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labor 2019 Year in Review: Workers Strike Back

But workers across the country rose to the occasion, making 2019 one of the most exciting years for the labor movement in recent memory.

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In terms of the number of workers who went on strike, 2019 is on pace to match 2018, bolstered by actions like the strike by 34,000 Los Angeles teachers in January. , Joe Brusky

2018 could have been a tough act to follow. It’s not every year that a grassroots movement of teachers captures the nation’s attention.

But workers across the country rose to the occasion, making 2019 one of the most exciting years for the labor movement in recent memory.

TEACHERS KEPT AT IT

In terms of the number of workers who went on strike, 2019 is on pace to match 2018.

Teachers again made a huge showing—this time leading in big, heavily unionized school districts. United Teachers Los Angeles kicked it off in January with a seven-day walkout in the country’s second-largest school district.

Union reformers built that strike, which drew huge crowds of supporters to rally against privatization. The Union Power caucus won leadership of the local in 2014, pledging to team up with parents to demand better staffing and quality schools, not just the wage increase that the previous administration had emphasized.

Denver teachers grabbed the baton in February, striking for three days and winning reforms to a convoluted pay system. Strike leader Tiffany Choi was later voted in as union president on a program of democratizing the union, strengthening community support, and taking on the billionaire-backed “education reformers.”

Continuing their 2018 struggle, West Virginia teachers struck again for two days, defeating a bill that would have sucked funds from public schools and opened the door to privatization. Teachers saw the bill as legislative retaliation for their strike last spring.

Oakland teachers struck next—another reformer-led union taking the fight to one of the most intense fronts in the war with the privatizers. Teachers at eight charter schools held wildcat strikes to join public school teachers on the picket lines.

In the fall, Chicago teachers and school employees struck back, targeting new Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Her promises to leave behind the old ways of her predecessor, union nemesis Rahm Emanuel, didn’t last long. But the unions forced her to find money she said wasn’t there, putting a nurse and librarian in every school.

Their campaign broke ground in expanding the imagination of what a union can bargain for, with demands for affordable housing, which they didn’t win, and support for homeless students, which they did.

Little Rock teachers waged a one-day strike against the racial re-segregation of schools and against a move by the state of Arkansas to retract their union recognition.

Educators in the Boston suburb of Dedham, Massachusetts, defied a court injunction (carrying the threat of fines and jail time) and went on strike anyway. They won all their demands, including a raise and a sexual harassment process. Seeing the writing on the wall, another nearby school district, Newton, hastily settled a teacher contract it had spent a year resisting.

And continuing from 2018, “Red for Ed” rallies at state capitols brought out thousands in Indiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and elsewhere. The list goes on and on.

PRIVATE SECTOR STEPPED UP

Meanwhile, private sector workers in a number of union strongholds got in on the act, showing that strikes can still inflict significant economic damage on employers.

Locomotive manufacturing workers struck for nine frigid February and March days in Erie, Pennsylvania, and beat back the demands of new owner Wabtec, which wanted to unilaterally impose a two-tier system and strip workers of the rights they had won through decades of battles with General Electric.

Thirty-one thousand workers at the New England grocery chain Stop & Shop struck for 11 days in the run-up to Easter, costing the company between $90 and $110 million—3 percent of its annual profits—and fending off the worst of the company’s concessionary demands on health care, time-and-a-half, and pensions.

AT&T workers went out for four days across the Southeast, halting the company’s effort to raise their health care costs. The workers also won big wage increases and pension and 401(k) enhancements. It was the biggest private sector strike in the South in a decade.

Twenty thousand grocery workers in the Pacific Northwest used their contract campaign to highlight a gendered pay disparity. The union’s analysis found that women were twice as likely as men to be hired into jobs on the lower of two pay schedules, with an average gap of $3.50 an hour. They authorized a strike but avoided one, settling a contract that raised wages for lower-paying jobs and formalized the steps to advance into higher-paying jobs.

And in the midst of deepening accusations of corruption against the leaders of their union, 49,000 General Motors factory workers went out on the longest national strike the U.S. auto industry has seen in decades. In six weeks they cost the company $3 billion in profits.

