Future of work: The labour movement (Part 1: Labour 3.0)

Future of work: The labour movement (Part 1: Labour 3.0)

Phuah Eng Chye (22 September 2018)

“What’s now required of us in labor is not a sentimental longing for the New Deal, an attempt to turn back the clock to a different economy and a different era, or a return to the collective bargaining model that worked well in an era of mass industrial production, vertical corporate structures, and lifelong employment. Rather, we need to figure out – with much help from outside of the labor movement – what’s on the other side of our Valley of Death, what new activities we should reallocate resources to, and what new organizational model could work…Not, in all likelihood, a single silver bullet, but rather a disciplined approach to research and development, experimentation, and prototyping in search of a formula for a 21st century workers movement that can become Labor 3.0.” David Rolf (2012) “The death of trade unionism and towards the birth of a Labour 3.0”

Trade unions were a cherished pillar of an equitable society in the industrial era. David Rolf points out the trade union model “thrived in an era of standardized industrial production, long-term or even lifelong employment in an industry or firm, and the relative geographic immobility of both workers and capital. This was also a period that witnessed mass worker militancy, industrial strikes, and rampant inter-union competition…a federal government broadly committed to using collective bargaining to maintain industrial stability during world wars, cold wars, and depressions.”[1]

But the labour movement lost ground as production moved offshore, as the manufacturing sector hollowed out and the size of the middle class shrunk. David Rolf[2] notes that in the US, “union strength has been on the wane since the 1950s and, beginning in the 1980s, suffered a catastrophic free fall in the private sector that continues to this day. The ability to form a union and bargain collectively is inaccessible to more than 93 percent of private-sector workers – a major reason why working people have experienced 40 years of wage stagnation even as the economy grew and the rich got richer.”

The decline of trade unions has come to symbolise the loss of labour bargaining power. “Gone is the era of the lifetime career, let alone the lifelong job and the economic security that came with it, having been replaced by a new economy intent on recasting full-time employees into contractors, vendors, and temporary workers. It is an economic transformation that promises new efficiencies and greater flexibility for employers and employees alike, but which threatens to undermine the very foundation upon which middle-class America was built…This crisis is not unfolding in a vacuum. corporate America has seen less regulation, lower taxes, and higher profits, while middle-class America has gotten the shaft.”[3]

David Rolf notes attempts “to augment or restore America’s collective-bargaining framework, have failed repeatedly”. Attempts to introduce legislative measures to improve the conditions for union organizing and to repeal restrictions on union effectiveness has floundered due to the inability to muster sufficient political support.

He acknowledges that “underlying this failure is a more fundamental problem: American enterprise-based collective bargaining is an inherently weak model of industrial and labor relations compared with the possible alternatives”. He argues America’s current enterprise bargaining framework are designed for agreements to be reached between a single union and a single employer and are too narrow in their scope. “Under the current system of enterprise bargaining, unions can’t require that employers negotiate over some of the most important factors in worker prosperity, such as the overall strategic direction of a firm; worker equity in a firm; or worker control of health, pension, and training funds…The confluence of these facts means that unions are hard to form, difficult to maintain, and limited in the scope of their bargaining. It means they face constant workplace and political opposition from employers.”

David Rolf points out the current framework constrains the trade union’s “ability to engage in certain types of organizing or representation strategies is significantly constrained by the agencies and courts that regulate our work…little in the way of effective enforcement for the right to organize, but federal statutes, Labor Department regulations, and various court precedents combine to prohibit some of the most effective union tools. Secondary strikes and boycotts, mandatory membership, aggressive corporate campaigns, job security for workers during economic strikes, pension fund shareholder activism, and generating union revenue outside of member dues are all either prohibited or sharply constrained. Court decisions have imposed a duty of fair representation, turning too many unions into workplace public defenders for bad employees, and have restricted unions’ ability to use dues to fund activities not directly germane to collective bargaining”.[4]

David Rolf believed there is a need to intensify the search for an alternative path for the labour movement which he dubbed as “Labour 3.0”. He suggested the “essential elements of any new model of worker organization or activities designed to take the place of collective bargaining” must be powerful enough and scalable to transform workers lives economically and eventually lead to the creation of a new middle class and be financially self-sufficient.[5]

The areas of inquiry would include studying the evolution of work and the 21st century workforce”, the potential future forms of worker power/organization/ advocacy, the intersection of technology with worker advocacy, comparative labor law and policy analysis, possible strategies for business-labor-government alignment to create high-wage jobs and broadly shared prosperity, policy and legal proposals to create new forms of worker organization, power and advocacy and the incubation of new ideas for organizational ventures.

