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 US 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.
Today they’d be called “green-collar jobs” – cleaning up the environment. Back then, the workers who performed those jobs were just garbage men. And they were treated like garbage. Martin Luther King Jr. died fighting to make their green-collar jobs be good jobs.
On the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination, the green-collar jobs group Green for All is bringing people from all over the country to Memphis, Tennessee, April 4-6 for The Dream Reborn, a celebration of the life of Dr. King – and a call to create millions of good green-collar jobs as a pathway out of poverty.
The Dream Reborn will “bring together a generation of new leaders who are taking on the chief moral obligation of the 21st century, building a green economy for all.”
The gathering will dramatize the message that “today we must respond with the same courage to perhaps the biggest crisis our species has ever collectively faced: global warming.”
We believe that if Dr. King were with us today, he would be working to build a green economy – strong enough to lift people out of poverty and restore hope to America. He would be standing with those communities that have been locked out of the last century’s pollution-based economy. And he would indeed be working to ensure that ALL our people, the entire beloved community, is included in the emerging clean and renewable economic vision.
(second in a series)
In our last post we described how the RICO suits filed by Smithfield Packing and Wackenhut Corporation represent a sharp escalation in the long standing corporate assault on human and labor rights. Not content with stripping workers and their organizations of fundamental labor rights, big corporations are now going after basic constitutional rights. We argued that these suits threaten the civil rights not just of unions but of everyone.
There is a back story to these suits that stretches to the birth of the US labor movement over 200 years ago when conspiracy laws were first used to prevent workers from forming unions.
Unions as conspiracies
In 1806, members of the Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers—an association of Philadelphia shoemakers–— went on strike to demand higher wages. In response, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania went to court charging that the action by the 12 year old union was a “criminal conspiracy” since, according to prosecutors, the union used unlawful coercion to achieve its economic goals—for instance, union shoemakers refused to do business or associate with bosses or workers who did not abide by its wage rates and standards. In a sign of the anti-labor legal bias that would inform much of US history, the prosecution was instigated and paid for by the employers. The government won. The union was broken and its leaders fined.
In those bad old days, courts defined the effort of workers to organize as a purely economic question. According to prevailing elite views, unions interfered with the smooth functioning of the labor market, making them a restraint of trade. The labor market was viewed like any other market with labor as a commodity like any other commodity. For most of the 19th century and part of 20th century courts with few exceptions ruled that whenever workers banded together “in combinations” they were engaged in illegal conspiracies. Injunctions generally followed.