Letter from America: New Kinds of Worker Militancy

Peter Frase, New York, February 2023

My last visit to Scotland coincided with May Day 2022, and it’s always a pleasure for an American socialist to experience the workers’ day in another country. Despite having its origins in the 19th Century US labor movement, May Day in the States has long had the status of a subcultural holiday, celebrated mainly by the small groups of the socialist and anarchist Left. (Our mainstream labor movement instead observes Labor Day in September, which tends to emphasize solidarity more in the form of backyard barbecues than political marches.)

Of course, Scotland is hardly an exception to the general decline of the labor movement in the rich countries, and so the marches were perhaps not on the scale one might have seen in earlier times. The Edinburgh march in particular, in contrast to the one in Glasgow, reminded me more of an American-style socialist family reunion than a show of strength by a confident labor movement. But in Scotland and the USA alike, there are signs of life. In both the UK and US, workers are striking in greater numbers than they have in many years. According to a new report from Cornell University’s Worker Institute, there were 52 percent more work stoppages in the US last year than the year before, involving 60 percent more workers.

In the US, however, the overall picture of labor’s health is more mixed than these numbers might suggest. In 2022, despite all the strikes and a wave of new organizing, the government Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of US workers represented by labor unions grew by only 200,000. This failed to keep pace with the growing labor force, leading the unionized share of the workforce to fall to 11.3 percent, yet another all time low in the long decline of US labor since its 1950s heights. The situation in the private sector is particularly dire, with unionized workers now making up only a 6.8 percent share.

Nevertheless, the increase in strikes suggests a renewed militancy, and one that is coming from outside labor’s traditional strongholds. In April 2022, the independent Amazon Labor Union won a shocking victory at an Amazon warehouse in New York, the first time one of the company’s’ US warehouse had been successfully unionized, despite repeated efforts by more established unions. Service employees at places like Starbucks, and tech employees at major game companies, are among those who have begun to unionize for the first time.

The previous era of union strength may have been concentrated in manufacturing, but today most of the new organizing is concentrated in services, and most of the militancy has been happening in the public and non-profit sectors. According to the same Cornell report cited above, 80 percent of strikes in the United States in 2022 occurred in education and health care. The changing nature of the working class and its leading elements has brought forth sharp debate on the Left, over just how to understand an upsurge in militancy from workers who may in many cases hold professional degrees. In a recent exchange on the website of Jacobin magazine, Matt Karp and Chris Maisano debated Karp’s account of so-called ‘class dealignment’, in which the traditional association between the working class and the Democratic Party is supposedly breaking down as workers move to the right and the Democrats appeal increasingly to the affluent.

In response to Karp, Maisano argues that the dealignment thesis suffers from a narrow and somewhat mis-specified notion of class. If one concentrates on education as a marker of class (as is common among bourgeois social scientists), then it does appear that voters with less education have shifted in a conservative direction. But over the past few generations, a college education has gone from an elite credential to a mass one–in the 1960s, barely 40 percent of Americans graduated from high school, while today 63 percent have at least some post-secondary education, and 38 percent hold a four year university degree.

Given these facts, along with the long decline in manufacturing and other traditional ‘blue collar’ occupations, it is hardly surprising that labor militancy is coming from new kinds of workers, with different kinds of backgrounds.

All of this is not to say, however, that more traditional sectors of organized labor have been rendered irrelevant. Drivers and warehouse workers for UPS, organized with the venerable International Brotherhood of Teamsters, are preparing for the expiration of their contract and a potential strike this year, which would be easily the biggest the US has seen since the last UPS strike, when 185,000 workers across the country walked off the job for 15 days in 1997. A UPS strike today would involve 350,000 workers, more than the total number of workers who went on strike anywhere in the country in 2022.

What is happening at UPS can’t be separated from the broader ferment among workers, however. It was only in 2021 that reformers within the Teamsters finally succeeded in electing a reform leadership, displacing the conservative and compromising regime that had persisted for decades under Jimmy Hoffa and his son James, with only a brief respite in the 1990s. If the current stirrings are to be more than a false dawn for labor, it will be through some combination of revitalizing the traditional labor base and expanding it to new areas, while tapping into the anger of a younger generation that has become more receptive to unions as they have become disillusioned with the ruthless exploitation of contemporary capitalism and its false promises of individual success through hard work.

Peter Frase lives and writes in New York’s Hudson Valleey, where he organises with the Democratic Socialists of America. He is the author of Four Futures.