One of the central issues in America today is the role of unions in the economy and in our society. One line of thinking is that unions were important in the old “mass production” economy—as protection against autocratic factory supervision and an inhuman work pace—but are not in the new. The Keystone Research Center (KRC) has argued (in, for example, “New Unions for a New Economy,” published in 1998) that the view of unions as an anachronism stems from people confusing the idea of unions generally with the particular form unions took in U.S. factories and manufacturing industries in the 1950s. As KRC’s former research director, Howard Wial, argued in this classic 1993 Rutgers Law Review article, unions come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, adapted to different industries, occupations, and types of workers.
We think the evidence that America would benefit from much stronger unions is dramatically stronger today than it was in 1996. Most obviously, our economy tilts further and further towards the very top, with middle-class wages and incomes stagnant despite continued growth of the economic pie. In the recovery from the Great Recession so far, the top 1% have taken home 112% of the increase in total income. (This means that incomes for the 99% have fallen slightly, while the top 1% have garnered all of the increase in the economic pie during the recovery and took a bit of the income held at the start of the recovery by the 99%.) Also, our politics has become more dominated by individual and corporate interests with deep pockets, a trend exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision.
A more subtle third reason we need stronger unions: within key industries, many employers struggle to attract and retain high-quality workers. Manufacturing is the most talked about example in recent years: U.S. manufacturers can’t “ride the reshoring wave” and grow U.S. manufacturing jobs because wages and benefits have stagnated for 35 years, employers invest too little in developing workers’ skills, and no systems exist in manufacturing for re-employing experienced workers when they lose a job. Is it any wonder that talented young people don’t flock to manufacturing when the wages and benefits aren’t what they used to be and they’ve seen their parents generation dislocated from manufacturing jobs—and their lives—in the early 1990s, in the early 2000s, and in the Great Recession? Construction, long-term care, early childhood education, and truck driving are some of the other industries that struggle to attract and retain skilled and committed employees in regions and industry segments where unions have no presence.
Summing up, America has a basic set of economic and social challenges that it can’t solve without a rebound of labor organizations. “Reinvented” labor unions adapted to the challenges of the “knowledge-based economy” could:
- fix inequality in America, ensuring that the middle-class shares in the benefits of economic growth and revitalizing the American Dream of widespread opportunity.
- strengthen the responsiveness of our politics and politicians to working families and the public good. This would build on a never-abandoned labor tradition of fighting for laws that benefit workers generally (and often non-union workers more than union), laws such as the minimum wage, health care, voting rights, and so on.
- borrow from (not rigidly copy) the tradition of building trades unions and joint labor-management apprenticeship programs, solving our skills crisis in manufacturing, achieving quality jobs-quality care across our health care system including long-term care, attracting high-quality educators to early childhood, solving the truck driver shortage endemic since the 1980s deregulation of trucking…and so on.
New Union Examples and Resources
Of course, it’s one thing to point out why we need new unionism. It’s a bigger challenge to support its growth, in part because of the hold of manufacturing-era unionism on people’s minds and actions. In astronomy (think Galileo), evolutionary biology (think Darwin), and physics (think Einstein), no one ever said this “paradigm shift” business was easy.
One strand of new unionism has emerged in early childhood education. The Keystone Research Center has been a partner with the innovative “United Child Care Union” in Philadelphia since 1998. Here’s one discussion of unionism in early child care. And here’s a PowerPoint presentation from a meeting on early childhood unionism in Wisconsin.
Here’s a broader discussion of challenges for labor movement posed by the restructuring of the economy—that leads into an argument of the need for “new unionism.”
In a new example, KRC is a partner with the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), and others on the “New App for Making It in America” projection—to design and implement a labor-management apprenticeship and 21st century hiring hall (blending internet-based elements with a traditional hiring hall) that will help innovative start-ups manufacture in the United States rather than offshore.
Our conviction: “new unionism” is coming because America can’t restore an economy and society compatible with our founding values—our belief in opportunity, democracy, and fair reward for hard work—without it.