This paper provides an overview of the labour militancy in the United States in 2018 and 2019. Beginning with educator strikes in parts of the country not known for strong labour unions, the previous two years have seen more workers on strike than at any time in the past thirty years. This paper argues that the strikes are, at least in part, a manifestation of the “Bargaining for the Common Good” strategy that first bore fruit in Chicago in 2012, as well as the strong economy and the particular political realities of the Donald Trump era. Whether this miniature strike wave betokens a more militant future for US unions is not clear, but there are indications that, with due respect to ancient totems that warn against such thinking, this time might be different.
2018 saw more workers on strike in the United States than in any year since the mid-1980s, and 2019 looks set to reach similar heights (Dirnbach, 2018, 2019). It was led by teacher strikes in some of the country’s most politically conservative states, but the last two years have also seen strikes by hotel workers in Chicago, telecommunications workers in New England, and the largest and longest strike by US autoworkers in decades.
With the caveat that only a fool would claim to understand exactly what has happened and what it means, this essay will nevertheless attempt an initial assessment of the past two years of American labour militancy. We are not simply witnessing a random clustering of strikes. The successes of the initial actions in 2018, especially the powerful strike of West Virginia educators, almost certainly made subsequent strikes more likely.
At the same time, we ought to take account of the varieties of militancy on display here. While we lack a useful typology of strikes, they are not all created equal. What is perhaps lost, in the American Left’s desire to see these actions as the start of a sea change in American labour relations, is the reality that the strikes of 2018-19 took very different forms, against very different targets, with myriad results. Balancing the universal and the particular in examining these strikes is perhaps the most significant challenge of all.
Pride of place rightfully belongs to West Virginia. Though it has become a bastion of political conservatism, the state has a rich history of labour action. The largest armed conflict within the confines of the continental United States after the Civil War was the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1919, when an army of strikers fought US Army soldiers in a running battle that even involved aerial bombardment (Loomis, 2018). Especially in the coal mines of the Appalachian Mountains, unions and strikes are embedded in the region’s culture.
It was petty slights as much as the overall conditions of employment that drove West Virginia educators to strike in February of 2018. As a group of strike leaders explained to the biennial Labor Notes conference in April, 2018, teachers had been willing to accept poor pay in order to do the job they loved. However, when they were required to answer questions on health surveys regarding the frequency and vigor of their sexual activity (among other indignities), their patience ran thin.
Industrial relations in the United States are the product of a patchwork of different laws, meaning that different workers have different rights depending on where they live and what kind of work they do. Unions in West Virginia do not have the right to negotiate with public schools in any formal capacity. Indeed, wages and benefits of school employees are largely determined not by local school districts (the prevailing practice in the United States) but by the state legislature.
Accordingly, membership by West Virginians in the nation’s two large teacher unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – was small, and the formal structures of the two unions were not the catalysts of action. Independent groups of teachers, connecting via professional networks and social media, began preparing for action. As it became clear that the West Virginia Legislature was going to ask school employees to accept cuts to health insurance and yet another wage freeze, the momentum to strike accelerated.
The senior administrators of most of the 55 county school districts in West Virginia helped enable the strikes – some reluctantly, some with enthusiasm – by closing public schools across the state when it became clear the teachers would strike (Catte, et al., 2018). Some 35,000 school employees – not just teachers, but all school staff – struck beginning February 22nd, the first such strike in West Virginia since 1990.
In political negotiations with the legislature and the governor, the West Virginia affiliates of the AFT and NEA announced a settlement on February 27th, but the conflicting statements by politicians and the lack of trust in the unions’ leadership meant that the strikes continued for several more days1, until the legislature approved a 5% pay raise for all state public employees. Schools re-opened on March 7th.
Over the next three months, educators in several other states – Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado, and Arizona – took statewide strike action, while more localized strikes in Tacoma, Washington, and Jersey City, New Jersey, and elsewhere kept up the pattern. There was also a significant strike by graduate employees at the University of Illinois. One in twenty educators in the United States went on strike in 2018, by far the largest number in American history (Kerrissey, 2018). 2019 began with a six-day strike by teachers in Los Angeles, and short strikes in Denver, West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and elsewhere. There were also significant strikes among university employees in California and Illinois.
