American workers made great strides in 2023. Autoworkers, UPS drivers, Kaiser health workers, screenwriters and actors all scored significant gains in earnings and benefits as a result of their respective unions taking tough, assertive stances in strikes and other forms of workplace activism. The agreements emerging from these actions will mean substantial improvements in the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.
But daunting obstacles face millions of other workers who’ve been attempting to unionize their workplaces or simply secure a fair and just contract when a previous contract expired. Global companies like Starbucks and Amazon, for example, have managed to avoid any kind of contract settlement with unionizing employees, and in my home city of Los Angeles, where existing contracts expired on June 30 for over 60 hotels, the largest hotel worker strike in U.S. history continues to drag on, soon into its sixth month. Only five hotels thus far have come to any tentative agreements with workers.
A major problem, particularly for workers seeking to unionize their workplaces for the first time, is that U.S. labor law places workers at a serious disadvantage with respect to employers. The latter can, for example, subject employees to “captive audience” meetings that promulgate anti-union messages, and can indefinitely drag out collective bargaining with virtually no penalties – a process that can simply wear workers down by attrition.
In a broader sense, however, the U.S. – unlike many advanced industrialized countries – is pervaded in its political culture and institutions by a deep anti-union ideology. Extending in the modern era as far back as passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), this ideology has guided a wide range of efforts to unravel the New Deal endorsement of government as a regulator of corporate power and as a protector of workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.
As early as the 1940s, business groups and conservative politicians advanced “right-to-work” legislation and litigation undermining unions by preventing them from requiring membership or dues from workers at sites where the unions represented all workers in collective bargaining. These legislative and judicial efforts portrayed right-to-work as a defense of workers’ rights and as a counter to union racketeering and corruption. Since then, 26 states have adopted right-to-work legislation.