The Precariat Trap: Why Organized Labor is More Important than Ever


“History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.

With May Day having just passed, we are reminded of the historic struggles of organized labor in North America. At the end of the 19th century, when working conditions in most places were deplorable and the hours brutally long, a movement arose to challenge the unrestrained power of capital. At its peak in the 1880s, the Knights of Labor, considered one of the most radical American labor organizations, had more than 700,000 members. Their radical plan? An end to child labor and an 8 hour workday.

Today, while the 8 hour day is mandated by law in most developed economies, this doesn’t change the fact that many people need more than one job just to make ends meet. One of the most surprising things that business and their kept political leaders have achieved since the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s is convincing workers that collective bargaining is against their interests. Where these arguments have failed, trade agreements and the process of globalization ensured that organized labor is side lined and jobs are shipped to more “business friendly” climes.

This is what made Bernie Sander’s recent public show of support for striking Verizon workers while campaigning in New York so important. Although the US Democratic Party is usually seen as the party of unions, at least since the first Clinton Presidency brought pro-business “Third Way” or “New Democrat” politicians to the fore, organized labor has played an ever smaller role in actual policy making. Just like voters on the left, unions and their members have been forced to support the lesser of two evils in US politics.

Sanders managed through his advocacy to make a strike action not involving essential services newsworthy. As noted by the Intercept, coverage of the 39,000 person strike had been almost completely absent from mainstream news reports before he visited the picket line, even though it had been ongoing for more than two weeks. The same piece also noted that only one paper, the Wallstreet Journal still has a full time labor reporter in an environment where there are several financial dailies, two business news networks, dozens of magazines and more websites than can be counted dedicated to covering the titans of industry.

This media bias might be part of the reason why union membership outside of the public sector has been going down for decades, enriching some at the top while hurting the vast majority of workers. As reported by the American Prospect, “According to the International Monetary Fund, the decline in unionization in the United States and many other countries over the past few decades is directly associated with an increase in the share of national income going to the the top 10 percent of the population.”

A strong argument can be made that without unions advocating for their collective interests, workers will continue to fall behind and that this is bad for the economy overall. Organized labor can also be a powerful friend to those outside of their membership, as has been shown by the success they’ve had backing the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Although critics say that Bernie Sanders has lacked the union support he might have expected during this primary season, the Vermont Senator recently made the point that this is probably truer of the leadership than it is of the rank and file workers. In March, he demonstrated his commitment to labor by taking the time to introduce legislation in the US Congress, co-sponsored by Mark Pocan (D-WI), while campaigning for the presidency.

The Workplace Democracy Act would offer protections to those who want to unionize their workplaces and shows the Senator’s sincerity on these issues, though it’s unlikely to become law given the control of the House and Senate by fiercely anti-labor Republicans.

A War of Attrition

Besides the lack of interest shown by the press for working people in general, right wing politicians and their proxies have opened up other avenues of attack against unions in the US, especially at the state level. “Right to Work” laws sound like something that most people could get behind, but the name is misleading by design.

Originally part of a drive to break the growing militancy of the union movement after WWII, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was watered down to stop the federal government from passing similar laws but gave the states the right to legislate the so-called “Right to Work”. These laws, which have now been passed in 26 states, allow workers to opt out of the union representing their job or workplace, meaning they don’t have to pay dues but still receive all the benefits the union secures for its members. Although as yet unrealized, the hope seems to be that union membership will dwindle down to nothing.

There was some good news in April for those who oppose these union busting laws. In Wisconsin, the notoriously anti-labor Governor Scott Walker’s Right to Work legislation was struck down as unconstitutional in a suit brought by three unions. The decision of the circuit court judge will be appealed of course, but it does set a much needed precedent.

One of the keys to diminishing the power of organized labor in the long run has been to put workers at odds with each other. For example, membership is still strong in public sector unions and this is being used as a wedge to create resentment among those who don’t share in the benefits. This is as true north of the border as it is in the US. According to one of Canada’s national dailies, The Globe and Mail “…non-union members of the public are more likely to resent union protections, especially when it seems that civil servants are getting fat (and retiring happy) on taxes paid by the unorganized.”

As explained by Noam Chomsky in the recent film, “Requiem for the American Dream”, a new word has been coined to explain the difficulties facing working people in our time. “Precariat”, which merges the words precarious and proletariat, is a good description of the predicament many of us find ourselves in. With organized labor under siege in many places, new ideas have arisen from Alt Labor (which helped jump start the fight for $15) to worker owned coops. In the battle against neo-liberalism and its attendant austerity, we’re going to need all of them.


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