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labor Class Consciousness Comes to America

Even in Trump country, pro-union sentiment is rising. But can labor and its allies turn that sentiment into power?

Protesters gather outside a McDonald's during a demonstration for higher wages in Minneapolis.,Joles, David/Star Tribune via AP // The American Prospect

Rosedale Avenue is a quiet street in Columbus, Ohio, with compact houses that are showing some wear. I recently spent an evening talking with some of the residents on their doorsteps about their jobs, the economy and the future.

Tom, a friendly 23-year old covered in tattoos, was just pulling up to his home with his wife Megan, 22, and their two toddlers. They’d been middle-school sweethearts and have been working hard to build a life. Tom makes $14 an hour working with a landscape company, but because it rained that day, he didn’t work and didn’t get paid. Megan works part-time for $11.50 an hour at a candy store at a seasonal job.

“My generation is screwed,” Tom tells me. “They all live with their parents, playing video games. I’ve got 20 cousins like that. There are plenty of jobs—but not enough good jobs,” he continues. “Our parents had good jobs. We can’t pay the bills.”

What would help? “I’d love to be in a union,” he says. “I’m fine paying dues—I’d be making more money. Unions would make the employers pay.”

Tom isn’t the only one on his block who scolds young people for being lazy but at the same time blames corporate employers for squeezing them. Sharon has been working as a hospital administrator for 38 years. Her husband just retired after 44 years as a non-union truck-driver, with no pension and no health care.  

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Sharon takes a dim view of millennials who won’t take the entry-level jobs. “The job market is good but young people expect to make $30,000. They don’t accept that they have to start at the bottom. My grandson was too good to work at McDonald’s.”  

At the same time, though, she’s distressed by the low pay. “Jobs are better since Trump but people are working two jobs. No one pays enough—companies could pay more, my hospital could pay more.”

Johnny, who lives across the street, worked a union job in an auto plant for 31 years, has a pension and health care, and his kids have good jobs, too. “I’m all set,” this trim, cheerful black man says.

Hannah Daignault fills a grocery bag at the Schenectady County Community College food pantry in Schenectady, New York.

AP Photo/Michael Hill  // The American Prospect

Echoing Sharon and Tom, however, he complains that, “kids are spoiled, they won’t take a $10 an hour job.” But he also sees a longer pattern. “Things are going backwards. Companies did a good job of busting up the unions. They pit people against each other. They’ll pay you as little as possible.”

Down the block from Johnny I find Carol, white, a nurse of a dozen years and the mother of an infant. She only had a minute, but explains that although she has a good job with good pay, it still doesn’t cover the rising cost of living. How does she think of herself? “I’m working class, definitely.”

As I talk with people like Tom, Sharon, Johnny, and Carol in working class neighborhoods around the country, I realize that  I’m hearing echoes of my experience organizing women office workers in the 1970s. Back then, women across the class spectrum found themselves in the same boat, fighting the same battles. Their common circumstances and common consciousness provided a powerful opening for social change.  

Today, a similar shared discontent offers a new opportunity for organizing.  

People who used to think of themselves as middle class find themselves struggling to make ends meet, while blue collar workers find a new appeal in collective power after 40 years wandering in the desert of “you’re on your own.” A Gallup poll taken this summer found union approval at 62 percent—the highest it’s been in 15 years. The organizers for Working America, the AFL-CIO community affiliate I helped found, have been picking up this shift as they go door-to-door in working-class communities. Lately, they’ve been introducing the organization as “a union for folks who don’t have a union on the job.” A few years ago that wouldn’t have been well received. Today, people want to hear more.

Paycheck to Paycheck

Residents of Rosedale Avenue are living the statistics. Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s and employers have cut way back on benefits. When I started as a clerical worker in 1970 I only earned minimum wage, but I had five days of vacation and five paid sick days—benefits that were common back then. Today, only 15 percent of private-sector workers get paid leave from their employer and less than a third of low-wage workers have paid sick leave. More than 60 percent of workers had pensions in the 1970s. Today, only 23 percent have a pension and the benefits are only half as valuable. Almost 80 percent of Americans say they live paycheck to paycheck. 

As Alisa Quart documents in her book Squeezed, middle-class life is 30 percent more expensive than it was two decades ago, and that’s changing how people see themselves. “Before the 2008 crash, one-quarter of Americans viewed themselves as lower-class or lower-middle-class,” Quart writes. “Even those who were struggling tended to view their problems as temporary. No longer. After the recession of 2008 a full 40 percent of Americans viewed themselves as being at the bottom of the pyramid. For the first time since pollsters had asked the question, fewer than half of those interviewed said that they were middle class.” 

