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Organized Labor Is Rising

I have a soft spot for the United Auto Workers. When I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, we were trying to organize graduate employees, but the university had taken us to court arguing that our employment was a form of financial aid and not subject to collective bargaining laws. The UAW was paying our legal bills, which we could never have afforded, and we eventually won the case. Today the Graduate Employees Organization is a strong union in the vanguard of organizing on campuses around the country.

In other respects, though, the UAW struggled for decades, part of a general decline in unionization, especially in the private sector. Since the 1980s, unions have been under assault as federal protections have been shredded, companies have adopted concerted anti-union practices, and jobs have either gone overseas or shifted to right-to-work states. New leadership has reinvigorated the UAW, however, and their recent, successful strikes against the Big Three automakers are perhaps another sign that the fortunes of organized labor are turning around.

The strategy of the UAW under Shawn Fain was brilliantly conceived, and what was most striking about it for me was the way they highlighted the huge gap that had grown between the wages of workers and the compensation of executives. A growing outrage over the massive economic inequality in this country is fueling a mood of militancy among workers. It is no coincidence that the rise of inequality has gone hand-in-hand with the decline of unions. Organized labor enjoyed its heyday in the decades after World War II, and that was also the time when millions of workers attained a middle-class status.

Unions are fighting for more than better wages, however. Technological change poses a threat to auto workers with the spread of EVs, and out in Hollywood, writers and actors are similarly agitated over the impact of AI and the rise of streaming services. Their unions have worked hard to ensure that their members don’t get left behind by those changes.

Worker shortages have also been a provocation. Teachers and nurses are rising up to protest conditions that are causing massive burnout in those professions. Amazon workers are taking on that behemoth in an effort to address the grueling pace in their warehouses. As I write this, workers at Starbucks are striking to protest the shortage of help during promotions like Red Cup Giveaway Day.

As employers scramble to fill vacancies, young, educated workers no longer buy into the notion that they should be happy just to have a job. They are not fooled when companies engage in union-busting despite their progressive image. Workers have gone on strike at the Maple Grove REI, and even my beloved Trader Joe’s is facing an organizing drive.

Democrats need to stand in solidarity with workers, as Joe Biden did with the auto workers. Too many workers feel abandoned and hear the siren song of Trumpism, and they need to see who their real friends are. Under DFL control, the Minnesota legislature passed legislation this year that supports working families, protects worker health and safety, and safeguards their rights. At the federal level, passing the PRO Act would go a long way toward leveling the playing field between management and labor, but it faces stiff Republican opposition.

When unions were strong, they did more than just win better contracts for their members. Unions also did political education and helped to secure the support of blue-collar workers for the Democratic party. In their absence, workers have been prey to the false promises and pseudo-populism of Donald Trump. Supporting organized labor is good for workers, good for the country, and good for the Democratic party. Unions are having a good year, but there is still a long way to go before real economic democracy puts the plutocrats in their place.

Paul Harris

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