Workers Across the US Are Rising Up. Can They Turn Their Anger into a Movement?
Throughout 2021, American workers stood up and fought back to an unusual degree. Workers went on strike at Kellogg’s, Nabisco, John Deere, Columbia University and numerous hospitals, while non-union “essential” workers – furious about how they’ve been treated – walked out at supermarkets, warehouses and fast-food restaurants. Workers have sought to unionize at Starbucks, Amazon, even the Art Institute of Chicago. And a record number of Americans have been quitting their jobs each month, more than 4 million monthly, fed up and eager for something better.
Millions of workers are angry – angry that they didn’t get hazard pay for risking their lives during the pandemic, angry that they’ve been forced to work 70 or 80 hours a week, angry that they received puny raises while executive pay soared, angry that they didn’t get paid sick days when they got sick.
Out of this comes a question that looms large for America’s workers: will this surge of worker action and anger be a mere flash in the pan or will it be part of a longer-lasting phenomenon? The answer to this important question could turn on whether all this anger and energy are somehow transformed into a larger movement. At least for now, America’s labor leaders seem to be doing very little to tap all this energy and hope and to build it into something bigger and longer lasting. Yes, we are seeing unionization drives at this workplace and that one, but we are not seeing any bigger, broader effort to channel and transform all this worker energy and discontent into a new movement, one perhaps with millions of engaged and energetic nonunion workers, that would work in conjunction with the traditional union movement.
Worker advocates I speak to keep wondering: what are labor leaders waiting for? If not now, when?
In Joe Biden, we have the most pro-union president since Franklin Roosevelt, and public approval for unions is the highest it’s been in more than a half century. For decades, union leaders have said they are eager to reverse labor’s long decline – more than 20% of workers were in unions three decades ago, now just 10% are. Unless unions step up and do something bold, they’ll relegate themselves to continued decline.
Many labor leaders evidently think it’s impossible or improbable to turn this year’s energy and anger into a new movement or a big, new group. But building a movement from scratch isn’t impossible. 350.org was founded in 2008 by several college students and environmentalist author Bill McKibben, and within two years, it organized a mammoth Day of Climate Action with a reported 5,245 actions in 181 countries. After the horrific shootings at Marjorie Stoneman high school in Florida in 2018, a handful of students founded March for Our Lives, and within five weeks, their group had organized nationwide rallies with hundreds of thousands of people calling for gun control. Black Lives Matter also grew into a powerful national movement within a few years. None of these movements were one-shot or one-month affairs – they have become powers to contend with in policy and politics.
So why isn’t the labor movement seizing on this year’s burst of worker energy to build something bigger? I was discussing this with friend who is a professor of labor studies, and she said she thought that most of today’s union leaders were “constitutionally incapable” of building big or being bold and ambitious. She said that after decades of being on the defensive, of being beaten down by hostile corporations, hostile GOP lawmakers and hostile judicial decisions, many labor leaders seem unable to dream big or think outside the box on how to attract large numbers of workers in ways beyond the traditional one-workplace-at-a-time union drives.
But building big and outside the box isn’t impossible for labor. Just look at the Fight for $15. The strategists and SEIU leaders behind it had a vision: they wanted to push the issue of low wages into the national conversation and lift the pay floor for millions of workers. They started small, with walkouts by 200 workers at a dozen fast-food restaurants in New York City, and within two years, they built a powerful national movement that held strikes and protests in hundreds of cities. This movement ultimately got a dozen states to enact a $15 minimum wage, lifting pay for over 20 million workers.
Perhaps some brilliant, visionary workers or worker advocates will step forward to seek to channel this year’s burst of worker anger and energy into a new movement. Social media could certainly help build it, perhaps with the assistance of groups like Coworker.org, which has considerable experience engaging and mobilizing disgruntled rank-and-file workers via the internet.
For many workers, a big new group or movement could be a waystation toward unionizing: helping educate and mobilize workers to unionize, guiding them on next steps and what their rights are, and promising a pool of ready support if they seek to unionize. This new group or movement could send out bulletins telling members how they could help other workers in their community or nearby communities – perhaps help unionization drives at Amazon or Starbucks or strikers at Kellogg’s or Warrior Met Coal in Alabama or food delivery workers who are cheated out of tips and don’t have access to bathrooms.
Members of this new group could be called on to protest outside the offices of members of Congress or state lawmakers about myriad issues, perhaps raising the federal minimum wage or enacting paid family leave or the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. Or they could join rallies for voting rights or immigrant rights or against police abuses or to combat global warming.
Working America, an arm of the AFL-CIO, does some of this, mainly urging its members to vote and to contact lawmakers. To truly help reverse labor’s decline and capitalize on today’s worker anger, much more will be needed – an organization that is far more connected to workers and does far more organizing, protesting and mobilizing.
America’s labor movement is terribly balkanized, with many unions engaged in turf battles and upset that another union has (perhaps) stepped into its territory. As a result, they too often find it hard to work together. But if America’s unions are serious about wanting to strengthen worker power and reverse labor’s decline, it’s time to put past divisions behind them and figure out how to build back something bigger.
There are three main reasons that America’s labor movement has declined: first, corporate America’s fierce resistance to unions, second, the decades-long slide in factory jobs, and, third, the Republican party’s decades-long fight to weaken unions and make it tougher to unionize.
But there’s another factor behind labor’s decline that is rarely discussed – many labor leaders don’t do nearly enough to inspire workers and expand the union movement. Today’s workers could use some vigorous, visionary leaders like Mother Jones, Sidney Hillman, John L Lewis and A Philip Randolph to lead and inspire, and build something bigger. Perhaps many union leaders haven’t been hearing what I often hear from rank-and-file union members: “Lead or get out of the way.”
Steven Greenhouse is a journalist and author, focusing on labor and the workplace. He is the author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor