The 8 Most Important Labor Stories of 2018

Rebecca Burns December 20, 2018

McDonald's workers are joined by other activists as they march toward the company's headquarters to protest sexual harassment at the fast food chain's restaurants on September 18, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

1. Janus dealt a heavy blow to labor — but pub­lic-sec­tor unions didn’t crum­ble overnight.

In June, the Supreme Court issued its long-await­ed rul­ing in Janus v. AFSCME—and it was just as bad as every­one feared. In a 5‑to‑4 deci­sion, the court found that pub­lic-sec­tor unions vio­lat­ed the First Amend­ment by col­lect­ing so-called fair-share fees from work­ers who aren’t union mem­bers but ben­e­fit from col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing regardless.

A report by the Illi­nois Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute esti­mat­ed that the result­ing free-rid­er” prob­lem could even­tu­al­ly lead to the loss of 726,000 pub­lic-sec­tor union mem­bers nation­wide. This dimin­ished strength could result, in turn, in a 3.6 per­cent decline in pub­lic-sec­tor wages.

But the imme­di­ate fall­out has been less cat­a­stroph­ic than some fore­cast. Pub­lic-sec­tor unions took a hit to their finances, as auto­mat­ic deduc­tions from non-mem­bers ceased. But many are report­ing that mem­ber­ship is hold­ing steady, or even increas­ing. That’s thanks in large part to pro­tec­tive mea­sures enact­ed in blue states, as well as proac­tive mem­ber­ship orga­niz­ing by unions them­selves — both of which the Right is attempt­ing to over­turn or counter with its own aggres­sive opt out” cam­paigns. While it’s far too ear­ly to tell what the long-term impact of Janus will be, the rul­ing wasn’t the knock­out blow that anti-union forces had hoped for.

2. Work­ers resist­ed the depor­ta­tion machine.

This sum­mer, out­rage over the Trump administration’s fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion pol­i­cy sparked mass protests as well as cre­ative new forms of work­place resistance.

In June, hun­dreds of Microsoft work­ers signed onto an open let­ter demand­ing that the com­pa­ny can­cel its $19.4 mil­lion con­tract with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) for pro­cess­ing data and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence capabilities.

As the peo­ple who build the tech­nolo­gies that Microsoft prof­its from, we refuse to be com­plic­it,” read the let­ter, which was pub­lished in The New York Times.

Tech work­ers weren’t the only ones to take this stand. After flight atten­dant Hunt Palmquist spot­ted an ICE agent with five young immi­grant chil­dren on one of his flights, and con­firmed that the chil­dren were being trans­port­ed to a deten­tion cen­ter, he pledged to refuse to work any such flights in the future.

I have made a deci­sion that if I’m ever assigned to a flight with chil­dren who’ve been sep­a­rat­ed from their fam­i­lies, I will imme­di­ate­ly remove myself from the trip due to the nature of this uncon­scionable act by my gov­ern­ment and my employ­er’s com­plic­i­ty,” he wrote in a June edi­to­r­i­al in the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle. I have told my sto­ry to many of my flight atten­dant col­leagues and they have pledged to do the same.”

The same week, a num­ber of major air­lines, includ­ing Palmquist’s employ­er, issued state­ments ask­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment not to use their planes to fly immi­grant chil­dren sep­a­rat­ed from their parents.

Both actions had their lim­i­ta­tions — Microsoft issued state­ments oppos­ing Trump’s poli­cies but has yet to can­cel its ICE con­tract, and air­lines con­tin­ue to aid the dai­ly deten­tions and depor­ta­tions that take place out­side the head­lines of fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion. But work­ers rec­og­niz­ing their role in the depor­ta­tion machine — and there­fore their pow­er to halt it — is a promis­ing devel­op­ment. In some indus­tries, unions have formed new coali­tions to fight mea­sures like the can­cel­la­tion of tem­po­rary pro­tect­ed sta­tus and pro­mote the mes­sage that immi­grants’ rights are work­ers’ rights. 

3. Incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple coor­di­nat­ed a nation­wide prison strike.

After years of esca­lat­ing protests by incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple, this fall saw what was prob­a­bly the largest prison strike in U.S. his­to­ry. One of the key demands issued by strik­ers was an imme­di­ate end to prison slav­ery” and pay­ment of the pre­vail­ing wage for all labor per­formed by pris­on­ers. It’s typ­i­cal for incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple to be paid as lit­tle as $1 an hour, includ­ing for dan­ger­ous work such as fight­ing wild­fires. In some states, they are paid noth­ing at all. 

