What’s the future of labor in post-pandemic America? As once-ignored workers are increasingly hailed as frontline heroes, how can the attention translate into a stronger labor movement?
SLU’s Ruth Milkman shared thoughts in an article in The American Prospect, part of the publication’s symposium on “The Future of Labor”:
During the 40 years that I’ve been writing about labor issues, obituaries for the American union movement have been a perennial, punctuated by occasional moments of optimism, like the one inspired by the massive teachers strikes two years ago. Ten years earlier, in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and Barack Obama’s election victory, many observers (myself included) made fools of ourselves with rosy predictions of imminent union resurgence. Instead, organized labor’s main political goal, the Employee Free Choice Act, went down to ignominious defeat in 2009, and union density soon resumed its relentless downward spiral.
While labor’s high hopes soured into bitter disappointment, a new generation of young activists launched Occupy Wall Street in 2011, firmly planting the issue of growing inequality on the nation’s political agenda. Occupy itself proved short-lived, but it did help to ignite the SEIU-sponsored Fight for $15, a campaign that boosted the pay of low-wage workers more than any effort in recent memory. Millennial-generation Occupy veterans also began to enter the labor movement, infusing it with new ideas and energy. Yet unions remained on the sidelines, battening down the hatches as their membership numbers continued to hemorrhage.
Entering the labor market during the 2008 crash and the ensuing Great Recession, many millennials were radicalized. But the present economic downturn is already far more severe, recalling the 1930s in the massive scale of the unemployment and business closings (and there are more to come). The crisis is compared daily to the Great Depression; the metaphor of war is equally commonplace.
Could it pave the way to a new union upsurge like the one that emerged in the New Deal era? Or will we instead see a reprise of the post-2008 “back to normalcy” Obama-Biden regime, if Trump is defeated in November?
For Milkman, such an upsurge will depend on organizing from the usual precincts — but not just there. It will rely as well on leadership from “the new generation of radical activists that emerged in the wake of the Great Recession.” Organizers who emerged out of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and beyond:
Their growing presence in the labor movement has attracted less attention, but they have begun to make their mark there, too, as key leaders in the 2018 teachers strikes as well as in recent unionization drives among journalists and adjunct faculty. They are also prominent in alt-labor groups and in the (non-union) organizing efforts of tech workers. While many older unionists are in the grips of a siege mentality fostered by decades of anti-union attacks, the new generation of activists brings a more optimistic outlook. That they are “digital natives” with legendary skills in organizing through social media only adds to their potential to become the leaders of any future labor upsurge, especially in the face of a pandemic that rules out more conventional forms of mobilization.
By Stephanie Luce
IS SEEKING OUT in Prospect Park Brooklyn. So in a few days it’s my birthday and I’m mega depressed enough as it is already spending isolation alone. Now I’ll have to spend my bday alone too. Can anyone help me get stuff to make Mac and cheese and a small cake for myself. I’m just trying to do anything from going into full blown depression mode. – Anna
In the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, Anna* wrote to a neighborhood facebook page, asking for help. Within hours, dozens of people had responded offering to buy groceries, donate cash to pay for a birthday dinner, bake a cake, host an online birthday party, take a socially-distant walk in the park, or just to talk.
This wasn’t unusual. During this pandemic lots of people need help and have turned to neighbors (usually strangers). Even more people have stepped up to offer assistance.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many writers have told stories of how people step in quickly to assist in times of disaster. Rebecca Solnit observed this in the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco and in post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005; she learned of similar responses in earlier disasters like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, activists from Occupy Wall Street quickly mobilized into “Occupy Sandy” to get food and medical care to residents in hard-hit neighborhoods. Continue reading Stephanie Luce: Essential Work
Amid the mounting coronavirus and economic crises, not all pressures are being felt equally. In particular, noted SLU professor Ruth Milkman on NPR’s Morning Edition, the most desperate workers are often those forced into positions that don’t offer paid sick leave at this precarious time:
RUTH MILKMAN: You can imagine that there’s an awful lot of people who have lost their normal livelihoods and are desperate to generate some income to support their families… The whole point of paid sick leave is to not force workers to have to choose between their livelihoods and their health or the health of their kids, but these workers are going to be put in that position.
Thu, March 5, 2020, 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM EST
Labor and Urban Studies, 25 West 43rd Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10036
Featuring worker-leaders from The Model Alliance and Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Learn about their worker-driven approach to end and prevent sexual assault and discrimination from the tomato fields of Florida to the fashion industry in New York, as well as their current campaigns to grow worker power and ensure respect in the workplace.
Co-sponsored by: Alliance for Fair Food and Student/ Farmworker Alliance
On December 6th, members of SLU community gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by young adults in building the labor movement.
Despite the recent weakness of the U.S. labor movement, young workers are invigorating unions and other working-class organizations throughout the country, showing the promise of a new broad-based progressive movement. Social media-driven movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, along with the emergence of left political organizations and young candidates for local and national office, have also played an important role in sparking new organizing among younger workers. At the same time, student debt is skyrocketing, permanent full-time jobs are harder to find, unemployment and underemployment are prevalent among low-income young people and communities of color, and increases in housing/living costs far surpass increases in real wages for many young workers.
How are young adults building the labor movement in the face of worsening conditions? How are young workers in other movements influencing the political landscape? Are there fundamental differences in young workers’ outlook or analysis compared to previous generations? What are the primary challenges and obstacles they face given the changing economy and its more precarious job opportunities? What are the most exciting opportunities and partnerships that are being developed by young workers?
The conversation featured Arsenia Reilly-Collins, Jedidiah Labinjo, and Kim Kelly, and was moderated by Diana Robinson.
Check out the video above or here.