Rebirth of Progressivism may breathe new life in labor unions


Bob Bussel, University of Oregon

A decade and a half into the 21st century, the American labor movement resembles a chronically ill patient suffering from multiple maladies.

Unions have been pummeled by the converging forces of globalization, the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, an unfavorable political climate and fierce employer resistance to organizing. The result: in 2014 the share of the US labor force that belongs to unions fell to a 102-year low of 11.1%.

Legislatures in Michigan and Wisconsin – previously strongholds of labor strength – have recently passed right-to-work legislation aimed at encouraging workers to opt out of union membership and deny unions the resources they need to be effective.

Within the next year, the Supreme Court is likely to rule affirmatively on a case that will extend the right-to-work concept to the entire public sector, further eroding one of the remaining bastions of union power.

These frontal assaults not only undermine labor’s ability to perform its basic functions of worker representation and collective bargaining. Just as importantly, they threaten to limit the political voice of unions, which has remained influential in spite of the movement’s declining membership. The result? More inequality.

With the bargaining power of workers sharply diminished and the forces of capital enjoying virtual free rein, many social observers are increasingly questioning the American union movement’s relevance in a 21st-century global economy.

Fortunately, there appear to be signs that a new Progressivism is emerging that recalls an earlier era when the “labor question” became a matter of intense public concern that elevated unions to a prominent social role.

Making the poor poorer

The curtailed impact of collective bargaining and union power has helped fuel sharp increases in income inequality and the unequal distribution of wealth in the US, a reality brilliantly dramatized by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The International Monetary Fund added its voice to the debate last month, arguing that the erosion of unions has made the poor poorer and the rich richer.

Of course, the precarious status of the union movement is hardly a new phenomenon. Labor’s ethos of solidarity, collective action and questioning of managerial authority has always resided uneasily in a political culture that venerates individualism, self-reliance and unfettered free market capitalism.

Nonetheless, labor’s recent initiatives to address the existential crisis it faces have some important historical antecedents and offer glimmers of hope that the besieged union movement can regain a sense of relevance and legitimacy.

Rise of the Progressive Era

During the first two decades of the 20th century, a period known as the Progressive Era, workers and unions confronted a set of developments analogous to the circumstances shaping our current political economy. The creation of new corporate entities popularly known as “trusts” prompted widespread concern as business leaders began to amass unprecedented levels of wealth, power and influence.

The powerful imagery of sweatshops, tenements and company towns symbolized the abysmal conditions faced by many workers amid the rise of corporate capitalism and the emergence of a new professional middle class. At the same time, the nascent union movement struggled to organize waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Their different backgrounds led both scholars and some labor leaders to question whether they could successfully be incorporated into labor’s ranks.

In response to these conditions, Progressivism, a loose but distinct reform movement, began to alter the American workplace. For many Progressives, the “labor question” became an overriding public policy preoccupation.

Muckraking journalists exposed corporate malfeasance and publicized the conditions of the working class in mass circulation newspapers and magazines that reached a broad audience. Middle and upper-class activists formed alliances with unions and supported workers’ struggles with financial resources, political influence and public expressions of support.

Labor intellectuals and political leaders began to develop standards and protections for workers, adopting measures such as the minimum wage, workers compensation, safety regulations, arbitration of labor disputes and greater safeguards for union organizing. Unions demonstrated their ability to rally unskilled immigrant workers previously thought to be unorganizable.

Progressive reformers continued to treat African-American and women workers as second-class citizens, remained wary of giving unions too much power and subjected trusts to limited restraints. But they did succeed in crafting an implicit social contract that enabled workers to lead more empowered and dignified lives.

Progressivism’s renewal

A century later, clear signs of a renewed Progressive impulse aimed at addressing contemporary working-class concerns have emerged.

Beginning with Occupy Wall Street and continuing with numerous articles, investigative reporting and blog posts, the corrosive effects of income and wealth inequality have received widespread public attention.

Nationwide efforts at the state and local level to raise the minimum wage, provide paid sick days and regularize the schedules of part-time workers represent a bold attempt to restore the labor standards that were a hallmark of Progressive Era worker policy.

An experimental, creative approach has marked much new labor organizing with vigorous outreach to workers often viewed as “unorganizable” such as fast food workers, car wash workers, domestic workers, guest workers and day laborers. Organizations that have come to be known as “alt-labor” have mobilized these workers by operating outside the contours of traditional collective bargaining and used continuing agitation to win improved conditions.

Alt-labor has succeeded in gaining resources and support from traditional unions and has developed connections with both labor and community organizations that approximate the cross-class alliances that assisted workers’ struggles during the Progressive Era.

When the staunchly anti-union Walmart recently announced that it would increase its minimum wage to $10 an hour by next year, its action attested to the growing power of this new movement and the effectiveness of its tactics. Clearly, these tactics, including Black Friday protests by Walmart workers and their allies, political efforts to require that big box stores pay living wages and the highly visible “Fight for $15” campaign to raise the minimum wage in fast food and other industries, helped prompt Walmart to make this unprecedented move.

There has also been increasingly visible activity among workers such as nurses, doctors, care givers, teachers and adjunct professors. Although the specific issues vary among these groups, they are united in seeking to gain a greater voice in their workplaces, uphold high professional standards and upgrade the quality of services they provide.

Indeed, in the field of home care and child care, a “quiet revolution” has occurred over the past two decades, with unionization and collective bargaining transforming the lives of these once marginal workers and markedly improving the quality of patient care.

Can these sparks ignite a fire?

Whether or not these sparks can ignite a larger political fire and create a 21st-century form of labor Progressivism remains an open question. The union movement desperately needs to win victories in both the workplace and political arenas that will validate the efficacy of collective action and inspire more workers to become civic participants.

Although local and statewide fights for labor standards have achieved notable success, can they be the incubators for broader changes at the federal level? In order for this to happen, the actions of alt-labor and traditional unions will need to mushroom and reach a scale that makes the contemporary labor question impossible for policy makers to ignore.

In this regard, the political structure must develop a new regulatory regime that addresses transformative changes in the employment relationship and helps equalize the imbalance in bargaining power that characterizes our current labor relations. And labor must continue recent efforts to confront its history of racial exclusion and make common cause with workers of color if it is to obtain legitimacy in leading a rejuvenated 21st-century working class movement.

In spite of the many challenges it faces, the union movement has consistently “punched above its weight” in the political arena and will participate aggressively in 2016 politics with both money and member mobilization. Indeed,continuing social agitation around inequality will occupy center stage during the 2016 election and provide unions and their allies the opportunity to demand explicit commitments from politicians to address these concerns.

I do not mean to minimize or ignore the maladies facing the union movement, many of which are not susceptible to a quick or easy cure. However, the historical and contemporary developments I have outlined do suggest that the prevalent inclination to write labor’s obituary may well be premature.

This is part of an ongoing series on the waning power of Organized Labor. Click here to see other articles in the series, which culminates on May 1, International Workers’ day.

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