In the past year and a half, start-up unionization efforts such as those at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and Apple have been satisfying to witness for those of us hungry for social justice in the United States. We have their backs, and we’ll continue to root for them.
But the workers with the best chance of actually slowing the spread of oppressive technology (which aims to supplant humans with artificial intelligence and tries to maximize productivity by surveilling workers and controlling their time down to a fraction of a second) and stopping the Uberization of the workforce (which replaces full-time workers with contractors, turning good jobs into underpaid gigs with no benefits) are in unions that are already established.
For example, in 2018, the hotel, hospitality, and casino workers’ union Unite Here won its strikes against Marriott. Those victories secured language that gave members the right to negotiate over emerging technologies in their sectors. With the contract between United Parcel Service and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters set to expire in a few months, 330,000 workers covered by the agreement have declared an end to creeping Uberization—including policies that require contract drivers to use their personal vehicles for delivery.
In February, the United Auto Workers voted for new leadership after a successful fight for direct member elections of top officers. In a national conference to prepare for this September’s negotiations with the Big Three automakers, that new leadership acknowledged the climate crisis but made it clear that the costs of moving toward cleaner technology, including electric vehicles, must not be borne by autoworkers. Every aspect of the shift away from fossil fuels must be carried out by unionized autoworkers with wages and working conditions that are as good as the best autoworker contracts in place today.
And on May 1, members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) announced they were going on strike. A statement to members declared, “The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce” and listed the employers whose labor practices led to this strike—the traditional big studios, but also the new influencers at the negotiations table: Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. These Silicon Valley streamers have gutted the income of writers from residuals payments.
Even the increasing strangulation of public education can be traced to the no-longer-new Silicon Valley elite’s crazed pursuit of profit. To the members of this executive greed club, teachers’ unions are standing in the way of their next yacht, personal rocket ship, submarine, or private island villa.
The same day the WGA declared a strike—including against practices popularized by Netflix, such as the use of AI—the Oakland Education Association (OEA) announced that it too would be going on strike, citing some of the same targets, including Netflix cofounder and former CEO Reed Hastings, who has poured millions into school board races in California to elect candidates who back Big Tech’s plans to supplant flesh-and-blood educators with online-teaching technologies. Hastings also funds candidates committed to replacing public education with privately run, publicly funded charter schools.
But the WGA and the OEA also share a too-rare approach to their contract negotiations: Both unions have large bargaining teams that are broadly representative of their membership and are markedly transparent to all their members about their demands. These large worker bargaining teams and their commitment to open communication with the rank and file led to high turnouts in their strike authorization votes: 79 percent of WGA members showed up to vote on the strike, with 97.85 percent in favor; and 87 percent of OEA members turned out, with 88 percent voting yes. If you track how workers effectively win big gains in contracts—the kind that raise standards for everyone—you’ll find that the common thread is putting members at the front and center of negotiations.
Ishmael Armendariz, the OEA’s interim president, said: “For seven months, OEA’s big bargaining team—more than 50 classroom teachers, counselors, nurses, school psychologists, substitutes, early-childhood educators, and special-education teachers from every corner of the school district—has worked tirelessly, making well-researched proposals that will strengthen our schools.”
At the WGA, Adam Conover, a first-time member of the bargaining team, took to Twitter to declare how proud he was of the union’s transparency in its approach to these negotiations. Conover knows that the more the members and the broader community understand what the fight is about, the stronger they will be. “The studios and streamers are trying to end writing as a career and turn it into a gig job, and we’re not going to let them,” he told me. “We’re on strike to remind them that without us, they have no product at all. Writers know that we owe our pension, our health care, and our quality of life to the collective action writers have taken in the past. Now it’s our turn.”
The fate of the workers, as well as the future of work, is on the line with every majority strike. From writers and educators and hospitality workers to the impending battles at UPS and the auto companies, the members of these long-established unions are fighting on the front lines for issues that are urgent for all of society. The coming months might well make 2023 the year that workers in legacy unions showed how to challenge the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Reed Hastings—and win. What matters isn’t a union’s age, it’s whether the workers are at the center of the decisions at every level—especially in the contract fights to determine the rules that will govern their lives for most of their waking hours each day.