We’re living in an era of economic malaise. Workers around the world are losing their jobs, their pensions, and their hopes for the future. But their government leaders, intent on balancing their budgets and repaying global creditors, are focusing on other concerns. So where can workers turn for support?
For much of the twentieth century in the United States, the American work force turned to the labor movement during times of economic strife. The United Auto Workers union, for instance, was established in the 1930s, during the very heart of the Great Depression. And the New York City strike of public transit workers in 1980 was launched during the final months of the Carter Administration, a time when the Big Apple had yet to fully emerge from its 1970s brush with bankruptcy.
The ensuing two decades of economic prosperity, during the 1980s and 1990s, were marked by dramatic declines in union membership and political power. And earlier this year, public sector unions suffered dramatic defeats in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and other states.
Late last month, though, the union movement in the United States achieved a pair of improbable victories. Can we be witnessing the stirrings of a labor renaissance?
The most recent labor victory involved a triumph by a union of part-time workers over the most successful and prosperous professional sports league in the world. The NFL Referees Association, having been locked out and replaced by so-called “scab” amateurs during regular season games, unexpectedly negotiated a triumphant return to the game last week.
How were they able to pull off such an improbable upset? The amateur replacement referees had produced a series of gaffes and blunders, leading many to question the integrity of the game itself. The final straw appeared to be a “blown call” on the last play of a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks; a referee’s decision awarded the victory to the wrong team.
The call itself was made by a full-time small business loan official from the Bank of America who had been hired as a weekend replacement referee by the National Football League. The ensuing ridicule over the blown call compelled the League to settle the dispute; in fact, the striking referees were back on the field four days later.
Two weeks ago, the Chicago Teachers Union also scored an unexpected victory against the school system. Incidentally, the Teachers Union, like the United Auto Workers organization, was founded in the middle of the Great Depression in order to protect the interests of its labor force.
The Teachers Union had decided to engage in a strike in the middle of the school year over issues regarding compensation, layoffs, curriculum content, and corporate privatization. The decision was a risky one, in light of recent setbacks suffered by the public labor force in the neighboring state of Wisconsin, and in spite of the supportive presence of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House Chief of Staff for Chicago resident Barack Obama.
In mid-September, the Union and the Board of Education both rejected a tentative arbitration settlement, and the strike extended into a second week. It was suspended when the City agreed to make a number of concessions in matters involving job security and teacher performance assessment activities.
An Outsourcing Rebellion
Interestingly, a nascent labor movement has been stirring in the developing world as well. Last month, for instance, almost 2,000 employees at a Foxconn factory in China engaged in a full-fledged riot to protest working conditions.
Although Foxconn is not an American corporation, it manufactures electronic components and finished goods for various Western firms. In fact, many technology professionals worried that the riot might affect Apple’s ability to produce sufficient iPhone 5 devices to meet the consumer demand created by its own marketing juggernaut.
FoxConn, incidentally, had previously announced major improvements in employee compensation levels and working conditions in response to a rash of worker suicides. Nevertheless, as a result of the recent riot, FoxConn may need to again reassess its “military method” of administrative management.
Made in America
American labor history, of course, has been marked by violent riots as well. Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in May 1886, for instance, inspired the institution of International Worker’s Day on May Day (i.e. May 1st) in over eighty nations. And in 1936, auto workers in Flint, Michigan seized control of a General Motors factory and fought pitched battles against police officers and corporate strike breakers.
Except for an occasionally rowdy Occupy Wall Street protest, though, the recent labor movement has been peaceful in nature. The Teacher’s Union, for instance, is now planning a series of town hall meetings and workshops throughout the United States; all of them are expected to be civil events.
It’s been a long time since the American economy experienced a strengthening union movement. In light of these recent events, though, and considering the improving prospects for a Democratic Party victory in the November national elections, conditions may indeed be ripe for a labor renaissance.