How to Build a New Labor Movement, One Step at a Time
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The following article first appeared in the American Prospect.
Earlier this month, labor-rights group Working America launched FixMyJob.com. The text of the site reads a bit like an infomercial: “Tough day at work? Are you feeling overworked, underpaid, unsafe or disrespected by your boss?” But instead of selling a new set of knives, the writers are hawking organizing skills. “Our tool can help you identify problems in your workplace and give you info about what others have done in similar situations.” The famous raised fist of labor is sideways, holding a wrench. The website is yet another attempt by the country’s once-powerful union movement to connect to workers in an increasingly hostile national workplace.
“We also are trying to find new ways for workers to have representation on the job,” writes Working America spokesperson Aruna Jain in an email. “We want to train and educate people on how to self-organize, and to learn collective action—the single most effective way of improving their working conditions. This is one way we can start that process.”
The site, which is being rolled out slowly and in stages, is meant to give workers the resources they need to organize themselves and demand changes—regardless of whether or not an actual union comes together. It tells visitors how to contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety issues in the work place. It gives tips and strategies for how best to present a case to the boss or how to convince coworkers to get involved.
“We’re trying something new here—an experiment,” writes Jain. “It's never been done before. We don't know what will work and what won't, but we are trying to provide information, resources to create a fertile environment where organizing can happen.” The website doesn’t charge dues and while the term “organizing” is used extensively, “collective bargaining”—a staple of the labor movement—is nowhere to be found.
Dues-paying members sustained the labor movement for decades, and in return, the unions helped negotiate better pay and better hours. But that relationship has been deteriorating rapidly. For the last several decades, unions and the tools they offered seem far removed from the vast majority of workplace experiences. Around one-fourth of American workers are “contingent workers”—freelancers, independent contractors, part-timers, and temp workers—people with more tenuous relationships to their employers. Meanwhile conservatives have found ways to exploit weaknesses in the National Labor Relations Act, meaning the main legislative defense for unions is increasingly toothless. Labor conditions have gotten dramatically worse as unions have lost power—real wages have stagnated, wealth is increasingly concentrated—but no one seems to know how to connect the old-style of collective bargaining with the new economy. Some held out hope that the Obama administration—coupled with the worst economic crisis in decades—would help resuscitate things.
So when the Employee Free Choice Act failed in 2010, it seemed like a death knell for the American labor movement. The bill, which would have made it easier for workers to collectively bargain and increased the penalties on employers that fired people for trying to organize, was the number one piece in the labor agenda. Unions had poured resources into the 2008 elections, putting in hundreds of millions of dollars and mobilizing thousands of volunteers, and their efforts helped elect a Democratic president, and Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. But despite the concerted effort from labor leaders to push through this key piece of legislation, they simply didn’t have the power. It never got through the Senate.
Faced with the very real threat of extinction, unions have largely put collective bargaining on the back burner, and instead must try to remind American workers of the basic concept of worker solidarity. “We start from the point of view that, because so few people are in unions these days, very few people have personal experience with collective power,” explains Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The group is the AFL-CIO’s answer to the “labor problem.” Rather than organizing workers into unions, Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, focuses on engaging non-union workers on a number of policy issues, from unemployment insurance and banking reform to education funding and campaign finance. The group uses the same door-to-door, grassroots strategies that have long been the hallmarks of labor organizers. But rather than emphasize relations between workers and their employers, the group focuses largely on policy changes. Members don’t have to pay dues, instead, at meetings and on sites like FixMyJob, they just have to sign up.