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labor Why the Labor Movement Has Failed - And How to Fix It

Traditional worker organizing has failed on every level. But??new approaches are finding success, pointing the way to a more just future. This essay will be featured in a Boston Review forum - check back to read the responses.

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, Keith Ellison / flickr

Measured by the course of history over the last half century, the arc of the economic universe has bent badly toward injustice.

It has been more than eighty years since the National Labor Relations Act offered the first significant federal protections of industrial workers’ rights to organize and the Social Security Act laid the basis for an attenuated welfare state. New Deal policies were hardly panaceas; African Americans, immigrants, and women never enjoyed their fruits on an equal basis with white men. Yet over time the struggles of unions and the civil rights and feminist movements widened the protections workers were able to win from the law and from organizing. Between World War II and the mid-1970s, as union density crested at 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce in the 1950s and then spread through the public sector in the 1960s, the United States experienced a broadly shared prosperity.

But over the last four decades, we have witnessed the near total destruction of this promise of worker empowerment. Beginning with Reagan, the U.S. economy was reorganized wholesale. Having failed to build up political leverage to ensure that private economic power remained accountable to the common good, workers saw private interests progressively shred the limited social bargain of the postwar years. Union membership has plummeted to 10.5 percent overall and only 6.4 percent in the private sector. Even more telling is the near disappearance of strikes. In the 1970s there were, on average, about 289 annual work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers. As bargaining power shifted decisively to employers, that average has plunged, reaching only 13 per year over the last decade.

The result today is a staggeringly unjust global economy in which just eight men own as much wealth as half the world’s population. We now face a perverse concentration of wealth among the super rich, pervasive financialization of the economy, an upsurge of low-wage and precarious work, and the heightened power of monopolistic tech firms. These transformations have relentlessly undercut worker bargaining power, triggered an explosive rise in inequality, and continue to undermine what remains of democratic governance. And even as they tighten their grip, the architects of inequality seek to control the alternatives we envision for our future. In recent years they have promoted fevered “Future of Work” scenarios that imagine the disappearance of jobs before sweeping waves of automation and artificial intelligence, hyping visions of the future of work that place capital’s needs at the center.

Despite this grim turn of labor history in the United States, there are many new reasons for hope. Interest in unions is surging, and worker organizing is gaining ground in influential sectors, including new media and higher education. Young people have begun to question some of the central assumptions of capitalism and have revived interest in democratic socialism. The attention that activists have given to the intersectional nature of most struggles for justice has diminished the conflicts that once pitted advocates of a universalistic, majoritarian left against those who feared that the voices of minorities and the excluded would be marginalized in such a movement. The left is alive with creative energy not seen in many decades. We must exploit it to make the future of workers, not the future of work, our central concern.

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This new labor energy is partly reflected in the encouraging extent to which national politicians are acknowledging the need to rebuild worker power. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have each offered bills that would empower workers. Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act would require that all corporations designate 40 percent of seats on their boards of directors for representatives elected by employees and that those with more than $1 billion in annual revenue to obtain charters from the federal government. Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Act would ease union organizing and legalize secondary boycotts.

Although legislative initiatives such as these are clearly necessary, we believe they are also insufficient. Laws will not save us. Workers’ struggles and organizations must play a central role in shaping the twenty-first century if we are to win the changes we need. But workers will not be able to do that by clinging to strategies of the past. The world that gave rise to the New Deal and the Great Society in the United States and to social democracy in Europe no longer exists. The strategies that arose in response to twentieth-century capitalism, from traditional collective bargaining to co-determination, are therefore unlikely to be sufficient to the needs of the future.

The outlines of new labor thinking are visible in the recent efforts of unions and their allies to remake collective bargaining and organizing campaigns for the twenty-first century. These efforts have given rise to a conscious rethinking and broadeni­­­ng of the participantsprocesses, and purposes of organizing and collective bargaining.

First, while twentieth-century collective bargaining was generally binary and involved only employers and unions, recent efforts have attempted to broaden participation to give the community and other stakeholders a place at the bargaining table.

Second, while traditional collective bargaining was generally conducted behind closed doors by seasoned professionals who haggled over details, recent efforts have infused the processes of bargaining with greater militancy, opened it up to greater transparency, and employed political action as a form of bargaining.

And third, while traditional collective bargaining was focused on winning a serviceable contract that would signal a demobilization of the union’s membership, recent efforts have undertaken contract campaigns as steps in a long-term strategy of worker empowerment. They try to build enduring alignments between unions and their allies that accumulate lasting power through campaign victories, a shared and increasingly fleshed out infrastructure, and a common vision and narrative.

