In the last two years, hundreds of thousands of American workers have gone on strike, including thousands of teachers in red states and large cities, 7,000 hotel workers in eight large cities and 30,000 grocery workers in New England. Meanwhile, the Industrial Workers of the World has launched an ambitious campaign to unionize fast food restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, and game developers walked off the job for the first time in labor history. Tufts itself narrowly avoided two strikes since the fall of 2016, and dining workers formed a new union. Many of these strikes took place over the objections of cautious union leadership.
After half a century of stagnation and decline, it seems the American labor movement is finally regaining some dynamism and fighting spirit.
In some places, like Oakland, Calif., and West Virginia, the teachers’ strikes advanced concrete political demands, with unionized workers using solidarity to combat budget cuts and systemic underfunding. Similarly, after Massachusetts rolled back extra Sunday and holiday pay for retail workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers fought back and preserved those benefits for tens of thousands of its members. At Tufts, dining workers won a fair contract after a protracted, year-long struggle, organizing and finding solidarity with students.
These successes should remind civically engaged people, particularly graduating students who are about to join non-unionized professions, that the primary power we have is in the workplace. It’s easy to get lost in concerns about discourse, or the specific campaigns of individual candidates, but without organizations composed of and willing to fight for working people, we have relatively little power. All the petitions in the world couldn’t stop Tufts from raising tuition and housing costs, but the mere threat of a strike forced the university to agree to pay its dining workers a fair share for the first time ever.
With companies like Uber on the rise, and ever larger segments of the labor force in non-unionized industries or employed precariously in the so-called “gig economy,” we must look to the successful efforts of labor radicals for guidance. It is for this reason that we feel joining or starting a union is a civic duty, especially if you are working in tech, or other traditionally non-union professions. The days of the mass militant strikes by steelworkers and coal miners are long over, but we can help start the era of the political strike by college-educated professionals and of the revival of mass blue collar unionization.
We will spend most of our adult lives working, and it is in the workplace and employment practices that many of the most pernicious forms of bigotry persist. Associations of workers that fight for workers’ interests are a powerful tool for social justice and for winning a better life for all working people. We should welcome the return of the political strike and the tentative beginnings of new unions in fast food, the gig sectors and tech workers.
The few unions that thrived during the long retreat of American labor power did so because they were able to adapt to a new American working class, they based their campaigns, led by shop stewards, and their politics on social justice advocacy. As many of us join the ranks of the American working class in the coming months, we should be honored to join a long tradition of collective struggle — class struggle.