It was no accident that Elizabeth Warren chose to launch her campaign in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Home of the famed Bread and Roses strike of 1912, where textile workers pulled off an amazing, if short-lived victory, both the history of organizing and the subsequent history of deindustrialization, poverty, and economic instability are central to the message that Warren is offering. I talked to Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times about this:
“Lawrence is very representative of where the nation has gone,” says Erik Loomis, an expert in labor history at the University of Rhode Island whose 2018 book, “A History of America in Ten Strikes,” aims to restore to American consciousness a labor movement that has been written out of the standard history textbooks. “You have the story of this amazing labor victory, but then for a very long time Lawrence has been depressed, it’s a symbol of industrialization, it’s a symbol of an America left behind in the new economy, it’s a symbol of the immigrant past and also the immigrant present.”
Then there is some discussion of the strike and its history. Then:
But the solidarity so painstakingly promoted by the I.W.W. did not last. Wobbly membership in Lawrence collapsed within two years, in part because the economy had turned down and because the Wobblies had little grasp of long-term organizing.
“The strike had won the workers some material gains,” Loomis writes, “but it left them no union to keep up the fight.”
That could serve as the moral of the story of American organized labor more generally. Union membership in the private sector has declined sharply since its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, coinciding almost exactly with the growth in the share of national income going to the top 10%.
Democratic Party support for organized labor has been strong, if not always as overt as Warren seems intent on making it. The Obama-era National Labor Relations Board took significant steps to address workplace abuses such as the improper designation of employees as contract workers or the use of labor contractors to obscure the employment relationship between companies such as fast food chains and the workers on their front lines. Obama took aim in executive orders against such abuses as forced arbitration of workplace claims. (Many of those initiatives have been rolled back by the Trump White House.)
It’s also true that unions have made recent gains in some white-collar sectors such as journalism, where relentless layoffs and the threat of more cost-cutting have prompted editorial staff to organize at newspapers and magazines such as the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker and digital news sites including Huffpost, the Intercept, Vox and Salon.
Warren’s initiative signals that the political establishment may be regaining a sense of the value of collective bargaining that hasn’t been seen in Washington in such strength since the New Deal and the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. That’s important because workers’ organizing rights have come under the most concerted attack by federal courts, including the Supreme Court, in decades.
Loomis also points to the success of teachers’ strikes in Chicago, West Virginia and, most recently, Los Angeles, which retained popular support in part because their organizers linked the gains sought for teachers with the prospect of improved schoolroom conditions for pupils. The specter of unionized action by aviation workers — FAA inspectors, air traffic controllers, and flight attendants — also seems to have played a role in forcing President Trump to reopen the government after the recent 35-day partial shutdown.
“Strikes are a mixed bag,” Loomis told me. “Sometimes they’re a brilliant strategy, sometimes a terrible one. Sometimes they’re done for the right reason and sometimes not.” But the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence shows how much they can accomplish at the right moment and the right place. “If they’re used properly, they can be the most effective tactic labor has.”
By making her presidential announcement from the steps of a Lawrence mill building, Elizabeth Warren seems to be linking her campaign to the idea that the key to restoring economic stability to the average workers’ lives is to restore their ability to stand together.