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This Could Be Labor’s Battle of Saratoga… Or Its Waterloo

Photo: Chicago hotel workers on strike

Cesar Chavez, a United Farm Workers (UFW) leader, began his hunger strike on February 15, 1968, and went on to go for a total of 25 days without eating any food. During an era of low labor force participation and moderate unemployment, Chavez and thousands of other strikers like him organized to raise awareness for the inhospitable working conditions and inadequate wages agricultural workers received. In 1970, growers conceded to the Delano Grape Strikers’ demands, inking UFW union contracts. 

In August 1981—just thirteen years later—13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization union went on strike. In response, President Ronald Reagan swiftly trounced upon striking workers, declaring that if they “do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.” Reagan’s decision sent a definitive message to all public-sector union workers that ushered in a new era of corporate dominance. Similarly, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) reduced the bargaining power of union workers by allowing corporations to relocate and threaten to relocate blue-collar manufacturing jobs to Mexico. In the 1950s, corporations formed the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), which pushed for “right-to-work” legislation around the country as globalization and anti-union sentiment grew.  These right-to-work laws—such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 and 2015 initiatives—allow non-union workers to access union contract benefits without paying union dues, effectively slashing union membership and funding in one fell swoop. Consequently, right-to-work laws have granted corporations a distinct financial advantage that has enabled them to suppress unionization and labor rights. Recently, Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash spent more than $200 million to push California voters to approve the Proposition 22 ballot initiative, denying their drivers a minimum wage, overtime, paid sick leave, and other protections. In essence, corporations and Republican politicians have diminished “Big Labor’s” power since Cesar Chavez’s era, making many unions obsolete. 

Today, the American economy lies in the midst of what economists have dubbed “The Great Resignation.” During July alone, over four million Americans quit their jobs, bringing the labor force participation rate to its lowest level since the 1970s. Workers viewed as “essential” during the pandemic—food and restaurant employees, manufacturers, and teachers  have quit their jobs at especially high rates. An estimated ​​892,000 workers in the accommodations and food services sectors resigned in August, 2021.  While some blame the current labor shortage on federal spending—especially stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits—other factors have virtually forced workers to resign. The Covid-19 pandemic, poor working conditions, low and stagnant wages, and insufficient benefits have driven workers to leave the labor force entirely. Many workers are merely resigning instead of resisting, but a few industries offer a glimmer of hope that could signify an impending revitalization of labor activism.

According to the Cornell University ILR School’s Labor Action Tracker, there have been 291 strikes since President Biden took office, 57 of which took place in October  (“Striketober”) alone. Kellogg’s workers in Lancaster County, PA, have been striking since October 5th in response to a company announcement that would cut workers’ current healthcare coverage, pensions, and vacation days. At the same time, over 10,000 John Deere workers walked off the job to demand higher wages and retirement benefits. While these ongoing strikes have yet to fulfill their goals, they’ve proven the importance of workers to their companies. Because the Great Resignation has made workers less replaceable, strikes give new leverage to workers at less risk or losing their jobs. Reinforcing strikers’ irreplaceability and increased bargaining power, when John Deere rushed to hire “scab” workers, it backfired when a non-union worker crashed a tractor. Meanwhile, Starbucks workers in the Buffalo, NY area have moved towards unionization, which could serve as a watershed moment for the entire fast-food industry. 

The dire conditions workers currently face necessitate a strong union response. If unions rise to the challenge, they will be positioned to return to the forefront of American political and professional life. If unions continue to mobilize, strike, grow, and fight back against corporate profits, they will begin to rebuild the American middle class. Economic indicators even make the current moment ripe to be a potential turning point in union history: The current labor force participation rate does not differ much from the rate in Cesar Chavez’s days, making workers less dispensable to their employers. However, if unions cannot adequately uplift workers amidst the most hazardous working conditions we have seen in years, our increasingly globalized and automated society will throw unions to the wind—and workers’ rights right along with them. If unions cannot overcome the obstacles corporations hurl at them now, they likely never will. Indeed, the Great Resignation could either be labor’s Waterloo defeat or its Saratoga turning point.

The mere thought of labor’s return to its glory days would typically cause a frenzy throughout corporate offices. However, unions could actually help alleviate firms’ current biggest challenge—the labor shortage. The labor shortage has made it difficult for firms to transport and produce goods as fast as consumers demand them, leading to global supply chain failures. Luckily, unions can bring laborers back into the workforce and help them stay there before supply chain issues can further spiral out of control. Historically, the term “union job” has invoked a sense of nostalgic pride and dignity across the nation, reflecting satisfied workers with union contracts. Furthermore, studies show that union workers are far less likely to resign than non-union workers, meaning unions boost retention for firms. While some argue that higher wages may increase prices for consumers, the stark juxtaposition between corporate profits and poverty-level wages forces further testing of this hypothesis. With a contract they helped craft—which includes higher pay, benefits, and protections—workers feel pride and want to keep their jobs, leaving firms with more satisfied and thus more productive workers.

Thus far, the Biden administration has professed its support for labor unions, but drastic legislative action to bolster unions seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. While Labor Secretary Marty Walsh recently visited striking Kellogg’s workers, he has not formally recognized the role unions can play in ending the Great Resignation. In this moment, unions can bridge the gap between corporations and their disgruntled employees and promote the economy’s restoration. However, if Walsh and Biden fail to protect striking workers, the economic recovery will stagnate and unions will never return to the prominence achieved during Chavez’s days.

Photo: Image via Unsplash