How America's unions can reinvent themselves in the new economy

Union membership is collapsing, but income inequality is on the rise

Fast food workers nationwide are staging a massive 100-city strike Thursday to call for higher wages and harassment-free union representation. It's the latest iteration of a growing movement, buoyed by union support, to raise income inequality to the forefront of political debate.

The pleas for union representation are particularly notable given how unions have steadily eroded over the past half century. Union membership fell by 400,000 last year alone, dropping to its lowest level as a percentage of the work force since the 1930s.

Democrats and labor reps have touted unions as an effective way to alleviate the widening wage gap — Democrats are even making income inequality a central message of late. And though the trend will take time to reverse, there are a number of ideas for reinvigorating America's dwindling unions.

Partly to blame for the decline in union membership is a downturn in public opinion. Today, a slim 54 percent majority of Americans approve of labor unions, down from a high of 75 percent in the mid-1950s, per Gallup.

As a result, more people are opting out of unions when given the chance, a phenomena goosed by so-called "right to work" laws. Indiana, which passed such a law in 2012, saw its union membership plummet by 56,000 last year.

One possible solution to that swing, hidden in plain sight, is to get the economy back on track and drive down the unemployment rate, which remains stuck at 7.3 percent.

It's a counterintuitive idea: Shouldn't unions benefit from workers being scared about losing their jobs? With scarce job opportunities, though, the labor market has become a "dystopia where regular careers are vanishing," Robert Kuttner wrote in the American Prospect, "every worker is a freelancer, every labor transaction is a one-night stand, and we collude with one another to cut our wages." That's bad for unions, because when workers in the past were given the "actual or potential experience of working together over extended periods of time," Katherine Stone, a UCLA labor law professor told Kuttner, "the standard employment contract taught them how to organize for industrial and political action."

In short, a free-for-all economy isn't fertile ground for fostering worker camaraderie and rosy feelings about unions as a whole.

To counter those trends, labor leaders are opening membership to those who have a hard time forming unions in the workplace — fast food workers, for instance — or whose line of work doesn't traditionally align with union representation. Specifically, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka pointed earlier this year to the effectiveness of the National Taxi Workers Alliance, formed a decade ago by New York City cabbies despite the fact that drivers are legally considered independent contractors.

"We are not going to rebuild the labor movement solely through NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] elections and voluntary recognition by employers, no matter how smart and strategic our campaigns," he said. "The AFL-CIO's door has to be — and will be — open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace."

In tandem, that means redirecting energy to new sectors of the economy to absorb lost membership from withering industries. For instance, the United Automobile Workers' membership is down from 1.5 million in 1979 to under 400,000 today as the U.S. car industry has shriveled. But as workers left Detroit for other fields, they didn't necessarily slide into new unionized jobs.

"We can't just defend our historic industrial and geographic bases when global forces far outside our power to control are eroding, if not destroying, those bases," Trumka conceded.

Adam Davidson at The New York Times outlined in the beginning of the year one sector that could constitute a powerful labor force if properly organized: "Vulnerable, often immigrant workers in low-skill, itinerant jobs."

They work in what economists call the nontradable sector: Jobs that can’t be moved easily to a low-wage country. Low-skill workers in nontradable jobs actually have one small but important organizing advantage. U.S. cars can be made in Mexico, after all, but they have to be washed here. As a result, unions are seeking growth in other nontradable fields, like carpentry, plumbing and transit drivers. [The New York Times]

Another growing base that more unions could tap into are itinerant, white-collar workers: Freelancers.

One non-traditional union has done just that. Launched to represent the interests of writers, developers, graphic designers and the like, the Freelancers Union in New York has grown to over 200,000 members since it began in 2001. Granted, it doesn't behave like a traditional union — it doesn't collect dues per se and it doesn't offer collective bargaining — but it does offer things workers do want: Health care and lobbying power in Albany.

Janice R. Fine, a professor of employment relations at Rutgers University, told The New York Times "It reminds me of the old guilds...that focused on workers’ individual autonomy, trying to build their own careers, with the backing of a collective organization to assist them."

While growing by representing non-traditional sectors has its appeal, that's not to say that unions need to give up their traditional bases.

Globalization and technological innovation have simultaneously upped competition, while lowering the demand for workers, especially among the unions' blue collar base. Combating those forces could entail, as some like former Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern have advocated, reaching out to old foes like big business and limited government proponents to forge a broader coalition.

"We all know what will happen if we talk only among ourselves," Stern once warned. "We'll end up wanting to preserve everything. And that just ensures we'll be fighting a war of attrition, where it's all about 'How do we hang on to these 100 jobs?'"

New Labor Secretary Tom Perez offered a similar assessment in a recent interview with PBS NewsHour:

We need to make sure that we're not talking about yesterday's battles: Us against them, labor against management. We need to be focused on tomorrow's challenges. We're all in this together…If we're going to bring jobs back to America…we have to come together around a shared vision or a shared understanding. [PBS]

Similarly, labor groups, who have not always been too friendly with each other, are beginning to see the benefits of joining forces. Though they represent divergent groups, they share a common interest that can be better achieved by setting aside petty differences.

President Obama on Wednesday called income inequality the "defining challenge of our time." Reinvented, stronger unions could help address that challenge.


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