Can Unions Surge in Post-Pandemic America?

Millions of generally ignored workers are now hailed as heroes. But it will take millennial-led militance to translate this newfound esteem into palpable gains.

An Article written for The American Prospect by Professor Ruth Milkman,  professor of sociology and labor studies at the City University of New York, and author of the forthcoming ‘Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat’ and other books.

Full Article The American Prospect :  CLICK HERE


During the 40 years that I’ve been writing about labor issues, obituaries for the American union movement have been a perennial, punctuated by occasional moments of optimism, like the one inspired by the massive teachers strikes two years ago. Ten years earlier, in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and Barack Obama’s election victory, many observers (myself included) made fools of ourselves with rosy predictions of imminent union resurgence. Instead, organized labor’s main political goal, the Employee Free Choice Act, went down to ignominious defeat in 2009, and union density soon resumed its relentless downward spiral.

While labor’s high hopes soured into bitter disappointment, a new generation of young activists launched Occupy Wall Street in 2011, firmly planting the issue of growing inequality on the nation’s political agenda. Occupy itself proved short-lived, but it did help to ignite the SEIU-sponsored Fight for $15, a campaign that boosted the pay of low-wage workers more than any effort in recent memory. Millennial-generation Occupy veterans also began to enter the labor movement, infusing it with new ideas and energy. Yet unions remained on the sidelines, battening down the hatches as their membership numbers continued to hemorrhage.

Entering the labor market during the 2008 crash and the ensuing Great Recession, many millennials were radicalized. But the present economic downturn is already far more severe, recalling the 1930s in the massive scale of the unemployment and business closings (and there are more to come). The crisis is compared daily to the Great Depression; the metaphor of war is equally commonplace.

Could it pave the way to a new union upsurge like the one that emerged in the New Deal era? Or will we instead see a reprise of the post-2008 “back to normalcy” Obama-Biden regime, if Trump is defeated in November?

If Trump is defeated in November, when the economy will surely still be in the doldrums, there will be a historic political opening for progressive reforms.

The labor movement was on life support in 1932, just as it is today. Union density was in the single digits, and economic inequality had reached unprecedented levels, then as now. Yet workers were beginning to stir, with help from the “Old Left” generation of radicals and progressives and with increased sympathy from a public shocked by the economic crisis. Today, workers are also on the move as the pandemic unfolds. This spring, teachers’ threats of lawsuits and sickouts sped the closure of the New York City public schools by a reluctant mayor. Flight attendants campaigned successfully to demand that the airline industry’s federal bailout be conditioned on maintaining pay for the industry’s workers. Bus drivers took direct action to eliminate fares for the pandemic’s duration and to protect themselves from infection at the same time. Nurses—already increasingly militant before the crisis and now widely celebrated as heroes—protested shortages of personal protective equipment and testing for frontline health care workers.

From Amazon warehouses to McDonald’s restaurants, from supermarkets to Instacart, walkouts demanding safety improvements are making national headlines. Factory workers, too, are pressuring employers to close plants down and keep them closed unless and until they are sanitized thoroughly.

Some of these efforts have been led by unions (the nurses and flight attendants have been especially visible), others by alt-labor groups like Athena (a coalition effort targeting Amazon), and still others by rank-and-file activists. At the same time, many unions—already habituated to a defensive crouch long before the pandemic—are facing unimaginable challenges, even by the standards of the Trump era. Some 90 percent of UNITE HERE members have been laid off or furloughed as the hospitality industry has collapsed. That is an extreme case, to be sure, but the sad reality is that many unions are focused on simply trying to survive the crisis. Yet frontline workers’ contributions and challenges in the face of the pandemic have won the hearts and minds of the public, signaling a growing appetite for workplace justice. Indeed, even with Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate, unprecedented (if still too limited) expansions of worker-friendly public policies like increased unemployment compensation have been rolled out.

Whatever else transpires once the crisis abates, it will not be easy to simply erase all this progress. The pandemic also has exposed as never before the need for single-payer health care and has deepened public awareness of soaring economic inequality.

Historically, organized labor has been an exceptionally powerful bulwark against inequality. It is no accident that the “Great Compression” of the mid–20th century was also the era of peak union density. Conversely, the erosion of unionism since the 1970s contributed mightily to widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in that period, as is well documented.

But in sharp contrast to inequality, which tends to rise steadily over time in capitalist societies, as Thomas Piketty argued in his 2013 best-seller, unionism does not grow incrementally but in giant spurts. Piketty showed that inequality has only been successfully countered in periods of deep crisis, like massive depressions and world wars. He failed to note, however, that such crises are also associated with labor movement growth spurts.

Piketty also observed that the 2008 crash failed to arrest the growth of inequality, while suggesting that a deeper crisis might do so:

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, inequalities of wealth that had supposedly disappeared are close to regaining or even surpassing their historical highs … Can we imagine a twenty-first century in which capitalism will be transcended in a more peaceful and more lasting way, or must we simply await the next crisis or the next war (this time truly global)?

Historian Walter Scheidel has advanced a similar thesis, but with a broader historical sweep that stretches back into pre-capitalist times. Crucially, he added pandemics (along with wars and revolutions) to the list of apocalyptic events that have sparked challenges to inequality in the past. His prototypical case is the Black Death of the 1300s, which shifted the balance between capital and labor in Europe to favor workers. Although he cautions that such an outcome is never automatic, Scheidel sees today’s pandemic as a moment of opportunity.

If Trump is defeated in November, when the economy will surely still be in the doldrums, there will be a historic political opening for progressive reforms like those that Piketty and Scheidel suggest. But the lesson of 2008 is that the opportunity will be squandered unless it is the focus of intense bottom-up pressure from progressive labor and social movements. This would likely be true no matter who the new president might be, but the disappointments of the Obama years have cast an especially long shadow over the presumptive Democratic nominee.

That brings us back to the new generation of radical activists that emerged in the wake of the Great Recession. First surfacing in movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, millennial activists (now joined by even younger Gen-Zers) went on to fuel the Sanders campaign and the resurgent Democratic Socialists of America. Their growing presence in the labor movement has attracted less attention, but they have begun to make their mark there, too, as key leaders in the 2018 teachers strikes as well as in recent unionization drives among journalists and adjunct faculty. They are also prominent in alt-labor groups and in the (non-union) organizing efforts of tech workers. While many older unionists are in the grips of a siege mentality fostered by decades of anti-union attacks, the new generation of activists brings a more optimistic outlook. That they are “digital natives” with legendary skills in organizing through social media only adds to their potential to become the leaders of any future labor upsurge, especially in the face of a pandemic that rules out more conventional forms of mobilization.

Predictions are a hazardous business. My favorite example comes from 1932, when the president of the American Economic Association, George Barnett, authoritatively declared that “American trade unionism is slowly being limited in influence by changes which destroy the basis on which it is erected … I see no reason to believe that American trade unionism will … become in the next decade a more potent social influence.” Three years later, the National Labor Relations Act became law, and soon after that came the greatest union upsurge in U.S. history. We can’t count on a repeat performance, but if this is in the cards for 2021, the new generation of young activists is poised to play a leading role.


 APRIL 29, 2020