On the Latest Developments in the U.S. Working Class Movement

Ekim Kiliç

The 2016 Presidential Elections were a turning point for the U.S. labour and popular movements. Since then, provocative statements and decisions by the Trump government have been threatening millions of working peoples’ lives. However, the actions of the current U.S. government are not independent of its predecessors and their economic applications that also carried out the needs of U.S. capital and its forces. Today, precarious employment and life conditions, a declining social safety net, and not being able to resonate their voice politically are headlines of the U.S. workers’ current problems as a result of long-standing neoliberal policies and the 2008 financial crisis.

In the midst of these issues, the U.S. working class experienced a revival the likes of which that has not been seen in a long time. According to an opinion article that was written for CNN by Richard Trumka1, the president of AFL-CIO, “In the year since, working people have been doing just that. From airports and hospitals to newsrooms and college campuses, workers are organising on a scale that I haven’t seen in decades. More than a quarter-million Americans joined unions2 last year — three-quarters of them under 35. Half of the non-union workers say they would vote to do the same3 if given the chance, and Gallup has even pegged unions’ popularity at a 15-year high.4

As a side note, the unions organised Labor Day 2018 at a time when the workers’ struggle was accelerating: the successful state-wide strikes of elementary school and high school teachers, the struggle of the Chicago hotel workers, which then inspired several others in the sector across the country, the strike authorisation of the United Metal Workers’ Union (USW) on the collective bargaining agreement with the metal bosses, 27% wage increase of window cleaners as a result of their struggle, 260,000 UPS postal workers authorizing a strike and struggling against the union bureaucracy, struggle for unionisation from New York construction workers, and the university assistants’ struggles for unionisation. The US labour forces celebrated Labor Day in an unusual and special atmosphere. On the other side, one should note that the U.S. labour movement saw several struggles for unionising and wage increases against weak work conditions in prisons and main sectors, such as cable, automotive, packaging, arms, and agriculture in last 2 years.

Despite the recent upsurge in labour struggles, current demands and problems of U.S. labour are rooted in the past as we mentioned before. A short account of the history of U.S. labour may be helpful to make sense of the significance and characters of today’s labour actions. Because the dominant narrative on labour comes from liberal or social-democratic accounts, which have avoided representing the U.S. labour as a working class force for a long time. Instead, their accounts consistently blur the line between working class and middle class through using income and level of education as almost the only metrics. Besides that, the story of U.S. labour remained either one-sided and descriptive academic sources on the U.S. labour or narrating the labour history as if it was only a cultural motif.

An Overview of the U.S. Working Class

Based on 2016 data from “employment by major industry sector” chart of the U.S. Department of Labor, distributions of the labour force are in mining, construction, manufacturing, 12.6%; in service industry, 80.3%; agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, 1.5%; and non-agricultural self- employed 5.6%.5 Another important finding from the statistics is that although union membership is more likely to experience a revival, the general situation remains stagnant. According to data on union affiliations was obtained from the Department of Labor website, employees from all backgrounds, industries, and occupations who are 16 years old and over. Change in union membership and Representation in the US, 2007-2017, by the data from the Department of Labor.6

As is illustrated in the chart, although the popularity of the unions has an upward trend, according to a Gallup poll referred to before, union membership and representation capability still remain steady.7 However, this recent situation is not independent of national and international conditions for the U.S. labour movement. The Taft-Hartley act of 1947, which strengthened the right to work law, the witch-hunt operations of the McCarthyist era against American communists after the World War Two throughout the 1950s, the removal of communists from union leadership as a result of the Communist Control Act of 1954,8 then Nixon’s dirty war against Black and Anti-War activists through the “war on drugs” after Lyndon Johnson’s acceptance of “civil rights act of 1964” as an adjustment of the American social contract, then trickle-down economics of Reagan era, which sought to decrease taxes on the companies that they may encourage growth in the short run and benefit society in the long run, all weakened the labour unions politically, economically and socially. Even though some of the honest unionists maintain their struggle to some extent, most unions are stuck with an extremely legalist approach, which directly or indirectly broke the workers’ initiative.

