Labor leaders and workers have had enough

Union membership is growing again after a slump, thanks in part to the pandemic and a rapidly changing labor market

BRATTLEBORO — When I think about labor movements and unions, two favorite stories come to mind, and both are true.

The first one is about a group of girls and young women known as the Lowell Factory Girls. They worked in the mills and factories of Lowell, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

Little more than children who labored for long days doing dangerous and exhausting work, they revolted in 1836 when their dismal wages were cut while their factory-owner-mandated living expenses went up.

One day, an 11-year-old worker named Harriet Hanson decided enough was enough. She walked out "with childish bravado," as she wrote in her 1898 memoir, declaring that she would go alone if she had to.

That wasn't necessary.

A long line of girls followed her and thus began a strike that led to an organized labor movement launched by women, and the establishment of an early U.S. union.

* * *

The second story is less well known. It involves a labor leader and activist, Esther Peterson, who was born in 1906 into a conservative family in Utah. Esther, with whom I had a special friendship, eventually came to New York, where she taught wealthy girls by day and the daughters of their household maids at night.

Working at home, the young girls sewed pockets onto Hoover aprons if they were old enough, alongside their mothers. The pockets were squares until management decided heart-shaped pockets were nicer. The work was piecework, and hearts took longer than squares.

Esther was outraged that they weren't paid more.

"Why don't you do something about it?" her husband asked. "Organize a strike!"

Esther, who grew up thinking unions led to danger and violence, resisted. But she decided to advocate for the children, so she organized the Heartbreakers Strike, inviting her wealthy day students' mothers to go on picket lines since the police would never brutalize them as they would the poor mothers.

It worked, and Esther was on her way to becoming a beloved labor leader.

* * *

I think of the Factory Girls and Esther now, when so many large-scale strikes loom large - and for good reason.

It's no coincidence that workers at UPS and in Teamsters unions in Amazon warehouses across the country and at Starbucks - as well as Hollywood writers and actors - are striking or have contemplated doing so for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. American Airlines cabin crews may soon be joining them.

That's a wide, diverse swath of American workers and a huge number of jobs, goods, and services at stake.

The implications are alarming. A short time ago the threat of a railroad strike was enough to make economists shudder, and that's only one sector that could have wrought havoc throughout the country.

Leaders of unions that represent large numbers of people working in companies trying to deny them their right to unionize act as though union organizing was something new and egregiously difficult.

The fact is that huge, organized strikes are nothing new in this country. We've had labor unions forever, inspired originally by the 18th-century Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Shorter work days, livable minimum wages, and rational benefits have always been a big part of union organizing. For example, poor pay and working conditions led to strikes by the Pullman Company railroad workers in 1894 and the United Mine Workers in 1919.

* * *

Over the years, unions grew across many sectors, and by 1979 there were 21 million union members in the United States.

Today, union membership is growing again after a slump, thanks in part to the pandemic and a rapidly changing labor market.

Young workers are unionizing across various sectors now because of tech-driven jobs. They are joining farmers, factory workers, food handlers, and others as they seek safe and equitable employment, just as factory girls and children sewing apron pockets did before them.

For UPS drivers, Amazon workers, Starbucks baristas, and others, companies that refuse to bargain are enraging. Labor leaders and workers have had enough. They are tired of corporate leaders who make phenomenal amounts of money a year, own mansions and yachts, and still continue reneging on workers' rights.

Amazon, for example, has engaged in dozens of unfair labor practices, including terminating the entire unit of newly organized workers.

Starbucks "has become the most aggressive union-busting company in America," according to a staffer for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and more than 200 workers have been fired for taking part in organizing activities.

* * *

I'm not trying to put a Pollyanna spin on unions. I know there is a troubling history of corruption and criminal intent in some organized labor movements and unions, and that is not something to be overlooked.

But I agree with John F. Kennedy that labor unions "are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. [...] They have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor."

More to the point, perhaps in these troubling political times, labor leader Dolores Huerta was right when she put the point this way: "If we don't have workers organized in unions, we are in great danger of losing our democracy."

My friend Esther would agree with her old boss, JFK, and with Dolores Huerta, with whom she worked on labor rights for women and children.

Elayne Clift (elayne-clift.com) has written about women, politics, and social issues from the earliest days of this newspaper.

This Voices column was submitted to The Commons.

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