The workers' movement that pressured FDR to create some of the New Deal's most radical programs seemed to come out of nowhere. Big business' crackdown on unions in the period following World War I reduced the number of unionized workers from 5 million to fewer than 3 million. Similarly, anti-union campaigns over the last 30 years have eviscerated organized labor. Only one in 10 workers today belongs to a labor union. But while weakened, trade unions have demonstrated that they are by no means dead; resurgence is not completely out of the question. Here are five battles over the past 13 years in which workers have emerged triumphant:
*In 1997, when the United Parcel Service made it clear that it planned to replace full-time employees with part-time workers and raid employee pension funds, 185,000 rank-and-file members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — many of them black and Latino — staged the largest work stoppage in decades. With their slogan — "A part-time America won't work'' — the Teamsters won overwhelming public support and, within two weeks, negotiated a new contract with UPS. With the new contract, the company agreed to raise wages and benefits, hire 10,000 new full-time employees and ban subcontracting. Labor activists called it the greatest victory for organized labor since a crushing 1981 defeat when the Reagan administration replaced striking air traffic controllers with scab labor. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told The New York Times: "A 16-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization is over.''
*On January 19, 2000, the International Longshoremen's Union Local 1422 in Charleston, S.C., picketed the non-union workers unloading containers at the Port. A melee erupted between the mostly black union and the mostly white police. Five of the black dockworkers were arrested and charged with felony charges in what many trade unionists saw as the opening salvo in a campaign to bust one of the most politically active and powerful unions in the country. But when the dust finally settled months later, the "Charleston Five'' were cleared of all charges. The union had not only stopped the shipping line from using scab labor — many earning less than half of what union dockworkers earned — but by the end, they managed to organize many of the non-union workers into the union as well.
*In December 2008, workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago refused to leave the plant until management paid them the back pay and benefits they were owed. The factory's owners provided the nearly 250 employees, virtually all Latino and African American, with only three days' notice that they were closing the plant. The plant's occupation, reminiscent of the United Auto Workers sit-down strikes at General Motors in the 1930s, was supported by then President-Elect Barack Obama. It ended with the leadership of Local 110 for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers negotiating with local Bank of America officials to reopen the company's line of credit, allowing Republic to pay the workers.
*Also in December 2008, workers at Smithfield Foods' massive hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C., voted, 2,041 to 1,879 to unionize the largest pork slaughterhouse in the world. The company had waged a bitter, 16-year campaign to block the mostly Latino and black workers from joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and co-author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama's "Post-Racial America."