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Strike Wave in the U.S.? Labor Historian Nelson Lichtenstein on Union Drives & Worker Revolts

StoryDecember 14, 2021
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As unionizing efforts have taken the U.S. by storm, we look at the history of the U.S. labor movement and how unions have acted as a bulwark against corporate power. Worker organizing at Starbucks, Kellogg’s and Amazon shows that unions help enforce health and safety measures and protect workers who speak out. “A working-class consciousness ebbs and flows,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “A union is a way of capturing that consciousness and making it the law of the land.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As we look now at how the union victory at the Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, probably won’t be the last and comes amidst a wave of union drives and labor justice actions, including strikes, around the United States, we’re joined by Nelson Lichtenstein, who’s a distinguished history professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, the author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor and also The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Lichtenstein. We just talked about Kellogg’s and, before that, Starbucks, the first of almost 9,000 Starbucks stores, that have been unionized, in Buffalo, New York. You have talked about the significance of what you call this tiny acorn.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yes, thank you. Yeah, the Starbucks thing, what’s remarkable here is that the enormous amount of effort and money that the management put into stopping this organizing drive, it’s really a statement on the part of management on how important unionism is. If they’re going to spend all this money and bring their top executives to prevent a handful of workers from unionizing, that’s the best endorsement of unionism I’ve seen in a long time.

And, of course, what’s interesting about that is that they had to bring in some of their top people. One of the dirty little secrets of all of these retailers is that lower-level management is unreliable as union busters. The local managers of — this is true at Walmart, at Target and at Starbucks — they’re unreliable. They know the people. They work with them. And so that’s why they bring in these well-paid managers of all North America, etc. So, if you have 20 or 30 or 50 Starbucks — and this seems quite possible: Every college town has a red hot Starbucks ready to organize — then this will spread much too thin the top management, and they will be — really, they’ll be unable to stop it.

I mean, it’s — plus, of course, the Starbucks, in particular, has a — you know, their clientele is sort of hip collegiate and, you know, Upper West Side of New York, what have you. So I think that there is the possibility of, really, a sort of fire, you know, at Starbucks, which could spread through the entire company. And clearly, management is afraid of that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Lichtenstein, I wanted to ask you, in terms of — you’ve studied the changing nature of the American labor movement. And we hear a lot about deindustrialization, when in fact there are probably more industrial jobs in the world today than there ever have been. The difference is that fewer and fewer of them are in the advanced industrial countries. And we’re now faced with, like, Walmart, which you studied, Amazon. These are superstores and superwarehouses, no longer the superfactories that used to exist. They’re now mostly in China, Mexico, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other parts of the Global South. So, how does this affect the ability of workers to organize, that we’re basically dealing with the reception and distribution or warehousing of goods made elsewhere?

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yeah, well, lots of manufacturing, of course, has gone abroad. I mean, it’s now a totally integrated system, with the big container ships. We’re seeing that now with the problems in the supply chain.

But many of these jobs that are — well, all of them, like Amazon, for example, or a large retailer or Starbucks, these, quote, “retail” or distributional jobs are — today they resemble factory work of the past quite a bit. Amazon, these distribution centers have 2,000, 3,000 workers. They’re blue-collar industrial kind of jobs. And the same motivations that led to the great labor upsurges of the 19th century, the '30s and then later on in the ’60s, they're present in all these large retailers and distribution systems.

So, I would also make the point that whilst one of the Starbucks, any given Starbucks that shuts down or could be closed by the management, you know, it doesn’t affect the rest of the company. But a distribution center that Amazon has, these reflect — have an impact on a whole area. And so, you know, they’re kind of the — as I put it, the commanding heights of American capitalism has shifted from the steel mills and the auto plants to the distribution centers and the great retailers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the ability of the workers who are organizing to maintain their unions, to win not only recognition but then contracts, could you talk about the changing nature of labor law and the ability of workers to organize?

