It was the T-shirt that first caught my attention: its wearer stood on the end of the line, beaming with the rest of the representatives celebrating their Memphis-based Starbucks outlet’s successful unionisation. The eye-catching crimson, reminiscent of a socialist red flag, juxtaposed the corporate mascot adorning the torso, basking on a bed of bullion and bank-notes. The T-shirt was decadent, consumerist and, most tellingly, individualistic; a far cry from Arthur Scargill’s cap and woollen blazer.
If union representatives can now wear such an unapologetically commercial T-shirt, what might this say about the seemingly rejuvenated US Trade Union movement; a movement historically characterized by collectivism, equity and, at times, socialism; a movement that is making progress again, gaining first-time representation within some of the world’s most powerful multinationals. Has the American union movement really shifted values so radically and, if so, why?
Unsurprisingly, coronavirus played some part. “The pandemic and the language of ‘essential’ workers has raised workers’ expectations,” Dr. Jordan House, assistant professor of labour studies at Brock University, tells me. “Young people do not seem content to accept the idea that they should break their backs to make their employers even richer.”
John Abowd, Cornell University Professor of Economics, elaborates: “with a strong labour market, employees have very good outside options. This greatly enhances their bargaining power,” somewhat explaining the recent wave of voluntary departures across the US. ‘The great resignation’ saw 47.8 million US workers choose to leave employment in 2021, and 4.4 million more to do likewise in the first four months of 2022.
Renewed trade unions and the great resignation are symbiotic: the pandemic prompted some to leave for greener pastures, whilst those who stay use their increased value to bargain for improved workplaces. The representatives that I spoke to from the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) agree: “During the pandemic, people started thinking about what work is essential. The college cannot function without student workers.”
That said, strength does not guarantee stability: Chris Fielder, a Starbucks Union leader, explains that “younger workers don’t feel like industry has kept its promise: that growth is good for everyone.” It’s hard to disagree: rising inflation and employer’s failure to raise wages accordingly mean real wages are falling at an annual rate of 4.3%. The ‘real economy’ (non-financial assets) is also failing to afford working Americans’ their desired lifestyles: home ownership has dropped for the first time since 2016 and average healthcare premiums will consume 13.45% of the real median salary. Working Americans are also finding it harder to detach from big business, with only a third of new enterprises surviving for over a decade.
Moreover, businesses have done little to protect workers. Chronic salary violations have sapped workers’ wages, whilst private companies have failed to deliver essential services: In 2018, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase mutually formed Haven, with the express aim of providing “US employees with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.” Haven disbanded less than three years later.
This is only one example of an abandoned private sector initiative. With every failure, employees were left feeling despondent; collective bargaining often seemed like the only solution.
But surely these are historical failings? After all, Biden, the candidate who declared “Unions built the middle class”, has been actively working to expand Union power: establishing a White House Force on Worker Organization and Employment, creating the Made in America programme to direct federal money into unionised sectors and pushing for the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act to be passed into legislation. Under Biden, trade unions must be benefitting?
I am met by a fairly emphatic response when I put this to the Grinnell representatives: “No” they say, almost in unison. “Even if the PRO Act passed, we would still need to organise. It is a political movement, not a cooperation between us and the bosses.”
Herein lies the contradiction at the heart of contemporary US trade unionism: the ideological disparity between leaders and members who now feel compelled to join.
Those who join unions at a grassroots level may do so in order to win a fairer share for themselves within the existing system. If they manage to rise into the managerial ranks, they soon advocate more radical change.
“We don’t require every member to be a socialist,” says one of the Grinnell reps. “Saying that, we [three leaders at the head of the movement] believe the labour movement needs to be socialist if it’s going to be effective.”
He continues, telling me “That’s not a unique story, we have plenty of people who have gotten more involved and developed their critique of the working class and the capitalist system.” When I ask them, they tell me that none of them came into the Union with this worldview. Only one was involved with labour movements when growing up, and another described his family household as “conservative.” They understand their beliefs to be a product of the system, not their motivation for joining.
Despite describing the Union movement as an ideologically “big tent”, it is clear that Starbucks representative Chris Fielder agrees: “Maybe our demand to be listened to requires systemic change” he concedes.
American unionism’s appeal may have broadened but the movement’s leaders are reaching the same conclusions. The front-of-house might want to negotiate a fairer deal but beyond this, dyed into the wool, is the same socialist red. Maybe the T-shirt said it all from the start.
[Photo by Bastian Greshake Tzovaras, via Wikimedia Commons]
Daniel Gorringe is a Parliamentary staffer. Prior to working in Parliament, he worked in a junior capacity at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in the Asia Studies Department, where he helped research and write numerous projects. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.