The strike ended with a contentious settlement that brings current second-tier workers up to top pay faster and provides a pathway to permanent employment for some temps. However, the tiers will persist for new hires, and the union conceded the closure and sale of the Lordstown plant and two other facilities.

Beyond the schools, a public sector standout union was AFSCME Local 3299, representing 25,000 campus and hospital workers in the University of California system. This year they waged their fourth and fifth short strikes in a long-running contract campaign—since 2017—that takes aim at racism in the state’s higher education system.

The number of workers on strike is not the only way to measure the strike’s power, of course. We need no better example than the 10 air traffic controllers called in sick during the government shutdown in February, leveraging their unique position to end the political stalemate. Transportation Security Administration agents had also been calling out in record numbers during the shutdown, slowing down airport operations.

HOLD THE CHAMPAGNE

But while the numbers of strikes, strikers, and “days of idleness” have reached 30-year highs, they’re still far below the levels that workers sustained during the entire post-WWII period through 1979.

Only 1 in 16 workers in the private sector belongs to a union. Successful union drives are few and far between—an exception being the recent organizing boom among journalists. Union busters continue to break the law with impunity. The most high-profile organizing drive this year, by auto workers at Volkswagen in Tennessee, went down to defeat. A union drive among Delta’s 25,000 flight attendants has sparked some hopes, though it follows several failed efforts.

Organizing among immigrant workers has suffered, as the Trump administration has revived high-profile workplace raids. In the largest such raid since 2006, 680 Mississippi poultry workers were detained, just hours after some of them had dropped their children off for the first day of the school year.

Unions had braced for major membership losses following last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision at the Supreme Court, which made the entire public sector “right to work.” Fortunately, these losses mostly have not materialized so far.

Still, right-wing state governments haven’t let up in their onslaught against public workers. The governor of Alaska, for example, tried to require state workers to opt in to the union every year; the policy is currently held up in the courts. Rather than raise taxes on oil companies, the governor has set about slashing public services.

One anchor of resistance has been the union of cooks, deckhands, engine workers, and pursers who operate the ferries that are crucial to isolated coastal communities along the Gulf of Alaska. These workers teamed up with local residents to battle cuts to the ferry system. (Their slogan: “We believe in ferries!”) So when they went on strike in July, the ferry workers enjoyed community support—people even took stranded strikers into their homes and fed them.

But overall, while unions are fighting to win back some of what we lost during the Great Recession, it’s an uphill battle—and most are still failing to harness members’ potential power, which is especially unfortunate given the tight labor market.

INSPIRING ORGANIZING

The almost entirely non-union tech sector saw flashes of activity. This fall, 1,000 Amazon tech workers walked out in Seattle to demand the company do more on climate change. Some of them had previously flown to Minnesota to show their solidarity with warehouse workers who walked out during the company’s “Prime Day” sales blast in mid-July.

Workers at the Boston headquarters of online furniture retailer Wayfair walked off over the company supplying beds to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency’s infamous detention centers.

Amazon warehouse workers in Chicago and Sacramento who don’t have a formal union have banded together under the banner of local “Amazonians United” groups. Through petitions and marches on the boss, they forced the e-commerce giant to pay them when the warehouse shut down during a heat wave, improved health and safety, and got fired workers un-fired.

Drivers for companies including Uber and Lyft built a grassroots campaign in California to support the passage of a law that would make drivers employees rather than independent contractors.

Rideshare Drivers United in Los Angeles, a driver-led organization, built their organization up through one-on-one outreach. RDU was the first driver organization to call for a strike to line up with Uber’s stock launch in May, and helped to coordinate efforts across the country.

GLOBAL UPRISINGS

Globally, 2019 has been a year of major uprisings. In many, unions played an important role.

In Chile, protests that initially targeted a public transit fare increase erupted into a broad-based attack on the country’s political leadership. Unions—first the militant dockworkers, later joined by miners, construction workers, public sector workers, and more—joined in on the movement, helping to leverage the pressure that won a referendum on the country’s constitution.

As of this writing, workers in France are engaged in an ever-growing strike against changes to the country’s pension system. Unions in Colombia have joined the movement against their country’s leadership in the form of days of national strikes. Postal and transport workers in Finland brought down their prime minister.

