Back in action: report on the US labour movement

After years of decline, the US labour movement is showing signs of life. Sarah Jaffe reports

May 16, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Lucie Morel

The US labour movement was on life support when the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), Local 1 of the American Federation of Teachers, went on strike in 2012. In the wake of the financial crisis, right-wing governors were attempting to destroy public sector unions, shock doctrine-style. But in Chicago the enemy was a Democrat fresh from Barack Obama’s administration, Rahm Emanuel. To beat him, the CTU had to rebuild its roots in the community, to earn the trust of the parents of their students and to bring those issues to the bargaining table, in what’s now known as ‘bargaining for the common good’.

Bargaining for the common good has taken off since the CTU’s resounding victory in 2012, particularly among teachers’ unions, which are particularly well-positioned to bring community issues to the bargaining table. The CTU’s win, framed as a fight ‘for the schools Chicago’s students deserve’, inspired reformers in unions from Massachusetts, where they led a coalition to defeat a ballot initiative that would have allowed private charter school companies greater access to public resources, to Los Angeles, the country’s second largest school district, which had its own massive strike last year. United Teachers Los Angeles put 30,000 teachers on the streets of downtown LA and won demands that ranged from fewer police in schools to green space on campuses, the all-important smaller class sizes and an increase in ethnic studies courses and culturally relevant curricula. Community members and students organised alongside their teachers, bringing their demands to the homes of school board members and marching alongside educators. Their biggest rally drew more than 60,000 people.

In Chicago, the teachers were out on strike again last October, when the central demand this time concerned housing. Like so many big cities, Chicago faces a growing crisis of affordable housing, and the teachers, who are required by law to live within the bounds of the city where they teach, are feeling the pinch. For many of their students, though, it’s a full-on emergency, and so they included demands for the city to do more to stop evictions and provide homes for their 16,000 – documented – homeless students.

‘We’re really trying to use our contract negotiations to right the historical wrongs of the Chicago Public Schools [the City of Chicago school district],’ says teacher and bargaining team member Kenzo Shibata. It’s this kind of attitude that led parents to back teachers, not the city government, over the strike, and the city’s mayor to concede, after 11 days, to demands that include asocial worker in every school and additional resources for schools with large numbers of homeless students.

Auto action

In seeming contrast to the CTU, which had prepared deeply for its second strike, almost 50,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union at General Motors came out on a strike nobody expected on 15 September 2019. The UAW’s leadership, scandal-ridden after years of managing decline at auto plants, repeated losses at import automakers in the south and spurts of growth in industries outside its main wheelhouse (journalists, graduate student workers), hadn’t prepared and its press strategy seemed next to non-existent. But there remained enough pent-up anger among the workers, splintered into multiple ‘tiers’ since 2007 (also the last time they struck, briefly) to sustain a four-week strike.

The union didn’t do the kind of deep organising in the community that has become common among teachers’ unions and some other public sector workers, but nevertheless the community came out for the auto workers. In Lordstown, Ohio, where the historic GM plant was shuttered earlier this year, volunteers helped keep up picket lines outside the vacant plant.

‘We put everything we had in this strike, willing to sacrifice everything,’ says Chuckie Denison, who worked for years at Lordstown.‘Not just for us, but for the labour movement in this country, so that no one has to work for seven, eight dollars an hour.’

Workers complained that they didn’t hear much from leadership. ‘We don’t feel the unity from the higher-up union officials,’ in the words of Pennsylvania worker Raina Shoemaker. ‘Our hearts are so warmed from the community and all the other unions and DSA [Democratic Socialists of America]. We can’t say enough: thank you. Everyone is supporting us except GM.’

In one sense, the lackadaisical strike preparation from the union leadership has been beneficial: it has served as a reminder to the workers that the union is them, not whoever goes into a bargaining meeting. ‘I think they understand that this is a defining moment,’ Tim O’Hara, president of UAW Local 1112 in Lordstown, tells me. And ChuckieDenison hopes that the strike energy could help transform the UAW: ‘I hope we can carry this momentum, this energy, and continue this all day, every day, live it, breathe it, until the next contract.’

Back in vogue

The strike may be back in vogue in the US labour movement – since I began work on this piece, teachers in Dedham, Massachusetts, have won an illegal strike that included demands for sexual harassment protections – but it is still a long way from where it was in 1981, before Reaganism kicked off its assault on workers with the crushing of the air traffic controllers union. And it is public sector workers, not private, leading the charge – teachers in particular, who realise that their jobs are impossible to outsource and that their roots in the community give them a particular kind of political power. For the labour movement to truly revitalise, private sector workers will have to find the points where they can apply pressure and win.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that the community – the broad working class – is beginning to stand with workers again when they hit the picket lines.

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist covering labour and social movements, and is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. This article was originally published in our Winter 2019 issue. Subscribe here

The TGWU: Representing a mass trade union movement – review

Past successes and failures of trade unions can inform and inspire strategies for today, writes Jane Holgate

Mick Lynch media mania – the appeal of workers’ power

Style backed by serious politics can cut through in a hostile media landscape, writes Ewan Gibbs

A protest banner with the text respect existence or expect resistance

Work harder, not smarter: the struggle of young workers

Young workers are facing the blunt end of the cost of living crisis. They must organise and fightback, writes Niall Hignett

Struggle, spies and ’68

Diane Langford recalls some of her most memorable experiences of feminist organising, union activism and solidarity campaigning

Universities, financialisation and the fightback at Goldsmiths

Vincent Møystad argues that as higher education institutions are pitted against each other, students, staff and activists must come together to resist a costly race to the bottom

Review – Daring to Hope: My Life in the 1970s

Feminist icon Sheila Rowbotham's memoir paints a dynamic picture of the 1970s trade union and feminist movements and as Lydia Hughes argues, there is much their modern counterparts can learn from them

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...