Where This Labor Day Fits Into American History

THis year is not just about the history of American labor movements. Most Americans support labor unions, and recent years have seen a surge of unionization efforts in retail—a sector of the economy not known for forming unions.

Gallup reports that 68% of Americans support unions. This is the highest percentage since 1965. Starbucks has at least 143 locations that are unionized. Chris Smalls initiated the first ever successful union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island earlier this year. And this summer, employees at an Apple store in Maryland voted to form a union—the first in the chain’s history—while Chipotle employees in Michigan became the first store in the restaurant chain to vote to unionize.

“This is going to be one of the most hopeful Labor Days that the American labor movement has seen in many a year,” says Joe McCartin, an expert on U.S. labor history at Georgetown University. “For a long time, the labor movement has struggled to get a foothold in some of the growing industries in the private sector, and now you’re seeing that happen in places like Starbucks—even Google, Trader Joe’s, REI. It has seen a rise in the number of organized activities. [in] the private sector and that is something we haven’t seen for quite a while.”

Nelson Lichtenstein, expert on U.S. labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes this 2022 wave of union activism as “the most encouraging and largest pro-union sentiment and activism in two or three decades,” perhaps since the successful 1997 UPS strike, which involved several hundred thousand workers and had a lot of public support.

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McCartin, however, looks back to see if there are historical parallels. He claims that the organization activity following COVID-19 lockdowns started reminds him of organizing activities after World War I.

“What’s similar about the three periods is that they required a national mobilization,” McCartin says. “Coming out of all three of those major disjunctures— produced by the wars and the pandemic—workers became much more active in organizing and much more assertive in demanding their rights.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it was also the case that after World War I, more strikes took place in the U.S. than ever before—from NYC theater workers to 120,000 textile workers in New England. For about one week, Seattle was halted by the General Strike. Nationally, 350,000 workers in the steel industry went on strike. In Boston, more than 1100 officers were on strike. Workers striking sought to retain gains from the increased production during World War II.

“In the case of 1919, four million workers went on strike. At the time, that’s one-fifth of the nation’s workforce—that’s big,” says Elizabeth Shermer, an expert on U.S. labor history at Loyola University Chicago.

Shermer points out the COVID-19 situation in which U.S. workers were forced to sacrifice their lives to serve the nation.

In times of low unemployment, the history of unionization has shown that it thrived. As McCartin explains, “A lot of times people like historians have asked the question, why weren’t there more mass protests in 1932 and ’33, when unemployment was as high as 25%? But, in fact, it’s when things are worse that workers become most defensive and most reluctant to take risks. They are more open to taking risks when things get better. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. Because unemployment is low among young workers, it means that they know they can move to another place if needed and find a job. That leads them to be more willing to take a stand, as we’ve seen [with], say Starbucks.”

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History has shown that young people are often the ones who took a stand. McCartin was reminded by Jaz Brisack, a 24-year-old Starbucks organizer, and Chris Smalls, a 33-year old Amazon organizer. Both remind McCartin of Walter Reuther who, at just 29 years of age, helped to organize the Flint, Mich. automobile strike of 1936. “When the industrial unions formed, it was younger workers that really led the way,” according to McCartin.

But Will Jones, an expert on U.S. labor history at the University of Minnesota, warns that history also provides examples of why it might make sense to temper expectations for today’s activists.

His memories of the 1970s are recalled by the new wave in retail-sector unionizing. In that decade, there was an influx of labor unionization among nontraditional groups such as sanitation workers or healthcare workers. New teachers and police unions were formed at this point, as well as a diverse and younger group of participants.

But the promise of that moment didn’t bear out.

“The militancy [of the 1970s] didn’t actually lead to a revival of the union movement,” says Jones. “A lot of people were joining unions, but the laws, the protections for collective bargaining, actually had been weakened, starting in the ’40s. You could join a union, you could even go on strike, but actually winning a contract and building a lasting institution was much more difficult.”

Today, Jones argues, it’s going to be a long road to a contract for many of the new retail unions and employers. “The laws and the legal protections for forming a union remain very weak, and it’s almost impossible to compel an employer to actually sit down and negotiate with the union. The penalties are pretty minuscule and meaningless.”

Shermer thinks that Labor Day is approaching and she believes the ubiquitousness of Amazon, Starbucks, and other coffee shops will bring more awareness to the labor movement. “Maybe Labor Day is going to start shifting away from what is on sale and the start of school and the pool closing,” she says, “to actually returning again to this question about basic rights on the job.”

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