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The pandemic has confronted unions with a historic challenge. COVID-19 and the response to it have simultaneously illuminated and intensified the ways “women’s work,” labor traditionally done by women in and for social reproduction, is both essential and devalued. The pandemic has exposed our dependence on people who are paid to provide physical and emotional care, along with our society’s inability and unwillingness to support and protect these workers as they risk their lives for us. From nurses, therapists and teachers to workers in jobs viewed as less skilled with lower status and pay, like aides in hospitals and nursing homes, restaurant workers and hotel workers, it’s clear the less respect (and money) workers receive, the more disproportionately the job is done by Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, often women. The poor pay and working conditions of much caregiving work reflect not only who is doing the care but for whom it is being done. Low-income people of color get the short end of both sides of the stick.
Social movements for racial and gender equality have exposed disparities at the workplace, giving unions an opening to support workers who most need the protection collective representation brings. We see employers, from nonprofits to transnational corporations, giving verbal homage to correcting inequalities while failing to disrupt underlying inequalities in how work is organized, classified and paid. Outrage at the hyper-exploitation of food delivery services forced some of the most exploitative businesses to modify practices, stating clearly that delivery fees weren’t going to workers and providing ways for customers to tip. We should be fighting for the “gig economy” workers in food services to earn a living wage and have stable hours. Even the modest improvement masks a gender divide. The apps and websites allow customers to tip the workers who do deliveries (mostly young males of color) while the workers who prepare, pick and package food (traditionally women’s work) remain invisible and subject to whims of employers about wages.
Labor Day invites us to commemorate significant contributions unions have made for working people, recognizing courageous sacrifices of workers who lost their jobs and sometimes their lives fighting for the right for us to have collective voice at the workplace, and to force both political parties to pass legislation limiting employers’ exploitation. At the same time, we confront sobering realities of how many advances have been undercut, as labor’s economic and political power and its numbers waned, due in part to widespread acceptance of “business unionism,” which makes workers clients served by a union apparatus, rather than “owners” of their unions. The pandemic has created a global opportunity for disaster capitalism to mask policies that increase exploitation — and profits — in rhetoric about addressing longstanding social inequality. One ominous change is the chilling intensification, development and application of information technology to control workplace conditions; provide social, health and educational services; increase surveillance and data mining; and replace workers with AI.
Employers applaud themselves for boosting the prominence and authority of individuals from historically marginalized groups, substituting this shared power at the top in dominating workers instead of supporting workers’ voice and power. In contrast, when workers organize collectively, independent of the employer, they challenge the employer’s unilateral control over life at work, from pay and hours to the air they breathe, which in the pandemic is literally a matter of life and death. Collective organization brings voice, but whether and how that voice translates into power depends on the extent to which workers control what unions do in their name. Unions are only as strong as workers’ understanding that they, not union staff or officials, “own” their organizations. It’s important we not romanticize workers and diminish the enormousness of what we ask. Given the harsh conditions for work, expecting working people to do the jobs for which they are paid and also help organize their workplaces is a huge ask.
To address this, we need to see the inseparability of struggles for social justice and workplace democracy. We are not diluting our power to improve economic conditions at work when we fight for demands to make our society and workplace more equitable, just and humane. On the contrary, we benefit from the synergy of increased resources and networks, often missed even when unions organize and defend workers who do “women’s work.” They often ignore the power of highlighting the gendered nature of work. UNITE HERE’s campaign opposing Hilton Hotel’s elimination of the daily requirement for cleaning rooms, putting housekeepers’ jobs in jeopardy, rightly highlights how this harms communities of color and low-wage women workers. But what it misses is how housekeeping can be eliminated because “women’s work,” cleaning the home, is taken for granted. Women who do this work, and the work itself, should be valued and respected. Seeing gender (and its intersectionality with race) in labor requires dispelling the inaccurate nostalgia for a white, male cisgender working class. Many Black women have historically worked for pay outside the home (in addition to caring for their own families) when they could. Teachers and nurses have often displayed a resilience and militancy defending their own working conditions and protecting those who are most vulnerable in our society. In this way they are a model for the rest of the labor movement.
When Liz Shuler, the newly elected president of the AFL-CIO, who proudly claims the mantle as first woman to hold this position, tweets “I am humbled, honored and ready to guide this federation forward. I believe in my bones the labor movement is the single greatest organized force for progress,” we must be careful not to accept as reality what is actually a hope, a vision to embrace.
Unions are only as strong as workers’ understanding that they, not union staff or officials, “own” their organizations.
To support labor and realize that vision, we need to say labor officialdom’s actions often undercut our chances of success. For example, the AFL-CIO has gone all in for the PRO Act, and while the legislation is important, the assumption that its passage will solve labor’s problems is a huge mistake. We cannot rely on Biden and the Democrats’ promises of legislation to substitute for workers fighting for what they want and need, for themselves and the society.
When a hospital starts to hire “replacements” for striking nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, who have been on the line for months, demanding conditions that protect patients, the state and national AFL-CIO need to speak up for a state-wide one-day walkout — and provide resources to organize it.
When teachers and staff demand school districts change policies to help keep schools safe, reflecting new dangers brought on by the Delta variant, they deserve to have the state and national teachers’ unions show up with resources for organizing one-day statewide walkouts and protests. As one activist pointed out to me, teacher unions have the most influence over the White House than we’ve had in a generation, and yet both national unions, AFT and NEA are “working as mouthpieces for the administration instead of pushing the envelope.”
Movements fighting for social justice need a massively reinvigorated labor movement, just as much as labor unions need social movements. We need new understandings and enactments of solidarity that recognize how social oppression affects us all. Unions are stronger when they recognize this fact and provide democratic spaces for workers to hammer out political differences and specifics for fighting back. When we use our power on the job to force those who exploit us to hear us, value us, and respect our humanity, we are demanding a new world. The challenge workers and their organizations face is not so different from what women must accomplish when they go into labor — arduous work that requires courage, confidence and hope — the work essential for birthing a new society, which we need and deserve.