FeaturedOrganized Labor & Worker Organizing

Crisis, Creativity, and a Labor Movement Revival

By Erica Smiley

The evening of February 27, 2018 was a tense one for Jacob Staggers, a sixth-grade English teacher in Morgantown, West Virginia.  The governor had just attempted to end the work stoppages of educators in all 55 counties by offering a small raise for some state employees.  In addition to the wage increases granted to some and denied to others, the so-called deal did nothing to respond to the issues raised around increased health-care premiums—not to speak of the invasive “app” that teachers were being asked to use, a Trojan horse which offered incentives to teachers inserting private information about themselves in return for rewards (like a mountain bike) that could ultimately be used by the state to justify higher premiums.

Ultimately, the work stoppage continued and through their actions West Virginia educators were able to win a 5 percent increase for all state workers as well as stopping (at least for the time being) the negative changes to their health-care .  In many states where teachers acted in the past 18 months, from Oklahoma to Kentucky, the ability to collectively bargain  was at best undermined by laws making it difficult for unions to organize members, collect dues, or act as the exclusive representative and at worst, collective bargaining for teachers was outright illegal.[1]

. . .[Workers throughout the country, in formal and informal employee relationships, in union and right-to-work states, stood up for themselves and their communities.

And yet, most of these efforts still won.  They did it anyway.  And that appears to have been the theme for the past year.  Despite the rules and traditional ways of doing things, workers throughout the country, in formal and informal employment relationships, in union and right-to-work states, stood up for themselves and their communities.  They did it anyway.

Educators Defend Their Jobs, Their Students and the Institution of Public Education

In addition to educators in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, teachers around the country have led some of the most militant campaigns in the past year, and not simply for better workplace conditions.  Most of these vibrant actions have centered on the needs of students and the surrounding community—popularized recently as “bargaining for the common good”.  The United Teachers of Los Angeles sought to keep charter schools at a minimum and increase the number of community schools with wrap-around services for students and families that needed them.  Chicago teachers used collective bargaining as a platform to raise larger concerns with the city’s practices of using tax policy to sell off public land—including schools–to private developers.  And in a historic move, charter-school teachers from 15 schools associated with the Acero Precision company in Chicago went out on a four-day work-stoppage over class size, pay, and other issues last December.[2] It was the first strike of charter-school teachers in the country.  And the high-profile walk-outs noted above may have overshadowed efforts in smaller cities such as Denver, Oakland, and Durham, where educators also escalated into direct action over similar issues.

Strikes! Strikes! Strikes!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more strikes in 2018 than there have been in over 20 years.[3]  What’s more, the total number of workers involved in these strikes was the highest since 1986.  In addition to educators who made up the majority of these strikers, 1400 employees of Frontier Communications in West Virginia went on strike with Communications Workers of America (CWA),[4] followed in June by AT&T employees throughout the Midwest.[5]

. . .[T]here were more strikes in 2018 than there have been in over 20 years.

Closer to Labor Day, UNITE-HERE’s hotel workers were also fed up enough to take action.  In Chicago, 6,000 hotel workers at 26 area hotels walked out to demand year-round health coverage, while over 7,700 workers struck against Marriott Hotels in eight cities.[6]  November saw 15,000 health-care employees walk out on the University of California Medical Centers throughout the state in a three-day work-stoppage, not to mention the 20,000 Google employees who walked out over sexual harassment.[7]

And in the early part of 2019, the beat went on as over 31,000 grocery workers at Stop & Shop stores throughout New England walked off the job on April 11 to protest the company’s proposed cuts to health care, take-home pay, and other benefits.  Supported by many community residents, these striking workers managed to win a tentative agreement that preserved health care and retirement benefits, provided wage increases, and maintained time-and-a-half pay on Sundays.

Certainly, economists will credit the tight labor market and increased competition for employees.  The economy has improved, and thus it is less risky to act.  Yet, the economy has not improved for everyone.  Any shared prosperity would not come without a fight.  And after years of wage stagnation, workers were also just fed up.

