manufacturing of electric vehicles. Organizing will still require a lot of legwork; however, the notion that EV facilities are legally excluded from the UAW’s core operations has been dismissed.

While overall, union density is still at a low, it’s clear union leaders are capitalizing on the new labor landscape.

However, a Ford factory in Kentucky and two GM factories in Michigan have voted against the tentative agreement. So far, momentum for ratification still seems likely, but growing dissatisfaction could complicate the final results of this round of negotiations. Fain has touted these offers as every dollar UAW negotiators could have scrapped; however, he has said that the final decision is up to the rank and file.

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“In the 50 years before I was hired, my union fought through massive discrimination,” AFA president Sara Nelson said. She explained how following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, job cuts followed. “Crisis capitalists were already plotting to break our union contracts and redefine the value of our jobs.”

She further explained the pressures aviation felt at the onset of the pandemic: “We fought for and won the historic workers-first relief program, the payroll support program … Our plan saved our jobs, our airlines, and with the help of nearly every senator on this committee.”

The two conservative witnesses invited by Sen. Cassidy, by contrast, focused their attention on blaming the UAW and the Teamsters for embracing the EV transition, and supposedly bankrupting the already financially distressed Yellow trucking company. Furchtgott-Roth said, “Union corruption is endemic and Americans don’t like it. Teamsters drove Yellow trucking into bankruptcy with a loss of 30,000 jobs.”

Furchtgott-Roth’s remarks, particularly over the EV transition, were a half-truth, baked in service of undermining organized labor writ large. It’s true that the nature of EVs will radically alter the supply chains of the automotive industry and its ancillary markets, particularly parts suppliers and repair services. But the UAW’s ability to pull select joint-venture battery facilities under the master agreement thwarts a race-to-the-bottom approach that the automakers had been embarking on thus far.

Of course, unions are looking out for their membership. But Furchtgott-Roth’s depiction of the UAW paints a ridiculous picture in which unions are somehow forcing through a transition to electric vehicles. In reality, the decarbonization of the entire economy via electrification is already in motion.

Notably, Sean Higgins, Cassidy’s other guest witness, pointed out that a tight labor market benefits workers—a sign of a strong economy. He said: “We’ve seen over the last year and a half what happens when employers are put in a position of having to compete for workers, wages rise, and benefits expand on their own.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) followed up on Higgins’s testimony, asking whether increased strike activity had deleterious effects on the economy. Higgins responded: “I don’t know that they’ve had much of an impact as of yet. But certainly the increases in pay is going to increase the problem of a potential wage price spiral and that could increase inflation itself.”

Taken together, Furchtgott-Roth and the other conservatives laid out a case arguing the former bankruptcies of the Big Three, and the recent one of Yellow, as evidence against enacting the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. “In our highly competitive economy with 9.6 million unfilled jobs, workers have many options and shouldn’t be forced by the PRO Act to pay union dues and fund failing union pension plans. Workers don’t trust union leaders.”

Alas, in a divided Congress, Furchtgott-Roth, union leaders, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike all know a PRO Act is unpassable at present.

Tuberville also asked Fain about the prospects of union jobs in the EV industry. Fain responded: “We believe in a green economy,” adding that the UAW negotiated over other components of EVs and had brought internal combustion engine jobs that had been offshored in previous years back to the United States.

Digs at organized labor aside, yesterday’s hearing magnified the strange dynamics of the post-pandemic economy. While overall, union density is still at a low, it’s clear union leaders are capitalizing on the new labor landscape. Add contractual bargaining and wins in the midst of the transition to a greener economy into the mix, and suddenly the old anti-union slurs have no strength left in them.