U.S. labor’s new strategies for a new century

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.  (==Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.)

A class war is being waged in the United States, and American workers are losing.  For the past 50 years, labor unions, the only institutions whose specific purpose is to defend workers’ rights, have gone from defeat to defeat.

New Deal protections of labor rights have been taken away, one-by-one, through court decisions, anti-labor laws and non-enforcement of labor laws.   Republican politicians, with few exceptions, regard unions as hated

American business is increasingly a network of supply chains, franchises and “independent” contractors,” which are almost impossible to shut down through strikes.  As a result, labor union membership has steadily fallen.

Steven Greenhouse, who was a long-time labor reporter for the New York Times, describes the state of American labor in his new book, BEATEN DOWN, WORKED UP: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.   

He reviewed the history of U.S. labor’s rise and decline. but the most interesting parts of the book are his reports on successful tactics and strategies of today’s labor movement.

They often operate outside the framework of labor law. I’m not surprised or shocked that unions sometimes defy the law.  Employers routinely break the law, in firing workers for belonging to unions, for example, or not paying workers for all hours worked.

They often bypass being certified as bargaining agents by the National Labor Relations Board or asking for legally-enforceable contracts.   Instead their power comes from their own solidarity and power.

They found allies in the broader community.  They used unconventional tactics.  Saul Alinsky would admire many of today’s labor leaders.  They didn’t confine themselves to strikes.  They organized boycotts, publicity campaigns, mass demonstrations and lawsuits—anything to inconvenience or embarrass their opponents.

But often when they won, management found they were better off treating their workers with respect than as enemies.

A large number of labor leaders and rank-and-file workers quoted by Greenhouse are immigrants, women and people of color.  I don’t think that’s affirmative-action reporting on his part.  It is the nature of today’s work force.

Here are some of the stories he told/


About 90 percent of fresh tomatoes in the USA are picked in Immokalee, Florida.  Tomato pickers historically worked long hours in the 90+ degree temperatures.

Women pickers were sexually harassed.  Pickers were often cheated of their wages.  A few were actually enslaved—held prisoner and forced to work without wages.

Farm workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which supposedly guarantees the right to organize unions.

In 1991, farmworker activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a coalition that did outreach and education.

The founding group included three Haitians  pickers who’d been peasant organizers in their own country, but were now refugees in the United States.

They followed the Latin American labor tradition of “popular education,” using classes and skits to teach about labor history, U.S. agribusiness and how to educate and organize.

In 1993, they carried out their first strike.  They won minor victories from different growers, but then decided to focus instead on Taco Bell, a principal buyer of tomatoes.  In 2001, they organized a national boycott of Taco Bell.  Twenty colleges barred Taco Bell from campus.

After a huge demonstration at Taco Bell’s 2005 stockholders’ meeting, the company agreed to adopt a code of conduct for its suppliers, which set standards for wages, benefits, working hours and employee safety and also to pay a penny a pound more for its Florida tomatoes.

Next the Coalition went after McDonald’s, which agreed to the same demands and also to create a monitoring system to make sure the tomato growers complied.  Other fast-food and grocery chains went along.  The Coalition is not legally a union and does not have any union contract, but it won anyhow.


A group of 40 fast-food workers met in New York City in August, 2012, to discuss complaints.  Some were paid $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage, after 10 years of work.  A woman said she was fired for eating a chicken nugget.  One man raised his arm to show burns, and everybody else had burns to show, too.

A month later, 75 workers met and decided the minimum they needed to live was $15 an hour—a goal that at that time seemed impossible.  McDonald’s franchises were so dispersed that it was impossible to close them through strikes.

Instead the workers engaged in low-intensity class warfare—walking off the job for short periods of time, just enough to inconvenience.

When they got nowhere, they resorted to sit-ins in mass demonstrations.  They made contact with workers overseas, resulting in a European Union investigation of McDonald’s for tax evasion, an anti-trust complaint by consumer groups in Italy, and charges by Brazilian unions of wage theft, health law violations and failure to pay unemployment compensation.

In the USA, McDonald’s workers in 19 cities filed complains with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)

McDonald’s management still received to budge.  So the “Fight for $15” was born, leading to huge rallies and predawn fast-food walkouts across the country.

The workers lacked union protection, and big corporations shelled out cash telling lawmakers that raising the wage would cause small businesses to collapse and result in economic disaster.

Nonetheless, the workers won. A wave of $15 an hour minimum wage laws swept the country, starting in Seattle and eventually reaching New York City.


Teacher strikes are illegal in most U.S. jurisdictions  Yet nearly 400,000 teachers went on strike in 2018, winning wage concessions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other places one might not expect a union to win.

For years, the public was told that teachers’ salaries were the cause of high taxes.  Teachers unions got around this by working with parents in formulating their contract proposals, so that they were seen to be bargaining not just for themselves, but for their students and their community

When the West Virginia teachers went on strike, for example, they were careful to make sure that students still got the lunches they would have got in school.

Other chapters tell of union movements that have won acceptance—the Los Angeles Movement for a New Economy, the Culinary Union in Las Vegas and the Kaiser Permanente health workers union—and the mutual benefits that resulted.

Still, these victories are not typical.  There are more like grass growing up through cracks in concrete.

Moreover, none of the victories that Greenhouse described were won against manufacturing companies, only against businesses and organizations that did not have the power to move operations overseas.

And while Greenhouse noted that American workers have fewer rights than workers in any other advanced industrial nation, other countries are moving in the same downward direction at the USA.  It is just that they are falling from a higher point and at a slower rate.

One thing I took away from reading Greenhouse’s book is a realization of how lucky I am.

I never had to work under conditions that were physically dangerous or harmful to my health.  I never had to work through pain and exhaustion for wages that were not enough to live on.  Nobody else in this still-rich nation should have to do so, either.

Worker compensation in the chart above has been indexed to inflation.  The Consumer Price Index has been revised a number of times, each time with the effect of making inflation seem less than under the previous formula.  If the original CPI had been used to measure inflation, it would indicate that workers did not even receive a 9.2 percent increase in buying power after 1973.



Upheaval in the U.S. workplace by Zephyr Teachout for Business Standard.

In Steven Greenhouse’s Latest, Workers Are Down But Not Defeated by Chris Wright for The Indypendent.

The Future for Labor by Sheila McClear for The New Republic.

Can unions rise again? A new book asks the question by Michael Hiltzik for the Los Angeles Times.

Trump’s Assault on Labor by Paul Prescod for Jacobin.

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