A little over a year ago, when the Amazon Labor Union won its historic union election on Staten Island, I asked, with a healthy degree of skepticism, if this time really is different. If the long, slow, rearguard action of a declining American Labor Movement was maybe, just maybe, coming to an end. If there was a real resurgence, a real chance for the labor movement to blossom anew. 

In that year, we’ve seen Starbucks workers organize across the country. We’ve seen union election wins with “dictators holding sham election”-type numbers. We’ve seen the White House and the National Labor Relations Board support workers like they never have in my lifetime or probably yours. It’s been exciting and deeply satisfying. Churchill said his idea of paradise was to sit in a comfortable armchair with a cigar and a snifter of brandy, being handed telegrams alternately announcing victories on land and victories at sea. It’s been a bit like that for labor folk.

But I’ve remained skeptical, partly because I’m a curmudgeon, and partly because at the end of the day the labor movement is only going to thrive if it can deliver improvement in the lives of its members. Folks who are still reading three paragraphs into this piece usually have loftier ambitions for organized labor than better wages; we want to change the world. But there’s a sort of Maslow’s Hierarchy of unions; members aren’t going to be motivated to fight for the working class as a whole when they don’t see the union doing much to improve their own lives. And while there have been some powerful economic wins by unions in the past year, the scale and scope of those victories was limited. They were great victories, to be sure. But even at its lowest ebb, there are almost always moments of hope and promise in the labor movement. Other unions were struggling. The Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island was no closer to a contract than a year ago. The Starbucks campaign remains exciting and energizing, but the company hasn’t shown any sign it’s going to buckle. The jury was still out, at least in my mind.

But Tuesday, the Teamsters won their contract fight at UPS. 

And now for the first time in my 27 years in the labor movement, so help me, I think I’m an optimist. 

The Teamster membership hasn’t voted on their contract, and it’s not my place to tell them how to vote. They might decide it’s not enough for them, and if so, we’ll join them on the line. But no matter whether they vote it up or down, the mere fact of this settlement is monumental in its significance. As labor reporter Luis Feliz Leon (who’s been on top of these negotiations from the beginning) noted in The American Prospect, the wins include:

  • An end to forced overtime

  • All new vehicles will be air-conditioned 

  • A new floor for part-time workers at $21 (some get as low as $15.50 now), with some part-timers getting a 48% increase over the life of the contract 

  • MLK Day as a holiday

  • Creation of 7500 new full-time positions

  • An end to the two-tier wage system

  • And no concessions on anything

I’ve no doubt that the fine print will change as we learn more. And, again, the members have the final vote. But this settlement represents a real, substantive, sustainable improvement in the working conditions of 340,000 UPS workers. UPS put $30 billion in new money on the table. 

This may very well be the best and most important contract win of the 21st century. Maybe my whole life. That sounds hyperbolic, but at minimum it’s in the running for that title.


Four Decades of Concessions - Are Those Years Behind Us?

When I got into organized labor in the 1990s, there were still activists and staffers who’d been around for the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s.In those years unions bargained on the offensive. They won pensions, expanded healthcare benefits for workers and their families, and multi-year wage increases that far exceeded the rate of inflation. It wasn’t some lost paradise - the racism, sexism, and xenophobia of the labor movement of that time was horrific, among other things - but the 30 years following World War II were the best 30 years for the improvement of living standards of working people in all of human history. 

By the 90s, these folks told me, they’d been on the retreat for years. No longer were unions fighting for big improvements. We were fighting to limit the damage. In 1983, more than 30 million workers had a defined-benefit pension through their job; in 2020 it was 12 million. Fully-paid, zero-deductible health insurance disappeared, replaced by ever-increasing copays, premiums, and deductibles. And wages for working people have barely budged for four decades even as worker productivity soared. 

That’s all I’ve known my whole time in labor. Two steps forward, two-and-a-half back. We could win battles, but we were losing the war.

Again - let me be clear - there have been great wins in the last 27 years. Real wins that mattered. Workers have been smart, strong, and brave. Of course they have. Of course. Don’t forget them.

But a contract like this, at a time like this, for a private-sector workforce this large… I can’t think of anything that comes close. We finally have proof that what we’ve been seeing this last few years can prove out - that worker power can take the fight to the boss, in a big fight in a key sector of the economy, and prevail. This is different.


What Makes it Different

There’s a case to be made that this is just a product of the underlying conditions, that the Teamsters were above all else lucky in their timing. Seventeen states set records for low unemployment in June. Inflation is coming down, but even accounting for inflation, worker wages have gone up since the beginning of the pandemic, with the greatest gains coming near the bottom of the wage scale. Those are good conditions for labor. UPS would have had genuine trouble finding strikebreakers to replace 340,000 employees.

And, in the White House, we have the most pro-union president of my lifetime, the lifetime of anyone born after April 12, 1945. It’s hard to imagine that things would have gone this well for the Teamsters if Donald Trump was serving a second term, or if NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo wasn’t doing all she can to fulfill the promises of the National Labor Relations Act to encourage collective bargaining.

Those things matter. 

But another thing matters, too: a labor movement that is as united, aggressive, and ambitious as it’s been in a long time. Seriously, look at this labor movement. 