Education strikes in the United States are rare in the summer months when school is out of session, but on October 17th the 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), along with 7,000 school support staff belonging to Service Employees International Union Local 73, began their third strike in seven years. CTU was out for 11 days before settling the contract on terms largely favorable to the union.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, 2018 and 2019 saw strike activity as well, although the scale and scope of it was, until the second half of 2019, not too much greater than in most years. Healthcare providers, especially hospital chains in California, saw several short strikes, and there was a large strike of grocery workers in New England. Telecommunications workers also engaged in work stoppages. In Harlan County, Kentucky, site of infamous battles between coal miners and workers in the 1930s, laid-off miners and their families blockaded coal transports beginning in July, 2019, fighting to be paid for the wages they had earned from mining the coal (Winslow, 2019).
The private sector has caught up with the public sector though, with the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) strike against General Motors (GM) which began on September 16th. The 45,000 workers on strike is the largest walkout since the last UAW/GM strike in 2007, and that strike lasted just three days. For size and scale, one has to go back to the grocery strikes in the western United States of 2003-04 to find one that has involved so many workers on strike for such a long time (BLS, 2019). The strike ended after forty days in a deal that gave significant financial concessions to the workers but did less to change the multi-tiered nature of the workforce (Brooks and Slaughter, 2019).
Two other actions demand extra attention – one a strike that happened, and one that (perhaps) didn’t. In Puerto Rico, a twelve-day national general strike in July, 2019, led to the resignation of the scandal-plagued governor, who had been under intense criticism ever since a 2017 hurricane devastated the island. According to some reports, nearly a million workers participated, and the governor resigned (Laughland, 2019).
The other action was the call for a national general strike by Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). In January, 2019, the federal government shut down in a budget impasse between President Trump and his Democratic Party opponents. Nelson, who already had a reputation as a militant labour leader, called on workers to force an end to the shutdown with mass labour action. Just a few days later, the shutdown ended after air traffic controllers didn’t turn up for work, leading to a cascade of airport delays and the real possibility that the nation’s air infrastructure would be fatally compromised. While it’s not entirely clear whether the controllers’ actions were inspired by Nelson, she received much of the credit, and has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of labour’s newfound militancy (Kitroeff, 2019).
While the scale of the labour militancy of the past two years is undeniably a change from recent decades, it’s not so clear that the outcomes of these strikes are substantially better, on aggregate, than other years. In Arizona, for example, teachers won broad promises of salary increases, but no funding to support those increases, and a ballot initiative to raise the state’s income tax was struck down by the state’s Supreme Court under what seemed like politically-motivated circumstances (Cano, 2018). The 5% raise won by the teachers in West Virginia, while higher than what they have received in recent years, is hardly a windfall, and the strikers did not succeed in changing the state revenue system to guarantee funding in the future. However, the success or lack of success of a strike is often more a matter of perception than anything else, and it is too soon to be sure how those perceptions will develop. Stan Karp and Adam Sanchez (2018), damning with faint praise, put it thusly: “[s]ome of these protests won significant, even if modest, gains in teachers’ salaries and funding for schools. Others won political promises that have yet to redeemed.”
While all these labour actions are noteworthy, it is the educator strikes that stand out as the most surprising. What began in West Virginia and spread elsewhere looks very much like a strike wave, and it seems fair to use that term.
A strong argument can be made that the educators’ strike wave of 2018 was made possible by the 2012 strike of the Chicago teachers. The largest educator strike in decades, the CTU strike was the product of years of internal agitation and political education, and was the most visible exemplar of the emerging concept of “Bargaining for the Common Good” (Kamper, 2018). Bargaining for the Common Good involves a deliberate decision by a union to negotiate a contract that goes far beyond standard issues of wages and benefits, and specifically aims to address the needs of broader communities, not just the workers.
