On Labor 2024

Charlie Fabian, Democracy at work.info, May 2, 2024 ─ 

As we celebrate May Day this year we do so within a unique set of conditions, the resurgence of the Labor Movement in the U.S.A.  That resurgence was highlighted by the Summer of 2023 which was dubbed as “Strike Summer” by many commentators.  While that was certainly a highlight, the roots for this resurgence ion the Labor Movement, like all social movement highlights, can be traced back at least several years.

Some of the social conditions that have blossomed into this Labor Movement militancy include the reaction to the economic crisis of 2008, when Corporations in the U.S.A received significant help from the government while major Labor Unions settled for horrible concessionary contracts that included the elimination of many benefits like a defined pension plan and the beginnings of two-tier wage and benefit systems.    

How did these low points in the Labor Movement and working-class activity contribute towards the resurgence we now see? 

As a reaction to the bail out of the Capitalist system by the U.S. government a number of grass roots, social movements developed, with none of them really coming out of the then moribund U.S. Labor Movement.  First among these was the Occupy Movement, which had its beginnings in Wall Street, NYC, primarily as a response to the growing wealth disparity in this country. 

This movement was seen as being a youth led movement, as workers who had been born in the 1980s saw  the “American Dream” being destroyed by the financial sector and its governmental ties. The next Movement of note, which has had a longer staying power than the Occupy Movement, is the “Fight For $15” which has pushed for raising the minimum wage. 

The beginnings of this Movement are credited to the fight at the SEA-TAC Airport district.  This fight at SEA-TAC was moved forward by a coalition of workers (in and out of Unions), Socialist political activists and Community groups. 

This fight was successful and eventually led to SEIU adopting the FF$15 as one of its primary organizing campaigns.   We also need  to take into account the development of a normalization of discussion about Socialism in the U.S.A, which was significantly supported by the Presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and other similar progressive political campaigns.   

The word “socialism” is becoming more and more mainstream. When Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his 2016 presidential bid, only a fringe few dared to use the label. To call yourself a socialist was supposedly a political death sentence. Now many are wearing “socialism” as a badge of pride. Dozens of socialist candidates have won seats all over the country, including two members of Congress, and membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has exploded. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 70 percent of millennials now say they would vote for a socialist. 

Then along came the COVID pandemic  in the Winter/early Spring of 2020.  The pandemic resulted in many workers either losing jobs, (primarily in the hospitality industry),  being able to “work from home”, and many other workers being deemed “essential” and having to work under conditions that were often makeshift in terms of offering safety protection to workers. 

Three significant movements began or occurred during the 2020-2022 period of the pandemic.  One of these movements developed not from traditional modes of workers organizing, but a national protest movement against the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.  This protest movement gave national significance to the Black Lives Matter movement.  

Two of the movements occurring during the pandemic developed from traditional modes of workers organizing into Unions.  Those were the major breakthroughs at the Buffalo Starbucks location by Starbucks Workers United in December of 2021 and at Amazon by the Amazon Labor Movement in April of 2022.  As could have been predicted, the corporate leadership of both businesses fought these movements, resorting to frequent violations of the NLRA by both corporations. 

The SBWU has fought back with a nation-wide campaign of one day strikes and appeals to consumers to support their efforts.  Fast forward to 2024 when the Union and the Company signed a mutual agreement to move forward on “peaceful” collective bargaining activities.   

Also, during this period of pandemic and post-pandemic era worker organizing has been the tremendous growth of Union activities on college campuses. 

This increased activity and militancy by workers and Unions has also resulted in a dramatic increase in Union approval rating in the U.S.A.  

