Commentary

Whether at factories, shops, or campuses, labor is on the move this holiday season | Opinion

Why has labor activity experienced a resurgence after decades of decline? Most labor analysts point to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

A coalition of progressive advocacy groups rallies on the Pa. Capitol steps to call for better funding for public schools, a higher minimum wage, and other items in the 2019 state budget. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

By Ashlee Reick and Fletcher McClellan

One of the surprise stories of 2021 is the positive, recurrent attention workers’ rights have received.

Highlighted by “Striketober” activities, during which 100,000 workers mobilized in nearly 50 strikes, unions gained ground in factories and white-collar workplaces. 

Workers at John Deere and Nabisco obtained new contracts. Amazon warehouse organizers in Alabama got a second chance after a vote last spring was declared illegal. And, Starbucks servers in Buffalo, New York became the first of the coffee chain to unionize.

Locally, workers at the Kellogg’s plant in Lancaster County challenged the cereal maker’s efforts to cut jobs and reduce wages and benefits to the newly-hired. Union members approved a new contract on Tuesday, ending a ten-week strike. 

Why has labor activity experienced a resurgence after decades of decline

Most labor analysts point to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions were laid off suddenly. Essential workers, ranging from nurses to child care workers to grocery stock clerks, stayed on the job despite hazardous conditions. Family life was negatively impacted by school closings and remote work, garnering greater media attention. Gaping holes in the U.S. social safety net were uncovered.

Amidst widespread labor shortages, the remarkable “Great Resignation” of the past year appears to be mainly “low-wage workers switching to better jobs in industries that are raising wages to grab new employees as fast as possible.”

Add to this support from a self-proclaimed, pro-union President of the United States, and it is clear labor is in the driver’s seat for the first time in a long time.

But let’s not be fooled. Labor organizing is hard. Despite increased strike activity in recent years, only 10.8% of all workers, 14 million in all, belong to a union, down from 20% nearly 40 years ago. This was despite increased economic inequality, CEO pay and corporation profits.

Many obstacles to unionization still exist. Efforts to organize student workers are a case in point.

For many years, graduate and undergraduate students performed much of the work on college campuses without recognition as employees. This meant students served at the pleasure of academic departments and college services without any involvement in university decisions affecting pay, working conditions, health and child care benefits, guarantees of academic freedom or protection from sexual harassment and assault.

Student workers at public higher education institutions are governed by state law. Fourteen states grant graduate students bargaining rights. For students at private institutions, it was not until a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling in 2016 that they were recognized as employees with rights to organize and collectively bargain. 

Graduate student unions, representing students hired to teach, conduct research and perform clerical duties, formed at a dozen universities, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Duke.

These rights were threatened by a proposed Trump administration rule in 2019 that would have removed recognition of students as employees. The Biden NLRB withdrew the rule last March, triggering a new wave of student organizing.

The current hotspot of student union activity is Columbia University in New York City. Last spring, 3,000 graduate students and some undergraduate workers went on strike. After a tentative contract was voted down, students resumed the strike in early November. 

Five weeks later, the Columbia administration announced that appointment letters would be sent to only those student workers who ceased their participation in the strike by Friday, Dec. 10. The United Auto Workers-affiliated union filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB

While student workers’ unions are prominent at Ivy League and other affluent institutions with high endowments (Columbia’s endowment, for example, is over $14 billion), students at regional public universities and small, liberal arts colleges are in need of support. 

One model is a federal, student workers’ union, similar to the National Union of Students of Australia, which represents one million students. Alternatively, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, representing 400,000 postgraduate students, is a non-profit advocacy organization. 

A national students’ union and statewide counterparts could address campus issues with tuition, room and board, curriculum, campus housing conditions and investment of endowment assets. They also could lobby governments on major issues affecting students such as raising the minimum wage, canceling student loan debt, immigration and international student rights.

Moreover, in the tradition of student antiwar and civil rights protests, student unions could advocate for human rights such as reproductive freedom, protections for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Americans, and action to combat climate change.

In the meantime, the fight for American workers continues, whether in health care, bookstores, fast food restaurants, airlines or special metals

As you celebrate the holidays, don’t forget the sacrificing workers and their families on picket lines. Also remember struggling workers who lack representation, including those at the North Pole loading Santa’s sleigh. They all could use your support.

Ashlee Reick, is a 2021 political science graduate of Elizabethtown College. Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.

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