How to Revive the Labor Movement

How to Revive the Labor Movement

In The Future We Need, Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta argue for extending collective bargaining beyond the workplace.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their supporters call for a boycott of Wendy’s in New York City in May 2022. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century
by Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta
Cornell University Press, 2022, 276 pp.

Recent breakthroughs at Amazon and Starbucks—and the proliferation of informal direct action on the job in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—point to a new appetite for organizing among American workers. According to labor journalist Steven Greenhouse, “Workers have embraced a long-neglected strategy, called self-organizing or bottom-up organizing that’s proving highly successful.” Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers union, said in an interview with the New York Times that this strategy is “sending a wake-up call to the rest of the labor movement [that] we have to be homegrown—we have to be driven by workers—to give ourselves the best chance.”

Despite the courage and commitment of these workers, organized labor is in desperate decline. Barely 10 percent of U.S. workers are union members, and union membership has declined by 2 million people since 2000. Notwithstanding the upsurge in strikes in late 2021, dubbed “Striketober,” the total number of workers idled by work stoppages that year was barely 80,000, compared to 485,000 in 2018 and 2.8 million in 1974.

This decline comes despite highly favorable public opinion on unions. A Gallup poll conducted in August showed that 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions—the highest rate since 1965. And a sizeable proportion of workers would like to be in a union. From October 2021 to June 2022, petitions to the National Labor Relations Board for union representation increased 58 percent from the same period a year earlier.

This upsurge in worker action and aspiration for organization has been accompanied by a lively debate on how workers can fight for better conditions and a better world. Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta’s new book The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century makes a significant and original contribution. Smiley and Gupta are, respectively, the present and past executive directors of Jobs With Justice, a labor rights organization with coalitions in over thirty cities and states advocating for collective bargaining for all workers. Jobs With Justice provides an ideal location to observe the difficulties and new developments in worker organization. The authors draw on their experience to offer an understanding of organized labor’s continuing crisis and a prescription for what to do about it that goes far beyond timid proposals like those for labor law reform and union budget reallocations.

Labor in a Changing World

The shape of the American labor movement can be traced back to the legal structure of collective bargaining established in 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act, or labor’s Magna Carta). The NLRA established the right of workers to organize, bargain collectively with their employers, and engage in concerted action. Over the next decade, millions of workers joined unions and won higher wages and better working conditions.

But the NLRA excluded protection for employees in sectors with predominantly Black and brown workers, particularly domestic and farm work. Women concentrated in service industries were, in practice, rarely able to organize. Many unions themselves excluded or discriminated against female and African American workers. The result was a divided working class with a predominantly white male sector empowered by unions and the NLRA; women and people of color faced lower wages and were far less likely to be represented by unions. This arrangement, which we still live with today, “pits the interests of organized union workers against those of the unorganized majority,” Smiley and Gupta write.

Over the past fifty years, economic and social changes have reduced the power of all workers, including those who are organized. Hedge funds, private equity firms, and other forms of financial capital have replaced owners’ interests in the long-term health of their corporations with the single-minded pursuit of short-term shareholder value. Corporations are free to move jobs to countries with the lowest wages and the least regulations, promoting a race to the bottom. The expansion of subcontracted, temporary, part-time, and other forms of contingent work undermines labor standards for all workers.

Smiley and Gupta give an overview of these changes while explaining how a “fissured” economy has fragmented work among multinational production chains and subcontractors using “just-in-time” production practices and labor agencies. For example, a Marriott hotel may be owned by a small group of investors but managed by “management service providers” who then subcontract to different companies for office work, landscaping, food service, and cleaning—companies that may in turn contract out work to temp agencies and labor brokers.

As a result, Smiley and Gupta write, “managerial and technical workers now make up well over half the workforce.” The simple idea of the working class as composed of blue-collar manual laborers has itself become a divisive concept. Citing Charles C. Heckscher’s The New Unionism, Smiley and Gupta characterize the “cross-cutting identities of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and other social categories” that have become “increasingly important alternatives to older occupational identities of workers and managers.”

