Young workers respond to a shape-shifting economy, new worries

Inside Story US 2012 - Attacking the unions
More than 300 labour unions take part in a march in New York calling for jobs and an end to the growing US economic disparity [File: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]
More than 300 labour unions take part in a march in New York calling for jobs and an end to the growing US economic disparity [File: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

Starbucks executives announced in February that they had agreed to negotiate pay raises and working conditions with a union representing 10,000 of the company’s baristas at more than 400 of its 17,000 stores in the United States.

Widely known for its aggressive union-busting tactics, the coffeehouse chain's recognition of its employees’ bargaining unit, Starbucks Workers United, was described by labour activists as a thunderclap signalling a historic shift in labour relations nationwide.

“There’s no denying that there has been an increase in worker militancy,” Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

After years of decline, organised labour in the US is surging as more and more employees are forcing their employers to negotiate their wages, benefits and job duties and are challenging their bosses’ business plans. And when their demands go unmet, more employees are walking off the job than at any time in the last half-century.

According to the Labor Action Tracker at Cornell University, 492,000 workers in the US went on strike in 2023, and the 354 work stoppages that year represented a 70 percent increase from the 201 strikes in 2021. And employees in 2024 are on a pace to nearly double last year’s number: In the first four months of the year, more than 481,500 workers have already gone on strike.

In the past 16 months, 84,000 nurses, doctors and other medical professionals walked off their jobs for three days and won 21 percent pay increases from Kaiser Permanente. The United Parcel Service agreed to wage increases for 34,000 Teamsters who went on strike, and 16,000 United Airlines pilots won pay increases of 34 to 40 percent. At the same time, writers and actors in Hollywood walked off their jobs in 2023. Both were successful.

Wearing shirts that read, “One Job Should Be Enough,” hotel workers in Los Angeles last summer staged more than 130 “rolling” or “pop-up” strikes to demand higher wages and better working conditions. To date, nearly half of the city’s hotels have agreed to union contracts.

In October, 3,700 hospitality workers walked off the job in Detroit, closing all three downtown hotel casinos. All three hotels settled within 47 days, conceding to the striking employees the largest pay increases since the venues opened in 1997, a workload reduction for housekeepers and Juneteenth as a paid holiday.

A month before the Detroit boycott began, tens of thousands of culinary workers in Las Vegas packed a convention centre and voted to authorise a citywide strike to begin nine days before the 2024 Super Bowl in the city. Recognising that they had been outmaneuvered, casino owners capitulated and signed a new contract.

Inspired by the string of worker victories, topless dancers in Los Angeles, the men’s basketball team at Dartmouth College and visual effects artists at Marvel Studios have all voted to unionise in the past year. Employees at a popular nonprofit animal shelter in Austin, Texas, voted on Wednesday – International Workers' Day – on unionisation. The results have not yet been released, but it was expected to pass.

And in perhaps the most high-profile labour standoff, the United Auto Workers, or UAW,  broke from industry custom by bargaining with the Big Three automakers - Ford Motor, Stellantis and General Motors - simultaneously and walking off the job at strategic plants without giving prior notice. After a six-week strike, union leaders managed to negotiate a 68 percent increase in auto workers’ starting pay, 25 percent pay raises and cost-of-living adjustments for current workers, and the union’s right to negotiate plant closures with auto executives.

“As today’s more mobilised workers’ movement has pressured many companies into resetting upward what they’re willing to give their employees, unions have come away with some highly impressive contracts in recent months,” said Greenhouse, a former New York Times labour reporter. “The incredible run of contract wins this year is unlike any in recent memory.”

Organising fry cooks and baristas, not steelworkers and miners

Unionized staff at Condé Nast walk the picket line during a 24-hour walk out amid layoff announcements
Unionized staff at Condé Nast walk the picket line during a 24-hour walk out amid layoff announcements, in front of the Condé Nast offices at One World Trade Center New York City on January 23, 2024. - The strike comes after Condé Nast said it would lay off approximately 5% of its staff, some 300 employees. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (AFP)
Unionized staff at Condé Nast walk the picket line during a 24-hour walk out amid layoff announcements, in front of the Condé Nast offices at One World Trade Center New York City on January 23, 2024. - The strike comes after Condé Nast said it would lay off approximately 5% of its staff, some 300 employees. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (AFP)

The last period of robust labour militancy occurred almost exactly 50 years ago as the US monopoly on manufactured goods began to wane amid the maturation of post-war industries in Japan and Europe and a spike in oil prices and inflation began to slice into both profits and wages.

But many historians said the better comparison to today’s revitalised trade union movement is with the pitched labour struggles that began with the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act, which established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce employees’ rights in the workplace, including, first and foremost, the right to join a union.

That set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the unionisation of nearly four in every 10 workers over the next 40 years – mostly in the manufacturing sector–and buoying consumer buying power. By 1973, employee wages accounted for slightly more than half of the US gross national product.

