Since the Reagan era, wages have stagnated, unions have declined, and average workers have lost power. If we want any of that to change in the near future, we will have to look... everywhere.
A new Roosevelt Institute report by Michelle Miller and Eric Harris Bernstein looks at both the causes of decades of declining worker power in America (technological change, legal change, and a full-on political assault) and the challenges that labor will face if it wants to regain ground in a world in which “stable full time job” is a category on the decline. This is not a partisan issue, really; increasing the strength of organized labor is, in all likelihood, the only way that regular people will have any hope of protecting themselves from the ongoing rise of inequality and collapse of the middle class during the Trump administration.
An interesting bit of background: post-Reagan, employers felt freer to retaliate against labor organizing by workers, and the decline of unions seems to have been caused by fear more than by a lack of interest in them. Bolding ours:
The rise in anti-union behavior included a doubling of plant closing threats as well as employer-mandated anti-union meetings from the early 1990s to 2003. Overall,the percentage of employers using 10 or more different union-blocking tactics during unionization campaigns rose from 38 percent in 1983 and 1984 to 82 percent from 1993 to 2003. But perhaps more telling is the fact that while these hostile tactics increased in frequency, appeasing strategies, such as offering raises or promotions to forestall unionization, fell precipitously over the same period. This shows that firms no longer feel compelled to address the concerns of their workers. To a modern employer, worker demands are irrelevant and there is little fear of repercussions for poor treatment of the labor force.
One example of the ramification of this behavior is exemplified by Freeman (2007), who found that worker interest in unionization had grown steadily since 1984, while the percentage of workers in unions had declined. This implies a widespread deterrence effect whereby intimidated workers now believe that the barriers to unionization are insurmountable and have begun to give up on organization efforts, despite their interest.
In the golden age of America to which people like Donald Trump often refer, workers had a straightforward deal: stable jobs that came with benefits like health care. Today, though, with the growth of outsourcing and the “gig economy” and general cost-cutting by any means aimed at enriching investors, workers are often left navigating a world in which their employers are taking as little responsibility for them as possible. Companies increasingly enjoy “monopsony” power, meaning that they are able to unilaterally set wages and conditions for their workers without fear of them fleeing to another, better job. Thus, wages and benefits decline. The report points out the lie of free market advocates who claim that this is pure capitalist fairness at its finest:
Lower wages, fewer benefits, and — as pointed out in the Uber example — increased risk placed on workers are not benefits to efficiency but transfers of wealth and stability from workers to firms. The fact that workers are not compensated for their shift into unprotected classifications and alienated firms, but are in fact often issued pay and benefits reductions, undercuts any argument that these shifts are not predicated on the abuse of monopsony power. In a relatively equal environment, workers may agree to sub-contract, but only if compensated for the increased risk assumed.
So what can workers do in this incredibly disadvantageous environment? Unionize, if possible. But for the millions of modern workers for whom unionizing seems to pose an unconquerable challenge, there is a whole spectrum of organizing that can be done. The report notes the importance of net neutrality—not often seen as a labor issue—as a vital tool for far-flung modern workforces to be able to communicate an organize freely. (Any civil rights group opposed to net neutrality is selling out its own core constituency.) There are only a few viable online organizing platforms today, but it’s clear that the internet has tons of potential for the labor movement if they ever get around to figuring it out—it is, in fact, the only practical tool for organizing a modern workforce that is scattered across the country and united only by their employer. (The fact that existing unions are mostly incapable of organizing people online is a ridiculous failure in itself. Don’t get me started!!) And, speaking of technology, the rise of the use of algorithms by employers to do everything from schedule shifts to track drivers’ routes to monitor employee activity and help decide hiring and firing means that we all need to start thinking about demanding a peek inside those secret formulas that govern more and more of our working lives:
At the most basic level, workers should have a right to know how decisions related to their pay, mobility, and performance tracking are made. In traditional corporate hierarchies, access to this information has been mediated through direct relationships with supervisors and/or direct contact with coworkers. The basic expectations for employees were communicated at hire and decisions related to an employee’s ability to meet these expectations were transparent. As these decisions are buried under software, firms should be expected to go a step further in terms of communicating basic functionality of the software as it relates to managing work and changes to the software that impact workers’ earning power or performance. After all, software does not function autonomously; firms program their software intentionally, and hence it cannot become a means to circumvent labor law.
Organize. Then agitate. And then, one day, this nightmare will be over. Or at least slightly better!