Something is brewing around workers’ rights in America
I don’t mean the recent hubbub in the media about “quiet quitting” — a buzz word and misnomer for the new determination of low wage workers to shut off their laptops at 5pm and not do work that isn’t their responsibility. It’s basically another name for work-life balance and setting boundaries and it’s symptomatic of a new willingness among low paid employees to fight for dignity that’s had a resurgence since COVID-19 shook up workplace norms. People are “quietly” saying no to being bullied and exploited.
For Labor Day 2022, let’s celebrate reclaiming the meaning of the holiday which wasn’t originally only for carefree picnics. Labor Day commemorates the hard-won struggles of trade unions in the late 1800s to establish an eight hour workday, back when children as young as five and six years old toiled in factories in unsanitary conditions.
In 2020, the country relearned the importance behind shopworn phrases, like calling workers “the backbone of the nation.” We learned that nurses, postal workers, carriers, bus drivers, grocery store workers, primary school teachers, and many workers whose professions are not regularly praised for their skill and necessity — are heroes, economic soldiers serving on the front line.
Since then, countless workers who had been disrespected and underpaid for so long that maybe even they forgot how important their jobs were, recommitted to organizing for their rights.
During the pandemic shut downs, national attention returned to lower and middle class citizens who kept the public systems running — pumping gas, serving food, and staffing hospitals. A country that let labor rights decline since the 1980s when manufacturing jobs began disappearing after President Reagan attacked labor union principles, and deregulated corporations, now has the chance to repent.
“Essential workers” who braved the pandemic garnered our highest praise. And they deserved it. But the nation they served reckoned with a guilty conscience. Since the decline of labor unions, these workers have been left without health benefits, or job security. In fact, many are low wage and minimum wage employees who are not paid enough to feed their families, going hungry and relying on nutritional assistance. There were essential workers in the middle of the pandemic who left home in the morning to teach school who couldn’t afford childcare for their own preschoolers.
Is this a way to treat heroes? No. And workers are starting to realize the power they hold when they come together. Protest, organizing and unionizing began again. Labor Day is a time to commit to never going backwards on workers rights again.
Perhaps it’s too easy these days for twenty-somethings to believe working in a gig economy is as good as it’s going to get for them. They may have some freedom to assert their own schedules. But for too many this is a false sense of independence, since many have to work two or three jobs or low-paying side hustles to make ends meet.
Without employee benefits and opportunities for career advancement, I say no to the notion this is the best we can achieve for the next generations. I say no to the notion that a gig economy can replace job security and worker protections. I say a great big no to the notion that workers deciding to go on strike is ineffective, or that it has to be every person for themselves.
On this Labor Day, let’s say yes to collective action and collective bargaining. Let’s say yes to organizing for the passage of universal childcare, universal healthcare, and a living wage. Let’s say a great big yes to the unions that have been established since the pandemic.
The trend toward unionization is gaining ground, even in the largest corporations in America.
Few institutions represent wage exploitation and opposition to labor more egregiously than big box corporations and food chains, like Walmart, Amazon, and McDonalds. But there have recently been breakthroughs in all three.
In a recent shocker last May, Amazon workers at an 8,300-employee Staten Island warehouse in New York City unionized, becoming the first union in the company’s history. The victory inspired euphoria in the labor movement. President Joe Biden delivered a supportive message afterwards. “The President was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard,” said the White House Press Secretary.
Two months ago, Apple Computers workers in Maryland voted to join a union, crowning another victory for the new labor-force movement in retail, service and tech industries. Workers at 209 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize. Last year, McDonald’s workers in 16 cities went on strike, demanding $15 an hour. In September, 2021, Walmart-owned Sam’s Club agreed to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.
At the June Labor Notes conference in Chicago, a gathering of 4,000 activists and organizers, participants noted an upsurge of activity propelling unions toward the mainstream. “I think we have the opportunity to make the word ‘union’ no longer some taboo word that we’re afraid to say in the workplace,” said Kylah Clay, a Starbucks barista and organizer with Starbucks Workers United.
Given a recent Gallup poll that found that 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions — which is the highest approval rating since 1965 — United States workers and labor activists can enjoy a picnic, or a day of rest knowing they have made significant gains this Labor Day. Together, we are stronger than corporate greed.