We always hear that unions are in trouble. But that's not the whole story.
While nearly one of every three American workers were union members in 1945, today only 6.9 percent of private sector employees have union representation, a historic low. Tea Party governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker have pushed anti-union bills through state legislatures. Wisconsin's bill stripped public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights and was the most significant direct attack against unions by a leading politician since Ronald Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers strike in 1981.
Yet despite the odds, over the past few months unions have achieved significant victories around the nation. Workers continue to fight for better wages, job security, safe workplaces, and health care, regardless of the struggles unions face. Their long-term struggles have not changed. But their success rate may be improving.
Why is this? The terrible economy may have convinced more workers that standing together with their fellow employees is the best chance they have to hold on to middle-class dreams. The less-negative media climate surrounding unions after the draconian anti-union bills in Wisconsin and Ohio may have helped.
Some of this success may also come from the structural changes within the National Labor Relations Board that have helped level the playing field for workers. President Obama has disappointed many unionists in his administration. He did not push very hard for the Employee Free Choice Act, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has expressed frustration with the Democratic Party for its continued rightward tilt. But behind the scenes, Obama's appointees to the NLRB, Craig Becker and Mark Pearce, have reenergized the board, and the recent NLRB decision to expedite union elections, undermining employer attempts to intimidate workers, brought howls of protest from corporations.
Here are eight recent examples of forward momentum for organized labor:
1. Writers Guild Organizes Writers for Cable
In the past week, the Writers' Guild of America, East, has had two significant victories. Writers at the Onion News Network television show on the Independent Film Channel successfully negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that provides retroactive pay increases, as well as pension and health insurance, to workers.
The Writers Guild has also targeted cable television writers in recent campaigns, winning victories to represent workers at Animal Planet, Food Network, National Geographic, and Travel Channel. (Read AlterNet's coverage of the WGA victories here.)
Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, said of the importance of organizing cable TV writers, "Most work in basic cable TV is nonunion so working conditions are much less favorable than in Writers Guild shops. No health or pension benefits, grueling hours at low pay. Writers and producers shuffle between companies, and the most effective way to improve conditions is to organize multiple companies at one time, so that is what we are doing. Hundreds of writers and producers are eager to join the Writers Guild because our members know what it's like to be devoted to creating the best possible content and at the same time earning a reasonable living."
In late July, workers at a Danville, Virginia Ikea furniture factory voted overwhelmingly to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. With European companies moving factories to anti-union and relatively low-wage states in the American South, the Ikea victory is a significant step toward unionizing those workers. Ikea found its anti-union efforts hamstrung by its own image as a company whose products appeal to political progressives. Using the most draconian anti-union tactics threatened to undermine the brand.
This is an interesting paradox for Ikea. Their marketing scheme in the United States appeals to the urban consumer, often politically liberal, who sees Sweden as a democratic-socialist model. But Ikea was awful to these Virginia workers. Its workers cited low wages, mandatory overtime, long working hours, and even racism against African-American employees as reasons to join the union. This victory is also significant for its location—southern Virginia has one of the nation's lowest concentrations of union members, so a major victory here could be a sign of real change coming to the traditionally anti-union South.
3. UFCW Victories in Clothing Stores
Similarly to Ikea, sales clerks in New York branches of the Swedish clothing chain H&M joined the United Food & Commercial Workers last month. Unlike Ikea, which has vigorously fought unions across the United States and Europe, H&M played to its progressive image by refusing to force an election after a majority of workers signed union cards. They thought it a bad marketing strategy to alienate many of their consumers to keep out a union that will barely affect the chain's bottom line.
UFCW has worked hard to expand its membership in the service economy with some significant successes. Retail workers are hard to organize because they often don't see themselves in the jobs long-term, but their working conditions are often poor and in an economy with increasingly limited options, UFCW has real opportunities to unionize these workplaces. Its affiliate union, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers, just succeeded in organizing 1,400 workers at Filene's Basement stores and a distribution center in New York, suggesting a longer trend of success.
