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Law Students on Workers' Rights Series

Inflation and Systemic Deficiencies Will Challenge Workers To Maintain Momentum 

August 9, 2022

By Charles Murphy 

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

Organized labor is undoubtedly having its most prolonged moment in the sun in decades. Workers are unionizing across the country at major companies like Amazon and Starbucks, a herculean task, and are riding the largest swell of support from the American public since 1965.

With the current labor-positive climate, workers should be in an ideal position to expand workplace protections and demand better conditions. To make lasting gains, however, unions and labor advocates will have to contend with challenges both immediate and chronic, namely inflation, the long-term limitations of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and an increasingly anti-labor Supreme Court. 

Despite a generational increase in wages, runaway inflation is squeezing family budgets across the nation, threatening to derail the current labor-positive climate. Corporate America has been quick to capitalize on inflationary pressures to both rake in record profits and blame price hikes for consumers partly on increased labor costs. 

These price hikes have the added effect of working as a de facto messaging campaign against unionization efforts, especially by companies who own media outlets that can trumpet who is at fault for higher prices. If companies can successfully paint labor demands as a primary reason for higher costs, pro-union sentiment may erode. 

Additionally, with inflation draining an estimated average of $300 a month from family budgets, we may see a lack of support for unionization efforts among workers who are wary of paying union dues and already struggling to make ends meet. Inflation is wiping out many wage gains earned over the last two years and will remain an active challenge for labor organizers seeking to keep momentum and solidarity high among workers. 

Inflation is not only a significant hurdle for workers but for the board responsible for protecting their right to unionize in the first place. The NLRB is tasked with protecting workers from the kinds of union-busting efforts currently underway at companies like Starbucks and Amazon but has been underfunded and understaffed for years. Inflation is exacerbating these staffing issues, limiting the ability of NLRB lawyers to respond to worker claims and slow-rolling votes to form new unions. Despite having the most pro-union Presidential administration in recent memory, workers will undoubtedly feel the cumulative effects of long-term political neglect at the NLRB as it weighs on their ability to form new unions and hold employers accountable for unfair labor practices. 

The political nature of the NLRB also creates a perpetual back-and-forth between pro-worker and anti-labor rulings that labor must contend with. Although plaintiff employment attorneys have struggled to win relief for workers over the last several years of a Republican-controlled NLRB, workers are hopeful a new administration can balance the scales. The NLRB’s current general counsel, Democratic appointee Jennifer Abruzzo, is seeking to undo years of anti-worker rulings at the agency and return to the long-forgotten doctrine of Joy Silk Mills (a verdict far more punitive to companies engaging in union-busting than the current Gissel doctrine). Her efforts may not last long, though, as any anti-labor rulings she can overturn will almost certainly be challenged in a heavily conservative U.S. Supreme Court. 

The Court has not been friendly to labor over the past several years, with rulings in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, and Thole v. U.S. Bank favoring property owners’ rights over workers, limiting the ability of laborers to be monetarily compensated for employer-required security procedures, and weakening an employee’s right to sue to protect a retirement plan respectively. 

These rulings, and many others, portend a perilous future for any positive gains that workers may be able to win in the near future. Without legislation like the PRO Act codifying worker protections into law, any administrative wins for labor are likely to be temporary. 

It will take every ounce of grassroots activism, political power, and solidarity for organized labor to overcome inflation, NLRB shortcomings, and the current Supreme Court. Workers may become apathetic with so many layers of resistance, but they certainly cannot afford to. The existing mechanisms for protecting workers are badly in need of revamping, and that can only happen in a climate of increased labor activism. Unions and labor activists must maintain or even exceed current efforts to organize and sell the public on the idea that unions are the perfect vessel to rebuild the American middle class. 

Momentum is currently on labor’s side, but how it is harnessed in the coming months will determine the direction of workers’ rights for the foreseeable future. 

Reflections from Charles Joseph

The future of workers’ rights remains uncertain, as Charles Murphy demonstrates. Inflation hurts workers’ budgets while rising labor costs bear the blame––in spite of the fact that wage theft disproportionately hits the lowest paid workers. 

In addition to protections against wrongful termination and hostile work environments, workers need to harness their momentum, as Murphy argues, to protect their futures. As we build on our current employment protections, we must also make it easier for workers to hold their employers accountable.

Charles Murphy holds a bachelor’s degree from Emerson College and has a decade of experience working on film sets. He is also a member of the International Cinematographer’s Guild. Murphy will join the USC Gould School of Law class of 2025 in the fall. Contact Murphy on LinkedIn

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience as an NYC employment lawyer. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $140 million for clients.

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