Nearly 30 years ago, in 1996, Columbia University hosted a conference called “The Fight for America’s Future: A Teach-in With the Labor Movement.” Speakers included the feminist activist Betty Friedan, historian Robin Kelley, and scholar Cornel West. John Sweeney, who had recently been elected president of the AFL-CIO, was also in attendance. Sweeney’s election was seen as a watershed moment for organized labor; per The New York Times, it signaled “a sharp turn toward militancy” and “moving women and minorities into the policy-making ranks.”
Rosslyn Wuchinich, now the president of Unite Here Local 274 in Philadelphia, was there. She described it as the start of a new moment, one in which those interested in racial, economic, and gender justice were “seeing the labor movement as a place that you could go for real change.” The conference’s goal was to reinvigorate organized labor by uniting with various social movements behind a shared progressive agenda. Could a new labor movement—one not built or seen as the exclusive province of working-class white men—reclaim power for workers across the board?
Given overlapping climate, health, and social crises and the threat of another Trump presidency, this question has taken on new urgency today. Union density has fallen sharply in the last 40 years, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.1 percent in 2022. At the same time, the last several years have seen an upsurge in labor militancy that few would have predicted in 1996. Members of the 150,000-member United Auto Workers are, as of this writing and for the first time in the union’s 88-year history, on strike at all of the Big Three automakers.
President Joe Biden, who calls himself the “most pro-union” president in history, recently joined them; it was the first time a sitting U.S. president has ever joined workers on a picket line. The Writers Guild of America, which had been on strike since May, recently won a contract that met much of its demands. Union negotiators knew a less than exceptional deal was “not going to fly” with a “younger, more active, possibly more radical” membership, a TV writer told The New York Times. SAG-AFTRA, which represents approximately 160,000 actors and performers, has been striking since mid-July. A UPS strike was narrowly averted in August; the credible threat of one yielded substantial gains for workers. Kaiser Permanente health care workers won what amounted to 21 percent in wage increases over the next four years in early October, after more than 75,000 of them staged a three-day strike in four states.
New organizing campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon have also generated a great deal of excitement. Since a store in Buffalo, New York, became the first U.S. Starbucks to unionize in 2021, more than 350 stores across the country have followed suit. But the company has steadfastly refused to negotiate, and, two years after the first store voted to unionize, no Starbucks location is operating under a union contract.
Unionization efforts at Amazon have hit similar stumbling blocks. Staten Island warehouse workers led the first successful union drive at a U.S. Amazon location in 2022. In the face of a multimillion-dollar union-busting campaign, and initially without the support of larger, more established unions, they won what The New York Times called “one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.” More than a year after that vote, Amazon is still refusing to negotiate a contract.
In the last eight years, a new U.S. left—one that is distinct from and more progressive than the Democratic Party, but which often works to elect candidates running on the Democratic line—has emerged. This left has driven and benefited from the upsurge in labor organizing. Nikhil Goyal, a former Bernie Sanders senior policy adviser and author of Live to See the Day, said at a recent book event that revitalizing the labor movement was crucial to making progress on any other front—a common theme on the left since 2015, thanks in large part to Sanders’s presidential campaigns and supporters, who’ve gone on to found organizations like Sunrise, the climate justice group that helped popularize the Green New Deal and link the labor movement with the cause of climate justice.
The Democratic Socialists of America, of which I am a member, has also made inroads with organized labor since 2016. But the organization is still relatively new to having and wielding power, and some in labor still view it with suspicion. “In New York City, it’s really tough,” said Zyad Hammad, who organizes with NYC-DSA’s labor branch, “because the connection between the Democratic Party and major unions is so strong here that DSA is seen as a threat to the Democratic Party machine and their power structure and the way things are done in New York politics.”
Large labor organizations still tend to back Democrats—including centrists with dubious track records on labor—and union households still tend to vote Democratic. But Democrats’ share of those votes has mostly shrunk in the last 20 years. The fraying relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party, coupled with the rise of new groups and voting blocs to the left of the party, have prompted some in labor to consider whether it’s better to maintain ties with established but unreliable partners or join newly emboldened groups in carving out alternative paths to power.
New York’s ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo spent years recruiting labor leaders to join his vendetta against the left-leaning Working Families Party. He persuaded a number of unions to withdraw from the New York WFP in 2014, when the party considered backing his primary challenger Zephyr Teachout. The WFP ultimately backed Cuomo, who promptly reneged on every promise he made to secure its endorsement. When the party backed Cynthia Nixon over Cuomo in the 2018 primary, more unions left. Asked about the divide those departures revealed, Sandra Oxford, the former executive director of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, said that, speaking only as a WFP state officer, she wouldn’t call it a divide: “It’s been more of a marriage, and it has not always been a harmonious marriage.”
Ultimately these schisms freed the WFP to grow into a more unified and disciplined organization that has survived Cuomo’s attacks, helped put progressives like New York state Attorney General Letitia James in powerful positions, and moved left. But the question remains: Now that labor and the left are thriving anew on parallel paths, will they come together to maximize their power?
