Future of work: The labour movement (Part 2: Labour as a social movement)

Future of work: The labour movement (Part 2: Labour as a social movement)

Phuah Eng Chye (29 September 2018)

The decline of the trade unions was largely due to the transition out of manufacturing and the advent of alternative work forms. It was accompanied by a hardening in corporate and government actions against the labour movement. In the US, Kate Andrias relates “employers began to retaliate aggressively against employees who exercised their right to strike. Employers permanently replaced striking workers. They also closed union plants and opened up low-wage non-union plants in other locations; double breasting and subcontracting allowed employers to bypass existing collective bargaining arrangements. They developed sophisticated campaigns to try to stop workers from organizing new unions”.

She adds “the courts largely permitted these tactics, privileging employers’ managerial and property rights over employees’ rights to organize, bargain, and strike. In a series of cases, for example, courts ruled that employers were not required to bargain over entrepreneurial decisions, including where to operate. They also permitted the use of permanent replacements, the National Guard, and state police against striking workers who sought to resist concessionary contracts. Meanwhile, deregulation reduced barriers to entry by non-union, lower-wage firms, particularly in industries like transportation and telecommunication, resulting in more competitive markets but further contributing to unions’ declining power”.

The tilt in the balance of power enfeebled labour regulation. Kate Andrias notes “labor law is failing. Disfigured by courts, attacked by employers, and rendered inapt by a global and fissured economy, many of labor law’s most ardent proponents have abandoned it altogether. And for good reason: the law that governs collective organization and bargaining among workers has little to offer those it purports to protect…Workers have declining influence not only in their workplaces, but also in policymaking at the state and federal levels”.

In this context, Kate Andrias points out US labour regulations “with its emphasis on firm-based organizing and bargaining, is mismatched with the globalized economy and its multiple layers of contracting. Indeed, these fissured corporate structures were adopted by employers in part to reduce labor costs and diminish the potency of the NLRA (labour) and employment law”.

As workers felt left behind in the technologically and globally-driven quest for prosperity, they began to realise they could no longer rely on traditional labour institutions and channels to advance their interests and increasingly experimented with grassroots activism. Kate Andrias provides an account of the efforts by unions and activists “to work around the existing law. They sought to develop alternative mechanisms to obtain traditional recognition and collective bargaining arrangements”. This included “seeking private agreements with employers in order to alter the ground rules for union organizing and first contract bargaining” and creating “pathways to organization for workers exempted from federal law…added to labor’s ranks in the public sector.”

She notes the new labour movements “are refusing labor law’s orientation around the employer-employee relationship”. In a notable break, “the Fight for $15 and other contemporary low-wage worker movements are rejecting the notion that unions’ primary role is to negotiate traditional private collective bargaining agreements, with the state playing a neutral mediating and enforcing role. Instead, the movements are seeking to bargain in the public arena: they are engaging in social bargaining with the state on behalf of all workers. In so doing, they are collapsing the distinction between employment law and labor law and rendering the basic terms of employment for all workers subject to social bargaining…the new movements are not abandoning worksite organization. To the contrary, they are using social bargaining to strengthen and supplement traditional collective bargaining, while beginning to experiment with new forms of workplace organization”.

One important innovation “was the emergence of organizations known as worker centers. Worker centers, which became increasingly prevalent in the 1990s and 2000s, are community-based, non-profit organizations that provide legal and social services to low-wage, often immigrant workers. They also engage in advocacy work, leadership development, and collective action in order to improve working conditions in the lowest wage industries. The worker center campaigns filled an important void in vulnerable communities, while the innovative union campaigns brought tens of thousands of new workers – largely women, immigrants, and people of color – into the labor movement. Yet, for the most part, neither produced any fundamental change in labor law or the structure of labor relations. With a few notable exceptions, most worker centers expressly rejected the goal of collective bargaining and remained local in structure, without substantial power to affect the national economy or politics.”

The high-impact Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign was funded and organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which draws its members from more than 100 occupations[1]. Its first actions in 2012 targeted the fast food industry in New York and its activities spread to other cities. By 2014, however, the movement had expanded to include home health aides, federal contract workers, childcare workers, and airport workers while employees at gas stations, discount outfits, and convenience stores participated in strikes and protests.

The campaign began to identify itself as building a “broad national movement of all low-wage workers.” It was further broadened with “the inclusion of activists from other movements reflected not only the campaign’s adept use of social media and its effective networking, but also its commitment to a social and inclusive form of unionism…the campaign again asserted that its goals were not limited to achieving gains at any particular workplace, but rather aimed to advance the interests of workers generally.” Other unions and worker organisations “which were already engaging in similar struggles, have begun to associate themselves under the Fight for $15 banner”.

