As Labor Day approached, the movement that created the holiday flexed its muscle in Seattle, where the landscape has been transformed in the last few years by labor-backed measures protecting and compensating people like in few other places across the country.
Crane operators and their union had quieted the region with a strike that put billions of dollars of construction projects on hold for nearly a fortnight. Teachers in Seattle threatened to delay the start of the school year, demanding pay raises they say they need to afford to live where they work. A pot-shop chain willingly unionized, and retail workers picketed Macy’s.
In many respects, this is old hat in a city that next February will see the centennial of a general strike that brought the place to a halt. Labor leaders are looking at the string of victories in Seattle and other big cities as they try to build momentum for unions nationally against significant headwinds.
“Simply put, Seattle has always had a strong labor movement compared to most other places,” said James Gregory, the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair of Labor Studies in the University of Washington’s history department. “From the 1880s through the present, it has helped shape the city, both in terms of its politics and identity, and certainly affected working conditions for the people who live here.”
The successes in historic strongholds like Seattle stand in contrast to the national picture. Right-to-work laws, anathema to unions, remain on the books in more than half the states. A U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer dealt a body blow to public-sector unions. Across the nation, union membership rates are at all-time lows.
The action in Seattle this year has often played out on a stage that could hardly be more symbolic.
While the striking construction workers have no obvious beef with Amazon itself, their pickets lined the work sites for its latest headquarters towers, just down the street from the one they just built that holds the office suite of the world’s richest man.
Mark Spry, a member of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 302 since 1997, said last week he was on strike because wages aren’t keeping up with the region’s booming economy.
“We’ve been needing to catch up for quite a while,” he said, standing beside a job site where he runs the man lift, the orange elevators that take workers up an under-construction building. “They just came back with the same type of an offer as other years, and it’s just time not to let that happen again.”
As much as it gathers power from its unity, “organized labor doesn’t speak with one political voice,” said Gregory.
Many of labor’s biggest achievements in Washington over the past two decades, dating back to a 1998 initiative that indexed the statewide minimum wage to inflation, don’t directly benefit union members, who generally are paid well above minimum wage (the striking operating engineers, for example, make between $37.70 and $43.13 an hour) and can bargain for improvements to working conditions during contract negotiations.
Perhaps the labor movement’s biggest win nationally this year came last month in Missouri, where voters by a two-to-one margin overturned a right-to-work law passed by the Legislature.