As one skilled trades worker told me, “I’ve got a middle class job but I can’t afford a middle class house or car.”

This downward mobility has reached—and surprised—many college educated professionals. A group of young Working America members who are recent college graduates told me of the difficulty finding a professional job and the fear of ending up “back to work at Starbucks.” Working America member Mathew C. sent this letter: “I’m a 50-year-old Ohio State graduate. I work entry-level retail. I drive a '93 Nissan Sentra that is worth about $300, and when things get really bad, I get help from the food pantry. I do not have any significant debts; I am the new wealthy.”

Working 9to5


I realized recently that I’d seen this dynamic before. In the 1970s, I started organizing clerical workers into an association we called 9to5 and then into a union, SEIU 925. We were part of a wave of women who were entering the workforce then. Job opportunities for women were limited; one-quarter were clerical workers like me. That kept wages low, but threw women together who might not otherwise have joined forces. Middle class and working class women, black and white, found themselves in the same offices with a common enemy: the boss. My co-worker was a high school graduate whose father was a janitor at the university where we worked. I was middle class and had been to college. We both chafed at the disrespect that felt inherent in the job.  

9to5’s organizers understood that our power lay in bringing women together across these divides. The leaders of the twenty or so 9to5-related working women’s organizations around the country were themselves multi-racial and cross-class. We reached out to every woman we could find, from key-punch operators to personal secretaries, in every industry from finance to manufacturing to publishing. They joined because 9to5 had a welcoming culture for the wide range of women we organized. Our meetings came complete with snacks, songs and coloring books for the kids our members brought with them..  Black and white women were co-chairs of committees; high school graduates made speeches in front of crowds and talked to the press; women from all walks of life worked together to shape our strategies. We reached millions of women with an image that combined the character and concerns of the working women’s movement, the power of labor and the glamour of Hollywood. The movie 9 to 5 was inspired by our organizing and was a smash hit. In part because it so accurately reflected the concerns—and fantasies of revenge—of working women, gleaned from meetings with scores of our members. The movement and the movie combined to create a sea change in public opinion.

But the 1970s wave of working women’s organizing ultimately didn’t succeed in building unions and thereby changing the balance of economic power. It was overwhelmed by the contemporaneous tsunami of corporate power. During the ‘70s, corporations adopted a low-road strategy in the face of new global competition. American companies were at a disadvantage to newly robust European and Japanese competitors whose countries had socialized the provision of pensions and health care, benefits that U.S. corporations had insisted on keeping in-house in the flush post-World War II economy. In the Seventies, they began cutting those benefits, while there was no offsetting shift of those benefits to the state. New technology reshaped jobs, destabilized the workforce and allowed for even greater global competition. And confronted with workers—chiefly women workers—trying to build unions, employers went on the attack, as historian Lane Windham describes in Knocking on Labor’s Door. They were increasingly willing to break the law to thwart their workers’ right to organize. They escalated resistance to new organizing even in core industries that had a history of unionization. A new era of union-busting was born.  

Teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the state Capitol to rally for increased funding and to protest changes to their state funded pension system in Frankfort.

AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File  //  The American Prospect

While working women in the 1970s changed public opinion and won some important reforms, then, we failed to build lasting institutions that could secure and expand better standards. By the end of the century, many women had broken through into professional and managerial jobs. But if we had achieved greater equality in the workforce, it was in part because men’s working conditions had lurched downward to look more like those of women.

New Actors, New Strategies

Today, as corporations and Republicans accelerate their attacks on workers and their unions, people who once thought they were socially and economically different are again finding themselves in the same economic boat.  We’re poised for an explosion of organizing similar to the one that occurred among working women in the 1970s, but it’s not a straight shot, because the Right has exploited this economic anxiety by changing the subject for decades.   

When we started Working America in 2003, our organizers in white working class neighborhoods confronted a framework that emphasized the social issues promoted by the evangelical movement, the NRA and others—“God, guns, and gays. “With the election of Barack Obama and the economic recession, the Right emphasized a much more explicitly racist appeal, which Trump has fostered with zeal. With economic discontent so high, however, the Left and unions have the opportunity to bring white working class people into alliance with people of color in support of good jobs and economic justice. And recent fights are promising.

