On this Labor Day, unions are surging – again

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Publisher's note: This article was published in the Gannett-owned Courier-Journal as a Labor Day feature, but the bolded sentence was removed. Berry then shared the article with us, and we are publishing the complete version.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it can often rhyme,” Mark Twain supposedly said.

It’s true even if he didn’t say it.

Nine decades ago, our country was on the cusp of its biggest-ever upswing in union organizing. On this Labor Day, unions are on the rise again.

“After years of decline, the American labor movement is experiencing a resurgence, with an increase in popularity of unions and of workers organizing,” Michael Sainato recently wrote in The Guardian online.

In the 1930s, employers continued their longstanding stubborn and often violent resistance to unionization in the 1930s. Today, “the corporate pushback in America has been fierce, and has come amid allegations of union-busting, and brutal campaigns to try and discourage workers from organizing,” Sainato added.

Unions persisted in the ‘30s. They’re hanging tough today, too.

Unions were immeasurably helped by the 1935 Wagner Act and other landmark labor legislation passed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program of fighting the Great Depression. Thousands of workers joined unions, notably in largely unorganized heavy industry.

Skeptics had said it was hopeless to unionize factory workers. But unions like the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers became some of the country’s largest labor organizations.

Likewise, doubters have long believed that organizing traditionally low-wage food and beverage service employees amounted to mission impossible. But those very workers are grabbing headlines nationwide for joining unions.

In the Louisville area, employees at two Starbucks stores — one on Factory Lane and the other in Clarksville, Ind. — have voted to join Workers United. The union says it won a vote at the Starbucks in the Falls City’s Bon Air neighborhood, though three ballots are disputed. A National Labor Relations Board hearing will determine the validity of the ballots.

Also, employees at Heine Brothers Coffee stores and baristas at Sunergos Coffee shop want to affiliate with the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers/Service Employees International Union 32BJ and workers at Half Price Books have started a union drive. “Half Price Books workers are organizing because they love their jobs, and they love their company, and they want their company to be better so they can make a living wage, stay in their jobs and have a career as a bookseller,” said Caitlin Blair, spokeswoman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227, the union the workers want.

The Factory Lane Starbucks store is near Ford’s big Kentucky truck plant off I-265, where hourly workers belong to UAW Local 862. “These workers went through a lot during the pandemic,” said Tim Morris, executive director of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council. “They look around and see UAW workers at Ford and in the Teamsters and in all of our other unions enjoying better pay and benefits and a better way of life, which they deserve, too.”

In Louisville, too, approximately 35 Courier-Journal newsroom staffers, calling themselves the Courier-Journal Guild, have announced that they want to join The News Guild-Communications Workers of America Local 34070, the union which represents Indianapolis Star journalists.

Meanwhile, unions are triumphing in business and industry across-the-board from coast-to-coast. Check out “Enacting Tangible Change: Worker Wins” from the AFL-CIO.

While strong public backing is vital for a strong union movement, what organized labor needs most is more friends in Congress, governors’ mansions, and statehouses, including the Kentucky Capitol.

Joe Biden is shaping up to be the most pro-union president since FDR. Pro-union Democrats control the U.S. House. But in the 50-50 Senate, ferociously anti-union Republicans led by Mitch McConnell are poised to filibuster any significant labor legislation, notably the vital PRO Act.

In Frankfort, Gov. Andy Beshear is labor-friendly. But the GOP enjoys anti-union supermajorities in the state House and Senate. Unions hope to chip away at those majorities by helping elect pro-labor candidates on Nov. 8.

“The pendulum does swing the other way eventually,” said Jeff Wiggins, Kentucky State AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. “But if working families are going to prosper in Kentucky, we're going to have to elect more labor-friendly candidates.”

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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