In his article, “What this year’s labor strikes mean for America’s working class” at The Hill, Andy Levin, distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, adds clarity to current reporting about the dramatic increase in labor union strikes and other organized worker actions. As Levin writes, “It wasn’t too long ago that a working-class job, meant a middle-class life…. I grew up in Michigan in the 1970s, when some of us went off to college but many more went straight into factories, construction and other industries. My friends’ working-class jobs provided a type of stability and security that feels elusive in 2023….Even if there was only one parent working outside the home, families owned their houses. There was plenty of food. Health insurance covered illness or injury without the threat of bankruptcy. Our parents could buy us a bike and maybe even take us “Up North” on a little vacation. … But now, in Michigan and throughout the country, the type of working-class prosperity that surrounded me as a kid exists mostly in the memories of people my age or older….In the 20th century world I was born into, the American labor movement showed we could build a relatively inclusive economy in which work really paid by giving voice and power to workers in construction, manufacturing, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, transit, trucking and more. And while that world has eroded, now, in 2023, workers across the economy are showing us that this can be our future again.” Levin notes the impressive gains UPS Teamsters made as “the largest group of working people under one contract” and adds ‘Simply put, the UPS employees’ win for themselves provides a boost to the whole working class….Now, the UAW is building on this momentum….Poll after poll shows that despite potential disruptions in auto production, Americans are siding with the UAW rank and file….Whether you are a member of an established union at GM or fighting to create a new one at REI, you are amplifying the same question: Can we have livable jobs in America in the 2020s?….Until we update our laws to guarantee that workers who form a union can get a fair contract within a half year or so, we will not be able to rebuild the middle class in this country.” And therein lies a great unmet and almost unarticulated challenge for Democrats in congress and state legislatures — to become increasingly visible advocates for worker rights and better living standards, and to promote labor unions as the most effective vehicle for improving the living standards of America’s working-class.
Levin concludes, “Labor economists can tell you that many jobs will continue to require high school plus an apprenticeship, short-term credential or on-the-job training. We must help students and workers get the training and credentials they need to do the work of advanced manufacturing, information technology and more. But we must also organize society so that work really pays, including for the huge number of people who will devote themselves skillfully to jobs across multiple sectors that don’t require college degrees…. This is what the UAW strike is really about. Through unions, workers can create an America that more closely resembles the shared prosperity of my childhood than the “trickle down” world my children have inherited. All the rank and file are asking for is solidly middle-class wages, good benefits, dignified retirement and the sanity of regular and predictable hours like the people I grew up with had. Union workers built the middle class in the 20th century, and they are the best people to rebuild it in the 21st.” Democrats should also remember that their fate is much intertwined with the survival and growth of a more organized labor force. Unions not only provide Democratic candidates with needed funds for their campaigns; they also provide an enormous pool of campaign volunteers, who help promote Democratic candidates and get out the vote. That’s why Republicans have put so much energy into weakening and destroying unions, in addition to their donors’ desire to keep wages low. Also, labor unions create community among working people, places and occasions to gather, to affirm their solidarity and visibility as creative and effective advocates for a better society.
But here and there, local Democratic groups have done an exceptionally-good job of spotlighting worker rights. As Erik Gunn reports in “Democrats push an agenda to restore worker rights” at the Wisconsin Examiner, “Flanked by a phalanx of union members in trades ranging from carpentry to teaching, Democrats in the Legislature rolled out a 10-bill collection Thursday to enshrine workers’ rights in state law after a decade and a half of measures rolling back those rights….“The people of our country are rising up and standing together to demand better wages, benefits, treatment and a higher quality of life,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) at a news conference to announce the initiative….She pointed to union organizing, activism and contract fights at Colectivo and Starbucks coffee shops, Leinenkugel brewery and UPS as well as the prospect of a looming job action by the UAW in the auto industry….“Right now, union popularity is soaring, with seven out of 10 Americans having a positive view of labor unions, because labor unions are getting real results that improve both the economic and safety conditions for the workers they represent,” Shankland said….“As our state continues to grapple with a historic worker shortage, putting forward pro-worker policies is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. We know that pro-worker legislation will help us recruit and retain the skilled workforce needed for our workers, businesses, economies and communities to thrive.”….With Republicans holding a supermajority in the Senate and just a few seats shy of that number in the Assembly, Shankland acknowledged the difficulty of advancing the measures, but said she wasn’t giving up on getting bipartisan support for at least some of the agenda….In an interview, she asserted that data shows the Walker-era laws harming workers’ rights have also harmed the economy….“We know we have a demographic issue in Wisconsin — our workforce is aging,” Shankland said. “And we believe that the key to the workforce shortage is treating workers with the dignity and respect they deserve and have earned through their loyalty and hard work and productivity.”
Democrats should also champion worker rights as a top priority for endorsing Supreme Court and appeals court nominees. The way it is now, the public hears very little about the views of court nominees regarding worker and union rights, even though adults spend half their waking lives, five days a week, on the job. We hear plenty about potential high court nominees and judge appointee records and views regarding abortion, affirmative action, LGBTQ rights, the environment and a broad range of social issues. Think of all the media coverage in recent years about whether or not a baker had to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple vs. how little media attention was provided to any worker rights cases. A lot of this falls on the failure of the press to provide adequate coverage of worker rights cases. But it’s nonetheless up to Democrats and Democratic office-holders to help raise awareness of worker rights issues to the point where big media can no longer ignore job-related issues. As Eve Tahmincioglu, Celine McNicholas, and Daniel Costa report at The Economic Policy Institute, “The Supreme Court has played an important role in the decades-long campaign to erode workers’ rights in this country. In particular, the Supreme Court has issued rulings that have undermined everything from workers’ rights to form unions, the ability to build strong unions, and health and safety on the job. This term, the Supreme Court once again sided with corporations in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters to make it easier for employers to sue unions over their decision to strike.” Compare the media coverage of this case with the aforementioned cake case. The E.P.I. article provides details about important worker rights rulings that got very little big media coverage. With disapproval of the Supreme Court at an historic high, wouldn’t now be a good time for Democrats to make a loud case for a more worker-friendly Supreme Court?