United States: Historic Labor Reorganization Process

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Demonstrators in support of fast food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation, Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square. Activists say hundreds of workers have walked off their jobs. They are demanding a minimum wage increase and calling for better benefits. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Demonstrators in support of fast food workers protest outside a McDonald’s as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation, Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York’s Union Square. Activists say hundreds of workers have walked off their jobs. They are demanding a minimum wage increase and calling for better benefits. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The year 2023 has proven to be a highly active period for the union movements in the United States. In the last summer months, the northern part of the world has witnessed the emergence of a considerable number of conflicts, strikes, union elections, and several types of actions, shaping what many media outlets are referring to as the “hot labor summer.”
Even The Washington Post, a significant American newspaper, went so far as to headline, referring to one of the cities at the epicenter of this process, that “The city of Los Angeles becomes the City of Picket Lines” in mid-August when the strike of Hollywood screenwriters and actors converged with the work stoppage of 11,000 state workers in that city.

Increase in Strikes and the Fight for Unions

The now historic screenwriters’ strike, which began in May and has surpassed 120 days, is widely recognized worldwide with significant media impact. Almost two months ago, the actors’ union joined this movement, marking the first time in over 60 years that both guilds have gone on a strike together. In this case, their unified action targets the large-scale dealings of streaming companies and the use of artificial intelligence to destroy jobs. Alongside this highly resonant struggle, many other conflicts have arisen, including the strike of state workers in Los Angeles, hotel workers (which has also had a significant impact in the city), healthcare staff in hospitals, fast-food workers, Starbucks employees, and many others.
And all of this without forgetting that over 300,000 workers at the logistics company UPS came close to going on strike. They had overwhelmingly voted to authorize their union, the Teamsters, to go on strike if a contract agreement [1] was not reached by August 1st. Had it occurred, it would have been a nationally significant event, impacting supply chains across the country since the UPS is the most important logistics company in the U.S. Ultimately, just days before the deadline, the company, pressured by the impending strike, made an offer with significant concessions and improvements in workers’ conditions, resulting in a very progressive agreement that was approved by 86% of the union members’ votes. Nevertheless, the threat of this strike, the “practice pickets,” and the strength displayed by the workers left the feeling (as several grassroots activists within the union have pointed out) that if they had gone on strike, an even better contract could have been negotiated with the employers, since there was a strong force ready to fight.
Today, the primary focus on the autoworkers in Detroit, who are part of the UAW (United Auto Workers) union. These workers have already voted to authorize their union to call for a strike if a contract agreement is not reached by September 14th, the contract’s end date. Today, it seems highly likely that this will be confirmed, in which case the UAW could launch a massive strike against the “big three” – the most significant automotive companies in Detroit: General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler). This would involve the participation of 150,000 workers.
In 2019, the UAW launched a 6-week strike against General Motors, the first in many years within the automotive industry. However, following the strike, the bureaucratic union leadership, which subsequently fell into disgrace due to corruption scandals, agreed to a contract that allowed for layoffs. Today, Shawn Fain is at the helm of the UAW, having taken over the union earlier this year in the first-ever direct election it is history. Fain now declares his willingness to confront the three companies on a set of demands that he himself characterizes as “bold”: a 46% wage increase, an end to the “leveled” wage system, a reduction in working hours, pension increases, and the restoration of benefits that had been cut by the companies in previous years. All of this sets the stage for a potential conflict of enormous significance.
So far this year, there have been 247 strikes involving more than 340,000 workers, according to Cornell University. If the automotive strike is confirmed, we would see a significant leap, surpassing 450,000 strikers for the year. This would make 2023 the second year with the most strikers in over 30 years, coming close to the numbers recorded in 2018 during a massive teachers’ strike, which currently holds the record of the century.
This entire process is further compounded by an immense wave of new unionizations, with updates every day. The most well-known case is that of Starbucks Workers United, which is fighting to incorporate one by one the thousands of stores that this company owns across the country. However, in all sectors of work, there are extremely challenging struggles to establish unions, and once established, companies must acknowledge them and establish initial contracts, which most companies often resist.
In the United States, forming a union is an enormous battle that constitutes a true class struggle. First, it is necessary to obtain signatures from 30% of the workers requesting union formation. Then, the National Labor Relations Board authorizes an election in which more than half of the affirmative votes are required to establish the union. And this must be done for each location, meaning, in the case of Starbucks, store by store. Of course, employers take advantage of this method to engage in all sorts of fierce union-busting practices such as layoffs, threats, or persecution to prevent union formation. The case of Amazon is well-known, where Jeff Bezos spent $4.3 million on consultants to bust the union.

