For more than 20 years, Rachel Schlueter had been a teacher in the Milwaukee public school system, and—like all her colleagues—a member of the teacher's union.
"I paid my dues, and if I had a problem, I would call the union, so usually I really had very little contact," she said.
That was before 2011, when the Wisconsin Legislature passed Act 10, Republican governor Scott Walker's plan to drastically reduce the power of the state's public sector unions and reduce the budgets for public schools. Because of Act 10, Schlueter said, her take-home pay dropped by $8,000 thanks to her being required to make increased contributions to her health and retirement benefits. But it also made her realize how important fighting for their union was. Suddenly she was going to rallies, spending whole days at the state house waiting to testify before committees, and meeting a whole new group of activist teacher friends on Facebook. When there was a proposal to replace many Milwaukee schools with charters—something she believed would hurt the city's students—she and her new friends beat it back.
Kim Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, said that as devastating as Act 10 was, it forced the union to rethink the way it functions. The law restricted its ability to bargain with school district officials, so rallying large numbers of teachers to publicize their grievances became more important. Teachers no longer automatically join the MTEA, reducing the unions' numbers, but Schroeder said the silver lining is that those who do join are more committed to the movement.
There's no sugarcoating the monetary losses for members, or the difficulties that have come with reduced pay. But Schroeder said the union has also found new energy.
"In a lot of ways, ironically—and don't take it the wrong way—we're stronger than we were before," he said.
When Schlueter talks about her union now, she sounds upbeat and excited. She runs workshops on topics like social media for colleagues at the union office, campaigns for local officials, and acts as the union representative for her building. Last summer, her fellow teachers chose her to attend the convention of her parent union, the National Education Association (NEA).
"It's changed me a lot," she said. "Now I feel like I'm a stronger person. I'm not afraid to stand up in front of these legislators and tell them what I think, because it's for my students."
Schlueter's story isn't unique—as unions across the country decline in influence, some workers are fighting harder than ever for their rights. Unions that had grown complacent are finding a source of fiery energy in the defensive battles they've been forced to wage. And other forms of labor organizing that don't depend on old institutions could be on the rise.
This is a dark moment for the labor movement. Union membership has been dropping dramatically for decades, and today less than 11 percent of US workers are union members. Republican-run states like Wisconsin have passed bills to strip unions of their power, even public sector unions like the NEA. Donald Trump appealed to building unions turning his campaign by touting the good construction jobs that would come with restarted pipeline projects—and, more broadly, promising to bring back well-paying blue-collar jobs—but his administration is poised to decimate unions' legal rights with anti-union appointees to the National Labor Relations Board and the Supreme Court. Congressional Republicans are pushing for a national right to work bill, mirroring laws that have driven union membership, and worker wages, down in many states. And just this past Wednesday, a high-profile union drive flamed out at a South Carolina Boeing plant.
But formal unions aren't the only groups that advocate for workers. The most prominent example of this may be Fight for $15, a campaign started in 2012 and funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Workers in fast food, home care, and other low-wage sectors have had remarkable successes winning new minimum-wage laws through strikes and other direct actions. These employees generally haven't unionized their workplaces, but a rising minimum wage will benefit them just as if they had gone through the traditional steps of organizing and bargaining with management.
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Then there are worker centers, which generally organize low-income immigrant workers without bargaining formal contracts and have helped pass laws on wages and working conditions in many cities and states since the 1990s.
"I would say that, in terms of public policy, they were fighting way above their weight class," said Janice Fine, who studies labor at Rutgers University.
Fine told me that beyond their concrete achievements worker centers have helped make the struggles of immigrant workers visible to other Americans. That continues on a larger scale as the centers have begun collaborating through national groups like the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which try to form alliances with consumers.
In Chicago, a worker center called Warehouse Workers for Justice represents a workforce that's largely employed through temp firms—an arrangement that makes traditional union organizing particularly difficult. Mark Meinster, the group's executive director, said the workers use strikes and other kinds of direct action to put pressure on the retailers that ultimately have the power to address their job conditions. WWJ takes credit for winning paid sick days and raises for workers in Walmart's supply chain through tactics like a 2012 strike by warehouse workers held in conjunction with Walmart strikes across the country.
Meinster said WWJ's organizing efforts are bolstered by a growing interest in unions among young people since the Great Recession. A recent Pew survey found that 75 percent of adults under 30 approve of labor unions, compared with 60 percent of all adults.
"I've been doing this for 20 years, and there's no question that the environment is completely different than when I started in the 1990s," he said. "The economic crisis just completely changed everything."
The question for organizations like WWJ is how it pays for activities. As with most worker centers, the dues it collects from its low-income members are far too low to pay for its expenses. The group gets support from private foundations and established labor unions. As unions continue to decline, their ability to subsidize alternative labor groups diminishes as well.
Meinster said he looks to labor's past for the solution to that problem.
"In the 1920s, 1930s, the resources were really people's commitment," he said. "The labor movement at some point needs to move away from a model that's heavily dependent on paid staff to get the vast majority of the organizing work done."
If the new incarnation of the labor movement needs to find passionately committed volunteers, some groups that address workers' rights issues have found a potential ready-made solution in just the past month.
Michigan United is a coalition of unions, faith-based groups, and other progressive institutions that works on a variety of causes, including immigrant workers' rights and finding jobs for ex-cons. Since Trump's inauguration, executive director Ryan Bates said, there's been an influx of people who want to offer support.
"We've seen a deluge of activism in the past month," Bates said. "We've built five new chapters across the state. We have hundreds of people coming out of the woodwork who have never taken any action on anything before, and now they're storming their congressmen's offices."
Michigan United sees a clear role for itself in channeling new, inexperienced activists into the movement for progressive causes. Bates said the group now holds eight to ten events every week, including trainings every Thursday for new people who want to be part of the movement.
"It's kind of a manic pace," he said. "But the community is demanding it."
Some members of traditionally structured unions are also feeling a new urgency in the Trump era. Even before the election, the Writers Guild of America East had been on a run of successful organizing drives at digital media organizations, including Gizmodo (formerly Gawker), MTV News, the Huffington Post, and (full disclosure) VICE. Executive Director Lowell Peterson said workers at those companies were eager to address their pay—a concern of practically anyone who's ever joined a union—but also to ensure their editorial independence in a revenue-driven media world. Now, Peterson said, the shock of Trump's victory has many of the union's members, new and old, worried about even bigger potential threats to their professions. He said that's true not just of journalists but also the television writers he represents.
"They really want to get active," Peterson said. "We have more people turning up for meetings, more people calling or emailing or turning up."
Peterson said he sees energy coming not just from opposing Trump but from a growing understanding of how people are suffering as unions edge closer to extinction.
"I think there's a sense that what the labor movement does is make sure that people who work for a living, which is almost everybody, get a share of what the economy produces," he said.
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