Trade union density (alongside economic equality and working conditions) has fallen across all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations in the last two decades. Though private employer union density in the United States has increased slightly in the last year, the numbers remain dismal—as they have for four decades. The perennial question is “Why?”
Brother Larry Cohen writes that when he is asked this question by people outside of the United States, he answers that even under Democratic presidencies, real change for working people has been out of reach for two primary reasons. The first is the significant power of capital. The second, he argues, is the risk-averse nature of some in the labor movement. It is on this latter point—and perhaps on this point alone—that Brother Cohen and I disagree. Inside the United States, the question about why union density is so low is often logically followed by yet another question: “What can we concretely do to better the lives of working people?” Cohen, alongside labor leaders and scholars across the country have spent time studying the laws and bargaining cultures of other nations and concluded that sectoral bargaining is one way forward. I agree.
Our point of disagreement is what the first step is to achieve. . .change. It is both short-sighted and ahistorical to believe that university-designed, top-down policy solutions are the best way to grow U.S. labor power.
But I remain flummoxed by the lack of universal vision among union leaders on the necessary steps to get these kinds of legal changes—and the many others that U.S. workers sorely need. Those (including me) who have resisted anti-worker, anti-democratic “sectoral bargaining” attempts in the last two years—attempts led by Uber and Lyft hand-in-hand with some unions and labor leaders—are not “risk averse.” We want to see dramatic change. Our point of disagreement is what the first step is to achieve that change. It is both short-sighted and ahistorical to believe that university-designed, top-down policy solutions are the best way to grow U.S. labor power.
In the 1930s, when organized labor undertook large scale organizing campaigns, the Congress of Industrial Organizations poured what would be the equivalent of $9.2 million into a single campaign to organize steelworkers. Yet today, most unions are simply unwilling to make that kind of commitment to real organizing. In my research, I have encountered militant workers who struggle to receive even a dime to grow their organizing efforts (both from unions and foundations concerned with worker power). In many instances, the unions and foundations seem to be searching for more expedient solutions—labor-management agreements, for example, or public relations campaigns to grow consumer awareness. Organizing, in these circles, seems a strategy of the past. To be sure, one-on-one, on-the-ground organizing is hard and slow. Workers may not make changes in one funding cycle. But the history is clear: to see any of the kind of pro-labor legal changes (including those that facilitate sectoral bargaining), we must build back our culture of organizing, of direct action, and of community. This is not a timid or risk-averse path forward. Rather, it is a bold, even dramatic strategy that requires vision and faith in the collective self-determination of working people.
1. “Trade Unions: Trade Union Density,” OECD Employment and Labor Market Statistics, 2021, available at https://doi.org/10.1787/data-00371-en.
2. Hector Figueroa, “The Labor Movement Can Rise Again,” The New York Times, July 12, 2019, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/opinion/hector-figueroa.html.
Veena Dubal is a professor of law at the University of California-Hastings whose research focuses on the intersection of law, technology, and precarious work. Her commentary and research on the intersections of technology, low-wage work, and organizing (particularly in the so-called “sharing” or platform economy) are regularly featured both in the local and national media.