The mass strike is dead. Long live the mass strike.

The Fight for $15 campaign in the US, designed to win a substantial rise in the country’s federal minimum wage of $7.25, and involving community groups and unions working together, has highlighted two important facts. First, that America—like much of the rest of the developed world—has become a low-wage economy with massive differentials between the vast majority of the population and a tiny minority of super-rich bankers, corporate executives, and sports and entertainment celebrities. Second, that an inclusive approach in which unions use their strength to help members and non-members alike can achieve a great deal.

In the first part of this series, we observed how some unions have found the idea of a basic income challenging. If people have a guaranteed income regardless of their situations, these unions may be heard to mutter, why should they join a union at all?

Similar arguments have been raised against unions recruiting the unemployed, or paying any attention to their potential contribution to wider social concerns than pay and conditions. As the union movement developed over the last 150 years, it assumed that the situation of workers everywhere would be engaged in much the same sort of battle between labour and capital. But that has not proved to be the case.

The world has changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years or so. The idea that unions fit neatly into a traditional picture of capitalism, as the mirror images of the industrial leviathans that once ruled the world, is simply no longer true, if it ever was. Today, the very nature of employment is changing and unions are increasingly forced to think creatively about the nature of class conflict.

Writing in the Winnipeg Free Press this year, two researchers, Yuriko Cowper-Smith and Leah Levac, argued that prolonged austerity and the growth in precarious employment mean that “for workers, general working conditions and rights decline, while negative impacts on health, family and community intensify. And, for users, the access, quality, accountability and safety of services often get worse.”

“In this environment,” Cowper-Smith and Levac say, “confronting worsening work conditions is difficult. Collective actors’ ability to resist has diminished. Back-to-work legislation, bargaining blockages, wage-restraint laws and limitations on collective bargaining rights have limited workers’ capacities to resist.”

The researchers conclude that “Responding to this shift requires new tactics.”

The mass strike is dead. Long live the mass strike.

The UK’s largest union, Unite, saw how union membership was threatened by the collapse of traditional industries in the UK and the growth of unemployment and underemployment. In 2012, Unite responded by launching a “community membership programme” specifically aimed at the unemployed. Within its first four months, the union set up 60 community branches across the UK and attracted around 1,000 new members. A few years earlier, it would have been an unimaginable step to take; the conventional wisdom was that unions were about defending members’ jobs, not helping those with no jobs.

The success of the Fight for $15 campaign has demonstrated that both the goals and tactics of earlier labour movement struggles may benefit from some creative thinking like Unite’s.

The first point about Fight for $15 is that, in the context of a federal minimum wage that had been frozen at $7.25 since 2009, this was not a timid demand. The acceptance of the $15 minimum by states including New York and California represents the biggest increase in the US minimum wage since Harry Truman almost doubled the rate in 1950, over 60 years ago. But Truman acted at federal level and, since the 2008 crash, federal action on wages has been all but impossible. As Gavin Kelly, chief executive of the Resolution Trust—which funds the anti-poverty research of the Resolution Foundation—observed in the Financial Times (Trade unions embrace reinvention, at last, 21 April, 2016), “A sympathetic but gridlocked Obama administration has been unable to secure change in the federal wage floor. For campaigners, city halls, not Capitol Hill, are the venues that count.” And, he might have added, unions and local community groups have marched on city halls arm-in-arm.

The pragmatism of the Fight for $15 campaign is another aspect of its novelty. Instead of sticking rigidly to a fixed demand for a national rise in the minimum wage, the campaigners have struck flexible deals with local authorities over the timetable for implementation. That’s important, because this campaign is political. It’s not just about increasing the minimum wage in the US, it’s about building alliances, challenging City Hall, changing the way things are done.

Stephen LernerStephen Lerner of the SEIU (the North American Service Employees International Union) (pictured) has argued that the only strikes that work now are political strikes. He cites the 2012 Houston janitors’ strike; Lerner was instrumental in organising the US Justice for Janitors campaign and has been quoted approvingly by the US labor (sic) lawyer Thomas Geoghegan in his recent book “Only One Thing Can Save US: Why America needs a new kind of labor movement” (The New Press, NY 2014).