But beginning in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s election to the White House in 1980, employers have shipped large swathes of smokestack industries overseas, and today, only 6 percent of private sector employees in the US belong to a union, roughly a percentage point more than in 1929 when the Great Depression began.

Many activists and experts said this is why Starbucks Workers United and the Amazon Labor Union are so critical to organised labour’s ambitions in a shape-shifting economy that employs more fry cooks, hotel maids and baristas than it does assembly line workers. In fact, the service sector accounts for nearly 80 percent of the US workforce today, nearly double the concentration of factory workers a half-century ago at the apogee of American industrialism.

Increasingly, the evidence suggests that labour organisers are going where the workers are in an effort to replicate their grandparents' and great-grandparents’ successes at turning poor-paying jobs into better-paying ones. The hospitality and food services sector accounted for less than 4 percent of union election petitions filed with the NLRB 12 years ago; today, the accommodations and food services industry accounts for nearly a third of all union election petitions.

But the increased militancy not only represents the response by workers – particularly students, people of colour, women, and the gay and trans communities – to stagnant wages but also intersects with broader social issues that include Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, which has resulted in the deaths of nearly 35,000 Palestinians. On Wednesday, Starbucks Workers United posted a statement on Instagram that read:

SBWU stands with students around the country and condemns the brutal attempts to suppress their rights to free speech and political protest. Labor stands in solidarity with the students this May Day.”

An earlier Instagram post read: “Starbucks Workers United Stands With Palestine.”

And after a clash on Tuesday night between Palestine and Israel supporters at the University of California in Los Angeles, the California Federation of Teachers released a statement calling for the resignation of the university’s chancellor, Gene Block.

United Auto Workers Local 4811, which represents University of California student employees and graduate researchers, took it a step further, announcing in a press statement on Wednesday that it may vote to strike to protest the university’s policies.

“At an emergency executive board meeting this morning, our union's leadership voted to hold a strike authorization vote as early as next week to give the Executive Board authority to call a strike if circumstances justify: should the university decide to curtail the right to participate in protection, concerted activity; discriminate against union members or political viewpoints; and create or allow threats to members' health and safety, among others, UAW 4811 members will take any and all actions necessary to enforce our rights.”

Fighting for the community and not just for pay and benefits

UAW GM strikers
General Motors assembly workers picket outside a factory in Flint, Michigan, during a national strike [File: Rebecca Cook/Reuters]
General Motors assembly workers picket outside a factory in Flint, Michigan, during a national strike [File: Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

Organised labour’s solidarity with Palestine stands in stark contrast to the trade unions of the country’s industrial heyday when New York City construction workers famously attacked students protesting the Vietnam War.

Bill Fletcher, a labour union activist, author and talk show host, told Al Jazeera that the politics of this generation of labour activists is influenced by the sharp economic downturn that began in 2008 and the growing wealth inequalities that resulted from it, protests against police violence targeting African Americans such as George Floyd, what many see as the failure of corporations to protect workers during the pandemic and the social fissures that began to deepen during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“This didn’t pop up out of nowhere,” Fletcher said. “What we’re witnessing is the result of a sort of insurgency that we began to see in 2011 with the Occupy movement. ... It demonstrated that something was going on at the base.”

“The frustration has been building over decades, and unions are taking advantage of that," he added. "Union leaders understood the need for social justice unionism beyond wages and salaries and looked at broader issues.”

Marc Bayard, the director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies and founding executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said he was impressed with the young labour activists who are pursuing grassroots strategies that are in stark contrast to the top-down approach traditionally deployed by labour leaders, much to the lament of rank-and-file workers, particularly people of colour and women.

Historically, he told Al Jazeera, organised labour has been most effective when it advocates not just for wages and benefits for its members but also when it addresses deficits and issues in the larger community and when union leaders take their cues from the rank and file and not the other way around.

“What these employees are doing adds authentic and real diversity to the landscape,” Bayard said.

“There’s a whole new message and culture in place, and unions and workers have reaped [the] rewards of their advocacy and [their] push for a share of the profits their hard work has produced,” Bayard said.

While not technically a labour union, the mostly East African immigrants represented by the Minnesota Uber and Lyft Drivers Association (MULDA) successfully lobbied the Minneapolis City Council in March to adopt legislation requiring the rideshare companies to pay their drivers a minimum of $1.40 per mile or 51 cents per minute.

Eid Ali, president of MULDA, told Al Jazeera that he and a group of drivers approached the Teamsters three years ago about starting a union but executives were reticent because the NLRB classifies rideshare drivers as independent contractors rather than full-time employees.

“Our issue was that we were not getting paid enough, and we were feeling the pain for quite some time,” Ali said. “Plus there was no due process for our guys. You might go out an invest $30,000 or $40,000 for a car and get fired the next day.”

