It's Time for Labor Spring

Roundup
tags: unions, labor history, Organizing

CINDY HAHAMOVITCH is a historian at the University of Georgia and the current president of Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA).

WILLIAM P. JONES is a historian at the University of Minnesota and the former president of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA).

WILLIAM P. JONES is a historian at the University of Minnesota and the former president of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA).

Something is stirring this spring. People in the U.S. are becoming increasingly interested in what commentators once called ‚Äč“the labor question,” following recent organizing victories at Starbucks, Amazon and Apple stores; well-publicized strikes of teachers, nurses and railway workers; and the unionization of staff, graduate assistants and even faculty at scores of campuses, including the recent successful strike of nearly 50,000 academic workers on the campuses of the University of California. 

Evidence of this mood shift is unmistakable this spring as students, campus staff and faculty, together with unions and community allies, are coming together on or adjacent to more than 50 campuses nationwide — including ours — to engage in a remarkable national teach-in on worker rights and organizing called Labor Spring.

It has been a long while since we’ve felt this level of energy on our campuses around labor issues. The last such moment arguably crested in the second half of the 1990s. Following the election of John Sweeney to the presidency of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1995, a spirit of change swept the labor movement and attracted the attention of young people. Sweeney’s union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), had helped catalyze that spirit in the 1990s with its innovative Justice for Janitors campaign, which won significant victories for low-waged immigrants and workers of color through militant bridge blockades and similar acts of civil disobedience. Sweeney brought that spirit with him into the AFL-CIO’s leadership when he defeated Thomas R. Donahue in the first contested election in the labor federation’s history. His victory signaled a sea change in a movement that had suffered years of decline. 

One of the most important features of Sweeney’s tenure was his effort to heal the lingering divisions that had developed between unions and student activists in the era of the Vietnam War. The healing of that decades-old schism paved the way for Union Summer, an effort to recruit young people to union organizing, which the AFL-CIO launched in the summer of 1996. That fall, another significant project took wing, a series of labor teach-ins at Columbia University, the University of Virginia and eight other campuses that helped electrify young people and attract them to the labor movement. Reporting on the overflow crowd that attended the Columbia teach-in, the New York Times likened its energy to that of a rock concert. 

The 1996 teach-ins contributed to a remarkably fruitful period of labor activism. In their wake, an anti-sweatshop movement took shape on college campuses that gave rise to United Students Against Sweatshops and the Worker Rights Consortium to investigate and expose abuse and protect worker rights in factories around the globe. The teach-ins gave birth to campus living wage campaigns and to Scholars, Artists and Writers for Worker Justice (SAWSJ), which in turn paved the way for our organization, the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA), which was founded in 1998. Organizing on campuses also took off following the 1996 teach-ins. The United Auto Workers (UAW) won representation elections for graduate assistants at UCLA, Berkeley and six other University of California campuses in 1999, following a systemwide strike in December 1998. Then, in May 1999, the UAW filed a petition for a representation election for teaching assistants at New York University, inaugurating a long struggle to bring unionization to graduate assistants at private universities, a struggle which continues to the present day.

Read entire article at In These Times