Is A Labor Comeback in the Cards?


s labor activists from around the country
and world converged on Dearborn, Michigan in early May for a Labor
Notes Conference, it’s worth reflecting on a year that has
brought hope for a revitalization of the labor movement.  

According to the Bureau of National Affairs there were 271 work
stoppages in the first three quarters of 2005 as compared to 227
in all of 2004. The BNA’s numbers do not even include many
of the highprofile strikes at the end of 2005 that involved roughly
70,000 workers: Northwest Airlines mechanics and cleaners, Boeing
aircraft manufacturing workers, California hospital workers, Philadelphia
and New York City transit workers. 

What’s prompting all this activity? Emboldened by four years
of Bush administration attacks on labor, many employers used aggressive
bargaining tactics in unprecedented ways in 2005. Proposed wage
and health care cuts were far deeper than in previous years—in
some cases, unions were faced with the near-to-total loss of unionized
jobs, retiree health care, and pensions.  

off-guard by employers’ intransigence at the table, a number
of unions found themselves in last-minute “desperation strikes,”
badly prepared, yet necessary for survival of the union. Even if
these strikes didn’t produce the contractual gains that workers
wanted, they did have some positive effects. Striking workers at
Boeing and the New York transit strikers, for instance, described
seeing new excitement and participation from fellow workers following
their successful, high-profile attempts to shut down their employers. 

Many activists involved in strike support for the Northwest Airlines
mechanics’ saw striking mechanics and cleaners move month by
month into greater militancy and awareness of the broader labor
movement. Rank-and-file strikers from AMFA Local 5 in Detroit formed
their own solidarity committee that attended other unions’
pickets, Jobs with Justice events, and various social movement events
in the Detroit area. 

Surge In Reform 


trikes were only one example of increased
activity. Auto parts manufacturer Delphi’s announcement of
bankruptcy—and its plan for 63 percent wage cuts and massive
layoffs—unleashed rank-andfile organizing. While the UAW leadership
remained paralyzed, UAW members launched a new dissident organization,
Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS). SOS successfully organized a highly
publicized picket of several hundred at the Detroit Auto Show, another
large picket at Delphi’s headquarters, and has been organizing
training for UAW members in how to use workto-rule strategies to
fight the company inside the plants. 

Reformers in the east coast longshore union, the International Longshoreman’s
Association, continue to build the dissident Longshore Workers Coalition.
In January transit workers in New York followed up their three-day
strike by voting down the concessionary contract pushed by union
leaders. In Los Angeles reform-minded teachers swept elections in
the second-largest teacher union in the country, United Teachers
of Los Angeles. 

The rank-and-file work of Teamster reformers has resulted in the
Strong Contracts/Good Pensions slate, with Tom Leedham as their
candidate for general president. The 2006 campaign began with reform
victories in local elections in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Louisville,
and elsewhere. The grassroots campaign gathered over 50,000 member
signatures in 2 months and received election accreditation for December. 

Immigrant Worker Victories 


ome of the biggest labor success stories
of 2005 were made by predominantly immigrant farmworkers. The Coalition
of Immokalee Workers’ successful Taco Bell boycott and the
Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s 5,000worker organizing victory
in North Carolina broke new ground for immigrant labor organizing. 

Both groups won by organizing in the fields and communities at the
same time—building successful national campaigns that mobilized
faith-based, student, and other community-labor groups, while maintaining
internal memberdriven education. 

On the waterfront, wildcat strikes at ports over the last two years
have won victories on both coasts for mostly immigrant workers.
Wildcat strikes at the Stockton, California yard in the spring and
summer of 2005 were organized from a Sikh temple, for example. 

The massive immigrant marches that sprang up around the United States
in early 2006 gave further evidence of a growing, vibrant immigrant
rights movement. On April 10, the second round of protests, an estimated
2 million or more people marched in 140 cities. 

Last year also saw the emergence of new rank-and-file groups advocating
an old vision: industrial unity. These cross-union formations have
evolved in the strategically important transportation industry where
union members face myriad challenges. 

Teamsters’ absorption of two major rail craft unions (the Brotherhood
of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way
Employees) has sparked interesting organizing among rank-and-file
activists in the rail industry. Frustrated by a century of craft
division and feuding, union members began reaching out to other
members last year by forming Rail Operating Crafts United ( 

In the embattled airline industry, union members and supporting
activists have built a new cross-union, cross-craft group: Airline
Workers United (airlineworkers AWU emerged in response
to ongoing problems made clear by the Northwest Airlines strike—the
collapse of solidarity, the unresponsiveness of many airline union
leaderships, and the lack of an industry-wide union strategy. AWU
is currently made up of flight attendants, mechanics, gate workers,
and customer service agents from a number of airline unions at Northwest,
but it has also begun spreading to pilots and mechanics at United
and American. 

Social Movement Unionism 


eyond traditional union reform, labor groups
fought for democracy and social justice in exciting ways in 2005.
Unions and other labor organizations continue to oppose the war
in Iraq, with U.S. Labor Against the War (US LAW) playing the biggest
role. USLAW is reaching out to veterans and military families, sponsoring
public events with Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against
the War, and other such groups. In 2005 USLAW organized a successful
tour of Iraqi labor leaders and an intervention at the AFLCIO Convention.
Due to pressure from USLAW, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution against
the war in Iraq at its convention, a groundbreaking moment for the

Responding to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Community Labor
United (CLU)—a community-labor coalition in New Orleans—stepped
up its regional organizing. CLU has already been involved in a number
of local fights around Gulf Coast reconstruction and continues to
demand that the people of New Orleans be able to determine the future
of their city. 

For all these positive developments, this remains a difficult period
for U.S. labor. Union membership has hit historic lows and employers
(along with the government) continue their assault on workers’
living and working conditions. Because this period looks so bleak,
it is important to examine these victories, small and large, and
learn what we can. In hard times we need the lessons these victories
provide and we also need the inspiration.

Kutalik is co-editor of

Labor Notes

in Detroit (www.labor