The US Labor Movement Notched Some Impressive Victories in 2022

The American labor movement remains weak. But from the sweeping Starbucks unionization drive to UAW reformers’ successful bid for union leadership, there were serious glimmers of hope in 2022 for a stronger, more assertive labor movement.

In the face of inflation and short staffing, we demanded bigger paychecks and more time for our lives outside of work. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Was it the pandemic? Was it new disasters from climate change? Was it the fact that employers are still begging for more workers?

Whatever it was, workers were ready to throw down this year. In the face of inflation and short staffing, we demanded more money in our paychecks and more time for our lives outside of work. We organized; we even exercised our strike muscles. And crucially, union members stood up to demand more from their unions and their leaderships.

Workers overturned a lot of conventional wisdom in 2022.

Small shops are supposed to be nearly impossible to organize, yet it was just a year ago that Starbucks workers in Buffalo won their union election, followed by 266 other stores around the country — more than seven thousand workers. Slower than that breakneck pace but still fast by any other standard, the NewsGuild has organized 145 shops — another seven thousand workers — in the past five years.

Similarly, most organizers would say it’s foolish to hold a National Labor Relations Board election with less than 60 percent of the workforce signing union authorization cards (some would say 70 percent). But organizers of the Amazon Labor Union looked at the high turnover at their eight-thousand-worker Staten Island warehouse and decided to go for it after they got the legally required minimum, 30 percent. They sent Amazon corporate scrambling and sent shock waves through corporate boardrooms when they won in April.

Democratic reformers within their unions floored everyone — not least the sleepwalking incumbents. In the United Auto Workers, the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) caucus, formed in 2019, has notched amazing wins in its short existence.

Last December, UAWD activists won their one member, one vote campaign so that members could elect the top union officers. Then members used their new voting power to end the seven-decade tenure of the Administration Caucus, which was tainted by recent corruption scandals — not to mention the ongoing scandal of rolling over to concessions like two-tier contracts.

It’s not time for a victory lap yet — the presidency goes to a runoff in January. Reformers are gearing up for what could be a tough last mile now that they’ve lost the element of surprise.

We may see more of this soon. Members of the 1.3 million–strong Food and Commercial Workers are also demanding more from their international union. Reformers centered in the group Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW will bring resolutions to their convention in April for coordinated bargaining and a $100 million investment in new organizing to counter low pay and fractured schedules for the union’s 835,000 grocery members.

They also want one member, one vote for top officers, like the Teamsters and now the Auto Workers have. Grocery companies are posting the highest profits since the 1980s, but apart from brief hazard pay during the height of the pandemic, store workers have seen few gains.

Last year’s big news in union reform was the victory of a reform slate in the Teamsters. The new leadership is gearing up for the UPS contract in the coming year, covering 340,000 workers.

Teamster locals are also retooling — one of the biggest just elected new leadership. Local 135 has 14,000 members, mostly in Indiana. Assisted by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, members tired of concessions organized to put up a slate of officers — “leaders that would mobilize the members to win the contract we deserve,” said UPS driver Corey Warren. The local now has two hundred members on strike at a MonoSol chemical products factory fighting forced overtime.

Meanwhile in Mexico, workers took some major steps forward in ousting the country’s long-dominant, corrupt “employer protection unions,” with autoworkers at a big General Motors plant in central Mexico forming an independent union in February. That win has inspired several other victories, including among 3M plant workers in San Luis Potosí, who make everything from Post-its to N95 masks, and workers at a VU Manufacturing auto parts plant on the border who produce armrests and door upholstery for Nissan, Tesla, and the Big Three.

Strikes Worked

The year started with Massachusetts nurses approving a contract at St Vincent’s Hospital, owned by the giant for-profit chain Tenet, after a ten-month strike. Tenet owns sixty hospitals and was testing its ability to permanently replace strikers and bust the union — spending an estimated $50 million on the effort — but the nurses held out and won guaranteed nurse-to-patient ratios, no concealed weapons in the hospital, and limits to “just-in-time” policies that had allowed managers to send nurses home mid-shift.

Minneapolis teachers struck in April and won a substantial raise for lower-paid educational support professionals. Like in many workplaces, the lower-paid staff are primarily people of color. They also won language to support retention of teachers of color, and increased hiring of counselors, nurses, and librarians, and they got class-size limits into the contract for the first time — though the caps are too high, teachers said.

In May, teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts, won after a one-day strike when a thousand descended on city hall. Striking is illegal for public workers in Massachusetts, though that also didn’t stop them — nor did it stop teachers in nearby Haverhill and Malden from walking out in October.

In September, Philadelphia Museum of Art workers struck after management had dragged its feet for two years. They won a first contract after a nineteen-day strike.

And in November, forty-eight thousand academic workers in the University of California system kicked off the largest US strike of the year.

A credible threat of strikes worked too. An illegal two-day strike by fifty-five thousand education workers in Ontario backed down the province’s premier from an egregious union-busting bill when many more unions joined in a plan for a general strike in November.

