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The Year That Labor Hung On By Its Fingertips

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A lot of things hap­pened for work­ing peo­ple this year, and most of them were bad. But even in a year as deranged as 2020, the broad­er themes that afflict and ener­gize the labor move­ment have car­ried on. If you are read­ing this, con­grat­u­la­tions: There is still time for you to do some­thing about all of these things. Here is a brief look at the Year in Labor, and may we nev­er have to live through some­thing like it again.

The pan­dem­ic

Broad­ly speak­ing, there have been two very large labor sto­ries this year. The first is, ?“I have been forced into unem­ploy­ment due to the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” And the sec­ond is, ?“I have been forced to con­tin­ue work­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and I am scared.” America’s labor reporters spent most of our year writ­ing vari­a­tions of these sto­ries, in each com­pa­ny and in each indus­try and in each city. Those sto­ries con­tin­ue to this day. 

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment left work­ing peo­ple utter­ly for­sak­en. They did not cre­ate a nation­al wage replace­ment sys­tem to pay peo­ple to stay home, as many Euro­pean nations did. OSHA was asleep on the job, unin­ter­est­ed in work­place safe­ty relat­ed to coro­n­avirus. Repub­li­cans in Con­gress were more intent on get­ting lia­bil­i­ty pro­tec­tions for employ­ers than on doing any­thing, any­thing at all, that might help des­per­ate reg­u­lar peo­ple. And, of course, Trump and his allies unnec­es­sar­i­ly politi­cized pub­lic health, lead­ing direct­ly to hun­dreds of thou­sands of unnec­es­sary deaths and the eco­nom­ic destruc­tion that goes with that. It was a bad year. The larg­er polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed to pro­tect work­ers did not do their jobs. The labor move­ment was left very much on its own. And its own track record was mixed. 

Front-line work­ers

The year of the hero! We love our heroes! Our front-line work­ers, our deliv­ery peo­ple and san­i­ta­tion work­ers and bus dri­vers, our para­medics and nurs­es, our cooks and clean­ers and gro­cery work­ers: We love you all! Sure, we will bang pots and pans to cel­e­brate reg­u­lar work­ers who had to push through dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and we will write you nice notes and have school chil­dren draw signs cel­e­brat­ing you. But will you get paid for this?

How well have unions rep­re­sent­ing these front line work­ers done this year? In many cas­es, not well. I think first of the gro­cery work­ers, rep­re­sent­ed by UFCW, who were gen­er­al­ly award­ed with tem­po­rary ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es rather than actu­al rais­es. Or of the UFCW’s meat­pack­ing work­ers, whose plants were encour­aged to stay open by an exec­u­tive order, and who suf­feredter­ri­bly from the coro­n­avirus and from management’s utter dis­dain for their wel­fare. These are work­ers who, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the ear­ly phase of the pan­dem­ic, had a ton of lever­age. Had they struck, or walked out, ask­ing for basic safe­ty and fair pay for risk­ing their lives, the pub­lic would have neared pan­ic, and their demands prob­a­bly would have been met. Their employ­ers would have had no choice. Instead, there was a great deal of out­cry from their unions, but no real labor actions at scale. Thus, the meat­pack­ing work­ers con­tin­ued to suf­fer, and the gro­cery work­ers saw their ?“haz­ard pay” bonus­es dis­ap­pear, and here we are. 

The point of this is not to be harsh. Faced with an unex­pect­ed dis­as­ter, most unions have spent this year scram­bling des­per­ate­ly to keep them­selves and their work­ers afloat, and have been flood­ed with the task of deal­ing with the cat­a­stro­phe that has cost mil­lions their jobs. But when this is all over, there should be a seri­ous post­mortem about what could and should have been done bet­ter. And that will include, right up top, the fail­ure of front line work­ers to turn their new­found hero sta­tus?—?and the tem­po­rary, absolute neces­si­ty that they con­tin­ue work­ing through life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions?—?into any last­ing gains. It is easy to sur­ren­der to the feel­ing of just being thank­ful to be employed while oth­ers sink into pover­ty. But we need to be ready with a bet­ter plan for next time. Bil­lions of dol­lars and a good deal of poten­tial pow­er that work­ing peo­ple could have had has evap­o­rat­ed because unions were not pre­pared to act to take it. 

Pub­lic workers

Teach­ers unions con­clu­sive­ly demon­strat­ed their val­ue this year. In gen­er­al, in cities with strong teach­ers unions, pub­lic schools did not reopen unless the teach­ers were sat­is­fied that ade­quate work­place safe­ty pro­ce­dures were in place. (In prac­tice this meant that many school dis­tricts sim­ply kept instruc­tion online.) While this earned the ire of some par­ents, they should think it through: Work­place safe­ty in Amer­i­ca only exist­ed where unions were strong enough to see to it that it hap­pened. Schools were the most promi­nent exam­ple of that. 

