With its swath of shuttered shops, empty cafes, dwindling crowds and shimmering seaside vistas, San Francisco’s Embarcadero resembles an abandoned amusement park in the post-pandemic era, but a century ago this tourist attraction was known as the “slave market,” where dozens of longshoremen would gather each weekday hoping to land a job loading and unloading the freighters docked in the bay. Seldom were there enough jobs to go around, however, and the hiring boss who was assigned by the shipping companies to choose the daily work crews would often go about the task with the same contemptuous air that an overseer might display while inspecting chattel slaves at auction, sneering as he rejected some longshoremen while doling out preferential treatment to others, many of whom had agreed to kick back a portion of their wages to him.
Despite the Biden administration’s decision to terminate the national Public Health Emergency Declaration on May 11, COVID-19 has continued to spread and mutate, leaving millions dead around the world and millions of others chronically ill, permanently disabled, and/or immunocompromised. The pandemic itself, and the botched responses to it by powerful state and market actors (including, and especially, the United States), have inflicted irreversible damage upon our societies, and that damage has been disproportionately felt by marginalized, poor, and working-class people. But the many injustices working people have had to endure during the pandemic, and the many sacrifices we have had to make, have also played a direct role in galvanizing the emerging wave of worker organizing and the renewed labor militancy we are currently witnessing.
Hadley, Massachusetts - Picture a sprawling suburban strip mall, and Route 9 in this Western Massachusetts town may come to mind. The busy commercial corridor is dotted with curb strips and parking lots, with neatly painted lines and weeds pushing through cracks in the asphalt. National brands fill the low-lying storefronts one after another: Home Depot, Whole Foods, Marshalls, ULTA. But a half-mile stretch of the roadway between Amherst and Northampton is unusual for one reason: It has become a hotbed for labor activism. Starting last year, workers at three big-box stores — Trader Joe’s, Barnes & Noble, and Michaels — formed unions in and around the Mountain Farms mall.
Following the announcement that 99.47% of American Airlines (AA) flight attendants across the U.S. voted to authorize a strike if company officials fail to agree to a 35% wage increase, workers outside Philadelphia Airport’s Terminal A West on Aug. 30, jumped up and yelled in unison, raising and waving their picket signs that said it all: “Ready to Strike!” Members of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, who haven’t had a wage increase since 2019, also picketed in front of over nine airport terminals from Los Angeles’ LAX to Boston’s BOS on the same day. The vote and widespread picketing “made it clear to American management that we are fired up, unified, and standing together for a contract with significant improvements to compensation, retirement, scheduling flexibility, and more.
More than 323,000 workers – including nurses, actors, screenwriters, hotel cleaners and restaurant servers – walked off their jobs during the first eight months of 2023. Hundreds of thousands of the employees of delivery giant UPS would have gone on strike, too, had they not reached a last-minute agreement. And nearly 150,000 autoworkers may go on a strike of historic proportions in mid-September if the United Autoworkers Union and General Motors, Ford and Stellantis – the company that includes Chrysler – don’t agree on a new contract soon. This crescendo of labor actions follows a relative lull in U.S. strikes and a decline in union membership that began in the 1970s.
Over the past year, workers have seen our lives irrevocably changed. The Supreme Court’s landmark Dobbs decision gutted a fundamental right to bodily autonomy and plunged millions into crisis and uncertainty. Almost immediately, a litany of horror stories emerged. Doctors denying life saving care for fear of retribution; women trapped with their abusers or killed for accessing abortion care; children — already subjected to unspeakable violence — forced to seek the procedure in the shadows, lest they bear children of their own. Since the ruling, 14 states have implemented full abortion bans, and several others are working tirelessly to restrict access.
