A lot of things hap¬≠pened for work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple this year, and most of them were bad. But even in a¬†year as deranged as¬†2020, the broad¬≠er themes that afflict and ener¬≠gize the labor move¬≠ment have car¬≠ried on. If you are read¬≠ing this, con¬≠grat¬≠u¬≠la¬≠tions: There is still time for you to do some¬≠thing about all of these things. Here is a¬†brief look at the Year in Labor, and may we nev¬≠er have to live through some¬≠thing like it¬†again.
Broad¬≠ly speak¬≠ing, there have been two very large labor sto¬≠ries this year. The first is, ?‚ÄúI have been forced into unem¬≠ploy¬≠ment due to the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, and I am scared.‚ÄĚ And the sec¬≠ond is, ?‚ÄúI have been forced to con¬≠tin¬≠ue work¬≠ing dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, and I am scared.‚ÄĚ America‚Äôs labor reporters spent most of our year writ¬≠ing vari¬≠a¬≠tions of these sto¬≠ries, in each com¬≠pa¬≠ny and in each indus¬≠try and in each city. Those sto¬≠ries con¬≠tin¬≠ue to this day.
The fed¬≠er¬≠al gov¬≠ern¬≠ment left work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple utter¬≠ly for¬≠sak¬≠en. They did not cre¬≠ate a nation¬≠al wage replace¬≠ment sys¬≠tem to pay peo¬≠ple to stay home, as many Euro¬≠pean nations did. OSHA was asleep on the job, unin¬≠ter¬≠est¬≠ed in work¬≠place safe¬≠ty relat¬≠ed to coro¬≠n¬≠avirus. Repub¬≠li¬≠cans in Con¬≠gress were more intent on get¬≠ting lia¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty pro¬≠tec¬≠tions for employ¬≠ers than on doing any¬≠thing, any¬≠thing at all, that might help des¬≠per¬≠ate reg¬≠u¬≠lar peo¬≠ple. And, of course, Trump and his allies unnec¬≠es¬≠sar¬≠i¬≠ly politi¬≠cized pub¬≠lic health, lead¬≠ing direct¬≠ly to hun¬≠dreds of thou¬≠sands of unnec¬≠es¬≠sary deaths and the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic destruc¬≠tion that goes with that. It was a bad year. The larg¬≠er polit¬≠i¬≠cal insti¬≠tu¬≠tions cre¬≠at¬≠ed to pro¬≠tect work¬≠ers did not do their jobs. The labor move¬≠ment was left very much on its own. And its own track record was mixed.
The year of the hero! We love our heroes! Our front-line work¬≠ers, our deliv¬≠ery peo¬≠ple and san¬≠i¬≠ta¬≠tion work¬≠ers and bus dri¬≠vers, our para¬≠medics and nurs¬≠es, our cooks and clean¬≠ers and gro¬≠cery work¬≠ers: We love you all! Sure, we will bang pots and pans to cel¬≠e¬≠brate reg¬≠u¬≠lar work¬≠ers who had to push through dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, and we will write you nice notes and have school chil¬≠dren draw signs cel¬≠e¬≠brat¬≠ing you. But will you get paid for this?
How well have unions rep¬≠re¬≠sent¬≠ing these front line work¬≠ers done this year? In many cas¬≠es, not well. I think first of the gro¬≠cery work¬≠ers, rep¬≠re¬≠sent¬≠ed by UFCW, who were gen¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly award¬≠ed with tem¬≠po¬≠rary ?‚Äúhaz¬≠ard pay‚ÄĚ bonus¬≠es rather than actu¬≠al rais¬≠es. Or of the UFCW‚Äôs meat¬≠pack¬≠ing work¬≠ers, whose plants were encour¬≠aged to stay open by an exec¬≠u¬≠tive order, and who suf¬≠feredter¬≠ri¬≠bly from the coro¬≠n¬≠avirus and from management‚Äôs utter dis¬≠dain for their wel¬≠fare. These are work¬≠ers who, par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠ly dur¬≠ing the ear¬≠ly phase of the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, had a ton of lever¬≠age. Had they struck, or walked out, ask¬≠ing for basic safe¬≠ty and fair pay for risk¬≠ing their lives, the pub¬≠lic would have neared pan¬≠ic, and their demands prob¬≠a¬≠bly would have been met. Their employ¬≠ers would have had no choice. Instead, there was a great deal of out¬≠cry from their unions, but no real labor actions at scale. Thus, the meat¬≠pack¬≠ing work¬≠ers con¬≠tin¬≠ued to suf¬≠fer, and the gro¬≠cery work¬≠ers saw their ?‚Äúhaz¬≠ard pay‚ÄĚ bonus¬≠es dis¬≠ap¬≠pear, and here we are.
