This is an unusually optimistic — and unusually uncertain — period for labor observers trying to gauge the health of the American union movement as we celebrate Labor Day.
Young Workers United
The past two years have seen the first union organizing victories at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, REI, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Ben & Jerry’s and Chipotle. Moreover, overwhelmingly, these inspirational campaigns have not been traditional, top-down centralized union organizing campaigns. They are a far cry from the staff-driven, multi-million-dollar campaigns — which didn’t win any elections at companies like Walmart and MacDonald’s — of the past two decades.
Rather, these campaigns have been started and spread — and have succeeded — due to the dynamism of young (often college-educated) workers who are deeply attracted to the idea of organizing their own workplace and having an independent voice at work. They are not particularly attracted to the labor establishment — or even aware of its existence — but to the process of organizing, and the idea that it is something you do, not something that is done to you. They want experienced union organizers to help give them the tools they need to succeed, but they want to be the ones organizing their co-workers and winning, even at the biggest corporations. Some of these campaigns, such as Trader Joe’s United (which has won elections at four stores) and the Amazon Labor Union (which won the first union victory at Amazon in April 2022) are through independent unions, a rare beast in U.S. union history, which arguably is a model that makes it difficult to win again and again against multi-billion dollar corporations who will do anything, lawful or unlawful, to crush workers efforts to unionize.
Can Unions Adapt?
Other innovative union campaigns — mostly notably Starbucks Workers United — are affiliated with established unions (Workers United, which is part of the Service Employees International Union). But during the first 6-9 months of its existence, when Starbucks Workers United was at its most innovative, most dynamic, and most successful, it operated as a quasi-independent union, based on the principles of worker self-organization, grassroots control, local autonomy, and decentralized decision-making. This is precisely the kind of union campaign that appeals to today’s self-assured and independent-minded young workers. The Starbucks Workers United model of organizing was especially attractive because it appeared to show that at least parts of the labor movement were organizationally flexible enough to accommodate today’s young workers — who having been the driving force behind the new mood of optimism and militancy in the labor movement — and because it developed a replicable model, allowing pro-union workers to win at over 300 stores, an achievement that had never before seen in the history of U.S. labor.
Where is the Established Labor Movement?
During this unprecedented moment of optimism for union organizing — the likes of which we’ve never seen in at least half a century — the “labor establishment” has been mostly missing in action. Some might argue that this doesn’t matter because dynamism in the labor movement rarely comes from the top of the AFL-CIO or from the presidents of the nation’s largest unions. At the local level, some unions have helped, while also giving today’s young activists the elbow room they need to succeed and to develop their own identity. The Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU), whose campaign at Amazon in Bessemer, Ala., was vital to kick-starting the events of the past few years, has, not surprisingly, been involved in many of these grassroots self-organizing campaigns, at REI, Barnes & Noble and at several other firms.
But at this precise moment, young workers are craving bolder, more courageous leadership from today’s union presidents, and most are still failing the test. However, two recently elected presidents — Sean O’Brien of the Teamsters and Shane Fain of the United Auto Workers — are providing the kind of leadership young activists, and many other American workers, want, and both have rejected the “concession bargaining” approach of the past few decades. O’Brien and Fain were elected in direct elections — one member, one vote — which are disgracefully still a rarity among U.S. unions today. In 2023, what possible excuse is there for not allowing members to vote directly for the president of their union? If we had more direct elections, we would almost certainly see the emergence of several younger, more militant union leaders.
An End to Concession Bargaining?
The new leadership at the Teamsters and UAW has been transformative. O’Brien and Fain have both breathed new life into unions that had been largely moribund for years. They have been unapologetic about using union influence to take on “corporate greed” — both UPS and the “Big Three” auto firms have made tens of billions in profits in recent years — and get a better deal for their members. Both have threatened strikes to get rid of some of the worst abuses included in weak agreements negotiated by previous union presidents over the past two or three decades. O’Brien, arguable already the most effective Teamsters president in decades, helped negotiate a historic settlement at UPS — the largest private sector union contract in the country — that included significant raises for full and part-time workers, eliminated a hated two-tier payment system, created more full-time positions, got air-conditioning in delivery trucks, and won additional paid holidays, among other achievements. The contrast with the weak concessionary contract of 2018, negotiated by his predecessor, Jim Hoffa, could not be starker.
New Day Rising at the UAW
Fain has set even higher goals for ongoing negotiations with GM, Ford and Stellantis: a 40+ percent pay increase, a 32-hour work week (which is not uncommon among unionized auto workers in some countries in Western Europe), and a reinstatement of defined benefit pensions and health care benefits for retirees, which were eliminated in restructuring during the Great Recession. The auto companies can clearly afford big pay increases, but they will fight aggressively against the pension and health care proposals and the shorter working week. Like O’Brien, Fain has railed against corporate greed and expressed disdain for the cozy relationship his predecessor had with the auto companies. He’s also been unusually transparent about the union’s demands and has spoken directly with members through Facebook Live session.
A One-Sided Class War
The Teamsters and UAW under O’Brien and Fain might not seem to have much in common with the young workers trying to organize new unions at Starbucks, Amazon and Trader Joe’s. But unlike large parts of the labor establishment, they realize that talk of labor-management cooperation has failed American workers and gotten us nothing but corporate elites whose view of the “future of work” is based on low wages, algorithmic management, and expendable workers with no independent voice. They might not always win when they take on the country’s most powerful corporations, but they have the courage to take on the fight — and that is what today’s young labor activists want. For the past half century corporate American has been involved in a one-sided class war against American workers. Like the young organizers at Starbucks and Amazon, O’Brien and Fain know that when it comes to dealing with American capital, it’s war — and, except for a few short decades after World War II, it always has been.
John Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.