Why the Labor Movement Has Failed—And How to Fix ItRoundup
tags: economic history, labor, income inequality, labor movement
Sarita Gupta is Co-Director of Jobs with Justice and Caring Across Generations. She has appeared on MSNBC, Al Jazeera America, PBS, CNBC and Fox News, has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Politico, and has been published in The Huffington Post, The Hill and BillMoyers.com, and regularly speaks at conferences, panels, and events, including the White House Conference on Aging, the White House Summit on Worker Voice, and the United State of Women Summit.
Stephen Lerner is a fellow at Georgetown Universities Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and was the architect of the Justice For Janitors campaign.
Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History at Georgetown University and Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.
Measured by the course of history over the last half century, the arc of the economic universe has bent badly toward injustice.
It has been more than eighty years since the National Labor Relations Act offered the first significant federal protections of industrial workers’ rights to organize and the Social Security Act laid the basis for an attenuated welfare state. New Deal policies were hardly panaceas; African Americans, immigrants, and women never enjoyed their fruits on an equal basis with white men. Yet over time the struggles of unions and the civil rights and feminist movements widened the protections workers were able to win from the law and from organizing. Between World War II and the mid-1970s, as union density crested at 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce in the 1950s and then spread through the public sector in the 1960s, the United States experienced a broadly shared prosperity.
But over the last four decades, we have witnessed the near total destruction of this promise of worker empowerment. Beginning with Reagan, the U.S. economy was reorganized wholesale. Having failed to build up political leverage to ensure that private economic power remained accountable to the common good, workers saw private interests progressively shred the limited social bargain of the postwar years. Union membership has plummeted to 10.5 percent overall and only 6.4 percent in the private sector. Even more telling is the near disappearance of strikes. In the 1970s there were, on average, about 289 annual work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers. As bargaining power shifted decisively to employers, that average has plunged, reaching only 13 per year over the last decade.
The result today is a staggeringly unjust global economy in which just eight men own as much wealth as half the world’s population. We now face a perverse concentration of wealth among the super rich, pervasive financialization of the economy, an upsurge of low-wage and precarious work, and the heightened power of monopolistic tech firms. These transformations have relentlessly undercut worker bargaining power, triggered an explosive rise in inequality, and continue to undermine what remains of democratic governance. And even as they tighten their grip, the architects of inequality seek to control the alternatives we envision for our future. In recent years they have promoted fevered “Future of Work” scenarios that imagine the disappearance of jobs before sweeping waves of automation and artificial intelligence, hyping visions of the future of work that place capital’s needs at the center.
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