The point of this is not to be harsh. Faced with an unex¬≠pect¬≠ed dis¬≠as¬≠ter, most unions have spent this year scram¬≠bling des¬≠per¬≠ate¬≠ly to keep them¬≠selves and their work¬≠ers afloat, and have been flood¬≠ed with the task of deal¬≠ing with the cat¬≠a¬≠stro¬≠phe that has cost mil¬≠lions their jobs. But when this is all over, there should be a seri¬≠ous post¬≠mortem about what could and should have been done bet¬≠ter. And that will include, right up top, the fail¬≠ure of front line work¬≠ers to turn their new¬≠found hero sta¬≠tus?‚ÄĒ?and the tem¬≠po¬≠rary, absolute neces¬≠si¬≠ty that they con¬≠tin¬≠ue work¬≠ing through life-threat¬≠en¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions?‚ÄĒ?into any last¬≠ing gains. It is easy to sur¬≠ren¬≠der to the feel¬≠ing of just being thank¬≠ful to be employed while oth¬≠ers sink into pover¬≠ty. But we need to be ready with a bet¬≠ter plan for next time. Bil¬≠lions of dol¬≠lars and a good deal of poten¬≠tial pow¬≠er that work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple could have had has evap¬≠o¬≠rat¬≠ed because unions were not pre¬≠pared to act to take it.
Teach¬≠ers unions con¬≠clu¬≠sive¬≠ly demon¬≠strat¬≠ed their val¬≠ue this year. In gen¬≠er¬≠al, in cities with strong teach¬≠ers unions, pub¬≠lic schools did not reopen unless the teach¬≠ers were sat¬≠is¬≠fied that ade¬≠quate work¬≠place safe¬≠ty pro¬≠ce¬≠dures were in place. (In prac¬≠tice this meant that many school dis¬≠tricts sim¬≠ply kept instruc¬≠tion online.) While this earned the ire of some par¬≠ents, they should think it through: Work¬≠place safe¬≠ty in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca only exist¬≠ed where unions were strong enough to see to it that it hap¬≠pened. Schools were the most promi¬≠nent exam¬≠ple of that.
Else¬≠where, the news for fed¬≠er¬≠al gov¬≠ern¬≠ment employ¬≠ees was gloomy. The Trump admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion waged a years-long war against the labor rights of fed¬≠er¬≠al work¬≠ers, and it is fair to say that the unions lost that war. Fed¬≠er¬≠al employ¬≠ee unions in par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar, and state employ¬≠ee unions in Repub¬≠li¬≠can states, have become pathet¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly weak. Much of their bar¬≠gain¬≠ing pow¬≠er has been out¬≠lawed by Repub¬≠li¬≠can politi¬≠cians. The unions have been reduced to writ¬≠ing polite¬≠ly angry let¬≠ters as their work¬≠ers are abused while wait¬≠ing for a new Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion that they can beg to restore their rights. It is not a work¬≠able mod¬≠el for a union. These unions must decide at some point that they are will¬≠ing to break the law in order to assert the fun¬≠da¬≠men¬≠tal rights of their mem¬≠bers, or they will grow increas¬≠ing¬≠ly less able to demon¬≠strate to mem¬≠bers why they have any value.
That may not be fair, but it‚Äôs the truth.
