Anyone watching what’s going on in the labor movement is struck by trends that seem to be running at cross purposes. We can draw lessons from the present moment, however.
Overall union membership is down to 11.6 percent, and the number of strikes in the private sector is down as well. African Americans make up the highest percentage of union members but are taking the biggest hits when it comes to losses for union members. The number of workers involved in union elections is down. It takes newly-unionized workers about two years to win their first contract. Workers are debating if strikes are effective or not under current conditions. There is a recognition that protesting and striking now are different than they were under Obama. We continue to lose rights, or be drawn into losing fights over labor rights, under Trump. The recent strike at GM has been felt as a tie or a loss by workers who were paying attention, negatively affecting the labor movement.
We should dig deeper, however. The 2015-18 years were years of growth for labor activism, and we’re still feeling some positive effects from those years. When private sector workers do strike now, they go out on strike in large numbers, and large industrial strikes count for more than they have in the recent past. When educational workers strike and protest, their strikes are backed by thousands of workers going out at once, and their unions are more often building unity by representing the interests of working-class and people-of-color communities in their strike demands. Rank-and-file movement in the Teamsters and Auto Workers unions are bright spots. We have seen overall union growth in Oregon over the past two years, and this has often been accompanied by strikes, near-strikes, and creative organizing that is winning most of the unionized workers involved more power, better benefits, and higher wages.
Unions have divided over the presidential race, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the trade deal with Mexico and Canada. The four are linked in many workers’ minds. Labor badly needs a unifying cause, and fight for the federal Protect the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) and winning it in the House of Representatives has helped meet that need. Congressman Schrader opposed the Act. The PRO Act has drawn a class line through politics.
We have some opportunities within reach. Black workers need a special hand at this time, and women are in the front lines of strike leadership. Sanders won New Hampshire in large part because of labor, and some labor opposition to Sanders has been neutralized. Workers are looking at November with unity in mind. There are many strikes and new organizing campaigns around us to support. Strikes and union elections will pick up and be won when there is unity and when workers believe that ground can be won.