The corporate hierarchy has long tried to diminish labor activism in the US by insisting that strikes and other workplace agitations have never had broad support or impact because they are fundamentally un-American. The corporatists cluck that from the get-go America’s cultural zeitgeist has been grounded in veneration of individualism, appreciation for the financial blessings of the corporate order, and the rejection of collectivism.
In a word: Hogwash! And Horsefeathers! (Okay, two words, just for emphasis). These self-serving fictionalizers seem unaware of a momentous labor event at America’s very start: The Jamestown Artisans Strike of 1619. Or they are aware, but don’t want you to be. Thus–shhhh–you won’t find it mentioned in college textbooks or TV documentaries, nor even on any of the many markers at the Jamestown living history museum. So, the Lowdown invites you to take a quick trip with us, back some 400 years to America’s future, to witness this bold work stoppage organized in the very first permanent English settlement in North America.
We start in 1606, when King James I awarded a royal charter to a private British corporation to possess the land and exploit the resources along a vast swath of Virginia’s coast in “The New World” (which, of course, was the old world to thousands of Powhatan people and other Native Americans). Thus, in 1607, the Virginia Company of London sent 120 men on three ships to establish the Jamestown Settlement–not as a civil society, but as a for-profit commodity extraction and export operation.
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Things went horribly awry in a hurry, threatening the imminent collapse of the business venture. It turns out that too many of the settlers were British gentlemen seeking “adventure,” and had no practical skills and even less willingness to do the labor.
Luckily, there was Poland.
Huh? Yes. Captain John Smith, the English mercenary who wrangled a leadership role in the new settlement, knew that skilled craftsmen could be, as a contemporary writer reported, “fetched … for small wages,” to work as free men in the colony and so escape near-slavery in Poland. In 1608 and 1609, Smith recruited 11 of these artisans, skilled in glass blowing, pitch and tar making, turpentine distillation, soap making, timbering, well-digging, and shipbuilding. The Poles saved the Virginia Company’s venture. The necessities they made and profits from exporting them stabilized the Jamestown economy.
By 1619, the settlement had grown to a few hundred colonists, and the corporation and crown allowed them to form a lawmaking assembly of “freely elected” representatives. The resulting Virginia House of Burgesses was the first elected government in British America. Democracy! Well … sort of. To vote or to be elected, you had to be (1) a landowner, (2) a male, and (3) an Englishman. Numbers 1 and 3 disqualified the Poles. After all, skilled as they were, they were still just landless foreigners, presumed to have no ability or interest in the higher art of governance. One can only imagine then, the open-mouthed astonishment of the British gentlemen when they heard a sharp outcry from these laborers that amounted to: “No Vote, No Work!”
It was no idle threat. While details are scarce, historic records of the Virginia Company confirm that the artisans did indeed go on strike–and the bigwigs in London and Jamestown realized they were in a pinch. The owners’ lust for profits quickly overcame their ideological disdain for worker suffrage. On July 21, 1619, the corporation declared the Poles to be Englishmen for purposes of voting, officially decreeing them “enfranchised, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever.”
United States of Unions
No matter how hard corporate mythologists try to deny it, labor uprisings are natural expressions of people’s maverick spirit, and they’ve been both a constant and an essential force in the democratization of American society. Our nation–born in bloody rebellion–was never likely to create a “yes, boss” workforce meekly serving the corporate order. Indeed, the story of US labor is the epic tale of widespread, aggressive labor rebellions, with generations of workers in every economic sector in every region of the country confronting, organizing, protesting, boycotting, striking, and otherwise agitating for a little more economic fairness and a bit bigger say about working conditions.
Unfortunately, our educational and media Powers That Be don’t celebrate that story. Instead, they ignore, minimalize, and whitewash the frequency and intensity of the agitation–in hope that workers won’t grasp the democratic possibilities of such activism. But the unionizing instinct is not derived from books or TV shows, but from actual experience: It’s the long history of corporate abuse of workers that has made union activism omnipresent from Day 1 of the USA. Not only has the working class regularly rebelled against the tyrannical barons of such industries as steel, railroads, and autos, but America has also experienced thousands of gutsy strikes and unionizing battles by such unsung workers as coal heavers, indentured servants, bakers, cotton pickers, carpenters, newsboys, bootmakers, lumberjacks, washerwomen, mechanics … and even cowboys.
Yes, union membership has tumbled since the 1970s, thanks mostly to the hostile imposition of right-wing legal barriers and corporations’ disgraceful union-busting tactics. But down doesn’t mean dead, and today you can likely find unionism in action right where you live–though you wouldn’t know that from media coverage or government reports. Consider this rather basic question: How many labor actions have taken place in the US so far this year?
