Collective bargaining contracts in the private sector, the engine of our economy, currently protect a mere 7 percent of U.S. workers. Five decades ago, when nearly 35 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union, their collective bargaining increased the standard of living of all workers, whether or not they were covered by a union contract. Public sector coverage is now much higher than private sector coverage, currently at more than 30 percent, but most of this is due to nearly universal coverage in a few West Coast and Northeastern states, and public sector bargaining has been eliminated or declined recently in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa. Overall, nine in ten U.S. workers have no right to negotiate, a rate far lower than in any other similar democracy.
This is a five-alarm fire in the world of workers’ rights. While the preamble of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) clearly commits our nation and its government to promoting collective bargaining and self-organization and collective action by workers, government has, for half a century, steadily retreated from this commitment.
In the U.S. private sector, bargaining today is typically at the workplace level, far from the company-wide, or enterprise level, bargaining that was typical after 10 million U.S. workers organized between 1935 and 1945. Even worse, most representation elections result in fragmented units at a workplace based on occupational groups. Teamster bargaining at United Parcel Service (UPS), United Auto Workers (UAW) bargaining with Ford, GM and Stellantis (former Chrysler now merged with several European firms), and relatively large-scale bargaining at Verizon and AT&T are a few of the only remaining examples of large-scale bargaining in the U.S. private sector at the enterprise level. Yet even those examples fall short, as more work in each case is contracted out, and as new entrants in each industry undermine bargaining power for the union groups.
Workplace bargaining on economic issues often pits union workplaces against each other when jobs are scarce, and even worse, nonunion workplaces often receive better terms of employment than their union counterparts. Fissuring of work has moved growing percentages of employment to powerless contractors, often self-employed or at least considered self-employed by the controlling corporate entities.
But there is another way forward. Sectoral bargaining is the global gold standard, North and South. Argentina and Norway, Brazil’s finance sector, and the service and manufacturing sectors in Germany are some of the best examples. Living standards and job security for covered workers are much higher than for counterparts in the United States and worker organizing at the workplace never stops. There is very high union membership in these examples, and unions actively organize members and mobilize around issues on the job and in contract campaigns on a constant basis.
How sectoral bargaining works in different countries varies and can change over time, but there are some constants. First, while in its simplest form a sector is defined as an industry or group of industries in a related field, like retail, or automobile manufacturing, defining sectors can be complex. For example, Amazon includes logistics and retail, and in Germany, despite effective strike action, management will only meet the pay levels of the logistics sector, still far higher than in the United States. The goal of workers and their organizations has always been to eliminate competition on labor costs from the market or sector in which they work and that is a critical benefit of sector-wide labor negotiations, or sectoral bargaining, in nearly any form. Second, the strongest examples of sectoral bargaining include effective support for organizing in the workplace. Worker power is built through worker organization and, at its best, controlled by members at the workplace and through their elected representatives at every level.
The goal of workers and their organizations has always been to eliminate competition on labor costs from the market or sector in which they work and that is a critical benefit of sector-wide labor negotiations.
Proposals that lead to employer-controlled sectoral bargaining should be rejected by workers themselves, as well as union leaders. For example, efforts led by Uber and Lyft—in states like California, Massachusetts, and New York—proposing some form of top-down sectoral agreements to prevent worker-owned and controlled organizations, should be immediately rejected. Sectoral bargaining should never be established if the worker side of the table is not controlled democratically by the workers themselves. Terms of the agreements can then be extended, by statute, throughout the sector. These sectoral agreements provide a floor, but in union workplaces, another level of negotiations would cover a wide range of issues and can advance from that sectoral floor. At the sectoral level, competition between unions and between organized workplaces is largely eliminated, promoting solidarity. Even in France with low union membership, that solidarity, including the right to strike across the sector, results in a much higher standard of living than would ever be achieved at the enterprise level.
Sectoral bargaining cannot be established universally in the U.S. Collective bargaining coverage is so low in most sectors that at best the promise of sectoral bargaining based on reaching threshold levels of membership could be an incentive to organizing first at the workplace or enterprise levels.
