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Swarming Solidarity: How Contract Negotiations in 2021 Could Be Flashpoints in the U.S. Class Struggle

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The labor movement’s pundits and prognosticators ring in the New Year like commentators anywhere. They make pronouncements about what “will” happen and what “should” happen to revitalize the shrinking U.S. trade union movement.

At 6.2 percent density in the private sector, U.S. unions aren’t even treading water; we are drowning. That makes it more imperative than ever to engage members to strengthen connections between our union struggles and build broader public support.

The best opportunity to involve union members in 2021 will be through the large-scale collective bargaining agreements that are due to expire this year. Economic struggles remain the center of gravity for the U.S. working class and its organized members in particular. An analysis of the collective bargaining calendar points us in the direction of where those struggles are most likely to occur.

This year, 450 collective bargaining agreements covering more than 200 union members apiece will expire, according to Bloomberg, which maintains the most comprehensive database of expiring agreements outside of the AFL-CIO. Of these, 160 agreements cover more than 1,000 workers.

These 450 contracts, involving more than a million and a half workers, are an ideal opportunity for the labor movement to showcase our power and the advantages of collective bargaining. 

HOT SPOTS

Agreements covering 200,000 health care workers will expire. In the public sector 161,000 municipal workers, 112,000 state workers, and 100,000 school employees have contracts expiring. 

Most of these workers have been on the front lines providing essential services during the pandemic. But with the economy sinking, employers will be preaching austerity and looking for concessions. There are likely to be many contentious negotiations, some leading to vigorous contract campaigns or strikes. 

Union leaders and rank-and-file members need to brace themselves for the coming battles. These contract campaigns—and some inevitable strikes—will offer the best opportunity for the labor movement to build class consciousness and recast our unions as vehicles to advance wages and working conditions—or at a minimum, maintain them. 

The single largest contract is the Postal Workers (APWU) agreement with the U.S. Postal Service that expires in September, covering 200,000 workers. Another USPS agreement with the Rural Letter Carriers, covering 131,000 workers, expires in May. 

The 50-state scope of these agreements, and postal workers’ newly evident status as providers of a service essential to our democracy, make their contract fights a natural for nationwide solidarity. While it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that there will be a strike, given the legal straitjacket imposed on postal unions and their scant recent history of shop floor militancy, the reform leadership at the helm of the APWU is committed to workplace contract campaigns and outreach to the public. Postal workers have plenty to be mad about—months of forced overtime, intense understaffing, jammed mail plants, attacks from a hostile new Postmaster General, and a two-tiered workforce—and they’re very visible in every community of this country.

There will also be state and regional opportunities to build solidarity among workers in different unions who may be facing common problems or making similar demands. With 52 expiring agreements covering more than 200 members, California is the state with the most opportunity for geographic solidarity, closely followed by Washington (36), Pennsylvania (35), and New York (32). 

An even better possibility for synergies is at the metropolitan level. Cities with the most expiring agreements over 200 members are New York (16 contracts), Minneapolis-St. Paul (12), Seattle (11), and Portland (8). Of course, there are many smaller expiring agreements in these cities that could also be included in any metro solidarity initiative. 

There are a few other large multistate agreements that might lend themselves to a national focus: 

  • Kaiser Permanente’s agreement with a coalition of unions representing 45,000 workers expires in September.
  • United Airlines’ agreement with the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), covering 25,000 workers, expires in July.
  • The school bus company First Student’s agreement with the Teamsters, covering 20,000 workers, expires in March.
  • Throughout 2021, the TV networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) have big agreements that expire with SAG/AFTRA, CWA-NABET, and the Electrical Workers (IBEW).

INSPIRE THE UNORGANIZED

The struggles for new agreements will also be labor’s best opportunity to showcase the advantages of collective bargaining to not-yet-union workers. As millions of union workers get into motion to resist austerity and win Covid-19 protections, the unorganized will be watching—and evaluating the efficacy of uniting with their co-workers.

In our experience, unorganized workers are generally attracted to unions that engage in contract campaigns and strikes. For example, after the 1997 Teamsters UPS strike, workers at FedEx, Overnite, and many other freight and delivery companies were inspired to try to form unions with the Teamsters. 

BUILD ON PUBLIC SUPPORT

To the extent that unions make our struggles in the public interest and for “the common good,” contract expirations offer an opportunity to build alliances with patients, parents and students, subway and bus riders, and people who depend on state and municipal services.

Who can dismiss the importance and bravery of bus drivers and train operators during the pandemic? There’s never been more public support for the 67,000 transportation workers who are going to the table nationwide in 2021.

Thousands of other workers who were deemed essential during Covid-19 will soon square off against their employers too: 37,000 airline workers in seven agreements (plus 2,500 pilots who fly for UPS and 4,000 who fly for FedEx), 27,600 construction workers in 16 agreements, and 48,500 grocery workers in 17 agreements.

