If it were not for the hard work of labor unions in the early 1940’s and 50’s we would not be able to think of a regular work week as 40 hours, get paid vacations and paid sick leave or enjoy the basic due processes employees assume are part of the work environment. The growth of the middle class in the 1960’s and 70’s rests largely in the strength of creating livable wages through this advocacy. This Labor Day Holiday some may suggest that having won these key battles the need to unionize workers has lost its relevance in our society. Membership is at an all time low with less than 12% of the workforce today holding union membership. Unfortunately the relevance of organized labor’s early roots in protecting workers from abuse and unfair practices is needed now more than ever—but the needs look different.
Today in the middle of the Great Recession, the growing wealth disparity in the nation and the new wave of discrimination faced by the long term unemployed and the 50-plus workers I can’t but wonder how Labor could have made a difference. What would have happened if Labor had started 30 years ago advocating for long-term business sustainability, greater corporate transparency, or preparing workers for green jobs? What would have happened if unions had looked at how poorly schools were preparing young people for competitive jobs or for careers heavily reliant on math and science? And what if unions had been more engaged in the fight to keep the workplace not only diverse but progressively inclusive—making sure ethnic minorities, gays, working mothers, and aging workers got hired at the most senior levels? These were missed opportunities for Labor.
After having achieved key milestones in fair wages and benefits, labor stayed focused on these priorities well into the 1980’s even when jobs were being outsourced abroad and US companies downsized workers but didn’t downsize executive compensation. Instead of recognizing the changing work place demands and advocating for more employee training, workforce development and better education to remain innovative, unions remained focused on keeping wages and benefits firm for members. And the definition of employee “benefits” expanded—in some professions that took the form of protecting jobs regardless of objective measures of performance or targeted results. It’s not surprising then that labor’s relevance comes into question when unions defend teachers who don’t teach, drivers who don’t drive, and tradesmen who don’t keep their skills relevant. Protecting workers based on seniority, job classification systems, and the status quo became associated with union dogma just when all indicators pointed to needed innovation, workforce development, and new ways to engage in a global workforce.
Next week the AFL-CIO is hosting Next Up: The Young Workers Summit in Minneapolis. The agenda is aimed at Gen Y and Millenials and provides a chance to learn about fighting back efforts to dismantle unions. Several sessions are dedicated to organizing in a global context, organizing the new generation of workers, “indoctrinating” public policy and managing messages. These themes are more defensive than offensive. Young workers may need exposure to Labor’s history but in order for Labor to regain its relevance in American society, young workers need an understanding of Labor’s missed opportunities, too. To prevent a repeat of the past, Labor must improve workers’ ability to face unprecedented demands on their knowledge and understand seniority is not a measure of job security. Young workers today need the ability to be continuous learners, the ability to recognize and advocate for sustainable growth industries, corporate social responsibility, and transparency. If Labor is to regain membership, it needs an agenda that is willing to translate on the enormous complexity of economic, political, and social factors that influence the workplace today and prepare workers for the demands ahead.