After years of decline, labor is experiencing a resurgence

Starbucks workers strike outside the coffeehouse Tuesday in the Edgewater neighborhood on the North Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On Labor Day, Freedom Foundation prognosticators and their conservative fellow-travelers will inevitably revel in their tired prediction about the demise of the U.S. union movement. While there may be a kernel of truth in their statistics — “organized labor only represents 6.4% of the private-sector workforce” — their misplaced reliance on numbers is misleading.

It doesn’t begin to recognize today’s unfolding story of a newly invigorated union movement.

It’s time to change the channel. On TikTok, 17 million viewers watched a video of a Starbucks manager firing a Starbucks Workers United union organizer in a Buffalo store. Every barista in the store left Mocha Cookie Crumbles and Java Chip Frappuccinos on the counters and walked out. 

After years of decline, labor is experiencing a resurgence on two fronts. The first is the increasing militancy among members of existing trade unions. Over the past year, discontent among tens of thousands of working-class Americans crested in a wave of strikes, walk-outs and protests as unionized workers flexed their muscles, confronting the owning class with ever more militant resistance.

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• At Kellogg’s, 1,400 union workers struck the company’s cereal plants after regularly working seven days a week, 12 hours a day through the pandemic, boosting Kellogg’s earnings to record profits.  

• 1,000 union workers went on strike at Nabisco for 40 days, winning $5,000 bonuses and annual raises.

• Hundreds of United Auto Workers employees at John Deere struck for a month.

• Flight attendants for American Airlines’ regional carrier Piedmont Airlines unanimously voted to strike over high health premiums and low pay.

• At Kaiser Permanente, 60,000 unionized nurses and health care workers went on a sympathy strike for two days to support 700 striking stationary engineers. 

• 1,100 United Mineworkers have been on strike against the Warrior Met Coal Co. in Alabama since April 2021. 

• Thousands of unionized health care workers nationwide staged strikes over issues from staffing to unsafe working conditions. 

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The second front is fueled by a rapidly spreading, youth-driven, viral movement to organize new sectors, often through social media. The first nine months of this year saw a 58% increase in petitions for union elections.

Bolstering this resurgence is a dramatic shift in public opinion appropriate to celebrate this Labor Day: The most recent Gallup poll found support for labor unions at its highest point since 1965, with 68% support.

Today’s movement is being nourished by rebellious workers at places like Amazon, Starbucks, IT companies, REI, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Apple and Dollar General (to name a few), with new organizing efforts popping up with regularity. 

The new generation of youthful activists are fighting for better wages and working conditions, but they’re also united in their common struggle for dignity and humane treatment on the job. 

Starbucks Workers United has organized over 225 stores since last December, despite a vicious anti-union campaign including some 85 discharges of union organizers. As of mid-July, workers at over 300 additional stores in 36 states have filed to unionize. Sorkers at Starbucks have held over 55 strikes in at least 17 states. Organizers at Starbucks have filed well over 285 unfair labor practice complaints at the National Labor Relations Board. 

Is history repeating itself?

In the 1970’s and 1980’s another young, idealist generation of New Left activists left college campuses with the goal of spreading the revolutionary movement. In our thousands, we left behind campuses where we had fought against the Vietnam War, supported the struggle for Black liberation and fought to support workers’ struggles like the United Farmworkers boycott of grapes and lettuce. 

I’m now 72, and in the 1960’s I was one of those radical student activists who believed that the only way to transform an exploitative capitalist system was to build a class-conscious workers’ movement. That meant taking a job where my organizing skills, honed as a student activist, could be marshaled to organize industrial workers. 

While employed at American Motors for 13 years, I faced termination, dodged the FBI, outwitted anti-union collaborators in the UAW and became a central figure in a defamation lawsuit by American Motors against our rank-and-file shop newsletter, Fighting Times.

The key lesson for organizers of yesteryear and today is this: We need to be creative, listen to peoples’ concerns about their jobs and lives and be willing to take up the struggle to improve conditions on all fronts.

Only with a powerful, organized, class-conscious workers’ movement can we reverse the destruction of the planet and birth a system that isn’t based on exploitation, but fairness and justice for all.

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September 4, 2022 at 08:54AM

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