Kate Andrias notes “social media has played an important role, allowing SEIU and the other unions to involve more workers and reach more members of the public than they otherwise would have. The union has used web sign ups, text messages, and Twitter to involve workers who have never had personal contact with a union organizer…the SEIU-managed Fight for $15 website provides workers with an instruction manual for how to engage in one-day strikes and allows them to download a strike letter that they can give to their managers explaining that they are asserting rights.”

The Fight for $15 worked with other worker organisations and community groups to organise numerous protests and press events. They put pressure on legislators to introduce rules to enshrine the right to collective bargaining, mandate paid sick time, to implement fair scheduling practices in the retail and fast-food industries including giving workers the right to request for flexible or predictable schedules and to bar employers from hiring additional part-time workers if existing part-timers want more hours. For gig workers, some cities passed legislation to allow the creation of unions and to compel companies to negotiate with these unions.

In Europe, platform food delivery workers held their initial protest events in London, Turin, and Bordeaux in 2016. Lorenzo Zamponi notes this gained momentum with “forty protest events for 2017 across eight different countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and United Kingdom)”.

The grassroots riders’ collectives mobilised support from other platform workers, political activists and established unions. “A wide range of tactics was used, from small demonstrations to scrupulous (and thus time-consuming) obedience to traffic laws, encircling company buildings, distributing leaflets in the restaurants that use the platform, striking, occupying company offices, refusing to ride in bad weather conditions, marching with activists in solidarity, and so on”.

In November 2017, “the self-organized collectives Deliveroo Strike Raiders, Riders Union Bologna, and Deliverance Milano signed a common list of demands to Deliveroo. The demands included the application of the national bargaining agreement on transportation, the introduction of a real employment contract, the renewal of all the contracts that were about to expire, a minimum wage of €7.50 an hour, the guarantee of at least twenty hours’ a week pay, a 30 percent raise in case of rain or snow, a 50 percent raise in case of deliveries lasting beyond the planned shift, and a 30 percent raise as a compensation for exposure to smog, as well as insurance coverage, the reimbursement of maintenance expenses for the worker’s bicycle and phone, and a safety kit with a helmet.”

Lorenzo Zamponi noted “the media appeal of the riders’ struggle” was a critical element in swaying the political office-holders. In 2018, “the Bologna council negotiated a Bill of Fundamental Rights of Digital Workers in the Urban Context with the self-organized Riders Union Bologna collective. The bill asserts basic standards of dignity, including insurance, union rights, and hourly salaries in line with national collective bargaining agreements.”

Lorenzo Zamponi concludes activism built on the grievances of gig workers opens “a window of opportunity that needs to be exploited by the labor movement as a whole, from self-organized collectives to major union confederations. It offers the chance to launch a new wave of labor organization, public debate, and policy innovation. As the riders’ collectives themselves often explain, their condition is not some anomaly that demands its own small regulatory adjustments, but the ultimate expression of wider phenomena resulting from more than three decades of deregulation, neoliberal reforms, and capitalist offensive”.

The social activism of service and gig workers have spread to professions such as teachers which have been traditional trade union bastions. Jon Shelton notes teacher strikes were uncommon in recent times unlike the 1960s to early 1980s. “In 1967, for example, there were more than 100 teacher strikes in the United States. And in the 1975-1976 school year, there were more than 200.” He thinks “the causes of these strikes were similar in many cases to what we are witnessing today. In the 1960s and ’70s, teachers across the country fought hard for basic respect and for better conditions for their students through decent salaries, increased preparation time and lower class sizes. Disinvestment in public education in many states since 2008 has led to conditions that look very much like the conditions under which teachers worked in the era before collective bargaining began in the 1960s.”

Katie Reilly details how teachers have been left behind. “The pay gap between teachers and other comparably educated professionals is now the largest on record. In 1994, public-school teachers in the U.S. earned 1.8% less per week than comparable workers…By last year, they made 18.7% less…in states such as Oklahoma…teachers’ inflation-adjusted salaries actually decreased by about $8,000 in the last decade…In Arizona, teachers’ average inflation-adjusted annual wages are down $5,000. The decline in education funding is not limited to salaries…leaving many public schools dilapidated, overcrowded and reliant on outdated textbooks and threadbare supplies” [2].

As a matter of comparison, “In 1960, teaching was more lucrative than other comparable careers for women…As women were admitted to other professions in wider numbers, choosing teaching carried a cost. For example registered nurses…make far more than teachers today…Nursing shortages in some parts of the U.S. have led to signing bonuses, free housing, tuition reimbursement and other perks, while teacher shortages have contributed to some states increasing class sizes, shortening school weeks and enacting emergency certification for people who aren’t trained as educators”.