Smiley and Gupta make clear that these changes have been central to labor’s decline, but that the very structure of organized labor is also to blame. Under U.S. labor law and conventional trade union practice, unions are primarily a means for a particular group of workers to bargain with their immediate employer over wages and conditions on the job. But most of the forces that shape people’s lives lie beyond the direct relations they have with their employers. Problems outside the workplace—including inadequate healthcare, the breakdown of public services, racial injustice, and climate change—can’t be fixed at the bargaining table. Even within the realm of work, the immediate employer is often not the entity determining conditions on the job; thanks to the fissured economy, the company by whom workers are hired may be a franchise, subsidiary, agency, or shell owned by a chain of intermediaries with limited power to make significant changes.

Collective Bargaining for the Whole Worker

What is exciting about The Future We Need is not so much its familiar litany of organized labor’s difficulties as the creativity of the solutions it proposes. Smiley and Gupta call for “a new kind of movement for organizing and collective bargaining”—and they spell out what that would mean.

The centerpiece of their approach is extending collective bargaining beyond the workplace. They propose a “process whereby working people take collective action in negotiating with any entity that has power over their wages, living conditions, and overall economic well-being in a way that produces an enforceable agreement that can be renegotiated as conditions change.” The purpose of this expanded form of collective bargaining is to once again ground the workers’ movement in the needs of the worker as a whole person, with any number of identities. This means applying the mechanisms used by unions not just to the workplace, but to “all the ways in which humans relate to capital.”

The Future We Need presents dozens of examples of how expanded collective bargaining has already been used to change working peoples’ lives. Tenants, debtors, homeowners, consumers, and others have joined together to directly confront and negotiate with corporations, banks, and elements of the state through rent strikes, tenant unions, and transit rider unions. Smiley and Gupta also offer ideas for new coalitions. For example, they suggest that consumers, renters, debtors, and others with some sort of relationship to powerful economic forces could establish collective bargaining relations with banking and financial institutions. These initiatives could be even stronger if they represented disparate but allied forces. “Imagine transit riders negotiating directly alongside transit workers with similar proposals around wages and fares,” they write. “Imagine Amazon Prime members negotiating with the company alongside warehouse, tech, and delivery workers around the company’s behavior in their county or state.”

Why would a bank agree to bargain with these groups? The same reason employers eventually decide to bargain when their employees threaten to strike. The power of workers both at work and in the wider economy is based on “the power to collectively withhold participation in an economic relationship in order to force concessions from those who seek to get rich through exploitation,” Smiley and Gupta write. The authors call this strategy “community-driven bargaining”; the idea is that it would function much like collective bargaining in the workplace.

Community-driven bargaining complements another strategy for extending collective bargaining: “bargaining for the common good,” where unions build lasting alliances with community partners and bring community objectives—and, if possible, representatives from the community—to the bargaining table. The 2019 strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles embodied this approach. As UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl is quoted in the book:

UTLA is part of a growing national movement that is centered on the idea of bargaining for the common good. By the time we get to the bargaining table, we’re taking demands and proposals that have come out of months of working with community organizations, youth, and parents, and that bring to light things that are not typical, mandatory subjects of bargaining.

In Los Angeles, polls found that more than 80 percent of the public supported the strike; the union estimates that 50,000 people rallied in support. In addition to a wage increase, the strike won many demands that benefited teachers, students, parents, and the wider community, including a nurse in every school, a librarian in every secondary school, more counselors, a reduction in standardized testing, investments in community schools, limiting random searches of students, expansions of green space, and support for immigrant families.

The Future We Need emphasizes the importance of a labor movement that “fights against white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other strategies of exclusion, division, and oppression” in order to meet the needs of the working class. The book provides many accounts—at once poignant and enraging—of abusive or condescending behavior by union leaders toward Black and brown communities.

Through Jobs With Justice, Smiley and Gupta have a wealth of experience involving those workers who have been excluded by labor law or union practice and have turned to the nonprofit to form independent unions and other worker organizations. Workers in industries ranging “from meatpacking to farming, hospital work to domestic employment, fast food restaurants to grocery stores, transportation to delivery services” have formed independent organizations that perform many of the roles of unions even if they are not recognized officially. Many of them have found support from Jobs With Justice.

Smiley and Gupta describe a range of achievements by such organizing initiatives. Domestic Workers United organized domestic workers, nannies, and other caregivers to push New York State to include them in the basic labor protections afforded by law. (Domestic Workers United then helped form the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the International Domestic Workers Federation to push for the adoption of these protections at the federal and even global level.) The National Day Laborer Organizing Network established new standards in the residential construction industry. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other farmworker organizations “leveraged consumer influence over multinational food brands to ensure safe, worker-defined standards.”

