Opinion: Stand with your striking staff

As our adjuncts and staff prepare to go on strike for a fairer contract, we are called to examine labor’s rich past and help fight for its critical future by aiding our educators in their crusade

Opinion: Stand with your striking staff

I remember it like it was yesterday. My father carried me on his shoulders and my mother and I carried homemade signs. Together we marched through Chicago’s famed Daley Plaza, protesting then-Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union policies and providing a midwestern sense of solidarity with our neighbors to the north. Under the watchful eye of City Hall and the Picasso statue, Chicagoan workers, from plumbers to truckers to teachers, of all races and creeds stood together that 2011 morning in unified defense of the value of our work. My eight-year-old self was filled with pride and a spirit of togetherness.

Fast forward 11 years and those same feelings of pride and solidarity coursed through my veins as my fellow students and I picketed outside the AU alumni fundraiser at the Kennedy Center this past April, braving the elements for a cause we believe in. In standing alongside AU’s adjunct professors, AU staff, Service Employees International Union representatives and local D.C. activists, I got a firsthand glimpse into the socio-economic need for unions. Now, four months later, as our staff plan to go on a five-day strike starting Aug. 22, it is imperative that the student community stands with them in their fight for a fairer contract.

The history of American labor unions is a long and important one and one I’m well-versed in as the son of two union parents. However, many of my peers who did not grow up in union homes or large cities, may not be aware of the historical importance of unions. From the boiler rooms of the gilded age, where the Knights of Labor campaigned for an 8-hour workday, to the fields of California, where Cesar Chavez helped establish the United Farm Workers Union, unions have fought to improve the quality of life not only for their workers but for all who labor. From securing the weekends we love so much to working to bridge race and gender disparities in worker’s rights, unions are responsible for more progress than we realize, making the next part of their history so painful. 

In strength and size, labor unions have been steadily declining in the last few decades. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 14 million Americans, roughly 10 percent, are members of labor unions, compared to about 20 percent in the early 1980s. This decline, a product of myriad factors, most notably outsourcing of formerly-union powerhouse industries and union-busting policies such as “right to work” laws, accelerated in the 1980s and early 2000s and continues to the present day. Right to work laws originated in the deep south, with many of their earliest proponents such as lobbyist Vance Muse openly advocating for the laws as a corollary to Jim Crow. These laws weaken unions by stipulating that workers who opt-out of union membership do not have to pay “fair share fees,” payments that would allow unions to bargain and take legal action for both members and non-members. In other words, they let workers take all the benefits of membership while not supporting the unions themselves, which guts collective bargaining, inevitably leading to tighter employer control and income stagnation and inequality

However, hope is the furthest thing from lost. At both the federal and grassroots levels, support for organizing workers to bargain for fairer wages, conditions and hours is as strong as it was in the days of the New Deal. President Joe Biden has made increasing union membership and strengthening labor’s organizing power a core policy goal through a White House task-force and has already put forward an executive-branch-led initiative to expand and protect the union’s bargaining strength. Additionally, the PRO Act, a piece of legislation that would essentially negate right to work laws by ensuring fair-share agreements are the universal standard regardless of state law, passed the house last year, perhaps signaling that labor support is still a relevant piece of federal policy. Furthermore, recent case-based evidence suggests that while unions are in decline, interest and support for labor organization and collective bargaining at the grassroots level are on the rise, particularly in companies with no prior history of unionization. 

Most notably perhaps are the recent movements at Starbucks and Amazon, where corporate executives and “union-busting” lawyers have been met with worker response that provides a strong and recently victorious resistance. These underdog stories, in which individual workers unite to fight for fairness, are repeating across the country, from individual Starbucks branches to entire Amazon warehouses. There’s a reason CEOs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Starbucks’s Howard Schultz are willing to throw millions of dollars at union-busting projects. Since fired-warehouse worker-turned organizer Christian Smalls announced the victorious vote to unionize Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, more than fifty other warehouses have contacted him, looking to replicate the show of worker strength at Staten Island. Closer to home, AU owned local NPR station staff at WAMU recently won a new, fairer union contract. The actions of these brave workers prove that union power is infectiously strong, even in an age where the labor institutions of old are weakened.

This is why I went to the Kennedy Center on that rainy Thursday night in April and plan to support our staff and professors in contributions and solidarity. Suppose we, the students, youth and changemakers, can show up in support of our underpaid and overworked faculty, staff and graduate students. In that case, we can ignite a fire of unionization that will spread across other campuses where these same inequalities exist. 

AU’s motto is “challenge accepted.” I believe AU students need to accept another challenge, supporting labor unions, starting on campus with the ongoing adjunct contract bargaining movement. I urge AU students to stand, unrepentantly and unshakably, with our striking staff, the SEIU and all laborers, regardless of what contrarian narrative may pop-up in your AU email. I urge everyone to check out the strike’s Linktree to help get involved. If we can rally together for the dignity of ourselves and our work, supporting labor and unionization efforts from Amazon warehouses to AU classrooms, we can show the big-money bosses, from Bezos to Burwell, that we mean business. 

PJ Cunningham is an incoming sophomore in The School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle. 


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