This used to be a simpler question to answer. Many of America’s most effective labor leaders were socialists, from Mother Jones to Eugene Debs to A. Philip Randolph. But in the first half of the twentieth century, red scares drove leftists out of labor leadership, rendering it less confrontational and more transactional. “Labor movements across the world have succeeded generally when they’ve had strong unions in alliance with strong working-class political parties,” said Eric Blanc, author and assistant professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. The trouble in the United States, he added, is that there’s never been a mass working-class party, which helps explain divisions within the working class.
Driving leadership to the right helped feed a stereotype of union members as blue-collar, “hard-working Americans, white Americans” whose values, interests, and experiences are at odds with those of people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks. But the U.S. labor movement has always been diverse. Today it includes many more workers in female-dominated sectors like teaching, health care, flight staff, retail, and hospitality work. Black workers are more likely to belong to unions than white, Asian, or Hispanic workers. Women in unions experience smaller gender-based pay gaps than their nonunion counterparts. Immigrants have led, powered, and gained from efforts to organize the multiracial working class. The narrow “wokeness” of academic and corporate culture can and often does alienate working-class people regardless of race and gender. And as conditions for workers of all stripes continue to deteriorate, the appeal of broadsides against corporate greed and demands for economic and social justice has grown.
The diversity of America’s working class is a strength, but it’s also an opportunity for exploitation. Divisions among workers—real, perceived, and imposedhave made segments of labor vulnerable to the right. Today’s Republicans have three main strategies: pit union members against leadership, workers against climate activists, and the U.S. against China.
As GOP Senator Josh Hawley recently wrote on X, “Auto workers deserve a raise—and they deserve to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden’s stupid climate mandates that are destroying the US auto industry and making China rich.” In Ohio, Senator J.D. Vance said he’s “rooting for the auto workers across our country demanding higher wages and an end to political leadership’s green war on their industry.” Trump told NBC’s Meet the Press that autoworkers were “being sold down the river by their leadership.” Corporate executives have also sought to paint union demands as incompatible with progressive climate policy.
While Wuchinich dismissed the notion that workers and climate activists have competing interests, she offered that it was imperative to put “real thought” into efforts to bring climate and other progressive activists into deeper alignment with labor. In the broader environmental movement, she said, there can be “lip service” paid to the people who are doing the work and the need for a “just transition,” as opposed to the kind of “true engagement” that’s required. When groups like Sunrise talk about a “just transition,” the phrase rings hollow to many union members. “When workers hear that we’re going to have a ‘just transition,’ they know that means they’re going to get fucked,” Philadelphia organizer Amanda McIllmurray told me in 2020.
Structural differences between unions and nonprofits drive some of these tensions. Unions have a mandate to serve their members, and, unlike left-leaning nonprofits, their members often have a variety of political views, making it difficult to take potentially controversial stands without alienating some of them. Some unions are more democratically run than others, but union members elect their officers, whereas nonprofits are run by unelected boards and executives. People join leftist organizations out of ideological conviction. They typically join unions to secure better pay, benefits, and working conditions.
One key to bringing these groups back into alignment is to bring class consciousness back to the labor movement. Labor actions provide organic opportunities for an understanding of class and solidarity to take root. “I wanted dental insurance; I wanted to earn more than just $30,000; but most of all, I wanted a workplace where I wasn’t treated like shit,” Aparna Gopalan wrote in a recent Jewish Currents newsletter, describing what motivated her to go on strike for the first time as a graduate instructor. On the picket line, she found that she and her co-workers “had all come out for the same reasons—to win better pay, benefits, and harassment protections.” But as the strike wore on, “something changed.” They had initially walked off the job for practical reasons, but they “stayed on the line for more ineffable ones.”
When feelings of solidarity, agency, and collective power begin to emerge, they can break down political divides. The wave of teachers’ strikes that erupted in Republican-controlled states in 2018 drew thousands of participants and supporters, including many who were not leftists, unionists, or Democrats. A survey conducted by Columbia University sociologists in the six states where teachers walked out in 2018 found that the strikes changed attitudes, particularly among “conservatives, Republicans, and those without personal experience with unions.” Not only did they appear to establish “a greater sense of common fate” between parents and teachers; they also increased people’s interest in labor action, if not necessarily traditional union membership. “The concrete manifestation [of unity] for the left and for labor is trying to unite those who sell their labor against those who own the companies,” said Blanc.
Striking displays of left-labor unity erupted during Bill Clinton’s second term and Obama’s first, political eras in which both constituencies were marginalized. Clinton angered unions by punting on efforts to strengthen labor laws and dismissing their concerns about Nafta. With the notable exception of Occupy, the Obama years followed this path. Obama allowed card-check legislation to languish after campaigning on passing it, failed to intervene when then-Governor Scott Walker declared war on unions in Wisconsin, and subjected union health plans to new taxes and mandates under Obamacare. He wasn’t much friendlier to the left, bemoaning its “excesses” and accusing progressives of “want[ing] to take their ball and go home.”
