Labor Day 2022 – Freedom Foundation prognosticators, and their conservative fellow-travelers, will revel in their tired prediction about the demise of the U.S. union movement. While there may be a seeming kernel of truth in their negative statistical data – “organized labor only represents 6.4 % of the private-sector workforce” – the “data” doesn’t recognize today’s unfolding story of a newly invigorated union movement.
It’s time these naysayers changed the channel. Seventeen million TikTok viewers have watched a video of a Starbucks’ manager firing a SBWorkersUnited (SBUnited) organizer in Buffalo. Every barista left Mocha Cookie Crumbles and Java Chip Frappuccino’s on the counters and walked out.
After years of decline, labor is experiencing a resurgence on two fronts. The first is increasing militancy and resistance among members of existing trade unions. Over the past year, discontent among tens of thousands of working-class Americans crested in a wave of strikes, walk-outs and protests as union represented workers flexed their muscles, confronting the owning class with ever more militant resistance.
• At Kellogg’s, 1.400 union workers struck the company’s cereal plants after working seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
• 1,000 union workers struck Nabisco for 40 days.
• Hundreds of UAW workers at John Deere struck for a month.
• 60,000 Kaiser Permanente unionized health care nurses and workers engaged in a sympathy strike for two days to support 700 striking engineers.
• 1,100 United Mineworkers have been on strike against the Warrior Met Coal in Alabama since April 2021.
The second front is a rapidly spreading movement fueled by youthful activists organizing new sectors of the unorganized. The first nine months of this year saw a 58% increase in petitions for union elections.
Bolstering this resurgence is a dramatic shift in public opinion – the most recent Gallup poll found support for labor unions at its highest point since 1965, with 68% support. The surge in organizing is being fueled by a rapidly spreading, youth-driven, viral movement often through social media.
Today’s movement is being nourished by rebellious workers at places like Amazon, Starbucks, IT companies, REI, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Apple, and Dollar General (to name a few), with new organizing efforts popping up with regularity.
The new generation of youthful activists are fighting not just for better wages and working conditions but are struggling for dignity and humane treatment on the job.
SBUnited has organized over 225 stores (since last December), despite a vicious anti-union campaign including some 85 discharges of union organizers. As of mid-July, workers at over 300 additional stores in 36 states have filed to unionize. Additionally, workers at Starbucks have held over 55 strikes in at least 17 states.
Is history repeating itself?
In the 1960s and 1970s another young, idealist generation of New Left activists left college campuses with the goal of spreading our revolutionary movement. We left behind campuses where we had fought against the Vietnam War, supported the struggle for Black liberation and fought to support workers’ struggles like the United Farmworkers boycott of table grapes and non-union lettuce.
In the 1960s, I was one of those radical student activists who believed that the only way to effect transformative change to the inequities of the exploitative capitalist system was to build a class-conscious workers’ movement.
While employed at American Motors for 13 years, I faced termination, dodged the FBI, outwitted collaborators in the UAW and became a central figure in a multi-year defamation lawsuit by American Motors against our shop newsletter Fighting Times.
The lesson for organizers of yesteryear and today is that we need to be creative, listen to peoples’ concerns about their jobs and lives and be willing to take up the struggle to improve conditions on all fronts. Only with an organized, class-conscious workers’ movement can we reverse the destruction of the planet and bring to birth a system that isn’t based on exploitation, but justice for all.
Jon Melrod is the author of “In Fighting Times: Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War” (PM Press).