“We are only stronger in Numbers”: Solidarity in the Labour Movement

Photo: Wayne Subica, Hawaii Plantation Museum

10 burritos a minute. 2,800 pizzas a day. These are some of the expectations of the employees working for the frozen vegetarian food empire, Amy’s Kitchen. Workers who complained about injuries on the job, from amputated fingers to fractured hips, were silenced or terminated. So they organised.

In June 2022, Unite Here Local 16, a local food workers union, filed several federal complaints alleging Amy’s Kitchen engaged in illegal retaliation and intimidation at its San Jose facility. The next month, Amy’s laid off all 331 workers and shut down the facility.

Many of these workers are still struggling to find new jobs to provide for their families.

The majority of the workforce was made up of Spanish and Vietnamese-speaking immigrant women. As Maribel, an organiser from the San Jose facility explains, “we took the risk that they would fire us, intimidate us, and treat us like children. They threatened us saying that if we organised, we could lose our jobs and that the owner could close the company because he doesn’t want the union.”

This pattern is not unique to Amy’s kitchen. As the recent labour struggles at Starbucks and No Evil Foods demonstrate, when workers organise, management shuts down the business. What would happen if workers across different sectors acted in solidarity during these union drives?

We can look to the past for some answers. About a hundred years ago in the United States, working-class struggles were grounded in two sturdy commitments.

First, workers held the right to strike as sacrosanct. For working people worldwide, the most powerful and precise weapon is the strike. Withholding labour en masse is the means by which wide swaths of workers secure better wages and working conditions. Disruption is sometimes necessary.

Second, the urgency and fervour of the movement facilitated solidarity across sectors. Working people of all stripes, from the farmworkers in the fields, to the workers in steel mills, and all the service staff in between, often cross-pollinated struggles. Cross-sectoral solidarity was key in all major strikes of the early 20th century. But much of this historical unity has been eroded, and the strike has remained fairly dormant as a result — up until now. Today’s fragmented workplaces, unionised or not, are ripe for systemic change. But a firm solidarity movement is essential to win dignity in the workplace.

When Cross-Sectoral Solidarity was Legal: The Great Strike Wave of 1946

The most memorable strikes of US history were industry-wide strikes, involving hundreds of thousands of workers withholding their labour from multiple employers at the same time. These efforts were concentrated and coordinated to nourish and develop a palpable level of class consciousness, which was central to building solidarity internally and externally. A key example of collective action that spread across industries is the Great Auto Strike of 1946. More than 300,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union went on a nationwide strike at General Motors for over 100 days. In solidarity, thousands of steelworkers, miners, and others joined them on the picket line. This series of long-term labour strikes halted production at 80 plants. At the end of the strike, the workers won their demand for wage hikes.

That same year, across the Pacific Ocean in colonial Hawai’i, ethnic groups once pitted against one another came together for the Great Sugar Strike. The International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) organised a three-month strike. The absence of the 80,000 striking sugar plantation workers during this time cost the top five sugar companies about US$209 million in today’s dollar value. To get to this inflexion point, it took a few decades of different ethnic groups forging alliances despite the purposeful segmentation by the plantation owner — who also owned the towns built around the extraction. ILWU heavily resourced key leaders from each community to educate and mobilise others. It was the opposite of the divide-and-conquer strategy used by the sugar company agents.

The UAW strike and the Great Sugar Strike were both part of the largest surge in US labour organising history — a series of strikes across industries over two years involving more than five million workers. In 1946 alone, there were 4,985 strikes. These historic strikes did not occur overnight. Solidarity was built within worker-led movements which centred the “power below.” Workers came together over a common belief that we are stronger together. The victories of the past also highlight how the right to strike in solidarity with others was viewed as non-negotiable.

