By ERNIE GOTTA
According to the NLRB, “During the first nine months of Fiscal Year 2022 (Oct. 1–June 30), union representation petitions filed at the NLRB have increased 58%—up to 1892 from 1197 during the first three quarters of FY2021. By May 25, FY2022 petitions exceeded the total number of petitions filed in all of FY2021. At the same time, unfair labor practice charges have increased 16%—from 11,082 to 12,819.”
This, of course, includes the national campaign by SEIU through Workers United, which has organized 257 Starbucks, totaling some 6694 employees. The UAW has also won its first attempt to organize a new General Motors (GM) electric vehicle battery plant in Ohio, which employs 900 workers. The main question here is whether or not they will be brought into the GM master contract and whether the UAW can grow in the non-union auto industry, in particular the new electric vehicle industry.
Union popularity, in general, is on rise. A Gallup poll in August 2022 stated, “Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of labor unions. Although statistically similar to last year’s 68%, it is up from 64% before the pandemic and is the highest Gallup has recorded on this measure since 1965.”
A September article in The Guardian points to more specific details about the rise in strike activity: “According to the labor action tracker at Cornell University, strikes in 2022 so far have significantly outpaced strike activity in 2021, with 180 strikes involving 78,000 workers in the first six months of 2022, compared with 102 strikes involving 26,500 workers in the first six months of 2021.”
These numbers do not include the massive strike of 48,000 graduate and postdoc student workers and faculty in the University of California system. Workers’ Voice comrades have been actively participating in this fight and they write, “While the strike is officially in response to an Unfair Labor Practices suit, workers’ key demands are primarily related to the high cost of living in California. They want a raise that would bring them out of rent burdens, child-care subsidies, job security, full funding for international students, smaller class sizes, as well as better protections from workplace harassment and climate-friendly policies such as university investment in free public transportation.”
In industry and logistics there are rotating pockets of strike actions including two strikes at Sherwin Williams paint production factories. Some 800 dockworkers (ILA Local 1410) in Mobile, Ala., are currently on strike and have been walking the picket line since late November, and at the same time, 1100 paper-mill workers (Steelworkers Local 507) in Canton, N.C., voted down their contract for a second time in an industry that has seen strikes in Washington and Alabama.
The strike at the Warrior Met coal mine in Alabama has been ongoing since April 2021. UMWA members remain committed to their strike, as there is a lot to lose. In recent contract negotiations, the miners have demanded $1.1 billion that would reverse the concessions made in 2016 to help the mine recover profitability. The billion-dollar price tag included concessions in health care, vacations, overtime and more. Since those concessions, an influx of investors has made the mine very profitable. The strike is costing the company money, as SPGlobal.com reported losses of $17.9 million in the second quarter. As the strike continues, however, it will grow increasingly more difficult to maintain the picket lines. Out of the 900 miners who started the strike a year and a half ago, 500 remain.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) launched pre-holiday work actions and one-day strikes at airports around the U.S. on Dec. 8. Huffington Post writes, “Airport services workers, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, janitors, security guards and wheelchair attendants rallied in 15 cities across the U.S. to demand better working conditions and living wages …Workers in three major hubs―Chicago, Boston, and Newark―went on strike.”
SEIU seems to be using worker actions to bolster a legislative approach. This method can be demoralizing for workers as the outcome of their struggle is left in the hands of capitalist politicians. NBC News writes, “The rallies supported the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, introduced in June by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. The proposal would set a minimum hourly wage of $15 for airport service workers, as well as ensure that they have paid time off, holidays, adequate health care and other benefits. It would be similar to what other federal contractors currently receive.”
Alongside its airport and Starbucks campaigns, SEIU has also launched a new Southern union formation. The shift in strategy comes from SEIU’s experience in the South with Fight for $15 and a Union and the Raise Up coalition. Organizing in the South has been an uphill battle for the labor movement that mobilizes workers around electoral and legislative efforts for change. Instead, workers should rely on their own power that includes longer protracted fights that withhold labor and are sustained by solidarity from the broader working class.
Labor Notes writes about the new SEIU approach, “Hundreds of service workers from across the South gathered in Columbia, South Carolina, November 17-19 to launch the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), taking their fight to a new level. … In addition to fast food, members work in hotels, gas stations, retail, home care, sit-down restaurants, and more. … Labor laws are ineffective for most workers, particularly Southern workers. The National Labor Relations Act excluded agricultural, domestic, and tipped workers, who have comprised a relatively large share of the Southern workforce. Southern states are more likely to have right-to-work laws and less likely to have authorized public sector bargaining rights. For this reason, the USSW is forming itself as a union now—not waiting to be sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).”
