This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the teachers, nurses, and other workers who have walked the picket line to demand better wages and working conditions. I am thankful for the workers who have risked their jobs to form a union. I am thankful for a resurgent labor movement — the most hopeful sign that a brighter future for our state and nation is possible.
It is hard to imagine an economy that delivers broadly shared prosperity without the return of a strong labor movement. In an earlier era, unions fought for and won basic working conditions most of us take for granted — the weekend, overtime pay, the ban on child labor, and more.
Helped by federal pro-worker policies enacted during the Great Depression, organized labor grew to include one-third of all workers by the 1950s. By winning better wages and benefits for workers, this vibrant labor movement built the broad middle class of the post-war period — the likes of which had never been seen before, or since.
Organized labor also played an important role in dismantling legalized discrimination. Although not immune to racism, particularly in its early years, in time the labor movement became a key ally of the Civil Rights movement and aided its successes.
By the 1970s, the fortunes of organized labor began to wane. Earlier laws enacted by Congress removed the favorable environment that had nurtured the rise of unions, allowing corporations to go on the offensive. Through legal and illegal means, employers used strong-armed tactics to pressure unions and quash efforts of workers to organize. There was little to hold back the attacks, as employers risked not much more than a slap on the wrist if caught violating labor laws.
Under withering assault, union membership began a long, steady decline. From one-third of workers belonging to unions in the post-war period, unionization levels nationally fell to about 10 percent in 2021. Although holding up somewhat better, Oregon’s unionization rate shows a similar slide.
As the power of unions withered, so too did the broad middle class it had built. Economic inequality returned with a vengeance. As data from Oregon tax returns shows, the income of the Oregonian in the middle has barely budged over the past four-plus decades. Meanwhile, the income of the ultra-rich — the richest 1 out of every one-thousand Oregonians — has gone up nearly seven-fold. Today, economic insecurity stalks a large share of Oregonians, with more than two in five households in the state earning too little to reasonably meet their basic needs.
But at long last, the winter of the labor movement may have ended. So far this year, some 450,000 workers across the country have engaged in strikes, double the amount of last year, scoring big pay raises in the process. The gains are not limited to workers who have gone on strike, as even the threat of a strike has secured better wages and working conditions.
This strike activity follows on the heels of organizing efforts that have captured the attention of the nation, including David-versus-Goliath victories by Amazon warehouse workers in New York and workers in Starbucks stores across the country. Today, unions enjoy the support of over two-thirds of the public, higher than just about any time in the past 60 years.
Adding to the list of recent victories, the National Labor Relations Board — the federal agency charged with protecting workers’ right to organize — issued a ruling that will make it harder for employers to block unionizing efforts through delay and intimidation tactics.
Nevertheless, obstacles to unionizing remain high, which is why it’s essential to strengthen the hand of workers through policy change. Congress should expand the federal right to organize to workers presently denied that right, particularly agricultural and domestic workers. It should strengthen workers’ right to strike, including engaging in solidarity strikes. And it should better protect the right to strike by extending safety nets to striking workers. The Oregon legislature also has a role to play. In the absence of congressional action, Oregon can protect agricultural and domestic workers by extending collective bargaining rights to them.
If we are to have an economy that works for everyone, it’s essential that workers can bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. That is why, this Thanksgiving, we can all be grateful for a labor movement that is roaring back.