AMELIA DORNBUSH is a former Malka Fellow at Lilith and currently works for a union in Michigan.
Labor unions in the United States have an approval rating of 64% in the US according to Gallup. Yet, union density continues to decline—currently hovering just above 10%. Clearly, there’s a gap between the wish of American workers to have a democratic say in their lives and the legal mechanisms by which they can attain such a voice.
In early April, I was struck by a headline in the publication Labor Notes that read: “Will Covid-19 be Our Triangle Fire?” In 1911, over a hundred workers (many of them Jewish women) burned alive in a shirtwaist factory because of unsafe conditions that were entirely preventable. The protests that followed led to the establishment of numerous worker safety protections.
The parallels to our current moment are unmistakable. Tens of thousands of Americans have died of Covid-19. Essential workers are especially at risk, all the more so because the protections that workers won over a century ago have gradually been eroding.
Historically, an interplay between shop-floor action and legal changes have led to the growth of workers’ rights and democratic expression. Given the antilabor Labor Board and Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that legal avenues will offer much solace now.
That leaves direct action. And during the pandemic, worker organizing is on the rise. A strike map has shown over 200 walkouts since March, many of them happening at not-yet-union facilities.
It is genuinely impossible to say what the future of organizing will be after the pandemic—unemployment is rising and union members have been hit hard with layoffs. Corporations have ruthlessly fired workers who organize, even hospitals short-staffed during a pandemic. In many ways, the future could be grim.
We have to hope we can build ourselves a new world from the ashes of the old. The labor movement at its core is about democracy and connections among workers. A virtual world makes it harder to attain those things—but the labor movement has adapted before and will adapt again.
During this pandemic, we have seen glimmers of what that new world could be. From anecdotal evidence, it looks like unions have been fielding an increased number of calls from workers seeking to organize. Even without a formal union, workers have been winning demands through collective action. So there is hope.
Following the Triangle Fire, Rose Schneiderman delivered a speech to the Women’s Trade Union League. She said: “Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely orderly and must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
“I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”