As a matter of fact, the historical processes considered above also grew U.S. capital’s capacity for outsourcing and movement overseas. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) increased the mobilisation of the U.S. capital, and reduced tariffs, which caused loss of many manufacturing jobs, and increased the competition to the detriment of small producers. Seeking markets that have lower labour prices left American workers jobless eventually. On the other hand, weak healthcare services, precarious employment conditions, weak access to education, affordable day-care, safe housing, healthy and reasonably priced food, gender wage inequality in non-unionised workplaces, open-shop practices, and politicians who ignore workers’ concerns are the main challenges that the U.S. working class currently has.

All in all, this overview may draw attention to the background of the current situation of the U.S. working class. The escalating problems of the working class generated a discussion around the 2016 presidential elections among the media, pollsters, and academics. Despite the imposition of the caricatured idea that “president Trump was supported by the white working class” it is becoming clear that the radicalising right-wing anxiety of petty- bourgeois classes as a result of losing their class positions, unemployment, and years of years of nationalist and religious propaganda were other main reasons. This caricatured idea is utilised as a scapegoating attempt by the Democrats to avoid their responsibility in the current political, economic and social atmosphere in the U.S. While Charles Post explains why white workers supported Trump, he underlines that casting no vote as white workers could be more effective than casting a vote for Republicans, while Christine J. Walley and Claudine M. Pied make similar points.9 In other words, the loss of trust in the electoral democracy that may fundamentally shift the tides of U.S. politics can be read as another reaction to neoliberalism. As a result of analysing three workers’ cases, their resentment and voting behaviours/rationalities, Pied concludes that “there is… not one white working-class reaction to neoliberalism.”10 That is, one may say that the US working class has been seeking different solutions instead of just supporting right wing nationalist candidates. Yet, we have to acknowledge the considerable impact of right-wing nationalism on white workers.

Characters of Current Working Class Actions 2017-2018

Since the 2016 presidential elections, new Trump anti-labour appointees to NLRB (National Labor Relations Board),11 recent restrictions by the NLRB to unions’ right to picket, and demoralising decisions in the cases “Epic Systems Corp. vs. Lewis”12 and “AFSCME vs. Janus13 have been unrelenting, successive defeats for the labour movement.

In April 2018, the U.S. Senate confirmed pro-business lawyer John Ring to the National Labor Relations Board. The senate handed control of the board over Republicans. Ring is a partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, and was appointed to a five-year term. The board now has three Republicans appointed by President Donald Trump and two Democrats.

An October ruling of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declared that janitors who were picketing for better working conditions were not protected from unfair labour practices committed by their employer. The Board ruled that the janitors, who were being contracted by a building management company, were engaged in secondary picketing.14

In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the bosses could hinder workers’ rights to collective and legal action for better wages and working conditions in the “Epic Systems Corp. vs. Lewis” case. Another case, which was concluded in June and known as “AFSCME vs. Janus,” was again decided against the unions. Even if the U.S. unions manage a majority in the workplace, not all workers in that workplace are required to become members of that union. However, workers who are not members of that union paid a certain amount of contribution to the union, because they still benefited from the collective bargaining in the same workplace. In June 2018, such a necessity has now been eliminated in unionised workplaces of the public sector by the Janus ruling.

However, tides are still turning for the U.S. working class. Even if the labour movement received significant counter-attacks, these are not likely to end this new and energetic tide. Because patterns of today’s strikes for wage increases and betterment of working conditions and unionizing struggles in non-unionised workplaces appear as radical, contagious, and encouraging worker and labourer actions.

Radicalisation of workers for their economic demands are important as future opportunities for the political transformation of the unions and boldness of the labour movement. For a long time, U.S. unions have relied on collective bargaining processes with bosses, in which the most union leaderships would seek were ways of compromising with bosses. On the other hand, except a few labour occasions, one may find union presences mostly through their political action committees, which run election campaigns for a candidate that union endorsed. And those candidates are mostly from the Democratic Party. Additionally, union representatives run their campaign through the motto “more middle class jobs” as if they already acknowledged that being a part of the working class is unsustainable. Hence, these unions are more likely to avoid even from the strike authorisations since they can negotiate with bosses through union lawyers and court cases.

