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  • Sam Lieberman

Students in Solidarity

As I write, the Hamilton College Student Admissions workers are voting on whether or not to unionize. Much has been written about this landmark decision, but there has been relatively little attention to how this decision fits into the broader American labor movement. As this piece will detail, this vote denotes a major development in the resurgence of American unions, regardless of how it goes. Articles detailing labor trends will often, in some way or another, state that union membership rates in the United States have fallen in half since the early 1980s. At first glance, this is a rather innocuous statement -- it is true that in 1983, 20.1% of American workers carried Union cards, versus just 10.3% in 2019. To describe this statistical fact as ‘unionization rates declining’ is, at best ignorant, and at worse, intentional deception. In actuality, powerful lobbyists, crony corporations, and corrupt politicians launched a multi-decade attack on organized labor, employing every trick in the book (and inventing a bunch of new ones) to undermine workers’ dignity and living standards.

It is essential to note that American workers never attained the power earned by their global counterparts. In the United States, stratified political systems, racial division of the working class, and a myriad of other factors prevented labor from ever organizing on an industry basis, thus depriving American workers of the sectoral bargaining system that has been so essential to maintaining growth and equity in Northern Europe. This social context slowed down labor organizers, and with a Scandinavian-style militant labor movement already out of the picture, the American government was able to quash the hopes of organizers. In 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley act of 1947, which, in one swoop, rolled back much of the protections workers had earned under the Roosevelt Administration. With this act, congress further shifted the scale of labor negation towards management, thus setting up the country for the full-bore war on workers embraced by the federal government in the 1980s.

The management class’ war on workers has made life relatively worse for just about everyone in the country. Workers covered by a union (which is not the exact same thing as unionized workers) earn 20% more than their non-unionized counterparts, enjoy longer vacation times, and get a real voice in their workplace. Beyond broadly hurting workers, anti-union policy widens specific social inequities. In their 2012 paper ‘Organized Labor and Racial Wage Inequality in the United States’ Sociologists Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp detail how declining unionization rates have amplified the black-white racial gap, ultimately arguing for a revitalized labor movement as a solution to systemic racism. Unions also target gender inequities by raising wages and enforcing fair treatment in the workplace. Because labor organizing creates immense social good, one might assume that their shortcomings are largely explained by political polarization like so many of our nation’s problems. However, recent research concludes that the vast majority of Americans view the decline of union membership as negative. There is a broad feeling that the anti-worker agenda has weakened the country -- this is no coincidence. As ownership interests decimated unions they also decimated the social fabric of America, accelerating a rise in income inequality.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the harsh reality of the American economy. Decades of federal incompetence and malice hollowed out and privatized our most important institutions from public universities to public health agencies -- chief among these being unions. Despite this, the labor movement proved resilient during the pandemic, protecting members from the staggering job and wage-loss experienced by non-union workers. Because unions protect members from the increasing horrors of the modern workplace far more workers want union membership than currently have it. Thus, the impetus is on the broader society to help organize labor in any way we can.

Relating to the topic of the day, even if organized labor is good and important, why should it involve student workers? Those attacking the Hamilton College Student Admissions Workers’ efforts to organize repeatedly state that they aren’t opposed to all unions, just this one. This is an oxymoronic statement. To grow the labor movement, we have to embrace organization in every workplace and every industry because worker-politics requires solidarity.

Today in Denmark McDonalds workers make a minimum wage of $22 (in USD). These fair wages are not the product of corporate generosity, or even one union, but instead the gains earned by decades of tireless organizing. In 1981 when McDonalds refused to comply with the pay demands set by the Danish restaurant-workers industry-wide union, the entire economy went on strike. Every business that worked with McDonalds, from advertising firms to shipping companies saw its workers march to the picket line. Real organization requires solidarity between all unions.

Beyond this, unions are good for all workers, regardless of wage or industry. For example, the film industry relies on a fully unionized talent-pool to ensure not only fair standards, but also high-quality movies. This model has proven so successful that the videogame industry, mired in decades of financial problems and a culture of abuse, is turning to unions. Labor organization as a solution has become so obvious that even prominent leaders and owners in the industry are calling for unionization. Similarly, high-wage tech workers, tired of constant corporate mistreatment, are beginning to organize en-masse, with Google software engineers unionizing at the beginning of 2021.

Regardless of how Hamilton’s Student Admissions Workers vote on Friday’s election, they have helped move the labor movement forward. Never has America seen a student-workers union, but the times-are-a-changin, and we as a student body are deciding to take action into our own hands.

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