The organized labor movement is changing, reflecting two large-scale trends. On the one hand, union membership – once 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in the 1950s – is at its lowest point in more than a century. In parallel, the wealth gap in the U.S. is also at record levels.
Itself a new model for labor organizing when it launched in 1987, Jobs With Justice has become part ofA year after a merger of social ventures, which united American Rights at Work under the Jobs with Justice banner, the expanded organization is taking a more aggressive stance in organizing in a climate of concern over the growing wealth gap in the country. The organization brings together labor, community, student, and faith voices at the national and local levels “to create innovative solutions to the problems workers face.”
When you look at the numbers, poverty is on the rise, the middle class is stagnant or falling backward, and economic disparity is as great as it’s ever been. What needs to change and how can a social venture like Jobs With Justice change the trajectory?
Workers stuck in low-wage jobs without adequate benefits and protections have reached a crisis point: people work more today than they ever have before, yet they earn less. Thousands are finally speaking out by engaging in strikes and on-the-job actions, risking their livelihoods to demand better wages and a union. But the corporate-run economy has led to a steep increase in income inequality and a decline in union density, which has enabled an extreme imbalance between the power of major corporations and employees. Workers at companies like Walmart aren’t able to win better workplace standards without outside intervention by government and community allies, and fewer and fewer workers have a traditional employer-employee relationship that enables them to collectively bargain for better wages and standards. Today, the real “boss” is often tough to identify, because our outdated labor and employment laws allow for complicated subcontracting agreements where workers have little access to the person who actually signs their paycheck. The worst part is, when these corporations pay poverty-level wages, it’s us taxpayers who end up footing the bill, because workers are forced to rely on Medicaid, food stamps, and other social insurance programs.
Given all of this, it’s critical for us as a nation to engage private employers to raise wages and labor standards across our whole economy. If companies like Walmart, Nissan, and Boeing want tax breaks to open up shop into our communities, then they need to pay higher wages, create more full-time work, respect workers’ rights to form a union, and provide good benefits. The entire economy has been tipped to benefit wealthy corporations at the expense of working people, and unfortunately, those systems don’t change without some legislative intervention. Our elected leaders need to shift the burden of low wages back on employers, especially profitable companies – and an increase to the federal minimum wage is a critical next step.
Jobs With Justice and our allies are working hard to support workers who are organizing for better livelihoods. We believe that workers play a critical role in designing a 21st century economy that works for everyone, and that we need a next generation set of policies, organizing models, and legal frameworks that are relevant to what workers are experiencing today. We are designing campaigns that reach across different sectors of our economy to help us articulate shared visions, develop bold and transformative demands, weave together different strategies, and reach the hearts and minds of millions of Americans who are struggling in our current economy.
The campaigns that are getting the most attention – the fast food workers, Walmart etc. – are so different than older industrialized organizing. For one thing, many of these jobs may never pay a real living wage, even with an increase. Yet they’re the front lines of the battle over fair wages and they involve every day consumer brand names. Why do these efforts matter so much?
This year, the nation saw unprecedented action on behalf of low wage workers across the country that walked out on the job to demand respect from their employers. Working men and women from across the retail, fast food, restaurant, and care sectors gave real faces to the stories of people who work full time and still don’t earn enough to feed their families. They demonstrated the sad truth about our current economy: that the people who we depend on to serve our food and care for our loved ones can’t afford to feed or care for their own families. During Thanksgiving, we saw stories about workers at Walmart organizing food drives for each other to help supplement their holiday meals. Yet Walmart’s profits continue to soar.
The confluence of this motion sparked a critical discourse on wages in our nation. For far too long, wages have remained stagnant, while corporate executives and CEOs continue to enjoy record pay. But this year, in addition to the courage of workers speaking out, we also won some real victories, including extending basic minimum wage and overtime protections to the over 2 million home care workers who were left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act. These movements matters because they are bringing workers from across industries together in a way we’ve never seen before – they’re not just united by one employer, they’re united by the exploitation of a completely broken system that forces them to live in poverty while still working full time. And the thing is, Americans can’t wait much longer to see real change. An economic recovery is a positive thing, but the jobs we’re adding are overwhelmingly low wage jobs that continue to trap working men and women in the cycle of poverty.
You came out of student organizing in the 90s and not an earlier and more robust labor movement, and you became an organizer on a very different landscape than your predecessors – with organized labor not just in retreat, but smaller than ever before. So many lament the shrinking of the labor movement, but you seem energized for the possibilities over the next few decades – what are the opportunities?
The labor movement accomplished so much in the last century by ensuring that millions of people could improve their work and living standards. Despite all of the challenges we face today as a movement, I do think there are enormous opportunities for us to build upon the labor standards, policies, infrastructure, and organizing of our past in a way that positions us for what’s to come in the future.
