Labor organizer Kim Bobo has worked to amplify the voices of workers who have fewer workplace protections and are vulnerable to exploitation. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Editor’s note: To celebrate four decades of muckraking on issues of race and poverty, we kick off this 40th anniversary edition with a focus on four of The Chicago Reporter’s key beats–criminal justice, immigration, labor and housing.

The history behind each issue has had its own trajectory since the Reporter’s founding in 1972. To illustrate that, we sat down with prominent figures whose activism has made its mark in their respective fields and asked them to reflect on their experiences.

We are confident these retrospective articles provide a unique insight into what it’s been like to work “in the trenches” of the nation’s toughest social justice issues. 

In 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan confronted nearly 13,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization in a way that no other president had ever done.

Unlike in the private sector, the government “cannot close down the assembly line,” Reagan told reporters on the first day of the strike. “It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report to work this morning they are in violation of the law and, if they don’t return to work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

Kim Bobo, a longtime Chicago labor activist, said the president’s stand was a turning point. “Reagan, at the highest level of the nation, said it is OK to permanently replace workers. It was just an opening of the flood gates in terms of replacing” workers, she said recently as she reflected on the labor movement’s history during the 40 years since the The Chicago Reporter launched.

Back then, Bobo was working as an organizer at Bread for the World, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to prevent world hunger. “I didn’t really understand how significant it was at the time,” she said. But she soon realized its implications as she began helping striking coal miners in West Virginia in the late ‘80s.

What Bobo has witnessed in the decades since is a fundamental shift in the American order: The era of Big Labor being supplanted by the era of efficiency and profit–a shift that’s marked by a steep decline in union membership and the power of collective bargaining.

But unions have been fighting back. In recent years, they have worked to bring the potent bloc of immigrant workers into the fold and adapted new organizing strategies to resist tidal waves of anti-union initiatives.

The numbers demonstrate their enduring influence: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the wages for unionized workers in 2011 were about 28.7 percent higher than nonunionized workers. The median weekly wage of union members was $938, compared with $729 for nonunionized workers.

Fewer people, however, are sharing the spoils. Between 1973 and 2011, the proportion of the nation’s labor force represented by unions declined by more than half–from 26.7 percent to 13.1 percent, according a 2012 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan economic research group.

One of the most glaring results is the widening gap between incomes of the working class and top earners. The Economic Policy Institute found that, between 1979 and 2007, annual earnings for the top 1 percent of taxpayers nationwide grew by 156 percent, while compensation for an average worker remained relatively stagnant.

“By and large, workers shared the prosperity in the 1970s,” Bobo said. “But in the last decade workers have not shared the prosperity.”

For labor activists like Bobo, their work has been about reversing this trend–often by filling the void created by the lack of union representation. “Initially, I thought I would be working directly with labor unions, and we have done a lot of that,” she said. “But it became clear that we had to do more.”

So, in 1991, she created the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, with a mission to engage the religious community on low-wage worker issues. Eleven years later, the nonprofit–now  renamed Interfaith Worker Justice–established the Arise Chicago worker center, where workers learn about their rights and how to organize themselves against “wage theft.” In subsequent years, the group also helped start 27 other worker centers across the country.

But Bobo and her fellow labor activists are fighting dauntingly massive forces.

In recent decades, the acceleration of the global economy has led companies to outsource millions of jobs overseas in search of cheap labor. During the past decade alone, the United States has lost more than 2.1 million manufacturing jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute report.

This shift, in turn, has undercut domestic workers’ wages and working conditions, as well as creating a strong disincentive to organize, Bobo said.

For unscrupulous employers, she said, the condition is ripe for abuse. “Companies have become global, and there’s a sense of no responsibility,” Bobo said.

Bobo cited a recent phenomenon: The rising popularity of staffing agencies, where companies can hire workers without having to worry about paying for medical insurance and other benefits. At some companies, these employees can end up becoming permanent temporary workers, she said.

“We’re seeing that kind of temporary work hours in huge numbers now–and in a way that makes employers feel like they don’t have responsibility for workers,” she said. “We didn’t see that kind before.”

A recent influx of millions of undocumented workers has had as much of an impact as the global economy. Initially, the unions’ reaction to this new population was hostile–seeing them as an unwanted force that drove down wages.

But some labor leaders like Andy Stern, who took the helm of the Service Employee International Union in 1996, recognized that labor abuse endured by immigrant workers was essentially the same quandary faced by unionized workers. So Stern, whom some observers call a “union maverick,” led the effort in organizing undocumented workers–even while others deemed it too risky.

The move was one of several new organizing approaches devised by a new crop of union leaders to reinvigorate the labor movement. Stern, in particular, was instrumental in injecting a political dimension into his union’s work, turning it into one of the most influential forces in the movement. By the time Stern stepped down in 2010, his union had doubled in size to 1.9 million members.

Yet anti-union initiatives continue.

In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed a bill that he said would help close the state’s growing deficit. But critics pointed out that the legislation would also strip most state employees of any meaningful collective bargaining rights. Walker countered, saying that the state was facing a massive deficit, and state workers needed to share the pain of necessary austerity measures.

For labor leaders, Walker’s proposal was threatening the last bastion of union power. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the public sector has a union membership rate of 37 percent–five times higher than that in the private sector. Last year, for the first time in U.S. history, most union members worked in government jobs. “It has been a lot easier to organize in the public sector,” Bobo said. “This is why this attack on public sector workers we’ve seen in the last year and a half is so significant.”

In February 2011, more than 10,000 protesters flooded Wisconsin’s state capitol in Madison and tried to block Walker’s plan, but the governor persevered, and the Wisconsin Assembly approved the measure in March 2011.

Unions fought back by launching a recall election against Walker but lost that battle by a narrow margin.

Elsewhere in the country, however, unions have had better results.

“Issue 2,” pitched by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in 2010, would have restricted public workers’ collective bargaining rights in his state–much in the same way as in Wisconsin. But after vocal opposition from unions, voters eventually struck down the measure.

And in September, Chicago took center stage in the national debate when the Chicago Teachers Union’s bitter dispute with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools officials triggered the first teacher’s strike in 25 years.

Bobo observed that, by and large, the strike was well received nationally. It’s a sign that bodes well for unions, she said. “The strike was widely supported by community members, especially public school parents–those most hurt by the strike,” she said.

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...