Keep Your Hope Machine Running
Worker Organizing Fueling Hope for 2022
First — huge HT to The Marginalian for Woody Guthrie’s “Keep your hope machine running” which hit my inbox just as I started this list. None other than the American bard (This Land is Your Land, I’m Sticking to the Union, Union Maid) had this on his New Year’s Resolution list (somewhere in between eating more fruits and vegetables and brushing his teeth…!)
We face daunting challenges in 2022 and beyond, but I find myself after 2021 filled with an optimism and hope about worker organizing and people power. Do we want and need more? Of course! There is plenty to do and rethink in 2022, but we have only just begun the work of rebuilding democracy at a time of historic division and unbridled corporate greed — who was expecting to be done in a year? We are organizers not miracle-workers and Electeds are, well, politicians, not saviors. I’m with Woody on this one: We will fuel our 2022 work with hope and counting our wins, not fear or cynicism or beating up on each other for what’s not good enough. The glass is SO half full.
So just a few of the many reasons from 2021 to be excited and hopeful for workers’ rights in 2022 (This is not a top ten — it’s just the first list that came to mind in an hour — there are so many more — please send me yours; I’m going to keep adding to mine!)
The “discovery” of Essential Workers began in the spring of 2020 with the pandemic bringing finally into focus the farmworkers, grocery, meatpacking, delivery, health care workers, teachers, restaurant workers and so many more that everyone was SO depending on and who were so clearly in harm’s way — much more vulnerable to the virus and unsafe working conditions, than the folks who could work for home. This in itself was a huge breakthrough for workers who had been invisible to too many, erroneously called “low-skilled” or “low-wage” (what makes you a low-wage worker really except a boss that pays you too little???)
Organizers seized on this new frame to mobilize and win — here are just a few examples: The new Biden-Harris DOL created Essential Workers, Essential Protections, organizers pressed for and won an Essential Workers Board in Harris County TX. Essential workers mobilized in unprecedented numbers for wages, workplace protections, immigrant rights and more.
Immigrant workers were at the forefront of this organizing and in perhaps the most spectacular victory of 2021, organized, protested, fasted for and WON a $2.1 Billion dollar Excluded Worker Fund in New York State providing long overdue benefits to undocumented workers providing essential services but unfairly excluded from any pandemic relief.
The Care Economy has arrived
The pandemic turbocharged public attention on issues of paid leave, childcare, care workers for sure, but the brilliant organizing of so many strategically seized the moment — so that literally in 2020 Biden-Harris were campaigning on the Care Economy. They came together strategically in Care Can’t Wait to elevate care and care workers. Care infrastructure and care workers became center stage as an essential piece of Build Back Better. We are far from done in winning what we must and will win, but mad respect and gratitude to my sisters who have worked SO hard this past year; you all ROCK. It is historic that the Care Economy has arrived as essential not just for women but for families, communities, businesses and the economy.
We won childcare funding and more in the American Rescue Plan and still more winning was happening in the states:check out NDWA’s 2021 year in review video In addition to incredible work at the federal level, care economy organizers won historic wage increases for direct care workers in North Carolina, paid sick leave benefits for domestic workers in San Francisco, New York and New Mexico and a new policy in Chicago requiring written contracts for domestic workers protecting them against wage theft and other abuses.
Workers take on Amazon
Good organizers have been taking the fight to Amazon for several years with immigrant workers in Minnesota leading the way in 2020 and the tenacious Staten Island Amazon workers who inspired the incredible NYT investigative deep dive into Amazon working conditions.
But what took everyone by surprise was the scrappy RWDSU and the brave group of Black workers in Bessemer, Alabama who said enough is enough we want a union at our Amazon warehouse. National media was following a union election in totally new way, reporters and the public getting a crash course in union-busting. Amazon became the poster child for the PRO Act — legislation to reform labor law and give workers a fair chance to form a union
The media attention, the courageous stories of the workers, the outpouring of support fueled a huge bolt of new energy for worker organizing and unions. Bessemer worker lost their NLRB election — not a surprise at all given how broken labor law is and all the pressure Amazon brought to bear. But the Labor Board ruled Amazon had broken too many rules and has ordered the workers get another election. It is still an uphill battle but an even larger community of support is rallying to support the workers.
Meanwhile in California labor and community organizers won AB 701 putting Amazon on notice and providing more health and safety protections for workers in warehouses. This is a David and Goliath battle to be sure but workers are building momentum and we are scoring wins.
Biden Harris Administration Support for Workers
POTUS supporting Amazon workers was hardly the half of it. The Biden-Harris Administration created a first-ever Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment chaired by Vice President Harris and Labor Secretary Walsh — charging every agency with finding ways to support workers and good jobs. Secretary Marty Walsh made history joining the Kelloggs’ workers on their picket line Biden weighed in supporting the Kelloggs’ workers — I cannot overstate how much this matters; it takes so much courage to try to form a union or risk going on strike and as one of the workers said Biden’s statement was “exactly what we needed at this time”. This Administration is not afraid to say “union” and it is not only a strategic use of the bully pulpit. Secretary Walsh weighed in and helped Massachusetts nurses end a 9 month strike — winning better health and safety conditions and more. Good words and good action. Will we want more from them? Of course — but that’s our job and we have a great team to work with.