Some workers took action that did not end in a strike but was equally effective.  The Transport Workers Union (TWU) appealed to American Airlines customers to stop the company from flying unsafe planes.  They continue to be in bargaining as well, for better safety and for health care.  And employees of the U.S. Postal Service remain in bargaining via the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), Rural Letter Carriers’ Association (NRLCA), and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU) mail handlers’ union—with key topics going beyond worksite issues and leaning more toward saving the postal service itself.[8]  As with the educators, these workers see themselves as the last line of defense against those attempting to destroy an important public institution.


The last year also contained its share of rollbacks to previous victories.  The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United successfully advanced One Fair Wage campaigns in Michigan, New York, and the District of Columbia.  These campaigns sought to pass laws designed to ensure restaurant and other tipped workers make the same minimum wage as everyone else. But the National Restaurant Association and others promptly threatened lawmakers and began rolling back the new laws before the ink had even dried.  The D.C. City Council overturned the overwhelmingly popular ballot vote for one fair wage, and in doing so privileged the voices of a small minority in some of the wealthier electoral wards.[9]  Similar groups took the victories of tipped workers to the courts in Michigan.[10]  Workers claimed that the staff hired to run these anti-campaigns would purposefully sow racial division among bartenders—who tended to be more white, male, and better tipped—and everyone else.

Working people in Missouri passed a minimum-wage increase on the state ballot, while simultaneously unseating former longtime Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.  And in Florida, workers won an overwhelming victory to reinstate voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals.  But at the same time, they rejected the election of popular Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, a black politician known for speaking publicly about racism.  In both places, voters agreed with what was to be done, but not necessarily on who should do it—both candidates losing to white male Republicans.

In Maine, voters rejected a proposal for Universal Family Care—having been misled by Governor LePage and others on the right that such a policy would cost them more in taxes.  Had it won, it would have created a trust fund to support the care needs of people in the state.  And it would have established a board elected by care workers, recipients, and other industry actors to run it. While the Maine initiative failed, however, workers in Washington State were able to win a small victory validating the real need for increased long-term care.  There, caregivers and recipients established first-of-its-kind legislation to establish a public insurance benefit to help pay for long-term care in April of this year.[11]

. . . [I]n Washington State . . . caregivers and recipients established first-of-its-kind legislation to establish a public insurance benefit to help pay for long-term care . . .

While the National Domestic Workers Alliance has successfully made visible previously unseen work by winning a domestic workers bill of rights in eight states, an until recently unknown company called Handy–an online household services marketplace—has begun pushing legislation in another eight states to misclassify its cleaning employees as contractors.[12]  And, grossly, they’re doing it using the same lingo that domestic workers used to pass several bill of rights laws in various states.  Handy suggests to progressive lawmakers, as they did in Colorado, that creating a new classification for their employees and others like them that characterizes workers more as independent contractors will make their work visible—never mind limiting their labor protections.

Last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision limited public-sector unions’ ability to collect dues from members . . . [yet] organizers and local leaders noted that there had actually been a spike in union membership . . .

As expected, the Supreme Court also tipped the scales against workers and their unions.  Last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision limited public-sector unions’ ability to collect dues from members.  Many public-sector unions went on offense before the decision arrived, including both AFSCME’s and NEA’s volunteer membership sign-ups.  In a convening in Memphis organized by these unions and other partners, organizers and local leaders noted that there had actually been a spike in union membership—particularly in southern states where the Janus decision simply codified their daily experience.   And the National Labor Relations Board v Murphy Oil USA, in a 5-4 vote, made it easier for employers to have workers sign arbitration waivers—ultimately making it harder for employees to band together in class-action lawsuits when facing discrimination and/or other unfair practices by the company.

