Socialist Alternative

How Can Unions Turn The Tide For Working People?

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Unions are enjoying record-high popularity, and the labor movement is more well-liked than any corporation, politician, party, or pop star. This is especially among young people who polled at a 71% approval rating for unions in a survey conducted by Gallup in August 2022.  Yet union density is only about 10%, half of what it was 40 years ago. 

Unions aren’t just becoming more popular; struggle is on the increase too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly three times as many work days were taken by strikes in 2023 compared to 2022. 

Some of these strikes, like most prominently the one conducted by the United Auto Workers (UAW), won significant wage increases and better working conditions. Winning a strong contract through a bold strike is the main reason more auto workers have signed union cards in the last couple months than what the old, corrupt UAW regime managed to achieve in decades.

Still, despite a rise of union activity that started when West Virginia teachers illegally went on strike in 2018 to kick off Red for Ed,  we haven’t seen either significant increases in the real living standards of working people or the emergence of a widespread mass working class movement. Instead, we face ongoing inflation, skyrocketing housing costs, and record levels of debt with over a trillion owed to credit card companies and twelve times as much owed in mortgages! All this while we have a President who claims to be more pro-union than any white house occupant before him.

While rich investors enjoy highs in the stock market, and more wealth gets concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, pro-capitalist commentators in the media talk about how we need more (not less) layoffs and unemployment. Their economy isn’t working for us, and we need to seize this moment of labor movement popularity and mood to struggle by winning victories to transform the lives of ourselves, our families, our co-workers, and our communities.

So, why haven’t we seen a shift in the lives, rights, and power of working people? What will it take to win lasting victories for unions and the wider working class?

Organizing The Unorganized & The Mass Strike

If all it took was popularity to organize people into unions, then far more than half of all workers would be unionized, and instead we have record low union density. That’s because the billionaire class (and their multimillionaire hangers-on) conduct vicious campaigns of slander, lies, intimidation, and firings when they’re faced with working people getting organized. Unions aren’t good for the profits of corporations who make their money by keeping our wages, benefits, and rights to a bare minimum so they can exploit us to pile up obscene amounts of cash. It takes a well-organized determined response to win a union and inspire millions of people to join the struggle.

In 2021, on the heels of the worst aspects of the pandemic, we saw an increase in organizing at Starbucks and other coffee shops. Workers at Trader Joe’s, Apple retail stores, Dollar General and Home Depot quickly won union elections too. Then in 2022, at the country’s biggest and perhaps most ruthless anti-union employer Amazon, we saw an initial victory at Staten Island’s JFK8 facility. The victory at JFK8, one of the dozens of fulfillment centers across the country, accounted for 20% of all new union members in 2022.

While these events inspired tens of thousands closely watching the labor movement, the employers responded with the carrot and the stick, intimidating (and firing) workers while dragging out negotiations through the courts. There weren’t ongoing credible and prominent strikes to win first contracts to give millions of working people confidence that if they got organized, they could win. While victories could be on the horizon for these struggles, dozens of worker organizers were fired by these megacorporations.

In order to unionize millions, bring bosses to the bargaining table and win better wages and benefits, the labor movement will have to rely on its most powerful tool: the strike. Billionaires don’t build cars, teach kids, clean floors, cook at restaurants, ship packages, fix computers, or drive buses. Working people make the economy function, and we can shut it down to demand more.  If the existing unions got organized for this type of struggle, then people would rally to the unions, and we’d be stronger united. 

For decades, Socialist Alternative has pointed out that conservative labor leaders were a major obstacle building a fight against the billionaires. Many of these leaders are still in power today, making six-figure salaries to rub elbows with politicians rather than fight the bosses.In 2023, Shawn Fain was elected as UAW President, and just months later, he led an important strike. It’s no coincidence that auto workers are now on the front lines of organizing the unorganized. People will be more willing to risk their jobs to organize unions if the labor movement is more democratic and fights harder for its members. This means that unionized workers should organize opposition groups against entrenched leaders who don’t allow democracy or lead determined struggles against the bosses.

In Fain’s December 11 speech to launch organizing drives across the country, he said: “Business leaders and politicians love to give lip service to the value of hard work. But companies don’t pay good wages out of the goodness of their hearts. They pay good wages because workers demand it and are ready to fight for it…This is our generation’s defining moment. It’s up to us to now carry the torch on the long road to economic and social justice. We are not the first. We won’t be the last. But now is our time.”

Fain has also called for the entire labor movement to prepare a mass strike on May 1, 2028. Unions are strongest when we fight together, and the billionaires want to keep us divided. Workers Strike Back, a campaigning organization set up by Socialist Alternative and former Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, is putting forward the need for all unions to line up contract expirations for May 1 2028 to build towards the biggest possible strike. Join Workers Strike Back to help with this effort!

Together, unionized workers and those trying to build power at non-union jobs, can take united, determined action together to win bold demands. This show of force can lay the basis for the type of movement we need to dismantle the dictatorship of the billionaire class, once and for all.

We Need Independent Working Class Politics

The two rich old men running for President aren’t our friends. Biden claims to be a big friend of labor, but he used anti-union laws to prevent railroad workers from striking, shoving a concessionary contract down the throats of people who voted to reject it. Trump says he’ll bring back a golden age of strong jobs, but he’s a con-artist who wants to divide working people by attacking immigrants, who have often been the backbone of labor’s strongest struggles. Still, unions shouldn’t avoid politics. When we fight the bosses without working class political representations, it’s like going into a boxing match with one hand tied behind our backs. The billionaires pay off politicians, and we need people from our own movements fighting in the halls of power.

