Column: The labor movement as we know it is dying. Here’s how it can survive

Editor’s Note: David Rolf is the president of SEIU 775 and the author of “The Fight for Fifteen: The Right Wage for a Working America.” Known as an innovative organizer, Rolf led the successful $15 minimum wage campaigns in both SeaTac, Washington, home to Seattle’s airport, and Seattle. Making Sen$e spoke with Rolf about the challenges the labor movement is facing today, the future of labor and the need for new bargaining models. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

In 2014, labor expert Harold Meyerson wrote that you believe that “the American labor movement, as we know it, is on its deathbed.” Do you still believe that?

Yes. The enterprise bargaining model that American unions have operated since 1935 has been shrinking since the mid-1950s. There are now five times more American workers who have no legal right to union representation than there are union members covered by contracts. And the number of states in which private-sector union membership is above 10 percent is now down to six states. So if you consider the rise and fall of what Americans know as trade unionism, it’s clear that we long ago passed our strategic inflection point. And are now living out the end of the days of the old model.

What’s so difficult about the enterprise collective bargaining system today?

Beginning in 1947, the Taft-Hartley act striped labor unions of their most effective tools, such as secondary boycotts and secondary strikes, and introduced the concept of right to work, which incentivized free-rider status. Under right-to-work, people covered under collective agreements could pay nothing and still get something for a period of time until those unions ultimately couldn’t do their jobs anymore, because they were financially upside down. Rich Yeselson referred to this as “the landmines” of the Taft–Hartley Act: some of those bombs went off immediately — when President Truman invoked the act to put striking workers back to work — but some of them were not actually realized for decades to come.

Business meanwhile has succeeded. In the 80s, it succeeded in teaching workers that organizing and striking is a bad bet; it’s more likely to result in losing your job than getting a raise. That was the cultural lesson taken from all the failed strikes of the 1980s.

By any metric, America’s enterprise collective bargaining system is a model that has been in decline longer than it was ever growing. The point of which is not to say let’s be depressed about it; it’s to actually invoke our own history and say, “Let’s not mourn, let’s organize.” And the fact that the future of this particular model is bleak doesn’t mean that workers shouldn’t have a bright future in the country; we’re just going to have to come up with something new.

Why is labor-law reform so hard to pass?

One, unions have been a single-party movement for the most part for contemporary history, so the Republicans largely want to kill us. That’s not always true in city hall or in all state houses, but it’s definitely true in Congress. And the Democrats have grown to take us for granted for the same reasons. So when it comes time to cast a difficult vote, there are few districts where unions are large any more and certainly few states, that why on earth would the Democratic Representative or Senator take a risk by supporting pro-union legislation? Doing so would require politicians to put the interests of American workers ahead of their own political careers.

In an article you wrote for the American Prospect, you mentioned seven new models that the labor movement should invest in. “Geographic and sectoral bargaining” appears to be the most popular of the models. How does that differ from collective bargaining?

If we blow up the whole notion of exclusive representation, which is one union and one employer, it becomes really interesting to think about the possibilities. With geographic and sectoral bargaining, unions could represent workers throughout an entire industry or in a certain area.

We won the very first municipal wide fight for $15 in Seattle by using a politically constructed bargaining process. The table was set at city hall and the major union and community organizations in the city bargained for four months across the table with our key business institutions and came to an agreement on how to structure a phased-in $15 wage law for Seattle. Another version of this is the fast food wage board that Governor Andrew Cuomo used initially in New York to set wages for the fast food sector.

Much of Europe, much of Latin America, and parts of Asia work on a more regional and sectoral bargaining model that eliminates some of the really perverse incentives that adhere to the old enterprise bargaining model.

With the enterprise bargaining model, if you run a business and your competitors are nonunion, and your own employees start to organize, you’re going to be afraid of a few things — you’re going to be afraid of cost, as bargaining requires you to raise wages and benefits. You’re going to be afraid of losing flexibility as you have to bargain new work rules. And ultimately you’re going to be afraid that your competitors are going to eat your lunch, because they are going to have more money and flexibility, and you’re going to have less. And that produces a really strong incentive for businesses to fight unions on every front. They try to prevent unions from forming, they try to bust them once they exist, and if they can’t do that, they try to minimize bargaining demands and bargaining gains, and finally, they they use their trade associations and chambers of commerce to fight pro-union public policy.

READ MORE: SeaTac airport workers fight exclusion from $15 minimum wage

So it’s a system set up for maximum resistance and maximum adversarialism as opposed to, say, the German system, where regional and sectoral bargaining sets minimum standards for wages and benefits across whole industries within a region. Works councils solve problems at the workplace and unions sit on the corporate board of directors and even help set company direction and compensation for executives. And by the way, German automobile workers make twice what American automobile workers do in total compensation, and they sell twice as many cars. So this idea that we have to be in a race to the bottom even in a global industry like automobile manufacturing just isn’t right.

