5 September 2019
Unions haven’t had it easy for a long time. And not only in the United States. In the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, it was widely understood that workers must be fairly treated and have a say in important decisions at work. Senator Robert Wagner, author of the National Labor Relations Act, said: “Democracy in industry means fair participation by those who work in the decisions vitally affecting their lives and livelihood.”
In the following decades this understanding disappeared. In the time of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, policies were developed that aimed to deregulate markets of all kinds — including labor markets — and disempower unions. In 1981, Reagan broke a strike of air traffic controllers. Caleb Crain writes in The New Yorker: Reagan’s administration “fired more than eleven thousand people, banning them from ever working for the federal government again, and decertified their union. There were bankruptices, divorces, and suicides. To return planes to the air, the government hired permanent replacements for the strikers, a tactic that had been legal since a 1938 court ruling but had been considered socially unacceptable.” It took nearly ten years to fill the jobs vacated by the firings.
The breaking of the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike is recognized by historians as a major turning point in the course of American labor relations. Managers of private companies took “inspiration” from President Reagan’s decision, and began breaking strikes by simply firing the strikers and hiring other workers to replace them — instead of negotiating. In the period between 1980 and 2010, the number of strikes in the United States fell by more than 90%. During the same period, inequality has risen dramatically. The “labor share of income” — the share of income going to workers — is near its lowest since the Second World War. An average American earns less today, in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation) than an average American did in 1973.
So much for progress. It’s a depressing history, from a union perspective. But Sarah Todd, Lila MacLellan, Michelle Cheng, and Hanna Kozlowska at Quartz have put together an article that highlights recent developments that give us cause for optimism. They talk about organizing efforts in nine workplaces, writing: “While employees’ specific concerns and tactics may differ from company to company, these examples reveal that they share at least one fundamental, common desire: to gain back some sense of empowerment in an economy that often makes workers feel underpaid, overworked, and not in control.”
The workplaces/initiatives are:
- The Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh
- The Instagram Meme Union
- Santander Bank
- Riot Games
- The Guggenheim Museum
- The YouTubers Union
They write that the YouTubers Union is “trying to show that being an internet creator is not merely a vain pursuit of fame, but an actual job that requires a lot of work—which should come with workers’ rights. Especially when a global giant is making money off of their labor.”
We couldn’t have said it better.
And we’re honored to be included in this inspiring list. Our thanks and solidarity to the colleagues at all eight other workplaces — and to the colleagues at Quartz!