United States: ‘We are living through a resurgence in labour struggles’

February 2, 2024
striking auto workers listen to a speaker
United Auto Workers members on strike in 2023. Photo: United Auto Workers (UAW)/Facebook. Inset: Neal Meyer

Neal Meyer is a national leader of Bread & Roses (B&R), a caucus of Marxist activists in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He is based in New York City and spoke to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the recent rise in labour activism in the United States. Read part 1 of the interview with Meyer here.

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Many have been excited about what some on the left have referred to as a “strike wave” in the US. What factors explain this uptick in union strikes?

Whether or not there has really been a “strike wave” yet is something that comrades debate. Either way, we are definitely living through a resurgence in labour struggles, powered in large part by a wave of reform efforts inside the unions.

Starting in the late ’70s, early ’80s, the US labour movement — like labour movements all over the world — went into a tailspin, with membership and strike activity declining ever since.

This reached a nadir around 2010‒11, when Republicans tried to strip unions of organising rights in mid-western states such as Wisconsin. The response was one of the first major political developments within the labour movement in the new century, with mass occupations of state capitol buildings across the Midwest in 2010.

Ever since, there has been a slow build up of labour activism.

We saw some union presence at Occupy Wall Street [in 2011]. Then there were the Chicago Teachers Union strikes in the mid-2010s, which inspired a lot of people and became an important reference point for what many call the “troublemaking wing” of the labour movement.

But I think many really got the sense that something was happening in 2018 when teacher strikes, inspired by the Chicago example, washed over West Virginia and a bunch of other red [Republican-dominated] states.

These were major wildcat strikes by teachers fed up with austerity. They demanded higher pay and better conditions, not just for themselves but for their students.

That was the moment when it really felt like some kind of consciousness around labour was starting to emerge in the US.

The conditions that paved the way for this upsurge seem pretty clear.

There is an obvious objective condition: in the US we have horrible inequality and many are forced to work really shitty and precarious jobs. This has created a sense of frustration and pessimism, especially among younger workers.

This can lead to apathy and resignation, or to organising. Fortunately, many have opted for the latter path.

And in the last three or four years, labour activism has really taken off, aided by a few additional developments.

One obvious and really important new factor is the tightening of the labour market after the pandemic. We have something approaching full employment in the US at the moment. Workers feel a lot more emboldened to organise and be active.

Second, the Black Lives Matter movement played a role in inspiring younger workers in the cities, especially Black workers, to stand up for their rights.

A third factor was the [Bernie] Sanders campaign, which played a role in spotlighting inequality and pointing to organising and activism as the solution.

Finally, the Biden administration has also played somewhat of a role — even if it has been overhyped — by appointing new pro-union members to the National Labour Relations Board, which has been more pro-worker in its rulings.

But a lot of the upsurge is also due to a critical subjective factor: generations of union militants helping to bring this moment together by reforming their unions.

For years, there has been a concerted effort by the “troublemaking wing” to build union reform caucuses. With support from projects such as Labor Notes and organisations on the socialist left, these reform caucuses have succeeded in building up a layer of organic militant labour activists.

I am talking about caucuses such as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), of which I am a member. UAWD helped elect Shawn Fain and a whole slate of reformers across the country to the leadership of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) last year.

We are also starting to see reform caucuses forming in other big national unions. This is creating a leadership layer that is more democratic, more left-wing and more willing to fight and take risks.

At the same time there are also similar but smaller efforts in a lot of local unions across the country.

This past year is when all these factors came together to change the situation in the labour movement.

We had the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild strikes in the summer, involving tens of thousands of workers. There were also a lot of localised strikes.

There was a lot of hope around the UPS Teamsters contract battle, which over the summer had the potential to see one of the largest strikes in US history with some 340,000 Teamsters set to go on strike. In the end the workers got a contract that was agreeable for most. It was good for the workers but unfortunate for the country that the strike did not happen.

Then we had the UAW strike in the “Big Three” auto companies [Ford, General Motors and Stellantis] starting in September, which was a really big deal. Fain and his team did a good job in popularising the cause and attracting a lot of support.

They used novel tactics, such as the “Stand Up Strike”, which allowed them to shut down particular factories and provide support to those workers, rather than shutting down the entire industry all at once.

In the end they won an impressive contract that has allowed them to springboard into organising the very large non-unionised sector of the auto industry. And they are tying their demands and work to questions of a just transition and a Green New Deal.

And I have not even mentioned the Starbucks workers who have been organising and bringing a lot of young people into the process, or the struggle of Amazon workers, which has been very important.

There is a lot going on. A lot to be hopeful about in the US when it comes to workers’ struggles.

Could you tell us a bit about the role DSA has played in this process?

DSA has played an important role in supporting this process. DSA has embraced what in the US is called the rank-and-file strategy. This is the idea that socialists join up with existing radical workers in unions to help transform them in a more militant, left-wing and democratic direction.

Some DSA members have been organising in industries where they work, while lots of DSA members have gotten jobs in industries that are already unionised and that we consider strategic as part of the process of organising and reforming unions.

A significant number of DSA members have gotten jobs in education and healthcare, and to a lesser extent in logistics and some building trades.

Our activists are learning how to organise in the workplace and participate in reform caucuses and strikes. Comrades from DSA are building efforts such as the Rank-and-File Project (RFP) to support this work. RFP, for example, is mentoring a new cohort of rank-and-file activists across the country as they get jobs and learn to be workplace activists.

DSA is also earning a really good reputation as a group to go to when you need strike support, because it can provide fundraising capacity, coordinate meal support, etc. Even in smaller cities, DSA can help bring out a dozen people to a picket line, which is potentially a big contribution.

We are very much trying to be a presence in this labour upsurge, and I think we have a lot to be proud of on that front.

What will the likely impact of this labour activism be on the US presidential elections?

There are a lot of important contracts expiring across the country this year, including for postal workers, for some dock workers on the East Coast, and for teachers in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania, which is going to be a really important state.

So, there might be an interesting dynamic with labour struggles in the presidential campaign. We will have to see, but there is definitely the possibility that this labour militancy carries over into this year and forces the presidential election to orient itself around labour and workplace conflict.

If it did, that would be incredible — something like that has not happened in a long time in US presidential politics.

It is also worth noting that while in the past, unions mostly rolled over and automatically endorsed Democratic Party candidates, and contributed huge amounts of money to their campaigns, this time around there is some reason to think it will be different.

The UAW in particular was reluctant to endorse Biden, though they recently did. And they are definitely focusing more on organising workers than mobilising for corporate Democrats, which is a positive sign.

[Read the full interview at links.org.au.]

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