The state of the unions

Imagine that your boss calls you and your co-workers into a meeting and announces that you are all getting raises. But before any glasses are raised for a toast, you are told that you’re not getting a raise, exactly, but being offered an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. Because you’re no longer an employee, but a contractor with no benefits, no protections and no real security.

Welcome to the experience of precarity in America. More and more, this very scene is playing out not only on factory floors, but inside large corporations and across major industries. While a new reality for white-collar workers, it’s been a common occurrence for farm laborers, domestic workers, waitstaff and many others who have been left unprotected — for decades — from the relief, recovery and reform advances that were cemented in the New Deal.

It’s become clear that there is an acute disconnect between the health of the country’s economy and the experiences of its workers. Over the last 40 years we have seen stagnation in worker compensation while productivity is at an all-time high. Low-wage workers account for 44% of all workers nationally. That’s 53 million Americans who rely on roughly $10 an hour, or just below $17,000 a year, to provide for themselves and their families. These are crises that need more than diagnoses; they require long-term vision and investment.

There has never been a more critical time to support our workers and demand stronger protections. We have a shared responsibility as a society, as we navigate the shifting environment of the future of work, to create a forward-looking, comprehensive plan that values the economic dignity of each and every worker.

Clean Slate for Worker Power aims to do just that. Under the vision and leadership of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, and supported by the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a set of multi-stakeholder working and advisory groups has informed the initiative’s recommendations to reconstruct labor laws to bring balance and fairness to America’s economy.

This week, Clean Slate has released a roadmap to build worker power for a more just economy and democracy. These bold, actionable ideas are essential to reframe the political calculus to honor and protect the millions of workers who keep this country running and prosperous. And they represent exactly the type of big-picture, paradigm-shifting investments the philanthropic community should champion moving forward.

What is needed now is a new, not a revised, set of labor rules that reflect the needs and experiences of working people in a rapidly evolving global economy. Not only is our current economic system broken, leaving far too many hard-working individuals out of the equation, but the laws that helped unions form and build the middle class in the 20th century have not kept up with changes in the economy. Rampant deregulation prioritizes profit over all else. The safety net we have come to rely on is torn. With more and more corporations outsourcing or subcontracting, relying on gig models and shutting down opportunities to organize, they limit and, too often, diminish workers’ power and voice, curtailing their rights and holding down wages. Only by reworking the structures and systems will working people have the security and agency they need to determine their futures.

Existing efforts to support hard-working individuals are simply not enough. Workers across all industries need a seat at the table so they have a say in rebalancing our economy and building a true democracy where everyone can prosper. It’s these workers — who have been the most threatened by the shifts in our economy and who have experienced the worst of insecurity over the years — who are in the best position to lead and articulate the change necessary.

Changes are already mounting. Domestic workers in Seattle recently won a minimum wage, as well as rest and meal break rights thanks to organizing by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. On top of these protections, the domestic workers won the nation’s first Domestic Workers Standards Board, which will convene workers, employers and other representatives at a table to make recommendations on training, wage standards, paid leave, overtime, benefits and more.

This approach, known as sectoral bargaining and recommended in the Clean Slate report, will help to reverse historical exclusions based on race and ensure that all workers have a collective voice in determining how they work and their wages and benefits. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is  now attempting to push a similar effort at the federal level.

Another promising example of workers achieving collective voice across a sector is the Fight for $15 and a Union campaign in the fast-food sector, where New York City workers went on strike and won a wage board to set minimum wages for the sector as a whole. Instead of settling for the all-or nothing choice most workers face, between an exclusive collective bargaining union or no representation whatsoever, fast-food workers forged a new path to win higher wages.

Sectoral bargaining and the other innovations laid out in the Clean Slate for Worker Power report inspire us to rethink what is possible, because while winning change one campaign at a time has real impact for the lives of working people, workers in America need representation and protections at scale. We cannot go back 60 years to an imagined heyday for American workers, because we are well aware of the exclusions, especially those related to race and gender, that protected some while leaving others out of the fold. Instead, we must reimagine what will change the dynamic for the working people in America today.

We already see examples of this trailblazing vision in the actions of teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia, who inspired the nation as they pushed beyond outdated collective bargaining laws and took a stand to fight for justice in a broken system — and won. That alone shows us what is possible through collective action — not only workers who stand together and fight, but whole communities, especially in positions of power and privilege, standing with them.

We may be living in the era of the individual, but the irony is that collective action is what is required to attain economic dignity for all. That means we need to build (and enshrine) the power of working people that translates to political and economic power. Otherwise, we will be left with an unequal society where corporate power dominates all facets of life and a disempowered working class struggles with limited opportunity and mobility.

The American Dream is perilously close to receding into the 20th century if we do not act now and defend the rights of the worker and rewrite the unfair rules of the economy. Every circle of society — from philanthropy to lawmakers to everyday community leaders and voters — must embrace a new vision and act. The stakes are enormous: Our democracy may very well depend on it.

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