Teachers are, of course, well-suited for the Bargaining for the Common Good concept, because the most committed of them have a deeply-vested interest in the success of their students. Among other victories in 2012, for example, CTU won contract language guaranteeing students the right to textbooks at the beginning of the school year; this victory did nothing to improve the financial condition of the striking teachers, but sent a powerful message that the union was willing to put its weight behind the needs of the community. The message was heard far and wide. As Jaffe (2019) puts it, CTU “wrote the playbook that has been successfully used by teachers around the country.”
Such a victory would have seemed almost foreign to labour leaders even a few years before 2012. US labour relations in the decades following the Second World War were to a large extent defined and limited by the “Treaty of Detroit” (Lichtenstein, 2002). The product of negotiations between 2019 strike opponents General Motors and the United Auto Workers, the Treaty referred to the 1950 contract for autoworkers, which guaranteed cost-of-living raises, pensions, and insurance. In return, the union agreed to cede management rights to the employer, and to refrain from challenging the basic structures of the capitalist system. Along with a purge of dedicated Communists from the ranks of organised labour at the safe time, the Treaty of Detroit set the model of American labour relations for decades to come: the union pushes for financial gains for its members, while leaving the broader directions of the economy to government and corporations.
The educator strikes of 2018 and 2019 were not prepared to do this. In West Virginia, one of the strike demands was for the state to raise taxes on coal companies, who had historically been granted considerable tax exemptions. In Arizona, the demand for raises was conditioned by a demand that none of the funds for the teacher salaries should come at the expense of low-income schools (Blanc, 2019:198 et seq.).
In St Paul, Minnesota, where teachers voted to strike in January, 2018 but managed to reach a contract settlement, the union accepted management’s lower-than-desired wage offer in order to guarantee more resources for English-learner students. This is an example of Bargaining for the Common Good in action – a choice to accept lower wages to improve student outcomes (E. Schatzlein, interview with author, May 17, 2018). The UAW strike against GM, while of course not an educator strike, was motivated in large part by a desire to fight the management practice of hiring temporary workers at lower wages and benefits, a practice that the UAW had studiously ignored in previous contracts in order to preserve the positions of the majority of their members. The CTU strike of 2019 continued that union’s previous actions, with affordable housing one of the key points at issue – a subject that is not considered a usual subject of union bargaining (and one that CTU was legally forbidden to use as a strike issue) (Provenzano, 2019).
These are all cases where union behavior could not easily be categorized as selfish or greedy, because again and again workers were choosing to pursue goals far beyond the “wages and benefits” negotiated in the Treaty of Detroit. The CTU strike of 2012 arguably served as the proof-of-concept exercise for Bargaining for the Common Good, and therefore CTU’s actions ought be credited with helping create the frame around which the educator strikes of 2018-19 took place.
But if Bargaining for the Common Good helped frame the strikes of 2018 and 2019, to some extent, it is not a sufficient explanation why these particular strikes happened where and when they did. Four possible factors seem to bear closer examination.
The first was the election of Donald Trump and the general ascendancy of the Republican Party’s right wing in the wake of the 2016 elections. At the national level, the most significant impact of Trump’s election has been the US Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case Janus v AFSCME, which greatly limits public-sector unions’ ability to collect fees from nonmembers. However, in the short term, politics at the state level may be more important.
While West Virginia has long been a reliable state for Republican presidential candidates, the Democratic Party had held its own in state-level races. In 2016, however, the state legislature became Republican-run, and the governor switched parties from Democratic to Republican. Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, and North Carolina also have seen shifts to the Republicans in recent years.
Moreover, the virtual disappearance of the moderate wing of the Republican Party meant that in states controlled by that party, there was little resistance to conservative mantras of tax cuts and reductions in government spending (Kabaservice, 2011). Strong Republican rhetoric about cuts to state government spending had in the past masked a fair amount of pragmatism, but in recent years, led by Kansas, Republican-dominated states truly have made cuts the top priority.
As such, there is a case to be made that in states like West Virginia and Arizona, educators had simply been pushed to the breaking point. Facing salary freezes and cuts to pensions and health benefits, it may very well be that they felt they had nothing to lose. It is also seemingly the case that nascent activist networks amongst educators (often through social media) were coalescing into place in the years immediately preceding the strikes. These networks might have proven to be ephemeral in other political conditions, but in West Virginia, Kentucky, and elsewhere, they provided space for protest to grow (Dyke and Muckian-Bates, 2019).
Given the growing racial and gender gap in American politics, it is also perhaps noteworthy that three-quarters of public school teachers in the US are female (NCES, 2019). Females are now far more likely to support the Democratic Party than the Republicans, especially those with a college degree, like teachers (Sparks, 2018). An aversion to the political party in power, along with low pay and benefits, is a potent formula for labour action in any setting.
A second key reason must surely be the combination of strong economic growth and poor wage growth in recent years. While rumblings of a recession can be heard over the distant horizon, the economy has on paper been strong for many years. This strength, however, has done little to raise living standards of workers – corporate profits are up thirty percent since before the Great Recession, while household wages have only increased, on average, by four percent (Scheiber, 2019).
This may account for why so many of the strikes of the past two years have been offensive rather than defensive. As noted above, we lack a useful and universal means of classifying strike activity, and this deficiency makes it hard to compare and contrast. However, it seems reasonable to distinguish between strikes that seek to preserve workers’ economic positions, and those who seek to better them. The former could be thought of as defensive strikes, and the latter offensive.
Again, there is little data clarifying this, but the experience of this author, a longtime labour organiser, is that at least for the last two decades strikes have primarily been defensive – an attempt to hold on to what workers had. Protecting pensions, job security, and health benefits have been at the core of most of the big strikes in the US in the twenty-first century.
There are certainly elements of defensiveness in the 2018-19 strikes; the threatened cut to health benefits was as important an issue to the strikers in West Virginia as were salary increases. But in Arizona, Chicago, and Los Angeles, among other places, workers were seeking real gains in their economic position. As Sen (2019) puts it, as “long as tight labor markets persist, work stoppages and pockets of labor shortages are going to continue.”
A question worth asking is whether offensive strikes are more contagious than defensive strikes, and whether this contributed to the development of a strike wave.
A third reason (related to the first two) is that public sector worksites, especially in education, are sites where the strike is still a particularly effective labour tactic. In a globalized, highly-competitive, highly-contingent economy, there are many jobs where strikes are not a particularly effective tool of labour militancy. The five-month strike of nearly 60,000 grocery workers in California in 2003-04 is a good example of where the strike did not achieve its goals (Dixon and Martin, 2007). The unionized grocery workers involved in that strike worked in an environment where an equal – or even larger – number of people worked at non-unionized supermarkets and did not strike with them. The contention by management that the wages and benefits of the unionized grocery workers made their businesses uncompetitive with non-unionized rivals was not without some merit. The strike was unsuccessful in most respects because the strike itself was not one that could likely have been won.
Education, on the other hand, is potentially a welcome venue for strike activity. In most of the teachers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019, school districts and states made no effort to replace the teachers with strikebreakers. Online education remains a very small share of the education universe, and while there are private schools and other educational institutions that fell outside the scope of the 2018-19 strikes, they had nowhere near the capacity and showed no inclination to try to replace the work done by strikers.
All American states have stringent rules (which vary greatly but are always present) that govern the learning conditions of public schools. It is rarely even an option for a school district to import unlicensed personnel to take over from teachers on strike, and even were it possible it is a powerful logistical and financial challenge.
For the foreseeable future, a large body of educators choosing to strike will retain the ability to shut down their worksite as long as they remain on the picket lines. This is not to say that a small teacher strike in a large metropolitan area would always be successful, but on the scale of Chicago, Jersey City (nearly 4,000 workers), or whole states like West Virginia and Arizona, should the workers remain united and decide to strike, they will be able to close schools until they are ready to return.2
Moreover, unlike strikes against private corporations, the stakes are almost purely political, rather than economic. A strike against a school district isn’t trying to cut the district’s profit to force the employer to the table. It’s not directly a strike against capital. Instead, the goal is to induce the political forces in the community to intervene.