In May, workers at Rite-Aid's Southwest Distribution Center in Lancaster, California successfully organized under leadership from the Longshoremen's union (ILWU). Over 500 workers became union members with a remarkable contract for these times, ensuring annual wage increases for the three-year deal. Rite Aid engaged in classic union-busting strategies, including asking for a long delay before the union election to give them more time to intimidate workers, a tactic recently banned by Obama's NLRB. It took Rite Aid workers five years to get Rite Aid to sign a union contract, but it was a huge victory after a long and costly struggle.
5. The IWW Returns, Organizing Food Chains
The Industrial Workers of the World has seen its recent renaissance expand as it organizes restaurant chain workers. The IWW was famous for its radical unionism in the early 20th century, organizing workers the American Federation of Labor would not: women, immigrants, industrial labor, African Americans, and children. It was crushed during World War I and for most of the 20th century barely survived. But in recent years, the IWW has had successes at Starbucks, and has also pursued unionization of the sandwich chain Jimmy John's. Although the IWW narrowly lost a recent election to unionize Minneapolis Jimmy John's workers, the NLRB threw out the election results after finding intense corporate intimidation of workers.
6. Turning Up the Heat on Hyatt
Even where workers have not yet won their union battles, they have received positive publicity. Hyatt hotels, owned in part by Penny Pritzker, a close friend of President Obama, turned heat lamps on striking workers during the summer's worst heat wave. This act of corporate malevolence from the nation’s most stridently anti-union hotel chain gained national sympathy for their workers, in a struggle for improved working conditions for housekeepers that has mostly operated under the radar.
7. Even in Failure, Positives
One doesn't want to focus on losses, but even in recent defeats there are snippets of hope. Honeywell locked out workers at its Illinois uranium processing plant in order to keep out the union. After over a year, the company came to terms with its workers. It's true that the new contract forced workers to accept many concessions and that Honeywell forced the issue by convincing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow scab workers to work in the nuclear industry for the first time. At the same time, the contract actually increased job numbers at the plant. Moreover, the strike gained international attention, with German and Belgian unions inviting locked-out workers to Europe to speak of Honeywell's draconian tactics. In the age of globalization, this sort of international support can have great meaning in putting transnational pressure on mobile corporations.
8. The Verizon Strike
On Sunday, the Communication Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers called a strike against Verizon. The phone company has demanded radical cuts to workers' benefits and refuses to negotiate. With the call for 45,000 workers to go out, this is the largest strike in the country in several years. A success here could serve as a firewall in the corporate war on workers.
The strike has turned nasty already, with workers claiming three injuries, including one woman knocked unconscious, after bosses sped past picket lines in their cars. These workers are in the traditional landline phone operations, but CWA and IBEW are hoping to use this as a springboard to organize other parts of the Verizon empire.
With all of this pretty good to great news all of a sudden, one wonders, is this coincidence? Or is it a sign of a rejuvenated labor movement ready to take on aggressive corporate attempts to destroy worker organizations in order to promote an increased profit line? It's important not to overstate the impact of the labor-led protests in Madison against Scott Walker's anti-union bill. Lowell Peterson noted, "What we witnessed in Wisconsin was very inspiring but the voting at nonfiction basic cable production companies was mostly done before the Wisconsin gov started slinging his six-gun. Organizing requires hard, patient work, and folks have to believe the union can make a difference in their lives. I think we have made that case to folks."
That's absolutely true, but at the same time the climate of unionization is important. Workers have historically joined unions when the media reports positively about them and when the government plays a neutral role in union elections rather than openly supporting employers. The Republican overreach in Wisconsin, Ohio and other traditionally pro-union states led to a great deal of attention for unions. Obama's NLRB is making a real difference in working people's lives.
But while these factors are important, the real credit goes to the people bravely risking their jobs to improve their lot and that of all workers. Workers may have tough employment prospects if they lose their jobs through union organizing, but the increasingly desperate economy has also helped many understand that employers will not take care of them and that their best chance for a respectable paycheck lies in uniting with their fellow employees. We must work to build off these recent victories to make the labor movement a force in America again. The survival of middle-class America depends on it.