When the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to public sector unions last month with its decision in Janus v. AFSCME, some pundits were quick to sound the death knell for organized labor. Those pundits haven’t been paying attention, a panel at the AFL-CIO showed earlier this month. The event brought together workers from different sectors, all of whom have made organizing inroads over recent months to improve the conditions in their workplace.
Titled “Collective Action on the Rise: How the Labor Movement can Sustain the Momentum of Change, the panel, moderated by journalist Michelle Chen, asked how the labor movement could capitalize on the momentum from collective actions like the teacher strikes that gripped the U.S. last spring. Union membership is at an all-time low. But as Chen put it, there’s value in expanding ideas of the labor movement beyond formally-recognized unions, and taking a look at “what it means to really think about labor as a collective social enterprise.”
That’s something Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a law student and research assistant at Harvard Law School, thought about while working on the campaign to unionize Harvard graduate students. The grad students organized with the United Auto Workers in order to bargain for higher wages, affordable housing, and healthcare benefits. When questioned by skeptical family members about why she, as a graduate student, was organizing with auto workers, Sandalow-Ash responded with a message of solidarity.
“The UAW represents 40,000 grad workers and 70,000 academic workers overall but also our union movements are more powerful when we are not separated by what kind of work that we do. We’re more powerful when we all stand together,” she said.
Anna Simmons, an elementary school counselor and mental health therapist in Morgantown, West Virginia, explained how this solidarity had worked in practice earlier this year. As part of the American Federation of Teachers, she organized with teachers from all over the state in February to strike for higher wages and affordable healthcare.
When union leaders returned from the negotiating table with a contract that would give teachers a better deal than other public sector workers, Simmons was part of a large group teachers who refused to accept the deal and continued to strike until all public sector workers were offered the same terms.
“If we all are together and we’re all unified and we’re all in solidarity on these issues we can make tremendous impact on the lives of ourselves, of our future generation and as a nation,” said Simmons. “It wasn’t just about a $2,000 increase on our salary, it was about saving our state.”