Solidarity is in the Details: Unions Adapt to a COVID-19 World

The worldwide pandemic has brought the economy to its knees and devastated countless communities. And yet the crisis has also demonstrated that we do have power, if we are able to build it. The economic impact of lockdowns has been a powerful reminder of the leverage workers could collectively hold. Care workers, supermarket cashiers and couriers – usually dismissed as “unskilled” – have demonstrated that they are “essential” to keeping society’s cogs turning. As a result, strikes and protests have proliferated – but can this activity be built on to establish unions as a renewed force across the economy?

Although the labor movement largely failed to capitalize on the 2008 financial crash, we entered this crisis with stronger foundations. In 2018 more workers went on strike in the United States than in any year since the mid-1980s, and 2019 was not far behind. Not only has there been more union activity, there has also been a new energy. Workers have been embracing the kind of rank-and-file strategies advocated by organizers such as Jane MacAlevey, targeted to tackle the particular challenges of today’s workplaces. These actions are often led by the most marginalized, including women, migrants, and people of color, often acting outside existing union hierarchies. 

A crucial element of building an effective labor movement is knowing the enemy. In Unions Renewed, we argue that the intense financialization of capitalism over the past half a century has profoundly altered the context in which unions operate. As shareholders, private equity firms, and financially-driven executives find ways to make short-term returns through financial speculation, many workers find themselves sidelined. Profits are made not only from people’s labor, but increasingly from real estate, currency trading, or the stock exchange – areas of the economy that  fuel runaway inequality but in which the labor movement has little influence. Meanwhile, multiple layers of subcontracting and the financialization of firms themselves make it harder for workers to identify their real boss. Without knowing who is profiting from your labor, you can’t  build leverage against them. 

In response, workers are demanding more in negotiations where they do have leverage. This kind of “bargaining for the common good” approach was most famously adopted when the Chicago Teachers Union won sanctuary for their migrant students and even attempted to address Chicago’s financialized housing market as part of their contract negotiations. Although it was not a bargaining action, this understanding of the common good was also used when thousands of dock workers stopped work to honor the memory of George Floyd, flexing their economic leverage in protest at systemic racism. 

While work remains the main site of struggle, collective bargaining can be applied to other areas. In today’s economy, the owners of capital are increasingly extracting money from people not just through work, but also through extortionate rents, interest payments on debt and exploitative insurance products. As with the labor market, these markets are deeply shaped along race lines. Since COVID-19, thousands of tenants have withheld rent across the United States and the United Kingdom, either as organized rent-strikes or simply because other bills had to take priority. As the economic fallout from our governments’ mismanagement of COVID-19 intensifies, these issues will only worsen.

Linking labor movements to organizing around rent and debt is critical not only to improving peoples’ lives in the short-term, but also to resist financial capitalism’s multiple sites of extraction and expose some of the contradictions between them. High rents aren’t payable on low, insecure wages. Instead of individualizing this economic problem, unionizing enables people to collectively refuse responsibility for it. In 2017, for example, when faced with a 60% to 80% hike, the LA Tenants Union carried out a nine-month rent strike and won an agreement to limit rent rises to 5% and the right to negotiate on future increases.

In democracies as broken as ours, we have to come back to fundamental questions: what power do we have? How can we build it? How can we use it? The answer is that those in power rely on us all, every day, to pay rent, turn up to work and repay debts. Only through unionizing, to collectively refuse these terms and demonstrate an alternative, will we be able to make the transition from crisis-ridden financial capitalism to real economic democracy.