“But we didn’t have support from the traditional unions. They just didn’t engage our drivers, 98 to 99 percent of whom are immigrants from East Africa, and they don’t classify us as full-time employees, so they were thinking it just wasn’t their fight. And we just said, ‘Enough is enough.’ We started with 22 drivers coming together at a coffee shop in south Minneapolis, and out of that conversation, we realised that the only way to bridge the gap was to raise our voices and advocate for ourselves.”

The group agreed that a strike was not their best option and instead settled on a grassroots campaign lobbying lawmakers to establish a minimum wage for rideshare companies. They held rallies and met with US Representative Ilhan Omar and her predecessor, Keith Ellison, who is now Minnesota’s attorney general

They persuaded a lawmaker to introduce the bill in the state legislature, where it passed, only to be vetoed by the governor. They lowered their sights and tried again in Minneapolis, where the City Council passed the measure only to have the mayor veto it as well.

Finally, MULDA’s third time was the charm. In March, the Minneapolis City Council passed the bill with enough votes to withstand the mayor’s veto.

Executives for both Uber and Lyft threatened to stop doing business in the city when the law is enacted in July, but at least seven rideshare companies have emerged to fill the void, including one workers’ cooperative owned by the drivers themselves.

Labour leaders learning to take their cues from rank and file

SAG-AFTRA actors strike against the Hollywood studios as they join the Writers Guild of America
Actors striking against the Hollywood studios join the Writers Guild of America on the picket line outside Netflix offices in Los Angeles [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]
Actors striking against the Hollywood studios join the Writers Guild of America on the picket line outside Netflix offices in Los Angeles [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

That same kind of energy animates the National Domestic Workers Alliance, or NDWA.

Ai-jen Poo began organising Asian, Afro-Caribbean, Latina and African housekeepers in 2000 after she graduated from Columbia University. From that effort, the NDWA emerged seven years later to help both house cleaners and home healthcare workers improve pay and working conditions that activists sometimes described as “mediaeval”.

In 2010, the NDWA won passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York state, the first law in the US to guarantee domestic employees overtime pay, three days of paid leave, and legal protections from sexual harassment and discrimination. Lawmakers in Hawaii and California have since passed similar laws.

The NDWA is not technically a labour union – famously, President Franklin D Roosevelt’s administration excluded farm and domestic workers from the Wagner Act protections to appease southern Democrats who wanted to maintain Jim Crow segregation – but today, it represents 400,000 members, 90 percent of whom are women and a third of whom are foreign-born.

“We are a workers’ organisation that looks and sounds like a union but we are really expansive in thinking about how to build power for the working class,” Poo told Al Jazeera.

A key to the NDWA’s success, she said, is its grassroots approach as opposed to the top-down management that characterised most of the industrial unions in the post-war era. The turning point, Poo said, was a 2003 meeting in Manhattan.

“I was 24 at the time and didn’t know anything about how unions worked,” Poo said.

“We had to listen to workers and hear what needed to be changed. It was 200 domestic workers from all different nationalities and simultaneous interpretations in seven different languages. Workers sat around tables, and we identified 47 provisions that they wanted to address. We found that not having access to healthcare and being fired with no notice of termination topped their list because for live-in workers especially, getting fired with no notice means you are homeless overnight.”

That meeting remains the template for NDWA’s advocacy.

“There is kind of a cycle of feedback,” Poo said. “It's never bottom up; it's kind of around and around to allow us to take in a lot of different perspectives. We depend on that if we are going to fight this power imbalance in a workplace environment where you are completely isolated and your boss has so much control over your life and your livelihood.”

“What we have found is that when people of colour like the domestic workers lead, we increase the likelihood that the solutions we come up with will not leave anyone behind,” she said.

The media coordinator for the Coalition of Black Trade Unions, Dwight Kirk, told Al Jazeera that collectives like NDWA, and young workers at Starbucks and Amazon have injected a burst of energy into a labour movement that was stodgy and lethargic just a generation ago. The Fight for $15 movement to raise the minimum wage at fast-food restaurants like McDonald's is evidence of this, he said.

“In terms of the actual labour movement itself, it is in different phases,” Kirk said. “You have organised trade unions and those like Fight for $15 trying to get better conditions for workers. They have done really well in the past two years. Fight for $15 is now on the ground floor. They’re not a union, just folks who stood together. The labour union is bigger than just organised unions. It has allowed us to become more diverse – Fight for $15, migrant workers and other workers.”

Labour organising today requires innovative strategies because new workplace actors are creating what a new trade union movement will look like.

“The sustaining power is with unions. It is easy to organise across different identities, which is why we’re seeing the influx of thousands of labour actions this year,” Shawn Moreton, an investment banker told Al Jazeera.

“We’ve seen them in higher education, college administrations, hospitals, . . . restaurants, fast foods and journalism. People want stability and a path away from the gig economy. We are seeing the strengthening of a social movement. I see it as a reaction to the disintegration of everything else.”

Source: Al Jazeera