The situation of the labor movement

Report made by Martin Manteca, director of Organization at SEIU 721 in Los Angeles, at the last meeting of the International Congress of Gig Workers. An analysis of the situation of the union movement in the United States.


Usually, we see this type of movements across the globe, and the United States tries to follow. But lately, in the last couple of years, there has been an amazing show of force by workers in the United States, taking on companies. We’ve seen them with, for example, Amazon. The Amazon organizing, I believe, was one of the most energizing moments in labor history in the United States. Their amazing victory and display of power against one of the biggest companies in the world show that workers, everyday people, even without a very formal structure like the unions, can actually organize themselves to take on a giant and defeat it.

So I think that to me, that’s one of the key moments in the past couple of years where the energy and the power of workers was expressed nationwide. And so I think that from that moment, and with other things that we’ve talked about, it really gave us an oxygen to stand up and take on labor struggles. We’ve seen the strikes that have been happening, like the Hollywood strikes, the writers, actors, who continue to strike up there. Just lately, we’ve seen the auto workers, the United Auto Workers (UAW), of which my dad used to be a member. He worked at General Motors for over 20 years and retired from there. So they’ve had a change in leadership, and they’re taking on the companies and making their voices heard. Every day, we hear about new companies and new plants joining them.

In California, we mentioned healthcare workers. We have seen some major strikes, with 75,000 healthcare workers in California alone going on strike against the Kaiser Permanente company. It has been the biggest strike in the healthcare industry in the nation. And, obviously, the organizing that SEIU, with our colleagues, has been doing at Starbucks, has also garnered the attention of people. But I think that when you look at these trends, we can identify three key factors. All those factors are primarily related to what I believe goes back to the pandemic. We’ve seen throughout history that when there’s a major event like the pandemic or any event that disrupts production and workers’ access to jobs, there’s a shift in terms of the priorities of workers.

So the first thing we see is the essential workers, which I mean to say are the people who had to work through the pandemic, such as nurses, radiologists in clinics and hospitals, people who were risking their lives every day. The shift is that they decided that they are, in fact, very essential to our industry and deserve better treatment. They put their lives at risk to save our friends and families. Even those of us who ended up in hospitals fighting the virus, they came out of the pandemic with a new sense of pride and stronger demands against the healthcare industry, which makes billions of dollars, one of the most profitable industries in the United States, to show them respect. You can see this after the healthcare workers’ strikes, company after company, health companies, workers are taking on the company and their bosses and making their voices heard.

Also, we’ve seen this with companies like UPS and the auto workers in General Motors and the other companies. We’ve seen it with other major companies, like Amazon. They have recorded massive and record profits during the pandemic, while most people were struggling to stay alive and find a safe space for themselves and their families. Billionaires and big companies made sure they profited from the worldwide pandemic. For example, Amazon’s value doubled during the pandemic. This trend also extended to companies like John Deere, which is in the tractor industry. Their profit increased by 160%. The CEO received millions of dollars in bonuses, but that did not benefit the workers, who are represented by UAW.

This highlights the ever-growing gap between CEO pay, which can sometimes be 300 times that of the average worker. For example, at John Deere, it’s around 261 times more. When you see this, it’s outrageous. That’s what the UAW strike is about. CEOs’ pay increased by 40%, and the workers are demanding a 40% increase in their wages. It’s the workers who make the profit for the companies.

The third factor is the tight labor market, with many people leaving the workforce during the pandemic. There is a shortage of workers in the United States. We have an aging population and very aggressive anti-immigrant policies. I think everyone is aware of that. So we do have a labor shortage in the United States. That creates a tight labor market where workers have choices. They can decide where they want to work and with which companies. It leads to a battle over who will hire whom. But It also gives workers the ability to choose where and when they want to fight for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, which often leads to unionizing.

And, you know, I think one thing that continues to be heard across the world is artificial intelligence (AI), the technology that, is replacing drivers, and workers in Hollywood. We’re witnessing the rise of automated vehicles, automated production lines, and algorithms that are increasingly demanding more and more workers. The push by companies to implement artificial intelligence puts immense pressure on working conditions in the United States. Workers are fighting back against this trend. From writers to actors, to drivers, to everyday life, we see various types of technology being adopted by companies to accelerate this processes, displace workers, and increase profits at the expense of workers.

When you combine all these factors, you can see a surge in organizing. It’s also crucial to note that unions like SEIU have been investing in organizing for years. For instance, when Starbucks workers fas funded and started organizing, they turned to our union because we’ve been there, we’ve been investing a big part of our income into organizing. So we’re capable of taking on these fights and take them at the national level. And sometimes even to the international level.

That’s my brief analysis, given the limited time we have. Of course, it’s more complex than what I’ve discussed here, and there are many other aspects to consider. Perhaps we can delve into this in more detail in a future face-to-face discussion. But that’s the current situation as I see it.


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