Saturday Feb 24

BACKSTORY 53.4 - Unions in the Wings, but Maybe Not Ready to Fly

The end of the year wrap-ups in one venue after another tout the resurgence of labor. 

They make the case largely on the backs of strikers, particularly the deal won by the UAW from the Big-3 under their feisty leader, Shawn Fain.  Autoworkers were one of many strikers including what seemed all of Hollywood, truck drivers, healthcare workers, and many, many others.  October saw the most feet on bricks in forty years.

There’s a strong brief to be argued.  The Teamsters laid out an ambitious set of bargaining goals and damned near achieved everyone of them, including tightening down on the tiers between new and old workers.  The UAW did much the same with a creative strategy and innovative tactics, including winning payments from the companies for those workers the union had called out on strike, which is unheard of.  Union demands couldn’t be pigeonholed either, because some of their issues, like the impact of artificial intelligence on their jobs as writers and actors, were cutting edge.  Casino workers in Las Vegas were able to do the happy dance as well.  President Biden even joined a picket line.  How about that?  No question, unions were clearly having a moment.  At least, this was true for legacy unions with long established positions in their industries and localities.

Many of these same reports still mention the organizing surge that was predicted by the Amazon victory in Staten Island and the hundreds of wins by Workers United, SEIU, in Starbucks stores all over the country, but the organizing story for unions is less rosy.  After six months, Starbucks was in the headlines asking the union to come back to the bargaining table.  Maybe that’s progress, and maybe that’s the company believing they have waited the union and the workers out long enough to water down whatever might follow.  Amazon on the other hand continues to play hardball and give no quarter.  A nascent organizing drive, once again by the independent and now conflict-riven Amazon Labor Union, in Kentucky was in the news once again for firing organizers and union-busting.  There’s also no news that indicates that there is any real progress in moving to a contract in Staten Island. 

There is no sign, at least not yet, although of course our fingers are crossed, that the strike successes are pushing workers forward into new organizing drives, despite the UAW’s claims that thousands are calling them to organize.  Interestingly, some of the workers that are breaking ground are very white collar.  Microsoft seems to have entered a neutrality agreement under the auspices of the AFL-CIO and the Communications Workers, that could cover 100,000 workers, mostly in tech.  This follows success with gamers that helped Microsoft monopolize that sector.  SEIU has made progress with doctors.  Nurses are organizing in some places, including in New Orleans.  The NLRB continues to try to make the path easier, even as Congress starves its budget, delaying with one hand, what was being accelerated with the other.

These are all exciting developments.  They are something like spring buds bursting up after a long winter.  If you have a union, you’re happy for it.  If you could get a union, surveys indicate workers and the public in record numbers think that would be a good idea.  It’s not a false spring, but neither is there yet any sign there the movement is back with labor.  In new organizing, most of this looks like good engineering, rather than the winds of change sweeping through the working classes.  Inflation is easing, and employers are pushing back harder now.  There’s a historic opportunity, but still at year’s end for all the applause and hype, not enough is happening to bring the changes workers need and demand for real and effective organization.