With the seemingly endless marathon of presidential electioneering approaching full stride, we now get to experience that quadrennial ritual of Democratic establishment candidates queuing up to pledge how they are going to save the labor movement by raising wages and making it easier for workers to organize into unions.
But talk is cheap. Take Joe Biden, for instance. The darling of Democratic Party insiders claims to be “a union man, period,” but has no problem taking money from union-busters and consorting with big business lobbyists helping Trump pass new job-busting trade deals.
This Labor Day, those truly interested in building a powerful worker movement should discount those throwaway candidate pledges and instead focus on the hopeful signs of growing organizing in workplaces throughout the country, a nascent resistance to the grotesque inequality and inequity of our Gilded Age.
Workers are showing greater readiness to flex the strike muscle. Last year saw the largest number of major strikes in the US since 1986—not nearly the level of walkouts of the 1970s and earlier, but a welcome generational return to labor militancy following the union-busting unleashed in 1981 when President Reagan famously fired 11,000 workers and broke the air traffic controllers strike.
Workers are courageously fighting back for more than just for better pay, from the 31,000 Stop and Shop supermarket workers in southern New England, who struck for health benefits and basic rights, to the wave of #RedForEd teacher strikes defending the principle of quality public education against those who would privatize and strip public school funding, to the eight-city walkout, from Oahu to Boston, led by 7,000 Marriott hotel and restaurant workers demanding that “one job should be enough.”
I’m not arguing we should ignore candidate statements. They have a role in setting the terms of debate. Bernie Sanders’ promotion of “sectoral collective bargaining,” in which unions would bargain for standards across entire industries, not just employer-by-employer, establishes an important political marker.
Yet we must recognize that the salvation of workers and our unions depends not on hitching our fortunes to a political liberator who will deliver the goods, but on the painstaking, methodical grassroots organizing that builds collective power sufficient to force concessions, whether against employers or in the political arena. There are, as organizer and author Jane McAlevey notes, no shortcuts to movement building.
You can trace the recent uptick in labor militancy to last year’s West Virginia educators’ strike, an inspiring uprising by 35,000 teachers, janitors, cooks, bus drivers, and other rank-and-file school workers. They took on state power, rejected half-measures offered by the political establishment (and initially backed by their own union leaders), and delivered a stunning victory not just for themselves and not just for all West Virginia state workers, but for workers everywhere. And, significantly, at the same time they defeated efforts to privatize schools and undermine basic workers’ rights.
This was a noteworthy display of sectoral bargaining in action, a powerful win achieved through worker and community direct action.
The West Virginia educators didn’t rely on political leaders or the law to save them. Indeed, the strike itself was illegal. Rather, they raised bold demands for themselves, their students and communities; organized a majority, militant strike with mass direct actions; insisted on strong union democracy; and prevailed against a billionaire governor and an entrenched political establishment beholden to the gas, oil, and coal industries.
The West Virginia strike inspired similar educator uprisings—Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles and Oakland, and elsewhere—in the last eighteen months. Combined, these strikes are advancing the fight for workers’ rights and quality public education in our country.
Compare that experience to the last major political push for labor law reform. Remember EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act? As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama pledged to make it a top priority, so that unions could more easily organize workers. But once in office, Obama spent his political capital instead on trying to appease Wall Street banksters and health insurance executives. EFCA died an ignominious death, an especially appalling development when you consider that Democrats held a super-majority in the Senate at the time.
The enduring truth is that organizing and building mass movements produces political change, not the other way around. No presidential candidate’s declaration, no matter how laudable, is as valuable to movement-building as is the bravery of workers who, having decided they’ve endured enough abuse from their masters, step across the workplace threshold and onto the picket line.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum is a writer and union and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017), and a member of the National Writers Union/UAW 1981. Find him online at https://jonathanrosenblum.org/ or Twitter: @jonathan4212.