Race to the Bottom for Amazon’s Second Headquarters

Jeff Bezos and Amazon opened up a public auction for cities around the country to bid for the company’s second headquarters, encouraging a massive race to the bottom as lawmakers offered subsidies selling off everything from funding for public hospitals to schools in hopes of wooing the company.  After claiming to support transparency, once the process began Bezos promptly insisted cities keep their offers secret to garner public outrage.  The company chose New York and Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia as the two winning sites, as well as Nashville as a site for expansion.  But organizations in New York that included the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN-NY), Make the Road NY, NY Communities for Change, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and many others moved city officials to reject the Long Island City plan unless the company agreed to serious standards of accountability, not the least of which was to accept unions into their workforce.  Instead of agreeing to that, Amazon pulled out of the city on its own—leaving messy dynamics in the aftermath as some unions such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ and a handful of construction trades were hoping to win private deals with the company—though Bezos had made no commitments.  Union and community stakeholders continue to attempt to shape Amazon’s expansion in the other two cities where political dynamics were more favorable to the company.

The HQ2 incident has opened up public discourse on the company’s role in the economy, not simply as a monopoly to be broken up but as something likened to a public utility.  Near Labor Day 2018, the New York Times showcased a report from Lina Khan, a law student and the author of “Amazon’s Anti-trust Paradox” which appeared in the Yale Law Journal.  “Amazon has so much data on so many customers, it is so willing to forgo profits, it is so aggressive and has so many advantages from its shipping and warehouse infrastructure that it exerts an influence much broader than its market share. It resembles the all-powerful railroads of the Progressive Era.”Ms. Khan wrote: “The thousands of retailers and independent businesses that must ride Amazon’s rails to reach market are increasingly dependent on their biggest competitor.”[13] A coalition of unions, worker organizations, and several others—including Jobs With Justice− is now exploring ways to regulate the company as a quasi-public utility, looking for ways not simply to break up Amazon but to democratize the benefits of the infrastructure created.  The approach goes beyond traditional worker organizing in the company’s warehouses and server clouds—although that’s happening too—and aims to impact the corporation’s fundamental role in the economy.  These efforts are certainly ones to watch in the coming year.

#METOO, Say Women in the Labor Movement

Gender bias and outright harassment, long a common practice throughout the labor movement, was further exposed as a part of the #MeToo moment. (See “#Me Too Inside the Labor Movement” by Ana Avendaño in New Labor Forum, winter 2019 issue.) Senior staff at unions including the United Auto Workers (UAW) and SEIU were forced to leave after new allegations of harassment and nepotism were made against them.  SEIU used the scare to launch a union-wide process to improve conditions and support transformative practices to end such sexist behavior.

Some unions encouraged and stood behind the workers they represent as they walked out and took direct action to protest sexual harassment.  In September 2018, McDonald’s workers organized with the Fight for $15 campaign went on strike against sexual harassment.[14]  Shortly afterward in November, employees at Google from around the world walked out to demand remedies against the company’s workplace inequality.[15]  Screen actors and many celebrities also used the Oscars and other platforms to call attention to harassment in the entertainment industry.  The largest yet population of women in Congress, counting on some of their male counterparts, chimed in by introducing the BeHEARD Act, a federal bill designed to prevent workplace harassment[16].  These and many other actions have dramatically changed the climate regarding sexual harassment, even in an era when an admitted sexual predator sits in the White House.

Workers Shut Down the Government Shutdown

In a bid to force Congress to pay for his racist wall to block immigrants from crossing into the U.S. along the Mexican Border, President Trump initiated a shutdown of the federal government. (See “Is a Sleeping Giant Beginning to Stir? Federal Workers’ Unions and the Shutdown by Joseph McCartin in this issue of New Labor Forum.) After the midterms, newly reinstated House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi masterfully pushed him into owning that the shutdown was of his making, not the Democrats.  The shutdown cost federal employees millions of dollars in lost wages, forcing them to make decisions between buying needed prescriptions or paying the mortgage.  Many still haven’t recovered.  Despite the lackluster response of some federal unions, a handful of air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport combined with many Tranportation Security Administration (TSA) agents calling in sick—forced the administration to end the shutdown to keep planes in the sky.  And to prevent an additional shutdown, the Associaton of Flight Attendants (AFA) union warned the administration of the dangers of not paying airport workers.  AFA President Sara Nelson signaled to flight attendants that the union would support them in their right to refuse to board planes they deemed unsafe if the aircraft were uninspected or under-inspected by other airport staff given the shutdown[17]. Other workers pledged to “stay-away”, a concept that owes much to the South African anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Anti-apartheid activists organized a series of mass defections from work to press for an end to their repression. In the South African context, stay-aways were not equivalent to strikes. They were not used to advance collective bargaining objectives. Instead, they were used to highlight human rights abuses and to demand justice. Working without pay, or without knowing when one will be paid is such an abuse; demanding an end to this practice is nothing more than a cry for justice.There was not a second government shutdown.

