To build a new labor movement, lay the right foundations

This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant

Guest Opinion Emmett Doyle

Between the “Great Resignation” and “Striketober,” 2021 was heralded by some observers as the revival of the American labor movement. It has been a hopeful year, but it has not yet brought the reversal of fortune that our labor movement needs. We need to build a movement that’s ready for the job of fighting for workers in this globalized economy.

Many of the largest strikes last year took place in industrial manufacturing workplaces, such as the assembly lines of John Deere and the food processing plants of Kellogg. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of 11 large-scale, blue-collar strikes in 2021, eight of them were in manufacturing, one in coal mining, one in trucking, and one in construction. These are industries that were once strongholds of organized labor, but they have seen reduced union activity in recent decades.Some of the most stunning union campaigns in recent years have been waged by educators and healthcare workers. These industries are sure to play a key part in an emerging labor movement.  The strikes of 2021 show that a willingness to take collective action is also returning to blue-collar workforces across the U.S.

At the same time, the “Great Resignation” has evolved into collective action. Resignation rates reached record numbers in April 2021 and have climbed higher since, increasing wages as employers in these industries struggle to attract workers at previously lower rates of pay. Workers who’ve quit tend to be from younger generations. The wave of resignations has been driven mostly by non-unionized workers in sectors like food, hospitality, child care and retail work. This is especially evident in the so-called “pink collar,” low-pay service industries typically staffed by women.Between the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and November 2021, roughly one in five American healthcare workers quit their jobs. In several cases, these resignations have evolved beyond individual actions and become acts of collective protest, with the entire staff of a workplace quitting at once. At the same time, workers who chose to stay in these industries are winning breakthrough union victories. In Buffalo, New York, Starbucks workers won the first-ever union recognition vote within the chain, sparking a wave of election filings in locations as far afield as Santa Cruz, California. In Portland, Oregon, the Burgerville Workers Union affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World was the first in the fast food industry to negotiate a union contract.  

This revival has been long-awaited by those who have watched the power of labor decline in America. Following the strike waves of the 1930s to 1940s and the passing of laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, Union labor in America once represented around 35% of the workforce. This created pathways for the formal recognition of unions and regulations around struggles between labor and management. Unions entered a sharp decline in the late 1970s as a result of both globalization and a sustained campaign by corporate interests against organized labor.New transport and communication technologies and trade deals like NAFTA have enabled companies to outsource manufacturing overseas, turning the Steel Belt into the Rust Belt. Employer associations in various industries, from construction to manufacturing, have made concerted efforts to push unions out of power in their sectors of the economy. Many union officials responded by agreeing to concessionary contracts, which undermined worker confidence in our unions.

Today, just 10.3% of U.S. workers are union members, including only 6.1% of private sector workers. Adding to this, wages and productivity in the U.S. have become completely uncoupled. Between 1979 and 2020, the productivity of the average American worker rose 61.8%,  while hourly compensation adjusted for inflation rose only 17.5%. The great increase in wealth that American workers produced went mostly to shareholders and management, contributing to the steadily increasing wealth gap. As of 2021, according to Federal Reserve data, the top 1% of Americans control around 16 times more wealth than the bottom 50%.

As inspiring as last year’s struggles have been for labor, workers cannot afford to overlook the big picture of labor’s decline—or the deeper work that will need to be done to reverse that decline in a lasting way. To build a stronger labor movement, workers in the U.S. would do well to look towards four basic principles: industrial organization, militant job action, union democracy and international solidarity.

Currently, many campaigns in new industries focus on winning a National Labor Relations Board election—the vote that workers can take to have the union recognized by law in their shop—in a single workplace. If the election is a failure, the union loses its toe-hold in the industry. If it is a success, it may have a single shop, but that shop is an isolated union presence in a largely non-union industry. This often means that the improvements the union can negotiate are limited, because the norms for the industry are still set by the non-union workplaces. Unions have more power when we build what is called “union density” within the industry. Just like you have more power in your workplace if your coworkers are organized, you have more bargaining power as a unionized workforce if a critical mass of your industry is organized. As a labor movement, we need to plan for the long-term—not limiting ourselves to winning recognition in single shops but building a lasting presence on the job sites throughout an industry.

Additionally, we need to remember that organization is like a muscle; it withers if we don’t use it. Our strength as workers is that we make production happen—and we can stop production too. A strike is a test of our strength as organized workers. That strength can be built by keeping active in lower levels of struggle on the job from day to day. Workers have invented dozens of creative forms of disruption that can be used, whether by a “phone zap” calling campaign to the manager’s office, a slow-down at a choke point in the production process, or even following the rules at work so carefully and meticulously that work itself grinds to a standstill. Keeping a culture of standing up for one another at work gives us the strength, confidence and experience to win in a strike when the chips are down.

Third, unions must be in control of the rank and file—the dues-paying workers on the job who have to live and work under whatever contract is reached in negotiations. Union workers are familiar with the pattern where paid union officers and staff are willing to reach deals with management even when the workers are ready to stay on the picket line.There are signs of a change towards greater union democracy coming. Members of the United Auto Workers passed a referendum to directly elect their highest officers, sparking hopes that the long-standing “Administration Caucus” will be unseated. In the Teamsters, a reform slate led by Sean O’Brien has defeated the slate backed by former president James Hoffa Jr., and promises a more militant stance in upcoming UPS contract negotiations. In the carpenters union, a strike in the Pacific Northwest saw a rank and file movement challenge regional council leadership, forcing international leadership to step in and remove the former head of the council.

Finally, the American labor movement needs to form partnerships with workers around the world. Workers in union strongholds have spent decades working under the threat of outsourced jobs to India, China, Mexico and other countries that have been historically under-developed as a result of colonialism. At the same time, the extension of supply chains between these countries means that workers on opposite sides of the earth now have the ability to act in solidarity with one another like never before. Globalization has forced workers and countries into a “race to the bottom,” competing with one another to attract manufacturing jobs. By organizing internationally, we can instead build power from the bottom up to improve our wages and conditions. A strong labor movement is one that can hit multinational companies at multiple struggling sites along the supply chain.
These are not changes that the labor movement can make overnight. There is incredible pressure from existing labor laws, union-busting corporate tactics and entrenched officials within the unions to any kind of rebirth of worker power. But the first step for workers looking to build our power is to get involved in the labor movement.

About the author: Emmett Doyle is a union carpenter, a labor activist, and a former organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World.