During this past year, all across the United States, there has been a surge in the number of labor strikes and protests, with over 900 occurring since January 2021. Why is this important? Why should workers join unions?
Unions are one example of workers engaging in class struggle against their employers in order to improve their working conditions. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) mention the following in their website underneath their membership page:
“It does not take long to figure out that workers and their employers do not have the same interests. Workers want shorter hours, higher pay and better benefits. We want our work to be less boring, less dangerous and less destructive to the environment. We want more control over how we produce goods and provide services. We want meaningful work that contributes to our communities and world.
“Our employers, in contrast, want us to work longer, harder, faster and cheaper. They want fewer safety and environmental regulations, and they demand absolute control over all decisions, work schedules, speech and actions in the workplace” — IWW
Historically, unions have fought for and won better wages, better hours, and safer working conditions for their workers; They ended child labor in the US, gave workers health and retirement benefits, and most importantly to some, unions gave us the 5 day work week and shortened the workday from upwards of 12 hours a day, to the standard 8 hours a day that we’ve all become accustomed to.
Before labor unions organized the workers to protest against their employers across the country and the globe, it was not uncommon for the average worker to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, in dangerous conditions that often injured or killed many of their coworkers, while working beside children as young as 10 years old, sometimes even younger.
This era was characterized by massive levels of income inequality. The US saw its first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, while the average annual income of American workers was $573 (around $18,622.70 adjusted for inflation). This period of time is commonly referred to as the Gilded Age because on a surface-level view our economy was booming — the rich kept getting richer — but underneath the shiny surface was a rotting underbelly in which millions were subjected to abject poverty.
That is, until workers started organizing into labor unions to fight back against the laissez-faire capitalist policies that were ravaging the country. They realized that an injury to one was an injury to all, and they decided to do something about the systematic mistreatment of their fellow coworkers.
In the 20 years before the turn of the century, strikes were so commonplace that over 100,000 workers went on strike every single year. To put that in perspective, accounting for the increase in population, that would be equivalent to nearly 900,000 workers striking every single year for better wages, hours, and working conditions overall.
This terrified the business owners and the politicians, so they worked together in order to destroy the labor movement with Right-to-Work (or more aptly, Right-to-Freeload) Laws, strikebreaking, and various other shady tactics.
Since the destruction of labor-power throughout the country, wages have stagnated compared to both inflation and productive power of the workers. This demonstrates that without unions fighting for the interests of workers, business owners stopped actually improving working conditions.
“Ask around on your next shift: How many coworkers have two or three jobs? How many are one paycheck away from an eviction? We have a duty to our co-workers and those who will follow in our footsteps to make things better. The only way to do this is to organize together.” — IWW
What can we do?
Thankfully, workers need not take this kind of mistreatment lying down. There are plenty of resources on the internet on websites of established labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also has a similar page on their website, where they say, simply, that "if a majority of workers wants to form a union, they can select a union in one of two ways: If at least 30% of workers sign cards or a petition saying they want a union, the NLRB will conduct an election. If a majority of those who vote choose the union, the NLRB will certify the union as your representative for collective bargaining."
The first and most important step towards forming a union — and towards building any social or political movement — is to talk to your fellow coworkers about the possibility, and discover any of the ways they feel they are not being treated fairly or valued in the workplace. When they inevitably complain, start introducing the idea of unionization in your workplace, try to get them to understand that the only way to improve their working conditions, wages, hours, etc. is through collective action in the hands of the workers.
DeSilver, D. (2020, July 27). U.S. income inequality, on rise for decades, is now highest since 1928. Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/05/u-s-income-inequality-on-rise-for-decades-is-now-highest-since-1928/.
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Paul, K. (2018, August 5). America's 1% hasn't controlled this much wealth since before the Great Depression. MarketWatch. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/wealth-inequality-in-the-us-is-almost-as-bad-as-it-was-right-before-the-great-depression-2018-07-19.
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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017, January 1). History of child labor in the United States-Part 1: Little Children Working : Monthly labor review. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2017/article/history-of-child-labor-in-the-united-states-part-1.htm.