The biggest issue for unions in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca?‚ÄĒ?big¬≠ger than any pan¬≠dem¬≠ic or pres¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial elec¬≠tion cycle?‚ÄĒ?is that there are sim¬≠ply not enough union mem¬≠bers. Only one in 10 work¬≠ers is a union mem¬≠ber. In the pri¬≠vate sec¬≠tor, that fig¬≠ure is just over 6%. The decades-long decline of union den¬≠si¬≠ty is the under¬≠ly¬≠ing thing rob¬≠bing the once-mighty labor move¬≠ment (and by exten¬≠sion, the work¬≠ing class itself) of pow¬≠er. If unions in Amer¬≠i¬≠ca are not grow¬≠ing every year, they are dying.
Dis¬≠as¬≠trous years like 2020 tend to put struc¬≠tur¬≠al issues on the back burn¬≠er, but they can also serve as inspi¬≠ra¬≠tions for peo¬≠ple to join unions to pro¬≠tect them. The annu¬≠al fig¬≠ures for the year are not out yet, but anec¬≠do¬≠tal¬≠ly, union lead¬≠ers and orga¬≠niz¬≠ers are opti¬≠mistic that the pandemic‚Äôs hav¬≠oc will serve as fuel for future orga¬≠niz¬≠ing. Most unions man¬≠aged to at least con¬≠tin¬≠ue major orga¬≠niz¬≠ing efforts that were already under¬≠way this year, like SEIU‚Äôs suc¬≠cess¬≠ful con¬≠clu¬≠sion of a 17-year bat¬≠tle to union¬≠ize 45,000 child care providers in Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠nia. Indus¬≠tries that were already hotbeds of orga¬≠niz¬≠ing tend¬≠ed to remain so. The safe¬≠ty net of a union con¬≠tract clear¬≠ly demon¬≠strat¬≠ed its val¬≠ue far and wide this year, at least in the abil¬≠i¬≠ty of union mem¬≠bers to nego¬≠ti¬≠ate terms for fur¬≠loughs and sev¬≠er¬≠ance and recall rights and all the oth¬≠er things that mat¬≠ter dur¬≠ing dis¬≠as¬≠ters, as non-union work¬≠ers were sim¬≠ply cast out on their own.
Still, it is up to unions them¬≠selves to have a¬†con¬≠cert¬≠ed plan to take advan¬≠tage of the wide¬≠spread nation¬≠al suf¬≠fer¬≠ing and chan¬≠nel it into new orga¬≠niz¬≠ing. Since unions have spent the year trans¬≠fixed by the elec¬≠tion and by try¬≠ing to respond to the eco¬≠nom¬≠ic col¬≠lapse, it is safe to say that such a¬†con¬≠cert¬≠ed plan does not real¬≠ly exist yet. That needs to be done, soon, or this moment will have been¬†wasted.¬†
Dur¬≠ing the ear¬≠ly months of the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, a frag¬≠ile sort of labor peace reigned. The grip of the cri¬≠sis was such that most work¬≠ers were sim¬≠ply try¬≠ing to hang on. As time went by, and the fail¬≠ures of employ¬≠ers became more clear, that peace began to evap¬≠o¬≠rate. Teach¬≠ers unions around the coun¬≠try used cred¬≠i¬≠ble strike threats to head off unsafe school open¬≠ing plans. And in the health¬≠care indus¬≠try, unions have had mul¬≠ti¬≠ple strikes, as nurs¬≠es and hos¬≠pi¬≠tal work¬≠ers have passed their break¬≠ing points.
Lever¬≠age for work¬≠ers varies wide¬≠ly by indus¬≠try right now, as cer¬≠tain indus¬≠tries are besieged with unem¬≠ployed work¬≠ers look¬≠ing for any job they can get (restau¬≠rants), and oth¬≠ers are des¬≠per¬≠ate for skilled work¬≠ers, who are extreme¬≠ly vital (nurs¬≠es). At min¬≠i¬≠mum, every union should look at its lever¬≠age in the spe¬≠cif¬≠ic con¬≠text of the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic and ask if they should act now, lest an oppor¬≠tu¬≠ni¬≠ty be lost forever.
