Lately, conversations about unions tend to be rather broad in scope. It isn’t uncommon to come across an article questioning whether unions are disappearing altogether. Lost in such an impossibly huge question is a much more interesting one: How are unions changing, and what should the unions of the future look like? This January, TCF’s Rick Kahlenberg brought me on as an intern to look into this question.
(For those who are unfamiliar with Rick and Moshe Marvit’s work, or the bigger TCF contribution to discussions about labor, check out Rick and Moshe writing on labor as a civil right in the New York Times and The Century Foundation’s blog posts on labor.)
My research has not focused on the debates about the economic or sociological causes or results of our national decline in traditional union membership. As interesting as those conversations can be, I have been much more interested in how individual unions are finding new ways to reverse the national trend of declining densities in their own particular pocket of the universe.
In the future, I will be sharing more about some of these stories. For now, I thought it would be good to share some of the ways that pro-worker organizers have demonstrated a capacity for innovation in the new century.
Unions are working to empower new forms of worker representation.
Most Americans don’t realize that entire swaths of the population are exempt from the labor protections that enable unions. There’s a correlation between these excluded occupations and other risk factors for worker abuse.
For example, ever since the 1980s, New York taxi drivers have been working in an industry where traditional unionization is effectively impossible. On top of that, taxi drivers are more transient, and a significant proportion of them are also immigrants. In the late 1990s, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) began organizing drivers, many of whom were skeptical of traditional unions.
Fifteen years later, the group has led strikes, successfully fought for better working conditions, and started offering the sorts of benefits most workers can only access through a union contract.
In 2011, the NYTWA was given an official charter by the AFL-CIO. The relationship mirrors the AFL-CIO’s recent partnerships with groups like the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA).
Unions are continuing to partner with other community groups to fight for working families.
In the 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon to see union leaders like Walter Reuther hanging out with the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, an organizing campaign at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi has found allies in Black churches, with the NAACP, and on a nearby college campus. Organizers frequently make comparisons between the fight for dignity and respect in the workplace with the struggle fifty years ago.
Individual unions have frequently been on the frontlines in struggles for rights for minorities, immigrants, and women. Some unions, like the UFW, have a history so intertwined with the fight for the rights of a disadvantaged group that the two are hard to separate.
Unions continue to be an important force in protecting all low-wage workers.
Laws protecting workers are only as good as the paper they’re written on. Without a strong progressive movement to give workers access to those laws, there are no protections in the workplace. This is especially true for vulnerable populations and low-income workers, who ironically have a lot more to lose if they are (often illegally) terminated.
Unions often play a pivotal role in providing access to attorneys and information about employee rights. They support worker centers around the country that educate and empower low-income workers. When ARISE, a labor-faith coalition in Chicago, wanted to help carwash workers fight for better standards, the local USW provided support and provided training from the USW-supported CLEAN Carwash campaign in Los Angeles.
Unions don’t just help workers use existing laws, either. As progressives in Washington continue to struggle for things like a higher minimum wage or comprehensive immigration reform, unions have participated in campaigns to pass progressive laws in states and cities across the nation.
Unions try to hold local politicians accountable.
At the national level, we have seen unions fail to get Democrats to update our ossified worker rights’ system. President Obama has nominated anti-union politicians to important posts in his administration, and has not done much to moderate the Democrats increasing relationship with the anti-teacher “school reform” movement. Lost in the big stories are the ways that some unions have fought – and won – battles to hold local legislators accountable to their constituents.
A recent New York Times piece on the bigger and bigger tax breaks used to “incentivize” development showcased an example of union workers supporting company efforts to win concessions from local governments. However, many other unions have partnered with community groups to make sure that those incentives are tied to meaningful community investments.
Often taking the form of Community Benefits Agreements, unions are using their resources in combination with other progressive organizations to ensure that companies are held accountable.
Each of these points represents one area where local and national unions are innovating. Each one is not without controversy. A vigorous debate that exists within the union movement about how unions should be spending their often-diminishing resources is just another sign that unionism is far from dead in the United States.