New labor movement might save America just yet

August 18, 2022 6:00 am

Construction workers and labor activists march through downtown Minneapolis to call on developers to improve labor standards and agree to independent monitoring on June 16, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

We’re being treated unfairly and we’re not going to take it.” — Kasey Copeland, Minneapolis Starbucks barista and union organizer, 2022

When the union organizer showed up, all the small town’s upstanding citizens agreed he was a disgrace. Here he was, still sweaty from yesterday’s train, slicked hair talking to workers about how they were being exploited by them — the pillars of the community! This guy didn’t even speak proper English, but those workers listened to him anyway.

One newspaper pulled no punches in describing the man. They described him as “dirty” and “repulsive.” They used ethnic slurs, calling him a “dago” in print.  

The man’s name was Teofilo Petriella. He arrived to Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1907 to organize the first widespread strike on the Mesabi Iron Range for the Western Federation of Miners. Petriella was a dark-skinned southern Italian, and well-read: a professor of literature in another life. If he was dirty, it was because he was denied access to a hotel, forcing him to sleep in the attic of the town’s clapboard Finnish social hall.

There were several reasons for the strike. The companies, led by U.S. Steel, paid poverty wages from which they deducted the cost of equipment and even the candles in underground miners’ helmets. Workers faced dangerous conditions and a back-breaking pace of work that European immigrants said they wouldn’t compel upon a horse or ox for fear of killing the animal.

Petriella united a workforce separated by significant ethnic and language barriers, something no other labor organizer had done on the Mesabi Range. Here, half the population was foreign born at this time. Petriella bridged a cultural gap with strident Finnish socialists, who in turn provided significant leadership for the cause. Their collective efforts deeply rattled the mining companies and the local business class. 

Industrial historian Frank L. Palmer wrote in 1928 that U.S. Steel spent a quarter million dollars during the 1907 strike hiring and arming private detectives. Adjusted for inflation, that meant several million dollars, far exceeding the amount the miners sought in wage increases. The allure of long term profits helped the company justify the enormous cost of suppressing workers. In the heat of battle, they became willing to pay a private army to avoid paying their workers.

Ultimately, the WFM strike failed. Threats against Petriella prompted him to carry a gun, which was later used as grounds to arrest him. The judge fined him an amount equal to the $9,990 strike fund, plus $10. Petriella asked a friend for the sawbuck and paid his way out of jail. Just as the workers contemplated a coming winter with out food or coal, the mines shipped in hundreds of new immigrants from eastern Europe to take their places. Thus, the strike was smothered by a new wave of hunger. 

Tactically, the mining companies hastened the end of the strike by stoking fear and singling out union leadership. For a generation, the “dirty” Petriella and the disappearing strike fund fueled a negative stereotype of union organizers in this region.

Nevertheless, worker demands for living wages and a safer workplace remained. The exact same issues would resurface during the Mesabi Range Industrial Workers of the World strike of 1916. That strike went further, but also met a bitter end. Still, the issues remained. 

Though it took time, struggle, several defeats and two world wars, the goals of that 1907 strike would eventually be realized with the recognition of the United Steelworkers of America in 1942. Dismissed in his time, that unkempt organizer revealed the capacity of regular people to better their own situations through unified action. The fact that the companies took such drastic retaliatory action underscored the potency of his arguments. Only decades later, amid the euphoria of wartime prosperity, did politicians claim these concepts as their own ideas.

The unionization of mid-20th-century America built a historic rarity, a robust middle class. Had the movement been racially integrated this anomaly could have proven even stronger. Nevertheless, available resources and supercharged markets made the United States a global superpower. 

Success slopped over the brim. Gauzy notions of democracy and the common good seemed sufficient to preserve these gains. Perhaps the struggle of workers was over. In this land of milk and honey, some began to view these newly powerful unions as redundant relics of an unpleasant past.

The labor movement suffered as a result. Automation, consolidation, and investor supremacy gutted the ranks of private industrial unions. As machines and computers do more of the labor, more humans string together gig work and non-union service jobs.

Doughty leaders of legacy unions try branding initiatives and outreach, which for prospective union members only means a cavalcade of generic mailers and text messages begging you to robocall your indifferent member of Congress. Despite the din, it remains the market, not collective bargaining, that holds sway over the lives of low-wage workers.

After decades of stagnation held over from the late 20th century, however, the labor movement is breaking through in surprising new places. 

One of the most famous labor victories this year came from the creation of a union at an Amazon shipping warehouse on New York’s Staten Island. Last March, workers there voted to authorize the Amazon Labor Union, a new organization formed by a group of package sorting workers led by Chris Smalls.

Smalls is a great story. A charismatic former rapper with a gift for compelling television interviews, he defies modern union stereotypes. But in the time since this historic union vote, Amazon has frozen Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union out of contract negotiations. The stagnation has now created division within the union and brought criticism upon Smalls.

