Is Momentum Shifting Back to the Labor Movement in the U.S.?


The Fall of 2012 saw a remarkable resurgence of the U.S. labor movement. Not only in electoral campaigns that won victories for numerous pro-labor candidates and propositions, but also in the surge of strikes, direct actions, and organizing campaigns that stood in contrast to the complacency of labor unions in the face of the austerity-driven capitalist offensive.

 

Most notably, this Fall witnessed a number of massive work stoppages, including:  

  • the Chicago teachers’ strike 
  • the Hostess workers’ strike 
  • the Raley’s supermarket strike 
  • the Walmart strikes 
  • the Sutter Health nurses’ strikes (six strikes during this time period) 
  • the Oakland airport and port strikes 
  • Airport workers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and
    Fort Lauderdale holding rallies and protests

 

Also as of late November, strikes have effectively shut down the nation’s largest port complex in Los Angeles and Long Beach over job outsourcing. Plus, unprecedented wildcat strikes have broken out at fast-food restaurants throughout New York City.

 

What has changed in labor since 2009 and 2010? For one, the structure of unions has been turned upside down. As unions face the chopping block from legislators pushing through concessions and right-to-work legislation, the rank-and-file have become increasingly mobilized and politicized. The older complicit, “respectable” leaders have been replaced by radical labor organizers and social movement activists.

 

This trend is most strongly evidenced by the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), which placed in charge a new layer of leaders from the organizing group CORE—composed of socialists and radical labor activists. This is why the union refused to follow the path of other city labor unions and accept concessions. The new organizing leadership of the CTU developed strong ties with the community that led to the huge public support the teachers received during the strike. Teachers also formed ties with veteran activists of the Wisconsin uprising and Occupy Chicago. They implemented more direct action tactics, from disrupting a board meeting to occupying a school. In every action, the teachers made it clear that their strike was part of a broader struggle for poor black and Latino communities most affected by the budget cuts and privatization of public schools. The Chicago teachers’ strike won as a result of this direct militancy from the rank-and-file, as well as overwhelming public support that placed two-sided pressure on Rahm Emanuel.

 

The significance of race and community support is even more apparent in the recent retail industry strikes. The unprecedented Walmart and New York City fast-food strikes were born from the long-term organizing drives of community-labor groups like OUR Walmart and New York Communities For Change. Poor people of color, disproportionately employed in the low-paying, precarious work of the service industry, have been at the center of organizing and launching these strikes.

 

Strike Fever

 

Strike fever has also contributed to the recent wave. In fact, the recent Walmart strikes—unprecedented in the history of the company—were sparked by the Chicago teachers’ strike. The first Walmart strike—the warehouse workers strike in Elwood, Illinois—erupted in the midst of the teachers’ strike, receiving strong community support from teachers and activists from other labor unions. The warehouse workers won following a militant 600-strong protest that led to the arrest of supporters. Other Walmart strikes in warehouses and stores spread like wildfire—all of this in a company that had never experienced a U.S. strike in its 50-year history.

 

The Walmart strikes point to growing working class solidarity among disparate groups of workers. Several years ago, it would have been unthinkable for unskilled, manual, and contractual immigrant workers to receive the support of relatively well-paid, skilled, and highly educated professionals. The two were considered a different class with different interests. The professionals supposedly had way too much to lose to support their underpaid, underemployed counterparts.

 

But the Great Recession and the employer drive to erase any vestige of a highly-paid professional class of workers in the U.S. has led to the unintended consequence of erasing the distinctions between various working class struggles. Workers increasingly view their individual struggles as part of greater working class struggles.

 

This greater class consciousness was also apparent in the Hostess workers’ strike. The bakers drew a line in the sand on taking further concessions from the private equity holders determined to squeeze every penny out of the company and then flip it over to a new owner. They were even willing to lose their jobs before accepting the company’s cuts, with union president Frank Hurts proclaiming that their struggle was for the rights of workers everywhere: “Our members are not just striking for themselves, but for all unionized workers across North America who are covered by collective bargaining agreements.” The bakers believed that nothing short of the right of collective bargaining was at stake in their struggle, indicative of union workers everywhere who are now refusing to go gently into austerity’s good night.

 

The bread-and-butter depiction of an individual union fighting for its wages and benefits without concern for other workplaces or the well-being of the working class as a whole is going out the window and the goal of Republican and Democratic politicians to weaken or completely destroy unions on behalf of their donors has contributed to this shifting focus—they no longer have the luxury of bargaining in their own workplace.

 

A shift in strike tactics is also becoming apparent. Walmart workers have revived the labor movement tactic of the 1930s era, striking spontaneously without notice, with the support of community organizations and outside a formal union structure (i.e., wildcat strikes). If Black Friday was any indication of the future of Walmart strike protests, Walmart may eventually be forced—like employers in the 1930s—to accept formal unionization out of the need to stabilize production and control the rank-and-file. Fast- food workers in New York have also followed the Walmart workers’ tactics.

