On a rainy morning in Pittsburgh, members of century-old unions marched through downtown as they have done each Labor Day for decades past. Thousands of steamfitters, iron workers, steel workers, painters and teamsters, paraded through streets named in their honour, passing by grand buildings constructed in an era of industrial prosperity.
But marching alongside them this year was a newer, younger contingent: workers of the recently unionised Starbucks coffee chain.
After decades of declining union membership nationwide, a wave of unionisation drives has hit national chains such as Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and Trader Joe’s, across the country. It comes as union support is at its highest level since the mid-1960s, and the National Labor Relations Board reported a 57 per cent increase in union election petitions filed during the first six months of fiscal year 2021.
All of that is good news for Democrats here in Pennsylvania, and for Joe Biden, who campaigned in rebuilding America’s unions and describes himself as the most pro-union president ever. The party, which has struggled for years with declining support among working class voters, is hoping re-energised unions could give them a boost in upcoming Midterm elections and beyond.
Jacob Welsh, a worker of a Starbucks in the city that recently voted to unionise, was handing out flyers asking people to boycott the chain for its union busting efforts as the United Steelworkers marched behind him on Monday. He said he and his colleagues were inspired by the city’s history, and the trailblazing efforts of Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, who started the company’s first ever union.
“It’s something that gets us really excited, to be a part of the city’s history,” he said. “We also feel a level of responsibility to make sure Pittsburgh is still the centre of labour organising.”
Mr Welsh is among a growing number of young Americans not just joining unions, but starting them in workplaces that have never had them before.
“I graduated high school in 2009 right when the financial crisis hit. So all that I’ve known, my entire adult life, is financial crisis, war, environemntal collapse. And I think that people my age think the one thing they can do right now that is actually tangible, where they feel like they can accomplish something, is labour solidarity, and starting a union,” he said.
Kevin McCarthy, a member of the steelworkers union for more than 25 years, said he saw the decline of union membership dwindle for years before picking back up again recently.
“When I started with the steelworkers in 1996, this parade would have been three times of long and there would have been four times as many steel workers. It really dwindled,” he said. “But this year, despite the rain, it’s coming around. And you see that in polling numbers, people thinking that labour is an important part of our society and it’s necessary for people to get by in today’s world.”
Pittsburgh, an unapologetically pro-union town, is a fitting meeting place for the old and the new of the labour movement. Its history with organising dates back to the 19th century when, as an industrial centre of the country, it birthed many large labour unions that still exist to this day.
It is that history that drew a host of Democrats to the city on Labor Day to show their support. Mr Biden stopped by a United Steelworkers union hall in the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin on Monday afternoon to address union workers, along with John Fetterman, who is running for the US Senate here in Pennsylvania. The pair represent two of the most pro-union Democrats on the national stage.
“Wall Street didn’t build America. The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class,” Mr Biden said at the event, at which he described himself as a “union guy.”
Mr Biden attended the Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh in 2015 as vice president, and returned in 2018.
Mr Fetterman, who spoke ahead of Mr Biden, said he would champion the “union way of life” in Washington DC if he was elected.
“You’re going to have one senator who lives across the street from a steel mill,” he said, referring to his home in Braddock, just outside of Pittsburgh.
Mr Fetterman’s campaign said in a statement that Mr Biden and Mr Fetterman met for 20 minutes on Monday, during which time they discussed “the urgent need to ‘make more stuff in America,’ strengthen and expand labour unions, and put more power directly into the hands of American workers.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Fetterman marched with United Steelworkers through downtown to chants of his name and “Pittsburgh is a union town.” He has put support for unions at the centre of his campaign, and he has joined picket lines of strikes across the state even before his run for senate.
“John has always been a friend of labour,” said Ron C, a member of the steamfitter’s union and Fetterman supporter, as he marched along the parade route. “His support with labour led me to his cause.”
He added that he was encouraged by the young workers at Starbucks organising in their workplace.
“It’s awesome, all across the country. Pittsburgh has a long history with unions. There’s a lot of history with strikes and a lot of people were killed protecting good paying jobs and the middle class way of life, so it’s good seeing other people get the opportunity to get a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” he said.
David Gehm, a member of the United Steelworkers union for almost 40 years, said Mr Fetterman’s support for unions was a key part of his appeal.
“He’s one of us. He’s a good hardworking guy and I like the way he relates to working people,” he said.
The key question for Democrats is whether they can turn rising pro-union sentiment into support at the ballot box. Donald Trump won the 2016 election in large part due to his support from working class voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In a region where the Democrats’ fortunes have risen and fallen with union strength, Mr Fetterman’s victory may give Democrats some hope, and maybe even a template, for the future.
Still, some union members expect Democrats and Mr Biden to do more for working people.
“He has shown a lot of vocal support, but I feel like more could be done,” said Mr Welsh, the Starbucks worker.
Chief among those things, he said, is passing the PRO Act, a bill that would make it easier for people to join unions by imposing penalties on companies that actively undermine organising efforts. The bill is likely to face significant opposition from corporate America and Republicans, who have called it a job killer.
“US Labour law is terrible, and the PRO Act isn’t perfect, but at least it would give people a fighting shot,” he said.
The other priority, he added, should be giving more funding for the National Labour Relations Board, the agency responsible for enforcing labour law in the US.
“They are incredibly underfunded, they don’t have the manpower to deal with the unfair labour practices going on right now,” he said. “Those are two things that will help workers.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies