Friday Jul 19

BACKSTORY 54.2 - Labor on the Rise or Being Pushed Back?

Apologies are in order in advance when I say that perhaps unions are now facing both the best of times and worst of times. 

The best over recent years were very good.  A win against Amazon, finally, was notched by the Amazon Labor Union.  Workers United, SEIU, won over 400 NLRB certification elections and has entered negotiations, finally, with Starbucks over a first collective bargaining agreement several years after the first victory.  The newly invigorated United Auto Workers won a certification election in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at Volkswagen, finally, the first major win against a foreign automaker and the first in the South in decades.  In recent years, new leadership has now come to major unions like the Teamsters, UAW, and SEIU, which may be nimbler in taking advantage of the moment.  Labor activists are stirring with new energy as evidenced by record crowds at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago. Wages are rising and the job market, especially in the United States is robust, which, although not as tight as during the pandemic, is an opportunity for many workers and their unions to lock in gains. The NLRB has been more aggressive and more productive in pushing forward workers’ rights than any organizer has seen in decades. The American people in survey after survey are showing more love for unions and ranking their popularity over 60%, finally, the highest in years!

That’s the good news, but there’s also a lot of rain during these sunny days.  The Amazon Labor Union also lost several elections, has been plagued by internal conflict and dissent, and just announced that they had affiliated with the Teamsters in hopes of survival and more support towards a first contract.  The UAW won one, and then lost one at Mercedes in Alabama, despite filing heavy and hoping to see momentum carry it forward.  Workers United is at the table with Starbucks, but any expectations for an eventual contract have to be tempered with a recognition that 400 or 450 stores organized is still the tail wagging the dog when there are 9000 in the USA.  SEIU, like the AFL-CIO, has new leadership, but has adopted the same goal of one-million new members of a decade, which essentially guarantees that the union density in its burgeoning service sector industries will fall, rather than increase at only 100,000 new members gained per year.  The NLRB rises and falls with the presidential elections, so it’s important to get out and vote, since there is no sure thing in those ballot boxes either. 

 Simply put, when we’re talking about organizing workers and unions, there’s never a sure thing or an easy road to follow.  Momentum certainly gets a lot of attention in politics and sports to explain phenomena that surprise and surpass expectations.  In organizing, we do everything we can to build a sense of a happening or momentum in going forward from initial organizing committees to elections.  It is vitally important, but that is not what wins elections.  Just like in sports, you can’t win with just a good offense, you also need a good defense to go with it to win.  Without great person-to-person home visits and inoculation, it is difficult for workers to sustain momentum against a fierce and concentrated company campaign, whether they are operating in your face or behind the scenes.  UAW’s Sean Fain once again showed the power of his leadership after his union’s recent loss in Alabama.  He made no excuses, and he was clear that lessons were learned.  One critical lesson was that momentum was not enough to win.  Cards signed on QR codes are not as solid as those gained through the efforts of fellow workers or organizers going hard on preparation to offset the expected company campaign. 

The glass half full is also the glass half empty.  Experienced organizers know that workers often go two steps forward and one step back; that actions trigger reactions.  We don’t always win, and we are always favored to lose, because the field of battle is uneven and the forces at play are never equal.  No victory is every permanent, but neither is a defeat.  The only thing we can ever guarantee workers is the right to fight, whether in good times or bad times.  Either way, it’s not magic or momentum, but hard work with people, and peoples deep and collective commitments that allow us to come together and succeed.