Happy May Day!

The United States may not officially recognize International Workers’ Day – more commonly referred to as May Day – but the Patriotic Millionaires will never skip an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of workers and their contributions to America and our economic prosperity.

May Day is recognized as an official public holiday in most countries around the world and is traditionally celebrated on May 1st every year. Ironically, the holiday has its origins in the US and the tragic 1886 Haymarket Square riot, but for various historical reasons, the US celebrates its own version of May Day, Labor Day, on the first Monday in September each year.

But September is a long way away, and we don’t want to wait that long to highlight some of the major victories the labor movement has notched so far this year. So for this week’s Closer Look, we’re going to celebrate May Day by doing just that.

You may recall that 2023 was a historic year for unions. No fewer than 458,900 workers across a wide variety of industries – from healthcare workers to teachers to Hollywood actors and writers to auto workers – went on strike. That is a 280% increase over the year before. Thanks to these efforts, close to a million workers received transformative double-digit pay increases, which would be a welcome development at any time but were particularly critical with inflation eating at the value of the dollar and the cost of living still stubbornly high. Also, successful organizing drives at other companies, like Trader Joe’sStarbucksBarnes & NobleAmazon, and Apple, demonstrated that the labor movement was picking up steam, and the momentum was going to spill over into this year. 

2024 has seen significant labor wins already. In a single day in February, 21 Starbucks locations across 14 states announced that they planned to unionize, joining the roughly 400 cafes from the coffee chain that have already formed unions. In March, the Dartmouth men’s basketball team voted to join their local SEIU chapter and, in so doing, became the first unionized college sports team in America. Earlier this month, even Disneyland employees who perform as beloved Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse decided to join in the union fun by taking initial steps to join the Actors’ Equity Association.

But just like last year, arguably the biggest star of the 2024 union movement in America is shaping up to be the UAW. Shortly after securing historic new contracts with the “Big Three” automakers (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis) in October, the union announced that it would begin an ambitious $40 million organizing drive at plants owned by over a dozen non-union automakers, including Tesla and foreign companies like Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen which are heavily concentrated in the South. Past efforts to organize non-union plants have been unsuccessful, but with its historic wins in Detroit and newfound energy under popular and charismatic UAW President Shawn Fain, the union decided to make a play in a region that is traditionally unfriendly to unions.

Just four months into the year, the UAW’s decision to re-engage its organizing arm is already paying off. Two weeks ago, a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee with roughly 5,500 employees voted overwhelmingly to become the first non-union auto plant in the South to join the UAW, the first automaker in the South to unionize via election since 1940, and the first foreign automaker in the South to unionize in history. The victory was a huge deal that attracted national attention. As the vote got underway, six Republican governors from Tennessee and neighboring Southern states came out swinging against the UAW in a joint statement, claiming that the union’s organizing drive “threaten[s] our jobs and the values we live by.” Meanwhile, President Biden took a notably different approach: in keeping with his pro-union stance and friendship with the UAW, he congratulated the Volkswagen workers and the UAW on their victory.

A week later, the UAW notched another win in the South that is getting less attention but is no less important. An hour before its contract with Daimler Truck North America expired and initiated a strike, the UAW negotiated a historic deal for over 7,000 workers in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. The contract is very similar to ones secured with the Big Three, including a 25% pay increase, cost-of-living raises, the end of wage tiers, and the introduction of profit-sharing.

Next up on the docket for the UAW is a union vote that is expected to take place in mid-May at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama. It’s hard to tell if the UAW will see the same degree of success that they did with Volkswagen, but labor experts are hopeful. Workers at non-union plants in the South aren’t buying their governors’ corporate talking points when it comes to the value of unionizing. They’re seeing the incredible wins secured by the UAW for its members, and they want – and rightfully feel they deserve – the same for themselves.

We welcome and celebrate unions everywhere in America, but there’s something special about a union victory in the South. Southern states have time and again been ranked as some of the worst to work in the country, thanks to their poor wages, bare-bones worker protection policies, and right-to-work laws that hamper unions – all of which are historical legacies of racist Jim Crow laws. Many automakers set up shop in the region specifically to take advantage of its weak labor laws. But with the UAW’s inspiring success in the South, the tide very well may be turning in favor of workers. UAW President Shawn Fain said it best at a recent rally with Daimler Truck employees: “Alabama Governor Kay Ivey recently dared to say that the economic model of the South is under attack. She’s damn right it is! It’s under attack because workers are fed up and Southern workers are taking back control of our destinies.”

Despite all of this important progress, we should be clear-eyed about the state of labor in the United States. The movement faces significant headwinds. In 2023, the number of workers represented by a union increased in absolute terms (191,000), but the percentage of unionized workers actually decreased from 11.3% to 11.2% in the face of job growth. Corporations also continue to shamelessly union bust. For one, in an attempt to thwart the UAW in its upcoming vote, Mercedes-Benz has been accused of firing a pro-union employee with Stage 4 cancer, stopping union supporters from distributing UAW hats, and issuing letters and hosting meetings with staff that included anti-union rhetoric. And winning a union vote is sometimes the easy part when it comes to dealing with corporations, as companies like Trader Joe’s drag their feet in negotiating a first contract with the aim of pushing workers to give up their cause. It’s no wonder that, in 2023, an estimated 60 million workers wanted to join a union but for various reasons were prevented from doing so.

On that note, Congress must take immediate action to protect and strengthen Americans’ right to organize. The growing momentum and public support for unions is encouraging and inspiring, but meaningful change requires Congress to reform federal law to make it easier to form a union and reach a first contract with employers. Recent actions by the National Labor Relations Board under President Biden have certainly helped, but the fact remains that unions face significant hurdles in their mission of lifting working families without Congressional action.  

Shortly after the UAW scored their wins with the Big Three, and faced with the prospect of his own workers joining the union, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, “It’s not good to have an adversarial relationship between groups within a company.” We disagree. What’s “not good” is having an economy where workers produce billions of dollars in profits for their companies, but most of those earnings go to executives and shareholders like Elon. Unions upend that dynamic and force companies to share the prosperity with the workers who generated it. In the process, they might just save our economy – and our democracy.

Happy May Day!

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