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Labor Day Analysis: The Labor Movement's Wins & Losses
Though it won't be easy, things are looking up for the American working class.
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With Labor Day upon us, I’m sad to say Hot Labor Summer is coming to an end. But while the seasons change, the fervor of American labor remains. As we celebrate the annual working-class holiday, it feels like a good time to take stock of the labor movement and analyze its wins and losses so that we may replicate the former and improve upon the latter.
1. Americans support unions and want more of them. According to recent polling from Gallup, over two-thirds of Americans (67%) approve of labor unions, a 13-point increase over the last decade.
The pro-union sentiment only increases when Americans are asked about specific union action, such as the ongoing Hollywood strikes and the potential United Auto Workers (UAW) strike (absent a contract, UAW workers are set to strike on September 14th). When asked, 75% of Americans side with UAW workers over employers, 72% side with television writers over the studios, and 67% side with actors over the studios. Additionally, a plurality of Americans want unions to have more influence (43%) in the economy, as opposed to maintaining their current level of influence (30%) or decreasing influence (26%).
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Overall, labor is dominating capital in the arena of public opinion. While the aforementioned approval numbers hover around 70%, it should be noted that union support has a ceiling far lower than 100%. Approximately 9.2% of Americans own a business, meaning they’re likely to disfavor any union activity. And while 61% of Americans own stock, only about 14% own individual stocks (not in an IRA or mutual fund), giving them some form of controlling interest in a company. As there’s likely to be an overlap between the 14% who own individual stock and the 9.2% who own a business, we can’t say for certain, but a rough estimate is that somewhere between 10% to 20% of Americans are capitalists (people who own capital) and will seldom favor unions and other labor action. Given this context, the already-high rates of support we see for organized labor are even more impressive.
2. Labor is growing more militant. For the last half-century, labor unions have been weakened by the Cold War era politics. Fearful of being called “communists” and obedient to the neoliberal Democratic Party, unions were sheepish and scared. But now things are changing. According to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), there have been approximately 546 strikes or labor actions recorded in the U.S. this year, constituting one of the most active labor years since 1946. Workers aren’t afraid to strike, and they’re showing it.
Additionally, the rhetoric of union leadership is growing in response. While previous union figureheads frequently couched their requests with soft language about “being American” and “working together,” modern leaders sound a lot more like the revolutionaries of old. In the lead-up to the potential strike, UAW President Shawn Fain has been increasingly militant, calling for a four-day workweek, employing trash cans as props, and asking “Why should we work more just so some asshole can shoot himself off into outer space?”
3. The labor movement is winning. While the previous two points are worthy of celebration, they are only building blocks for what should be the ultimate goal of the labor movement: improving the lives of the working class by winning decent contracts. Just last month UPS Teamsters drivers voted to ratify their contract by 86%, Starbucks’ stores have unionized 83.8% of the time a vote has been called, and the impact of Amazon Workers’ United getting its foot in the door at the JFK8 warehouse in New York cannot be overstated. There’s a lot of work to be done, but the data is pointing in one direction: More and more workers are voting to unionize, and those unions are bearing fruit.
But while the USS Labor is on course for clear waters, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Bosses are fighting back hard, and in some cases, they’ve managed to stop the movement in its tracks.
1. Bosses are (expectedly) going to sinister lengths to break workers. While the UPS strike was averted, the Hollywood strikes, comprised of the SAG-AFTRA (actors) and WGA (writers) are still ongoing. The studios have yet to offer a fair contract, and, as evident by their admission to let the workers go homeless, they’re willing to create great human misery to protect their profits.
In the same vein, while Starbucks stores have been unionizing en masse, not one has earned a contract. The coffee chain’s bad-faith bargaining was so egregious that its own investors called for a review of the anti-union action. While this is welcome, it’s dubious that the capitalists themselves will save Starbucks’ workers from capitalist exploitation.
2. Union membership is still low. Despite the surging popularity and militancy, the overall rate of Americans who are in a union is still low. The union membership rate fell from 10.3% to 10.1% between 2021 and 2022. That said, the number of unionized workers rose by almost 1.9%. These mismatched numbers are a consequence of the post-COVID recession rebound, but they are still far lower than the highest record membership rate of 20.1% in 1983.
Altogether, the state of the American labor movement is promising. Support is up, contracts are being won, and there’s a real desire from the American working class to fight for better lives for themselves and their families. Capitalists have expectedly placed roadworks before us, but as the saying goes, we shall overcome.
Anecdotally speaking, there’s an excitement for labor that just feels different. The picket lines I’ve attended are jubilant and hopeful, the DSA national convention was swelling with enthusiasm for labor activists, and even my apolitical friends are discussing the ongoing strikes with a 100% pro-worker support rate (though, that could just be due to me having really cool friends). Excitement is impossible to quantify, but for the first time in decades, the well-being of the American working class is a prevalent concern.
Harnessing this excitement and manifesting it into better conditions for American workers will be a project of great magnitude. Still, it is one I am proud to be a part of. And I hope you are too.
Happy Labor Day everyone!
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