Lauren Kaori Gurley has been doing some great reporting on labor, especially on how workers are reacting to working during the pandemic. Yesterday, she reported that
Workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, Target, and Shipt say they will walk off the job on May 1 to protest their employers’ failure to provide basic protections for frontline workers who are risking and losing their lives at work.
To those who think that workers striking during a crisis is irresponsible and shortsighted, a few things:
- Workers are striking in response to being told to work in unsafe conditions caused by the pandemic. The bosses – Amazon, the delivery services, major retailers and grocery chains – are squeezing as much life out of their workers as possible, while making record profits. Now is exactly the time for workers to act in their own interest and against their exploitation.
- While it might seem like the workers have their employers over a barrel here, that is only partially so. Demand for internet retail and delivery his high right now, so these corporations need workers right now. However, tens of millions are out of work and so there is a very big labor pool to draw from. If workers wait to strike, that pool will be tapped and the new workers will be entering work places with unsafe working conditions under bosses who know that they can knuckle down labor.
- Do not think that the bosses are victims here. They have plenty of money and have thrived by paying employees low wages for decades. They have the power to create working conditions and wage structures. They have the law and the administration on their side. They have Mitch McConnell and Trump pushing for legislation that would prohibit workers who get COVID in unsafe workplaces from suing their employers. McConnell is warning that such lawsuits would be a “second pandemic”! Looking for naked opportunism? There you go.
Know that during World War II labor unions were very active in the U.S. Bloody organizing campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s created a strong base for unions to tap into. So, as the nation went to war and factories turned toward defense production, when bosses tried to squeeze workers, workers fought back.
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union (and name every school child should know), threatened a massive strike culminating in a March on Washington if President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t end racial discrimination in the defense industries. In response, FDR issued Executive Order 8802, which said that there was to be “no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” This was an important milestone in both labor and civil rights.
From 1942 to 1944, the US saw a record number of strikes. Historian Jeremy Brecher writes, “During the forty-four months from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day, there were 14,471 strikes involving 6,774,000 strikers: more than during any period of comparable length in United States history. In 1944 alone, 369,000 steel and iron workers, 389,000 auto workers, 363,000 other transportation equipment workers, and 278,000 miners were involved in strikes.”
As soon as WWII ended and soldiers started returning home to the work force, companies hit back at labor. They pushed wages down and eliminated benefits won during the war years. The workers responded in kind. Brecher reports that “By the end of 1946, 4.6 million workers had been involved in strikes; their average length was four times that of the war period.” And, the workers won. The reason for the workers success is that labor activists had worked their asses off organizing workers during the war. “By 1946, 69 percent of production workers in manufacturing were covered by collective bargaining agreements, including almost all of the largest corporations”
Labor’s influence was strong enough to push the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to adopt policies that today would be called “socialistic.” The GI Bill sent former soldiers to college at taxpayer’s expense. The government also underwrote mortgages. Massive infrastructure projects, such as the national interstate freeway system, were created, projects that created thousands of good-paying union jobs.
This was supported by a progressive tax structure that had the top percentile paying a tax rates as high as 90%. Oh, no one was taxed into poverty. In 1952, the top 1% held less than 10% of the wealth and the top 10% owned 70%. By comparison, in 2012, the top 1% owned 41% of the wealth and the top 10% was at 77% of the goodies. So, while those at the top top top top top owned “only” 10% of the country’s riches in the 1950s, we still had plenty of J. Paul Getty’s, Vanderbuilt’s, and Rockefeller’s. More important, we had a thriving middle class and enough money being generated to plow into things like rural electrification, urban poverty programs, good schools, free universities, and a decent social safety net.
It is no mystery that wealth inequality started to get really out of hand in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan went into the White House with three goals. First, invert the tax system and create loopholes so that the burden of taxation was on the middle class and low wage earners (in the form of sales, vice and use taxes as well as fees) not the wealthy. Second, to do away with workplace rules and regulations that were framed as “anti-employer.” And, third, destroy organized labor.
On the last goal, Reagan’s biggest victory was on August 5, 1981, when he fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, a move that decimated their union and showed organized labor that he would do whatever it took to crush them. Reagan pressed his victory and got Congress to pass legislation making it harder for unions to organize. He also weakened the Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Commission (who had a mixed relationship with unions), and seeded the judiciary with pro-business/anti-labor judges, something that led to decades of labor defeats.
Reagan’s second biggest anti-labor victory was turning people against unions so much so that the proud history of labor and how it benefited all Americans was nearly erased. Lefties might know that organize labor created the weekend and the 8-hour day, and ended child labor, but the average American is clueless. Names such as A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Big Bill Hayward are foreign to most people, even though every single one of those people is as important to American history as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, George Hearst, or Howard Hughes. Most Americans know unions from pro-business propaganda, not American history or even their family’s involvement with organized labor.
How successful was Reagan? In 1946, nearly 70% of workers were unionized. Today, it’s barely 10% and most of those workers are in the public sector. Things are changing though. Despite legal and legislative obstacles, low unemployment has made organizing conditions a bit easier. The past few years have seen a resurgence in labor organizing, especially among lower income workers and gig-employees. This activity has created a foundation for the agitation we see today.
Tomorrow, workers looking for safer working conditions, protective gear, sick pay, and better wages are going on strike. Please honor their picket lines. They are not only acting on their own behalf, they are striking for you. Please support them. While I write a lot about elections and the legislative process. Organizing in the work place is every bit as important – if not more so – as engaging in the political process. What we do at work makes up a lot of our day. What we earn at work is how we feed and house ourselves. The main way people get health care is through their work place benefits. How we live out our last years depend on what we earn today at work. Work matters but, even more so, labor matters.