Private-sector workers who are members of a union have fallen from 1 in 3 workers in the 1950s to about 1 in 20 today. Politics is about power and the loss of organized worker power has meant a loss in political power for all workers and a loss of wealth, income and benefits.
In recent years, there have been strong signs that labor is getting more organized and militant in fighting for worker rights. They have linked worker issues to other issues, e.g. racial injustice, climate change and creating stronger communities; and are showing signs of resurrection.
Recent years have seen aggressive attacks against workers: pension funds are raided, health benefits are cut or ended, the right to collective bargaining is destroyed and social services are cut. This is dramatic and needs to be reversed. Thankfully, there are strong signs of the revitalized worker movement that we need to see, understand and build on, because workers are in an economic crisis.
The Economic Crisis Confronts the Every Day Life of Workers
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report this month that shows the wealth divide has reached new levels of disparity. The CBO found that the wealthiest top 10% of families with incomes of at least $942,000 now hold 76% of the total wealth and averaged $4 million in wealth. There was not much left for the rest of the population and the remainder of the top half of the population took most of it, 23%, which left only 1% of wealth for the bottom 50%. That bottom 50% can barely pay their bills, has no money for emergencies, no savings, can’t afford to send their children to college and are trapped with great insecurity and no upward mobility . In fact, the bottom 25% of people in the US are, on average, in debt $13,000, the bottom 12% are $32,000 in debt.
Another study looked at the wealth divides by race and showed the United States has another crisis – racial injustice. Based on current trends of economic growth, it would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today – just 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in the United States. At current rates of growth, the next three decades would see white households increase wealth by over $18,000 per year, Latino s would see a $2,250 increase and black households would see only a $750 increase in wealth per year.
Wealth is not the only problem, so is income. The Economic Policy Institute issued a report this week that found workers have had stagnant wages for three and a half decades. And, if you do not have a college education and are a male who is not a member of a union, real wages today are 11% lower than they were in 1979.
People know these statistics, not by the numbers necessarily, but by their experiences. Over 40 million people are in debt for their college education. When a generation or so ago education was affordable, creating debt that people could pay off, today’s youth go into the economy with a heavy debt anchor holding them down. People know it because they cannot get healthcare even when the have insurance which has gotten more expensive with less coverage. They know it because tens of millions are living in poverty, often not knowing where their next meal is coming from. For most people, the reality of these statistics is the reality of their lives.
Standing Up Together and Winning
Out of necessity, caused by the unfair economy and a political system that responds primarily to the demands of the wealthy, people are organizing and mobilizing to stand up for their rights.
The Fight for $15, a movement we cover regularly, has been successfully fighting for a minimum wage and a living wage in multiple cities and states. They are now taking the next step and fighting for a union.
And, unions are escalating their aggressiveness. Verizon workers held a six-week strike of 40,000 workers, which won major concessions. The Verizon strike was about issues that affect many workers – outsourcing of union jobs, over-sized profits for corporations, decreasing services for customers, e.g. Verizon fails to provide high quality fiber optic Internet. And Verizon, like many, is also a corporate tax dodger.
There have also been teacher strikes, sick-outs and threats of strikes as well as student protests on behalf of schools in many cities. Especially inspiring has been the Chicago Teachers Union whose strike was not only about wages, but also about keeping schools open, avoiding policies that undermine the school curriculum and keeping communities tied to their schools. The teachers were essentially fighting for social justice and were joined by their communities, the Fight for $15 activists, Black Lives Matter and former occupiers.
Other cities have included Portland, OR, Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark, Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, and more. Whether the action was a strike or strike vote, or a student walk-out in support of their teachers and schools, a common characteristic was that the action brought communities together against the power structure that was mistreating them. Even at the college level we are seeing students standing up for contract workers who are under paid; and adjunct professors fighting for their rights. There is a lot of anger around education because people see it being privatized and corporatized and that both students and teachers are mistreated. Essentially, corporations are colonizing public schools for profit and people are fighting back.
There is labor unrest at ports where workers have gone on strike up and down the West coast as well as airport workers in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and a nine-city walk out. Amazon workers have gone on strike for better pay and working conditions.
And, we have seen postal workers uniting across their four unions to create a “Grand Alliance” to save to the public Postal Service as new leadership has come in and recognized the need for coordinated action.
These are just a few examples of many more.
This resistance has resulted in victories against government and management of these unions, but there have also been victories in court. The death of Anthony Scalia resulted in a 4-4 vote upholding a court of appeals decision that protected public employee unions. Unions continue to be able to require union members and non-union members to pay “fair share” fees covering collective bargaining costs. Reversal of the court of appeals was considered a death blow to public unions.
The NLRB handed advocates for a living wage for service providers a major victory when it ruled recently that the parent company could be held responsible for employees working at a franchise. This opens the path to a McDonalds union or nationwide contract rather than having to negotiate with each retail outlet.
Another major NLRB decision ruled that an employer may not hire permanent replacements if one or more of its reasons conflicts or interferes with workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). As a result, if workers can show that the hiring of temporary workers will cause strikers to go back to work, teach workers a lesson, or otherwise weaken the walkout, the workers will have a successful case against management. This is a dramatic narrowing of a 1938 Supreme Court decision that allowed the hiring of temporary workers.
