Collective Action Is Key to Keeping Labor Strong

When the US Supreme Court dealt a blow to public sector unions last month with its decision in Janus v. AFSCME, some pundits were quick to sound the death knell for organized labor. Those pundits haven’t been paying attention, a panel at the AFL-CIO showed earlier this month. The event brought together workers from different sectors, all of whom have made organizing inroads over recent months to improve the conditions in their workplace.

Titled “Collective Action on the Rise: How the Labor Movement can Sustain the Momentum of Change,” the panel, moderated by journalist Michelle Chen, asked how the labor movement could capitalize on the momentum from collective actions like the teacher strikes that gripped the US last spring. Union membership is at an all-time low. But as Chen put it, there’s value in expanding ideas of the labor movement beyond formally-recognized unions, and taking a look at “what it means to really think about labor as a collective social enterprise.”

That’s something Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a law student and research assistant at Harvard Law School, thought about while working on the campaign to unionize Harvard graduate students. The grad students organized with the United Auto Workers in order to bargain for higher wages, affordable housing, and healthcare benefits. When questioned by skeptical family members about why she, as a graduate student, was organizing with auto workers, Sandalow-Ash responded with a message of solidarity.

“The UAW represents 40,000 grad workers and 25,000 academic workers overall but also our union movements are more powerful when we are not separated by what kind of work that we do. We’re more powerful when we all stand together,” she said.

Anna Simmons, an elementary school counselor and mental health therapist in Morgantown, West Virginia, explained how this solidarity had worked in practice earlier this year. As part of the American Federation of Teachers, she organized with teachers from all over the state in February to strike for higher wages and affordable healthcare.

When union leaders returned from the negotiating table with a contract that would give teachers a better deal than other public sector workers, Simmons was part of a large group teachers who refused to accept the deal and continued to strike until all public sector workers were offered the same terms.

“If we all are together and we’re all unified and we’re all in solidarity on these issues we can make tremendous impact on the lives of ourselves, of our future generation and as a nation,” said Simmons. “It wasn’t just about a $2,000 increase on our salary, it was about saving our state.”

Though conversations in the wake of Janus have primarily looked at the impact on the public sector employees the court ruling affects, the panel also recognized the challenges that private sector workers already face in organizing. As an organizer with UNITE-HERE, Katherine Payne, a Marriott Hotel housekeeper, emphasized how difficult unionizing can be when facing corporate power. “Imagine telling your people ‘We’re fighting the Goliath, the Marriott.’”

Although Marriott is one of the wealthiest hotel franchises in the world, their housekeepers are paid such low wages that many have to supplement their income by working two to three jobs to make ends meet. Moreover, their demanding work requirements, like having large numbers of rooms ready for guests with short warning, have become increasingly difficult to meet. Though their workplace does not currently have a union, Payne has been tirelessly advocating for one through her role on an organizing committee. The group, while organizing underground, has been pressuring Marriott to demand they respect “a fair process for organizing”.

Lyndi Wade Howard, a flight attendant with JetBlue and member of the Transport Workers Union, shared how her workplace also faced struggles in their unionization campaign. After the company enacted changes to the healthcare policy that resulted in sky-high deductibles as well as implemented a series of punitive measures, rumblings of unionization began. The initial attempt to hold a union election was unsuccessful since they were unable to mobilize enough people before union cards started to expire.

It wasn’t until this past April that they won their union election with 66 percent of the vote, after a campaign in which they methodically organized boots-on-the-ground, increased outreach and set clear metrics deadlines. Their union’s bargaining committee is currently surveying workers priorities as they get ready to present their interests to JetBlue at the bargaining table.

“This is a very prosperous time for everybody but, it seems, the workers and collective action is the only way to level the playing field,” Wade Howard said. “If you really want to make sure that everybody’s taken care of, you have to unite, you have to be together, you have to work towards the same goals.”