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With Unions Disappearing, What’s the Future of the Worker Voice?

May 6, 2015  • Institute Contributor


Above, watch the full conversation, moderated by Harold Meyerson.

Labor union membership and strength is in a free fall. From 1954 to 2014, union membership fell from 34.8 percent of wage and salary workers to 11.1 percent. Half of the states have adopted “right to work” laws. And last year, the US Supreme Court ruled against a home care worker union in Harris v. Quinn. In light of these statistics, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program recently held a panel discussion to address the future of worker voice, new means of organizing, and what the future of organized labor will look like.

Moderator Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large for The American Prospect and Washington Post columnist, began by asking David Rolf, president of SEIU 775 and, according to Meyerson, the person who “has organized into unions probably more workers than anyone else in the past 15 years,” why he thinks unions are “something of a dead end.” Rolf described the situation by referring to the moment airline pilots realize a crash is inevitable, so they switch from crash-prevention to minimizing loss of life.

“The legacy model of the American labor movement has now passed its own strategic inflection point where rescue is no longer an option, and we have to begin to plan for what is next,” Rolf said.

What’s next is a move away from traditional unions and toward alternative worker organizations, or “alt labor.” After all, as Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, pointed out, “89 percent of our population has no relationship to a union or collective bargaining rights.” Moreover, tens of millions of American workers cannot form a union because they are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. This includes not only farm laborers and domestic employees, but also the 50 million Americans who are 1099-employees or subcontracted employees of some nature. New models of organization are a necessity.

But due to the nature of these jobs, organization and a strong worker voice can be difficult to achieve. Ruth Milkman, research director of the City University of New York’s Murphy Labor Institute and sociology professor, notes that these are often very low-paying jobs, so alt labor has very few dues-paying members. Instead, most groups rely on grants. This can make it difficult for alt labor groups to scale up. But what they lack in size, they are making up for with partnerships with consumers and other groups with enough power to change the behavior of employers.

The panel featured a recent example of success: Cruz Salucio, spokesperson for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and watermelon harvester. Salucio spoke of the terrible conditions of the Florida farm laborers: sexual harassment, low wages, and even outright wage theft. When laborers would complain, growers responded, “a tractor doesn’t tell a farmer how to run a farm.” Workers who did complain lost their jobs, so many accepted this “modern day slavery” and kept working.

But others decided to launch the Campaign for Fair Food. Through strikes, hunger strikes, and marches, farm workers were able to get the attention of students, faith groups, community organizers, local unions, and finally, 13 major corporations who bought produce from those farms. The corporations were able to pressure the growers, and new contracts were written that explicitly outlined workers’ rights and the consequences for violating them. The Fair Food Standards Council monitors these contracts, and buyers pay slightly more for produce, and a portion of that charge now goes directly to the laborers.

For many alt labor groups, the efforts of the CIW have defined not only the mechanics and value of forming alliances with outside pressure groups, but also the benchmarks of a successful agreement. For example, Meyerson pointed to the Janitors for Justice campaign, where janitors partnered not with the companies whose offices the janitors cleaned, but with building owners and real estate investment trusts. Similarly, Rolf pointed to subcontractors working at the major Seattle airport, Sea-Tac. They attempted to partner not with the service providers managing the sub-contracts, but with the airlines themselves who represented the power at the airport. When that failed, they sought public support to pass a ballot initiative that would change city law to provide benefits for hospitality workers. This led to similar campaigns across Seattle, eventually culminating in a citywide push for a $15 minimum wage.

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza of the Fair Foods Standards Council, the group that administers the CIW contracts, laid out several points that define a model successful agreement:

You would expect a code of conduct that’s not generic, but that was written by the workers themselves…The code makes the grower a direct employer. No more labor contractors, no more confusion…The code covers everything from the complaint mechanism, right down through work environment, health, and safety, and wages. Then you have worker education on those rights that is as deep and broad as possible… And there is an intensive monitoring process, and all of that is supported by prompt and severe market consequences.

Although alt labor groups might not achieve every element of this model, it does provide useful guidance of an aspirational nature.

When alt labor and older unions first interacted, the unions saw alt labor as a joke, said Milkman, and alt labor saw unions as dinosaurs. However, over time both groups have learned from each other and adapted. Workers’ groups regularly look for powerful partnerships, and they have also engaged in more traditional strikes to earn a seat at the negotiating table. Ultimately, this budding mutual relationship aims to acquire power, scale, and revenue, crucial elements for any association, old or new.