Hot Labor Summer
When it comes to addressing our biggest challenges—preserving our democracy, tackling inequality, and ensuring a successful transition from fossil fuels—it’s hard to imagine succeeding without the mass base and resources of a reinvigorated labor movement.
Yet in 2022 the US unionization rate dropped to 10.1 percent, the lowest on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And since unions are one of the only institutions that effectively build solidarity across racial lines, this decline has allowed the MAGA movement (“Make America Great Again”) to put the old Republican playbook of weaponizing race and dividing workers on steroids.
But conditions might be changing. According to a recent Gallup poll, approval of unions is at its highest point since 1965. And rank-and-file anger over concessions has led to the election of new, more militant leadership in two of our most storied unions: the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Meanwhile, despite all the odds, young people, with the support of Workers United and its parent union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), continue to power a movement demanding union recognition and fair contracts at Starbucks. This summer, all three of these unions are likely to engage in mobilizations and strikes on a scale this country hasn’t seen in decades.
This convergence raises some important questions: Could this summer be an opportunity for allies of labor to mobilize a broader cross-section of the public to engage in acts of solidarity? Could such an effort help build a coalition politically powerful enough to demand that Democrats embrace labor’s agenda as their own? And finally, could our collective actions help produce a political shift that could eventually win labor law reform, unlocking the labor movement’s power—and the democratic impulses that come with it—that we desperately need to begin to address some of our most pressing issues?
Admittedly, these are ambitious queries. At the same time, the stakes of this summer’s fights—and the militancy being expressed by workers and their leaders—require us to seriously interrogate them.
Upcoming Labor Fights
The Teamster contract negotiations with United Parcel Service (UPS), the nation’s largest unionized private sector employer, are shaping up to be a major fight over the right to family-sustaining jobs. Despite its massive pandemic-induced profits, UPS is driving its workforce to extremes, demanding six-day workweeks from many full-time workers while part-timers often get just 3.5-hour shifts at $15.50 an hour.
A revived Teamsters union, under the leadership of new president Sean O’Brien and with the support of the forty-seven-year-old Teamsters for a Democratic Union, is preparing for a strike when the UPS contract expires on August 1. The strike would be the largest single labor action in US history, and it would impact 6 percent of US GDP. It’s notable that the union’s goal is not just to win a strong contract for its own members but also to leverage the resulting momentum to take the fight to Amazon. Amazon’s brutal labor regime poses an existential threat to the IBT—and the new leadership knows it.
In addition, the recent historic victory by a slate of UAW reformers over the incumbent Administration Caucus—which exerted tight control over the union for more than three-quarters of a century—sets the stage for the reinvigoration of this once progressive beacon within the labor movement. The slate received support from Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a new reform caucus that campaigned on the slogan “No Corruption. No Concessions. No Tiers,” a message that resonated with an angry rank and file. The new leadership was immediately thrust into talks with the “Big Three” automakers over their master contract, which covers roughly 150,000 members and expires on September 14, 2023. Not surprisingly, given this recent history, the buzz is that a strike is more likely to take place than not.
Similar to the Teamsters fight with UPS, a victory here could reverberate, giving the UAW momentum to organize the increasing number of new, nonunion electric vehicle (EV) and battery manufacturing plants, many of which are being built in the South. This massive (and welcome) new wave of investments in clean energy manufacturing comes courtesy of a progressive-Democratic alliance in Congress. However, the auto industry as a whole is trending like a Green New Deal in reverse, with declining wages and benefits—thanks, in no small part, to West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who blocked key pro-union provisions. Without a course correction, we can expect increased worker resentment toward climate policies and more MAGA inroads in the Rust Belt. A reinvigorated UAW might just change all that.
Another labor struggle that will likely pick up steam over the summer is the Workers United campaign targeting Starbucks, driven by young people frustrated with a rising cost of living, skyrocketing debt levels, and declining job prospects. Despite 280 stores voting to unionize, Starbucks refuses to negotiate a fair contract. Fortunately, the workers have a powerful supporter in Senator Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Sanders has used his bully pulpit to demand that Starbucks start negotiating. Given that young people helped fuel Democratic victories in key midterm races, other Democrats would be wise to follow Bernie’s example.
Building a Labor-Progressive Coalition
Today’s progressive groups aren’t as strong as some like to pretend, and much of their infrastructure is dependent on a handful of billionaires. At the same time, labor has too often failed to build the broader political coalition necessary to revive its own prospects.
But perhaps the fights this summer could be a turning point. With these three contract battles heating up, hundreds of thousands of workers will mobilize across racial and generational lines in every region of the country. It could be a unique moment to grow a coalition that engages a broader public, one that partners with Black and brown, rural and LGBTQ communities and cuts against the Right’s divide-and-conquer politics. It’s not a new idea, and, to their credit, Jobs With Justice (JWJ) and others have labored for decades on behalf of this very notion.
What might it look like? It might involve civil rights and youth groups, women’s organizing networks, online advocacy organizations, faith-based allies, and progressive political groups all mobilizing their members to put up signs in their windows supporting striking UPS workers, as well as calling their elected representatives and demanding they walk picket lines. Maybe such a coalition could inspire hundreds to turn out in front of a Starbucks when workers are denied a fair contract. And maybe it could involve these same outside activists demanding that Democrats enact policies requiring that recent federal climate investments in the transportation sector create good union jobs. Most ambitiously, one could imagine this solidarity work being a step toward fostering the broader coalition we need to win pro-labor Democratic majorities that can pass labor law reform and, in the process, help save our democracy.
It wouldn’t be the first time our nation saw this kind of positive dynamic between a more militant labor movement and our larger politics. In 1936, Michigan governor Frank Murphy, newly elected in that landslide Democratic year and keenly aware of the shifting sensibilities of the working masses, did what had previously been unthinkable: he refused to call in the National Guard on sit-down strikers in Flint. The result was the historic first contract between the UAW and General Motors. Nelson Lichtenstein captures the dynamic between politics and shop-floor organizing in his book State of the Union when he describes how, immediately after the 1936 election, auto organizers distributed flyers that read, “You defeated the auto barons by voting New Deal at the polls, now get a New Deal in the shop.” In short, the electoral realignment that took place during the Great Depression created the political conditions for a successful mass workers’ uprising and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
But the story didn’t end there: the CIO, in turn, developed an alliance with the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The idea of industrial democracy—worker democracy on the shop floor—developed a corollary in a reconfigured Democratic Party. Union halls across the country served as de facto centers for the Democratic Party, providing troops and dollars critical for its success. For millions of mostly white and male working-class Americans, the idea of collective action was validated not just on the shop floor but at the ballot box, where, for an exclusive but still massive demographic of working people, there was a sense that their votes resulted in a government that was on their side, providing tangible benefits.
The CIO revolution was the foundational bedrock of what became, for the next four decades, a hegemonic New Deal coalition. For the mainly immigrant white male blue-collar workers of the 1930s and ’40s—and for their children—the New Deal was akin to a sacred covenant, birthed in their struggles to win incorporation into the American body politic.
This nuanced dialectic between worker power and political leaders is precisely the kind of dynamic we should encourage today. President Joe Biden often seems to get this: witness his revival of the National Labor Relations Board, his failed but sincere attempt to win “plus-ups” for Inflation Reduction Act tax credits for factories with collective bargaining agreements, and his video in support of organizing efforts at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama. (A major exception is his handling of a recent rail contract.) But we still haven’t seen concrete results on the necessary scale.
We may, however, be seeing an inkling of what’s possible in Michigan, where after more than a decade of organizing by labor and progressive forces, Democrats voted as a bloc to overturn “right to work” and restore prevailing wage laws. One can only hope that this, in turn, sets the stage for a revival of labor’s fortunes there.
This summer’s labor fights are an important opportunity for an increasingly militant labor movement to win critical battles. But it could be more than that. It might also be an opportunity for allies to begin to build a solidarity machine that can engage a broader public in labor fights and demand Democrats stand with labor. Perhaps such a coalition could play a role in sparking a virtuous cycle in which labor’s successes beget more Democratic wins, which finally beget labor law reform and a stronger labor movement. The stakes go far beyond any so-called special interest and to the very question of the survival of our democracy.
Bill Lipton has more than thirty years’ experience of organizing at the intersection of labor, community, and politics.
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