On August 24, at midnight, 20,000 AT&T workers walked off the job. Big strikes are surprising enough in the post-Reagan era, but this one spanned nine of the 13 states that once made up the Confederacy. Although slavery officially ended in 1860, the political elite in the South never let go of the idea that large numbers of people should work for extremely low wages with little to no rights or protections on the job. The legal structures that first endorsed slavery and then Jim Crow finally settled on an extreme form of anti-unionism called right-to-work laws. The AT&T strike last week began over basic demands for human freedom and dignity.
Christopher Walterson is the president of the Communication Workers of America Local Union 3120 in Miami, where the strike was launched in response to abusive practices by overzealous managers. According to Walterson, as contract negotiations got under way, workers began showing their solidarity by wearing union insignia. “The wire technicians put on an SPF-rated UV protection arm sleeve, a layer you see on TV all the time on ESPN commentators and golfers in major tournaments,” he says. “In addition to cancer protection, they are made of wicking material, which is cooler than wearing 100 percent cotton. They are also key to avoiding the endless scratches and scrapes the technicians get crawling under people’s houses as they install or repair phone lines. We wear them routinely. They have various logos and say different things, but when the guys put on red-colored ones with the words ‘I pledge’ in South Miami, the management team suspended seven of them and sent them home.”
Walterson called an emergency union meeting, expecting the usual handful of workers—about 40—to attend. But in a matter of hours, as news of the suspensions spread, more than 300 showed up. And after discussing the retrogressive management behavior, the union members voted unanimously to strike.
That strike was not about money; like most strikes, it was about injustice on the job and workers standing up to confront it. Since the spring of 2018, when 34,000 educators in West Virginia walked off the job, closing every school in the state for nine days, workers in the United States have been reviving the strike, their most powerful tool.
As Walterson says, “Enough is enough already!”
The recent wave of strikes show that American labor will fight to regain ground lost to decades of defeats and setbacks. Today’s rampant inequality—the direct result of a 50-year assault on unions—is getting more attention each time workers walk off the job in disgust and win. A bevy of new policy proposals have been floated on how to rebuild worker power. But that rebuilding is happening precisely because workers themselves are doing it, not because national union leaders, labor think tanks, or presidential candidates have newfangled ideas about solving the crisis of inequality.
Besides, many of today’s new ideas on inequality aren’t new—and drastically overcomplicate the issue. The real solution is simple: Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and end the historic racist and sexist exclusions under the original National Labor Relations Act—the main national law governing unionizing in the private sector—by including domestic and agricultural workers (who are primarily women and workers of color), and the workers in today’s contract, part-time, and platform labor force. That’s it. It’s not rocket science.
But to achieve a restoration of worker freedom in America today will require exactly what it took to first pass the NLRA in 1935: massive strikes, lots of them, in strategic industries—13 of the 16 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers so far in 2019 have been in education or health care, jobs that can’t be easily shipped to another country—and geopolitically strategic states. What clearly won’t work are more endless debates about legislative policy.
Given the current power structure of the United States, no piece of legislation will do the job. Nor will enforcement actions, which will eventually come before the very anti-worker US Supreme Court. To force corporations and the political elite to the negotiating table to reverse income inequality requires workers—and their families, friends, and communities—to create a crisis for capital serious enough to end in a labor win. This isn’t complicated—but it is hard and involves risk. The kind of risk that AT&T workers took last week, and that educators, Stop & Shop workers, Marriott hotel workers, and thousands of others have taken in the past two years. It’s the same risk civil rights activists took in the 1950s and ’60s; the risk taken by workers in the ’30s who, emboldened by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election, walked off the job.
Workers won broad protections under the New Deal precisely because they waged massive strikes in 1933 and 1934. Those strikes created the pressure that forced the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. When most people recall the New Deal they think of sit-down strikes in the auto plants, which won huge gains for the whole of the working class. But those came after the law passed, in 1936 and 1937. The strikes that mattered most were the ones too often overlooked: collective actions that challenged brutal repression in Seattle, Minneapolis, and other cities. Those strikes, like the Selma march during the civil rights movement, created the context for legislative victory. The proposals being debated today—placing workers on corporate boards, raising the minimum wage, establishing a universal basic income, and the current favorite, sectoral bargaining—aren’t bad ideas. But they are a distraction from what workers need most: power.
Legislative promises without power add up to nothing—and many of the ideas being bandied aren’t all that innovative. Just ask today’s older workers. Take sectoral bargaining: national unions sitting across the negotiating table from national employer associations discussing wages and benefits for all the workers in a given sector of the economy, instead of waging contract fights one workplace at a time. Autoworkers in the United States had sectoral bargaining in the 1940s and ’50s, in effect, after they routinized the strike weapon, built deep community alliances, and gained enough power to force big auto companies to sit down with them.
It took only one law to make that possible: the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act. But it also took guts and, most importantly, worker participation. Labor movements in France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and other nations that rely on sectoral bargaining have begun to suffer defeat after defeat precisely because they, like US labor, have forgotten the power of workers and worker organizing. Without workers themselves, workers with real power, pulling up to the table, sectoral bargaining means and accomplishes nothing.
The same is true of the proposal, in Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, to put worker representatives on corporate boards, and create workplace-based “works councils,”—often referred to as the “German model.” Ask workers in the former East Germany how well the German model has been working since the Wall fell in 1989. Thirty years later, most are still 30 percent behind their former West German counterparts in the same sector, leading to a new upsurge of neo-Nazi organizing in factories along the German-Polish border. Why? Because a seat at the table is useless when Germany’s largest employers can look workers straight in the eye and threaten that if they demand wages and benefits equal to those in the former West, the bosses will simply move their plants to Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary— which recently approved a “slave law” allowing employers to order endless overtime without any extra compensation.
The best examples of how to win today—in 2019, 2020, and beyond—can be found not in Europe but at home: in the Los Angeles teachers’, Marriott Hotel, and AT&T strikes. In all three cases, workers rebuilt strong unions and developed strategic support within their broader community. The Los Angeles teachers won the hardest fight, taking on the political elite of the Silicon Valley and Wall Street faction of the Democratic Party, which fights fiercely against worker equity while pretending to be pro–human rights. As for the Marriott strikers, those low-wage, largely immigrant workers did what academics have long declared impossible: took on a major multinational corporation and won.
To pull off the kinds of strikes that the Los Angeles teachers, Marriott hotel workers, and, most recently, AT&T technicians did requires diligently building collective consensus and strength among tens of thousands of workers who come to the job with as many political and cultural ideas as exist in the nation at large. Supermajority strikes are so important because when we do them well, we build something America is desperate for: unbreakable human solidarity. With Donald Trump, we have a union-busting boss in the White House. As in the early 1930s, the last time the corporate class nearly destroyed the country, for the workforce itself—even a minority of the workforce—to wage large, strategic, successful strikes is really the only viable progressive response to the Republican-skewed rule of the Electoral College, state-based rigged election rules, and a reactionary Supreme Court. To win, to save America from its worst self, to save the earth from climate disaster, we need more massive strikes—before, during, and after the 2020 election.