While the revival of strikes would bring our most effective tool back into our hands, we can’t win everything through contracts with employers. Working people need quality guaranteed health care, drastically lowered housing costs, strong pensions, parental leave, child care, affordable education, and an environmentally sustainable future. To win all this, we need to take political action. Many union leaders say they agree with this, but then funnel our money, organizers, and attention towards an ongoing dead-end strategy of making friends with existing politicians from the two parties, who are beholden to the same billionaires we’re fighting on the job.

Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on electing Democrats (and sometimes Republicans!) unions should be running our own independent working class candidates. Workers candidates can be a step towards a new party that refuses to take a dime in corporate cash and uses elected office to mobilize movements that can better our lives. Kshama Sawant’s ten years in Seattle City Council shows what even one socialist elected representative can do by building power for working class people. Socialist Alternative and Sawant’s efforts won the first $15 an hour minimum wage in a major city, historic renters’ rights laws, a tax on Amazon to pay for quality affordable housing, and much more! 

We see now in the Presidential elections that millions are fed up with both parties, and tens of thousands are showing their disgust with Biden’s support of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza by voting “uncommitted.” There is an opening for a new type of principled politics, and the labor movement could help fill this vacuum. A new working class party could run hundreds of independent candidates accountable to our struggles and fighting on a clear working class program. We could have real democratic structures to debate strategies in a new party and foster strong connections with union activists. 

Labor Upsurges In The Past

Struggle is always necessary under capitalism. This system, here and around the world, concentrates massive wealth in fewer and fewer hands. It isn’t just terrible greed by companies that makes them treat us badly; they make more money by paying us less, working us harder, and forcing us to compete with other working people for meager resources in a world of plenty. History is full of lessons from the movements to improve our lives, and we need to learn from these class battles to build a better world. 

The last big labor upsurge in the US that won major victories spanned from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Activists in the unions then had experience in the movements against the Vietnam War, for women’s liberation, and for Black freedom. Back then, like today, many activists had to form oppositions to their union leaderships in order to successfully fight against the bosses. These strikes built the unions in the public sector where union density is highest today. One big highlight was the 1970 postal workers strike.

The big strikes of this era came at the tail end of the “post-war boom” of capitalist expansion and growth. In that context, the billionaire class and the politicians that they control were more willing to grant concessions to unions, and the billionaires reversed many of those gains in the 1980s and 90s. We can win victories today, but it will likely take a much bigger movement than what prevailed in the 1970s.

In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, workers also built strong unions. This required three general strikes in 1934 when workers in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo, Ohio all shut down their cities for workers rights. Those successful battles paved the way for the sit-down strikes in 1936 and beyond. Auto workers and thousands of others stopped work and occupied their jobsites. We need a return to these methods to shut down “business as usual.”

Just like in the 60s and 70s, worker activists in the big strikes of the 1930s had experience in other movements. Leaders of the Toledo strike came from unemployed organizing during the depths of the Great Depression. Leaders of the San Francisco and Minneapolis strikes were active in socialist and communist organizations. Strikes often helped build movements for housing justice as well. The labor movement, at our strongest, fights for the entire working class, not just members of unions. In the 1930s, there were many attempts to build new parties of the working class, but unfortunately labor leaders fell into the trap of supporting the “lesser evil” Democrats who often sent in the military to try to break strikes.

Next Steps Today

The labor movement is more popular than just about anything else in the country right now, but the bosses are determined to stop us from organizing us. Struggles are winning strong contracts, and we need to use this to organize the tens of millions of non-union workers who want to get involved in the labor movement. Instead of spending labor’s resources on hefty salaries for union officials or campaigns for big business backed politicians, we should have a campaign coordinated by many unions to organize the unorganized, especially at Amazon. We can’t stop there. The billionaires control both major parties in the halls of power, and we need to fight them on all terrains. We need to make steps to launch a new working class party that doesn’t take a dime in corporate cash, is run democratically by its activists, and fights with a program clearly in the interests of working people. 

UAW President Shawn Fain’s call for a mass strike on May 1, 2028 can be a crucial next step on all fronts for our struggles. A strong strike, organized from the ground up, across many industries, with clear demands, could dramatically shift the “balance of forces” towards working class power. A nationwide strike of this scale would have few precedents in this country, and it won’t be easy to pull off against the intimidation, trickery, and slander by the bosses. We need to start now with “May 1 2028” strike committees in all unions with monthly meetings, starting with a discussion about Fain’s speech launching the UAW organizing drive.

May 1 2028 strike committees should formulate key demands for each union and workplace to bring to all union members for a vote in preparation to take united action. Wherever possible, all unions should plan to line up contracts to expire on May 1, 2028. This is the best protection against anti-union laws; if we all act together, then they can’t fine or arrest everyone who defies the unjust laws written by union-busting billionaires.

Ongoing May 1 2028 strike planning shouldn’t only focus on existing union members; there is a massive opening to bring others into the struggle. Citywide and statewide strike preparation committees should hold public meetings alongside community, student, and faith groups, open to all working people, to put forward the case for united action to fight back against the billionaire class.

If you want to get involved with building towards the strongest possible strikes on May 1 2028 and fighting for a new working class party, join Workers Strike Back. In all these movements, we must learn the lessons from previous struggles. History shows that when the capitalists give concessions to our movements, they will always try to take away our gains so they can get richer. That’s one reason why we need to end capitalism once and for all. Consider getting involved with Socialist Alternative if you want to get organized and educated in the struggle for a better world.

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