Broken Hearts: The Future of the U.S. Labor Movement

Posted February 26, 2013 by Arianna Schindle

labor

By Arianna Schindle, 2008 YP4 Fellow & 2012 Alumni Board Member 

The US labor movement and our country’s social safety net remain hanging from a thread. As the month of love nears its end, it will take new campaigns and visions to create a movement that can heal my broken heart.

These are critical times for working families and our dwindling middle class. As the political spectrum has moved far to the right, a set of politics that once stood for centrism, including defense of public aid, public education, and collective bargaining, now mark one as leftist, even radical. As Obama declared in his state of the union, no families working full-time deserve to live in poverty. Yet, if the minimum wage had kept pace with the rise in CEO salaries since 1990, America’s poorest paid workers would already be making $23 per hour (NELP 2013;1) [1]. Social programs like food stamps and disability that used to supplement families’ incomes threaten to disappear as the March 1st sequester deadline approaches. Here’s Standup Chicago Valentine’s Day plea to Congress asking that vital programs not be cut.

In the face of these challenges, the labor movement and the progressive movement in general are facing an organizing crisis (Shuma 2010: 1)[2]. Despite some inspiring successes, union membership continues to decline, labor organizations remain marred in political and power inequities, right to work and other conservative laws are on the rise, and slow, localized reforms cannot keep up with the worldwide pace of change. The organizing models developed more than 50 years ago still prevail regardless of the rapidly changing political context.

But hope remains. Across the country, new innovative campaigns and organizations are springing up. After this Valentine’s Day, let’s forget the chocolate. We want bread and roses.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

Bread and Roses refers to the Lawrence Textile Strike that won us the eight hour work day and has become a symbol in the labor movement of asking for what we need. On November 15, I stood with a proud group of retail and food workers to form a new union, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), which fights for respect and a livable wage of $15.00 an hour. Campaigns like the Walmart Workers, the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike, and the WOCC are developing innovative ways to build mass membership, create horizontal organizational structures, move beyond conservative policies, and create rapid changes on a national scale. They have had to revamp the old organizing models of 50 years ago by organizing across sectors, linking labor and community issues, putting young people of color at the forefront of the movement, and using creative cultural tactics like music. In other words, they are bringing together the BREAD and ROSES.

This is the WOCC video recorded by workers from Express, McDonalds, Forever 21, and Macys. These workers aren’t just asking for a raise in the minimum wage, it’s a call for other young workers to stand up and fight.

I’m gonna make the whole world hear the beautiful truth: how you gonna fight capitalism, being shy, how are you going to fight racism, being quiet.

The beautiful truth is that these youth see racism, capitalism, and their own communities at the forefront of this struggle. It is not just a labor battle- it’s about healing our nation’s broken systems and broken heart.

 

[1] Raise the Minimum Wage. NELP-National Employment Law Project. Feb 14, 2013.

[2] Sheth, Sushma. Reflections from Organizing Upgrades Editors. Organizing Upgrade. Feb 1, 2010.