For American Labor, the Past Isn’t Past
Can learning labor history give us hope for the future of unions?
Organized labor is having a moment. In the last half-year alone, baristas at more than 200 Starbucks filed for union elections, software engineers at The New York Times formed the largest bargaining unit of tech workers in the country, and, despite pushback from the world’s biggest retailer, workers at a Staten Island “fulfillment center” voted to form the first Amazon union in the United States.
These are just a few of the labor stories that have hit mainstream news. After losing ground for decades, American workers appear to be fighting back against inadequate wages, subpar benefits, and consolidated corporate power.
That’s one way to interpret the spate of recent events. Cynics might point to data that shows labor unions in the U.S. actually filed for fewer new elections in 2021 than the year before, or that last year union density continued to decline along the same downward trajectory it has for decades. Others argue that toothless American labor laws combined with multinational corporate employers (Starbucks, for example, operates more than 9,000 locations in the U.S. alone) mean that individual groups of workers are unlikely to win gains without significant changes to federal labor law, mass disruptive actions, or both.
Still, the shift in attitudes toward labor is palpable. Back in 2010, when I worked for a union in Oregon organizing caregivers for people with disabilities, I remember going to the movie theater to see Waiting for Superman, an ostensibly liberal film about public education that proceeded to vilify teachers’ unions. It took a lot for me not to stand up and shout at the screen. (The issue was personal as well as political: My mom was a longtime public school teacher and union member.) At that time, it was not uncommon to hear from liberals that unions protected bad workers or were staffed by corrupt thugs. Conservatives, meanwhile, wanted to eradicate them entirely.
Now the momentum seems to be shifting. Public opinion polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor unions, while their Democratic president has expressed his support for organizing in no uncertain terms. Even Republicans have gotten in on the action, proposing a bill that would create alternative, company-friendly labor organizations—an anti-union bill, to be sure, but a nod, nonetheless, to the ascendant power of labor as well as the untapped potential of an organized working class.
The pro-labor cultural turn has been aided by journalists, some of whom have themselves recently organized their media workplaces. Writers like Steven Greenhouse, Sarah Jaffe, Dave Jamieson, Edward Ongweso Jr., and Kim Kelly have revived a once-dormant labor beat by bringing skilled, on-the-ground reporting to important sites of labor struggle. In publications as varied as The New York Times, HuffPost, Vice, and Teen Vogue, readers can now find writing that is sympathetic or even celebratory of worker organizing where before the bias often skewed toward capital. It isn’t hard to imagine that the work of these reporters has inspired a few union drives.
In Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, Kim Kelly gives historical context to the fights for worker justice that she has been witnessing and reporting on for years. Some of the stories featured in Kelly’s book may be familiar to those with knowledge of U.S. labor history (garment worker strikes in Manhattan, farmworker organizing in California, the federal air traffic controllers’ strike), but the author’s focus here is on workers who are not as well-known, whose voices, whether because of their marginalized identities or professions, have been actively suppressed, if not entirely forgotten. The struggles of sex workers and prison laborers receive full chapters, as do those of people with disabilities (a group that includes, Kelly points out, about 25% of all adults in the United States). While the emphasis is on history, their challenges continue to the present day. Sex workers continue to be stigmatized and persecuted, most recently by laws that make it more difficult for them to find clients online. Although incarcerated workers in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and elsewhere successfully formed unions in the 1970s, they were stripped of that right by the Supreme Court in 1977. Many workers with disabilities still receive less than minimum wage: Kelly reports that the average disabled woman in the U.S. makes about half the wages of the average non-disabled man.
This sense of continuity (between the struggles of workers past and present and across every marker of social difference) is one of the strongest aspects of Kelly’s book. In a chapter about garment workers, the story of a young Ukrainian immigrant worker-organizer named Clara Lemlich in early-20th-century Manhattan is followed by a portrait of Rosa Flores, a striking Chicana garment worker in Texas 60 years later, which leads to an account of contemporary garment workers in Southern California who continue to toil for low wages under terrible conditions. The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.
A few days ago, walking through the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle where I live, only a handful of miles from the union office where two Filipino cannery worker organizers, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, were murdered for their activism in 1981, I mused to a friend about how so little of our labor history makes it into mainstream narratives—which is strange, when you think about it, because the vast majority of Americans are workers. Not long after that, I received a phone call at work from a clerk at a hardware store who wanted information about organizing. He had seen what the Starbucks workers did and thought maybe he and his co-workers could do it too.
Organizing is contagious. Is it any surprise the ownership class prefers that we forget our own history? Reading Kelly’s book, I wondered who from the current wave of organizing would be immortalized by labor historians—which baristas, which warehouse workers, which flight attendants and cashiers. But that’s the wrong question, I decided. Better to wonder about the movements these new worker-organizers will inspire. Better to think about who will come next.