More than 70 percent of Americans say they approve of labor unions, according to Gallup, up from 54 percent a decade ago. Unions have their highest approval rating since 1965. Commentators have also reported that a recent poll found strong support among workers for unions at their workplace, with the highest support from those who earn less than $25,000 per year (58 percent), between $25,000 and $50,000 per year,  As reported in the NYT, lessons learned from earlier periods — “most notably the late 1930s, when the rate of union membership rose to nearly 27 percent from about 13 percent in just two years — that unionization is very much a social phenomenon: Workers see it succeed in one workplace, and then emulate it in their own, even if the law or employers aren’t accommodating. That tends to make it nonlinear. It can be puttering along and then suddenly accelerate. At Starbucks, the number of unionized corporate-owned stores went from zero in November of 2021 to two in December 2021 to more than 250 by the end of 2022.”  Then in 2022 and 2023 two major Unions in the U.S.A, the Teamsters, and the UAW, had elections which changed entrenched leadership cliques tarnished with histories of corruption in both Unions. 

Sean O’Brien was elected President of the Teamsters and in the Spring of 2023 led the first post pandemic negotiations of a major labor contract in the negotiations with UPS. 

Shawn Fain was elected President of the UAW and led the Union’s historic negotiations and strike against the big 3 U.S.A. auto companies. 

Both Union leaders during the very public negotiations spoke of making gains for the entire working class.  O’Brien has recently disappointed and slipped from that apparent class consciousness by his recent meetings with Republican Presidential candidate Trump. 

However, Fain seems to be holding true to a class-oriented approach as he has recently raised a call that there be a general labor strike in the U.S.A on May Day of 2028 when the newly negotiated contracts are set to expire.  While this militancy and support for Labor and the Working class in the U.S is very encouraging, a worker led Labor Movement will hopefully take its next steps in its fight against the ruling class.  Workers and Unions need to challenge the control of the workplace the ruling class. 

Current U.S. Labor law places major roadblocks in the path of Unions trying to wrest such control from the Capitalist class through traditional collective bargaining methods.  However, the Working class and the Labor Movement can launch a different initiative: the development of Worker owned cooperatives or worker self-directed enterprises (WSDEs). 

WSDEs seek to achieve much less inequality in income and wealth distributions among members of society, as well as strict equality across different ethnic, racial, and gender groups. The goal is for democratically self-governed communities to share social decision-making with democratically self-governed enterprises. Health, wealth, and solidarity are then all considerations that will govern such cooperative decision making, alongside but not subordinate to, enterprise profitability.  An important example of the creation of a worker coop arising out of a failed capitalist business model is the layoff of workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008 in Chicago. 

The Bank of America put the squeeze on Republic through loans it had made to the company.  When the layoffs occurred, workers and community activists staged a sit-in strike.  Republic declared bankruptcy and a new company, Serious Energy, took over the factory.  Serious Energy didn’t last long and layoffs were implemented again, but this time the workers got together and formed a worker coop, still doing business as New Era Coop. The move towards increasing the number of WSDEs can be facilitated by initiating new legislation and expanding the scope of existing “plant closing” laws. 

On the Federal level, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), passed in 1988, requires most large employers to provide a 60 day advance notice of loss of employment so workers have time to look for another job or receive training in another occupation but really provides no other benefits to workers.  Some State laws provide some additional benefits, like continuing health insurance coverage for 120 days.  Some Unions have also negotiated “early warning” provisions into their contracts. 

However, these laws and Union negotiated requirements do not get at the control of corporate decision making and provide real alternatives.  If the increase in Labor militancy can be expanded to legislative gains now may be the time to revisit these “warning” provisions and require that workers be provided with access to funding and training to turn failing production sites into worker owned cooperatives.  

Of course, this provision of funds to “businesses” would be nothing new to State governments.  For traditional auto manufacturing plants, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, N. Carolina, S. Carolina, and Texas gave over $400 billion in various incentives to BMW, Honda, KIA, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota & VW.  

In Electric Vehicle manufacturing. alone,  Financialpost.com reported that “The average incentive deal in the U.S. might be around US$50,000 per job,[created],”, and the database maintained by Good Jobs First, a corporate and government watchdog group, showed that since 2002 Tesla has received the most subsidies at US$2.5 billion.  


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