SEIU’s Fight for $15 reopened a discussion about the need for living wages, put low-wage workers of color in the streets over the last six years and spurred successful political fights to increase the minimum wage. Now we’re seeing other workers join a new generation of rebels, such as the tens of thousands of teachers who went on strike this year—white-collar red-state warriors for public education and economic justice. Among the young, support for unions is particularly strong; a recent Pew poll showed that 68 percent of Americans under 30 have favorable views of unions—a sentiment reflected in the unionization campaigns of graduate students and the young journalists at new media outlets.

But the corporate opposition to unions has only intensified since the '70s, and the laws that once protected workers’ right to organize have only been weakened since then. What are the chances that the long pent-up discontent that workers across class, racial and gender lines are now expressing will lead to the formation of powerful institutions that can change economic and social life for the better—as our upsurge in the ‘70s failed to do?


Christine Campbell, president of AFT-West Virginia is a long-time teacher from the rural part of the state and one of the leaders of the teachers’ strike. She says that teacher discontent had been brewing for years, but that anger alone wouldn’t lead to victory. “The strike would have happened no matter what,” Campbell told me, “but we needed to give it structure and power to succeed.”  

To that end, Campbell and other union leaders worked hard to build alliances. Because the bus drivers, cooks and administrators supported the strike, all the schools were closed.  Superintendents were struggling to fill over 700 vacancies and so joined the demand for higher pay and benefits. The teachers’ ties to the community were strong. They organized lunch opportunities for students during the strike and volunteered at food pantries to provide additional food for students while schools were closed. They maintained their support from other public sector workers when they insisted on raises for all, not just teachers and service personnel. And crucially, their demand for more funding for public schools won them the support of the school children’s parents—a constituency that even Republican legislatures couldn’t dismiss. 

Another red state, Missouri, surprised pundits this summer when voters resoundingly defeated the state’s new right-to-work law. Two out of three voters cast a “no” vote on the legislation, including 43 percent of Trump voters. Non-union voters rejected Right to Work by a 58 percent to 37 percent margin.  

Public support for workers’ rights in Missouri was neither a fluke nor inevitable, but rather, the result of years of campaigning by the labor movement. The union-backed “no” campaign this year knocked on 800,000 doors and had more than 1,000 worksite visits.   

In the face of attacks, public-sector unions such as AFSCME, AFGE, AFT, and SEIU are rebuilding from the inside out, emphasizing strong member commitment and engagement, not just wages and benefits. One organizer explained his approach this way: “I tell members that dues are like a gym membership. If you just pay your fees and don’t work out, you won’t put on any muscle. You’ve got to be active for the union to be strong.” Over the years, private-sector unions such as UNITE-HERE, UFCW, UAW, CWA, and the building trades have built strong membership participation in states with Right to Work laws. They’re now taking those models of member engagement and replicating them throughout their organizations. Unions that rely on their members will be the anchor institutions of the next wave of organizing.

As more working people are in motion, there is a growing debate about how to structure labor organizations and labor relations.The current form of collective bargaining doesn’t work. It generated power in the mid-20th century, but the economy, the law and enforcement have all changed. We are constrained by a system based on bargaining company by company, by the law’s narrow definition of which workers are eligible to join, and greater protections that courts have given employers at the expense of the rights of workers. 

There are a lot ideas and initiatives out there. Labor leaders and activists, academics and some elected officials are proposing such new approaches as bargaining by sector or industry; government wage boards that establish minimum wages in entire industries; putting workers on corporate boards; conferring union representation regardless of whether a majority of the workers are members; creating portable benefits and association structures. Democratic Party leaders are calling for the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley provisions of the National Labor Relations Act and for expanded worker rights and coverage. Traditional unions are experimenting with new forms of representation, side-stepping the distinctions between employees and independent contractors, such as the Independent Drivers Guild, a project of the Machinists Union, taking on ride-hailing companies like Uber to win better pay and working conditions through collective action.

And there are crucial choices on strategy. Should unions and advocates raise standards through political action rather than collective bargaining? Minimum wage initiatives and legislation have raised wages for millions (though wages for workers who make more than the minimum have been stagnant), and these fights have changed the debate on fair pay.  But the legislative victories haven’t led to unionization or a sense among workers of their agency.  