You can think of many enor¬≠mous com¬≠pa¬≠nies as huge algo¬≠rithms that are mak¬≠ing their way through the Amer¬≠i¬≠can labor force, turn¬≠ing employ¬≠ees into inde¬≠pen¬≠dent con¬≠trac¬≠tors or free¬≠lancers or part-timers. There is mon¬≠ey to be made in free¬≠ing busi¬≠ness¬≠es from the respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty and cost of pro¬≠vid¬≠ing for employ¬≠ees (a sta¬≠tus that comes with ben¬≠e¬≠fits and a host of work¬≠place rights, includ¬≠ing the right to union¬≠ize). The ?‚Äúgig econ¬≠o¬≠my‚ÄĚ is not just Uber and Lyft and Instacart and oth¬≠er com¬≠pa¬≠nies that exclu¬≠sive¬≠ly work in that space?‚ÄĒ?it is an eco¬≠nom¬≠ic force of nature push¬≠ing every com¬≠pa¬≠ny, includ¬≠ing yours, to get your job off its books, and to turn you into some¬≠thing less than a full employee.
Coun¬≠ter¬≠ing this force is prob¬≠a¬≠bly the sin¬≠gle most impor¬≠tant legal and leg¬≠isla¬≠tive issue for labor as a whole, because this process inher¬≠ent¬≠ly acts to dis¬≠solve labor pow¬≠er. Unfor¬≠tu¬≠nate¬≠ly, the most impor¬≠tant thing that hap¬≠pened on the issue this year was the pas¬≠sage of Prop 22 in Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠nia, leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion specif¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly designed to empow¬≠er the gig econ¬≠o¬≠my com¬≠pa¬≠nies to the detri¬≠ment of work¬≠ers. Scari¬≠er yet is the fact that the suc¬≠cess¬≠ful leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion in Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠nia will now be used as a blue¬≠print for state leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion around the coun¬≠try. Com¬≠pa¬≠nies are pre¬≠pared to spend hun¬≠dreds of mil¬≠lions or bil¬≠lions of dol¬≠lars on this issue, because they save far more mon¬≠ey on the back end and pre¬≠serve their busi¬≠ness mod¬≠el, which depends in large part in extract¬≠ing wealth that once went to work¬≠ers and redi¬≠rect¬≠ing it towards investors. Either Amer¬≠i¬≠ca will have a nation¬≠al reck¬≠on¬≠ing with what the gig econ¬≠o¬≠my is doing to us, or we will con¬≠tin¬≠ue bar¬≠rel¬≠ing towards a dystopi¬≠an future of the Uber-iza¬≠tion of every last indus¬≠try. Includ¬≠ing yours. If ever there were a good time to launch a work¬≠er coop, it is now.
The elec¬≠tion and Washington
After an ear¬≠ly peri¬≠od of hope for a Bernie-led insur¬≠gency of the left, unions coa¬≠lesced around Biden. They spent a ton of mon¬≠ey on him, and indeed, his rhetoric and his plat¬≠form are both more defin¬≠i¬≠tive¬≠ly pro-union than any pres¬≠i¬≠dent in decades. Unions expect a lot of things from Biden, and expe¬≠ri¬≠ence tells us that they will not get many of them.