This is why the concept of Bargaining for the Common Good is so important, because a key factor holding back educators from striking is their sense of mission. This author has long experience with educator unions across the United States. Many educators are horrified at the idea of striking because they worry such an action will harm their students. Even if educators understand and accept the premise that they are undercompensated, many will knowingly sacrifice their own financial stability to provide for their students.
Bargaining for the Common Good allows educators to employ a rhetoric of labour militancy centered on the needs of the community rather than the worker. If striking is reframed as an attempt to improve educational outcomes and the lives of students, it will be easier for educators to strike.
A final possible reason for this incredibly-rare outburst of US strike activity is, strangely enough, familiarity with striking. West Virginia educators do not have the legal right to strike, let alone the legal right to collective bargaining. This is not uncommon, especially across the southern United States. What is uncommon is that the West Virginia teachers nevertheless have a history of striking. There was a near-statewide walkout of teachers (forty-seven of fifty-five counties) in West Virginia for eleven days in 1990 (Charleston Gazette-Mail, 2018). It was equally extralegal, and yet they did it. They won raises averaging $5,000 spread out over three years – a sum close to what they won in 2018 (even without adjusting for inflation).
Chronologically, the first three large public-sector strikes of 2018 were West Virginia, Jersey City, New Jersey, and the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All three of these groups had been on strike in the previous thirty years. The Jersey City educators had walked out 1998 for five days, winning a 12.5% raise for teachers and a 15% raise for other school personnel (Orlando Sentinel, 1998). They had also been on strike for three days in 1976 and 30 days in 1970 (Westfeldt, 1998). The GEO at the University of Illinois had previously been on strike in 2009, and, though this is not recorded in federal data, also held a two-day recognition strike in 2001 of which the present author was a proud participant.
This can hardly be a coincidence. Over the years 1981 – 2018, the total number of American workers (unionized or not) who engaged in large work stoppages was under nine million. The entire American workforce in 2019 is just over 164 million (BLS, 2019), and vast the majority of that number were not in the workforce in 1981 or even 1991. This averages out to well under two-tenths of one percent of the working population in any given year
The simple fact is most American workers go their whole work lives without taking part in a strike or working in a workplace where a strike has ever taken place. It cannot be pure coincidence that the first three public-sector strikes of 2018 happened in workplaces with a history of past strikes. Similarly, the two large strikes at the tail end of this two-year period – the UAW strike against GM and the CTU strike – involve unionized workforces with a considerable history of labour militancy.
As this essay moves from why the strikes of 2018-19 happened to what may happen next, an important fact to remember is that there are, compared to two years ago, 500,000 more workers who have firsthand experience with a strike, and who might therefore find it easier to strike again, and that these strikers are concentrated. The West Virginia strikers made up almost two percent of the entire state’s entire population (not just those in work), and in Chicago (where Burns  notes teachers are required to live within city limits) a full one percent of the city was on strike. As E. Tammy Kim (2019) notes, writing about the UAW strike but speaking to the whole biennium, “a key measure of the strike’s success will be the extent to which [union] members build on the memory of this organizing.”
Was this a strike wave? Has it crested? Are we on the verge of a new moment of militancy for US organised labour?
In his influential and much-debated 2013 essay, “Fortress Unionism,” Rich Yeselson urges unions to wait for moments like these. Unions, he contends, are too weak to bring back the power of labour on their own. Instead, their importance will come if/when they are able to channel and direct the power of stochastic mass action:
Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.
That is how massive union growth occurs—workers take matters into their own hands and then unions capture that energy like lightning in a bottle. The workers risk their jobs, and sometimes even their lives, to form a union. It has happened this way all over the world. The workers will signal—loudly—when they want to organize.
In short, union growth occurs when working-class activism overwhelms the quotidian strictures of civil society, forcing political and economic elites to accept unionization as the price of civil peace. During episodes of massive union growth, the workers don’t confine themselves to the careful strategies of union staff—they disregard them, and force the union to play catch up. Conflict spreads quickly from worksite to worksite.