Should unions scrap dues and collect fees through a payroll tax, as is done in some other countries? Brazil, for example, instituted mandatory union dues 70 years ago and administered this payroll tax largely as a way to control the labor movement. Despite that, the militant union movement that arose in the 1970s and 80s built tremendous power within this system, while seeking to phase it out. This year, however, the new right-wing government abruptly revoked the tax, leaving unions scrambling to create a dues base they control.

How important is it for members to have a vote in their unions’ affairs? Some advocates argue that it is easier to change standards through public action than through collective bargaining and to fund organizational efforts through providing benefits than through voluntary dues. In this plan, workers’ organizations don’t need to be paid for and governed by members. But without a vote, whether for their contracts or their leaders, members have no mechanisms for requiring accountability.

All of these ideas have their proponents and their critics, although who doesn’t want sectoral bargaining? The strategic choices about dues and governance will shape the fundamentals of the labor movement of the future. But how do we get there from here?  

Dramatic changes in labor law that could boost workers’ power will have to come from a position of strength, not weakness. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was enacted only after a wave of strikes had swept a number of cities, and after some major cities—San Francisco, Minneapolis—had been shut down by general strikes. As Matthew Ginsburg, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO wrote in the Yale Law Journal, there is “no shortcut to rebuild the power of the labor movement through legislative efforts or litigation at a time when the labor movement’s ability to advance legislation and persuade judges has reached a nadir.”  

Protesters gather outside a McDonald's during a demonstration for higher wages in Minneapolis.

Joles, David/Star Tribune via AP  //  The American Prospect

Recognizing that power precedes victories, I suggest these principles as we grapple with the need and the opportunity to reinvent the labor movement:

Experiment and evaluate. Let’s continue to try everything: industrial organizing like Fight for $15; raising standards through public action; creating new bargaining agents such as wage boards; expanding traditional bargaining to take up broader issues—and let’s honestly evaluate what works. There is no single right approach at this point.

Operate at scale. To test these options and to demonstrate momentum for change, we need to reach out to millions of people and put them in motion. Working America reaches one million people face to face in working class communities every year, and 90 percent of its members aren’t on the list of any other progressive organization, according to Matt Morrison, Working America’s executive director. “We know from our clinical testing that we change minds and the behavior of millions of people no one else [in the progressive community[ is reaching,” Morrison says. How does Working America use that capacity to foster workplace organizing? 

MoveOn and other mass resistance organizations powerfully mobilize their members on issues and politics. What would it look like to engage some of their members as advocates for or activists in union organizing? Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United and other organizations have organized millions of voters to support fair wages. What would it take to build out the worker membership aspect of those efforts? 

If we don’t do this organizing, we can expect that the Right will. The Koch funded Americans for Prosperity has a bigger, continuous field operation in swing states than we do. And employer-controlled “worker organizations” such as the Restaurant Workers of America are challenging who gets to speak for workers.

Despite the full-scale attack on unions, they remain the biggest, mass-based, membership funded part of our movement. With 15 million members and considerable resources, unions can meet the needs of their members and adapt their organizations to changes in the workforce—and many unions are.  

Build organizations that working people own. What is important to me about labor unions is that their power and authority come from the fact that they are democratic, membership-based organizations, paid for and governed by their members. Unions aren’t perfect, but the principle of democratic control of the institutions meant to protect the nation’s working people seems more important than ever.

Seize the time. Back on Rosedale Avenue, I can imagine a block meeting. Johnny, the retired auto worker, mentors Tom on how to get more unions into his industry. Carol, the young nurse, connects with Sharon, who supports Trump, but, like Carol, blames employers for not paying living wages. They compare notes on who is running for office and rank them on who will do the most for working families. Tom even agrees to talk to his 20 good-for-nothing cousins.

Actually, those kinds of meetings are taking place. But in this precious moment when class consciousness is realigning, we need to do so much more. The 1970s organizing surge was thwarted by a powerful and united corporate elite. Today that elite is in some disarray:  they’ve gone too far in concentrating wealth in their own hands, and they are untethered by the chaos caused by Trump.

America is at a turning point in class consciousness. Let’s envision the next years as a time when we seize this opportunity to build strong unions and allied organizations, and change the political landscape. Let’s put thousands of new organizers into the field, organizing workers to exercise power at every leverage point: in workplaces, by industry, by metropolitan area, through collective bargaining, through pressure on corporations and financial institutions, through political action. The potential is real. The time is now.

[Karen Nussbaum is the founding director and a member of the board of Working America, AFL-CIO, and was co-founder and director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women and president of District 925, SEIU.]