Most people: “Dunno. I didn’t hear of any.”
Mass Media Establishment: “We focused on one— that bruhaha in Alabama over unionizing Jeff Bezos’ Amazon warehouse.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (official keeper of worker stats): “We’ve counted eight.”
Actual Number: 640. That’s just the January to September count of labor uprisings documented by Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker shows union actions against corporate powers in nearly every state, with especially strong activity (more than 100 actions) in the South, which media keep portraying as solidly anti-union.
Well, golly, a spread of zero to 640 is more than a minor statistical discrepancy. So what’s going on?
1. The public’s cluelessness is almost entirely due to mass media’s failure to consider workers and their unions as newsworthy. Even the biggest newspapers have effectively eliminated the “labor beat,” leaving this massive component of our economy and society largely ignored. And forget TV. A recent academic analysis of the roughly 48,000 news reports on ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC during a three-year period found that only 172 involved unions or labor activist groups! CNN, which broadcasts news nonstop, had the most pathetic performance, airing only 23 news items about labor during those three years.
2. The discrepancy between the official Bureau of Labor Statistics number and reality is a deliberate political perversion. The BLS used to provide an honest count, but in 1982, the virulently anti-union Reagan presidency slashed the agency’s funding and staff, so it now only reports strikes, lockouts, etc. involving more than 1,000 workers. That count omits the vast majority of labor actions, intentionally misinforming the public and lawmakers. For example, as the August Lowdown reported, since May 1, ExxonMobil has locked out 650 steelworkers in Beaumont, Texas. Those feisty workers are taking a momentous stand against outrageous corporate greed, but under BLS’s arbitrary 1,000-worker rule, they don’t count. Almost no major news outlet, national or state, has even reported that the lockout is happening.
Confronting the king
When looking for a sign of the times, sometimes it might literally be on a sign. That was true in Lincoln, NE, on July 9, when the tall billboard in front of a Burger King boldly informed customers: “We all quit. Sorry for the inconvenience.” The impetus for the workers’ mass public resignation was the “We’re not gonna take it anymore” rebellion that is sweeping across workaday America and fueling a rejuvenation of unionization.
While the media establishment basically ignores rising unionism across the country, the movement has been spreading quickly inside the media’s own house! Read on…
As is typical for low-wage workers, this Burger King crew was not only underpaid, but also overworked and undervalued. Their crew manager, Rachel Flores, had repeatedly pleaded with her bosses to send help, but “got nobody.” The fast-food colossus, owned by a consortium of global hedge fund hucksters, even balked at air-conditioning the kitchen, a bit of minginess that hospitalized Flores for dehydration. Piling insult on this injury, her corporate overseer said she was being a “baby.”
Fed up, she and eight co-workers gave two weeks’ notice this summer. Then, in what she says was “just kind of a laugh to upper management,” they altered BK’s sign. Of course, Flores was forced to take the message down and then was summarily fired–but not before locals had gleefully spread its up-yours sentiment all across social media. As Flores notes, “It went pretty crazy on Facebook.”
What this seemingly small story in Lincoln illustrates is a very big story of a tectonic shift in the attitudes of both workers and the general public about unions and work itself, a shift dramatically confirmed in nationwide polling. Just 10 years ago, Gallup polls found that not even half of Americans approved of labor unions, but a steady rise in favorability has pushed that number to two-thirds. (That’s fast approaching the 72% level Gallop registered in 1936 at the start of our modern organized labor movement.) Even 45% of today’s Republicans approve of unions, 15 points higher than a decade ago.
Moreover, the “representation gap”–the difference between the number of workers who would like to be represented by a union and the number who are–is the widest in decades. More than half of Americans say they would now vote for a union in their workplace, but current labor laws are so stacked against organizing that only 10.8% of US employees have one.
Just as slowly moving shifts deep in the Earth can cause sudden earthquakes that dramatically alter the landscape, so underlying social conditions can steadily move until they jolt the status quo. That dynamic has been underway in US politics at least since Wall Street crashed our economy in 2008 and then bulled its way into Washington to get Republicans and Democrats alike to bail out the banking culprits while stiffing America’s workaday majority.
The sharp shock of that gross plutocratic play awakened most Americans to a hard reality: None of us really matters to the power establishment. This realization opened minds to the necessity of mass rebellions against deeply entrenched inequalities in our land. Acquiescence to the old order immediately began to cave with landmark uprisings such as Occupy Wall Street, Fight for 15, the Bernie Sanders campaigns, Black Lives Matter, Stand with Standing Rock, and #MeToo.
