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America is On Strike

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The Railroad Strike, Nurses Strike, and Labor Unions

The Railroad strike, nurses strike, and labor unions have been in the news a lot lately. Across the country, workers are rising up and demanding better from their companies and industries. Is America in the midst of a new labor movement?

On Thursday morning, news broke that a massive railroad strike would likely be avoided when the Biden administration brokered a deal between freight rail companies and labor union representatives. The strike would have caused major backups in the supply chain.

Food, chemicals for water treatment, and other critical goods would have been prevented from reaching their destinations. This would have caused, among other things, shortages on store shelves and soaring prices in a time of already crippling inflation

Other recent US strikes have involved nurses, mental health care workers, teachers, and factory workers. On top of that, unionization efforts by Starbucks and Amazon warehouse employees have captured the attention of the media. And don’t forget that in 2019, Everlane employees attempted to unionize, too.

Looking at all the striking and unionizing being done in recent months and years in the United States, one might wonder whether the labor movement is having a resurgence

Table of Contents

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The Rising Power of Labor Unions

In the case of the potential freight rail strike, workers were seeking relief from intense scheduling and strict attendance policies. In the recent negotiations, workers won the right to attend medical appointments without penalty, though they will still not receive paid leave for medical absences such as doctor’s appointments and hospitalizations.

The Minnesota Nurses Association led a three-day strike starting Monday, September 12 in St. Paul-Minneapolis and Duluth hospitals. Surprisingly, the nurses are not on strike for better pay or benefits, but rather for better working conditions and the ability to provide the type of care they believe would be best for their patients.

In medical systems, concerns about profitability and the burden of the pandemic have made working conditions increasingly unbearable for medical personnel. And nurses bear a big part of the burden. They are often over-scheduled and given an unmanageable number of patients.

Like the railroad workers, nurses want policies supporting better work-life balance and less intense scheduling. The striking nurses believe alleviating staffing shortages and allowing nurses to rest will be better for patients as well.

Both the potential railroad strike and the nurses’ strike are evidence of a trend in which workers are striking for better working conditions rather than just better compensation.

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A History of Labor Activism

Labor Activism in the Early Twentieth Century

Labor activism has a long history in the United States, dating back to the colonial era (before the US was technically the US). In 1648, shoemakers and coopers (barrel-makers) organized into guilds in Boston. In 1741, what was possibly the first work stoppage in America occurred when New York bakers quit baking to protest the local government setting the price of bread.

Labor activism accelerated during the Industrial Revolution and into the Gilded Age, which saw the birth of massive corporations and private fortunes built on the backs of underpaid and overworked laborers.

Laborers, including coal miners and factory workers, organized and striked, often in the face of brutal, and even deadly, retaliation. Labor organizations have often been at the forefront of women’s rights, immigrant rights, and racial equality, even as worker unity has often been plagued by the ideologies of patriarchy and white supremacy. 

Though labor unions are a polarizing topic today, labor unions and activists were a key part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition beginning in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression.

This coalition supported the government intervention in the economy Roosevelt orchestrated to help the US recover from the Depression and to reduce poverty and inequality. Labor unions and the labor movement entered the mid-twentieth century in a place of great strength.

Changing Attitudes Toward Labor Unions

In the early 1950s, one third of American workers were unionized. By 2012, it was only one tenth. By the 1970s, a globalizing economy had undercut American manufacturing. Cars, steel, electronics, clothing, and shoes were heavily imported. The effectiveness of American strikes diminished, as corporations threatened to move manufacturing overseas or to the American South, where unions were weaker.

Most American labor unions opposed Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980. Reagan embodied the new attitude of the 1970s and 1980s that favored deregulation and the free market, which included the ideal of freely moving and independent laborers. The culture was moving away from the labor movement.

In the past couple years or so, it seems like the culture may be moving back toward the labor movement, as evidenced by the recent strikes and unionization pushes. Labor shortages that were first sparked by the pandemic have given workers more power over the economy and employers. 

On top of that, approval of labor unions, even among Republicans, is trending upwards. A recent Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest approval rating Gallup has recorded since 1965.

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There has been little research on why union approval rises and falls, but some research has found that approval of unions ironically rises when workers feel most secure, such as in our current environment of low unemployment. This could be because, when unemployment is high, workers blame it on union overreach or resent union workers who are more secure or better off.

Union approval also tends to be higher when economic inequality seems higher. Our culture’s focus on economic anxiety is impossible to ignore. In fact, it strongly contributed to Bernie Sander’s, and even Donald Trump’s, ascents to political prominence. (Even though their proposed solutions were very different.)

But it’s contemporary leftist movements that have played a significant part in shifting the culture. In recent years, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders ran on pro-union platforms. Their campaigns brought grassroots union efforts to national prominence. And they normalized the idea of labor advocacy in ways we haven’t seen in decades.

Strikes and Labor Unions are on the Rise

Beginning with the Occupy Wall Street movement a little over a decade ago, people have been highlighting the excesses of billionaires and economy-dominating corporations.

People are calling for universal healthcare, student loan forgiveness, and other social programs funded by taxing the ultra rich. These concerns align really well with labor unions. After all, unions are designed to support workers demanding better conditions and better pay from wealthy corporations and their CEOs.

You are not imagining it: strikes and unionization efforts have increased in the United States, and approval of the labor movement has reached new highs since the mid-twentieth century.

In an economy with labor shortages, workers have more power to make demands. On top of that, inequality is surging and people are noticing.

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This article was written by Daniel Wise, Ph.D.

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