Right Now Is the Most Exciting Moment to Join the Labor Movement in Decades

This May Day, don’t hang your head for the labor movement’s defeat. US unions are weak, it’s true. But there’s more excitement, more of a spirit of militancy and experimentation, and more hope in today’s labor movement than there has been in a long time.

A demonstrator during an Amazon Labor Union rally outside an Amazon warehouse in the Staten Island, New York, on April 11, 2023. (Paul Frangipane / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Last week, Shawn Fain, the newly elected president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) traveled from Detroit to Washington, DC, to meet with Sean O’Brien, who won in an upset over James P. Hoffa’s chosen successor to take the helm of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The same week, the Teamsters announced that they had organized a union of Amazon delivery drivers in California and negotiated the first tentative union contract of Amazon workers in the United States (though what followed is complicated), and workers voted to unionize their 1,100-person workplace at logistics giant DHL.

Also last week: the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) went to federal court seeking an injunction to reinstate fired Starbucks worker Jaysin Saxton, and the board wants a nationwide cease and desist order against Starbucks for firing union supporters. Workers at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble filed an NLRB petition for a union election; they are not the first location to do so. Some 5,700 graduate students at Stanford University also filed with the NLRB, the largest union election petition of the year thus far; University of Minnesota graduate students won a union by a landslide, with 2,487 votes in favor of unionizing and a mere 70 against; and University of Michigan graduate students continued to strike even in the face of police harassment and arrests.

That’s a far from comprehensive look at the US labor movement activity last week, but it is a revealing snapshot of contemporary working-class organization on May Day 2023. The reform movements in both the UAW and the Teamsters, while each distinct in their character, have the wind at their backs. And while union leaders tend to use fiery rhetoric no matter what their actual plans may be, all signs suggest that the two unions, representing a powerful set of manufacturing and logistics workers, are starting to change the way they operate.

Both unions are also preparing to negotiate their largest contracts and vowing to strike if necessary. The Teamsters’ nearly 350,000-worker contract with the United Parcel Service (UPS) expires on July 31, and the UAW’s 150,000-worker contract with the Big Three automakers expires on September 14. As newly elected UAW Region 9A director Brandon Mancilla put it at a recent New York fundraiser for the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, “United, the entire labor movement is going to get what we deserve.”

Another agenda item for the reformers both in the UAW and the Teamsters is new organizing in workplaces where a lack of unions not only means low wages for those workers but also poses an existential threat for their unionized counterparts. At the UAW, the priority is electric vehicle (EV) plants, which automakers have largely managed to keep nonunion; where workers have unionized EV plants, they still receive lower wages and less benefits than the majority of workers covered by the union’s Big Three master contract.

For the Teamsters, the priority is Amazon. While the Palmdale, California, delivery workers are the first formal bargaining unit to result from the Teamsters’ vow to organize the tech behemoth, the coming year will likely see new unions emerge — and not only among delivery drivers but at warehouses or Amazon’s smaller delivery stations, too. The Teamsters cannot evade the challenge of organizing Amazon, no matter how complicated it may be, or the company’s nonunion drivers will continue to undercut the union’s hard-won compensation and standards.

More generally, Amazon organizing has hit foreseeable walls. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which won an NLRB union election at JFK8, a massive warehouse in Staten Island, New York, has not yet forced Amazon to the bargaining table. The union has suffered setbacks elsewhere, too, losing NLRB elections at LDJ5 (a smaller warehouse next to JFK8) and ALB1 (a warehouse in upstate New York) and withdrawing an election petition at ONT8 (in Moreno Valley, California). No other existing unions have filed for an NLRB election at an Amazon warehouse after the loss in Bessemer, Alabama.

As for other new organizing that has inspired workers across the country and captured public attention, it continues apace: campaigns at Chipotle, Ben & Jerry’s, REI, Trader Joe’s, and Apple. So, too, does organizing in higher education and health care. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the key force behind Brandon Johnson’s win in the Chicago mayoral election was the Chicago Teachers Union. But new organizing, particularly in the almost entirely nonunion private sector (2022 unionization rate: 6 percent) faces the same obstacle as JFK8 and Starbucks workers: retaliatory firings and employers’ refusal to bargain.

How can workers not only force employers to the bargaining table but win a first contract? No one has an easy answer. Those on the Left of the labor movement often speak of strikes for recognition as a more militant means of forcing an employer to stop fighting unionization, but some workers, especially those at Starbucks, have been striking to reinstate fired coworkers and to pressure the company to come to the bargaining table, too. While they’ve had some success in the former aim, there is little progress thus far in the latter. The coffee giant continues systematically violating labor law, going so far as to fire several union supporters, including one who many consider the union campaign’s founder, a mere two days after Howard Schultz testified at a Senate hearing chaired by Bernie Sanders, the title of which was “No Company Is Above the Law: The Need to End Illegal Union Busting at Starbucks.” Who will stop them?

Bernie Sanders speaks next to Chris Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union, during a rally in Staten Island, New York, on April 24, 2022. (Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine what it will take to force Amazon to sit down across a bargaining table with the ALU — a spate of new organizing campaigns at other Amazon facilities, paired with a credible strike threat at JFK8, at the very least.

And there’s another concerning trend. Conservatives are engaged in a campaign that uses bigotry to accelerate the decimation of public sector unions. The strategy is most obvious in the wave of book bans and more general hysteria over the possibility that teachers and librarians might reveal to students that there is such a thing as being gay or trans or black, banning discussion of “identity politics” and “critical race theory,” both of which are rarely defined. Such fearmongering works as a wedge, a way in to stripping workers of funding, union security, and workplace democracy.

It is an attack on unions and the public sector in general. This is made explicit by many of the strategy’s architects. As Kelly Craft, a Republican candidate for Kentucky governor, put it in a bizarre campaign ad that features purple-haired “woke bureaucrats” parachuting into a public school to force students to learn about pronouns, “I will dismantle the Kentucky Department of Education.”

Will the heightened interest in union organizing, particularly among young people (and especially among those who supported Bernie Sanders, some of whom are at the heart of the biggest labor stories of the past few years) translate into a revival of working-class organization, a reining in of capital’s near-absolute rule? Will we figure out how to surmount the obstacles to organizing so that some of the millions of Americans who say that they want to join a union have an opportunity to do so? Can a militant spirit among the rank and file and reformer leadership at the top reverse the decline in the UAW and the Teamsters, much less transform them into leaders of working-class movements more broadly?

We can’t know unless we try. Fortunately, as I often tell younger socialists wondering how best to contribute to the Left, never in my life has there been a more exciting time to devote oneself to building working-class self-organization. And it’s been a long time since the US labor movement was this open to experimentation. Plus, don’t forget: film and television writers nationwide are poised to strike as soon as tomorrow. If you want to form your own opinions about the state of the US labor movement, walking a picket line is a good place to start.