The Erosion of Solidarity under the Guise of “Labour Peace”

The transformational solidarity among workers involved in this epic strike wave sparked an aggressive campaign by industrial giants to squash industry-wide and cross-sectoral strikes. This campaign was part of the larger attack on the New Deal. Industrial giants, heavily based in the northern US, formed strategic alliances with racist pro-Jim Crow Southern politicians. These alliances resulted in new forms of control and corresponding concessions. This was a major turning point in the role of labour in movement building.

After fourteen years of minority rule, Republicans were finally armed to weaken the New Deal. It was a time of widespread discontent over double-digit inflation. Over a presidential veto, in 1947, Congress gutted the labour movement with the passage of the Labour Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act. All working people were punished for the success of the multi-sector Great Strike Wave of 1946, and the State effectively sanctioned the near criminalisation of solidarity among workers from different employers, markets, and industries.

The Taft-Hartley Act contained several significant provisions, but for our purposes, we are honing in on the provisions that morphed solidarity into an “unfair labour practice”. The Taft-Hartley Act makes it illegal for union workers to join a picket line at a worksite that isn’t their own. What does this look like? A unionised worker flipping burgers at Wendy’s is prohibited from influencing the farmworker, responsible for the lettuce on that burger, to strike against the farm owner in solidarity. Unlike a student activist or an average customer, a trade unionist is the only one subject to arrest and fines for boycotting a retail store which sells goods made by workers on strike.

The criminalization of unions for engaging in solidarity strikes has weakened the bargaining power of working people. Workers within the food system should be empowered to act in unison. Yet this is illegal precisely because a strike along multiple points of the supply chain harms capital. The state-sanctioned preference for “labour peace” (a period of uninterrupted production, free of disruptive forms of collective action) won over the needs of the working class. With the Taft-Hartley Act, Congress secured labour peace at the expense of a growing strike-ready working class. By deflating the growing power of strikes, this law assuaged concerns among the business class.

President Harry Truman warned that the law was “a dangerous intrusion of free speech”. Historian Nelson Lichtenstein predicted that it would “pit worker against worker in a downward spiral that [would transform] human labour into a mere commodity and workers into chattel”. From that angle, it is not surprising that folks in the labour movement called this law the “Slave Labor Act”.

The “1950 Treaty of Detroit” further decapitated the power of the strike. For the first time, UAW members agreed to a “no-strike clause”. This meant that employer approval was required before workers could mobilise a strike. Under these pro-management clauses, the right to freedom of association and freedom of speech are exchanged for a guarantee of labour peace. Without the threat of a strike that can halt production, the employer has no motivation to meet worker demands.

The erosion of workplace solidarity and the power of the strike continues today. The US Supreme Court is set to rule on whether a labour union can be held liable for the damage caused to an employer during a strike. If the employer wins this case, food system workers will be blocked from exercising the right to strike whenever their bosses can claim harm to perishable goods.

Solidarity within the Amazon Labour Union: Promise of the New Labour Movement

Despite the ways in which these laws have restricted access to solidarity and support, the new labour movement is gaining momentum.

With a supply of 1.1 million workers, Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the US. The captain at the helm, Jeff Bezos, remains one of the richest men on Earth. Bezos earns thousands of dollars each second. He has waged a war against unionisation for years, but is now up against a formidable force: people power.

The Amazon Labour Union is a multi-racial worker-led force that is hungry for change. Defying all odds, on April 1, 2022, the worker-led Amazon Labour Union (ALU) won the first election to unionise workers at the Staten Island Warehouse. Angelika Maldonado, the 26-year-old Vice-President of ALU believes the secret to their organising success was building solidarity in an authentic way. Through face-to-face conversations during cook-outs and catered ethnic foods, organisers built community. “We know the backstories of our co-workers because we sat down and we’ve taken time to understand where they came from, why they’re at Amazon now,” explains Angelika. “And a lot of the time, the managers who are hired straight out of college, they think that we’re just like, you know, low-income, low-value people who are happy to make a little bit over the minimum wage, right?” But these workers leading the new labour movement are much much more than that. They are bold. Amazon workers have inspired the workers of the world with their victory. ALU is in communications with Amazon workers beyond the US, including India, South Africa, Italy, Germany, Spain and France.

