Reports of Its Demise Exaggerated?

Review of: William E. Scheuerman, A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2021.

In A New American Labor Movement, William Scheuerman explains why the American labor movement declined precipitously in the last 65 years and analyzes the strategies and achievements of workers outside the labor movement who have organized and taken direct action to improve their working conditions. Based on this study, Scheuerman proposes an alternative to labor’s collective bargaining model. Scheuerman writes with authority: as Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the State University of New York, Oswego and as a former president of the National Labor College and President of the faculty and staff union at SUNY.

Labor’s “Long Slide”

At its height in the mid-1950s, labor’s density rate or percent of all employed workers was 35%. In 2021 it was 11.6%–a rate comparable to pre-New Deal levels. This is labor’s “long slide,” and Scheuerman draws on these inter-related factors to explain it: offshoring in response to foreign competition with a resultant loss of 15 million U.S. jobs between 1969 and 1976; continued corporate flight under NAFTA; financial institutions becoming major stockholders in industrial companies and consequent corporate allegiance to stockholders instead of employees; the corporate sector’s all-out war on labor; and automation. Also advanced as an explanation for union decline is the hostile legal environment in which labor operates—Taft-Hartley in 1947 “that undercut many of the rights guaranteed labor in the Wagner Act,” the 2018 Janus ruling of the Supreme Court, and much in between.

Scheuerman lays some blame for the slide on labor itself, recognizing but not placing major culpability on factors such as business unionism, ineffective organizing techniques, lack of militancy, overly bureaucratic leaders unresponsive to their members, and emphasis on electoral politics rather than organizing. Scheuerman’s major reason for labor’s current weakness is structural. The AFL-CIO is a federation of autonomous international unions with very few restrictions on union autonomy in which the president is “little more than a titular head whose main weapon is the use of the bully pulpit to get autonomous workers to follow his lead.” Scheuerman points to several structural change initiatives in the labor movement—all of which failed and are examples of labor’s “shooting itself in the foot.”

But is the injury largely self-inflicted? Scheuerman recognizes that even when Democrats inhabit the White House and control both Houses of Congress, they don’t pass legislation that would make it easier for labor to grow. An example: the failure to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which would have made organizing easier and was supposed to be labor’s reward for vital help during the 2008 presidential campaign. This loss reflects “the current reality of a politically weakened union movement.” But what does it say about Democrats’ failure to reciprocate labor’s support?

Historian Nelson Lichtenstein has a different take. With a liberal majority in both Houses of Congress and Lyndon Johnson at the helm, labor sought repeal of Section 14B of the Taft-Hartley Act, which gave states the authority to proscribe the union shop. Organized labor had played a key role in pushing through the landmark civil rights and social welfare legislation. “But when it came to the repeal of 14B, President Johnson put the labour reform at the end of the legislative line….”1 Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton received much labor support during their respective campaigns and briefly had large Democratic majorities in Congress. But these presidents, according to Lichtenstein, “saw labour law reform as a grudging tribute owed to their labour allies rather than a core part of their legislative agenda.”2

Non-Union Organizations or Worker Centers

Scheuerman presents five examples of non-union worker organizations or worker centers that are aided in organizing and improving members’ conditions by religious groups, foundations, and unions. Worker centers do not collect dues from members and could not have succeeded without this support. Two of the centers represent very underprivileged farm workers who are prevented from forming unions by the National Labor Relations Act. Worker Centers of the Uber and Lyft drivers in California are virtual–in keeping with workers who do not interact or meet in the course of their work. These gig workers are disadvantaged by their classification as independent contractors rather than employees who lack workplace benefits like unemployment insurance. One of the five workers centers, the Freelancers Union, is an outlier within what Scheuerman calls the “developing New labor movement”– because it does not confront employers and substitutes service provision for political struggle.

The largest and probably best-known of the worker centers discussed by Scheuerman–and the one that has most to teach a revitalized labor movement– is the Fight for $15. Classified as employees and eligible to join unions, these workers “are among the most exploited in the U.S workforce.”

Beginning with 200 underpaid fast-food workers from about 30 fast-food stores in New York City who walked off their jobs in November 2012, the Fight for $15 became “a tsunami spreading across the country to more than 300 cities and then onto six continents.” Not only Forbes labeled the $15 minimum as “nearly insane”; the Nation called it “unwinnable.” Today, millions enjoy a $15 minimum wage–although Congress has yet to enact it. Scheuerman stresses that these workers “don’t sit at a bargaining table to discuss their terms and conditions of employment with their employers.” Instead, they pressure state and local governments to provide them with the benefits and protections of a typical labor contract.

New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a community-based organization and successor to ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform) joined forces with two New York City unions to organize the first protest which was against poor treatment of immigrant workers and wage theft at a Brooklyn supermarket. NYCC reached out to SEIU which initially saw an opportunity for traditional union organizing but instead took on the movement-oriented task of exposing corporate greed and the horrible working conditions of most workers in its 17-city Fight for a Fair Economy Campaign–for which it committed $60 million. And SEIU decided to attempt to organize entire industries rather than shop by shop.