As an example, I think there are growing parts of our economy where workers are well positioned to really take the lead in designing the next generation of laws and policies that govern the workplace. Let’s look at the care economy: we are a rapidly aging nation, where a person turns 65 every 8 seconds. As people live longer lives, they want to have the option to age in their homes and communities with dignity and respect, creating an increased need for in-home supports and services and a workforce that can meet those needs. We have an opportunity to design a long-term care system in this nation that ensures that aging adults, their families and their care givers are empowered to bring these conversations out into the open, and that everyone has access to quality, affordable long term care in a standardized, regulated system. This is what innovative campaigns like Caring Across Generations are doing – we’re weaving together the interests of individuals, families, and the care workforce through a bold policy and movement vision. The campaign is also creating a culture change strategy that helps spark a national dialogue on aging and caregiving.
Another opportunity exists with the incredible growth of the contingent workforce in America. At last count, one-third of the U.S. workforce – that’s 42.6 million workers – was classified as contingent, meaning they’re part-time, temporary, or subcontracted. The rise in this type of work naturally matches the decline in the number of workers represented by unions — from a third of the workforce in the 1960s to 11 percent today. Unsurprisingly, many of these contingent workers aren’t covered by FLSA protections, and they don’t have employers paying into unemployment insurance or workers comp funds either, so they lack a real social safety net. Employees of subcontractors report an extremely high incidence of wage and hour violations because firms are forcing contractors to compete against each other and driving down labor costs in the process. Those basic labor protections that unions and worker advocates worked so hard to establish are increasingly not available to this large — and growing — part of our nation’s workforce. And with huge barriers to organizing these workers, it’s getting harder for them to collectively raise their own workplace standards.
Getting people into the streets and into demonstrations is still a big part of this, but how much do networks matter now? What’s the role of data, and social media sharing in the movement?
Seeing workers across different sectors of our economy combine with broader community forces paints a clear picture of our shared interests and the critical interdependency of our networks. At Jobs With Justice, we believe that collective action is one of the most powerful ways to transform the way people see and understand their struggles in relation to others, and networks are a critical part of making this possible. It’s the strength of these networks that allow us to still do the actual organizing on the ground while also crafting strategies and narratives, designing creative campaigns, moving people into action, and mobilizing and weaving together movements for change at scale. The way these networks have aligned our work collectively has challenged us to make bolder, more transformative demands than any individual group or network could make on its own.
Research and data also play an important role as we sharpen our strategies, because the opportunities for collaboration across organizing, research and policy groups are so rich. Similarly, social media is a huge gift to the world of organizing and movement building. It provides us with new tools to reach people beyond our existing bases and to create the narratives that help people place themselves in the story of the shifting nature of work and the real gaps in our economy. At Jobs With Justice, we rely on an incredible online network of 200,000 activists who use email and social media to empower real change on the ground. They sign petitions, they write letters to the editor, they call CEOs, and they take their actions from on-line to offline, showing up at rallies and lobby days and really completing a full circle of activism that helps make our work possible.
At a recent event sponsored by the Sidney Hillman Foundation [disclosure: a consulting client of the author] and the Rubin Foundation, you were on a panel with veteran organizers and prominent labor leaders and you told them straight up that you thought the labor movement has lacked a gender frame for too long. Can you explain that a little further – your point about the kinds of sectors that are being organized and the future of organized labor had a lot of heads nodding in the room.
Given the growth of women in the workforce and the ever-evolving role women are playing in our economy, it’s critical that the labor movement develop a stronger and more central gender justice frame to its work. When I reflect on some of the victories in recent years, so many of them have been rooted in the movements for paid sick days and family and medical leave across the country; in cities and states like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland and Connecticut, groups have won paid sick days legislation. And the reason this movement is growing is because it speaks to millions of people, because today’s reality is that most workers are one family health or medical emergency away from poverty. We need new workplace standards to meet the needs of real families today, because the result will be better individual and public health, and greater financial security for families, businesses and the economy on the whole. There is a huge opportunity for the labor movement to embrace these traditionally “women’s” issues, align with this growing movement, and to reach the millions of people outside of our current membership.
More generally, there continue to be sectors of our economy that have a majority female workforce: teachers, nurses, domestic workers and others. And they’re all experiencing attacks on collective bargaining rights, stagnant wages, and a lack of mobility in their profession.
A little over half of all low-wage workers in America today are women. Although the federal minimum wage is $7.25 – which is too low for people to survive on – the minimum wage for tipped employees in particular is only $2.13. Over half of all restaurant workers who make this tipped minimum wage are women, and they’re depending on the goodwill of customers to help bring them out of poverty. It’s a completely unfair and unsustainable model, and it’s critical that we draw the through line between the struggle to raise wages in our nation and the need create a pathway for women’s economic security in particular.