With President Obama’s election behind us, questions about the future direction of organized labor and its allies have become more pressing. Nearly six years ago, Obama’s election raised hopes that great changes were in the offing. While significant reform was enacted in the form of the Affordable Care Act, hoped for breakthroughs in union rights never materialized. The Employee Free Choice Act was bottled up in the Senate; the White House Middle Class Task Force proved unable to advance a range of desired administrative reforms; and courts blocked the significant rule changes that were drawn up by a friendlier National Labor Relations Board. Despite the large role that unions played in turning out the vote for Obama and Democratic candidates in the Senate and House in 2012, there is little reason to believe that labor’s successful political work will translate into a successful national legislative or administrative agenda during the next two years.
In some ways, the lack of a realistic labor law reform agenda for the next two years provides us an opportunity to think strategically about the future of worker representation, free from the need to advance a particular piece of legislation. It is this sort of thinking that we most need to engage in today. In the wake of the attacks on collective bargaining that disrupted the American landscape in 2011, the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor set out to assess the implications of these attacks in ways that could help us see beyond them to the revival of worker organization in the 21st century. This project was rooted in the KI’s mission to provide a space to foster innovative thinking about the future of labor and democracy, and it was undertaken independently, but in consultation with leaders in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Change to Win, and other workers’ organizations.
This paper is a product of that undertaking. It is based on four basic observations arrived at after consultation with a wide variety of practitioners, a review of scholarship and data, and an exploration of recent US labor history. The four basic points are these:
- The collective bargaining regime that was built by unions over the course of the twentieth century in both the public and the private sectors is being increasingly isolated, undermined, and weakened, and its chances of survival as a significant feature of American life are increasingly in doubt.
- The cause for the continued erosion of the collective bargaining regime cannot be laid to outdated labor laws and employer resistance alone, but rather is systemic in nature, flowing from a constellation of forces and developments, which include (but are not limited to) changes in structure of the national and global economy, the role that government and the courts play in regulating economic life, the structure and function of corporations and financial markets, the decreased leverage that the workplace holds as an arena for coalescing and deploying collective power, the privatization of public services and underfunding of the public sector, and degree to which the political system has become polarized and paralyzed.
- Recent history both illustrates the systemic nature of the problem that labor confronts and furnishes some insights into how labor might come to terms with this systemic problem.
- This history further suggests that the revival of worker organization will require more than a greater commitment to new organizing or to the drafting and passage of labor law reform, but rather requires a thoroughgoing strategic approach to diagnosing labor’s problem and planning for its future in light of the vast systemic transformation through which we are now living.
The develops these points. Its purpose is not to provide a ready answer to the problem of how to revive worker organization in the United States. That task is beyond the competency of the KI—or any one individual or small group. Rather it aims to provide the basis for convening a focused discussion to define the terms of the debate, asking: What are the key questions facing the labor movement? What is the nature of the problem it faces? What ongoing or recent organizing experiments suggest insights into the nature of the problem or strands of possibility for the future? What are the best ways forward?