Strikes, union participation, polls point to US labor resurgence
“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.