The Future of Work: Where the Labor Movement Is Heading

It has been decades since Labor Day was a celebration of workers and trade unions as its 19th century founders intended it to be. Today, it marks the end of summer. Perhaps the local paper runs an op-ed or an article with a labor theme. Occasionally it prompts a bit of reflection on the decline of trade unionism, and very occasionally on ways to reverse that decline.

The truth is that conventional trade unionism is pretty much dead. It is now time for post-mortems and for questions about what could come next. Is another labor movement possible? Can existing trade unions survive even if they manage to change or will new ones be needed?

Today only 8% of private sector workers in the U.S. belong to a union. Vast sections of the country are essentially union free. No wonder. The organizational structures, laws, and institutional arrangements that shape today's labor movement have their roots in an earlier era stretching back to the 19th century. And while capitalism has undergone revolutionary changes in the past few decades, changes we generally refer to as globalization, the labor movement has remained essentially unchanged and nation based.

Three trends, in particular, stand out:

  1. Modern corporations roam the world looking for low labor costs, lax regulations, and weak labor unions. This pits workers and communities against each other in a classic race to the bottom to attract and retain jobs.

  2. Corporations have abandoned the old vertically and horizontally integrated organizational structures, in which companies sought to keep most aspects of production and distribution in-house, in favor of newer core/ring systems in which they perform only core functions while farming out the rest to complex supply chains of contractors and subsidiaries. Workers making the same product, or providing the same service, may be employed by many different employers, making solidarity and collective action difficult.

  3. Corporations divide the remaining in-house workforce into a core group of workers with standard jobs and at least some expectation of long term employment, and a secondary group of contingent workers: part-timers, temps, contract workers, on-call workers, and day laborers usually with sub-standard wages and benefits and little or no job security.

These trends -- capital mobility, "dis-integrated" corporate structures, and contingent staffing strategies -- all thwart labor's ability to organize and bargain effectively and make it much more difficult for unions to do the kinds of things that would make them attractive to workers and worth fighting for. For instance, on critical issues like protecting jobs, unions have been unable to deliver, and in recent years labor has had extraordinary difficulty even holding on to gains made earlier in the 20th century.

Some argue labor should focus on less mobile service sector jobs; we have written elsewhere why we think this strategy will not reverse labor's decline. Others argue that tweaks in U.S. labor law like the Employee Free Choice Act currently being promoted by unions and the Democrats, which will allow card check recognition, will revive labor's fortunes by reducing anti-union employer pressure on workers attempting to organize. But marginal changes in labor law do not address the central dynamics of capital mobility, new corporate structures, and contingent staffing strategies that characterize contemporary capitalism and undermine organized labor.

Labor's revival in the era of globalization will require a new kind of labor movement, one that not only provides effective representation at the workplace and in the economy but also helps workers represent themselves in relation to the basic questions of society: of how we will address the challenge of global warming; of how we can overcome the polarization of wealth and the persistence of poverty; of how we can build the essential cross border solidarity necessary in the era of globalization.

In fact, the issues on which labor's revival depends are not simply the issues of craft, industry, or employers but are essentially class issues that relate to the role of working people in shaping the direction of the society.

The labor movement is still the bearer of a great heritage available to those who will remake it for the world we live in now. There are people inside and outside the existing labor movement ready to get down to the work of building on that heritage and many unions retain considerable resources that could contribute to building a new labor movement for our times. Like any movement under attack, labor generally resists as disloyal critical thinking that challenges established tenets and practices. But today that won't do. Now more than ever we need a free and open debate about the future of labor, a debate that respects a full range of opinions and perspectives. Launching such a debate would be a good first step in labor's revival.

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