 

As many commentators have noted, the implications of a unionized Walmart would be huge for the U.S. labor movement, akin to the unionization of the Big Three auto companies in the 1930s that led to an unprecedented era of high wages, benefits, and expansion of the U.S. middle class. 

 

A Cautionary Tale

 

Would Walmart’s unionization (still a little way off) reverse or, at least, put the brakes on the three-decades-long march to neoliberalism?

 

Union leaders in the post-war era—influenced by liberal anti-communism and determined to establish respectability as institutions—worked to excise Communist Party members and radical labor activists from local leadership and rank-and-file membership, overturning the “Popular Front” that had comprised the left labor alliance during the Great Depression and World War II. This further transformed unions into bloated political institutions, complicit with employers, inexorably tied to Democratic Party leadership, and strongly opposed to the radicalism that had characterized the labor movement for over a century, preferring instead to take the AFL’s “respectable” route of hierarchical, whites-only, “bread-and-butter” business unionism.

 

Liberals, in turn, supported labor unions as institutions of social peace and industrial stability. Although the Taft-Hartley Act undoubtedly deserves blame for the gradual weakening of labor then and ineffectiveness of labor now, major labor leaders surrendered their fight against the bill in exchange for the economic prosperity and labor-management cooperation of the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Labor became largely reactionary during this period as well. Blacks and people of color were de facto barred from entry to what became whites-only unions, replacing the radical social movement unionism of the 1930s that sought to organize blacks and whites in interracial locals. Along with their tacit support for anti-communism and Cold War domestic policy, labor leaders were directly complicit in CIA imperialism, infiltrating right-wing pro-business unions in Third World countries, framing radical unions as communist (no different than its domestic policy of ousting radicals), and staging general strikes to destabilize governments unfriendly to U.S. corporate interests. This has continued up to today, with AFL-CIO links to the Colombian dictatorship—the most anti- union regime in the world—as well as its funding and support for the 2002 coup in Venezuela and 2003 oil workers’ strike to destabilize the Chavez regime.

 

By the time that unions began their decline in membership in the 1970s, capitalists had rightly determined that organized labor no longer posed the threat it had once been prior to the Cold War. Capitalists felt free to impose cuts in wages, benefits, and conditions, pursue deregulation, out-source, and generally decimate the industrial labor force without opposition. In the 1980s and 1990s, free trade agreements were negotiated with pro- U.S. governments in many nations that the CIA (with the help of the AFL-CIO) had intervened in to overthrow center-left, nationalist, and protectionist regimes.

 

Towards A New Unionism

 

The opposite trend of social movement unionism exemplified by the CTU, NNU, Walmart, and NYC fast-food workers should become predominant in the resurgence of the labor movement. In the CTU strike, teachers had the huge goal of saving and even bolstering public education. National Nurses United (NNU), representing nurses who participated in the recent Kaiser and Sutter Health strikes, have been fighting for single-payer healthcare and a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions to pay for it. Both the CTU and NNU—supported by and often working in tandem with the Occupy movement—tied their struggles to the over-arching fight against Wall Street and its influence over politics. The Walmart and fast-food community organizations are seeking to improve conditions for minimum-wage, precarious, no-benefit workers as a model for workers throughout the low-paying service sector—which has absorbed some 93 percent of all employment since the Great Recession.

 

The broader goals of economic and social transformation means that labor is less likely to be bought off by bread-and-butter issues of workplace conditions, wage gains, job security, health and retirement security, etc. Even as management concessions are made, labor will continue organizing and pushing for social transformation. Most importantly, perhaps, for our immediate survival in face of the imminent impact of rapid climate change, the labor movement needs to make its primary demand a Green New Deal with green public infrastructure producing 25 million jobs. The development of labor-environmental coalitions and the opposition of militant unions like the Transport Workers’ Union of NYC to the Keystone Pipeline are good movements in this direction.

 

A potentially stronger economy on the horizon, whether real or perceived, will do more to galvanize labor activity. With the perception that there are more jobs comes the willingness of workers to stand up against their employers and risk being fired. This means fewer concessions. In fact, it means that the offensive may shift in favor of workers. And with the memory of the past several years, workers will be less likely to become complacent. They know—from hard experience—that complacency will mean death if the tables turn back in favor of employers. This means increased militancy and less complicity with management in the future. The old business union model has died and the new militant union that applies direct action and the organizing models of the Great Depression, works in solidarity with workers everywhere and for the good of poor communities of color and aims for social and economic transformation has emerged in its place. 

Z


Adam Wasserman is a historian, writer, and archivist. He is the author of A People’s History of Florida, 1513-1876.