labor Dear Gen Z: Now Is the Time To Join the Labor Movement and Change the World
You were raised to believe that you could change the world. You were told by older generations that you would fix the problems they created: climate change, wars, gun violence, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia. No one can say you didn’t try.
Growing up, you saw the racist murders of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014, sparking protests across the country. Though you were only children when it happened, some of you took to the streets. And you watched in horror when, after months of protest, their murderers walked free.
Six years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, over four hundred fifty major protests kicked off around the country in response to the police murder of George Floyd. With an estimated 15 to 25 million participants, the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising was the largest protest movement in American history.
Yet the Democrats nominated two champions of mass incarceration and neoliberal austerity for their presidential ticket, while congressional Democrats just kneeled symbolically. Two of the country’s largest protest movements, six years apart, called attention to the same problem on which no progress seemed to have been made.
In between these bookends, you took part in other important movements. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns introduced a new generation to democratic socialism but were crushed by the Democratic establishment. National walkouts during March for Our Lives called to end mass shootings and gun violence, the 2019 Climate Strike shouted for climate action around the world. And still, you were ignored by the politicians and the capitalists who funded them.
All this has made many of you cynical. You might feel that all hope is gone, that climate disaster is coming for us all, and nothing we can do will save us. You don’t want to be jaded, but you can’t help it.
It’s an understandable feeling. But we’re here to tell you that it’s wrong. That’s because the world is changing in our favor — and you have a crucial role to play in pushing that change further.
These movements’ failure to win their demands is not for lack of effort. Economic and political elites are incredibly powerful, and to beat them, we need to build power of our own. Right now, the labor movement is showing us how it’s done.
When hundreds of thousands of teachers went on strike in states like West Virginia and Arizona starting in 2018, we saw what can happen when ordinary people fight back with the power of organized labor — they win. Many of you walked out with your teachers, fighting for the public education that you deserve. Not only did your teachers win higher wages, better funding, and more respect. They also reintroduced the idea of the strike and the union to American society.
West Virginia teachers, students and supporters hold signs on a Morgantown street as they continue their strike on March 2, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Now your generation is at the forefront of another breakthrough. Against all odds, exploited and mistreated workers in Staten Island, New York won the first ever union election at Amazon. These eight thousand warehouse workers, many of them young and pissed off just like you, beat a multimillion-dollar anti-union campaign by one of the most powerful companies in world history.
Meanwhile, workers at two hundred Starbucks locations have announced their goal of unionizing with Starbucks Workers United (SWU), winning at eighteen stores so far. SWU is beating one of the biggest restaurant chains in the world, with over 9,000 locations in the US. And they’re proving it’s possible to organize the food service sector, where almost 10 million people worked by 2020 but few are unionized.
These two companies set standards for key parts of the economy. If workers win unions, better wages, and better working conditions at Starbucks and Amazon, they will advance the cause of the whole working class — and inspire millions of workers at other companies to organize, too.
Young people are at the heart of recent Starbucks and Amazon wins. An Amazon Labor Union (ALU) leader told Jacobin that the average age of ALU organizers was twenty-six. Another leader proclaimed, “The youth made a statement.” Laila Dalton, a union activist recently fired for organizing her Arizona Starbucks, is only nineteen.
At both Starbucks and Amazon, workers your age are leading the charge to revitalize the labor movement and change history.
Why the Labor Movement
You might not have planned to become a labor activist, or become an activist at all. But a revitalized labor movement will be central to winning much more than just better wages and conditions — and you (yes, you) can play a key role in those wins.
Starbucks employees celebrate after votes were counted on December 9, 2021 in Buffalo, New York. (Eleonore Sens / AFP via Getty Images)
The labor movement at its best has been central to fighting racism, on and off the job. Women have always organized at work to fight sexual harrassment. Unions have substantially reduced wage inequality between black and white workers, and between men and women.
We need strong unions to win better public schools, tuition-free college, student debt forgiveness, and universal health care and childcare — all of which would dramatically reduce racial and gender inequality.
Massive labor struggles won the New Deal in the 1930s. Without the leverage of a strong labor movement now, climate activists will have to rely on the goodwill of politicians and their billionaire donors — two groups whose interests directly clash with a real climate solution. Only an organized working class can save us from climate disaster.
