This year, Dissent celebrates May Day by reflecting on the events of an action-packed year for labor.
We wanted to highlight the work of a rising set of labor journalists who have been reporting on workers’ struggles across the country and internationally. There has been a surge in quality coverage of labor issues, often by younger people, which we hope indicates a continuing trend. As Micah Uetricht, author of this article on last week’s Chicago strikes, noted in an email, “Major news outlets are probably going to continue acting like workers confronting capital is not really a newsworthy issue; hopefully the small but growing group of writers covering labor will continue to insist otherwise.” I asked some of our favorite journalists to pick their three favorite labor moments from the past year.
“Major news outlets are probably going to continue acting like workers confronting capital is not really a newsworthy issue; hopefully the small but growing group of writers covering labor will continue to insist otherwise.”
As expected, there were many hat tips to the Chicago Teachers Union, which, under the leadership of Karen Lewis, fought school reforms with a succession of strikes. Despite majority support from parents, the union received a deluge of criticism from mainstream media, but that didn’t stop them from winning major concessions from the city. Other popular moments included the strikes that have been taking place in workplaces not traditionally home to labor action, including by low-wage workers in New York and Chicago, and Walmart workers all along the chain from suppliers to stores.
Recent tragic events—the death of fourteen workers and firefighters in a plant explosion near Waco, Texas, and the death of over 400 garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh caused by a factory collapse last week—served as a bitter reminder that dangerous working conditions are still a brutal reality in the United States and internationally. Comparisons were made between the Dhaka factory and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City at the start of the twentieth century. It’s worth remembering that only mass organizing by the ILGWU forced the improvement of factory conditions after that disaster.
The list of favorite moments we received was so long, we couldn’t include them all (although you will find all the contributions in a list at the end of this post), which indicates what an exhilarating year it’s been for labor. As William Jones noted, since 2006 there has been a revival of May Day itself in the United States, spearheaded by immigrants’ rights organizations.
My favorite moment for workers this year was the Fast Food Forward strike. I knew something was brewing among the fast food workers for a while, but when the strikes hit it surprised us all in the best possible way. Some point to the fast food industry as part of the “new economy,” but really these are workers who’ve been around doing low-wage jobs for decades, ignored in the face of the prosperity of the majority.
The momentum for paid sick leave laws grew at the state and local level. New York City, Portland, OR, and Long Beach, CA passed bills to guarantee workers paid time off for illnesses. And President Obama called for a raise in the minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in three years, and voters increased their community’s minimum wage in Albuquerque, NM, San Jose, CA, and Long Beach, CA at the polls in November.
The all India General Strike: Tens of thousands of workers paralyzed India on February 20-21, 2013, in one of the largest strikes in world history. Their demands included raising and extending the minimum wage, extending social security benefits to all workers, and stopping the privatization of social services.
The Hot and Crusty hiring hall. This campaign started during Occupy and came to a belated conclusion last November. Restaurant workers at the Upper East Side bakery tried to unionize only to face expected employer repression. A sit-in of Occupy protesters, a sale of the restaurant, an NLRB election, and a fifty-five-day picket later, they won their union. In their contract is a guarantee for a hiring hall that will give the union control over new hires, ensuring that the new owners won’t try to decertify the union once the contract expires. The provision is a novel strategy for organizing one of New York City’s most heavily exploited and fastest-growing industries.
For the U.S. labor movement, the past few years have been rife with signs of unexpected vulnerability. But we’ve also seen pockets of surprising vitality, including a series of striking strikes since last May Day. In September, Chicago saw the first big city teachers’ strike in years, led by an insurgent left-wing caucus that had ousted the union’s incumbent, accomodationist leadership two years before. The week-long work stoppage offered an implicit challenge to the “education reform” agenda backed by leaders of both national parties, and to the more conciliatory response of both national teachers unions. Strikes spread through Walmart’s U.S. supply chain—from guest workers at a seafood supplier in July, to warehouse workers in September, to retail stores in October and November. Those strikes—built on supply chain savvy and face-to-face organizing and leadership development—represent the strongest-ever US challenge to labor’s top antagonist. One week after the Black Friday Walmart work stoppage, fast food workers in New York City also mounted low-wage, non-union, one-day “minority strikes.” They did it again this month, and their counterparts in Chicago followed last week. It’s a risky tactic. But given the persistence of labor laws that betray workers, and the proven limits of union “corporate campaigns” that exclude them, it’s one we can expect will spread.
The Australian government takes a hard look at unpaid labor: this story flew under the radar in the States, but the Australian government commissioned a comprehensive study of unpaid internships and other non-paying labor, including recommendations for tougher oversight. These internships are disastrously under-regulated in the United States, where they pose a serious barrier to entry into the white-collar professions for lower-income people. Well past time for the United States to follow Australia’s example.
Over the last decade, care worker unionism has sought to redefine unionism, solidarity, and the mechanisms and content of collective bargaining. The unionism built by care workers depends on and emphasizes interdependencies; alliances with service users; and the unclear boundaries between private and public, between physical and emotional labor, between family, state, and market. As with other forms of public sector unionism, care worker movements have had to emphasize the value of public services, public goods, and the public budget. That has been both their strength and, in a sense, their Achilles’s heel. Precisely because they are linked to the public budget and defend social services, conservatives have opened an all-out assault on them. That has succeeded since 2010 in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Connecticut proved the exception this past year. The Connecticut legislature passed a law establishing collective bargaining rights to home care and childcare workers. Governor Danell Malloy signed the law in mid-May 2012. This is one place where workers gained rights instead of losing them. Now they have the challenge of building a solidarity movement with elders, disability rights activists, nurses, and families.
Jennifer Klein’s book, published last March, includes a history of home care workers.
After one of the many mass marches during the Chicago Teachers Union’s strike, I was starving. I ducked into a cafe, wearing a CTU solidarity shirt, and grabbed a yogurt. When I attempted to pay, the young cashier looked down at my shirt, then said, “Take it”—no charge. “I’d strike, too, if I could,” her coworker said. Yogurt in hand, I boarded a bus. Before I could pay, the driver waved me on. “We gotta support our teachers,” he said. Class struggle was thick in the Chicago air during the CTU strike—and the vast majority of Chicagoans weren’t siding with the bosses. The feeling of insurgency post-strike has clearly spread around Chicago and the nation, and will probably make labor’s next year an interesting one to watch.
The past year has seen a global upsurge in grassroots advocacy campaigns led by domestic workers. Merging the private sphere with public struggles for economic justice, migrants’ rights, and gender equity, domestic worker advocates have spearheaded campaigns to establish protective legislation for domestic workers and, more importantly, helped build a grassroots infrastructure for mobilizing a sector that has previously been dismissed merely as “women’s work” or casual labor. In the U.S., the National Domestic Workers Alliance, community groups, and immigrant rights advocates are leading the charge for a “Bill of Rights” in California. The legislation would help guarantee housekeepers, nannies and other home-based caregivers critical protections like overtime pay and the right to a fair contract–which they have historically been denied through longstanding exclusions in federal labor law.
Here are some more of our journalists’ favorite moments:
United Students against Sweatshops campaigned in solidarity with Indonesian workers, and won a promise from Adidas to pay wages that were owed.
A number of carwashes in New York City unionized as part of a nationwide movement.
Connecticut Union members who marched last May Day celebrated a victory when Locals 34 and 35 won their contract demands, including the Jobs Pipeline for New Haven residents, in June 2012.
In November, UNITE HERE’s Adios Arpaio put labor on the ballot in Phoenix, Arizona.
In October, 600 supporters and 30 striking workers shut down a Walmart warehouse in Illinois.