Let’s start with the unity.

I’m a regular attendee at the biennial conferences of Labor Notes, which proudly bills itself as the troublemaking wing of the labor movement. Labor Notes has a history of picking fights with established unions, and sometimes they get… intense. For many years, Labor Notes shared office space with the Teamsters’ opposition caucus, and people I know who worked for the Teamsters were forbidden from attending Labor Notes conferences. In 2008, staff of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) rushed the floor of the conference, resulting in fisticuffs and injuries.

Fast forward to 2022: the main speaker for the Labor Notes conference plenary was Teamsters President Sean O’Brien. And the workers most feted by conference attendees, the ones we all wanted selfies with, were those from Starbucks Workers United, affiliated with SEIU.

In 2005, some of labor’s biggest unions broke with the AFL-CIO. It was an acrimonious affair, and whatever people’s hopes it did nothing to strengthen the movement, but led to years of infighting within the movement. That infighting, though, was really the rule rather than the exception. The history of US organized labor is one of near-constant intramural scuffles.

Look around: not a lot of scuffling going on right now. Unity is the order of the day.

Aggressiveness. The Teamsters planned for militancy throughout their campaign, a forward-leaning posture that spoke of confidence and power. The United Auto Workers is going into their negotiations with the same attitude, eager for a fight they feel confident they will win. 

Teachers’ strikes are now so common we sometimes don’t even notice them, and rolling strikes at Amazon, Starbucks, and other major corporations display an admirable fearlessness that has been hard to find for many years.  

And look at Hollywood, where unions are shutting down a whole industry. The first President of the AFL-CIO was George Meany, who boasted - boasted - that he’d never walked a picket line. This week, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler walked the picket line with the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA. Understand that that matters.

And the ambition is there, too.

In 1970, AFL-CIO George Meany gave an interview where he said, among other things, 

Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not want to be organized? . . . Frankly, I used to worry about the membership, about the size of the membership. But quite a few years ago, I just stopped worrying about it, because to me, it doesn't make any difference.

I kept coming across that quote, and the more I looked at it the more I was sure that it was a misquote or taken out of context or he was joking or that there was some kind of mitigating factor, because surely, the titular leader of the American labor movement couldn’t have thought that, right? I ended up spending a few hours at the Minneapolis Public Library, where I pulled the microfilm of that interview in US News and World Report. 

It wasn’t a misquote. It wasn’t taken out of context. It really was the President of the AFL-CIO saying he didn’t care about organizing members. Oh. My. God.

We don’t face that problem now. Organizing efforts are targeting some of the biggest employers in the country. Amazon. Apple. Microsoft. Unions up and down the line are committing to organize the unorganized, to take the fight to Corporate America.

Some smart labor folks have pointed out the actions are falling behind the rhetoric. I won’t argue the point. 

What I want to stress is this: the entirety of America’s organized labor movement is committed, at least officially, to new organizing.

So what? Why should we care what they say? We need only care what they do!

Of course. But here’s the thing: it matters what labor leaders say they believe in. Leadership is a real thing. When George Meany said he didn’t care if membership grew, he gave permission to all those who wanted to stop new organizing, and took the wind out of the sails of those who wanted to grow. 

The wind is all blowing in one direction now. 


Two Out of Three Ain’t Enough

That wouldn’t matter on its own, not much, anyway.

But ask yourself, when was the last time the labor movement was united, aggressive, and ambitious, all at the same time? 

Generally, we get two out of three. The moment that gave birth to the CIO in the 1930s was a literal fistfight between John L Lewis and Carpenters President William Hutcheson. Ambitious and aggressive, but not united. 

The reunion of the AFL and CIO in 1955 was a moment of great unity, created by leaders whose ambition was to cement labor’s permanent role as an equal partner in the economy alongside management, but who chose strike-hating, picket-line-avoiding Meany as their president.

The twilight struggles of the 1980s and 1990s featured lots of fight, and a reasonably united front, but you couldn’t call the labor movement ambitious. The 2005 split in the AFL-CIO - well, that was a replay of the 1930s, embodying Marx’s line that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

I’m not saying everything’s suddenly great now, that we’re on the glide path to new heights of labor power. The labor movement continues to face monumental, existential challenges, every single day. Our battle against Corporate America is as desperate as how the Earl of Manchester described the Roundheads’ fight against Charles I in the English Civil War: “We may beat him nine times and ninety, yet he is still king. If we lose but once we are hanged.” 

We are still, largely, on the defensive. As we speak, a constellation of billionaire-funded think tanks are dreaming up lawsuits that, however ridiculous on their face, will give the Supreme Court excuse after excuse to gut workers’ rights. We’re one bad election away from a national right-to-work law. And a win at UPS doesn’t mean the autoworkers, or the Hollywood unions, are going to win, too.

And I’m fairly confident that labor leaders will continue to do things that drive us to distraction, that the movement will make mistakes and pick stupid internal fights and waste too much of its money, and I’ll be right there with you all to complain about those things.

But today, I’m an optimist. I think this time is different. We have a world to gain, so let’s get to it. Organize, or go under.


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