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yeah. Well, labor law is rotten, and your spokesperson from Starbucks made that very clear. The ability of top management to flood these stores, to intimate workers, to hold captive audience meetings, all of this — all of this is legal, by the way, all of these. And so, this is — there are no penalties, by the way. When they do — when the management is found guilty of illegality or firing a worker, there are no penalties. The worker gets their job back, but the situation is so uncomfortable that they always quit. So the labor law is totally rotten.

But even more important than the labor law is the managerial mindset. Now, at various moments, when we had great social movements in this country, whether it’s the women’s movement or civil rights or other, we’ve had a section of capital which has made the decision that it’s better to accommodate the social movement than not, that the — whether it’s public relations or political or possibly being broken up, that the dangers of resisting this movement are too great. Clearly this was true with the civil rights movement, where Midwestern manufacturers in the ’60s, through the Republican Party in the Midwest, decided that they would support the civil rights laws.

What I’m looking to is, if enough pressure is put on these companies, if the Democratic Party makes — understands that one of its great problems it’s facing is the absence of a trade union movement, which used to be a pillar of the Democratic Party, then you will get a change in managerial attitudes on this — not everyone, but certainly a company like Starbucks, which is going to face a public relations disaster if it’s fighting 50 or 60 Starbucks unionizing drives all of the country and they’re publicized all the time. Then, I think that that’s a possibility, that you could see a switch, in the same way that firms today advertise the fact that they’re really good on diversity or they promote women or they are good on the environment. I mean, why wouldn’t that be the case with the trade union movement? Now, I think trade unions have a special power and, in the management’s point of view, a special danger. And I think that we’re now seeing that, in part.

But the labor law is rotten. It’s not about — the PRO Act, the Protect the Right Organize, is not about to be passed in this Senate, given the filibuster. Bernie Sanders has inserted some elements of the PRO Act into the reconciliation bill that’s before the Congress. But, basically, you know, what has to be done is these tactics have to be advanced outside the existing labor law.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lichtenstein, I’m looking at a very painful text chain of a man, a worker named Larry Virden, who was in the Amazon plant in Illinois when the ceiling caved during the tornadoes. And he’s writing, “I’m fueling up now … will be home after the storm.” “What you mean,” he’s asked. “Amazon won’t let us leave.” And then the response, “All it’s doing … is lightning … So what you doing … I hope everything is ok … I love you.” Larry Virden left behind four children. I believe six people perished in the Amazon warehouse, told not to leave. If you can talk about this and also the piece you wrote just recently for The Washington Post about America striking, and this W.E.B. Du Bois quote at the beginning of your piece, “W.E.B. Du Bois defined the shift from slavery to freedom as a 'general strike' — and there are parallels to today”?

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yeah. Well, I mean, obviously, one of the things that trade unions do you is that they keep their eye on health and safety. One of the functions of a trade union is to, quote, “police” the laws that already exist, health and safety laws, other laws. And because it’s impossible for bureaucrats in Washington to spread out all over the country and to inspect firms, you need people on the floor to do that. And if you’re in a union, you’re not afraid of being reprimanded or fired or penalized for speaking up. And so, there’s no doubt that unionized firms have a better health and safety record than those that aren’t. And clearly, the manager at that Amazon place was under the gun during the Christmas rush to keep people working, and so you have this tragedy. But it’s just another indication of why we need trade unions.

I make one other point. Institutions are really important. Consciousness, a working-class consciousness, ebbs and flows. Right now we’re at a period of heightened consciousness — it’s a good thing — because of the pandemic and because of the money that’s been flowing through the economy. And so workers are clearly in an activist mode. That isn’t necessarily going to last for a generation. A union, like a civil rights law or any other institution law, is a way of capturing that consciousness and making it the law of the land, so that in periods when things are — when you have a recession —

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty seconds.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: When you have a recession, then the workers have this, can rely on this. Du Bois said, when slavery was ended, that this was a “general strike,” he called it. He wrote this — he wrote his book in the middle of the 1930s.

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: And I think we’re having that again today.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, I want to thank you for being with us, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We will also link to your books, State of the Union. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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