Like every other social movement in the U.S. this year, the compounding crises of 2020 proved a catalyzing force for the labor movement, compelling essential and frontline workers to join picket lines to ensure basic protections and increased pay as they continue to face disproportionate risks and increasingly perilous working conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But essential workers weren’t the only sector on strike this year: Prisoners and tenants across the country also withheld their labor and rent to fight for their fundamental human right to life and housing. Building momentum after major strike waves in 2018 and 2019, 2020 has cemented the strike’s resurgence as a crucial tactic for workers and organizers not only in the U.S. but around the world.
The pandemic intensified what was already an uptick in strike activity in the U.S. According to Payday Report’s Strike Tracker, there have been at least 1,100 strikes since March 1. Among those have been high-profile strikes launched by Instacart, Whole Foods and Amazon workers, as well as by frontline health care workers.
Many labor struggles that began in the spring with the coronavirus’s first wave have reignited with its second wave. Just this month, for instance, nursing home workers with SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana reached a contract agreement with Infinity Health Care, ending a a 12-day strike at 11 nursing homes in the Chicago area. Health care workers in at least three states are again turning to strikes as the virus rages.
While the term “general strike” gained traction at multiple points throughout the year in the U.S., much of this country’s strike activity remained decentralized and largely uncoordinated. The term surfaced most recently in the run-up to the election, as Truthout reported that several labor councils passed resolutions calling for a general strike if Trump steals the election. With his coup attempt floundering in the courts, most unions are again focusing on pandemic protections for their members.
But a general strike did materialize elsewhere, as the global pandemic recently culminated with the world’s largest coordinated strike in which 250 million workers in India shut down government and financial services, oil and gas production, banks, transport and other major industries in a one-day work stoppage called by the nation’s central trade unions to protest the Narendra Modi government’s neoliberal labor reforms.
Still, this year’s crises, including national uprisings over police-perpetrated violence, have also exposed the labor movement’s internal divisions and fractures over issues like the inclusion of police unions in broader labor councils and federations.
Examining some of these successes and failures can inform the labor movement’s broader strategy as it prepares for what’s ahead under a Biden administration in 2021. Here’s an overview of a few of the year’s labor actions and their biggest takeaways.
Unions and gig workers won a number of victories at the height of the pandemic’s first wave in the spring largely because they were able to draw on the legitimate sympathies of a public and media narrative praising essential and frontline workers as heroes of the pandemic era.
In April, Amazon fired Chris Smalls for organizing a strike at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, to protest the company’s sick leave policies and its decision to keep the warehouse open even after employees there were diagnosed with COVID-19. In response to the firing, New York’s attorney general called the move “disgraceful” and issued a statement asking the National Labor Relations Board to investigate.
Smalls has not gone quietly, though. Late last month he organized a protest at Amazon’s South Lake Union corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington, chanting “Tax [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos!” and calling for better pay and working conditions amid a holiday season in which workers are still disproportionately at risk as the company is expected to rake in record profits.
The burgeoning protest movement is just the beginning of a wider challenge to one of the most profitable companies on Earth, whose CEO is set to be the world’s first trillionaire in six years and has profited from the pandemic to the tune of nearly $67 billion this year alone.
But other gig workers and essential workers won material victories, including pay increases and additional benefits like emergency paid leave and new workplace safety measures. For instance, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) reached an agreement in March with Kroger to increase pay and benefits, including a $2 per hour wage increase, additional emergency paid leave and new workplace safety measures for the company’s more than 460,000 U.S. workers.
More recently, nurses in Connecticut who went on strike in October won a settlement agreement with Hartford HealthCare executives and Backus Hospital for increased personal protective equipment, pay, staff retention and benefits.
Grocery and health care workers joined bus drivers, meat processing, manufacturing, restaurant, retail, sanitation and shipping workers in thousands of labor actions this year. While the pandemic forced employers and management to provide at least some basic protections, the labor movement across these sectors also benefited from key support from seemingly unrelated social movements.
As Truthout reported earlier this year, the environmental movement went all in on supporting frontline workers in 2020, expending considerable time and resources to support campaigns to pressure the Trump administration to take action to provide protective gear to hospital workers but also for grocery workers and manufacturers. The pressure campaign included nine days of action from Earth Day to May Day to demonstrate the interconnection of climate justice and worker justice.
This cross-movement solidarity played a crucial role in many of the outcomes for workers’ struggles this year, which makes it all the more troubling that when social justice and labor allies in the movement for Black lives pressured top labor leaders to kick out police unions this summer, many ultimately refused to show the same cross-movement intersectional analysis, choosing instead to keep police in their ranks.
Labor’s Police Union Betrayal
2020 should have been the year in which the “debate” over whether police are “part of the 99 percent” was finally laid to rest. Unfortunately, labor leaders have refused to examine some of the reasons that may have led protesters in Washington, D.C., to set the headquarters of the AFL-CIO aflame in July.
Yet, even after some of the nation’s most influential unions and labor councils called on the AFL-CIO to expel the International Union of Police Associations and other law enforcement unions from the nation’s largest labor federation, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka ultimately dug his heels in on a position that will continue to alienate labor from younger social justice activists for years to come.
Trumka told Bloomberg over the summer that he wouldn’t cut ties with police unions because “police officers and everyone who works for a living has the right to collective bargaining” and that the “best way to use our influence on the issue of police misconduct is to engage with our police affiliates rather than isolate them.” He told labor leaders and reporters that “the answer is not to disengage and condemn” police unions, while imploring labor organizers to fight racism.
His statements demonstrate a failure to understand how police unions systemically perpetuate institutional racism. While other unions and labor councils have worked to organize truth and reconciliation processes to grapple with labor’s history of racism, Trumka and others are sending a message that they’re more willing to gain from short-term benefit of police unionists’ membership in the federation than to address their harmful legacy.
Other labor leaders, however, have set a better example. As Truthout reported, MLK Labor, the central body of labor groups which represents more than 150 unions and 100,000 workers in the Seattle, Washington, voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild after approving a resolution taking up the question in June.
“Labor is not going to be able to figure out to organize effectively if we cannot figure out how to root out racism within our movement and move toward an anti-racist stand and be directly linked to the communities in which our workers live,” UFCW Local 21 President Faye Guenther told Truthout at the time. The local sponsored the resolution alongside SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and other groups.
Guenther says that instead of relying on police officers to pad union rolls, the labor movement must do the work of becoming anti-racist and being involved in communities and social justice movements to ensure its own future and growth.
“Labor needs to clean up its own house,” Guenther said. “We need people of good heart and good will, and people who believe in racial equity, gender equity, LGBT equity and trans equity to join our movement and help us rebuild our power to fight corporate greed, and rebuild our power to have a more anti-racist, pro-democracy and pro-human soul of the labor movement.
Trumka’s choice will continue to haunt the labor movement into 2021, as social justice activists continue to work for police accountability under a Biden administration — just as they did under Obama. What’s clear is that amid the historic uprisings of 2020, simple criticisms and affirmations of anti-racism without bold action are no longer enough.