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12 July 2019

Revolt of the Laborers of Love: Organising Teachers, Journalists and Museum Workers in the U.S.

With the steady disappearance of industrial jobs, more jobs in the service economy and the so-called “knowledge economy” have been created in the U.S. The American freelance journalist Sarah Jaffe, who was invited to speak at an ETUI lunch debate on 9 July, has talked to many teachers, museum workers and fellow journalists in the course of her work.

What she discovered is that many of these workers feel they are expected to enjoy their work and love their jobs no matter what the working conditions are. This expectation is not new, but it is growing and reaching into all corners of the workplace. The lack of a welfare state in the U.S. and the constant attacks on labour protection by the Trump administration only exacerbate the issue. However, these workers have started to organise themselves with growing success.

In 2018, a wave of teacher strikes hit several U.S. states. “The teachers have done an excellent job in reaching out to the community,” said Jaffe. She is convinced that “unions should bargain for the common good” and introduce community demands in collective agreements. A good example of this approach was the teacher strike which took place in Chicago in 2012 following the dismantling of the sector during the economic crisis. An amelioration of working conditions was urgently needed. Jaffe explained the success of the strike in Chicago as being due to the massive participation of the teachers themselves but also to their strategy of involving the parents. They argued that if conditions improved for the teachers, this would also benefit the students (smaller classes, greener spaces, fewer police present, etc).

More recently, journalists have taken the same line of argument, managing, thanks to their visibility, to spread the message of what unions are about and what they can do for workers. Museum workers from the New Museum, the Guggenheim museum and the MoMA in New York have also been organising themselves. For the first time, the more “privileged” workers in society are increasingly identifying with the working class.

Kurt Vandaele, senior researcher at the ETUI who recently published a report on the predominantly declining and “greying” trade union membership and low density rates in Europe, wondered whether this new unionisation is only about the traditional “bread and butter” issues or whether it is a result of the re-politicisation of younger generations, the so called “millennium socialists” – this would mean going beyond the traditional trade union scope to tackle issues such as housing. Jaffe felt this latter explanation seemed to be the right one, and stressed the importance of this model for successful organising in the U.S.

Tijs Hostyn from the Belgian Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC/ACV) shared his experience with organising journalists at the Belgian press agency Belga, the Flemish Television Company VTM, and the publishing house Sanoma. “We try to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “We should not be fixated on what contract a person has.” CSC/ACV has recently created an organisation of freelance journalists, the “United Freelancers” trade union. However, Hostyn admitted that the industrial relations system in Belgium makes it much easier for trade unions to organise workers in these sectors, in comparison to the U.S. situation.

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