Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
The rumblings of labor activism can be felt across the country these days. On-the-job actions are rapidly growing, from strikes at John Deere and Warrior Met Coal to worker walkouts at fast food chains and a strike authorization that sparked management concessions for roughly 60,000 film and television workers, whose demands for more humane workplace conditions is particularly raw in the wake of the “Rust” set shooting. So many strikes have gotten underway this month that some have taken to calling this “Striketober.” Add in the Great Resignation — the record number of workers quitting their jobs in 2021 — and it’s clear that American workers are not only fed up, but feeling empowered to fight for better wages and working conditions.
What is striking about all this striking is not the scale — in the years immediately after World War II, more than 5 million workers went on strike, and we’re nowhere near that — but rather the scope. In addition to the varied methods workers are using to make their frustrations known, labor activism is happening across most sectors of the economy, even those that have not traditionally been hotbeds of organizing: newsrooms, academia, entertainment, tech, health care. And this broadened scope of organizing opens up the possibility that the new labor movement of the 21st century could be even more creative, diverse and effective than what came before.
Certainly it stands to be more effective than the organizing of the past 50 years. When it comes to labor, the story of the last half-century has been bleak. Not because there haven’t been successes — the rapid growth of the Service Employees International Union, which organizes a wide range of service workers like nurses, janitors, government workers and security guards, in the past two decades has been astounding — but because the overarching trend has been one of decline. At labor’s peak in the mid-20th century, over a third of the workforce was unionized. But starting in the 1970s, the acceleration of deindustrialization, anti-union actions and conservative politics quickly eroded union power in the United States, which has settled at around 12% of the workforce in the 21st century.
In 2011, an effort by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature to dismantle public sector unions by stripping them of their collective bargaining rights sparked mass protests across the state. Upwards of 100,000 people came out in one day to protest the bill, staging sit-ins and demonstrations that captured national media attention for months. Yet the Republican bill ultimately passed and was upheld by the state supreme court.
It was difficult to tell at the time what the battle in Wisconsin meant. Was it the last gasp of a labor movement so decimated that now even public-sector unions were being dismantled? Or had the mass protests signaled a growing awareness that rights like collective bargaining were worth protecting?
The answer would come several years later, in 2018, when a record number of US workers went on strike. Teacher strikes in red states like West Virginia were the most visible part of the strike wave, but over the course of the year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 485,000 workers participated in work stoppages, a number that hadn’t been seen in over 30 years.
But looking only at strikes obscures the breadth of labor organizing that has been building since the 2012, when the Fight for $15 emerged. Though the original fast-food workers who walked out in 2012 did so under the banner “$15 and a union,” the union demand disappeared from the popular slogan, and the fight for a $15 minimum wage became not just a demand directed at corporations, but legislators. The movement would not only win over several local and state governments, but in 2016, the $15 minimum wage became part of the Democratic Party platform.
New forms of organizing also emerged online. Coworker.org, founded in 2013 by Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch, allowed workers to organize online campaigns for everything from wage hikes to benefits increases to the end of Starbucks’s “clopenings,” the practice of scheduling a worker for a late-night closing followed by an early-morning opening. The site holds particular promise for ununionized workers in the gig economy who do not share common workspace and may never meet in person.
The new labor movement has also broken through with campaigns for traditional forms of unionization in sectors of the economy that have been protected from organizing pressures by their progressive identities. The tech industry in particular benefited from its claim to have reinvented the workplace, instituting flexible hours, open office spaces and unusual perks on their sprawling campuses. Labor organizing was for the old economy, the argument went. The new economy took care of its workers without having to deal with ossified institutions like unions.
That image of tech companies, and the halo effect of their progressive reputations, eroded swiftly after the 2016 election. Complaints about misinformation and abuse of privacy undermined the claim by companies like Google and Facebook that they were dedicated to making the world a better, more connected place. It became increasingly easy to imagine that an industry pitched as a force for good was actually making things worse. And that in turn made it easier for workers’ complaints and demands — about traditional issues, like exploitation of contract workers and the need for equitable pay scales, as well as new ones like combating disinformation and adding privacy protections – to break through. Though workers at places like Amazon are still struggling to unionize, and only a tiny percentage of the workforce at companies like Google are part of a union (factors that help explain why overall unionization rates in the country are still stagnant) the rapid spread of unionization at podcast companies, newspapers, digital outlets and the like show that inroads are being made in the industry.
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Those inroads come as tradition labor unions have begun bargaining harder, particularly in the aftermath of Covid-19, as the need for labor outpaces the number of workers. Still, it’s important to recognize that the growth of the movement was already well underway before the pandemic, and that it still has a long way to go. Labor protections have been badly diminished in the last several decades, and wages (particularly the minimum wage) have stagnated, even as corporations have recorded astronomical profits. And as organizations like Coworker.org suggest, there is a need for the new labor movement to embrace imaginative new ways of organizing, even as they shore up the traditional union model.
“Striketober” may be coming to an end, but it has been a reminder of the unusually powerful position workers now find themselves in, and the possibility that, in the years and decades to come, a new labor movement could radically alter the fortunes of workers in the United States, in ways that seemed impossible at the start of the 21st century.