The gains from direct action by these nonunion workers are impressive. Nonetheless, Scheuerman agrees with political scientist Frances Fox Piven who applauds SEIU’s role in Fight for $15 and union organizer and author Jane McAlevey that the Fight for $15 is not a unionizing campaign that would give workers power in relation to their immediate opponent, their bosses.

In searching for ideas and inspiration, Scheuerman looked outside the labor movement and collective bargaining. However, he might also have examined some examples of dynamic unions that don’t fit the moribund mold. The National Nurses United joined Occupy Wall Street in demanding a “Robin Hood Tax” to heal America.3 A New Yorker profile of Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants, recounts Nelson’s militance in calling for a general strike in response to the 2018 government shutdown and her leadership role when Covid struck–working with airline executives and the key Congressional player, Rep. Peter DeFazio to gain a fifty-billion-dollar bailout from Congress that saved the airline industry and the jobs of several hundred thousand aviation workers.4

Premature Conclusion?

Based on his analysis of labor’s decline, Scheuerman concludes that it is almost impossible to organize unions shop-by-shop. A New American Labor Movement is very current, but it was published in 2021, before the historic victory of workers at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island who voted in March 2022 to be represented by a union. By May of this year, 100 Starbucks stores had voted to unionize.

This spring, veteran journalist Gregory N. Heires wrote that “widely-publicized organizing drives and a growing militancy are fueling hope for a labor revival following decades of attacks on unions that has led to the long-term downward spiral in membership….”5 “The pandemic,” observes labors studies professor John Logan of San Francisco State University, “has fundamentally changed the labor landscape by giving workers more leverage with their employers, and It’s just a question of whether unions can take advantage of the opportunity that transformation has opened up.”6 The successful organizing drives we are watching—and cheering–are examples of shop-by-shop collective bargaining. It is the leaders of drives like those at Starbucks and the Amazon warehouse who are grassroots and nontraditional, not the bargaining unit.

The Road Ahead Is the Same It’s too early to know whether an American labor movement that organizes traditionally, shop-by-shop, will make a comeback or whether Scheuerman is right that sectoral bargaining, the model of European social democracies, is a requisite for labor’s sustained revival. With sectoral bargaining unions bargain for all workers in a single industry rather than on a shop-by-shop basis.

The requisite for union growth, however, is the same, regardless of the collective bargaining unit. Scheuerman emphasizes the need for a strong safety net, not tied to employment. That is important to either model. In addition to providing comprehensive coverage of risks, it frees unions from having to bargain for these benefits.

Reform of labor laws would boost union resurgence. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO)which is stalled in the Senate would clear one obstacle to union representation–by allowing workers to join a union whether classed as employees or independent contractors. Sectoral bargaining itself is illegal under current labor law.

A number of observers call attention to the positive effect of tight labor markets on unionization drives and workers’ willingness to engage in direct action—an asset that could evaporate with the Federal Reserve strategy of raising interest rates to stifle inflation. Full employment, a policy that both the labor movement and the Democratic Party have ceased to pursue, at least since the 1970s, would guarantee that labor would always have an employment environment conducive to organizing. Scheuerman does not mention what was once a hallmark of the progressive agenda.

In his analysis of the “long slide,” Scheuerman tended to underplay the Democratic Party’s failure to reciprocate labor’s electoral support, placing more emphasis on labor’s weakness. In the final chapter, however, he writes that “at this moment in history the Democratic Party is the only vehicle capable of bringing significant progressive change.” A strong political party closely allied with workers and their struggles is essential for labor’s growth, whether the road ahead is sectoral bargaining or traditional collective bargaining. The existence in Western Europe of both a comprehensive welfare state and sectoral bargaining is dependent on the strong working-class parties that are closely allied with labor. Even something short of such an alliance would help labor. “The lesson of the New Deal,” according to McIntyre, “is that a radical movement can make real social change when government is even only mildly supportive.”7

In stressing the critical role of a progressive Democratic Party, Scheuerman hails the leadership of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are attempting to move the Democratic Party to leftward and worker-allied. And he points to demographic trends, such as age and ethnicity, that bode well for progressive politics and of the consequent imperative for Republicans to suppress the vote. As Scheuerman concludes, “The fight of American workers for a revitalized labor movement through political action…is ultimately a struggle for democracy.”


1 Nelson Lichtenstein, “Labour, Liberalism, and the Democratic Party: A Vexed Alliance,” Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relationos, 66, 4, 2011.

2 Ibid.

3 Richard McIntyre, “Labor Militance and the New Deal: Some Lessons for Today,” in Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, eds., When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 139.

4 Jennifer Gonnerman, “Highflier,” The New Yorker, May 30, 2022, pp. 44-53.

5 Gregory N. Heires, “Are We Witnessing a Rebirth of Unions?” NJFAN Newsletter, April 2022.

6 John Logan, cited by Karen Weise and Noam Scheiber, “Amazon Workers Vote to Unionize,” New York Times, April 1, 2022.

7 McIntyre, p. 147.

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