By Sherrod Brown
Democrat Sherrod Brown is the senior senator from Ohio.
A year ago, more than a thousand coal miners with the United Mine Workers of America dropped their tools and walked out of the Warrior Met Coal Mine in Brookwood, Ala. Today, their strike continues, making it one of the longest strikes in recent history.
It illuminates the contradictions of the modern labor movement.
In many ways, organized labor has more momentum behind it than it’s had in recent history: President Biden is one of the most pro-union presidents in decades; recent surveys show the highest public support for labor unions in almost 50 years; and several high-profile unionization efforts have found success at companies such as Starbucks, John Deere, Kellogg’s and even Amazon.
On April 1, workers in Staten Island celebrated the first successful unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Yet, union membership remains near historic lows. Organized labor still faces enormous obstacles against massive corporations whose dominance in the economy we haven’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.
And, just as in the Gilded Age, workers often feel like they have no one in government on their side.
In the midst of that era of corporate dominance, it was Roosevelt who first established the public interest in ensuring workers’ voices are heard.
With the help of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and UNUM, his digital platform exploring the intersection of history and current events, I want to revisit a moment in 1902 when the very same union striking today in Alabama helped push Roosevelt to set a new precedent: The federal government has an essential role to play in labor disputes.
And while no one is calling for nationalizing an entire industry today, as Roosevelt threatened then, this moment is an important reminder that our government must work to protect workers’ right to organize for fair pay and safe working conditions.