Else­where, the news for fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employ­ees was gloomy. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion waged a years-long war against the labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, and it is fair to say that the unions lost that war. Fed­er­al employ­ee unions in par­tic­u­lar, and state employ­ee unions in Repub­li­can states, have become pathet­i­cal­ly weak. Much of their bar­gain­ing pow­er has been out­lawed by Repub­li­can politi­cians. The unions have been reduced to writ­ing polite­ly angry let­ters as their work­ers are abused while wait­ing for a new Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion that they can beg to restore their rights. It is not a work­able mod­el for a union. These unions must decide at some point that they are will­ing to break the law in order to assert the fun­da­men­tal rights of their mem­bers, or they will grow increas­ing­ly less able to demon­strate to mem­bers why they have any value. 

That may not be fair, but it’s the truth. 

Orga­niz­ing

The biggest issue for unions in Amer­i­ca?—?big­ger than any pan­dem­ic or pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle?—?is that there are sim­ply not enough union mem­bers. Only one in 10 work­ers is a union mem­ber. In the pri­vate sec­tor, that fig­ure is just over 6%. The decades-long decline of union den­si­ty is the under­ly­ing thing rob­bing the once-mighty labor move­ment (and by exten­sion, the work­ing class itself) of pow­er. If unions in Amer­i­ca are not grow­ing every year, they are dying. 

Dis­as­trous years like 2020 tend to put struc­tur­al issues on the back burn­er, but they can also serve as inspi­ra­tions for peo­ple to join unions to pro­tect them. The annu­al fig­ures for the year are not out yet, but anec­do­tal­ly, union lead­ers and orga­niz­ers are opti­mistic that the pandemic’s hav­oc will serve as fuel for future orga­niz­ing. Most unions man­aged to at least con­tin­ue major orga­niz­ing efforts that were already under­way this year, like SEIU’s suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of a 17-year bat­tle to union­ize 45,000 child care providers in Cal­i­for­nia. Indus­tries that were already hotbeds of orga­niz­ing tend­ed to remain so. The safe­ty net of a union con­tract clear­ly demon­strat­ed its val­ue far and wide this year, at least in the abil­i­ty of union mem­bers to nego­ti­ate terms for fur­loughs and sev­er­ance and recall rights and all the oth­er things that mat­ter dur­ing dis­as­ters, as non-union work­ers were sim­ply cast out on their own. 

Still, it is up to unions them­selves to have a con­cert­ed plan to take advan­tage of the wide­spread nation­al suf­fer­ing and chan­nel it into new orga­niz­ing. Since unions have spent the year trans­fixed by the elec­tion and by try­ing to respond to the eco­nom­ic col­lapse, it is safe to say that such a con­cert­ed plan does not real­ly exist yet. That needs to be done, soon, or this moment will have been wasted. 

Strikes

Dur­ing the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, a frag­ile sort of labor peace reigned. The grip of the cri­sis was such that most work­ers were sim­ply try­ing to hang on. As time went by, and the fail­ures of employ­ers became more clear, that peace began to evap­o­rate. Teach­ers unions around the coun­try used cred­i­ble strike threats to head off unsafe school open­ing plans. And in the health­care indus­try, unions have had mul­ti­ple strikes, as nurs­es and hos­pi­tal work­ers have passed their break­ing points.

Lever­age for work­ers varies wide­ly by indus­try right now, as cer­tain indus­tries are besieged with unem­ployed work­ers look­ing for any job they can get (restau­rants), and oth­ers are des­per­ate for skilled work­ers, who are extreme­ly vital (nurs­es). At min­i­mum, every union should look at its lever­age in the spe­cif­ic con­text of the pan­dem­ic and ask if they should act now, lest an oppor­tu­ni­ty be lost forever.

Gig work­ers

You can think of many enor­mous com­pa­nies as huge algo­rithms that are mak­ing their way through the Amer­i­can labor force, turn­ing employ­ees into inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or free­lancers or part-timers. There is mon­ey to be made in free­ing busi­ness­es from the respon­si­bil­i­ty and cost of pro­vid­ing for employ­ees (a sta­tus that comes with ben­e­fits and a host of work­place rights, includ­ing the right to union­ize). The ?“gig econ­o­my” is not just Uber and Lyft and Instacart and oth­er com­pa­nies that exclu­sive­ly work in that space?—?it is an eco­nom­ic force of nature push­ing every com­pa­ny, includ­ing yours, to get your job off its books, and to turn you into some­thing less than a full employee. 

