Redistributing power—one labor victory at a time

Jane McAlevey’s survey of labor unions shows that organizing and strikes still work.

Almost overnight during the COVID-19 pandemic, people formerly called un­skilled laborers became essential workers. Most of them are among the large group of Americans who have no substantial savings or are in debt. In other words, the people who have the least choice about continuing to go to work despite the risks are the ones sustaining our economy. Facing this reality requires solidarity: working together beyond groups of like-minded people.

Solidarity is essential for democracy, Jane McAlevey argues, and labor unions are one of the best tools we have to build it. Unions have long been a counterbalance against polarizing forces, McAlevey writes. But hand-wringing about white workers “voting against their interests” misses the point, since many Democrats have worked to dismantle unions as ardently as Republicans. The polarization that unions work to undermine stems from economic inequality.

Corporate executives and investors not only have the money that could be in US households’ savings accounts, but they have also amassed the political influence the middle class and working class could have through unions. I’ve seen glimpses of this influence in the Chicago Teachers Union, which is truly democratic in the sense of collective decision making and leaders who act on the will of the members. They continually push back against austerity measures that gut funding for public goods and give tax breaks to the richest.