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The Case for Labor Activism

Young people have always been the backbone of progressive activism in this country. College campuses, in particular, are conducive to the type of direct action and escalation that fuels movements for change. We live close to each other, in relative bubbles, and many of us are awarded the luxury of being able to somewhat escape the responsibilities of adulthood. At the same time, classrooms filled with theory and a culture of progressiveness lead many young people to be drawn to paying attention to the world around them with idealistic, critical lenses. Cornell is filled with organizations aimed at raising awareness, building coalitions, and pushing for change on a variety of issues. The labor movement, however, is routinely not included in these types of actions, and we are all worse off because of it.


The labor movement isn’t sexy. While we can harken back the IWW with starry eyes and wish again that the wider progressive wing of the democratic party would embrace the work of radical unions and labor focused activism in their rhetoric and action, modern unions have come to look increasingly “uncool”. Representing working class people can, at times, mean fighting alongside people who may not be members of the other coalitions we build. Labor activism unites construction workers and hotel employees, taxi drivers and teachers, and it often happens in a way that looks much different than the radical activism that happens around issues such as criminal justice reform and climate action. But the reality is, all these issues have an obscene amount of overlap, even if it may seem as if that’s not the case.


Throughout modern history, the labor movement has been slandered and vilified in a way that has become deeply entrenched in modern political discourse in ways both obvious and incredibly nuanced. The union as corrupt and fueled by gangsters’ clouds minds, while the image of the at times less diverse identities of workers of early unions and the problematic, racist practices of early unions turns far left organizations away from union organizing. But this naive assessment leaves behind the fact that the principle of unionization, and of union organizing, is the antithesis of progressive action. To take it a step forward, the times at which our society was the most progressive and egalitarian, when wealth was the most distributed across income classes, was when unions were at their peak. And, although it may not be as marketable as the direct action of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wallstreet, unions continue to push for the same goals in different, but still effective, ways.

On this campus, and elsewhere, the exclusion of labor from progressive coalitions may not be in purpose, but it is a grave disservice to the coalitions we are trying to build. These issues are all connected, and you can’t hope to achieve climate justice without seriously considering the labor side of the issue. In working beyond the unfair rhetoric of unions in the past, much of which was pushed by corporate demagogues and right wing politicians who’s goals are directly hurt by unions, we can hope to build progressive coalitions that will chip away at unfair intuitions of American capitalism to create a better world for all of us.

at Cornell University

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