The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: A Labor Day Assessment of the Past Year

On Labor Day 2011, things looked bleak for the U.S. labor movement. More than forty-five thousand Verizon workers had gone on strike and returned to work without a contract. Public sector workers were under serious attack. Republican governors—Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio— had declared all-out war on unions, but even Democratic governors had a go: Deval Patrick in Massachusetts removed the right of public sector unions to bargain over health care, and Andrew Cuomo in New York ran on a platform of going after unions.

Has the terrain shifted in the past year? Not very much. But there were hopeful signs as well, suggesting that labor might be finding new allies and at least starting a serious fightback.

What was good, bad, and ugly this past year?

Public Sector

The attacks on the public sector unions had already been underway for years in states such as Indiana, where the governor eliminated collective bargaining rights for state workers in 2005, long before the economic crisis. And workers in some states, many in the South, never won their right to organize or bargain in the first place. But the Wisconsin case was news- worthy because of the boldness of Walker’s attack, and the degree of protest with which it was met. The level of oppositional organizing has been impressive. The initial protests were historic and, in two election cycles, Democrats recalled two senators and took back control of the Senate. Activists collected an unprecedented number of signatures (more than one million in two months) to recall Walker.

Yet failing to recall Walker was a major defeat. Despite some polls suggesting a close race, Walker won by almost seven percentage points, and the race was called less than an hour after the polls had closed. Even more discouraging, according to exit polls by Hart Research, 15 percent of public sector union members and 31 percent of private sector union members voted for Walker. Almost 40 percent of those in union households did the same. While money played a big part in the election (some estimates show that Walker outspent his Democratic opponent Tom Barrett by more than seven to one), this provides an insufficient explanation for the level of support Walker received from union members: about 8 percent of his votes.

Even if Wisconsinites had succeeded in recalling Walker, Tom Barrett is not known as a friend to labor, given his relations with unions in Milwaukee. The recall strategy shows the limitations of electoralism, especially when labor does not have candidates of its own to run. Electing a Democrat is no guarantee, as we saw with Mayor Chuck Reed who helped pass public sector pension restructuring in San Jose, California, and the host of Democratic governors who have been laying off state work- ers. It is not enough to simply defeat anti-union candidates when labor does not have the capac- ity to put pro-union candidates into office.

The story in Ohio is similarly complicated. Governor Kasich launched an equally aggressive campaign against public sector unions there, and won an initial battle with the passage of Senate Bill 5 which restricted collective bargaining rights. But unions mobilized a referendum campaign and successfully overturned the bill in a decisive vote. This was a victory for the labor movement overall, but whether it results in a stronger labor movement in the state is too early to tell.

Meanwhile, public sector unions in other states are losing members. The Indiana story is instructive in this regard: after the loss of collective bargaining rights in 2005 union density among state workers fell steadily, going from 66 percent in 2005 to under 7 percent today.3 According to initial reports, public sector unions have struggled to re-sign the majority of their members to the union after Walker’s Act 10 was enacted. For example, one report shows that from March 2011 to February 2012, AFSCME membership in the state dropped from 63,577 to 34,942.

Nationally, almost half of public sector employees work in education, where the attacks are not just against teachers’ unions but against public teachers and public schools. Stand for Children—funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and other wealthy donors—has launched a host of state campaigns to undermine the rights of teachers, and expand charter schools and online education programs in the name of school reform. For example, it is attempting to pass a ballot initiative in Massachusetts this fall that would weaken teacher seniority protections, targeting the largest union in a “blue” and relatively highly unionized state. In some states teachers’ unions have attempted to work with Democratic Party legislators and accept “compromise legislation” to avoid a larger fight, but these compromises have had drastic results. In Illinois, the reforms restricted teachers’ collective bargaining rights and raised the bar for strikes. Despite this, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is in a pitched battle with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel over his attempts to bring in merit pay and lengthen the school day. The union is preparing for a possible strike this fall if their contract negotiations break down. The new rules require 75 percent of members to approve a strike. This June, the CTU surmounted that barrier when almost 90 percent of members voted to authorize their leadership to call a strike.

Occupy Wall Street

If the Chicago teachers do strike, they will likely be joined a nascent social movement that has breathed some life into labor circles this year: Occupy Wall Street, or “Occupy,” which came onto the scene in a dramatic way in September 2011. A handful of New York unions were quick to support the initial encampment there, and many national unions followed suit, which seemed to return us to the hopeful days of Seattle 1999 when we saw “Teamsters and Turtles” uniting.

Many observers credit the Occupy move- ment with helping to resolve a longstanding dispute between the ILWU and Longview, Washington’s Export Grain Terminal (EGT)— one of the nation’s largest grain terminal facilities—over the right to unload grain at the docks. Striking Local 21 members engaged in their own direct action, including blocking trains, and Occupy activists on the West Coast engaged in a number of actions to shut down ports in solidarity with the union. EGT and the ILWU reached an agreement on a new contract in February 2012. Occupy also participated in regular protests at the Sotheby’s auction house, where Teamsters were locked out in August. The partnership between the Teamsters and Occupy remained even after Occupy was evicted from Zuccotti Park, and Sotheby’s finally settled the dispute in May.

There are a number of examples of union leaders publicly supporting Occupy, as well as rank-and-file union members participating in Occupy activities. But aside from a few successes, the relationship between labor and Occupy seems less than what it could have been. This is, in part, because even when union leaders wanted to support Occupy, many have lost their capacity to mobilize their members in a major way. Unions don’t have a strong culture of organizing or militancy, or even much of a stewards system in place, which makes it hard for union leaders to turn out members. Therefore, while there continues to be some relationship between Occupy and labor unions  in some cities, this has not blossomed as much as it might have.

Still, the relationship between many unions and Occupy has been a bright spot for labor. The speed with which unions endorsed Occupy and came out to defend occupied parks seems impossible to imagine happening only a few years ago.

Stepping The Streets

It wasn’t just Occupy in the streets this past year. Work stoppages were the highest they have been in since the economic crash, in terms of days out and the number of workers involved. In addition to the ILWU and Verizon strikes, we saw strikes among teachers in Tacoma, Washington; nurses in California; Caterpillar workers in Illinois; and more. Other large unions— including grocery workers in Southern California and SEIU 32BJ building service workers in New York—did not end up strik- ing but voted in favor of it when bargaining was not going well. The outcomes of these actual and threatened strikes vary. Many observers believe that 32BJ won a better contract than they might have partly as a result of Occupy Wall Street. The Tacoma teachers’ strike fended off proposed pay cuts, but the teachers did not win their demand for smaller class sizes. While four unions have joined together to strike at the American Red Cross (beginning this past March), forty-six other bargaining units continue to do their work, essentially crossing the picket lines to break the strike.

But strike activity is still far below historic levels, and even below that of the 1990’s. Meanwhile, employers have gone on the offensive in the workplace, and via business associations and the statehouses. While employers have been on the offensive against workers and unions for decades, they appear to be stepping up their fight due to new confidence in a slack labor market. Now they are using the lockout as a tool to bust unions or exact major concessions. According to New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, there were seventeen lockouts in 2011, ranging from the American Crystal Sugar beet processing workers in the Midwest to the high-profile NFL and NBA cases. Data shows that lockouts are at a record number and account for the largest share of work stop- pages, surpassing strikes. Employers are also increasing their surveillance of employees, along with stepped-up discipline, discharges, and harassment.

Electoral Politics

n addition to business groups, which are expected to spend record levels of money on the November 2012 elections, unions are also on track to spend record amounts as well—some estimate more than $400 million.6 But some union leaders and union members have grown tired of this approach. The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) in Madison, Wisconsin—a small but outspoken union—notably started off the protests against Scott Walker at the state Capitol, which turned into a statehouse occupation. This past spring, they took a bold stance and announced that they would not endorse any candidate in the recall races that did not support unions and the right to collective bargaining. The TAA declined to endorse Tom Barrett in the recall, despite being one of the unions heavily impacted by Walker’s reforms.

Aside from endorsements, some unions are redirecting how they spend their money. According to Peter Francia, business groups outspent labor by fifteen to one just within the Democratic Party, even before the Citizens United decision allowed limitless amounts of money to be donated to election campaigns. This leads some union members to conclude that they simply can’t win the money race. In April 2011, the International Association of Fire Fighters announced that it would no longer give money to federal candidates, and instead focus on state legislative fights and ballot measures—but then, in December 2011, it reversed its decision. Other unions—such as the North Shore Labor Council in Lynn, Massachusetts and California’s Richmond Progressive Alliance, which includes SEIU and AFSCME locals, that (together) have been fighting Chevron and electing pro-labor candidates at the city level—are focusing more on local electoral work. Notably, despite early endorsements of Obama, major unions like the AFT and SEIU promise to devote much of their internal work to their “community partnerships” and other grassroots alliances this election season. The AFL-CIO will still endorse and work for Democrats but its new Super PAC, Workers’ Voices, plans to spend money primarily on ground operations—knocking on doors and talking to union voters and, for the first time, non-union voters—and less on television commercials. Workers’ Voices also promises to focus more on voter registration and creating a network of activists to continue organizing after Election Day.

Excluded Workers

In an effort to unite disparate groups of non-union workers organizing for labor and employment rights across the country, activists from nine sectors launched the Excluded Workers Congress (EWC) in 2010. The past year produced mixed results for excluded and marginalized workers as well. On the one hand, conditions for low-wage and contingent workers continue to be bleak, with high unemployment and underemployment, widespread reports of wage theft, and difficult conditions for immigrant workers who face the constant threat of deportation. Yet a few organizations saw some success.