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Labor activists’ willingness to experiment can be traced to a conjuncture of developments triggered by the Great Recession. President Barack Obama’s agenda was derailed by the 2010 midterm elections, which sidelined the union’s hoped-for labor law reform (the Employee Free Choice Act), propelled to power antiunion Republican governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and tightened the grip of austerity politics on all levels of government. Union leaders increasingly recognized that they needed a bigger vision if they hoped to turn back the union assaults that gathered strength. Having secured Obama’s reelection, they embarked on new initiatives.

In 2013, for instance, President Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers of America helped launch the Democracy Initiative, an alliance of labor, civil rights, and environmental groups to counter the corrosive influence of corporate money on politics, fight voter suppression, and address other obstacles to significant reform. Meanwhile, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka moved to involve worker centers and other non-union worker organizations in the planning for the 2013 AFL-CIO convention.

The most significant catalysts for change were the emergence of new models of mobilization and organizing. A turning point for these came in 2011, with the launching of three such models, each of which in their own way signaled new departures.

In January the executive board of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) approved an ambitious campaign called the Fight for a Fair Economy, which saw SEIU commit tens of millions of dollars to organizing projects among low-wage workers in multiple cities. That effort would spawn local campaigns such as Minnesotans for a Fair Economy (MFE) and ultimately lead to the Fight for 15, a national movement to gain a living wage for fast food workers.

In July, Jobs with Justice, the national network of unions and community allies, joined with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to create the Caring Across Generations campaign, a national initiative to transform the long-term care system and empower care workers. Over time it built an alliance that united over 200 organizations, networking among care workers, families whose loved ones need care, and care recipients who wish to live at home with dignity and independence.

Finally, in September came the seemingly spontaneous eruption of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which seeded new and unexpected alliances among unions and their allies in many cities and spurred a discussion of inequality and the predatory nature of financialized capitalism that resonated well beyond the participants in its encampments.

A year later, in September 2012, a precedent-setting strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) against the austerity regime of Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel attracted the attention of the entire labor movement and foreshadowed new approaches to bargaining. Led by Karen Lewis, whose Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators slate was elected to the CTU’s top posts in 2010, the union prepared an innovative bargaining campaign in partnership with community groups and parents. It called for smaller class sizes, improved facilities, and a host of other items that went beyond the confines of wages, hours, and other narrowly defined work issues about which the union was legally permitted to bargain. The union also documented the schools’ financial mismanagement. It showed how tax-increment funding that could have helped schools was instead lavished on private entities such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and it exposed risky interest-rate swap deals, in which Chicago’s school system ended up squandering more than $100 million. By making the financial industry’s exploitation of the school district an issue, the CTU earned public support for its call for adequate school funding.

Although the CTU did not win all of its demands, its campaign inspired others to take on austerity politics. In 2013 the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) mounted a contract campaign that resembled the CTU’s. It patiently built an alliance with parents and community groups, and with them jointly drew up twenty-nine demands, including one insisting that the school district cease doing business with banks that foreclose on their students’ families. The union refused to back down when the school district refused to negotiate over many of them.

After rallying broad community support, the St. Paul teachers won most of what they sought. “I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the SPFT,” explained the union’s president, Mary Cathryn Ricker. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.” Meanwhile, SEIU Local 503, which represents homecare, childcare, and university and state workers inaugurated a campaign called “In It Together” that built alliances with the community by calling for a broad investigation into the ways in which banks were ripping off Oregonians, and demanding a state lawsuit against banks to recoup millions that were lost from retirement funds due to the secret manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR).

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A new strategy of bargaining and alliance building emerged from these campaigns. In May 2014 many of the activists involved convened in Washington, where they gave that strategy a name: Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG). Soon that style was spreading to new settings such as Los Angeles, where the city’s leading public-sector unions and their community-based allies launched the Fix L.A. Coalition in 2014. That coalition brought SEIU, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and other public-sector unions together with community groups, and faith-based organizations. They exposed the fact that more taxpayer money was spent paying fees to the Wall Street firms that marketed L.A.’s municipal bonds and other financial services than on maintaining the city’s streets. Furthermore, they demanded that L.A. use its $106 billion worth of assets, payments, and debt issuance as leverage to “demand better deals with Wall Street, so that it can invest more in our communities.”

At the outset, BCG campaigns were meticulously planned. In some cases the groundwork was carefully laid over a period of more than a year before they were launched. Yet the basic principles of that approach have proven to be adaptable in more spontaneous struggles, as the teachers’ mobilizations of 2018 illustrated. Beginning in West Virginia in January 2018, and spreading to such union-averse states as Oklahoma and Arizona, those mobilizations were, in effect, organizing, bargaining, and political campaigns all at once.

Teachers across the country gravitated toward a “common good” framework, linking their struggles to the needs of their communities and targeted the most powerful economic forces in their states. In West Virginia, teachers in all of the state’s 55 school district walked off the job, called attention to the fact that the state’s wealthiest were paying scant taxes, and refused to return to work until all state workers had received a pay increase equal to the one the state legislature granted them. In Oklahoma they protested the state’s failure to fairly tax wealthy oil and gas interests. In Arizona they demanded that the state enact no further tax cuts until the state’s per-pupil spending on education reached the national average (and briefly succeeded in getting an initiative on the 2018 ballot that would have taxed the wealthy to fund schools before the Arizona Supreme Court had it removed on a technicality).

Since the vast majority of strikers were not union members, these walkouts were both massive organizing campaigns and democracy campaigns as well; they posed explicit political demands (such as raising taxes) to fund public schools more adequately. They instinctively adopted a BCG approach in that they were not just about wages or benefits but also about improving education and fighting for fairer taxation. The teacher walkouts ensured that more workers walked out on strike in 2018 than any year since 1986.

In January 2019, United Teachers of Los Angeles extended that militancy. The strike it launched was not only the eighth major U.S. teachers’ strike over a twelve-month span, but also the largest one yet, and the one most explicitly employed a BCG approach. With strong community support, teachers stayed off the job for a week. They settled for the same raise that the school district had offered at the outset, and instead used their strike to win the hiring of a nurse in every school, a reduction of class sizes, the extension of a program that exempts schools from administering random searches of their students, and a cap on the spread of charter schools.

Innovative organizing and bargaining initiatives have not remained confined to the public sector. By 2016 the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Committee for Better Banks, and allied organizations laid the groundwork for organizing to improve pay and benefits for the nation’s more than one million non-union bank workers. Employing a common good approach similar to that pioneered by teachers’ unions, this coalition positioned itself as a defender of consumers and an opponent of predatory financial practices.

It began demanding an end to the sales goals and metrics that force bank workers to sell predatory financial products as a condition of employment, and more broadly to reform the finance system so that it serves the people instead of operating as a driver of inequality. Wells Fargo workers connected to this campaign acted as the whistleblowers who exposed the bank’s cheating scandals in 2016. Bank workers at Santander, a Spanish-based multinational bank that is the leader in the U.S. subprime auto loan market, have helped expose their employer’s predatory practices. These campaigns show how bank workers can help regulate their industry from below, exposing and stopping banks from cheating consumers and engaging in practices that threaten the broader health of the economy.

Two recent victories illustrate this. Tim Sloan the CEO of Wells Fargo was forced to resign after congressional hearings where he was confronted by Wells Fargo workers who blew the whistle on Wells Fargo’s reinstitution of toxic sales goals. The was followed by Bank of American increasing the minimum pay for bank workers to $20.00 an hour—meeting one of the dmands of CWA and the Committee for Better Banks.

The titans of private equity have also presented a promising target for labor activists, particularly since such firms control a range of companies in multiple sectors and nations. Consider the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm that controls 150 companies with a combined value of more than $400 billion and 600,000 workers. Blackstone is the largest owner of office space in the world, the world’s largest private owner of real estate, the largest owner of logistics companies in Europe, and the world’s largest investor in hedge funds.

Activism around Blackstone offers an example of how diverse campaigns targeting one such firm can be run at once, tying together a variety of issues and organizations to challenge the full scope of the company’s activities. Organizers are planning campaigns that would mount drives at the non-union companies Blackstone owns, form a tenant union of Blackstone renters, and prevail on union pension funds to use their leverage to prevent Blackstone from foreclosing on homes in post-hurricane Puerto Rico. At the same time, union allies are preparing legislation in several states that would tax private equity executives to recover the states’ shares of the billions in tax revenue that are lost to the carried-interest loophole that protects the hyper-wealthy executives of private equity giants.

Even Amazon has not been impervious to pressure from workers and their allies. Perhaps the most difficult problem workers have faced in recent years is how to cope with the power of monopolistic corporations . Researchers have found that the rise of huge employers has led to the emergence of a monopsony in many labor markets, where those employers set wages artificially low without fear of competition for workers. No big employer has come to symbolize the problem more than Amazon, which pays its warehouse and delivery workers poverty wages even as it wrings tax incentives from the local communities where it builds its distribution centers.

Creative challenges to Amazon’s power began to emerge by 2018. Somali immigrants make up a huge slice of Amazon’s warehouse employees in the Twin Cities. In 2018 many of those workers began organizing through the Awood Center, an East African workers center, to demand a voice in determining their workload, regular consultations with community representatives, prayer time on the job, among other things. In October 2018, Amazon announced their minimum wage increase to $15. The company didn’t have a set wage beforehand, so the raises for workers ranged from a few dollars to nothing. And as it raised the minimum wage, the company also cut bonuses and stock options for existing warehouse workers. The wage increase still does not address core issues leading to very high turnover, including excessive hours and pace of work.  

At the same time, activists in many of the cities Amazon induced into bidding for the siting of Amazon’s “HQ2” facility actively opposed tax giveaways and subsidies that their city leaders were offering to the nation’s richest company, contending that Amazon’s arrival would drive up housing costs and increase inequality. They also objected to the undemocratic and secretive process through which cities courted Amazon. Opposition was so great to Amazon’s announcement that it would cite one of its HQ2 centers in Long Island City, New York, that the company felt compelled to reverse its decision in February 2019.

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These campaigns are in their earliest stages. They are as yet insufficient in scale, scope, and resources to challenge and win against the richest and most powerful corporate monopolies in history. Winning real power for workers at powerful giants such as Amazon and Walmart is likely still years away. Nonetheless, these campaigns are first steps that offer a taste and glimpse of the role workers and their organizations could play in redistributing wealth and power and moving us toward real democratic socialism. Taken together they show that even as union density trended downward in the decade after the Great Recession, and even as unions absorbed blows like the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME last year, new and promising labor initiatives have been proliferating.

Most importantly, these campaigns have begun the work of radically re-imagining and redefining the goals and mission of unions. They have either implicitly or explicitly broken with the traditionally bifurcated approach pursued by the U.S. labor movement for more than a century. That approach held that workers should organize and bargain collectively to improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions, and that they should pursue political and legislative action to win what they could not gain through collective bargaining. It has become obvious that this approach is failing on every level.

Having been largely blocked from winning significant gains either through organizing and bargaining or through the pursuit of pursuing electoral and legislative strategies, workers and their organizations have increasingly turned to a more unified approach, tying bargaining more closely to politics. Bargaining for the Common Good campaigns have shown that by consciously politicizing their organizing, bargaining, and strikes workers can start to feel and demonstrate the potential power of a movement that is committed to democracy at work, in our communities, states and country as a whole. The teacher strikes have shown workers that they might win through job actions what they do not win through legislative or political action. And the Amazon HQ2 campaign subverted the long-standing assumption that secret taxpayer-funded corporate subsidies were effective tools to promote economic development. They suggest that the idea of collective bargaining that had emerged in the twentieth century is being redefined and repurposed in promising ways that challenge the erosion of democracy and the rise of inequality.

In the years to come we believe that the workplace-centered economism that was characteristic of trade union–based social democracies or New Deal America will yield to broader forms of organization, social bargaining, and democratic experiment. The inescapable fact that work relations in twenty-first century capitalism are intimately connected to the structure of communities, social institutions, and lived environments points in that direction. So do efforts to win justice for workers across lines of gender, race, and citizenship status. Winning bargaining power for workers and raising wages will inevitably be connected to efforts to defend public schools and mass transit, create affordable housing, repulse predatory finance, and combat climate change.

This is a vision with deep American roots. Recent efforts recall the vibrancy that characterized U.S. labor struggles in the era before the twentieth-century institutionalization of unions and traditional collective bargaining. From the Lowell Female Reform Association’s resistance to “wage slavery” in the New England factory towns of the early nineteenth-century to the community-based assemblies of the Knights of Labor that took power in small towns like Rochester, New Hampshire, in the 1880s, to the “sewer socialism” of Milwaukee or Schenectady in the Progressive era, unions of the past had concerned themselves not merely with wages and hours of their members but with a defense of the common good, and the construction of a “cooperative commonwealth.” Labor’s crisis is leading unions to rediscover elements of that American heritage and update it for the needs of this century. 

It is now for us to take up that urgent work. Democracy cannot co-exist with the overweening power of the likes of Amazon, Walmart, and Blackstone, any more than it could co-exist with what Lincoln-era Republicans called the slave power. As Louis D. Brandeis is said to have observed, and as we have relearned painfully in our time, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”