The US labor movement is on the upswing after years of dwindling union activity, with workers’ organizing efforts at companies like Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple attracting international attention. A new book offers a look both at the forces that brought about this historic moment and a vision of how activists might harness this energy to win future battles.
But in the recently published book The Future We Need, longtime labor organizers Sarita Gupta and Erica Smiley also emphasize that people can and should use collective organizing tactics to gain more power in realms beyond the workplace, from young people striking over student-loan debt to tenants taking on neglectful and exploitative landlords.
“We know collective bargaining is a successful mechanism for workers to be able to negotiate for what they need and have an enforceable agreement,” says Gupta, who serves as vice president of US programs at the social justice-focused Ford Foundation. “ Why can it not exist in every way that a worker interacts with the economy?”
Quartz spoke with Gupta about the social and economic currents that have infused the US labor movement with fresh energy, and what the future might hold for grassroots union efforts currently being spearheaded by workers at Starbucks and Amazon.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Quartz: Your book talks about how the fight against white supremacy and the fight for workers’ rights are really the same thing. What has that looked like historically?
Gupta: In the book, we talk about how largest strike in US history is actually when slaves walked off the fields and said, “Enough, we deserve to have a voice, freedom, liberty, equality.” That was the first major moment of uprising that really forced Abraham Lincoln and politicians at that time to say, “We have to actually do something about this issue of slavery.”
What we need to remember is that it was actually multiracial movements of workers and women who were fighting for rights in their workplaces. However, when the National Labor Relations Act got designed and constructed [in 1935], due to political compromises, huge swaths of Black workers were explicitly excluded in the form of domestic workers and agricultural workers.
We still live with those exclusions: Domestic workers and farmworkers continue to be denied the right to organize and collectively bargain. They are not included in the Fair Labor Standards Act. So they are at a disadvantage in relationship to many other workers and other parts of the economy.
If we’re not careful, the debate around gig workers might be another moment where we come up with a whole onset of policies that are actually excluding millions of workers from basic labor and social protections.
Proportionately, union membership is still relatively small compared to what it once was in the US. But it does seem undeniable that in the past few years, there’s been a lot more excitement around labor and organizing, and big successes like what’s happening with the Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks. What are some of the factors driving this shift?
On top of that, you see work is being rearranged—this is what David Weil talks about in The Fissured Workplace. All the subcontracting and franchising and outsourcing has made it really difficult for workers to know who they are supposed to be negotiating with on what. So you see a rise in frustration of people not even feeling like they know where they can go to make change.
And then a lot of companies now are on platforms, so workers never meet a person that’s managing them. It’s an algorithm, or it’s automated: “This is what you’re supposed to do and this when you’re supposed to do it.” But there’s no ability to say, “This isn’t working for me, how do I change this?” And then you’re just suddenly cut if you ask too many questions.
Workers are not getting benefits from employers. At the same time, states’ budgets are suffering and they can’t manage budget-wise to meet the needs of workers in their communities, and some states choose not to provide these benefits like Medicaid expansion. But this has left many workers in a tremendously insecure situation.
The pandemic just blew all that open. And you have workers who say, “I have no paid family medical leave, I have no childcare support.” More than half of the workforce is going to be caring for elder people in their lives over the next few years, and yet we have no system in place to support people like me who are in the sandwich generation, caring for aging parents and kids. And the pressure that is falling on workers is actually resulting in, for the first time in decades, a reduction in women’s labor force participation.
And then finally, I would say it’s about corporate profits. Workers are not stupid. They are realizing that they have to have a voice and exercise bargaining power because corporate profits are on the rise while workers and consumers are struggling. There was a recent report that came out that [showed] nearly 100 of the largest publicly traded companies booked 2021 profit margins that were at least 50% higher than they were in 2019, pre-pandemic. And companies claim labor costs are hurting them, supply chain issues are hurting them, which is why they’re passing on these costs to consumers who, by the way, are working people. They aren’t getting higher wages, yet they have to pay more for basic needs. And companies are doing that while trying to keep wages down and providing little to no benefits.
So people are saying, Why should we have to put up with this?
There’s a lot of excitement about worker-led, grassroots unions. There’s also the reality that, when you’re small and you don’t have a lot of resources or experience and then you’re going to be up against these huge companies, you’re going to be at a disadvantage. What do you think the future of the grassroots union movement looks like?
In many respects, this reflects exactly what happened in the history of workers. When auto workers started organizing, it was small and scrappy. And today you can’t imagine a non-unionized workforce when you think of Ford and GM and others.
So we’ve got to remember that it does start small. It’s on not only the existing labor movement, but us as the public to support these efforts. Because if we make progress at places like Amazon, Starbucks, Dollar General, that is how we ensure that people have the ability to live with economic security in the future and have a pathway out of poverty.
We need to understand that there will be successes and there will be failures. Not that I’m suggesting ALU is going to fail, or any of these other efforts. But they will fall short.
They may lose elections.
That’s to be expected. Sometimes the public narrative becomes, “Okay, see, we knew it was never going to happen.” And that’s not fair to the workers who truly are risking their lives. For Amazon warehouse workers, they are risking a lot. Bessemer workers, for them, Amazon was a real job in their community, but they know they deserve dignity and respect and better wages.
We’re in a really magical moment in the sense that a new labor movement is trying to be born, and that these efforts all contribute to that.
Domestic workers are such a great example of this. Many moons ago in New York City, domestic workers started organizing. They passed the first New York State bill of rights for domestic workers, that gave them one day of rest per week and gave them some wage orientation and whatnot. Then it happened in other states and at the city level, too. And then you see, a decade later, the creation of standards boards like in Seattle, where now domestic workers are at the table with industry and with the governing body of the city or state.
Now domestic workers launched a whole pilot program with [cleaning service app] Handy in Indiana, Kentucky, and Florida. Not only have they won better wages, higher wages, and paid time off for platform workers, there’s a mechanism by which platform workers can grieve these issues they’re having and meet with management to actually address them.
To be clear, it’s not a bargaining agreement. But they found a pathway to do this. That’s my point. People could have looked at domestic workers 15 years ago and said, “What are these women doing?” But here we are.