In Hong Kong, millions took to the streets to defeat a bill that would have allowed residents to be extradited to mainland China’s opaque legal system, where labor activists continue to be arbitrarily detained for organizing. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions has reported an upsurge in interest from workers interested in forming unions.

Puerto Rican unions, meanwhile, helped overthrow the U.S. territory’s governor as part of the largest general strike in the island’s history.

CRACKDOWN

As always, when we stand up, bosses and their cronies try to beat us down. This year has been no different.

The Trump National Labor Relations Board has continued its attacks on workers’ rights, rolling back many of the advances of the Obama Board, including on faster unionization elections, graduate students’ right to unionize, and joint employer responsibility. To make matters worse, they reversed longstanding precedent on employers’ ability to unilaterally implement mid-term contract changes.

Two particularly egregious cases of the courts coming down on job actions are on the top of many labor activists’ minds, and are a healthy reminder that the legal system is rarely the friend of workers.

TWU and IAM, who jointly represent mechanics at American Airlines, were targeted by the courts with a “permanent injunction” for alleged slowdowns at the airline during contract negotiations. Facing stiff financial penalties, the unions had to do a government-mandated tour of denunciations around the alleged job actions.

The ILWU, meanwhile, is fighting a $93.6 million jury award over work slowdowns at the Port of Portland. The award could force the international, which has $8 million in assets, to enter bankruptcy proceedings. The ILWU has appealed to the judge to dramatically lower the award.

KEEP AN EYE ON OUR OWN

And while attacks from the bosses, government, and government bosses continue, we’re also reminded that we have to keep a sharp eye on some of those on “our” side, as well.

The leadership of the UAW is falling like a house of cards amidst federal indictments, with rumblings of a government takeover. The head of the largest federal employee union is on leave while facing allegations of sexually harassing staffers.

In California, leaders of the Teamsters and SEIU in California tried to undermine the potentially transformative legislation on the misclassification of workers as independent contractors by attempting a back-room deal with Uber and Lyft. The failed scheme was done under the guidance of the Machinists, who have a head start with the Uber-backed Independent Drivers Guild in New York.

And backstabbing continues to haunt the building trades. New York City construction unions—with the exception of the leadership of the Carpenters—fought a lengthy battle to make the next phase of Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history, all union. But they were stabbed in the back by the Ironworkers international leadership, who ousted a militant New York City business manager and ordered members to cross the picket line or have their local trusteed.

Meanwhile, members throughout the labor movement are pushing for more democratic presidential endorsement processes inside their unions, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2016 debacle in which many unions lined up early behind Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign and thumbed their noses at Bernie Sanders’ insurgent, pro-worker primary run. With a more crowded Democratic primary field this time around, most unions have yet to endorse, though United Teachers Los Angeles members recently voted to back a Sanders endorsement, which pushed the national leadership of the Teachers (AFT) to publicly declare that other locals were free to make their own endorsements as well. National Union of Healthcare Workers endorsed both Sanders and Warren in a membership vote.

REFORMERS RISING

Across the labor movement, there are members organizing to make their unions stronger and more democratic. In both the public and private sector, reformers are recognizing that unions need to be strengthened from the bottom up.

In the NewsGuild, 32-year old journalist Jon Schleuss of the L.A. Times ousted a three-term incumbent on a pledge to increase transparency and democratize the union. Baltimore and Denver teachers elected new leaderships, who were battle-tested in campaigns around heat in schools (in Baltimore) and a strike over merit pay (in Denver.)

Teamsters in Charlotte, Philadelphia, and New Orleans elected new leaders, supported by Teamsters for a Democratic Union. These wins provide momentum to the effort to unseat IBT President James P. Hoffa in 2021.

And those are just a few examples of groups that have taken leadership. Other groups, like the Philadelphia’s Caucus of Working Educators, continue to show us that there’s a lot of progress to make even without having won leadership. They’ll take that energy to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers leadership election next year, with a slate of members who have been hard at work organizing in their worksites.

We'll have an opportunity to hear from participants in many of the year's most important struggles at the Labor Notes Conference in April. Visit labornotes.org/2020 for more info and to register. Hope to see you there!

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #490. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.