Last year, Amazon spent more than USD 4.2 million on union busting. A common union-busting tactic is to frame the union organisers as third parties. Workers would be shocked to see her in the building, assuming she was a third party. Angelika would explain to her co-workers, “[W]e work here, we work with the union, and we are here to give you whatever information you want to know, we are only stronger in numbers.” Workers would pull up a chair, sit down, and dialogue. While balancing her role as a single mom, Angelika would come to work on her days off to build relationships and ignite the movement. The promise of the new labour movement lies in its youth-led, multi-racial, self-organised campaigns that are organised from within the workplace.

Union Busting at Amy’s Kitchen: Challenges of the New Labour Movement

The union drive at Amy’s Kitchen was not as successful. Ultimately, the blades of union busting were sharp enough to sever solidarity-building efforts. Amy’s Kitchen hired fancy union-busting experts to guide them on how to stoke disunity and disinformation about unionising. Cecelia, a longtime employee at Amy’s Santa Rosa location shared that the owner, Andy Berliner, would lead mandatory anti-union meetings (also known as captive audience meetings). Cecelia says, “He (Berliner) said the union will make promises then, like a politician, take your money and not follow through.” Amy’s General Manager stoked fear among workers of “a third party” (i.e. the union) — an exceedingly popular employer response. These tricks still work. Cecilia offers the harsh truth: [t]he meetings have had the desired effect with workers feeling scared and stressed. Workers who once wanted to form a union, now feel intimidated.”

Amy’s pressured workers to drop their union campaigns to “save the business”. Those who did were given green shirts and hats to distinguish themselves as anti-union. But allegiance to management did not protect any of the workers in San Jose from losing their jobs. Ultimately, Amy’s Kitchen’s union-busting campaign did its job of destroying unity among workers.

Would they have won union recognition if they had greater solidarity in the workplace? The workers at Amy’s Kitchen needed extra support to withstand the anti-union propaganda. Solidarity strikes can serve as a shield from aggressive union busting. Strikes are capable of pressuring stubborn employers to change. But the success of these types of collective action hinges on the power to halt the wheels of production. This begins with the basic recognition of acting collectively towards the same goal.

Workers from Amy’s Kitchen are asking the public to support their ongoing demands for union recognition, fair wages, healthcare, and safety on the job. Please follow the Food Empowerment Project (FEP) for further resources, such as a comprehensive social media toolkit, in support of the workers at Amy’s Kitchen.

Across Sectors, Borders, and Oceans

Systemic inequities inherent to the employer-employee relationship are strengthened by a political, legal, and economic system that prioritises “labour peace” over workers’ rights. But as we have discussed, these power dynamics are challenged when workers maintain the power of the strike. Halting production is precisely where the power of collective action lies.

Each labour struggle has its unique storyline; all workers are fighting for dignity in the workplace. This sentiment is captured in a slogan from the labour struggles of the past: “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Three billion people work in the globalised food system on a daily basis. Each opaque point on the supply chain depends on the labour of invisible participants — alienated and disconnected from one another. But, we are all interconnected by the fruits of our labour.

This isn’t just about Amy’s Kitchen or Amazon. This is about all of us. Every battle lost to the anti-union corporate elite chips away at our individual freedoms, and sets us all a step back. Progress demands solidarity. The liberation of the farmworker is intimately intertwined with the liberation of the fast food worker flipping burgers, which is in turn tied to our own liberation. What would society look like if we each fought for and alongside each other?

Above all, this is a struggle for human rights for all. Although there is no one method of building solidarity, uniting together to fight for our collective bargaining power is crucial in bringing about tangible change. But if we remain divided, the rights of working people continue to decline.

Building meaningful alliances across sectors, borders and oceans is not a lofty value. It is collective action. We have seen its powerful impact in the past. We can harness its rising potential for tomorrow.

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