Katie Reilly notes the stagnant wages for teachers has resulted in a hiring crisis with some states granting emergency teaching certifications (despite not having traditional training) or recruiting foreign teachers to fill the shortfall. In addition, teaching is no longer seen as an attractive career. “Between 2008 and 2016, the number of new educators completing preparatory programs fell by 23%, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. And once teachers make it to the classroom, attrition is high: at least 17% leave the profession within the first five years, a 2015 study found”.

Jeff Spross notes the recent teacher strikers have been distinguished by their spontaneity and independence. “When the West Virginia teachers weren’t satisfied with the initial deal their union struck with lawmakers, they stayed on the picket lines, resulting in a massive and unauthorized wildcat strike…ultimately squeezing a 5 percent pay increase out of the state legislature”. Teachers in the other states have also acted in defiance of their unions when they weren’t satisfied with the negotiations or decisions.

From a historical perspective, Steven Parfitt says “the teachers’ strikes may offer American unions a road back to health. Historians have long known that unions seldom grow at a slow, steady pace. They tend instead to push forward in a series of leaps, in a kind of chain reaction where a strike in one industry inspires strikes in others…Could the strike by teachers in West Virginia be the spark for just such an upsurge in 2018”?

Steven Parfitt notes some commentators think we have reached the “cusp of a strike wave, this time sparked by the teachers of West Virginia. In the 1880s version of a labor upsurge, the strikes on Gould’s railroads opened the floodgates to industrial action…the movement for the eight-hour working day pushed forward the cycle of strikes, boycotts, and protests. It reached its height in May 1886, when tens of thousands of workers across the country struck simultaneously for eight hours…Workers pressed their case at the ballot box as well as in the workplace. Local labor parties sprang up to contest elections at local, state and federal levels…Across the United States, workers elected labor mayors, state legislators and even congressmen.”

Steven Parfitt warns “we should not discount the possibility of a labor upsurge in the meantime. The grievances that are leading teachers to strike in state after state are shared by millions of public and private workers across the country. Like teachers, these workers have less and less to lose by industrial action, and falling unemployment means that finding replacements for them becomes more difficult. International events might further fan the flames that the teachers have set alight”.

History thus suggests undergo labour will a period of experimentation to rediscover its most effective organisational form. As David Rolf points out “in the early 20th century, the American labor movement was more decentralised and had lots of different and competing strategies…Essentially, those were competing experiments, with a range of origins, goals and structures to see which one will be the most successful…The sum total of all this wasn’t just unions but a range of very different movements.”[3]

Overall, Kate Andrias suggests social bargaining is strengthening unions’ because it “made it easier to obtain successful contracts because it has shifted employer expectations…The mounting political support for wage gains seems to have softened some employer opposition at the traditional bargaining table…lessons from history suggest that social bargaining could enhance unions’ ability to organize new workers into traditional unions”. The evolution of labour as a social movement deserves a detailed assessment.


Kate Andrias (2016) “The new labor law.” Yale L. J. 126, no. 1 (2016): 2-100. http://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2815&context=articles

Katie Reilly (13 September 2018) “I work 3 jobs and donate blood plasma to pay the bills. This is what it’s like to be a teacher in America”. Time. http://time.com/longform/teaching-in-america/?utm_source=reddit.com

Jeff Spross (14 April 2018) “The teacher strikes could be the future of alt labor”. The Week. https://theweek.com/articles/764828/teacher-strikes-could-future-alt-labor

Jon Shelton (5 April 2018) “Teacher strikes may be more powerful now than ever before”. Houston Chronicle. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/Teacher-strikes-may-be-more-powerful-now-than-12809868.php

Lorenzo Zamponi (9 June 2018) “Bargaining with the algorithm”. Jacobin. https://jacobinmag.com/2018/06/deliveroo-riders-strike-italy-labor-organizing

Phuah Eng Chye (22 September 2018) “Future of work: The labour movement (Part 1: Labour 3.0)”. Economicsofinformationsociety. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/future-of-work-the-labour-movement-part-1-labour-3-0/

Steven Hill (2015) Raw deal: How the Uber economy and runaway capitalism are screwing American workers. St Martin’s Press.

Steven Parfitt (2 May 2018) “The US teachers strike in historical perspective”. Originally posted at Opendemocracy.org. https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2018/05/us-teachers-strike-historical-perspective.html

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_Employees_International_Union

[2] Data sources cited are Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the Department of Education (DOE).

[3] Steven Hill

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