At the same time, a proven, largely dormant organizing model– a socially conscious labor movement–was resurging. Instead of persisting with the losing strategy of trying to survive as static collective-bargaining units within the corporate structure, several aggressive unions and allied groups transformed into agile collective-agitation units, directly and loudly challenging that structure. Powerful and arrogant multibillion-dollar behemoths such as McDonald’s, Walmart, and Amazon have been stunned that their lowest-paid, least-powerful, least-respected workers are leading the charge, exposing the systemic inequality of the status quo, rallying broad public opinion in support of unionization, and opening the possibility of a fairer balance of power in our society.
Let the Rat Speak
It has been my pleasure over the years to appear at a couple of union protests with a rat. Specifically, Scabby the Rat, a 12-foot-tall balloon often deployed by unions to caricature greedheaded, anti-worker corporate bosses. Read on…
Many new unionizing efforts are underway, not only in traditionally unionized industrial sectors, but also in many jobs once considered securely non-union, such as child care, restaurant work, and home health. There are big pushes as well among gig workers, green economy employees, and Gen Z (the young “Zoomers” who’re entering a workforce rife with blatant inequality, wage stagnation, exorbitant living costs, and a disappearing prospect for achieving the “American Dream”).
Unionizing efforts aside, a more fundamental change is taking hold: A reshaping of people’s attitudes toward jobs generally. Before the pandemic, workers often felt they had no choice but “take-what-you-can-get … and be grateful.” But with millions enduring some 18 months (and counting) of mass illness and death, depression-levels of lost income, callous demands by executives and politicians that employees go back to unsafe workplaces, and even more inequality gripping our society, many working families have clearly taken the moment to reflect on where they are in that system and what’s really important. So, simply and defiantly, millions are choosing not to jump back into the old harness.
Thus, for the first time in half a century, labor is gaining an edge and a bit of momentum. From low-tech to high-tech, companies today can’t fill their need for workers with the same old take-it-or-leave-it-offers. Not only are some 10 million US jobs currently unfilled, but record numbers of employees feel enabled to quit crappy jobs and demand better; since April, as many as 4 million employees a month have been quitting. Moreover, while better pay and benefits remain obvious goals for jobseekers, another consideration has surged to the top: Quality of life. As one worker put it, “We’re human beings, not corporate cogs.”
Safe workplaces, reasonable schedules, attention to worker concerns, training, promotions, family time–respect–are all part of the newly invigorated labor movement–and that’s great news for the progressive movement overall.
Earlier this year, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill that, according to In These Times, “would allow gig workers to unionize, legalize solidarity strikes and ban various union-busting tactics that keep workers underpaid and overworked.” The PRO Act is being held up in the Senate because, you know, the filibuster.
It’s damn hard finding coverage of labor actions and issues in the corporate media, but as the ITT story illustrates, there’s some fine, from-the-ground reporting coming out of indy media. Check out Labor Notes, for instance. It’s helping put the move back into the labor movement.
While the media establishment basically ignores rising unionism across the country, the movement has been spreading quickly inside the media’s own house! With Wall Street’s plunder of hundreds of major daily and weekly newspapers, American journalism is being shrunk and merged, with more than half of newsroom jobs killed off in the past decade. As profiteers undermine jobs and the integrity of work, reporters, editors, and other journalism employees are newly eager for a collective voice. In the last ten years, more than 200 union drives have been launched at news publications–with over 90% successful, including all 37 organizing campaigns initiated last year. In just the first six months of this year, journalists have organized unionizing efforts in at least 29 more newsrooms. Yet, this huge, inspiring story doesn’t make the news. Curious, huh?
Let the Rat Speak
It has been my pleasure over the years to appear at a couple of union protests with a rat. Specifically, Scabby the Rat, a 12-foot-tall balloon often deployed by unions to caricature greedheaded, anti-worker corporate bosses. It turns out, though, that greedheads don’t have much appreciation for satire, and one of them ran crying to the federal government in 2018, demanding that the National Labor Relations Board ban Scabby from protests. A humorless NLRB lawyer appointed by Donald Trump kowtowed to the corporation, unilaterally decreeing that the big rubber rodent scares the public and thus amounts to illegally “coercive” picketing. So he banned poor Scabby from corporate facilities.
But the accused satirists in this case, the Union of Operating Engineers, appealed to the labor board itself, and on July 22–Oh, Justice!–the NLRB formally ruled that the inflatable critter was not a public menace or a barrier to corporate power, but … just a balloon. As such, Scabby is now liberated as a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Solidarity (and satire) forever!