The labor movement is a capricious friend–it hands out heartbreak as much as it hands out joy. But every once in a while, it is able to wave a triumphant flag and give us all a glimmer of what its potential could truly be.
The recently concluded UAW strike offered just such a moment. It wasn’t just the contract agreements themselves, which were a material success, but also the union’s public call for movement-wide coordination to build the possibility of mass action around the May 1, 2028 expiration of the next auto contracts. “We invite unions around the country to align your contract expirations with our own so that together we can begin to flex our collective muscles,” the UAW declared on October 29.
This could be the beginning of the most exciting resurgence of American organized labor power in a century. Or, it could just be a tweet. What happens in the coming months will determine which of those things is the case.
The general feeling of a labor power resurgence since the pandemic has been fueled by a procession of high profile wins: The Starbucks and Amazon union drives, the massive organizing on college campuses, the friendly Biden administration and its uniquely pro-union NLRB, the historically high favorability of unions in public opinion polls, the periodic mini-strike waves at a variety of fed-up workplaces. This year, we have seen a trio of actions–the Teamsters backing down UPS with a credible strike threat, and the successful WGA and UAW strikes–that show what can be won with the power of strikes at a larger scale.
All of this is encouraging. All of this is evidence of a real shift in public sentiment. All of this, however, does not add up to a robust and lasting change in the balance of power between capital and labor. Right now, what we have are a bunch of discrete occurrences, a bunch of data points that amount to proof of potential.
There are two things that will determine whether or not this promising moment leads to a true, historic revival of the labor movement. The first is easily measurable: union density. Barely one in ten American workers is a union member today. Despite all of the wins just mentioned, that number has not risen in the wake of the pandemic. The primary thing that unions need to do today is to organize more union members. Without this, organized labor is a walled and shrinking garden, rather than a legitimately expansive force for society-wide change.
The second thing is related to the first, but it offers a broader menu for action: We must see some tangible coordination of action across the U.S. labor movement. It is great when one union wins a contract, or organizes an important new company, but those isolated events will not be enough to take on the combined power of trillion-dollar multinational corporations and their political allies. Not even when they involve tens or hundreds of thousands of workers. Big unions, the ones with the most resources, along with whatever non-union groups want to help them, must be able to sit down and plan and carry out big national campaigns together if we want to have any chance at winning the class war.
Amazon will never be a unionized company without an enormous, multi-union campaign. Nor will the powerful and wealthy tech industry be organized without an enormous multi-union campaign. We will never achieve the eternal goal of “organizing the South” without an enormous multi-union campaign. Nor will we ever pull off strategic general strikes without an enormous multi-union campaign.
The process of scaling up from some unions making incremental progress to a national labor movement strategically building and exercising labor power wherever and whenever it needs to, all in order to drown the monster of inequality once and for all, will require a whole lot of coordination. That sort of coordination–the sort that happens in service of movement goals, rather than those of individual (and sometimes feuding) unions–really doesn’t happen today.
Ideally, an organization like the AFL-CIO would have begun coordinating such an effort years ago. But they haven’t, and there is little evidence that they will. So unions will have to build these coalitions themselves. And that’s what made the UAW’s public call for other unions to line up their contract expiration dates with theirs so exciting.
This is not some meaningless fringe group. This is a powerful, national union with more than 400,000 active members, fresh off winning a consequential industrial strike, that is shining the Labor Movement Bat Signal high in the sky and beseeching its peers: Join us! If we get ourselves aligned, in four and a half years, we can really put the capitalists in a headlock.
There is much to love about this strategy. It is both powerful and achievable. Lining up contract dates does not require the blood, sweat, and uncertainty of huge new organizing campaigns. It is a way to make existing unions stronger by drawing their influence together into a single point. (Look at the Culinary Union in Las Vegas, currently threatening to strike the entire Las Vegas strip, for an example of what can be won with this tactic in practice.)
Doing this not just in one union or one industry but across many unions in many industries can set the stage for a mass walkout. It can make political power brokers pay attention in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t. It can captivate the public, and draw them into the fight even if they are not union members. It is a real world example of scaling up. It is not just one group of unionized workers making a demand for themselves; it offers the promise of workers in general making demands for the entire working class, backed up by the threat of a general strike. It’s not a dream. It can be done. The UAW is exactly the sort of credible organization that can be the launching point.
What it will take is other major unions taking this call seriously. Most union contracts are three years long, give or take. That means that unions must begin planning for this now. Contracts that are negotiated in 2024 and 2025 need to set their expiration dates for May 1, 2028. Realistically, the UAW and its allies need to convince many of their fellow big unions that this is a real goal within the next six months. There should be furious inter-union lobbying already taking place. The more radical unions, who have an actual vision, should publicly sign onto this plan in the near future, and then they should fan out and try to draw in the less radical unions, by arguing that this action is low-risk common sense. It’s a good argument!
The bigger this gets, the stronger it is, and the more it helps every union. And the more it helps every union, the more leverage it gives this broader coalition of unions to make larger demands that will benefit everyone in the working class, unionized or not. Union leaders need to be made to see the virtues of this argument soon. The case then needs to be made to individual units, and to individual workers, who will have to decide that they want their own contracts to be a part of this strategy.
There is not a lot of time to waste. But on a more positive note, this is a uniquely plausible opportunity for a historic boost in organized labor power. The path to achieving this goal is very straightforward, and there is no part of it that is not within the capabilities of existing unions, their organizing staff and current members. It does not require finding a huge amount of new resources. It just requires today’s unions to have a little vision, and to be willing to work together.
Sometimes, ironically, those qualities are in short supply in the labor movement. But there is no reason we can’t stop being our own worst enemy, right now. Big things are on the table. Let’s reach out and take them.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.