Obama’s indifference spurred unions to seek ways to build power outside of Washington. Unions provided key logistical support to Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and the Seattle anti–World Trade Organization protests in 1999. During Occupy, Teamsters marched alongside activists who disrupted Sotheby’s auctions in solidarity with the art handlers’ union the company locked out. Leaders in both camps “say the relationship is sensitive,” The Washington Post reported at the time, adding that Occupy activists had vowed to “reject any efforts by union officials to draw the new movement into the get-out-the-vote efforts that labor wages in election campaigns.” A decade earlier, the Los Angeles Times ran a story (“Teamsters and Turtles: They’re Together at Last”) that described “tens of thousands of demonstrators—husky red-jacketed steelworkers marching alongside costumed sea turtle impersonators, environmentalists and miners, human rights activists and family farmers” against the WTO.
The left and labor are, in many ways, stronger today. “The vast majority of people in this country know that they are getting the short end of the economic stick and are angry about it,” said Wuchinich. In 2022, the largest percentage of Americans since 1965 approved of labor unions. Large majorities of Democrats and sizable proportions of Republicans supported the recent strike wave. Campaigns at Starbucks, as well as at media outlets, museums, and large public universities—what the writer Alissa Quart calls “black turtleneck” strikes—have brought youth, energy, and militancy back to the labor movement. People “in certain more highly educated, professionalized groups, for whom there are higher economic expectations, who have graduated college expecting a particular career and a particular income” are, Wuchinich said, “now realizing they are also getting screwed.” And recent campaigns have forged new bonds between blue collars and black turtlenecks, uniting them around a shared identity as union members and breaking down some of the hierarchical divisions that can undermine solidarity. In recent years, we’ve seen parents support striking teachers, teachers and students fight side by side, and writers and janitors join forces.
Organized labor and left-leaning groups have won key victories for workers by electing Democratic majorities in states with large concentrations of union members. As part of a coalition of community, labor, and civil rights groups, unions helped Democrats win back control of the Michigan legislature in 2022. Michigan subsequently became the first state in 58 years to repeal an anti-union “right-to-work” law. Minnesota Democrats recently passed one of the most pro-worker legislative packages in decades, guaranteeing paid family and medical leave, barring companies from holding mandatory anti-union meetings, and strengthening protections for meatpacking and Amazon warehouse workers.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats have passed bills in the state House to raise the minimum wage and enshrine the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution. They were able to do so in part because DSA and the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO joined forces to elect legislators like Representative Elizabeth Fiedler; unions, teachers, and pro-choice groups also came together to back Representative Lindsay Powell. What Maurice Mitchell, national director of the WFP, called “the broader movement left” and labor also united to elect Brandon Johnson mayor of Chicago and send Greg Casar of Texas to Congress in 2022. Alexa Avilés, a New York City councilmember in Brooklyn, won her 2021 race with strong support from unions, the WFP, and DSA—thanks, she said, to a shared focus on prioritizing the needs of “people over profit.”
The language left-leaning groups use today—people over profits, workers over bosses, ordinary or working people over elites—has clear antecedents in left-wing movements like Occupy and political campaigns like Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs. Now a number of prominent labor leaders have adopted this language as well, signaling a return to labor’s radical roots. The UAW’s Shawn Fain has described the autoworkers’ strike as a struggle between the “billionaire class” and the “working class”; Stacy Davis Gates, who heads the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, recently vowed to prioritize “the voices of the many” by fighting “tooth and nail” to ensure that supporters of school choice and privatization do not infect Chicago’s board of education with “fascism and racism”; and Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, spoke in 2021 about the transformative power of having the legal standing, via a union, to “make capital have to respond to working people.”
Thanks to the renewed vigor of each, the left and labor are now on the cusp of forging a more durable alliance. Olivia Killingsworth, a DSA organizer and SAG-AFTRA member, said it’s been heartening to see how coordinated and supportive of each other’s campaigns New York City unions have been, “from the bottom to the top.” More tempered in his read of the landscape was Jesse Sharkey, former president of the CTU. He acknowledged some “bright spots” but said that overall, he doesn’t see “the kind of risk taking and confrontation with capital that we’re going to need in order to win.” Meanwhile, Wuchinich believes that labor’s biggest opportunity to build power lies in bringing more people into the movement. “We build real power when people make the decision to stand up and fight their bosses,” she said, and when they “expect more from themselves than the rest of the world has been expecting from them.”
In September, I joined a WGA/SAG-AFTRA picket in midtown Manhattan. It was pouring rain, but the dozen or so people who’d shown up anyway were in good spirits. Killingsworth, who was one of the organizers, spotted an older man across the street. “Murray!” she shouted, beckoning him over. As he came into view, I realized he was the actor F. Murray Abraham. When he heard I was writing about labor, he turned his intense gaze on me. “Without unions,” he intoned, “there is no middle class. And without a middle class, there is no democracy.” These are long-standing, time-tested sentiments; what’s new is the once-in-a-generation opportunity to unite different groups around our fundamental shared interests.