America’s Missing Labor Party
The history of strikes shows that, for lasting success, workers need to capture political power.
For nearly half a century, an air of inevitability has clung to the decline of the American labor movement. As union density has fallen to near 10 percent and strike activity has reached historic lows, labor has often fumbled in its response to political attacks. Since 2012, five states have passed anti-union “right-to-work” laws, after campaigns funded lavishly by right-wing billionaires. In June, the Supreme Court dealt another blow, ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that public employees cannot be required to pay fees to a union. With this decision, public-sector unions are now set to go the way of the once-great industrial unions—institutions that underwrote the creation of middle-class wealth and crystallized a still-powerful image of American prosperity.
In the rearview mirror, the three decades after World War II, when the expanded labor rights regime of the New Deal was at its strongest, increasingly look like what the historian Jefferson Cowie has called a “great exception.” For most of American history, politicians and courts have given employers nearly unrestricted control over the terms of work, and they have offered the resources of the state—above all, the military and police—to enforce those terms. And even when laws regulating the length of the working day and establishing safety requirements were passed, courts frequently overturned them. Workers’ failure to make much headway by the early twentieth century led scholars, beginning with the German sociologist Werner Sombart, to argue that the United States was just different from Europe: It lacked a class-bound medieval past, it had an individualistic ethos, and its workers were too diverse to organize effectively.
This way of seeing American labor is undermined, however, by the historical record: There was, in fact, a militant labor movement in the United States, one that sometimes even worked with vibrant socialist and communist parties. While professional and racial differences split some groups, others overcame those divisions and collectively faced down violent repression from their employers, state governments, and even the general public. Striking workers at the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1914 met with machine guns, fired into their encampment by a private strike-breaking firm and the National Guard; two years earlier, textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, had contended not only with state and private security forces, but also with Harvard students who were released from their exams to fight the strike.
Recalling these stories today is important, Erik Loomis argues in A History of America in Ten Strikes, because even though the workplace is still a “site where people struggle for power,” the memory of workers who fought for basic rights has largely disappeared, he observes, “from our collective sense of ourselves.” Every leap forward in American labor history—from safety regulations to the eight-hour day—has been achieved by mass mobilization of workers. But if at least some, and often many, Americans have always been ready to take militant action for a better life, why have their successes proved so limited and fragile?
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Business Insider - George Pearkes
America's labor movement is finally waking up after a 30 year slumber
You may have noticed some labor disruptions in the headlines. A few examples from the past month: employees of Vox Media successfully negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, Buzzfeed employees walked out in an effort to get recognition for their union, and Volkswagen workers in Tennessee talked wildcat strikes after a vote to unionize failed by a small margin.
Last year, teachers walked off the job in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona with walk-outs and other disruptions from Colorado to the Carolinas. This may seem like bad news for capitalists, but unions can be a source of stability as well as class conflict. The recent labor renaissance could help to reverse some worrying long-term trends in the American economy, while also still benefiting the businesses from which workers are extracting gains.
The recent uptick in strikes is not just your imagination, and it recalls an earlier era when unions played a greater role in the American labor market. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed more than 485,000 workers were impacted by large strikes that started during the year, the highest number since 1986. ...
The return to labor disruptions after a long post-Reagan slumber comes as workers are becoming scarcer. Using BLS data which goes back to 1994, as-of May only 9.12% of the potential workers either had no job and want one, or are working part-time because they can't find full-time work. The measure is approaching its record low of 8.9%, from April of 2000.
This extremely broad metric measures not just those who are counted as unemployed by the BLS, but goes further to include those who haven't been looking for work but want a job as well as those working part-time for economic reasons. If employers want to add capacity or replace workers who retire or quit, there are fewer and fewer places to turn, which gives workers more bargaining power.
Mother Jones: A Former Labor Secretary’s Message to Essential Workers: When This Ends, “Threaten to Strike”
Robert Reich predicts a coming wave of labor activism “such as we haven’t seen in this country in decades.”
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