This year, the American labor movement has more than just its history to celebrate on Labor Day. Most Americans support labor unions, and recent years have seen a surge of unionization efforts in retail—a sector of the economy not known for forming unions.
Sixty-eight percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest level since 1965, according to Gallup. There are at least 143 unionized Starbucks locations. Earlier this year, Chris Smalls organized the first successful union drive in Amazon history at a Staten Island warehouse. And this summer, employees at an Apple store in Maryland voted to form a union—the first in the chain’s history—while Chipotle employees in Michigan became the first store in the restaurant chain to vote to unionize.
“This is going to be one of the most hopeful Labor Days that the American labor movement has seen in many a year,” says Joe McCartin, an expert on U.S. labor history at Georgetown University. “For a long time, the labor movement has struggled to get a foothold in some of the growing industries in the private sector, and now you’re seeing that happen in places like Starbucks—even Google, Trader Joe’s, REI. There has been a real upsurge of organizing activity [in] the private sector and that is something we haven’t seen for quite a while.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, expert on U.S. labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes this 2022 wave of union activism as “the most encouraging and largest pro-union sentiment and activism in two or three decades,” perhaps since the successful 1997 UPS strike, which involved several hundred thousand workers and had a lot of public support.
But in search of historical parallels, McCartin looks even further back: He says the organizing activity since COVID-19 lockdowns began reminds him of the organizing activity after World War I and World War II.
“What’s similar about the three periods is that they required a national mobilization,” McCartin says. “Coming out of all three of those major disjunctures— produced by the wars and the pandemic—workers became much more active in organizing and much more assertive in demanding their rights.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it was also the case that after World War I, more strikes took place in the U.S. than ever before—from NYC theater workers to 120,000 textile workers in New England. The Seattle General Strike brought the city to a standstill for about a week. As many as 350,000 steel workers went on strike nationwide, and more than 1,100 police officers went on strike in Boston. The workers striking aimed to preserve gains made during the ramped up production efforts during the war.
“In the case of 1919, four million workers went on strike. At the time, that’s one-fifth of the nation’s workforce—that’s big,” says Elizabeth Shermer, an expert on U.S. labor history at Loyola University Chicago.
Shermer points out that U.S. workers during COVID-19 experienced something akin to a wartime situation, putting their lives on the line just by showing up to work every day in the service industry.
Throughout history, unionizing efforts have thrived in periods of low unemployment. As McCartin explains, “A lot of times people like historians have asked the question, why weren’t there more mass protests in 1932 and ’33, when unemployment was as high as 25%? But, in fact, it’s when things are worse that workers become most defensive and most reluctant to take risks. When things improve, they become more willing to do so. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. As unemployment is low, young workers know that, if they want, they can go somewhere else and get a job. That leads them to be more willing to take a stand, as we’ve seen [with], say Starbucks.”
And historians point out that many of those willing to take a stand have been young people. The 24-year-old Starbucks union organizer Jaz Brisack and the 33-year-old Amazon union organizer Chris Smalls remind McCartin of Walter Reuther, who helped organize the Flint, Mich., auto strike in 1936 at the age of 29. “When the industrial unions formed, it was younger workers that really led the way,” according to McCartin.
But Will Jones, an expert on U.S. labor history at the University of Minnesota, warns that history also provides examples of why it might make sense to temper expectations for today’s activists.
The new wave of retail-sector unionizing reminds him of the 1970s, when there was a wave of unionizing among groups not historically associated with the labor movement, from sanitation workers to healthcare workers. New teacher and police unions formed during this time, and the movement saw a younger and more diverse group of participants, coming out of the civil rights movement.
But the promise of that moment didn’t bear out.
“The militancy [of the 1970s] didn’t actually lead to a revival of the union movement,” says Jones. “A lot of people were joining unions, but the laws, the protections for collective bargaining, actually had been weakened, starting in the ’40s. You could join a union, you could even go on strike, but actually winning a contract and building a lasting institution was much more difficult.”
Today, Jones argues, it’s going to be a long road to a contract for many of the new retail unions and employers. “The laws and the legal protections for forming a union remain very weak, and it’s almost impossible to compel an employer to actually sit down and negotiate with the union. The penalties are pretty minuscule and meaningless.”
But with Labor Day approaching, Shermer believes that the ubiquity of Amazon and Starbucks is poised to bring new awareness to the labor movement. “Maybe Labor Day is going to start shifting away from what is on sale and the start of school and the pool closing,” she says, “to actually returning again to this question about basic rights on the job.”
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