On unfamiliar and dangerous terrain: American workers begin the fightback

The working class in the United States faces tremendous difficulties, but there are some hopeful signs of movement in workplaces and unions, in communities, and on the left. As this article was being edited, the national uprising against the police murder of George Floyd spread across the country, complicating both the coronavirus and the planned reopening of the country to end the depression in ways that remain unclear. Clearly, however, all of these events taken together make clear that we are entering a new era in the struggle for democracy and socialism.

Dan La Botz is a veteran American labor union activist, academic, journalist, and author. He was a co-founder of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and has written extensively on worker rights in the United States and Mexico. He is a member of the DSA and co-founder of New Politics Magazine where this article is co-published.

The American working class today faces three enormous problems. First, the coronavirus that continues to spread across the United States bringing suffering and death. We have now had 104,000 deaths. We may see soon a second wave of the pandemic as a result of a hasty reopening of the American economy without proper attention to protecting the health of working people and the society in general.

Second, we find ourselves in an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions, a second Great Depression that may be worse than the first. We have 43 million unemployed, a rate of about of 25 percent. A recent study estimates that 42 percent of these layoffs may become permanent; that is, at the other end of this slump we may still have an unemployment rate of 15 percent!

Third, under President Donald Trump, we have a new kind of government in the United States, an authoritarian government, hostile to unions, workers, people of colour, women and LGBT people, that is violating many of the norms and customs of all previous administrations and has created what we might now call a permanent constitutional crisis. Trump not only conquered and disciplined the Republican Party, he has also maintained his hard core following of about 40 percent of the electorate, and mobilised far right movements that include neo-Nazis and armed militias.

The working class before the current crisis

To understand how the situation of the US working class we have to ask a number of questions. What is the starting point? That is, what was the situation of US workers before the pandemic? What is the situation at present? And what sort of worker resistance is taking place now?

The US working class has been in decline since about 1980; that is, for 40 years, two generations, unions shrunk in size and social weight, strikes virtually disappeared, and labour’s voice in the country’s social and political life became weaker. Before the pandemic only 10 percent of all workers in America belonged to unions, and only 6 percent in the private sector. Few union members attended union meetings and many did not vote in union elections for their officers. During those 40 years wages stagnated, and in many workplaces conditions worsened and benefits declined.

In February 2018 a teachers’ strike in West Virginia led to a series of education workers’ strikes that lasted through 2019 in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado, Los Angeles and Oakland, California. In Chicago there was a 15-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union and there was also a nine-day strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, both locals where more militant, rank-and-file caucuses had taken leadership of the union. The strikes involved about 500,000 teachers and other workers and in many cases won substantial gains. Yet the strikes did not spread to other public employees and seemed to have no impact on private sector workers.

There have also been dozens of strikes by nurses and other healthcare workers, some working for public, some for non-profit, and some for private hospitals. These strikes led by a variety of unions involved tens of thousands of workers, and all occurred before the current coronavirus pandemic.

There were several private sector strikes of note too in this same period of a few years before the coronavirus crisis. The Communications Workers of America led several of these strikes or followed its members when they led. On 13 April 2016 the Communication Workers of America (CWA) led a strike of 39,000 Verizon workers and after 45 days “they beat back company demands for concessions on job security and flexibility, won 1,300 additional union jobs, and achieved a first contract at seven Verizon Wireless stores.” The CWA also struck AT&T in 2016, Pacific Bell in 2017, and in 2018 9,500 CWA workers walked out at AT&T Midwest in a wildcat strike.

Service workers’ strikes grew in 2017-2019 as well. Seven UNITE HERE locals spread across seven time zones from Hawaii, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, Detroit, to Boston, raising the slogan “One Job Should Be Enough”, and struck Marriott (Marriott, Westin and Sheraton) Hotels for two months in 2018. They won higher wages, improved benefits, and greater job security.

The Stop & Shop strike should also be mentioned. Thirty-five thousand members of five United Food and Commercial Workers locals in the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut walked out on April 11 for better pay and to defend their healthcare plans. The strike, whose picket lines were honoured by the Teamsters, proved very effective, and the union demonstrated that it could successfully defend its members.

The United Auto Workers strike against General Motors in 2019 involved 48,000 workers at 50 plants across the United States and lasted from September 15 to October 16, but it failed to achieve what many workers thought should be its chief goal, the elimination of the many tiers – different pay rates – among GM workers. While each of these was a significant strike – one a success and the other not – they had little impact on the labour movement as a whole.

Taken together, all of the private sector strikes mentioned here demonstrated that labour unions were overcoming the myth of the 1980s to the 2000s that the strike was dead. The strike still lives.