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Unions are winning battles but still could lose the war

Although the American labor movement is gaining impressive momentum, companies are finding ways to push back.

Shawn Fain, the United Auto Workers union president, with President Biden on Jan. 24.ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

Autoworkers at Southern car plants. Baristas across the country. Even the Dartmouth men’s basketball team.

2024 is kicking off with great enthusiasm for the labor movement, spreading to many businesses and institutions that have never seen unions before.

The effort is getting a major boost, at least in morale, from the United Auto Workers. Last fall, the union’s tenacity and strategic strikes won it unprecedented contracts from the Detroit automakers. Right after that, UAW president Shawn Fain vowed to organize 13 nonunion plants across the South and West. That’s already paying off. This month the UAW announced that more than 50 percent of workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., had signed cards designating it as their representative. There’s also movement in Alabama at the Mercedes and Hyundai plants, and the union is aiming at Toyota’s big factory in Georgetown, Ky., too.


Several companies raised workers’ pay, which Fain read as a clear response to the UAW’s threat. “The game is rigged against the working class,” he declared. “Our job is to unrig it.”

This is exciting for me to watch. I’m a third-generation union maid, as the phrase goes. Last century, my grandfather and uncles were involved in efforts to organize furniture workers. In the 1970s, my mother and other pink-collar employees at Eastern Michigan University formed a UAW local. I’ve been a member of the News Guild and the lecturers’ union at the University of Michigan, where I’ve taught through the years.

Despite having labor in my DNA, however, I’m also aware that labor organizers will need determination, strategy, and some luck before they can declare victory.

“It’s hard,” says Ileen DeVault, professor of labor history at Cornell University. “Companies are going to dig their heels in.”

The UAW has already seen some of the car companies cut jobs and renege on promises to give temporary workers permanent jobs. And Starbucks is playing hardball. It hasn’t reached a single deal with the 381 stores that have unionized. Employees in another 41 are trying to form unions, according to Union Elections, which tracks organizing drives. Starbucks has fired organizers and even closed stores where union drives took place, although it cites reasons beyond unionization for doing so.


In Ithaca, home to Cornell, Starbucks shut three corporate-owned stores, all unionized. Cornell subsequently said it won’t renew Starbucks’ dining hall contract when it expires in 2025. Similar efforts to kick Starbucks off campus are underway at the University of Washington and the California university system.

Company pushback might explain why so few Americans are union members. Even at the highest point, in 1954, only about 35 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union. In 2023, union membership nationwide stood at 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, essentially flat with 2022.

Even with the recently successful organizing efforts, “you can’t count people as union members yet in any place without a contract,” DeVault says.

The UAW knows this. It took the famous General Motors sit-down strike of 1936-37 in Flint, Mich., for the union to win its first recognition from a major auto company. After a struggle, Chrysler followed, but Ford did not recognize the UAW until the eve of World War II, when its plants had geared up to make armaments. In between came the bloody Battle of the Overpass — in which union leaders including Walter Reuther were attacked and beaten by Ford’s security goons — and a sit-down strike like the one at GM.


And even though there are signs of union momentum at the foreign-owned car plants in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky, the UAW has failed numerous times down South. Apart from joint venture plants with Detroit automakers, the international companies have remained union-free since they arrived more than four decades ago.

A sign outside the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in December.Olivia Ross/Associated Press

The organizing process requires a series of steps. Either an employer can voluntarily recognize a union or 30 percent of workers can sign cards saying they want to join, allowing the union to seek an election. But many unions wait until they have 70 percent support before calling an election, as the UAW plans to do. The reason is that workers may vote differently on official ballots “than when their buddy asked them to sign a card,” DeVault explains.

Long before elections occur, companies routinely kick into antiunion drives. In 2017, the National Labor Relations Board charged that Nissan illegally tried to influence workers to vote against the UAW, which eventually lost its election.

In the current UAW effort, the union has the moral support of President Biden, who traveled to a picket line last fall and has courted union members’ support. In return, the union endorsed Biden’s reelection in January.

On the surface, it is a coup for the labor movement to have a president’s support. Franklin D. Roosevelt helped bring about many of the labor gains made during the 1930s. The UAW has posted a series of videos from workers at the Southern car plants complaining about their working conditions, proof that the organizing pump is primed.


But the UAW still must deal with Right to Work laws, which mean that workers are not required to join a union even if one is formed. Nor can the union collect dues from them.

I can’t help thinking of my relatives who were among the furniture workers staging a four-month strike in 1911. While they were united in their economic goals, divisions in ethnic and religious outlook ultimately caused the effort to fail.

My mother had a different experience. Her group struck Eastern Michigan for a month and won raises, health care coverage, and perks like free tuition, which allowed my mother to earn another college degree at age 70.

It’s still too early to know how this round of labor activism will turn out. Far from a time to declare victory, this is only the beginning of the journey.

Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author of five books, including “The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market.”