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The Final Countdown: America’s Last Chance to Save the Labor Movement

“I still believe in ideals. I am not for a return to that definition of Liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I am sure you prefer that broader definition of Liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before.”

In this 1934 Fireside Chat, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in no uncertain terms, proclaimed the democratizing and equalizing power of organized labor in the United States. In the face of the largest economic crisis in history, with millions of Americans out of work and impoverished, union strength grew to unprecedented levels.

Much like the Great Depression, Americans today are in the midst of a grave economic crisis that is fundamentally upending society. As of February 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 500,000 Americans. Throughout the pandemic, essential workers have put their lives on the line to maintain the engine of American production, despite egregious under-compensation, few workplace rights, and a lack of COVID health precautions and PPE. In response to this unique moment, pockets of organized labor resistance are rising up across the nation and demanding change. With the American public’s popular support behind essential workers, a new union movement is perfectly primed to rise up in this country.

From the Teamsters in New York to teachers in Chicago, unions have already demonstrated the power to catalyze positive social change in 2021. A labor movement is rising that can bring this country together. Our leaders must invest in the power of unionization to usher in the next great era of social change. A new, 21st-century labor movement will build societal solidarity and advance the cause of democracy for every American.

Hunts Point is New York City’s most important food distribution hub, providing much of the meat, fruits, and vegetables for New York City’s five boroughs. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Hunts Point Workers adapted to ensure New Yorkers remain fed. Mark Solasz, the sales director of Master Purveyors, a Hunts Point Butcher, commented that, “we’re front liners. We come to work every day to make sure the food supply chain doesn’t end.” These workers put their lives on the line and sought to be compensated for this risk. When the workers, all Teamsters Local 202 union members, sought to increase their wages by $1/hour, their employers refused. As a result, hundreds of the Teamsters Local 202 union members went on strike at a Hunts Point New York market during January of 2021. After a full week of strikes that gained major media attention, further bolstered by the appearance of pro-union politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Teamsters won and secured a $1.85 wage increase over three years

In the United States, unions act as a barrier to corporate tyranny’s prerogatives and those with expansive influence on American society. Vital reforms such as child labor laws, weekends without work, 8-hour workdays, employer-provided pension plans, workplace safety measures, employer healthcare, and even Social Security exist as a result of union organizing and activism. Union membership generates mass civic participation through collective bargaining efforts and wage increases. During the Civil Rights movement, large industrial unions were critical allies for the Black freedom struggle under the notion that economic security and civil rights are intimately tied together. Leaders like A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bayard Rustin were national figures for the workers’ rights movements, arguing for the massive democratizing potential of organized labor.

Due to their power as a democratizing force, the United States government has undertaken a 50-year crusade to decimate unions and their membership. Following the passage of the hallmark National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, union growth skyrocketed as pro-union politicians believed in the ability of organized labor to help usher the United States out of the Great Depression. The architect of the NLRA, Senator Robert Wagener of New York, noted that, “democracy cannot work unless it is honored in the factory as well as the polling booth.” But following World War II, union backlash was swift and decisive. 

In 1947, despite a veto by President Harry Truman, Congress amended the NLRA with the infamous Taft-Hartley Act. Propagated by southern segregationists as a bill to help the American worker, Taft-Hartley, in reality, was a conscious effort to stop southern textile unionization and halt an empowered Black working class that could more effectively oppose Jim Crow laws. This law, which exists to this day, dealt a killing blow to unions in the United States. One provision of the law enables states to adopt “right to work” laws, which diminish unions’ ability to collectively bargain for wage increases, improved conditions, and overall benefits. 

In 1983, 20.1% of workers were unionized. In 2020, that number is 10.8%. In the private sector, only 6.3% of workers are unionized. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonunion workers earn only 84% of what unionized workers earn. The government won. It destroyed our unions and decimated popular perception of organized labor throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ushered in new modes of everyday life and employment, can be a major turning point for American unions. 

It may have taken 40 years and a global pandemic, but worker resentment against corporations and manufacturers is on the rise, with workers increasingly reporting burnout and poor conditions. Popular support for workers deemed “essential” reached generational highs Workers that are often subject to abject conditions and low wages are rising up and wielding newfound leverage to enact change. From grocery store workers to Amazon employees, the working class is making noise for more paid sick leave, personal protective equipment (PPE), and improved working conditions.  

In Alabama, thousands of Amazon workers are voting on unionization despite legal actions by the parent company. In Chicago, the Teachers Union went on strike against dangerous COVID-19 conditions in schools. A settlement reached February 6th aimed to accelerate teacher vaccination  to get kids back to school. In New York, the Teamsters 202 union won a monumental wage increase after a week of strikes at Hunts Point. 

Essential workers in this pandemic have unprecedented leverage over their employers that they have never and will never have again. Thus, organized labor must seize this moment of economic, social, and political uncertainty to create a new, strong American labor movement. Now, more than ever, the working class needs a collective structure with organization and leadership to express its concerns and exact true reform. If the 2021 labor movements have shown us anything, it is that countless sectors of our economy, from Amazon to hospitals and gig companies, are in for a reckoning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a reckoning about workplace conditions and offers a rare opportunity for organized labor. Support for the working class is at generational highs. As the government’s efforts to provide social support to those struggling from the pandemic have sputtered, workers are feeling a lack of a safety net. Unions can be the vehicle to pressure state and private entities to enact social programs. What has been a violent and bloody historical backlash against organized labor can once again turn into a movement for hope and large-scale democratization. If the successes of labor in 2021 show us anything, it is that unions, when working together collectively for the common good, can generate positive social change.

Photo: Original Illustration by Nadia Kossman