Smalls’ success and subsequent difficulties might be compared to those faced by Tiofilo Petriella a century ago. 

Petriella’s foe, U.S. Steel, was last century’s largest corporation in the world. Smalls’ adversary, Amazon, is the world’s third-largest company today. This summer, Amazon topped Wal-Mart in sales over a 12-month period for the first time. Unionization could complicate Amazon’s path to the No. 1 spot, and so the upstart Amazon Labor Union might not fare much better than the Western Federation of Miners all those years ago.

Kasey Copeland, a Starbucks barista and union organizer, urges cars to honk their support of their two-day strike at the Starbucks at 47th Street and Cedar Avenue on July 31, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

At least, not at first.

The Amazon campaign comes amid a wellspring of union activity in the service sector, certainly visible in Minnesota. Max Nesterak of the Reformer reported on July 31 about a surprise two-day strike at a south Minneapolis Starbucks store. That strike, mirrored by others around the country, was led by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

Nesterak reported that workers at a Minneapolis Trader Joe’s grocery store overwhelmingly voted to join a newly formed union. Like Smalls’ Amazon union, they seek to start their own independent union, Trader Joe’s United.

These efforts are fueled by a combination of COVID-era workplace dissatisfaction, record corporate profits and higher costs of living. 

In a report for his investigative newsletter Popular Information, Judd Legum along with reporter Tesnim Zekeria, explored the appeal of these new unions with younger workers. While CEOs argue that workers have it pretty good compared to the old days of underground mining and polio, employees would rather focus on their cost of living and the historically vast disparity between the salaries of upper management and those who serve the product.

Indeed, after many — even some progressives — seemed willing to write off the labor movement, labor’s cause has found new life. Why? Because unions can sometimes deliver results when the political system can’t or won’t. This builds trust and shared purpose among people with divergent points of view.

A July 5 Juliana Kaplan story in Business Insider detailed results of mid-summer Gallup polling on Americans’ trust in various institutions. Across the partisan spectrum, people lost faith in business, government and the media this past year. Organized labor stood out as the only institution retaining its level of trust from 2021 to 2022

A March 31 BBC analysis by Anne Cassidy implied that both the United States and United Kingdom might be entering a “golden age” of trade unions, more than a century after the original expansion of the American Federation of Labor. 

This suggestion might be a little overhyped, however, because Cassidy’s article mostly describes a labor movement that finally stopped shrinking and now slowly regains ground. Still, one potentially important observation is that the fastest growing sector of U.S. union membership is among those aged 25 to 34. In Britain, freelancers represent the biggest source of new union members.

At the heart of any organization are its people. Unions do well when workers buy into what they can do. As Americans lose faith in their government and corporate leadership, unions might be an outlet for those who want to make a difference.

Though he wasn’t talking about unions specifically, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” argued for the merits of a contented working class. “This rabble you’re talking about,” he said, “they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.”

Today, we see what he means every day. That is, if we take the time to look. Low-wage workers hover just above the poverty line and just below any position of power, respect or dignity in our community. The most powerful people in our society memorize a list of reasons such people deserve this second class citizenship. They would happily condemn the next generation to the same fate. This thinking is not new. It is very, very old. 

Recent political news seems to suggest that the future will bring a toxic mix of fascism and struggle. We might take comfort that people faced these kind of challenges before and came out alright. Yet, each time we belly up to a bar full of political division and authoritarian impulses we roll a dangerous set of historical dice. Times like these produce any number of extreme, sometimes tyrannical outcomes.

But I will not bore you with a dystopian screed. Like the hungry lust of market capitalism, the bargaining power of workers remains an enduring force. No, not just in factories and mines. Government workers need not be the only ones expanding their professional unions. Coffee shops and hotel clerks, gas station attendants and legions of creative gig workers may also unite in action. 

Living wages. Maternity leave. Paternity leave. Universal access to vocational training, sick leave and health care. With unions, all of this is possible, even when the politics seem impossible. 

If political representation fails workers, they may organize outside current systems. They already are. Their opponents crib notes from long-dead generations of power and privilege. Perhaps mighty corporate forces will crush this new labor movement forever and always. But that’s not how it went the last time.

You might stop a Teofilo Petriella or a Chris Smalls one year, only to see his cause carried forward by others. When workers ask for a bigger share of profits, for living wages and other benefits, they temper forces that have grown bigger and more powerful than our elected government. Historically, wealth disparity like what we see in our present society hastens demand for change. Without peaceful assembly and worker-centered organization, the alternatives loom ugly and violent. 

These new unions and their unconventional approaches might not be perfect. But the old unions all started under similar circumstances. These new upstarts represent an opportunity for our nation and humanity in general to reject calls for anti-democratic authoritarianism. 

Unions promise a better life for workers, but in today’s climate they just might save our country, too.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.