“The most-important economic relationship for most adults is that between them and their employer.”
“That relationship is vital not just for what it allows them to do together — to produce the goods and services that sustain our standard of living—but also for how it distributes the gains from that production.” “The Shift in Private Sector Union Participation: Explanation and Effects”
For many decades – even centuries – capital and labor have been the uneasy macro partners in the “mixed economies” formed and reformed by governments. Within those economies the capital/labor power pendulum has swung dramatically in both directions over economic history – but clearly toward capital since the 2008 global Great Recession. Especially with the weakening of “Organized Labor” — unions.
Many economists believe that the dramatic decline of union membership, largely the result of legislation and regulation by democratically-elected conservative governments, has had a significant negative impact on the middle class – i.e. the “working class.” And, with that, they say, have come the waves of protest of “economic inequality” and “social injustice.”
Economic Policy Institute: “Union decline lowers wages of nonunion workers: The overlooked reason why wages are stuck and inequality is growing“
New York Times: “Reviving the American Working Class” , “The decline of private-sector unions is an important reason for the stagnation of wages and rise of economic inequality.”
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Globalization, immigration, political movements and the inevitable economic cycles have also contributed to the decline of traditional organized labor. But whatever the causes, the voice of the worker today seems weak or muted on many vital economic, social and political issues.
That may be changing, perhaps enough to affect the 2020 U.S. national election.
New models of organizing workers may better reflect the evolving workforce as we enter the “Twenty Twenties”. Defying a simple definition, these efforts may be thought of as “ad hoc”, “temporary” “focused”, ‘hybrid” or “independent”. A special sub-category: “social-issue oriented organization” has taken on special resonance as employees take stands on their company policies having important socio-political implications.
These models reflect many employees’ current priorities but are not necessarily an easy fit in traditional unions.
The New York Times: “As Grass-Roots Labor Activism Rises, Will Unions Take Advantage?” :
“Workers in industries like education, hospitality and technology are growing more assertive, engaging in strikes and informal walkouts at levels unseen in decades and taking part in new organizing efforts. And that should give unions, hobbled by years of legal setbacks and contending with unfriendly policies in Washington, reason for optimism …The question is whether traditional unions can harness this energy and reverse their long-term membership decline…”
At the same time, the horizon for traditional organized labor may also be brightening somewhat, largely related to the attitudes of young workers. A 2018 national poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center concluded that nearly seven in ten people under 30 have a favorable opinion of unions – and more favorably than they regard business corporations. “Young people view labor unions more favorably than business corporations”
For example: A NEWSDAY Labor Day feature article, “STEPPING UP” – “Young leaders helping to shape the future of organized labor on Long Island”. Their reasoning could well have resonance for young workers across the country. In addition to the attraction of a community, they are “joining unions because of the rise of the gig economy, which rarely offers benefits like employer-paid health insurance and retirement plans.”
Ruth Milkman, a local professor, adds, “college-educated workers are a bigger part of the labor movement than in the old days. The growth in union membership is among white-collar workers with a college education”. She notes that many of these young workers are prone to activism and stuck in low-paying jobs that make it difficult to pay off college loans.
A construction worker quoted in the article was blunt: “Without unions, there would be no middle class.” Perhaps he had become aware of the now taken-for-granted benefits attained by early generations of organized labor – such as the five-day 40-hour work week, safer working conditions, health insurance, pensions, paid vacations, training, and, of course, negotiated wages.
Still, the political power of traditional U.S. organized labor is now hardly decisive. Membership is at a dramatic nadir (about one-tenth of the U.S. workforce); and union leaders are less able to politically influence their members.
The 2020 “worker-as-voter” will have to be reached via both new and old models of organizing labor.
In 2020, employer–employee issues will include many addressing the current realities of the workplace: the minimum wage, health insurance, the right to organize, “sectoral” (industry-wide) bargaining and benefits such as paid family medical leave.
Business leaders have recently issued bold statements on the “purpose” of corporations extending beyond profits, with the interests of all “stakeholders” (employees, communities and shareholders alike) to be addressed with equal commitment.
Employee relations issues and the “working class” might well be a good place for those business leaders to start.