Reports of Its Demise Exaggerated?

By Trudy Goldberg

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 both the National Labor College and 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 resulting in corporate allegiance to stockholders instead of employees; the corporate sector’s all-out war on labor; and automation. Also contributing to 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– business unionism, ineffective organizing techniques, lack of militancy, overly bureaucratic leaders unresponsive to their members, and emphasis on electoral politics rather than organizing. But Scheuerman says the major cause is structural. The AFL-CIO is a federation of autonomous international unions 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—all of which failed and are examples of labor’s “shooting itself in the foot.”

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) that 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 on the relationship.  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 got much labor support during their respective campaigns and briefly had large Democratic majorities in Congress. But these presidents, write 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 don’t collect dues from their members and depend on this support. Two of the Centers represent very oppressed 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 and consequently lack workplace benefits like unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.  One of the five Worker 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 Worker Center discussed by Scheuerman–the one that has most to teach the labor movement–is the Fight for $15. 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. 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 the benefits and protections of a typical labor contract.

New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the successor to ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform) joined forces with two New York City unions to organize the first protest. NYCC reached out to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which initially saw an opportunity for traditional union organizing but instead took on the movement-oriented task of exposing corporate greed and horrible working conditions in its 17-city Fight for a Fair Economy Campaign–for which it committed $60 million.  Moreover, its strategy was to organize entire industries- rather than shop by shop.

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 but points out that the Fight for $15 is not a unionizing campaign that would give workers power in relation to their immediate oppressors–their bosses.

In searching for strategies, 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] Not to mention SEIU’s leadership in Fight for $15. These dynamic unions are led by women!

Premature Conclusion?

Based on analysis of labor’s decline and successful direct action like the Fight for $15, Scheuerman concludes that political action is replacing the bargaining table and that the road ahead is toward   sectoral or industry-wide bargaining–the model of European social democracies. A New American Labor Movement was published in 2021, and although very current then, it came out before workers at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted (in March 2022) to be represented by a union. By May of this year, 100 Starbucks stores had voted to unionize. The successful organizing drives we are watching—and cheering–are examples of shop-by-shop collective bargaining. It is the leaders of drives like these who are grassroots and nontraditional–not the bargaining unit.
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 this transformation has opened up.”[6]

Requisites for Revival

It’s too early to know whether an American labor movement organized traditionally, shop-by-shop, will make a comeback. The requisites for union growth, however, are 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 both models. 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) that is stalled in the Senate would clear one obstacle to union representation–by allowing workers to join a union–whether classified as employees or independent contractors. Sectoral bargaining itself is illegal under current labor law.

Tight labor markets like the present one make workers more willing to join a union or engage in direct action—an advantage threatened by the Federal Reserve strategy for curing inflation. Full employment, a policy that both the labor movement and the Democratic Party have ceased to endorse, would guarantee labor an employment environment conducive to organizing. Scheuerman does not mention what was once a hallmark of the progressive agenda.

In explaining the “long slide,” Scheuerman tended to underplay the Democratic Party’s failure to reciprocate labor’s support, placing more emphasis on the movement’s weaknesses. 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 important for labor’s growth, regardless of the bargaining unit. 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,” observes 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 strong, progressive Democratic Party, Scheuerman hails the leadership of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He points to demographic trends, such as age and ethnicity, that bode well for progressive politics and explain why Republicans are intent on suppressing the vote. Scheuerman concludes that “The fight of American workers for a revitalized labor movement through political action…is ultimately a struggle for democracy.”

Trudy Goldberg is Professor Emerita of Social Work and Social Policy at Adelphi University and Chair of NJFAN. She is the author of numerous popular and scholarly works on comparative welfare states focusing on the poverty of women, the New Deal, and the struggle for economic justice. 

[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.

Workers like Fran Marion Need More Than a Raise: They Need a Union

Like other fast-food restaurants, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in Kansas City insists on “instant” customer service. Workers like Fran Marion must take an order, cook it, bag it, and deliver it to the patron in three minutes. Fran occasionally works when the restaurant is on “short shift” or when it is grossly understaffed, in which case, she must do all the jobs herself. Despite twenty-two years of experience in the fast-food industry, Fran scrambles as she takes the order, cooks it, and delivers it to a satisfied customer. It’s only recently that she has been permitted to take a short break. For this Fran got $9.50 an hour. After completing her shift at Popeyes, Fran works another full-time job as a janitor for $11 an hour. “You basically need two jobs to survive working on low wages,” says Fran.

A thirty-seven-year-old single mother, Fran doesn’t get to spend much time with her two teenage children. She goes days at a time without seeing them since the city condemned her rented house and made Fran homeless. Her children now live with a friend while Fran sleeps on another friend’s sofa. Like millions of other fast-food restaurants Popeyes does not provide Fran with health insurance, sick pay or vacation pay, or anything else a good union job offers. In fact, Fran has not seen a doctor once in her entire adult life.

Adapted by Scheuerman from Dominic Rushe with video by Tom Silverstone, “Fran Works Six Days a Week in Fast Food, and Yet She’s Homeless: ‘It’s Economic Slavery,’” The Guardian, August 21, 2017.

Average Popeyes’ Restaurants hourly pay ranges from approximately $7.25 per hour for Dishwasher to $13.96 per hour for Manager. The average Popeyes’ Restaurants salary ranges from approximately $29,157 per year for Customer Service Representative to $67,270 per year for District Manager.

Salary information comes from 190 data points collected directly from employees, users, and past and present job advertisements on Indeed in the past 36 months.

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