More workers are forming independent unions, untethered from the AFL-CIO and other established labor groups.
Michael D. Yates
Truthout | December 29, 2022
Chris Smalls, a leader of the Amazon Labor Union, leads a march of Starbucks and Amazon workers and their allies to the homes of their CEOs to protest union busting on Labor Day, September 5, 2022, in New York City, New York.
The year 2022 saw a significant increase in working-class unrest in the United States. Millions of workers quit their jobs in 2021, and this trend has continued in 2022. Most moved on to different employment, while others continued their education or retired. Recently, many Twitter employees quit in response to the severe force reduction and intensification of work effort engineered by new owner Elon Musk. For those working, there has been a wave of what the media has dubbed “quiet quitting,” but which is really an old-fashioned labor strategy known as “working to rule,” or doing no more than what you have been ordered or contractually required to do. Those working from home have shown a reluctance to return to the office, an indication that, despite the problems of laboring where you live, offices are seen as worse.
Union organizing is on the rise, reflecting both the widespread disgust with workplace conditions and the now evidently positive public view of labor unions. The purchasing power of wages has stagnated for decades in the United States, while labor’s productivity has risen considerably. Unfortunately, the latter is partly the result of employer-initiated speed-ups, meaning that fewer workers must take up the slack created by a smaller workforce — again, management-created. According to Gallup, 71 percent of Americans now approve of unions, the highest favorable rating since 1965. This may help explain the surge in union recognition efforts. Between October 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022 (fiscal year 2022), union certification petitions at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were up 58 percent over the previous year. No doubt there were other such efforts, those that simply petitioned employers to bargain with a union or where workers struck to win bargaining rights. Because employers regularly violate the law by committing unfair labor practices (ULPs) such as firing union supporters, the NLRB has faced a heavy caseload of ULPs, which rose 16 percent over the same period.
People are forming unions across a wide array of occupations, including adjunct college professors, farmworkers, grocery store personnel at Trader Joe’s, baristas at Starbucks, laborers at Amazon warehouses, Google cafeteria workers, delivery drivers, Apple employees, staff at restaurants such as Chipotle, chocolate makers at Hershey’s, clerks from Dollar General to Williams-Sonoma, autoworkers and video game designers. In every case, it is the arbitrary, arrogant, impersonal and condescending treatment of employees that has motivated this organizing. Workers are rejecting their treatment as mere commodities — controlled, spied upon, used up, sped up and expected to devote their lives to making money for those who own their workplaces. They are demanding dignity in addition to higher wages, shorter hours, benefits and safe working conditions. The Amazon and Starbucks efforts have garnered the most publicity, with the latter showing a spectacular increase in union victories. Since the first Starbucks store was unionized in Buffalo, New York, in December 2021, workers at more than 250 locations have voted to unionize. Chris Smalls, the leader of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), has become a national celebrity.
Three things stand out in these union recognition campaigns. First, “salting” has been a useful tactic. “Salts” are organizers trained by a labor organization to obtain employment in a non-union workplace and use their skills to begin a union organizing drive. It takes great skill to do this work, with the salt always risking discovery. The Inside Organizer School was formed by famed organizer Richard Bensinger and others in Silver Spring, Maryland, to train salts. A longtime organizer, who prefers to remain anonymous, informed me that those trained have gone into workplaces across the country, including the Starbucks stores first organized in Buffalo.
The second notable trend: Some workers are forming independent unions, untethered from the traditional unions in the AFL-CIO and other established labor groups. The independent ALU is one significant example. The Workers United union at Starbucks is relatively independent, but it is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Recently, an independent labor union was formed to organize service-sector workers in the South, the Union of Southern Service Workers. Naomi Harris, who attended the founding convention, said:
We are going to fight by marching up on the bosses with our petitions, striking at the right time, getting community support for rallies. We will organize walk outs, sit-ins and boycotts if we need to. We will take legal action against wage theft, because you’re not about to pay me less than I deserve and take money out of my tips at the same time. We’re going to fight and fight and fight until we get what we deserve.
The push for independence reflects the lackluster organizing record of most AFL-CIO unions, their close ties to the pro-business Democratic Party and their top-heavy, highly paid bureaucracy, which is often mired in corruption.
Third, many of those supporting and leading these organizing struggles are young, knowledgeable and downwardly mobile. The informant mentioned above, who is radical in his politics and deeply involved in multiple organizing drives, told me that these workers are keen to learn about the history of labor in the United States. They have been absorbing the insights of long-forgotten labor champions like William Z. Foster, who led the heroic fight to organize the steel industry in 1919. Through my informant, I myself have sent 400 copies of my book, Why Unions Matter to be distributed to various worker organizations across the country. I have sent my most recent book, Work Work Work, to labor studies programs in the United States as well. Education about the nature of our economic system, work and confronting employers is more critical than ever.
