The labor movement is not dead. In fact, unions and other organizations of working people are actively evolving to meet the needs of the modern worker and the environment she operates in.
In this chapter we will focus on some of the battlefields of this fight. If we hope to improve our chances of expanding collective bargaining beyond the workplace, we need to do a better job of protecting our home turf—the workplace itself.
While we have seen how some specific failures by organized labor have made unions and the people they represent vulnerable to new kinds of attacks by entrenched power, we have also seen a renewed willingness by workers to make use of their most powerful defensive tools, including walk-outs, wildcat strikes, and other direct actions.
There were more workers on strike in 2018 than in any previous year since the mid-1980s.1 In addition to educators, who made up the majority of these strikers, 1,400 employees of Frontier Communications in West Virginia went on strike with CWA, followed in June by AT&T employees throughout the Midwest.2 Later, UNITE HERE’s hotel workers were also fed up enough to take action. In Chicago, six thousand hotel workers at twenty-six area hotels walked out to demand year-round health coverage, while over 7,700 workers struck against Marriott Hotels in eight cities.3 November saw fifteen thousand health-care employees walk out on the University of California Medical Centers throughout the state in a three-day work-stoppage, not to mention the twenty thousand Google employees who walked out over sexual harassment.4
In the early part of 2019, over thirty-one thousand grocery workers at Stop & Shop stores throughout New England walked off the job to protest the company’s proposed cuts to health care, take-home pay, and other benefits. Supported by many community residents, these striking workers managed to win an agreement that preserved healthcare and retirement benefits, provided wage increases, and maintained time-and-a-half pay on Sundays.
This trend toward increased labor activism is likely to continue. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 only exposed existing repression, angering more workers to take action in defense of their livelihoods and their lives. And in 2021, over five million workers were in contract negotiations.5 This led to the historic moment known as Striketober in October 2021.
The business executives who seek to maximize profits with little or no consideration for human and community needs understand that when working people organize, take collective action, and attempt to vote or negotiate together, it represents a direct threat to their goals—which is why they are determined to do whatever it takes to stop it—including making us believe we are obsolete.
Andrew Puzder, fast-food-chain executive and Donald Trump’s one-time pick for US secretary of labor, went so far as to suggest getting rid of workers altogether after workers in the industry began organizing for and winning minimum-wage increases. When discussing the issue with Business Insider, he spoke about how he longed to replace humans with machines, noting that “they’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”6
In the past fifty years, corporate leaders like Puzder have reorganized their companies to more efficiently exploit the human labor and natural resources of the Earth in devastating ways. National industries have given way to multinational production chains, just-in-time manufacturing and compulsive labor migration patterns that maintain the companies’ mobility and nimbleness. Employees have been reclassified as independent contractors and entrepreneurs to minimize the responsibilities of large corporations who control their workday.
In the public sector, as noted in chapter 1, collective bargaining rights are inconsistent. Federal law offers many federal employees the right to engage in collective bargaining over a limited set of issues, and state laws determine whether state and local government employees can engage in collective bargaining. As of 2014, three states—North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—expressly prohibit collective bargaining for all public-sector employees.7 But again, Virginia allowed municipalities to loosen restrictions in 2021.8 Collective bargaining rights were further undermined in January 2018, when the US Supreme Court overturned the ability of public sector unions to collect agency fees from all the public employees that benefit from the work of the union.9
During the COVID-19 crisis, public sector unions were additionally threatened by the promise of massive layoffs and furloughs at the state and municipal levels of government. And yet public sector unions continued to organize, perhaps more energetically than before.
While we will share new strategies for organizing and collective bargaining beyond the workplace in later chapters, it’s urgent that we simultaneously defend our ability to collectively bargain in the workplace. In truth, many of the strategies to expand bargaining that we highlight will not work unless we secure this first.
Profile of a Modern Worker: Rubynell Walker-Barbee: “Make Them Do It”
Rubynell Walker-Barbee is one of the many Black women who was personally impacted when unemployment benefits were suddenly denied to school workers in Georgia. Hailing from union-dense Detroit, she was shocked to find how little her Atlanta food-service coworkers understood about unions. Her story illustrates the difficulty of organizing and ultimately establishing a union workplace.
It was like a tornado had hit us. Here we all were, ready to end the school session thinking that, if nothing else, we were going to get unemployment while we waited to be rehired in the next semester. It was never all that much, just enough to help some of the women keep their lights on until they were called back. But come to find out, Mark Butler, the head of the Georgia Department of Labor at the time, decided we weren’t going to get unemployment benefits anymore. We had no choice but to do something. And we had to do it together.
I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with ten sisters and five brothers. I was smack in the middle. My parents migrated there from Mississippi, a town called Okolona near Tupelo. We were a close family. My mom stayed at home, and my dad worked at restaurants and swept houses. He did the best he could. He was sick a lot because he had been shot before. He’d come up hard. His mother died when they were all babies, and there were eleven of them. His sister, who was thirteen at the time, took on raising them. I don’t know how she did it. And I really don’t know how my parents did it either, raising all of us. I would never have known it if we were struggling though. We always had nice clothes. We always had food. My mother would always say, “God will provide.” And that’s the way we lived.
I started working when I was twelve. I had a full-time babysitting job watching my younger cousins. I would leave school by four o’clock and keep the kids until midnight, three little girls. To this day, I don’t know how well it paid because back then the money went to my parents. My cousin’s parents didn’t pay me directly. All income was shared. It went to my parents. It wasn’t my money. By the time I was sixteen, I had a job as a receptionist at city hall. And from there I went on to become a payroll clerk for the school system. I did that from ninth to twelfth grade when I finished school. That’s just how it was. We all worked, come to think of it. And we all contributed. Maybe that’s how we survived. We took care of each other.
Anyway, after I finished school, I wanted to travel and see what the world had to offer. I’ve lived in Nevada, California, Indiana, all over. I’ve always felt that before I let a city bury me, I’d rather move on to somewhere else. I eventually moved back to Michigan to take care of my mother when she had heart failure. I was there for nearly thirteen years caring for her. She passed away in 2005. And by February 2006, I’d moved here to Atlanta.
I had a sister in Atlanta, so I thought I’d try it out next. A friend of mine was in the military, and I took on watching her sons who were eleven and maybe thirteen. There were actually supposed to be three of them, but one of the boys was killed just before I got there. I guess you could say they were troubled kids. They probably just needed a little counseling or something. When I was with them, it was one of the first times I started thinking about the phrase “no child left behind” because they had so clearly been left behind. When they got in trouble at school, they were disciplined and eventually sent to an alternative school. No one thought to work with them or help them. I was always getting called into the school because one of them was being punished. I would talk to the principal, but I couldn’t get any help. And I didn’t want to stress their mother out because she was off in Iraq with the military. The youngest boy, he’s in prison now. And like I said, he’s been left behind.
I guess I’ve seen a lot of children left behind if I really think on it. I had a nephew that was shot. He was twenty-two. And another nephew was diabetic. He couldn’t get the help he needed and kind of let himself go. He was also young. I had one nephew who was a notorious homebody. Once, he was at home waiting on his mother to finish cooking Sunday dinner. They say some of his friends came and got him because someone was fighting, but it was he who lost his life that day. So many Black boys gone too soon. So many children left behind.
I just don’t think our system is set up correctly. People are going through all kinds of things. Some people are able to get out of it. Some people aren’t. Growing up, I knew we were poor and that I had to work to get what we needed. But I had people in my life who were able to help me get to those goals. Some people need a little bit more attention. Some tragedies keep a person wrapped up in the trauma. That guy begging under the bridge, you don’t know what he’s been through. Some people need help to get out. It takes a village. And our system isn’t always designed to help them survive the trauma they’ve had.