It is difficult not to see West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and the other states in this description. None of the actions in the spring of 2018 were decisions driven by institutional union leadership; at best, those leaders were reacting to energy from workers themselves. Notably, in West Virginia, as we have discussed, the unions’ leadership tried to call off the strikes, only to be ignored by workers on the ground who stayed out for several more days.
“The workers are willful when they want unions,” writes Yeselson. “Keep your eye on them. The unions will follow.” Have the unions followed? Especially with the public sector strikes in the South and West, there are reasons to think the answer is yes, and also reasons to think the answer is no.
On the yes side of the ledger, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky all saw educator strikes again in the spring of 2019 (Dirnbach, 2019). This time, though, they were deliberately short strikes of one or two days, more demonstrations of intent than pure displays of power. It’s not at all clear, from this distance, if this was an instance of union leadership stifling rank-and-file energy, or if the unions were in harmony with the workers.
Another sign of increasing harmony between educators and educator unions is in membership numbers. In Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina, with few to no formal collective bargaining rights, union membership is entirely voluntary, and we can safely regard a significant change in union membership numbers to be connected to an increase in worker affinity with institutional unions.
The US Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management and Standards (OLMS) maintains a database of every union’s annual report (called an LM-2) filed under the requirements of federal law. LM-2 reports include a line for unions to report membership numbers. However, only unions that represent private-sector workers must fill out an LM-2. Of the above, only the AFT in West Virginia files a LM-2, but the results are impressive – from 931 reported members in 2016, the latest report shows 9,997 members, more than a 1000% increase and a number representing a quarter of all educators in the state.
In the opposite direction, there was mixed evidence that educator militancy led to power at the ballot box in the legislative and gubernatorial elections in November of 2018. West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky all saw the incumbent Republicans maintain power (Reilly, 2018). Pro-union politicians won in more Democratic-friendly states like Wisconsin and Michigan, but there is little evidence that those wins were related to strikes in other states.
Moreover, while 2019 has certainly seen very large and significant strikes, they are of a more traditional kind than the upsurge we saw in West Virginia and elsewhere. The Los Angeles teacher strike, the CTU strike, and the UAW strike are legal strikes launched through the formal processes of collective bargaining. The other public-sector strikes we have seen in 2019 have been smaller and of shorter duration, often by design.
This of course means nothing. It could simply be a brief pause before a strike wave resumes. Where, when, and how it might re-emerge is a question too speculative for this author.
The approach of the 2020 US presidential election is a factor to consider. Most established unions will shift energy and resources into politics in an election year, leaving less for militancy, perhaps. On the other hand, strikes during an election year can often force the hand of a politician seen as vulnerable. Certainly, the education platforms of the various candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for President have shifted more in the direction desired by educator unions (Cohen, 2019).
It will also be interesting to see how malleable the concept of Bargaining for the Common Good is in non-educational settings. To the extent that this concept played a role in making the strikes of 2018-19 possible, the degree to which other groups of workers, public or private sector, can use the same ideas will give us a clue as to the power of the current wave of militancy.
The connection between a teacher and the students they serve is direct and immediate. The story the union can tell its members and the public about the link between their contract and the public good is a relatively simple one to tell.
The most obvious place where Bargaining for the Common Good could be deployed to equal effect is healthcare. Union density in healthcare is increasing rapidly, and there are potent connections between the working conditions of nurses, technicians, and other caregivers, and the people for whom they care.
The barrier is that labour militancy in healthcare is governed by different laws than those affecting other workplaces. A minimum notice of ten days is required before any labour action can be held at any healthcare facility, including nursing homes, hospitals, and clinics. It is broadly accepted by unions in the healthcare industry that strikes are not intended to shut down work at a facility, and that strikers will not interfere with operations that are involved in patient care (Tillett, 2016). As such, the strike is a limited weapon in healthcare.