Fight for 15 raising wages
There is a lot of analysis about factors in the economy pushing employers to raise wages which is good news. But I want to focus on here on wages raised because of organizing. First to acknowledge that the amazing Fight for 15 has raised the bar for all of us and this is because workers have been in motion for years — plenty of strikes before we all got excited about Striketober.
For starters, thanks to President Biden’s Executive Order 300,000 federal contract workers got a raise to $15! That included ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers and means on average an annual raise of $5,228 — that’s a big deal. The EO built on the incredibly good work of EPI and others and is one of many examples of advocates being so prepared to work with the new administration for greatest impact.
Meanwhile workers’ wages increased in 56 cities counties and states on January 1, 2022 because of kick-ass organizing. From the NELP report detailing the local and state wins:
November 2022 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the Fight for $15 movement. This movement, led by fast-food workers of color, has had a far-reaching impact on wages, and informed policy debates on fair pay and workplace rights. In the nine years since fast-food workers first walked off the job in New York City to demand living wages, the Fight for $15 has led to $150 billion in higher pay for 26 million workers.
And thanks to the Great Resignation and a lot of savvy organizing, momentum is growing for tipped workers who are also scoring wins for One Fair Wage and ending indecent subminimum wages.
Workers in motion: Striketober
The funny thing about Striketober is that it is really only a few years ago that hundreds of thousands of courageous teachers from West Virginia to Oklahoma to California made history with a wave of strikes for basic wage increases but mostly more resources for their students and their schools. But indisputably this fall, an unprecedented number of workers fed up with pandemic profiteers who made billions but were still being stingy with their Essential employees, said enough is enough and the momentum of these strikes and these victories are fueling more activism.
Nabisco workers won demonstrating as Tom Perriello wrote the power of solidarity and a union and the thrill of seeing wins in the headlines.
John Deere workers won and in holding out through multiple offers demonstrated a new militancy and confidence about taking on greedy corporations “UAW John Deere members did not just unite themselves, they seemed to unite the nation in a struggle for fairness in the workplace”.
Kellogg’s workers won braving the freezing cold and rain in a powerful act of solidarity saying no two-tier wage systems that give new folks the raw end of the deal.
Workers are striking, winning public support… and winning at the bargaining table and this is making the case anew for unions — all workers deserve what these workers have, a way to engage with management and demand their fair share, insist on safe working conditions and be treated with respect at work.
The Labor Beat is Back
There is public interest in unions and workers organizing unions and more media stories detailing the David v Goliath reality of this than we have seen in decades. This in no small part because as Steven Greenhouse writes there is a resurgence of the Labor Beat “after years of declining coverage, more newsrooms are making workplace safety, unionization and remote work, front page stories.” From the great coverage of breaking news of organizing wins to developments at DOL and OSHA now compelling twitter material, it is just a totally new narrative environment when workers and labor policy make news. It would be perilous to name names because there are just way too many great journalists doing incredible work — but if you have not read The Migrant Workers Who Follow Climate Disasters in the New Yorker detailing a whole new sector of Resilience work and the immigrant workers organizing in it — DO.
There are probably more links in this piece to MorePerfectUS than any other source — you cannot write the story of renewed public attention and revived worker action this past year without including the dynamic and strategic new videos and media work of MorePerfectUnion. Workers voices are front and center and compelling. Workers on a picket line — usually a lonely venture — get national attention. Working conditions are exposed. Viewers are invited to take action. Victories are celebrated. This is such a great boost to worker organizing.
I remember the groundbreaking campaign Starbucks workers organized with Coworker a few years ago but I have to confess when I saw the first news of Starbucks workers forming a union I was skeptical — NLRB elections are so impossible, it’s a gazillion stores and this can never work. But they kept at it and another story of corporate overreach and union-busting was gaining traction and these brave baristas defied the odds and all conventional wisdom and are organizing unions at their stores! This is a kick-ass group of young leaders who know what they are doing and as veteran organizer Richard Bensinger says — everyday we’re getting more people; it’s getting stronger. Word is organizing has expanded to NY, MA, AZ, WA, TN, CO, OR, OH.
Last weekend I stopped at a Starbucks and was shocked when the young barista noticed my JwJ water bottle and asked “Do you work with Jobs with Justice? I love JwJ!” (This has never happened to me before.) I told her I was excited about the Starbucks organizing and asked her if they were organizing in her store. She looked over her shoulder, gave me a wink and a smile, and said “we’ll see…”. What’s that sound??? There’s something happening here…
This list is crazy long — could not keep it to ten and could keep going with more. Will end here with a quote from one of the toughest organizers out there; D. Taylor president of the hotel and food service worker union UNITE HERE, “I’ve been working for the union for 40 years and there’s never been a better time to organize than right now” High hopes for worker organizing in 2022 — let’s make it happen!