For Lerner, a political strike is one that supports his radical agenda. Five years ago, he wrote on the In These Times website:

“Now can be our moment to build a movement that both captures the popular imagination and has a strategy to engage millions of people to improve their lives by harnessing:

“The potential power of government to force banks to pay their fair share of taxes and renegotiate toxic interest rates that are sucking billions out of city and states budgets.

“The potential power of homeowners and students to renegotiate unfair mortgages and loans, keeping millions in their homes and putting billions into the economy to create jobs.

“The potential power of public employee unions to bargain and demand that government implements concrete proposals that would save billions by holding Wall Street and banks accountable.

“The potential power of private sector unions to organize and bargain not just for existing union members but also to fix broken industries, and to alter business practices that exploit communities and pollute the environment.”

Such a programme does not have to be restricted to North America, but it would be a challenge to turn it into practice. Not every union member is as militant as Lerner, and not every union is as militant as the SEIU. Even within the SEIU, Lerner found some opposition to his views. Wikipedia comments in one entry that “Steven (sic) Lerner was allegedly forced to resign from the union in 2011 after advocating more organizing efforts be placed against Wall Street and bank power in the United States with popular direct action.” In fact, he was put on “gardening leave” for a few weeks, but he continued—and continues—to serve on the union’s international executive board.

Even if Lerner is not the average union official, he represents a real trend in some corners of the global labour movement. There is profound disgust at the gross excesses of financiers, bankers and corporate bosses, and at the prolonged misery of austerity and the impoverishment of manual workers and many middle class professionals resulting from the enforced imposition of neo-liberal economic policies. And there are sporadic outbursts of protest.

But the global picture is complicated. We have seen the tragedy that followed when the Arab Spring met the byzantine politics of the Middle East and the Maghreb. Popular uprisings can all too easily be resisted by entrenched authoritarianism and the residue of imperialism.

And across the globe, the transition from regular employment to unemployment or irregular employment gathers speed.

A recent report from the Executive Office of the US President, “The Long-Term Decline In Prime-Age Male Labor Force Participation” (June 2016), revealed some disturbing figures about the decreasing numbers in the traditional core of the workforce within the 34 members of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), so-called “prime-age men” between the ages of 25 and 54.

Prime-age male labor force participation in the OECD

Prime-age male labor force participation in the OECD

The report said that:

“Labor force participation among prime-age men peaked in 1954 and has fallen steadily since the mid-1960s, a trend that has been sharper in the United States than in other advanced economies….

“Since 1965, the prime-age male labor force participation rate has fallen by an average of 0.16 percentage point each year, totaling (sic) an 8.3 percentage-point decline as of May 2016.

“The United States has had the second largest decrease in prime-age male participation among members of the … OECD since 1990; today, the United States has the third lowest labor force participation rate in this group.”

The figures reveal that country with the lowest degree of prime-age male participation among the OECD nations is Israel, although Italy (second lowest) has suffered the greatest decline since 1990. The only country to show an increase in participation between 1990 and 2014 is Germany, where the 1990 figure may have been distorted by the influx of East German workers during reunification.

It’s important to bear in mind that non-participation is not the same as unemployment. The non-participation figures refer to people who have simply dropped off the scale. They are neither working nor are they seeking work through official channels.

The report concludes that the long-term structural decline in participation is the result of “a reduction in the demand for less skilled labor … as well as lower wages for less skilled workers.” In other words, almost all the countries in the developed world are shedding unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, which may be migrating to the developing world or simply disappearing.

Job migration is an unlikely explanation, since most unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, such as fruit-picking, burger-flipping or shelf-stacking, involve some element of manual work for which the worker must be present. And while some jobs may indeed be disappearing, this is unlikely to be a large scale phenomenon until the long awaited robot economy finally begins to deliver the goods.

In fact, with a burgeoning service sector in the developed world, you might have thought the demand for unskilled and semi-skilled work was actually growing. One plausible explanation for what is happening, therefore, is that the service sector is increasingly reliant on unregistered or unofficial workers. These may be illegal immigrants or asylum seekers, or they may simply be off-the-books – cash-in-hand workers who pay no tax and have any official identity.

