Declining union membership coupled with a widening income gap and weakened labor laws are forcing the U.S. labor movement to experiment with a new identity and new tactics, as evidenced by recent demonstrations in Denver and nationwide.
"In some ways the labor movement has hit bottom," said Paul Clark, director and professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University. "Finally, they've recognized the need to make significant changes."
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The movement's colorful past is full of various forms of strife and success but for decades has been defined by workplace organization and collective bargaining. The latest tactic has unions increasingly playing a supporting role for efforts to improve worker conditions without necessarily unionizing.
Union membership in the U.S. dipped to 11.3 percent in 2012, an all-time low since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began documenting the figures 30 years ago. The first comparable data from 1983 had union membership at 20.1 percent.
Additionally, public-sector workers had union membership of nearly 36 percent in 2012 — more than fives times that of the private sector's 6.6 percent.
"The labor unions, like most large institutions, have been somewhat slow to change. ... But we are getting to the point where the labor unions cannot absorb those losses and keep going," Clark said.
Another challenge to unions' growth in recent years has been the weak economy, which had many workers simply grateful to have jobs and hesitant to rock the boat.
Despite, and partially because of these challenges, the labor movement is now showing signs of adaptation, increasingly playing a support role for worker demonstrations that won't necessarily lead to unionization but are intended to help drive the debate.
Thursday's rallies at which workers from a number of fast-food chains called for wages of $15 an hour and this week's anticipated protests by Walmart workers highlight the shift.
"There has been, in recent years, a lot of nontraditional labor organizing across the country," Clark said.
He noted that fast-food and retail workers are groups who have had employment problems in the past but lacked the ability to organize, unionize and effectively address issues.
"But these groups are finding very innovative ways to gain some changes in the workplace," Clark said.
Another recent effort by unions has focused on supporting janitors in office and retail establishments, and in Colorado some unions have started representing workers in the medical marijuana industry.
While restaurant workers have been labeled a "nontraditional" group for unionization due to high turnover rates, labor historian Jefferson Cowie from Cornell University said the fast-food worker demonstrations are not unprecedented and demonstrate how representation shifts based on changes in the workforce.
Before the Wagner Act, also called the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, "there were all sorts of pressures brought on employers — boycotts and walkouts — that didn't lead to collective bargaining," Cowie said, "That was really the way things were done."
"Role in society"
The Service Employees International Union offered some financial and organizational support for Thursday's protests, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is supporting the Walmart workers' efforts in similar ways.
Union organizers were careful to note Thursday that they were there to support the workers and took pains not to be the face of the movement.
"I think the organized labor unions are very supportive of these movements, not because they see an opportunity to bring them in as traditional members but because the labor movement is really starting to see their role in society as a whole," Clark said. "They see these as movement-building and are very consistent with the values of the labor movement."
Kristen Leigh Painter: 303-954-1638, kpainter@ denverpost.com or twitter.com/kristenpainter