Unions are often defeated by business because of the ability of employers to engage in union-busting almost without restriction. This year the Department of Labor closed an important union busting loophole that has existed since 1959. Business could hire anti-union consultants, familiarly known as “persuaders,” without reporting the arrangements. These were often used at captive meetings where workers were persuaded to oppose the union. The new rule ends that practice.
With these increased mobilizations, strikes, walk-outs and protests, business interests are fighting back. They have created propaganda campaigns against unions that peddle information through the media. They even have teams going door-to-door discouraging people to join the movement. Business interests know that if workers are organized, they will build power making it more difficult to limit their wages, benefits and working conditions.
And, there is a serious divide in the labor movement.The neo-liberal labor caucus believes unions should work with big business and corporate interests as well as supporting corporate Democratic candidates. This division in the union movement became evident during the primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. While some unions supported Sanders, e.g. the National Nurses and Communications Workers, four unions endorsed Clinton early on, i.e. Service Employees Union, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Members and locals often felt differently than the nationals and were angry at this endorsement. This divide is a grave danger to the union movement as corporate and government officials know the way to defeat social movements is divide and rule.
The ongoing conflict between workers building power by becoming organized and forming unions against business interests who want to pay low wages and deny benefits continues. Workers across the country are showing they are conscious about this and are organizing and mobilizing for their rights.
Unions Critical to Building the Social Justice Movement
Popular Resistance covers social justice movements every day. The movement is growing and labor is key to continued growth. The linking of the popular movement to growth in unions strengthens both workers and activists. This is happening. During occupy unions offered their offices to occupiers to take showers and provided printing and food. When Michael Bloomberg sought to close the New York encampment, union members came early in the morning, surrounded Zuccotti Park and the police retreated. And, various movements are linking up and supporting union actions.
David Goodner describes this moment as “Resurrection Unionism” where he recognizes the timing of increased union mobilization with the growth of social movements. He points to five essential ingredients to resurrecting unions:
1. New Organizing. Organizing has brought in 1.5 million new union members even as labor unions have lost 3.5 million more. New organizing drives will lead to more union density, which leads to more victories at the workplace and in elections.
2. Internal Organizing. Unions needs to put real money into training their own members to become activists and organizers. He urges setting an ambitious goal to train 1.5 million new worksite leaders by the end of the year, as a step towards rebuilding powerful internal structures.
3. More Worker Centers. Worker Centers and other “alt-labor” groups are effective organizations often funded by unions to fill a niche that industrial labor is unable to handle on their own, particularly in black and immigrant communities. These organizations often lead the Fight for $15 movement and could expand greatly with more union investment.
4. Strike Schools. Reviving the strike is key to rebuilding the labor movement. Many labor unions have all but forgotten how to take effective action on the job, up to and including going on strike. Periods of open labor revolt generally align with large growth in union membership. Strikes work, both to win victories on the job and in the political arena, but also to electrify the working class into re-imagining their power.
5. Civil Disobedience. Federal labor law has made it extremely difficult for unions to go on strike and engage in many other forms of protest, but that didn’t stop labor from organizing before it was legalized in 1933, and it shouldn’t stop them now either. Labor could begin training its members to take action on the job and either refuse to pay the fines and penalties that result from illegal strikes, or raid its campaign war chest for funds instead.
The movement side of labor: Labor Fight Back! has called for increased mobilizations. They point out the history of how social movements win victories and how this has been true in labor history as well. They point to labor and community organizing along with faith groups defeating a 2011 referendum in Ohio that would have abolished collective bargaining for public employees – united they won a 69% landslide victory. They want labor leaders to call for “United, coordinated massive demonstrations should be called by labor, together with our allies . . .”
In fact, workers are allying with social movements. We see it in calls to unite with the anti-racism struggles of Black Lives Matter and the new civil rights movement. People see how black women are driving the rebirth of the labor movement especially in the Fight for $15. Black and Latina women are playing a major role in rebuilding labor because of their unique connections to race, gender and class and their role in churches, schools, families and community. On measures of pay, healthcare and economic security women of color fare worse than whites – lifting their economic agenda, helps everyone.
Longtime labor activists are also seeing how they must work with the climate justice movement – transformation of energy is coming as is climate change. If there is going to be a just transition for workers, labor must be part of the climate struggle, indeed they must be leaders for climate justice. Unions are getting it and forming alliances with the climate movement, e.g. the AFL-CIO endorsed the Copenhagen climate agreement, this is the first agreement they have supported.
This also brings the labor movement into alliance with Indigenous people because a green economy requires such an alliance. An alliance between labor, environmental and climate activists, with the Indigenous and communities of color creates an unstoppable political force.
The Future for Workers Will Be Bright if They Organize and Mobilize
This Labor Day we can look at the reality of the unfair economic system created in part by the successful attack on unions. People are understanding that the destruction of unions has not only been a cost to union workers but to all of us because when workers are not organized, big business runs rampant over worker rights – as they have for decades. We can also see more workers understanding that reality and realizing they must stand up for their economic survival. In addition to the increase in protests, strikes and other actions, there is more work on developing more worker-owned businesses.
We are seeing more creativity in the worker movement and more militancy. If these trends continue, we will all be better off and on future Labor Days the worker activists of today will be heralded as heroes of US history.