In the coming years, we may see more of the traditional unions follow SEIU’s model of setting up “new” unions with different names like “Union of Southern Service Workers” or “Starbucks Workers United” in an attempt to rebrand and present something fresh.
Similarly, adjacent to the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Teamsters have been supporting Amazon worker organizing efforts across the country. In September 2022, 1000 Teamsters rallied at Amazon headquarters in Seattle during a conference of the Teamsters Women’s Caucus. The Seattle action was followed by worker-led actions that brought to light months of organizing in places like a key Amazon air hub in San Bernardino, Calif., and a major distribution hub in Joliet, Ill. According to the Chicago Sun Times, “Organizers said more than 600 workers in Joliet signed a petition demanding that the company raise base hourly wages to $25. Amazon has said it has raised average starting pay for warehouse staff to $19 an hour. The workers also are demanding a more robust company response to death threats directed at Black employees that they said were posted in an employee washroom last May.”
Amazon has become a prime target for workers in the logistics sector. Pre-pandemic, the company had 500,000 employees. Two years later, that number has ballooned to 1.6 million along with a massive increase of infrastructure projects, including hundreds of new warehouse facilities across the country.
The fact that major unions are reexamining the way they’ve organized in the past is an important step forward. A renewed focus on worker to worker organizing and a more militant approach is also a positive development. However, the main political thrust of the labor movement has remained the same—an orientation to the Democratic Party that will ultimately sideline the need for union democracy and workers power.
Class independence and a labor party
We reject the idea that workers have anything to gain by collaborating with management. We need independent unions—independent from the bosses and managers at the workplace but also from those who advocate and receive money from corporations at the state and national level.
Our message urges the unions to take steps to organize a working-class party, or “labor party,” built on a fighting and democratic labor movement. Such a party could fight in day-to-day struggles for the interests of the working class and the oppressed as well as competing in elections. At a future point, when class consciousness has increased, we may see the need to move to agitation and even actions for building a labor party.
The failure of the union bureaucracy to take up the demand for a labor party provides an opening for socialists to show the true class-collaborationist nature of the union bureaucracy. Alternatively, if a union bureaucracy does take up the demand for a labor party, it would provide socialists with an opportunity to drive a wedge between the union and the Democratic Party and give us space to more concretely agitate for class independence.
The actions by Biden and Congress to force a new contract on rail workers in early December heightened the need to develop our message around this question. Rank-and-file workers everywhere are feeling betrayed by the Democratic Party, which the union bureaucracy mobilizes their membership to support each year. Members of Workers’ Voice have reported that many discussions with workers on the job have turned to the fight of railroad workers and the Democrats. Many of the workers agree that the Labor Party or a worker-led party is the logical next step.
UNITE HERE’s initiative for the Georgia elections demonstrates concretely how unions can easily mobilize thousands of their members and play a decisive role in an election. With the coalition put together by UNITE HERE, they ran labor’s largest field operation in Georgia after securing significant victories in Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania— knocking on over 3.2 million doors over the 2022 midterm cycle.
What would be possible if a similar effort were applied to a different strategy? What would it mean to put aside old internal conflicts in the labor movement and combine the forces of unions like UNITE HERE, Carpenters, Teamsters, IBEW, SEIU, UFCW, CWA, Nurses, ATU, and so on? Could organized labor run their own candidates in elections? Is it possible to build a new party independent of the Democrats and the influence of capitalists? What type of program could a labor party put forward?
A mass independent labor party has never existed in the U.S. Even a reformist labor party that broke from the Democratic Party and mobilized in favor of the working class and ran independent elections would be a major arena for socialists and other class-struggle fighters to fight for a militant working-class program.
There is also another danger. The absence of a class-struggle left wing in the labor movement that advocates for independent action by the working class creates a vacuum that can be filled by far-right and fascist forces. This possibility was made clear when the president of the Brotherhood Maintenance Way Employees Division (BMWED Teamsters), Tony Cardwell, appeared on far-right ideologue Steve Bannon’s talk show on Dec. 3 to discuss Congress’ forcing a contract on railroad workers. Bannon warmly welcomed Cardwell as both men blasted the Biden administration.
Photo: UMWA miners at Warrior Met and their supporters rallied in 2021. Their strike still continues.