Coun­ter­ing this force is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant legal and leg­isla­tive issue for labor as a whole, because this process inher­ent­ly acts to dis­solve labor pow­er. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the most impor­tant thing that hap­pened on the issue this year was the pas­sage of Prop 22 in Cal­i­for­nia, leg­is­la­tion specif­i­cal­ly designed to empow­er the gig econ­o­my com­pa­nies to the detri­ment of work­ers. Scari­er yet is the fact that the suc­cess­ful leg­is­la­tion in Cal­i­for­nia will now be used as a blue­print for state leg­is­la­tion around the coun­try. Com­pa­nies are pre­pared to spend hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions of dol­lars on this issue, because they save far more mon­ey on the back end and pre­serve their busi­ness mod­el, which depends in large part in extract­ing wealth that once went to work­ers and redi­rect­ing it towards investors. Either Amer­i­ca will have a nation­al reck­on­ing with what the gig econ­o­my is doing to us, or we will con­tin­ue bar­rel­ing towards a dystopi­an future of the Uber-iza­tion of every last indus­try. Includ­ing yours. If ever there were a good time to launch a work­er coop, it is now. 

The elec­tion and Washington

After an ear­ly peri­od of hope for a Bernie-led insur­gency of the left, unions coa­lesced around Biden. They spent a ton of mon­ey on him, and indeed, his rhetoric and his plat­form are both more defin­i­tive­ly pro-union than any pres­i­dent in decades. Unions expect a lot of things from Biden, and expe­ri­ence tells us that they will not get many of them. 

What they will prob­a­bly get: a much bet­ter NLRB, a func­tion­ing OSHA, a pro-labor Labor Depart­ment rather than the oppo­site, and, par­tic­u­lar­ly for unions with long­stand­ing ties to Biden, rel­a­tive­ly good access to the White House. What they prob­a­bly won’t get: pas­sage of the PRO Act, a very good bill that would fix many of the worst prob­lems with U.S. labor law, but which has no hope in a divid­ed Con­gress. (And, I sus­pect, even with full Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of Con­gress, many of the more cen­trist Democ­rats would sud­den­ly find a rea­son to oppose the act if the Cham­ber of Com­merce ever thought it might actu­al­ly pass). It is true that the cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is slow­ly mov­ing left, but Biden is a man who nat­u­ral­ly stays in the mid­dle of every­one, and he will be con­ser­v­a­tive in his will­ing­ness to burn polit­i­cal cap­i­tal by push­ing pro-labor poli­cies that don’t enjoy some amount of pub­lic bipar­ti­san sup­port. The polit­i­cal cli­mate for unions will be sim­i­lar to what it was under Oba­ma. The words will be nicer, but any action will have to be pro­pelled by peo­ple in the streets. 

The nine-month odyssey between the pas­sage of the CARES Act and the next relief bill that Con­gress actu­al­ly passed is a use­ful demon­stra­tion of the lim­its of labor’s lob­by­ing pow­er. While par­tic­u­lar unions, espe­cial­ly those in trans­porta­tion and the USPS, showed skill at get­ting con­crete mate­r­i­al gains for their mem­bers into bills, the inabil­i­ty to force any sort of time­ly action from Con­gress in the face of mas­sive human suf­fer­ing shows that labor as a spe­cial inter­est will nev­er have the polit­i­cal pow­er it craves. Until many, many more Amer­i­cans are union mem­bers, it will be impos­si­ble to break out of this trap.

The labor move­ment at its high­est lev­el must break itself of the addic­tion to the false belief that sal­va­tion will be found if only our Demo­c­rat can win the next elec­tion. It won’t. Orga­nize mil­lions of new work­ers and teach them to always be ready to strike. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty must be dragged towards progress by an army, and our army is weak. The AFL-CIO got burned in the protests this year. It remains to be seen if it learned any­thing from that. 

End­ing on a pos­i­tive note

It may be the per­pet­u­al nature of unions that the lead­er­ship is often dis­ap­point­ing, but the grass­roots are always inspir­ing. The big pic­ture for orga­nized labor in 2020 has been… close to okay, in some aspects, but cer­tain­ly not great. But when you pull out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and look at what indi­vid­ual work­ers and work­places and units are doing, you will find thou­sands and thou­sands of inspir­ing things. And not even a pan­dem­ic has changed the basic fact that orga­niz­ing is the most pow­er­ful tool that reg­u­lar peo­ple have at their dis­pos­al in a sys­tem that val­ues cap­i­tal over humanity.

If you are an employ­ee, you can union­ize your work­place. If you are a gig or tem­po­rary work­er, you can orga­nize with your cowork­ers. If you are unem­ployed, you can march in the streets now, and union­ize your next job. All the labor move­ment is is all of us.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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