In recent years, no Labor Day reflection on the state of the American working class could avoid one conclusion: Things are bad. Really bad. Unions are dying, strikes are nearly nonexistent, inequality is massive and widening by the day — all of these were true for Labor Days gone by, and all are true for Labor Day 2018.
But there is one thing of note this year, and it’s big: Some parts of the labor movement, particularly at the rank-and-file level, seem to have reached their breaking point. Because this year, they’ve started fighting back.
First, the bad news. After decades of decline, only 10.7 percent of U.S. workers are unionized. While 34.4 percent of public-sector workers are union, only 6.5 percent of their private sector counterparts are. The latter is an almost negligible number, and one on the verge of being decimated by anti-union forces anyway. At the same time, strikes, workers’ most powerful weapon, have become vanishingly rare. Making matters worse, some unions continue to avoid confronting crucial issues like racism head-on, failing to counter the President Donald Trump administration’s toxic, hollow xenophobic appeals to workers.
As the old-but-still-relevant joke goes: These days, the labor movement barely moves.
There is one thing of note this year, and it’s big: Some parts of the labor movement, particularly at the rank-and-file level, seem to have reached their breaking point.
Then, there’s Janus. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Janus v. AFSCME ended the public sector’s “agency fee,” a fee paid by workers who did not want to be members of their unions that covered the cost of representing them. Even if workers aren’t members, the union in their workplace is legally compelled to represent them (say, if a boss wants to discipline or fire them); the non-members are covered under the terms of the union contract, too, receiving the same wage increases and benefits as everyone else.
With Janus, public-sector unions may well go the way of the private sector, decimated to a single-digit unionization rate, with union activists forced to spend their time convincing members one by one to pay dues. This would leave in fewer and fewer resources for tackling shop-floor grievances or fighting for strong contracts. Which is exactly what the organizations who backed the plaintiff, Mark Janus, are hoping for.
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Immediately after the Supreme Court ruled in Janus’s favor in June, the right-wing, anti-union apparatus sprang into action, with groups like the Freedom Foundation going door-to-door in states like Washington trying to convince union members to leave their unions. The foundation has plans to expand to California, Illinois, New York and Oregon.
U.S. labor law is so skewed in favor of bosses today that scholar Elizabeth Anderson calls the workplaces of America “arbitrary, unaccountable dictatorships” in which workers have few rights. In the wake of Janus, things will become even worse. And with egregiously anti-worker Judge Brett Kavanaugh likely to be confirmed for the Supreme Court, there’s no relief in sight.
That weakness of organized labor is reflected in the miseries of the U.S. working class as a whole. Most workers haven’t seen a raise in 40 years. With low wages and crushing student loan debt, many millennials will live worse lives than their parents, a reality reflected in their decision not to have children. Meanwhile, the costs of basic necessities — housing, health care, childcare — are rising. Inequality keeps increasing, as the few at the top pocket an ever-larger proportion of U.S. wealth. Add mass, cruel deportations, the erosion of reproductive rights and the steady persistence of police brutality, and it’s hard to deny that, especially for the poor and vulnerable, the foundations of a right to a free life are under attack.