Here’s Why There’s a New Labor Movement in America

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Nowadays, Americans tend to think of “the labor movement” as existing in days gone by, belonging to the era of “the New Deal.” The very phrase strikes an antiquated chord that just doesn’t seem relevant to today. Yet in the midst of a weak labor market and slowly recovering economy, the labor movement may just be experiencing a resurgence.
Why? What could catalyze a modern revival of the labor movement? Well, income inequality for one. In post-recession America, it’s true that more people are employed than during the depths of the recession. The nation’s unemployment rate hovers around 6.2 percent, a vast improvement over the 10 percent unemployment rates we saw during the fall of 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet, although more Americans are back at work, many of them are also being paid much less than they were before the recession, and underemployment remains rampant. As a result, income inequality has become a pervasive issue for many lower and middle class Americans, and the data seems to agree with them. As Lowell Turner, a professor of Comparative Labor and Director of the Worker Institute at Cornell, said in a recent interview, “the American middle class is disappearing.”
A recent study by the Pew Research Center asked Americans what they perceived their social class to be. In 2014, the middle class, historically the “backbone” or America, has shrunk, while the lower class continues to expand in order to fill the gap. The share of Americans who consider themselves “middle class” has plummeted since 2008, while the percentage of those who identify as being “lower class,” by contrast, has risen sharply in the past six years. This downward shift, researchers says, is likely due to failing wages and a weak job market.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
CHICAGO, IL – DECEMBER 05: Demonstrators demanding an increase in pay for fast-food and retail workers protest in the Loop on December 5, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Organizers have called for a one-day labor walkout at fast-food restaurants and retail stores and demonstrations in 100 cities. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

But it isn’t just that Americans’ perceptions of their class status has shifted, the study notes that if we define the “middle class” as “a household is often defined as one with an income between 75 percent and 125 percent of the median household income,” then, by that definition, the middle class has “declined from 28.2 percent of the population in 1967 to 23.7 percent now,” according to Business Insider.
Further, while the overall unemployment rate may have improved dramatically, statistics indicate that the unemployment rate for young adults remains at a disheartening 9.4 percent, according to CNN Money; the research classified “young adults” as individuals between the ages of 18 and 29.
Data suggests that young adults, like their older counterparts, have been feeling as though they’ve lost ground as well. Business Insider reports that 49 percent of American young adults report that they consider themselves “lower class,” meanwhile 54 percent considered themselves “middle class,” and just 11 percent consider themselves “upper class.”
So if there is to be a new labor movement, what would it look like? What are the movement’s central goals likely to be? How will it be different from previous labor movements? What role will unions have?
Lowell Turner, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review, says that a modern labor movement will likely look very different from previous iterations. “The circumstances are ripe for change right now,” Turner says, “but [organizing] is more difficult now than it was then. It’s a more fragmented labor market. You don’t have the big factories where organizers could come in and unionize the whole shop in one go. We’re not going to have another New Deal, and American employers have many tactics today to keep their workforces nonunion.”
Turner says that one of the biggest impediments to a new labor movement is fear. Fear of insecurity characterized the Great Recession, even among those Americans who remained relatively unaffected by the economics turmoil; seeing neighbors, friends, and relatives lose jobs and homes was enough for most people, Turner adds, and in the past, it’s been a big impediment of furthering social change.
CHICAGO, IL - MAY 15:  Fast food workers and activists demonstrate outside McDonald's downtown flagship restaurant on May 15, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The demonstration was one of several nationwide calling for wages of $15 per hour and better working conditions for fast food workers. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
CHICAGO, IL – MAY 15: Fast food workers and activists demonstrate outside McDonald’s downtown flagship restaurant on May 15, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The demonstration was one of several nationwide calling for wages of $15 per hour and better working conditions for fast food workers. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

If a new labor movement is to be successful, it will certainly have to evolve beyond older ideas of unionism, Turner says. In the U.S., there’s a tendency to think that unions and high wages kill competitiveness, Turner says, yet Germany’s unions remain a major influence, “and Germany is even more integrated into the global economy than the U.S. is — they have higher exports per capita,” he adds.
If modernizing and rejuvenating unions were to become the focus of a new labor movement, however, there would be a lot of legislative leg-work to do. Turner notes that in countries like Sweden and Germany, “there are strong institutional supports in government which protect unions,” and most importantly, he notes, “workers are represented on company boards and through work-councils. It’s an entrenched, legally supported partnership model.”
As it stands, the push for a livable wage is a relatively new movement, with the potential to develop into a larger labor movement. Turner notes that the current movement for the a higher minimum wage is largely because lower skill level jobs still account for a huge portion of America’s workforce. Walmart, Turner notes, is America’s biggest employer, so logically “a lot of focus has to be pushing up the low end.” Walmart, it’s worth noting, has frequently been criticized for its opposition to labor unions.
The restaurant industry is perhaps a perfect example of the struggle for more livable wages. According to a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute, for example, about 40 percent of restaurant workers live in poverty, even though the industry accounts for more than 9 percent of the nation’s jobs (and climbing). The median wage in the restaurant industry, the report notes, has stagnated at a mere $10 an hour — with tips included — and the wages haven’t adjusted for inflation since 2000, nearly 15 years ago.
Along with terrible wages, the restaurant industry rarely provides benefits for its employees, even for those in the upper level positions, such as restaurant managers. Just 14.4 percent of non-unionized restaurant workers receive employer-sponsored health benefits, and the vast majority of workers aren’t unionized. In other industries, 49 percent of workers receive such benefits, notes Eater.
Turner says he doesn’t know what the future of American labor unions will be, but he says that, “There are possibilities here.” He notes that while the U.S. still largely balks at the idea of strengthening unions, the movement for a livable wage offers some hope, and is backed by an alliance of traditional trade unions. Further, and more importantly, by allying with worker centers, immigration groups, and environmental groups, unions are beginning to find innovative ways of turning the labor movement into a larger, broader, social movement — and that’s a promising step forward.
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