Today you are protesting police violence, climate disaster, war, homophobic and transphobic laws, and abortion bans across the country. Progressive candidates, many of them young activists like you, are challenging business as usual. These movements are incredibly important, and have inspired workers at Amazon, Starbucks, and elsewhere to organize at work.
There is now an opening for you to join those workplace fights and rebuild union power.
The 1934 Moment
The world often doesn’t change bit by bit. Long periods of quiet submission by average people are followed by earthquakes — revolts and revolutions by people who just a few years or even weeks earlier seemed resigned to accept their oppression forever.
Whenever this transformation has happened in modern history, young people like you have played central roles.
This was true of the Civil Rights Movement that ended Jim Crow segregation, and the movements in both the United States and Vietnam that stopped the Vietnam War. It is also true of the upsurge that built the modern labor movement in the 1930s.
In the “roaring” 1920s, capitalism was ascendant, and the labor movement was weaker than ever. Even once the Great Depression struck in 1929, throwing a quarter of US workers out of work, resistance was muted. Companies crushed union after union. As labor historian Irving Bernstein writes in The Lean Years, “Workers on the way down were in no mood to improve, far less to reorganize, society.”
But in 1934, their mood changed — a lot. Three massive strikes in 1934 shook the working class from its cynicism.
First, in Toledo, Ohio, where workers at the Auto-Lite car parts company — sick of dangerous conditions, low wages, and job insecurity — went on strike for union recognition, supported by thousands of unemployed workers organized by a socialist organization, the American Workers Party.
On Wednesday, May 23, in front of a pro-union crowd of ten thousand, police arrested strike leaders and beat an elderly man. The crowd exploded. “With their bare fists and rocks,” writes Art Preis in Labor’s Giant Step, “the workers fought a six-day pitched battle with the National Guard.” Toledo strikers won the sympathy of the community, with forty thousand people rallying in the city center and forcing the withdrawal of troops. The company gave up. Auto-Lite workers won a union and a raise.
Strikers flee tear gas during the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite Strike. (Libcom)
At almost the same time, massive showdowns kicked off between striking workers and company-friendly police — in Minneapolis, led by truck drivers, and in San Francisco, by longshore workers. Yet again, workers showed their power.
The most important things these strikes won was not higher wages or union recognition, but a new consciousness among American workers. By the end of the decade, millions of workers carried out their own strikes and joined unions.
Terrified of the emboldened workers and the growing popularity of radical ideas, elites knew that workers were now in the mood to “reorganize society.” As one Congressperson fretted in 1934, “You have seen strikes in Toledo, you have seen Minneapolis, you have seen San Francisco . . . but . . . you have not yet seen the gates of hell opened, and that is what is going to happen from now on.” Politicians, desperate to avoid more unrest, promoted the progressive legislation of the New Deal to try to placate workers.
Many of the young people on the front lines were children of immigrants who believed in the “American Dream.” Instead, they faced the nightmare of American capitalism: poverty wages and dangerous conditions for workers, misery and homelessness for millions of unemployed. These young workers refused to accept the status quo, and they changed the world. You can, too.
Your Time Has Come
There are many ways you can join this fight. If you have a job that you know needs a union now, you can build one. Established unions and organizations like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) can help you figure out how to do that.
You can get a job at Amazon or Starbucks and organize with your coworkers, where recent victories will likely inspire them to join the movement. Or you can get a job in a sector that is already unionized, like public education, health care, public transit, or construction, or work at important unionized companies like UPS.
Young radicals today can help to transform the labor movement from the bottom up — put the “movement” back in the labor movement, as the labor organization Labor Notes’ slogan goes — by getting a job and organizing at work. This “rank-and-file strategy” was key to the upsurge in the 1930s, and something socialists are pursuing again today. You can meet and learn from thousands of other labor activists at the Labor Notes’ conference this summer.
From the auto workers of the 1930s to Starbucks and Amazon workers today, young people like you have shown they have the power to shake the earth. So we ask you: Are you ready to rebuild the labor movement and make history?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caitlyn Clark is a junior at Yale University studying political science and a member of Young Democratic Socialists of America. She serves on the editorial board of Broad Recognition, a feminist magazine at Yale.
Jeremy Gong is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in California’s East Bay.
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