Increased organizing has complemented a greater willingness to strike, picket and boycott. Payday Report has tracked well over 1,000 work stoppages since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. These have been mostly short walkouts, such as the strike by Starbucks workers this year on November 17, Red Cup Day, when the company gives out its much-loved reusable red cup for the holidays. However, there have also been larger and longer strikes. Hundreds of Alabama coal miners have been on strike for 20 months, supported by their communities and the United Mine Workers of America. The company, Warrior Met Coal, has continued to operate using scab labor.
In September, The Guardian reported:
Some of the largest strikes in recent weeks in the US have included 15,000 nurses who went on a three-day strike in Minnesota, over 1,100 timber workers in Oregon and Washington, over 4,500 teachers and staff in Columbus, Ohio, more than 6,000 teachers and staff in Seattle, 2,000 mental healthcare workers in California, 1,200 casting plant workers at Stellantis in Indiana, and 700 nursing home workers in Pennsylvania.
More recently, 48,000 graduate student workers and academic researchers, represented by four unions, struck at the University of California (UC), frustrated after a year of trying to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement and the filing of more than 20 unfair labor practice complaints. One group reached an agreement, but would not return to back to work until the other units settle. The other did reach agreement mid-December of this year. The walkout was very likely the largest academic strike in U.S. history and certainly the biggest strike this year for any workers. These workers do most of the teaching at UC campuses and help with much of the research, receiving inadequate pay and benefits in high-rent areas, much the same as their counterparts throughout the country. As higher education becomes just another business, those who do the hard labor find it difficult to consider themselves anything other than employees. The same is true for many professionals, including physicians, who have begun an organizing drive at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.
A strike is looming at UPS, one that could severely impact critical deliveries. Drivers, maximally stressed and overworked, are members of the Teamsters, now under new, forceful and more democratic leadership. We don’t know whether there will be a railroad workers’ strike, now that the federal government has callously legislated an agreement — one that has the odor of involuntary servitude — between the rail unions and the owners, an action supported by politicians claiming to be champions of the working class. Regrettably, one seldomly reported factor with respect to the rail unions is that most of their leaders are remarkably inept and have historically run their unions in an autocratic manner with little concern for the needs of their members. If ever an independent union, of all those toiling on the railroads, was needed, it is here.
There is a tendency on the left to see every working-class upsurge as a sign of the rebirth of a militant labor movement. While what I have described above is heartening, some historical perspective is necessary. In 2021, 10.3 percent of workers were unionized — with an astonishing 6.1 percent in the private sector — the same as in 2019. Total union membership is now 3.7 million lower than it was in 1983, when density was 20.1 percent. Density was very likely above 30 percent in the mid-1950s, and private sector density was almost surely higher 100 years ago. Major strikes (1,000 or more workers) have been in long-term decline, with 16 in 2021, down from 187 in 1980 and 470 (the highest on record) in 1952. These numbers may rise before 2023, but not enough to mark a sharp reversal in the trends. In addition, it is one thing to form a union, but is another to win a collective bargaining agreement. Amazon, Starbucks, Google, large universities etc. have deep pockets and labor laws that give them tremendous advantages in confronting unions. It will take great creativity and solidarity within the working class to emerge triumphant and get better wages, hours and working conditions.
And even supposing union membership skyrockets and better contracts are achieved, this is not the same as building a labor movement aimed at radically changing society. Union leadership may change, as in the Teamsters and now very likely in the United Auto Workers, but this usually means, at best, some improvements in the terms and conditions of employment. It seldom changes the relations of production, that is, it leaves intact that which must be changed: The control of the workplace monopolized by those who own the means of production.
What is needed is a labor movement with strong principles; a radical education program; the will to attack the deepening control the powerful have over the way we labor and nearly every aspect of our lives, the grotesque inequality in wealth and the anti-labor bias of the political system. And, of greatest importance, the destruction of the environment, with global warming making labor an utterly unhealthy endeavor, must be confronted as the ultimate working-class issue. The time seems ripe for such a movement to develop. We can only hope that it will. That as young workers begin to learn the underlying nature of the forces dominating their lives, they will begin to take collective actions that allow them not only to challenge their employers but also to start the long and arduous process of organizing production and distribution themselves. We have examples: the many programs of the Black Panthers, urban agriculture, peasant organizing in rural India, the communes in Venezuela, Cooperation Jackson. A labor movement worthy of the name must embrace these, broadening and deepening them, building a new society in the shell of the old.