Strikes, union par­tic­i­pa­tion, polls point to US la­bor resur­gence

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE -

“Af­ter years of de­cline, there are clear signs that work­ers and the pub­lic at large have had enough.”

This La­bor Day seems es­pe­cially timely to re­flect on the state of the la­bor move­ment, which has been on the de­cline for decades.

Cer­tainly, la­bor, in­clud­ing union­ized work­ers and work­ing peo­ple gen­er­ally, face a range of chal­lenges — a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion that is anti-union, in­dus­try at­tempts to un­der­mine union ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams, union­ized jobs elim­i­nated as Gen­eral Mo­tors plants close in Michi­gan and Ohio, and cor­po­ra­tions that ve­he­mently re­sist or­ga­niz­ing ef­forts.

But in just the past year, teach­ers in sev­eral states en­gaged in the largest suc­cess­ful strikes in decades, win­ning re­duc­tions in the size of classes and other ed­u­ca­tional reforms that will im­prove education. They have in­spired other work­ers, even Uber driv­ers in some cities, to strike.

The Fight for 15 or­ga­ni­za­tion con­tin­ues to activate low-wage work­ers to stand up and strike against na­tional big-box cor­po­ra­tions for bet­ter pay and safety. In fact, the num­ber of strikes in this coun­try has re­turned to lev­els not seen since the 1980s. These strikes re­sult in long-over­due pay and ben­e­fit in­creases and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions that end up ben­e­fit­ing all work­ers across the board.

Here in Pennsylvan­ia, which has played key roles in the la­bor move­ment, there are sig­nif­i­cant in­di­ca­tors of la­bor’s resur­gence in this past year as well. One year af­ter the Supreme Court’s Janus de­ci­sion, in which the court ruled against com­pelling pub­lic em­ploy­ees to pay union dues, many pub­lic sec­tor unions in Pennsylvan­ia are re­port­ing an ac­tual re­vi­tal­iza­tion of mem­ber par­tic­i­pa­tion rather than mem­ber­ship losses.

The United Elec­tri­cal work­ers in Erie struck Gen­eral Elec­tric to main­tain good-pay­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, not just for them­selves but for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and their com­mu­nity. The Carnegie Li­brary work­ers in Pittsburgh re­cently joined the United Steel­work­ers, af­ter years of low pay in­creases. In their ef­forts to or­ga­nize a union, Uni­ver­sity of Pittsburgh Med­i­cal Cen­ter hos­pi­tal work­ers have held unfair la­bor prac­tice strikes.

A re­cent Gallup poll showed pub­lic ap­proval of unions hitting its high­est level in years, with 64% of the pub­lic in­di­cat­ing sup­port for unions.

This sug­gests a pub­lic recog­ni­tion that our eco­nomic sys­tem is fun­da­men­tally unfair and an un­der­stand­ing of the role unions can play to bal­ance the power of cor­po­ra­tions and the wealthy.

Now, sev­eral pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have come for­ward with ambitious and trans­for­ma­tive plans for la­bor law re­form. These changes would make it eas­ier for work­ers to ei­ther form a union or pro­vide other av­enues for work­ers to have a real collective voice to pos­i­tively im­pact their pay and work­ing con­di­tions.

His­tor­i­cally, the big­gest growth in la­bor or­ga­niz­ing fol­lowed the Great De­pres­sion of the 1930s. The 1930s was a decade of ex­treme in­equal­ity be­tween wealthy cor­po­ra­tions and the av­er­age work­ing per­son. It was a time when work­ers held strikes and when the pub­lic saw clearly the need for work­ers to have more power against the large cor­po­ra­tions of their time.

Cur­rently, we are in an equally trou­bling time of in­equal­ity. While cor­po­rate prof­its rise, the av­er­age work­ers to­day ac­tu­ally earn less on av­er­age than they did in 1980 (af­ter ad­just­ing for inflation), ac­cord­ing to “Sleep­ing Gi­ant, How the New Work­ing Class will Trans­form Amer­ica” by Ta­mara Draut. A quar­ter of the en­tire work­force earn wages be­low $10 per hour, mean­ing be­low the fed­eral fam­ily poverty level.

Unions and the Amer­i­can la­bor move­ment have been un­der at­tack for decades. The re­sult has been a steady fall in the in­come and liv­ing stan­dards of union­ized and nonunion work­ers alike.

Af­ter years of de­cline, there are clear signs that work­ers and the pub­lic at large have had enough. As more peo­ple see unions as one of the few mech­a­nisms avail­able to them to stand up for them­selves and their fam­i­lies, we may see a resur­gence of or­ga­nized la­bor in the years ahead.

Zach Zo­brist is an ed­u­ca­tor with The La­bor School, part of Penn State’s School of La­bor and Em­ploy­ment Re­la­tions.


A tem­po­rary worker crosses the picket line on Feb. 26 with the help of po­lice out­side Gen­eral Elec­tric Trans­porta­tion plant in Erie. The work­ers went on strike for nine days be­gin­ning Feb. 25. Af­ter a 90-day tem­po­rary agree­ment the union, Elec­tri­cal Work­ers Lo­cals 506 and 618, rat­i­fied a four-year con­tract on June 12.

Zach Zo­brist

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