In any case, they present something of a problem for conventional unions, who already face the issue of recruiting established freelances, newly emerging agency workers, and the explosion of contractors in the so-called “sharing” or “gig economy”.

It’s in these areas that the growth in most developed economies seems to be taking place.

David RolfGavin Kelly cites David Rolf (pictured), “the iconoclastic union activist, founding figure in the Campaign for $15 and author of a new book chronicling its rise”, who also happens to be an official with the SEIU. According to the SEIU Local 775, which he founded and of which he is President, Rolf is “known nationally as an innovative labor leader” and SEIU 775 is “the fastest growing union in the Northwest representing home care and nursing home workers in Washington state and Montana.” It currently has 44,000 members.

Rolf argues for a multiplicity of approaches to benefit those outside the ranks of union members. “Experimentation in the service of a more equitable economy,” he says.

This view has been called “alt-unionism”. It can be seen in the growth of freelancers’ unions, campaigns to help independent contractors engage with social security systems, or the “app-activism” helping online workers to negotiate with sometimes near-invisible paymasters. It is also present in successful campaigns, often based on social media, to get conventional employers such as Walmart to increase pay levels.

But while “alt-unionism” might help countries where traditional union activism is less effective and where old industries and old forms of employment are dying, there are parts of the world in which the labour movements embrace the old kind of activism. These are often the places which have inherited the mines and mills and the old forms of worker exploitation that go with them.

If you need confirmation of these trends, you only need to ask a bosses’ organisation. According to its website, FedEE Global (also known as The Federation of International Employers or La Federación de Empresarios Internacionales) is “the world’s leading organization for HR professionals in multinational enterprises”. It was founded in 1988 by Robin Chater, a former accountant and serial entrepreneur, with financial support from the European Commission.” Today it claims to operate on an independent basis, although it is chaired by Steve Evison, Human Resources Director of the Ford Motor Company (EMEA). Its main activities include maintaining databases of employment law and trade union activity globally. According to FedEE:

“Over the last twenty five years there has been a widespread decline in trade union membership throughout most of western Europe…. In only 8 out of the current 27 (sic) member states of the European Union (EU) are more than half of the employed population members of a trade union. In fact, the EU’s four most populated states all have modest levels of unionisation, with Italy at 37%, the UK 25%, Germany 18% and France at only 8%.” FedEE estimates that union penetration in Europe will continue to decline, and says that unions have reacted to the trend with mergers and re-organisations. It also notes that many EU-based unions now seek to operate on a multinational level, attempting to influence multinational corporations and organisations to adopt “ILO core labour standards” and to “build in new standards for corporate governance—including higher standards for workplace equality and CO2 emissions.”

Outside Europe and the US, however, union membership is often stable or growing. FedEE identifies South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, India, South Korea, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan, and—rather surprisingly—Syria as countries with steady or increasing rates of union penetration. “Many of the regions where trade unionism has grown have been production centres for outsourced goods and services,” FedEE concludes. “As the supply of available skilled labour in Asia and South America declines workers have begun to assert their economic power.” It also identifies the use of social media as a factor in the relative health of the labour movement in these areas.

The lesson is that in the developing labour movement of an increasingly globalised and connected world, one size does not fit all—and global unions, where activism must deal with the combined and uneven development of late capitalism, have to help their affiliates to develop the appropriate forms of action for their environments. It may make the job of being a union organiser more complicated than it used to be, but no less exciting.


More information

Winnipeg Free Press

The Financial Times (Trade unions embrace reinvention, at last, 21 April, 2016)

Unite’s community membership programme

Take the fight to the streets, (Stephen Lerner, In These Times, 2011)

“Only One Thing Can Save US: Why America needs a new kind of labor movement” (Thomas Geoghegan, The New Press, NY 2014)

“The Long-Term Decline In Prime-Age Male Labor Force Participation” (June 2016)

Justice for Janitors

FedEE Global

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Gary Herman

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