Worker and labourer struggles in the aftermath of the 2016 elections reveal radical characteristics in many aspects. Pending strike authorisation of UPS workers, whose union has tended to compromise with bosses, state-wide wildcat strikes of teachers, early morning protests of New York construction workers once every week, hunger strikes, and occupations of grad students are several examples of this radical turn. In addition to that, labourers in the same sector, but from different states, follow each other’s example. Hence, this pro-active pattern may spark a fire easily in the same sector, such as in teachers, grad students, prison complex, and hotel workers.

Therefore, it shows that emergent radical union members will not necessarily tolerate waiting for legalist solutions as it has always been; because these are generally long-lasting court cases, which may break workers’ initiative. On the other hand, workers’ reactions to the Democratic Party became apparent in the 2016 presidential elections. Rising support for the Trump’s Republican Party, not casting a vote at all, or voting for third parties instead of for both grand parties were different reactions against the neoliberal policies that are being supported by former labour Democrats, especially in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Wildcat teachers’ strikes had an encouraging effect on the labour  struggle. On February 22, starting with West Virginia, wildcat strikes spread out among 8 states, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia with reactions to low wages for teachers and support staff, inadequate school budgets, overcrowded classrooms, and other problems. Following this wave, workers at 26 hotels of Chicago went on strike as members of UNITE HERE Local 1 on September 7, which was then followed by Marriott hotels workers’ strike in 8 cities, in Detroit, Boston, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Maui, and Oahu. Wages, workloads, and health insurance are among the issues at play.15

Although grad students are the most vulnerable one because of their recent recognition of employee status, their strikes and unionising struggles are still ongoing. Cafeteria strikes, occupations, hunger strikes and ongoing strikes take place at the country’s most privileged schools, such as the New School, Columbia University, and Yale University. They are also faced with weak working conditions, precarious insurance-pay, and lack of resources for their livelihoods. Additionally, the CUNY adjuncts’ struggle arose from precarious work conditions. Full time lecturer positions are difficult to come by. As academic labourers say, more than half of CUNY classes are taught by CUNY adjuncts, their salaries make 5% of the budget. As another type of precarious work, seasonal farm workers, who are mostly Central American immigrants, from Sakuma Brothers and Driscoll’s (the world’s largest distributor of berries) were successful in their struggle for unionising and obtaining their rights for minimum wage. In a statement from their website, the union claims that Sakuma Brothers is guilty of “systematic wage theft, poverty wages, hostile working conditions, and unattainable production standards.16

On the other hand, since December 2017, New York construction workers, who work in the Hudson Yards redevelopment project, have been fighting against the union-busting tactics of the bosses, who impose the open shop model. The Hudson Yards redevelopment project is the largest construction project in North America and the largest private real estate project in U.S. history. The open shop agenda pushed by Related Co. may create a precedent for the expansion of the already growing open shop work model. The struggle of workers against the open shop model is crucial for future labour struggles that will take place in the city. Since December 2017, workers have been regularly doing protests in front of the construction site every Thursday morning at 6 a.m near their workplace. That can also be counted another radical characteristic of the recent labour struggle.

Last spring, negotiations between the Teamsters, UPS, and UPS Freight started over the union’s proposals, which would address a range of critical issues facing UPSers – ending forced overtime for package car drivers, raising part-timers’ wages, imposing monetary penalties for management harassment, and protecting jobs from automation, among others. This negotiation included about 260.000 workers. Even though an overwhelming majority of workers voted yes for strike authorisation last summer, and no for UPS contract in this fall, union leadership ignored the decisions of workers, creating a wave of reactions to union leadership from rank-and- file union members and workers.

