The New York Times published an article by NPR’s Planet Money co-founder Adam Davidson titled “Workers of the World, Sit Tight” where Davidson examines trends in unionization nationally and internationally, and concludes that, while unions have learned to adapt somewhat to the changing economic landscape, they are still on the decline and this will inevitably reinforce growing economic inequality and insecurity for workers.
This gloomy picture is overshadowing what I think are some exciting developments in the union movement. Let’s remember back to the time when unions were part of a broad social movement in the early 20th century. These unions were fighting for secure wages and benefits for workers in particular companies and geographies, but their solidarity extended far beyond the particular worker groups they covered. Some innovative new labor movements have remembered this part of union history and are seeking new ways to organize and garner support outside the traditional collective bargaining model. Davidson notes that one of the prospective areas for new organization in the American labor movement is nontradable sector – primarily service sector jobs that can’t be outsourced to lower-wage places.
An example of union headway into this sector is Domestic Workers United, a non-traditional union who has proposed and organized for better labor legislation to cover domestic workers and provides various services to domestic workers such as education on labor rights and training for nannies. DWU has also been adept at working across traditional union boundaries by teaming up with other social movement organizations with similar values and goals, like Jew for Racial and Economic Justice in New York City. This increases a sense of solidarity among different groups with similar values, an important key in a successful labor social movement. Non-traditional unions like DWU are still on a relatively small scale compared to the traditional union movement in its height, but there is a lot of room for this form of the labor movement to grow.
What is particularly exciting to me about this trend in the labor movement is the prospect for strengthening and securing women’s employment, since many of the nontradable service sector jobs have a high proportion of women workers (e.g. domestic workers, home health care workers, retail workers, and the employment mainstays of teachers and nurses). The union movement was dominated by male employment for a long time under the dominance of craft unions arguing for a family wage (read: keep the women at home). But this new direction in the labor movement means new prospects for women workers in the changing economic landscape. This also means there is even a greater need for alternative labor movements now to ensure that as the economy changes, women’s economic power increases rather than men’s economic prospects declining to women’s historically disadvantaged position. But with the success of the Occupy Movement to get inequality back into the public consciousness, I think that the prospect of a social movement focused on increasing worker power and decreasing economic inequality has a fighting chance.