Coor­di­nat­ed with the sup­port of out­side groups includ­ing the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment and the Incar­cer­at­ed Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee, the strike report­ed­ly reached at least 33 facil­i­ties in 15 states and last­ed for 19 days. Pris­on­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in work stop­pages, com­mis­sary boy­cotts and hunger strikes at immense per­son­al risk, and some par­tic­i­pants con­tin­ue to report retal­i­a­tion months lat­er, accord­ing to sup­port­ing organizations.

But the strike gar­nered wide­spread media atten­tion and lent momen­tum to one of the strik­ers’ oth­er key demands: vot­ing rights for ex-pris­on­ers. In Novem­ber, Florid­i­ans vot­ed to restore the vote to 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple with felony convictions.

4. #MeToo joined forces with the labor movement.

#MeToo was nev­er lim­it­ed to rich Hol­ly­wood actress­es, as some bad-faith cri­tiques sug­gest­ed. The hash­tag was orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed by activist Tarana Burke to con­nect women of col­or with sup­port and resources for sex­u­al assault, and has also helped shine a light on sex­u­al harass­ment in low-wage sectors.

But until recent­ly, the move­ment was gen­er­al­ly more focused on pub­lic pres­sure and legal action than on work­place orga­niz­ing. That changed this fall, when McDonald’s went on what orga­niz­ers say was the first-ever mul­ti-state strike against sex­u­al harass­ment. After McDonald’s employ­ees filed com­plaints with the U.S. Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tu­ni­ty Com­mis­sion this spring, say­ing the com­pa­ny was rou­tine­ly ignor­ing reports sex­u­al harass­ment, work­ers esca­lat­ed by going on a one-day strike at McDonald’s restau­rants in at least 10 cities in Sep­tem­ber. The actions were backed by both Fight for 15 and Time’s Up, the legal fund launched ear­li­er this year by a group of women in Hollywood.

In Novem­ber, work­ers staged a walk­out against sex­u­al harass­ment in anoth­er indus­try rife with it. In a water­shed moment for tech, more than 20,000 Google employ­ees world­wide — over 20 per­cent of the company’s total work­force — walked off the job. The one-day action came in the wake of an arti­cle in The New York Times reveal­ing that Google had hand­ed out mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar exit pack­ages to male exec­u­tives accused of mis­con­duct while remain­ing silent about the problem.

Sex­u­al harass­ment is a prob­lem that cuts across indus­tries, but in all of them, work­er pow­er is a key part of the solution.

5. Work­ers made inroads into union­iz­ing Amazon.

This year, thou­sands of Ama­zon work­ers across Europe went on a three-day strike. Yet despite wide­spread reports of dra­con­ian work­ing con­di­tions in its ful­fill­ment cen­ters,” Ama­zon has suc­cess­ful­ly fend­ed off all attempts at union­iza­tion in the Unit­ed States since the company’s found­ing in 1994.

That’s why it was so remark­able when, ear­li­er this year, a group of Soma­li Ama­zon work­ers in Min­neso­ta forced the company’s local man­age­ment to the table to nego­ti­ate over work­ing con­di­tions. Agi­tat­ed by the lack of progress, the work­ers ral­lied in the park­ing lot of one of Amazon’s Min­neapo­lis facil­i­ties this month, demand­ing safe pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tar­gets, cul­tur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty for Mus­lim employ­ees and a fund for afford­able housing.

The group orga­nized with the sup­port of the Awood Cen­ter, an East African work­er cen­ter in Min­neso­ta. But now that cracks are show­ing in Amazon’s anti-union armor, tra­di­tion­al unions are plan­ning to take anoth­er shot. Bloomberg report­ed in Decem­ber that work­ers at a recent­ly opened ful­fill­ment cen­ter in Stat­en Island plan to seek recog­ni­tion with the Retail, Whole­sale and Depart­ment Store Union (RWD­SU), which is also orga­niz­ing employ­ees at Ama­zon-sub­sidiary Whole Foods.

RWD­SU Pres­i­dent Stu­art Appel­baum told Bloomberg that the union plans to use the gen­er­ous sub­si­dies Ama­zon is receiv­ing for its new HQ2 in New York as a pres­sure point. If tax­pay­ers are giv­ing Ama­zon $3 bil­lion, then tax­pay­ers have the right to demand that Ama­zon stop being a union-bust­ing company.”