But let’s imagine sectoral bargaining in auto manufacturing from parts to assembly, since UAW and other union membership still numbers about 300,000, and where contract extension to unorganized parts and assembly workers could make a huge difference. Consider how recent UAW organizing would be affected at Nissan in Mississippi or Volkswagen in Tennessee. In fact, since the mid-twentieth century, the UAW led de facto sectoral auto bargaining for decades. This bargaining, while technically pattern bargaining, meant that throughout the sector individual health care, then family health care, pensions, pay during shutdowns, and paid vacations became the norm.
And the situation is similar in telecom where Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) represent 250,000 techs, customer service, retail, and other workers. With sectoral bargaining, Verizon Wireless or T-Mobile workers would benefit from entering together into sector-wide negotiations, and this would incentivize both internal and new organizing. And like auto, national bargaining at AT&T which took CWA decades to achieve, led to huge gains for working families throughout the telecom sector.
Sectoral bargaining largely explains the higher level of Amazon organizing in Italy or Germany. Workers there are joining unions that bargain for their sector and not starting from scratch. In both nations they have participated in strike activity, and in the internal life of building a union.
West Virginia teacher organizing in 2018 provides another example of how sectoral bargaining might work in education. While there had been pockets of organized teachers in both American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) affiliates, years without pay raises and healthcare cost shifting spurred organizing in all 55 counties. Led in part by teachers from the southern counties, historically mine worker union strongholds, the rebellion began. For five weeks beginning in early February, walkouts occurred across West Virginia, with most superintendents closing schools, while teachers opened food kitchens for their students. This unity led to bargaining with the governor and the state legislature and ended only when the legislature raised salaries. Teachers were able to discuss everything from class sizes to health benefit contributions throughout the state, which is not even possible in New Jersey or New York with their long histories of bargaining by district.
In decades of global union work, I have never heard a single active union member in a nation with sectoral bargaining wish instead for the U.S. system. In fact, I have always been questioned as to why, even when we elect Barack Obama or Joe Biden, real change still remains out of reach. Of course, part of the answer is the enormous power of capital in the U.S. political system, but partly the answer also lies with concerns within U.S. labor about the risk/reward ratio of systematic change.
In decades of global union work, I have never heard a single active union member in a nation with sectoral bargaining, wish instead for the U.S. system.
For any form of sectoral bargaining in the United States to be more than a discussion point, significant segments of labor need to reimagine the organizing and bargaining framework in a partnership with political and other allied organizations. Harvard Law School’s Clean Slate Project provided a good launch for such an effort and recommended sectoral bargaining in sectors where unions were a significant enough factor to make a difference. For nearly two years, I was part of a group of more than 100 organizers, academics, lawyers, and others discussing various new approaches for United States labor, including sectoral and other forms of broad-based bargaining. Much of this work was examined in a global context, given the superior status of unions, working life, and living standards in other nations.
We need to act as if universal collective bargaining is essential if we are ready to do more than talk about income inequality. If unions and government are serious about promoting collective bargaining, as written in the preamble to the NLRA, we must make the fight about what we achieve in bargaining and not about rules that deny workers a seat at the table. If union organizing remains just such a contest, and for relatively small groups of workers at a time, how can we possibly expect to address the internal competitive factors within sectors? That competition only serves to drive down wages and living standards and leaves workers pitted against each other. For starters we must imagine that we can and will make a real difference!
1. David Madland, Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2021), 74-80.
2. Leo Casey, The Teacher Insurgency (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2020), 2-5.
3. Clean Slate for Worker Power, available at www.cleanslateworkerpower.org.
4. Larry Cohen, “The Time Has Come for Sectoral Bargaining,” New Labor Forum, June 22, 2018, 10-13.
Larry Cohen is the board chair of Our Revolution, the successor to Bernie 2016. From 2005 to 2015 Larry was the president of the Communications Workers of America, and chair of the AFL-CIO organizing committee.