The heat was scorching in Louisville, Kentucky, last Thursday. But what the windless day lacked in gusts, it made up in guts. The union-made placards read: “United for a Strong Contract.” That resonated with auto workers at Ford who hadn’t been part of a contract rally for as long as anyone can remember. And the picket line came alive when they broke away from the tedious repetition of “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!” and used their own chants. “We ready, we ready, we ready for a strike…” An auto worker led a syncopated chorus, breaking the monotony of the boring chants printed on the back of their placards.
The next great general strike to captivate the United States will not be organized — it’ll be organic. And it could be the most transformative general strike this country has ever seen. Right now, the head of the Transport Workers Union of America is threatening to shut down the second-largest commuter railroad in the nation; striking SAG-AFTRA and WGA members want to break up Hollywood; and militants within the UAW are still keen on bringing the Big Three automakers to their knees. Add to that mix, increasingly-fed up Starbucks baristas and Amazon warehouse workers unable to organize or get a union contract.
The recent uptick in labor organizing has prompted not only a rise in strikes, but also the return of an old labor weapon: the boycott. While boycott campaigns generally have a mixed record at best, this tactic was used successfully in the recent unionization and first contract victories at Burgerville in Oregon as well as Spot Coffee in upstate New York — a campaign that set the stage for the subsequent Starbucks upsurge. Raising the slogan, “No Contract, No Field Trips,” unionizing workers at Medieval Times in New Jersey and California are now linking up with K-12 teachers to boycott the company until it stops its alleged union-busting.
It is said that history is written by the winners. But when it comes to big wins by organized labor, the corporate news media, itself fighting unionization at all costs, tends to ignore unions even when they are shaping history. Missing from much of the coverage about Ohio voters’ rejection of the Republican legislature’s attempt to raise the threshold for voter approval needed to amend the state constitution from a simple majority to 60 percent — was the central role organized labor played in mobilizing and helping to defeat the scheme. In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the Republican legislature pushed through some of the nation’s most draconian restrictions on abortion.
In a recent conversation with an otherwise well-informed young labor activist, I made a passing reference to Change to Win, a national labor federation formed in 2005 by defectors from the AFL-CIO. “Change to what?” she asked. “Never heard of it.” Her response was not surprising, given the short shelf life of the organizational brand in question. Launched with much media fanfare, Change to Win initially represented 5.5 million workers, about one-fifth of the AFL’s total membership. Its founders—the Service Employees, Teamsters, Carpenters, Laborers, United Farm Workers, Food and Commercial Workers, and UNITE-HERE—saw themselves as the second coming of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)
Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu met union leaders on the first day of a nationwide strike called by unions to protest against a fuel subsidy removal that has led to higher pump price of petrol, the head of the main labour federation has said. Since being sworn into office on May 29, President Tinubu has embarked on a series of economic reforms, scrapping the popular but expensive subsidy, which cost $10bn last year, and relaxing the foreign exchange regime. While the reforms have been welcomed by investors, unions say they have led to soaring costs at a time when Nigerians are already grappling with the highest inflation in nearly two decades.
Why is it that unions, the only things that exist to do new union organizing, do not organize enough new union members? Unions will tell you that there are many reasons — hostile labor laws, corporate union-busting, difficult political climates. There is some truth to all of these explanations, but they are also a bit like stopping and sitting down while a wild dog is chasing you, because running is tiring. Sure it is, but that’s not much consolation when you’re dead. There always have been, and always will be, political and corporate forces hostile to unions. That does not change the fact that unions must find a way to organize, or else die.
340,000 workers, members of the Teamsters Union, worked tirelessly during the worst of the COVID pandemic. Despite exhaustion from overwork, disease, and family tragedies, they saved lives by delivering packages to those quarantined. Meanwhile, bosses at UPS lived in luxury as profits soared to $56.3 billion from 2019 to 2023. In 2023 alone, UPS says it will spend $3 billion in stock buybacks and $5.4 billion in dividends. Every penny of that profit is due to the labor of the workers. The current contract expires in less than five weeks. Every day the company delays making a realistic offer to the union, the closer workers come to a strike authorized by 97% of the rank-and-file who voted.