How transformative was the strike that the United Auto Workers concluded in November 2023, when it shut down factories at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, which now incorporates Chrysler? The UAW has been in existence for nearly 90 years, during which three contests with capital have defined the character of the union and–because of its vanguard role–the expectations and standards for millions of other workers. Should we add last Fall’s brilliantly led and highly successful “stand-up” strike to that list? The great sit-down strikes of 1937 founded the UAW and ensured that, for more than a decade, shop militancy and leftwing politics would define a union representing upwards of a million workers in America’s most important industry.
Seven national unions and over two hundred local unions today announce the formation of the National Labor Network for Ceasefire (NLNC) to “end the death and devastation” in the Middle East, and to expand support for the ceasefire among unions nationally. Together, unions calling for a ceasefire represent over 9 million union members – more than half the labor movement in the United States. The NLNC launch comes on the heels of a statement calling for a ceasefire released by the AFL-CIO last week - the largest federation of unions in the United States. The NLNC is launching their website (laborforceasefire.org) with a call for unions and union members to sign the ceasefire letter to continue expanding labor’s ceasefire movement.
Unions added 139,000 more workers in historic gains in 2023, but union density remains stubbornly low, with only 10 percent of American workers represented by a union as of the end of the year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This is an all-time low and a big surprise to many, given the historic strikes by auto workers, Hollywood creatives and Kaiser healthcare workers, according to a Washington Post analysis. Union density vs. union membership is a frustrating comparison. Even with the historic membership growth, the country added 2.7 million jobs in 2023, many of them non-union, meaning the membership growth couldn’t keep up with the overall jobs numbers.
Changing the leadership, structure, or functioning of any U.S. labor organization is no easy task. Activists and experts have long argued about whether dysfunctional unions are best reformed from the top-down, bottom-up, or some mix of the two approaches. For the past 65 years, the main locus of union democracy and reform struggles in the U.S. has been local unions, which hold leadership elections every three years and are closest to the membership. Thousands of rank-and-file workers have campaigned for more militant unionism by running for and winning local office. Some have had the backing of national networks of like-minded dissidents, including Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a TDU-inspired reform caucus within the United Auto Workers.
This spring, thousands of workers across Minnesota will have expired contracts all at the same time. Among them are healthcare workers, janitors, security officers, airport workers, construction workers, educators, education support professionals, and public workers. Organizers within Minnesota’s labor movement are making use of this unique moment to exert joint pressure on employers across sectors to meet workers’ demands. Over the past decade, unions and community groups in Minnesota have been creating partnerships with a shared analysis of power, and holding employers and leaders accountable, all while building an alignment strategy that they say grows their organizations and wins more for their members.
On Thursday, the AFL-CIO called for a ceasefire in Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. The statement came after months of silence, during which the largest union federation in the United States had gone as far as to force a Washington-based labor council to remove its ceasefire resolution. The AFL-CIO’s call shows that the movement for Palestine and rank-and-file ceasefire organizing has forced labor to shift its position on the assault — and this movement must go further. The AFL-CIO’s statement comes after more than 28,000 Palestinians — 40 percent of whom are children — have been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Labor Power and Strategy, the new book edited by Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek, officially aims to provide “rational, radical, experience-based perspectives that help target and run smart, strategic, effective campaigns in the working class.” But by the end of it, it is difficult to avoid the sneaking suspicion that Olney and Perušek have a different goal: to make clear just how far organized labor is from having a strategic conversation about its present impasse. The book is organized around an interview with economist and historian John Womack about the twin needs for an analysis of the weak points (or “choke points”) in contemporary industrial technologies and for the labor movement to exploit that analysis to cause disruption and gain leverage.
The share of U.S. workers who belong to a union fell slightly to 10% in 2023, from 10.1% a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a scholar of organized labor, I’m not shocked by this slight decline, although if there was ever a year to expect the unionization rate to increase, it was 2023. Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation that unites 60 unions, has proclaimed 2023 “the year of labor.” She wasn’t exaggerating. Successful walkouts by Hollywood actors and screenwriters, autoworkers and health care professionals demonstrated how effective strikes can be in achieving union gains.
Sixty years after Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association, agricultural workers—especially migrants—continue to be subjected to widespread abuses, including wage theft and dangerous working conditions, due to lax enforcement of labor regulations, concerted efforts by employers to skirt the rules that are in place and a political-economic system that favors employers. Despite these challenges, labor organizations have helped farmworkers stand up for themselves and together with other workers, with some success. Although migrants working temporary and seasonal jobs on farms are legally protected by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) under the H-2A visa program, legal protection does not necessarily translate into workplace protections, especially absent a union presence.
The labor movement is rightfully celebrating recent contract victories by the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America, which together cover nearly 650,000 workers. An essential thread uniting the campaigns is that the top union officers were all directly elected by the members, a basic democratic right denied to many union members in the United States. As other unions seek to learn lessons from these historic contract fights, a key takeaway is that a vibrant democratic process—“one member, one vote”—is crucial to a revitalized labor movement.
The Coalition of Labor Union Women president Elise Bryant and Executive Director Virginia Rodino recently spoke at a press conference for a Permanent Ceasefire. President Bryant told the crowd in front of the White House, "When armed conflict erupts, it is women and girls who pay the highest price. "We in CLUW and the entire labor movement are relieved to see Israeli civilian hostages and Palestinian political prisoners returning home to their families. We are fighting for a world in which all families can be together. The only way to actually achieve that—to stop this violence—is through a permanent ceasefire now.
The First Weekend of November, 2023, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) held its annual convention at a hotel near O’Hare Airport outside of Chicago. It was the 48th convention since the rank-and-file union reform movement’s founding in 1976. The mood was confident and upbeat, with organizers announcing an attendance of 500 Teamster members from across the country. It was the largest TDU convention since 1997. The Friday dinner banquet speaker was Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien, who took stock of what his administration had accomplished since taking office in March 2022.
Strikes and threats of strikes extracted contracts ranging from good to excellent from employers across the country this year. Half a million U.S. workers walked out — machinists, teachers, baristas, nurses, hotel housekeepers and autoworkers — with much of the motion coming from unions led by reformers. The year started out with a squeaker of an election victory that turned out to be momentous. In late 2022, the Members United slate swept most top offices at the United Auto Workers (UAW) on a platform of “No Concessions, No Corruption, No Tiers.” March saw a presidential runoff pitting the old guard incumbent against an obscure Kokomo, Indiana, electrician and union rep named Shawn Fain.