Still, as always, I keep it moving. I started working in food service at Morehouse College after I retired. I like working, and I like to keep busy. I became a manager at the Chick-fil-A on campus. I enjoyed the work. I was close to a lot of the students who came through, my grandson being one of them. He graduated with a 3.8 grade point average and recently got married. I’m so proud of my grandchildren.
However, that is not all I saw while working there. I worked hard. But when it came time to reward me with a raise, they offered me two cents. What in the world did they think I was going to do with just two more pennies? They brought me into the office, sat me down, and told me, “You’ve been here for three years. You’ve been doing a great job. We really appreciate you. We’re going to give you a raise of $0.02.” That’s no reward.
Then I started asking around and realized that some people I worked with weren’t even making the minimum wage. They were working the grill in these hot conditions, and they weren’t getting paid fairly. And when you got things straight with one general manager, you got a new one. The company was always changing general managers. I think I had three general managers over the course of a year at one point. I started getting more involved with my coworkers after that.
Now, remember, I come from Michigan. There was always a union you could join. I’ve been a member of several unions over the course of my working life. So, despite the different rules in Georgia, I started organizing. We organized with the SEIU and won a collective bargaining agreement with our employer that laid out policies in a clear fashion, including how and when to apply wage increases. We all had copies of the contract and kept the little booklets in our pockets in case the next general manager was confused. Our workplace now had rules, and together we could enforce them.
It didn’t solve everything, though. For example, unemployment was a part of the job. At the end of the school year, our managers would give us our layoff note and our unemployment number at the same time. It’s not like we had the option of getting paid over twelve months instead of nine like some teachers do. And to be frank, unemployment doesn’t exactly pay. It just keeps you from going under. But this came with the job. It was the business model—hang out for a couple months with no pay, then come back. That’s what we were told to expect.
That’s why we were so shocked when it was taken away. It broke my heart to hear some of the stories. I was lucky. I had retirement and savings, and I was not responsible for feeding anyone but me. But some of the women there were caring for children all by themselves. It was a disaster, almost like a tornado had hit. People were losing their homes, their vehicles, their ability to put food on the table and pay for their prescriptions. We paid unemployment insurance, but we can’t access the benefits? Yet again the system showed its cracks and tried to leave us behind.
And it wasn’t just us at Morehouse. Food service workers throughout the state were struggling—union and nonunion. We knew the only way to fix it was to come together. We started to meet around the city and in the West End. Churches would take offerings for the women struggling the most, and we would have dinner at the meetings so everyone could eat. We started to organize ourselves to confront legislators and different agency representatives at the state level. We held a rally outside our worksites. We even went directly to Mark Butler’s house and saw how he and his family were enjoying their time comfortably while our families suffered.
I guess we hit someone’s nerve because the governor overturned Butler’s decision. School workers got $8 million back in unemployment benefits. It felt like we’d gotten backpay after our wages had been stolen. It was a huge victory!
But again, it did not fix the whole problem. The trauma you experience doesn’t simply end after the trauma is over. It takes a lot more than that to keep all of us from being left behind. When a tornado hits, you might lose your home, your pictures, all of the things that have made you who you are. And now that’s gone. For many women, after the tornado of losing unemployment, that was all gone. They’re still traumatized. They still need help.
And the business model is still the same. Annual unemployment comes with your annual layoff notice. That’s why our union is so important. We need these jobs to be good, family-sustaining jobs. None of us can do this by ourselves. We might get on each other’s nerves sometimes, just like any family might, but we have to stick together. Only together can we hold our employers accountable to the rules and policies to which we all agreed. It’s so few wealthy employers, and so many of us who work. They’re not just going to volunteer to pay us more money out of the goodness of their heart. We have to make them do it. If the manager calls one of us in, we can ask someone to go with us to ensure everything is done by the booklet. We can negotiate more hours before they hire people on a temporary basis. And if our unemployment is taken away, you better believe we’ll be ready to fight for it.
Rubynell’s story shows how much goes into organizing a union in a workplace. Service workers had to overcome their fears while living through a real-life economic nightmare. But they persisted. And it was worth the fight.