Is there a new labor movement in the United States? Seth Harris weighs in.
Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, voted in March to form the mega-retailer’s first union, supporting organizing efforts at other Amazon factories across the country and prompting speculation from many observers that a new labor movement could take hold.
The election victory at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse coincided with organizing efforts at many Starbucks stores, which largely focus on health and safety issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
[email protected] spoke with the Northeast’s new Emeritus Professor Seth Harris about developments in the labor movement. He most recently served as President Joe Biden’s top labor adviser and acting labor secretary under former President Barack Obama. Harris will also serve as an affiliate faculty member and senior fellow at Northeastern’s Burnes Center for Social Change. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
As union victories at major US corporations, such as Starbucks and Amazon, grab headlines, are we seeing a resurgence of the labor movement?
New things are happening in the labor movement, but the labor movement itself is still using a model that has been around for decades. The main model is majority exclusive unionism, which means that the union wins an election or is recognized by the employer, and the union represents all members of the bargaining unit, usually a workplace or a subset of the workplace with particular types of workers.
The success we’ve seen at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse for the independent Amazon Labor Union and the success of Workers United organizing at Starbucks are noteworthy, but not because they’re doing something entirely new. They represent everyone in the workplace and have won an election in competition with the employer.
What is new is that they are winning. And that’s the news from Amazon and Starbucks, but also other high profile outlets. There is a REI store in SoHo in New York where workers have organized. The first Apple retail store was organized by the International Association of Machinists.
So we are starting to see labor victories in organizing drives in industries where success has been far less common in the past, retail being one. We are also starting to see wins in the video game sector and in the technology industry. New York Times tech workers organized into NewsGuild [of New York], for example. This is the headline of what has changed for the labor movement.
There is also—alongside the traditional labor movement—a set of organizations going on that are not bringing workers into the traditional unions. In some cases, this organization is ensured by the trade unions. For example, the Communications Workers of America (a traditional union) organized a group of workers at Alphabet [Inc.], the parent company of Google. They did not seek to be elected or to be recognized by the employer, but they defend the interests of these workers. This is generally referred to as a members-only union.
We see this kind of pattern in a number of places, including in the public sector in states that don’t have public employee collective bargaining, or that place other limits on public employee unionization. But there is also a large movement in the country of so-called “worker centres” which are often focused on serving immigrant workers, but not always; and they take a different approach. They don’t organize unions. You don’t have that exclusive majority representation; you have a plea; you have legal actions; you have other forms of support for workers. … The labor center movement has doubled over the past decade, which is a truly significant development.
But I would also say that this development was largely funded by philanthropies, not workers. The labor movement is member-funded: members pay dues, so it’s a self-sustaining model as long as you can continue to organize and grow your membership.
So there’s a lot of interesting things going on in the world of work right now and part of what I hope to do at Northeastern is to shine a light on those developments, help analyze and interpret those developments and maybe- even be able to move these developments forward.
You mentioned that the labor movement is starting to move into these new industries — retail, video games, and so on.
So let’s start with: It’s extraordinarily difficult to organize a union in America. The law is against the workers. Employers are essentially free to not only aggressively campaign against unions, but also to engage in tactics one would frankly find in a banana republic country’s election. You can literally lock a worker in a room with a supervisor and the supervisor can berate them for an unlimited amount of time on why a union is such a horrible idea.
In any industry in America it is very difficult to organize unless the union can force the employer to give them a neutrality agreement, which would allow the workers to support the union by signing a card instead than by organizing an election. Or, if the employer simply agrees to stay out and let the union campaign.
Now, some industries have unions that go way back. The automobile industry was organized in the 1930s; the building and construction trades have had guilds and unions for several decades, even before that. So there is a long history of unions in certain industries.
In new industries, industries with a lot of transient workers, however, it is much more difficult to organize a union — and there are several reasons for that. Sometimes it’s just because the workers there have never seen a union. Or they don’t feel like they want to clash with their employer, maybe they think they can do better on their own.
Young workers tend to believe, “Well, I’m not going to hang around that long, maybe I’ll move on, so I don’t need a union. That’s been one of the challenges in Silicon Valley and in the video game industry is that you tend to have a lot of younger workers who aren’t very attached to their workplace and are thinking of moving to something else. They would rather go out than exercise their voice in the workplace.
But we see a change. First of all, young workers are much more supportive of the trade union movement than their older colleagues. they are more engaged in community-oriented actions; they are more likely to be ideologically left-wing and therefore more open to the message of workers coming together and building power through community.
So I think we’re seeing a little generational shift; the question is whether generational change will be enough to overcome the institutional advantage that employers have, their ability to push back against union organizing.
Have workers’ demands changed over the years, and more recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think the workers were angry at the start of the pandemic and they came out furious. This has radicalized many workplaces, many workers, and many unions across the United States. We have seen it in nurses and teachers; we have seen it among Starbucks workers; I think he played a very important role in a number of strikes that we saw across the country.
For example, at John Deere, the manufacturer of large agricultural equipment, the union leadership negotiated an agreement with the company and the members rejected it because they felt they were not getting enough compensation for the concessions. they had done before the pandemic, and for the way they worked hard and put themselves at risk during the pandemic. We also saw the same kind of dynamic at Kaiser Permanente.
I think a lot of the organizing going on right now was a realization by workers that the job of employers in capitalism is to make a profit. It is not to protect their workers. Many employers have behaved responsibly during the pandemic, but not all. And even those who did, the main thing was the main thing.
And many workers – not all workers – realized they had to come together to protect themselves. So I think it’s not just that they’re asking for different things—more safety and health; better safety and health and the opportunity to participate in decision-making about safety and health in the workplace, but they realized that it was up to them to protect themselves.
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