In 2016, David Rolf scoped “several potential overlapping strategies for how future forms of worker power might operate” based on developments in the US and elsewhere to shape the labour movement for the 21st century.[6]

  • Geographic and/or sectoral bargaining. Modify the legal framework to eliminate “much of the dysfunction of firm-by-firm bargaining”. Examples include allowing “unions to represent workers throughout an entire industry and not on a firm-by-firm basis” or wage-setting boards where “representatives of workers, employers, and government could determine legally binding standards for wages and benefits throughout an industry or within a geographic area”.
  • Co-determination. Commonly in Europe, labor agreements are made at the national level by unions and employer associations, and local plants and firms meet with work councils to adjust the national agreements to local circumstances. In Germany, large firms are required to have worker representation on their boards of directors and workers elect works councils to solve problems at each worksite.
  • Worker ownership. Workers can be provided equity through worker-owned cooperatives, or employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). However, co-ops have generally proven hard to scale while “some ESOPs that formed in the 1980s effectively dumped poorly performing stock onto their employees.”
  • Control of work-distribution platforms. “Work-distribution apps could be transformed from mechanisms for suppressing wages into ones for fairly allocating the proceeds of labor, maximizing hours, and collaborating on multi-worker tasks. One could even imagine algorithm-based smartphone applications that allow on-demand-economy workers to effectively bargain with – or strike against – work-distribution platforms.”
  • Labor standards enforcement. “Voluntary worker associations could develop the capacity to represent workers through onsite worker-led enforcement of labor standards and employment laws within a geographic area or an industry.” There are various experiments involving worker-community organizations conducting outreach, education, case management, and run a workers’-rights legal clinic sometimes paid for by contributions from employers or upstream purchasers. These groups may also be empowered to set and enforce labor standards.
  • Certification and labeling. “A worker organization could develop, or a government could even require, an ethical workplace certification and labelling system for consumer-facing brands, businesses, products, and services… Consumers would know to what extent an employer, manufacturer, or service provider follows best practices in paying living wages, offering benefits and paid leave, implementing fair scheduling procedures, practicing gender and racial equity in hiring and promotion, and adhering to labor and employment laws.”
  • Benefits administration. “In a world of increasingly short-term, temporary, and employer-less employment, worker organizations could replace employers as the primary provider and administrator of worker benefits that are universal, portable, and prorated.”

David Rolf suggests that “when it comes to how workers exercise collective power over wages, benefits, hours, and working conditions, now is the time for risk-taking and experimentation in search of a new model that can replace traditional union collective bargaining”. This is already happening at the grass-roots level where labour is experimenting with harnessing the power of the social movement.


David Rolf (2012) “The death of trade unionism, and towards the birth of a Labour 3.0” https://www.scribd.com/document/271781375/Death-of-Trade-Unionism-Draft-2-pdf

David Rolf (18 April 2016) “Toward a 21st-century labor movement”. The American Prospect magazine. Spring 2016 issue. http://prospect.org/article/toward-21st-century-labor-movement

Nick Hanauer, David Rolf (2015) “Shared security, shared growth”. Democracy – A Journal of Ideas.  Summer 2015 No. 37. https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/37/shared-security-shared-growth/

[1] David Rolf (18 April 2016) “Toward a 21st-century labor movement”

[2] David Rolf (18 April 2016) “Toward a 21st-century labor movement”

[3] Nick Hanauer, David Rolf

[4] David Rolf (2012) “The death of trade unionism, and towards the birth of a Labour 3.0”.

[5] David Rolf (2012) “The death of trade unionism, and towards the birth of a Labour 3.0”

[6] David Rolf (18 April 2016) “Toward a 21st-century labor movement”.

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