The biggest grocery agreement, with Kroger, covers 20,000 Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members in the Greater Cincinnati area. These negotiations come after a year when consumers have gained a new appreciation for frontline supermarket workers for their pandemic shopping needs and deliveries. 

In recent years, union bargaining teams have brought their “constituents” (customers, patients, students) directly to the table to raise their shared concerns for the staffing and skills needed to maintain or improve services. What better way to educate our allies about collective bargaining and show management a broader united front than to bring them into bargaining with us? 

CROSS-POLLINATE IN KEY SECTORS

With more than 300 of the agreements expiring on or after June 1, union leaders and activists have ample to time to prepare. The biggest expiration months are June (140), August (43), and December (38).

In recent years, teachers have been the most militant sector of the labor movement. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) respectively have 71 and 39 school agreements up in 2021 that cover more than 200 members each, collectively involving 77,500 K-12 educators and support personnel.

Imagine the movement that might emerge from holding joint meetings of leaders and activists from these 100-plus unions to share strategies and coordinate bargaining demands. Not to mention representatives from unions covered under the many smaller expiring agreements, who could also be invited to participate.

The 224,400 health care workers and 40,600 nurses with expiring contracts—who are unfortunately spread out among nine different national or international unions (AFSCME, AFT, National Nurses United, Communications Workers, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Operating Engineers, Service Employees, Teamsters, and UFCW)—have a similar opportunity. The need for improved coordination and information sharing in the health care industry has never been greater. 

GET POLITICIANS INVOLVED

We’ve just been through an election cycle where many Democratic politicians pledged to support unions and collective bargaining. Some even showed up to picket lines and union rallies. They must have remembered the powerful boost that Bernie Sanders got from assisting the Verizon strike during his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination. 

Our contract negotiations can assume a political character with the support of politicians. But beyond perfunctory appearances, it’s time for supposedly pro-union elected officials to weigh in by regulating the ability of corporate owners to repress labor action. Should public pension funds finance strikebreakers? Should police herd scabs? The power of the state at the local, state, and federal level can help swing the outcome of many labor disputes.

The historic Senate election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia has put the Democratic Party in control of Congress and the White House. Many union members will be hoping for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Against the backdrop of this push for labor law reform, these 450 expiring contracts could take on an even greater political character. 

Putting aside whether labor law reform can pass in a very divided Congress, many in labor hope “Scranton Joe” Biden will be a powerful cheerleader for unions and use his executive power to aid his allies. Top priority on our list would be a $15 minimum wage and union neutrality for employees of federal contractors. 

As an example, the president could use his bully pulpit to voice forceful support for the tens of thousands of essential workers with expiring contracts who have been recognized as heroes of the pandemic. And with more federal-level support, local elected officials could be urged to use state and municipal regulations to help workers gain additional bargaining leverage.

In each sector of the economy, unions can strengthen their arguments by pointing to the public largesse their employers received during the pandemic, or the essential services their members provide. As is both usual and necessary, members themselves will be the very best ambassadors to make the case to the public.

HOW TO DO IT: SWARMING SOLIDARITY

The best way to convey the economic significance and high drama of these collective bargaining struggles onto the political landscape is “swarming solidarity.”

That means getting union activists and other friends of labor to rally in support of each other’s struggles by marching on picket lines, testifying at city council and state hearings, writing letters, and showing support on social media. It was the core tenet of Jobs with Justice’s “I’ll Be There” pledge and the AFL-CIO’s “Street Heat” in the ’80s and ’90s. 

For example, successful supermarket strikes have always involved other unions adopting stores and picketing to keep their members and their families from crossing the lines as hungry consumers. 

Imagine if all the pro-union members of the California legislature showed up at airports to support striking airline workers? Or if those legislators confronted store managers while 5,000 UFCW members picketed after their contracts expire in July at Rite-Aid stores? These kinds of creative solidarity can propel labor struggles into the public consciousness and force a “which side are you on?” moment for the American public and elected officials. 

Labor Notes’ subscribers and its conference participants are a great network of activists well positioned to assist unions in a broad mobilization. Other networks that could be enlisted include Jobs with Justice coalitions, central labor councils, occupational safety and health (COSH) networks, branches of the Democratic Socialists of America, Labor for Bernie supporters, and the relatively new Labor Action to Defend Democracy.

Labor leaders and activists everywhere need to study the national, regional, and local bargaining schedules—and get everyone to mark their calendars with expiration dates. It’s time to reach out to local union leaders and begin making plans to expand their collective bargaining campaigns. There is ample time now, months in advance, to make plans for “swarming solidarity” and begin aggressive support for the key upcoming contract battles. Labor should not squander these important opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike.

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 


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