Labor Cafe discusses unionization history, modern struggles
Kelsey Quint | Monday, May 1, 2023
Each month, the Center for Social Concerns transforms the Geddes Hall Coffee House into a forum for discussion, debate and caffeine. Notre Dame community members gathered Friday to discuss issues affecting workers in the spring semester’s final installment of the Labor Cafe.
As always, Dan Graff, history professor and director of the Higgins Labor Program, began the conversation on this week’s topic: “Workers Organizing Everywhere All At Once.”
“I really want to use this final session to hear what people are thinking about today in terms of labor questions. There’s lots of activity going on,” Graff said. “There’re labor market questions, and we’re just talking about the United States here. There’re inflation questions. There are all sorts of strike activity happening especially in the university sector right now.”
Graff anchored the discussion around COVID-19.
“I definitely think that the pandemic has played a big role in raising awareness and public consciousness, and people talking about labor questions and essential workers. And the national conversation in the last few years has been much more focused on what was normally, over the last 30 years, not part of public discourse,” Graff said.
The forum then shifted the discussion to the idea of “economic clarity” as a kick-starter, comparing present day mobilizations with those of the 1930s.
Aidan Creeron, a senior studying economics and history, spoke about the industry differences that might be contributing to labor movements after the pandemic.
“There aren’t many sectors in the U.S. that aren’t above where they were pre-pandemic at this point. Most have had a really impressive recovery. But those places that are still lagging are the ones where the most activity is being seen. So I wonder if it’s the pressure that’s being put on the workers who are still in [those sectors],” Creeron said. “Education and public employment are still way below where they were … I wonder if that kind of frustration is spurring it.”
Lucia Carbajal, a senior studying history, gender studies and Latino studies, brought up the role of social media in modern-day activism and labor protests.
“I really think social media has played a huge role. And I think that’s been involved with, ‘generational activism,’” Carbajal said. “It’s random, but I’ll get ads about Starbucks unionization, or I’ll just get videos of teachers discussing the fact that they have burnout and that they’re not getting paid enough. Things like that. And this has created communities amongst themselves. But not only that, it’s spreading awareness to other people.”
Expanding on the various “generational implications,” Carbajal said she sees the desire for change even just in conversations with friends.
“We’ve made clear boundaries that we’ll establish in the future,” Carbajal said. “We’re going to break those gender or those generational issues. We’re going to fight for labor issues.”
The conversation next transitioned onto the history and nature of unionizations. The effects of the labor upsurge of the 1930s are still being felt in the structure of our policies today, Graff explained.
“The settlement in the United States of the labor questions of that time was, ‘unionization will be the path by which most workers can organize and get what they want.’ So, in the U.S., unlike in some other relatively wealthy countries in Europe, the state continued and still does play a relatively small role in social provisions,” Graff said. “The early success of the industrial union movement in the 1930s, in some ways, suggested to policymakers, ‘Oh, we don’t need the state to intervene — the labor movement can solve those problems.”
The forum also tied in connections to McCarthy-era fears of communism. Although younger generations tend not to fear socialist labels, Carbajal said she believes there is still a “fear from the right.”
Bringing the discussion full-circle, members acknowledged some common objections to modern-day unions. The first complaint is that unions help protect the small percentage of workers who are actually the problem, and oftentimes, a large amount of union funds are diverted to these individuals’s protection. Secondly, speakers said there is a stigma around consumerism which links to the misconception that unions are always demanding more and more wages.
Junior Annie Rehill offered up her own experience encountering protests and the inevitable “collateral damage” of labor activism.
“I was thinking about this in terms of the graduate student strikes at Michigan. I went to Michigan for my freshman year and then I transferred to Notre Dame. And so, my freshman year I had three weeks of classes canceled because not only were my graduate student instructors on strike, but also, a lot of my professors were standing in solidarity with them,” Rehill said.
Rehill said, on one hand, she believed her graduate student instructors deserved to be compensated better.
“At the same time, I was just wondering, ‘Do people who are paying like $80,000 a year in tuition deserve to have their access to what they’re paying for taken away?’” Rehill said. “But then, it’s also a good bargaining tool for the graduate students to use, where the university administration knows that will add a sense of urgency to ending the strikes.”
Graff reiterated the complexity of the questions that arise from events such as the graduate student protest at the University of Michigan.
“Who are the other stakeholders? What are the public consequences of labor conflicts?” Graff said.
While the forum debated the responsibility of employers and the industry differences in bargaining power, speakers agreed that these questions remain multiplex and highly situational.
To conclude, Graff expressed gratitude for graduating seniors who have been Labor Cafe regulars, including Carbajal, Creeron and Brendan McFeely.
The three students reflected the same appreciation for Graff and the forum that the Labor Cafe provided.
“I’m going to miss just how topical some of the conversations are. I’m mostly interested in public policy questions. So like, this has been a nice kind of forum to think about those in,” Creeron said. “Not having a monthly space to think about the big overarching policy questions that interest me is going to be different.”