Behind a surge in worker activism – from hotels to schools and steel mills
You can hear the strikers at Boston’s Sheraton hotel before you see them.
Chanting “Marriott, shame on you!" and “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” housekeepers, cooks, and doormen bang on drums and smack red hand clappers to be heard above the traffic. One young man bangs a gray saucepan with a spatula. Among their demands: better pay and benefits, protection against violence in hotel rooms, and more stable hours.
Since the strike at seven of its hotels in Boston two weeks ago, Marriott has seen union workers walk off the job at hotels in five other major cities as well as two Hawaiian islands. It’s part of a growing militancy within the ranks of labor. Whether from desperation born of recent reversals in the courts or opportunism in a strong economy, union and nonunion workers alike are demanding more.
“Workers are a little more emboldened, feel a little stronger,” says Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois. “There is a desire to fight back.”
Part of the activism stems from economic desperation as costs rise faster than pay.
In one of the most significant jobs actions this year, nonunion teachers in six states staged walkouts over low pay and other grievances. Starting in West Virginia and spreading to Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado in April, and North Carolina in May, the massive strikes led to salary raises of 2 to 20 percent (over two years) in four states. Teachers in Kentucky and North Carolina are back on the job but have yet to see increases.
Last month, Time magazine featured a Versailles, Ky., teacher who works two other jobs and donates blood to stay afloat financially.
These unusual jobs actions in mostly red states in the spring – the movement generated its own Twitter hashtag, #RedForEd – have been followed this fall by more conventional school strikes in Washington State, where some 125,000 schoolchildren missed classroom days because of teacher strikes over pay.
Rural complaints about low pay echo in big cities where costs are high.
“We got a lot of workers right now who don’t have [health] insurance throughout the year, and they have to pay out of their pockets because of lack of hours,” says Manny Monteiro, shop steward in the banquet department for Local 26 of Unite Here, picketing at the Boston Sheraton.
“It’s been horrible working here, and that’s why we’re fighting to change,” says one striker who has worked 11 years at the Sheraton but won’t give her name because she fears retaliation from the company. “We need a full-time job, not two days this week, two days next week, three days the other.”
U-turn by workers at UPS
Another reason for labor activism is the strong economy, where worker shortages and high profits for corporations are causing industrial workers to boost their demands.
Earlier this month, a slim majority of voting members rejected the contract their Teamsters union had negotiated with UPS, despite pay increases across the board and guarantees for less-volatile scheduling of non-weekend work. But because union rules allow ratification as long as the “no” vote isn’t overwhelming, the contract has gone into force for the more than 200,000 workers. A separate deal for UPS freight workers was rejected by a big majority so will have to be renegotiated.
Helped by President Trump’s tariffs on foreign steel, domestic steelmakers have seen a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes and union workers are demanding a share. The United Steelworkers, which gave up pay increases in their contract with US Steel and ArcelorMittal USA three years ago, are now pressing for increases in pay and no cuts in benefits. US Steel has offered pay raises but wants workers to pay some of their health-care costs. Union members have voted to authorize a strike if talks collapse.
The union activism hasn’t yet shown up in some of the usual benchmarks.
Nationally, the number of strikes is on pace to reach nearly 100 this year – about the same as the totals in the previous four years, according to data from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. That’s less than a quarter of the number of strikes 20 years ago and a seventh of those from 30 years ago. One reason: Only 10.7 percent of the workforce was in a union last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the same percentage as in 2016 and nearly half the level reported in 1983.
Instead, union activism is showing up in the political realm. In all, some 1,500 educators are running for office this cycle, estimates the National Education Association, a teachers union, including three gubernatorial candidates and more than 20 candidates for the US Congress, including the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes.
‘We have a movement building’
For example, nearly 300 members of the American Federation of Teachers decided to run for political office in 2018, three times the usual number, says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). It’s one aspect of the union’s change in strategy.
“We have a movement building, not just transactional unionism,” she says. “I’m not into the battle royal of labor versus management. I’m into values. And the values are: Workers should have a decent wage. And you shouldn’t have an economy that is growing for the last eight years and yet wages are stagnant…. There are allies who believe in all this. It’s part of being part of a broader community.”
In August, unions and their liberal allies soundly beat back a Missouri right-to-work law that would have allowed workers in private industry to opt out of union dues-paying.
Still, the pressure is on. In June, the US Supreme Court hit unions in the public sector with a landmark ruling that now allows union-represented workers in government to withhold paying dues if they don’t want to.
So far, teachers unions say that the effect on their membership has been minimal, although they’re a month or two away from compiling the actual numbers. In July, AFT had a record number of members.
The challenge will be for the labor movement to articulate goals that will attract a large number of allies.
“The teacher strikes. #MeToo. Black Lives Matter. Students speaking out for safer schools … something is happening in America,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in a speech in Milwaukee last month. “Collective action is on the rise. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in my 50 years in the labor movement.”
John Colin Marston contributed to this story from Boston.