Winning the right to form a union to collectively bargain with bosses over wages and working conditions should not be equated with the achievement of socialist reforms. Indeed, bargaining implies recognition of the other side’s legitimacy and implies compromise. Yet strong unions are essential to the fight for a socialist future. Unions are an organizational expression of labor solidarity as workers fight to raise their living standards, expand their workplace rights, and build better lives. They are a starting point for creating the democratic, cooperative economy of the future in which workers’ self-management plays an important role.
Over the last fifty years, however, the percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. has fallen from over thirty percent of the labor force to about twelve percent. This development has many causes including the transfer of many heavily unionized manufacturing industries abroad and automation of the production process. Capital also has invested heavily in the difficult to organize service sector and, even more importantly, allied with the neo-liberal state to crush unions across the country to drive down workers’ wages and raise profits.
Although unions have been in retreat, they have not surrendered, and there are signs of hope. The mainstream press (fully owned by capital!) rarely reports on labor victories, but recently there have been a number of successes, some local, some national. For example, according to the Northwest Labor Press, newsroom employees at five newspapers in Washington state recently won union recognition from the McClatchy Newspaper chain. These are small shops totaling about 40 workers who will now be represented by the Communications Workers of America, which represents over 24,000 journalists at hundreds of publications.
On the national level, the new Democratic administration also seems intent on shoring up its labor support after decades of neglect. For the first time in forty years a former union leader, Marty Walsh of the Boston Building Trades Council, had been named Labor Secretary and, just weeks ago the National Labor Relations Board reversed a Trump-era-decision that blocked tens of thousands of student teaching assistants from forming unions at public and private universities across the country. Steps such as these, the administration’s commitment to protect organizers from employer retribution, and the revival of efforts to repeal McCarthy era laws that hinder labor organizing, could go far in reversing labor’s decline.
This month all eyes are on 6,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, who are trying to unionize against the will of one of the most anti-union corporations in the country in one of the nation’s most anti-union states. If the effort succeeds, it would be the first union success against a firm that employing over 2 million workers, and it would likely stimulate similar efforts elsewhere. Indeed, anti-union firms such as Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart, which employ hundreds of thousands of warehouse and transport workers, are certainly on high alert as Amazon’s workers embark on “the most important union drive since the great depression,” as one organizer put it.
Rebuilding the labor movement will take time and the effort will surely encounter setbacks. Nevertheless, efforts such as these, in the context of a relatively labor-friendly administration, give one hope. A victory in Bessemer would go far to revive labor, but, whatever happens, it is only one shop. To succeed labor will have to expand its efforts everywhere, in shops large and small, across the country.