Where will we see the concept of Bargaining for the Common Good expand to next? Will workers installing wind turbines for carbon-free energy generation strike over environmental issues? Or will it be pollution control scientists in the federal government or the states, striking over climate change? Public defenders striking over a criminal justice system rife with institutional racism and inadequate protections for poor defendants? The evolution of Common Good bargaining will be a subject worth watching intently.
We might also see an expansion, or even an explosion, of strike activity among marginalized groups of employees. In the past few years, waves of short strikes among fast-food workers, mostly people of color, have jolted the industry and led to an increase in wages, but as yet the strike action has not found critical mass. Similarly, labour militancy is on the rise among employees of Amazon, including Somali-Americans and Somali immigrants in huge Minnesota fulfillment centers which are strategically vital for the company’s mode of business (Kamper, 2019). Amazon workers might work far away from the customers they serve, but their ability to shut down nodes of distribution gives them as much power over the economy as any other group of workers in the country.
Last, but not least, it will be interesting to see how or if the increased militancy of 2018, 2019, and perhaps beyond will shape the 2021 contest for the presidency of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The AFL-CIO is an umbrella organisation comprising the majority of American unions. The incumbent president, Richard Trumka, will not seek re-election. Many voices in labour and on the Left are encouraging the charismatic Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants, to run (Greenhouse, 2019). Nelson has been a vocal and visible supporter of nearly every major strike action in the last year, and were she to be elected it would certainly be interpreted as an endorsement of increased labour militancy.
The United States has seen false dawns before. The large and successful Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997, followed closely by the large-scale protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1999, were seen by many observers at the time as heralding a new spirit of militancy and direct action in labour (Minchin, 2017: 254-55). It was not to be.
Is this time different?
This author is by nature a skeptic, but notes three things that might make this strike wave have more lasting impact. First is the growth of organised, institutional left wing political formations in the US, most notably the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). DSA’s membership has expanded dramatically in the past five years to a membership of 60,000, perhaps ten times where it was a decade ago (Sernatinger, 2019). While still a small number on the scale of the country, it represents a foundation of support for labour militancy that might prove crucial in difficult contests.
Second, there is strong evidence that the political winds are shifting in labour’s favor. Public opinion in favor of labour unions is at a fifty-year high (Jones, 2019). The political platforms of all the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are far more overtly pro-labour than in recent election cycles (Richman, 2019). Far from devastating unions, the year that has followed the Supreme Court’s Janus decision has seen public sector unions retain their financial viability, meaning they still have the resources to support militant action (Rainey and Kullgren, 2019). A recent study by Hertel-Fernandez, Naidu, and Reich (2019), suggests that teacher strikes tend to influence parents in a pro-union, rather than anti-union direction, suggesting that educator strikes might create a positive feedback loop that encourages more labour militancy.
Third, and finally, it is worth highlighting something that has been mentioned a few times already in this paper: this was the most demographically-diverse strike wave the country has ever seen. Strikes, and labour militancy more broadly, have long been rhetorically coded as male and Caucasian. The 2018-19 strike wave was led by unions with majority female memberships, and Common Good goals were frequently (Los Angeles, Chicago) expressed in terms of racial justice. Immigrants in Minnesota are leading the strikes against Amazon.
This is perhaps the most novel development of the 2018-19 strike wave. If labour militancy continues to become more diverse, and therefore more closely reflects the true character of the American working class, then we may very well look upon these two years as the turning of a corner.
Dave Kamper is a labour organiser and writer living in Minnesota and a member of UAW Local 1981. He has a PhD in History from the University of Illinois and an MS in Labour Studies from the University of Massachusetts.
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1 Because the leaders of the AFT and NEA unions had encouraged educators to go back to work, after February 27th the strike became what is known as a “wildcat” strike; when workers strike in defiance of union leadership. In truth, though, the AFT and NEA were reacting rather than leading from the very beginning of the action.
2 An unwarranted and potentially dangerous assumption underlying this author’s conclusion is that the present nature of US politics and culture makes it unlikely authorities will attempt to break strikes with the use of force. If that changes, then the calculus of workers must be drastically revised.