Should the Labor Movement Prioritize the Push for Sectoral Bargaining?
Sectoral bargaining means looking for labor power not solely in individual workplaces but in entire industries. Compared with workers in other wealthy countries, few American workers are in unions, and they have lower standards of living, less employment security, and fewer organizing rights. Elsewhere in the world, sectoral bargaining has allowed labor movements to help more workers, more quickly, than by relying on the shop-by-shop organizing strategy common in the US. The labor movement here should look for inspiration to the African National Congress in South Africa, which legislated sectoral bargaining after smashing apartheid; the striking Amazon workers in Italy two years ago; the 2018 mass strikes against fascism in Argentina; and even its own history.
From 1935 to 1955, the CIO rooted its work in sectoral organizing—in contrast to the AFL’s craft unionism, which excluded most low-wage workers. The more radical CIO organized industries, which meant that each union could win higher wages for hundreds of thousands of auto, steel, and telecom workers in one go. Nearly 80 years ago, after a decade of fierce organizing, the United Auto Workers bargained on behalf of all auto workers. Typically, the union targeted one of the big three automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. A labor win at one employer would almost immediately improve conditions across the industry, as the same contract was extended to the other firms’ workers. In the coal and steel industries, sectoral bargaining was more formal, with multiple employers bargaining at the same time. These efforts expanded the share of unionized workers in the private sector from about 13 percent in 1930 to more than 35 percent by 1955. But after that, industry-wide bargaining in the US declined, partly because of anti-union trade policies. Congress never codified sectoral bargaining, nor did it extend it to new enterprises, as happened in most other democracies. The result: Only 6 percent of workers in the private sector are in unions today.
In our current political context, sectoral approaches can seem bureaucratic. The California law AB 527, for instance, is set to establish a fast-food worker council, which will cover more than 500,000 workers, mostly women of color. The council will have worker representatives as well as employer and government members and will have the power to set wage floors and rules about scheduling and other issues. This approach makes sense, because our legal structure fails to effectively support organizing and bargaining. Such councils are not substitutes for unions, but they cut against the bifurcated workplaces with contractors, franchises, and part-time workers. If the council system is implemented—and companies are spending millions on a ballot measure to prevent its adoption—it could encourage a mass movement of fast-food workers that would further reinvigorate labor.
Similarly, last year, more than 5,500 minor league baseball players—most receiving starvation wages, and many of whom are Spanish speakers from the Caribbean and Central and South America—won recognition for a union covering more than 120 teams. They are bargaining now, and the outcome will almost certainly be better than it would have been if they had organized one team at a time.
In 2022, heroic workers—from video game designers and Amazon warehouse employees to journalists and baristas—broke through the gauntlet of US organizing and won recognition. But in each case, negotiating a strong contract has been incredibly difficult. Even last year, when the labor movement gained such momentum, the percentage of workers in a union declined. In my decades of global union work, not once did I hear workers in a nation with sectoral bargaining say they’d swap it for the atomized framework of the US.
Finally, workers don’t have to make a single choice. We should organize at every level: workplace, employer, and sector. Autoworkers in Germany, trash pickers and recyclers in Argentina, telecom workers in Norway, and metalworkers in South Africa know that their nation’s version of sectoral bargaining starts with workplace solidarity, but the sectoral frame gives them a floor on which to build that solidarity. It’s much easier to start there than at the beginning of the long, difficult road to a union contract in the US.
Workplace organizing alone will not be sufficient to initiate or sustain sectoral bargaining in the US. The pro-union messaging from Biden is nice, but we need economic policies that encourage bargaining and organizing rights. Both the electric-vehicle and chip sectors, for instance, receive billions in federal funds. Imagine if the White House required employer neutrality and sectoral bargaining to occur in order to receive any government money. Reforms to our labor system are not enough. We can’t just support workers at a particular worksite or employer. We must build solidarity across millions of workers in an industry or sector, and we should demand, at a minimum, the same kind of foundation for unions that workers have won in most other democracies.
Sectoral bargaining is a desirable goal, but prioritizing this fight puts the cart before the horse. The labor movement currently faces a far more urgent task: organizing unorganized workers into unions.
Increasing employees’ collective power on the ground is the most realistic path to bringing bosses from across an industry to the bargaining table. US labor leaders too often treat sectoral bargaining as a strategic alternative to the daunting work of organizing workers shop by shop. But hoping for a quick policy fix overlooks the fact that centralized negotiations in Europe largely arose as a response from employers hoping to tame powerful local unions and strike militancy. And once European labor movements found themselves on the retreat in the 1990s, centralized bargaining was often either scrapped or came to serve as a mechanism to impose austerity and deregulation.
Without a bedrock of worker associational power, sectoral bargaining is unlikely to get widely implemented—at least not in a manner favorable to working people.
Fortunately, we’re living in one of the ripest moments for workplace organizing in decades. Young, radicalized workers are overwhelmingly pro-union and eager to take on the billionaire class. Their ability to do so has been boosted by a tight labor market, the spread of digital technologies, and a new Biden-appointed National Labor Relations Board that is aiding unionization for the first time in decades.
Unfortunately, even last year’s string of high-profile unionization victories—from Starbucks to Amazon to media outlets to retail stores and beyond—has not yet proved sufficient to snap the leaders of most national unions out of their defensive posture. Instead, the AFL-CIO’s June 2022 convention set a far-from-ambitious goal: 1 million new members over the next 10 years. Achieving no more than this would result in a drop in union density, since the total workforce is set to grow at a faster pace than the AFL-CIO’s organizing goal.
The stumbling block is not a lack of resources. The US labor movement’s assets total $35.8 billion, a third of which is “highly liquid,” according to recent research. These funds nearly doubled from 2010 to 2020, a period when the number of union staffers dropped by 19 percent.
It is true that investing in new organizing is risky and expensive, which is why unions have tended to focus on legislative fixes. Workers face a broken labor law system, merciless opposition from employers, and a ruthless “union avoidance” industry. And as advocates of sectoral bargaining correctly point out, the fissured nature of many businesses today has further undermined the effectiveness of shop-by-shop organizing, since employees in many industries now nominally work for themselves or for subcontractors.
These are formidable obstacles. Willpower and good organizing methods alone will not be sufficient to win a union for every worker who deserves one. But it would be a tragedy to let the current opening slip away.
Worker-led unionization efforts with few resources have racked up some impressive victories over the past year, but imagine how far things might be able to go if the campaigns at Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Apple, and elsewhere were backed by the full firepower of organized labor.
Advocates of sectoral bargaining are correct that workers will likely need an assist from lawmakers. But labor’s big breakthrough in the 1930s demonstrates that the best way to pressure politicians to pass—and employers to accept—comprehensive labor reforms is by creating crises for ruling elites and keeping inspirational workplace organizing in the headlines.
Doing so, however, will require that unions stop deferring to Democratic leaders. Though President Biden has taken some pro-union steps, he has so far refused to use his bully pulpit or his power to withhold federal contracts against the union-busting wave sweeping the country. Lots of this employer intimidation is legal. But some of it is blatantly against the law, including the firing of worker organizers by Starbucks and its decision to withhold benefits from unionized stores, which has had a chilling effect on momentum at Starbucks and beyond.
Unions should not expect Democratic politicians to seriously defend workers’ right to organize, let alone pass major labor law reform, unless the labor movement initiates an escalating campaign of protest and disruption to pressure the federal government to start treating the systematic suppression of employees’ voices at work as an intolerable national scandal. A useful start for such a campaign would be an all-hands-on-deck blitz supporting the heroic efforts of Starbucks baristas to overcome Howard Schultz’s illegal “scorched earth” campaign against their right to organize.
Only by unionizing new workplaces, together with a campaign in defense of workers’ right to organize, can labor start building the power necessary to eventually win transformational legal reforms—including sectoral bargaining.
Copyright c 2023 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.
Larry Cohen is the board chair of Our Revolution and was the president of the Communications Workers of America from 2005 to 2015.
Eric Blanc is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso Books, 2019).
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