In August 2011, students working on J-1 guestworker visas at the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania launched a one-day strike to protest their use as replacement workers, pack- ing chocolate in unsafe conditions. The students worked with the National Guestworkers Alliance to demand improvements to the J-1 visa program and a return of living wage jobs to local residents. Another member of the EWC, the Taxi Workers Alliance Organizing Committee, was chartered as a member of the AFL-CIO in August 2011. The Committee was given jurisdiction to organize taxi workers around the country. It was the first union of independent contractors ever chartered to the AFL-CIO.

Home care workers also got a boost in the past year when, following a campaign by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and EWC allies, the Department of Labor proposed new rules that will extend the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act to these workers who had formerly been excluded. If enacted, the rules would provide certain home care workers with minimum wage and overtime protections.

A few of the EWC member organizations are participating in new industry or sectoral alliances, such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Warehouse Workers, and the Caring Across Generations campaign. These projects bring worker centers and non-profits together with trade unions.

These developments suggest the labor movement is opening up to creative organizing and innovative strategies. While the traditional union movement has been slow to adapt to a changing workforce, their partners in the worker center and nonprofit world show more flexibility and willingness to experiment. At the same time, these organizations are mostly small and have yet to impact workers on the scale of even the smaller trade unions. Hopefully the alliances will continue to grow, pushing unions to be creative and pushing worker organizations to grow in scale and leverage.

Going On The Offense

Despite the challenges of the past few years, some in the labor move- ment have made an effort to go on the offense, taking lessons from more militant labor struggles of the past as well as social movements. The SEIU-led Fight for a Fair Economy (FFE) coalition has had mixed results but, in some places, has made a serious effort to build labor-community alliances and create a larger working-class movement. Perhaps the best example of this was in Minneapolis, where SEIU Local 26 and local community groups worked together on a range of issues, such as fighting foreclosures against union members. When Occupy emerged, the FFE alliance was ready to step into the opening and join a larger fight against the 1 percent.

This more assertive spirit can be seen elsewhere. A large coalition of unions, worker centers, and community organizations aligned to launch the 99% Spring program, which trained one hundred thousand people in non- violent direct action in April 2012. Although there were some shortcomings in the execution and debates about its intent, the 99% Spring initiative highlights the remarkable shift in thinking by some of the country’s largest unions that have shied away from confrontational language or action in recent years.

Signs of life in the labor movement can also be seen in the wave of reform leaders running for, and winning, union officer positions across the country. Building off major wins in the past few years, reform leaders came into office within the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1101 in New York, AFSCME Local 3299 at the University of California, and the New York State Nurses Association. Of course, these victories might themselves be signs of labor’s overall weakness—old leaders may have given up a serious fight to run what they see as a sinking ship. Nevertheless, new leaders—who are taking a more militant approach—are emerging.

The Year Ahead

While the freefall in union density has slowed down in the U.S., only 17  percent of households now have a union member. Gallup polls show union approval rates are near a historic low, at around 52 percent, which suggests that the national (and bold) anti-union campaign waged by employer organizations over the past few years has been effective.8 And in cases like Wisconsin, we see the evidence of a deeply divided electorate, with passionate feelings for and against unions. Polls show that the gap in union approval is growing rapidly between voters who identify as Democrat and Republican, with only 26 percent of registered Republicans voicing support for unions.

Union membership data from Indiana and Wisconsin shows that things can change quickly: while private sector unions usually battle one employer at a time, public sector labor rights often hang on a legislative vote. This suggests that while private sector density has dropped steadily over several decades, public sector density could plummet much more rapidly.

Unions continue to organize new members and had a few key victories this past year, including a multiracial coalition of Cablevision workers in New York City who organized with CWA, inspired by Occupy; IKEA warehouse workers in Maryland (IAM); waste service workers in North Carolina (Teamsters); and a notable victory for forty thousand Transportation Security Administration workers who voted to have the American Federation of Government Employees represent them. But we also saw defeats, such as at a Target store on Long Island and with the graduate students at the University of Minnesota. Those sectors that still have large numbers of unionized workers—including public school teachers and postal workers—are under serious attack.

The labor movement is confronting a pivotal moment, both at home and abroad. Labor will continue to face uphill battles to stabilize and increase its power, as well as to build stronger alliances to create a working-class movement that is in the best interests of all workers, union or not. It’s encouraging that many in labor see these connections between the fight for labor and the fight for a broader working class, and that this year’s new social movements—from Occupy in the U.S. to the student strike in Montreal and austerity fight- back in Greece—have usually connected those same dots. Hopefully, in thirty years we will look back and see this as the time of labor’s rebirth—or at least the moment when labor began to fight more effectively.