The past four decades have been grim for the American labor movement. The percentage of workers enrolled in unions has been slipping since the 1970s, and it may soon approach the single digits if the trend continues. It remains to be seen whether the country's ailing unions can possibly reverse this decline, or even slow it down; but if a labor resurgence does occur, future historians may label 2013 as the year when it began.
Over the past year, workers in some of America's lowest-paying industries have gone on strike in unprecedented numbers. Fast food workers in over 100 cities have walked off the job, demanding a base wage of $15 per hour and the right to form a union. Walmart workers pushed ahead in their campaign against the world's largest private employer, winning some positive media coverage and a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board. Meanwhile, low-wage, federally contracted workers attracted the support of over 60 sitting members of Congress, and campaigns across the country for a higher minimum wage won substantive results.
"This year was titanic," said Kendall Fells, organizing director for the fast food workers' group Fast Food Forward. "People that were optimistic about this campaign, even that very small group of people got blown out of the water."
The big question of 2014 is whether these campaigns represent a new era in labor organizing, or a mere speed bump on the road to annihilation. Low-wage worker campaigns must prove that they're capable of building on the gains of the past year. Organizers with the fast food and Walmart campaigns promise to continue using every tool at their disposal, but are tight-lipped about their future plans.
"I think every tactic that we used was necessary [in 2013]," said Colby Harris, a former Walmart associate affiliated with the workers' group OUR Walmart. "I wouldn't say that any one of those tactics is something that we would want to key in on and do more of." Over the course of the year, OUR Walmart has experimented with media outreach, protests against major Walmart shareholders, strikes of various lengths and sizes, and the filing of unfair labor practice complaints against Walmart.
The fast food campaign will likely attempt more of the same in 2014 as well.
"I think what people can expect is more and greater activity, bigger actions, more militant activities from fast food workers across the country, and continued growth," said Fells.
Traditional labor organizations like AFL-CIO and SEIU are also building out their infrastructure for supporting low-wage, non-traditional workers' campaigns. The massive service sector union SEIU has acted as a key supporter of the fast food strikes, and AFL-CIO plans to expand its own alternative labor organization, Working America, into all 50 states.
"We're excited about going into next year," said Karen Nussbaum, Working America's executive director. "For us, this notion that anyone can join the labor movement, that we can create new forms of worker power, that's one of our very biggest priorities."
Asked to identify what those new forms of worker power might look like, she pointed to her organization's campaign for a minimum wage hike in New Mexico. Working America has also partnered with the Ironworkers union in Texas to offer non-union workers an "associate membership" program linking them to the union. Nussbaum said the program would soon be expanding to other states.
Two other labor groups, Jobs with Justice and American Rights at Work, actually merged in 2013. Sarita Gupta, executive director of the newly enlarged Jobs with Justice, said the organization would provide support to low-wage campaigns Fast Food Forward and OUR Walmart through a combination of community organizing and background research.
"Our goal ... is to find out what are the research products that help shape the public discourse on these issues," said Gupta. For example, in May, American Rights at Work released a report alleging that Walmart engaged in "systematic labor abuse" against protesting workers. That charge was one of the key rallying cries for OUR Walmart, and the basis of its successful National Labor Relations Board complaint against the company.
While the efforts of alternative labor groups may have drawn national media attention, that has not yet translated into much in the way of federal legislation. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 per hour, though both President Obama and a growing majority of Americans support raising it. Congress also failed to extend unemployment insurance in 2013, and no jobs bill appears forthcoming.
Though he referred to the budget deal passed by the House and Senate as "baby steps in the right direction," AFL-CIO government affairs director Bill Samuels described 2013 overall as a "very frustrating year."
"It's certainly the case in the public policy arena that Washington is close to brain dead when it comes to dealing with very serious economic and social problems," he said. "And right now it seems it will only wake up if alarm bells ring across the country."
Those alarm bells may be starting to ring as low-wage worker groups help push through minimum wage hikes in cities like SeaTac, Washington, and states like New Jersey. But, said Samuels, "[i]t won't work without a massive mobilization outside of Washington."