The Future of Work: Automation and the Gig Economy

Despite dominant narratives coming out of cable media and other elite circles, automation and new technology do not represent the gravest threat to our future. The greatest threat is the concentration of wealth and power by those who do not want a future where working people have an equal and democratic role in governing.  Working people have long recognized this and are addressing the robot scare at the bargaining table—including efforts led by UNITE-HERE such as the strike noted previously where, among other things, workers demanded protections from new technology and automation[18]. And the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America have also drawn up instructions for their locals outlining how to negotiate over automation.[19]

Perhaps more pervasive is the use of data surveillance to track (and punish) workers.  Amazon is one of the most notorious abusers of workers in this way, now forcing them to wear arm bands that capture their pace and interactions while working, giving them a little electric shock if they get off track. (See “Resisting “Big Other”:  What Will It Take to Defeat Surveillance Capitalism?” by Evan Malmgren in this issue of New Labor Forum.)  Athletes wear devices that track their biological health, that not only help them play better, but also National Football League Players Association hamper their employment or worse, that can be used by the public in sports betting.  Several players associations, including the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), have taken this on in negotiations, mandating that players own the data collected on them. In fact, the NFLPA has started its next round of bargaining with intentions to limit the availability of this data to the public, especially for gambling.  Perhaps less discussed is the role of new technology in the famed walk-out of educators in 2018 and threatened again in early 2019.

Gig workers . . . continue to organize – creatively navigating how to either be classified as employees or create new frameworks for negotiating with gig executives outside of the National Labor Relations Act.

In addition to improved wages, teachers walked out in response to attacks on their health care.  These attacks came through an app the state was insisting employees use that requested private information that would, in turn, be used to cut back on their health care.  The West Virginia teachers’ struggle included the demand to prevent the forced accumulation of personal data by the state, especially in ways that could undermine their health benefits.  While, to date, the teachers continue to prevent these proposals, they also have to fight them every year in their state legislature.

Gig workers also continue to organize—creatively navigating how to either be classified as employees or create new frameworks for negotiating with gig executives outside of the National Labor Relations Act.  In the California Dynamex Operations West v. Superior Court of Los Angeles decision, the courts implemented a basic A, B, C smell test noting a person is an independent contractor only if he/she is (A) free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of work, (B) regularly performs work outside of the hiring entity’s business and (C) is engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.[20]  The ruling has provided leverage for gig workers organizing throughout that state to imagine a framework through which, as employees, they can challenge gig companies as consumers.   That said, if it were as simple as just classifying workers as employees to help them organize unions, Walmart associates and many others at large multinational brands would have already done it.  So, the struggle continues.

Taking on the Untouchable 1 Percent, and Winning

Workers at Toys “R” Us showed that it’s not impossible to win against large retail brands and finance capital.  After being told that they have no leverage on the company because they had no leverage on their customers and stakeholders, workers targeted private equity firms that have been making billions of dollars off of leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies.  After Toys “R” Us workers pressured hedge funds and other large investors—including New Jersey’s Public Investment Fund[21], the company is now, for the first time ever, being forced to make workers whole as a result of its own gambling with the economy.  More than 30,000 laid off workers[22] won $20 million in severance payments, a significant victory given that the company had not committed any funds to cover the losses for workers.[23]

The Dignity of Work(ers)