What they will prob¬≠a¬≠bly get: a much bet¬≠ter NLRB, a func¬≠tion¬≠ing OSHA, a pro-labor Labor Depart¬≠ment rather than the oppo¬≠site, and, par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠ly for unions with long¬≠stand¬≠ing ties to Biden, rel¬≠a¬≠tive¬≠ly good access to the White House. What they prob¬≠a¬≠bly won‚Äôt get: pas¬≠sage of the PRO Act, a very good bill that would fix many of the worst prob¬≠lems with U.S. labor law, but which has no hope in a divid¬≠ed Con¬≠gress. (And, I sus¬≠pect, even with full Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic con¬≠trol of Con¬≠gress, many of the more cen¬≠trist Democ¬≠rats would sud¬≠den¬≠ly find a rea¬≠son to oppose the act if the Cham¬≠ber of Com¬≠merce ever thought it might actu¬≠al¬≠ly pass). It is true that the cen¬≠ter of the Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Par¬≠ty is slow¬≠ly mov¬≠ing left, but Biden is a man who nat¬≠u¬≠ral¬≠ly stays in the mid¬≠dle of every¬≠one, and he will be con¬≠ser¬≠v¬≠a¬≠tive in his will¬≠ing¬≠ness to burn polit¬≠i¬≠cal cap¬≠i¬≠tal by push¬≠ing pro-labor poli¬≠cies that don‚Äôt enjoy some amount of pub¬≠lic bipar¬≠ti¬≠san sup¬≠port. The polit¬≠i¬≠cal cli¬≠mate for unions will be sim¬≠i¬≠lar to what it was under Oba¬≠ma. The words will be nicer, but any action will have to be pro¬≠pelled by peo¬≠ple in the streets.
The nine-month odyssey between the pas¬≠sage of the CARES Act and the next relief bill that Con¬≠gress actu¬≠al¬≠ly passed is a use¬≠ful demon¬≠stra¬≠tion of the lim¬≠its of labor‚Äôs lob¬≠by¬≠ing pow¬≠er. While par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar unions, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly those in trans¬≠porta¬≠tion and the USPS, showed skill at get¬≠ting con¬≠crete mate¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al gains for their mem¬≠bers into bills, the inabil¬≠i¬≠ty to force any sort of time¬≠ly action from Con¬≠gress in the face of mas¬≠sive human suf¬≠fer¬≠ing shows that labor as a spe¬≠cial inter¬≠est will nev¬≠er have the polit¬≠i¬≠cal pow¬≠er it craves. Until many, many more Amer¬≠i¬≠cans are union mem¬≠bers, it will be impos¬≠si¬≠ble to break out of this trap.
The labor move¬≠ment at its high¬≠est lev¬≠el must break itself of the addic¬≠tion to the false belief that sal¬≠va¬≠tion will be found if only our Demo¬≠c¬≠rat can win the next elec¬≠tion. It won‚Äôt. Orga¬≠nize mil¬≠lions of new work¬≠ers and teach them to always be ready to strike. The Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Par¬≠ty 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 any¬≠thing from that.
End¬≠ing on a pos¬≠i¬≠tive note
It may be the per¬≠pet¬≠u¬≠al nature of unions that the lead¬≠er¬≠ship is often dis¬≠ap¬≠point¬≠ing, but the grass¬≠roots are always inspir¬≠ing. The big pic¬≠ture for orga¬≠nized labor in 2020 has been‚Ä¶ close to okay, in some aspects, but cer¬≠tain¬≠ly not great. But when you pull out a mag¬≠ni¬≠fy¬≠ing glass and look at what indi¬≠vid¬≠ual work¬≠ers and work¬≠places and units are doing, you will find thou¬≠sands and thou¬≠sands of inspir¬≠ing things. And not even a pan¬≠dem¬≠ic has changed the basic fact that orga¬≠niz¬≠ing is the most pow¬≠er¬≠ful tool that reg¬≠u¬≠lar peo¬≠ple have at their dis¬≠pos¬≠al in a sys¬≠tem that val¬≠ues cap¬≠i¬≠tal over humanity.
If you are an employ¬≠ee, you can¬†union¬≠ize¬†your work¬≠place. If you are a¬†gig or tem¬≠po¬≠rary work¬≠er, you can¬†orga¬≠nize¬†with your¬†cowork¬≠ers. If you are unem¬≠ployed, you can march in the streets now, and union¬≠ize your next job. All the labor move¬≠ment 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 writ¬≠ing about labor and pol¬≠i¬≠tics for Gawk¬≠er, Splin¬≠ter, The Guardian, and else¬≠where.¬†