How would labor unions function in this model?

The question of course in constructing alternative labor regime is: How do you pair a regional-sectorial bargaining model, which definitely can be very powerful and scaleable, with some sort of revenue models so that unions or alternative labor organizations can still have organizational resilience? One option is you construct the regional bargaining system so that those unions or trade associations that have high numbers of penetration in the sector are privileged with a higher level of status in presenting their case to a negotiating body. And you have to be a member to be represented. Or you could pair other things, like union administration of benefits, to incentivize voluntary membership.

Which of the other new models do you think have shown promise?

Each of the models I wrote about in the Prospect piece have all shown promise somewhere. Regional and sectoral bargaining is the most widely practiced throughout the civilized world. Benefits administration is something that unions in Northern Europe do to generate membership within a regional sectorial bargaining system. Under the so-called Ghent system, unions are the providers of unemployment insurance you can’t get unless you become a member. It’s sort of like a AARP or NRA style of benefits where you have to join the organization to get benefits. And by the way, unions in U.S. could repurpose themselves to become mass vendors of employee benefits. Through our Taft-Hartley benefit plans, we have a lot of the infrastructure already in place for that.

You mention “work-distribution platforms” as another alternative. How are they meant to tackle the on-demand economy?

Work-distribution platforms are both old and new. In the oldest form, you had hiring halls. In the construction trades, you don’t have the same employer all the time. The work comes and goes, and you follow the work, but you still need to have good wages and stable benefits. And so construction hiring halls were in many ways the original work-distribution platform. Now we’re in the era of smartphones, and clearly Uber beat the Teamsters [a labor union for drivers in the U.S. and Canada] to the punch on inventing Uber. How different it would have been if some of their venture capital had come from the Teamsters pension fund?

READ MORE: Column: 8 ways employees can thrive while labor unions decline

The on-demand economy includes everything from Odesk [now known as Upwork] to Elance to Amazon and Uber and Lyft and TaskRabbit and Postmates and Instacart. Right now only a few million of Americans work in that economy, but it’s definitely growing, and the new jobs that have been created since the end of the recession in the aggregate have been nonstandard, irregular — that is, independent contractor work, on-demand work, fixed-term contract work, etc. We could begin to explore how worker organizations themselves could begin cutting out the middle man and getting into the business of workforce distribution. Some of that will be into long-term gigs and some of that will be into short-term gigs. But if the market didn’t need it, we wouldn’t be seeing all of these apps being funded by venture capital showing up on our smartphones.

Do you see this shift taking place over a long time, or do you think it’s necessary for the labor movement to adopt these new strategies today?

If the institutional unions of the 20th century want in on the 21st century movement, then they need to act. It’s time for us to accept that innovation needs to be our new religion. And a measurable portion of our resources and our talent needs to go into creating the next model.

Now if we don’t, someone else eventually will. But there is no more readily available block of venture capital than today’s union treasuries to finance these experiments. For today’s labor leaders, we’re not going to be remembered for how many workers we organized under the old model, because it’s been shrinking for 60 years. We’re not going to be remembered for the quality of the contracts we bargained, because in a largely nonunion economy, you can’t bargain contracts that are that great. And listen, in my local, we organize lots and lots of workers, and we bargain some of the best contracts in our industry, but we can’t be naive and think that we will somehow permanently buck the trend of what’s happening to workers in America.

Today’s labor leaders are going to be remembered for a simple thing: whether we recognized our own strategic inflection point and whether we had courage to do something about it by transferring resources and assets on a massive scale to invent the next form of worker power in America.

Are you optimistic about the future of labor?

In terms of reasons for optimism in this moment, we are seeing the fight for $15 ascendant. I mean it was treated like a joke in 2012, and by 2014, the first four major metropolitan areas had adopted $15 wages. It’s now the law for 20 million americans, 35 millions americans are living in states with some form of a higher minimum wage. And $15 is now in the Democratic party platform. We’re now seeing cities adopt fair scheduling laws, restricting “clopenings” and hours caps for workers in retail, hospitality and fast food. We’re seeing state sick leave laws passed and new tools to prevent discrimination against those that were formerly incarcerated. We’ve got emerging efforts around paid family leave, and just this week, there was new law to protect farm workers in California. So there does seem to be a renewed effort, particularly in the city and state level, to solve there what could not be solved through a generation of failed federal efforts.

Of course here are also a lot of reasons for pessimism, whether it’s the 40-year wage freeze or declining union membership, but if you look around, there are lots of enterprising efforts at the city and state level to change the lives of workers. The dominant story has been the death of unions, but underneath that, there has been lots of new enterprising activism and organizing. And I think that continues in an even more robust way today. That’s something that people should be excited about on Labor Day.

READ MORE: The economy is steadily improving, but wages aren’t. Could unions be the answer?

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