For clues about our future, look to our past 


There’s nothing like a good crisis to inspire a movement. Amid widening wage and wealth gaps, it’s little wonder that an ever-growing number of people see labor unions as part of the solution.

In Oregon, one of the fastest-growing states for unionism, we keep leaping forward. It’s almost as though we are repeating the history of our forebears as we forge new wins.

Perhaps, without consciously doing so, we are channeling the Great Postal Strike of 1970 as we rally to save the US Postal Service today from Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s efforts to gum it up. Back then, 200,000 drastically under-compensated postal workers transformed the service through an eight-day wildcat strike that resulted in a 6% wage increase, followed by legislation that added 8% more.

Or consider the 2023 rollbacks to child labor laws. In Arkansas last year, children’s lives, safety and ability to stay in school were seriously threatened by removal of long-standing protections that rose out of the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where 146 mostly young people perished because they had been locked inside their burning workplace. While child labor protections held in seven other states where legislators sought to end them, children are nonetheless being seriously harmed and even killed in unsafe jobs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that each year, 160,000 American children suffer occupational injuries. 

The everlasting struggle for gender equality also has its roots in the labor movement of yesterday. In the 1830s, female workers as young as 12 managed to organize the first union of working women in American history at the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills. They fought to reduce their long workday, organized petition campaigns, set up chapters of like-minded workers in other mill towns, published materials to expose horrible working conditions and defeated a hostile lawmaker’s re-election bid. The Lowell women ignited a workers’ movement well before other labor efforts had emerged.

Today’s frustrating worker struggles are speed bumps on the road to workplace fairness. Though employer maneuvers are mostly tactical now, as opposed to the violent means they used to crush organizing in the late 1800s, the impact for many workers is the same. 

Now, labor organizers battle union suppression consultants, misbehaving management, attempts to manipulate public opinion, and court battles such as the Janus Supreme Court decision of 2018. And all the while, the gap between CEO pay and the average worker continues to widen.

Nevertheless, we are making history here, with Oregon’s labor participation far eclipsing that of the national average. With new union petitions doubling from 2021 to 2022, new unions have led to hopeful new beginnings for workers in a diverse array of settings. In the last year, we witnessed labor victories for strippers in dance clubs, legislative aides in the capitol and laborers at Portland’s City Hall. We have seen record-shattering numbers of union elections from Burgerville to New Seasons to Buffalo Exchange to Starbucks. Providence nurses, Kaiser health professionals, laborers in private and public service, writers and actors, auto workers, bookstore employees, and most recently, teachers in the state’s largest school district are writing the history of labor’s resurgence.

Poor wages, the high cost of living, and dangerous working conditions drive much of this, but so too does an overall sense that the system is rigged by the privileged few against the many who toil on the wrong end of the economic continuum. Fully 88% of voters age 30 or under believe in labor unions as the way to ensure that we achieve a world that permits us both to do good and to do well. Workers are seizing this moment, just as their predecessors did 190 years ago did, to shape a better world.

By appreciating this history while making our own, the story of the labor movement continues to be written.


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