Perhaps most interesting in the past year were several worker fights that, on the surface at least, were not publicized as such.  Both, unsurprisingly, centered around black men in the public eye.  First, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to kneel during the national anthem at the final 2016 preseason game on September 1, 2016 in protest of the loss of black lives at the hands of police.  “This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” Kaepernick said in an interview with NFL.com. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”[24]  His actions caused a wave of similar actions among other football players and stars in other sports, such as NBA’s LeBron James.  But there was an equally aggressive backlash, including racist statements directed at black athletes in general.  Kaepernick himself was punished by the league, and is still unable to find employment.[25]  Most stories of this phenomenon end here.  He stood against racism and got punished for it.  But the choice of Kaepernick and other athletes to kneel and take action against violence and racial terrorism also highlighted the rights (or lack thereof) of workers in the sports industries.  At times, the “shut up and play” backlash exposed some of the deeply held views of black athletes as mere gladiators paid to entertain us.  Behind the scenes, these players and their unions fought to maintain their first amendment rights—both in and outside of the arena.

. . . [T]he choice of Kaepernick and other athletes to kneel and take action against violence and racial terrorism . . . highlighted the rights (or lack thereof) of workers in the sports industries.

In all of these stories, working people modeled a resilience and creativity that went far beyond the traditional frameworks. Each modeled a sophistication for organizing in the new economic conditions.  But best of all, the efforts of workers in the past year exemplified an increased willingness to draw the line and fight—despite the risks—in order to secure dignity for working people.  While the political climate remains hyper-polarized, a new worker  upsurge is mounting in a creative fight for democracy in all arenas. Going into 2020, movement strategists would be smart to heed their example.



Author Biography

Erica Smiley is the executive director of Jobs With Justice (JWJ).  Her writing has appeared in New Labor Forum, Dissent, the Journal on Class, Race and Corporate Power, and other publications. She and former JWJ director Sarita Gupta are authoring a book due out in early 2020 on strategies to expand organizing and collective bargaining in the twentieth century.



[1] http://cepr.net/documents/state-public-cb-2014-03.pdf

[2] https://www.usato Acero Precision company in Chicago day.com/story/news/nation/2018/12/09/nations-first-charter-teach Acero Precision company in Chicago ers-strike-chicago-public-schools-acero-network/2258302002/

[3] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkstp.nr0.htm

[4] https://cwa-union.org/news/cwa-members-in-virginia-west-virginia-on-strike-frontier

[5] https://cwa-union.org/att

[6] https://prospect.org/article/return-strike

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/technology/google-walkout-sexual-harassment.html

[8] https://www.apwu.org/issues/grand-alliance-save-our-public-postal-service

[9] https://rocunited.org/2018/12/where-one-fair-wage-in-d-c-stands-for-now/

[10] https://www.wxyz.com/news/michigan-minimum-wage-ballot-initiative-challenged-in-court & https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/11/michigan-republicans-minimum-wage-ballot-measure.html

[11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/howardgleckman/2019/04/18/washington-states-public-long-term-care-program-is-on-the-verge-of-becoming-law/#6c14212b7e41

[12] https://qz.com/work/1240997/handy-is-trying-to-change-labor-law-in-eight-states/

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/technology/monopoly-antitrust-lina-khan-amazon.html

[14] https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/food/2018/09/18/mcdonalds-employees-metoo-strike-sexual-harassment/1349981002/

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-alphabet-google-harassment/googles-metoo-moment-workers-walk-out-over-womens-rights-idUSKCN1N644R

[16] https://thehill.com/homenews/house/438051-dems-introduce-sexual-harassment-prevention-bill

[17] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/22/business/sara-nelson-flight-attendant-union.html

[18] https://unitehere.org/press-releases/over-8300-marriott-workers-approve-strikes-against-marriott-in-six-locations-across-usa/

[19] https://www.ueunion.org/stwd_midcon.html

[20] https://www.laboremploymentlawblog.com/2018/05/articles/class-actions/dynamex-decision-independent-contractors/

[21] https://www.ft.com/content/17b283a8-ad6d-11e8-94bd-cba20d67390c

[22] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/20-million-severance-fund-started-for-tens-of-thousands-of-toys-r-us-workers/

[23] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/11/21/18106545/toys-r-us-retail-workers-severance

[24] http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-why-he-sat-during-national-anthem

[25] https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/04/us/colin-kaepernick-controversy-q-and-a/index.html