Students For Labor (SFL) is a new student club at Boise State interested in educating students on the importance of organized labor and how to participate in working-class politics.
Aaron Liu is a junior sociology major minoring in labor studies and became a member of SFL this semester. Liu said that SFL has been working in conjunction with the Idaho Labor Party Organizing Committee (ILPOC) to help spread its newspaper publication “The Field Hand,” which features letters written by Idahoan union members.
“Our goal is to educate the next generation of Idaho’s working class about their rights and abilities as workers to collectively organize for a better future,” Aaron Liu said.
SFL has also worked with other labor-friendly organizations involved with the ILPOC and have been active within local labor councils of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States.
Part of SFL’s goal is to popularize the idea of the creation of their own political party separate from that of the Democrat or Republican Party.
“We view an independent party made up of and beholden to the interests of workers as being the only way to fight back against the landlords and developers, who are helping push Idahoans to the depths of economic desperation,” Liu said.
Some of the issues Students For Labor are concerned with are Idaho’s increasingly unaffordable cost of living, low wages and “right to work” laws which have helped cripple unions.
“Right to work” is a carefully worded law that, despite its name, does not give workers a guaranteed right to a job. The laws are used to kneecap unions by allowing workers who are employed at union jobs to opt out of paying dues or joining the company’s union.
“You used to have to pay what they call ‘fair share dues’ which was less than the dues a member would pay, but this portion would go toward collective bargaining,” said Martin Orr, professor of sociology and director of labor studies at Boise State. “In a lot of states they’ve taken advantage of these rights to work laws which Idaho passed in 1986 … It takes resources away from the union and makes things much more difficult for them.”
Orr also said that large companies, such as Walmart, Starbucks and Amazon, will spy on workers attempting to organize unions, show anti-union videos on the job, illegally fire organizers and hire companies that specialize in union busting.
According to a 2019 estimate by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), employers spend roughly $340 million annually on “union avoidance” consultants to help them avert union elections.
Liu said the weakness of organized labor in Idaho is a large reason why Idaho still has a $7.25 minimum wage, and such weakness is used as leverage over vulnerable workers, particularly undocumented farm and dairy workers.
Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said the dairy industry is made up of about 90% immigrant workers and that many of Idaho’s dairy workers are undocumented, via the Idaho Statesman.
“Being undocumented further strains the ability of people trying to provide for their family to stand up for themselves on the job in cases of harassment, let alone bargain for higher wages,” Liu said.
According to the Idaho Press, Idaho’s 2018 median wage, which was released in May of 2019, ranked 43rd in the nation.
Members of Students For Labor attended the Jan. 29 potluck at the old Ada County courthouse in solidarity with Boise’s unhoused population.
“We got off campus and into the streets, demanding justice for those who are victims of an economy that increasingly pushes working people off the job site, out of their homes and into the streets,” Liu said.
Orr said it’s important to note that the wins coming out of the labor movement have been enjoyed by the population at large, not just union workers.
“One of the things that unions have done is reduce the workday from 12 to eight hours. The five-day week and the weekend are products of the labor movement,” Orr said. “Teacher unions have pushed for smaller classrooms, better funding, more resources for students, so our public education system is better for the fact that it is largely unionized … thank the labor movement that we’re not working in the sort of factories that we worked in [during] the 19th century.”