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A Look at the Challenges Facing the Labor Movement Today

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Two years ago, ten union leaders at the city’s Labor Day parade identified three main themes for the labor movement: solidarity, turning back attacks on workers, and convincing people of the value of unions.

“You can’t live in New York City off $15 an hour,” said Shaun D. Francois, president of AFSCME Local 372, which represents city school paraprofessionals and lunch workers.

Since then, Donald Trump, the president most hostile to labor in the past 80 years, has been voted out. But the union movement, Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson told LaborPress at the 2019 parade, still needs to break down “massive, growing inequality,” persistent racism and sexism, and the attitude that “if my neighbor has a good union job, to pull them down.”

Most of local unions’ more specific concerns remain, too. For the building trades, it was “the encroachment of nonunion developers,” said Mike McGuire of the Mason Tenders District Council. A recent exception is that Laborers Local 79 reached a deal with a leading affordable-housing developer to do four jobs with union labor. 

Leaders of postal workers’ and state employees’ unions called understaffing, outsourcing, and privatization their main problems. The COVID-19 pandemic also showed how critical staffing is for health-care workers. Nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts have been on strike for almost six months to demand safer staffing minimums. Last year, the chain that owns the hospital furloughed nurses at the peak of the pandemic.

“Climate change,” 1199SEIU secretary-treasurer Maria Castaneda declared. This summer’s plague of wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes would seem to prove her prophetic.

The SEIU is the largest union supporting the Green New Deal, which is currently less a legislative package than a set of principles: Global warming will lead to global catastrophe; massive social change is needed to stop it; and that transition should create good jobs, not destroy them. But many of the unions representing workers in energy, from building natural-gas pipelines to mining coal, are skeptical that there’d be enough jobs like constructing wind-power farms to be adequate replacements.

The Teamsters, however, got their main wish in March, when President Joseph Biden’s economic-recovery package included the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Relief Act. It will protect the more than one million retirees and workers in severely underfunded multiemployer pension plans, primarily in trucking and mining.

Ultimately, said LeRoy Barr of the United Federation of Teachers, workers have a human right to “live a respectable life when you work, and have a respectable life when you retire.”

Making that kind of economic justice happen will take power. “Organizing the unorganized” is the way to build that power, said Castaneda, and repealing “all the laws that are preventing workers from organizing” would help. 

The PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize), passed by the House in March, would do much of that. It would repeal the 1947 federal law that lets states enact “right to work for less” laws that ban the union shop, prohibit companies like Amazon from forcing workers to sit through hours of anti-union propaganda, and end the federal ban on “secondary boycotts” — for example, that plumbers and carpenters can’t walk off a job to protest an ironwork contractor underpaying its workers. 

It will face a Republican filibuster in the Senate, though. Sen. Joseph Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key Democratic swing vote, endorsed the bill in April, but he continues to oppose eliminating the filibuster. 

Workers are also increasingly up against financial behemoths like Amazon and Uber. In Brookwood, Alabama, coal miners are on strike trying to win back pay cuts from a company owned mainly by formula-driven investment funds. The Worcester, Massachusetts nurses are striking against Tenet Healthcare, a chain that owns 65 hospitals and more than 450 smaller facilities. 

Tenet could “certainly afford to do the right thing,” nurse Marie Ritacco told LaborPress in July, but “it’s not about money for them. It’s about control and power.”

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