Work Fast, Work Sick

A common theme of labor struggles this year was dangerously long hours. Companies laid people off during COVID and never hired enough back to do the job.

Airlines used federal COVID relief money to buy out experienced pilots, and now they’re running so lean that, in the words of American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer, carriers are “trying to sell tickets for flights [they] can’t rationally provide to our passengers.” Fatigue calls — where pilots refuse to fly because they’re too tired — are up fivefold, and on some days tenfold.

Railroad carriers slashed nearly a third of the workforce over six years, so it’s no wonder they’re fighting so hard against paid sick leave for those who remain. Every sick call disrupts their fragile scheduling regime. This is one reason the carriers pushed hard for the government to impose a contract that not only has no paid sick days but also allows managers to punish workers for calling in sick — an alarming policy.

“The railroad is not a place to work while you’re sick,” a recent Maintenance of Way (BMWED) statement noted. “It’s dangerous. It requires full concentration, situational awareness, and decision-making. Because carrier management decided to egregiously reduce [the] workforce, it’s more dangerous than ever, and the onus of that rests with them.”

Other workplaces were already understaffed, and the grueling schedules mean new hires won’t stick around. A leaked memo from Amazon this summer showed that management is worried that, in a couple more years, it will literally run out of people to hire. Every potential Amazon worker will already know how bad it sucks — cause they worked there and left.

Dangerously long shifts are also a factor at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama, where miners have been on strike since April 1, 2021. The company was requiring twelve-hour shifts, with no premium pay when the company took their weekends.

In California and Hawaii, therapists and social workers in the National Union of Health Care Workers struck in August to force Kaiser to hire enough staff to allow them time to actually help patients. Suicidal or addicted patients seeking help were waiting six to eight weeks for a follow-up appointment.

“After COVID, it’s so much. We’re gambling with people’s lives,” said Kim Hollingsworth Horner, a member of the bargaining committee. They won additional time with pediatric patients, while California’s legislature mandated no more than a ten-day wait for patients.

For teachers, the speedup takes the form of too large classes. Seattle Teachers struck for a week in September to try to get the classes down to a reasonable size (not forty-four students!).

The district tried to use its plan to integrate students with disabilities into general education classrooms — an equity goal the union supported — as an excuse to cut staff. Remaining teachers and paraprofessionals would be too overwhelmed to make it work. And while the district was talking equity, the strikers said, what about raising paraprofessional pay?

Tiers on Trial

Solidarity-wrecking two-tier was on trial this year. It’s hard to get new workers excited about the union when the contract puts them in a permanent second-class category, whether that be a lower tier of wages, no pension, worse benefits, or no overtime protections.

How would you like to work alongside someone with a better contract? How would you like to have a target on your back as a more expensive top-tier worker?

Yet unions have allowed two-tier to creep into postal contracts, higher education, manufacturing, and logistics. Employers love it because they know it saps our unity, it gives the union a bad name, and it’s only a matter of time before the whole workforce is on the second (or third) tier.

Last year, strikers at John Deere and Kellogg’s made it an issue. This year, the Auto Workers reform slate made rolling back two-tier concessions central to its winning election campaign.

And in June, 550 housekeepers at the University of Pennsylvania — 250 of them stuck on the bottom tier — organized to get everyone on the same scale and won! They’re members of Teamsters Local 215, but the leadership of the local wasn’t much help.

“They told us we would never get rid of the two-tier system: ‘It’s in all our contracts, shut up about it.’ But we abolished it in one shop,” said housekeeper Jawuan Thomas.

The big showdown on two-tier is coming next year at UPS, where the new Teamsters top leadership has vowed to fight to abolish it.

Inspiring Each Other

UAW members manufacturing Case and New Holland farm and construction equipment went on strike in May in Ohio and Wisconsin. They’re protesting a three-tier contract, along with excessive overtime. So far, the company is stonewalling. Strikers say the successful five-week John Deere strike inspired them.

Approval of unions in the United States, pollsters tell us, has gone from a low of 48 percent, in 2009, to 71 percent today, the highest since 1965. Something’s in the air.

Starbucks and Amazon victories have inspired new organizing at Trader Joe’s, REI, Target, Chipotle, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Apple stores.

After Buffalo Starbucks workers won their union election, “we just started getting flooded with emails and direct messages on social media saying, ‘We’re so inspired, how can we do it here?’” recalled Buffalo barista Casey Moore.

New organizing is inspiring more new organizing, and this is one reason corporate America is trying to avoid the next step: signing a contract.

Union members can help build this renaissance of new organizing by turning out for strikes and the like — but also, even more importantly, by fighting to make our own unions more militant and effective.

As Martha Gruelle and the late Mike Parker wrote in the Labor Notes book Democracy Is Power, “The union has to deliver in the workplaces of the already organized,” so the labor movement has, in effect, millions of organizers, “millions of workers who tell their friends . . . they’d be crazy not to join a union.” Labor has taken strides in that direction this year.