There's an old labour adage that says when we fight, we win.
I attended the Labor Notes conference in Chicago in June where I had a chance to hear from some of the greats on the frontlines of the fight for workers rights. Chris Smalls, from the Amazon Labor Union, Michelle Eisen from Starbucks Workers United, Nolan Tabb from the John Deere strike, Stacy Davis Gates from the Chicago Teachers Union and Sean O’Brien from the Teamsters. All workers who are taking the fight to corporate bosses to demand fair deals for workers and communities. Hearing about the gains that workers are making in the US, the adage began to feel true.
But in one of the workshops, in the context of teaching us how to march on the boss, an instructor commented that it isn't true that we always win when we fight. For every big labour victory we've seen in the past two years, there are a dozen losses. For too many workers, even in unionized workplaces, it's been the case that employers have taken advantage of the pandemic to attack workers and our hard-earned rights – just like they’ve done through many crises in the past.
So what should we make of the claim that when we fight we win? What does it mean for us in 2022, as pandemic restrictions have eased and as bosses turn their attention fully to their usual business of maximizing profits and exploiting workers?
I have two ideas that I'd like to share. Firstly, sometimes we don't win on the first try. But even when we launch a campaign to improve the lives of workers and we lose, we still lay the groundwork to win in the future. Losing campaigns still educate workers and the public about our causes. They shift the Overton window so that when we are ready to fight again, the idea that once seemed so inconceivable suddenly begins to be achievable. Working people have done this again and again throughout the history of organized labour. This is how we won the eight-hour workday, the vote for women and racialized communities, health and safety standards, pensions, healthcare and even the right to form unions. None of these campaigns were won on the first try. Many took lifetimes of struggle. But each fight laid the groundwork for a future day when workers would win.
Secondly, every time we launch a campaign and join in solidarity with fellow workers, we grow the labour movement. New activists find their voices when we fight for their causes. Those new activists go on to be the leaders of our movement. Nolan Tabb was a worker on the assembly line at John Deere until the strike in 2021, when he encountered the progressive ideas and tactics at Unite All Workers for Democracy, a leftist movement within the UAW. Michelle Eisen was a theatre artist, filling her income gaps at Starbucks, until workplace injustice at Starbucks led her to join the fight for workers rights. With the support of a broad coalition of labour activists (including COPE Local 343 members!) Michelle and her coworkers won the first ever organizing drive at a Starbucks in Buffalo.
Just about every attendee at Labor Notes, whether they are panelists or first timers, has a similar story of how they were inspired, brought into the movement and mentored by other workers who were willing to fight to better the lives of working class people.
So, I think it is true that when we fight, we win. Sometimes the wins are obvious, like at John Deere and Starbucks and Amazon. And sometimes those wins look like losses for a little while. But every time we fight for justice for the working class we welcome new leaders into our movement and make gains that set us up for the next win.
And we have so many urgently important wins still in front of us – justice for migrant workers, pharmacare for all, protecting and expanding abortion access, improving our collapsing healthcare system, better wages, safer working conditions, adequate sick leave, four-day work weeks, justice for gig workers, equity for BIPOC and LGBTQ2SI+ workers and communities, and the list goes on.
As we prepare to march in solidarity this Labour Day, many of us for the first time in three years, be proud to stand in the tradition of so many unionists and activists who have gone before. And celebrate each victory as we grow our movement, build capacity and lay the groundwork for a fair tomorrow.