Since the emergence of capitalism, workers seeking higher pay and safer workplaces have banded together in guilds and unions to pressure their employers for a better deal. That has been the approach of the American labor movement for the past 200 years.
That approach, however, has begun to change. It's not because unions think collective bargaining is a bad idea but because workers can't form unions any more — not in the private sector, not at this time. There are some exceptions: Organizing continues at airlines, for instance, which are governed by different organizing rules than most industries. But employer opposition to organizing has become pervasive in the larger economy, and the penalties for employers that violate workers' rights as they attempt to unionize are so meager that such violations have become routine. For this and a multitude of other reasons, the share of unionized workers in the private sector dropped from roughly one-third in the mid-20th century to a scant 6.6 percentlast year. In consequence, the share of the nation's economy constituted by wages has sunk to its lowest level since World War II, and U.S. median household income continues to decline.
Unions face an existential problem: If they can't represent more than a sliver of American workers on the job, what is their mission? Are there other ways they can advance workers' interests even if those workers aren't their members?
These questions are anything but easy. Unions have begun to experiment with answers, even if, as the unions readily admit, they're a poor substitute for collective bargaining. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has detailed dozens of organizers to fast-food joints in a number of cities: There have been one-day strikes of fast-food workers in New York and Chicago, and such actions are likely to spread. The goal isn't a national contract with companies such as McDonald's but the eventual mobilization of enough such workers in sympathetic cities and states that city councils and legislatures will feel compelled to raise the local minimum wage or set a living wage in particular sectors. This means, however, that the SEIU is helping to build an organization that won't produce anywhere near the level of dues-derived income that unions normally accrue from collective-bargaining agreements. This new approach may not pencil out, but neither does the slow decline in membership that labor will continue experiencing unless it changes course.
The AFL-CIO has embarked on a similar — and perhaps even more radical — roll of the dice. "We're not going to let the employer decide who our members are any longer," federation president Richard Trumka told me in a recent interview. "We'll decide."
Instead of claiming as its members only the diminishing number of workers in unions whose employers have agreed to bargain, the AFL-CIO plans to open its membership rolls to Americans not covered by any such agreements. The first part of this plan is to expand its Working America program, a door-to-door canvass that has mobilized nonunion members in swing-state working-class neighborhoods to back labor-endorsed candidates in elections in the past decade. In New Mexico in recent months, Working America enrolled 112,000 residents on their doorsteps in a campaign that raised the minimum wage in Albuquerque and then in an adjacent county. But the goal of such campaigns, says Karen Nussbaum, the organization's director, isn't just to win a raise; it's also "to get as many workers as we can involved in winning the raise and hope this carries over to specific workplace activism." They aim to build a workers' movement — even though, as with the SEIU campaign of fast-food workers, securing workplace contracts (and the kind of membership dues that sustain unions) isn't on the horizon.
The AFL-CIO's plans don't end there. "We're asking academics, we're asking our friends in other movements, 'What do we need to become?' " says Trumka. "We'll try a whole bunch of new forms of representation. Some will work, some won't, but we'll be opening up the labor movement." Forming a larger organization of unions and other progressive groups isn't out of the question, though it would take time to pull off.
The labor movement that emerges from these reforms might resemble a latter-day version of the Knights of Labor, the workers' organization of the 1880s that was a cross between a union federation, a working-class political vehicle (it championed the eight-hour workday) and a fraternal lodge. With working Americans unable — at least for now — to advance their interests in their workplaces, unions are looking to mobilize workers to wage those fights in other arenas. They don't know exactly where they're headed, but they've begun to make their turn.
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Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.