While Smiley and Gupta emphasize the importance of new forms of worker action from below, they also recognize the need for working-class movements to meet the globalization of corporations to counter “the futility of trying to organize and collectively bargain solely at the factory level.” To combat global capital, they write, “unions and progressive organizations will have to unite across national borders, not just in moral solidarity but also through shared organizing and collective bargaining demands on multinational corporations and their government supporters.”

For example, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance—a network of garment-sector unions and other worker organizations across the continent operating with support from Jobs With Justice and India’s New Trade Union Initiative—calculates comparable living wage standards in different Asian countries so that worker organizations can use those standards to pressure transnational corporations to provide uniform minimum wages across the region. The idea is to put a common floor under wages to block the corporate race to the bottom. The standards allow “garment workers to negotiate with their direct employers in textile and apparel factories” while, the authors write, “undermin[ing] the ability of multinational corporations to pit one country’s workers against another” in search of the lowest wage. AFWA has also pressured a number of multinational companies into agreeing to a global convention to end gender-based violence at work.

Finally, Smiley and Gupta take on the problem of the fissured economy and the elusive holders of its real power. They use the example of John Stumpf, who “had direct control over the working conditions of hundreds of thousands” of people as chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo but was also responsible for tens of thousands of subcontracted workers, such as security guards and custodial workers, as well as the debt—mortgages, credit cards, and loans—of millions of students, homeowners, and small businesspeople. County, state, and local governments; school districts; and other public entities rely on Wells Fargo for loans, bond financing, and banking services. In addition, the bank is a major shareholder of other corporations and a contributor to powerful political organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Workers increasingly find that their direct employer does not actually have the capability to change their conditions; the real leverage lies with big shots like Stumpf, whose power is concealed behind multiple layers of corporate deception. As a result, “there simply is no winning plan to build a shared prosperity without confronting these individual owners and their corporate power directly.” Smiley and Gupta call for a movement that engages the “ultimate profiteers” in the new global marketplace, “targeting and forcing to the bargaining table the individuals and organizations that control the international corporations that now wield most of the power over the lives of working people.” For example, governments could require that banks receiving benefits put popularly elected representatives on their boards. And homeowners could bargain with banks to collectively renegotiate unfair loans. In short, working people would “bargain with the ultimate profiteer.” Smiley and Gupta don’t propose a formula for how to do this; rather, they point to it as a direction for labor and allied movements to start exploring. The “bargaining for the common good” conducted by educators and their allies in Chicago, Los Angeles—where the school board represents the local power structure and includes multimillionaire members—and elsewhere provides a pioneering example.

Democratization Through Collective Bargaining

The Future We Need presents extended collective bargaining not just as a way for working people to address an immediate problem, but also as a way to “enable working people to play a permanent, direct role in governing the institutions that impact them rather than merely winning occasional concessions or policy improvements.” It could provide a means to establish economic democracy not only in the workplace but also “in our communities, our schools, our courthouses.”

Of course, making such change requires power, and that is often seen as being exclusively the possession of existing institutions. But Smiley and Gupta argue that “Power is not dependent on following traditionally prescribed paths. Instead, it grows from the collective action of people in shared economic relationships who are determined to work together to make their voices heard and to have their needs met from common decision-makers.”

Despite the encouraging growth in worker action and aspiration, putting the effervescent new wine of worker self-organization in the old bottles of a rigid, antiquated structure of organized labor is more likely to lead to massive frustration and despair than a revivified labor movement. To meet new conditions, worker self-organization must ground itself in the real problems and the real power configurations faced by today’s workers. Workers have been disempowered by the economic and social changes so well delineated by Smiley and Gupta. But their potential power has in other ways been augmented by those same forces. The necessity for solidarity and mutual support goes beyond individual workplaces—and even beyond the workplace itself.

There are no guarantees that these new opportunities can or will be effectively acted on. But Smiley and Gupta’s analysis and prescription point the way forward.

Jeremy Brecher is the author of fifteen books on labor and social movements, including Strike!, whose updated fiftieth anniversary edition has just been published by PM Press. He is a co-founder and senior advisor for the Labor Network for Sustainability.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: