• Monica Cruz

After years of setbacks, US labor demonstrates its power

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

2021 marked a historic year in labor organizing for workers in the US, with tens of thousands of workers in partaking in union votes and strike actions

Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York after learning that they are the first to unionize in the country. Photo: Twitter

2021 was a historic year for labor in the US. An eruption of strikes, major contract wins, and workers quitting low-wage jobs in unprecedented numbers all signaled that workers en masse are ready to reclaim their power. Workers organized union drives across nearly every industry, pushed for union reforms, and elected new union leadership, speaking volumes to their desire for a more democratic workplace.

For many workers, the pandemic revealed the cruelty of capitalism. Mainstream media and politicians campaigned for a return to business as usual during this second year of COVID. In particular, workers, called “essential” and “heroes” during the pandemic, were expected to continue sacrificing the most while receiving the least in pay and benefits. At the same time, the world’s biggest corporations made record-breaking profits and the richest individuals saw their wealth multiply.

Throughout the year, right-wing pundits and lawmakers cried wolf about a “worker shortage,” using this to justify cutting off pandemic unemployment benefits. In reality, the end of the year saw a near record number of people quitting their jobs. What’s clear is that workers are no longer willing to settle for low pay and terrible conditions.

As Kooper Caraway, President of the South Dakota Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, told BreakThrough News back in June, “I think that it’s not necessarily that workers are gaining more leverage, but that workers are recognizing the leverage they already have. And choosing to exercise it.”

Workers fight to unionize

In the most high-profile win, two Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York became the first Starbucks locations in the country to vote to unionize, despite an egregious anti-union campaign. Union drives are underway in several more states, with an election filing just recently announced in Tennessee.

After filing for a union back in May, 17,000 higher education workers at the University of California voted to strike for recognition. Two weeks later, the University agreed. The new union, Student Researchers United, is the largest new union formed in the country in recent decades.

2021 also marked a record-breaking year for journalists getting organized across the country. The NewsGuild, the largest union representing journalists, broke its annual organizing record with 1,542 journalists across 26 workplaces joining the union.

After decades of decline, only 10% of workers in the US belong to a union. According to unionelections.org, there have been 1,314 private sector union elections filed and 907 union elections held in 2021. A new unit was certified in 571 of those elections. At the same time, approval of labor unions is at 68%, the highest point since 1965.

Year of the strike

Cornell University’s ILR School Strike Tracker reported a total of 363 strikes across the country (as of December 27).

The key characteristic about this year of labor action was not necessarily the quantity, but the quality, or rather the length and breadth of the strike actions in 2021. In major industries such as food service, education, industrial production, food production, and mining, tens of thousands of workers embarked on industrial action. Prestigious educational institutions saw some of the largest strikes. The