The resurgence of the union wave.

It is evident that there is a resurgence of union fights and struggles in the United States. Since the 1980s, there has been a decline in unionization, marked by neoliberalism, attacks on workers’ rights, the outsourcing of many industries by capitalists to other countries, and the proliferation of non-unionized jobs. All these factors have weakened the working class for years. However, in recent years, with the increasing questioning of capitalism, there has been a rise in union and workers movements. New unions have formed or are fighting to form, movements like the Fight for 15 (a fight for a $15 minimum wage per hour) have gained momentum, and strikes are on the rise.
Furthermore, there is a rebound in the reactionary and atomizing effects of the pandemic, which, coupled with the economic situation (the 9% inflation rate in 2022 was the highest in decades), is leading to stronger and deeper demands from workers. In recent years, especially during the pandemic, business owners and corporations have amassed record profits. This is reflected in the struggle of the Teamsters at UPS and in the demands of the UAW, which are calling for a 46% wage increase.
Today, there is something happening that has not been seen in decades. The resurgence of the union movement is a reality, with new unions, conflicts emerging every day and unionization campaigns sweeping across the country, with prominent cases like Amazon and Starbucks. Of course, this is an immense battle against employers and the state, who invest billions of dollars to prevent unions from forming. It starts from a low point, with historically low unionization rates. But the prevailing feeling is that this resurgence is a fact: according to a Gallup poll, in 2022, 71% of the U.S. population approves of unions, a record not seen since 1965. “Being part of a union is cool today,” a young SEIU (Service Employees International Union) member told us when we traveled to Los Angeles in April for the First International Platform Workers Congress.

A struggle filled with potentialities.

The fight to build unions, for wage increases, and better working conditions, as well as against the anti-union practices of companies, represents a direct battle, a clash with employers who had managed to impose defeat on the labor movement in the United States. However, today they are facing a movement that is reemerging and on the offensive.
Certainly, it is still an initial movement, but it clearly contrasts with the situation of a few years back. There are new independent leaders, like in the case of the Amazon Labor Union. There are also others who express greater militancy than the traditional bureaucracy or the reformist class orientation reflected in movements like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (a reformist sector, linked to the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) but with a more open and confrontational stance toward companies, unlike the traditional Teamsters leadership, which is deeply bureaucratic, sellouts to companies and corporations, and is linked to organized crime). The previously mentioned case of Fain in the UAW, elected by direct vote for the first time in the union’s history, is another example of the rise of this new combative movement.
It’s clear that this is not a revolutionary socialist movement; there are significant limitations, including the reformist orientation of these new leaders, their trust in a pro-corporation capitalist party like the Democrats, and even in President Biden himself (who self-identifies as “pro-union,” a total farce, as evidenced last year when he prevented the railroad strike), as well as a lack of mobilization of the union base to carry the struggles through to the end. However, they do reflect a new situation within the labor movement in the United States.
Nevertheless, it is still a movement filled with potential. The resurgence of the union movement reflects a new beginning of the historical experience and criticisms of capitalism that are sweeping the world. There is something new stirring from below, with a clear role played by young workers, as seen in Amazon and Starbucks. It is a movement that connects with other struggles against the system, linked to movements like Black Lives Matter, the demands of the migrant population, and the fight of the LGBTQ+ movement, as in the case of Starbucks [2]. In the increasingly polarized world we are living in, where questions about capitalism are growing, and significant clashes are on the horizon, the resurgence of the union movement in the United States, a country with a vast working class, holds immense potential. We might be just days away from a leap in this process if the automotive strike is confirmed. What is clear is that this movement is here to stay and has many more chapters to unfold, which we must closely follow to fight for a workers’ solution.

[1] They are equivalent to the collective labor agreements in Argentina, which are signed for a duration of 4 years and establish wages and working conditions that are ‘negotiated’ between the unions and each company.
[2] During June, a significant conflict erupted in more than 150 Starbucks stores, many of which closed or went on strike for several days and had protests at their doors. The workers’ demands, in addition to the recognition of the union, were strongly influenced by the company’s refusal to display decorations and take measures for the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month.

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