It’s Labor Day! Let’s talk about unions. Specifically about how the decline of labor unions is the biggest thing young progressives should be freaked out about and aren’t.
Now that I’ve made one sweeping bold statement with minimal evidence (isn’t that the whole point of a blog?), here goes another: I believe the economic justice movement will be the most important social movement of our generation.
Income inequality has reached levels only rivaled by those that ignited the American labor movement and the New Deal, and doesn’t show any signs of turning the other direction. Clearly the spontaneous explosion of Occupy shows that this is the biggest issue resonating with our generation right now.
The decline of organized labor is one of the largest factors in the growth of income inequality and shrinking middle class of the last few decades. Although trends like globalization and technology are creating larger gaps between rich and poor across the world, no industrialized country has experienced the immense rise in income inequality that is happening here in the US. That is to say, this problem is manmade: through policy, institutions, and culture specific to our country.
As an organizer, I believe most things happen or don’t happen as a result of political struggles whose outcomes are determined by the power built by organizing people and/or money. Given that, if we can’t figure out how to reverse our shrinking ability to organize people as workers, our hopes of achieving a more fair economy look pretty dismal.
There are all kinds of differing theories for why organized labor is in decline: unions have priced themselves out of the market in an increasingly competitive global economy, public opinion has turned against them, employers have developed a hostile anti-union culture, policy change has rigged the rules against labor organizers, the growing service sector is much harder to organize, etc.
Policy does play a role—an op-ed today from economist Dean Baker highlights how Canada has not had a decline in union membership during the several decades that unions have been decimated in America. Baker credits the legality of card-check unionization drives, where a majority of workers simply have to sign a card, rather than an election where employers can delay, intimidate, and fire union supporters. However, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have created a similar system in the US died in Congress and is unlikely to pass any time soon. I think legislation requiring strict time limits for union elections and harsh penalties for employer intimidation would be a more likely alternative in the more conservative political culture of the US.
However, I think the path to real change lies in a complete overhaul of the American labor movement. Complaints about unfair rules, although true, show the myopic stagnation of modern American organized labor. At the height of the American labor movement, unions were illegal in the US. You don’t get much more “hostile policy environment” than Pinkerton detectives literally beating your ass in the streets.
The truth is, the American economy has changed completely since the 1970’s. Labor organizing has to shift as the economy shifts. Organized labor found itself at a similar hopeless low point in the 1920’s, as America had made a major transition into an industrial economy, where craft unions had become increasingly irrelevant. Skilled craftsmen had been replaced by industrial machines that employed masses of unskilled immigrant laborers who the old unions viewed as unorganizable. But the CIO built a new model of unionization that sought to organize whole factories, whole industries at a time using strikes and sit-ins. The CIO’s meteoric rise ushered in the height of the American labor movement and the largest middle class ever created in world history.
We are moving from an industrial to a service economy, and this change has dramatically accelerated during the Great Recession. Although most of the jobs lost were in middle-class sectors like manufacturing and construction, most of the jobs being gained are in low-wage industries like hospitality, food service, and retail. This is the growing share of the economy that most unions have long dismissed as unorganizable—service jobs dominated by young people, women and people of color, where worksites contain small groups of people scattered across large geographic areas who are often part-time or temporary.
We need a new organizing model for the service economy—not just unions that organize service workers, because there are a few (and to give them some deserved credit, these are some of the most progressive unions today). But a whole new model, like the CIO invented for industrial workers.
We can continue to have broadly shared prosperity and a strong middle-class with a service-based economy. Service workers can and should have the dignity of being able to afford to live in a safe home, to take care of their family when they get sick, to send their kids to a good school and to retire after working hard in life. There is no inherent reason why an assembly line worker should be able to be middle-class and a service worker should be poor, except for the fact that it is easier to organize a union under the current model in a GM factory than a Chipotle.
What should this new model look like? I have no idea and won’t pretend to. I have spent zero years as a labor organizer and only a few years as a service worker.
What I do know is that it will likely take the collective brains of a lot of great organizers to figure it out.
But what we don’t need is more of the same. We don’t need unions spending so much of their time pushing bills like EFCA that are dead on arrival. We don’t need unions fighting losing battles over trade agreements and globalization. We don’t need unions being cash cows for the Democratic Party and then being ignored as soon as elections are over. We don’t need unions clinging to the last safe harbor, the public sector, where unions are seen as a special interest pitted in opposition to the average taxpayer rather than workers fighting against corporate greed.
What we need is a real investment in organizing new workers, and an approach that is open to experimentation. (If I had more space I’d like to give credit where credit is due to the many examples where this is already starting to happen.)
So here’s where the young progressive activists come in. Of all the friends I know who went into community organizing, campaign work, policy work, nonprofits, etc. since I graduated, I only know one who decided to be a labor organizer.
If we believe in a fair, sustainable economy with human dignity for all, we must create a vibrant labor movement. If we want to rejuvenate the labor movement, it will require experimenting with new approaches to organizing service workers. And if we want the establishment of organized labor in America to try new models of organizing service workers, we young people have to start putting our shoulders up against that bureaucratic wall and pushing against the heavy inertia of tradition.
And if we don’t? It’s our asses on the line. It’s us and our friends who will be struggling to support families on that paycheck from the mall.
Happy Labor Day, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but history shows that it’s not impossible. If our predecessors could do it against all odds, so can we.