This month, members of the Writers Guild of America, East and West, decided to strike for the first time in 15 years. Two weeks earlier, UPS workers represented by the Teamsters began negotiations with the company to replace an existing agreement that is set to expire at the end of July. If a new agreement is not negotiated, these workers may go on strike, as they did with great success in 1997, delaying the delivery of goods across the country. You might not think a Hollywood writer and a UPS driver or package operator have much in common, but the struggles they’re facing right now highlight how the fight for labor rights is one we all need to get involved in—no matter what we do.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Americans were isolated due to lockdown orders, streaming TV shows and movies provided us with a fun break to help us forget our troubles while delivery drivers diligently ensured that vital goods reached their destinations si so that our economy can function.
A critical result of the pandemic has been the growing appreciation Americans have developed for long-neglected “essential” workers. We have realized how important they are to ensure the smooth functioning of the nation’s economy. In turn, these “core” workers – and workers of all kinds – gained a renewed sense of their worth – and a determination to ensure that they were treated with dignity and given freedom of action in their workplaces.
This resurgence of the labor movement has led to the rise of historic organizing campaigns at Starbucks, Amazon, and among college and university graduate students, to name a few. And it is in this light that we must see what is happening in the writers’ strike and the negotiations with UPS. Although all these workers do different jobs, their struggle is the same.
Writers want higher pay, better health care and retirement security, and better protections so that the writing profession doesn’t become just another “gig” job. UPS drivers are fighting, among other demands, to increase pay for part-time workers and eliminate a second category of weekend delivery drivers so that all drivers are treated equally. It is striking that whether one works in a typing room or a supply processing, one is tired of the gradual devaluation of one’s labor due to corporate greed and the rush for short-term profits.
These workers aren’t just fighting for better pay and benefits for themselves. They are also fighting to protect the future of their professions so that newer and younger workers get the same opportunities they have.
During the resurgent labor movement, there is tremendous solidarity within and between unions. Acknowledgment that their lots are linked. In short, workers are united in ways not seen in decades.
Unfortunately, Washington is failing workers when they need support the most. During the last Congress, the Senate failed to pass the PRO Act, repeating a 50-year pattern of failed federal labor law reform to strengthen workers’ rights to organize — including when Democrats controlled both chambers under four Democratic presidents. Carter to Biden. Although there is a lot of energy in the labor movement right now, labor laws still heavily favor corporations and executives who want to prevent workers from having a voice. The PRO Act would have remedied this by increasing penalties for violations of workers’ rights, empowering workers who struggle to organize, and preventing employer interference to ensure free and fair union elections.
However, due to the filibuster, the Senate did not pass this much-needed legislation. Similarly, Congress last year failed to increase the budget of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) enough to meet current needs. The NLRB is the agency charged with enforcing federal labor laws and is often the last resort for organizing workers whose rights have been violated by their employers. At this time of historic levels of worker activism, the NLRB does not have the budget necessary to ensure compliance with the law dedicated to protecting their rights. Employers know and understand that they will often face no consequences for many of their violations due to the limited resources available to the NLRB.
Our elected representatives cannot allow this. The right to organize and hold labor is fundamental in any country that claims to be democratic. But a right that cannot be justified is no right at all. The writers’ strike and the UPS negotiations are two current examples of why we need strong protections for workers’ freedom to organize and bargain collectively. Workers across the country are standing up, but in Washington they’ve been let down for too long. We must take bold action, pass the PRO Act and fully fund the NLRB.
Workers are united, now is the time for Washington to act.
Andy Levin is a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who has worked on labor issues during two terms in Congress, as Michigan’s chief workforce officer, at the AFL-CIO, and in the Clinton Labor Department.
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