6. Team­sters lead­er­ship flout­ed union democ­ra­cy at Unit­ed Par­cel Ser­vice (UPS).

But in a year when Ama­zon work­ers made huge strides, more than 240,000 UPS work­ers fell behind. UPS is both a provider for and a com­peti­tor to Ama­zon. When the lat­ter, non-union com­pa­ny announced it was bump­ing employ­ees’ min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour, it added insult to injury for union­ized UPS work­ers who had just been offered a new con­tract con­tain­ing a start­ing pay of $13, with no catch-up rais­es” for those who had been under­paid for years.

Incred­i­bly, thanks to a mas­sive vote no” cam­paign and a viral YouTube video called Why the UPS 2018 Con­tract Sucks!” 54 per­cent of rank-and-file mem­bers vot­ed in Octo­ber to reject the deal. Even more incred­i­bly, Team­ster brass quick­ly announced that they would rat­i­fy it any­way, cit­ing a loop­hole in the union’s constitution.

As Joe Allen wrote in Jacobin, Team­sters Pres­i­dent James Hoffa’s bid to side with the boss­es will have far-reach­ing consequences:

Hoffa’s sab­o­tage at UPS is not only a cat­a­stro­phe for UPS Team­sters — it is a gift to antiu­nion forces in the Janus era. If a boss want­ed to make up a sto­ry to defeat a fledg­ling union dri­ve — with indif­fer­ent union lead­ers who col­lect mem­bers’ dues, nego­ti­ate a con­tract with a low­er start­ing pay than non-union Ama­zon, and then fla­grant­ly ignore those work­ers’ clear­ly and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly stat­ed objec­tions to that con­tract — they couldn’t come up with one as good as what’s just played out between UPS and the Teamsters.

7. Teach­ers rewrote the rules.

When the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) struck in 2012, the CEO of the pow­er­ful UNO char­ter chain crowed that his schools con­tin­ued to be open with­out interruption.”

Oh, how the tables have turned. The nation’s first-ever char­ter strike took place in Chica­go this Decem­ber when teach­ers at 15 schools in the Acero net­work, the suc­ces­sor to UNO, walked out over stalled con­tract negotiations.

The strike last­ed four days and end­ed in a resound­ing vic­to­ry for the union, which won pay rais­es for teach­ers and para­pro­fes­sion­als, a reduc­tion in class sizes and sanc­tu­ary school pro­tec­tions for undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dents and families.

While the char­ter strike was a very dif­fer­ent kind of action than the teacher rebel­lions that roiled red states this spring, they have some­thing key in com­mon. In both blue cities and red states, the polit­i­cal class has spent decades divert­ing funds from pub­lic edu­ca­tion to pri­vate inter­ests, then turn­ing around and cry­ing broke. Teach­ers deliv­ered a pow­er­ful repu­di­a­tion of that strat­e­gy, as well as ongo­ing attempts to strip them of their pow­er as workers.

The teacher strike wave is still con­tin­u­ing — Los Ange­les teach­ers just set a strike date of Jan­u­ary 10, and Indi­ana teach­ers have threat­ened a walk­out next year if the leg­is­la­ture fails to address teacher pay.

8. Work­ers fought the oil and gas industry.

The labor move­ment remains deeply divid­ed over cli­mate action, with groups like nurs­es sup­port­ing ambi­tious mea­sures while con­struc­tion unions and build­ing trades large­ly remain bit­ter­ly opposed.

But this year brought a num­ber of reminders that it’s pos­si­ble to reframe this debate and con­front the fos­sil fuel indus­try as a class ene­my, as well as an ene­my of the plan­et. In 2018, for exam­ple, strik­ing Okla­homa teach­ers won a tax-hike on oil pro­duc­tion to fund pub­lic edu­ca­tion, and Baton Rouge teach­ers suc­cess­ful­ly killed anoth­er tax break for Exxon by threat­en­ing to strike.

The Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion cur­rent­ly gain­ing steam pro­vides the best oppor­tu­ni­ty yet to unite the cli­mate move­ment and the labor move­ment, expo­nen­tial­ly increas­ing the pow­er of both. In addi­tion to a cli­mate jobs guar­an­tee” in the cur­rent draft that pro­vides for uni­ver­sal, liv­ing-wage jobs, labor could seize the momen­tum around the pop­u­lar plan to call for the inclu­sion of long-sought union recog­ni­tion and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. 

There are hope­ful signs as the year clos­es out. Last week, the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union’s Local 32BJ — a pow­er­ful prop­er­ty ser­vices union with 175,000 mem­bers—announced its sup­port for the Green New Deal.

Pres­i­dent Hec­tor Figueroa vowed to push oth­er labor lead­ers to sup­port the mea­sure, telling The Huff­in­g­ton Post, I ful­ly expect oth­er unions to say, We are behind this’” by ear­ly next year.

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH