Labor Day 2017: A Look to the Future (Part Three)
September 4, 2017 by Andrew Baker
In the first two pieces in this series, we took a look at labor’s past, going all the way back to 1877. We’ve seen that starting with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, and accelerating in more recent decades, labor’s clout and membership on a national level have steadily eroded. Yet there is reason for optimism for the future of the labor movement.
First, notwithstanding the relative weakness of unions nationally, labor unions are alive and well and thriving in many pockets of the country. For example, unions represent 23.6% of the workforce in New York and 15.9% in California. Los Angeles over the past few decades has transformed from an anti-union town to a city with a growing union membership and relatively labor-friendly governance.
Second, unions continue to make a difference in that most important of all American concerns, the pocketbook. Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,004 in 2016, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $802.
Nonetheless, we have to recognize the decline in union strength and its adverse impact on income inequality and working class participation in the democracy. For historical reasons, U.S. business has always been much more hostile to unions than in other developed countries. Over the past 40 years or so, U.S. employers have increasingly taken the offensive against unions to drive down wages and working conditions in contract negotiations and to lock out or permanently replace workers to get their way, especially at times when the government is unwilling to step in and correct the balance of power. And ironically, the increased emphasis on the legal rights of individuals during the same period of time has made it ever more difficult to push the agenda of collective action.
But we can see from the past that unions have grown and become stronger when labor is not internally fragmented, and mobilizes its members and builds coalitions with progressive allies including minorities’, women’s and immigrants’ groups to push the state to adopt policies favorable to collective action and collective bargaining.
This will be a long-term struggle. Change in favor of unions will not happen unless there’s a public will for the change, and to create that will, unions must continue to shift public perception in favor of unions. To the extent unions are perceived as a “special interest,” this is not going to happen.
The labor agenda must continue to include an emphasis on changing the cultural attitudes towards unions. Unions should increasingly use summer interns to hit the streets with a pro-union message, go into schools to educate kids about labor and the role of unions in a democracy, push labor-friendly initiatives at the local and state level, and advertise. Yes, advertise – remember that many well-known, well-liked celebrities are proud, card-carrying members of SAG-AFTRA.
Unions should continue to experiment with “representation” models – with employers able to easily outsource, automate or move work, there is a limit as to how effective the one-union/one-employer/one-contract model can remain. Unions are successfully trying out craft or occupational “guilds” organized independently of any one employer. And movements – such as the “living wage” movement – organized to raise labor standards across the board in a municipality or a large institution, where unions join with other activist groups, have been producing positive results.
In today’s climate of low wage growth, high income inequality, and Trump-led attacks on women and minorities, there lies opportunity for unions to reassert their central role in American society. To do so, Unions must:
- Embrace diversity – conflict among working people only exacerbates the problems unions exist to address;
- Embrace internal mobilization – nothing good is going to happen without existing members being involved in and excited about their union; and
- Embrace militancy – smart militancy based on well-built community and political support.
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