The Dilemma at the Core of America’s Labor Movement

The past year was seen as a big moment for American workers. High-profile strikes by the United Auto Workers and Hollywood unions grabbed headlines and led to important wins. Support for unions reached levels not seen since the 1960s, with most Americans backing unions and being open to unionizing their own workplaces. President Joe Biden has shown strong support for organized labor more than any recent president. All of this points to a potentially stronger labor movement in the United States than in years past.

However, despite the positive signs, only a small percentage of American workers are actually part of unions. The private sector has even lower union membership rates. Companies like Amazon, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s still have workers without contracts or meaningful negotiations for one. While being in a union is linked to better pay, benefits, and workplace conditions, many American workers have not had the opportunity to benefit from union advantages. In fact, an estimate suggests that around 60 million workers in the U.S. want a union but are unable to have one.

The story of organized labor in the U.S. can be split into two narratives. Older unions from the 1930s have thrived, benefiting from strong foundations laid at the time when labor protections were solid. Yet, new unionizing efforts face significant hurdles. Legal changes over the years were not focused on dismantling existing unions but rather on hindering the formation of new ones. This has worked effectively, maintaining the number of union members but at a low percentage of the overall workforce. Public support and even presidential backing may not be enough to reverse this trend and strengthen the labor movement effectively.

Nearly a century ago, even fewer workers were part of unions, leading to high income inequality and oppressive workplace conditions. The Great Depression prompted significant change with the passing of the Wagner Act in 1935, granting workers the rights to unionize and take collective action. However, this shift was later countered by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which weakened key labor protections and hindered union growth. The subsequent decades saw further dilution of labor rights, culminating in the present-day challenges faced by workers in forming and maintaining unions.

Reversing the decline of union power requires overcoming legal obstacles that restrict workers’ ability to unionize effectively. The current process of union recognition through NLRB elections is riddled with loopholes that allow companies to thwart union efforts. Even if unions manage to gain majority support, companies can delay negotiations and maintain an upper hand in the bargaining process. While the cultural perception of labor unions has improved, the structural barriers to effective unionization remain a significant challenge for workers.

To revive organized labor in the U.S., significant legal reforms are needed to rebalance the power dynamic between workers and corporations. The Protecting the Rights to Organize Act, introduced in 2019, aims to undo key provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act and restore workers’ rights. However, cultural shifts and a deeper understanding of the benefits of unionization among the American public are crucial to driving meaningful change in labor laws. The road to a stronger labor movement is paved with both legal reforms and a renewed societal appreciation for the collective power of workers.

Polaroid Workers Movement

In the early 70s, the photography giant Polaroid found itself in hot water when employees discovered that the company was involved in the South African apartheid system by providing the government with photos that were used in the “passbook” system to identify black individuals.

As reported by camera blog, two co-workers Caroline Hunter and Ken williams formed the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement in 1970 to stop the company from selling all photography equipment to the South African Government. While the company stopped selling equipment directly and denied any further involvement, it was later found out that the Polaroid Distributors in South Africa were still selling their equipment to the Government. It seemed like the company was trying to avoid bad press while still making profit from the Government. By using forced cheap labour, the profits were especially high for any corporation doing work in South Africa.

The company was known as a very Progressive workplace and had strong hiring of African Americans and women. As the message on the workers movement spread, Polaroid faced strong hostility in the United States. You can see a press release issued by the PRWM here. The list of demands included boycotting the country of South Africa and block all sales of Polaroid Photography. They also wanted Polaroid to announce their stance on apartheid publicly and asked the company to donate all their profits made in South Africa to minority liberation movements.

Although Polaroid tried to distance itself from the South African Government, pressure kept mounting which forced the company to take out full page ads trying to explain their stance but the environment in the 70s was not conducive to having anything which might be seen as supporting apartheid.

Throughout this whole saga, both Hunter and Williams lost their jobs but kept doing their work through the workers movement. By 1977, Polaroid was the first major US corporation to pull operations out of South Africa. This was followed by others and showed the power of worker organized movements.