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2021: The year of the labor movement and unions

February 19, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Lily Anna Fullam

On February 2, healthcare workers in Myanmar announced their intention to strike against the recent military takeover. On February 3, they took to the streets. By February 9, many hospitals shut down and other workers joined the strike, including the Teachers’ Federation, which has over 100,000 members.

On February 16, fast food workers went on strike in a variety of American cities, pushing for a raise in the minimum wage under the Fight for 15 campaign, which was initiated in 2012. At the same time, Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama were voting on whether or not to form a union. Since the beginning of January, a variety of confederations and federations of labor unions in Romania have joined sides in a nationwide protest against the austerity measures imposed by the government. What was initially regarded as a movement to push for certain demands turned into an anti-governmental movement on the side of certain unions.

And while those actions were happening, we must not forget about the ongoing Indian Farmers’ Protest, which on November 26, 2020, held what might have been the largest-held general strike in history, numbering around 250 million workers. And if we are to turn to our local affairs, we are witnessing an ongoing campaign to form a union at Maine Medical Center. The campaign has seen the hospital bring in anti-union trainers and make the nurses attend their sessions. Despite the anti-union spirit which Maine Medical has tried to impose upon its workers, the workers are holding strong. Witnessing the conversations they are having in their Facebook group, they might even form a union.

The cases which I mention are just a drop of water in the big bucket of labor protests, manifestations and movements springing up all over the globe. Transnational movements, such as Essential Autonomous Struggle Transnational (E.A.S.T), are gaining momentum, preparing to organize an internationally-coordinated movement on March 8. More than ever, labor issues are impossible to avoid. The dire situation of COVID-19 has led to worsening working and living conditions for workers all over the world. If one of us doesn’t personally know someone who has lost their job, we likely have a friend who knows one.

The worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t lead only to a medical crisis—one in which we literally saw the number of the dead rolling on our screens—but to a crisis of labor as well. There were, and still are, countless cases of employers not respecting COVID-19 guidelines and protecting their workers, as well as cases of salary cuts and furloughs. The living situation for many people has been altered completely, from barely making it to questioning whether or not it’s affordable to live in the same place. The pandemic has also intensified anxieties amongst those who were able to keep their jobs, leading them to think that the rug can be very easily swept from beneath them, leaving them to walk on unstable ground.

The possibility of going to talk to a manager to solve a workplace issue is no longer a strategy that can be utilized when the structural crisis of labor is so visible, and workers are becoming more aware of this than ever. It no longer looks like an individual problem, but a structural one. If, in the past, losing a job might have been a distant thought for most of us, regarding our position as ‘safe’ since we had a great deal of qualifications and were in a thriving city, nowadays the situation looks more fragile, prompting us to ask the question: what is to be done?

And once we ask this question, what is the next step to undertake when there is so great a possibility of us falling prey to the escapist tools of pessimism or blind optimism? When uncertainty was looming in the air, workers took the matter into their own hands, uniting their powers and voices so they were amplified. Regardless of the outcome, the protestors took to the streets and social media in order to make their voices heard and to remind themselves, the politicians and everyone else that this crisis is not only a medical one, but also a labor one.

With nothing to lose, unions are becoming the center of the stage, and this will surely continue to be the case. With union protests, union votes, national manifestations and strikes happening all over the world, the possibility of the labor crisis worsening is no longer an assumption, but an objective reality. It must be noted that they are not only left-wing, progressive groups of people, but quite often represent a heterogeneous body of people united by a variety of causes. There are Republicans and Democrats, Communists and Nationalists, Socialist and Moderates, leftists and hardcore patriots that are part of the union movement at the same time, pushing the message forward.

With the heterogeneity of the movement, the accentuating crisis of labor and the increasing uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic, what is there to be done? Should we decide not to side with a movement because of the sole aspect that the movement is not as homogenous as we would have expected it to be? Should we fall trap to ideological purity and spend our time employing theoretical analysis without a base of reality, looking for the element which we see as perturbing in the movement?

If the questions do not have a clear answer, there is at least more certainty regarding a variety of issues. The union movement is here to stay, and it promises to grow bigger, stronger and more forceful. The stability about which our parents were talking is no longer a possibility for us. We either walk divided, with our heads in the sand, or join forces with others.

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