Workers with UAW signs.

Workers pose with UAW signs.

(Photo: UAW)

US Workers Are Rising From Dartmouth to Chattanooga

The spectacular resurgence of unionization across America—with the support and encouragement of Biden’s National Labor Relations Board—is occurring under the national radar.

I did not star on the Dartmouth basketball team when I attended that ivy-clad institution, but I never imagined its basketball team might become the first unionized sports program in the country.

You heard me right. The institution that gave us Dinesh D’Souza, Ben Hart, Laura Ingraham, and “Animal House” (as well as yours truly) is on the way to making union history.

In September, all 15 players on Dartmouth’s varsity basketball team signed and filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize (with the Service Employees International Union).

Workers are tractable no longer.

On October 5, Dartmouth’s lawyers responded by arguing that the players did not have the right to collectively bargain because, as members of the Ivy League, they received no athletic scholarships and the program lost money each year.

The National Labor Relations Board’s regional director in Boston, Laura Sacks, just ruled that because Dartmouth has “the right to control the work” of the team and because the team does that work “in exchange for compensation” like equipment and game tickets, the players are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act.

This ruling now allows the team to take a vote that could make it the nation’s first unionized college sports program.

For years now, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and its member schools have resisted moves by college athletes to unionize—defending the “student-athlete” model that has come under increasing fire from judges, labor activists, and elected officials.

But the National Labor Relations Board, under President Joe Biden, has signaled support for unionization efforts among college athletes.

In September 2021, Jennifer A. Abruzzo, the general counsel of the board, said college athletes should be considered employees under federal labor law—citing the Supreme Court’s ruling that year that college sports was a profitable enterprise, and argued that classifying them simply as “student-athletes” would lead to a “chilling effect” on organization efforts at collegiate programs.

Meanwhile, in a move almost as improbable as the unionization of Dartmouth’s basketball team, the United Auto Workers’ effort to organize 4,100 autoworkers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, assembly plant appears to be paying off.

The UAW said on Tuesday that a majority of workers have signed cards to join the union, so the union is now setting its sights on securing 70% of their votes before filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

The UAW is on a roll. After successful negotiations this fall with General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis that netted UAW members a 25% pay raise, the union is expanding its reach with campaigns at VW, Toyota, Tesla, Honda, Mercedes, Volvo, Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, Rivian Lucid, and Hyundai. (More than 30% of autoworkers at the Montgomery, Alabama, Hyundai plant have already signed union cards.)

The spectacular resurgence of unionization across America—with the support and encouragement of Biden’s National Labor Relations Board—is occurring under the national radar. The mainstream media is barely reporting on it.

But it’s hugely important. And it’s coming at exactly the right time. Across America, support for unions is at its highest in 50 years, according to available polling.

That support is especially strong among young people, whether they’re Dartmouth basketball players or Starbucks baristas.

Support is also growing in places that had written off unions, such as southern “right-to-work” states and the corporations that fled to such anti-union enclaves in pursuit of tractable workers. Workers are tractable no longer.

About time.

The sharp decline of unions—from representing over a third of America’s private-sector workers in the 1950s and early 1960s to representing only 6% today—is largely responsible for the stagnation of non-supervisory workers’ wages, soaring income inequality, and an ever-angrier working class susceptible to Trumpian demagoguery.

At first glance, the unionization of a Dartmouth basketball team and of a VW plant in Tennessee might not appear to be reversing these long-term trends. But they signal a sea change.

© 2021