In another important development, the U.S. prisons saw the largest strike in their history. Beginning at the end of last summer, prisoner workers were on strike for voting rights of millions of American prisoners and better prison conditions against slavery-like work conditions. In the U.S., the anti-slavery law includes all citizens except prisoners. According to 13th Amendment, it abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

Moreover, in heavy industry, USW’s (United Steel Workers) pending strike authorisation, IBEW’s (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) struggle against Spectrum Cable Company last year, and UAW’s (United Automobile Workers) unsuccessful attempt to organise union in a Nissan factory of Mississippi in summer 2016 have been other headlines of the U.S. workers’ struggle. Unfortunately, the struggle is relatively weak while comparing with other sectors. Considering that terrific and racist anti-union campaign in Nissan plant, especially against African-American workers, the union’s inability to build a strong organising committee, and the fear of losing their jobs at Nissan, underlines how the U.S. represses their workers while hiding it from public eye. However, as one of Nissan workers mentioned, those are educative processes that may prepare workers for future struggles.

As a last note on the current struggles, Amazon workers’ voices are still up for a union in the U.S. A month ago, McDonalds’ workers led by Fight For $15 went on strike for better wages, against weak working conditions, and harassment. For Chicago teachers, strikes are on their agenda.

Teachers and UPS Workers Show How To Use “The Strength That Comes From Production”17

Among all fruitful labour struggles, wildcat teachers’strikes and UPS’s collective bargaining process show many other lessons specifically and clearly. Wildcat teachers’ strikes were named by the U.S. media as “the red wave” which refers to dominant Republican politics in those states. Another reference to “the red wave” is that almost all statewide strikes happened in right-to-work states. Beyond being widespread, teachers’ strikes have a daring character as we mentioned before. These strikes had that daring character because they were mostly led by grassroots organising among teachers with the progressive rank-and-file teacher union caucuses in AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and NEA (The National Education Association) since the union leadership had shown a trend of abandoning the working class.18 Similarly, the progress among Teamsters (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) affiliated UPS workers is being directed mostly by rank-in-file members. A pending strike of UPS workers has been unexpectedly persistent. One may expect that workers would quickly lose their hopes in the struggle, but it consistently developed while challenging the union bureaucracy and bosses in a well-organised manner. Considering that this labour issue involves 260,000 workers, it is not easy to maintain such a struggle.

Teachers’ strikes took the stage in West Virginia on February 22, 2018 with the demands of lowering health insurance costs, made worse by stagnant wages.19 Undercover groups in social media were utilised as a way of organising, and debating. West Virginia has a famous history within the U.S. working class struggles. Including the famous struggle of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the heroic miners’ struggles of the 1920s, wildcat strikes of the 1970s, and the victories of the Miners for Democracy movement are several key historical moments, which make American worker today “proud to be union.20 It truly shows that the memory of class struggle is alive, which appears through discussions on social media, or the general trend of daring to follow rank-in-file instead “the leadership.”

Teachers went on strike against budget cuts, decreased employee benefits, low per pupil spending, low salaries, right-to-work laws, school choice, and school vouchers. A 20% pay raise in Arizona, 2% pay raise and increased school spending in Colorado, increased school funding, teachers raises by $6000, support staff raises by $1250 in Oklahoma, and 5% pay raise in West Virginia are the gains of these struggles.21 Arizona teachers, for instance, won their struggle with their gradual action from low-intensity to high-intensity actions, such as wearing red T-Shirts on Wednesdays and posting photos on social media, then handing out flyers, then rallying at the capitol with signs and stickers: “I Don’t Want to Strike, But I Will” and finally, walking out and massive marches.22 The West Virginia teachers’ strike, the most advanced struggle of the many that erupted in 2018, started with rallies and walkouts from the beginning of February 2018, the strike month.23 Therefore, one may say that although the social media reach-out played an important role, more or less all strikes and labour struggles escalated from low-density actions to high-density actions.

Almost 80% of U.S. public school teachers are women, and women made up almost all of the leadership of strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Particularly because of this, some of West Virginia teachers carried out the matter of preserving abortion rights into the strike efforts. Another positive development is exposure of the betrayal of the union leadership, or their compromising tendencies with state governments. Teachers do have a feeling of being undervalued by the business and state governments. But the political perspective of many teachers, for example in Kentucky and West Virginia, doesn’t exceed the slogan “vote all the enemies out of office,” which means for them supporting teacher-friendly candidates in the Democratic Party.24

As a note for our readers, one may expect that the U.S. democracy values on the surface liberal values and human rights, besides the racist history and present that could not be solved totally. Ironically, similar to slanders and racial slurs of the bosses and their associates against black workers of the Nissan factory, teachers were mostly blamed by the state incumbents and political authorities to hurt educational process. Kentucky governor went further, and said “You know how many hundreds of thousands of children were left home alone today? I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was  left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.” Oklahoma governor found her cure to the strikes by classifying striking workers as: “a teenage kid that wants a better car.25


Some of the struggles considered here are still ongoing among the workers. The most important characteristics that may be extracted from these examples are the radical, contagious and encouraging actions. In addition, a majority of these actions ended with relative victory. This new accumulative process as for workers’ experiences may provide future  opportunities to transform unions politically towards unions which are strongly tied with workers and their class interests. On the other hand, the awakening sections of the youth, and an increase in sympathy to socialism are turning towards to the working class and the organizational problems they face. Although it might be early to make a guess about what may happen, one may definitely say that the U.S. working class is seeking ways to escape from this recent, oppressive and extremely exploitative situation, while organizing politically and economically.


[1] https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/03/opinions/labor-day-working-people-deserve-our-fair-share/index.html
[2] https://www.epi.org/publication/biggest-gains-in-union-membership-in-2017-were-for-younger-workers/
[3] https://aflcio.org/2018/6/22/study-popularity-joining-unions-surges
[4] https://news.gallup.com/poll/241679/labor-union-approval-steady-year-high.aspx
[5] https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/employment-by-major-industry-sector.htm
[6] https://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cpslutab3.htm#union3.xlsx.f.1
[7] https://news.gallup.com/poll/241679/labor-union-approval-steady-year-high.aspx
[8] “The Communist Control Act of 1954”, The Yale Law Journal 64, no. 5 (1955): 712-65. doi:10.2307/793898.
[9]  Post, C. (2017). The roots of Trumpism. Cultural Dynamics, 29(1-2), 100-108.
[10] Pied, C. (2018). Conservative populist politics and the remaking of the “white working class” in the USA. Dialectical Anthropology, 42(2), 193-206, sf. 204.
[11] https://www.reuters.com/article/labor-nlrb/senate-confirms-trump-nlrb-nominee-handing-control-to-republicans-idUSL1N1RO28L
[12] https://theredphoenixapl.org/2018/05/22/a-blow-to-the-working-class-reveals-capitalist-ruthlessness-and-fear/
[13] https://www.afscme.org/now/janus-for-leaders
[14] http://www.fightbacknews.org/department/labor
[15] http://www.fightbacknews.org/department/labor
[16] https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-07-18/workers-who-pick-your-summer-berries-are-asking-you-not-buy-them?fbclid=IwAR03gjveysa610ss2nzGxqiaGe_H56hpBjtqtUh8Y_LLerArll_20On14nk
[17] The Strength Comes From Production: A widely used worker slogan from Turkey. One may encounter with this idiom in workers’ and unions’ informative materials in Turkey.
[18] http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2018/05/whats-behind-teachers-strikes
[19] http://www.labornotes.org/2018/02/west-virginia-teachers-launch-statewide-strike
[20] http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2018/03/west-virginia-teachers-learned-1970s-miners
[21] https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-arizona-teacher-protests-<20180503-story.html,
https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/05/politics/ west-virginia-teachers-strike-future-unions/index.html,
[22] http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2018/04/heres-how-arizona-teachers- organized-their-first-ever-statewide-strike
[23] http://www.labornotes.org/2018/02/west-virginia-teachers-launch-statewide- strike
[24] https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3732-striking-teachers-and-wildcat-politics
[25] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2018/04/04/oklahoma- governor-compares-striking-teachers-to-a-a-teenage-kid-that-wants-a-better- car/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c9f793c87e21,
https://www.vox.com/2018/4/ 16/17242812/kentucky-governor-bevin-teachers-strike-child-assault, http:// time.com/5176094/west-virginia-teacher-strike/,
https://www.usatoday.com/ story/news/politics/2018/04/23/arizona-teachers-walkout-governor/ 544535002/

March 22, 2019

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