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After 40 years, the labor movement is back. The large strikes this past year by the SAG-AFTRA, the Writers Guild of America, the United Auto Workers, Kaiser Permanente unions, Los Angeles hotel workers, and a strike threat by UPS Teamster workers are indicators of the early resurgence of the labor movement.
But despite the growing militancy of the labor movement, it is not growing numerically. How can we explain this apparent paradox?
The number of workers on strike in September alone was nearly as many as in all of 2022, which was about 60 percent higher than 2021. Elections for union representation rose a stunning 60 percent in one year.
Despite this growth, the number of unionized workers declined slightly in 2022, to 10.1 percent, from 10.3 percent in 2021.
It is common to explain this by noting the greater growth rate of the labor force compared to that of unionized workers.
Another common explanation is that the low unemployment rate emboldens workers to organize and strike knowing that there are plentiful jobs in case they lose. The problem with this is that according to consulting firm McKinsey, as much as 36 percent of the labor force is precariously employed.
There are plenty of jobs out there but few good ones. It’s better to stay and fight and switch.
Another reason for the paradox is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics significantly underreports strike activity in the United States by only reporting strikes involving 1,000 or more workers.
However, only 0.3% of U.S. businesses have 500 workers or more. Because the BLS only counts a tiny number of employers, it is significantly undercounting the number of strikes happening each year.
A stronger explanation is simply that the working class has grown tired of getting screwed by the boss and their union leaders who play nice with them.
As I wrote last year, the roots of this resurgence lies in the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 led by a reform caucus that successfully booted out collaborationist union leadership.
The CTU strike was followed a few years later by self-organized non-union teachers striking in four Southern states in 2018 who defied strike bans in their states.
A new self-organized militant rank and file have been assisted by the DSA Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which was formed during the wildcat strikes early in the pandemic and 40-year-old Labor Notes magazine’s national conference and regional Troublemakers Schools.
They have been the support structure for the multitude of diverse young people turning away from the dead end of electoral and identity politics towards class struggle organizing. We have had a decade of disappointment with protests movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter and the supposedly “progressive” electoral politics of Obama, Sanders and The Squad. Young people have begun channeling their political energies into worker organizing starting in the tech sector, gig work and at Starbucks, Apple, Amazon and Trader Joe’s. At the forefront of the new militant rank and file are queer and straight women of color fighting homophobia and racism both inside and outside their unions and workplaces.
The debate is over. The U.S. working class is coming back as the powerful force it can be in a capitalist society.
We face both danger and opportunity. Our struggles can be once more channeled into dead end voting for a two-party monopoly of the elites. Or we can shut down the capitalist economy and turn away from the brink of climate destruction and the planetary reign of the U.S. empire.
We are only getting started. Alongside the emerging strategy of class struggle unionism, we need a vision of a post-capitalist and post-work society that will inspire millions more to join us. To get there, we will need to focus on democratizing work and the economy to empower us to take on the monumental global crises that only the working class can solve.
Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back” and, most recently, “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few. Follow him at @OvetzRobert
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