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New Activists Fight for the Life of the American Worker

As unions decline, new worker movements are rising up to preserve the dignity and health of hard-working people.

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In one case, a carpenter I interviewed had been hired to install drywall at a building site, and was promised a lump sum payment upon its completion. When he finished the job, the contractor never showed up to pay him.

"Yeah," he told me, "my friends warned me not to work for that guy because he doesn't pay."

"You mean he's known to pay low wages?" I asked.

"No," he laughed, "I mean he doesn't pay his employees at all. Ever."

The Chicago law was passed with union support, but was spearheaded by another non-traditional labor group called Arise Chicago, formed from an interdenominational network of religious leaders. Other improvements have been won in recent years, mostly through class action lawsuits and state- and municipal-level legislation: winning paid sick leave, overtime, and disability compensation, and forcing cities to budget proper funding to enforce wage-hour and health and safety laws.

These victories are significant, and translate into safer jobs and more food on the table for workers. But it's important not to lose sight of what is being lost: an institution of collective agency, and a way for employees to sit down with employers on equal terms and set the conditions for what they will do for eight or more hours every day. The disappearance of that institution and the breakdown of that balance of power between them create the very conditions – from discrimination to workplace accidents to outright theft – that these new worker movements rise up to address.

Labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan once observed that much-maligned trial lawyers thrive when the rule of law breaks down, and when the state, through austerity, outsources its regulatory responsibilities to them. Lay off meat inspectors, and you get whistleblowers and lawsuits instead.

Today, workers still want a fair deal. But now, they have to petition in the courts and at city councils for what they were once able to demand at the bargaining table.


Michael Paarlberg is a lecturer in government at Georgetown University, and author of the Center for American Progress report, Making Contracting Work for the United States. He has also written for the Washington City Paper, Huffington Post, and Slate. Follow Michael on Twitter @Mpaarlberg.